First Five Hints for Finding Chiasms

My observation is that some people find chiasms more easily than others. Here are some hints, five on this page and five on the next that may assist you in your search efforts.

1. The Pairing Process

The big key to unlocking the chiastic structures in the Bible is to see the repetitions as they occur and then make sense out of the patterns. I recently came across a very simple chiasm one morning, so let me take you through my process. I was reading Matthew 23 which is the chapter about the seven woes. There I saw the words exalt and exalted occurring in the same verse. "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:12). I saw the repetition of exalt, but the repetition of the center words humbled and humbles only appeared when I re-read the verse. I had to go back over it again to catch what I had initially missed:

A    Whoever exalts
B    himself
C    will be humbled
C′ whoever humbles
B′ himself
A′ will be exalted.
(Matt 23:12)

That chiasm with its clear center point was God's Word for me that day – possibly we all need reminders about humility.

Show Hint 2: Look for Common Themes

2. Look for Common Themes

In the previous example, the individual words have the same Greek root structure: will be exalted and exalts; will be humbled and humbles. Most chiasms are lengthier yet they have a common theme.

  • If the men go up the mountain, see when they go down the mountain
  • If the woman was barren, there may be a parallel verse or verses identifying that she is now pregnant
  • If the demon was cast out of the individual, take note if the demon returns

The word antithetical (an-ti-thet'-i-cal) is used to describe opposites. They were tormented (a type of curse) and had no rest, which is soon followed by the antithetical verse that they were blessed and had rest. Or, he was scorched by the sun, and then later he was sitting in the shade. The theme is the same but the opposite has occurred.

Themes don't have to be opposites; they may also state the same or nearly same thing: they did not repent which is followed several verses later by they did not repent. Or you may find: Then I saw an angel flying directly overhead which has a corresponding parallel verse a bit later: And another angel came out from the altar. The same idea or theme will oftentimes, but certainly not always, indicate the presence of a chiasm.

Therefore, looking for those repeated themes, whether similar or antithetical, should help you uncover those hidden chiasms. If we can agree that the Bible is inspired by God, then they are in the Bible for us to uncover and then enjoy the principle(s) that come forth from the chiasm.

Show Hint 3: Look for a Change in Flow

3. Look for a Change in Flow

Many times in a narrative, the turning point is the center of the chiasm. There could be a lengthy discourse on wickedness which is followed by a similar discourse on good. See if there are themes in the first that convey parallel themes in the other, only in the opposite direction.

  • The army was winning followed by details on how they were loosing
  • The people were tempted followed by punishment because they followed the temptation

Verb changes, most commonly those places where the future tense in the English is changed to the past tense, often reveal a change has taken place. For example, the words "shall speak" appear in 1 Kings 12:10-12, and the words "spoke" appear in the following three verses.

Show Hint 4: Look at the Length of Paired Themes

4. Look at the Length of Paired Themes

While similarity of length is not always upheld, it is much more often than not. If you suspect a repeated theme, see if the word count is roughly the same. In looking at the chiasm shown on Being an Overcomer, for example, consider how the ESV presents these two verses :

   B    "Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and courageous" (Joshua 1:6,7a)

   B′ "Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed" (Joshua 1:9a)

Notice how the parallel verse is not exactly the same length but it is somewhat similar.

Unequal lengths are sometimes used to point the reader to an emphasis in one portion or the other. However, when considering two themes with distinctly different lengths, greater certainty should be made that the themes are consistent. It may be that there is an emphasis, or it may mean that the two portions are not meant to be paired with each other.

One problem that has been witnessed in recent years is a very subjective pairing of Scripture. To properly pair themes when lengths are unequal, make sure you have a strong basis to associate them with each other.

Show Hint 5: Look for the Story Being Told Twice

5. Look for the Story Being Told Twice

Particularly in the Old Testament narratives, you will see that a story is very often repeated. When you see these repetitions, look at the order of events: if they are not the same, suspect a chiasm and investigate further.

A    And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, …  (12,13)
B    When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.  (14,15a)
X   And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  (15b)
B′ When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."  (16)
A′ God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."  (17)
(Genesis 9:12-17 ESV)


Were these five hints helpful? Please know there are Five More Hints.