Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Getting Wrapped up in the Story: A Molasses Slow Reading of the Text

There are a lot of ways to read a text.  Over the last two weeks I have been concording (making a concordance -- if "concording" wasn't a verb before, it is now) a portion of Ethiopic Jubilees.  This work involves going through the Ge'ez word by word, prefixed preposition and conjunction by prefixed preposition and conjunction.  While the work should probably be dull and laborious, it's actually been pretty enjoyable.  Part of the enjoyment comes from the fact that Ge'ez is fun (according to one out of one bloggers surveyed), and from the many cool little things one generally discovers when peering behind the English veil to see the original, or in this case versional language of an ancient text.  But I've also found myself enjoying the narrative more.  In particular, I've found myself more emotionally wrapped up in the story.  That's right, it turns out concording is an oddly emotional experience.

I've worked through chapters 11-20, from the beginnings of Abram's life up to the point where he starts talking about the possibility of his death (21:1).  This means I've covered a lot of narrative time (Abe is now 175 years old).  But as is characteristic of much Israelite and early Jewish narrative, that 175 years has taken very little discourse time.  A lot of time in the story world has been condensed into 10 chapters and 250ish verses.  When there's such a disparity between narrative time and discourse time we do not always have the opportunity to become emotionally wrapped up in a story and its characters.  We read about a character's birth and then, after twenty minutes of reading, we read about their death.

I've been finding that in working through the text word by painstaking word I've become more emotionally invested in the characters, simply because I am spending so much more time with them.  By the time Sarah died I'd already spent countless hours with her and concorded her name many times -- 11 times as "Sarai" and 15 times as "Sarah" to be precise.  I was actually sad to see her go.  By the time Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac I had spent lots of hours wrapped up in the promises of an heir, of the expectation of an heir, and finally the birth of that heir.  And now God is going to give ear to Mastema and test Abraham by asking him to kill this son we've been waiting so long for?!  I was a little incensed.  As I move into chapter 21 I know that Abraham's death is coming eventually, and I'll be a bit sad to see him drop from the scene and his name drop from the concordance as new characters take center stage.

So if there's a suggestion here, it's this: consider finding ways to engage in molasses slow readings of ancient narratives.  It's a wonderful way to really immerse yourself in the story world and to enjoy the text as a piece of literature rather than just an artifact to be dissected.

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