Not So Long Ago, In a Land Not So Far Away (Adapting Genesis 12-50)


Up to this point, my reflections on how to adapt Genesis into Bible Art have focused on relatively small chunks of text. For the Tower of Babyl Story, I spent 4 weeks on about 3 paragraphs of text. It may come as a surprise then that I'm planning on chunking all that remains of Genesis into this final series. That's over 3x as many chapters as I've covered in all of my previous posts combined. Initially that may sound surprising, but there's good reason for my approach.


Narrative Compression & Distance

Although Genesis 1-11 is a much smaller literary unit than Genesis 12-50, it covers a much much larger period of time. All of the events of Genesis 12-50 could take place within the space of only a couple of sentences from Genesis 5. The narrative compression of time during Genesis 1-11 forces the writer to be extremely selective about narrative details. Even though the narrative zooms in a bit closer for the most important events, like the Babel story, most of the description is still given in summary and a lot of questions are left unanswered. Genesis 12-50 may not read like a modern novel with respect to detail and characterization, but in contrast to what comes before it, the change in pace and level of focus are astounding.

As a general rule, the more compressed and distant a narrative is, the more work it takes to adapt it.

Of course, there's another reason why the Genesis 1-11 narratives fail to answer many of the questions that modern readers have. Although we tend to look at all of the biblical events as ancient, the original readers saw themselves as much more closely connected to the Abrahamic stories than to the Primeval narratives. Although Abraham may have been a distant ancestor, they could still recognize many of the nations and places that he spent his time in. Oral traditions had kept his life story alive.

By contrast, the world of Noah and Noah was truly ancient history. The long genealogies are a literary means of creating distance between ancient events and today - not unlike saying "Long ago, in a galaxy far far away..." It signaled to readers that the events described took place in a foreign world. Because that world was foreign, readers could expect less with regard to narrative detail.


The Demands of Adaptation

As a general rule, the more compressed and distant a narrative is, the more work it takes to adapt it. Compressed, generalized stories work in the Bible because of the elasticity of prose narrative. However, in modern mediums, especially visual ones, the amount of summarization that we in Genesis 1-11 is unacceptable. That means a Bible Artists seeking to adapt those chapters has to put in additional work filling in the imaginative gaps left by the original narrative.

On the other hand, when adapting Genesis 12-50, the Bible Artist is given a much more fully realized world. Abraham is a three-dimensional character who develops over time and has clear motivations. Even when come in contact with secondary characters like the Pharaoh, we can imagine them more readily because we know more about their time, place, and culture. Instead of speculating on arcane details, the Bible Artist can draw on a variety of resources about the history and culture of Abraham's world.


Unique Challenges

Although Genesis 12-50 is, in many respects, simple to adapt than Genesis 1-11, there are unique challenges associated with a longer and more complex story:

  • Character Development: Modern stories that take place over a long period of time are really focused in on how a character's understanding, motivations, and qualities change. This is true to some extent in the story of Abraham, but it may take some effort for Bible Artists to show.

  • Narrative Arcs: For many Bible readers, the stories about the lives of the Patriarchs are befuddling because it's hard to discern how they all fit together. We're used to watching complex narratives that unfold over a variety of episodes, but there's something different about narrative arcs in Genesis and what we get on Netflix.

  • Applicability: Some of the events that take place in Abraham's life feel random to us. That wasn't the case for ancient readers though, so Bible Artists need to find a way to bridge the gap between ancient meaning and modern significance.

These three topics will serve as my roadmap for going forward through the remainder of Genesis. I'm excited to see what we'll discover!

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