It will be apparent to any regular Bible reader that there is a tremendous repetition within the Biblical narratives. Individuals tend to go through very similar experiences, and often the same words are used in the descriptions of the experience or their response to it. Some of these similarities are so specific and humanly unlikely to be replicated that one can only conclude that there was a higher power over-ruling their situations. It may be that the Angels work in human lives according to some kind of Divine pattern, and this accounts for the sense of repetition and déjà vu, both in our lives and in those of Bible characters. But it may also be because it is God's intention that we meditate upon the lives of His previous servants to the point where we see their experiences coming through, in principle, in our own lives; and we are urged on to a like victory as they attained. Consider the following of many possible examples of this repetition in Biblical narratives:
- The way Saul returns from pursuing David because of a rumour of invasion is so similar to Rabshakeh’s retreat from Jerusalem after rumours of incursions (1 Sam. 23:27).
- As Samuel tarried longer than Saul expected, so Amasa "tarried longer than the set time which [David] had appointed him" (2 Sam. 20:5).
- The incidents involving Moses and Jacob meeting women at a well are evidently intended to be seen as reflecting some unseen Heavenly template.
- When Joshua was leading the Israelite army, he was given victory because Moses kept his arms outstretched in prayer. Later, circumstances repeated, so that Joshua had the opportunity to make the same effort for others as had been made for him. For Joshua had to keep his hand stretched out, until his men had destroyed all the men of Ai (Josh. 8:26). And throughout life, this occurs for us- a situation wherein we were shown grace repeats, in essence, so that we have an opportunity to show the same grace to others which we received.
- God created a great wind with which He brought Jonah and his fellows to their knees (Jonah 1:5). God later creates another great wind with which to teach Jonah something else (Jonah 4:8). Jonah ought to have perceived the same hand of the same God at work with him. Jonah's life "ebbed away" inside the fish (Jonah 2:7)- and a very similar word is used about his experience as he sat under the gourd (Jonah 4:8). In the fish, Jonah prayed that God would save his life, and was heard. But when he was made to feel the same again, he instead prayed God to take away his life. Perhaps this shows that even when we respond well to circumstances, those same circumstances may repeat in order to test us as to whether we will continue to make that right response.
- Joash did right before God whilst the priest Jehoiada was alive, and then apostasized; Uzziah did likewise, with Zechariah the priest (2 Chron. 24:2; 26:5). He didn’t reflect upon the personal implications of Divine history. And we too must appreciate that there are Bible characters whose experiences are framed in terms directly relevant to us- for our learning. Interestingly, straight after Jehoiada died, the princes of the land came to Joash with a request, which he wrongly listened to. This has great similarities with the tragic mistake made by Rehoboam after Solomon died (2 Chron. 10:3,4 cp. 24:17). So Joash was given chance after chance to be directed back to previous examples and be instructed by them- but he went on in his own way.
- The genealogies of Genesis 11 reveal how some human lives repeat according to the same outline schema. Thus both Arphaxad and Shelah each lived 403 years after the births of the eldest sons; Shelah, Peleg and Serug were each 30 when their first sons were born. Abraham and Shem both had sons at 100 years old (Gen. 11:10). And it is the very nature of Christian fellowship that God has arranged that our human lives likewise have elements of amazing similarity of pattern.
- The way Peter was given a vision and asked to eat what he had previously thought unclean has many similarities with Ezekiel going through a similar experience (Ez. 4:10-14 cp. Acts 10:14).
- David sent messengers to Nabal meaning well to him, and they were rudely rebuffed, resulting in his anger which only Abigail’s grace and wisdom saved him from (1 Sam. 25). And yet the same situation repeated in its essence when he sent messengers to Hanun who were likewise misinterpreted and rebuffed (2 Sam. 10:3). Again, David got angry- but there was no Abigail to restrain him, and he did get into an impossible fight… from which by grace God delivered him. Could it not be that David failed to learn from his previous experience…?
- The signs done by Moses before Pharaoh have evident connection with the later plagues brought upon him- they were all "that you may know" (Ex. 7:17 etc.). The staff, stretched out right hand, snakes, the rod "swallowing" the serpent rods of Egypt (symbols of Pharaoh- Ez. 29:3-5; 32:2) just as the Egyptians were to be swallowed at the Red Sea (Ex. 15:12), leprosy / boils, water / blood all repeat. The signs were thus both an encouragement to believe as well as a warning of judgment to come. Pharaoh was presented with the possibility of either faith, or destruction. Note in passing that God's hardening of that man's heart didn't mean that He made no effort to save him nor appeal to him.
- The disciples’ eyes were heavy and they fell asleep at the critical moment. But earlier, “having remained awake”, the same disciples were blessed with a vision of the Lord’s glory (Lk. 9:32 RVmg.). If they had remained awake in the garden, they would have seen the Lord being glorified by Angelic visitation. But they didn't perceive how the circumstances were repeating, and thus didn’t find the strength and inspiration which was potentially prepared for them through the similarity of circumstance.
- Especially do we find the essence of the Red Sea deliverance repeated in life after life, situation after situation, in Israel's history. This happens to the extent that some of the Psalms can speak as if we were there present; and Paul stresses how that passage through water remains a type of the baptism of every believer to this day (1 Cor. 10:1). Take for example how just as Yahweh confounded Israel's enemies at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:24,25), so He did in Deborah's victory over Sisera (Jud. 4:15); and "not one was left" (Jud. 4:16), just as happened with the Egyptians (Ex. 14:28).
- Samuel appeared to have assumed that Eliab must be Yahweh's anointed, seeing he was tall and handsome (1 Sam. 16:7). But he had not learnt the lesson he should've learnt from his experience with Saul, who was exceptionally tall, and yet was no leader of God's people. God tries to remind Samuel of this by saying of Eliab: "I have rejected him"; God had used the very term about Saul very recently (1 Sam. 16:1,7 RV). Ps. 89:19,20 imply that God had specifically told Samuel to anoint David- so his desire to anoint tall, handsome Eliab appears to have been a failure on Samuel's part, rooted in simply not joining the dots. And even when David was brought in, Samuel seems to have somewhat failed in his judgment- for he was impressed by David's fair appearance (1 Sam. 16:12), when God had just laboured the point to Samuel that the choice of a ruler was not to be based upon his appearance (1 Sam. 16:7).
Relevance For Us
One can also recount such instances of repetition in the narratives of our own lives. Our experiences connect with those of Biblical characters- and thus the Biblical records become alive and intensely personal for each of us. Further, we see similarities in patterns and experiences between our lives and those of others contemporary with us. This is surely to enable the principle of 2 Cor. 1:4- that if we suffer anything, it is so that we can mediate comfort to those who suffer as we do. To go into our shells and not do this not only makes our own sufferings harder, but frustrates the very purpose of them. The repeating similarities between our lives and those of others also reveal to us that God at times arranges for us to suffer from our alter ego- persons who behave similarly to us, and who through those similarities cause us suffering. In this way we are taught the error of our ways, both past and present. It seems that Jacob the deceiver suffered in this way from Laban the deceiver- in order to teach him and cause his spiritual growth. For example, as Jacob deceived his blind father relating to an important family matter, so Laban deceived Jacob in the darkness of the wedding night. Esau once begged food of Jacob, and he deceived him cruelly. As an old man, Jacob twice had to beg food from the estranged brother, his own son Joseph. No wonder he so tried not to have to send his sons to Egypt to beg for food. He was being taught- even after all those years- how Esau his brother had felt.
The Example Of Abraham
Abraham was progressively set up by God so that his spiritual growth would be an upward spiral. Initially, he was told to walk / go to a land which God would shew him (Gen. 12:1); when he got there, he was told to "arise", and "walk" through that land of Canaan (Gen. 13:17). And Abraham, albeit in a faltering kind of way, did just this. But this was to prepare him for the test of Gen. 22:3 in the command to offer Isaac. His obedience this time isn't at all faltering. He "arises" and 'goes' [s.w. "walk"] "unto the place of which God had told him" to offer Isaac (Gen. 22:3). This is exactly what he had been called to do right back in Ur- to arise and walk / go to a land / place which God would show him (Gen. 12:1). And so our obedience in one challenge of God leads us to obedience in others. One experience is designed to lead us to another. Nothing- absolutely nothing- in our lives is senseless chance. All- and this takes some believing- is part of a higher plan for our spiritual good, in our latter end. Time and again we see this in Abraham's life. He was taught that he really could be a blessing to others by the circumstances which God arranged relating to Lot being blessed / saved for his sake. Or take how Sarah murmured that it was impossible for her to have "pleasure" in childbearing (Gen. 18:12). She uses the word ednah, related to the word Eden. Yet in the events of Gen. 19, she sees how the land around Sodom that was once "like the garden of Eden" (Gen. 13:10) is made barren and sowed with salt so that nothing could grow there (Gen. 19:25; Dt. 29:23). She was being taught that God can give and take away fertility on a huge scale. Likewise in Gen. 20:17, Abraham's weakness leads Abimelech's wives to become barren; yet through the faith and prayer of an undoubtedly spiritually weak Abraham, their fertility is restored. Again, God was teaching Abraham through circumstances. It could also be reasoned from Gen. 20:6 that God weakened Abimelech's body so that he had no sexual desire for Sarah- and again, this was to teach Abraham the impotent old man that virility is a gift which God can give and take at ease. The wonderful thing is that all these lessons were taught to Abraham through the incident of lying about and betraying his wife, which shows the weakness of his faith in God's promises. The way God works with and through human weakness is awesome.
Thoughtful readers of Genesis must have wondered at the rubric "Now these are the generations of...". This phrase, the toledoth [Hebrew for "generations"] formula, is used to introduce both genealogies and also narratives. Why not say "Now this is the story / account / history of Joseph"? Why describe a narrative as a genealogy? Why preface genealogies and narrative histories as if they are one and the same? I suggest that the inspired writer of the Bible's opening book wished to establish the point that history gives birth to the future, history is pregnant, and not dry, dead and finished. And God's history especially demonstrates that the "generations" somehow repeat themselves over history, in that situations and character types recur over time in a Divinely planned manner.
The repetition of circumstance in our lives is not only to teach us, but to make sure that we learnt the lesson- for what teacher doesn't give pupils exercises to practice the theory they've learnt? The life of Joseph and his brothers is very much a case of situations repeating. It seems that Joseph, acting on God's behalf and as a type of Christ, manipulated circumstances so that his brothers would have deja vu experiences. Thus he sets things up to tempt them with freedom if they again betray their younger brother (Benjamin) and are thoughtless to their father's pain. The united, frank and open response of the brothers (Gen. 44:13,16,17) showed how they had indeed learnt their lesson.
Another example of Joseph being tested by repeating circumstances was in the matter of playing God. In interpreting the dreams in prison, Joseph twice said that interpretations of dreams belong to God; "it is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer..." (Gen. 40:8; 41:16). Thus twice Joseph resisted the temptation to claim Divine power to himself. Some years later, however, I fear he failed a similar temptation, when he says to his brothers: "Such a man as I can indeed divine" (Gen. 44:15). He seems to be claiming for himself the power that earlier he had ascribed solely to God. But at the end of his life, when his brothers express their fear that Joseph will judge them harshly now that Jacob has died, Joseph assures them that he will not, as he is not going to play God: "Fear not, for am I in the place of God?" (Gen. 50:19). Significantly, these were the very words of Joseph's father to his mother in Gen. 30:2- showing how temptations and the essence of situations repeat across the generations and within the collective experience of groups of believers. We can discern what happened to Joseph going on in our own lives, if we will only take time to examine ourselves and the patterns of our experiences. A specific temptation or situation may, in essence, occur once, and we respond rightly; again it happens, and again we get it right; then again some years later, and we fail; and then some years later still, and we get it right. Constantly our understanding and obedience is being tested, developed, expanded, confirmed... by the Divinely controlled, providential structure of our lives and the situations and persons we encounter. Whether we travel the world each day meeting new people and apparently "new" situations all the time, or we sit in the same room confined by illness and with a limited pool of interaction... all the same, God is equally at work with us all, every moment. Let's not lose sight of the fact that Joseph stands as a pattern for us all. When Paul wrote that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28), he was echoing how in all the grief of Joseph's life, the rejection by his brethren, the cruel twists of fate [as they seemed at the time]... God meant it for good (Gen. 50:20). This same wonderful process will come true in our lives- for they too are equally directed by a loving Father.
Understood like this, God's word becomes an ongoing dialogue with us as the tapestry of our own lives unrolls. His word is, if you like, God's take on human history. He wants us to see how He interacts with us in our lives as He likewise has done in those of so many in the past. The more we reflect upon Biblical history, which is really the account of a few hundred lives which God interacted with over 4000 years, the more we will be able to make sense of the choices we face each hour. We will see the likely consequences, and we will also see the importance of motives, coming to appreciate that it's not always so much the choice we make, as the reasons for that choice which are crucial. And thereby we'll come to see how things in the lives of others will have different meanings, lessons, warnings and encouragements for each of us. Thus even within the Biblical record, the names of places (e.g. Bethel and Beersheba) and people (e.g. Ishmael and Isaac) are given different interpretations depending upon the point which the record is seeking to make.
Just as we will come to hunger for more intimacy with the Biblical characters, reading the records and meditating upon them with amazement at how they speak to our situations... so we will likewise come to more earnestly seek closeness with our brothers and sisters. No longer will "fellowship" be an on-paper agreement, or attendance at the same place of worship, where we hold a common doctrinal understanding and follow the same ethos. Fellowship with our fellow believers is only meaningful insofar as we get to know them, and they to know us.. backgrounds, experiences, paths of growth and failure, achieving those moments of "touche" between minds. So very often it has been observed that the encouragement we take away from meetings with other believers is not centred upon the talk we heard, but rather on the positive encouragement we picked up from conversation with others over coffee. Experience unites, whereas dry theology and theory alone tend to divide. For we as persons relate to persons, and as such it seems to me that platform speaking and speakers shouldn’t be over-rated by us. Rather should we see the need for real, inter-personal fellowship, making the effort to meet, be involved, be in loving and concerned contact, sharing our lives, failures and experiences… with our brothers and sisters.