The Structure of the Biblical Story
The biblical story is rich and complex—and full of metaphor, symbolism, and beauty. But given its length and complexity, it’s easy to throw up our hands at the prospect of understanding it all.
This can lead us to accept overly simplistic accounts—accounts which make us wonder why the Bible bothers to contain so much material in the first place. If it can all be covered in a Chick Tract you pick up at a truck stop, why do we even need the scriptures?
But I think there is a reason for all the material—and I think that the overall structure is fairly simple to understand.
In fact, everything you need to make sense of it is right at the beginning.
Genesis describes God progressively creating, naming, and cultivating the universe, leading up to a moment when God decides to create a being in his image and likeness—a being like God. This being is humanity, in all its diversity.
God commissions human beings to go and do likewise—just as God had created new things, humans will create new things, just as God had named creation, humans will name creation, just as God had cultivated life, humans will cultivate life.
As Genesis tells it, God did all of his creative work, up to and including humanity, in 6 days. On the 7th day, God rested—and instead of picking back up and continuing the process of creation, God begins to guide and train humanity to do the job he had given it.
The implication is clear: going forward, the work of creation will no longer be done by God alone, but will be a partnership between God and humanity. The continuing story of the universe will unfold as humans co-create with God.
If this was the entire story, it would be complete. It tells us where we came from, what our purpose is, and what our future holds: a never-ending process of creation, exploration, and relationship.
And it has dramatic implications for the rest of the universe. Whatever comes next will be a new act of creation, emerging from the relationship between humanity and God. The fate of the universe has not yet been determined, but hinges on that relationship.
Of course, this is not where the story ends. Very quickly, there is a crisis, and human life becomes corrupted, the human commission is largely abandoned, and human society descends into violence.
But God is intent on moving humanity forward, refusing to let them get stuck in a dead end. Now that humanity has “wandered off into the woods”, so to speak, God is going to make sure they keep going, across the dangerous bridge, through the scary thicket, and back out to safety.
Every time humanity reaches a point where it teeters on self-destruction, or threatens to stop moving forward, God intervenes to keep things going. This is his ultimate priority: God’s plan for the future of the universe involves the human race, and if the human race doesn’t keep developing, there will be no future at all.
The People of God
The crisis at the core of humanity has no easy solution. It can’t be solved by going back to a previous situation, or by choosing between different obvious options. Like the children’s bear hunt singalong, the only option is to go through it.
This is incredibly tricky, and so God selects a group of people to embark on a mission. This people will act as a microcosm of humanity, and this mission will attempt to resolve the problem at the heart of humanity, and reboot the human race.
They will have to undergo dangerous experiments and adventures to do so. If they are successful, their efforts will spread out from them to the world, reigniting all of humanity, and relaunching the original story.
The Chosen One
Over and over, these experiments fail. Different options are tested, tried, and found wanting. Finally, it seems as if everyone has given up. The people of God have succumbed to defeat, and accepted the inevitability of the world continuing as it is. They’ve lost their way, and forgotten who they are.
On the brink of permanent failure, a new hero steps forward from among the people. This hero looks at all of the options that have been tried, and rejects them. And then he grasps an option no one else had noticed before—a choice so scary no one else would dare try it.
That choice involves him letting himself be killed.
If he is successful, he will resolve the crisis at the heart of the human race, and reboot humanity. The story of the people of God will hinge on this moment, along with the future of humanity and the destiny of the universe.
If he isn’t successful, the future of the world will go dark.
He lets himself be killed. He stays in the ground for three days. And then he rises from the dead.
The reboot had worked.
The Renewal of All Things
The results begin spreading immediately. The people of God had begun to experience the renewal of humanity, and now that the work of relaunching the human race had started, it was time to expand this people to include all nations.
The people of God would help to usher in the transformation of entire nations, cultures, and societies. With a renewed humanity came a renewal of humanity’s original commission to create and cultivate life in the universe, to explore, to name and categorize creation—to be co-creators with God.
It is no coincidence that when Jesus rose from the dead, it was on what they called “the 8th day”. God was done resting. The new day of creation had begun.
The Structure of the Biblical Story
I promised that the biblical story would be simple to understand, and I believe it is. I’ve described it at length only to show how the various pieces fit together, and why they have this relationship.
The structure itself is quite simple—it’s what poets call a chiastic structure.
- People of God
- People of God (renewed)
- People of God
- Humanity (renewed)
- Creation (renewed)
In fact, the scriptures work this out in considerable more detail than I have here. This structure is not arbitrary, nor is it merely symbolic or metaphorical. Its purpose—and the purpose of all that material—is to show us why everything comes to hinge on this one moment in history, this one person, and this one decision.
I haven’t tried to show that this understanding is true, or detailed the specifics of why humanity has this role, what the crisis of humanity is, why a people of God is necessary, or how Jesus is able to resolve the ultimate issue. I’ve only suggested that if you accept the Bible’s understanding of these things, this is how it plays out.
This is why something so seemingly inconsequential as a first-century crucifixion can be said to have universal significance. From the biblical perspective, this is the hinge of history, the event on which it all turns.
This helps us unpack a lot of the Bible’s language. Jesus is identified as the true people of God, because the whole purpose of the people of God rides on him. Jesus is identified as the true humanity, because the entire commission of humanity is on his shoulders. Jesus is identified as the true creation, because he embodies the future of the created order.
Just as surely, Jesus is identified as the new people of God, the new humanity, and the new creation. In him, creation has once again begun.
For the scriptures, these aren’t primarily metaphysical claims—they’re claims about history. This is why the New Testament insists that Jesus came at just the right time. In the New Testament’s view, the future of humanity came down to that one moment, and with it, the future of the entire universe.
This is also how we can understand all the (often confusing) apocalyptic and eschatological language. The Bible isn’t trying to lay out a bizarre sequence of unrelated future events—it’s giving us a set of images for an unfolding renewal of humanity and creation.
This is nothing less than the continuation of the story laid out in Genesis. Humanity has once again been invited to participate with God in the ongoing work of creation.