Chiasm Caution

The second half of a chiasm repeats words or ideas of the first half. This means that writings containing chiasms tend to be very repetitive. This does not mean, however, that every repetitive passage is an intentional chiasm. Highly repetitive texts can be easily arranged in chiastic form because of the chance association of words, but chiastic structure that appears by chance rather than design is meaningless.

For example, take a well-known rhyme:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

This sentence can be easily arranged into chiastic form:

How much wood would a wood

chuck

chuck if a

woodchuck could

chuck

wood.

Reading this rhyme as a chiasm doesn’t contribute anything to it’s meaning. Doing so also runs counter to its natural structure–in this case even breaking up the word woodchuck. It’s unlikely the author intended this rhyme to be a chiasm. The chiastic pattern is unintentional. Even though we can read the rhyme as a chiasm, doing so is pointless.

So how do you tell an intentional chiasm from one that appears by chance?

Some people see Hebrew-style chiasms in such works as the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of the Law of the Lord (neither of which mainstream Mormons consider to be of ancient origin). There is, however, a great difference in quality between the better Book of Mormon chiasms and those in these other works, which leads me to believe that the latter are unintentional products of the highly repetitive language in these works. Some of the shorter chiasms in these works may be intentional, but are more similar to the short chiasms used in modern speech than to the elaborate chiasms used in classical Hebrew poetry. The best chiasms in the Book of Mormon are not only well-constructed, but also tend to show important similarities to the chiasms of classical Hebrew and to have literary reasons for being.

For a review of this controversy, see “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” as well as Welch’s “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus.”

Below are my own thoughts on identifying intentional Hebrew-style chiasms. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather tendencies. Use them in your evaluation of the chiasms in the above-mentioned works and on the sample chiasms at the end of this post.

Ten Rules of Classical Chiasmus

  1. Unity. A chiasm should operate across whole literary units, whether sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters, or books. A chiasm may encompass one paragraph or two, but it should not encompass only half of one paragraph and half of the next.
  2. Divisions. The previous rule also applies to individual elements of a chiasm. Each element of a chiasm must be consistent with the natural structure of the text. An element can be a single sentence or even a single phrase, but it should not be only half of one phrase and half of the next.
  3. Unique Parallels.  The pair of elements that form each level of a chiasm should be connected by at least some identical or parallel words, phrases, or ideas that do not occur anywhere else in the chiasm.
  4. Density. Each level of a chiasm should be focused primarily on the words, phrases, or ideas that support the chiastic structure (i.e., the “unique parallels”). These connecting words or ideas should not be merely sprinkled sparsely throughout the chiasm.
  5. Distinct levels. Each level of a chiasm should have a meaning that connects its two elements while differentiating it from adjacent levels. If the ideas expressed in two adjacent levels are nearly identical, they should probably be considered a single level.
  6. Balance. The two elements of each level of a chiasm should be approximately the same size. One should not be more than about four times the length of the other. A permissible exception to this rule is when the larger of a pair of elements is itself a chiasm with a central idea that matches the idea expressed in the smaller element.
  7. Pivotal Center. The center of a chiasm should contain a turning point such as the introduction of an antithetical idea or a change in the trend of thought. The pair of elements at the center of a chiasm should be parallel, but not by simply repeating the same idea.
  8. Return. The ideas expressed in a chiasm should come full circle, with the idea expressed in the last element very similar to the idea expressed in the first.
  9. A Reason for Being. Writing in chiasms is hard work. No classical Hebrew author who has a life would do it as a matter of course. A chiasm that is composed intentionally generally has a literary purpose. The author may be using the inverse-parallel structure of the chiasm to emphasize the central element; to enhance his message of cause and effect, of prophecy and fulfillment, or of past and future; or to otherwise help tell a story. The passage should read better as a chiasm than as plain prose.
  10. Company. Chiasms rarely exist in isolation. There are usually other obvious chiasms in the nearby text.

Let’s look at a well-kown scripture. In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni gives us this departing gift (Moroni 10:3-7):

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things,

I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you

by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost

ye may know the truth of all things. And

whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore,

nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is. And

ye may know that he is,

by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore

I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God; for he worketh by power, according to the faith

of the children of men, same today and tomorrow, and forever.

This “chiasm” has some nice parallels, but it also has trouble with Rules 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Maybe it was intended to be more of a chain structure:

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things,
if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them,
that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down
until the time that ye shall receive these things,
and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things,
I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true;
and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you
by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost
ye may know the truth of all things.
And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is.
And ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God; for he worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men, same today and tomorrow, and forever.

Who knows what the author really intended. Be cautious.

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