Bible Study

Understanding the Bible’s Literary Patterns

This essay is heavily dependent on The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, David Dorsey, Baker Books, 1999, which I highly recommend for purchase. Dorsey is to be credited as a source, but should not be held accountable for the ways my displays of literary structure vary from his.

See Resources for Literary Structure Studies.

In order to read biblical literature with thorough understanding, we need to know something of Ancient Near Eastern writing patterns, and to understand how they differ from our own.

Let’s start with our own modern patterns.

How Modern People Have Been Taught to Write

Modern people have been interested in evidence and logical reasoning. The modern writing style may be summarized as follows:

  1. Introduce people to what we are going to tell them.
  2. In an orderly manner, lay out the points that drive us to the conclusion.
  3. State the conclusion.

The writing pattern is linear. It goes along a straight path from beginning to end.

Note: In contrast to modernism, post-modernism is less interested in evidence and logic. If post-modernism prevails long enough, it will be interesting to see what new writing structures predominate.

Silly Example 1 (Modern Linear Writing)

Introduction: I intend to show that the domestic cat can help end plagues.

Conclusion: Therefore, I have shown that cats can help end plagues.

Other Linear Writing

Of course, there is some linear writing in the Bible as well as in modern times. Even if one is not interested in logic and proof, a linear pattern, moving sequentially from beginning to end, is still the simplest way to impart information. It may be the best pattern for describing events in which sequence is the vital factor.  It may also be best for describing regulations, rituals, etc.

Silly Example 2 (Sequential Linear Writing)

  1. A great plague broke out in the land.
  2. Many people were suffering and dying.
  3. Our hero began importing cats to eat the rats.
  4. After enough cats were imported, the plague ended.
  5. The people held a big celebration.

How Ancient Near Eastern Writers Were Taught to Write

Ancient writers were not very interested in proving points.

They were more interested in comparing and contrasting things in order to gain insight.

Points for comparison and contrast were often emphasized by repetition in parallel structures.

Direct Parallel

In direct parallels, the point of emphasis often comes at the end of the chain (D1 and D2 in the example below).

Silly Example 3 (Direct Parallel)

A1. The cats

B1. ate

C1. the rats,

D1. thus ending the plague.

A2. The felines

B2. consumed

C2. the rodents,

D2. and the people rejoiced.

Symmetric Parallel

A symmetric parallel may also be described by the terms such as chiasm, chiasmus, palistrophe, epanodos, inverse parallel, extended introversion, envelope construction, and concentric pattern.

In symmetric parallels, the primary point of emphasis often comes at the center (D1 and D2 in the example below).

A secondary point often comes at the beginning and end.

Silly Example 4

The point of emphasis in Silly Example 4 is the same as in Silly Example 3 (D1, D2). But the points have been brought together at the center so that it is immediately apparent that the deliverance from the plague (D1) led to celebration (D2). This symmetric parallel heads directly into the story (A1, B1, C1) and then backs out of it emphasizing the cause for celebration (C2, B2, A2).

A1. The cats

B1. ate

C1. the rats,

D1. thus ending the plague.

D2. The people rejoiced that

C2. the rodents

B2. were consumed by

A2. the felines.

Silly Example 5

A more subtle form of symmetric parallel looks much like the linear narrative of Silly Example 2. The difference is that the narrative now

emphasizes the turning point of importing cats (C). The emphasis is accomplished by the paired contrasts of the increasing and receding plague (B1, B2) and the sorrowful and joyous responses (A1, A2). This example is simultaneously linear and symmetrical.

A1. Deep sorrow was in the land.

B1. A great plague with its immense suffering and countless deaths was increasing by the day.

     C. Our hero began importing cats to eat the rats.

B2. After enough cats were imported, the plague with its suffering and deaths was receding by the day.

A2. The people held a joyful celebration.

Parallel Patterns in the Bible

Both direct parallel and symmetric parallel patterns can occur on any scale from within a single sentence to extending over a whole book or group of books. For instance, I believe that there is:

Genesis 1:1—2:3 Mid-Scale Direct Parallel Plus Extension

Contrary to the usual direct parallel which locates primary emphases in section endings, I believe that, in the example below, the section endings (C1 and C2) culminating in human creation in the image of God contain the secondary emphasis, while the A-level extension (A3) puts the primary emphasis on the divine foundation for the Sabbath. A1, A2, and A3 all focus on time.

Introduction: Creation of Heavens and Earth (1:1-2)

A1. Day 1: Creation of Time (Ordering of Day and Night) (1:3-5)

B1. Day 2: Ordering of Waters Makes Room for Air (1:6-8)

C1. Day 3:

a. Ordering of Waters Makes Room for Land (1:9-10)

b. Bringing Forth of Vegetation (1:11-13)

A2. Day 4: Filling of Heavens with Lights and Regulating of Times and Seasons (1:14-19)

B2. Day 5: Filling of Waters and Air with Living Creatures (1:20-23)

C2. Day 6:

a. Filling of Land with Living Creatures (1:24-25)

b. Creation of Human Beings to Rule Over Vegetation and Creatures (1:26-31)

A3. Day 7: Sanctifying of Time (2:1-3)

Genesis 2:4 Small-Scale Symmetric Parallel

In whichever order--heavens and earth (A1, B1) or earth and heavens (B2, A2)--this combination simply means everything. The emphasis falls on God's sovereign activity (C1, C2). The structure leaves us free to consider whether created (C1) and made (C2) are synonymous or whether they bring out differing dimensions (created = brought into being; made = brought into order). Either is possible.

“This is what came from

A1. the heavens

B1.and the earth

C1. when they were created,

C2. in the day that the Lord God made

B2. the earth

A2. and the heavens.”

Genesis 2:4–3:24 Mid-Scale Symmetric Parallel

The turning point of this narrative is when human beings sin and God confronts the sin. Important elements of God's plan for creation then start operating in reverse.

A1 Creation of Man and the Establishing of Sacred Space (2:4-17)

B1 Creation of Woman and the Establishing of Human Community (2:18-25)

C1 Serpent Tempts Woman (3:1-5)

D Sin and God’s Confronting It (3:6-13)

C2 Punishing of Serpent (3:14-15)

B2 Punishing of Woman and the Disrupting of Community Harmony (3:16)

A2 Punishing of Man and the Banishing of the Man and Woman from the Sacred Space (3:17-24)

Genesis 1:1—Deuteronomy 34:12 Large-Scale Symmetric Parallel

The central emphasis of the Five Books (Pentateuch) is the organizing of the sinful chosen people (Israel) for representing God's holiness (D). The key text is Exodus 19:4-6. But at the end of the Five Books (A2) the basic issue of how God can live with sinful humanity (A1) is still waiting  (A2) for a more satisfactory solution.

A1. The Problem: How Can a Holy God Live with Sinful Humanity? (Genesis 1--11)

            B1. A Chosen People and a Promised Land (Genesis 12--50)

C1.  From Egypt to Sinai: Freed to Worship and Obey (Exodus 1--18) 

D. At Sinai: Organized for Holiness (Exodus 19:1--Numbers 10:10)

C2.  From Sinai to the Jordan River: Hindered by Unbelief and Disobedience (Numbers 10:11--25:17)

B2. On the Edge of Partial, Temporary Fulfillment: The Chosen People Prepare to Enter the Promised Land (Numbers 26:1--Deuteronomy 31:29)

A2. The Solution: Awaiting a Prophet Like Moses (Deuteronomy 31:30--34:12)

See "Resources for Literary Structure Studies"

A Note for Critics of Parallelomania (also known as Chiasmania)

Obviously, some interpreters have gone overboard in finding parallel literary structures. Not all claims will stand up to examination. Not all claims are helpful. We may thank the critics for helping weed out unhelpful proposals.

But some critics have over-reacted in establishing very high levels of proof before they will recognize a parallel structure as valid. If, as I claim, thinking in parallel patterns was part of ancient culture, then it is not necessary to prove:

It is enough to show that a general pattern exists and that the pattern helps us identify the points of emphasis in the text. The most useful test of a proposed structure is whether it helps or hinders our understanding of the text as the word of God.

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