Genesis 1 begins like this:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. (1:1-8)
There are a lot of things we could notice about this text. The first thing I want to point your attention to is that this text is comparatively short. Think about it: these first eight verses of Genesis 1 cover the first two days of the creation of our world, i.e. the most important event that ever happened! Yet they take up no more than ten lines of text on this page. And the Hebrew text is even shorter. The first day of creation in verses 3-5 is told in just 31 words. The entire creation account has less than 500 words. That’s about a page of single spaced text in a Word document. It’s a short text.
This terseness makes another feature of this text stand out even more, namely the repetition of words and phrases.
Then God said.
There was evening and there was morning.
And if you read the rest of Genesis 1 there is even more repetition:
According to its kind.
Birds of the sky.
And it was so.
Repetition is everywhere. This is not just the case in Genesis 1. Look at Daniel 3, for example.
Peoples, nations and languages.
The sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and all kinds of music.
The golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.
Or John 14.
Thomas/Philip/Judas said to him.
If we look closely, however, we see that many times things are not just repeated verbatim, but that there are slight variations.
- Six times in Genesis 1 we are told that God saw that something was good. But in 1:31 we read “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
- In Genesis 5 the phrase “and x lived y years after he became the father of z” is repeated seven times. But in verse 22 it says: “And Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he became the father of Metuschelach.”
- In 1. Samuel 4 the ark of the covenant is called “the ark of the covenant of the LORD” in verses 3, 4 and 5 but in verse 6 it is called “the ark of the LORD” and in verses 11, 13, 17, 18, 19, 21 and 22 “the ark of God”.
I could mention many more examples but I think the point is clear: repetition (with variation) plays an important role in biblical texts. We’re not used to this because we’re taught to use synonyms instead of repeating words or phrases over and over again.
But in the Bible it’s just the opposite. The biblical writers purposefully repeat certain words or phrases in order to highlight something or make a point. Or they repeat something but make a slight change. They don’t do this because it would be boring to use exact repetition but because they want to highlight something or make a certain point through the variation.
If this is true, we should pay close attention to both exact repetition as well as repetition with variation. Unfortunately, many modern translations are not very helpful here, since often several different English words are used to translate a certain Hebrew or Greek word in the same text. This means that in English the repetition of words and phrases is not always clearly visible.
That leaves us with basically two options:
- learn the biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) or, if that’s not possible
- use a translation that is as close as possible to the original language.
Admittedly, even the most faithful translations are not always consistent when it comes to repetition of words and phrases but they are certainly better than more loose translations or paraphrases. Some examples of such so-called formal equivalence translations are the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version or the King James or New King James Version. These translations may, at first, be more difficult to understand than more dynamic translations or paraphrases like the New International Version or The Message, but they allow you to see repeated words and phrases much better.
So, one of the first things I do when studying a biblical text is to mark all repeated words and phrases with colored pencils. Each word or phrase gets a different color. I encourage you to try it. If you don’t want to mark up your Bible, just print the text on a piece of paper and start marking or underlining. Noting repetitions in the text has helped me immensely to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible. In fact, everything I will share with you in the rest of this reading guide is in some way related to the principle of repetition.
Read the following passages several times and mark all words and phrases that are repeated. Do you notice any repetition with variation?
- Genesis 22
- Joshua 6
- Romans 4