In the book, "The Art of Biblical Narrative", which I gather is a fairly common and well-regarded book, Robert Alter makes an interesting observation that we rarely see epithets used in the Old Testament. Namely, he points out that we typically see "Jacob" and not "wily Jacob" and "Moses" as opposed to "sagacious Moses" -- contrasting with what we might find in Greek texts, such as the Homeric epics. Aside from the obvious inference that Greeks and Jews are two different peoples and two different cultures, Alter also asserts that the absence of epithets allows for a greater potential for intra-character change. This allows for story arcs over the life time of a character to unfold in a way that amplifies man's precariousness in the world, the importance of heeding the Lord's message and striving not to sin.

I don't dispute that. However, it seems that there are cases when this general rule seems to not fit. It would seem that Balaam is a good example here. He has many epithets: "open-eyed", "eyes-unveiled", etc. In fact, it could be argued, it is because of these epithets that makes his ultimate failure so poignant. A cherry-picked example, perhaps, but it still shows that epithets can conform to and effectively complement the biblical narrative.


Given that there are a handful of cases where epithets are used, rather successfully, to accentuate the biblical narrative, why weren't they used more? Thus taking the form of the epithetless-approach highlighted by Alter?
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    I suggest that you are just noticing the difference between human-centred culture (ancient Greek and our own) and God-centred culture. The Bible narrators are not interested in character except "Is he obedient to God or not", so our own obsession with character has to be satisfied with what we can glean from people's behaviour. Commented Feb 6 at 13:53
  • while an interesting question, isn't this opinion based? We can't ask the authors. Are you asking why theologians/Christians don't use epithets?
    – depperm
    Commented Feb 6 at 14:04
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    Because epithets in Greek literature are largely used to support metrical requirements, which are lacking or different in Hebrew texts?
    – eques
    Commented Feb 6 at 15:12
  • This teaches us that epithets are matters of opinion, often prompted by self-righteous disregard for others and we should not pepper our speech with them. We should follow the example of scripture and use them very, very sparingly.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 6 at 19:59

1 Answer 1


I do not find an answer to this question in the literature but I would suggest two factors:

  • Epithets are built-in to many biblical names. Abraham is "Father Abraham." Sarah is "Princess Sarah." Jacob is "heel-grasper" Jacob. Esau is "hairy" Esau. Israel is "victorious Israel," etc.

  • While epithets are uncommon for humans, they are common for God. This may mean that they were more or less reserved for Him.

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