In working my way through Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrativefor class, I came across a proposal of his that I found striking, though not for the reasons Alter intended it to be. He proposes that there are in the Old Testament a number of narrative type-scenes, literary motifs which are repeated so often that there repetition must be deliberate. These scenes, according to him, were so ingrained in the literary tradition that their inclusion was expected, their alteration suggestive, and their omission telling. He enumerates these six recurring motifs:
- Epiphany in a field
- Betrothal scene at a well
- Annunciation to a barren mother
- The initiatory trial
- Danger in the desert and the discovery of a well/sustenance
- The testament of the dying hero
In reading that list, I was struck by how clearly those motifs seem to be incorporated into the Gospel narrative. Alter alludes to this with regard to at least one of his type-scenes (or perhaps more…I admit I’m not finished reading the book yet), and I imagine that someone has written extensively on this. I have not, however, seen or interacted with that literature. So forgive me as a I fly blindly and try to work through just how I see these conventions of the heroic literature of Israel’s past being incorporated and reworked into the story of Jesus to depict him as the Jewish hero par excellence.
In The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter alludes to the Christian appropriation of the annunciation theme, but does not go into detail about how it is employed or what it might mean.
Throughout the Hebrew literature, the scene is extremely familiar, even to the casual reader of the Old Testament. In Gen 11:30 we learn that Sarah is barren. In Gen 18, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. There He announces to him that Sarah will have a child, despite being nearly 100 years old. In Gen 25, Rebekah is barren, but when Isaac prays to God, she becomes pregnant with twins. God speaks to her, explaining the fate of her two sons. 1 Sam 1 tells of Hannah’s childlessness and oppression. While praying, she is approached by God’s representative and who blesses her before she finally conceives Samuel. The motif spills over into Luke 1 where Elizabeth is both aged and barren, but an angel prophesies the birth of her son.
In each case, the barren mother is miraculously with child, and not only a child but one who will be a great hero in Israel’s history. Alter notes earlier in his book, not in connection with these type-scenes, how even the story of Judah and Tamar can be understood as a woman taking her childlessness into her own hands. She overcomes and gives birth to a progenitor of David. Isaac, the child of promise, Jacob, the namesake of Israel, Samuel, the greatest judge of Israel and the anointer of David, and even David in a radical revision of the motif. The greatest heroes of Israel’s history are conceived through the greatest miracles of God, against all odds. They are unique even before their birth.
And yet Jesus is greater. A named messenger comes to Mary and announces to her that she will give birth to the greatest of Israel’s heroes, the Messiah. As had been the case with Sarah, as had been the case with Elizabeth, Mary answers with doubt. After all, she is a virgin. But the angel reminds her that the power of God overshadows all else. The God who has proved in the past that He needs neither fertility nor youth to create will prove once and for all that He alone is the Creator. In a way that was truly unprecedented, God would overcome an impediment greater than had been overcome with Isaac and Jacob and Samuel. From before his birth, the very conception of Jesus is shown to be in the line of great Jewish heroes, and yet a cut above the rest. The revision of the “barren mother” motif serves to punctuate to totality of God’s power and foreshadow an epic career that would transcend any other. The virgin birth is not merely a scientific oddity, no matter how the modern mind would like to reduce it to that, but an organic link between Jesus and the heroes of Israel’s past as well as a definitive statement about his place in the pecking order.
Like I said, the observation is almost certainly not novel, and doubtless you can already see the other motifs threading through the Old Testament into the story of Jesus. Nevertheless, I intend to pick this up again in another post at another time. Until then…