The Law: Numerical Parallelisms

Course: Old Testament Survey

Lecture: The Law: Numerical Parallelisms


I. Numerical Parallelisms

Sometimes when people read the statements in the middle of the Ten Commandments about, “I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation,” and so on, they say, “Wow! How can that be? That is totally unfair. This doesn’t make any sense. God would punish the great grandchildren for what the parents did? That is unreasonable.” I just want to show you how sometimes knowing a phenomenon that can be observed in Scripture, if you know how to look for it, can solve a question. This is just an attempt to show you a perfectly sensible, and once you see it, I think even an obvious conclusion, not original with me but I am just relaying it to you. First of all to appreciate how this works, a scholar named Gervitz at the University of Chicago, a number of years ago, published a book in which he described how the numerical parallelisms work. (Stanley Gervitz, Patterns in the Early Poetry of Israel [University of Chicago Press, 1963]). Now, we will learn more about parallelism when we study Hebrew poetry.

A. When they want to have a synonym for the number one, the closest they can come is the number two; that is what they do. (Job 33:14; Ps 62:11)

B. When they want to have a synonym for three they parallel it by four. It is a style of parallel. I am not going to give you time to copy all these down but you can generate these with a computer any time in a concordance program. (Prov. 30:15, 18, 21, 29; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11)

C. When you want to parallel six you use seven. (Prov. 6:16; Job 5:19)

D. When you want to parallel seven you use eight. Give a portion to seven or even to eight. Seven shepherds, eight princes. There is a story in one of the Ugaritic epics. King Keret wife gave birth to seven children, yes, eight were born to her. You might say, “Which was it?” They would not have any problems with that at all in the ancient world; they knew what that meant. It meant, basically, she had a whole bunch of children. That is the way the parallelism works in some of the numbers. You get N, N + 1 parallelism. (Eccl. 11:2; Micah 5:5)

E. Here is a special case of N, 10N. One thousand to ten thousand. There are several examples of that. (Deut. 32:30; Micah 6:7; 1 Sam. 18:8; Ps. 91:7)

F. A special exception N, 11N in the boast of Lamech, “If Cain is avenged seven fold, Lamech seventy-seven,” (Gen. 4:24). Then there is an N, 70N. This is really big. Jesus says, “Not just seven times but seventy times seven,” (Matt. 18:22). That is N to 70N. That really breaks the pattern. That is a dramatic extension of the usual “numerical parallelism”.

G. But there is an even greater exception and that is the one we are looking at. Three or four to thousands. That is big. That is our passage. “Yes,” says God, “not that I punish the fourth generation for what the first generation did.” That is not the point at all. It is rather, “If generations keep sinning against me and breaking my law, I will keep punishing them. If the first generation does it, I will punish it. If the generation after that does it, I will punish them too. I’ll have to do that on to maybe the third or fourth generation, but what I want to do is to bless thousands of generations who love me.” So the parallelism demonstrates that God’s purpose is to show love, his loyalty, his hesed in the Hebrew, “to thousands of those who love me.” The contrast is between what he will do, “If the generations keep doing it, I’ll have to keep punishing, but what I want to do, which is essentially forever, to be a blessing to my people generation after generation, if only they will remain faithful.” The meaning is, “I will, if I have to, punish successive generations but not for long. I really don’t want to do this for long.” It may go on for awhile but that is why it is limited to three or four, it makes the suggestion that this is not forever. “But what I would like to do is bless my people forever if only they will keep my covenant.” What it really shows is what you might think it shows. It shows the desire of God and the invitation of God for his people to be obedient to him and enjoy his blessing. It is not really a statement about how he unfairly judges at all. If we had time I could show you how the Hebrew is applied in other passages and it really does not mean punishing X for Y, it means applying the same punishment that you applied to X also to Y. That is really what it means in terms of translation. That is a little thing, I just thought I would show it to you because it often comes up and people wonder about it and puzzle it out and try to understand its significance and it is useful, I think, to be aware of that.

II. The Meaning of the Term “Love”

A. There is another kind of thing that I would also like to show you because it helps us define terminology. William Moran back in 1963 wrote a very nice article that many scholars have referred to called “The Ancient Near Eastern Background for the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published it in a journal called Catholic Biblical Quarterly (24). What Moran demonstrated was this—when we read the commandments “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,” and “Love your Neighbor as yourself,” we are not reading about attitude at all. We are reading about action. To love is to do acts of love, to show love. It is not a feeling. So you do not just say, “I just love God. Oh! Oh! Oh! Yes! I love ya!” “Well, there’s that commandment fulfilled.” “I just love my neighbor. You are a sweetheart. I love ya!” “There is another one.” No, it is what I do for her that is obedience to that commandment to love her as my neighbor, as myself, and it is what I do for God that demonstrates it. Moran just showed this by showing from many ancient documents from all over the time period of the Bible, Old Testament time period, how this terminology of love really functions. Here is one king writing to another, “I’m the king’s servant and the one who loves you. Various kings, my lord, just as I love the king my lord,” he is writing to a Pharaoh in Egypt, “so do these other kings. They are all servants of my lord.” That is what it means. “Who will love if I die?” Here is Rib-Addi writing about a revolt, “Half the city loves the sons of Abdi-Ashirta; half of it loves my lord,” meaning the Pharaoh. “If you send me no answer, I’ll leave the city and go away with the people who love me.” Are these a bunch of gay people? No, that is not it; that is not what is going on. Look at this one, “You will love Ashurbanipal as yourselves,” says one vassal king about his son. “The king of Assyria, we will love.” Here is reference to David and Hiram, “Hiram had been a lover of David all his life,” (1 Kings 5:1), meaning, they were allies, they did things for each other, they were in league, they functioned as allies function. That is the usage.

B. What you really find is this, in the ancient world in referring to things like loyalty, faithfulness, decency, doing things for one another, being allies, being closely supportive, in international diplomacy they use the terminology of love, and by the way, also hate. I could show you a whole bunch of passages relating to hate. So and so hates this. So and so hates that. When you read in Malachi, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” Ancient people did not understand that to mean, “I just love my people and just hate those Edomites.” It rather, “I have made an alliance with my people, they are in my covenant. I don’t have a covenant with the Edomites.” That is the point. The language of love and hate is the language of international diplomacy and also of personal favor and service and so on.

C. You love your master or you hate your master. Jesus says, “You can’t serve both God and mammon and you’ll either love the one and hate the other.” He is not talking about some vicious attitude of hate as apposed to some warm attitude of love. He is talking about you will favor one and not favor the other. So, even Jesus uses typical love-hate language. The point is, when we are told to love the Lord our God, it is something we do. You do it regardless of how you may feel. You love your neighbor whether or not your neighbor is much fun to be around. You do not have to worry about saying, “I just don’t feel love, I don’t mind doing things for my neighbor but I just don’t feel this deep, pure love that I should.” That is not really part of the command at all. Your feelings are a separate issue. It is what you do that really is important. If we can learn that, I think it is very good.

D. By the way, do not also get trapped into the old flaw of saying, “Oh, it says love your neighbor as yourself, therefore, I must first love myself.” In the New Testament we have Paul describing, for example, all of the wickedness that will come in the last days and he says, “People will be lovers of self,” as wickedness. So that commandment is not saying, “Love people as you love yourself,” it is saying, “Love people as you want the reciprocation to occur, as you would like to be love, that is, treated.” Treat people as you would like to be treated. Jesus sums it up by saying in other language that makes it perfectly clear, “Do to others as you would have others do to you.” That is what it means. It does not mean you have a right to self-love. That is prohibited in Scripture.