How Old Testament Writers Built Suspense

Think about the last suspenseful movie you watched. Remember the music that played just before something (typically bad) was about to happen? Imagine what the movie Jaws would have been like if there wasn’t that deep two-note dah-dum, dah-dum. Half the fun of those movies is knowing something is just about to happen. It’s the anticipation that often puts us on the edge of your seat.

We do something similar when we tell or write stories. Here’s what I mean. What if I were to say something like: “I heard a sound in the attic, so I walked upstairs. And as I was walking up the stairs . . .” What would you expect to come next? Instinctively you’d expect something surprising to happen right after this repeated sentence. The suspense is created by a linguistic device called Tail-Head Linkage. Tail-Head Linkage involves the restatement of an action from one sentence (the tail) at the beginning of the next one (the head). Repeating the information slows down the story and builds suspense because something surprising or important is about to happen.

The biblical writers use Tail-Head Linkage in the same way. In the Lexham Hebrew Discourse Bible and the Lexham High Definition Old Testament the  symbol is used to mark each place  in the Old Testament Tail-Head Linkage appears. Let’s look at an example.

Genesis 39 recounts the story of Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife’s advances. After resisting her day after day, the scene comes to a climax in v.12. Potiphar’s wife grabs Joseph’s garment, attempting to entice him again, but Joseph drops his garment and runs away.

Although we expect to immediately read of her reaction to Joseph’s blatant rejection, Tail-Head Linkage slows down the action. Notice that all the content of the second half of v.12 is repeated in the first half of v.13. This slowing down of the story builds suspense and tells us something important is about to happen. In this case, we find out that, rather than letting the incident go as she had done before, she concocts a story blaming Joseph for attempting to force himself on her. This false accusation leads to Joseph’s imprisonment, setting the scene for his eventual rise to second-most-powerful ruler in Egypt.

The Lexham High Definition Old Testament and Lexham Hebrew Discourse Bible locates each instance of Tail-Head Linkage in the Hebrew Bible It allows you to get the benefit of seeing how these devices work without knowing the original language. Locating these devices and understanding how they work help you more vividly and accurately communicate Scripture to others in your preaching and teaching.

For those who have studied Hebrew or are comfortable working with an interlinear, the Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible includes the Lexham High Definition Old Testament. Having both resources enables you to see the detail of the Hebrew and then what that looks like overlaid on the ESV translation. These two resources come bundled together with an introduction and glossary written to help you understand the function of each device.

For more information about the Lexham Hebrew Discourse Bible and the Lexham High Definition Old Testament, check out these posts: