The structure of God’s Word is both beautiful and powerfully stirring.

While this can be seen in various ways, one of my favorites is chiasms.

What is a Chiasm?

Chiasm (also sometimes called chiasmus or a chiastic structure) gets its name from the Greek letter Chi, which looks like our letter “X.”

Simply, a chiasm is a literary technique that presents a concept and then repeats it back in reverse order.

The typical structure is like a sandwich where you have parallel lines that repeat, echo, or explain each other as it builds to a key focal point in the passage. For example, Proverbs 6:16–19 tells us: 

  • There are six things which the LORD hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: 
    • 1a) Haughty eyes, 
      • 2a) a lying tongue, 
        • 3a) And hands that shed innocent blood, 
          • KEY FOCUS) A heart that devises wicked plans, 
        • 3b) Feet that run rapidly to evil, 
      • 2b) A false witness who utters lies, 
    • 1b) And one who spreads [sows] strife among brothers.

Notice how 1a and 1b expand on each other (the same haughty nature that is full of arrogance and disdain is the same that spreads strife). 2a (lying tongue) and 2b (uttering lies and a false witness) parallel each other. 3a and 3b deal with hands and feet. The focal point of the passage summarizes each line: a heart that devises wicked plans—pride, lies, and evil are produced from a wicked heart. And these are all things God hates.

Such chiasms are found all throughout Scripture and can range from a single sentence (i.e., Mark 2:27) to the structure of entire books (i.e., the book of Ruth).

For example, Jesus says in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Here you see the use of “sabbath” and “man” repeated but in reverse order—giving symmetry and succinctness to the statement, thus making it more memorable.

This type of structure appears to be a common teaching device in the ancient world, allowing someone to understand the structure of a statement, helping them to memorize the concept and passage easier, and providing greater insight and depth to what is said. Jesus used chiasms in many of His teachings and Paul seemed to love them as he used them in all of his letters.

Notating Chiasms

I’ve seen chiasms notated (listed) in two ways.

  1. Most prominently is the ABB’A’ structure where each line gets a letter of the alphabet and the parallel line gets that letter with an apostrophe to show it’s corresponding connection.
  2. I’ve also seen it written with numbers and letters (like the Proverbs 6 example above): 1a2a3a3b2b1b

In either case, the point is to show the connectivity between lines within the passage.

Central Point / Key Focus

One other important point of clarification is that not all chiasms have a key focus or central point. When a passage builds to a key line, the emphasis is placed upon that line … but many chiasms are symmetrical without a central point (i.e., Mark 2:27 above).

When trying to understand chiasms, it is helpful to

  • compare and contrast the corresponding lines (A with A’) and see how each line expands, explains, or deepens the understanding of the other.
  • if it has a central focus, how does the central statement give context and understanding to the entire chiasm (passage)

Examples of Chiasms

While there are hundreds of chiasms throughout Scripture, here are a few of my favorites that show a variety of different chiastic structures.

1 Peter 1:23–25 (KJV)

  • 1a) Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God,
    • 2a) which liveth and abideth for ever.
      • 3a) For all flesh is as grass,
        • 4a) and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.
      • 3b) The grass withereth,
        • 4b) and the flower thereof falleth away:
    • 2b) But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.
  • 1b) And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

Genesis 3:5–22

  • 1a) 3:5 You will be like God, knowing good and evil
    • 2a) 3:7 They made coverings of fig leaves
      • 3a) 3:8 Wife as yet unnamed
        • 4a) 3:9 Adam questioned
          • 5a) 3:12-13a Eve accused and questioned
            • 6a) 3:13b Serpent accused
            • 6b) 3:14 Serpent’s curse
          • 5b) 3:16 Eve’s curse
        • 4b) 3:17-19 Adam’s curse
      • 3b) 3:20 Wife is named Eve
    • 2b) 3:21 The LORD God made them tunics of skin and clothed them.
  • 1b) 3:22 Man is like one of Us, to know good and evil.

Genesis Flood (Genesis 6:9–9:29) from Bernhard Anderson (1978)

  • Transitional introduction (6:9-10)
    • 1a) Violence in God’s creation (6:11-12)
      • 2a) First divine address: resolution to destroy (6:13-22)
        • 3a) Second divine address: command to enter the ark (7:1-10)
          • 4a) Beginning of the flood (7:11-16)
            • 5a) The rising flood waters (7:17-24)
              • » GOD’S REMEMBRANCE OF NOAH
            • 5b) The receding flood waters (8:1-5)
          • 4b) The drying of the earth (8:6-14)
        • 3b) Third divine address: command to leave the ark (8:15-19)
      • 2b) God’s resolution to preserve order (8:20-22)
    • 1b) Fourth divine address: covenant blessing and peace (9:1-17)
  • Transitional conclusion (9:18-19)

Ephesians 2:12–19

  • 1a) remember that you were at that time without Christ,
    • 2a) alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise,
      • 3a) having no hope and without God in the world.
        • 4a) But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near
          • 5a) by the blood of Christ.
            • 6a) For He Himself is our peace,
              • 7a) who made both groups one
                • 8a) and broke down the dividing wall of the partition
                  • » by abolishing in His flesh the enmity,
                • 8b) the Law of commandments contained in ordinances,
              • 7b) so that in Himself He might create the two into one new man,
            • 6b) making peace,
          • 5b) and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having in Himself put to death the enmity.
        • 4b) and He came and preached the good news of peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near;
      • 3b) for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
    • 2b) So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners,
  • 1b) but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household

Other Favorites

  • Colossians 1:13-20
  • Habakkuk (central focus: “The just shall live by his faith”)
  • Ephesians 3:14-21

Discovering Chiasms

One of the best resources I’ve found to discover and understand biblical chiasms is which has each book of the Bible listed with its chiasms. If interested in further investigation, I’d encourage you to check out their site, especially their Explanatory Notes.

In order to discover chiasms in Scripture, the people who run chiasmusexchange give several helpful clues and suggestions to discern between genuine chiasms and imaginary ones:

  • The section of scripture is defined by repetition of key words/phrases (i.e., bracketed or book-ended)
  • The pattern is characterized by repetition of keywords, and phrases or by opposites (chiasmus based only on concept rather than exact repetitions are more difficult to agree on)
  • If key phrases are inverted (“heaven and earth” v “earth and heaven”) this is strong evidence
  • The chiasm has a balanced symmetrical shape
  • The center – often a regular parallelism – is highly significant
  • The whole unit makes sense
  • The unit respects other textual features
  • Broken patterns may nonetheless be significant
  • The pattern becomes clearer in the original language

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