I am currently reading a fascinating book by Robert Alter “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. One of the many discoveries that I have made as a direct consequence of this book, is the realization that there recurrent narrative episodes attached to the careers of biblical heroes.
One of the ritual type scenes that occurs is the encounter of the main character with their betrothed. The average Jewish reader, being familiar with this particular archetype of prose, would expect the moment of the heroes betrothal to unfold in particular circumstances, according to a fixed order.
The expected convention would begin with the future bridegroom (or surrogate) travelling to a foreign land and meeting a young girl “na’ arah” at a well. Water would be drawn by either party, and then the girl would rush home bearing tidings of the stranger. Finally a betrothal would be finalized between the bridegroom and the bride after a meal has been shared. This repetitive compositional structure is repeated with deliberate suppression and omissions, to hint at the future lives of Moses & Zipporah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Rachel, Saul, Samson and finally Jesus Christ.
It was while digesting this intriguing information, that I suddenly realised I was born into a culture that loosely practices a betrothal framework akin to the biblical one. The traditional Ghanaian marriage ceremony similarly moves at a set cadence of ritual expectations. To begin with it is the bridegroom who must leave his home and travel to a ‘foreign’ land. When he arrives at the home of the bride, the groom has to partake in a knocking ceremony called (kookoo ko) by way of entrance into the house.
Then like Eliezer in Isaac and Rebekah’s story, an intermediary from the family of the groom, speaks stating the intentions of the visiting party. When the intention is accepted, the next step can commence. The spokesperson will then explain in the most dulcet and expressive language, that the groom, has seen a “beautiful flower” in the house of the brides family. The delegate will continue by stating that he desires to “uproot” that flower, not steal, and would like to know how to make his dream a reality.
If you have stayed the course thus far, hold on because it gets very interesting. Once the invitation is accepted by the bride’s family, the groom presents a dowry to the bride. A token both of his affection, but most importantly of the economic value of the bride to her household. When the dowry negotiations have been finalized, the bride is brought into public. Historically decoys were sometimes used to “tease” the groom, so the groom is asked to verify if this is indeed his bride (if only Jacob had been a Ghanaian :-)) Once he confirms, she is asked three times by her father if she agrees to marrying the groom. The conclusion of the preceding is prayer, breaking bread, and dancing until the small hours of the night.
I suppose my excitement at this hazy parallel of biblical composition and culture, with traditional Ghanaian customs might seem trite to some, but it is important for me. Most Adventist would agree with the assertion that when we read the biblical text our presuppositions must be neutered, so the power of the text is untainted and unimpeded. It made me wonder if there is place for reading certain narrative structures in the bible through cultural lenses (especially if it is perennially patriarchal culture) as an apparatus to better identify with the text. I am not for a moment suggesting cultural impositions on the text that distort the message, but I think there are times when our culture can legitimately bring the text alive. Ultimately the bible is a predominantly middle eastern, Jewish work, and I look forward to unlocking more narrative keys as I encounter and am transformed by its depth and beauty.
Have you found any instances while reading the bible where your traditional or cultural heritage dovetailed with the text and enriched your experience?