Friday, February 22, 2013

The Genesis Death Sandwich!? A literary device revealed by a computer.

Art work by Ramón Pérez
"Intercalation" is among the words I teach my students when studying the Gospel of Mark. This is when Mark begins one story, interrupts it to tell another, and then comebacks to finish the other.

A perfect example of this is found in Mark 5 and the story of Jairus' daughter. Jairus comes to Jesus and requests that he hurry home with him to heal his dying daughter. Jesus agrees. But on the trip to Jairus' home he is distracted by the woman with the issue of blood who gets healed by touching Jesus' garment. In the mean time poor Jairus is waiting for Jesus to finish the trip to his home. But before that can happen a servant from Jairus' house comes to declare that the little girl has now died. Mark then finishes the story of Jairus with an even more dramatic conclusion. Rather than simply healing the sick girl Jesus raises her from the dead.

Mark uses this literary style many times. Sometimes on a medium scale like here, sometimes smaller as in Mark 3 and the Beelzebub controversy and on a larger scale as when he finishes the story of John the Baptist in chapter 6. 

But since "intercalation" is not an everyday, household word, my students and many scholars refer to this literary style as the "Markan Sandwich." Mark starts a story (bread) inserts another story (meat or cheese?) and then finishes the first story (bread). 

Of course this literary device is not limited to the Gospel of Mark. Biblical scholars have long recognized that this is used by a variety of  authors.

More recently, however, a group of scientists have used a software program to analyze the book of Genesis and discovered that descriptions of death are often sandwiched between descriptions of life. Here is what they discovered as reported in the article "Genesis Death Sandwich" in Yahoo News. 

More recently, however, a group of scientists have used a software program to analyze the book of Genesis and discovered that descriptions of death are often sandwiched between descriptions of life. Here is what they discovered as reported in the article "Genesis Death Sandwich" in Yahoo News. 
For their study, Rugg and his colleagues ran the King James version of the text through software known as the Search Visualizer, which plotted mentions of life in red and death in green on a single gridded page representing the whole book. Their results showed frequent mentions of life in the opening and closing verses of Genesis, while themes of death were clustered in the middle. They say the device is an example of a literary convention known as inclusio, also called bracketing, where one theme frames another.
Rugg acknowledged that it is uncertain whether or not this "death sandwich" convention was applied to the text intentionally. Nonetheless, he says it might have been used to cushion the negative messages of death, or perhaps to put life and death in stark contrast
"Whether it was a deliberate use of inclusio or a subconscious use is an open question," Rugg wrote. "We don't think that this structure is likely to be a coincidence, given the number of times the two words occur within Genesis, and given that these are themes that have long been recognized as significant within it."

 I am not sure that we needed a computer to tell us about this literary motif, but it is interesting to see it plotted out this way. Even more refreshing is that in spite of the sensational title given to the article by Yahoo News, the scientist are acting more responsible with their findings. You can also read about the study at BBC News and see a picture of the computer readout. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Dr. Byron, for this post. Very interesting! I am now in the process of making "intercalation", "inclusio" and "bracketing" everyday, household words since you've painted a much clearer picture of how they should be understood.

    -Micah Morgan

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