The “Read the Labels” Technique

Labels on food products are helpful to the consumer because they clearly identify the product so that the purchaser can make an informed decision whether or not to buy the product. In the same way, authors use “labels” when referencing characters within their work. The technical name for this is “participant reference,” which considers the choices authors make for referring to characters within the narrative. For instance, I have many “labels,” such as Jim, James, husband, father, grandfather, Dr. Coakley, professor, pastor, elder, etc. Some of those labels are formal (Dr. Coakley), some are familial (husband, grandfather), some are related to what I do (professor, elder), and some are only used by those who have a close relationship with me ( Jimbo, Dr. C).

All of these labels refer to me, but individually they communicate a certain attribute about me in various contexts and settings. Some labels are out of place in certain settings. For instance, what student would register for a class in an esteemed institution of higher learning if the professor’s name was Jimbo? 

The “Read the Labels” technique is an easy way to freshen up our Bible reading. While reading, identify and track the labels that an author uses for characters in the story. Once a character is introduced, many Bible readers create a picture in their mind of who that character is and default to that initial picture without looking at the nuanced ways that the author is presenting that character. Identifying and tracking these character labels gives readers an inside look on how the author is wanting to portray a certain facet of that character. It may be familial (David, son of Jesse) or occupational (Simon the tanner). It may show how characters are viewing other characters within the narrative, whether positively (e.g., when Boaz calls Ruth a “worthy woman”) or negatively (e.g., in 1 Samuel 25:25, when Abigail references her husband by his proper name, attaching a negative label: “Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal,” which means “fool”). 

Also, pay attention to when pronouns are used instead of proper nouns. Pronouns are typically used to make sentences less repetitive by eliminating the need to repeat the same nouns over and over, but sometimes biblical authors use pronouns instead of proper nouns to add a hint of secrecy to dramatic scenes. For instance, in the threshing room incident in Ruth 3 there appears to be the avoidance of the proper names Ruth and Boaz by the narrator after 3:7, because that enhances the clandestine nature of the encounter that Boaz himself knows could be problematic, since he states in 3:14, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”

In some instances, biblical authors may use pronouns to add ambiguity to the account to force readers to slow down and try to ascertain which referent that the pronoun refers to. One example is Ruth 2:20, when Naomi exclaims to Ruth: “May he be blessed of the Lord who has not withdrawn his kindness to the living and to the dead” (NASB). It is not entirely clear to whom the pronoun “his” refers to in this verse: Is it Boaz or the Lord? Evidence could be garnered to support either individual as the referent, and the reader is forced to take time and expend mental effort in trying to figure it out, which may actually be the author’s intent. Other examples where biblical authors may have injected ambiguity to cause readers to ponder are 1 Kings 3:16–28 and 20:35–43.

In contrast, look for when proper nouns are repeated multiple times even though pronouns would be adequate. In Genesis 50, Joseph’s proper name is repeated seven times in verses 22–26, which is the last paragraph in the book. The repeated use of his personal name at the end of the book not only keeps him in focus in the minds of the readers in his last days on earth but also helps to highlight his personal faith in wanting to be included in the land promise given to his forefathers in Genesis 50:24–25. Abel is referred to as “brother” seven times in Genesis 4, even though that information is already known to readers. Its repeated use emphasizes that Cain is indeed his “brother’s keeper,” an implicit answer to Cain’s sarcastic question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).

Biblical Example – Ishmael

In Genesis 17:18–26, Ishmael’s personal name and status are clearly mentioned. However, in Genesis 21:9–15, there are eighteen references to Ishmael as a character, but his personal name is never used by anyone. Instead, he is referred to with more impersonal labels such as lad, boy, son of Hagar the Egyptian, son of the maid, and her son. Readers should sense this marginalizing of Ishmael by tracking the use of the labels used to reference him. This fits the author’s intent by having Ishmael leave the narrative stage so that readers focus on the child of promise, Isaac.

Biblical Example – Bathsheba

Here is the text containing the account of David and Bathsheba with all the referents to Bathsheba in bold:

Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said, “I am pregnant.” (2 Sam. 11:1–5 NASB)

Several observations can now be made tracking all the references to Bathsheba:

1) The author portrays David as objectifying her first by referring to her as just a “woman.” This is seen by focusing on her gender and not any other label that would elevate her personal identity and status. (Samson does the same thing in Judges 14:1–3.)

2) An unnamed court official stated her true identity with her proper name and family identity: “Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” All of this information should have given David pause in pursuing her.

3) The narrator of the account shows her with little control over her situation by simply using pronouns (her, she) instead of her proper name (Bathsheba). This adds to the clandestine nature of the scene in general and clearly makes David the aggressor in this act of adultery.

In Conclusion

Tracking all the labels that are applied to the characters you come across in your Bible reading is a simple but surefire way to energize and enliven the time you spend in God’s Word. Plus, it will provide you with something to direct the focus of your reading that can lead to delightful personal observations.

Adapted from 14 Fresh Ways to Enjoy the Bible by James F. Coakley (© 2023). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.