For the last few weeks I have been writing about either the Old Testament or the Epistle text, the latter of which happened to be from the Epistle to the Hebrews. In both of those places, the Hebrew literary style is usually somewhat easy to spot.
The literary style of an epistle or letter is not so easy. (The Epistle to the Hebrews was easy because it was called a ‘word of exhortation’, and this same type of speech is in Acts 13.) With a letter or epistle, there is the introduction at the beginning; and then there is the conclusion at the end. In some ways, those are the most memorable things.
What is in the middle can often be forgotten or easily passed over. And that is what makes one aspect of the Hebrew literary style so helpful. Often there is something in the middle as a marker, to attract the reader’s attention. And, usually, something at the beginning is an indicator of what you might be getting in the middle.
Adam’s first recorded words focus on his wife, Eve (although this was not yet her name), and they are a good example of a Hebrew structure. In Genesis 2:23, in the original language, Adam is quoted as saying thirteen words, and the first and the last are exactly the same (‘this’), and the middle word contains that same word (‘to this’). In the most extreme literary fashion, his words go this way:
This the-now bone from-my-bones and-flesh from-my-flesh
She-shall-be-called woman for from-man she-was-taken this.
Often the structure is not that obvious. And, since something important is in the middle, it is sometimes passed over quite quickly. I did want to highlight something in the Epistle text for this Sunday that I thought was interesting.
This week, the Epistle text is almost the entire letter of Paul to Philemon [1-21]. And within the entire text, a whole 25 verses, near the middle, in verse 13, we have the only time the word ‘gospel’ is used within that letter.
Paul writes: ‘I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel….’ What is also interesting is that the phrase at the end, ‘imprisonment for the gospel’ is literally ‘imprisonment (or ‘bondage’) OF the gospel’. That phrase is in stark contrast to the language of freedom that Paul connects to the gospel in his first four epistles.
At the very beginning of the Epistle to Philemon, Paul describes himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. He brings up that word ‘prisoner’ a few times. Is he focusing on the negative? Not when that word is connected to Christ and his gospel!
We are so used to the word 'gospel' that its appearance can be easily passed over. But think of its virtual absence in the Old Testament. And then you have the first four books of the New Testament called a 'gospel'. And then you have the word's extremely frequent appearance in the Pauline Epistles. It is a word you do not want to pass by too quickly.