By Lee Karl Palo
© 2015 Lee Karl Palo
What kind of truth is the Bible? The Bible is often a difficult book to make sense of. Certainly the fact that it is an ancient collection of assorted religious texts contributes to this problem. Nevertheless the Bible remains the authoritative text for Christian churches of all kinds. With a diversity of people reading the Bible comes a diversity of perspectives on the Bible, but at times there are some who insistent on only one way of reading the Bible. I occasionally encountered this during the process of writing, editing, and teaching by forthcoming book on Genesis 1-11.
In order to focus on getting my book ready for publication I took a break from blogging. This past weekend I sent out the manuscript for professional feedback, so I have time to devote to other kinds of writing again. One of my book’s features that proved to be valuable, when I taught it in adult Sunday School, are many of the diagrams I incorporated. They helped people to see quite clearly that there was more going on in the text than they were aware of.
Many people assume the Bible ought to be understood “literally.” While I am not sure there are any Christians who would say the Bible should not be taken seriously, not all Christians would say that all parts of the Bible should be taken literally. The very first book known to have been written on Biblical interpretation, Origen’s On First Principles, makes this point.
Casting Doubt on Literalism
One of the difficulties reading the Bible “literally” in English today is that there are no literal translations. The ancient languages in which the Bible was written didn’t have many of the conventions we today take for granted. Punctuation, paragraph divisions, and even spaces between words are not present in those languages. Hence all English translations organize the text into paragraphs and sentences. Most English translations also utilize the chapter and verse numbering that was added to the text much later. This doesn’t mean those who composed the books we have in the Bible were unsophisticated about how to organize and arrange their material. However, when you see how they did often arrange their works, it can cast doubt on any kind of simplistic literal reading.
One common way to arrange material was through chiasmus—arranging it in a chiastic structure. Material was paralleled so that the first part paralleled the last part, the second part paralleled the second-to-last part, the third part paralleled the third-to-last part, and so on until there is one part left in the center that has no parallel. Typically the most significant parts are the unparalleled center point and the final parallel, or to put it a different way: the climax and the conclusion. Today, in many ways, this isn’t all that different from having a standard narrative form for works of fiction: introduction, rising action, complication, resolution, and denouement. In many ancient works, including the Bible, chiasmus was often used to varying degrees within a larger chiastic framework.
Chiasmus can be diagrammed using a combination of letters and numbers. Letters can be used to represent the inverted parallels with the addition of an apostrophe to designate the second set of parallels, for example A, B, C, X, C’, B’, A’. Let’s look at a few examples of chiasmus from Genesis that I use in my book. Some of these structures have been documented before, but some are newly presented here.
The Flood—Genesis 6:5-9:17
Here is a good example of a chiasm within a chiasm in Genesis 9:11b-17. This can also be pictured as follows with the chiasm beginning from the lower left and proceeding up and down the rainbow in a clockwise fashion to the lower right.
The Abraham Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 11:26-22:24
The Isaac Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 20:1-27:40
This particular chiasm is presented here for the first time. It was thought that since there was only a small gap between the Abraham and Jacob cycles, that there was no overarching structure to the Isaac story.
The Jacob Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 25:1-36:43
The Joseph Cycle—The Stories of Genesis 37:1-50:26
What does all of this mean? If you are unfamiliar with this structure in the Bible, it may take some time to ponder that question. What was important to the Biblical authors is still important to us today: there are religious truths that need to be conveyed. The Biblical authors clearly had a type of poetic romanticization where information that does not fit the structure is either omitted or edited so it does fit the chiastic form. Chiasmus was used to highlight certain theological truths, and also to give the audience a sense of rhythm to a work.
Where does that leave questions of history and of science that we may want to ask of the Biblical text? Clearly the communication of some type of historical or scientific truth was not the driving factor in the Bible’s composition. If there was additional information available to the Biblical writers, they may not have included it if it distracted from their theological points or especially if it didn’t fit their use of the chiastic form. What they did include was clearly crafted and edited to work within a chiastic framework.
In conclusion, it is clear that fact is not as important as meaning when it comes to the Bible. The “literal” takes a back seat to the “artistic.”
There is also a fascinating structure to the Prehistory (Genesis 1-11), but I am saving that for the publication of my book. If you would like to see what has been done before with the Prehistory of Genesis, before my book is published, see Jack M. Sasson’s essay, “The Tower of Babel and the Primeval History” found on pages 448-457 in the book I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood.
Hess, Richard S. and David Toshio Tsumura eds. I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994. ISBN: 9780931464881
For a great introduction to the chiastic structure of Genesis see Gary A. Rendsburg’s lecture in the Great Courses lecture series entitled The Book of Genesis, specifically, “Lecture 15: the Literary Structure of Genesis.” For even more background on this, see Gary Rendsburg’s book, The Redaction of Genesis.
© 2015 Lee Karl Palo