Chiastic Structure: From the verse to the complete work

(For the full introduction press here)

The two most common literary structures in Biblical literature are parallelism and chiasm. These structures exist in every book of the Bible and in units of every size ranging from a single verse to complete works. Almost every aspect of the structures in question has been discussed extensively in scholarship. One of the goals of this project is to use the macrostructures we have identified to examine one particular ramification of the structures in question--their role in larger exegetical questions.

Biblical verses of two or more parallel hemistiches will very often omit a word, a term or an idea already found in a previous hemistich (less common is the omission of content in the first hemistich).  The reader is of course supposed to fill in the blank on her own.  In other words, the first hemistich (or the fuller hemistich) is integral to one’s understanding of the deficient hemistiches in the same verse. This drawing of syllogisms or analogies between parallel hemistiches is of course one of the basic tools used in the analysis of biblical poetry-one used unconsciously by most readers of the Bible.

Parallel verses and verse groups constitute a larger unit of examination and study. The Talmudic sages were creative in their use of analogy and syllogism in their quest for meaning and precedent in a relatively sparse biblical text. The Bible in general and the Pentateuch in particular were seen as “containing” every law and recommendation necessary for leading a righteous life, and it was up to the sages to figure out how to "draw" them from the text. One of the most common ways in which the Rabbis used analogy and syllogism followed these basic steps: 1. Two suitable biblical verses sharing a common feature (usually a word or a term) are brought up in the context of a Talmudic discussion. 2. A feature of one verse not shared by the other verses is then singled out. 3. An analogy is drawn between the verse exhibiting the "special" feature and the other verses in question and the claim is made that since the verses already share one feature, they also share this other feature (even if it is explicitly stated in only one of them).

The largest unit in which chiastic and symmetrical structures are the organizational stratagem is the complete book or work.  In James Kugel's article on chiasm mania ["On the Bible and Literary Criticism," Prooftexts 1 (1981)] he describes scholarship in the seventies as seeing chiasms everywhere, and dismisses the majority of their findings as perhaps aesthetically pleasing but of no real benefit to exegesis.  Other objectors to this "chiasm mania" call for more rigorous criteria in determining whether a specific work is organized chiastically - first and foremost is a demand for a broader based commonality between two units before they are deemed parallel.  Without this limitation chaos reigns, as almost any two units are related in some way. This call for rigor is laudable, but in my opinion out of place. The reason scholars have found so many chiastic structures in Biblical literature is because they exist!

Chiastic structure in its most basic sense is an elegant organizational stratagem. Not every narrative, however, can support the meticulous chiastic structure which hyper-rigorous methodologies demand. Parallel units may vary in length, style or content and yet still be a legitimate chiastic pair. Several examples are in order: First, the case in Leviticus 15 quoted above in which the pair of units dealing with the male discharger and the female discharger are of different lengths.  The first unit is fourteen verses long; the second six verse long, yet the units are undeniably parallel.  The opening unit of the book of Ecclesiastes and its conclusion (12:1-7), are thought by many to be parallel units, providing the book with an elegant frame. Although the units are of similar length, the style and content diverge. The first unit is prose, the second unit poetry; the first unit describes the cyclicality of nature and the last unit the cyclicality of life - essentially different subjects, even if metaphoricallly equivalent. A good criterion to use in judging whether a chiastic structure (or any parallel structure for that matter) exists in a given work is to ask if most (but not necessarily all) of the units share some features not found in most other units of the work in question.

The critical moments in biblical chiasms are of course the beginnings endings and midpoints - these are not just aesthetically gratifying but also of great exegetical significance. Ecclesiastes states his central thesis both at the beginning of his book and at its end: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." (1:2 and 12:7) In a previous work [
T. Yoreh, "Happiness, What is it Worth?" Beit Mikra 46, (2002) p. 353-370.], I show that the center of the book (5:18-20) restates Ecclesiastes' other central and probably more practical thesis concerning living one's life in happiness: 

As I demonstrate in my doctoral dissertation and this commentary, the Book of E's three main sections from Genesis through Numbers (the Jacob cycle, the Joseph cycle and the Moses cycle) are each organized chiastically, with the obviously critical divine revelations of the Elohistic source in each of their centers (the revelation to Jacob in Aram in Gen 31:1-13, the revelation to Jacob in Gen 46:1-5, and the revelation at Sinai in Ex 19).

If it is possible to reap exegetical benefit by comparing parallel hemistiches, should it not be possible to do so in larger works? Indeed, Robert Alter has suggested that much may be gained from a comparison of parallel units ["A Literary Approach to the Bible", Commentary 60:  70-77, 1975].  Expanding upon this idea I would like to venture that if such pairing is studied systematically, it can and should be used as a powerful exegetical tool. On this website the beginnings of such a study are put forth, and I hope to elaborate on them in coming years.
Biblical Symmetries