Reading a Chiasm Helically

In his brilliant and thought provoking book, Deep Exegesis, Peter Leithart writes (167):

“In a book happily back in print, John Breck argues that chiasms are not ‘balanced structures, but instead are dynamic literary devices. He suggests that chiasms should be read ‘helically,’ moving not just from A to B to C to B’ and so on, but from A to A’, B to B’, C to C’, and so on. Read in this way, the text has a centripetal pull toward the central section. The corresponding sections, Breck argues, are related in the same ways that the strophes of a verse of Hebrew poetry are related. He says there is a ‘what’s more’ relationship between the corresponding lines: A and, what is more, A’.”

[the Breck book to which Leithart refers is The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond]

This idea of reading a chiasm “helically” (from “helical: of or shaped like a helix; spiral”) is exactly right.

I have argued that chiastic structures function this way across the books of Revelation and Daniel, and in my forthcoming book on the theology of Daniel, I suggest that Daniel’s chiastic structure influenced the choices John made in structuring Revelation chiastically.

This helical function can also be seen in the chiastic structure of 2 Samuel 21–24 (see GGSTJ, 174–75) and is likely at work anywhere you find a chiasm in the Bible.

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  1. The “A and, what is more, A’.”” borrows from James Kugel’s work on Hebrew Poetry, which saw the same relationship between the A line and B line in poetry (A, and what is more, B). I have not read the book by Breck.

    1. Thanks for the reference, John. Are you saying that Leithart expressly develops Kugel’s work, or that Kugel’s observation is an earlier iteration (focused on poetry) of what Leithart later observes overall?

  2. I read Fr. John Breck’s book a number of years ago. It was a great read. Imo, an ancient writer of chiasmus could choose to design a chiasmus to be read helically, but he could also choose to design a chiasmus that need not be read helically (an intentionally designed ‘helical chiasmus’ takes a bit more work, imo). It was his choice. A ‘helical’ chiasmus was simply one option within the chiastic writer’s toolbox.

    Psalm 150 might be an example of a chiasmus that was intentionally designed to be read helically (?):

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