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The Fallacies of Chiasmus: A Critique of Structures Proposed for the Covenant Collection (Exodus 20:23-23:19)

Pages 143 - 168


Waltham, Massachusetts

1 David P. Wright, The Compositional Logic of the Goring Ox and Negligence Laws in the Covenant Collection (Exodus 21: 28–36), ZAR 10, 2004; The Laws of Hammurabi as a Source for the Covenant Collection (Exodus 20: 23–23: 19), Maarav 10, 2003, 11–87.

2 I recognize the impossibility of arriving at the full original intent of an author. Nevertheless, historians are concerned about the process of a text's origin, which partly involves a concern about authorial techniques, goals, abilities, education and cultural background. To claim that a text has been redacted or formulated chiastically is to say that it was the authors' or editors' intent to arrange the text this way. Scholars interested textual poetics are similarly concerned about intent. For example, E. Assis, Chiasmus in Biblical Narrative: Rhetoric of Characterization, Prooftexts, 22, 2002 (273-304) 274, notes: “Chiasmus is first and foremost a stylistic device. Composing a unit chiastically requires careful planning, determination of all components in advance, and word choice that is concordant with its context while resembling the parallel component of the chiasmus. The reader who apprehends such structures will appreciate the skillfulness of the author and the well-planned design of the composition.” Unfortunately, Assis' examples are not certain cases of intended chiasmus, and it is impossible to construct an understanding of literary technique from questionable cases. If chiasmus is viewed merely as a matter of reader response, then the phenomenon is irrelevant to the study of textual composition and history. It becomes an index of how cleverly a reader has re-imagined and re-constructed the text. (I thank Brent Metcalfe for the reference to Assis.)

3 J. Halbe, Das Privilegrecht Jahwes Ex 34,10-28, FRLANT 114, Göttingen, 1975, 413–421. F. Crüsemann, The Torah, Minneapolis, 1996, 113, says of this: “This structure is clear and convincing and it has to be the starting point for all further analysis.”

4 I am necessarily sensitive to the issue of topical harmonization in the context of comparative analysis; See Wright, Laws (s.a. n. 1), 14.

5 Many see the central element in a chiastic structure as emphatic, but Moshe Greenberg observed to me once that, since a hearer/reader does not know that a chiastic structure is involved until the very end, perhaps the outer members are the point of emphasis. Perhaps both views are correct. But it is also possible that some chiastic structures have nothing to do with thematic development and are only structural. Nonetheless, if a chiastic structure posits a central member that does not have a paired element (i.e., a-b-c-d-c′-b′-a′, as here, as opposed to a structure like a-b-c-d-d′-c′-b′-a′), one might expect the central member to be emphatic. My student Jeffrey Stackert reminds me that the psychological phenomenon of primacy and recency indicates that the first and last members of a structure are those that may be the most prominent in a hearer's/reader's mind, as opposed to what is in the center. For the issue in literary studies more broadly, see M. Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction, Bloomington, 1978, 93-102 and passim. According to the foundational study of this phenomenon, the first presented material creates the dominant impression.

6 My colleague Marc Brettler used my term in demonstrating the weakness of a chiastic structure proposed for Genesis 11:1-9. See his discussion in his The Book of Judges, Old Testament Readings, London, 2002, 11-12, 118 n. 5 (see also pp. 105–106 for critique of another structure).

7 Y. Osumi, Die Kompositionsgeschichte des Bundesbuches Exodus 20,22b-23,33, OBO 105, Freiburg & Göttingen, 1991, 154–155; Crüsemann, Torah (s.a. n. 3), 114–115, gives some assent to Osumi's analysis.

8 Crüsemann, Torah (s.a. n. 3), 162, tries to define the thematic centrality of the talion laws: “The talion formula…stands at the center of this text, obviously in contrast with everything else. It protests not only against the class justice with its distinction between slave and free but also against the financial regulation of physical harm.” This seems to inflate their importance or force.

9 Osumi, Kompositionsgeschichte (s.a. n. 7), 212.

10 E. Otto, Wandel der Rechtsbegründungen in der Gesellschaftsgeschichte des antiken Israel Studia Biblica 3, Leiden, 1988, 9–11. See also his Techniken der Rechtssatzredaktion israelitischer Rechtsbücher in der Redaktion des Prophetenbuches Micha, SJOT 5, 1991, 119–150. His structuring is refined in his Aspects of Legal Reforms and Reformulation in Ancient Cuneiform and Israelite Law, in B. M. Levinson, ed., Theory and Method in Biblical and Cuneiform Law: Revision, Interpolation and Development, JSOTSupp 181, Sheffield, 1994, (160-196) 182-192 (see below).

12 He says that this has an internal chiastic structure: (a) v. 17: sacral law, (b) v. 18: a nonsacral law with the formula, (a′) v. 19: a sacral law; Otto, Wandel (s.a. n. 10), 32. John Welch, Chiasmus in Biblical Law: An Approach to the Structure of Legal Texts in the Bible, Jewish Law Association Studies 4, 1990, (5-22) 15, identifies this same chiasm. Since one does not find chiastic structures embedded consistently in all or most of the other members of the larger structure (see the discussion of his later refined structure, below), it is doubtful that the structure of 22:17-19 arises out of a concern for forming a chiastic formulation.

13 For my alternate understanding of the separation of these laws, see Wright, Compositional Logic (s.a. n. 1), n. 42.

14 Crüsemann, Torah (s.a. n. 3), 146, doubts that 21:2-11 is a provision for protection. Nevertheless, the two sections are relatable conceptually.

15 Otto, Wandel (s.a. n. 10), 26–27; Aspects (s.a. n. 10), 183.

16 See Wright, Compositional Logic (s.a. n. 1), n. 42.

17 Otto, Aspects (s.a. n. 10).

18 Otto, Aspects (s.a. n. 10), 184.

19 Otto, Aspects (s.a. n. 10), 188.

20 Otto, Aspects (s.a. n. 10), 187.

21 Otto, Aspects (s.a. n. 10), 185; see 184–185.

22 J. Sprinkle, The Book of the Covenant: A Literary Approach, JSOTSupp 174, Sheffield, 1994, 199–203. Sprinkle sees a number of chiastic or semi-chiastic (i.e., bracketing) structures in smaller passages (pp. 199, 201): 20:23–26 (cf. p. 201); 21:2–11 (p. 52); 21:15–17 (p. 201); 21:12–27 (p. 201); 21:28–36 (pp. 107–108, 112–114); 21: 37–22:3 (pp. 133–134); 22:6–12 (pp. 148–153, 203); 23:1–9 (pp. 178–187, 203), and 23:10–19 (pp. 188–191, 203). It should be noted that Welch's smaller structures, discussed below, often conflict with Sprinkle's smaller structures noted here. This points to further subjectivity in the analysis.

23 Sprinkle, Book (s.a. n. 21), 201, admits this inconsistency but says “the overall chiastic pattern of 20:19-23:3 [sic; 20:21-24:3?] is fairly consistent and clear.”

24 Sprinkle, Book (s.a. n. 21), 201.

25 Welch, Chiasmus in Biblical Law (s.a. n. 11), 12–22.

26 There is no question that some of the laws are parallelistic (e.g., 22:5 and 6). This does not automatically relate to chiasm, however.

27 Welch's structure is contradicted by another chiastic structure noted by Sprinkle, Book (s.a. n. 21), 52 (from T. J. Turnbam, Male and Female Slaves in the Sabbath Year Laws of Exodus 21.1-11, in the SBL Seminar Papers 1987, Decatur, 1987, 545-549): (a): 21:2: freedom apart from redemption money guaranteed, (b) 21:3-4: complications due to marital status, (c) 21:5-6 freedom not chosen by male, (e′) 21:7: freedom not allowed the woman, (b′) 21:8-10: complications due to marital status, (a′) 21:11: freedom apart from redemption money guaranteed. This structure also has its problems, but shows the subjectivity of Welch's analysis and also shows how parallel legal structures can create the impression of chiastic form.

28 See Wright, Compositional Logic (s.a. n. 1), n. 76.

29 See Wright, Compositional Logic (s.a. n.1).

30 The a-b-a′ structures in 21:18-21 and 22-27, whose b-members have capital or corporeal punishments in contrast to the a-members which have non-corporeal punishments, are artificially chiastic. The natural alternating structure of cases and subcases in law can produce fortuitous a-b-a′ structures, as noted above. The cases in the paired a-members in each structure are not very similar (vv. 22 and 26-27 are very dissimilar). Given the relatively wide variety of punishments in the verses (capital, corporeal, fines, forfeiture, compensation, or none at all), it seems that a chiastic analysis on the basis of capital/corporeal versus other punishments arises from arbitrary labeling and harmonization. Also, the b-member in vv.18-21 is the main case of the second law, but in vv. 22-27 the b-member is the secondary case of the first law. Thus chiastic structuring does not consistently match the unfolding of legal topics. The structure in 22:20-27 is unlikely, since vv. 20 and 27 are not truly parallel. The structure in 22:28-30, of course, is not chiastic by Welch's analysis. I have included it in the table to provide Welch's consecutive analysis of this part of the text for comparison with other analyses.

31 B. Jackson says that vv.4-5 fit the larger context because they are concerned with enmity (Studies in the Semiotics of Biblical Law, JSOT Supp 314, Sheffield, 2000, 223-225).

32 G. C. Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East, JSOTSupp 141, Sheffield, 1993, 196. He also sees a chiastic structure in Ex 24:1-8 (see his The Narrative Structure of Exod 19-24, Bib 68, 1987, [457–479] 463, 478). Bernard Jackson has reminded me that he observed the same basic structure (“Modelling Biblical Law: The Covenant Code,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 70/4, 1995, [1745–1827] 1779; Studies [s.a. n. 30], 218). See also Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 196 n. 1.

33 A similar situation obtains, for example, in the study of the Song of Songs. Several competing structures (chiastic and quasi chiastic) have been identified: D. A. Dorsey, Literary Structuring in the Song of Songs, JSOT 46, 1990, 81–96; E. C. Webster, Pattern in the Song of Songs, JSOT 22, 1982, 73–93; W. H. Shea, The Chiastic Structure of the Song of Song, ZAW 92, 1980, 378–396; J. C. Exum, A Literary and Structural Analysis of the Song of Songs, ZAW 85, 1973, 46–79 (I thank Marc Brettler for these references).

34 J. A. Emerton, An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis [Part I], VT 37, 1987, 401–420; An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis [Part II], VT 38, 1988, 1–21. He critiques chiastic structures identified by U. Cassuto, F. I. Andersen, G. Wenham, and Y. Radday. To be critiqued also is Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, Before Abraham Was, Nashville, 1985, 85-106. See Lloyd R. Bailey's review in JBL 106, 1987, 317, which asks: “Are the literary devices which Kikawada and Quinn propose actually the intention of the ancient author(s)? Especially may this be asked of the chiasm which is said to underlie the flood narrative (p. 104). A comparison of the diagram with the biblical text suggests that words have been chosen from specific verses in order to make the scheme work…. Furthermore, some of the alleged parallels seem contrived….” The chiasm that Kikawada and Quinn propose for the Abraham story covering Genesis 11:31-22:19 (p. 96) is equally questionable.

35 See also B. Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, New York, 1998, 27 n. 12. Hence, for example, Sprinkle's argument, Book (s.a. n. 21), 203, for the unity of CC due to intricate literary structuring cannot be accepted in principle.

36 Emerton, Examination [Part II] (s.a. n. 33), 20–21.

37 M. Butterworth, Structure and the Book of Zechariah, JSOTSupp 130, Sheffield, 1992, 53–57.

38 The chiastic structures in Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon are another, though more staid example. I mention this because John Welch argues that these are a sign of the book's antiquity (compare his article Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, in J. W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis, Hildesheim, 1981, 198–210; his original publication is Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young University Studies 10/1, 1969, 69-84). Broader considerations indicate clearly, however, that Smith was the author of the work (cf. B. L. Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, Salt Lake City, 1993; D. Vogel and B. L. Metcalfe, eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, 2002; D. Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, Salt Lake City, 2004; by the way, the Book of Mormon is otherwise of phenomenological interest to biblical scholarship as an example of an ideologically driven pseudepigraphic work based on biblical literature and traditions). Smith composed the bulk of the book orally and rapidly as he dictated it to scribes. There is no evidence to indicate that in this process he was concerned about creating complex literary structures. Therefore most of the cases of chiasmus that Welch identifies, especially the large ones, must be considered inadvertent. Kernels of a few of these identified structures may be intentional, arising in the dictation process in an ad hoc fashion as one of several options for the repetition of ideas. But it is likely that even many of these small structures are also unintended, the result of a propensity to repeat but not to do so literally. Several of these limited structures appear to have arisen linearly without planning, specifically by repeating an immediately foregoing idea (often setting it off as a conclusion or explanation with a conjunction such as “therefore” or “for”) and then fleshing it out by adding an element from the larger preceding thought. This created after-the-fact a-b-b′-a′ or even more complex structures. (See my similar observations on the Holiness School material, below.) Scholars concerned about literary method may wish to be aware of a few critiques of chiastic analysis that have grown up in the context of Mormon studies: J. S. Kselman, Ancient Chiasmus Studied (a review of Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity), Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17/4, 1984, 146–148; B. L. Metcalfe, Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26/3, 1993, (153-184) 162–169; D. P. Wright, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: Or, Joseph Smith in Isaiah, in American Apocrypha, (157-234) 201–202.

41 The various patterns of emphatic repetition in HS - parallelistic, chiastic, and random ordering - need to be studied so as to have a better sense of what the HS author is doing in Leviticus 24. For other possible chiastic structures in HS, see the summaries in J. Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, AB 3A, New York, 2000, 1319-1323 and Leviticus 1-16, AB 3, New York, 1991, 39–42; see also Paran, סגנון, 163-174. All of these instances need to be reexamined. For example, the present author identified the chiastic structure of HS in Lev 16:29-31 in a graduate seminar with Jacob Milgrom c. 1983 (to which he includes reference in his Leviticus 1-16, 1057). While these verses do have a chiastic form, the larger HS addition to Leviticus 16 in vv. 29-34 does not, even though it has a number of repetitions which overlap with and confound the chiastic form of vv. 29-31. This makes me doubt that the author intended to compose a chiastic scheme in vv. 29-31. Chiastic form in vv. 29-31 may be the chance result of a propensity for repetition.

42 David Gunn, Narrative Criticism, in S. L. McKenzie and S. R. Haynes, eds., To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application, Louisville, 1993, (171-195) 193 (in the revised edition, 1999, see p. [201–229] 228). (I thank my colleague Jonathan Decter for this reference.)

43 Though the recognition of and attention to chiastic structure has a long history within biblical study (see Klaus, Pivot Patterns [s.a. n. 37], 13-23), chiastic analyses have flourished in recent decades. One wonders if this has to do in part with advances in the study of biblical poetry and the application of features found there to other genres such as prose and law. This is found in the work of J. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, Baltimore, 1988, who argues that the division between prose and poetry is not as precise as previous scholars believed and that certain features of poetry (e.g., parallelism) are to be found in prose. Identifying chiasmus in biblical poetry on a small scale may have stimulated scholars to look for it in prose on a large scale. (I thank my student Jeffrey Stackert for this observation.)

44 M. J. Boda, Chiasmus in Ubiquity: Symmetrical Mirages in Nehemiah 9, JSOT 71, 1996, 55–70. Welch's Chiasmus in Antiquity (s.a. n. 37) contains chapters by various scholars on chiasmus in Sumero-Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hebrew biblical, Aramaic, Talmudic-Aggadic, New Testament, and Greek/Latin literature. By the way, Welch, with D. B. McKinlay, has also produced Chiasmus Bibliography, Provo, 1999. Pp. 76–115 list works on chiasmus in the Hebrew Bible.

45 J. W. Welch, Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2, 1995, 1–14; republished at the end of his Chiasmus Bibliography (s.a. n. 40), 157–174 (for a web version, see (This was originally a research paper circulated by the Foundation for Mormon Studies and Ancient Research [FARMS] in 1988.) Klaus, Pivot Patterns (s.a. n. 37), 18-38, also includes some critique of chiastic analyses. However, he has been critical enough in his analyses.

46 This is a point of criticism highlighted by Klaus, Pivot Patterns (s.a. n. 37), 19-20, 23.

47 Structures created from explicit scribal art, automatic cultural convention, or culturally determined subconscious production may be considered intended in a broad sense.

48 For short structures, see W. G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, JSOTSupp 26, Sheffield, 1986, 201-208. Relevant to the study of chiasmus is the problem of identifying the presence of inclusio in a text. For an extensive review, see Chris Wyckoff, Poetic and Editorial Closure in the Book of the Psalms: A Discourse Analytic Perspective, PhD. diss., Brandeis University, to be completed 2004, chap. 1.

49 Before one can establish the reality or viability of a chiastic structure (i.e., its intentionality), one must consider alternative literary structural analyses than might contradict the perceived chiastic structure.

50 I have left out Boda's identified error of assuming that the center is important (Boda, Chiasmus [s.a. n. 40], 58; so also Assis, Chiasmus [s.a. n. 2], 273-274 and passim). First of all, this does not affect determining the chiasticity and intentionality of the structure as the other fallacies do. Secondly, Welch argues that the center is important: “A strong chiasm will emphasize the central element of the passage as its focal climax” (his criterion 12). Thus there is dispute about the matter. See n. 5, above.

51 See Wright, Compositional Logic (s.a. n. 1), n. 42.

52 For the influence of the prologue and epilogue, see Wright, Compositional Logic (s.a. n. 1), n. 3 and Wright, Laws (s.a. n. 1), 35–47.


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