Thursday, March 3, 2011

Binary Sets in the Ancient World

Alice C. Linsley

Ethical concerns of the ancient Afro-Arabians involved binary opposites or binary sets such as east-west, male-female, day-night, hot-cold, dry-wet, raw-cooked, life-death, and heaven-earth. These sets are universally and objectively observed in creation. Not every set of opposites is a binary set. Tall-short and talent-untalented do not represent binary sets because they are entirely subjective.

There is no doubt that these peoples going back to at least the Neolithic period thought of the world in terms of observable binary sets. Further, they observed these binary sets as a fixed feature in nature. The binary sets were used to determine good and evil. Good recognized and honored the fixed boundaries observed in creation. Evil violated the boundaries observed in creation.

Good and evil were themselves opposites, but not equal. The binary worldview of the ancients was not dualistic. One member of the binary set is by its nature superior in some way to the other.  So the Sun, as the greater light, is superior to the Moon. The male, as the larger and stronger, is superior to the female. Modern values and political correctness are irrelevant here. These distinctions are objective and universally observable.

Ancient peoples were close observers of nature. They recognized that seasons run in a cycle, the Sun appears to move from east to west, and people bring forth people, not plants or other animals. In other words, there is a fixed quality to the binary sets and to the cycles of nature. This is very unlike the randomness notion held by many today.

Today scientists study the sky for answers to the origins of the universe.  The ancients studied the heavens because they believed that the pattern observed there speaks of the Creator's nature and how we should order our lives on earth.  This is the idea behind the part of the Lord's Prayer that says "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The binary sets also provide direction and guidance. Lacking a compass, we can watch where the Sun rises to determine east. Knowing east, we can determine the direction of west. Just as the directional poles help us to avoid disorientation, so the binary sets observed universally and objectively in Nature can help us to avoid ethical confusion.

For the ancients they also suggested that there was a center point at the intersection of the perpendicular lines connecting north-south and east-west. One can image the place where these lines intersect as the center of a cross. This is a metaphysical sacred center that took on physical form when Jesus was nailed to the cross at Calvary. The cross is a fundamental symbol in creation and it appears on the perimeter of the Blombos Cave Plaque (shown right), the oldest known symbolic artifact.

The world hasn't changed in any essential way. Nothing ever really changes. That is what Plato understood and why he is still the greatest of the philosophers. There is one reality and all people exist in that one reality. Things can only become more what they were created. They can't become less what they were created without rebelling against God's design. This is why homosex was regarded as a serious violation of the created order.  This is why men were circumcised to remove the soft flesh that was associated with females, and why females were circumcised to remove the hard protrusion that was associated with males. 

Onanism was also regarded as a violation of the order of creation. The seed that should fall to the earth is the seed of plants, which spring forth from the earth. The seed of man should fall on his own type (the womb), from which man comes forth. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted” (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 A.D. 191).

Likewise the prohibition against mixing types of seeds and types of fibers is intended that human should observe the order of creation and honor the way it is. The prohibition against mixing seeds, fibers, and blood, is a reminder to not confuse the holy and the unholy, or to blurr the distinction between life and death, or between life-nurturing actions and life-destroying actions. This is one of the reasons why the Hebrews were not to boil a baby goat in its mother's milk (forbidden 3 places in Scripture). The mother's milk is a symbol of what nurtures life. 

Holding the binary opposites as distinct permitted the ancient priests to help their rulers make wise God-pleasing decisions. For example, the priests of Israel during Moses' time were to use the urim and thummim to receive divine guidance. These represent numerous binary sets. The urim would have a number of associations which would be assigned the opposite meaning with the thummim. Using these tools involved more than yes-no questions. It involved deriving meaning from the directional poles, gender, numbers and reversals.  The morehs or ancient prophets apparently used the same approach when rendering counsel such as that given to Abraham by the moreh at the Oak of Mamre (Gen. 12:6).


Alice C. Linsley said...


The anthropological approach helps us glimpse how very different the Afroasiatic world was from our own. This is exactly why the binary composition of nature is so important. Cultures and values change, but the order in God's creation is fixed, reminding us that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Jenny Adkins said...

I've been reading through Genesis 12, which states that God appears to Abraham at Shechem and tells him that he will give his offspring the land. I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around how this is an example of a binary set? Is it because Abraham went to this sacred place where he sought to find an answer, direction from God? But this seems different than the Urim and Thummim example in that he didn't "cast lots" or have a seemingly random experience that could have ended in one of two ways. Could you expound upon this for me? I'm confused! Thank You!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Jenny, I apologize for the confusion. Abraham's visit was to the Moreh (prophet) who lived at the Oak (just as Deborah, a later prophet, judged from her palm tree). Male prophets were associated with oaks and female prophets with date nut palms (tamars). Do you see how this is binary?

There is also the matter of the directional poles in this story. You will note in Gen. 12 that Abraham pitched his tent between Ai on the east and Bethel on the west. This is an important detail (a reversal) because Bethel, which means "house of God", was associated with the east, where the sun rises. Yet in this story it is on the west, meaning that this is about a future promise. The west was the direction of the future among Abraham's people whose cosmology was sun-based. The next direction Abraham heads is south toward the Negev. That is where he had metal working kin living in Beersheba and that is likely when he married his second wife, Keturah, who was his patrilineal niece or cousin.

By Keturah Abraham had 6 sons, all of them great chiefs. Abraham had nine sons: six by Keturah, one by Sarah, and one each by his two concubines Hagar and Masek. While Isaac ruled over Abraham's territory, Joktan, Abraham's firstborn son by Keturah, ruled over the territory of his maternal grandfather. All of these people were Horites and the region between Shechem and Beersheba (and the Timnah and Petra Valleys) became Horite territory, just as God promised.

Do you see how the east-west and north-south poles are binary sets? Their reversal in Scripture signals that something is coming, or that things are going to move in a different direction. As the south was also associated with fertility and reproduction, it isn't surprising that Keturah lived to the south.

The Horite rulers had two wives and placed them in separate households on a north-south axis. In part this is because they controlled water systems that were on a north-south axis, but also because the wives settlements marked the northern and southern boundaries of the ruler's territory. They didn't want to set them on an east-west axis since this was perceived to be the daily route of God whose emblem was the sun that journeys from east to west.

Lyn said...

Alice, I have found your writings very interesting, but I have one basic question...can you explain the difference between binary worldview and dualism? Other writers seem to lump these two terms together. My assumptions is that it is essentially thedifference between "either/or" (dualism) and "both/and" (bianary) or am I not getting it? thanks, Lyn

Alice Linsley said...


In dualism, binary oppositions are equal. It is the ying-yang conception of reality. In the Biblical worldview, the binary oppositions are not equal. One is superior to the other and the superiority is universally recognized. For example, everyone recognizes that the Sun is greater than the moon because the moon merely reflects the sun's rays. Human males are larger and more muscular than females. God is greater than Man. This is key to understanding Christianity. God stoops to save us and is able to do so because God is greater than we are.

You will find more on this here:

Best wishes to you.