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Biblical Storytelling : Repetition & Themes

Bible Project
By

exodus_09_josephs_bros_wip_ndIn the previous weeks of this blog, we’ve offered some tips for reading the Bible in its ancient cultural context, whether we’re talking about Creation, or the Names of God. Another crucial skill for reading the Bible effectively is learning how the biblical authors have designed these books to make the main ideas clear.

The narratives of the Old Testament are brilliant, literary works with mind-blowing depth. You just have to learn the literary style of these writers, and one of the easiest styles to start with is the repetition of keywords and themes over the course of multiple stories. The narratives from Genesis to Chronicles are filled with intentionally repeated ideas that are interwoven through whole books and even across multiple books. Once you start to spot these, you know you’re on the trail of the biblical author’s main point. In this weeks blog we focus on one such theme, and it connects the Genesis and Exodus stories.

Genesis ends with Joseph and his brothers settling in Egypt after Jacob’s death. We’re told in general terms that many generations pass, and the only information we’re given about this period is that this family is particularly gifted in multiplying! The Bible is largely silent on what historically took place during this time, and you might be left wondering about the real connection between the Genesis and Exodus.

What is wrong with this family?

Think of the first part of Genesis, where we saw humans seize the opportunity to define good and evil for themselves, culminating in the building and scattering of the city of Babylon (see Genesis 1-11). In the next main section, we were introduced to Abraham and his family, who are, to be frank, not people you would want to emulate. Sure Abraham had his bright moments (his radical faith in ch. 15), but he could also be a coward (ch. 20). His son could too (ch. 26). As for his grandsons, Jacob and Esau? Let’s just say the apples didn’t fall too far from the family tree here. This family’s dysfunction comes to a climax when Joseph’s brothers kidnap him and sell him into slavery in Egypt. But at every turn, God responds to human evil by paradoxically steering these tragedies back toward his good purposes.

Divine Providence

Joseph experiences more providential reversals than we can count, and every hardship he undergoes is followed by a surprising twist of fate. He goes from prisoner to prison warden, then from slave to estate manager, and then from being falsely accused to being elevated as second-in-command over all Egypt! And through it all, his strange teenage dreams (remember the sheaves of wheat in Genesis 37) all come true. Joseph’s brothers are eventually brought to their knees before him as he saves them from starvation.

We arrive at chapter 50 of Genesis, and the story closes with Joseph speaking to his brothers. But pay attention, the author has placed his words near the very end because they summarize more than just his own story, they act as a thematic summary of the entire book up to this point. Joseph forgives his brothers, and says, “While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good in order to accomplish what’s happened today, saving the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20).

No matter what evil human beings do, God responds with good, weaving events together into the grand and complex tapestry of his plan to redeem and bless the world. Joseph is talking about his brothers, but the author of Genesis wants us to think of all the events from Genesis 3 onward. And God’s not done. He’s going to perfect this tactic of turning evil into good, and that’s exactly what we see in the opening story of Exodus.

Fast Forward 400 Years

Generations have passed, and Abraham’s family has exploded. God’s promise to multiply his family is happening, and not everyone is happy about it. A new king of Egypt is installed, and this Pharaoh sees the large immigrant population of Hebrews (Abraham’s ethnic group) as a clear and present danger to Egyptian national security. He enacts a brutal series of three strategies to exploit the Israelites as he wipes them out. He first enslaves them to build larger store cities, and what happens? They multiply! Then he tries to coerce some midwives to kill all the male Israelite newborns. They civilly disobey, and once again, the Israelites multiply!

Can you see a pattern emerging? The same one that was at work in the Joseph story, right? So think of Pharaoh’s last strategy, which is outright genocide. Murder all the Israelite sons by having them tossed into the Nile river. Try to imagine the horror. This Pharaoh is the worst, sub-human character in the biblical story so far, and so his third and most heinous act of evil is met by God’s third and most remarkable response. One particular Israelite boy, Moses, is thrown into the river just as Pharaoh commanded. This baby floats right into Pharaoh’s palace and into his family, and so becomes his downfall. Pharaoh planned it for evil, but God… You know the story.

Thematic Transition

As you can see, the Joseph story creates a seamless transition between the books. The author of Genesis has been messing with your mind, trying to get you to see the hand of God at work even in the darkest moments of human failure and evil. As you explore Exodus further, you see this theme increasingly intensified in the epic showdown between God, Moses, and Pharaoh. In fact, next week, keep an eye out for a blog on Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” as we explore how God can use human evil, which he has not caused, to accomplish his purposes. Yup, this is a bit of enigma, but we are going to tackle it head on.

Biblical Storytelling & You

The Bible is an expertly crafted literary work, and its authors used subtle narrative techniques; the repetition of keywords and themes is one of the most important tools in their arsenal. As you develop an eye for these patterns and literary devices, your ability to understand the theological message of these stories will improve. But these authors aren’t simply trying to make you into an intellectual, they’re teaching you how to “read your life.” When you see these patterns at work in the lives of all these biblical characters, you begin to think about the patterns of your own failures, and your own evil, in a new way. Can you look back at life’s joy and pain, and see God’s faithfulness as the red thread connecting it all together? Sometimes it’s hard to see what it all means, but this “evil turned to good” theme will start to sink in and give you hope that even your own failures will not get the last word in God’s story for you.