Friday, April 13, 2018

Reading the Bible: Noticing Repetition, the Inclusio

In this series of articles we are looking at some uses of repetition in the Bible. These particular uses are ways in which the Biblical authors marked the divisions of topics in the Scripture. Learning to recognize these repetitions and to understand how they are used enables us to become better readers, understanding the layout of the topics in Scripture in their own terms.

When the books of the Bible were written the authors did not put spaces between words. In ancient Hebrew, vowel letters were introduced slowly and only partially. Their writing was without any visual layout practices which modern English readers take for granted. There was no punctuation, no break between paragraphs. There were no distinctions between capital or lowercase letters.  There were no verse or chapter numbers in these texts. The verse and chapter numbers we are familiar with were developed in the 13th century A.D. They are handy for finding places in the Bible. Sometimes they match up well with the sense of a passage. But but very often the chapter numbers and verses do not match up at all.

Authors used repetition of words, phrases, ideas, and events as techniques to mark how they transitioned from one topic or section to the next.

The goal of this article is to help the reader learn to recognize a type of repetition which we call  the inclusio. By learning to recognize this style of repetition we hope to help the reader learn some of the ways repetition is used in the Biblical text.

In our own everyday conversations we use repetition to shape our words. Our use of repetition in conversation, storytelling, and public speaking can be deliberate. Often our use of repetition is unplanned, and may be formulaic or habitual. Repetition is used by speakers and writers of every natural human language. Both in conversation and in writing people use forms of repetition to mark the beginning and end of a topic. Repetition is used to mark transitions, to build anticipation, to show character, and to highlight crucial information, among many other uses.

So let us consider a technique of repetition calle the inclusio.

An Inclusio is like bookends, it is material that occurs at the beginning and at the end of a text. It can also be called an envelope structure, or bracketing.

The Inclusio as Bookends
In its most basic form an inclusio is a phrase or idea that occurs at the beginning of a stretch of text and at the end. It marks the beginning and the end with the theme or topic. In this way the inclusio functions as a type of introduction and conclusion to the topic.  A very simple example is in Psalm 118, where identical wording is used at the beginning and the end of the psalm.

1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.
                 [All of the rest of the Psalm sandwiched in here.]
29 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.

The inclusio can be an identical restatement, as in Psalm 118. But it can also show variation. For example: Jeremiah uses an identical phrase “the words of Jeremiah” in only three places. Once at the beginning, once in the middle (26:20), and once at the end.  At the beginning the introduction contains more information. The second use is when Jeremiah is threatened with death. Another prophet was murdered because he preached in accordance with “the words of Jeremiah.” The third use is in the conclusion. Here the conclusion includes only two additional words: “Thus far” to mark the end of Jeremiah’s sermons. Thus, the collection of sermons starts with and ends with the phrase “the words of Jeremiah.”

1:1    The words of Jeremiah (who he was, when the words were given)
                        [Jeremiah’s Preaching, and the Historical Narrative related directly to his sermons]
51:64 Thus far the words of Jeremiah.
52 This chapter contains no preaching of Jeremiah. It does contain a narrative of the Fall of Jerusalem and the Deportation showing the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s sermons.

An inclusio need not use identical words to convey the same ideas. And the word order does not need to be the same. For instance, Psalm 46 shows examples of both the use of synonyms and reverse word order. The psalm starts and closes with a description of God as “our refuge.” The Hebrew words are different but close synonyms. With regard to order, Psalm 46 opens with these two ideas: A) God is our refuge and B) He is present with us to help. It closes in reverse order: B’) the Lord is present with us and A’) God is our refuge.

Psalm 46:1 God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.
[The body of the Psalm]
Psalm 46:11 The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

When the order of ideas or words is reversed like this it is called a chiastic structure. This term means that the order of elements resembles the criss-crossing of the Greek letter X “Chi.”  This is another style of repetition that I hope to cover soon.

The examples we looked at above were from whole works. The inclusio functions as book-ends. You can find several other examples in Scripture. Here are just three more to whet your appetite:

  • Revelation begins in the first chapter with Jesus saying He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. In the final chapter Jesus closes the book saying the same words. 
  • Deuteronomy begins and ends with describing Moses, some works God did through him, and the geography of Moab. In between are the sermons of Moses reviewing the Covenant of Sinai. 
  • The first chapter of Matthew declares that Jesus is “Immanuel, which is translated ‘God with us.’” The Gospel closes with Jesus saying “And lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age.”


The Inclusio as Paragraphing
The inclusio is used also to mark smaller sections of larger works. It is used like brackets for these smaller parts. We mentioned above that ancient Hebrew and Greek did not originally use our convention of paragraph layout. There were no spaces between words, no capital letters, no punctuation. In this English document that you are reading each paragraph is separated from the other by space. The inclusio was one of the ways that the ancient authors used to mark out these topical units. Some are longer, some are shorter. We do the same when we speak and write. Very often we are not even aware that we make use of this method of shaping thoughts and ideas.

Here are a few examples of inclusio used to bracket shorter sections of a longer document. Our first few examples are taken from the opening of Genesis:

1:1 In the beginning       God created      the heavens and the earth
2:3 the heavens and the earth were  finished   which God created

2:4-7 God puts man in the garden
3:22-24      God puts man out of the garden

4:1    Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore a son
4:25 Adam knew his wife again and she              bore a son

There are some cases where the whole book and its sections are marked by inclusio. Jonah is such a case.

1:1-2 The Lord acts toward Nineveh-doesn’t explain to Jonah

1:3         Jonah runs away from        the Lord
1:14-16 Gentiles    turn to the Lord

1:17 The Lord prepared a Great fish to swallow Jonah
2:10 The Lord causes the fish      to vomit Jonah.

3:1-3 Jonah goes to Nineveh
4:5    Jonah goes out of Nineveh

4:6-10 The Lord acts toward Nineveh-does explain to Jonah


Sometimes the bookends explain what is going on in very clear terms. This is the case in the Sermon on the Mount. This is stylistically closer to how we might expect an article or sermon to open and close. The opening and closing of Jesus’ sermon  in Matthew 5:

5:1-2  And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying.
[The body of the sermon is sandwiched here]
7:28-29  And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Inclusio is not the only method used by the authors of Scripture to show how they ordered and arranged their sermons, poems, and narratives. Sometimes the exact wording is used in the beginning part and in the end part. Other times the words are different but convey the same ideas. The words may be synonyms, or convey similar actions or attitudes.

Being able to recognize the inclusio helps us to read and to understand the text in its own terms by the way the text itself was organized by the writers.

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