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Understanding the Bible’s Message Through Its Narrative

The Art of Biblical Narratives and Parallelism

by Dr. Eitan Bar
8 minutes read

At their core, biblical narratives are far from simplistic or rudimentary recountings of historical events. They are intricate literary creations that employ sophisticated narrative techniques to convey their messages. The Bible’s narrative structure, with its interweaving of plotlines and meticulous character development, serves more than just a storytelling function—it embeds deeper meanings and theological insights within its text. For instance, biblical narratives often use techniques such as repetition of terms, ironic stories, and foreshadowing of characters. These methods enhance the stories’ emotional and spiritual impact and invite readers to remember and look forward to the unfolding of the narrative.

Parallelism: The Art of Biblical Narrative

Often, when we read a passage in a book, it reminds us of something from another book or story we’ve encountered, creating an association between different stories and characters. This is very much the Jewish way to read the Bible—where one story triggers associations with another, a method designed by God. We need to pay attention to the parallels because they are purposefully placed there.

Yair Zakovitch, a Professor of Biblical Studies, explains,

The Biblical narrator strives to inspire the reader to notice the mirrored associations between stories, especially those separated by significant periods of time.1

Dr. Yair Zakovitch

Similarly, Rabbi Amnon Dov Bazak of Herzog College notes,

Explicit parallelism between events is a recognized practice in the Old Testament. Frequently, characters reference earlier events to enhance the strength and credibility of their messages.2

Dr. Amnon Dov Bazak

Readers learn to identify key figures based on past characters they are already familiar with. Therefore, a Jew well versed in Biblical narratives expects the image of the Messiah to mirror those of existing Biblical characters. Two key characters often seen as prefiguring the Messiah are Joseph and David. They not only serve as patterns pointing to the coming Messiah but also reflect each other.

Jospeh – David – Jesus

Many literary parallels can be found between the stories of Joseph and David, linking the two in our minds. Interestingly, where one fails, the other succeeds. For instance, Joseph resists the temptation presented by Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:7), whereas King David succumbs and commits adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11:2-4). Both characters endured suffering and rejection, which prepared them for the greatness they later achieved (Gen. 37-41; 1 Sam. 17, 2 Sam. 11).

Below are some notable parallels in the stories that contain linguistic similarities between the descriptions of Joseph’s and King David’s lives.

Joseph’s older brothers leave home, as do David’s brothers. Both Joseph and David are sent to check on their brothers:

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers…”

Genesis 37:12-14

The three oldest sons of Jesse … went to the battle… And David … ran to the ranks and went and greeted his brothers…Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me David your son, who is with the sheep.”

1 Sam. 17:13, 22; 16:19

Joseph was among the youngest in his family, as was David. These two young men were chosen among their brothers for a significant mission to serve and save their nation:

Then Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons [lit. boys] here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest’; Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers.

1 Sam. 16:11, 13

Joseph, being seventeen years old…He was a boy…His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?”

Gen. 37:2, 8

Joseph shepherded his family’s flocks, as did David:

Joseph…was pasturing the flock with his brothers .

Gen. 37:2

David…to feed [lit. shepherd] his father’s sheep.

1 Sam. 17:15

Just as Joseph’s brothers treated him with sarcasm and cynicism, so did David’s brothers:

They [his brothers] hated him even more, they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.”

Gen. 37:5, 18, 19

Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart.”

1 Sam. 17:28

Joseph’s father tells him to go check on his brother’s welfare, as does David’s father:

And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.”’” And he said to him, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers.”

Gen. 37:13-14

And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well.”

1 Sam. 17:17-18

The robe of many colors in the stories of Joseph and David symbolizes times of struggle and sin that brought about much sorrow to both Joseph and David. Joseph’s robe was stripped off him and dipped in blood, symbolizing the struggle he had with his brothers, who rejected him and wished him harm. The multicolored robe in David’s story is torn and represents the bad news King David received:

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore…Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood.

Gen. 37:23, 31

And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe [lit. robe of many colors] that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went…When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry.

2 Sam. 13:19, 21

Both Joseph and David were married by the king. Both were also married to women who were not Israelites:3

And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On.

Gen. 41:45

And Saul gave him his daughter Michal for a wife.

1 Sam. 18:27

Joseph was thirty years old when he came into position and honor, and David, too, was thirty when he received honor and position among the people.4 Both “went out” (יצא) over the people; both are beloved by “Israel”:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons…So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt.

Gen. 37:3; 41:45-46

So Saul removed him from his presence and made him a commander of a thousand. And he went out and came in before the people. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them…David was thirty years old when he began to reign.

1 Sam. 18:13-16; 2 Sam. 5:4

Both Joseph and David are described as יפֵה מַרְאֶה – handsome:

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance:

Gen. 39:6

And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance.

1 Sam. 17:42

There are more parallels between Joseph and David, but you got the idea…

Jesus – Son of Joseph

The Biblical narrator chose to portray David’s story in light of that of Joseph to ask: “Is David Messiah son of Joseph, or should we wait for another?” Though David is also considered a Messianic prototype in some ways,5 he is not the promised one who will complete the task without sin, the Messiah. Since the character of Joseph is undoubtedly the “prototypical” character of Messiah, we can see that Jesus is indeed the parallel figure to that of Joseph and, as such, answers the definition of “Messiah, son of Joseph.”

  • Both were despised
  • Thirty years old was a key time in their story
  • Stripped of their clothing
  • Became a servant
  • Resisted temptation
  • Described as a shepherd
  • Knew what their future held
  • Accused of being a dreamer
  • The intended target of a conspiracy to kill
  • Sold to gentiles for silver coins
  • Falsely accused
  • Suffered as a result of rejection
  • Spent time alone deep under the ground
  • Counted among criminals
  • Gave hope to a criminal
  • Considered dead
  • Appeared foreign and belonging to Gentiles
  • Not recognized by their brothers
  • Unidentified and unrecognized
  • Raised up from the earth
  • Acted as an advocate
  • Provided food
  • Reconciliation at the end of the story
  • Ended up as rulers, against all expectations

When he first came, Jesus was rejected, suffered, and punished, not for his own sins but because his “brethren” interpreted his behavior and words as condescending. But like Joseph, through his suffering, rejection, and death, forgiveness of sins is now available, and like Joseph, Jesus’s life is a blessing to all nations!

The narrative of Jesus’ life utilizes prophetic fulfillment and typological references to Old Testament scriptures, not only affirming His messianic role but also deepening the dialog between the Testaments. This continuity and expansion of narrative and theological themes underscore the intricate literary tapestry of the Bible as a unified work.

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  1. Zakovitch Yair, Through the Looking Glass – Reflection Stories in the Bible. Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuhad. Paraphrased from Hebrew. (Free translation) ↩︎
  2. Amnon Bazak, When Parallels Meet: Linguistic Parallels in the Book of SamuelAlon Shevut, 2005. P. 7. (Free translation) ↩︎
  3. Athalya Brenner, New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age – an Encyclopedic View, Vol 1: Modern Jewish Contemplation; Memory, Myth and History; Changes in lifestyle. Lamda publication, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 179-182. ↩︎
  4. The author of Yoma tractate in the Mishna points out this particular connection between David and Joseph. (Yoma, Day of Assembly, addendums and letters, 251). ↩︎
  5. Zakovitch, Y., David – from a Shepherd to Messiah, Yad Izhak Ben Zvi, Jerusalem, 1995, p. 19; 162-169. ↩︎

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist