Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sets of three - the whole of sin

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide everything into two kinds of things and those who don't. (1)
What I have noticed in the Bible is that there is a threefold division to sum up sin, that general condition of the human that results in a me-first mentality. The first time we find it is in Genesis 3:6 when our humanity records the inner precondition to self-serving action.

וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טֹוב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה־הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל
and she saw - the woman saw, that is, that good was the tree - the tree was good (not just so so but good - like the light of the first day - like the Lord in Psalm 34) - God saw that good - we are to see that the Lord is good - and the woman in this case saw that the tree was good - for food and that this same tree was delightful to the eyes and the tree to be desired for prosperity - (that sort of wisdom).

The above is an extended translation - notice the three fold structure - it will occur 3 more times in this note. Is the woman in trouble already? And is the story-teller revealing the whole by a recitation of these three parts?

Jumping ahead - the same pattern occurs in Deuteronomy 17:16-17
רַק לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לֹּו סוּסִים וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁיב אֶת־הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבֹּות סוּס וַֽיהוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עֹֽוד

But he is not to increase for himself horses nor cause the people to return to Egypt in order to increase horses. And יהוָה said to you - you will not again return this way any more.

וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה־לֹּו נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבֹו וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה־לֹּו מְאד

And he is not to increase for himself women that he not distract his heart, and silver and gold he is not to increase for himself to excess.

Here the instruction is to the king - not to amass horses - symbolic or the equivalent of a return to Egypt, nor to get for himself many wives - like Solomon, nor to go for excessive riches. Do these have their parallel to the first temptation? Horses for power, women for alliance and desire, and riches for pride? Perhaps not exactly - but by the time we look at the temptation of Jesus and the summary of 1 John, we will see that a threefold division may summarize the whole in each case.

Next to the temptation of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, in detail only in Matthew and Luke - here as I annotated some years ago. According to Matthew and Luke in slightly different sequence: bread, pinnacle of the temple, kingdom, and bread, kingdom, pinnacle. The variation in sequence shows that the mapping may be made freely within these sets of three. Here we have the needs of the body, the spectacular proof for the eyes of all, and the pride of power. So even ordinary desire must not get in the way of worship - for this God if worshiped knows all our needs and can deal with them without fan fare. (Two words accidentally typed and left as is deliberately.)

So finally, the verse from 1 John 2:16
כִּי כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּעוֹלָם - תַּאֲוַת בְּשָׂרִים תַּאֲוַת הָעֵינַיִם וְגַאֲוַת הַנְּכָסִים

all that is of the age, fleshly needs, eyes' desire, and property's pride.

I don't think much of that translation - I like the preposition 'of' but it was a try. And the suggestion of the swelling mass of property is a lesson to us as well as Solomon and other kings.

Note how compact it is - only 6 words - I know - I didn't do it Greek - see here for the stimulus for this post.

Are there other threefold parallels in the tradition?

(1) Stephen Wineberg - Introduction to General Systems Thinking.


Beth said...

Three-fold sins. Reminds me of the Aristotelian anthropology that Aquinas picks up, that human beings have a three-dimensional soul. They have a vegetative soul (which they share with all created living things), an animalic soul (shared with animals), and a rational soul which only humans have. If we take this anthropology seriously, we could say that the three-fold division of sin corresponds to the three dimensions of the soul (sins of the eyes, sins of the flesh like lust, and sins of the rational part of the soul like pride, respectively). That is, sin is not just an intellectual matter but actually engages the full essence of humanity in all of its dimensions. And hence, the effects of sin are seen in all the dimensions of humanity (we die, we feel pain, and we suffer existentially and mentally.)

Bob MacDonald said...

Beth - I was thinking more of a merism (enumeration of the parts to indicate the whole) rather than an Aristotelian decomposition. But it is nice to see another threefold division.