On Biblical Fiction and Rewriting God’s Word

In a Fiction Writing Facebook group, someone was working on a novel based on the story of Naomi in the book of Ruth. If you’re not familiar with the story of Ruth, I’d recommend reading it. It’s only four chapters, and the namesake is an unusual hero in that she is a Moabite, not an Israelite. Not only that, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Sorry for the spoiler, but the story has been around for over 2,000 years.

Anyway, she first asked for feedback on her beginning. It promised a story where the main character changes her name twice. For those who know the story, they know the significance of the name changes and expect a story of tragic loss with healing and redemption that follows. If they don’t know the story, it might stir their curiosity. Why would she change her name twice? Either way, it’s good hook, and I told her so.

The Story

But I did not think the ending she proposed would be satisfying. Here is how she described it.

This is historical biblical fiction. It’s about Naomi’s ten years in the wilderness, and written in first person. The last chapter of Call Me Mara ends with “…it was the beginning of the barley harvest” and I will encourage readers to finish the story of Naomi and Ruth in the Scriptures.

This writer wants to tell the story from Naomi’s point of view. No problem there. But she is proposing ending the story in the middle and then saying, “If you want the rest of the story, go read the Bible.”

Here is how I responded.

If this is the ending, I would feel cheated. Biblical fiction can be a great tool for getting people interested in the Bible, but it is not an excuse for doing our job halfway. You still need to give your reader a complete story. Use your storytelling skills to give them an enjoyable reading experience, and they will be more likely to follow through on your suggestion to read the Bible.

She wasn’t convinced. She said,

I just don’t want to rewrite God’s Words in my own words. Ruth 2 and beyond have already been told and I can’t improve on that. For now, this is where I feel my story ends and the Spirit takes over.

This is the dilemma for writing Biblical Fiction. It’s always “already been told.” Rewriting the Bible sounds daunting, even sacrilegious. But if you want to write Biblical Fiction, you have to make peace with that somehow. Just so you know, here is how the story would end as she proposes it.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

(Ruth 1:20-22)

Ruth and Naomi haven’t even arrived in Bethlehem yet, much less met Boaz, who becomes the kinsman-redeemer who marries Ruth, ensuring a secure future for both women. Again, sorry for the spoiler. Her version would leave all of that out.

It also does not deliver on what she promised. Her intro promises a character who changes her name twice. But if she ends the story there, we only get one name change. We get only the tragedy and miss the healing and redemption that follows. If you promise something to the reader, you need to deliver.

The Rest of the Story

But the rest of the story is in the Bible.

Then why should they read your story at all when they can read the whole thing in the Bible? Fiction when done well does not just tell a story. It gives us a chance to experience it through the character. You are not just told what happened. You feel like you are there as it happens. When you write Biblical Fiction, that is what you are promising the reader, the chance to experience the story—the whole story—with Naomi. Or whoever your character is.

If you want to write Biblical Fiction, don’t use the Bible as an excuse not to do your job. Writing fiction of any kind means creating a good story that moves the reader. I’ve read the Bible several times, but I can still appreciate a work that helps me see it in a way I had never considered. If you give them an enjoyable reading experience, they will be more likely to take your suggestion to read the Bible so they can see where your story came from. Here is how you can do that.

  1. Be faithful to the source material. One way to look at it is the Biblical story provides you with the bricks. You use mortar to connect them. The mortar includes techniques writers use to draw the reader in, like scene setting, characterization, action, dialog, and plotting.
  2. You are not rewriting the Bible. You are creating a new way for others to experience it.
  3. Pick a point of view character that you connect with.
  4. Fully imagine the character in that situation. What do they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? What is the weather like? What emotions are they going through? How do they see the world around them? In the end, what kind of transformation do they go through?
  5. Look for ways you can fill in missing details. The Bible often leaves out the kind of details that make fiction come alive. See that as an invitation, not a restriction.
  6. Write a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

If you would like to see some of my recommendations for Biblical Fiction done well, click here. Some of them do not actually follow rule number one. They might take a little more creative license with the story than some would like. But they do it in a way that is believable and makes you feel like you are there.

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