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The Function of Meshalim in Re-telling the Story of the Bible

By Walid Zailaa

A few weeks ago I, with some of my colleagues at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), visited some churches and seminaries in Sudan.  The strategy of periodically visiting our students in their contexts has been eye-opening for me. I have realized that most communities not only in Sudan but also in the majority of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are oral societies. The term “oral society” is by definition a society that has not developed widespread literacy. The same term might also carry the meaning of a literate society whose primary learning capacity is through oral means. For most of this part of the world, lack of education due to wars, poverty, political instability, and economic collapse is creating a new generation of illiterate societies. According to the latest studies of the International Orality Network (ION), 80% of the world’s population are oral communicators – that is approximately 5.7 billion people!  The ION uses the term “oral communicator” and defines these communities as “people from all over the globe, from all walks of life and all levels of education who communicate primarily or exclusively through oral, not textual means. Their lives are therefore more likely to be transformed through stories, songs, drama, proverbs and media.”[1] Regardless of the various reasons – ranging from hardships (wars and poverty) to technological advancement (social media) – oral communicators are the majority. Understanding the contexts of those we are serving is key to serving them efficiently and equipping them to serve the local church in a much more meaningful manner. Both seminary and church need to speak a similar language when it comes to teaching theology or preaching the Gospel.

Furthermore, the biblical narrative itself portrays the relationship of the self-revealing God with His creation in the form of a story. This is true in many parts of scripture: both Old Testament prophets and Jesus used stories to communicate a divine message in their mainly illiterate societies. Advancements in biblical studies have affected our understanding of the word “parable”, which is the word used to translate משל mashal, meaning “similarity” or “comparison.”  Hebrew Bible scholars until the past few decades used to define “parable” as a genre of short story. Scholars such as Uriel Simon would straightforwardly refer to the story of Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 and/or Isaiah’s song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 as typical examples of the “parable” genre.[2] Others, like George W. Coats, argued against the idea of having all parables grouped as one genre, such as when Coats particularly questioned the notion of bringing together 2 Samuel 12 and Isaiah 5 under the same genre.[3] Recently, scholars have argued that a משל mashal, “parable,” should not be defined as a certain designated genre of narrative, because the same word משל mashal, “parable” can have the characteristics of a song, saying, or proverb, depending on its context. Therefore, they speak of meshalim in their numerous forms, such as “proverbial meshalim,” “song meshalim,” “short story meshalim,” and so forth. However, in recent biblical studies, “parable” is used to describe one function of a short story rather than a genre of short story. Both function and content should be focused upon in any study done on meshalim.

All the different forms of meshalim, whether song, proverb or short story, evoke some type of comparison. Some meshalim contain internal comparisons using Hebrew כ ‘k’ “like” or “just as.” For instance, we read in Genesis 10:9, “Like [ כ] Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD.” Although the writer is explaining the mashal by mentioning Nimrod and his prowess as a hunter as the reason for the mashal that was current in the writer’s time, this proverbial mashal establishes Nimrod as a great hunter and praises a different hunter by evoking a comparison with Nimrod. This type of internal comparison is mainly found in the poetry of the Old Testament, particularly in Proverbs and similar literature. Other meshalim become the basis of a comparison that the speaker creates. That is to say, instead of containing a comparison, the mashal brings about one. For instance, in 1 Samuel 10:12b the people’s question, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” became a mashal in Israel. In order for this question to function as a mashal, one must compare another person’s activities in different circumstances to Saul’s activities among the prophets. Short stories within the prose portion of the Hebrew Bible do not receive the label mashal, although many nonbiblical stories receive this label in later rabbinic writings. Some contemporary scholars suggest that we should understand the whole book of Jonah as mashal, even though it is not labeled as such. Through techniques of repetition, contrast, and juxtaposition of words and motifs, a particular text, like the book of Jonah, or character, like Saul, may invite the reader to draw comparison within or even outside of the biblical texts.

When the prophet Nathan narrated the account of the ewe-lamb (2 Sam 12), he was depicting David’s deep desires, secrets, and sins. The first stage in David’s fall was bad enough; he had taken the wife of his brave soldier, Uriah. He had devised a sophisticated plan to kill him by the sword of the enemies. Fighting for his king, not knowing about the wicked plot, Uriah died, and his wife became David’s wife. Nathan used the parable to pinpoint the consequences of David’s actions, which would give occasion for enemies of Yahweh to blaspheme. The message behind Nathan’s parable directs the guilty person to recognize his violation of the law and to pass judgment on himself. In order for this type of parable to achieve its intended message, it must be as realistic as possible so that it traps the unwary hearer in his own self-condemnation by such a phrase as “You are the man!” or “Your life for his life!” The narrator’s skill manifests itself in his ability to reveal gradually the hidden and most secret parts of the hearers’ lives until they reach a breaking point where they realize that the told story mirrors their own real life story.

The example of Nathan illustrates how story can lead to transformation, and is a great model for theology students, church leaders, and pastors in the MENA region to make use of biblical accounts to help transform their oral communicators as they engage, listen to, and learn from the Bible’s narratives voiced to them in the form of short stories connected together. The power of transformation lies in the ability of connecting the biblical story with the life story of the listeners.

Walid is the Academic Dean of ABTS and the pastor of Faith Baptist Church that meets in Mansourieh, Lebanon.


[1] International Orality Network | Who are Oral Communicators?

[2] Uriel Simon, “The Poor Man’s Ewe-Lamb: An Example of a Juridical Parable,” Biblica 48, no. 2, (1967): 208.

[3] George W. Coats, “Parable, Fable, and Anecdote: Storytelling in the Succession Narrative,” Interpretation, 35, no. 4 (1981): 370.


  1. This was a very informative blog. Thank you Walid.

    How do meshalim, in your opinion, fit in with our understanding of the oral tradition behind the written texts of the NT? Did the writers of the gospels, for example, think of themselves as transcribing in written form oral meshalim?

    Thank you for the thought-provoking blog.

  2. Walid Zailaa says:

    Thank you, Nabil, for the feedback. Hope all is well with you. For this blog, “meshalim” as a concept is being employed to convey the biblical message (narrative) orally in a way that could be understandable to oral communicators, which was used by the prophets in the OT and Jesus in the NT. Of course, the whole approach of this concept could be used in the church and the seminary when preaching and teaching. This is, however, not dealing with the issue of text formation transcribing from oral meshalim. This would require, I believe, another set of evidence and approaches to work with.

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