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What Is Chiasmus? Definitions and Examples of Chiastic Structure in the Bible

A chiasmus (also referred to as a chiasm) is a literary device in which ideas are presented and then subsequently repeated or inverted in a symmetrical mirror-like structure. Although commonly used in poetry, music lyrics, and children’s literature, chiasmus is also seen throughout the Bible to clarify and emphasize key ideas or themes.
Joel Ryan
What Is Chiasmus? Definitions and Examples of Chiastic Structure in the Bible

The Bible contains many different genres and subgenres of writing, everything from law, historical narrative, parables, epistles (or letters), sermons, poetry, and prophecy. In each genre, various writing techniques are carefully and intentionally employed by biblical writers and speakers to enhance, emphasize, or clarify their message. Chiasmus is just one of many writing techniques by the biblical writers of both the Old and New Testaments.

Chiasmus Definition

In various forms of communication, chiastic structure can be utilized in everything from a simple phrase to the ordering of complex thematic ideas. Derived from the Greek letter chi, which looks like the letter X, a chiasmusallows ideas to crisscross in their delivery.

For example, in his famous inaugural speech, John F. Kennedy told Americans to, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This is the prime example of chiasmus in its simplest form. If we were to assign a letter to each similar idea in Kennedy’s speech, we could diagram this phrase as follows:  

A. Ask not what your country

B. Can do for you

X

B. Ask what you can do

A. For your country

By assigning a letter to the predominant ideas, in this case the nouns country and you, we discover a mirror structure in which ideas are crisscrossed and symmetrical. The “X” in the middle highlights hinge point upon which the sentence structure turns. Other famous speeches, poems, song lyrics, and books use this device as well.

Chiasmus Examples in the Bible

In the Bible, chiasmus was intentionally employed by both writers and speakers because it not only helped emphasize and reiterate key ideas, but also because its lyrical patterns made it easier for people to understand, absorb, and even memorize. Considering that most of the early Bible was spoken, or even sung, the way language and ideas were presented in oral cultures was sometimes just as important than what was actually being said. This is a major reason why song lyrics are often easier to memorize than written blocks of text and why the writings of Dr. Seuss connect well with early readers. Repetition, sound patterns, and sentence structure helps the listener or reader understand, absorb, and recite important ideas and themes.

Placing a key concept or message in a chiasmus is one way to help guarantee that it is heard and remembered. It naturally stands out by nature of its sound pattern and symmetry. 

The writers of the Bible demonstrated enormous literary prowess, divine inspiration, and wisdom in how they chose to present key ideas and themes of Scripture.

Take for example Jesus’s words in Matthew 23:12. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we were to break this verse down by its chiastic structure, we would diagram it as follows:

A. Whoever exalts themselves

B. Will be humbled

X.

B. Those who humble themselves

A. Will be exalted

It is the same ABXBA structure that we hear in JFK’s speech. Similarly, we see this pattern again in Jesus’s teachings in Mark 2:27:

A. The Sabbath

B. Was made for man

X.

B. Not man

A. For the Sabbath

And again, it shows up in Matthew 6:24:

A. No one can serve two masters;

B. for either he will hate the one

C. and love the other,

X.

C. or he will be devoted to one

B. and despise the other.

A. You cannot serve God and wealth

In Joshua 1:5-9 God repeatedly encouraged and strengthened Joshua as he prepared to take on the mantel of leadership from Moses and lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. In doing so, chiastic structure is used for repetition, emphasis and effect.

A. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.

B. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. Be strong and very courageous.

C. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.

D. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips;

D. Meditate on it day and night,

C. So that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

B. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, 

A. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

The chiastic pattern is very similar to Matthew 23 and Matthew 6, this time, however, it’s in an extended ABCDDCBA scheme, where the “D” sections provide the center point or hinge for the rest of the chiasm.

Lyrically, chiasmus can also be found in passages such as Joel 3:17-21, Ecclesiastes 11:3-12:2, Isaiah 1:21-26, and Amos 5:4-6a.

Chiasmus in Story Structure and Overall Biblical Narrative

In terms of narrative story structure, several lengthier passages of Scripture are even told using a chiastic structure. Examples include the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9 and David’s encounters with Saul in 1 Samuel 24-26, in which a center chapter or event centers the mirror events that precede and follow it.

In fact, the entire biblical narrative and whole of human history hinges on Jesus Christ as the turning point of one giant narrative chiasm. A story that begins with Creation will ultimately culminate with the New Creation following Christ’s Second Coming. Everything in between mirrors itself, Old Testament to New Testament, with Jesus Christ and the cross as the center point of the chiastic crisscross.

The use of chiasmus in Scripture has inspired countless writers, poets, speakers, and musicians in how to communicate over the course of history. More importantly, the power of language, the careful use of sentence structure, and the sound of words can and have been used as bridges for the Gospel to be heard, understood, absorbed, memorized, and given back to the world by those willing to speak, write, and be used by God to communicate his love and truth to a dying world.

References

Clarke, Thomas B. Joshua’s Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua. Bible Discernments, 2008.

Dorsey, David A. Literary Structure of the Old Testament. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004.

Lund. Nils W. Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in the Form of Function of Chiastic Structures. Massachusetts: Henrickson Publishing, 1992.

Walsh, Jerome T. Style and Structure in Biblical Hebrew Narrative. Michael Glazier, 2001.

Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing and communications at Life Pacific University. As a former youth pastor, he has a heart for children and young adults and is passionate about engaging youth through film, literature, and theater. His blog, Perspectives Off the Page, discusses the creative and spiritual life through story and art.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Nicole Honeywill


Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing at Life Pacific University. Joel is passionate about fueling young people’s passion for the Lord through storytelling and the arts. In his blog, Perspectives Off the Page, he discusses all things writing, the creative process, and what makes movies, comic books, and great stories so impactful.


Originally published August 27, 2019.