Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Scriptural repetition -- An introduction

In this paper, Alan Goff makes a good case for intentional repetition in ancient Hebrew scripture (including the Book of Mormon whose writers have Hebrew heritage). The modern notion among historicist biblical scholars is that many repetitive elements in the Old Testament are clumsy, narrative failures and often evidence of various origins and textual development over time. However, recent pushback against these ideas, including Goff's article, present ancient writers who used repetition deliberately as a literary style, not a defect. The article starts out by giving many examples

Hagar is twice expelled from Abraham’s household (Genesis 16:4–14; 21:9–19), thrice a patriarch endangers his wife in a foreign country by passing her off as his sister (Genesis 12:10–19; 20:1–16; 26:6–11), and multiple times a patriarch or prophet travels to a foreign country to meet a nubile girl at a well to secure a wife (Genesis 24:10–60; 29:1–16; Exodus 2:15–21). Pharaoh slaughters the infants as does Herod the Great (Exodus 1:15– 22; Matthew 2:16–18), and a prophetic figure — whether Moses or Jesus [Page 264]— miraculously provides food in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4–16; Matthew 15:32–38). I could cite many more examples of repeated biblical stories: conflicts as the younger brother supersedes the older (Joseph and his brothers, Genesis 37, 42–45; Esau and Jacob, Genesis 27; Laman and Lemuel against Nephi, 1 Nephi 3:28–31 and elsewhere), threats against out- of-towners appealing for hospitality (Genesis 19; Judges 19); twice Nephites send their attractive young women out to charm marauding Lamanites so the vulnerable group isn’t killed (Mosiah 19:12–15; Mosiah 23:33–34). Such doublets, as they are frequently called, are fundamental to the working of Hebraic narrative: two creation stories, two instances of animals boarding the ark (seven of each kind once and two of each animal the second time), two narratives of water provided in the wilderness during the exodus. To the modern mind these examples are historical problems in the text — duplications, narrative inconsistencies, failures, plagiarisms; biblical critics have in the past few decades rehabilitated these recurrences, noting their sophistication, revealing modern incapacities in scorning them. Sternberg notes of biblical repetitions that “the dismissal of its redundancies in terms of ‘noise’ is the reader’s last resort rather than first resort” and more likely the result of readerly failure than writerly shortcoming.

These ancient writers held a worldview where time ran in cycles and God's dealings with his children followed established recurring patternsThe ancient rabbis highlighted the repeating elements in biblical narrative, noting that “what happens to the fathers, happens to the sons.”

This worldview is clearly held by Nephi

...as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round. (1 Nephi 10:19)

Therefore, we should not be surprised to find recurring events and patterns in the Book of Mormon just as we see in the Old Testament. This is something we have touched upon on this blog before, without necessarily fitting it into the framework that this paper provides. I want to highlight some of the recurring patterns or repetition previously discussed as well as demonstrate some new examples of this. The paper I linked to is quite long, so I will just highlight some of the important paragraphs here for convenience. The paper quotes Robert Alter saying

There are many kinds of ambiguity and contradiction, and abundant varieties of repetition, that are entirely purposeful and that are essential features of the distinctive vehicle of literary experience.

Goff himself notes

The biblical composers and editors used duplicate narrative devices to shape their narratives and provide meaning. Those approaches were built into the text from the beginnings and became a dominant feature of the collection of documents that became the Bible. The textual history is firmly marked by the feature.

He also argues that "to call repetitions “merely” metaphorical is to misunderstand both scripture and metaphor" and goes on to explain the concept of metaphors or types in scripture.

Old Testament priests “who serve unto the example [upodeigmati] and shadow [skia] of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern [typon] shewed to thee in the mount.” The Latin figura is the word most commonly used to translate the Greek typos. The secondary pattern matches the original. For the believer in the scripture and its ontology “a scriptural figure, in Christian theology, is not a literary metaphor that brings to the intellect some deeper meaning when attached to another image. A figure is a form that God actually makes historical experience fit, like some providential mold.” This scriptural view of time and history should never be condescended to by the modern reader who sees time in a fundamentally different, linear way. The type establishes a model that later events are going to repeat, which gives us recurrence in time and history; the analogous relationship may or may not be perceived by the reader of any given epoch, but the pattern is nevertheless manifest in the divine creative act. The modern reader needs to grasp and concede the sophistication of this view even if modern temporal notions obstruct adhering to it... Modern condescension toward ancient worldviews is too often framed after only a cursory (if that) examination of antiquity. If that modern condescension of the Bible’s textual assumptions slips over to the Book of Mormon, one can hardly be surprised if either book is read in a superficial way.

He also explains the concept of metalepsis

a mere reference to another text that reverberates with much stronger connection to the earlier text’s context by referring to only one small part but obliquely invoking the entire previous story...just by using a key word or citing a phrase, the later writer can evoke the larger context and storyline of the earlier text.

Learning about this, many Book of Mormon examples of metalepsis immediately comes to mind. This can come in many forms

The analogous element can be embedded in plot, character, word sound, word meaning, or theme. The repetitive component just needs to remind the reader of the earlier type.

There are many examples given in the paper. In addition to the ones given in the opening quote, the paper brings up several other examples that are discussed at various length.

Jonah and Exodus

In Jonah 4:2 we read
for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and mercifulslow to anger, and of great kindness

This is likely an allusion to Exodus 34:6-7

And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and graciouslongsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,
Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin

This is more obvious in the original Hebrew where e.g. "slow to anger" in Jonah and "longsuffering" in Exodus are the same word. This example is part of a discussion in the paper about the nature of relationships between two texts. In general, it is much easier to show that a relationship exists than to prove which one came first, especially in the Old Testament when sometimes little is known about original authorship. But some cases are easier than others. This example has all the specificity on the side of Exodus being the predecessor text. According to Goff

By citing just one detail from God’s previous mercy, grace, and longsuffering in the foundational event of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and receipt of the law of Moses, the Jonah passage evokes God’s previous works of salvation for Israel, extending mercy for thousands and forgiving Israel’s sins. God granted Israel mercy, grace, and longsuffering by sending Moses down the mountain with the tablets of the law after 40 days to find the children of Israel engaging in idolatry at the base of the mountain. The irony is that God is willing to extend the same mercy, grace, and longsuffering to the people of Nineveh that Jonah wants reserved only for Israel with the Israelite ancestors knowingly idolatrous while the Ninevites don’t know their moral right hands from their left (Jonah 4:11). The reader needs to know the larger story of granting the law of Moses to see what the book of Jonah is doing in the allusion, whereas one doesn’t have to know the book of Jonah to get the message from Exodus 34.

Alma's and Lehi's visions

In Alma 36:22, Alma sees a vision very similar to Lehi's vision. He explicitly refers to it and the verse contains a verbatim quote of 1 Nephi 1:8. Goff uses this example to challenge Brent Metcalfe's assertion that Joseph Smith is the author of the Book of Mormon and that the order of composition (Mosiah-Moroni -> 1 Nephi-WoM) points to the "real" author. This Alma-Lehi example is but one example to challenge that idea. It establishes the original and the reference even more clearly than the previous Jonah-Exodus example. Alma refers to Lehi by name, Lehi never mentions Alma. If Lehi's writings came first, Joseph Smith was not the author (unless you can make a good case for Joseph Smith hiding a manuscript in his hat and secretly reading from it, which you can't).

Helaman 6

There are some verses in these chapters that exemplify metaleptic allusion to evoke the larger context and storyline of earlier texts. 

25 Now behold, it is these secret oaths and covenants which Alma commanded his son should not go forth unto the world, lest they should be a means of bringing down the people unto destruction.

26 Now behold, those secret oaths and covenants did not come forth unto Gadianton from the records which were delivered unto Helaman; but behold, they were put into the heart of Gadianton by that same being who did entice our first parents to partake of the forbidden fruit

27 Yea, that same being who did plot with Cain, that if he would murder his brother Abel it should not be known unto the world. And he did plot with Cain and his followers from that time forth.

28 And also it is that same being who put it into the hearts of the people to build a tower sufficiently high that they might get to heaven. And it was that same being who led on the people who came from that tower into this land; who spread the works of darkness and abominations over all the face of the land, until he dragged the people down to an entire destruction, and to an everlasting hell.

Helaman 6:25 refers to Alma 37 which in turn refers to Jaredite secret oaths in the Book of Ether. Verses 26-27 refer to Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel in the early chapters of Genesis and verse 28 refers to the Tower of Babel and the Jaredite exodus. It is clear from all these examples that they refer to past events. Again, this challenges the idea that Joseph Smith is the author because at this point in the dictation, the Book of Ether did not yet exist. Turning the logical order around and considering Ether a reference to an original text in Helaman 6 is like saying that the Garden of Eden story in Genesis is referring to Helaman.

Isaiah 40:3-4

This is a well-known verse
The voice of him that crieth in the wildernessPrepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain

Goff uses this example to demonstrate that "the very notion of repetitions runs against the historicist assertion that a text means only what the original author intended. Repetitions by nature imply the existence of multiple meanings and symphonic reverberations within a single text, even when read in different historical contexts.

The historical setting for Isaiah 40 is clearly the preparation for a latter-day gathering of Israel. In 1 Nephi 10:3, Lehi talks about this context without referring to Isaiah 40 or its language. But only a few verses later, he ties this into a message about the coming of the Messiah and uses the Isaiah language.

even six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews — even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world … And he spake also concerning a prophet who should come before the Messiah, to prepare the way of the Lord — Yea, even he should go forth and cry in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; for there standeth one among you whom ye know not; and he is mightier than I, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. And much spake my father concerning this thing (1 Nephi 10:5,7-8)

We see something similar done in Matthew 3:3. In fact, many New Testament quotations of the Old Testament represent what modern historicist bible scholars would consider misinterpretations. But Nephi goes out of his way to recommend Isaiah more generally (2 Nephi 25:1-6). In Alma we see further examples of this passage applied differently. This language is used both in an uplifting message to the righteous people in Gideon in Alma 7 and the wicked people in Ammonihah in Alma 9.

But behold, the Spirit hath said this much unto me, saying: Cry unto this people, saying—Repent ye, and prepare the way of the Lord, and walk in his paths, which are straight; for behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and the Son of God cometh upon the face of the earth. (Alma 7:9)

Therefore, prepare ye the way of the Lord, for the time is at hand that all men shall reap a reward of their works, according to that which they have been—if they have been righteous they shall reap the salvation of their souls, according to the power and deliverance of Jesus Christ; and if they have been evil they shall reap the damnation of their souls, according to the power and captivation of the devil. (Alma 9:28) 

A conclusive note

There are even more examples brought up and discussed in Goff's paper but I will let this suffice for now. I want to spend future posts on identifying other examples from the Book of Mormon. There are plenty of them. Before going into that, I will share some general thoughts. 

One observation is the uniqueness of this scriptural feature. Perhaps others would disagree, but when reading novels or other literature, you would normally encounter events along a timeline without much repetition. Initial events establishing a blueprint for later events to follow is just not something we expect to find in literature other than the scriptures. 

Another point I would make relates to the good old debate about Book of Mormon origin. When we see similar patterns and literary devices in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon, I see that as yet another affirmation that the authors held similar worldviews and followed similar scribal traditions. If Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon as some people claim, similar patterns in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon require entirely different explanations. I don't want to be accused of creating a straw-man argument, so I concede that the most likely explanations by critics would be that Joseph Smith simply mimicked features of the Bible that he was familiar with. Still, I think that identifying and mimicking ancient literary styles is a lot to expect from a young farmhand.

When viewed as intentional characteristics of the word of God, scriptural repetitions become gateways to additional learning and insight. In his book "Beholding the tree of life", Bradley J. Kramer suggests that we have something to learn from the rabbis who arguably spend more time with their text than the average Latter-Day Saint Book of Mormon reader. They pay particular attention when there is repetition and seeming redundancies. They believe that the learning lies in the differences between similar texts as well as in the similarities between different texts. That is, repetitions are rarely verbatim and if they are, the contexts are not identical. Once the allusion has been established, the learning points lies in the differences between the reference and the referred text.

I will spend the next posts presenting further examples from the Book of Mormon.

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