Biblical Narrative

Categories of Bible Stories

We will benefit from knowing the lay of the land in regard to leading kinds of stories in the Bible.  Some stories turn on the fortunes of characters—the ups and downs of life, or success and failure.  In literary circles such stories are commonly called stories of plot or action.  Another category is the story of character.  Of course all stories have a plot, but in the story of Daniel, for example, what most grabs our attention is the heroic character of Daniel.

Stories that begin in prosperity and descend into calamity are tragedies.  As employed by literary critics, the term comedy refers not only to humor but also to a certain plot structure.  The comic plot is a U-shaped pattern that begins in prosperity, descends into tragedy, and rises to a happy ending.  Having mentioned tragedy and comedy, we should add two other types of plot, but as a framework for doing so, we need to bring a paradigm called the monomyth into the picture.

All stories (and in fact virtually all literary works) can be placed somewhere on a single composite narrative.  It is called the monomyth because it is the “one story” of literature.  We should picture a U-shaped half circle with a horizontal line drawn through the middle.  Above the line we find romance, consisting of ideal experience—wish fulfillment, or life as we want it to be.  Under the line we find anti-romance—unidealized experience, or experience that we try to avoid.  Dream and nightmare, the scholar who invented this paradigm calls them.  Downward movement from one to the other is tragedy (which we can picture as a downward arc on the left side of the diagram), and an upward swing from unideal experience to ideal experience is comedy (which we can picture as an upward arc on the right side).  These are the four plots of literature, and together they make up a composite circle of stories.

Many further types of stories make up the narrative library of the Bible.  Simply listing some of them will open up analytic possibilities, so here is a beginning list:

  • change of fortune story, with tragedy and comedy possible versions
  • story of crime and punishment
  • reform story
  • story of reversal (with conversion story as a subtype)
  • story of initiation
  • hero story
  • love story
  • quest story (often combined with journey or travel story)
  • rescue story
  • temptation story

This is not an exhaustive list but instead one that encourages you to (a) be aware of the range of story types and (b) attach the most accurate label to Bible stories as you read them.  You should not hesitate to devise your own labels, even if they are not present in a handbook of literary terms.  For example, I included an entry “stories of abundance” in my Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Crossway, 2014), even though that category does not appear in other handbooks.