If you’ve never heard of chiasm or chiastic structure, have no fear: you’ve come to the right place. If you already know everything there is to know about chiasm and chiastic structure, you can skip this one or just hang around to enjoy my charm and wit (/grin).
I have used “chiasm” instead of “chiasmus” because I don’t know which is correct or if both are, or what–so feel free to nerd out on correcting me in the comments. I would love to hear from you on that.
Chiasm (KEY-As-uhm) is a literary device, and I will explain it here in a second. I haven’t discussed it with you on this blog because it happens all. over. the Bible, and until I started setting up to talk about Leviticus, I kinda forgot about it being a thing. Leviticus is a special case for two reasons:
1.) I first encountered chiastic structure and what it means when I studied Leviticus for the first time, so I’d like to share that with you, as well.
2.) Leviticus is like the chiastic motherlode of Scripture. It’s just one right after another with smaller ones inside of bigger ones, and the book as a whole can be understood from a zoomed out view…as a chiasm.
The illustration at the top here is a brilliant illustration of the chiastic shape of Leviticus done by the Bible Project. I cannot speak about them often enough or highly enough. Their ministry of Bible education and literacy and accessibility is…well, it’s astonishing and beautiful.
What is a Chiasm?
Chiasm is a method of organizing written thoughts to highlight a central/main point by use of reverse repetition. It is used in the Bible a lot, and that’s because the Ancient Hebrews were people with an oral tradition. Chiastic structure in a story or lesson provides rhythm and aids tremendously in memorization and retention. Chiasm has a definitive shape, too, and–wait for it–it’s a cross. Don’t read too much into that, but it’s cool, right? The cross is illustrated with an X, which looks like the Greek letter chi, hence the name: chiasm. Here is a simple drawing so you can see what I mean.
Keep the X in mind, and I’ll give you a couple of simple and common examples of how the ABBA works:
A: When the Going
B: gets Tough,
B: the Tough
A: get Going.
A: Ask not what your country
B: can do for you.
B: Ask what you can do
A: For your country.
Did those help you get the idea? Let’s look at a few more.
As you can see from the chiasm of Noah’s story on the right, when chiasms get really big, the square cross pattern no longer serves. When that happens, we move to a V-shape to illustrate the structure. Take a moment to look closely at the Noah chiasm on the right. Notice that the P-line stands alone in the center. Scroll back up to look at the big ABBA X -image I posted for you. Where the lines in the X intersect, imagine that I drew a red circle around that central point. In the Noah chiasm, that red circle would be drawn around P: “God remembers Noah.”
The “x” in a chiasm is always the central point, and every flanking idea that leads up to it and then back down away from it was written to highlight the x, the chi, the central idea.
You will find chiasms of varying length and complexity in the Bible. Spend a few minutes on Google Images today searching “biblical chiasm” and just let your mind get blown by how often it appears. The Bible as a whole is chiastic, too. The Genesis-Revelation arc makes a beautiful V with a bright, shining X in the middle. I’ll let you look that one up. Still. I think you’d be hard-pressed to match the chiastic majesty goin’ on in Leviticus.
Here are 3 page-shots from Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? by L. Michael Morales. It is a biblical theology of Leviticus, and if you ever get seized by the Leviticus bug like I did, you’ll want to get a copy of his book. These images I’ve chosen demonstrate the basic chiastic position of Leviticus within Torah and then the most basic chiastic structure of Leviticus, itself. Note that the structure here in Morales’ book directly mirrors what Tim Mackie and Jon Collins have done in the Bible Project images.
Chiasm in Leviticus
Leviticus is the chi in the chiasm of the Torah/Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Within Leviticus, there is a larger chiasm, illustrated by the Bible Project image at the top of this post and by the other one at the bottom. If you really want to drill down on the chiastic structures in and around Leviticus, then get on Google and take that deep dive. I certainly did. There are chiasms goin’ on all over the place, and there are chiasms within chiasms…and you could keep going. The Mosaic core of this book (the original part we assume Moses wrote) was edited and refined throughout Ancient Israel’s history to make sure the shape and rhythms of this Scripture would be preserved and remembered for all time. It is evident in the form of Leviticus that Israel held it in very high esteem, and we get to see the result of all that love, worship, and obedience in the text we have today…unchanged for more than 2,000 years.
Ain’t the Bible cool?
Join me on Ash Wednesday for the Introduction post for the Leviticus series proper, and we’ll get into Chapter 1 and the Burnt offering on March 1st. See you there.
3 thoughts on “The Shape of Leviticus: A Chiastic Motherlode”
Would a lot of Proverbs be considered chiasms?
Yes! Lots and lots of them are, and you’ll find them mostly in areas where people were meant to memorize the words.
A lot of Bible scholars think (for very good reasons) that Proverbs, or at least large parts of it, were originally intended for young male students destined for leadership roles–elite, ruling class young men.
Knowing that, you can make sense of how a lot of the Proverbs are organized and worded. They were meant to be drilled into their minds as manners, etiquette, and guiding principles they would know by rote all their lives.
Chiasm, when you see it in the Bible, is not so much a mystical thing (some people get real excited about that and its possibilities), but a common literary tool for a culture that valued memorization and recitation–an oral tradition of call-response learning.
Proverbs is chock-full of little chiasms to help us remember them and tuck them away.