The Chiastic Structure Will Change the Way You Read the Bible
By Unlocking Biblical Meanings That Are Often Not Readily Apparent
A chiasm (ky′-az-um) is a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis. Often called the chiastic (ky′-az-tic) approach or the chiastic structure, this repetition form appears throughout the Bible yet it is not well known. The way you approach the Scriptures should be dramatically enhanced as you learn what a chiasm is, how to recognize chiasms, and how to glean a fresh application from related New or Old Testament passages.
Chiasms are structured in a repeating A-B-C ... C′-B′-A′ pattern:
A I will never leave you nor forsake you
B Be strong and courageous … be strong and very courageous
C Be careful to obey all the law … that you may be successful
D Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth
D′ Mediate on it day and night
C′ Be careful to do everything written in it … you may be prosperous and successful
B′ Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged
A′ for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:5-9)
Simply put, a chiasm is a repetition of similar ideas in the reverse sequence. The importance of the chiastic structure is found in its hidden emphasis. (See Being an Overcomer for an interpretion of this chiasm).
My time in God's Word has become truly exciting as I have learned to uncover the chiastic structure. Over the years, I have studied the Scriptures from many different angles – for me, seeing God's Word from the chiastic perspective has added a great deal of meaning. Yet today, many who have read the Bible are just beginning to discover this even though it was identified over two hundred years ago (see Background on Chiasms).
A chiasm organizes themes much like a sandwich: A) a piece of bread on top, B) mustard, C) a delightful piece of meat, C′) another savory piece of meat, B′) more mustard, and finally A′) another piece of bread on the bottom. Chiasms generally focus on the flavorful meat, but the bread and mustard are necessary for a complete sandwich. Some chiasms do not have a mustard layer, other chiasms have lettuce on both sides of the meat, and some have just one piece of delicious meat.
When God inspired the Hebrew and Greek writers to inscribe their portions of the Scriptures, the chiastic structure was often used to add emphasis. He could not use techniques such as bold, italics, underline, indentation, bullets, or font size to help the reader understand what is important because these were not part of the ancient languages at the time. Instead He often used the structural arrangement of repeated thoughts or phrases to accomplish this emphasis.
Consider this example of a chiasm:
No one can serve two masters.
Either he will hate the one and
love the other, or
he will be devoted to the one and
despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matt 6:24 NIV 1984)
Chiasms are usually arranged in the same top-to-bottom form as they appear in the text:
A No one can serve two masters.
B Either he will hate the one and
C love the other, or
C′ he will be devoted to the one and
B′ despise the other.
A′ You cannot serve both God and Money
To many people, this verse conveys the thought that we serve one of two masters: God or money. When looking at it from the standpoint of a chiasm, we see a far more profound understanding.
Note how the verses A and A′ have similar themes, as do B and B′, and C and C′. This chiasm uses three themes: serving one of two masters (God or money), hating one of the masters, and loving the other master. The theme in the middle portion of this text is called the center point – in this case, C and C′ are that center point. Most of the people that have studied the chiastic approach agree that the portion in the center generally contains the most important part of the chiasm – it is usually the emphasis of the passage.
In Western cultures, we are trained to look for the emphasis at the beginning or the end of the text. Therefore, we naturally believe that this verse is about serving either God or money.
As I studied this chiasm, I saw that the center point focuses on loving the right master. I immediately understood that serving God is good and proper, but love and devotion to Him should be the emphasis or driving force. Some people serve the Lord but never love Him. The application was most apparent: when we steadfastly love our God, serving Him is a natural outflow. Therefore, this chiasm reveals that the emphasis is on loving God; the choice to serve Him should be the effective result of that love.
As with the above chiasm, the question becomes "WHY?" are these verses structured this way – "Why the emphasis?" A dialog with the Lord is often appropriate: "Lord, I see this chiastic structure. Now please show me why You wanted to emphasize this."
Structure of Chiasms
Some people prefer to analyze chiasms in chart form. In this way, the structure can show greater clarity as the analysis takes on greater rigor:
This chart can take a little time to understand how it relates to the original text. Please take a moment to compare this chart with the verses shown above. Once you grasp this technique, this charting method should provide greater accuracy in your analysis of the many chiasms in the Bible.
When reading this chart, the verses under First Presentation are to be read from top to bottom, while the verses under Inversion are to be read from bottom to top. Each repeated thought or phrase is called a Theme. There will always be two or more themes that, when combined together, are called a structure. Each theme is assigned a Level.
In this chiasm, there are three levels, although there could be as few as two and as many as eight or ten or even higher. In this charting method, the center point of emphasis is always displayed in the bottom row of the chart. Also be aware that not all chiasms have a center point of emphasis; for example, many of the A-B-B′-A′ chiasms in Proverbs do not reveal their importance in this manner.
In literature, there are an impressive number of names for this rhetorical device: chiasmus, chiasma, inverse parallelism, inverted parallelism, introversion, symmetric parallelism, palistrophe, formgeschichite, concentric patterns, chiastic structure, chiastic approach, or a chiasm. Despite the naming differences, they all refer to the same literary concept. Let's look at another chiasm based on Matthew 11:28-30 (NKJV):
A Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden,
B and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you
X and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
B′ and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy
A′ and My burden is light.
The center point, that is the center of the structure, may contain a pair of themes such as A-B-C-C′-B′-A′ or just one theme as in A-B-X-B′-A′. Some theologians attempt to distinguish these, calling A-B-C-C′-B′-A′ an example of chiastic symmetry and A-B-X-B′-A′ an example of concentric symmetry. However that subtlety is blurred with many people, simply calling them all chiasms.
In this chiasm, the center point is a single line rather than two; rather than having C and C′ verses, a single line labeled X is presented. We see the heavy/light contrast mentioned on the A and A′ portions; rest and yoke are presented in that order in the B and B′ verses. Many who look at these verses are very content to stop here because we all want the Lord's rest, yet there is a deeper meaning by looking at the X level.
By looking at this chiastic structure, we see that burdened people (A - A′) and His rest and yoke (B - B′) are a very important part of these verses, but they point to a greater richness of understanding. At the X level, we see the gentle and humble nature of Jesus. Again, a dialog with the Lord can point towards the application of the chiasm: "Lord, I am burdened and want Your rest. Please help me learn Your gentleness and humility." Jesus then begins this work, teaching us his ways to overcome our burdens.
Repetition in an outer to inward direction is the key to recognizing chiasms. There are hundreds and hundreds of chiasms throughout the Bible; the fun is finding and then applying them. As you read through the Bible and discover a chiasm, try to understand why the verses have been paired together in this way. Many Biblical authors such as Joshua, Matthew and John clearly understood the value of this style, while others such as Luke and Paul seemed to use this style less frequently and/or in a more rudimentary pattern.