Chiastic Structure

chiasm 1

Q. Some verses of the Scripture bear specific structures, such as 22 verses of a certain chapter in Psalms, Lamentations etc. each of which begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, but some other are rather difficult to identify, such as chiastic structure which the OT writers often used. Is there any rule in how to identify and establish such a structure, in particular the central event which would then bear the main theme of the structure?

A. I am not a bible scholar, only a small church pastor, so my knowledge of the chiastic structure is limited. I can tell you only the few things I learnt. The rest you have to study up yourself.

For the benefit of other readers, the chiastic structure, or chiasm, is a literary device in which a series of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. A simple biblical example is Mk 2:27:
• The Sabbath was made for man,
• and not man for the Sabbath.

A famous secular example is Kennedy’s quotation:
Ask not what your country can do for you,
• Ask what you can do for your country.

The structure in both is ABB’A’, with AB reflected like in a mirror as B’A’. Some structures are more complicated with many layers, but essentially they are like a ring with the opening and closing completing a circle. The name chiastic comes from the Greek alphabet chi, which looks like the English letter X, with the left half reflected in the right half, or top reflected in the bottom.

What are some basic rules? I use the formula in swearing an oath “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as a memory aid:

The Unit. Since the structure is purposely built into the design by the author to highlight his emphasis, it must be “discovered” by carefully observing the literary unit rather than imposed by the reader. The unit may be as short as one sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or as long as the whole book. So there may be micro as well as macro chiastic structures.

The Whole Unit. You must deconstruct the whole literary unit to expose the chiasm. You cannot leave out some parts which do not fit your proposed structure. That is a sure sign that you are trying to force the text to fit your mold.

Nothing but the Unit. Besides not taking away any parts to force fit, you cannot add in your own ideas or change the meaning of words to come up with a nice structure. Only the author’s thoughts are allowed, not yours.

Simplicity. The last rule is not from law, but logic – Occam’s or Ockham’s razorthe simpler the better. This philosophical principle states that given two possible explanations for an occurrence, the fewer assumptions you have to make, the better that explanation is. God gave the Bible to everyone, not just scholars. He wrote it such that ordinary folks like you and me can know Him and His truth. So to adapt Occam’s razor to chiasm, the simpler the structure, the better. Of course the biblical author can have a complex structure in mind too, it’s just less likely if the Bible is for the average person and not academics.

Other than these basic rules, I don’t know much about the art of deconstruction. I am an engineer and logician by training, not a poet; a left-brain and not a right-brain thinker. I can recommend two books which might help you:

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi by David Dorsey
The Companion Bible by EW Bullinger

Beyond this I don’t have much to offer. Hope this helps.


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