Month: August 2014

Good Stories Bear Repeating

sluggo-on-repetition1I received an email from a friend a few days ago.  She asked about the duplication and repetition in Scripture, specifically why there were two versions of the Ten Commandments.

I’ve expanded and edited it, but this is basically what I said.

Scripture is full of repetition.  There are four gospels, with a lot of overlap, particularly among the three synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  Chronicles overlaps with major sections of Samuel/Kings.  Isaiah 36-39 seems to be cut and pasted directly from 2 Kings 18-20.  David’s song of thanksgiving of 2 Samuel 22 is found almost verbatim in Psalm 18.  Speaking of psalms, 14 and 53 are literary doppelgangers.  This doesn’t even count the places in the New Testament where the Old Testament is being quoted.  There are two accounts of the Ten Commandments (or as I like to say, The Fourteen Commandments).  There are more examples, but I think I’ve made my point.

Why the repetition?  Some things bear repeating.  In the same way a text will repeat a word to emphasize it (and I highlight it to bring out the repetition), Scripture repeats stories to highlight and emphasize important themes.  Paul’s conversion is retold 3 times in Acts, but each time with slightly different things included.

Good films are worthy of being watched more than once, and with each repetition you discover new things, and your appreciation grows.

I find it curious when a story isn’t repeated, like why do only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) include the story of Jesus’ birth?  And yet in Christian culture, Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year.  Hmm…

Thinking about the Ten Commandments, for the command about the Sabbath (#5) the Exodus version refers to creation (Exo. 20:11), as taking a Sabbath is to remind us of how God rested on the seventh day.  But the Deuteronomy version of the Sabbath command (Deut. 5:15) recalls the deliverance from enslavement in Egypt, because God gave them rest and deliverance from oppression.  They are emphasizing different aspects of God’s story.  Immediately after they came out of Egypt they didn’t need to be reminded of the deliverance, but of the creation.  They just lived the deliverance.  However, forty years later in Deuteronomy as they were about to enter the Promised Land it was appropriate to recall the Exodus, to help the next generation remember.

Since we humans often forget what God has done in the past we need to be reminded, so there is a lot of retelling of the story.  Good stories bear repeating.  Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 retells the Old Testament story with a negative spin (your ancestors were hard-hearted), while the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 retells the OT story with a positive spin (your ancestors were people of great faith).

Why else does Scripture repeat things?

Jerusalem: The Biography

No other city of the world has been at the center of history for four millenia.

Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac there (Gen. 22).

Adoni-bezek lost his thumbs and big toes right before being buried there (Judg. 1:6-7).

David established it as his new capital after becoming king over both Judah and Israel (2 Sam. 5).

Solomon built the temple there (1 Kgs. 5-8) which lasted for four hundred years.

Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 BCE destroyed the city, including Solomon’s temple (2 Kgs. 25).

The saga of Jerusalem continues into the New Testament and beyond.  Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 650 page Jerusalem: The Biography (2011) retells the city’s fascinating story over the course of almost 4000 years.  Readers will learn about the corrupt and incestuous family of the Herods (three of which appear in the NT) and the tragic destruction of the city in 70 CE by Titus.  Montefiore recounts the nations and empires who ruled and fought over Jerusalem: the Byzantines, the Persians, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Crusaders, the Ottomans.

I wish I had read this book before visiting Jerusalem in the spring of 2014, but reading it has helped me remember and process my trip in retrospect.

The style is academic (40 pages of endnotes, 20 pages of bibliography and a 20 page index, all in small font), but the writing is quite readable, filled with stories (Abd al-Malik’s construction of the Dome of the Rock completed in 691 CE) and entertaining details (Jerome, the Latin translator was not particularly pious).

Montefiore’s background is Jewish, but his take on the New Testament is sympathetic, even though he clearly doesn’t write as a Christian. I’d be curious to hear what Muslims think of the book.

I found it particularly interesting in areas that I don’t know much, but wish I did (the Maccabees, the Herodians, early Muslim history). I still haven’t finished the book, but I’m about to arrive at the Crusades (about 1000 CE), where I expect to be enlightened about many things.

I have one major problem–the names get quite confusing, even overwhelming at times, so I have found myself frequently flipping back a few pages (“Who is this guy?”  “When did they take over the city?”). But that may be inevitable for a tale of this magnitude.

I’ll point out a few minor, nit-picky problems (because that’s the sort of guy I am, ask my family).

1) David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1) is not formatted poetically (p. 26), which makes it less understandable and harder to appreciate.  Always format poetry poetically, not like prose.

2) He calls the Jehoiakim the brother, instead of the son of Josiah (p. 46).  OK, this part of Judah’s history is really confusing and 99.9% of his readers are going to miss this one.  I wrote an article on Jehoiakim for the Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary (see also “Other Books“).

3) He misspells Absalom as “Abolsom” (p. 204).  I mean, come on, that’s not even close.

Despite, the name confusion, and the minor flaws, I’d highly recommend it.  If you love Jerusalem, history, and good non-fiction, it’s a great read.

The book was not given to me, I bought it at Costco.