It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen (or her characters) may be called upon to provide wit and wisdom on nearly any topic. (“Wisdom is better than wit, and in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.”) She offers her opinion on many subjects of interest to Adventists, including health food (“It’s been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable.”), the beauty of Nature (“What are men to rocks and mountains?”), and dancing(“Every savage can dance.”) But can the estimable Miss Austen shed light on the love stories in the Bible and “God as a Romantic,” the topic of this week’s Sabbath School lesson? Let us settle in with a steaming cup of tea to explore the possibilities….
Certainly Austen’s subject is romance. How shall a young lady choose a proper mate? What are the obstacles to love? And what’s money got to do with it? (“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”) The question of how and what it means to marry well—this seems to be her central concern.
And the love stories presented to us in Genesis address similar concerns. How will Isaac find a proper mate? What are the obstacles to Jacob’s being united—at last!—with Rachel? And what have goats got to do with it?
Locating the right bride, marrying well, is an important question in the stories of the patriarchs, and it is explored through what the brilliant narratologist and translator Robert Alter calls the betrothal type-scene. A type-scene is a conventional, recurring narrative motif, which the original “readers” would have recognized in much the way we recognize genre conventions today. We know that we’re watching an adventure story, and that therefore we can count on the survival of our hero despite the proliferation of snakes, Nazis, and cursed objects that threaten him. We know we’re reading a whodunit, and that therefore the guilty party will eventually be revealed. Miss Marple will not be murdered herself, or fail to solve the puzzle. And we know we’re watching a romantic comedy, and that the happy couple will eventually kiss and make up, despite misdelivered messages and misunderstandings. Just so, Alter suggests, the original audiences of the stories in Genesis would recognize a betrothal story, and would therefore have certain expectations. Other Biblical type-scenes include the annunciation, the epiphany in the field, the initiatory trial, and others.
In the betrothal type-scene, a male protagonist journeys to an alien land in search of a bride. He meets a maiden at a well, and draws water; the maiden rushes home with news of a stranger, and a betrothal is eventually concluded, usually after a meal. The interest for the reader or listener is provided by the changes rung on this expected pattern: a servant instead of the bridegroom comes seeking the bride; or the maiden draws the water instead of the hero; or there is an obstacle to the drawing of water. We think of Rebecca drawing water for Abraham’s servant, of Moses fighting off hostile shepherds before he can draw water for seven daughters of Reuel.
These scenes connect all the stories back to the first couple betrothed under the Abrahamic covenant, Isaac and Rebecca, and remind the reader/listener of God’s hand in the destiny of his people. According to Alter, “any association of later figures with the crucial junctures of that first story…will imply some connection of meaning, some further working-out of the original covenant” (60).
So much depends, we find, on what we now call romance, on the right people getting together, to form link after link in the chain that will eventually bring forth “a star out of Jacob,” the child of the promise. In Austen, it’s about inheritance, about passing on the family name and property. In Genesis, too, it is about genealogy, about the orderly passing of the promise from one generation to the next.
Funny thing, though. While primogeniture is the plan, Alter points out that the theme of Genesis actually turns out to be “the reversal of primogeniture” (187). The inheritance is supposed to be passed down the line, father to first-born son, but somehow it never is. Something always goes wrong…. Cain murders Abel, Isaac supplants Ishmael, Jacob tricks Esau… The mantle always seems to fall on the wrong son. What does it all mean?
Perhaps these twists and turns are just the beginning of the conflict, of the obstacles in a larger story, God’s grand love story—the story where humanity plays the part of the beloved. Conflicts begin with these unruly patriarchs and continue through Egypt and Sinai and Israel and Babylon…until finally God decides to try something new. The plot thickens and the Lover gets physical: God takes on flesh, and goes to a wedding, and bids us come.
And so we find that we are in a comedy after all, laughing with Jane at the foibles of human nature, the peccadilloes and pomposity of all the friends and relations. In Genesis, too, the characters come alive as real humans, despite the haze of centuries. The tone is different, but does not the oily and pompous Mr. Collins remind us a little of the grasping Laban, who “seeing the nose-ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, …said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord!’ (Gen. 24:30-31)? (“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”)
What makes comedy, of course, at least technically, is the happy ending, the wedding supper, the celebration and feasting—the assurance that all is well. That death has been defeated, that indeed we are loved, so loved by the only true Lover, that all manner of things shall be well. Then we shall sit at the table with Adam and Eve, and all their children; we shall laugh together as we raise the cup with the One who said He would not drink again until the day He drinks it new in the kingdom, with us, His bride.
Not tea, but the juice of the true vine, the blood of the lamb.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books, 1981.