Chiasm, Oral Peoples, and the Grand Biblical Story

Chiasm is one of the most common memory devices in history and across the world. Yet, I find few people today use it or appreciate how chiasm works within an oral culture. For years, I’ve been one of those people.

If ancient oral cultures use chiasm as a mnemonic tool, might there be something about it that we can still use today? Some scholars claim chiastic structures are “circular” and so don’t reflect the “linear” narrative of the Bible. Is that true?

A village bank in Takeo province, Cambodia. Ph...
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I recently had a breakthrough in grasping how a chiasm can work and thus how useful it can be for us. I’d love your feedback.

This insight might help us “memorize” more information with greater ease and fluency. As a result, we can more effectively communicate the grand biblical narrative.

What is a Chiasm?

Every definition of a “chiasm” is awkward and hard to understand. We have to see one to understand it. A chiasm resembles the ABCB’A’ structure below.

A

                  B

                                    C

                  B’

A’

A chiasm uses parallel lines or ideas (A, A’ and B, B’) that frame a central emphasis (C). From A to C, the logic or narrative tends to be progressive but digress from C to A’. Many ancient and biblical chiasms are breathtakingly long and complicated.[1] Typically, the parallel lines are tied together by a key word (or a synonym).

Here are a few simple biblical examples.

Gen 12:3

A   I will bless those who bless you,

B   and him who dishonors you I will curse,

A’   and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Matt 11:28–30

A             Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, (28a)

B         and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you (28b, 29a)

C         and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, (29b)

B′     and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy (29c, 30a)

A′         and My burden is light. (30b)

1 John 3:9

A   whoever has been born of God

B   does not sin

C   for His seed remains in him

B’   and he cannot sin

A’   because he has been born of God

Aren’t chiasms too complex?

A chiasm seems far too complex. Imagine trying to recall something longer (like below) where else letter represents a long phrase, a sentence, or sometimes more!

A ……

              D……

                                F

              D’……

A ……

By the time we get back to C’ and B’, how do we remember what we said at B and C? How can we expect listeners to discern our emphasis at F? Even within written texts, which we see and can review patiently, a chiasm is difficult to identify. So, I repeat, how can oral people expect either to remember or recognize a chiastic structure?

I’ve read and heard people assert that the most natural way to tell a story is linearly. Among Christians, the claim is bolstered by the claim that the biblical narrative is linear. Why then do we find that ancient and oral cultures stories routinely use non-linear methods of storytelling?

Before we go further, keep in mind a few characteristic features of oral cultures and storytelling.

* repetition is essential

* stories are more additive (A+B+C….) than logically progressive (A, B, thus C)

* oral “texts” are often organized thematically and use key words or rhetorical devices

* since such narratives frequently reinforce a group’s history or worldview, they are not utterly indifferent to the linearity of historical events

A different perspective on chiasms

As I examined the extensive use of chiasm within long narratives, I suspected we might find some sort of linear progression (if we just looked hard enough). I previously read an article about how Americans and Chinese interpret pictures and writing differently if they are oriented vertically not horizontally.

So, what if we rotate the chiastic structures above 90 degrees? We get the following.

Rotated Chiasm

Now compare how this image compares to a conventional “plot structure” (below). The progression is familiar: introduction of main characters, then inciting event, followed by complication(s), finally the story’s climax and resolution.

Freytags_pyramid (public domain)
Freytags_pyramid (public domain)

These two diagrams resemble one another. A progression of events or ideas culminates at a point emphasized by the narrator/speaker. After the climactic turning point, the major plot points are brought to a close.

Note a common structure of arguments:

Problem 1

Problem 2

Problem 3

Overall solution

Resolves 3

Resolves 2

Resolves 1

Using Chiasm for Tell the Grand Biblical Story

Many attempts to share the grand biblical story essentially are tradition systematized gospel presentations that simply wear the clothing of a story. Christians often condense the grand biblical narrative in four movements: Creation, covenant, redemption, and consummation (or restoration). I’ve been critical of this summary, not because it’s “wrong”; rather, it grossly truncates the grand Story, especially everything from Genesis 3 until the latter portion of the Gospels. Other tools, like C2C, make a good effort but do not reflect the inherent narrative plotline.

By contrast, consider how the New Testament writers recall the gospel within the context of Israel’s story. They routinely highlight the same set of episodes or themes. These include creation, the Abrahamic promises, the exodus and receiving the Law, and God’s covenant with David. Christ is the climactic turning point of the Story.

Biblical Narrative Chiasm (without exile)

In fact, the very way in which God achieves his purposes in Christ is a chiastic reflection of the Old Testament account. The second part of the chiasm reflects how the writers depicts God’s working in history through Christ’s ministry.

First of all, they announce Christ’s kingship (ascended to the throne, sitting at God’s side), His fulfilling of the Law and creating a royal priesthood for His name’s sake, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the consummation of God’s creation purposes.

Whether consciously or otherwise, the writers present biblical history in a chiastic fashion. How easy it would be for them and us to recall this Story.

A few notes about the chiasm above:

  • The period from David to Christ includes the exile, which was a major marker in the thinking of ancient Jews during the Second Temple period. As N. T. Wright argues convincingly, Christ is depicted as the one who ultimately brings Israel’ out of exile (not merely back to the land).
  • “Pentecost” is simply a representative place marker for God’s creating the people whom national Israel merely foreshadowed. The gathering of the Twelve simultaneously is the restoration of Israel and thus the creation of the Church.

Using Chiasm Today?

It is worthwhile for us to rethink the value of chiasm for our ministry today.

It’s a proven memory device and, as we’ve seen, does not sacrifice linear story progression. It also helps capture the biblical Story in a way that reflects the Bible’s own rendering of the grand narrative. In other words, it highlights then reinforces what the Bible emphasizes.

Certainly, we can find other ways to utilize chiasm among oral peoples or even to organize our presentations.

What are your thoughts and suggestions for improving and using chiasm?

 


[1] For example, one can read the vast scholarship on the Iliad, which is replete with chiastic structures.

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