The Rule of Three in the Bible

The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is a writing principle and rhetorical device in which information is conveyed in three parts to make it more pleasurable, potent and progressive for the human brain. (See what I did there?) It can apply to titles, characters, argument points, plot structure, objects and many other elements.

In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) Christopher Booker discusses the Rule of Three in writing. In an Epilogue to Part One of the book, Booker looks at the role played in stories by numbers (pp. 229-235). He describes it as a sort of trigger that sets off something important when the final one of the three occurs. Booker illustrates his point with reference to some well-known children’s stories: 

  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears – only the third bowl of porridge is just right 
  • Cinderella – only on her third visit to the ball does she leave behind the golden slipper 
  • Little Red Riding Hood – only the third house doesn’t get blown away by the Big Bad Wolf 

I could also mention stories like Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Three Musketeers. But it doesn’t just apply to people and events. The Rule of Three also applies to structure and rhythm of language. Consider these phrases from the realm of political rhetoric: 

  • With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right 
  • Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness 
  • Of the people, by the people, for the people 
  • I came, I saw, I conquered 
  • Friends, Romans, Countrymen 
  • Blood, sweat and tears 

This sort of rhetorical device is called a tricolon. This all got me wondering how much the Rule of Three is present in biblical stories and literature… 

The Rule of Three Meets People in the Bible

  • The Three Wise Men (actually, the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh) – Matthew 2:11 
  • The Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) – Matthew 8:11; Acts 3:13 
  • The Three Hebrew Children in the Firey Furnace (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) – Daniel 2:49; 3:12 
  • David’s Three Mighty Men (Ishbaal, Eleazar and Shammah) – 2 Samuel 23:18 / 1 Chronicles 11:20 
  • Noah’s three sons (Shem, and Ham, and Japheth) – Genesis 6:10 
  • Job’s three comforters (Job 2:11) and three daughters (42:13-15) 
  • The closest disciples to Jesus (Peter, James and John) – Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33 

The Rule of Three Counts Time Measurement in the Bible

  • Moses’ mother concealed her baby for three months – Exodus 2:3; cf. Acts 7:20; Hebrews 11:23 
  • Many journeys and incidents in the Old Testament took three days – Exodus 3:18; 5:3; 8:27; 15:22; Numbers 10:33; Joshua 1:11; 3:2 etc. 
  • The men of Timnah were stumped by Samson’s riddle for three days – Judges 14:14 
  • The ark remained at the house of Obed-Edom for three months – 1 Chronicles 13:14 
  • For David’s sin of numbering the people, he could choose a punishment that lasted three days, three months or three years – 1 Chron 21:12 / 2 Samuel 24:13 
  • Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years and he died at the age of 33 
  • Jesus said he would raise up the temple of his body in three days – John 2:19 
  • Jesus, like Jonah, was three days and three nights under the earth – Matthew 12:40; Jonah 1:17 
  • It was the third hour (Roman time) when Jesus was arrested and put on the cross; He breathed His last in the ninth hour (3 pm) 
  • There was darkness over the land during the crucifixion of Jesus that lasted for three hours – Matthew 27:45 

The Rule of Three Shapes Biblical Events 

  • Gideon divided his three hundred men into three companies – Judges 7:16 
  • God called the prophet Samuel three times – 1 Samuel 3:8 
  • Daniel prayed three times a day – Daniel 6:10 
  • Satan tempted Jesus three times (or at least, three main times on this one occasion) – Matthew 4:1-11 
  • Three individuals witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Hermon – Matthew 17:1 
  • Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane three times – Matthew 26:4 
  • Peter denied Christ three times – Matthew 26:75 
  • Three criminals were crucified on the hill of Calvary (Luke 15:27; John 19:18) 
  • Paul experienced three shipwrecks (2 Cor 11:28), saw a vision in the third heaven (2 Corinthains 12:2), and prayed three times to the Lord for the removal of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8) 
  • David “bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground” (1 Samuel 20:41) 

Language, Rhetoric and the Rule of Three

  • Old Testament Hebrew often uses three different terms for the same object at the same time for rhetorical impact – Leviticus 26:15; Deuteronomy 5:31; 6:17 (see also Nahum 1:2) 
  • New Testament authors, schooled in this tradition, often employ tripartite rhetorical structures too – Romans 12:12 
  • Many of the parables of Jesus have three in their storyline: 
    • The Parable of the Banquet has guests makes three excuses – Luke 14:18-20 
    • The Parable of the Sower has three types of bad ground (Mark 4:4-7) and three levels of good crops (Mark 4:8) 
    • The Parable of the Good Samaritan has three travellers (the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan) – Luke 10:30-37 
    • The Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin have the protagonist searching for the strayed item under three actions – Luke 15:4, 8
  • The temptations of Eve and Jesus follow a three-fold structure – Genesis 3:6; Matthew 4:1-11; 1 John 2:16 
  • The Aaronic blessing contains three elements – Numbers 6:24-26 
  • God is called “Holy, holy, holy” – Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8 
  • Jesus repeats the phrase “feed my sheep” to Peter three times – John 21:15-17 
  • There were three languages on the sign of the cross – John 19:20 
  • The baptismal formula is “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 28:19 
  • God is described as “Who is and was and is to come” – Revelation 1:4 
  • Three woes are called out by an angel in revelation, foreshadowing terrible judgment – Revelation 8:13) 

The Rule of Three and Theology

  • Both the tabernacle and the temple had three main areas (Most Holy Place, Holy Place, court) – Exodus 25–27; 1 Kings 6 
  • According to the Law, men had to present themselves at the Temple three times a year at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles 
  • We are to love God with all our heart, soul and strength – Deuteronomy 6:5 (see also Micah 6:8) 
  • The three anointed offices are prophet, priest and king – 1 Kings 1:34, 45 
  • The universe is divided up into three sections (Psalm 96:11; Amos 9:6) or layers (Philippians 2:10; Revelation 5:3) 
  • The Old Testament is divided into the Law, Prophets, Psalms – Luke 24:44 
  • Christians are born again not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man – John 1:13 
  • The greatest virtues are “faith, hope and charity” – 1 Corinthians 13:13 
  • The Ark of the Covenant contained three sacred objects: “The gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant” – Hebrews 9:4 
  • God is three persons in one – 1 Peter 1:2 
  • The sinful world consists of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life – 1 John 2:16 
  • God’s enemies are Satan, the antichrist and the false prophet – Revelation 12-13 
  • New Jerusalem has three gates on its sides – Revelation 21:13 

Conclusion 

I got carried away compiling this list and it isn’t anywhere near complete. But I think I included enough to establish that the Rule of Three plays a significant part in the storytelling of the Bible. Why? It may be a sign of completeness, wholeness, roundness. It encompasses Beginning, Middle, and End; Past, Present, and Future; Length, Breadth and Height.  

It may also have to do with William Barrick’s idea of the ‘emphatic Semitic triplet’ in which the Hebrew text repeats the same word three times for emphasis (Isaiah 6:3; Jeremiah 7:4; 22:29; Ezekiel 21:27 etc). In rhetoric, this repetition for effect is called an epizeuxis, although it doesn’t have to be threefold. 

The Rule of Three invades many communication formats from the three-act structure of plays to the three-point sermons to three-part lesson plans. To prove how effective it is, I just used it in the last sentence. And to any of you who are still sceptical, all I have to say is this. 

Well, well, well.

Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

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