What is a chiasm?

Q. Can you explain what a “chiasm” is?  I often hear people use the word when they’re talking about things in the Bible, but I’m not quite sure what it means.

Simply stated, a chiasm is an arrangement of materials into nested pairs.  For example, in a simple, four-part chiasm, the first and last elements would be paired with each other, and the middle two elements would also be paired together:

God created mankind
in his own image,
in the image of God
he created them.

Sometimes interpreters label the parts of a chiasm with capital letters to show these relationships more clearly:

A  God created mankind
B  in his own image,
B  in the image of God
A  he created them.

The word chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like an X.  If you go from top to bottom down this letter, it’s wide, narrow, narrow, wide–that’s why the letter is used for the name of this arrangement.

Hebrew authors considered chiasms to be an especially  elegant and refined kind of literary creation, so they occur often in the First Testament.  Since most of the New Testament authors were Jews, many chiasms are found there as well.

As illustrated above, brief chiasms can be found in lines of poetry.  But chiasms can also be used on a larger scale.  Psalm 103 as a whole, for example, is a five-part chiasm.  (In a chiasm with an odd number of parts, the middle element stands alone, giving it a particular emphasis.)  This psalm begins with an extended call to praise the Lord; it makes a short assertion about God’s reign; it describes God’s character; it makes another short assertion about God’s reign; and it ends with another call to praise the Lord.

In the gospel of John, the account of Jesus’ arrest and trial is arranged as a seven-part chiasm:

A The Jewish Leaders Demand Execution
B Pilate Speaks with Jesus About Kingship
C Pilate Declares Jesus Innocent; The Jewish Leaders Shout for Barabbas
D  The Soliders Beat and Mock Jesus
C Pilate Declares Jesus Innocent; The Jewish Leaders Shout for Crucifixion
B Pilate Speaks With Jesus About Authority
A Pilate Agrees to the Demand for Execution

The account of the crucifixion is then arranged as another seven-part chiasm:

A Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Speed the Executions
A Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

Sometimes even longer stretches of narrative are arranged as chiasms.  For example, the account of Noah and the flood is an extended nine-part chiasm, with a key theological emphasis in the middle element:

A  Noah’s actions in building the ark
B  God addresses Noah:  “Go into the ark”
C  Noah and the animals enter the ark
D  The flood waters rise
E  God remembers Noah
D  The flood waters fall
C  Noah and the birds verify that the flood has ended
B  God addresses Noah:  “Come out of the ark”
A  Noah’s actions in offering sacrifice

In Genesis the lives of Abraham and Jacob are also related in nine-part chiasms, and chiasms are used to structure many other narratives and poems throughout the Bible.

So learning to recognize chiasms can give us many insights into the structures, themes, and emphases of biblical writings.  The only danger in knowing about chiasms is a tendency to want to find them everywhere in the Bible.  They’re not exactly everywhere.  But they certainly are used frequently.

Are Jeremiah’s oracles rearranged in The Books of the Bible?

Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrait of Jeremiah

Q. For The Books of the Bible, did you just reorder the biblical books? You didn’t, say, put the oracles within Jeremiah in chronological order? I was just reading Jeremiah in my other Bible and it’s so dang confusing going back and forth between kings and what not. I was wishing the oracles were more orderly.

The creation of The Books of the Bible did not involve any internal rearrangement of biblical books.  That was something that our project team agreed early on with the NIV translation committee to leave off the table.

However, the question of internal order within Jeremiah specifically has come up on several occasions over the course of our work.  This is because, as the “Invitation to Jeremiah” in The Books of the Bible explains, it appears that a large section of that book has been dislocated.

Jeremiah has four major parts:
1. Mostly poetic oracles, undated, likely not in chronological order.
2. Mostly narratives, dated, but not in chronological order.
3. Mostly narratives, dated, in chronological order.
4. Poetic oracles against the surrounding nations.

The introduction to Part 4, however, is found right after Part 1, suggesting that the oracles against the nations were originally placed before Part 2.  This is where they are found in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the First Testament.

It would certainly make sense to put these oracles against the nations back in their original location, right after the introduction to them, or at least to read them after that introduction.  Accordingly, in the reading plan for the Prophets module of the Community Bible Experiences, Biblica explains how Part 4 of Jeremiah appears to be out of order, so that people can choose to read it after Part 1 if they wish.

As for the lack of chronological order within Parts 1 and 2 themselves, this is due to Hebrew scribes’ preference for “chiasms,” intricate arrangements in which passages that feature certain themes or key words are paired opposite one another.

For example, as the “Invitation to Jeremiah” also explains, at one point in the book a prayer of Jeremiah’s is surrounded by two episodes that feature potters.  The very next prayer is surrounded by episodes that feature two  men named Pashhur.  And these two clusters of episodes are then surrounded by matching episodes relating to the city gates.

Similar chiastic arrangements are found in other prophetic books.  As I explain in my Isaiah study guide, for example, many of the arrangements there are “a bit like the kind of trophy case you’d find in the front hallway of a school. The trophies, awards, and plaques in such cases usually aren’t arranged in historical order, from left to right. Instead, the tallest trophy will likely be in the middle, with shorter trophies on each side, and even shorter ones towards the edges of the case—regardless of when they were won. Photos and plaques will be hung on the back wall where there is space and visibility, but not necessarily right behind trophies from the same era. The overall goal is to create a pleasing and appealing visual arrangement. In the same way, the poems, stories, and songs in the book of Isaiah are arranged not historically but artistically, to blend together into an overall message prophetic responses to significant challenges that the people of God faced at different times.”

The same can be said about the arrangements in the non-chronological portions of Jeremiah.

I hope this helps you navigate through that book a bit more easily!