Chiastic and Concentric Structures

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE

By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman

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This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler

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Lecture #22:

Chiastic and Concentric Structures

 

 

REVERSE PARALLELISM

 

In the previous lecture, we discussed the construction of a narrative based on creating a classic parallel of section to section (A-B-C/ A-B-C), but this can be done in more complex ways as well. One of the most popular techniques in Scripture is reverse parallelism, in which the two halves of the narrative parallel each other in a reversed order – the first section corresponds to the final section, the second section corresponds to the penultimate section, etc.[1] The accepted term for a structure such as this is “chiastic structure,” but it is appropriate to differentiate between two different types.  Sometimes, there is a literary scene (or a lone expression) that is found in the center of the structure and brings the reader from the first half of the narrative to the second half of the narrative. At other times, the narrative skips this stage, and the reader immediately finds himself in the second half of the narrative, which corresponds to the first half.  Following Shimon Bar-Efrat, we will define these two structures differently:[2]

 

Chiastic structure: A-B/ B-A

 

Concentric structure: A-B/ C/ B-A

 

It is worth noting that the central axis of the concentric structure does not always contain the same significance, and it may yield various contributions.  The two most common contributions are the realization of the turning point of the narrative and the expression of the climax of the narrative, the stage of the narrative which has the greatest tension.

 

POETRY AND NARRATIVE

 

Chiastic style is most prominent in biblical poetry and prophecy, particularly in the style of lone verses. Let us cite one quick example, Tehillim 1:6: “For God knows the way of the righteous/ But the way of the wicked will be lost.” The chiastic parallelism in this verse contributes to the sharp contrast between the way of the righteous, which “God knows” (watches over, protects), and the way of the wicked, which has no future or hope. 

 

Chiastic parallelism is found in lone verses of the narrative style as well, such as: “One who spills the blood of a person/ By a person shall his blood be spilled” (Bereishit 9:6).

 

Already two centuries ago, critics noted that if a lone verse or short speech is designed with a chiastic structure, it is feasible that complete narratives or even complete books are also organized according to such a structure.  This inclination is first found in the analysis of Jebb, Boys, and Bullinger, who published their research in the first half of the 19th century.[3] From that point on, many writers and commentators have discovered chiastic or concentric structures in legal passages, prophecies, psalms, and various narratives.[4]

 

THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRUCTURE

 

What is the contribution of the chiastic structure to the hidden themes of the narrative? Is there an essential distinction between chiastic structure and concentric structure? It appears that literary structure is simply another tool in the literary toolbox; in fact, in every narrative there can be a theme separate from the chiastic or concentric structure. Generally, we may say that the chiastic structure lends a feeling of reversal, and it is therefore complementary to a narrative that seeks to stress this motif. 

 

Naturally, it is no surprise that the book of Esther is arranged in a concentric structure around Chapter 6, its first half describing the success  of Haman (delusional though it may be), and the second half describing his fall and the unraveling of his plot to exterminate the Jews.[5]  

 

A.  Introduction – the royal power of Achashverosh (1:1)

B.  Two Persian feasts: one for the provincial ministers (180 days), and a special second one for the residents of Shushan (7 days) (Ch. 1)

C.  Esther comes before the king and is chosen as queen (Ch. 2)

D.  Describing the greatness of Haman: “King Achashverosh advanced Haman ben Hammedata the Agagite and he elevated him” (3:1-2).

E.  Casting the lots: war on the 13th of Adar (3:3-7).

F.  Giving the ring to Haman; Haman’s letters; Mordekhai tears his garments; Esther and the Jews fast (3:8-4:17).

G.  Esther’s first feast: Haman comes out “happy and of good cheer” (5:1-8).

H.  Haman consults his kinsmen: optimism (5:9-14).

I.              The king’s insomnia and the journey on the royal horse (Ch. 6).

H1.  Haman consults his kinsmen: pessimism (6:12-14).

G1.  Esther’s second feast: Haman is hanged (Ch. 7).

F1.  Giving the ring to Mordekhai; Mordekhai’s letters; Mordekhai is clothed in royal garments; the Jews feast (Ch. 8).

E1.  The war on the 13th of Adar (9:1-2).

D1.  Describing the greatness of Mordekhai and the Jews, who attack their enemies: “All of the ministers of the provinces… were elevating the Jews… for the man Mordekhai was advancing in prominence” (9:3-11).

C1. Esther comes to the king and asks for another day of war in Shushan (9:12-16).

B1.  Two Jewish feasts: one for the Jews of all the provinces (the 14th of Adar) and a special second one for Jews of Shushan (the 15th of Adar) (9:17-32).

A1.  Conclusion – the royal power of Achashverosh (Ch. 10). 

 

This structure stresses one of the basic themes of the narrative; it is a “reverse narrative.” In fact, this point is noted explicitly at the end of the narrative: “But it was reversed, that the Jews were the ones to overpower those who hated them” (9:1). The structure of the narrative in its entirety seeks to stress this reversal of fate. 

 

However, the concept of turnaround does not come to end in the very fact that the Jews overpower their foes. It seems to me that one should view the idea of reversal as an overarching principle found beneath the surface of the entire book. This role reversal does not serve as a literary-aesthetic motif alone; beyond the concept of a reversal of fate, there is the burgeoning but unseen conflict with pagan-Persian viewpoints. 

 

In the Book of Esther, the chiastic and concentric structure is so basic that Dorsey suggests that one can present each half independently as arranged in a chiasmus.[6]  The first half of the narrative may be laid out in the following way:

 

A.    The king’s glory at the feasts and the deposal of Vashti (Ch. 1).

·         The king seeks the counsel of his ministers as to “what should be done to Queen Vashti.”

·         One of the ministers (Memukhan) sets out a proposal, which is accepted by the king.

·         Vashti becomes a bad example for others, as the women will show disrespect for their husbands.

B.    Esther comes to the king (Ch. 2).

·         Esther finds favor in the king’s eyes.

·         The king makes a feast for Esther.

C.  Mordekhai overhears the plot to assassinate the king and informs Esther, so that she may tell the king (end of Ch. 2).

D.  Mordekhai refuses to bow down and Haman plots to kill the Jews (Ch. 3).

C1.  Mordekhai overhears the plot to kill the Jews and informs Esther, so that she may beg the king’s mercy (Ch. 4).

B1.  Esther comes to the king (Ch. 5).

·         Esther finds favor in the king’s eyes.

·         Esther makes a feast for the king.

A1.  The glory of Mordekhai (Ch. 6).

·         The king asks Haman, “What should be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor?”

·         Haman sets out a proposal, which is accepted by the king. 

·         Mordekhai becomes the good example, “a man whom the king wishes to honor.”

 

When it comes to the second half of the story (which opens in Chapter 6, in the scene in which the first half concludes), Dorsey proposes dividing the scenes in the following way:

 

A.    The king’s glory (the king is reminded of Mordekhai’s actions by having the “book of history, the chronicles” read before him).

B.    Ester’s request of the king during the second feast (Haman is hanged on the tree).

C.  Mordekhai’s status in the king’s house –Haman’s house passes over to his control.

D.  Sending the letters of salvation (8:3-17).

C1.  The status of Mordekhai and the Jews throughout Achashverosh’s kingdom – Haman’s plot is reversed.

B1.  Esther’s request of the king for another day of war (and the children of Haman are hanged on a tree).

A1.  The glory of Mordekhai, the viceroy (“the full account of the greatness of Mordekhai is written in the book of chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia”)

 

If Dorsey is correct, the structure of the Book of Esther is uniquely symmetrical and expresses more clearly the principle of reversal. The two halves of the narrative are mirrors of each other and reverse each other, and every half on its own is presented in an additional reverse structure. 

 

Nevertheless, as we have already explained, giving headings to subunits of the narrative can be misleading. Moreover, it appears at times that the connection between the different elements in the narrative is created by the headings of the critic and not specifically by the theme of the narrative itself.  Furthermore, can we simply skip over the institution of the days of Purim, to which most of chapter 9 is dedicated? In order to do so, we would have t argue that the reader views the days of Purim and the letters sent to institute them as an outgrowth of the actual deliverance, and we may thus indeed skip over them in order to track the structure of the plot. This matter touches on critical questions that prejudge the presentation of the structure, and it is difficult to avoid a prejudgment of the presentation that influences the demarcation of the scenes and the headings given to them.

 

As we noted above, the artistic structure creates a relationship between the different elements of the narrative in varied ways.  We will trace chiastic and concentric structures through these different means of connection.

 

PLOT ELEMENTS

 

First, a strong relationship may be forged by different plot elements. For example, it appears that the narrative of the creation and fall of man[7] in Bereishit 2-3 has a concentric structure arranged around the sin of eating from the forbidden tree.[8]

 

A.   The creation of Adam and his placement in the Garden of Eden. Adam clings to the Tree of Life and is nourished by the fruit of the Garden (2:4-17).

B.  The creation of Chava and her good relationship with Adam: “And he will cling to his wife and they will become one flesh” (2:18-25).

C.  The serpent and the dialogue between him and Chava (3:1-5).

D.  Eating from the forbidden tree and its result (3:6-13).

C1. The punishment of the serpent: ruining its relationship with Chava and her seed (3:14-15).

B1. The punishment of Chava: ruining her relationship with Adam –“And he will dominate you” (3:16).

A1. The punishment of Adam: his banishment from the Garden, his inability to eat from the Tree of Life, and the curse of the ground (3:17-24).

 

In this case, even if one may find some linguistic connection, it is clear that the essence of the structure relies mainly on the actual development of the plot and following the active or mentioned characters. Does this structure add clues hidden in the narrative?

 

Following the structure, the reader finds an allusion to a values-based statement expressed in the narrative; the tensions between the various creatures and the struggles between them are an outgrowth of sin and of ignoring God’s command. Throughout the length of the first half, there is amazing harmony between all of the creatures –adam (man, person) and adama (ground); isha (woman) and ish (man). Even animals conduct a dialogue with people without concern or fear. After the sin, the narrative is reversed. From now on, there will be a rivalry between the serpent and humanity. From now on, there will be tension in coupling, a tension tied to the desire for dominance and the status of women. And from now on, the ground will not be generous to man, and it is upon him to work in order to get his food. In an ironic way, the harmony between adam and adama will be restored only at the time of his death, when he will return to the ground from which he has been taken. 

 

Thus, the structure of the narrative indeed alludes to the hidden meaning of the narrative. We are not only discussing sin and punishment or the removal of man from the Garden of Eden, but also the collapse of a network of relationships: man vs. himself (or his mate) and man vs. his environment. This collapse is tied to sin, to rebellion, to the will of man (or serpent?) to realize his desires. 

 

A narrative arranged in a chiastic structure that relies on plot relationships is usually tied to the most dramatic change that occurs in the plot. In other words, when the connections are linguistic or rely on broad motifs (as we will explain below), the structure can move in parallel to the development of the plot, so that hidden readings emerge from beneath the surface without arising from the continuity of the plot itself. This is not true when we speak of structure that responds to the actual development of the plot. We see this in the story of the Garden of Eden: the structure is designed with a stress on the two lifestyles of man – before the sin and after it. 

 

We may see the same phenomenon in the framing narrative of the Book of Iyov (its conclusion vs. its introduction), which one may describe in the following way:[9]

 

A.  Introduction: Iyov lives as a righteous man (1:1) .

B.  Iyov’s children – “seven sons and three daughters” (1:2).

C.  Iyov’s livestock – 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of cattle, 500 she-donkeys.

D.  The party of Iyov’s family (1:4-5).

E.  Iyov’s misfortunes (1:6-2:10).

F.  Iyov’s three friends come to comfort him (2:11).

G.  Iyov’s friends sit silently for “seven days and seven nights.”

 

G1.  God rebukes Iyov’s friends and commands them to take “seven bulls and seven rams” (42:7-8).

F1.  Iyov’s three friends come to “apologize” to Iyov (42:9).

E1.  God’s blessings rest upon Iyov (42:10).

D1.  The meal of Iyov’s family (42:11).

C1. Iyov’s livestock — 14,000 sheep; 6,000 camels; 1,000 teams of cattle; 1,000 she-donkeys (42:12).

B1.  The children of Iyov – “seven sons and three daughters” (42:13-15).

A1.  Conclusion – Iyov dies “old, full of days” (42:16-17). 

 

It is clear that the verse describes “Iyov’s restoration,” which brings the narrative to chiastic completion, in the order of its description at the beginning of the narrative.  It is logical that beyond the “happy ending” of the story, the aim of these verses is to say that Iyov has withstood the test put upon him, and at the end of the day he merits to receive once again everything he had lost – if not more.  In this sense, the end of the story returns to its beginning.  However, because he lost everything he had in the meantime (E), the conclusion of the story expresses a reversal from distress and misery to joy and tranquility, and therefore the chiastic structure is quintessentially appropriate here.

 

MOTIFS IN THE STRUCTURE OF AN ENTIRE BOOK

 

Naturally, it is easier to take note of the literary structure of a lone literary unit than the layout of an entire book consisting of different and discrete narratives. Nevertheless, even the layout of a book takes literary considerations into account, and it may certainly be that there is a complete artistic structure of a whole book built from subunits. Thus, for example, some claim that the Book of Judges is laid out entirely in a concentric fashion around the story of Gideon.[10]  Following this structure makes clear how a literary structure sometimes relies on central motifs that appear in the narrative, and not specifically on the main body of the plot:

 

A.  Introduction: Israel asks who will lead the charge against the Canaanites (1:1-3:6).[11]

B.  Otniel ben Kenaz and his good wife (3:7-11 [his wife — 1:13-15]).

C.  Ehud and his victory at the fords of the Jordan (3:12-31).

D.  Devora and Barak: the enemy’s head is crushed by a woman (4-5).

E.  Gideon: turning point (6:1-8:32).

D1.  Avimelekh: the judge’s head is crushed by a woman (8:33-10:5).

C1.  Yiftach and the civil war at the fords of the Jordan (10:6-12:15).

B1.  Shimshon and his bad wives (13-16).

A1.  Concluding Appendices: Israel asks God who will lead the charge against Binyamin (17-21). 

 

Gooding notes that in the stories of the Judges in the second half of the book, there is a struggle and tension between the Judge and the Israelite nation, unlike the stories in the first half of the book. This is expressed in different parallels: The fords of the Jordan are the site of victory over the enemy in the first half (Ehud’s war, C), while in the second half they are the site of a civil war (Yiftach and the tribe of Efrayim, C1). In the first half, the head of the enemy is crushed by a woman (D), while the head of the Israelite judge himself is crushed by a woman in the second half (D1).

 

We should note that the relationship upon which the structure rests are tied to specific motifs and plot elements mentioned in the story.  It is clear that the essential narrative of Yiftach is not in the war with Efrayim, which closes his story, and certainly not in the fact that the matter is occurring at the fords of the Jordan specifically; it is difficult to see the essence of the story of Avimelekh in the fact that his skull is crushed by a woman, etc.  Indeed, this is the Achilles heel of this thesis. Nevertheless, since we are talking about the layout of the entire book, it appears that one may take account of motifs of this sort as well, with the understanding that their significance in the narrative is questionable, something which is of course open to different interpretations.[12]

 

This proposed structure of the Book of Judges naturally stresses the deterioration endemic to the era of the Judges. Scriptures alludes to criticism (sharp or mild) of the Judges, and this criticism becomes more pronounced when the reader compares the Judge to an alternative Judge, as presented in parallel in the first half of the book. In this way, the Book of Judges acquires its pessimistic momentum, setting out a continuous deterioration in three stages: a) the first half of the book (until Gideon); b) the second half of the book (from Gideon onward); c) the appendices — Mikha’s statue and the concubine of Giva.

 

LINGUISTIC CONNECTIONS

 

One of the most prominent methods of implementing the literary structure is through the verbal network of the narrative. Through the use of similar language and identical expressions, it is easy to follow connections among different elements in the narrative. As a brief example, we will examine the command of the Torah to make the menora (Shemot 25:31-36).[13] Note the graphic structure formed, in the shape of the menora:     

 

A.  Make a menora out of pure gold. The menora shall be formed by hammering it. 

B.  Its base, stem, cups, spheres and flowers must be from it

C.  Six branches shall extend from its sides… as well as a sphere and a flower… So shall it be for the six branches extending from the menora.

D.  The menora shall have four embossed cups along with its spheres and flowers. 

C1.  A sphere shall serve as a base for each pair of branches extending from it… So shall it be for the six branches extending from the menora.

B1.  The spheres and branches shall be from it. 

A1.  It shall all be hammered out of a single piece of pure gold.

 

The first half of the command describes mainly the branches and their form, while the second half describes “the menora” – that is, the central shaft.  The transition to the central shaft is accomplished in the central axis of the structure.  This axis is surrounded by phrases that relate to the six branches (their description, C; the description of their meeting the central shaft, C1), just as the central menora is surrounded by six branches. The frame of the command (A-A1) stresses how all of the ingredients must be from pure gold, one hammered piece, which is only appropriate for the literary framework which turns the ingredients into “one hammered piece” of literature.

 

The chiastic or concentric structure sets out a varied parallelism among the different elements, contributing a great deal to the hidden readings of the narrative. In the coming lecture, we will focus, God willing, on one example (the story of Yehuda and Tamar), and we will dissect the significance of the concentric structure of the narrative in a broader sense.

Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch

 



[1]     Indeed, it seems that this form of writing was common throughout the literature of the Ancient Near East. An entire volume has been dedicated to the clarification of chiastic structures in literary writing in the ancient world: J. W. Welch (ed.), Chiasmus in Antiquity (Utah, 1981).  On the one hand, this book gives the impression that chiastic writing per se was widely accepted in the ancient world; on the other hand, this book also makes clear that these structures are particularly common in Scripture.

[2]     S. Bar-Efrat, "Some Observation on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative", VT 30 (1980), p. 170.  Many names are given to the structures discussed above, and all are legitimate, but we will follow the path of Bar-Efrat.

[3]     John Jebb, Sacred Literature (London, 1820); Thomas Boys, Tactica Sacra (London, 1824); Idem., Key to the Book of Psalms (London, 1825); E.W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible (London).

[4]     For a survey of the development of the research of this topic, see J. Welch’s "Introduction" in Chiasmus in Antiquity, p. 9.

[5]     For (somewhat similar) proposals for the concentric structure of this book, see Y.T. Radday, "Chiasm in Joshua, Judges, and Others," Linguistica Biblica 27-28 (1973), p. 9;  Y. Reiss and Y. Grossman, Megillat Esther Meluveh Be-Iyurim Meva'arim (Alon Shevut, 5762), pp. 16-17.

Note that the structure of the book is designed to represent the limited viewpoint of Haman in the narrative, as his success in the first half is not true success; Esther is already planning to depose him, although he does not know this. The very fact that the narrative is organized in this way bears within it important ironic readings of the theme of the book.

[6]     D. A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids, 1999), pp. 162-4.

[7]     Translator’s note: In order to avoid confusion, we will use the names of Adam and Chava to refer to “the man” and “the woman,” although these personal names appear only after the sin. 

[8]     For a different thesis of concentric structure (based on 3:6-8), see J. T. Walsh, "Gen 2:4b-3:24: A Synchronic Approach," JBL 96 (1977), 161-77.

[9]     Dorsey, Literary Structure, p. 170.

[10]    This proposal is based on D. W. Gooding, "The Composition of the Book of Judges," Eretz-Israel 16 (1982), pp. 70-79.  We have cited it in brief and with minor changes.

[11]    Gooding divides the introduction, and correspondingly the conclusion, into two different and parallel parts. For ease of the analysis, I have consolidated the introduction to the book and its conclusion into one united part each.

[12] There are many examples of this. See, for example, the two different proposals for concentric structures of the chapters of Shlomo in Melakhim, that of Dorsey, Literary Structure, p. 138, and that of Amos Frisch, JSOT 51 (1991), pp.3-14.

[13]    I am ignoring in this context the succeeding verses, which relate to the lighting.