Repetition is normally not something for which we have positive feelings. Perhaps it conjures up the image of being pinned down in a corner by a well-meaning relative at a family gathering, retelling us a story of their childhood days for the umpteenth time. Should we simply humour them and smile? Or inform them we’ve heard this story many times before? And the feelings of frustration that attend it arise from some mix of concerns: is it that my relative cannot remember they’ve told me this before, or do they think me a simpleton who lacks the most basic capacities of recall? Or perhaps repetition reminds us of the classroom. There repetition was presented as the “mother of learning.” More likely for most students it was the mother of boredom and distraction, the seemingly endless repetition of times-tables or verb paradigms dulling many a young girl or boy’s otherwise sunny afternoon. If we wished a further nail in the coffin of repetition’s value, think simply of the statement that we found a certain thing repetitive. “You went to see that film last weekend. How was it?” “Repetitive,” you answer. In a word, boring, uncreative, dull and derivative. Nothing much to stimulate or enthral; nothing much to draw you in. Repetition then is surely a judgement in itself.
So what then should we do with the repetitive nature of the Bible? As we read it, we soon realise it is full of repetition. At the level of theme, one might ask the children at church this week: which book of the Bible focuses on God’s providence over human events? Everyone at Sunday School would raise their hands but the answer would come from all over Scripture: Ruth, Daniel, Revelation, Genesis, Exodus, Acts, the Gospels. The list is almost endless, as certain themes, like God’s sovereignty, seem to appear, if not on every page, then almost in every book of the Bible. Repetition though is perhaps even more striking in Scripture, when it concerns not just themes, but whole blocks of material or narrative related more than once. Almost as soon as we start the Bible, the grand picture of Genesis 1, of God’s creation of all things, seems partially repeated in zooming in on the creative acts on the sixth day in more detail. As we progress through Scripture we find both small and large scale repetitions throughout: whether of old stories of Samuel and Kings gone over again by the Chronicler; or of new ones about Jesus’ birth, life and death which are re-told four times. If the Bible repeats itself like this, is it perhaps then like that frustrating relative? And is our response then to similarly glaze over and let the mind wander until something more interesting comes along?
If we were seeking an answer for why the Bible includes this kind of repetition, we find one in the book which could be seen as winner in the contest of repetition, Deuteronomy, a book with repetition practically in its name. There, the people on the doorstep of the promised land, now for a second time will try to enter. This group, who were children at the first attempt to enter the land, are now as adults to hear Moses and he repeats what has gone before, retelling the story of all that God has done in bringing them to this point, and re-presenting the Law and its commands to the people as both their way of life and as a prophecy of their future. Not surprisingly, a book which wears repetition on its sleeve shows why it is, in essence, a re-proclamation of what God had already declared to the people at Sinai. This repetition of God’s past with Israel and the Law shows the reader both something about God and about us, his people. First, that God is constant in his nature and his purposes. The retelling of events of Deuteronomy shows that just as God has been for and with Israel in the past, he will go forward with Israel into the Land. The crossing of the Jordan may mark a great change in Israel’s life, from that of desert wandering to permanent settlement in the promised Land. But for all these changes in Israel’s condition, their God remains the same, in who he is, what he is about and what he wants. But second, this repetition relates to the nature of the people themselves. Moses, having highlighted the greatness of the Law God has delivered to Israel, stresses that failure will come not by any lack on God’s part, but by their own potential failure to remember what God has given them. God will remember his commitments but the people must “ . . . take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest [they] forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.” (Deut 4:9) God’s answer to this is to command Israel to “Make them known to your children and your children’s children— how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.” (Deut 4:10)
The danger for the people of God in Deuteronomy is one of forgetting, failing to remember both God’s past action but also his revelation. And the solution to this is repetition: God repeating his word to his people through Moses and inscripturating it for their remembrance. But this act of repetition by God is mirrored by a command for the constant repetition of God’s words and works among the people of God and between one generation and another. This constant need for repetition answers the people’s great weakness: a slowness and forgetfulness in hearing the word of God. Preaching on the opening chapter of Deuteronomy, John Calvin picks up the way that the book involves this going over of the Law proclaimed at Sinai, and grounds the reason for repetition in the forgetful nature of Israel. Calvin rather colourfully compares Israel to children at school who have sacked off all year and so, failing, have to be put back and repeat the grade so they can catch up and learn what they should have got the first time. He goes on, “For even though they have heard their schoolteacher, they were as ignorant as they were before, so that, instead of learning anything, they were just like they were before. So then, our Lord rebukes the people of Israel for their brutish dullness, in repeating his law to them the second time. As if he should say, you are very poor students: for l have trained you sufficiently in my Law. The doctrine contained in the ten commandments contains the full perfection of all wisdom. Yet this doesn’t seem to have been enough for you, because you haven’t listened at all; or perhaps my teaching is too long, so that none of it has entered into your hearts, or you have not heard what I said to you. And so you need to accept you must turn back again to your first lesson, and to your ABCs; and I will be willing to open my Law again to you, and to chew your food for you, so that you can digest it better. And because you are so dull . . ., I must accept that I need to drive you forward, and use greater force to waken you, that the hardness of heart which I see in you may be amended.”
Deuteronomy then shows how much repetition is necessary for God’s people, Israel, under the Old Covenant. But this phenomenon is not limited to God’s people of old. Just as Deuteronomy spoke to its first audience on the doorstep of the Promised Land, its target audience was not just that generation, but even more so we, “on whom the ages have come” and for whose instruction Deuteronomy was written down (1 Cor 10:11). Thus the New Covenant writings continue in God’s school of repetition. Christians, like Israel, are at times shown to be also “sluggish in our hearing” (Heb 5:11; 6:12), and needing to be taught the beginners basics all over again (Heb 5:12). Christians have to be called to remember (Heb 10:32) and are warned about the danger of forgetting God and his salvific blessings to us (2 Pe 1:9). Is it then surprising that both the Scriptures of the Old and New Covenant are full of repetition when we as sinful people seem so slow to remember, slow to learn, quick to forget who God is, quick to forget what he has done for us in Christ, and slow to hear what he commands us in response? These things grasped, God’s Scripture is exactly fitted to us: a repetitive Scripture for a hard of hearing people. Just like God condescended to repeat his Law to the slow learners of Deuteronomy, so he repeats his words to us in many and various words so that we who are slow to learn may catch up in our receiving of God’s words.
And so when we come to the Bible in search of something new to stimulate our interest, and instead find God saying to us something rather old and familiar in his word, rather than baulking at the repetitions of Scripture we ought rather to stop, and remember what is happening. God is speaking to us again, saying many things we have already heard, because, though we have heard, we have not listened. And though the word has gone into our ears, it hasn’t gone into our hearts. That though we may have looked at God and ourselves in Scripture, we have been like a person who checks their face in a mirror but as soon they have walked away from it completely forgot the smudge of jam on their face they were supposed to wipe off (Ja 1:23, 24). God kindly repeats himself not for his sake, as if having a senior moment, but for ours, so that we may remember the God we have quickly forgotten, and recall what he has said, and so become “not merely hearers of the word, deceiving ourselves” but “doers of the word.” (Ja 1:22)