What is Chiasmus Anyway?

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Chiasmus is a literary style in which words or concepts are repeated to the reader or hearer, then presented again in reverse order, in order to make a larger point. “The chiasm of scriptural poetry is like the refreshing reflection of the mountain in the lake. The reflection and the mountain converge at the base. The summit of the mountain and the summit of the reflection are parallel ideas. The lake is never perfectly still, so the real image and the reflected image are always a little different; but on a still day, we have difficulty telling which image is which. The dual view offers depth.”1

Ann Madsen explains that Isaiah and other Hebrew scholars used a poetic form known as parallelism where two lines resemble each other. “Parallelism compares a keyword or idea in a first line that repeats in the second line, ” writes Roger G Baker, a retired English professor, who states: “At least a third of the Old Testament comes to us in poetic form, and the other standard works are sprinkled with poetry as lavishly as mountain flowers on a green meadow.”

“Sometimes.” he continues, “the idea repeats over several lines. Learning to read in two-line sequences is a great help in understanding Isaiah’s writings. …After getting used to some of the principles of parallel lines, we can easily notice a common and elegant pattern in scriptural poetry: chiasmus The form is named for the Greek letter chi (ttt), which originally represented the back-and-forth motion of plowing a field. Like parallelism, it is intimately related to the way we see.”2

Madsen used an example to help us understand parallelism from Isaiah 1:3

The ox knoweth his owner,
and the ass his master’s crib

She said to notice “how the ox and ass are both domesticated animals. They match,” she says. Then she  points out, “how the master and the owner’s crib match, as well.” However, she explains these are “only metaphors to explain a second parallel:

Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

This is what Isaiah’s really getting at when he gives us that first metaphor. These dumb animals really understand who their master is, they know who feeds them, but Israel does not. Israel does not know where they should go to be nurtured.”

Isaiah introduces this form of Hebrew poetic parallelism in his chapter 3. That example, however, is a bit complicated, so using Isaiah 6:1, David Ridges explains chiasmus this way, “the author says certain things and then intentionally repeats them in reverse order for emphasis.” Ridges explains how chiasmus can be outlined something like this example from Isaiah 6:10:

 

A heart

     B ears

          C  eyes

          C’ eyes 

     B’ ears

A’ heart

10 Make the heart A of this people fat,

and make their ears B heavy,

and shut their eyes C

lest they see with their eyes C’,

and hear with their ears B,

and understand with their heart A’…

“…Often, but not necessarily always, the pivot point or midpoint of the chiasmus is the main message.” In the example, the main message is found in their blindness.

“Chiasmus, like parallelism, appears in all scripture. This form holds in translation and should not be thought of as just a biblical form. It is scriptural. It is found in all the standard works, as noted by John W. Welch, editor of Chiasmus in Antiquity. 

” …Though parallelism is its basic form, the poetry is not only in the parallels. The poetry is in the symbols—in the shepherd, the bread, the water. The poetry is in the meanings, the implications of psalm and parable. Most of all, the poetry is in the feelings, ultimately the spiritual feelings scriptural poetry evokes. The poetry makes us experience, makes us remember, or makes us feel. At the heart of those feelings we experience what we need most—comfort, divine comfort:

Comfort ye,
comfort ye my people. (Isaiah 40:1)4

Feature image:  Afternoon Reflection, by John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA

1 Roger G. Baker, “Teaching the Poetry of Latter-day Saint Scripture,” Religious Educator 3, no. 2 (2002): 201–214.
2 Baker, ibid.
3 Ridges, David J.. The Old Testament Made Easier Part 3
4 Baker, ibid

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