Most of the time when we are reading the Bible, we read about what happened to biblical characters e.g., David killing Goliath, Jesus feeding the 5000. In some places we even learn about what will happen in the future, as in the book of Revelation. But what about what didn’t happen? You may ask, “Well if it didn’t happen, how can we read about it?” It happens a lot more than you might think!
Most stories are about what happened, which is why we often feel as though stories are made up of events. But there are also non-events, generally in the form of negated statements. Consider the statement from Gen 2:4-7 about what hadn’t happened (yet):
Genesis 2:4–7 (LEB) These are the generations of heaven and earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh God made earth and heaven—5 before any plant of the field was on earth, and before any plant of the field had sprung up, because Yahweh God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no human being to cultivate the ground, 6 but a stream would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground—7 when Yahweh God formed the man of dust from the ground, and he blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Why tell us about non-events? Well, in this case these statements let us know what wasn’t happening at that point, but it also creates the expectation that they would happen at some point. In other words, they build anticipation for what follows.
We find a similar effect brought about in Psalm 40 by learning about what God doesn’t want:
Psalm 40:6–8 (LEB) A sacrifice and offering you do not desire. My ears you have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not demanded. 7 Then I said, “Look, I come. In the scroll of the book it is written concerning me: 8 ‘I delight to do your will, O my God, and your law is deep within me.’ ”
This isn’t so much a non-event as it is a non-desire. Learning what God doesn’t want raises the question of what he does want. We do the same kind of thing today, like my mom telling me “Don’t just sit there…” to draw my attention to what came next, usually a retelling of something she’d politely asked me to do but I had ignored! (Yes, I was a difficult child.) Here again we see the negated statements creating expectation for what follows.
Other effects can be achieved by including non-events. Consider the negated statements from Joshua 9 where the Israel cuts a covenant with the Gibeonites against God’s command:
Joshua 9:9–18 (LEB)And they said to him, “Your servants have come from a very far land because of the name of Yahweh your God; we have heard of his reputation, of all that he did in Egypt, 10 and of all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan—to Sihon king of Heshbon and to Og king of Bashan, who was in Ashtaroth. 11 So our elders said to us and all the inhabitants of our land, ‘Take in your hand provisions for the journey, and go to meet them, and say to them, “We are your servants; so then make a covenant with us.” ’ 12 This is our bread; it was hot when we took it from our houses as provisions on the day we set out to come to you. But now, look, it is dry and crumbled. 13 These are the wineskins that we filled new, but look, they have burst; and these are our clothes and sandals that have worn out from the very long journey.” 14 So the leaders took from their provisions, but they did not ask direction from Yahweh. 15 And Joshua made peace with them, and he made a covenant with them to allow them to live happily, and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them. 16 And it happened that at the end of three days, after they made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and living among them. 17 And the Israelites set out and went to their cities on the third day (their cities were Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath Jearim). 18 But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by Yahweh the God of Israel. And all the congregation murmured against their leaders.
The two non-events provide important perspective. The first raises the question of what would have happened if Israel had inquired of the Lord. The implication is they’d not have fallen for the ruse. Even if they had delayed three days they’d likely not have fallen for it. The second statement focuses on the consequences of the decision. Instead of removing the Gibeonites from the land as commanded, they were among the foreigners who remained.
There was a masterful paper presented at the 2006 SBL meeting by Fred Putnam that drew my attention to the importance of what didn’t happen. I’d recommend reading it to learn more, but if nothing else be sure to pay close attention to what didn’t happen in the Bible!