The Importance of Chiasms

There are many important aspects of the Bible that I cannot remember ever hearing from any ministers growing up. Perhaps, as I am a person of serious intellectual inclinations, and because I take the Bible very seroiusly as something that requires investigation rather than as something that has been entirely understood by previous generations of Christians, and therefore there is “nothing new to see here,” that I have seen a deeper structure in the Bible than many of those who fancied themselves my teachers.

However, we all stand on the shoulders of giants when it comes to examining the Bible or any other endeavor. Let us not imagine, though, that our teachers are only to be found only in one sect. We must plunder the Egyptians for wisdom wherever it may be found, recognizing that all truth comes from God and that we must not be too proud to reject truth merely because others bring along error with it. We must sift out the errors and accept the truths that are uncovered so that we can grow and profit from the labors of others. If we wish to handle the Bible with wisdom, we cannot merely repeat the catchphrases of our own sects and groups and assume that our fathers discovered all there was worth knowing about God’s word. We must take their explorations as our beginnings, not our endings, and at times it might be necessary to reject what they saw as truth upon further examination, or for us to investigate truths they may never have been spoken of or seen.

Today I would like to discuss one such profound truth from scripture that I am not aware of being spoken by those whom I know. If it has and I am simply unaware of it, I welcome others letting me know, so that I may investigate, and show appreciation, but at least this area has not been examined by those whom I know and have long listened to according to my limited and personal knowledge. This issue is precisely what I talked about in my doctrines class today, the chiasmic structure of scripture.

Bible scholars, at least competent ones, have long noted that many books of the Bible show a chiasmic structure. Today in class I showed my students about the chiasmic structure of Psalm 23 and the Book of Ruth, showing that they both end where they begin. Just as the book of Ruth begins with a discussion of families, proceeds to examine the need to find the “rest” of marriage, then examines the coventantal relationship with God and being empty handed, and then goes to gleaning and the barley harvest, so it then repeats those concerns in reverse order, ending where it began in looking at the family of Ruth, which ultimately led to Jesus Christ Himself pointing to the fact that Ruth is but a shadow and foretaste of the story of Christ’s own redemption of the whole world.

Nor is Ruth alone in being a chiasm. The book of Judges has also been found to be a very elegant chiasm, starting and closing with an examination of political and religious failures of the Israelites, examining Judges who were helped by their wives (Othniel) or brought down by women (Samson), those who sent messages to foreign kings and killed the heathen along the fords of the Jordan (Ehud) and those who sent messages to foreign nations and killed their brethren along the fords of the Jordan (Jephtah), and a woman (Jael) slaying Sisera during a righteous war led by Deborah and Barak as well as a certain woman slaying the ungodly Abimelech in an unrighteous civil war within Israel, with the story of Gideon first fighting against idolatry and the enemy and then fighting his own brethren and lapsing into idolatry serving as the middle of the chiasm [1].

While teaching the history of the early Church, I spotted another intriguing chiasm as far as it goes with the reverse of the curse of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9) in the granting of the gift of tongues both at the first Christian Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-13) and when the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles (see Acts 10:44-48). Just as the tongues of man became divided when mankind united in Babel (i.e. Babylon) for ungodly and unrighteous purposes, so shall God reverse this curse and unite all believers together in His family in His Holy City (the New Jerusalem). Indeed, the Bible as a whole shows a chiasm structure beginning with the creation of the heavens and the earth, with the trees of life and the of the knowledge of good and evil in a garden with a river alongside them and ending with the tree of life (no curse), by a river flowing from God’s throne and in the creation of a new heavens and new earth where there will be no curse of sin or death. The Bible ends where it begins.

Why is this important? Why does so much of the Bible show this repeating chiasmic structure? Is something like this important only for intellectual students of the Bible who seek to examine the depth of God’s Word, or is this inherent U-shaped or V-shaped structure important for believers in general? I believe that the importance of the chiasmas is in showing that the whole framework of biblical history is part of a coherent plan from the beginning. All things in the entire course of human history work for the good (see Romans 8:28), as there has been planning and forethought all the way back to the beginning. God is not merely a supreme improvisator, but a careful master engineer and architect and composer who is building from a grandly complicated but masterful design, all of the apparent discordances blending together in a masterpiece symphony.

Let us not merely assume, though, that this is a simple cycle (the book of Judges is instructive). Rather, though the chiasm shows a repetition of elements, it is a spiral staircase rather than a cycle of dog chasing after its tail for all eternity. God’s master design shows a repetition of elements (not least in the weekly Sabbaths and yearly Holy Days and cycles of land Sabbaths and Jubilees), but it is a cycle that is combined with a linear element to either create a stairway to God’s kingdom (see Genesis 28:10-22, John 1:43-51), or a pathway to the grave and destruction, spiraling down in sin and death (see Proverbs 7:24-27). Rather, the plan of God combines the pattern circularity within its cycles with linear progress, not pitting those two elements against each other as man’s theories and philosophies do. Let us understand that God’s ways and thoughts are far above our own, and ask God for the wisdom to understand those ways and apply them to ourselves and our own lives.

[1] Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 160.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to The Importance of Chiasms

  1. Cathy Martin says:

    Does chiasm relate to a cyclical nature? Because that is precisely what God’s plan is all about and the examples that you give are representative of that; things end where they begin. Mankind will once again end up in a Garden of Eden with the Tree of Life freely accessible and the animals and floral amenable to the works of his hands. The end shall become the beginning…

    • Yes, a Chiasm does refer in general to a cyclical organization of materials in writing, though it also refers to spirals and not pure circles. Usually in the Bible, the cycles have some sort of linear component of either progress (physical eden to spiritual city) or regress (the cycles of Judges spinning down into further moral and political decay).

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