Background of Chiasms

Adapted from "Joshua's Spiritual Warfare: Understanding the Chiasms of Joshua", pages 25-27

Several European publications in the 1700's and 1800's discussed the symmetric arrangement of Scripture, the most notable being John Jebb and Thomas Boys.1,2 However, it was not until the 1920's that Nils Lund published articles about the chiasmus in the United States.3 Since the 1980's, there has been an increasing interest in the chiastic approach. (See What Is a Chiasm (or Chiasmus)?).

Study of chiasms has been largely confined to Christian schools of higher education

One of the most comprehensive reviews of this writing style was prepared by Dr. David Dorsey in 1999.4 In that book, Professor Dorsey described the structure and meaning of each Old Testament book using this chiastic approach. Dorsey found that the chiastic approach is particularly frequent in Genesis, but he shows examples from every book in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Bible scholars have also found examples of the chiastic approach in every book, but some books are more known for them than others.

Rather than using the term chiasm, some theologians refer to this structure as a “chiasmus.” A few people refer to it as “inverted parallelism”, and still others use the term “symmetric parallelism.” No matter what it is called, this structure was widely used during Bible times as it appears to add emphasis.

Those who first identified this literary structure chose the word chiasmus because in the Greek, the letter chi looks like an 'X'. In this illustration from Matthew 23:12, we see one line of the 'X' which relates the word "exalt" in the first and last; likewise, the word "humbles" is connected by the other line.

The 'X' shape of a simple chiasm

Chiasmus literally means “placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement.”5 Wade White gives this simple definition: “chiasmus is the reversal of elements in otherwise parallel phrases.”6 Simply put, each chiasm is a structured repetition of themes starting at the outside and moving to the center.

Many attempts have been made to define and redefine chiasms over the years: some see a very simple structure while others provide a wide number of exceptions that becomes very inclusive. In Joshua's Spiritual Warfare, we will see that a chiasm achieves its importance when the central point provides profound insight into the verses; therefore, the general focus is on those with a more simple structure. Where the chiasm has been identified, the center point often gives clarity and understanding of the full intent of these Scriptures either by revealing what is otherwise hidden or by adding particular emphasis.

Within the Book of Joshua, Bible scholars typically focus on the use of the chiasms in chapters 2 and 22. On the World Wide Web, for example, it is very difficult to find sites where chiasms are identified in other parts of the Book of Joshua. Similarly, there has been no association of chiasms with spiritual warfare on the Internet. Someone may have written about it, but as of the writing of Joshua's Spiritual Warfare, it simply does not stand out.

This book attempts to add to the general understanding of the chiastic approach, namely that the center point of a chiasm can often be applied to the battle known as spiritual warfare. This is particularly true in the Book of Joshua. It is my hope that each of us will come to a new level of understanding with regard to spiritual warfare. We will study how to recognize these chiastic patterns for ourselves so that as we read other books of the Bible, the Lord can speak to us in a new way. Oh the joy of discovering God's word for today!

1 John Jebb, Sacred Literature (London: Cadell & Davies, 1820).
2 Thomas Boys, Tactica Sacra (London: Hamilton, 1824).
3 Nils W. Lund, “The Presence of Chiasmus in the Old Testament”, American Journal for Semitic Languages 46, 1929-30.
4 David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A commentary on Genesis - Malachi, (Grand Rapics, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1999).
5 Nils W. Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1942), 31.
6 Wade Albert White, Rhetorical Criticism and Zechariah: Analysis of a Methodology for Determining Chiastic Structures in Biblical Hebrew Texts, (M.A. thesis, Acadia University, 1999), 6.