Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Structural Issues in Genesis

In a previous post in the series I have been posting on Genesis, I mentioned that one of the more fascinating aspects of the Old Testament literature is the artistry with which it was written. Hebrew poetry is an interesting and enlightening study for the Bible student.

In short, the basis for Hebrew poetry is the word pair or parallelism. Parallelism presents itself in many different forms. One of the more interesting forms is called a Chiasm. First, the word Chiasm (key'-as-um) comes from the Greek letter chi (key) which is written like an "X" (incidently, it makes a hard "K" sound as in the first letter of "Christ"). The reason this is important is because when diagrammed, this form of poetry is shaped like the left half of a chi or an "X."

Secondly, a chiasm is structured so that the middle of the chiasm or the middle of the X is the important part of the passage. For example, an simple chiasm can be found in Genesis 9:6:

            A. Whoever sheds
                        B. the blood
                                    C. of man
                                    C'. by man
                        B.' his blood
            A'. will be shed

There are several to note from this example which will teach us much about chiasms. First, when diagrammed as above, one can immediately see the word pairs and how this structure is shaped like half of an "X." The "A's," "B's," "C's," etc. are for showing how the word pairs relate.

Second, it should be noted that the parallels or word pairs are evident in the Hebrew. That is, a passage may look like a chiasm in an English translation of the Bible but that does not make it so. One must be able to show the same words or words based in the same root word to show the parallelism.

Third, and most important, the point of identifying a chiasm is not to take note of an interesting structure utilized in a passage. The purpose of examining any structure is for interpretive issue. As stated above, the important part of the passage is found in the middle or the apex of the "X." Thus, in the example above, the idea of "man" or "human" is the emphasis of this verse. Genesis 9:6 allows for capital punishment because of the value of human life. If someone is so callous and flippant about human life as to take a life, then that person will not be allow to live. (Note: I am not commenting on the current practice of the capital punishment in America - perhaps in a different post I will - I am commenting on the Old Testament practice of capital punishment.)

In the end, yes, one could gain that understanding from a simple reading of the text. Nevertheless, the author took time to construct this simple verse in an artistic way. As diligent bible students, we should experience the text in the manner in which the author intended. Taking note of specific structures helps the exegete to better interpret what the author was conveying to his audience.

As a sidebar, the present of chiasm in Scripture has been debated among biblical scholars. Some seem to think they are everywhere. Books like Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis and The Literary Structure of the Old Testament propose that it is the main way in which the Old Testament authors, and maybe even the New Testament authors, wrote their contributions to Scripture. Other works, like the article Chiasmus in Ubiquity, acknowledge this type of structure but claim it is no where near as common as the previously mentioned books indicate. (In fact, one can see the almost humorous argument between the two in the titles of the works: Chiasmus in Antiquity vs. Chiasmus in Ubiquity)

My next post will again address the issue of chiasms found in Genesis.


Mark said...

Whoa...that is cool! Thanks for the insight. I will look forward to your future posts. No pressure.