Do you have déjà vu moments whilst reading your Bible? Like suddenly thinking, “But, wait … haven’t I read this before”, as you encounter repetitions in a passage of scripture. I often have these experiences (click here for a 1-minute video sharing an insight from a recent such experience). But for many years, I didn’t know what to do with them. Then I learned that they are an intentional feature of the Bible’s design as a composite story. They are intended by the Biblical writers to connect different parts of the Biblical story to convey meaning. And if we know what to do with these déjà vu moments we will be rewarded with valuable insights they are intended to convey.
The Bible is a composite of serval different documents written by different authors in different places at different times. Yet it tells a unified coherent story. One of the ways in which it does this is by connecting the different parts of the story by repetition of words, phrases, patterns, and motifs. These repetitions signal to the audience / reader that the segments of scripture in which they occur are connected, and the reader should reflect on how they are related to discern the message that is being conveyed by the repetition.
Some examples of these déjà vu inducing repetitions are:
The patriarchs Abraham and Isaac are driven by famine to a southern region where by pretending their wife is their sister they risk a violation of their conjugal bond by the local ruler, but eventually are sent away with gifts (Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 20 and Genesis 26:1-12).
Bitter rivalry between a barren, favored wife and a fertile co-wife or concubine (e.g. Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Hannah and Peninnah).
Repeated patterns of sibling rivalry and displacement of the older by the younger (e.g. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers).
Encounters with women at wells resulting in betrothals (e.g. Abraham’s servant on behalf of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses & Zipporah).
Barrenness & annunciations of miraculous births (Abraham & Sarah, Hannah, Samson’s mother, John the Baptist’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary the virgin mother of Jesus).
Perhaps you have had your own déjà vu moments in encountering some of these repetitions in your Bible reading. What are we to do with them to discern the meaning they are intended to convey?
Our recollection of a previous similar event in the Biblical story because of a repetition is an intentional effect. The Biblical writers intend for us to be so reminded. They want us to stop and ponder why the passage we are reading reminds us of other similar passage(s) because of repetition. And we are to compare the related passages, and by reflecting on the comparison to derive some meaning that the repetition is intended to convey.
A déjà vu moment I recently had in reading the account of David’s escape from Jerusalem in the face of Absalom’s conspiracy in 2 Samuel 15 and 18 may serve to illustrate this.
As David flees Jerusalem in the wake of Absalom’s advance, he sends back the priests Zadok and Abiathar with their two sons Ahimaaz and Jonathan to serve as spies. Zadok and Abiathar are to report anything they hear in the king’s palace to David by conveying the same through Ahimaaz and Jonathan as messengers (2 Sam 15:27-28 and 35-36).
In 2 Samuel 18:17-22, we are told that Jonathan and Ahimaaz are seen in En Rogel and Absalom, the new king is informed. The two spies are however hidden by a woman in a well in her home. The woman covers the opening of the well over the spies and spreads grain over the covering. When Absalom’s men come in search of the spies, the woman tells them that the spies have crossed over the brook. Absalom’s men search but find no one and so return to Jerusalem. When the coast is clear, the two spies climb out of the well and go to inform David that he and those with him must cross the Jordan River based on what they have learned in the city. In response to this report of the spies, David and those with him cross the Jordan River going east.
As I read this passage, I was immediately reminded of the story of the two spies in Joshua 2. This is no doubt due to several features of the Joshua 2 story which are repeated in 2 Samuel 18:17-21, and are intended by the Biblical writer to make us connect the two stories:
Two spies are secretly sent to learn what is happening in the city (Jericho) and to report back.
The king of the city is informed of the presence of the two spies.
The two spies are hidden by a woman in her home under agricultural produce (stalks of flax).
The king’s men ask the woman for the location of the two spies.
The woman tells the king’s men that the spies have already left.
The king’s men search for the two spies and return to the city without finding them.
When the coast is clear the two spies return to the leader of God’s people who sent them (Joshua) and reports on what they learn in the city.
The report of the two spies results in the leader and God’s people with him crossing the Jordan River going west.
These repetitions are intended by the Biblical writers to make us compare the two stories of two spies and to ponder the message being conveyed by their relationship. It seems that the writer of 2 Samuel by these repetitions is comparing David to Joshua and suggesting that David’s escape from Jerusalem and crossing the Jordan River in the opposite direction to Joshua’s crossing, is a kind of reversal of the conquest of the Promised Land. It suggests that this event in David’s life has a greater significance in the overall Biblical story and is not simply about his fleeing from Absalom.
We are being told that David is in fact being driven out of the Promised Land, which God had brought Joshua and the Israelites into, in a kind of reversal of the conquest. When combined with David’s separation from the ark of the covenant (2 Samuel 15:25-26) which remains in Jerusalem and signifies the presence of God, it suggests that David like Adam and Eve is, because of sin, being driven out of a special land in which God’s presence could be enjoyed, as he goes east.
I think these are perhaps some of the messages the Biblical writers intend to convey by the déjà vu inducing repetitions in these two passages.
Hopefully this little excursion is sufficient to convince you that the next time you have a déjà vu moment when reading your Bible, you should stop and ask yourself what you are being reminded of. Then compare the relevant passages and ask yourself what the Biblical writers are trying to tell you by making the connections between the passages. The resulting insight is usually well worth the extra effort.