LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
By Rav Dr.
This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of
our dear mother
òèì øçì áú ôòøàì
by Frieda and Dovid Wadler
Chiastic and Concentric Structures
In the previous lecture, we discussed the construction of a narrative based on
creating a classic parallel of section to section (A-B-C/ A-B-C),
One of the most popular techniques in Scripture is reverse parallelism, in which
the two halves of the narrative parallel each other in a reversed order – the
first section corresponds to the final section, the second section corresponds
to the penultimate section, etc. The accepted term
for a structure such as this is “chiastic structure,” but it is appropriate to
differentiate between two different types.
Sometimes, there is a literary scene (or a lone expression) that is found
in the center of the structure and brings the reader from the first half of the
narrative to the second half of the narrative. At other times, the narrative
skips this stage, and the reader immediately finds himself in the second half of
the narrative, which corresponds to the first half. Following Shimon Bar-Efrat, we will
define these two structures differently:
Chiastic structure: A-B/ B-A
Concentric structure: A-B/ C/ B-A
It is worth noting that the central axis of the concentric structure does not
always contain the same significance, and it may yield various contributions. The two most common contributions are
the realization of the turning point of the narrative and the expression of the
climax of the narrative, the stage of the narrative which has the greatest
POETRY AND NARRATIVE
Chiastic style is most prominent in biblical poetry and prophecy, particularly
in the style of lone verses. Let us cite one quick example, Tehillim 1:6:
“For God knows the way of the righteous/ But the way of the wicked
will be lost.” The chiastic parallelism in this verse contributes to the
sharp contrast between the way of the righteous, which “God knows” (watches
over, protects), and the way of the wicked, which has no future or hope.
Chiastic parallelism is found in lone verses of the narrative style as well,
such as: “One who spills the blood of a person/ By a person shall his blood be
spilled” (Bereishit 9:6).
Already two centuries ago, critics noted that if a lone verse or short speech is
designed with a chiastic structure, it is feasible that complete narratives or
even complete books are also organized according to such a structure. This inclination is first found in
the analysis of Jebb, Boys, and Bullinger, who published their research in the
first half of the 19th century.
From that point on, many writers and commentators have discovered chiastic or
concentric structures in legal passages, prophecies, psalms, and various
THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRUCTURE
What is the contribution of the chiastic structure to the hidden themes of the
narrative? Is there an essential distinction between chiastic structure and
concentric structure? It appears that literary structure is simply another tool
in the literary toolbox; in fact, in every narrative there can be a theme
separate from the chiastic or concentric structure. Generally, we may say that
the chiastic structure lends a feeling of reversal, and it is therefore
complementary to a narrative that seeks to stress this motif.
Naturally, it is no surprise that the book of Esther is arranged in a concentric
structure around Chapter 6, its first half describing the success of Haman (delusional though it may
be), and the second half describing his fall and the unraveling of his plot to
exterminate the Jews.
A. Introduction – the royal power of
B. Two Persian feasts: one for the
provincial ministers (180 days), and a special second one for the residents of
Shushan (7 days) (Ch. 1)
C. Esther comes before the king and
is chosen as queen (Ch. 2)
D. Describing the greatness of
Haman: “King Achashverosh
advanced Haman ben Hammedata the Agagite and he elevated him”
E. Casting the lots: war on the 13th
of Adar (3:3-7).
F. Giving the ring to Haman; Haman’s
letters; Mordekhai tears his garments; Esther and the Jews fast (3:8-4:17).
G. Esther’s first feast: Haman comes
out “happy and of good cheer” (5:1-8).
H. Haman consults his kinsmen:
The king’s insomnia and the journey on the royal horse (Ch. 6).
H1. Haman consults his
kinsmen: pessimism (6:12-14).
G1. Esther’s second
feast: Haman is hanged (Ch. 7).
F1. Giving the ring to
Mordekhai; Mordekhai’s letters; Mordekhai is clothed in royal garments; the Jews
feast (Ch. 8).
E1. The war on the 13th
of Adar (9:1-2).
D1. Describing the
greatness of Mordekhai and the Jews, who attack their enemies: “All of the
ministers of the provinces… were elevating the Jews… for the man
Mordekhai was advancing in prominence” (9:3-11).
C1. Esther comes to the king and asks for another day of war in
B1. Two Jewish feasts:
one for the Jews of all the provinces (the 14th of Adar) and a
special second one for Jews of Shushan (the 15th of Adar) (9:17-32).
A1. Conclusion – the
royal power of Achashverosh (Ch. 10).
This structure stresses one of the basic themes of the narrative; it is a
“reverse narrative.” In fact, this point is noted explicitly at the end of the
narrative: “But it was reversed, that the Jews were the ones to overpower those
who hated them” (9:1). The structure of the narrative in its entirety seeks to
stress this reversal of fate.
However, the concept of turnaround does not come to end in the very fact that
the Jews overpower their foes. It seems to me that one should view the idea of
reversal as an overarching principle found beneath the surface of the entire
book. This role reversal does not serve as a literary-aesthetic motif alone;
beyond the concept of a reversal of fate, there is the burgeoning but unseen
conflict with pagan-Persian viewpoints.
In the Book of Esther, the chiastic and concentric structure is so basic that
Dorsey suggests that one can present each half independently as arranged in a
chiasmus. The first half of the narrative may
be laid out in the following way:
The king’s glory at the
feasts and the deposal of Vashti (Ch. 1).
The king seeks the
counsel of his ministers as to “what should be done to Queen Vashti.”
One of the ministers
(Memukhan) sets out a proposal, which is accepted by the king.
Vashti becomes a bad
example for others, as the women will show disrespect for their husbands.
Esther comes to the
king (Ch. 2).
Esther finds favor in
the king’s eyes.
The king makes a feast
C. Mordekhai overhears the plot to
assassinate the king and informs Esther, so that she may tell the king (end of
D. Mordekhai refuses to bow down and
Haman plots to kill the Jews (Ch. 3).
C1. Mordekhai overhears
the plot to kill the Jews and informs Esther, so that she may beg the king’s
mercy (Ch. 4).
B1. Esther comes to the
king (Ch. 5).
Esther finds favor in
the king’s eyes.
Esther makes a feast
for the king.
A1. The glory of
Mordekhai (Ch. 6).
The king asks Haman,
“What should be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor?”
Haman sets out a
proposal, which is accepted by the king.
Mordekhai becomes the
good example, “a man whom the king wishes to honor.”
When it comes to the second half of the story (which opens in Chapter 6, in the
scene in which the first half concludes), Dorsey proposes dividing the scenes in
the following way:
The king’s glory (the
king is reminded of Mordekhai’s actions by having the “book of history, the
chronicles” read before him).
Ester’s request of the
king during the second feast (Haman is hanged on the tree).
C. Mordekhai’s status in the king’s
house –Haman’s house passes over to his control.
D. Sending the letters of salvation
C1. The status of
Mordekhai and the Jews throughout Achashverosh’s kingdom – Haman’s plot is
B1. Esther’s request of
the king for another day of war (and the children of Haman are hanged on a
A1. The glory of
Mordekhai, the viceroy (“the full account of the greatness of Mordekhai is
written in the book of chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia”)
If Dorsey is correct, the structure of the Book of Esther is uniquely
symmetrical and expresses more clearly the principle of reversal. The two halves
of the narrative are mirrors of each other and reverse each other, and every
half on its own is presented in an additional reverse structure.
Nevertheless, as we have already explained, giving headings to subunits of the
narrative can be misleading. Moreover, it appears at times that the connection
between the different elements in the narrative is created by the headings of
the critic and not specifically by the theme of the narrative itself. Furthermore, can we simply skip over
the institution of the days of Purim, to which most of chapter 9 is dedicated?
In order to do so, we would have t argue that the reader views the days of Purim
and the letters sent to institute them as an outgrowth of the actual
deliverance, and we may thus indeed skip over them in order to track the
structure of the plot. This matter touches on critical questions that prejudge
the presentation of the structure, and it is difficult to avoid a prejudgment of
the presentation that influences the demarcation of the scenes and the headings
given to them.
As we noted above, the artistic structure creates a relationship between the
different elements of the narrative in varied ways. We will trace chiastic and concentric
structures through these different means of connection.
First, a strong relationship may be forged by different plot elements. For
example, it appears that the narrative of the creation and fall of man
in Bereishit 2-3 has a concentric structure arranged around the sin of
eating from the forbidden tree.
The creation of Adam and his placement in the Garden of Eden. Adam clings to the
Tree of Life and is nourished by the fruit of the Garden (2:4-17).
B. The creation of Chava and her
good relationship with Adam: “And he will cling to his wife and they will become
one flesh” (2:18-25).
C. The serpent and the dialogue
between him and Chava (3:1-5).
D. Eating from the forbidden tree
and its result (3:6-13).
C1. The punishment of the serpent: ruining its relationship with
Chava and her seed (3:14-15).
B1. The punishment of Chava: ruining her relationship with Adam –“And
he will dominate you” (3:16).
A1. The punishment of Adam: his banishment from the Garden, his
inability to eat from the Tree of Life, and the curse of the ground (3:17-24).
In this case, even if one may find some linguistic connection, it is clear that
the essence of the structure relies mainly on the actual development of the plot
and following the active or mentioned characters. Does this structure add clues
hidden in the narrative?
Following the structure, the reader finds an allusion to a values-based
statement expressed in the narrative; the tensions between the various creatures
and the struggles between them are an outgrowth of sin and of ignoring God’s
command. Throughout the length of the first half, there is amazing harmony
between all of the creatures –adam (man, person) and adama
(ground); isha (woman) and ish (man). Even animals conduct a
dialogue with people without concern or fear. After the sin, the narrative is
reversed. From now on, there will be a rivalry between the serpent and humanity.
From now on, there will be tension in coupling, a tension tied to the desire for
dominance and the status of women. And from now on, the ground will not be
generous to man, and it is upon him to work in order to get his food. In an
ironic way, the harmony between adam and adama will be restored
only at the time of his death, when he will return to the ground from which he
has been taken.
Thus, the structure of the narrative indeed alludes to the hidden meaning of the
narrative. We are not only discussing sin and punishment or the removal of man
from the Garden of Eden, but also the collapse of a network of relationships:
man vs. himself (or his mate) and man vs. his environment. This collapse is tied
to sin, to rebellion, to the will of man (or serpent?) to realize his desires.
A narrative arranged in a chiastic structure that relies on plot relationships
is usually tied to the most dramatic change that occurs in the plot. In other
words, when the connections are linguistic or rely on broad motifs (as we will
explain below), the structure can move in parallel to the development of the
plot, so that hidden readings emerge from beneath the surface without arising
from the continuity of the plot itself. This is not true when we speak of
structure that responds to the actual development of the plot. We see this in
the story of the Garden of Eden: the structure is designed with a stress on the
two lifestyles of man – before the sin and after it.
We may see the same phenomenon in the framing narrative of the Book of Iyov (its
conclusion vs. its introduction), which one may describe in the following way:
A. Introduction: Iyov lives as a
righteous man (1:1) .
B. Iyov’s children – “seven sons and
three daughters” (1:2).
C. Iyov’s livestock – 7,000 sheep,
3,000 camels, 500 teams of cattle, 500 she-donkeys.
D. The party of Iyov’s family
E. Iyov’s misfortunes (1:6-2:10).
F. Iyov’s three friends come to
comfort him (2:11).
G. Iyov’s friends sit silently for
“seven days and seven nights.”
G1. God rebukes Iyov’s
friends and commands them to take “seven bulls and seven rams” (42:7-8).
F1. Iyov’s three friends
come to “apologize” to Iyov (42:9).
E1. God’s blessings rest
upon Iyov (42:10).
D1. The meal of Iyov’s
C1. Iyov’s livestock — 14,000 sheep; 6,000 camels; 1,000 teams of
cattle; 1,000 she-donkeys (42:12).
B1. The children of Iyov
– “seven sons and three daughters” (42:13-15).
A1. Conclusion – Iyov
dies “old, full of days” (42:16-17).
It is clear that the verse describes “Iyov’s restoration,” which brings the
narrative to chiastic completion, in the order of its description at the
beginning of the narrative. It is logical
that beyond the “happy ending” of the story, the aim of these verses is to say
that Iyov has withstood the test put upon him, and at the end of the day he
merits to receive once again everything he had lost – if not more. In this sense, the end of the story
returns to its beginning. However,
because he lost everything he had in the meantime (E), the conclusion of the
story expresses a reversal from distress and misery to joy and tranquility, and
therefore the chiastic structure is quintessentially appropriate here.
MOTIFS IN THE STRUCTURE OF AN ENTIRE BOOK
Naturally, it is easier to take note of the literary structure of a lone
literary unit than the layout of an entire book consisting of different and
discrete narratives. Nevertheless, even the layout of a book takes literary
considerations into account, and it may certainly be that there is a complete
artistic structure of a whole book built from subunits. Thus, for example, some
claim that the Book of Judges is laid out entirely in a concentric fashion
around the story of Gideon. Following this structure makes clear
how a literary structure sometimes relies on central motifs that appear in the
narrative, and not specifically on the main body of the plot:
A. Introduction: Israel asks who
will lead the charge against the Canaanites (1:1-3:6).
B. Otniel ben Kenaz and his good
wife (3:7-11 [his wife — 1:13-15]).
C. Ehud and his victory at the fords of
the Jordan (3:12-31).
D. Devora and Barak: the enemy’s head is
crushed by a woman (4-5).
E. Gideon: turning point (6:1-8:32).
D1. Avimelekh: the judge’s head is
crushed by a woman (8:33-10:5).
C1. Yiftach and the civil war at the
fords of the Jordan (10:6-12:15).
B1. Shimshon and his bad
Appendices: Israel asks God who will lead the charge against Binyamin (17-21).
Gooding notes that in the stories of the Judges in the second half of the book,
there is a struggle and tension between the Judge and the Israelite nation,
unlike the stories in the first half of the book. This is expressed in different
parallels: The fords of the Jordan are the site of victory over the enemy in the
first half (Ehud’s war, C), while in the second half they are the site of a
civil war (Yiftach and the tribe of Efrayim, C1). In the first half,
the head of the enemy is crushed by a woman (D), while the head of the Israelite
judge himself is crushed by a woman in the second half (D1).
We should note that the relationship upon which the structure rests are tied to
specific motifs and plot elements mentioned in the story. It is clear that the essential
narrative of Yiftach is not in the war with Efrayim, which closes his story, and
certainly not in the fact that the matter is occurring at the fords of the
Jordan specifically; it is difficult to see the essence of the story of
Avimelekh in the fact that his skull is crushed by a woman, etc. Indeed, this is the Achilles heel of
this thesis. Nevertheless, since we are talking about the layout of the entire
book, it appears that one may take account of motifs of this sort as well, with
the understanding that their significance in the narrative is questionable,
something which is of course open to different interpretations.
This proposed structure of the Book of Judges naturally stresses the
deterioration endemic to the era of the Judges. Scriptures alludes to criticism
(sharp or mild) of the Judges, and this criticism becomes more pronounced when
the reader compares the Judge to an alternative Judge, as presented in parallel
in the first half of the book. In this way, the Book of Judges acquires its
pessimistic momentum, setting out a continuous deterioration in three stages: a)
the first half of the book (until Gideon); b) the second half of the book (from
Gideon onward); c) the appendices — Mikha’s statue and the concubine of Giva.
One of the most prominent methods of implementing the literary structure is
through the verbal network of the narrative. Through the use of similar language
and identical expressions, it is easy to follow connections among different
elements in the narrative. As a brief example, we will examine the command of
the Torah to make the menora (Shemot 25:31-36).
Note the graphic structure formed, in the shape of the menora:
A. Make a menora out of
pure gold. The menora shall be formed by hammering it.
B. Its base, stem, cups,
spheres and flowers must be from it
Six branches shall extend from its sides… as well as a sphere and
a flower… So shall it be for the six branches extending from the menora.
D. The menora shall have four
embossed cups along with its spheres and flowers.
C1. A sphere shall serve as a base
for each pair of branches extending from it… So shall it be for the six
branches extending from the menora.
B1. The spheres and
branches shall be from it.
A1. It shall all be
hammered out of a single piece of pure gold.
The first half of the command describes mainly the branches and their form,
while the second half describes “the menora” – that is, the central
shaft. The transition to the central
shaft is accomplished in the central axis of the structure. This axis is surrounded by phrases
that relate to the six branches (their description, C; the description of their
meeting the central shaft, C1), just as the central menora is
surrounded by six branches. The frame of the command (A-A1) stresses
how all of the ingredients must be from pure gold, one hammered piece, which is
only appropriate for the literary framework which turns the ingredients into
“one hammered piece” of literature.
The chiastic or concentric structure sets out a varied parallelism among the
different elements, contributing a great deal to the hidden readings of the
narrative. In the coming lecture, we will focus, God willing, on one example
(the story of Yehuda and Tamar), and we will dissect the significance of the
concentric structure of the narrative in a broader sense.
Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch