What's a Chiasm?

Suppose I employed several people and had to lay off one of them. I might organize my memo to him something like this:

1ADear John:
2BYou're fired.
3A'Sincerely, Herb

Even this crude first draft is a "chiasm," a form suggested by its conforming to the > shape of the left half of the Greek letter chi, which is drawn like the English X. The "outer" elements, designated AA', are the "frame," or (since this is a letter, or epistle) an "epistolary frame." The inner layer, designated B, has the all-important, bad news message.

Such a letter would greatly shock and irritate John, of course. So I would add another layer to the chiasm to make John (and myself) feel better--but without removing the message. The message is thus elevated to level C and the new BB' pair might be called the level of "explanation".

1ADear John:
2BThings are tough. We can't afford you any more.
3CYou're fired.
4B'I'm really sorry I have to do this. It's not my fault--it's circumstances.
5A'Sincerely, Herb

Obviously, I can continue to insert layers--such as an "affirmation" pair designed affirm John's worth--but you get the idea. Modern teachers of the art of writing business letters don't use the word "chiasm," but rather use "sandwich" because it is easier to remember. The message is the "meat," and the outer layers of bread and condiments are part of the "delivery system." Some managers are so distressed at having to write letters like the one outlined above that they over-compensate, making them so elaborate and complex that the employee receiving the letter is confused, not being sure whether he is to report for work the next day or not! I have known people who have received such letters--one of them who had sat next to his boss during a letter writing seminar told me that he regarded his former boss as having given him the "sandwich treatment." Perhaps it would be better to say that he was the victim of a poorly constructed chiasm.

So chiasm is not something that is necessarily done for poetic beauty, even though it is a poetic device often used in antiquity. It is not even something that people do deliberately or something that requires special training--you have probably used chiasmic form yourself without really realizing it! Chiasm is therefore a natural result of the social need to package a difficult message in a way that prepares one for its force and provides encouragement after the delivery.

Letter writing involves chiasms with an odd number of lines, while poetry often uses chiasms with an even number of lines. The odd number identifies the inner-most, unpaired element with the message. It becomes the "focus" of the letter. All other elements of the letter exist to help deliver that message. They may convey information (perhaps informing the ex-employee of his cobra plan options and the company's outplacement services), but they are subordinate to the main message. Such chiasms have "climactic centrality" because they focus on their center--the innermost layer that contains the "meat" of the sandwich.

A Biblical Example

Let me offer a favorite chiasm from a favorite Old Testament book--Qohelet (more commonly known as Ecclesiastes). This was discovered by Daniel C. Fredericks ("Life's Storms and Structural Unity in Qohelet 11:1-12:8," Journal for the study of the Old Testament 52 (1991), 95-114). Fredericks identifies the focus verse (that is, the main message) in Eccl. 11:9--"But know that for all these things God will bring you to judgement" This is a verse that many biblical scholars had scoffed at, saying that it appeared contrary to Qohelet's whole carpe diem ("seize the day!") philosophy and had probably been added by a pious scribe in order to get the book into the Old Testament canon. But Fredericks, in showing that the structure of the passage absolutely depended on its focus verse, demolished such arguments. Here is the chiasm discovered by Fredericks--examine it with Ecclesiastes open before you and marvel at the symmetry of the matching of the pairs AA', BB', CC', and so forth. What do you think? Do you agree that the chiasm was the intent of the book's ancient author? Or was it a mere coincidence?

Eccl. 11:3-12:2 as a Chiasm discovered by D. C. Fredericks
Eccl. 11:3AClouds and Rain
Eccl. 11:7BLight and Sun
Eccl. 11:8aCConsider the days of darkness
Eccl. 11:8bDAll that comes is breath
Eccl. 11:9aEEnjoy your Youth
Eccl. 11:9bFBut know ... God will bring you to judgment
Eccl. 11:10aE'Enjoy your Youth
Eccl. 11:10bD'All of youth is breath
Eccl. 12:1C'Consider God before the days of darkness
Eccl. 12:2aB'Sun and Light
Eccl. 12:2bA'Clouds and Rain

Nota Bene

When one examines a biblical book structurally, whether the form might be chiasm or one of many other schemes, one is exercising a technique called "form criticism." That does not mean that one is criticizing the book for the purpose of making a judgment as to its quality or authority. Rather, it is simply an academic term for the manner that the exegete is using to approach the book. There are at least a half-dozen types of biblical "criticism," and there is no reason for the reader to take offense at the term.