Chiasms: Writing Forward and Back

Chiasmus (or chiastic structure, or inverted parallelism) is a literary or poetic device in which words or ideas are presented and then repeated in reverse order. Simple chiasms, such as “They don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care,” are frequently employed in modern speech.

Jesus gives both a definition and an example of a chiasm in Matthew 19:30:

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

The elements of a chiasm are often labeled in the form ABBA, where the letters correspond to words or ideas. Shakespeare was fond of short chiasms. Here’s one from his play As You Like It.

A I do now remember a saying,’The fool

B doth think

C he is wise,

C’ but the wise man

B’ knows himself

A’ to be a fool.’

Chiasmus was important in classical Latin and Greek writings but was best developed in classical Hebrew and the ancient writings of other ancient Semitic cultures. Although they are usually not apparent to the untrained eye, there are many sophisticated chiasms in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Qur’an, as well as in the Odyssey and Iliad.

Here’s a relatively simple chiasm from the Bible (Isaiah 6:10):

Make the heart of this people fat,

and make their ears heavy,

and shut their eyes;

lest they see with their eyes,

and hear with their ears,

and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

Chiasms often highlight major themes or concepts. Here’s a chiasm in  Mosiah 3:18-19 of the Book of Mormon, teaching how the “natural man” can become a saint through Christ:

A For behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just; and the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy; but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves

B and become as little children,

C and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

D For the natural man

E is an enemy to God,

F and has been from the fall of Adam,

F’ and will be, forever and ever,

E’ unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,

D’ and putteth off the natural man

C’ and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord,

B and becometh as a child,

A’ submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

The concentric layering of chiasms mimics the symmetrical patterning of living things. This layering adds beauty to a text, but it has practical benefits as well. Ancient writers used chiasmus to add structure to their writings, to highlight details of particular importance, as a form of punctuation, and perhaps as an aid in memorization.

Chiasms can encompass entire chapters or even books of the Bible. Most chiasms in the Bible have been somewhat obscured by the process of translating the text into English. Even the biblical chiasms that are easy to see would have been even more apparent in the original Hebrew. Here’s a chiasm from Genesis 9:6 [ESV]:

Who sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed.

As it was originally composed in Hebrew, the above phrase had exactly six words, arranged in the form ABCCBA:

Hebrew phrase Genesis 9:6 from http://studybible.info/HOT/Genesis%209:6

A chiasm in Psalm 3:7-8 would also have been quite clear in the original Hebrew, as shown in Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible:

A Save me,

B my God. Because

C Thou hast smitten

D All mine enemies

E [on] the cheek.

E’ The teeth

D’ of the wicked

C’ Thou hast broken.

B’ Of Jehovah [is]

A’ this salvation;

However, in most other English versions of the Bible, the chiasm has been “lost in translation.” Here it is, scrambled, in the King James Bible:

A Save me,

B O my God: for

C thou hast smitten

D all mine enemies

E upon the cheek bone;

C’ thou hast broken

E’ the teeth

D’ of the ungodly.

A’ Salvation

B’ belongeth unto the Lord:

There’s an interesting case in which a chiasm that is damaged in the Bible is repaired in the Book of Mormon. Here’s Isaiah 3:1 as it appears in the King James Bible:

For, behold, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, doth take away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay of water.

And in the quote from Isaiah found in 2 Nephi 13:1:

For behold, the Lord, the Lord of Hosts, doth take away from Jerusalem, and from Judah, the stay and the staff, the whole staff of bread, and the whole stay of water.

It is likely that a scribe inadvertently dropped the final letter from ms’nh (Hebrew for staff), resulting in ms’n (Hebrew for stay). Although none of the known Isaiah manuscripts has staff here, staff of bread is used several times elsewhere in the Old Testament, while stay of bread is not, suggesting that staff of bread was the phrase the Hebrews would have used.

Even though important anciently, the knowledge of chiasms in scripture lay dormant for centuries, and they were not well-known or appreciated even by biblical scholars until after the Book of Mormon was published. Chiasms in the Book of Mormon weren’t discovered until 1967 when John Welch, a missionary in Germany, learned about chiasms in the Bible and thought to look for them in the Book of Mormon. He found many. Elaborate chiasms are still being discovered in the Book of Mormon. For example, Moroni’s chiasm below, as well as Mormon’s chiasm about peace and prosperity, were first identified in 2014.

Moroni’s writing in Ether 12:23-25 predicts that unbelievers will mock the Book of Mormon because of the awkward writing.

And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them; And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them. Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words. 

And maybe they mock with good reason! To the naive reader, the passage above seems to be a jumbled mass of stumbling, redundant sentences. But it is not. The naive reader has been fooled. The above passage is actually a finely structured chiasm in the form ABCDEEDCBA. It may look like a mess in English, but as Hebrew poetry, it’s a work of art.

A And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things,

B because of our weakness in writing;

C for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith,

D but thou hast not made us mighty in writing

E thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;

E’ And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands.

D’ Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.

C’ Thou hast also made our words powerful and great,

B’ even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words;

A’ and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

The Lord responds with, “Fools mock, but they shall mourn.”

The center of the chiasm summarizes the prophets’ frustration: their inability to effectively express their inspired words in writing. Moroni had previously referred to his awkwardness in writing in Mormon 9:33:

And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.

This scripture suggests that the awkwardness (or imperfection) of writing in the Book of Mormon is at least partially due to the difficulty of converting the thoughts (and writing style?) of the authors from Hebrew into other languages. In fact, the classic Hebrew poetic structure of Moroni’s writing suggests that it was originally composed in Hebrew. By putting this text in the form of a chiasm, Moroni is demonstrating his skill in Hebrew poetry, poetically mocking those “fools” who would mock his writing. A bit of Hebrew sense of humor?

Let’s pause to consider what a solid, genuine chiasm is, and isn’t. Chiasms can be easily invented out of highly repetitive text. For example, by selecting from the assorted first names in a phone book, you could construct a chiasm hundreds of levels deep. But why would you? Such a chiasm would be pointless. Genuine chiasms, on the other hand, are written for a purpose. The author of a text may use the inverse-parallel structure of a chiasm to enhance his message of cause and effect, of prophecy and fulfillment, or of past and future, or to otherwise help tell a story. See Chiasm Caution  for more characteristics of genuine Hebrew-style chiasms.

More Fascinating Reading

Forty-five Years of Chiasmus Conversations: Correspondence, Criteria, and Creativity
Chiasmus in Antiquity
Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?
When Are Chiasms Admissible as Evidence?
Chiastic Structuring
Chiasmus at FairMormon.org
Chiasmus Resources
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