Robert Alter and the Betrothal Convention

[I am aware of the fact that it has been almost a full year (!) since I posted anything on this blog site. Our family’s move from Calgary to Montreal, combined with all that has ensued over recent months—including the completion of my D.Min.—has drawn my attention away from the blog somewhat. At any rate, here’s something new!]

In a fascinating chapter entitled “Biblical Type-Scenes and the Uses of Convention,” Robert Alter discusses narrative conventions and their appearance and use in the biblical corpus [see pages 55-78 in Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011)]. Near the start of his chapter, Alter draws attention to a “convention” that can be found within the genre of Hollywood westerns. Almost without variation, in every western film, the protagonist sheriff ends up drawing his gun faster than the antagonist black-hat. The basic story repeats from western film to western film, even if surrounding details change. When a person in contemporary culture watches such a film, that person can count on the sheriff winning the day, even if the odds against the sheriff in film B appear much greater than they were in film A. Alter goes on to argue that certain conventions were likewise understood by the ancient community in the time when the Bible was written, and for the rest of his chapter, Alter analyzes the “betrothal” convention: time after time in the Bible, the same betrothal story is more or less repeated, even if the details change slightly from episode to episode.

Alter notes several examples in the biblical narrative where the following basic betrothal formula appears:

  1. A future bridegroom or his surrogate travels to a foreign land.
  2. The bridegroom (or his surrogate) encounters a girl or girls at a well.
  3. Water is drawn from the well.
  4. The girl or girls rush home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival.
  5. A betrothal between the bridegroom and the girl occurs, which is normally accompanied by an invitation to a meal.

The five elements of the formula each appear in the account of the betrothal of Rebekah to Isaac (Genesis 24:10-61). Similarly, each aspect of the formula can be found in Jacob’s encounter with Rachel (Genesis 29:1-20). Alter also discusses the five elements in the stories of Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-21) and Ruth and Boaz (see the book of Ruth). Alter notes further that in the story of Saul in 1 Samuel 9:11-12, we have what amounts to an aborted betrothal type-scene. Alter also discusses the marriages of David, and the significance of an omitted betrothal scene in the story of Samson. Again, Alter’s chapter is well worth the read, and is a fine contribution to the field of biblical theology.

However, as the chapter ended, I found myself begging for more. Specifically, the most important betrothal scene—indeed, the betrothal scene that all the others seem to point toward—was missing from Alter’s exploration. So for whatever it’s worth, I include a brief discussion of John 4 here, as a sort of humbly offered ‘conclusion’ to Alter’s otherwise brilliant chapter.

How do Alter’s five aspects of the betrothal type-scene flesh themselves out in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman?

1. A future bridegroom or his surrogate travels to a foreign land.

In John 4:4, Jesus, who the New Testament identifies as the bridegroom of the church, “had to go through Samaria” after he left Judea.

2. The bridegroom (or his surrogate) encounters a girl or girls at a well.

In John 4:6-7, Jesus comes to a well and sits down, and the Samaritan woman happens by.

3. Water is drawn from the well.

There is a palpable delay concerning this third element. Jesus gets into a lengthy discussion with the Samaritan woman concerning water and the drawing of water. Jesus alludes to the fact that he himself gives “living water” (John 4:10), and in John 4:15, the woman asks for this living water.

4. The girl or girls rush home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival.

In John 4:28, there seems to be some haste in the woman’s departure. After talking with Jesus, she leaves her waterpot, goes to the city, and begins speaking to her countrymen about Jesus, all in the span of a single sentence.

5. A betrothal between the bridegroom and the girl occurs, which is normally accompanied by an invitation to a meal.

Let’s start with the meal. It’s interesting that in John 4:31, seemingly out of the blue, the disciples urge Jesus to eat. However, instead of engaging in the typical meal that was part of the betrothal convention, Jesus redefines food altogether: “I have food to eat that you do not know about . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:32, 34). As for the betrothal itself, it too is morphed and altered in John 4. Jesus recognizes supernaturally that earlier in the woman’s life, she was married five times (John 4:16-18).  Does that mean that she had already undergone five betrothals? Of course, Jesus does not marry the Samaritan woman, but later in the narrative, the woman ends up being remembered honorably as the spiritual matriarch of a new community of Samaritan believers (John 4:39). The Bridegroom’s presence with the woman at the well ended up producing a harvest of new believers.

Reading John 4 through the lens of the Bible’s earlier betrothal scenes is an interesting and fruitful exercise!

Grace and Peace,

Brent

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