Chiasms on the Brain?

I was recently asked some questions about chiasms: Are biblical scholars just bored and seeing things? Would ancient audiences have picked up on them? Is this a widely attested ancient Near Eastern device? Do lay Bible readers have any hope of seeing them or must they consult commentaries?

These are good questions. There are biblical scholars who are very suspicious of chiasms, especially of larger proposals that stretch over whole sections of texts or even whole books. I come down with those who see chiasms as a key structuring device in ancient literature. I would add that it’s not just ancient literature. I think it was a prof I had in college, Skip Hays, who suggested that The Great Gatsby has a paneled structure that is basically chiastic. There are plenty of examples of balanced structures in the world’s literature. Think of the Divine Comedy . . .

Anyway, in a world that didn’t use chapters, chapter titles (the chapter and verse numbers in the Bible were added later–they don’t come from the biblical authors), bold subheadings, and italics, authors seem to have employed chiastic structures, inclusios, and other devices that rely on the repetition of key words, phrases, or thematic concepts to structure their material.

There is evidence that early on the biblical texts were widely memorized, as well as evidence that they were regularly read aloud. I think it plausible that authors expected their audiences to recognize chiastic structures and inclusios formed by the repetition of key words, phrases, and concepts, and if they weren’t caught on first hearing (those accustomed to listening closely to texts being read aloud probably had more facility for hearing such things–I notice that my sons, who have heard us read aloud to them a lot, seem to catch more from a first reading than my wife and I sometimes do) they could be noticed in the memorization/meditation/recitation process.

This is not limited to the ANE, though, because chiasms are also widely attested in the NT. I see a chiastic structure in the whole book of Revelation.

A proposed chiasm is either convincing or unconvincing, isn’t it? We’re dealing with those points on the scale from impossible to unlikely to implausible to possible to plausible to likely to certain . . . Sometimes chiasms are more apparent if the texts are read in the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, though if you’re reading a more literal translation you might still pick it up if you’re paying close attention and thinking hard about how the text hangs together. I think if you were to study a text really closely or memorize it in something like the NASB or ESV or NKJV, you might notice a chiastic structure . . . so commentaries are not the layperson’s only hope of seeing the structure that is there.

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  1. Good answer to a decent question. The bottom line (I think) is that at least the simpler ones fairly leap out when one’s reading in Hebrew. Not so much in English. I haven’t counted, but this may account for the lion’s share of the literal translations I did in the Proverbs book — just so that English readers could see the chiasms for themselves.

    So if Hebrew writers consciously designed simple chiasms, why not more complex? It isn’t too much of a leap.

  2. The long-standing question still remains: Did the authors create a chiastic structure a priori upon which their story was built, or does the telling of a story lend a statistical tendency for chiastic structures to appear as a result of the storytelling process?

    This isn’t a question of whether or not the ancient authors were capable of structured storytelling, but of whether the structures are intentional in design or an artifact of the process.

    I’ve seem some very forced (by the reader) structures imposed on literature, most often by my high school literature teachers. This built-in bias makes finding the natural structures all the more difficult for some of us.

    Interesting question!

  3. Of course, chiasms are there in the texts, and often. Along with every other literary device known to man as well as some that are yet to be discovered and understood. I don’t know how many years it has been since I began my morning devotions with Zeph.2:10-12. It has chiasms in it, but what is less noticeable are two other literary techniques, namely, irony and epigram. Irony is perhaps the subtletest of methods, but the one in verse 11, “he shall reduce the gods,’ is one that often escapes attention until one suddenly wakes up to the fact that the gods do not exist. Thus, it follows, why should the Lord waste words about famishing deities that are unreal. The point is that it is irony. Then follows the most difficult of epigrams in verse 12, “You Ethiopians (Cushites) also, I will slay with my sword.” To behold the power of the biblical word on the African Americans is the only way to grasp the meaning of that epigrammatic expression. Another epigram, one expressive of absurdity is round in Rev. 7:9 where the Lord says, the number of the redeemed in Heaven is a number no one can number. Not even God? Surely, it is meant to make a suffering saint laugh in the midst of persecution. The literary subtleties of the Bible first struck me with great force, when I heard my Hebrew professor, a D.Phil. from Oxford, give a more literal, word for word reading of the Genesis account of Abraham’s offering up of Isaac. I was dumbfounded with awe. What I heard topped the best that Ernest Hemingway had done in that leanest of all prose novels, The Old Man and The Sea. Lean prose is the method of realism, of leaving the scene itself to convey in unemotional, reportororial terminology. Like the law, “Just the facts. Just the facts.” I can still hear with my mind’s ear, the professor reading, “And they went, the two of them together….” More than that there is the intellectual depth, the way the ideas are presented, moving believers to wind up with seemingly paradoxical and apparently contradictory ideas that cannot be reconciled and are not meant to be. On the contrary, they are meant to be held together, creating a tension in the mind which enables the advocate of such to be balanced, flexible, creative, magnetic, and constant. One period in the Christian Faith in which these truths all came to the fore is marked by a great transformation. I refer to the period from 1740-1820. In that 80 year stretch Protestantism moved from being a Gospel recovery effort, contentious, combative, and conflicted, to an outgoing, we will win you with persuasion movement, thus, launching the Great Century of Missions.

  4. Yeah Jim..i agree with you, i think that you just need to see the psalm 119…thats a great chiasms.

  5. The Bible is saturated with chiasms and other literary devices. Not everyone will agree on what is a chiasm and what isn’t, but that is exactly why we need to start identifying them and debating them, just like we do with the text already.

    One of the things I’ve though for awhile that is needed is an internet site with a database of chiasms. It would be a central depository where one could look at a passage and see what others have seen. Viewers could come in and rank the chiasms from 1 to 5 and comment on and debate the merits of each one. I think it could be a tremendous blessing.

    In terms of something current, if you watch “War of the Worlds” with Tom Cruise, the whole movie is chiastically arranged. Not only that, it has a de-creation theme as a plane from the “sky/heaven,” train from the “land/earth, and boat from the “river/waters/sea” were each destroyed. Half the movie is during the “day” and half the movie is during the “night.”

      1. Thanks for the compliment Dr. Hamilton. Your post seems very fair and balanced to me. Well written! I would love to see your chiasm for Revelations! Is it available somewhere, somehow?

        1. Actually Craig Robinson, not Dr Hamilton. But I happen to spend a lot of time in Revelation and see many chiasms there.

          Here’s one for you that I don’t think anyone has ever seen:

          A. Rev 12:4 – And his “tail” “swept away” a third of the stars of heaven and CAST them to the earth.

          B1. Rev 12:9 – And the Great Dragon was CAST down…who “deceives”
          B2. Rev 12:9 – …was CAST to the “earth”

          X. Rev 12:9 – And his angels were CAST down with him

          B1′. Rev 12:10 – the “accuser” of our brethen has been CAST down
          B2′. Rev 12:13 – …the Dragon saw he had been CAST to the “earth”

          A’. Rev 12:15 – the serpent CAST water…out of his “mouth”…so that the Woman might be “swept away”

          A’. Rev 12:15 – Earth opened its mouth and drank the river which the dragon CAST out of its “mouth”

          So basically in chapter 12, there is a (slightly lopsided) chiasm based on the word CAST. This is in addition to, and does not negate the chiasm for Chapter 12 that you have on your site. The one on your site centers on the triumph of the believer, while at the same time, this chiasm centers on the defeat of the dragon and his armies.

          A sections: Notice the parallel between “Tail” and “Mouth.” This identifies the dragons activity with that of the horses and locusts in Chapter 9 who used their tails and mouths to inflict harm on mankind. Notice in both sections “Swept Away.” Slightly lopsided because of the extra A’ section. But the two A’ sections actually form a chiasm themselves which can be identified upon closer inspection.

          B1 Sections: In the Garden of Eden, Satan is the “deceiver.” In Job, Satan is the “accuser.” Based on this section of srcipture, those seem to be the two key roles of Satan.

          B2 Sections: Both show the dragon being cast to “earth.”

          1. Oh, sorry about mistaking who was who (first time to this site – I was attracted by the article). Thanks for sharing the chiasmus. Do you have a website, or blog?

        2. ljhooge,

          No website currently, though I hope to sometime. I would love to see a website that contains every single chiasm or other literary structure in the Bible. It would be extremely ambitious & not sure that is even possible, but seems like it would be a great resource.

          My main interests are Genesis and Revelation and the literary connections/allusions between Rev and the OT historical narratives. I am hoping to start a website sometime sharing some of those insights.

          So I don’t have a website, but If you would like to interact, here is my email:


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