4 Stories the Bible Recycles and Why

recycleAmong the benefits of reading complete biblical texts (as opposed to small “devotional” snippets) are the view we get of the grand narrative of ancient Jewish literature and an increased awareness of some remarkable literary features. These features might seem strange and even problematic to readers accustomed to reading isolated verses out-of-context, usually in service of some external interpretive system designed to highlight consistency and doctrinal continuity. Suddenly we’re aware when bible authors seem to disagree or contradict one another, when two versions of the same story feature wildly divergent details and – our focus for today – when the story we’re reading seems oddly familiar.

The authors of ancient semitic texts (and thus of the bible) did not share our modern literary concerns about authorship, factuality, and originality. It’s not that they had a bad ethic or didn’t care about truth, they simply had different expectations for how literature was constructed and how it should deliver truth to its readers and hearers. It was commonplace for characters, names, plots, events, and even supernatural elements to be shuffled around and recycled from one story to the next. Sometimes we discover these copied & pasted elements and feel like we’ve stumbled upon one of the bible’s dirty secrets, but in reality we’re just inching closer to understanding how we should have been reading this material all along.

Here are four major examples of bible stories that are recycled, some of them multiple times, and some suggestions as to why.

1. Creation  

This isn’t so much a “story” as a set of themes and images that are recycled endlessly through both the Hebrew and Greek collections. There are many explicit appeals to creation, from the Torah law right on through to Paul’s letters, but I want to highlight just a few of the more subtle ways that bible authors build their storytelling on top of the creation song.

While we tend to focus on the seven day schedule of creation in Genesis Chapter 1, there is another numeric feature that is recycled throughout Hebrew literature: the “ten words” spoken by elohim throughout the song. God speaks ten times and cosmic chaos is brought to order, life emerges where there was none. Two well-known passages in Exodus recycle the tenfold creation motif, one in a positive way, one quite negative.

First is the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments of Exodus Chapter 20, which actually won’t be referred to as “commandments” until much later in Israel’s history. Here they are the “ten words,” spoken by God in the chaos of Israel’s sojourn in the desert. The words bring order and new life for a people lost in darkness. Elsewhere, in Exodus 7-12, the infamous ten plagues of Egypt take the rhythm and elements of creation and turn them inside out. Once again God speaks ten times, but these words threaten Egypt with “uncreation” unless they release the captive Israelites. Note the imagery of the plagues: darkness, creeping things, beasts of the land, etc., and the fact that most of them occur “in the morning.” There’s much more going on there, not least a series of specific rebukes to the culture and religion of Egypt, but the media are all borrowed from Israel’s creation song.

The New Testament also overflows with creation imagery, most notably in The Gospel of John. There the author opens with “In the beginning,” and claims that the very logos or wisdom of God which orchestrated creation has now been embodied by the prophet Jesus. The book is then organized around seven “signs” which reveal Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, and the whole thing culminates in a “Holy Week” of days which correspond in subtle ways to the days of Genesis 1. For example, on the sixth day, when God created humans, Jesus is presented to the people of Israel by Pilate who declares “here is the man!” Jesus dies, announcing that his work is “finished” and he “rests” in his tomb on the seventh day of the week, only to be resurrected to new life on the eighth day, the first day of a new week, the first day of a new creation. Cherry on top: Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus but mistakes him for a “gardener.”

2. Abram and Sarai

This one must take the prize for the most repeated plot device in the entire bible, and yet it’s seldom mentioned or called into question. When God tells a wandering Hebrew named Abram that he wants him to settle down and start the most important family in history, Abram is shocked because he and his wife Sarai are very old and have never been able to conceive. After much intrigue, God rebrands the couple as Abraham and Sarah and “opens” Sarah’s womb so she can bear a son, Isaac. It’s an amazing and spectacular statement about God’s sovereignty over the lives and fates of his chosen people, a statement that the bible makes again and again.

Throughout the remainder of the “patriarch” stories of Genesis 12-50, every generation begins with a barren womb being “opened” so the next key figure in Israel’s pre-history can be born. The “miraculous birth” trope carries on through Israel’s national history, as in 1 Samuel 1 where God blesses an aging couple named Elkanah and Hannah with the gift of a son, the prophet Samuel. The familiar old device finds its way into the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the story of Abram and Sarah via Elkanah and Hannah is retold yet again through Zechariah and Elizabeth (parents of John the Baptist). And, of course, it finds a unique and ultimate expression in the story of Mary, who is not a barren old woman but a young virgin, and whose conception is the most miraculous of all. God’s sovereignty over this life and this fate is special and absolute.

3. Sodom and Gomorrah

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19 is a notorious and disturbing bible story that moderns tend to read as a cautionary tale about sexuality and retribution, but which ancient readers likely understood as a tale of inhospitality and justice. Any way you slice it, the story is outrageous: the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – men, women, and children – are so wicked and violent that visiting strangers are greeted by a bloodthirsty rape-mob. According to the text, the wickedness of these towns is so complete, so foul, that the cries of their victims rise up to heaven, whereupon God in his mercy (by the text’s logic) destroys the towns with fire and brimstone. From then on, Sodom and Gomorrah become the byword for communities that have become so corrupt that the world is better off without them.

How shocking, then, to read the book of shofetim (Judges). Judges is a pro-monarchy screed which details the chaos and violence in the land of Israel before there was a king. Tale after tale finds God’s special family spiraling deeper and further into apostasy and terror, and each story is more disgusting than the last. By the end of the book we don’t think it can get any worse, and that’s when we come to Judges 19 and the story of a Levite man (a would-be priest) and his concubine who are attacked at a town called Gibeah, in an obvious retelling of Genesis 19. So many details are lifted directly from the Sodom/Gomorrah account that there is no question of what the author is daring to suggest: that Israel has become as bad or worse than the worst people on record. If Judges was meant to embarrass Israel into crowning a king, it worked. And under the leadership of kings like David and Solomon, Israel became less like Sodom and Gomorrah (yay!) and a lot more like Egypt (boo! see 2 Samuel 12 and 1 Kings 4).

4. Exodus

As I’ve observed elsewhere, the story of Exodus – the spectacular escape of Hebrew captives from Egyptian slavery – was THE defining story of Israel and the template for how they thought about God and neighbor throughout their history as recorded and interpreted in the bible. Every prophet, every sage, and every king made appeals to Exodus, to the identity-forging “salvation” that God had provided in the past, and that he was capable of doing again. And in the cauldron of exile in Babylon and Persia, these hopes galvanized into expectation of a New Exodus, when God would rescue his people once again and “restore the fortunes” of Jerusalem.

The New Testament is overflowing with New Exodus themes and language, and I’ll highlight just two major but easy-to-miss examples. First is Matthew 1-5, in which the gospel’s author present the early life of the prophet Jesus according to a familiar itinerary: Baby Jesus, like Baby Moses, must be whisked away to safety before a wicked king can kill him. He finds safety in Egypt, but when his father (named Joseph) has a dream, the family must return to the land of Israel. Like the Israelites before him, Jesus passes through the Jordan River when he is baptized by John, after which he wanders in the wilderness where he is tempted to grumble and “put the LORD God to the test.” Finally, if we didn’t already see what’s happening, Jesus climbs up on a mountain and starts talking about the Torah Law. The message is clear: Jesus is both a new Israel and a new Moses. He will represent his people and show them the way to rescue. The New Exodus has arrived.

The letter of Paul to the Romans has become something like a textbook of Christian doctrine, so it’s easy to lose sight of how deeply Jewish the apostle’s thinking is. Romans is so often boiled down to a handful of out-of-context soundbites about sin and law that it can be a shock to read the whole thing on its own terms. At the heart of Paul’s letter, a message of hope to confused Jewish and Gentile Christians trying to live together as followers of Jesus, is an appeal to the Hebrew scriptures, particularly to the themes of New Creation and New Exodus. Former Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright makes an intriguing and compelling case that Paul’s letter actually follows an Exodus schedule not unlike that found in Matthew. Paying attention to this kind of thematic undercurrent is deeply valuable for the way it unifies the material and puts it in proper context. Instead of a detached theological instruction book about how to “get saved,” Romans becomes a story. Actually, it’s a new retelling of an old story, and an invitation to enter into it. To experience the New Exodus.