Biblical First Impressions


A popular maxim goes like this: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” First impressions are often etched into the mind and hard to overcome with later interactions. The whole field of marketing seeks to create positive first impressions of their product, candidate, or service. Whenever someone encounters a new person, quick appraisals are formulated based on that individual’s behavior, appearance, and speech, which creates an indelible impression.

So it is with biblical authors.

They give readers a literary snapshot, a first impression, that sets the tone for the rest of that character’s life.

Now to be sure, some initial impressions may not be accurate, such as when the prophet Samuel was to anoint the next king of Israel, saw Eliab and thought him fitting to be the next king. But Eliab’s heart was not right for the task (1 Sam. 16:6–7). Saul was described as handsome and tall (1 Sam. 9:2), and since those are his only traits listed in the text, it appears that the people thought that his stature and looks would make him an ideal candidate to be king of Israel. That certainly did not turn out to be the case.

These examples from 1 Samuel—which show that initial impressions may not be accurate—are intentionally included in the book to highlight one of its themes: that outward appearances can be deceiving. The author of 1 Samuel is utilizing the “First Impressions” technique to make a practical application point—we, too, should not rely on outward appearances as a gauge to determine someone’s spiritual vitality and character.

With that in mind, it is reasonable to assume that those initial actions, words, and physical descriptors are, more often than not, truly reflective of that individual and their overall character. Authors cannot share everything about an individual, but they can be intentional and selective about what they do share in order to create an accurate portrait of a character’s persona in the text.

The way that authors portray individuals is part of what is called “characterization.” Authors can use direct methods of portraying a character by stating it plainly, such as when John calls Judas a “thief” ( John 12:5–6). Another way that authors help readers develop a better sense of what a character is like is through what is called “indirect characterization,” which is when they use roundabout ways of developing a person’s character by letting readers externally “see” their early actions or “hear” the first words that come out of their mouth. This subtly reveals internal motivations or character traits.

Of course, the first words uttered from a character in Scripture are not their actual first words but the first words we as readers encounter in the text. It often turns out that the information gleaned from this up-front content sets the tone for how this character is going to act in the rest of the narrative.

Steps to Take

Look closely at when major characters (and even some minor characters) are introduced in the Bible and identify their first words, first actions, and (if present) any physical descriptors shared about that person. Then reflect on how those preliminary findings help the reader capture an accurate portrait of that person’s character (both positively and negatively), which will be evident the rest of the time they appear in Scripture. These early details often form an accurate first impression that is helpful for the reader.

Adapted from 14 Fresh Ways to Enjoy the Bible by James F. Coakley (© 2023). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

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