The Old Testament Wrap–up II: Learning by Rote (Biblical Repetition)

When I was a kid, I dreamed of two life-path pursuits: being Luke Skywalker and being in Duran Duran. Because I was a pretty mature and reasonable kid, I figured early on that being Luke Skywalker was a pipe dream, so I channeled my dreams into music. In high school, I had the pierced ears, the long hair, the flannel—But I needed to learn an instrument.

My senior year of high school, I had the sheer luck of seeing Metallica on the Black Album tour from the small pit in the middle of the stage. Three nights in a row. Being in the epicenter of the band’s energy, I had to be a part of that.

I bought a bass guitar the next day. The next week, after a few days of plucking out-of-tune strings, I signed up for lessons.  I was hoping this would go quickly, as my bass heroes made playing look so easy.

What I learned quickly was how un-easy learning to play is, in part because—unless you are blessed with being a prodigy—you have to drill the fundamentals.  For bass, this meant learning and then playing scales, an exercise that familiarizes you with the fret board and instills the shapes of the arpeggios (from which you will play your notes).

Learning by rote was a pain, but a few things sunk in. Had I not drilled these things over and over, nothing would have, and that’s because we learn best by rote.  This probably explains why a number of things are repeated in the Old Testament. Over and over and over.

I was prepared to find tons of contradictions within the Old Testament (one book says this about divorce, another says something different, for example). I found some—shunning violence but praising (and encouraging) slaughter of enemies, for example—but not a lot.  If anything, the parts that could be considered contradictory might be better read as points that were revised (God’s laws, for example). If anything, this is one of the things I appreciated about the Bible, as it suggested that rules shifted to better reflect the times in which they applied.  I wish this were discussed more, actually.

What stood out to me most in these pages was the amount of repetition.

We learn by rote.  That’s why hitters take batting practice, musicians run through scales, and language learners repeat words and phrases over and over until they sink in. And in a work of literature, often, authors repeat some of the important elements of the text that he or she wants to the reader to pay attention to.  The repetition is like a flashing arrow, indicating: hey, pay attention to this!

In speeches, people repeat the points they want to stand out in the audience’s mind. You can’t remember everything so emphasize the most salient points for your purpose.

Since a lot of the Bible’s audience contained people who had the Bible read to them (or excerpted), repetition was probably a useful tool. But by this standard, what are the most salient point in the Bible?

  • God is pissed.
  • You worship the wrong gods.
  • You are about to be destroyed.
  • Here is what you have to give to God (in the way of offerings).
  • The future will be wonderful.

Are there other significant parts of the Old Testament? Of course. But the above list comes up so often, you might think this is what the Book really has to offer.  And if you were sitting listening, you might get the impression that the Bible—or at least the Old Testament—is really dark and, no matter what you do, you’re screwed.

Maybe this is the impression the shapers of the Bible wanted to achieve? For fear is a great power to wield over someone.  Still, it’s a shame, in a way, for there is so much of the Bible that strays from this negativity.  It’s a shame that these details were not repeated more often. But, perhaps, the times were darker back then and there wasn’t enough hope to sustain happier stories.

Up next: The Stories Worth Passing on

About virgowriter

Brad Windhauser has a Master's in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Santa Fe Writer's Project Journal, Ray's Road Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, Northern Liberty Review, and Jonathan. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. You can read more about (and buy) it here: His second novel, The Intersection, is being published by Black Rose Writing September 2016. He is one of five regular contributors to On his solo blog, he is chronicling his experience as a gay writer reading the Bible for the first time: Follow his work at:
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