Hagar and Ishmael, the Forerunners in the Wilderness – 40 Days of Exoduses (7)

Interwoven Narratives and Archetypes

In the studies to this point, I have skipped a number of sections, which I mean to return to at this point. From Genesis 15 to 22 the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise and birth of Isaac is interwoven with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. These interwoven stories are intended to be read in parallel, recognizing correspondences and contrasts between their characters and their roles and destinies.

The same thing holds here as with the stories of Abraham and Lot, Esau and Jacob, or Joseph and Judah. These characters are not mere ciphers for moral lessons, nor bare accounts of the actions of historical personages, but are figures who encapsulate the identities and destinies of peoples. Throughout, Genesis is a book of archetypes, a fact that a surface reading of the text all too frequently misses. These archetypes cast a long shadow over all subsequent history. Genesis isn’t a book that chronicles the sort of origins that are swiftly left behind: rather, the identities, patterns, symbols, and sources of Genesis persist through time.

Reading throughout the New Testament, we will see that the same types and symbols are in operation, a point that this particular study should well illustrate.

Abram and Sarai and Hagar’s Exodus

In Genesis 15, Abram receives the promise that one from his own body will be his heir. Sarai, however, was barren and had borne no children. Seeking to resolve this problem, Sarai offered Abram Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, as a surrogate mother (although it is worth noticing that 16:3 says that Hagar was given to Abram ‘to be his wife’). The story of Genesis 16 is deeply redolent of the Fall narrative. The woman (Sarai) offers her husband something (or in this case someone – Hagar) that is desirable to obtain a good end (getting offspring). The husband heeds his wife’s voice (cf. 3:17). The woman takes and gives to her husband, who eats (or in this case has sex with). There is then the opening of eyes, as Sarai becomes despised in Hagar’s eyes (v.4), a revelation of shame or nakedness (‘when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes’ – v.5), judgment, followed by expulsion or departure from the ‘garden’ (as Hagar flees from her harsh mistress).

The inversions of the narrative of Genesis 16 continue, as we see Abram and Sarai, not only in the roles of Adam and Eve at the Fall, but Sarai playing the part of Pharaoh to Hagar’s Moses/Israel. Sarai ‘afflicted’ Hagar (v.6). The only previous use of the verb is in the preceding chapter, where YHWH declares to Abram that his descendants will be ‘afflicted’ in a land that isn’t their own (15:13). The Angel of YHWH then meets with Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, asking her what she is doing, telling her to return to her mistress Sarai.

The Angel of YHWH declares to Hagar that he will multiply her descendants beyond count (this is the only occasion such a promise is given to a woman). The promise given to Abram in the previous chapter (15:5) is given to Hagar personally. Hagar receives her own ‘annunciation’, taking a form practically identical to that which Mary’s will take (16:11; cf. Luke 1:31). She will bear a son, who will be named for the fact that YHWH hears (v.11). She calls the name of YHWH ‘You-Are-The-God-Who-Sees’ and refers to the fact that she has ‘seen the back’ of YHWH (v.13). The well is then called Beer Lahai Roi (v.14).

YHWH hearing the affliction of the oppressed woman should recall the beginning of the book of Exodus, which is focused on expectant mothers and Israel as a woman groaning in birth, whose cry goes up to YHWH. Hagar is the Egyptian whose oppression at the hands of ‘Israelites’ is heard and seen by YHWH (cf. Exodus 3:7). Like Moses she flees from the face of an oppressor and sits down by a well (16:7; Exodus 2:15). Like Moses, Hagar has an encounter with the Angel of YHWH in the wilderness, who tells her to return. Like Moses, the encounter with the Angel of YHWH involves a naming of YHWH, here by Hagar (v.13), in Exodus a self-identification by YHWH himself (Exodus 3:13-14). Like Moses, she sees the back of YHWH (cf. Exodus 33:17-23).

James Jordan suggests that Abraham’s life is structured as a chiasm and that the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael’s birth lies at its very heart. The fact that 16:16 connects the very midpoint of Abraham’s life (cf. 25:7) with Hagar’s bearing of Ishmael to him is important to notice. Hagar and Ishmael’s story isn’t incidental to the larger plot but is an integral and central feature of its fabric.

Ishmael as the First Isaac

In Genesis 17 YHWH gives circumcision, the sign of the covenant, and a new name to Abraham. He promises that Abraham will have a child through Sarah and that this child will be the one with whom he establishes his covenant. Abraham expresses his desire that Ishmael would live before YHWH, but YHWH says that Isaac will be the promised seed, not Ishmael. Nevertheless, Abraham’s desire for Ishmael has been regarded by YHWH: Ishmael is blessed and will be fruitful and multiply. The promises made concerning Ishmael are significant as they so closely mirror the blessings received by Isaac and his descendants. Ishmael will become a great nation and will beget ‘twelve princes’ (v.20), a clear parallel to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Ishmael is circumcised (17:26) and becomes a bearer of the covenant vocation. This vocation will pass to Isaac in time and Ishmael will no longer be at the centre of the picture, just as Abraham will retreat to the sidelines when Isaac comes of age. Only with Jacob and his twelve sons will we see the covenant vocation become shared by all of the heirs. However, until Isaac comes on the scene, Ishmael is a covenant-bearer.

Jordan’s treatment of the parallels between Ishmael and Isaac is very insightful. Ishmael and his mother are cast out when Sarah sees Ishmael ‘isaac-ing’ at the feast of Isaac’s weaning (21:8-9). The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is designed to clarify Isaac’s place as the true heir of the covenant vocation, because Ishmael is too like him. Abraham’s ‘sacrifice’ of Ishmael closely parallels his later ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, both accounts beginning with the command of YHWH (21:10-12; 22:2). Jordan writes:

Abraham arises early in the morning.
Ishmael’s mother takes him into another land, from Beersheba.
The boy comes to the point of death.
Yahweh’s angel intervenes and saves him.
Hagar “opens her eyes and sees” the well of water.
God promises to be with the boy.
He marries a foreign woman.

Abraham arises early in the morning.
Isaac’s father takes him into another land, from Beersheba.
The boy comes to the point of death.
Yahweh’s angel intervenes and saves him.
Abraham “lifts up his eyes and sees” the ram.
God promises to be with the boy.
Isaac marries a foreign woman (Genesis 24).

He continues:

Note that the words “lad” and “son” permeate both stories. Hagar is told to grasp Ishmael by the hand, and Abraham is told to stay his hand against Isaac. Abraham calls the place “God sees,” which is what Hagar called the place God where God met her earlier (22:14; 16:13). Also, a “donkey” transports Abraham and Isaac, and Ishmael is a “wild donkey”; though the Hebrew words are different, the presence of a donkey helps further the connection between Ishmael and Isaac. More pregnantly: Ishmael is left under a bush, while Isaac’s substitute ram is found in a bush. Thus, Ishmael under a bush becomes Isaac on the wood of the altar, becomes the ram in the bush, becomes Jesus on the cross.

Ishmael’s Exodus

Jordan proceeds to argue that Ishmael’s story also manifests an exodus pattern:

Hagar carries bread on her shoulder.
She goes into the wilderness.
She wanders there.
There is no water there.
She and Ishmael almost die there.
They cry, but it is not said they cry to God.
God hears their cry.
Yahweh appears to her there and provides water.
Yahweh assures them of His love.
Ishmael marries with an Egyptian, but lives in Paran.

Israel carries bread on their shoulders (Exodus 12:34).
They go into the wilderness.
They wander there.
There is no water there.
They almost die there.
They cry, but seldom to Yahweh.
God hears their cry.
Yahweh appears to them and provides water.
Yahweh makes covenant with them at Sinai.
Israel “marries” with the Egyptian mixed multitude, but lives in Paran, a staging ground for the conquest of Canaan (Numbers 10:12; 13:3 & 26.)

These connections all point in the direction of Hagar and Ishmael having far more important a role to play in the Genesis narrative and in biblical typology more generally than is commonly acknowledged. While these passages and the blessings upon Ishmael within them are commonly read as YHWH’s provision of a severance package for Hagar, I want to present a case for the claim that they mark out Ishmael and Hagar as prominent characters and archetypes in the sacred drama. This claim will be given greater weight as we study the place that the figures of Hagar and Ishmael occupy within the later biblical narrative.

Hagar and Ishmael in Biblical Typology

I have already remarked upon the parallels between Moses and Hagar. Both Moses and Hagar experience two key exoduses into the wilderness in their lives, the first alone and the second with a child or ‘children’. Neither enters into the promise themselves: Hagar and her seed have to give way to Sarah and Isaac and Moses never enters into the Promised Land. Both are associated with wells and water in the wilderness, being the ones who provide water to thirsty children (Genesis 21:19). The story of the Israelites under Moses in the wilderness of Shur following the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 15:22; cf. Genesis 16:7), lacking water and crying out, a tree, the opening of eyes, and the provision of the water for the children at Marah (Exodus 15:22-26) recalls that of Hagar and Ishmael, for instance.

We also see echoes of Hagar and Ishmael in the story of Elijah. Peter Leithart comments on the narrative of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:

The ‘lad’ left at Beersheba is reminiscent of Ishmael (Genesis 21), as is the appearance of the angel to Elijah later in the wilderness, the angel that provides food in the desert, as the angel did for Ishmael and Hagar. There are clearly other allusions to the Ishmael story as well. Elijah sits under a ‘broom tree,’ a species mentioned elsewhere only in Psalm 120:4 and Job 30:4. In Psalm 120, the broom tree is associated with the tents of Kedar, and Kedar is one of the sons of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13). Ishmael is placed under a bush in the desert, and Elijah sits under a tree in the desert. An angel appears to Hagar, as an angel appears to Elijah, offering food and refreshment. Ishmael is near death and is rescued from death, and Elijah is desiring to die, but is raised up.

These parallels can be filled out further. In both stories we see a weak man, his oppressing wife, and a persecuted prophet/ess figure (the startling immediacy of Hagar’s encounters with YHWH suggests that she might be regarded as a prophetess), who flees to the wilderness. This pattern will give support to a further connection that we shall draw presently.

Ishmael and Isaac are two goats (cf. Leviticus 16). If Ishmael is the goat sent into the wilderness (a connection suggested by Michael Sadgrove’s recent book, Lost Sons, although I would demur from his more Girardian reading), then Isaac is the goat to be prepared for the sin offering (although both goats were sin offerings in a sense – Numbers 29:11), which is what the covenant vocation entails. Allusions to the two goats of the Day of Atonement are also found in the narrative of Esau and Jacob.

The shadow of Ishmael also rests over the Parable of the Lost Son. Ishmael is the son who departs from his father, only to return at the end (cf. Genesis 25:9). Ishmael may here be related with the Gentile God-fearers, who entered into the kingdom, while the subjects of the kingdom were cast out (Matthew 8:11-12).

Finally, we see Hagar in the women in the wilderness in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, the woman that flees into the wilderness, where she is provided for by God, is a new Hagar figure. Like Ishmael, the children of the woman of Revelation 12 experience enmity with the serpent (12:17). The woman and the children whose place is in the wilderness are an image of the Church, but also an antitype of Hagar and Ishmael (the Revelation 12 woman is both Sarah and Hagar). The harlot on the waters in the wilderness in Revelation 17:3 is the false Hagar.

John the Baptist as Hagar/Ishmael

The parallels already noted between Hagar/Ishmael and Moses and Elijah suggest a further parallel, perhaps the most illuminating of all: John the Baptist as a new Ishmael. In Luke’s gospel we see two women – Elizabeth and Mary – promised children through angelic visitation. The first case involves an unbelieving father (Luke 1:20). Elizabeth’s child, John, grows up in the wilderness. We would have to be rather tone deaf to fail to see echoes of Ishmael in the description of John’s childhood:

So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. – Genesis 21:20

So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel. – Luke 1:80

John the Baptist is particularly associated with Elijah in Scripture (e.g. Matthew 17:10-13; Luke 1:17; Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8 – note also the relationship between Ahab/Jezebel/Elijah and Herod/Herodias/John) and further connections exist with Moses. All of these figures are forerunners – Moses of the entrance into and conquest of the land, Elijah of the more fruitful ministry of Elisha within the land, John the Baptist of Jesus’ ministry. All are associated with the wilderness and dry places. All are providers of water – Moses provides water for the children of Israel on several occasions, Elijah prays for the end of the drought, John the Baptist is the one who baptizes in the wilderness (Mark 1:4). Hagar/Ishmael are also associated with the provision of water in the wilderness. Like Ishmael, Moses, Elijah, and John are wild, solitary figures, dwelling among their brethren, but rejected by most of them. They are associated with desert beasts – Ishmael with a wild donkey, John and Elijah with camels.

Most importantly, all of these figures have to give way to the heirs. Ishmael goes into the wilderness so that Isaac can inherit unchallenged; Moses dies in the wilderness so that Israel can enter into the land; Elijah has to leave so that Elisha can continue his ministry; John has to decrease so that Christ may increase. In the figure of John the Baptist, elements of the vocation of Ishmael come into clearer focus. Ishmael is to be the one who prepares the way for the promised seed and who willingly surrenders his place for the sake of the one in whom all will receive the inheritance. Far from being struck off the rolls of God’s purposes, Ishmael’s role has a dignity not commonly acknowledged.

In the sacrifice of the two sons, both of the sons have a part to play. Ishmael is the one who prepares the way in the wilderness. He is the one who provides a home for Isaac (Genesis 24:62; 25:11), the one whose territory is the ‘staging ground’ for the conquest of the land, the one whose ministry is to prepare the way of the seed, forging the pattern before him. He is the one associated with Sinai (cf. Galatians 4:25), much as Moses and Elijah. If his glory will be outshone by a greater glory, it is to his eternal blessing that he allows it to be so.

Hagar/Ishmael in Galatians

In Galatians 4:21-31 we find the Apostle Paul outlining an allegory, one which will make considerably more sense in light of what we have observed about Hagar/Ishmael so far.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written:

“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.

Jordan writes:

The reason that Hagar and Ishmael can be used to illustrate the Jews is that they were indeed the first “Jews.” Every Israelite was like Ishmael in that he started out uncircumcised and then was circumcised on the eighth day, as Ishmael was at the age of thirteen. Like Ishmael and Abraham, Israel took upon themselves the burden of circumcision after they had lived for a time as uncircumcised. The fact that Ishmael was relieved of that burden when Isaac took it up was a message to Israel that they would be relieved of it when the Messiah took it up.

Hagar and Ishmael made an exodus into the wilderness, but came only as far as Paran. This is the truth also about Israel. Though they entered the promised land in a physical sense, they did not really enter it. As Paul writes in Hebrews, “If Joshua had really given them rest, there would not remain a greater Day in which the rest would be entered” (Hebrews 4).

As Ishmael was to Israel, so Israel was to Jesus.

Ishmael was born into the faith of Abraham, came under the Law (circumcision), and heard the promise, but the promise was not to him directly but to a replacement: Isaac. Just so, Israel was the seed of Abraham, came under the Law, and heard the promise but the promise was not to them directly but to a replacement: Jesus.

The circumcised Ishmael initially contested with Isaac to be the true heir of the promise. Just so, the Circumcision was contesting with Jesus and His people to be the true heirs of the promise.

Ishmael needed to be cast out that Isaac’s role might be clarified. Just so, Israel needed to be cast out that Jesus’ role might be clarified.

Ishmael was delivered from being under the yoke of circumcision, and became a God-fearer. Just so, Israel should accept being delivered from the yoke of the Law, considered as a death-dealing burden, and become God-fearers.

Hagar/Ishmael figures can go one of two ways. Either they can, like Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist, prepare the way for the entrance into the promise, but then allow their wilderness ministries to be succeeded by one in which the land is entered, or they can obstruct and oppose the heirs, as the Judaizers of Paul’s day. Indeed, Paul as the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles may seem to connect his own ministry with that of Moses (Romans 9:3; cf. Exodus 32:32) and Elijah (Romans 11:1-5; Galatians 1:17; cf. Galatians 4:25; 1 Kings 19:8, 15), and also, by extension, with that of a righteous Ishmael.

Summary

In Hagar and Ishmael we see the forerunners who prepare the way for the people of God in the wilderness, undergoing an incomplete Exodus. Although they come first, they do not enter into the promise for themselves, but only as the true heir comes are they also brought in. As they submit themselves to the divine purpose, and decrease so that the true heir might increase, we see them raised to a place of high honour.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Galatians, Genesis, Lent, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Hagar and Ishmael, the Forerunners in the Wilderness – 40 Days of Exoduses (7)

  1. Tanya Marlow says:

    Interesting thoughts here, as ever, and I like some of the parallels. However, I myself would stop short of making quite so many links as you quite as strongly. I would say that there is a pattern of being cast into the wilderness and God meeting people there, and Hagar and Ishmael are just part of this pattern (which was actually great to be reminded of – I had forgotten.) But I feel with Leithart et al there is sometimes a tendency to want to over-allegorise – join up all the dots so that the Bible becomes a little too like a code you need to break. The broom tree stuff sounded particularly strained to me. But that’s just my opinion! I’m really liking this series.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tanya! I’m pleased that you are enjoying the series. A few thoughts in response.

      First, the tree argument does indeed sound rather far-fetched at first glance. The strength of these sorts of connection tends to be cumulative. By itself it may not be much to go on. However, when you see lots of other details relating figures in the near vicinity, they begin to acquire a greater significance.

      However, and more importantly, the Bible seldom gives us these details indiscriminately and when it mentions details seemingly unnecessarily, we should suspect that the symbolic associations of those details might be important. If you really start to pay attention to the fine details of the text, after a while you begin to notice patterns. You see that different types of trees have different sets of associations. Oak and terebinth trees remind us of the story of Abraham, the tree of life of the Garden of Eden, gopher wood of the ark, acacia of the tabernacle and Shittim (Acacia Grove), myrtle of the restoration, cedar of David and Solomon, the temple, and Lebanon, fig trees of the kingdom, olive and mustard trees of the new covenant, etc.

      The Bible uses language and detail in a far more intensely symbolic and associational way than we typically do in our histories. This is not to say that we don’t have symbolic associations in mind when we speak of trees. If I were writing poetry and mentioned thistles, daffodils, and roses, you would catch my meaning. In the same way trees such as oaks and maple trees have strong national associations. This doesn’t mean that every association is directly operative in every context, but they do have a lot of symbolic significance in the right context. In Scripture, this symbolic significance is far more commonly used. When we see the broom tree – which is hardly mentioned in Scripture at all – associated with Ishmael in a poetic context (in the psalms), the possibility that the broom tree has a symbolic value should occur to us and the unnecessary reference to it in a narrative should spark our attention.

      Second, ‘allegorizing’ as the word typically tends to function in a theological context generally refers to using biblical images to illustrate extra-biblical things (often philosophical concepts). Leithart isn’t allegorizing in such a manner, but seeking to discover the connections that exist within the world of the text itself. Some of his connections (much as some of mine) may prove fanciful and unfounded, but I believe that this is the sort of thing that we need to be doing. I hope that this series will show some of the value of such an approach, and how it can bring to light clear connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.

      Going too far and letting our imaginations get the better of us is always a danger, of course. I put very different degrees of weight upon the various connections mentioned in these posts. For instance, I don’t put much weight upon the broom tree connection. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of bearing any weight. It just means that, a) it is only a possible connection, not a certain one; b) even if it is a genuine connection, it isn’t that strong an association, so we can’t build much upon it. However, although this is the case, it is worth noticing because, together with the other associations that are present, it fills out the picture and gives us more to rest our case upon. When it comes to such associations, no single strand has to bear the weight of the argument, as the weight is borne by all of them together.

      Finally, the pattern of going out into the wilderness and meeting God there is definitely present. However, the wilderness carries more associations than this, as does meeting with God there. For instance, there is the pattern of wilderness ministries followed by land/inheritance ministries (Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, John the Baptist/Jesus). Also the associations aren’t merely between such figures and a general pattern of going into the wilderness and meeting with God: rather, these figures are closely associated with each other as historical figures. Elijah is a new Moses, John is new Elijah, etc. In the same way, when we see such figures experiencing key events in places and ways associated with Hagar and Ishmael, we should associate the figures themselves and not merely them all to a general pattern that lies behind them.

      Once again, these connections vary in strength. The connection between Elijah and John the Baptist is an incredibly strong one. The connection between Moses and Elijah is a strong one, but not as strong as the Elijah/John the Baptist one. The connection between the Apostle Paul and Elijah is not so strong. The connection between Ishmael and John the Baptist is of lesser strength than most of the others, while significantly stronger than that between Paul and Elijah. Depending upon the strength, we can put different degrees of weight upon them.

      Once again, just because a connection genuinely exists, doesn’t mean that it can bear a lot of weight. Such connections are not about black and white, true and false questions, but about analogies and resemblances. It is like recognizing members of a family from their facial features, accents, habits, beliefs, and mannerisms: resemblances can be weaker and stronger and can support different degrees of generalizing. Sometimes we see a resemblance which exists apart from any relation at all. Also the strength of a resemblance is based on all of the details taken together, not just on a few. So it is with these details in Scripture. The important thing is to be attentive, to develop a good eye for the similarities, and to know how much weight to put on different things.

    • It is also worth remembering that the writers of Scripture were steeped in cultures where details to which we accord little importance had immense symbolic significance. The Levitical system is a perfect example. It is not just a generic system of sacrifice as many Christians tend to regard it. There are five major types of sacrifices, with a number of further subdivisions, and several other ceremonies. Different details are carefully stipulated for each one: how to divide the meat, whether to skin or not, how to lay it on the altar, what to do with ashes, where to use the blood, what species of animal to use, what sex, what age, how to present it, when to offer it, what to offer before and after and alongside it, who should offer it, who can eat it, which parts should be eaten by whom, how should it be cooked, what period of time do you have to eat it in, etc., etc. None of these things is without significance. God doesn’t command such things without cause.

      People who belong to such a culture will naturally see the world and read their Scriptures very differently to the way that we are inclined to. This way of thinking about our world is very strange and alien to us. When we read Scripture with a heavily symbolic mindset, people will often tend to think the readings that result are bizarre and fanciful. While some are definitely fanciful and bizarre, I suspect that this reaction typically says more about how far removed we are from the world of the first readers of Scripture as modern Western Christians than it does about the readings themselves.

      Once we are more used to reading the Scriptures in such a way, we won’t be surprised to see the NT writers treating it similarly. When Paul uses the command about not muzzling the ox as it treads out the grain to argue that Christian ministers should be supported by those to whom they minister, compares Hagar to Sinai, or says that the Israelites were ‘baptized into Moses’ in the cloud and sea, these readings all seem strange to most modern Christians. However, if you read the Scriptures in a manner attentive to symbolism and typological connections, they all make deep sense, and you can arrive at many other interpretations just like them. However, in order to do so, we need to learn how to think like ancient readers and not like modern ones.

      One helpful thing to remember is that, by the very nature of the transmission and the writing of ancient texts, extraneous details tended to be removed and meaning took very dense forms. Writing for us is quick and easy. We have a superfluity of means for self-expression. Our words can easily be mass produced on paper or accessed by millions in a digital format. For the ancient scribe, materials were expensive and writing laborious. In such a context, people would learn to write things in incredible condensed forms, conveying a lot of information in a short amount of text. Literacy would be defined in large measure by the ability to express a lot in as small a statement as possible. In a more oral culture, most of the great works of the society would be poetic in form, rather than the more prosaic works that one finds in a culture of mass reproduction. Poets have to learn to weigh every word, not to waste a single breath. The poet chooses every word deliberately and doesn’t mention anything without good reason. We need to start reading the Scriptures in a way that recognizes that most of their authors were such poetic writers.

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