What is chiastic structure? What is a chiasm?

A chiasm (otherwise known as chiasmus) is a literary device that presents a series of ideas, and then repeats them in opposite order. Chiastic structure is often expressed in letters. An example of this structure is idea A and idea B, followed by idea B' and idea A'. B' and A' are the same ideas as B and A, but in reverse order creating ABB'A'. The goal of chiastic structure is to create emphasis, repetition, or clarification. The term 'chi' comes from the Greek letter 'chi,' which looks like the letter 'X' in English.

Although the basic structure of a chiasm is generally ABB'A', sometimes there is another idea nestled between the reverse order. This looks like ABXB'A'. In this structure, the ideas A and B are repeated in reverse order, but another idea, X, is inserted between the repetition. X is emphasized because of its position and because it is the only idea that is not repeated.

Some chiastic structures are complex, spanning the length of entire poems. Other chiasms are very simple, such as the axioms, "When the going get tough, the tough get going," and "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

Jesus sometimes used chiastic structure when He preached, as well as David when he wrote Psalms. An example of one of Christ's short chiastic sentences is found in Mark 2:27: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Here, the chiasm is used to emphasize His point. This follows ABB'A' structure, with the words "Sabbath" and "man" being repeated and reversed.

Matthew 6:24 exhibits a longer chiasm: "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."

This chiasm has five parts, which when broken down looks like this:

A No one can serve two masters,
B for either he will hate the one
C and love the other,
C′ or he will be devoted to the one
B′ and despise the other.
A′ You cannot serve God and money.

You can see that the A and A' in the chiasm are the same idea, as well as the B and B', and the C and C'. This chiasm relays three themes, which are being unable to serve two masters (A and A'), hating one of the masters (B and B'), and loving the other master (C and C').

More examples of chiastic structure in the Bible include Ecclesiastes 11:3—12:2; Genesis 6—9; Amos 5:4–6a; Isaiah 1:21–26; Joshua 1:5–9; Joel 3:17–21; and Matthew 23:12. The chiastic structure is just one of a multitude of literary devices that make the Bible a rich piece of literature.

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