Biblical authors put much thought and effort into composing God’s Word. They wanted to make sure that the reader would clearly understand and remember the important points of Scripture. Since we read the Old Testament in translation, however, it is not always possible for us to recognize the diligence of these writers. Their skill often lies hidden in the Hebrew language.
As an example, let’s take a close look at the meaning of the Hebrew words in Genesis 9:6. By doing so, we will gain greater respect for the communication skills of the writers. The New International Version reads: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This is a good translation. However, it lacks the compactness and wordplay of the original Hebrew text.
In the Hebrew, this saying consists of the following words:
Shophekh dam ha’adam
ba’adam damo yishaphekh.
You do not have to know Hebrew to recognize that the words in the second line of the verse are similar, but in reverse order, to those in the first line. The first and last words of the saying (shophekh and yishaphekh) come from the same root word – the word for “shed.” The second and second-to-last words (dam and damo) come from the same root word, the word for “blood.” The middle two words (ha’adam and ba’adam) come from the word for “human.” The order is therefore as follows: shed, blood, human; human, blood, shed.
This type of arrangement is called a chiasm or an “envelope structure” because the same word is used at the beginning and at the end to envelop the phrase. This poetic device lends a rhythmical quality to the text, making it easier to read and remember.
A second poetic device is used inside this particular envelope. It is called “paronomasia” or “a play on words.” The words that are played on in this verse are “blood” and “human.”
The Hebrew word for “blood” is dam. The word used here for human is similar: ‘adam. The saying in Genesis 9:6, then, makes an important connection between humans and blood.
To understand this connection fully, we need to look at the previous verses: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” (verses 4-5).
The life of any flesh is in its blood (verse 4). When Cain took his brother’s life, God told Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Part of the message of Genesis 9:4-6, therefore, is that the life of humans (‘adam) is in their blood (dam). The poetic device makes the point easier to remember.
Plays on words are common in the Hebrew Bible. For example, when Leah and Rachel name their sons, the names they choose reflect the situation. Rachel, before naming her son Naphtali, says, “With great wrestlings [naphtulei] I have wrestled [niphtalti] with my sister” (Genesis 30:8, NKJV). Similar wordplay accompanies the naming of the other sons (Genesis 29:31-35; 30:1-24).
Like wordplays, envelope structures also permeate the Bible on many levels. Some are less than a verse long, while others cover entire chapters. For example, several psalms begin and end with the phrase “Praise the Lord” (Psalms 146–150).
An envelope structure can extend over even larger units. The book of Job, for example, begins (chapters 1–2) and ends (chapter 42) with narrative written in prose. These sections of prose narrative form an envelope for the rest of the book (chapters 3–41), which is a debate written in poetry. Also, the book begins with a description of Job’s family (Job 1:2) and wealth (verse 3), and concludes with a description of his wealth (Job 42:12) and family (verses 13-16).
On the greatest level, the first chapters of Genesis and the last chapters of Revelation form an envelope for the entire Bible. The Bible begins and ends in paradise. Genesis describes the initial paradise God created for humans: “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden” (Genesis 2:9-10). And in Revelation we are given a vision of humanity’s ultimate destiny: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life” (Revelation 22:1-2).