Bible as Literature, part 3

This is my third and last post in this series on the “Bible as Literature.” You can check out part 1 and part 2 elsewhere on this site. In this post, I want to show how there are certain themes which pop up multiple times in the text, but which we miss when we read the Bible as a textbook instead of as literature — and a certain kind of literature: a story.

The theme I want to explore is the Bible’s repeated answer to the question, “What is good?” As we explore how this theme crops up in various places, we can see how the Bible’s authors use the question and its answer to teach us important theological truths.

God decides what is good

Let’s start with the very first chapter of the Bible. In Genesis 1, God declares seven times that something is good. Why the repetition? If this were a textbook, we’d expect the author to make the observation once, then refer back to it — not repeat it in almost a liturgical fashion.

And note the precise way in which the statement about the goodness of something is made: First God sees something, then he determines that it is good. Look at the pattern:

Verse 4: And God saw that the light was good.
Verse 10: And God saw that it was good.
Verse 12: And God saw that it was good.
Verse 17: And God saw that it was good.
Verse 21: And God saw that it was good.
Verse 25: And God saw that it was good.
Verse 31: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

Why the repetition? And why the emphasis that God saw? God’s assessment is fully described in verse 31, that “everything” was good; we didn’t need all the intermediate declarations to understand that truth. The repetition, however, calls it to our attention and hammers home that God is the one who decides what is good. This is important, as it foreshadows what is to come.

Not everything is good

Up to this point, everything God created is good. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we discover that all is not good. We read this in Genesis 2.9: “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

If this were a story, the word evil would jump out to us, like someone dragging a needle across a record. We are supposed to be surprised at this: how could this world have evil in it? Cue the ominous music! This foreshadowing is followed by another literary device, this one commonly called “Chekhov’s gun.” The idea behind this device is that every element of the story is there for a reason: if we read about a loaded gun in chapter 1, it should be fired in chapter 2. Otherwise, don’t tell us about it.

This literary device is especially important in biblical texts, where it isn’t easy to create and maintain the text itself. Think about the effort which went into producing, copying, and preserving a biblical text over centuries. The authors and maintainers had limited technology and couldn’t spend their time including a great number of incidental details which didn’t affect the outcome of the story. The text is a masterpiece of economy, so we as alert readers can realize that what at first seems like a casual detail — the presence in the garden of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — will play a significant role as the story progresses.

We then read about something else which isn’t good:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

Genesis 2.18

This is where the ominous music rises, and if it were a movie the camera would linger on the scene for longer than necessary, just to reinforce the importance of this element. Remember the opening scene of the first Harry Potter movie? Two kindly old people rescue a baby and leave him on the doorstep of his relatives. Aw, how sweet! Then the camera closes in on the scar on the baby’s forehead, and we begin to understand that the scar is somehow significant in what follows. This is how we should be reading the introduction of something “not good” in the Eden story. God announces something is not good, right on the heels of the introduction of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (evil = “not good,” get it?), and should cause our brains to click — if we read these chapters as story. It should come as no surprise to us that something about that tree and the man’s helper will not end well.

Mankind doesn’t decide what is good

So far in the story we’ve been told (again and again) that God decides what is good. So when we read the following line from the serpent, we know what’s really going on:

For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

Genesis 3.5

The serpent is telling Eve that the ability to determine what is good lies in eating the fruit. You’ll have godlike power! Up to now, God has been the one deciding what is good, but in just a few moments you’ll have that power, too! You, too, will be a god!

And we, reading the story, should be yelling at the page, No! Don’t do it! We know it will not end well. And the very next line confirms it to us, as a corruption of what has been drilled into us all along in the story:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food….

Genesis 3.6

That’s all we need to read for us to know what will happen. Remember the pattern? “God saw that it was good.” But here, it is the woman who saw — and she was wrong, and disaster struck. Repetition, foreshadowing, irony, and a heartrending plot twist which brings evil instead of good.

Angels don’t decide what is good

After the events of chapter 3, the next time we see the word “good” appear is in chapter 6:

The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive.

Genesis 6.2

The ESV I’m quoting above doesn’t help us here: the word they translated as “attractive” is the exact same word translated “good” in chapters 1 through 3. This is an example of a translation trying to help us understand the passage, but actually obscuring the message the author means to convey.

And the message is a repeat of what we saw in chapter 3: disaster follows when God is not the one who decides what is good. Again, we read that someone other than God (in this case, the supernatural sons of God) “saw” that something was “good,” so we should be tipped off already that disaster will follow. And sure enough, only a few verses later we read that the whole earth is corrupt and filled with violence.

Only God decides what is good

I’ll end this study with a well-known passage from Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6.8

We tend to focus on the three things the Lord requires, and that’s not bad. However, the theological grounding for obeying these three requirements is in the first phrase: God is telling us what is good. He began telling us in Genesis 1, and we saw the effects of not heeding him in the rest of the story. We should pay attention to what Micah is telling us now.

(By the way, this passage also shows that the Bible often comments on itself. We can more easily recognize when the New Testament comments on the Old, but here the Old Testament is commenting on itself. Indeed, you can make a case that all the books of the prophets are commentaries on the Torah.)

Tell me a story

Stories speak to us in ways that mere bullet points do not. Let’s read the narrative portions of the Bible as stories — stories intended to communicate theological truth — and so not miss the message.

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