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Unjamming the Genres: Part Two

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,

to whom belong wisdom and might.

He changes times and seasons;

he removes kings and sets up kings;

he gives wisdom to the wise;

and knowledge to those who have understanding;

He reveals deep and hidden things;

He knows what is in the darkness,

And the light dwells with him.

To you, O God of my fathers,

I give thanks and praise,

For you have given me wisdom and might,

And have now made known to us the king’s matter.”

Daniel 2:20–23

Penned with Purpose

The past three decades have yielded increasing evidence that the Book of Daniel is remarkably arranged according to literary structures found throughout the Old Testament. Far from being a product of haphazard socio-political forces, this book was intricately composed to make its message clear to the careful reader. We can readily trace the book’s theme and purpose once we have learned a little about Hebrew poetic forms.

A Testimony of Two

Think about the last time that you read Psalms or Proverbs—do you remember how often a verse gave the same thought twice? This common characteristic of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism, “the practice of balancing one thought or phrase containing approximately the same number of words, or at least a correspondence in ideas.”1 

Hebrew parallelism is all over the Old Testament, appearing in a variety of flavors including antithetic parallelism, synthetic (or constructive) parallelism, and climactic parallelism.2  But the most recognizable parallelism is synonymous parallelism, a form that provides synonymous thoughts twice. We find an example of this in Psalm 24:1, which reads,

The earth is the LORD‘s and the fullness thereof,

the world and those who dwell therein.

How many instances of synonymous parallelism can you spot in the prayer that opened today’s post (Dan. 2:20–23)?

Let’s Kick It Up a Notch!

Scripture sometimes employs a form of synonymous parallelism known as chiastic parallelism. Rather than “giving the parallel ideas in the same order (a-b, a’-b’)” thoughts are “presented in the opposite order (a-b, b’-a’).”3  For example, consider this verse from the Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, Oh God

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy,

blot out my transgressions.

Chiastic parallelism serves several functions within the biblical text. It is sometimes used to provide emphasis in a narrative passage (Gen. 1:27; 9:6). The sudden entrance of a chiastic form causes the reader to take note, while the reiteration of the same thought in reverse order amplifies the concept even further.4  As a lyrical pattern, it also renders the verse easier “to understand, absorb, and even memorize.”5  So chiastic parallelism was employed to make key concepts easily recognizable and understandable to the reader. So far, so good; but what does this have to do with the Book of Daniel? Well, take a look at the following outline of Daniel 2–7:

Daniel 2: Four kingdoms and God’s kingdom.

Daniel 3: God’s servants rescued.

Daniel 4: King judged for blasphemy.

Daniel 5: King judged for blasphemy.

Daniel 6: God’s servants rescued.

Daniel 7: Four kingdoms and God’s kingdom.

The Book of Daniel is thematically arranged according to chiastic patterns. Nine stand-alone sections constitute the Book of Daniel; passages that could exist as independent works in their own right. However, these nine works were carefully organized according to chiastic form. The outline above illustrates only a part of the two interlocked chiasms that organize the entire book.6  In our next post, we will unlock Daniel’s chiastic structure to see how pattern demonstrates purpose. 

Have a question or comment? We’d love to hear from you. Submit your response in the box below.


1.  Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 2007), 412.

2.  Antithetic parallelism contrasts concepts (Ps. 1:6). Synthetic Parallelism builds a verse to completion either through parallelism in rhythm (read Ps. 2:6 in Hebrew), or through completion of sense (Prov. 15:17; 26:4). Climactic parallelism initially presents an incomplete thought in order to build it up to a climatic completion (Ps. 29:1). 

3.  Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 2007), 413.

4.  C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishers, 2006), 11, footnote #11.

5.  Joel Ryan, “What is Chiasmus? Definitions and Examples of Chiastic Structure in the Bible,” Christianity.com.

6.  Andrew E. Steinmann, Daniel, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 20–25.

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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