Saturday, August 10, 2013

Is "Good and Evil" a Biblical Merism?

Good and evil spelled in the same image

Alice C. Linsley

Merisms are found in the Old and New Testaments. Merisms are a convention of poetry and prose. A merism is an example of synecdoche in which totality is expressed by contrasting parts" (e.g. high and low, young and old). In this figure of speech a pair of opposites refers to something greater than the constituents, as in the phrase, "they searched high and low," meaning that they searched everywhere.

To the untrained, they suggest dualism, a concept quite foreign to Biblical theology, which is instead binary. In a binary set, one entity is seen as superior to the other. The Sun is greater than the Moon in that it is the source of light. The moon’s light is refulgent. The male is larger and stronger than the female.  When the Bible speaks of good and evil, it is understood that good is always greater than evil.  In Genesis, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5) is a merism that speaks of omniscience. 

A merism is a figure of speech which references parts that comprise a whole. To express this another way: a merism expresses opposite edges and unity at the same time, as can be demonstrated by a Möbius strip. To say that “they searched high and low” means that they searched everywhere. The set is often used to express the whole range of experience. The expression “night and day” represents a 24-hour cycle, a whole.

When we speak of night and day, we are speaking of two experiences with a range of in-between experiences: pre-dawn and dawn; twilight and dusk. In speaking of day and night we have a binary set. Hidden within this set is the more mysterious binary set dawn and dusk. One of the contributions of Martin Heidegger's work was to point out that Husserl's meriology has levels of complexity that Husserl failed to explore.

Paul uses merisms in Romans 8:38,39. The full meaning of this passage is not evident until we have explored what he intends by using death-life (all of human existence and experience); angels-demonic powers (all of the supernatural); present-future (all time); and height-depth (the whole cosmos). Paul intends us to understand that nothing in natural human experience, nothing in the supernatural realm, nothing in time, nothing in space, nothing exists that can separate the Christ one from the Christ, for their nature is one and inseparable.

Paul's message reflects Jesus' explanation about his relationship to the Father. Jesus spoke of his nature as being one with the Father and of the same essence with the Father. The distinction of Father and Son does not require a difference in essence or a separate existence.

Merisms are common in the Bible, but not every binary set is intended to refer to something greater. Sometimes the stress is on the distinctions between the two entities. For example, "male and female" constitute the whole of humanity, but also the distinction between them. In the biblical worldview there is no gender continuum, there is male and female with distinct roles and functions necessary to human existence and survival. It is important to pay attention to context lest every binary set be taken as a merism. It is equally important to recognize a merism as a sign pointing to something larger, a whole.

In Genesis 1:1 we find another merism: "the heavens and the earth." If "heavens and earth" is a merism, this refers to the whole cosmos. Likewise, in Psalm 139 the psalmist declares that God knows "my sitting down and my uprising up,” which is to say that God knows all the psalmist's actions.

Cyrus Herzl Gordon suggested that the biblical phrase “good and evil”( טוֹב וָרָע ) is a merism. Good and evil – as in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - expresses a pair of opposites that refers to something greater than themselves. The tree symbolizes all that can be known. That a merism is intended is made evident from the context of the narrative. The snake tells the woman that by eating of the forbidden fruit her eyes will be opened and she will become like gods, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5) Adam and Eve were barred from eating this fruit because such a property rightly pertains to God alone.

Related reading: Binary Sets in the Ancient WorldLevi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; The Biblical Worldview is Binary; Heaven or Heavens: Does it matter?; Howard Gardner on Revising Good and Evil


  1. 1 Peter 4:5, the last phrase, "to judge the quick and the dead." identified for me as a merism

  2. Yes, in that Christ our God shall judge all humanity for all time.

  3. Dear Alice,
    Nicely written indeed. Very informative and thoughtful.

  4. Alistar, I lived in Iran and I am an adjunct professor of philosophy. I also have taught on a distance learning platform. My ancestors are from Scotland.

  5. Hello Alice,
    Thank you for your reply. Yes indeed, I lived there in 1977-78, and returned to boarding school in Edinburgh. Having turned down a place offered to me in 2011at Tyndale House, Cambridge Uni (to study textual criticism/Greek manuscripts, I remained in the US and currently am in the dissertation phase. Do you ever attend ETS/AAR/SBL? My first and only time was Atlanta 2010. I plan to go to Boston/RI this November. My second great love is archaeology. Hope to take part in a dig in Israel sometime. (Went to Tel Gezer and Hazor in 2014.)

  6. Alistair, I do not attend the ETS/AAR/SBL gatherings. I'm usually speaking at a conference during the times these are scheduled.

    I would love to hear your impressions of Hazor. Perhaps you could message me at Facebook?

    Also, I invite you to join this Facebook Group on The Bible and Anthropology. You would be a good addition to the group.

  7. Hello Rev. Dr. Linsley,
    I am grateful posts like these are readily available and can be found years after they have been written, thank you for your contribution. As you are no doubt aware, quite talented biblical scholars have argued, in contrast to your position above, that "He created them male and female" in Genesis 1 is, in fact, a merism; that is, when we find in our own communities, homes, and for some even, in our own bodies that a simple male and female binary does not reflect the totality of the physical human condition (and while this certainly has direct and indirect implications for sexuality, I am not referring to preferred sexual orientation). In that regard, what might be considered some more progressive scholars are arguing *unless* this is merism than say, hermaphrodites, to offer one example, are explicitly left outside the created order of God. This can only be addressed if one is to suggest that these minorities "suffer" from "deformities" or "disabilities," although all of these labels are packed with meanings that carry negative connotations and implicit condemnation for the individuals for whom they apply. Thus some are arguing that the merism means that, he created them 'from male to female, the entire spectrum of human existence and sexuality.'

    My question (am I ever coming to a question?? Sorry!) is how do you pick and choose what is a merism and what is not? It seems that we are doing theology before we ever get to scripture, and if that is the case, how do we know when we have decided what scripture means (in this case whether or not it is a merism or not in Gen. 1 regarding gender) because it says so, versus because we think it says something and so we choose to read it that way when we come to it?

    Thanks Professor!
    Elliott Smith

  8. Elliott, You are asking an excellent questions here: "How do you pick and choose what is a merism and what is not?"

    As a Biblical Anthropologist I believe it is necessary to delve a deeply as possible into the cultural context of the writer or source of the text. In the case of the phrase "male and female" we can be confident that the writer has in mind a binary set and a merism. Male and female are not a spectrum, however. Male and female make a set, and together they represent all of humanity. Additionally, "male and female" represents the unique nature of the human being and the single creature to be created in the divine image. What we have in Genesis 1 is fairly sophisticated metaphysics.


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