The Rule of Three again (in ancient Babylon)

Early last year I suggested that it was helpful to regard the Bible, narratively speaking, as being constructed like a folk tale in three movements, and moreover that this bears a classic resemblance to the “literary rule of three” in a host of folk stories, and even higher literature.

I’ve been developing that idea in my project on biblical theology launching off from the Genealogical Adam paradigm – we’ll see if anything happens about publication of that.

Meanwhile, there was an amusing (because off the wall) project of which I received news through the Cambridge alumni newsletter. It seems some students and dons there have made the world’s first film in Old Babylonian (assuming that no old Babylonians ever got round to it), on the Babylonian folk tale The Poor Man of Nippur. You can read about the project here, but watch the whole thing, with or without subtitles, here:

You have to suspend your disbelief a bit as someone tries to take a goat up one of the staircases of a mediaeval Cambridge college, but I’m sure stranger things have happened over the centuries. I was going to link it for you anyway, as a quirky window into ANE life, showing that real people were doing real things back then… or at least folk people doing fictional things.

But it occurred to me to look at the storyline on Wikipedia, and blow me if it isn’t yet another example of the Rule of Three: the poor man, cheated out of his goat by the mayor of Nippur, vows to get his revenge (you guessed it) threefold, and gets to beat the villain first by pretending to be a royal courtier, then a physician arriving to treat the wounds of the first beating, and thirdly (and royally) by luring out his guards to hunt for him.

Now, as I said before, it would seem highly appropriate, since the Bible is intended for all manner of people to understand, if its overall narrative should follow this pattern in describing the failure of Adam, the failure of Israel, and finally the success of Jesus in a neat threefold package.

Yet if this is recognised as a feature, it is good evidence of divine oversight of the authorship, for the sacred history, and the Bible text arising from it, developed over three or four millennia, across different languages and cultures. You may or may not accept the truth of such inspiration, but it remains a good way to understand Scripture as a story. Whether it makes sense of a film in Old Babylonian I leave you to consider.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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