Prolepsis: How the Bible Tells Us the Future
Regular screen watchers know that if in an opening scene the camera pans in on a detail like a dagger or a bicycle, then that detail—the dagger or the bicycle—will somehow have an important role to play later on in the movie. Known as foreshadowing, this cinematic technique has its parallel in literature in the rhetorical device known as prolepsis, which indicates a future event that is presumed to have occurred. Prolepsis is also known as anticipation, which is what the term literally means, because the details are anticipated or foreshadowed before they are developed in the ensuing narrative. Prolepsis is a characteristic feature of biblical Hebrew narrative, and, in recent studies, my colleague Dr. Robert Harris has convincingly demonstrated that it was a rhetorical feature well known to 12th-century Jewish medieval exegetes such as Joseph Kara, Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir), and Eliezer of Beaugency.
In the Bible, prolepsis is used in various ways. One is in the introduction of characters by names, descriptions, and epithets that will have relevance for that particular story. Thus, the meanings of the patriarchal names Abraham (Great Father) or Sarah (Princess) both have significance as the progenitors of the Jewish People. Abram will indeed be a father of a great nation, and Sarah will indeed be a princess, the ancestral mother of all of us. The proleptic knowledge that Sarah is barren clues the reader in advance of the importance of that detail when, in this week’s parashah, we read of the birth of Isaac to very elderly parents.
Another type of prolepsis occurs when statements are made or details inserted that appear to be unnecessary or out of context. For example, when Bathsheba is first introduced in the story of David and Bathsheba, she is described as being the daughter of Eliam (2 Sam. 11:3). This detail is unnecessary in that particular story, but is proleptically given in anticipation of the fact that Ahitophel, David’s chief advisor, will later join Absalom’s revolt against David (15:31). Eliam, we will be later told, is the son of Ahitophel (23:34), so Bathsheba is none other than Ahitophel’s granddaughter. Ahitophel’s rejection of David is now made clear to us. He did it because of David’s outrageous treatment of his granddaughter and her husband: David had an illicit affair with Bathsheba, and had Uriah, her husband, killed.
Another example of this type of prolepsis is seen at the very end of this week’s parashah, when Rebecca’s genealogy is given at the end. The announcement of the birth of Rebecca at this seemingly inconsequential point in the narrative (immediately after the Aqedah story) is proleptic because it anticipates the events to be related in next week’s parashah (Hayyei Sarah) in the story of getting a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24).
Perhaps, though, the most characteristic type of prolepsis is when acts are described as happening before they actually take place. In this week’s parashah, we read at the beginning of the Aqedah narrative (chapter 22, verses 1–2): “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’” The statement that “God put Abraham to the test” is proleptic, because God has not yet tested him, but is about to do so in the ensuing narrative. The alert reader who is aware of this literary technique realizes that this proleptic statement serves to reduce the tension. He knows it is only a test, and Isaac will not really die, though Abraham does not have the same foreknowledge as the reader.
Prolepsis in the Bible, then, may be viewed as a rhetorical feature that allows the narrator to mingle present and future events; a technique indicating the certainty of future events. The narrator can report future events in the present, and, by this means, emphasize the certainty of the performance of the acts described.
This proleptic technique is one that, occasionally, we ought to consider emulating in our own lives. Too often we worry about the future, and about what can go wrong in our personal and professional lives: Will we fail this exam? Will we be able to accomplish this mission? Will we mess up in that important presentation? Will we be able to succeed in this business venture? Will we be able to make this marriage work? Will we be good parents to our as yet unborn children? Instead of worrying about these matters, we might be well advised to adopt a proleptic technique.
Let us envision success in our endeavors. This is indeed what sports’ coaches advocate. In a soccer game, when we are about to take a penalty kick, we are told to envision the ball at the back of the net. With that outlook, we will have a much greater chance of scoring than if we worry about our kick. So when preparing for an exam, envision an A on the returned blue book; in that business venture, visualize your progress as you complete your next five-year plan; and in your personal life, project long-lasting, happy, and fulfilling relationships. All this will be possible if you have a positive attitude, because—just like in the biblical narratives—you know that things are going to be okay.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.