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This point might make your toes curl up inside your shoes, but the narratives of the Bible are ambiguous. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the Bible is false, untrue, misleading, or culturally confined.
But its stories are ambiguous.
Perhaps you remember being introduced to literary tools in your high school English class—simile, metaphor, figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, analogy, and so on. Think of ambiguity as a literary tool. Biblical authors use ambiguity as a way of inviting you to the party. If you’re reading a story that lays everything out plain and simple, with the moral overtly stated and the villains and heroes clearly labeled, there is not much work left for you, the reader, to do. But the Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The Author wants to suck you in.
The Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The Author wants to suck you in.
Take Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for instance. The play was written to be performed with no set and minimal props. Why? Because we’re meant to imagine not just any town, but our own. Without specific details to create distance between the events and our experience, the unfolding narrative becomes proximate, immediate, real.
Why is it that we easily remember Esau’s red hair or Joseph’s technicolor coat? Because we are seldom told about any character’s appearance or apparel. How is it that we have four Gospels and not a single author bothered to mention the physical appearance of Christ? Much like Wilder, biblical writers knew that for transcendent storytelling, less is usually more.
Intentional ambiguity also allows for multiple, overlapping interpretations and applications. A good author is not content to tell you how he thinks about the characters, the plot, or the outcome. Part of the delight of reading is being able to draw your own conclusions and make your own inferences. What fun is a connect-the-dot when all the dots have been connected for you?
Not a 19th-Century British Novel
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein—you know the ones I’m talking about: introspective tomes with a decidedly omniscient narrator. They’re great novels. But the Bible is not one of them. We hardly ever get to hear the characters’ inner thoughts; we hardly ever get a blunt description of a character’s motives.
This stark difference might be unsettling at first, since we’re so used to being made privy to a character’s intimate thoughts and motives. By contrast the Bible can seem impersonal, the characters distant.
There’s a difference between intentional and unintentional ambiguity. Unintentional ambiguity is sloppy writing and poor communication. Intentional ambiguity, though, is an author’s prerogative.
The frustrating thing, at times, is that we know the biblical Narrator is omnipotent. God himself knows exactly why characters act the way they do. On rare occasion, the Spirit gives us a brief peek into someone’s mind, but by choice he keeps them hidden from us most of the time. Instead of lengthy inner monologues, we have to infer from a character’s words and actions where the heart lies.
The fall of King Saul and King David are mirror images of one another (1 Sam. 15; 2 Sam. 11-12). Their confessions are eerily similar: “I have sinned!” (1 Sam. 15:24; 2 Sam. 12:13) However, only one king is forgiven because only one king’s heart is truly repentant. Determining which and why—the ambiguity is a divine invitation to explore our own murky hearts.
When an author intentionally withholds information, he does it because the story is actually better that way. Ambiguity is the biblical author’s way of winking at his readers. When you and I are able to read between the lines and discern motives, connections, and desires without that information being overtly stated, it’s a win-win for both the author and us.
Like Real Life
Does any life event have just one lesson? Can the experiences in our lives be boiled down to heroes and villains? Do we ever fully comprehend the inner desires and motives of the people we interact with? Do we even fully comprehend our own thoughts and motives?
Biblical narratives read like real life.
Stories rarely end with a succinct nugget of truth like one of Aesop’s fables, a “truth we can use.” Sometimes we’re left bewildered as to who the true heroes and villains actually are.
This is for our good. There’s always another lesson to learn; there are multiple correct ways to apply the story. Scripture’s narratives refuse to be boiled down to a single “moral of the story”: Is the wilderness encounter of David and Abigail (1 Samuel 25) about the power of hospitality, healthy conflict, trusting God’s promises, or a vision of the virtuous woman? The line between hero and villain can be blurry: Is Jacob more virtuous than his uncle Laban—or are both shameless opportunists? Inner desires are questionable; motives are a guessing game. From a human standpoint, why exactly did Judas betray his Lord?
Ambiguity makes all of this biblical beauty possible.
Do we ever fully comprehend the tapestry of God’s sovereignty that hangs behind the events of our lives or the lives of others? Biblical narratives are rich and deep and will never be fully exhausted. There’s always room for more exploration, for another angle, another application. In fact, I’d argue that narrative is often more readily applicable to life than strict directives.
In a society increasingly divided, many want to draw God’s Word into their own interpretive universe. They will fail every time. Intentional ambiguity is a gravitational force that draws us into orbit around God’s Word, never vice versa.
In some sense, the ambiguity of biblical narrative shows us who God is—a God who will never be fully comprehended. He will forever be explored, for he has new mercies tucked around every corner, and new joys for us each morning.