The book of Genesis features a large number of distinct and memorable characters: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Esau and Jacob, Joseph. Our attention is captured for the longest periods by Abraham and Jacob, but often we see them in relation to their children and other family members. They rarely occupy the stage alone. But the rest of the Pentateuch really only has one character: Moses. A few others hover around the margins, but they are mere sketches of persons. Only Moses is fully a character

After the Pentateuch, with Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, the narrative resumes its proliferation of personages — only to narrow its focus again with David. We stay with David for a very long time before the story pulls back out to describe the wide range of kings and prophets who follow him.  

So in the Hebrew Bible we see this regular alternation of (a) sweeping narrative that emphasizes ongoing familial or cultural patterns and (b) intensely focused stories that trace the development of individual lives. Sweep is the default, but you never know when the story will zoom in for an extended close-up. 

One way to think about this: Certain patterns of behavior — most of them involving waxing and waning devotion to YHWH and obedience to His commandments — characterize the children of Israel; but some people seem to embody these patterns in powerful, profoundly exemplary ways. You could say that someone like David is, to adapt a concept from the anthropologist Mary Douglas, a human condensed symbol. (Cf. p. 10: “For Christian examples of condensed symbols, consider the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and the Chrisms. They condense an immensely wide range of reference summarized in a series of statements loosely articulated to one another.”) The complicated and inconstant history of Israel is condensed and made visible and comprehensible in a handful of key figures. This is how Abraham functions in Paul’s letters: a condensed symbol of faith in action. 

And I wonder if a character can only serve as this kind of symbol if he or she is complex, with hidden depths. Here I am thinking of Erich Auerbach’s famous contrast between the Homeric poems and the Hebrew Bible. The “basic impulse of the Homeric style” is

to represent phenomena in a fully extemalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations. Nor do psychological processes receive any other treatment: here too nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed. With the utmost fullness, with an orderliness which even passion does not disturb, Homer’s personages vent their inmost hearts in speech; what they do not say to others, they speak in their own minds, so that the reader is informed of it. 

By contrast, the narration of Genesis features 

the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background.” 

Perhaps only the character “fraught with background” can become a condensed symbol.