Pronouns Are Important in the Bible

James Coakley
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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.”

Uses of Pronouns

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 One example is Ruth 2:20, when Naomi exclaims to Ruth: “May he be blessed of the Lord who has not withdrawn his kindness to the living and to the dead” (NASB).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.

Sometimes biblical authors use pronouns instead of proper nouns to add a hint of secrecy to dramatic scenes.

Uses of Proper Nouns

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).

For Further Reading:

14 Fresh Ways to Enjoy the Bible

by James Coakley

The Bible is God’s masterpiece and gift to you—claim it for all that it’s worth. The Bible is the most read book in all the world....

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