Recognizing Parallelisms and Chiasmus in the Scriptures

This article is adapted from Ivan D. Sanderson, “Introduction 4: Structural Artifices Used by Isaiah,” in Isaiah: The Times of Fulfillment, a Verse-by-Verse Commentary: Westbench Publishing, 2009, p. 29—38.

The scriptures are full of poetic structures which add greatly to their richness, depth and meaning. If we—aided by the Holy Spirit—develop an understanding of these structures, intended comparisons and deeper meanings will be unfolded to our understanding. The most common poetic structures are parallelisms and chiasmus.1 The effects of chiasmus or parallelism in a scriptural passage—whether or not the author intended such structure—may include one or more of the following:

1. The reader’s attention becomes focused on the meaning of a passage.
2. Precision and clarity in meaning are enhanced.
3. Text of a document is divided into understandable segments.2
4. Poetic beauty is enhanced in a passage.
5. Hidden meanings can be concealed by the writer within a passage to protect these meanings from those who would tamper with the words.3
6. Provide keys for understanding a text.4

1. Parallelism

Parallelism is used in the scriptures by many scriptural writers. Isaiah, in particular, uses it so extensively that it appears almost as a signature of his writing style. Parallelism consists of two or more similar statements; recognizing their similarity helps us grasp the poetic meaning. Parry described and illustrated no fewer than 15 different kinds of parallelisms including synonymous parallelisms, antithetical or opposite parallelisms, complements, metaphors and cause-and-effect relationships in the writings of Isaiah.5 Parry et al. identified and diagrammed over 1,100 parallel structures throughout the Book of Isaiah.6

Example #1:

In an example from Isaiah 53:5, two sets of synonymously parallel phrases describe the suffering borne by the Lord Jesus Christ and its effect on us. The first set, or couplet, states “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” The first phrase in the couplet describes Jesus’ physical humiliation and suffering and gives the spiritual reason He allowed Himself to be subjected to intense pain: “He was wounded for our transgressions.” The second phrase is nearly synonymous, imparting the same meaning using different words: “He was bruised for our iniquities.” The effect in our minds is emphasis and clarity; we hear the message twice, stated slightly differently, so that there can be no mistaking the meaning. Isaiah’s repetition also embeds the meaning forcefully into our consciousness so that we grasp its importance.

The second couplet follows: “The chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Both phrases impart similar meaning: Jesus’ anguish and suffering paradoxically provide us with peace and spiritual healing. By presenting it two different ways Isaiah assures that we recognize that although paradoxical, this is no literary misstatement. Again, Isaiah’s poetic repetition emphasizes this important concept in our minds.

To improve our understanding, parallelisms can be diagrammed. This diagram places key words or phrases in the second couplet, cited above, in bold type and reveals the parallel structure:

A: The chastisement
B: of our peace was upon him;
A: and with his stripes
B: we are healed.

The words or phrases labeled A are synonymous; the words or phrases labeled B are also synonymous. The ordering ABAB characterizes the parallel structure.

Example #2:

In an example from Isaiah 53:1, two phrases are parallel because, rather than being synonymous as in the previous example, they both ask rhetorical questions. By means of its parallel structure, the verse poses and simultaneously answers the two questions:

A: Who hath believed our report? And
B: To whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?

The verse is like an algebraic equation. The two phrases are equal, with “and” serving as the equals sign:

A = B; also, B = A.

The answer to the question “who hath believed our report?” is “[he] to whom the arm of the Lord is revealed.” Conversely, the answer to the question “to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” is “[he] who hath believed our report.” This states an immutable eternal law: Faith is required before revelation; spiritual blessings are given to the faithful, whose minds and thoughts are already founded upon belief.7 The two parallel phrases are complementary—neither phrase provides the whole meaning. The full idea is understood only when both phrases are considered together.

Example #3:

For a more complex example of parallelism and its interpretation,8 consider Isaiah 2:7-8:

Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots:
Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made… .

Three different equivalent statements follow the lead phrase, “their land is (also) full of… .” These are “silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures;” “horses, neither is there any end of their chariots;” and “idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.” Because of their parallel structure these three statements are equivalent, following the rules of algebra:

If A = B, A = C, and A = D,
then B = C = D.

What are their idols? Silver and gold, treasures, horses and chariots; the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made. The people’s possessions have become their gods. Isaiah saw our materialistic society and the emphasis placed upon material things. Isaiah is able to say a lot more through parallelism, using fewer words than if he had made the three statements separately without relating them.

2. Chiasmus

The word chiasmus comes from the Greek letter chi, equivalent to our letter X.  Chiasmus is pronounced Kī-‘az-məs and means “inversion of word order.”9 The singular nominative form is chiasm and the plural is chiasms. Chiasmus is a variant on the concept of parallel construction where, in the second half, the order in which ideas or words occur is reversed.10

The inverted parallelism of a chiasm is illustrated in the last two phrases of Isaiah 2:3. If the two phrases are placed in sequence and lines are drawn from synonymous elements in the two phrases, we obtain:

Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and

 the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

The X formed by the two lines resembles the Greek letter chi, from which the name chiasmus is derived.

Diagramming of chiasms may be standardized to facilitate their recognition and interpretation:

A: Out of Zion shall go forth
B: the law,
B: and the word of the LORD
A: from Jerusalem.

Elements of the chiasm are lettered to illustrate the reverse‑order symmetry. Key words or phrases are rendered in bold type in this example.  Elements designated A are the introductory statement and its synonymous reflection, and the two marked B are the central statement and its synonymous reflection. The arrangement ABBA defines the symmetry, or reverse-order parallelism, characteristic of chiasmus.

Understanding that a passage is chiastic greatly aids in its interpretation. In this example from Isaiah 2:3, “Zion” is equivalent in meaning to “Jerusalem,” and “the law” is equivalent in meaning to “the word of the LORD.” If “Jerusalem” is taken to mean the ancient city, the meaning is that the latter-day Zion would have living prophets just like those of ancient Jerusalem. These modern prophets would receive the word of the Lord and send it forth to the world. On the other hand, if “Jerusalem” means the latter-day gathering place for the righteous descendants of Israel, the meaning is that there would be two places from which the word of the Lord would go forth at that time. Isaiah most likely intended both meanings.

Chiasmus is a form of poetry based upon symmetry of ideas rather than rhythm and rhyme. The chiastic structure allows meaning of the poetry to be more easily preserved in translation from one language to another—provided the translator is aware of the structure—whereas poetry based on rhythm and rhyme is generally impossible to translate in a way that preserves both rhythm and rhyme and the original meaning. Not only is a chiasm a graceful poetic form; many of Isaiah’s chiasms present information that is not apparent upon superficial reading but yield their hidden treasures when carefully analyzed.

A chiasm consists of an ascending side and a descending side. The ascending side begins with an introductory statement, or foundational premise, and builds up to a culminating central statement, or focus. The descending side, in turn, leads from a second iteration of the central statement back to a reflection of the introductory statement. As a rule the central statement presents the most important idea, followed in importance by the introductory statement and its reflection. Intermediate statements contribute poetic balance or details in support of the central statement or the introductory statements.11

Chiastic phrases in reverse order occurring as mirror images may be synonymous, antithetical, complementary, metaphorical, or may show a cause-and-effect relationship, following the same rules as parallelisms. Hebrew words frequently have double meanings; chiasmus and parallelisms both provide a means for the writer to communicate to the reader or translator which is the intended meaning.

Scriptural purposes for using chiasmus are varied. Some chiasms contain mini-sermons whereas others provide definitions, set forth points of doctrine, or provide clues as to meaning. Antithetic chiasms provide a literary foil to emphasize fundamental differences. Complementary phrases in some chiasms require the reader to integrate the meanings of both phrases in order to understand the complete idea being presented by the prophet. Other chiasms are simply eloquent poetic statements which add beauty to the written work. In Isaiah 28:16 “Zion” is chiastically equivalent to “he that believeth,” rendering a definition.12 This meaning is comparable to a well-known definition from Doctrine and Covenants: “[F]or this is Zion—the pure in heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn.”13

Example #1:

In an example from Isaiah 2:11‑12 illustrating a slightly more complex chiasm,  a sequential statement—designated B—follows the initial statement on the ascending side and precedes it on the descending side. Verse numbers from the scriptural text are given in parentheses:

A: (11) [T]he lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down,
B: and the LORD alone shall be exalted
C: in that day.
C: (12) For the day of
B: the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one
A: that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low.

Note, in this example, that the introductory statement A and its reflection are parallel statements asserting that the pride and haughtiness of man will be brought down. The intermediate statements B contrast the Lord’s exaltation at His Second Coming with the selfish pride of the wicked as described in the introductory statements. The central statement C and its reflection both focus on the word “day,” meaning the foretold day of the coming of the Lord.

For better understanding some chiasms can be read in reflective order—from the paired introductory statements upward on the ascending and descending sides, or from the central focus downward on both sides—rather than in the written sequence. Using this approach is particularly helpful when phrases are complementary, when their full meaning is comprehended only when the phrases are considered together.

Chiasms as recorded in the King James Version, together with those in other modern translations from the Hebrew Masoretic text, are in many instances imperfect or unrecognizable. Parry states that “…chiastic structures in the Hebrew language are not always evident when translated into English. This is partly due to the different sentence structures in the two languages.14 When equivalent text is provided by another primary source we are better able to understand original meanings as well as recognize more chiastic structures that were intended by the writer. Primary sources that have proven to be of value in studying the writings of Isaiah include portions of the Book of Mormon in which Isaiah is quoted, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) and the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Example #2:

In an example from Isaiah 2:5‑6, elements of a chiasm are missing from the King James Version but are complete in the Book of Mormon.15 Variations in the text in the Book of Mormon expand and complete the chiasm—or, more correctly stated, deletions from the text as rendered in the King James Version obscure and weaken the chiasm that was originally intended by the author. Added words and phrases from the Book of Mormon are shown in italics:

A: (5) O house of Jacob, come ye,
B: and let us walk in the light of the LORD;
C: yea, come, for ye have all gone astray,
C: every one to his wicked ways.
B: (6) Therefore, O LORD, thou hast forsaken thy people
A: the house of Jacob… .

The added phrases change this from a simple ABBA chiasm to a more complex ABCCBA chiasm, with added meaning.

Example #3:

In another more complex chiasm from Isaiah 2:9-11, words present in the text of the Book of Mormon but absent from the King James Version are again shown in italics. The elements on the descending side are antithetics, having opposite meanings from those on the ascending side. The introductory statement and its antithetic reflection—designated A—occur four times in this example, also inserted before and after the central statement and its reflection, designated D.

A: (9) And the mean man
B: boweth not down,
C: and the great man humbleth himself not: therefore forgive them not.
A: (10) O ye wicked ones,
D: enter into the rock, and
D: hide thee in the dust,
A: for the fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty shall smite thee.
C: (11) And it shall come to pass that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled,
B: and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down,
A: and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

In order for the second and third elements (B and C) to be opposites on the ascending and descending sides to fit the pattern of this antithetic chiasm,  wording from the Book of Mormon is essential. The word “not” inserted in two places and placement of a second iteration of the first element, “O ye wicked ones,” all on the ascending side, complete the chiasm. Note that “the mean man” and “O ye wicked ones” on the ascending side are contrasted with “the LORD” in two places on the descending side; “boweth not down” and “humbleth himself not” on the ascending side are contrasted with “humbled” and “bowed down” on the descending side. The Book of Mormon version helps us to understand that it would be the failure of the mean man and the great man alike to bow humbly before the Lord that would result in the Lord’s wrath being poured out upon them. In contrast, in the King James translation the implied meaning is that both the mean man and the great man would bow down before idols, provoking the Lord’s wrath. “Enter into the rock” and “hide thee in the dust” are comparable statements describing the fear and futile evasion of the wicked at the coming of the Lord.

3. Identifying Chiastic Structures

At this point, the reader is best served by some instruction on how to recognize and interpret chiasmus independently, rather than being presented with endless examples.

To begin developing the ability to recognize chiasmus in scriptural text, the reader will need an assortment of colored pencils.  Each distinct color is used to mark similar or related elements in the text. Verses 10 through 14 of Isaiah 29 provide a reasonably complex instructional example:

(10) For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.
(11) And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
(12) And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.
(13) Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
(14) Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.

First, in verse 13, notice that the words “draw near me” are opposite in meaning to “far from me,” presenting our first clue to the chiastic structure. Underline these in blue (color choices are purely arbitrary). Next, notice that the names of three body parts occur between these two phrases: “mouth,” “lips” and “heart.” Underline these in red. Note, however, that honoring the Lord with mouth and lips contrasts with honoring Him in one’s heart; thus, “mouth” and “lips” are grouped together whereas “heart” stands by itself. Add a second red line beneath “heart.”

Next, look for similar, opposite or related phrases in the following and preceding verses. Note in verse 11 the phrase “one that is learned.” Its match is “wise men” in verse 14; color these green. In verse 10 notice that the phrase “the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” is similar in meaning to “the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” in verse 14. Underline these phrases in purple.

Thus far we have identified matches consisting of similar or opposite words or phrases. The remaining matches in this passage are complementary and will require more skill to identify. However, our task is made easier by having narrowed down where we must look to find complementary phrases. In verse 13, “the Lord said” is complementary to “I will proceed to do” in verse 14. Underline these phrases in orange. Now notice in verse 13 that the phrase “forasmuch as this people” immediately precedes “draw near me” that we have already underlined, and that its opposite, “far from me,” is followed by “their fear toward me.” Underline these two new phrases in pink.

Finally, notice that “the book” in verse 12 is complementary to “a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder.” Underline these two phrases in yellow. Although the two phrases are not obviously related until we eliminate everything else before and after them, recognizing that they are complementary is of great importance in understanding the latter-day Restoration and Isaiah’s prophetic view of it.

Once the elements of the chiasm in Isaiah 29: 10-14 are identified, the sequence can be arranged diagrammatically:

A: (10) For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.
B: (11) And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
C: (12) And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.
D: (13) Wherefore the Lord said,
E:   Forasmuch as this people
F:   draw near me
G: with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me,
G: but have removed their heart
F:   far from me,
E:   and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
D: (14) Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do
C: a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder:
B: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
A: and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.

The relationships learned by recognizing and diagramming the chiasm are summarized:  “The prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” is equivalent to “the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid,” providing complementary description of the decision-makers of the foretold time. “Prudent men” whose understanding would be hid, or eclipsed, by the content of the book would include those who purport to be prophets, rulers, and seers to the people. “One that is learned” compares with “the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,” clarifying that the wise men whose wisdom would perish include the learned, or educated. “The book is delivered to him that is not learned” complements “a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder,” revealing Isaiah’s meaning that the Book of Mormon would be an essential part of the “marvelous work” spoken of. “With their mouth, and with their lips” contrasts with “their heart,” emphasizing the superficial character of the beliefs of the people. The restoration, including the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, would come about in a time of hard hearts and closed minds, when men would pay lip-service to the Lord but fail to honor Him in spirit.

4. Conclusion

Chiasmus and parallelism are dynamic writing devices. They can be used to pack much meaning into a relatively small amount of text and to add precision in meaning, thereby protecting a passage from misinterpretation. By developing the skills of identifying and interpreting parallel structures in prophetic writings (both ancient and modern), our understanding of doctrine will deepen, our ability to overcome deception will increase, and we will become better defenders of the faith.

 


Notes:

  1. Avraham Gileadi, The Book of Isaiah: A new translation with interpretive keys from the Book of Mormon: Deseret Book Company, P.O. Box 30178, Salt Lake City, Utah 84130, 1988, 250 pp.
  2. See Isaiah 12, which contains two psalms that are more easily distinguished on the basis of chiastic structures.
  3. See Isaiah 6:10.
  4. For example, Gordon B. Hinckley’s April 2000 General Conference talk, “To All the World in Testimony,” uses chiasmus to provide keys for understanding his metaphor that the Conference Center pulpit and the tree it was crafted from represent the teachings of the prophets. See our article on this topic.
  5. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p.17-27.
  6. Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry and Tina M. Peterson, Understanding Isaiah: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1998, 659 p.
  7. See Ether 12:6; Doctrine and Covenants 105:19. Contrast Matthew 12:39; 16:4.
  8. See Gileadi, 1988, p. 22.
  9. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language:1971, Elsevier Publishing Company, 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017,Chiasmus, p. 130.
  10. See John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon”: BYU Studies 10, no. 1, p. 1-2, 1969.
  11. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 370-371.
  12. See Isaiah 28:16.
  13. Doctrine and Covenants 97:21.
  14. Parry, 2001, p. 257 (Appendix 2).
  15. 2 Nephi 12:5‑6.
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