The Bible repeats itself too much—Part 2: Similar passages

This is the second in a series of posts about unnecessary repetition in the Bible. This time, I’ll be looking at passages that aren’t saying exactly the same thing as other passages, but are still awfully similar.

Why does the Bible have so many strangely similar stories? In some cases, it’s because the writers had this weird idea that history systematically repeats itself. So if they didn’t know enough about the life of Jesus or whoever they were writing about, they figured they could just look at stories about similar people in the earlier scriptures, and assume Jesus must have done the same things.

In both of the first two chapters of Job, Satan goes to see God along with the angels, God asks him where he’s been, Satan says he’s been roaming the earth, God asks him what he thinks of righteous Job, Satan says Job’s love of God is not unconditional, he tells God what he would have to do to get Job to curse God, God agrees to let Satan do that to Job, and Satan goes off to do it.

There are three different stories in Genesis where a man claims his wife is his sister so no one will kill him over her, then a king tries to take her for himself, and when the king finds out he’s being tricked into doing something wrong, he doesn’t get angry and punish anyone for some reason, but just lets the couple go on their way. This supposedly happened to Abraham twice, and then also to his son Isaac.

The books of Genesis and Judges both have stories where a mob surrounds a man’s house and tries to get him to let them rape his male guest(s), and the man doesn’t think that would be right, so he offers to let them rape his daughter(s) instead.

The Bible says Abraham and Isaac both had disputes over the ownership of wells in Gerar. Wives for Isaac, Jacob, and Moses were all found at wells. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had wives who were infertile at first, until God intervened. Abraham and Jacob both used a workaround where they had children with their wives’ servants.

In Genesis 28, God appears to Jacob and tells him he will have a huge number of descendants who will inherit the land he’s in. Jacob sets up a stone pillar, pours oil on it, and names the place Bethel. Then in Genesis 35, all that happens again. In Genesis 32, God gives Jacob a new name and claims that Jacob won’t be called Jacob anymore. Then three chapters later, he does it again.

Once in Genesis and twice in Daniel, a king has a troubling, cryptic dream about the future. His magicians can’t tell him what it means. But one man of Israelite descent who had been forcibly brought to the king’s country is able to interpret the dream with God’s help. So the king makes that man a ruler of the land. Then after this has already happened twice in Daniel, in the next chapter of Daniel, a king has a troubling vision of a hand writing cryptic messages about the future. His magicians can’t tell him what it means. But one man of Israelite descent who had been forcibly brought to the king’s country is able to interpret the writing with God’s help. So the king makes that man a ruler of the land.

In Genesis, Jacob pronounces blessings on each of his sons, and in Deuteronomy, Moses pronounces blessings on each of the tribes descended from Jacob’s sons.

Post-exodus parallels

Moses’s father-in-law praised God, who rescued Moses from the hand of the Egyptians, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians.

In both Exodus and Numbers, there’s a story where God gets angry at his people for idolatry and wants to kill them all, some Levites help him kill some Israelites, and God rewards all the murderers’ descendants with a special status.

God had both Moses and Elijah stand in a certain place so he could show himself to them. It happened to Elijah after God asked him what he was doing there in a cave. Elijah explained his situation, and God told him to go out and stand where God was about to appear. After three similar sentences about where the omnipresent God wasn’t present, Elijah went where God was. God asked him what he was doing there at the mouth of the cave, as if he wasn’t the one who had just told him to go there, and Elijah explained his situation to God again. And then God told Elijah to go somewhere else.

Exodus 40 says “as the Lord commanded him” eight times after describing what part of the Tabernacle Moses was working on. Leviticus, 1 Samuel, and 2 Chronicles all have stories where God decides to punish people for making offerings to him.

Each of the first two chapters of Numbers has a long list of tribal leaders. Numbers 7 repeats 12 times in a row almost exactly the same description of an offering a leader brought. The only difference is what day it was, who brought the offering, and what tribe he was from. Then it repeats the same description of what they all brought yet again.

The daughters of Zelophehad asked Moses how the law should be applied to their unusual situation, and Moses consulted God and gave them an answer. But apparently God didn’t think of everything, because nine chapters later they had to come back and ask for further clarification.

The books of Joshua and 2 Samuel both have stories where a woman hides two spies from the men sent by the king who the spies’ boss is plotting to overthrow.

A later passage in Joshua gives monotonous descriptions of what Joshua did to the nations that lived in the land the Israelites wanted. Later, in Judges 2, God decides he’s not going to help them drive out the nations anymore, which is strange because earlier in the same chapter he mentions that he had already decided that. (Referring to what he said back here in Joshua, perhaps?)

When 1 Chronicles describes the territory the Kohathites got, it says something like “From the tribe of [tribe] they received [towns] together with their pasturelands” nine times.

Post-settlement parallels

Judges has two different stories where the Ephraimites get excessively offended because somebody didn’t ask them for help fighting his enemies. In another story in Judges, a man keeps repeatedly persuading his visiting son-in-law to stay a little longer, which goes on for several days.

The Bible describes Samuel and Jesus growing up in pretty much the same way. As a child, Samuel heard someone calling him at night, went and said “Here I am, you called me,” and was told to go back to bed, and then all that happened two more times before anyone figured out what was going on.

When Saul and David were enemies, someone pointed out that Saul was vulnerable, but David refused to harm him. He just stole something from Saul, and showed it to him to prove that he wasn’t trying to kill him. And Saul decided to stop trying to kill David. Then two chapters later, the same thing happened again.

When describing how some people were assigned duties, 1 Chronicles says “The [Nth] (lot fell) to [Name], his sons and relatives: 12” 24 times. There are more efficient ways they could have expressed that. Then two chapters later, when it’s listing some people who served David, it says “In charge of the [Nth] division for the [Nth] month was the commander [Name]. There were 24,000 men in his division” 12 times.

1 Kings and 2 Chronicles both conclude the story of Solomon in the same way, except the books they tell you to refer to for more information are different. Same with Rehoboam, and Abijah.

Post-split parallels

Two consecutive kings of Judah are introduced by saying they became king during the reign of Jeroboam of Israel and were descended from a woman named Maakah. Meanwhile, Jeroboam and one of his successors are both told by prophets that God chose them when they were commoners and made them kings, but since God’s chosen kings didn’t turn out to be good ones, God is now going to slaughter their whole families.

Elijah and Elisha both did the same kind of food-multiplying miracles to help poor widows, and they both brought a dead boy back to life in the same weird way. Elisha also did the same kind of food-multiplying miracle to feed a crowd that Jesus did twice.

In both First and Second Kings, there are stories where Jehoshaphat the good king of Judah is strangely willing to be an ally to one of the evil kings of Israel, but he insists that the evil king find a prophet of God to consult. In between those two events, another evil king of Israel sends a captain with 50 men to summon another prophet of God, but the prophet gets God to kill all those men with fire, just because he can. Then that happens again, and then it almost happens again.

Three times, Elijah told his apprentice Elisha to stay where he was, and Elisha refused to leave him. And the first two of those times, some other prophets asked the annoyed Elisha if he knew that God was about to take Elijah away from him.

Mass-murdering maniac Jehu somehow repeatedly convinced his enemy’s messengers to join him, while accusing his enemy of not being peaceful enough.

Sennacherib king of Assyria sent a message to the people of Judah saying they shouldn’t depend on their God to save them, because no other nation’s gods had ever saved them from Assyria. Then in the next chapter, he sent a message to the king of Judah saying the same thing. (And this same repetitive story that was told in 2 Kings is later told again, in Isaiah.)

Later, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon besieged and captured Jerusalem, took the king prisoner, raided the temple, exiled all but the poorest people, and appointed a new king over those who were left. Then in the next chapter, Nebuchadnezzar besieged and captured Jerusalem, took the king prisoner, raided and destroyed the temple, exiled all but the poorest people, and appointed a new governor over those who were left. (This is after the king of Assyria besieged and captured the capital of Israel, took the king prisoner, and took the people into exile.)

Post-exile parallels

In both the third and the sixth chapter of Daniel, Jewish exiles living in Babylon refuse to obey the king’s decree for religious reasons, and are sentenced to death, but then saved by an angel.

In the first six chapters of Ezra, Cyrus king of Persia sends some exiles back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, which they manage despite opposition. Then in the first six chapters of Nehemiah, Artaxerxes king of Persia sends Nehemiah to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall, which he and his people manage despite opposition. Nehemiah 3 describes the people rebuilding the wall pretty repetitively: Next to him, half-district, made repairs, near his house, bolts and bars, blah blah blah. Ezra and Nehemiah also both got really mad at their people for intermarrying with other nations.

Luke and John both have stories where Jesus makes Simon Peter’s fishing efforts successful. Apparently those are supposed to be two different events, since Lukes’s story is when Jesus first met Peter, and John’s story is after the resurrection.

Jesus told two parables back-to-back that were about basically the same thing: Somebody sells everything he owns so he can buy something even more valuable that he just found.1

When Jesus went to see Lazarus’s family after knowingly delaying his visit long enough for his friend Lazarus to die, Lazarus’s sister Martha told him Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus had been there. Then Lazarus’s sister Mary said the same thing.

Comparable commandments

Leviticus gives similar instructions three times in a row to slaughter an animal in front of the tent of meeting, have Aaron’s sons splash its blood on the altar, take certain organs from it, and have the priests burn them on the altar to please God.

It has two very similar consecutive sets of instructions on exactly how to kill an animal in order to make God not care that somebody sinned, followed immediately by three more very similar consecutive passages about the same kind of thing. The next chapter continues to give instructions on sin offerings, and this time it’s about when someone is unaware that they’ve done something wrong, but then they realize they’re guilty. You can tell that’s what it’s about because it repeats that several times in one sentence.

Leviticus 13 has several passages in a row that all give pretty similar instructions on how to deal with skin diseases.

Numbers tells what you have to sacrifice during certain regularly occurring religious observances. For five of them in a row, the required offerings are identical. Then it tells you what to sacrifice on each day of the Festival of Tabernacles. Until the last day, just about the only difference is that the number of bulls required decreases each day.

Numbers 35 has three sentences in a row prescribing the death sentence for someone who kills someone by hitting them with an object made from a certain material. Three different laws, specifying a different material each time. That’s not just an inefficient way to say it, it’s completely unnecessary to specify the materials like that, and doing so creates loopholes. Now what happens if someone uses a clay brick to murder someone?

Deuteronomy 13 has three paragraphs that each say you have to kill people who promote the worship of other gods. The paragraphs say mostly the same thing, and just focus on different people.

Another passage in Deuteronomy keeps saying “the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” as it tells the Israelites several ways they should be good to the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. And twice in that passage, it gives the same dumb reason for doing that: because the Israelites used to be slaves.2

Then there’s a passage that consists of 12 variations of this: “Cursed is anyone who [sins].” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Parallel poetry

Psalms 96 and 98 are pretty similar. Psalm 115 tells people to “trust in the Lord—he is their help and shield” three times in a row. Psalm 118 says his love endures forever twice, and tells people to say so thrice. It says something about humans, and then redundantly says the same thing about princes. Psalm 119 says something like “Help me according to your word” 14 times. Psalms 115 and 135 say similar things about idols. And Psalm 135 tells people to praise the Lord five times in a row.

There are four different verses just in Proverbs (and more elsewhere) that all say how much God prefers people to use honest ways of measuring things. Two different chapters in Proverbs have very similar verses about what the poor have in common with other people. In two different chapters in the Song of Songs, the watchmen making their rounds in the city find Solomon’s girl looking for her lover.

Parallel prophecy

In two consecutive chapters, God tells Isaiah that Israel and Aram-Damascus will be conquered while a boy is still very young. Isaiah says exactly the same thing about two different places in Moab. And he describes a nation in pretty much the same way twice.

In both Jeremiah and Amos, the prophet tells about a basket of fruit or two that he saw in a vision. Then God asks him what he sees, so he tells God about it too.

In the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah says that God told Jeremiah that God said Jeremiah should write down everything that God had told Jeremiah in a book. Then in a later chapter of Jeremiah (which seems to be describing events that happened earlier), Jeremiah says that God told Jeremiah that Jeremiah should write down everything that God had told Jeremiah on a scroll. And God continues telling Jeremiah things for him to write down, like these ten lines that each say what God uses Babylon or whoever to shatter.

In the first chapter of Ezekiel, Ezekiel describes some very strange living creatures he saw. Then in chapter ten, he describes the same very strange living creatures again, taking just about as much space to write about them as he did the first time he saw them. And in Revelation, there are some more very strange living creatures that are described similarly, but aren’t exactly the same. Those books also both have a prophet being given a scroll to eat, and both have someone measuring a temple (which can get pretty repetitive itself).

God keeps calling Ezekiel “son of man” and telling him he’s going to show him something even worse than what he just showed him. Then God keeps saying the presence of three of his favorite men wouldn’t stop him from killing anyone but them, and each time, he comes up with a different idea for a disaster he could cause.

Ezekiel has two different parables where God marries an extremely promiscuous woman (or two), and then her lovers strip her and kill her. And Hosea has one where God strips and kills his wife3 for committing adultery.

God also has Ezekiel tell a parable where a prince is raised by his mother to be a strong lion, learns to tear the prey, and becomes a man-eater. Then “the nations” trap him with a pit and hooks, and take him away to a foreign land. Then the same thing happens to one of the prince’s brothers.

Twice in one chapter, God threatens people by saying similar things about a sword. When God tells Ezekiel about the territory he’s planning to give his people, he says pretty much the same thing about most of the tribes, and his description of some city gates named after the tribes is pretty repetitive too.

Hosea keeps comparing people to ovens. Zechariah describes people mourning in a completely unnecessarily repetitive way, saying the same thing about several different groups of people “and their wives“.

Throughout the first two chapters of Amos, it says something like “For three sins of [place], even for four, I will not relent… I will send fire on (the walls of) [place] that will consume her fortresses” eight times. Then in the fourth chapter, God says “I [did unpleasant things to you because I thought that would somehow make you like me], yet you have not returned to me” five times.

In the first few chapters of Revelation, Jesus keeps talking about how he’ll reward “the one who is victorious“, using that phrase seven times. There are two different creatures in Revelation that are described as being red with seven heads and ten horns. The devil/dragon wears seven crowns, and the beast wears ten crowns.

In Revelation, the Lamb opens seven seals,4 each of which brings a disaster on the world. Then seven angels sound their trumpets, each of which brings a disaster on the world. Then seven angels pour out their bowls, each of which brings a disaster on the world.

Revelation predicts that when Babylon is destroyed, various people who used to do business with Babylon will all say “woe” and talk about how the “great city” has been devastated “in one hour”. Then an angel lists several things that will never happen there again.

For more repetitive repetition, see part 3.

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