The Bible has a shape.
In this age of science, we have been trained to read literature as a “stream of information,” that is, as disconnected facts in a flat, shapeless “feed.” But the Bible isn’t written that way.
For ancient people, and good modern storytellers, literature is like architecture, or like weaving. So the Bible has a very definite shape, just as a building has a shape, and just as clothing has a shape.
The shape of the text is one of the author’s means of getting his point across. Since modern readers see texts as flat transmissions of data, they miss a whole channel of communication. It’s like watching a 3D movie with one eye closed.
Ancient writers added depth using clever tools like symbols, symmetry, repetition and fractals. Many Bible teachers are not aware of these “shapes,” and they try to deal with the strange artifacts remaining in the “flattened landscape” using other means.
One attempt at compensating for this lack of awareness is the list of rules which Bible scholars have given us for reading the Bible. The list is about as long as the Bible itself and many of the rules contradict each other. But the Bible is just like any other well-crafted book. It doesn’t need a list of rules because you are expected to dive right in and let the author fill you in as you go along. In the case of the Bible, part of that “filling in” is the repetition of symbols, key words and literary structures.
The good thing is that the best TV shows and movies are using these sorts of things more and more in their stories. The Bible is a very visual, artistic and musical book, so the fact that young people are now raised on visual media means they already have all the skills they need to understand and enjoy it. They just need to learn to apply these existing skills in a new way.
The skeleton key
In his commentary on the Psalms, the Bible scholar Origen (185AD – 254AD) shared a comparison that he heard from his Hebrew teacher: The Bible is like one big house with many rooms. All the rooms are locked, and at each door there is a key. But the key at each door is not the key to that particular door.
The job of the Bible scholar, and indeed any reader of the Bible, is to match the keys to their doors. In many cases, the meaning of a Bible story or passage can only be “unlocked” by comparison with an earlier text, or through an explanation in a later text. This means that we must not treat the Bible as separate writings motivated by the human needs of the day, but read it as one book which is a progressive revelation of the plan of God.
This still sounds like a lot of work, but it turns out there is also a kind of “skeleton key” built into the Bible, one which opens every door. It is a key which has been hidden in plain sight, and it has to do with the shape of the text.
You might remember the scene in the movie Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, where the main characters were in a library looking for a secret entrance to a crypt. It turned out that there was a giant X in the marble floor, but nobody noticed it until they looked down on the room from above. In the Bible, as we shall see, X most definitely marks the spot.
How does this key work? Every part of the Bible has the same shape as the whole thing, which means that each instance of this shape, in its own way, is telling the same story. Every Bible story has the same “deep structure,” which means that when you compare and contrast these common shapes, there are some very profound observations you can make about the purpose of the text.
Here is the image we will be using to describe the “shape” which underlies every part of the Bible, and indeed the entire book.
Yes, it looks weird. But just wait until you see what it means.
Once you know the basic shape and understand how it works, you can see it everywhere. What seemed flat now has an extra dimension, like a “pop-up” book, and many strange features that made no sense when the book was flat now suddenly make perfect sense.
The text is a tool
Why does the Bible have a shape? Because it was designed to shape us. It doesn’t just give us a list of abstract truths, like many Bible teachers do. It also demonstrates how truth itself is a process of building something in history according to the spoken pattern. The symbolic shape works like a stamp, a brand, or a mold.
Bible teachers refer to symbols as “types.” This is because the Greek word for a stamp or pattern is typos, which is where we get typeface and typewriter from. A type stamps, carves or impresses its character into something else, and that is what the shape of the stories in the Bible is designed to do. For those who wrote it, and for those who teach it, the shape of the text is a tool in the hand of a craftsman. As we read the Bible, its pattern recasts the shape of the way we think in order to forge the shape of the way we live.
Now we’re ready to decode that mysterious symbol above.
The structures in the Bible replicate many patterns found in nature, and the image of geese flying in formation is a great illustration of where we are heading.
As we’ve discussed, popular culture communicates in the same way the Bible does: with images, sound and repetition. Part of the reason we are no longer aware of this is the fact that we rarely hear the Bible read aloud any more. Before modern times, reading and writing was a career, and although history was recorded carefully (not passed down orally to the degree that some people believe), it was not read by most people but heard. Consequently, it was written in ways that impacted people and etched itself onto their memories and into their hearts.
There and back again
Western culture owes far more to the Bible than most people realize, which is possibly why the book written by Bilbo Baggins in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was entitled “There And Back Again.” This is the fundamental shape of every story in the Bible.
One tool the ancients loved to use in their literature was symmetry, and we find this everywhere in the Bible. Its basic shape is like a “>” symbol but it is symmetrical in the way that a flock of geese is symmetrical. Very often, the “goose” at the center was the main point of the story, a factor which our modern minds are likely to miss.
So, the journey “there and back again,” whether it was Abraham’s servant heading out to find a bride for Isaac, or the Lost Son squandering his money and heading home, would look like this:
The points in the second half expand upon their counterparts in the first half. The central point is known as the thesis, which means it was often the main point or argument of the text. Identifying the structure would enable the reader to identify the main or most important idea the author was communicating through his careful arrangement of the text. So if you ever wondered why some Bible books seems to be a bit of jumble, here is the answer. They are not a jumble at all — they have an internal logic of which we are not always aware.
If this sounds tiresome, it’s not. It’s actually a lot of fun reading the Bible to find symmetrical patterns, whether it be in the Law, the Prophets or the Gospels. Some of them are small. Some of them are large. Some of the large ones contain smaller ones.
This method is called “chiasm” because of the Greek letter X (pronounced “ky”). Simple chiasms can be presented as an X shape, such as Matthew 23:12:
We won’t be using the full X shape (which looks a little like a chromosome) because the Bible’s basic pattern has a center that is actually part of the text. So from here on, all chiasms look like the geese in formation.
Chiasms are clues
The chiasms in the Bible are practical. They help us identify the author’s main point. They are also beautiful. Once identified they let you in on the amazing literary artistry in the biblical texts. And they are everywhere, which means if we don’t become conscious of them to some degree as we read, we are not reading the texts as they were meant to be read.
Here is a simple example from 2 Samuel 11-12:
We can see that the symmetry highlights both the similarities between certain events and the differences. A and A1 contrast David’s disobedience and his victorious obedience. C and C1 both concern the mourning of the bride, firstly for the father and then for the son.
You might notice that this is not simply a literary structure, but also an historical structure. The author of the text is also the author of the history.
Here’s another simple example found in 1 John 3:9, and this time there is a bit of a twist:
The first thing you will notice is the beautiful symmetry. But the symmetry reveals something… Something is wrong! Unlike all the other points, C and C1 do not match. This is deliberate, and it shows us that the reason the one who is “born of God” is not able to sin is the work of God’s “seed” living in him.
But there is more to this chiasm than meets the eye, even when we notice this deliberate discrepancy. This verse follows a pattern laid down in Genesis 1 and repeated throughout the Bible, and if we are aware of this, the reason for John’s strange use of the word “seed” here becomes apparent to us.
I hope you are beginning to see not only the beauty of the Bible, but the potential such analysis has for really opening the text for us. And we have only just begun.