The role of dialogue
Within the narratives, dialogue takes up an unusually high proportion of the text, as compared with other ancient literature. Reported speech can be of three forms:
- Thought represented as internal speech
- Dialogue in prayer or vision between a person and God
- Dialogue between two people
Even if several people are present in a given situation, typically they will converse only in pairs.
There are a number of key points that should be noted with dialogue:
- It is usually important who initiates the conversation and who is the passive member. For example in 1 Samuel 1, in the first two conversations Hannah is the passive member, but once pregnant and the recipient of the divine promise, she becomes the active member and initiates the final two conversations.
- Reported speech is normally presented in vocabulary of uniform quality, the equivalent of "BBC English" as a formal standard. Colloquialisms and variations in dialect etc are not usually modelled. Where there are variations from this - for example Esau, Genesis ### - this generally indicates strong emotion overpowering normal speech.
- For variation, often one speaker is presented as using short sentences and the other longer, more elaborate ones. An example is Joseph with Potiphar's wife, Genesis 39:7-12. There is not any obvious relationship between the length of speech and the content of what is said, and the effect seems to be to make the dialogue more varied and interesting, rather than conveying specific moods. It is rare for either party of a conversation to speak at great length.
- Modes of address are usually formal and courteous - "my lord the king", "your servant" etc - and departures from this are usually significant, drawing attention to disrespect or extreme emotion. For example ###
- In a dialogue, if one party speaks twice in succession, without the other party commenting or some other intrusion occurring, this normally indicates doubt, surprise, awe etc in the hearer (for example Genesis 41:39,41)
- Repetition is an important part in some conversations, and any departures from exact repetition usually have significance. For example, in Genesis 2 and 3 we have the following:
indicating in the first case a deliberate misrepresentation, and in the second a careless inaccuracy.
- God: ”You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil“
- The serpent: ”Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?“
- The woman: ”God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it'.“
- Mood and motive are only rarely indicated by the narrator, so that in most cases we are free to engage with the text in an active way and explore different possibilities. Often clues need to be sought from other passages relating to the same individuals to decide if a particular statement is intended to be read as a sincere statement or a deception.