The most common literary structures in the Bible are chiastic structures and panel structures. These can be found in small units (such as verses), individual narratives (such as a miracle story), or can extend over several chapters, books, and even several books. Composite structures include both chiastic and panel structures, as we will see in an example below.
In chiastic structures, a chain of ideas is repeated in reverse order, forming a mirror. Thus, each idea is reflected in reverse form. Often, the center of the chiasm is a single idea without a mirror, which is a key thought in the text. This manner of communication is typical in eastern cultures, where the emphasis is placed in the center, and not in the conclusion at the end (as is characteristic in western cultures). The term “chiasm” comes from the letter chi in the Greek alphabet, which is symbolized through an X, and the usual expression of a chiasm is rendered through the formula ABBA. A brief example of a chiasm is Jesus’ saying in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
A – The Sabbath
B – was made for the man
B – and not the man
A – for the Sabbath
The mirror is easily evident, forming a contrast which emphasizes the significance of man over the Sabbath. God has created the Sabbath as a gift for humankind, and in observing it we must not reverse the importance, enslaving men and women to Sabbath rules and regulations.
As in the chiastic structure, the panel structure includes a chain of repeated ideas, but the ideas mirror each other in a parallel order. Thus, the panel structure is usually rendered through the formula ABAB. A simple example of a panel structure is Matthew 6:19-21:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (NKJV).
The structure of the passage indicates a parallelism between two ideas which reflect each other:
|A – Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,||but
|A – lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,|
|B – where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal;||B – where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.|
In Jesus’ saying, he contrasts heaven and earth through three words: moth, rust, and thieves. The parallelism indicates that this text is a comparison between earth and heaven–the latter being free from the loss resulting from the presence of moth, rust, and thieves.
The purpose of establishing the literary structures is twofold: 1) it helps delineate the literary units of the text, and 2) it helps establish the key idea in the text, whether the idea is placed in the center, or is to be found in a repetition or contrast. Let’s look at some examples in narrative form.
Example of Chiastic Structure:
1Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. 2 It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (NASB)
The chiastic structure of this passage can be rendered as follows:
A – The earth has one language and the population is all in one setting. (11:1-2)
B – Humankind speaks its plan to build a tower and stay together. (11:3-4)
C – God comes down to see the tower. (11:5)
B – God speaks its plan to confuse their language and scatter them. (11:6-7)
A – The earth has many languages and the population is dispersed. (11:8-9)
Here is the chiasm in the text itself, where we can note even specific words and expressions that mirror each other in reverse order.
A – 1 Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. 2 It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
B – 3 They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
C – 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
B – 6 The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
A – 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (NASB)
At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells us that “the whole earth” (v. 1) had one language, and the population stayed together, settling in the land of Shinar (vs. 1-2). In the conclusion of the story, the narrator tells us that God confused and multiplied the languages of humankind, scattering the population over the face of “the whole earth” (vs. 8-9).
The most striking parallel is probably the repetition of the phrase “come, let us.” In verses 3 and 4, humans begin their speech with this phrase, indicating their unity in planning their future:
Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” …. “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.
Their expressed intention was to build a tower where they could unite in strength in order to reach heaven. Their usurping intention, however, is thwarted by God’s own “Come, let Us.” (v. 7) The human speech is mirrored by the divine speech in which God reverses their actions in order to fulfill the command given at Creation to multiply and fill the earth.
By noting the structure of the passage, we can find its core message–in this case, the divine intervention. The God of Scripture is not a remote and completely transcendent divinity who does not enter the human sphere, but a God who cares about his creatures, and in his care “comes down” to intervene in order to steer the course of humanity towards its best future.
Example of Composite Structures:
36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” 39 And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”40 And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? 41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”42 He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.” 43 Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. 45 Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!” (NASB).
The narrative seems to be built in two patterns: a chiasm and a panel structure. The chiasm is displayed as the outer layer of the story and frames the three prayers of Jesus. The panel structure includes the three prayers, and could be described as the inner layer of the story.
The chiasm has three levels of correspondence (A, B, C, C, B, A). In the beginning, Jesus and the disciples come into the garden. Then he asks the disciples to sit. Next, Jesus takes three disciples farther with him and discloses to them his distress. At the end of the story Jesus discloses to his disciples his impending betrayal, asks them to rise, and they leave the garden.
A – Jesus and the disciples come to Gethsemane. (v. 36).
B – Jesus asks the disciples to sit there while he goes and prays. (v. 36).
C – Jesus discloses his turmoil. (vs. 37-38).
The Three Disciples
|Jesus goes farther, falls on his face, and prays. (v. 39).||Jesus addresses the disciples. (vs. 40-41).||Jesus returns to the disciples and finds them sleeping. (v. 40).|
|Jesus goes and prays a second time. (v. 42).||Jesus leaves the disciples. (v. 44).||Jesus returns to the disciples and finds them sleeping. (v. 43).|
|Jesus goes and prays a third time. (v. 44).||Jesus awakens the disciples (v. 45).||Jesus returns to the disciples and finds them sleeping. (v. 45).|
C – Jesus discloses the near impending betrayal. (v. 45).
B – Jesus asks the disciples to rise and (v. 45).
A – get going. (v. 45).
Situated within the chiastic structure, the panel structure presents the repetitive act of Jesus’ prayer and return to the three disciples. The parallelism underlines the contrast between Jesus, who is constantly praying, and the disciples, who are constantly sleeping. A similarity between Jesus and his disciples, also evident through parallelism, is the struggle both experience. Jesus struggles with accepting God’s plan, and the disciples struggle with staying awake and being a support for Jesus.
Lastly, the parallelism features the repetition of the number three. The narrative records Jesus’ and the disciples’ actions as triads of events: three times Jesus prays (v. 38, 40, 42), three times the disciples are reported as sleeping (v. 40, 43, 45), and three times Jesus returns to the disciples (v. 40, 43, 45). This may suggest a sense of completeness or fulfillment. Accordingly, the triads point to a progressive settling of Jesus in his decision to obey God, as well as a settling of the disciples in their slumber.
The threefold repetition of Jesus’ struggle in prayer also recalls the three temptations of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:11-17), when the devil offered him a different way, one that evaded the cross. Jesus withstood it then, yet in Matthew 26:36-46, the possibility of a different way arises from within. Thus, Jesus’ ministry is bracketed by these two critical instances where, in a sequence of three actions, Jesus overcomes both external and internal temptation and his victory is complete each time.
What literary structures can you find in Genesis 37:12-36?
What key ideas are emphasized in the literary structures?
Genesis 37:12-36 (ESV):
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
 For a full analysis of this, see “Where Your Heart Belongs,” in Beyond Blessings, ed. Nikolaus Satelmajer (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2013), p. 17-26.