How to Find Chiasms in the Bible
by Thomas B. Clarke
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)
Looking for chiasms may be loosely described as a search for the hidden.
By using the Bible as the source, the discovery of the chiastic structure in the text is a search with a great reward.
When discovered, the hidden beauty of God's word can penetrate our mind with its deeper meaning.
While I truly enjoy finding chiasms in the Scriptures (or chiasmus or inverted parallelism if you prefer), be assured that some chiasms are more easily uncovered than others. (See my article What is a Chiasm? if you are already confused.) In the following article, I describe the process that I've used, weathered over time. I hope in some fashion that this helps you in your personal discovery process, unveiling God's truth in a deeper way.
Can You Find the Chiasms?
First I want to reassure you that what God has opened up in me, He can do the same in you. I am no one special although of course we are all special to God. I am a retired senior citizen; my grades in college were typically "B" and "C"; and I nearly failed every English class that I took in high school and college. Yet I recently authored three Christian books including one about the chiastic structure in the book of Joshua, and they have all been well received.
Again, what God has opened up in me, He can do the same in you. By following the suggestions that I've listed below and with the help of our loving Father, you too can develop the pattern recognition skill that is necessary for revealing the chiastic approach.
Thomas B. Clarke
Author of Joshua's Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua
The Pairing Process
The key to unlocking the chiastic structures in the Bible is to see the repetitions as they occur and then make sense out of the patterns. I recently came across a very simple chiasm one morning, so let me take you through my process. I was reading Matthew 23 which is the chapter about the seven woes. There I saw the words exalt and exalted occurring in the same verse. "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:12). I saw the repetition of exalt, but the repetition of the center words humbled and humbles only appeared when I re-read the verse. I had to go back over it again to catch what I had initially missed:
A Whoever exalts
C Will be humbled
C′ Whoever humbles
A′ Will be exalted. (Matt 23:12)
That chiasm took about 15 minutes to fully develop because I verified it in the Greek. For me, that was God's word for that day and it carried me throughout the day because I regularly need that reminder about humility.
Look for Common Themes
In the previous example, the individual words have the same Greek root structure: will be exalted and exalts; will be humbled and humbles. Most chiasms are lengthier yet they have a common theme. If the men go up the mountain, see when they go down the mountain. If the woman was barren, there may be a parallel verse or verses identifying that she is now pregnant. If the demon was cast out of the individual, take note if the demon returns.
The word antithetical (an-ti-thet'-i-cal) is used to describe opposites. They were tormented (a type of curse) and had no rest, which is soon followed by the antithetical verse that they were blessed and had rest. Or, he was scorched by the sun, and then later he was sitting in the shade. The theme is the same but the opposite has occurred.
Themes don't have to be opposites; they may also state the same or nearly same thing: they did not repent which is followed several verses later by they did not repent. Or you may find: Then I saw an angel flying directly overhead which has a corresponding parallel verse a bit later: And another angel came out from the altar. The same idea or theme will oftentimes, but certainly not always, indicate the presence of a chiasm.
Therefore, looking for those repeated themes, whether similar or antithetical, should help you uncover those hidden chiasms. If we can agree that the Bible is inspired by God, then they are in the Bible for us to uncover and then enjoy the principle(s) that come forth from the chiasm.
Look for a Change
Many times in a narrative, the turning point is the center of the chiasm. There could be a lengthy discourse on wickedness which is followed by a similar discourse on good. See if there are themes in the first that convey parallel themes in the other, only in the opposite direction. The army is winning followed by details on how they were loosing. The people were tempted followed by their punishment for following the temptation. The chiasm in Matthew 23:5-12 is a good example of this.
Look for Themes that are Nearly the Same Length
While similarity of length is not always upheld, it is much more often than not. If you suspect a repeated theme, see if the word count is roughly the same. In the chiasm that is listed at the top of this webpage, the ESV states, "Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and courageous" (Joshua 1:6,7a). Notice how the parallel verse is not exactly the same length but it is similar: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed" (Joshua 1:9a). The original Hebrew or Greek is often shorter than the English, so the same exact length will rarely be achieved.
Look for the Story Being Told Twice
Particularly in the Old Testament narratives, you will often see that the story is repeated: what will happen is followed by the event, or the event is later told from a past tense perspective. When you see these repetitions, look at the order of events: if they are not the same, suspect a chiasm and investigate further.
Which Bible Translation?
Now please allow me to give a plug about which Bible translations are best. I know this is sacred territory for some, so please allow me some grace.
I have a good number of Bible translations that I regularly use, and to some extent it depends on my purpose in reading for that day. As I mentioned earlier, I have written three books and each one uses a different translation. My book A Garden of Love uses the New Living Translation (NLT) because I was attempting to use the more poetic, romantic and free-flowing style to help convey the sense of love. But the NLT does not reveal the chiastic structure very well.
In writing Joshua's Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua, I used the New International Version (NIV), New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV). The NIV does a good job in my opinion of conveying the essence of the Scriptures but it falls short in the more literal translation of what the text states. Therefore I found myself bouncing from one translation to another.
Again using the verses above, the KJV substitutes the word abased for the word humbled. I'm not sure if I would have found that chiasm if I had been using the KJV only; probably not. In my opinion, there is not a "best" English translation of the Bible for identification of the chiastic structure.
Recently I switched to the English Standard Version (ESV) for my regular Bible reading. I find this fairly literal translation helps me uncover chiasms quite well; the footnotes in the ESV Study Bible often help with their identification. I suspect that other study Bibles from a fairly literal translation such as the NKJV or NASB would be equally valuable.
Learning Greek and/or Hebrew
I have continued to uncover many chiasms in the Bible since I wrote Joshua's Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua. One extremely challenging thing I did was a two-semester course on the Greek of the New Testament. That helped me greatly, partly because the instructor was well familiar with chiasms; we had many good discussions.
I think it is good for us to continue to grow our Bible knowledge, but please recognize that I was able to identify all the chiasms in the book of Joshua without an understanding of the original language. I have identified most chiasms by simply being attentive to the repetition of verses or themes. The use of an Interlinear Bible, which shows the original Greek or Hebrew with the equivalent English word directly below it, should be helpful as well.
The Charting Method
I use a charting method that to some may be cumbersome but it works very well for me. I explained the charting process shown below from Matthew 11:28-30 in What is a Chiasm?:
|A - A′||Weary and burdened people (v11:28a)||People with a light burden (v11:30b)||Heavy and light burdens|
|B - B′||The Lord gives his rest and yoke (v11:28b, 29a)||We receive his rest and easy yoke (v11:30a)||Rest and yoke|
|C - C′||Learn from me (v11:29b)||Jesus is gentle and humble (v11:29c)||Becoming gentle and humble like Jesus|
I strongly recommend that you use this charting method.
In this method, the Scriptures are read down under the First Presentation
and then are read up in the column entitled Inversion.
I have read many books about chiasms and only one of the authors present that method – I wish the others had. And my various personal Bibles are chock full of chiasms that I've discovered, but rather than using this charting method due to space limitations, I wrote the letters A, B, C, etc. in the margin. Frankly, I wish I had charted many of these as well.
In looking over my work from an earlier time, or the work of another author, it would have been very helpful to see the revelation that led to that identification which is identified in the Theme. Also, I don't agree with every chiasm that is presented, so seeing this structure could help me understand it from their eyes. Just because you see a chiasm in print does not mean that it is correct.
Writing in Your Bible
Do you write in your Bible? As is discover chiasms, I write the letters A and A', or B and B', etc. either in the margin or within the text at the beginning of each level. I like the ESV Study Bible because my pen does not bleed through. I use a Pilot P-500 Extra Fine pen and find that works very well for me. I underline key words as I recognize patterns and sometimes will draw a straight line connecting the similar themes until I see the full pattern. If the chiasm is not readily apparent, I will prepare a chart similar to the one shown above.
I certainly have made mistakes as the chiasm unfolds before me, so I simply cross out what is wrong or write over the mistake. This is an evolving process, and later discernment may be better than our initial understanding.
Where to Find Chiasms
It is readily apparent to me that the Hebrew writers of the Bible found it natural to think and talk in a chiastic manner. Their eyes and ears must have been trained to read and hear the center point of the message. That to me is phenomenal and it shows the genius that is behind the word of God as it was revealed to each writer.
The books of Matthew, Mark and John are full of chiasms and are an excellent beginning place for the discovery of chiasms. The writers of these three books were Jewish, but Luke was a Gentile. I don't think you will find many chiasms in Luke or Acts because he does not appear to write from that perspective. Luke's purpose, it seems, was to collect the evidence of the move of the Holy Spirit; he was not particularly interested in the chiastic approach.
I don't find the poetic or prophetic books of the Bible (Job through Malachi) to have an abundance of chiasms, but there are certainly exceptions such as Daniel and Zechariah. And I don't find a lot of chiasms in Paul's writings although one Bible scholar wrote a book about the chiasms in Paul's writings.
I find the chiastic structure most frequently in the historical books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Esther) and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. Peter was a Jew so he wrote from that perspective, but interestingly I don't find it very much in James. I have studied the parallelism in Revelation which revealed some chiasms, but the repetition of Revelation reveals other forms of literary structure that I can't identify; it may have to be left for others to unfold.
Bookends or Inclusio
You may have heard someone say that two portions of Scriptures represent bookends: one is the beginning and the other the end. A more scholarly way of stating this is to call it an inclusio but that is the same thing. In Revelation 1:8 Jesus states, "I am the Alpha and Omega" which begins the prophecy found in Revelation. In Revelation 22:13 Jesus again states, "I am the Alpha and Omega" which is the end of the extended prophetic vision. Some may suggest that there is one long chiasm between these verses; if so, I have not found it. Instead, I am content to call this an inclusio because it marks off the start and finish of that portion of Scripture. Not all repetitions are chiasms.
That is Not a Chiasm!
The Bible is full of other types of parallelism besides the chiastic structure. Besides the A-B-B'-A' structure of chiasms, two of the more common alternatives are A-B-A'-B' and A-A'-B-B'. For example, 1 John 2:13-14 contains an A-B-C-A'-B'-C' structure; many, when introduced to chiasms, think of this example of repetition with the hope that it is a chiasm – it is not. Similarly, Isaiah 1:3 contains an A-A'-B-B' structure: the two animals in the first part are compared to the people of Israel that do not know or understand. That, too, is not a chiasm. Jerome Walsh's 2001 book on the Hebrew narrative is an excellent resource for understanding some of these other literary structures (see Books about Chiasms for details).
I find some chiasms are easily uncovered and some are very, very challenging. As I went through the book of Joshua, it took me 9 months to complete the first draft of my book. Chapter 6 of Joshua was exceptionally challenging to me as was the second part of chapter 24. I literally spent weeks on those two portions of the Scriptures; I could see great amounts of repetition but for some reason it did not come to me for the longest time. Therefore, take heart if you are not finding the chiastic structure right away.
Many times the chiasms were revealed to me, like turning on a light in a darkened room. Those experiences were the most fun and they left the most lasting impressions. I am left-handed, which means there is a more creative aspect to my thought processes. But the Holy Spirit, when ready to give fresh manna, is no respecter of which side of your brain is more active. Being relaxed and in the proper environment, I suspect, is more important to hearing and discerning the word of God than which hand holds your pen.
Where to go next? My book, Joshua's Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua, is a good place to begin. It reveals 67 chiasms in just the book of Joshua and this should help your pattern recognition process. This book reveals a great amount of depth and revelation that comes with each unveiling of the chiastic approach. Buy now at Amazon.com for $14.99.
Enjoy your journey: look for similar and antithetical themes; look for changes in flow; look for points of emphasis; and look for what I call the "synthesis" which is the concluding thought often prefaced with the word "Therefore." There are many, many chiasms in the Bible and the joy is uncovering them and then reaching that profound understanding that each reveals. I am confident you will savor your enhanced Bible reading process.
Joshua's Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua
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