Posted by: suekenney | November 29, 2011

Chiastic WHAT??!

My most recent lesson in literary devices came, of all places, in a Bible study.  It was a video class, and this particular session was entirely on two specific literary devices:  chiastic structure and peripety.

Yes, I will freely admit to my nerdiness – I got really excited about learning something new in my field of language and literature.  Honestly, I had never heard of either term before, and I was dying to learn what they were.  I’ll reserve peripety for another day; here is what I learned on chiastic structure.

Chiastic structure is also called inverted or sometimes introverted parallelism.  The Bible study teacher (Beth Moore of Living Proof Ministries, if you’re interested) further defined it as “a reversal of structures to emphasize an overarching point.”  Clear as mud so far, right?  I didn’t get it at first either.

The first example she gave was “Don’t live to eat; eat to live.”  See the two primary elements, “live” and “eat”?  They are reversed in the second clause in order to emphasize the point that our life’s focus should NOT be on eating.  Another example she gave was John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his inaugural address:  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Here the primary elements are “country” and “you.”  You might label the structure as ABB’A’ (live/ eat/ eat/ live in the first case, country/ you/ you/ country in the second case).

Okay, so I’m hooked – I’ve got to find out more about this!  I did a little digging on the Internet, and what a wealth of information is there!  Beth Moore, bless her heart, only scratched the surface of the topic.  For instance, it’s a literary device not at all limited to the Bible – it is found in many ancient and classical cultures.  One source said that many of the written languages of these ancient cultures did not use punctuation as we now know it – they did not have commas or periods or semi-colons to set one thought apart from another; some did not even separate words.  In fact, they all began as oral languages, not written at all.  So they needed some sort of device to set the boundaries for each thought unit.

One example of such a device would be the repeated chorus in a song or a poem; alliteration is another example.  Chiastic structure was another one commonly used.  And I learned that it did not just apply to a couple of repeated words or phrases (which actually, in classical rhetoric, was called antimetabole, but the term chiastic structure is now generally used to cover it all).  You might have a whole series of phrases involved; it might even span several chapters or sections.

In these cases, the overall structure is more complicated than ABB’A’.  It might be easier to see it in a slightly different form:


Your series of ideas, however long or short, all lead up to what is usually the central theme of the passage – D in this example, which may or may not have a corresponding D’ – and then are repeated in reverse order.  Makes a great memorizing technique for a primarily oral tradition.  And you can have any number of repeated, inverted words or phrases – I saw one example that got up to at least the letter M!

Wow, this is harder to explain than I had originally thought!  And I don’t think I’ve really conveyed WHY this got me so excited.  It’s the form – the simplicity yet complexity – the sheer delight in seeing the progression of an idea from beginning to main emphasis to the reflection of what has gone before.

I am currently (and very slowly) going through a book that discusses chiastic structure in some detail – Joshua’s Spiritual Warfare:  Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua by Thomas B. Clarke.  I will be reviewing it more thoroughly when I’m done with it.  But Mr. Clarke’s book has opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at Scriptures that I find absolutely fascinating.  By working through each of his examples (and he gives many), I’m beginning to see how the main point is spotlighted in each chiasm – at least in the smaller ones.  I don’t think I’m yet ready to tackle a chiastic structure that spans several chapters!

Nerdy stuff, I know.  But I enjoy seeing patterns in things, and this is just another way to see a pattern and use it to make a point.

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