Monday, April 27, 2015

Chiasm Hint #1 - Order of Presentation

Today I begin a new series that I am calling Chiasm Hints, pitfalls that can be easily made when analyzing the literary structure of the Bible. In our enthusiasm to identify chiasms in the Bible, it can be easy to see structures that were probably never intended. See my article What is a Chiasm? if you are already confused.

Now there are no chiastic policemen and I don't want to be considered one. However, I think that some ground rules may help us better hear what God, the One who inspired the Scriptures, intended.

Nils Lund, in his now infamous book entitled Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in the Form and Function of Chiastic Structures, suggested on page 31 that a chiasmus "is used in rhetoric to designate an inversion of the order of words or phrases which are repeated or subsequently referred to …" Using this general definition, he went on to explain that it is similar ideas that frame a structured pattern or theme.

I like to follow Lund's directive in my analysis of chiasms, namely that we should look for similar themes. However, I have seen some people simply use the order of presentation to help justify their analysis of a chiasm. Consider this example:

A    Abram's age  (v1a)
B    God's first speech  (v1b-2)
C    God's second speech  (v3-8)
X    God's third speech  (v9-14)
C′ God's fourth speech  (v15-18)
B′ God's fifth speech  (v19-22)
A′ Abram's age  (v23-25)
(Genesis 17:1-25)

The problem with this approach is that there is no consideration of the context. As many Bible teachers will say, context is key. How does God's first speech relate to His fifth? What makes the third speech so special that it may be emphatic?

It may be that the first and fifth speeches are related but this analysis does not tell us how. And what if there were six speeches – would that mean an A-B-C-D-D′-C′-B′-A′ structure? Or seven speeches – an A-B-C-D-X-D′-C′-B′-A′ structure?

As I stated earlier, order of presentation should not in itself qualify a passage as a literary structure, most particularly a chiasm. Similar themes that are revealed in the context must be considered.