When I sat for oral examinations in my master’s degree in English, where I concentrated in creative writing, one of the questions was about how I approach foreshadowing in my short stories. Foreshadowing is the way that writers hint about upcoming events or twists in a story. For the careful reader, foreshadowing creates a particularly effective form of engagement, ultimately moving into the territory of dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters in the story. In Oedipus Rex, for example, Sophocles plays on the knowledge the audience has that Oedipus has committed a sin that he has not yet figured out, which heightens our horror and sense of catharsis.
Foreshadowing is particularly compelling when the reader re-reads a text (the same is true for other narrative formats, such as film), having then the ultimate knowledge of the story’s whole. The second and subsequent times through the text, the reader finds all sorts of nuggets that can be very satisfying in terms of realizing just how carefully the story was crafted.
In my book on narrative, “God as Author: A Biblical Approach to Narrative” (B & H Academic), I propose that one of the reasons authors are so prone to addiction and depression is because they function as little gods in the worlds of their stories. Authors can move events, generate conflicts, frustrate hope, create new characters, and even provide for rescue when all hope has been lost. In tales with happy endings, the author is a kind of savior-facilitator who rescues the protagonist. In sad tales, the author is a kind of despot-sadist who leaves us yearning for something more meaningful. In the world of the story, the author is ultimately in control, to some extent anyway. But then the pen must cease moving or the fingers typing, and authors must return to reality, where bills must be paid, garbage must be removed, and spouses attended to. It’s hard to remain sober when you no longer are divine.
The quasi-divinity of the author is found most clearly in the element of foreshadowing. Because the author is outside of the story, she can read over an event and then go back to the preceding chapters and drop in clues or accentuate the pathos of the characters. The editorial process allows for a refinement of narrative that is like a surgeon’s scalpel, paring away extraneous information and laying bare the characters in the starkest of terms.
I thought about this on Sunday when my Bible study teacher was working through 2 Samuel 12, where Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba. In verse 13, Nathan says, “The Lord has taken away your sin; you will not die,” but in the following verse, he says that the son born of this adulterous union will die.
I must admit that I have always struggled with the fact that the innocent son had to pay for his father’s sin with his infant life. This is unfair, I want to offer, unjust in fact. But then I re-read the verses by the light of the subsequent events of the Bible’s narrative and I realize that this infant son was not the only son to die for David’s sins. The king had another son, born many generations later, the progeny that fulfilled the foreshadowing of the entirety of the Scriptures, and this son genuinely paid for the sins of that father, and all of the other sins of the world. When John the Baptist declares in John 1:29, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” and when Christ Himself groans from the Cross (Mark 15:34) the opening lines of David’s lament in Psalm 22, the foreshadowing of the Nathan passage is made crystal clear. Only in the case of the Scriptures, the author is not a petty demi-god but is, instead, the Spirit, who used not mere foreshadowing to enhance the story but rather prophecy to speak God’s mission through the ages into our minds. An amazing Author indeed.