Thursday, April 26, 2018

Reading the Bible: Noticing Repetition, Chiastic Structures

Previously we looked at a type of repetition called the inclusio. In this article we look at how to recognize and learn from a special kind of repetition where terms or ideas are listed and then listed back in reverse order. This structure of reverse repetition is called a Chiastic Structure, or Chiasm. It is named after the shape of the Greek letter X “Chi.” Chiastic structures might be thought of as one inclusio enveloped inside another.

In its simplest form the Chiastic Structure is used when a speaker or writer gives two or more elements and then repeats them back in reverse order.

An example of the simple form is found in Matthew 19:30:
But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Which is even more plain in Greek:
πολλοὶ δὲ ἔσονται πρῶτοι ἔσχατοι καὶ ἔσχατοι πρῶτοι.

In this example there are just two words in Greek: A) the first, B) the last, followed by the conjunction “and.” Then the same words are repeated in reverse order.

For a simple Chiastic Structure we could arrange them like the letter X “Chi”:

First Last
Last First

But this only works well for chiastic structures made up of two basic elements. Chiastic structures can be nested like Russian nesting dolls. And sometimes there are partial Chiastic Structures. Before we look at more deeply nested examples, let us look at a more simple example that adds another element.

Here is an example from a famous statement by President Kennedy in his Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961. I also chose this example to demonstrate that this kind of structure is used by speakers of English.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
There are three elements of President Kennedy's charge. The first element is repeated in the first place. The second and third elements are reversed forming the chiastic structure.

Ask not what your country can do for you

Ask what you can do for your country

We could diagram this sentence to make the reversal of the second and third elements visible:


But larger nestings of elements make this kind of diagram cumbersome and unclear. Another way to make this kind of reverse repetition more clear is to use indentation. This is how we will present examples from the Scripture.

As we begin looking at a few examples it is helpful to remember that the repetitions can be of words, phrases, ideas, or events. An author can use repetition of grammatical forms, like a sequence of imperatives or questions. We have looked at very short repetitions as examples to demonstrate how chiastic structures are made. Next we will look at two longer but still brief structures. Then we will turn to large structures. And finally, we will look at an example of the use of shorter and medium chiastic structures within a very large example.

Brief Chiastic Structures

Chiastic structures are often employed to make a teaching more easily remembered. So, for example, Christ’s words in Matthew 6:24:

A “No one can serve two masters;
B for either he will hate the one
C and love the other,
C’ or else he will be loyal to the one
B’ and despise the other.
A’ You cannot serve God and mammon.

Chiastic structures can be employed to build tension and point out the focus or topic of the narration which follows. In the following example the chiastic structure is used at the Front-end of the narrative.

1 Samuel 1 opens with an Inclusio and two chiastic structures. In verse one Eliakim’s genealogy is bracketed by the repetition of Ephraim. In verse two the subjects are Hannah, Peninnah who are listed then in reverse order.

Verses three through seven are enveloped by the Yearly observance which turns to Penninah and then focuses on Hannah and her problematic condition, then repeating in reverse order Penninah and Yearly. This last chiastic structure places Hannah and her barrenness at the center. This focus of the chiastic structure is the topic of the next section of the narrative.

Notice the stepping up of repetition in the following sections of 1 Samuel 1:

1 Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim Zophim,
of the mountains of Ephraim,  (Inclusio: Ephraim)
and his name was Elkanah
the son of Jeroham,
the son of Elihu,
the son of Tohu,
the son of Zuph,
an Ephraimite.

This first section consists of one element surrounding a genealogy— highlighting the fact of Elkanah’s descent.

2 And he had two wives:
H the name of one was Hannah,
P and the name of the other Peninnah.
P Peninnah had children,
H but Hannah had no children.

The second section build to two elements named and repeated in reverse order— highlighting one wife’s lack of progeny against the other’s fruitfulness. The use of two elements and reversing them makes the chiastic structure. The narrative continues:

3 This man went up from his city yearly to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of hosts in Shiloh.
Also the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the Lord, were there.
Yearly 4 And whenever the time came for Elkanah to make an offering,
P he would give portions to Peninnah his wife
and to all her sons and daughters.
H 5 But to Hannah he would give a double portion,
for he loved Hannah,
although the Lord had closed her womb.
P 6 And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable,
because the Lord had closed her womb.
Yearly 7 So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord...

Now the narration builds to a list of three elements, but the third element is left alone and barren by God’s will in the center of the chiastic structure, framed by mocking fruitfulness, surrounded over all by the annual shame before God. The two tables of the Law are reflected here.

From here the narrative turns to focus on how God resolved Hannah’s barrenness and her thankful response. The use of this reverse repetition in building order enables the hearer to remember the text better, builds tension in the narrative, and explicitly shows where the narrative is going.

Large Chiastic Structures

Now we turn to look at a couple examples of longer chiastic structures.

In this first example we are listing only the repeated elements to show how Jesus arranged this portion of His sermon. This section is from John 5:19-30

A    19 the Son can do nothing of Himself,
something He sees
the Son also does
B    20 greater works than these
C    21 the Son also gives life
has given all judgment to the Son
D    24 Truly, truly
he who hears
has eternal life, passed out of death into life.
D’   25 Truly, truly
dead shall hear ... those who hear
shall live.
C’   26 Father ..
the Son also to have life in Himself
He gave Him authority to execute judgment
B’   28 marvel
all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth
A’   30 I can do nothing on My own initiative.
As I hear, I judge
I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.

Here is an example that crosses three chapters in Genesis: The account of Noah and the Flood. Again, the repetition is shown in summary form.

A    Noah (6:10a)
B     Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10b)
C     Ark to be built (14-16)
D     Flood announced (17)
E     Covenant with Noah (18-20)
F     Food in the ark (21)
G     Command to enter the ark (7:1-3)
H     7 days waiting for flood (4-5)
I      7 days waiting for flood (7-10)
J      Entry to ark (11-15)
K     YHWH shuts Noah in (16)
L     40 days flood (17a)
M    Waters increase (17b-18)
N     Mountains covered (19-20)
O     150 days water prevail (21-24)
P     God remembers Noah (8:1)
O’    150 days waters abate (3)
N’    Mountain tops visible (4-5)
M’    Waters abate (5)
L’    40 days (end of) (6a)
K’    Noah opens window of ark (6b)
J’     Raven and dove leave ark (7-9)
I’    7 days waiting for waters to subside (10-11)
H’    7 days waiting for waters to subside (12-13)
G’    Command to leave ark (15-17 [22])
F’    Food outside ark (9:1-4)
E’   Covenant with all flesh (8-10)
D’    No flood in the future (11-17)
C’   Ark (18a)
B’    Shem, Ham and Japheth (18b)
A’   Noah (19)

A Very Large Chiastic Structure with Complex Use of Smaller Chiastic Structures

Genesis 2-3 is a very large chiastic structure. Inside this large structure are several smaller chiastic structures— up to three levels of nesting chiastic structures! Each one showing meaningful use.

2:4    Generations
a) heavens, b) earth, c) created,  center) LORD God, c’) made, b) earth, a) heavens
       5-7 Creation of Man, Place, Purpose

A     8 God Puts Man in Garden
9 Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
10-14 Eden River source of 4 Rivers to water

B 16 -17 Hearing God’s Word Re. Tree of Knowledge: God -> Adam, Adam -> Eve (Created Order)

C       18 -24 Creation of Woman, Place and Purpose
25 naked and unashamed before each other and before God

D      3:1-6 Hearing Serpent’s Word Re Tree of Knowledge: Devil ->Eve, Eve->Adam (Reversal)
7 naked and ashamed before each other (2nd Table of Law)
D’      8 Hearing God after not heeding God’s Word Re. Tree of Knowledge
  naked and ashamed before God. (1st Table of Law)
a) 9 -12 Adam: blame God for His gift, blame woman (God addresses them in Created Orde

b) 13 Woman: blame serpent

center) 14 -15 Serpent/curse
You did it, You will be worse off than any animal,
crawling, eating dust as long as you live.
And I will put enmity a)  Between you b)  and the woman,
And a’) between your seed b’) and her Seed;
b’) He a) shall bruise your head,
a)  And you b’)shall bruise His heel.”
b’) 16 Woman/curse (Pain reminder of Promised Seed, Created Order)
“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children;
a) Your desire shall be b) for your husband,
b) And he shall rule a) over you.”
a’) 17 Adam/curse (Hearkened to Wife rather than God. Provider, Bodily Death)
a) cursed ground b)  toil eat live c) 18 thorns and thistles d)  for you;
d) And you c’) plants of the field b’) 19 toil eat die a’) return to ground

C’ 20 Now the man called his wife’s name / Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.
21 God covers nakedness and hides shame through blood sacrifice.

B’ 22 God’s Word Re. Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil–
A’       23 God Puts Man Out of Garden

In this example the whole large chiastic structure is started in 2:7 by Front-end repetition in a very simple chiastic structure.

The large chiastic structure consists of four elements A) Man’s location relative to the Garden, B) Hearing God’s declaration regarding the Trees, C) Woman, and D) The Serpent’s Corruption of God’s Word.

In the reversal of these main elements the D’ makes use of two levels of enveloped chiastic structures. At the first level below the main is the repetition of a) Adam b) Eve center) Satan b ) Eve a) Adam.

In this substructure when the elements are repeated back in reverse order, beginning at the center, each element is concluded with another level of chiastic structure framing the curses for each creature at the back-end of each curse.

Thus we can say at the center of the central structure is the curse on Satan. The chiastic structure at this central level focuses on the Curse on Satan and his seed and the Promise of the Redeeming Seed of the Woman.