Alice C. Linsley
Merisms are found in the Old and New Testaments. 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 say 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, the phrase "male and female" constitute the whole of humanity (a merism), 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.
Related reading: Binary Sets in the Ancient World; Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions;The Biblical Worldview is Binary; Heaven or Heavens: Does it matter?; Howard Gardner on Revising Good and Evil