Thursday, June 12, 2008

Chiasmus II – Parallelism in the Old Testament

In my last two posts I gave six examples of inverted parallelism or Chiasmus found in Isaiah and in Genesis. There are several different types of parallelism: synonymous, antithetic, emblematic, synthetic, and stairlike. They can be found both in inverted poems (Chiasmus) and in non-inverted poems.

Synonymous parallelism has the second line repeat the first, but with different words:

    The king shall joy 
in thy strength, O Lord;
and in thy salvation
how greatly shall he rejoice!
(Psalms 21:1-2)

A false witness shall not be unpunished
He that speaketh lies shall perish.
(Proverbs 19:19)

A man's belly shall be satisfied
with the fruit of his mouth
with the increase of his lips
shall he be filled.
(Proverbs 18:20)

Antithetic parallelism has the second line contrast with the first:

    For the Lord knoweth 
the way of the righteous:
but the way of the ungodly
shall perish.
(Psalms 1:6)

A hypocrite with his mouth
destroyeth his neighbor;
through knowledge
shall the just be delivered.
(Proverbs 11:9)

By the blessing of the upright
the city is exalted
It is overthrown
by the mouth of the wicked.
(Proverbs 11:11)

Emblematic parallelism has a literal statement contrasted with a metaphor or simile:

    As the hart panteth after the water brooks,
so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
(Psalms 42:1)

Though your sins be as scarlet
they shall be white as snow
though they be red as died wool
they shall be as fleece.
(Isaiah 1:18)

Synthetic parallelism has the second line complete the thought of the first line. These could be question-answer, proposition-conclusion, or situation-consequence. In the first line of the example below you might ask "why?" The second line gives the answer.

    Yea, though I walk through the valley 
of the shadow of death I will fear no evil
For thou art with me:
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
(Psalms 23:4)

Stairlike parallelism introduces new thoughts in the repeated phrases. Not all the people who write about Hebrew Poetry agree completely on this terminology, but this form is also known as composite or climactic parallelism, or anaphora:

    Ah nation of sin!
A people laden with iniquity!
A brood of evildoers!
Children that are corrupters:
They have forsaken the Lord.
(Isaiah 1:4)

Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty,
give unto the Lord glory and strength.
(Psalms 29:1)

The daughter of Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard
like a hut in a cucumber field
like a city beleaguered.
(Isaiah 1:8)

It will be left up to the reader to identify which parallelisms are Chiastic, and which are synonymous, antithetic, emblematic, synthetic, or stairlike from here on. I’m going to be talking mostly about Chiasmus from here on. The word Chiasm is from the Greek letter Chi (which is like an X) because the usual way of diagramming these poems – as we’ve seen above – looks like the left half of that letter.

There are thousands of short couplets in the Scriptures like the dozen examples above. Up until now, when you’ve read the Bible, you’ve probably wondered why it sounded so repetitive. Now you know. And now that you are aware of the existence of parallelism as a form of Poetry, you may discover some of your own examples. I think longer examples, like the six I presented in the two previous posts, are more interesting.

Chiasms can be presented in several different ways. One way is to present just the key ideas, as was done in the five stories from Genesis. Another way is to present the entire text, as was done in the examples above. A third way is to present just the key words and phrases. Here is a chiasm I found in Ezekiel 10. So it will fit in the narrow confines of this blog, I’ll just give the key words and phrases. I recommend you take a look at Ezekiel 10 in your Bible and look for this poem. There are some additional smaller parallelisms in this material that I’ve left out for simplicity.


a sapphire stone,
as the appearance of the likeness
the man clothed with linen,
and said, Go in
between the wheels,
coals of fire
when the man went in;
the inner court.
the glory of the LORD
the threshold of the house;
and the house was filled
the LORD’s glory.
the outer court,
commanded the man
Take fire
from between the wheels,
then he went in, and stood
clothed with linen:
and the appearance of the wheels was
a beryl stone.

I found another somewhat more involved Chiasm in Ezekiel 34. This one has the Promised Land as a central theme. Notice that it addresses the responsibilities of priesthood holders. I’ve used this chiasm to promote home teaching. This time I’ll give entire portions of the text. I’ll use an ellipsis (...) to point out where I’ve left out material. Some of what I've left out is also chiastic. I have marked some of the more obvious parallelisms, but as you can see with a little study, there are many others. The entire chapter is really talking about the Millennium!


Well, that just about does it for the Hebrew Poetry of the Old Testament. I have about seventy-five other examples from the Old Testament, another seventy-five from the New Testament, eighty-five from the Book of Mormon, eight from the Doctrine & Covenants, and a dozen or so from talks given by LDS General Authorities and from secular sources. I’d be glad to mail a CD with my entire collection (free) to anyone who is interested. I can be contacted at grant underscore cottam at hotmail dot com.

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