A book or a movie or a TV show has its own “world,” and this world has its own internal logic. The Bible is a book like every other book in this respect. But the internal logic of the Bible happens to be “fractal” in nature. That is, it’s a lot like a set of Russian dolls.
The best way to get a big handle on the way the Bible is built, and on the way God works in history, is to get an understanding of fractals. Don’t worry, fractals aren’t scary. Fractals are cool. (A lot cooler than Russian dolls.)
What is a fractal?
If you mention the word “fractal” to most people, they will give you a blank look. The reason is that “fractal” is a relatively new word, yet fractal geometry has changed your life and mine.
The basic idea is that a fractal is a shape made up of smaller versions of itself. If you zoom in on each part, you can see that it is a smaller replica of the entire object. In may cases, this pattern of “self-similarity” continues through many layers as you keep zooming in.
The word was first used in 1975 by a mathematician named Benoît Mandelbrot, who noticed a recurring pattern in some electrical interference in data cables while working for IBM. Mandelbrot called this process of self-repetition “iteration.” Since then, fractal geometry has gone on to change our lives in many ways.
It was fractal geometry that allowed mobile phone designers to build a super-efficient antenna that doesn’t stick out of your phone. It is fractal-based software that enables Hollywood to create fantastic moving images that look like they are a reality. Mandelbrot himself went on to use fractal geometry to successfully explain the behavior of financial markets. Research is also being done on the fractal patterns found in the human heartbeat to enhance diagnosis and treatment.
Once you know what they are, you will find fractals everywhere. This is because fractals are found not only in computing, modern technology and financial markets, but also everywhere in nature. You can see them in the relationship between your arteries, blood vessels and capillaries, and also in the relationship between the trees in a rainforest, the branches on the trees, the twigs on the branches, and the patterns in the leaves. They are also apparent in animal coloration patterns, river networks, lightning bolts, ocean waves, DNA, earthquakes, the structure of snowflakes and other crystals, and in Romanesco broccoli.
Many of the rough shapes in nature, such as coastlines, waves and cloud formations were once thought to be beyond the “clean lines” of mathematics. What fractal geometry has done is reveal the “internal logic” of these formations. Identifying the basic formula at the heart of such formations has enabled us to “measure roughness,” and also to replicate it using computers.
There were many others before Mandelbrot who noticed this process of “iteration.” The most interesting to me is the Japanese artist known as Hokusai (1760-1849). You can see fractals in his famous painting, “The Great Wave.” Hokusai wrote:
From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.’
If fractals are foundational to efficiency and beauty in both the created world and the best achievements of man, would it be beyond reason to discover them in the Word of God? After all, making Man in His image was an act of “self-similarity.”
Fractals and the Bible
The Bible’s “roughness” was always a frustration for me. It was just like looking at the apparent randomness of a coastline or a cloud formation. It seemed to be a bit of a hapless collection of documents which could have been arranged a lot better. In his book, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, David Dorsey writes:
My fascination with [Hebrew literary structure] was kindled when I began teaching Old Testament courses in seminary. At that time I was struck by the apparent lack of order within many of the biblical books. Jeremiah seemed hopelessly confused in its organization; so did Isaiah and Hosea and most of the prophets. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes appeared to be in almost complete disarray, and even the more orderly historical books, such as Joshua and Kings, showed signs of strangely careless organization.
Why did the biblical authors write like this? I would never write a book, an article, or even a private letter with such carelessness of arrangement. I was intrigued by the possibility that the Hebrew authors might have organized their compositions according to literary conventions that were different from ours.
There’s no hiding the fact that the Bible is weird. You think you know where a story is going and then it suddenly changes direction, or gives you a boring genealogy, or hits you with a long list of architectural instructions for no practical reason, or repeats the same thing twelve times over!
Most often, it doesn’t seem to follow any logic that we are aware of, and sometimes it is downright bizarre. We all pretend we know what is going on (including many Bible teachers) but do you ever get the feeling that even they themselves don’t have a big grip on what is going on? It is usually assumed that the apparent chaos is due to the Bible’s texts being very ancient, (which is a nice way of saying that the ancients were stupid), but what if there were something going on in the apparent chaos, a method to the madness, of which we weren’t aware?
A few years ago, I discovered the not-very-well-known theologian James B. Jordan. To me, one of the most amazing things he spoke of was the use of the Creation Week (Genesis 1) as a common literary structure in the Bible. Since then, I have gone on to discover that this pattern is found everywhere in the Bible, and at every level. This incredible “iteration” of the process of “forming” and “filling” means that the Bible is a fractal. This might get a “So what?” from most people, but almost immediately I saw the potential which this observation has not only for interpreting and understanding the Bible, but also for applying it in the real world, in everyday life. It gives Man, who was made in God’s image and given a mission to make the world a better place, a big handle on how God Himself creates.
The same pattern is the “deep structure” of every speech that God gives, every Covenant that He makes with mankind, and every story which follows His initiating acts. When He calls somebody to do something, the shape of the speech is just like a “new creation.”
One example is the structure of Genesis chapters 1, 2 and 3. Some people insist that there are contradictions here but they are ignoring the possibility of a very careful, and beautiful, method behind the apparent disorder. The seven day process which we find in the Creation of the physical world in Genesis 1 is symbolically repeated in the setting up of the “social” world in Genesis 2, and also the “ethical” world in Genesis 3. Why is this? Could it be that these three domains reflect the “shape” of the Father, Son and Spirit? It’s certainly something to chew on.
As we discussed concerning Joseph, Daniel and Jesus, the person God calls goes through a sevenfold process of “initiation” to qualify him. (We will cover this pattern in a later chapter.) Then this person leads the people of God through the same sevenfold process as a new creation, and they then minister to the world. An example would be Moses leaving Egypt for the wilderness for forty years, and then leading Israel through the wilderness for the subsequent forty years, and into the Promised Land.
These are basic examples, but once you know what you are looking for, you can see the “shape” of God’s words being replicated like “soundwaves,” taking on human form in His servant and then in His people in just about every book in the Bible. The intricacy we find as we zoom in or out is mind-blowing. But the good thing is that the basic pattern is consistent. All the beauty and complexity that follows as this fundamental structural theme is developed throughout the Bible is based on the same simple “fractal” process.
No More Four Views
Christians disagree on the interpretation of certain passages, especially in the prophets. There are a number of books available in Christian bookstores with titles that begin with phrases like “Four Views on…” What if the Bible had its own internal system of logic which, once identified, would make undeniable which view of the text was the correct one?
The Bible does have its own internal logic, and it is “fractal” in nature. The fact that the same process is going on at multiple levels leads to a great deal of confusion when we assume the text is “flat.” Much of the confusion comes from truth spoken about one level being misapplied to another. The key is the structural context. Once we identify the separate patterns, the confusion disappears.
This might all sound very complicated, but the beauty is that every Covenant process has the same shape, so you only have to learn one process. God’s work — and His Book — is like “wheels within wheels,” a little bit like planets orbiting the sun at different distances. If you can identify the Covenant context of a passage, only one of the four views can be the true one.
At this stage, the idea might appear too technical to be bothered with, but as with the solar system, once you see it in operation its surpassing beauty and precision will not only leave you breathless, but also able to identify the purpose of every layer in Covenant history, and make sense of every text.
Instead of being presented with double- or quadruple vision, you will be able to focus on the Bible’s true shape, to read the Bible in 3D.