Rorate Caeli

Scripture is Inspired - and also Gorgeous

When the subject is beautiful, the art which represents the subject should be beautiful as well - and often is. Music, paintings, poems, literature ... when they take the Divine for their subject, they become pleasing also to the eyes, and to the ears. This is what I discovered while reading Scripture in a new way, paying closer attention to its literary character.

A new essay examines just a few narratives in Genesis to show how Scripture is not only inspired by God, but is also great art from an aesthetic perspective.


To give a few examples, we will look at just a few stories from the book of Genesis that show this artistry at work.

As Genesis 10 takes the reader through passage after passage of genealogical data, we stumble upon this passage in the middle of Shem's lineage:


To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother's name was Joktan. (Gen. 10:25)


The genealogy then proceeds to a rather hasty conclusion, only to start over again with Shem's line in Genesis 11, this time detailing his lineage without interruption up to the birth of Noah. There is an unmistakable aside in above verse: "the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother's name was Joktan." This serves as a kind of advanced notice for the interruptive narrative that follows - the narrative of the Tower of Babel, after which the genealogy of Shem is resumed.

In other words, the Babel narrative is situated in the middle of the genealogy precisely to elaborate upon and give meaning to the statement that in Peleg's days "the earth was divided." The reader is naturally led to ask, "how was it divided?" To this inquiry the Babel narrative gives an answer, beginning with an opening phrase evocative of the classic story-introduction, "once upon a time":


Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen. 11:1-9)


The story serves the basic literary function of explaining how the earth came to be divided, but it must be noticed that it does so with a great deal of compositional artistry. Recalling that this narrative interrupts Shem's lineage, we can draw out a few details in the story that show it's literary relationship to Shem through the use of word-play.

The story begins and ends with a set of literary "book-ends" in the phrase "all the earth" (kol ha'aretz):


Now the whole earth [kol ha'aretz] had one language and few words ... and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth [kol ha'aretz]. (Gen. 11:1, 9)


In between these book-ends, there is a series of word repetitions that play off the name Shem:


Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there [sham]. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens [shamayim], and let us make a name [shem] for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there [sham] confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there [sham] over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there [sham] the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there [sham] the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


The key-note of the story is, perhaps, the statement that the men who built the tower did so in order to make a "name" (shem) for themselves. In the chapters of Genesis that have led up to this point, God is portrayed as having set up a kind of domestic covenant-kingdom; over this kingdom He first set Adam and gave him the command to "subdue" and "have dominion" over the earth - the language of kingdom rule used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to the Davidic King's universal rule over the nations. The authority of the father-figure, who is at once covenant head and domestic priest-king, is passed on to his son (ideally, the first-born) who is meant to be a kind of vice-regent or crown prince.


Also discussed is the story of Jacob and Esau, with special attention to the narrative use of dialogue as a means for communicating subtle truths.

Take a look at Narrative Beauty in Genesis: Art meets Inspiration, and come to appreciate Scripture not only as Divine, but also artistically beautiful!

4 comments:

Simon-Peter said...

Thanks.

"at the dictation of the Holy Ghost" this is one of my favorite all-time (like I've read everything!!) Papal lines..."dictated" leaves no wiggle room.

It IS "gorgeous". When you have a guide (the Church) to guide you it blooms before your feet. It IS a work of art...but we sort of know that a priori right? We just have to, er, experience it (?) as it is lit up for us.

"These competing kingdoms ultimately come together in a kind of ecumenical compromise"

Ouch!

I have a soft spot for understatement and this: "and they left off" is terribly good. You gotta smile at that one.

Jeff said...

In about a hundred years, I'll have mastered Latin. After that, it's time to move on to Greek! That shouldn't take any more than two centuries.

And THEN, I can finally learn Hebrew. Yom le yom yabeeah omer; va layla le layla yakhavey da-aht.

Really, the New Testament was written in Trader's 'Greek-for-Dummies' by people who didn't grow up speaking it. The *OLD* Testament, though, was written by God's Chosen People in their own Native Tongue, the language that they grew up speaking while being dandled on their mother's knees and in which from their earliest years they learned to praise the God Who made the Heavens and the Earth and Who fashioned Man from the dust of the ground in a Garden, in the East, in Eden.

Br. Alexis Bugnolo said...

The Fathers, did they every speak of Scripture as "a Story" (fabula)? Certainly not!

It is not a story! It is history! If one does not believe that, then his exegisis is worthless.

Jeff said...

Brother, I guess, has never heard questions like, "Is it a true story?" or heard of "stories" published in the newspaper.

Nor has he noted that "story" and "hiSTORY" are related words.

I, for one, didn't notice any implication that these Biblical STORIES are untrue.