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Getting the Point: Reading Chiastic Structures

Thus shall you say to them:

“The gods the earth and the heavens made not,

Will perish from the earth and from under these heavens.

Jer. 10:111 

Researchers have often marveled at the unity displayed in the Book of Daniel. This ancient book was composed in two markedly different genres, using two distinct languages, in nine independent sections. All of these features should have offered easy leads for liberal scholars who were intent on finding the “real authors of Daniel”; ironically, academic interest in the parts of Daniel has now highlighted the unity of the whole.

Textual analysis of the Book of Daniel has revealed that this book was artfully arranged according to a poetic form known as chiastic parallelism, a practice of balancing parallel thoughts or themes within a verse or passage. In 1972 A. Lenglet traced a chiastic order in the Aramaic portion of the book of Daniel, and with time, research conducted by William Shea, Andrew Steinmann, and others uncovered chiastic structures that support and unify the whole of the book. The discovery of this chiastic arrangement is important for several reasons, the foremost of these being that it provides us with a clear means of understanding the book’s purpose and themes.

Chiastic Conventions

Statue from Tell Fekheriyeh in Damascus National Museum.

Chiastic parallelism was nothing new to the ancient world; being found in Old Aramaic inscriptions dating as far back as the ninth century BC, around two centuries before Daniel’s time2 . These inscriptions furnish evidence that chiastic structures were not only employed for poetic composition but to structure prose writing as well.

Today we use various writing conventions to communicate and understand written material. Much like blogs, chiasms used a recognizable, known structure to guide their readers to the point. Consider this chiastic outline from the Tell Fakhriyah inscription, a royal dedication located on a ninth-century Assyrian statue3 :

A Prologue: Dedicatory Clause
B Goodness of the Deity
C The Presentation Clause
D Climax: The King’s Prayers
C’ Completion of Presentation Clause
B’ Restoration of the Statue
A’ Epilogue: Group of Curses

Much like a roman numeral outline, readers could follow recognized formulas to find the point quickly, which was essential if your boss was an Assyrian king!

Powerful Puns

Theme and purpose are also communicated through wordplay. The repeated use of the same or similar words draws our attention and focuses it on the point being made. An interaction of wordplay and chiastic form can be seen in Jeremiah 10:11

כִּדְנָה תֵּאמְרוּן לְהֹום
 אֱלָהַיָּא דִּֽי־שְׁמַיָּא וְאַרְקָא לָא עֲבַדוּ יֵאבַדוּ מֵֽאַרְעָא וּמִן־תְּחֹות שְׁמַיָּא אֵֽלֶּה ׃
Thus shall you say to them:
A The gods who the heavens and the earth 
B did not make (ꞌǎbadū)                                                          
B’ will perish (yệꞌbadū)
A’ from the earth and from under these heavens.  

Two similar thoughts, “not make” and “will perish,” are set next to one another, forming the core of a chiastic verse. More than that, each thought is given by a single Aramaic word that sounds nearly identical to its partner, providing a poetic double-punch that no reader could miss. Poetic form and wordplay were at work in this remarkable Aramaic verse to make a powerful statement through the prophet Jeremiah: God was coming to judge the nations and their idols!

Ready to Read!

We are now ready to look at the Book of Daniel through ancient eyes. Next week we will begin our survey of Daniel’s chiastic structure and thereby gain a sound understanding of this remarkable book’s purpose.

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1.  This is my own translation of Jeremiah 10:11. It is translated from the Westminster Leningrad Codex and rendered with the goal of making the chiastic structure more apparent to the english reader.

2.  Zdravko Stefanovic, “The Aramaic of Daniel in the Light of Old Aramaic,” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 129, ed. David J.A. Clines & Philip R. Davies, (Midsomer Norton: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 36–42.

3.  Ibid, 38.

New to this series? To read the first installment of the Two Riddle series click here or start at the very beginning of the Daniel series by clicking here.

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