Why the Bible is Graphic

By Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot


Why is the Bible so graphic at times?


The short answer could be that it makes for more interesting reading, a lot like sex and violence in today's society. It seems that in much of today's entertainment, the story is less important than the special effects. Graphics sell.

Nonetheless, the questioner wants to know why the Bible is like this. After all, is not the Bible the source of divinely revealed truth? Isn't it sacred history, the revelation of God's will, and perhaps a literal rendering of his exact words? Most would agree that the Bible has a theological point to make. It is rooted in history and is the result of many authors over thousands of years. It has offered comfort, inspiration, and faith to millions of people. Is its value as a religious document, then, in any way enhanced by a myriad of graphic details?

Most modern scholars would offer an enthusiastic "Yes." First and foremost, the Bible accomplishes all of the above through its hundreds of stories. These stories have characters, motives, plots, beginnings, and endings. The power and authority of these stories have shaped the minds and lives of people through the millennia. The authors of these stories were experts in using an economy of words and experts in getting to the heart of the matter. There is a whole new generation of scholars who are looking at these literary qualities of the stories and finding heretofore unnoticed treasures. The details are important, not because they're gory, but because by comparing one battle to another, the details might hold the key to determining why the outcomes were different, why one had negative consequences and the others had positive. The details may also connect the stories in ways that reveal something about both.

Robert Alter gives a great example of this in his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative. When Jacob is given Joseph's bloodied coat, he assumes the lad has been killed by a wild animal. Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins and mourned his son many days -- so many days in fact, that his other sons were unable to console him. Sad situation, indeed! Yet in the very next story, Judah (Jacob's fourth son) loses two of his three sons within the space of four verses. He has no response other than to instruct Tamar to wait for his third son to grow up. Should we assume that Judah loved his sons less because his reaction was overlooked by the author? Not necessarily. Alter thinks the two stories are linked, that Judah had huge lessons to learn which are connected to the Jacob incident and the encounters involving Joseph that follow. The one who helped deceive his father is deceived by Tamar and later deceived by Joseph (see pp. 3-13). By paying attention to the details, additional insights are gained.

Oftentimes the more graphic the details, the easier they are to imagineā€¦and remember. If they are troubling, they make us think. Maybe that's exactly what the authors intended.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books, USA, 1981.

Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Rhoads, David and Donald Michie. Mark as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.