What is a chiasmus? And why is it important?

It was John F. Kennedy who uttered those famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy’s words were not only riveting and patriotic for their moment in history, but, they have retained a kind of timeless and memorable quality about them. The reason, in part, that these words live on, is because of the very intentional way they were arranged. Kennedy’s speechwriters wrote those words in a very specific rhythm and pattern which authors often use to make their point stick.The pattern is called chiasmus (pronounced: key-AZ-mus).

A chiasmus is a way of using words/ideas to “walk forwards” and then immediately, using the same words/ideas, to “walk backwards.” It is a literary device that adds “umph” or emphasis to one’s point. For instance, a humorous example of chiasmus is the phrase, “Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.” The play-on words and ideas is intentional. Another instance from a famous book title of the 1990’s was, Never Let A Fool Kiss You – Or A Kiss Fool You. Notice how the same words are used “forwards” (fool, kiss) then  immediately “backwards” (kiss, fool.)

Sometimes chiasmus is easier to see than to hear. Using the first few letters of the alphabet, a simple chiasmus is ordinarily arranged: ABC-CBA (where the letters represents the same concept or words on both sides). Using this approach, then, Kennedy’s famous statement looks like this: Ask not what your…

Kennedy

The forwards-then-backwards pattern (ABBA),  or “Country… You… You… Country,” was very intentional and forms a perfect chiasmus. Typically, the emphasis of a chiasmus is found in the “center,” like a bull’s eye. The concept or words that are sandwiched in the middle are what the author or speaker is stressing. Kennedy wanted to impress upon his hearers that “you” have a key role to play in our country.

Now, you may be thinking, “Ok, thanks for the boring literature lesson, but why is “chiasmus” today’s word from the Pastor?” The study of chiasmus is not just for literature class, it has a great value in the study of Scripture. It appears frequently in the Bible, and, for our purposes, most notably in Esther.

Specific to our recent study in Esther, I noticed, in one of my commentaries, that the entire book (all 10 chapters) are a single GIANT thematic chiasmus. Esther’s chiasmus is not found in specific words, but in general concepts or actions in the story. If you take the basic plot of the book, you find that the same issues happened as the plot thickens and then, happen again in reverse, as the plot thins itself out.

Look closely, right in the middle of this huge book-long chiasmus, and you will find a single, unrepeated event that is the “bull’s eye” of the story. It is the pivotal moment around which the entire fate of Esther and the Jews is changed. I brought it out in my sermon, but, when it comes to chiasmus, seeing is believing. Here’s my abbreviated version of the Esther chiasmus. (Compare each letter, top to bottom, to see the similarities and notice the “bull’s eye” in the middle.)

Esther

As the old proverb goes, “Big doors swing on little hinges,” and the tiny hinge of the Jewish nation’s fate came because the king was sleepless in Susa. Who would have ever guessed the HUGE ramification of a single night of insomnia? That’s what we call the providence of God and we appreciate it that much more because of the chiasmus of Esther.

While some Scriptural chiasmuses (Or is it chiasmi?? I’m not sure what the plural version is), like the story of Esther are extremely long and complex, some are very brief and easy to see. Consider one from Jesus’ lips as recorded in Matthew 6:24:

Jesus-C

Like I said, some chiastic structures can be very difficult to follow but, don’t be confused or forget: a simple chiasmus is a handy tool where important ideas are explained, using the same words or themes, just in a reverse order. Another political example, from Hilary Clinton, was her famous declaration, “It’s not enough to preach family values, we must value families.” While I may disagree with her on what family values are, I do agree with her use of chiasmus to make the central point: family values are valuable.

Remember Kennedy’s famous “Country-You-You-Country” chiasmus? That was not his only such statement that fateful day. In that same inaugural address, he also said those memorable words: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Words go forwards. The same goes backwards. And idea is forever crystalized in the middle for the future.

After all, that’s what a chiasmus is. And that’s why it’s important.