In my classes at Moody Bible Institute, I often repeat the following phrase: “Let the text set the agenda.” This is a reminder to focus on what the biblical author wants to say first before approaching it with questions from our current worldview.
In our world today, repetition is often seen as something negative. Students are told in high school composition classes to vary their words and use synonyms to avoid being repetitive and redundant. Authors from biblical times, however, were under no such restrictions. In fact, repetition characterizes ancient Mesopotamian literature (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh) and Greek epic literature (such as Homer). As readers, if we want to enhance our enjoyment of the Bible, rather than viewing repetition negatively we should take advantage of the insights it offers us.
Repetition is one of the more common literary devices and can take many forms, but it typically involves repeated words, phrases, or other elements to draw the reader’s attention or to serve other rhetorical functions.
Repeating a word or phrase in a literary work automatically draws attention to itself.
It is prevalent in all sorts of genres. It can range from small units (within verses) to longer passages in repeated episodes and even across multiple texts by different authors.
Pay close attention to when an author uses a word or phrase repeatedly within an account. Identifying repetitions in larger sections requires readers to constantly be on the lookout. When there are side-by-side accounts with repetition, it is good to identify the subtle differences. One of the best ways to catch repetition is to read the text out loud (2 Kings 1–2 is a great example where multiple repeated words and phrases are present). Repetitions of the same word in clusters of seven and ten are relatively common, so count the repeated elements and see if hits one of these benchmarks.
Repeating a word or phrase in a literary work automatically draws attention to itself. Repetition can (1) make a text more memorable and enjoyable, (2) bring cohesion to a text and serve to mark textual boundaries or establish a pattern, (3) highlight a key theme, or (4) slow down the action to allow the reader to reflect on the repeated element more deeply (such as when an author wants the reader to make a comparison or see significant deviations in the repetition).
Repetition can be found over large sections or they can be localized. The more repetitions there are within close proximity, the easier they are to see. Repetition that occurs over longer stretches are more challenging to spot. The many different types of repetition (single words, phrases, domains, etc.) can also make them difficult to find. A major hurdle for English Bible readers is that sometimes the repetition is based on original language roots that don’t show up in English translations (due to translators using synonyms or the fact that the original language may have two different meanings but use the same root). Readers who wish to overcome this roadblock should read English translations that seek to be more literal in their translation philosophy, such as the New American Standard Bible, which makes it more likely to observe repeated words.
Repetition in a single verse of Scripture is not only easy to spot but also demonstrates one of the payoffs of observing its presence. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul states: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” (The technical term for this literary device is epistrophe, which involves repeating a word at the end of every clause or line.) Paul could have avoided the redundancy and said, “When I was a child, I talked, thought, and reasoned like a child,” but the rhetorical and poetical force would have been lost, and the point he was making would not have been as memorable.
Frequently, words are used repetitively in a passage to dovetail with what the author is foregrounding on the surface of the text. For example, in describing Solomon’s reign, the text of 1 Kings 9:26–10:29 uses the word “gold” fifteen times. This repetition adds rhetorical punch that Solomon’s wealth is indeed a central aspect of his kingdom.
Repetition can also occur with a word or phrase repeated in specific multiples. Clusters of seven are very common. Seven is often used in the Scriptures to signify completeness or wholeness, so it makes sense that biblical authors often used that particular number for rhetorical effect and to emphasize a particular theme.
For instance, in the Cain and Abel account in Genesis 4:1–17, the words “brother” and “Abel” are each repeated seven times and “Cain” is repeated fourteen times (a multiple of seven). Cain asks the Lord, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The sevenfold repetition of the word “brother” leaves no doubt to the reader that the answer to that question is yes, even though no direct answer is given in the text.
In this instance, the sevenfold repetitious familial designation (“brother”) subtly reveals the practical thrust that the author (Moses) wants his readers to take to heart: that brotherly love toward kin is an essential trait that should characterize us. This is just one example of how identifying repetition can lead to practical application that is anchored in the text. Biblical authors are not just relaying facts about people and events but also seeking to motivate readers to develop godly character.
Now, you may be wondering, if the author wanted to communicate that we should be our “brother’s keeper,” why didn’t he just state that directly instead of leaving it to readers to come to that conclusion based on the use of repetition? For one thing, unlike other genres of Scripture (such as epistles), narrative texts are rarely direct and specific with applications.
Authors of narratives use creative, artful, and subtle ways to provide clues as to what readers should focus on and apply. Attentive readers who are aware of these literary devices and the rhetorical thematic value that they provide are on solid footing in drawing applications from the text. Awareness of these devices (such as repetition) helps us stay in sync with the rhythms of the biblical author and follow the promptings of the text rather than subjective hunches about how to apply it.
by James Coakley
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