Some Narrative Patterns in the Hebrew Bible


One of the dominant features of the Hebrew Bible is its use of purely literary or literal-historical patterns – whether of actions, of the circumstances of characters, or similarities in narrative construction.

Interestingly, some of the Bible’s patterns may just be literary devices for their own sake.  This article identifies dozens of such forms.  But the narrative patterns we’re interested in are those that serve through their repetition/reprise to underscore the importance of the pattern to the story of God and His people.

Here we’ll dig into some examples of those that fall into this latter category.  What we hope to achieve is to expose some of these patterns that God intended as “dog whistles” to alert us to the fact that the narrative that was being told was intended to teach us a profound, enduring truth.

Categories of Pattern

The Hebrew Bible employs several categories or types of literary patterns in relating its stories.

Allegories are later interpretations of earlier stories that seek to highlight their moral (and in some cases, political) significance.

Types are an entirely different class of literary structure.  Types tend to be more formal.  A type, classically, is an instance of an event, narrative, or character that is emblematic of a singular anti-type.  Examples, traditionally, include Christ as the anti-type of Adam; Joseph as a type of Christ; the parting of the Reed Sea as a type of God separating the waters above and below in Genesis 1 to expose the earth we live on; the Exodus as a type of the Creation story; the exiles (Assyria and Babylon) as types of the Flood and the dispersal from Babel (de-creation) stories.

Then we have narrative stories that have striking similarities that, if taken together, articulate some important messages, either about ourselves or about God.  For example, we’ll compare the stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Manoa’s wife.  Do they have a common motif?

We want to find the narrative patterns that teach the Bible’s most important parts of its overall meta-narrative – that of God’s love for humanity despite their persistent unfaithfulness; God’s will for human “life”; and God’s ultimate transformation of His humanity to enable them to reciprocate His love, and live the life He intends for them.

The Bible’s Grand Sweep

It’s important in analyzing the Bible’s narratives to keep in mind its overarching message of humanity’s separation from God by their choice, and God’s ultimate endpoint for His Creation – humanity’s transformation and adoption as God’s children (Dt 30:6).  Along the way, there are hundreds of mini-stories that each serves to put in place one necessary piece of God’s overarching plan.  If we keep our eye on God’s end goal, the individual narratives will not only make sense but will expose us to the beauty of God’s plan, despite ourselves.

Covenants Between God and Man

One of the key patterns depicted in the Tanakh is that God, in dealing with His human creation, implemented covenants to spell out what His expectations for them were, and what they could expect if they met those expectations, or, alternatively, they abrogated those expectations.  This is not a literary pattern, per se, as much as it is simply the historical basis of God’s interaction with His people.  It was also a practice common to Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) societies as a means to document and commit to mutual agreements.

The first covenant we encounter is between God and His first human creations in the Garden (Gen 2-3).  It is trivial in its simplicity but hugely profound in its message.  God had provided an ideal space – the Garden – containing everything the man and woman needed for life.  His only stipulations were that they be fruitful and multiply and that they were not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The woman famously exercises her judgment that its fruit was “good” and so takes of it.

This becomes the paradigm, the anti-type if you will, of covenants between God and His disobedient people.

The next covenant we find is one made with Noah on behalf of future generations.  This covenant, unlike the Eden covenant, is unilateral: God presents no stipulations to be met by Noah or any of his descendants.  God simply declares that He will never again destroy humanity as He did in the flood.

Following Noah, the next significant covenant we find is between God and Abram.  God makes several covenants with Abram.  First He promises Abram that when he leaves his home in Ur and goes to the place that God will show him (Canaan), God will “make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2).

Later, in response to his continuing childlessness, Abram confronts God to complain (Gen 15:4).  God assures him that he will have a son from whom the “great nation” He had promised earlier will issue, whose number will be as the number of the stars of heaven.

Then immediately we read the next promise to Abram and that is the land of Canaan (Gen 15:18-21).  God says that Abram’s descendants will initially spend 400 years as slaves “in a land that is not theirs.”  Then they’ll come to Canaan “on that day” when the “iniquity of the Amorites” is complete.  Amorites here is a generic term for Canaanites, the implication being that God is going to give them 400 years to complete their iniquity before He dispossesses them from Canaan.

The form of this covenant’s ratification is fascinating.  God instructs Abram to cut in two several animals.  Later in the evening, Abram has a vision of a “smoking fire pot” with its “flaming torch” (flame) passing between the severed animal halves.  Covenants in the ANE were often made binding by having the two signatories walk together between such severed animals.

Here, however, Abram sees only this flaming fire pot passing between the animals, serving to symbolically represent God binding Himself unilaterally to His promise.  This is a picture of God in total control of the prophecies He has shared with Abram; it wouldn’t make sense to ANE people to portray Abram and God(/YHWH) as somehow equals in the deal God had unilaterally specified.  No.  This is all about what God is going to make happen (including the Egyptian slavery and later inheritance of the land).  All Abram has to do is trust YHWH’s word.

In Genesis 17:10 God stipulates circumcision for (now-) “Abraham” and his male descendants to “be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.”  This occurs when Abraham is 99 years old, and still has no son of his wife Sarah, only Ishmael from Sarah’s maid Hagar (itself an emblem of Abraham and Sarah’s distrust of God’s promise).

In Genesis 18 the LORD appears to Abraham and Sarah as a man, a theophany, and tells them that in a year they will have a son from Sarah.  Sure enough, a year later the boy Isaac is born.  Now having her own son, the presence of Hagar and Ishmael upsets Sarah and she pleads with Abraham to send them away, which God confirms should happen.  But after they are sent away, God speaks to Hagar in the desert assuring her that her son will live and prosper and himself become “a great nation” (Gen 21:18).

Following the famous episode of Isaac being bound to be sacrificed (the “Akedah”), God speaks to Abraham these words (Gen 22:15-18):

[15] And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven [16] and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, [18] and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

In the scheme of the Bible’s meta-narrative, this becomes a key, foundational promise/covenant.  God does it “By myself”.  Yes, Abraham’s descendants are to multiply as the stars of heaven, as before.  But somehow “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed”, apparently in response to Abraham’s trust and demonstration of faith in YHWH. 

A sometimes overlooked feature of this narrative is that the potential victim, Isaac, similarly trusted YHWH to not allow him to be killed.  We have no evidence of any protest from Isaac (at least a teenager, if not a young adult, at the time), nor any panic.  He apparently was satisfied when, after asking his father where the sacrificial lamb was, Abraham simply responded “God Himself will provide”.

There are only some minor covenants following Abraham’s (Isaac, Jacob) until we get to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt and Moses.  In the Moses narrative, we read about two distinct covenants that God made with the nation of the Hebrews, although there are many promises and actions God takes along the way that contributes to the consummation of His covenants with Israel (e.g. God calling Moses from the bush in Midian, the plagues inflicted on Egypt and Pharaoh, the parting of the Reed Sea, their provision of water and manna in the wilderness, etc.).

But there are two principal covenants God makes with Israel via Moses in recognition of His promises to their father Abraham.  The first He presents to Moses at Mt. Sinai/Horeb following the completion of their escape from Egypt.  We read of this covenant in Ex 19.  Interestingly, God did make some stipulations at Sinai, including the adherence of Israel to the Ten Words (Ex 20:1-17), but essentially God’s covenant was this (Ex 19:4-6):

[4] ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. [5] Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; [6] and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

So God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai was: ‘Obey my voice and keep my covenant’ (the Ten Words and the other laws announced at Sinai), then God will esteem them as a holy nation and a treasured possession.

Needless to say, this covenant was abrogated hours after it was announced with the molten calf incident (remember the first of the Ten Words was “You shall have no other Gods before Me”).

After this scene we have Moses leading Israel to Canaan.  But there their spies convince their leaders not to move into the land.  And the cost of this decision reflecting their lack of faith in their LORD is God’s decision that the entire generation of those redeemed from Egypt will die off in the wilderness wanderings during the next 40 years.

That sentence is carried out and the following generation then finds itself in Moab with Moses, nearing the end of his life, and about to once again attempt to enter the land they had been promised.  There something important happens.  There the Deuteronomist records that Moses is given another covenant of the LORD, besides the one he was given at Sinai/Horeb[i].  Dt 29:1:

[29:1] These are the words of the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.

So Israel is going to receive another covenant through Moses before they enter the land. But what is this additional covenant?  And who is it with?  On the latter question we have Dt 29:14-15:

[14] It is not with you (Israel in Moab) alone that I am making this sworn covenant, [15] but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today.

Who isn’t “with us today”?  All future generations.  But what’s new about this addition to the Horeb covenant?  The curses for violating that covenant.  And what is the essence of that curse?  Exile.  Dt 29:25-28:

[25] Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, [26] and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. [27] Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, [28] and the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’

Here we have an anachronism; “as they are this day”, which tips us off to the point in time when the Deuteronomic author is writing this passage.  Notice: the author isn’t deceptive in trying to conceal the time in which he is writing.  He’s writing during the Babylonian exile.  Here he’s reinforcing the message as to why it was that Judah found itself exiled to Babylon; their capital and Temple destroyed, and their population decimated.

But what does the author say about exiled Israel’s redemption?  We find a unilateral covenant of redemption in the next Deuteronomy chapter: Deuteronomy 30:1-8

[30:1] “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, [2] and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, [3] then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. [4] If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. [5] And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. [6] And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. [7] And the LORD your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. [8] And you shall again obey the voice of the LORD and keep all his commandments that I command you today.

This is profound.  (Clearly, God here is speaking to the people exiled from Israel.)  Here God reinforces His conditional promise that if you (the people) repent of your apostasy and return to Me, then I will receive you and return you to your land, make you prosperous, and circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring so that you will love the LORD.  Other references to the phrase “circumcise your heart” had the people as the subject (e.g. Dt 10:16, Je 4:4) – something they were to do.  Here, for the first time, the subject is YHWH.

The writer knows they are exiled in Babylon.  His inspiration is that if they repent of the attitudes and practices that forced their exile, then they will return and be prosperous, and not only that; but they will have God Himself circumcise their hearts and those of their offspring so that they all will love the LORD.

This is the gist of the covenant that is “besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb”.  It is in this sense a “New” covenant[ii] – one that will be described later by Isaiah (42:6-9), Jeremiah (31:31-34), and Ezekiel (36:26-27) as well as Zechariah (12:10).

Later in Israel’s narrative, we find God making a covenant with King David (2 Sam 7:12-16):

[12] When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. [13] He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his (Solomon’s) kingdom forever. [14] I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, [15] but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. [16] And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

These promises have generated more than a little controversy over time.  David’s kingdom/throne was physically terminated when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Judah, Jerusalem and its temple, and exiled Judah’s last Davidic king, Zedekiah (586 BC) to Babylon.  In response, Bible interpreters have allegorized or spiritualized these promises to allow them to yet be considered true.

In addition to these covenants, there are dozens of occurrences of God promising to be Israel’s God if they will live as/”will be” His people (Lev 26:12, Ex 6:7, Je 7:23, Je 11:4, Je 30:22, etc.).

What Do We Learn From God’s Covenants?

It seems that God desired several things from Israel with whom He made these covenants:

We can particularly see this last point from the passage in Dt 30:15 where God is challenging Israel to enjoy the blessings He will bestow on them in their land if they will live in obedience to Him:

[15] “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. [16] If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

Covenants in the Hebrew Bible are God’s method of expressing to His people (and us as modern readers) His will for them.  Much of its narrative portions are stories designed to underscore these primary messages of God’s will (e.g. the book of Jonah, the faithfulness of Ruth, the call to repentance by the prophets, etc.) – and man’s ever too frequent disobedience to that will.

The Barrenness-to-Multi-Son Maternity Pattern

The historical narratives contain serval notable examples of women who are originally childless eventually miraculously becoming pregnant, and giving birth to two or more sons.  Let’s see if we can figure out what is being communicated in this pattern.

We start with Eve.  She bears Cain and Able (initially), and Cain, the firstborn, kills Able the second-born.  The gist of the story seems to be that Able offered an offering more reverent of the LORD than did Cain, and so gained favor, triggering Cain’s anger with his brother.  It seems this story is an allegory of offering the proper offerings to your LORD, or else suffering the consequences.  It also serves to underscore that the firstborn is no better than his younger siblings.

Then we have Sarah.  We looked at her story earlier.  She ultimately gives birth to Isaac who goes on to father Jacob, the founder of the Israelite people.  Here, the “two-son” pattern is a bit of a corruption as Sarah herself is only recorded as having one son; Isaac.  However, Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, was indeed his son and was the product of his lack of faith in the LORD’s promise.  Later (something like 20 years after the promise of Abraham’s descendants being as numerous as the stars of Heaven) the LORD follows through on his promise when Sarah herself, at the age of 90, becomes pregnant with Isaac, a key “father” in Israel’s history.

Next, we encounter Rebekah (Gen 25:19-28).  Abraham’s servant, sent to find a wife for Isaac, finds her in the Haran area in Mesopotamia and returns with her to Canaan.  Rebekah was barren for 25 years following her marriage during which Isaac prayed that she be given a child. When she conceives she is pregnant with twins who “struggled together within her”.  She asks the LORD what’s going on and He announces to her that:

[23] “Two nations are in your womb,

and two peoples from within you shall be divided;

the one shall be stronger than the other,

the older shall serve the younger.”

She gives birth, first to Esau and then to Jacob “who was holding Esau’s heel”.  There’s a fascinating interpretation of this detail regarding Esau’s heel that I’ve written about here.  Obviously, by including such an obscure detail, it must have been very significant to the author.

Here we have an explanation for Israel’s eventual dominance over Esau’s descendants, the nation of Edom.  But perhaps more than that, as with Sarah, we have God populating Israel’s fathers after their mothers’ initial childlessness.

With an almost mirror image story, we then have Rachel, the eventual mother of Joseph and Benjamin (Gen 29:31-30:24).  Here, of course, we get into the whole story of Jacob’s travels to Laban and servitude to him in the expectation of Laban giving him his daughter, Rachel.  First, he’s given Leah (as a deceit, after seven years of service to Laban for Rachel) by whom he fathers Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.  From her maidservants (during a  period of her infertility) he fathers Gad and Asher.  After seven more years of service, he is finally given Rachel.

Rachel initially in her marriage was “barren”.  So Rachel, like Sarah (and Leah) before her, offers Jacob her maid Bilnah to produce offspring – Dan and Naphtali.  After prayer, Rachel conceives and bears Joseph who, it will later turn out, saves the family of Jacob/Israel from famine after his brothers have dumped him in a hole in the desert and left him for dead.  (Clearly, Joseph is, after Moses and David, the most revered figure in the entire Tanakh.)

So here we have Jacob honoring his commitment to Laban despite Laban’s deceit, God rewarding him with a son by Rachel who will go on to save him and his entire family in the ensuing famine in Canaan, thus fulfilling God’s commitment to Jacob to bless him and his descendants.  This narrative pattern of a barren wife healed by God is foundational in constructing the narrative of Israel’s history.

Then we have Manoah and his wife in Jdg 13:2-20.  We first learn that she is barren (Jdg 13:2).  But the couple is visited by a fascinating angel of the LORD (mal’āḵ) who tells the woman she will conceive and bear a son (Jdg 13:3).  And, sure enough, she does: Samson who, though a fairly minor figure in the Tanakh, is renowned for inflicting significant damage on Israel’s enemies, the Philistines.  She goes on to give birth to a second son, as related only in the Apocrypha[iii].

So what is the principal message from these barrenness-to-multi-son patterns?  One of the most important messages the stories are trying to convey is that the second (or later) son can be the one sought by God as the key to fulfilling His plan for Israel.  We certainly see this message in the story of Jacob and his brother Esau.  We also see it in his wives Leah and Rachel.Certainly, Leah provided many sons who were to become tribes of Israel.  But Rachel produced Joseph, who literally rescued Israel from destruction by famine.

It seems that through these stories God wanted us to know that He was going to achieve His will for the development of the nation of Israel despite a few biological inconveniences.  But it has also been theorized that the veneration of a second or later son (Joseph was the last son) was a conscious, literary framework for the later story of David, himself the last son of Jessie.  The issue is if the ancient convention of primogenitor[iv] was the cultural standard in the ANE, how was it that subsequent sons enjoyed some degree of veneration or blessing, if not the primary glory of the family, as was clearly the case with Israel’s hero, David?  In these stories, God says, effectively: “I just don’t care about primogenitor.”

Other God-Ordained Pregnancies

There are a couple of more divinely-ordained pregnancies in the Tanakh to note.

The first is the story of Hannah found in 1 Sam 1:1-20.  There we find the barren Hannah who is married to Elkanah as is a second wife, Peninnah, who has several children from her marriage.  Peninnah taunts Hannah over her childlessness, causing Hannah great distress.  When the family goes to Shiloh (the Tabernacle) to sacrifice, Hannah prays to the LORD to remember her and her condition and give her a son.  God responds and she later gives birth to Samuel, who Hannah dedicates to God’s service and who becomes the key figure (priest, judge, leader) in Israel’s pre-monarchic period.

Finally, we have the narrative of the barren Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4) who Elisha blesses with the promise that in a year she’ll have a son.  And she does.  But while still a boy he is stricken with some kind of sickness and dies.  The Shunammite woman instantly leaves to find Elisha and have him intervene with the LORD to revive the boy.  Here we get the poignant scene of Elisha laying on top of the dead boy, 2 Kings 4:34

[34] Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm.

Unlike in the story of Hannah and Samuel, here the boy remains anonymous; of no apparent importance to the story of Israel.  However, this story appears to be part of another narrative pattern: the LORD’s ability to bring the dead back to life. Elisha’s elder prophet, Elijah, had previously restored a dead boy to life (1 Kings 17:17-24) in a nearly identical way.  So in the story of the Shunammite, we have two different narrative patterns intersecting.

The Atonement Pattern

One can be incredulous having read the instructions for the annual atonement ritual in Lev 16, the so-called Yom Kippur ritual.  One could ask: “Where did this come from?  How did they come up with this?”

It turns out that this observance wasn’t unique to Israel.  The Hittites had their own version[v].

However, it can be argued that the Jewish ritual was informed by scenes from its history.  We’ll examine some of these.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the annual ritual that was designed to cleanse the individual Israelite as well as his entire community of the sins they had inadvertently committed during the previous year.  Of course, the conscious sins committed by an Israelite during the previous year would have been governed by his required “sin” or “burnt” offerings that he would have faithfully made at the temple/tabernacle.

In this ritual, after having made a sacrifice (of a bull) for himself and his family, the High Priest was presented with two identical goats offered by the community.  He then chooses which of the two goats shall be sacrificed by drawing lots.

He sacrifices the goat chosen for sacrifice and sprinkles some of its blood within the Holy of Holies on and in front of the Mercy Seat.

A widely misunderstood feature of this sacrifice is that it was not intended to atone for the people’s sins as we think of atonement.  It was simply to cleanse the Temple from the presence all around it of their sin – their “uncleanness”.  After all, this is God’s abode on Earth and He’s not about to live in a place tainted with the people’s sin. In effect, the High Priest is cleansing the Mercy Seat, and later the Altar, from the impinging sins of the people around the Temple.  This is what the author of Leviticus calls “atoning” for the Holy Place. Here we have Leviticus 17:11:

[11] For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

Here, the altar is being made clean by atoning for the unclean souls of the people. This character of Israelite sacrificial rituals has been little understood.  The people were basically unchanged, though they were temporarily ritually cleansed.

Next, the High Priest lays his hands symbolically on the head of the second goat; the “scapegoat”, before it is led out to the wilderness.  Lev 16:22

[22] The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

Here we run into an interesting, and what has been a controversial, detail.  The “remote area” mentioned is given a name: “Azazel”.  Lev 16:26

[26] And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward, he may come into the camp.

So what is this Azazel?  Some think that it is a synonym for a scapegoat (e.g. KJV).

  1. עֲזָאזֵל `azā’zēl: A masculine noun referring to a scapegoat. It is taken as a designation of the goat on which the sins of the nation were laid, hence, a scapegoat on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:8,10,26). Others suggest that this is the name of a desert demon.

But grammatically, how can the scapegoat be led out to the scapegoat?

Notice this definition says “Others suggest that this is the name of a desert demon.”  There is some support for that interpretation. There is an old tradition of Azazel being a surviving spirit presence of the Nephilim.  Others think he was Satan.  (But why would Israel be sacrificing to Satan?)  Still other interpretations translate the word as a “high outcrop” or “cliff”.  This supports the idea of the goat being led off of a cliff to its death.

However, the interpretation I think makes the most sense (based primarily on the name) is that it is a representation of God’s righteous judgment. 

The name is theophoric.  While “Azaz” means something like “strong” or “mighty”, “El”, of course, is a name for God.  In this interpretation, the goat carrying Israel’s sins is led out into the wilderness where it receives the righteous judgment of a mighty God, rather than the people.  (This interpretation is also much closer to our traditional understanding of the concept of atonement.)

The question we’d like to examine is: where else in the Pentateuch do we see this pattern of one being sacrificed and the other being led away as a kind of cleansing ritual?

The first place is the story of Cain and Abel.  In it, we have Abel being slayed (in the position of the sacrificial goat) and Cain being banished by God to wander (in the position of the scapegoat).

Next, we have Jacob and Esau.  The metaphor here is a bit more obtuse, and can actually be seen both ways.  The interpretation that likely makes the most sense is that Esau, cheated by Jacob’s deceit out of his father’s blessing, effectively assumes the role of the sacrificial goat.  Jacob, on the other hand, is the one “sent away”, as he is sent away for fear of the wrath of his cheated brother.  Later, however, the roles seem to reverse as Jacob sacrifices to raise his family (Israel) and Esau takes himself away to “the land of Seir, the country of Edom”[vi].

Next, we have Joseph, who can be seen as both the slain sacrificial goat, as to his brothers, and Jacob his father he was considered slain, dead, and as the scapegoat “sent away”, as his brothers abandon him in the desert, after which, of course, he ends up in Egypt in a position of authority to redeem his family.

We could also include in the allegory Abraham and Isaac as effectively they encompass the sacrificial offering to God, while Ishmael represents the one “sent away”.

Perhaps there’s a deeper story being acted out in Israel’s Yom Kippur allegories.  The pattern of the LORD reestablishing order and life among His people echoes the ancient Chaoskampf (struggle against chaos) mythologies of the ancient world[vii].


The Hebrew Bible can be read on multiple levels.  The first, and most direct, is literal, which can reveal the primary messages of the historical and procedural narratives.  But it is virtually indisputable that there are multiple levels of meaning that God has woven within His historical and procedural narratives.

Once one is exposed to these additional levels of meaning, he can’t unsee them.  They help illuminate the grander meta-narrative that is deeply embedded within it.

[i] The Covenant in Moab: Deuteronomy Without Horeb –

[ii] The New Covenant of Moses

[iii] The birth of Manoah’s wife’s second son is not mentioned in the biblical account of Samson’s life in the Book of Judges. However, in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which is part of the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not accepted as canonical by all Protestant denominations, Manoah’s wife is named as “Anna” and is said to have given birth to a son named Tobias after Samson.

In Tobit 14:1, it says, “So the words of Tobit were ended. And after his death, Tobias his son reigned in his stead, and was buried in Rages, the city of Media, with his father and mother.” This suggests that Anna, who is identified as the wife of Manoah in the Book of Judges, had a second son named Tobias, who became the father of the titular character in the Book of Tobit.

[iv] Primogenitor – Wikipedia

[v] One example is the Hittite “Scapegoat Ritual,” which was performed during the annual Purulli festival. In this ritual, a goat was designated as the “scapegoat” and loaded with the sins of the community, after which it was driven out of the city and set free in the wilderness.

[vi] I’m skeptical of this interpretation in light of the allusion of Jacob as being a “snake-person”, which I’ve written a bit about here.

[vii] Carden, Michael. “Atonement Patterns in Biblical Narrative: Rebellious Sons, Scapegoats and Boy Substitutes.” The Bible and Critical Theory, 2011.

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