'Genesis Death Sandwich' Discovered in Bible

When mentions of "life" and "death" are plotted in Genesis, a pattern emerges. (Image credit: www.searchvisualizer.com)

Updated Fri., Feb. 22, at 11:40 p.m. ET

Researchers using text-analysis software say they've discovered a new literary device in the first book of the Bible: the "Genesis death sandwich."

The name refers to a familiar rhetorical structure — sandwiching bad news in between the good. In the case of Genesis, the slices of white bread are themes of life, and the slimy cold cuts in between are mentions of death.

"The structuring of life and death in Genesis appears to be something that hasn't been noticed before," researcher Gordon Rugg, a senior lecturer in Computing and Mathematics at Keele University in the United Kingdom, wrote in a Feb. 21 blog post. "We think it's a standard literary device being used on a larger scale than had been previously realized. No aliens, no secret codes, no conspiracies, but some striking images, and a great name for a band."

For their study, Rugg and his colleagues ran the King James version of the text through software known as the Search Visualizer, which plotted mentions of life in red and death in green on a single gridded page representing the whole book. Their results showed frequent mentions of life in the opening and closing verses of Genesis.

For example, toward the end of the book, when Joseph is reunited with his brothers, he tells them: "Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5). Meanwhile, mentions of death are clustered in the middle, the researchers found, especially in Chapter 27, when an aging Isaac talks to his son Esau, saying, for example, "Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death" (Genesis 27:2).

The researchers say this structure is an example of a literary convention known as inclusio, also called bracketing, where one theme frames another. Rugg acknowledged that it is uncertain whether or not this "death sandwich" convention was applied to the text intentionally. Nonetheless, he says it might have been used to cushion the negative messages of death, or perhaps to put life and death in stark contrast. [The 10 Weirdest Ways We Deal With the Dead]

"Whether it was a deliberate use of inclusio or a subconscious use is an open question," Rugg wrote. "We don't think that this structure is likely to be a coincidence, given the number of times the two words occur within Genesis, and given that these are themes that have long been recognized as significant within it."

Rugg and his colleagues ran other searches using the software for words not considered significant by scholars, finding no specific patterns in the book of Genesis. However, they did find the word "woman" appears overwhelmingly in the first part of Genesis, while it rarely pops up in the second half, Rugg wrote. Another term, "begat," illustrates something scholars have long recognized -- that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John mirror the themes and structures of the Old Testament (which includes Genesis); sure enough, "begat" showed a striking cluster in the first part of Genesis, mirroring what was found in the first part of the gospel of Matthew, Rugg said.

Rugg and David Musgrave of Amridge University in Alabama presented their research at November's meeting of the Association of Schools of Oriental Research in Chicago.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.