Pearce’s Potshots #38: Chiasmus & “Redundancy” in Flood Stories

Pearce’s Potshots #38: Chiasmus & “Redundancy” in Flood Stories July 4, 2021

Also, a Summary Statement on Catholics and the Documentary Hypothesis

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” His words will be in blue.


Jonathan Pearce, in his concerted effort to absolutely avoid engaging in any exegetical debates about Genesis with me, lest the sky fall down (see my first and second reply to him concerning the Flood, and a third related paper), has repeatedly noted that the stories about the Flood in Genesis are redundant and needlessly repetitive. This, in turn, so he assumes without adequate evidence, is an irrefutable indication of multiple authors being in play (the Documentary Hypothesis [“DH”]). My current reply is an effort to show that a biblical literary technique known as chiasmus can more plausibly explain this, without necessary and/or knee jerk recourse to DH.

First, let’s document his cocksure magisterial utterances in this regard:

For those uninitiated, the Pentateuch contains some irreconcilable issues that fall into four categories: repetition (redundancy), contradictions, discontinuity, terminology and style. There is only one coherent solution: it was compiled using multiple sources, and written at multiple times. (6-29-21)

The Pentateuch contains some irreconcilable issues that fall into four categories: repetition (redundancy), contradictions, discontinuity, terminology and style.

The basic principle is that these four issues demand an explanation.

The only thing that makes sense of this is that there are multiple sources (over multiple time periods) that have been redacted to produce the finished document. (7-2-21)

What a pointless repetition [Gen 6:19] even if it didn’t contradict. This is known as redundancy and is a major reason why the DH/SH exists. There are doublets and triplets all over the Pentateuch that have no discernible raison d’etre (and even some things four times). (7-2-21)

Look at this passage and tell me it makes sense on its own without needing a theory that proposes multiple sources woven into a single narrative: [cites Gen 7:6-13] . . .

Repetition, redundancy and contradiction.

I really wish Armstrong would read his Bible. (7-2-21)

I will also furnish you with an account of redundancies in the Torah (from Baruch J Schwartz’s chapter “The Documentary Hypothesis”, . . . (7-2-21)

[T]he Noah’s flood myth is a good example of the multiple sources of the Pentateuch evidenced by both redundancies through repetition and contradictions. (7-3-21)

Of course, the key to repetition was the word “redundancy” that he conveniently forgets. The issue with redundancy in the Torah is that the repetitions serve no purpose. That’s the point. (7-3-21)

. . . the days, the number of animals and every other instance of contradiction, repetition (redundancy), discontinuity, and stylistic and terminological divergence. (7-3-21)

There is simply no use for the repetition in the Genesis flood accounts. What is it we are so obviously going to forget about those details that we so desperately need to remember? (7-3-21)

Before we begin, let me make a comment about Catholics and the Documentary Hypothesis / Theory. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, writing about the Documentary Hypothesis (1-1-13) stated: “It is . . . possible for a Catholic to hold a number of positions, from full Mosaic authorship, to the documentary hypothesis, to intermediate positions, depending on how one sees the evidence.”

After yet another exercise of sheer mockery and pompous “know it all” condescension from Pearce in his combox, including his revelation that once again he read virtually none of my paper that he supposedly “responded” to, and describing my argument as “apologetic nonsense” and “disingenuous construction”, I wrote there:

Catholics are free to accept or reject DH / Mosaic authorship as they please, and at least one pope (St. John Paul II) believed in it. You seem to worship DH as the Holy Grail. To me it’s something I don’t believe in, based on what I have seen. I’m free to do so as an orthodox Catholic. There is no requirement that I must believe it. If someone else does (up to and including great heroes of mine, like Pope John Paul II) that’s fine. Live and let live. It’s a big ho hum and a yawner.

Pope St. John Paul II referred to the “Yahwist” source (the “J” in “JEPD”) in 16 of his addresses or writings: 15 of these were general audiences (1979-1980), and the other usage was in his papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995). He referred to “Elohist” in three general audiences (1979-1980). But Pope Benedict XVI never did so. Nor did Pope St. Paul VI, Pope St. John XXIII, Ven. Pope Pius XII, or Pope Francis. Benedict XVI was certainly as good of a Bible scholar (if not better) than John Paul II. I note also that he did refer to DH before he was pope (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in his book, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall: a book that I have in my library and which I have cited several times.

But back to the immediate topic:

There can certainly be various reasons for repetition: one obvious one being its obvious utility as a teaching and memorization device (as I have already noted in this larger exchange). Another quite plausible thing is something I was excited to learn about this very day: a Hebrew literary technique called chiasmus. Jimmy Akin (in whose article I first saw it mentioned) provided a good basic summary:

The biblical authors commonly structure their material according to a literary form known as chiasmus.

This involves a sequence of elements that can be divided into two halves, with the second half being a mirror image of the first, like steps leading up one side of a pyramid and down the other.

A simple example is Jesus statement that the “first will be last, and the last first” (Matt. 19:30), which has an A-B-B’-A’ structure.

This chiasmus occurs in a single sentence, but there are much more involved ones in the Bible, ones that span large blocks of text and that serve as a major organizational principle for an entire book.

This is the case with Genesis. Much of the book is organized into large chiastic structures.

Pearce, who ludicrously fancies himself as a big expert on the Bible, never mentions “chiasmus” or “chiastic” on his blog. So he can learn something from this, too (i.e., making the huge assumption that he reads this article, and doesn’t give up in a hissy fit after the second paragraph.

Wikipedia (“Chiastic structure”) offers an excellent overview. After noting the basics of chiasmus, as Akin did, it elaborates:

Chiastic structures that involve more components are sometimes called “ring structures”, “ring compositions”, or, in cases of very ambitious chiasmus, “onion-ring compositions”. These may be regarded as chiasmus scaled up from words and clauses to larger segments of text.

These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Classicist Bruno Gentili describes this technique as “the cyclical, circular, or ‘ring’ pattern (ring composition). Here the idea that introduced a compositional section is repeated at its conclusion, so that the whole passage is framed by material of identical content”.[1] Meanwhile, in classical prose, scholars often find chiastic narrative techniques in the Histories of Herodotus:

“Herodotus frequently uses ring composition or ‘epic regression’ as a way of supplying background information for something discussed in the narrative. First an event is mentioned briefly, then its precedents are reviewed in reverse chronological order as far back as necessary; at that point the narrative reverses itself and moves forward in chronological order until the event in the main narrative line is reached again.”[2]

The article continues:

Mnemonic device

Oral literature is especially rich in chiastic structure, possibly as an aid to memorization and oral performance. In his study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Cedric Whitman, for instance, finds chiastic patterns “of the most amazing virtuosity” that simultaneously performed both aesthetic and mnemonic functions, permitting the oral poet easily to recall the basic structure of the composition during performances.[6] Steve Reece has demonstrated several ambitious ring compositions in Homer’s Odyssey and compared their aesthetic and mnemonic functions with examples of demonstrably oral Serbo-Croatian epic. [7]

Use in Hebrew Bible

In 1986, William H. Shea proposed that the Book of Daniel is composed of a double-chiasm. He argued that the chiastic structure is emphasized by the two languages that the book is written in: Aramaic and Hebrew. The first chiasm is written in Aramaic from chapters 2-7 following an ABC…CBA pattern. The second chiasm is in Hebrew from chapters 8-12, also using the ABC…CBA pattern. However, Shea represents Daniel 9:26 as “D”, a break in the center of the pattern.[8]

Gordon Wenham has analyzed the Genesis Flood narrative and believes that it is essentially an elaborate chiasm.[9] Based on the earlier study of grammatical structure by F. I. Andersen,[10] Wenham illustrated a chiastic structure as displayed in the following two tables.

Chiastic structure of the Genesis Flood Narrative
A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)
B: All life on earth (6:13:a)
C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)
D: Flood announced (6:7)
E: Ark (6:14-16)
F: All living creatures (6:17–20 )
G: Food (6:21)
H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)
I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)
J: Waters increase (7:17–20)
X: God remembers Noah (8:1)
J’: Waters decrease (8:13–14)
I’: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)
H’: Animals (9:2,3)
G’: Food (9:3,4)
F’: All living creatures (9:10a)
E’: Ark (9:10b)
D’: No flood in future (9:11)
C’: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)
B’: All life on earth (9:16)

A’: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

[Dave: see a much nicer, more visually appealing version of this]

Within this overall structure, there is a numerical mini-chiasm of 7s, 40s, and 150s:

Chiasm of the numbers 7, 40, and 150
α: Seven days waiting to enter Ark (7:4)
β: Second mention of seven days waiting (7:10)
γ: 40 days (7:17)
δ: 150 days (7:24)
χ: God remembers Noah (8:1)
δ’: 150 days (8:3)
γ’: 40 days (8:6)
β’: Seven days waiting for dove (8:10)

α’: Second seven days waiting for dove (8:12)

Use in New Testament

Form critic, Nils Lund, acknowledged Jewish and classical patterns of writing in the New Testament, including the use of chiastic structures throughout.[11]

The article, “Literary structure (chiasm, chiasmus) of Book of Genesis: Chiastic Structure and Concentric Structure and Parallel of each pericope” is a marvelous compendium of no less than 81 spelled-out uses of the technique in the book of Genesis alone. If it weren’t already obvious, I note that it would be extraordinary for four authors to construct such obviously deliberate literary techniques or devices, across their allegedly intertwined stories. Thus, chiasmus is a strong argument for single authorship and/or Mosaic authorship of Genesis. And there are massive examples in the other five books of the Torah as well, as I will document.

As just one example from this article, I offer the section on the covenant with Noah: which occurred right after the account of the Flood:

[8]The Covenant with Noah  (Gen 9:1-17)
Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat (9:4)
never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood (9:11)
A sign of the covenant
A sign of the covenant
the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings (9:15)
This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all mortal creatures that are on earth (9:17)
A: Flesh. B: All creatures never be destroyed by the waters of a flood. C: A sign of the covenant.
Gen 9:1-7
A(9:1) Be fertile and multiply and fill the earth (9:1)
B(9:2) the human is in charge of beast, birds and fish (Human as the administrator of the animals)
C(9:3) Eating creatures is permitted
D(9:4) Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat (9:4)
C'(9:5) Shedding blood is prohibited
B'(9:6) If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (9:6) (Human as the administrator of the human)
A'(9:7) Be fertile, then, and multiply; abound on earth and subdue it (9:7)
Gen 9:8-11
A(9:8-9) covenant with you and your descendants after you (9:9) (covenant for future)
B(9:10) Covenant with every living creature
A'(9:11) covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; (9:11) (covenant eternal)
Gen 9:12-17
A(9:12-13) The sign of the covenant
B(9:14-15a) God will recall the covenant with all living beings
C(9:15b) the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings (9:15)
B'(9:16) God will recall the covenant with all living beings
A'(9:17) The sign of the covenant

Biblical Chiasm Exchange: a site devoted to comprehensively listing all instances of chiasmus in the Bible, lists no less than 100 of them in Genesis, 55 in Exodus, 26 in Leviticus, 38 in Numbers, and 64 in Deuteronomy. This is 283 times in the Pentateuch. Lots of “pointless repetition” and “redundancy”: as Pearce (who is likely no longer reading this article) would put it.

The book of Psalms contains a whopping 196 instances, which is more than one per Psalm. As an elegant example from a very well-known passage of Scripture, here is the chiastic structure of Psalm 23:

A. 1 The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

B. Food and drink

He maketh me to lie down
in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

C. security

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

D. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:

C’. security

for thou art with me; 
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.

B’. Food and drink

Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

A’. 6 Surely goodness and mercy
shall follow me all the days of my life:
and will dwell in the house of the LORD
for ever.

Isaiah, my favorite Old Testament book, contains 119 chiasms in 66 chapters. Jeremiah has 87, Ezekiel, 71.

The New Testament continues the technique, with the Gospels exhibiting 101, 63, 92, and 81. For a relatively famous example, see a portion of the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:22-48.

The book of Acts has 84 chiasms. Romans leads the way in the Pauline letters, with 33.

See another paper specifically about Noah’s Flood and chiasmus, and a second.

An in-depth examination of chiasmus in classical literature, noted many examples in Homer and cited another scholar who found 1257 examples in Livy and 1088 in Tacitus.

Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger catalogued “over 200 distinct figures [in the Bible], several of them with from 30 to 40 varieties.” That’s from the Introduction to his 1104-page tome, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London: 1898): a very useful volume in my own library. He devotes 31 wonderful pages to a slightly larger category of literary devices that he calls “Correspondence” (pp. 363-393).


ADDENDUM: Exchange with Pearce on His Blog

[this was his preliminary “response” to the above paper]

Jesus wept, your first paragraph.

Another item for your not-to-read list. First paragraph and out. LOL

Dude, to think I’m not engaging with you is ridiculous.

You’re right. Far from me to think you don’t engage. You do, after all (just going by your own reports) read one paragraph of each of my lengthy new articles responding to you. Credit where due. Seidensticker, Madison, and Loftus don’t read my rebuttals at all and never ever respond (and ban me from their sites as an extra bonus). At least you respond with fine comedic material and non sequiturs. You’re funny and entertaining, whereas those guys are grim as the grim reaper.

I’ve just spent 2 solid weeks researching the documentary hypothesis and writing a chapter on it for a forthcoming book. Have you actually read any source material on the documentary hypothesis? I mean, really? or have you only read conservative evangelical supposed critiques of it?

I use your method. I get through one paragraph and think to myself, “this is hogwash!” and then stop reading.

Oh, okay, so that’s how to dismiss an entire discipline of rational scholarship…

I haven’t dismissed it at all (in the sense of claiming that no orthodox Christian could possibly believe in it). To the contrary, I have noted how Pope St. John Paul II believed in it, and to some extent, also Pope Benedict XVI. I do not. I simply have no interest in it and it has no bearing whatsoever on my arguments. Can you not grasp that? Go argue with someone who actually believes in the thing!

You have dismissed something I think you barely understand.

Whatever the case, I’m not the one to wrangle with about it. It’s not my burden to defend it, anymore than it is your burden to defend the existence of God. I defend the non-contradictory nature of Sacred Scripture, which is an issue that goes far beyond DH.

As I mentioned recently, you assumed there was a contradiction in a particular passage and then went on to say that DH adequately accounts for it. I denied the presence of a contradiction in the first place. Thus, that discussion was prior to the application of DH. It was at the level of premises.

It is your burden of proof since you are asserting a single authorship of a book that is clearly not. You need to provide positive evidence of this. You have it the wrong way round.

I am not asserting that at all in these particular arguments. I’m simply defending what we have in the text, as non-contradictory, and a local Flood (and often, non-literal texts) as opposed to a universal one.

My arguments stand on their own, whether the Pentateuch was written by one person or a hundred.

I do think that my recent discovery of chiasmus is quite consistent with single authorship and makes little sense if it is four or more. But I wasn’t trying to prove that. I was showing that this remarkable technique truly is present in the text: massively in the Flood story and at least 81 times in Genesis.

You’ll likely simply ignore it. That’s your frequent “out” and technique of avoidance and evasion, as I’m discovering more and more.

Yesterday you were carping on and on about how I completely ignore the Epic of Gilgamesh Deluge story and had nothing to say about it. In fact, I was addressing it in my second paper published on the same day you were making the false claim, and had done so a few times in my writings. So you were dead wrong. And you simply ignore what I said.

Yesterday you were also waxing delusionally about how DH would shut my mouth and how I couldn’t possibly have any reply to it in any possible universe. Yet here I am today offering a fairly striking explanation (the literary technique of chiasmus) of the “redundance” that you see everywhere in Genesis. So you were dead wrong again. And you will in all likelihood ignore what I said about this, too, lest you stumble into what could be a very interesting and fascinating discussion indeed.

You have no interest in that, in the final analysis. Your goal is to make out that I am an imbecile, idiot, and ignoramus. Your increasingly shrill and boorish comments about me personally and my beliefs and research are specifically designed to give precisely that impression to your adoring, fawning audience.


Photo credit: bytrangle (1-19-18) [PixabayPixabay License]


Summary: Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce has taken to belittling Genesis as “redundant” & then using the Documentary Hypothesis as his “go-to” answer to everything. But Chiasmus better explains this.

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