It occurred to me the other day how similar to one another are Martha (of the Martha and Mary narrative, Luke 10:38-42) and the non-prodigal son (of the prodigal son parable, Luke 15:11-32). Neither is a bad person, but both get a bit of a mild rebuke and for, it seems to me, rather similar attitudes. Each is an older sibling (Martha implicitly, the non-prodigal son explicitly), a hard-working and conscientious rule-follower who nonetheless misses some of the forest God wants us to see for the trees. Martha fails to keep her primary focus on God, and the older son fails to rejoice at his brother’s return to the familial foal. One might say that each fails to keep one of the two great commandments, namely to love God and to love your fellow man, respectively.
Are there other such pairings in the Bible, and what does their existence mean?
Well, sure, there are other such pairings — that is, two Bible characters who remind us of one another. Bear in mind that, as the example already given suggests, the pairings might be of good guys, or bad guys, or mixed guys.
An obvious pair of Old Testament good guys are Joseph and Daniel, two captured Jews who rise quickly to become powerful royal advisors, recognized for their intelligence but never forsaking their faith. Esther is sort of like that and, at a lower socioeconomic level, so is Ruth — and, in the New Testament, Joanna is another believer who proves useful to the good guys because of her non-good-guy connections.
Laban and Nabal also remind me of each other, a couple of rural sharpies. And is it just a coincidence that each’s name spells the other’s backwards? (I know, it’s English not Hebrew, but apparently it’s true in Hebrew as well.)
There are plenty of smart and godly, and shrewd and tough, Jewish women: Rebecca and Abigail, for example. Maybe Tamar belongs in this group, too.
The Ahab-Jezebel couple in the Old Testament reminds me of the Herod Antipas-Herodias couple in the New Testament: pairs where the husbands aren’t great, and the wives are even worse.
The prostitute Rahab in the Old Testament is echoed by fallen women with hearts of gold in the New Testament.
There are at least three characters who have the common trait of unselfishly paving the way for other men who become even greater: Jonathan (for David) and Barnabas (for Paul) — and of course John the Baptist (for Christ).
I suppose I could add that the OT’s Joseph and NT’s James (Jesus’ brother) each show us men who finished strong despite inauspicious starts. But the story of redemption is very common, particularly in the New Testament (in addition to James, how about Paul, how about Matthew, how about — well, you get the idea).
The biographies of Eli and David show us that even good guys can have bad sons.
Finally, Job’s rather unhelpful friends and their criticisms of him remind me of Jesus’ Pharisees and their criticisms of Him.
Well, okay, that was fun — but is there an instructive point to all this? Foreshadowing is of course a literary device used by good writers, and we shouldn’t be surprised if inspired literature is also good literature. But is there more than that?
Human nature (good and bad) repeats itself, so at a minimum these Bible repeats support Scripture’s veracity. (By the way, while scriptural parables — like the prodigal son story — may not be actual events, inspired stories might nonetheless be expected to have true-to-life characters and characteristics.)
And there’s this: Some lessons bear repeating. And, to give a particular example, some sins are widespread or otherwise troublesome enough that they merit more than one warning and condemnation. The existential (to the Jews) threat of assimilation to pagan beliefs was a reality in both c. 1900 B.C. Egypt and c. 600 B.C. Babylonia, so the stories of Joseph and Daniel are both worth telling.
On this point, by the way, it’s interesting to think about which sins the Bible seems to talk about the most and why they might have been singled out. It might be because they are particularly serious — that is, bearing in mind the two great commandments, the ones that are most likely to keep us from loving God (so, e.g. and repeatedly, no idol worship), and the ones that most hurt our fellow man (so, e.g. and repeatedly, the love of money is the root of all evil). In addition, they might as noted be especially widespread (sometimes because they have not been sufficiently explained?). And there are also sins that, while they may not be the most serious ones per se, are insidious, seductive — and likely to lead to other, greater sins.
Finally, as noted above, there are both positive and negative pairings, so perhaps I should end this blogpost with a few words on what traits and actions God — and thus Scripture — would be at pains to encourage. Well, I’d suggest a mirror image of the discussion in the preceding paragraph: It’s those good traits and actions that are most essential to the beloved community God wants, (and) yet may be unpopular and unrecognized as good. And those that lead to other good traits and actions are especially to be prized.