Bible characters are flawed humans, just like everyone else. Studying them can offer glimpses into struggles faced by real people, the slow and tangled process of spiritual development, and God’s grace and action in the real world.
Bible character studies involve the basic steps of identifying characters to study, finding relevant passages, posing a series of questions about their lives, and meditating on what you discover. Here’s how to proceed along with a simple example:
The Basic Steps of Doing a Bible Character Study
For your first study, find a character who appears in a single book or a few passages.
Locate and and read the references to this person or type of person. Use an online lookup tool or a concordance to find these references or simply look for references as you read the Bible.
Ask these questions:
- When is this character introduced? What is the historical background?
- What do I know about this person in terms of his or her relationship with God, family members, and the community? What is this person’s profession? What else do I know about this person?
- What happens to this person? What actions does this person take? Does he or she initiate action, respond to circumstances, or both?
- What dilemmas does he or she face? What hard choices does he or she make?
- What gifts did God give this person? Where did God place this person? What seems to be his or her purpose?
- Do I identify with the character? Why or why not? How am I alike or different from the character? Does this change as the story progresses or as I learn more about this person?
- When thinking about this person and his or her life, what do I find intriguing, scary, and/or comforting?
- How does God act on his or her behalf?
- What I have learned that I can apply to my life?
As you pose the questions, write down your responses. Take your time in answering the questions. Meditate on the passages to allow God to speak to you through your study. Identify ways to apply what you learn to your daily life.
Example of a Bible Character Study
Here’s a study of the widow who Jesus notices as she makes an offering.
When is this character introduced? What is the historical background?
The story is found in Mark 12:41-42 and Luke 21:1-3. Jesus notices a widow placing her offering in boxes outside of the temple. He commends her because he knows that she’s poor yet gives all that she has whereas others give out of their wealth and don’t experience hardships due to giving.
Immediately before both mentions of the widow, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees on their poor treatment of widows. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are instructed to care for the widow and orphans.
What do I know about this person in terms of his or her relationship with God, family members, and the community? What is this person’s profession? What else do I know about this person?
The widow is visiting the temple so she is likely to be Jewish. Jesus notes that she is poor though it’s unclear why he knows this: he might know her personally; he might notice that she is not dressed well; he might presume she’s a widow because she is coming to worship alone; he may sense that she’s a poor widow because all widows in this era are poor; he has supernatural understanding as both God and human.
What happens to this person? What actions does this person take? Does he or she initiate action, respond to circumstances, or both?
The widow gives all she has to the temple treasury despite having little to give.
What dilemmas does he or she face? What hard choices does he or she make?
This woman must choose between giving to honor God and holding what little she has to care for herself. She makes the hard choice to give. The amount is small but the sacrifice is large.
What gifts did God give this person? Where did God place this person? What seems to be his or her purpose?
This woman exercises the gifts of faith and giving. She demonstrates great faith that God will take care of her despite her poverty. There seem to be many purposes: Jesus wants us to know that gift amounts aren’t important, it’s the act of giving and sacrifice that God cares about. He reminds us that there are widows around us that we might not notice because they lack status but we should notice and care for them. He wants us to understand that giving to the point of sacrifice requires faith in God’s provision.
Do I identify with the character? Why or why not? How am I alike or different from the character? Does this change as the story progresses or as I learn more about this person?
I don’t identify with this character as I’m not a widow and I am fortunate to be able to give and still feed myself. Also, I can be miserly though I have been working at becoming more generous.
When thinking about this person and his or her life, what do I find intriguing, scary, and/or comforting?
I find it comforting (and scary) that Jesus notices what we do. I like the idea that Jesus confers status on this woman (she is presented as an example of what to do while the teachers of the law are an example of what not to do). Jesus paints a picture of heaven in which those who trust more and act on this trust are honored for their faith.
How does God act on his or her behalf?
God instructs his people to care for widows and orphans. Through Moses, he tells his people (as recorded in Exodus 22:22-24 (New International Version):
Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”
In Jesus’s time, the religious leaders were ignoring this instruction, exploiting widows for financial gain. In regard to the “teachers of the law,” he says (as recorded in Mark 12:38-40, New International Version):
They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Immediately following this statement is the story of the widow who gives all that she has to the temple treasury. Jesus notices the widow and encourages the disciples to do the same.
When the early Christian church is formed, the community makes specific provisions to care for widows.
What I have learned that I can apply to my life?
I’ve learned to take God’s commands and prompts seriously, just as the widow in my character study does. This widow trusts God completely, giving all she has in an act of worship.
Jesus’s observations prompt me to notice people whom I may otherwise overlook, such as orphans, widows, and even people in my family or circle of friends who need help. I should take care of them as I am able, if they are unable to take care of themselves. The woman’s faithfulness should be matched by giving of others in her community so that she can give freely — without worrying about her next meal.
Further, a way of caring for people is to treat them fairly in the community, including the marketplace. More specifically, I’m reminded to: 1) be honorable and honest in my business dealings; 2) stay away from investing in or supporting businesses that are exploitative; and 3) advocate for fair treatment of widows and others marginalized in society.
What character do you plan to study next?