Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Recently David Musgrave of Amridge University and Gordon Rugg of Keele University presented research that suggests the entire book of Genesis contains an inclusio on the words "life" and "death". Their method seems to consist of searching for the location of those two words in the text of the King James (though they claim to have similar results using the Hebrew text) and running the results through a patented visualization tool.

Clearly, the Hebrew Scriptures did make use of bracketing, so the question isn't whether we should be surprised by the find. Rather, I'm curious if:

  1. the pattern really does hold in the Hebrew,
  2. it's legitimate to use just the noun forms of these words, and
  3. the pattern has been previously noted.

My initial reaction was to scoff at the story since the verb forms ("live" and "die") show no such pattern. Other patterns are far more noticeable, such as God creating life in Genesis 1-2 followed by sin bringing death in Genesis 3-4. However, if there is a sandwich structure that covers the entire first book of the Torah, how would that change our understanding of the text?

share|improve this question
I don't see how to engage with this question without precise methodological details of what they claim for Hebrew. Just what Hebrew word(s) are they translating as 'life'? It's a matter of argument; 'breath' ? 'life' ? What you see in KJB tells you, at most, about the men who did it. – user947 Feb 28 '13 at 5:48
@MGoneQuiet: I think the theory is that the mere location of the words themselves (with no reference to death themes and life themes) make up the inclusio. מָוֶת looks promising with results clustered around chapters 21-27. It seems to me that an answer that documents the difficulties reproducing the result would be very valuable. – Jon Ericson Feb 28 '13 at 18:44

I am cautious about any technique/pattern that requires modern technology to spot. Does anyone remember Equidistant Letter Spacing (aka The Bible Code)? As there, we've got the problem of which Hebrew text to use.

Here are some of the options

  1. Masoretic text as-is
  2. Mostly Masoretic text but placing the Qere in the text wherever there is a Kethiv/Qere
  3. Judiciously using the Qere
  4. The Leningrad Codex with Aleppo Codex chiming in.
  5. A text-critical version of the Masoretic text (such as the not-yet-finished BHQ)
  6. MT unless there is a Dead Sea Scroll version of a passage.
  7. Mix-and-match until you find the pattern you want.
share|improve this answer
More importantly, a secular researcher applied the same techniques to the novel "Moby Dick" and got the same results. Which is to say when it comes to these things the old aphorism of science applies: "If you torture the data long enough, it will confess." – Fraser Orr Mar 2 '13 at 16:30

I'm going to call nonsense on this one. Or, perhaps more appropriately, irrelevance.

Firstly, there is nothing special about the SearchVisualizer - it just plots occurrences of words. Showing the plot in 2 spatial dimensions is also misleading - text is one-dimensional (in the sense that each letter in a text has a single position relative to the start of the text). The second dimension has no meaning, it is merely a way of squeezing what would be a very long thin line into one that is easier to represent on a screen. Computer scientists have been doing this sort of things for decades; it is nothing innovative or even particularly interesting.

With any given text, I could easily write a program which would find all pairs of words such that the occurrences of one bracketed the occurrences of another. It's not very difficult, though making it run fast would be a challenge (the sort of challenge a computer scientist would do for fun). If there are N distinct words in a text, then there are 0.5 * N * N-1 pairs. By my count there are 2442 distinct words in Genesis in the KJV. That's almost 3 million distinct pairs of words. If you take out the pairs where both words only occur once (985 of them), you still have 2.5 million pairs. And even if only 1 in a 1000 pairs show a bracketing structure (which seems overly pessimistic), that's still 2500 pairs. There's bound to be a few 'unusual' ones in there (life/death), but I don't think we should draw any theological conclusion at all from a word pair based on bracketing alone. Also, as others have commented, there are problems in defining what a word should be (e.g. life, live, lived, lives, liveth, and living all occur in KJV Genesis).

share|improve this answer

Sorry - rewriting this. Shouldn't answer when I'm tired.

The Covenant structure is this:

Transcendence (God's the boss)

.....Hierarchy (He delegates authority)

..........Ethics (the rules)

.....Sanctions (blessings and curses)

Succession (the future for the obedient)

This is the structure of the Torah. At the centre is Leviticus, which contains the priestly laws for Israel - the rules of ceremonial and social purity. The law is a minister of death. That's the 'death' here.

The pattern I previously referred to (incorrectly) as the Torah is actually this five fold pattern played out upon Israel in a seven-fold Creation. In this case it is Numbers at the centre, where the Levitical law is applied to Israel and wipes out almost the entire previous generation. In this case it is:

Transcendence - Genesis (Sabbath)

.....Hierarchy - Exodus (Passover)

..........Ethics 1 - Leviticus (Firstfruits)

...............Ethics 2 Numbers (Pentecost)

..........Ethics 3 - Deuteronomy (Trumpets)

.....Sanctions - Joshua (Atonement)

Succession - Judges (Booths)

So here, the "death" prescribed in the centre of the Covenant pattern (as Covenant head) is ministered to the Body in the Creation pattern. Then Israel, now pure, goes and ministers that pattern upon the nations. Or was supposed to.

This means the process is trinitarian. It begins with a 3, which expands to a five (mediation by Covenant) and then the Law is opened into a threefold process (given/opened/received).

We see this pattern throughout the Bible. It gets replayed at a greater level in the entire story. Just as the ministry of Moses was completed before the conquest of Jericho, so the entire canon was finished before the destruction of Jerusalem. It's a fractal.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.