Journey to the Center of Heaven’s Earth, Part 1
Stepping stones on the path to Jesus’ heart teaching.
In speaking to young or new believers, it is important to get this question right: What is the message of Jesus Christ? If this were the first (or last!) time they hear it, what is the one thing they should gather is the main thing?
The main thing might be thought of as the central theme, and finding the central thing compels us to literary analysis (of course, we could just ask Him, but well, the teacher must be bookish). Don’t worry, there will be no English Lit-style reports here — the Bible proves far more interesting. In this article, we will set the table for the next, so think of it as a Cliff Notes version of biblical rhetoric.
Art of writing. Writing of art.
Despite coming to us in Koine Greek, much of the New Testament was written either in Aramaic (a Babylonian language related to Hebrew), or composed in a strongly Hebrew-minded Greek, since nearly all of its authors were Jewish. Of course the entire Old Testament (Moses’ Torah + Tanakh) was written in Hebrew, except most of Ezra and possibly portions of Daniel, which we have in Aramaic form — understandable since the scribe and prophet were in captivity.
Middle Eastern authors frequently employed a beautifully evocative communication style known as parallelism in their poetry, prose and oral storytelling. Because of this, I believe it is absolutely vital to have at least a rough understanding of this great literary feature of the Bible. In fact, I would argue that the biggest hindrance we have in understanding Genesis’ first chapter, Daniel, and certainly the Book of Revelation is our unfamiliarity with parallelisms, something I will try to deal with in future articles.
Your name, YHWH, (NAME)
endures forever, (TIME)
Your renown, YHWH, (NAME)
through all generations. (TIME)For YHWH will vindicate (CARE)
his people, (PEOPLE)
and comfort (CARE)
His servants. (PEOPLE)
The Hebrew Pause
Author James L. Kugel explains that “Hebrew parallelism” is better named “the Hebrew pause sentence”, a major feature of all types of Hebrew Biblical writing, and not exclusive to poetry. It is the ancient author saying,
This is true, (pause)
and this is true too. (longer pause)
It is understood then (at least by the ancient reader) that the second line is related to the first in a variety of ways. In our first example, above, we find that God’s name was not merely an identifying moniker, but aligned with His renown — his character, fame, and reputation. This has fascinating implications for “name” through the rest of Scripture.**
Middle East cultural specialist Kenneth Bailey identifies three basic forms of parallelisms: straight line sequence parallelism (seen above), step parallelism, and inverted parallelism (also known as chiasm or chiastic arch).
One of Jesus’ most famous sayings is a classic step parallelism,
And I tell you,A. Ask and it will be given to you;
B. Seek and you will find;
C. Knock and it will be opened to you.A. For everyone asking receives,
B. And the one seeking finds,
C. And to the one knocking it will be opened.
Another is an inverted parallelism.
A. No servant can serve two masters,
B. for either he will hate the one
C. and love the other,
C. or he will be devoted to the one
B. and despise the other.
A. You cannot serve God and money.
Jesus (or Luke) could have composed it in straight line sequence,
1. No servant can serve two masters,
you cannot serve God and money.
2. For either he will hate one master,
and despise him,
3. or he will love the other,
and be devoted to him.
but Bailey notes that this was considered artistically inferior to what appears in the gospel. Plus, inverted parallelisms, being structured like an arch, ensure that the most important detail cannot be missed, but placed in the middle of the passage.
So, whereas in the West, we often say,
A + B + C = D
The Hebrew writer might say,
A + B + C = D = C + B + A
Parallels can be comparisons, but they can also be used to emphasize contrasts. In Ephesians 2:11–22, Paul describes how in Christ, two things became one. It is easy to completely miss the way in which the apostle, obviously a master of the art, deftly composed his argument as a series of layered mirrors:
A. Therefore, remember that you, formerly gentiles in FLESH, B. the ones called "Foreskin" by the so-called "Circumcision" in
flesh (of the HANDMADE variety) C. That at that period you were WITHOUT THE ANOINTED, D. having been ALIENS to the polity of Israel E. and STRANGERS to the covenants of the promise, F. without any hope, and GODLESS in the cosmos. G. But now in the Anointed One Jesus you who were once
FAR AWAY have come to be NEAR, through the blood of
the Anointed. H. For he is himself our PEACE, who has made the two
into one I. and shattered the interposing wall of partition—
the ENMITY—in HIS FLESH, J. Having abolished the LAW consisting in
commandments in ordinances, K. that in himself he might FASHION THE TWO into
a SINGLE new human being, L. making PEACE, K. and RECONCILE THE TWO to God in ONE body, J. by the CROSS, I. killing ENMITY in HIMSELF; H. And he came announcing the good tidings of PEACE, G. to you who were FAR AWAY, as well as to those who
were NEAR, F. Because through him we both have ACCESS in one Spirit
TO THE FATHER. E. In this way, then, you are NO LONGER STRANGERS and
sojourners, D. but are instead FELLOW CITIZENS with the holy ones, and are
members of God's household, C. Having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and
prophets, the ANOINTED ONE JESUS himself being the
cornerstone, B. In whom every edifice that is BUILT grows into a holy Temple in
the Lord,A. In whom you also are together being built up in SPIRIT into God's
Sometimes it is not altogether clear what form a passage takes. For example, is Hebrews 4:12 straight prose?
1. The word of God is living and active,
sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing
2. to the division of soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
3. and able to judge thoughts and
intentions of the heart.
The poetic beauty of the passage practically begs further investigation — certainly the middle portion is a step-parallelism. But could it be enclosed in an inverted parallelism, something not uncommon in Hebrew literature?
A. The word of God
B. is living and active,
C. sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing
D1. to the division of soul
D2. and spirit,
D2. and marrow,
C. and able to judge
B. the thoughts and intentions
A. of the heart.
In the latter we see
- “the word of God” paralleling “the heart”
- “living and active” giving further depth to “thoughts and intentions”
- “swords” as inferior to the word’s judging ability (shades of Solomon’s baby-saving wisdom)
- “the soul” as somehow equivalent to our body’s “joints”
- the “spirit” representing the “marrow” of our identity
Naturally, such linkages are more difficult to see in traditional Western literary analysis.
Sometimes whole stanzas form parallelisms in a larger structure. Gordon Wenham, in analyzing the Genesis flood narrative, discovered a particularly elaborate chiasm across four chapters, as if the text itself were emulating a wave. Note the “crest” or center-point at K.
A. Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)
B. All life on earth (6:13a)
C. Curse on earth (6:13b)
D. Flood announced (6:7)
E. Ark (6:14–16)
F. All living creatures (6:17–20)
G. Food (6:21)
H. Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)
I. Entering the Ark (7:13–16)
J. Waters increase (7:17–20) K. God remembers Noah (8:1)
J. Waters decrease (8:13–14)
I. Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)
H. Animals (9:2,3)
G. Food (9:3,4)
F. All living creatures (9:10a)
E. Ark (9:10b)
D. No flood in future (9:11)
C. Blessing on earth (9:12–17)
B. All life on earth (9:16)
A. Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)
The Old’s gooey center.
Before we come to Jesus’ New Covenant, it may be helpful to review the previous one under Moses, his protégé. Though written in the early 20th century, a step-parallelism told dramatically by a Hasidic Rabbi in the Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, conveys what very well could have been the focal point of Jewish thought during the Second Temple period.
The world of God is great and holy. In all the world the holiest land is the Land of Israel. In the Land of Israel the holiest city is Jerusalem; in Jerusalem the holiest place was the Holy Temple, and the holiest spot in the Temple was the Holy of Holies. (He pauses)
In the world there are seventy nations, and of them the holiest is Israel. The holiest of the people of Israel is the tribe of the Levites. The holiest of the Levites are the priests, and amongst the priests, the holiest is the High Priest. (Pause)
The year has three hundred and fifty-four days. Of these the holidays are the holiest. Holier than the holidays are the Sabbaths and the holiest of the Sabbaths is Yom Kippur, Sabbath of Sabbaths. (Pause)
There are in the world seventy tongues. The holiest of these is the holy tongue of Israel. The holiest of all things written in this tongue is the Holy Torah; of the Torah the holiest part is the Ten Commandments, and the holiest of all the words in the Ten Commandments is the Name of the Lord. (Pause)
At a certain hour, on a certain day of the year, all these four supreme holinesses met together. This took place on the Day of Atonement, at the hour when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and there revealed the Divine Name. And as this hour was holy and terrible beyond words, so also was it the hour of utmost peril for the High Priest, and for the entire commonwealth of Israel. For if, in that hour (which God forbid) a sinful or a wayward thought had entered the mind of the High Priest, it would have brought the destruction of the world.
For good reason, then, Jesus emphasized “my yoke is easy and my burden, light”!
Next, we want to delve into the underlying structure of one of the most comprehensive, well-researched books in the Bible in order to reach the core of the New Covenant itself. See you there.
* Think of kings signing their names to decrees. Commandments like, “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.” And of course, Jesus’ “Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do.” Even “Praise His name!” takes on richer meaning. Bearing the name of God, then, means to be imbued with His reputation. Speaking in the name must be ambassadorial, a kind of invested authority not intended to satisfy mere religious observance. And praying in the name, knowing what was to come after his ascension, was Jesus aiming his disciples toward mountains in powerful, kingdom-minded declarations of intent.
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