Chiasm of Five Words

Chiasm of Five Words November 29, 2018

The first five commandments appear to be chiastically arranged. To wit:

A. I am Yahweh; thou shalt have no other gods.

B. Thou shalt not make image, bow to it, or serve it.

C. Thou shalt not bear the name of Yahweh lightly.

B’. Remember the Sabbath.

A’. Honor your father and mother.

The suggestion that the first five words are chiastically arranged rests on verbal repetitions and conceptual parallels:

A/A’: Each of the first five commandments uses the phrase yahweh ‘eloheyka; but the first use is in the first commandment, the last use (in the ten words) is in the fifth commandment. The first commandment introduces Yahweh as the one who brought Israel from the ‘eretz of Egypt. The fifth promises long life in the ‘adamah that Yahweh gives. Together, the first and fifth commandments trace a narrative ark, from Egypt to the promised land. And these parallels suggest that the fifth word that requires honor for parents is a reflex in human society of Israel’s honor (kabed) of Father Yahweh.

B/B: The second and fourth words have similar structures. The second word starts with a prohibition against making (‘asah) images, and continues with a prohibition of bowing and serving (‘abab) them. The fourth word begins with the positive command to remember the Sabbath, and then continues with a command to labor (‘abad) and a prohibition of doing (‘asah) work on the Sabbath. Both commandments use the phrase “do not do” (lo-ta’aseh).

Both the second and fourth commandments allude to the three-story structure of the creation. Israel is prohibited from making images of anything in heaven, earth, or the waters under the earth. The fourth reminds us that Yahweh created the heavens, earth, sea, and all that is in them in six days.

More conceptually, both the second and fourth commandments govern the forms of worship – the use of images and the timing of worship respectively.

C: If this is right, the third commandment is the hinge of the first handful of commandments. This commandment itself has a simple chiastic structure:

a. Thou shalt not bear the name of Yahweh lightly

b. for Yahweh will not hold guiltless

a’. the one who bears His name lightly.

One might say that all the other commandments can be illumined by the third. There is surely something to that: Israel is marked with Yahweh’s name, and therefore should have no other gods, should not bow to images, should keep Sabbath, should honor parents. Yet  that might be said of any of the commandments.

One might explore the reasons for this focus on the third word by exploring the unique themes of the commandment, which are: bearing the name, “light” v. glory, and “not pardon.” Or perhaps the first five words have a narrative structure: Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt (#1) to bring them into rest (#4) in the land (#5). But that plan was interrupted by the golden calf (#2). The fulfillment of the exodus-to-inheritance movement depends on Israel bearing Yahweh’s name well.

Tasks for another day.

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  • Craig Robinson

    Interesting. Good stuff.

    There may be another reason for the parallel between the first command and the fifth. In the creation week, there are 10 commands, 4 in the first half week and 6 in the second half week. The first and fifth may each be the beginning of a new “set” of commands. The 10 Words/commandments may be split up between Loving God (first four) and Loving Neighbor (last six).

    The positioning either way may also be a way of indicating that our parents are in the position of God to us on earth. The are the earthly representative of God’s authority in our lives. Honoring God and honoring parents gives us long life in the land.

  • Hmmm… I still think that the “Augustinian” division works better — as a fivefold covenant process of “word and response” (priest and people) dyads— and also explains some of these observations but with different underlying reasons.

    TRANSCENDENCE – God above
    WORD: No false gods or idols > RESPONSE: No false oaths to God

    HIERARCHY – God’s representatives (Adam and Eve – priesthood)
    WORD: Keep the sabbath > RESPONSE: Longevity in womb and land

    ETHICS – Man beside (sins of the flesh – kingdom)
    WORD: Do not murder > Do not commit adultery

    OATH/SANCTIONS – In the court of God (false blessings and false curses – prophecy)
    WORD: Do not steal > Do not bear false witness

    SUCCESSION – Dominion below (household – future)
    WORD: Do not covet a house (Adam) > Do not covet the household (Eve)

    Then the beatitudes work through the same pattern, but as a faithful RESPONSE to these ten WORDS.

  • Craig Robinson

    Mike, One of the mistakes that I think we all make is limiting a passage to only one structure. I think a passage can have multiple literary structures / strategies. I think Genesis 1 is a good example, where you definitely have 7 consecutive days, but the first half week definitely parallels the second half week.