keys and tools for identifying biblical structure©
Having defined what literary structures are and identifying the different types used throughout Scripture, we are ready to finalize the preparation for our journey. In order to be "throughly furnished", we must learn and then utilize the tools for identifying biblical structure. Remember that we do not "invent" the structure of a passage. You do not "force" a verse, verses, or chapters of the Bible to "fit" a particular structural arrangement. This is a deceptively easy trap to fall into for we earnestly desire to "see" the biblical structure even though, on the surface, one may not be apparently visible. Let patience yield its perfect fruit! A passage from The Berean Expositor is worthy to note as it addresses the difficulty oftentimes encountered when attempting to identify biblical structure.
- "How is a structure of any given passage discovered? We have often been asked the question, but our answers have not given much satisfaction. Few structures of any importance can be discovered apart from protracted study and concentrated effort. There is no short cut. If the subject be a whole book, then the whole book must be read and re-read until the mind is able to hold in suspense the varying items, and until the eye of the mind perceives the disposition of parts. Occasionally the whole matter is settled by the presence of key words, as the whole central member of Galatians is determined by the words ‘by nature‘ (Gal. 2:15 and 4:8). How does one feel sure that a jig-saw puzzle is accurately fitted together? If is self evident, and so should the structure be. Any sense of forcing or distorting should be suspected. After all, we do not want 'structures' for their own sake, but truth, and so nothing but the truth in the structure can be tolerated. Further, just as we say 'Columbus discovered ‘America‘, and not ‘Columbus invented America‘, so the student should remember that in seeking the structure of any passage he is simply looking for what is there, clues given by God, the underlinings of the Holy Spirit, and is not inventing an outline, however attractive such inventions may be."
To recap, the importance of familiarizing yourself with a passage, section or book of Scripture cannot be overemphasized. You have to hold enough of it in your mind that the parts begin to separate and fall into their respective position as "members". This may appear difficult on the surface as we have become so visual. Remember that the Scriptures were originally read and auditory in nature. The "ears" were the receptacles and not the "eyes". Its much easier for our use of memory to sag when we can easily gaze back to a word on a written page. The solution is reading and re-reading! The more familiar we become with what is written, the more these structures will begin to emerge. When we can concentrate and focus, then the structures begin to stand out like the pattern of a texture on a wall. To get a better grasp of this concept, we recommend that you begin by studying small sections of scripture like some of the short Psalms or epistles like Philemon or Jude.
The following keys or principles will help assist in the identification of literary structure; both as a whole and in identifying the respective parts. These were taken and adapted from The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi by David A. Dorsey.
1. Identifying the biblical structure as a whole.
- a. The entire structure can be viewed as a unit. This unit would be made up of its individual parts; its series or sets. Remember that the structure or unit can be composed of a verse, verses, chapters or the entire book. There may also be units within the unit (structures within structures); what you would call subunits. If you are looking at the entire structure encompassing a book, then it is not difficult to identify the beginning and ending of the structure or unit. However, if you are looking at a section within a book, it becomes more of a challenge. Every structure has a beginning and an ending and can form an entire package or cohesive representation of a subject, idea, etc.
- Identifying the beginning of a structure may be seen in such things as a whole.
- 1) A title, such as, "A Psalm of David". (Psa. 13:1)
- 2) A frequently used word, phrase or clause. (Joel 3:1; Amos 9:11; Mic. 4:1)
- 3) Rhetorical question. (Nah. 2:11,12; Isa. 63:1)
- 4) Direct address, such as, "O LORD" or "O Israel".
- 5) Strong commands or exhortations. (Psa. 98:1)
- 6) Clause(s) that set the stage or orient the reader. (Ruth 1:1,2)
- 7) The beginning of an Introversion (retrospectively). (Psa. 103, 104)
- 8) Shifts in Time or Place. (1 Sam. 6:1)
- 9) Shifts in Characters or Themes/Topics. (Job 6:1)
- 10) Shift in Style or Narrative Technique. (1 Chron. 10:1ff)
- 11) Shift in speed of action. (Ruth 1:6)
- 12) Shift from poetry to prose or vice versa. (Isa. 40:1)
- 13) Change in the tense, mood, or person of the verbs used. (Lam. 1:12-22)
- Identifying the end of a structure may be seen in such things as;
- 1) A concluding clause. (Judg. 3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28)
- 2) A summary. (Ezra 6:13, 14)
- 3) A conclusion. (Judg. 4:23, 24)
- 4) A recurring refrain. (Amos 4:6-11)
- 5) The ending of an Introversion. (Psa. 8:9 - cp. vs. 1)
- 6) A climax or exclamation. (Psa. 146-150)
- Identifying the cohesive element(s) that make the unit an entire package;
- 1) The sameness of location or place. (1 Sam. 25)
- 2) The sameness of time. (Josh. 1-12)
- 3) The sameness of character(s). (2 Kings 22:1-23:30)
- 4) The sameness of theme/topic. (Isa. 52:13-53:12)
- 5) The sameness of style or narrative technique. (2 Chron. 6:14-42 and 7:1-10)
- 6) The sameness of grammatical construction or syntactical form. (Lam. 1:12-22)
- 7) An Introversion. (2 Chron. 1-9)
- 8) Beginning and ending with the same word, phrase or clause. (Psa. 8)
- 9) The use of keyword(s). ("holy": Lev. 19-26)
- 10) Repetition of phrases or clauses.
2. Identifying the "members" themselves.
- a. In order for there to be true repetition and correspondence, there must be something in the first member that is repeated in the corresponding member. The following provides hints or clues that assist in the identification of these corresponding members.
- 1) A repetition that is verbatim (word for word). (Psa. 8)
- 2) A sameness of place or location. (Gen. 21 and 26)
- 3) A similar statement that is almost verbatim. (Jon. 1:1-3 with 3:1-3)
- 4) A sameness of time. (Songs of Solomon 3:1-5 and 5:2-7:10)
- 5) A sameness of character(s). Gen. 13 and 19)
- 6) A sameness of theme/topic. (Jon. 2:3-10 and 4:1:3)
- 7) A sameness of mood or circumstance. (Isa. 2:2-5 and 4:2-6)
- 8) A sameness in a given time period (speed of time). (Nah. 2:3-11 and 3:1-7)
- 9) A sameness in the beginning of an address. (Jon. 2:1, 2 and 4:2)
- 10) The repetition of special or key words, phrases. or whole clauses. (Amos 1:1-2:16 and 8:4-9:15)
- 11) The reappearance of synonyms. (Amos 4:1-13 and 5:18-6:14)
b. Common pitfalls surround us all and there are three common errors that one can make when attempting to identify the correspondence between members.
- 1) Creative Titling. This is where titles are invented with the help of a little imagination, and a false correspondence is produced.
- 2) Illegitimate Word-Linking. This is where commonly-used or insignificant words are implemented to produce members that correspond. These words oftentimes appear elsewhere in the context and serve no real purpose in identifying the structure.
- 3) Illegitimate Theme-Linking. Similar to the "word-linking" listed above, this is where themes are used to produce a correspondence between members. This "theme" will be readily found scattered throughout the context or frequently occur in the Old and New Testaments.
Some additional recommendations for identifying biblical structure, especially Introversion or Chiasmus, are described by John Breck in his book, The Shape of Biblical Language, (Appendix I, pp. 355, 356). They are listed and modified as follows;
- Step One: Obtain a bible that you can use for study and one that can be marked in with a pen or pencil.
- Step Two: Attempt to ignore, as much as possible, the chapter and verse divisions, paragraph markings and chapter and verse reference numbers.
- Step Three: Search for units of text that begin and end with similar or opposite terms or ideas. Try not to extend over too many verses at this point. When you find them, mark them off from the other verses by designating them with a letter and its corresponding member in brackets (i.e., A [.....] and A [....] or as A [....] and A' [.....]). Use whatever designation is most helpful (e.g., Roman numerals, etc.).
- Step Four: Read and re-read the passage containing the "members" or "units" that you have marked off (i.e., A and A) until you begin to sense the flow of the whole passage. Do this before you endeavor to identify additional correspondence within the section you have marked off.
- Step Five: Begin looking for the corresponding members or units moving from the outside portions toward the center of the section you have marked off. Attempt to discover and note the boundaries of each subsequent member (i.e., B and B, then C and C, etc.).
- Step Six: As you move toward the center of the marked off section, try to identify the central logical point (these may be whole verses or individual words) that seems to describe the overall theme or concept as read from the outside boundaries to the inside core. Once you identify the center, label it as "0" and set it off in brackets (i.e., 0 [......]).
- Step Seven: Start at the center and read outward, attempting to identify the first unit and its corresponding member. After detecting the limits of these members, label them as 1 and 1'.
- Step Eight: Go back to the beginning of the passage and re-read it to verify the units and their corresponding members (A and A, B and B, C and C, etc.). Using parentheses, set each of these units off from one another.
- Step Nine: Obtain a letter size sheet of ruled paper (narrow or wide-ruled) and using the letter or number designation in identifying the structure, write out the scriptural passage from beginning to end and indent for each unit or member (as describe and utilized in this Introduction to Biblical Structure). This will help to visualize the "form" of the structure.
- Step Ten: Read and re-read the whole passage aloud according to the way you wrote it in Step Nine. This will allow you the "hear" the structure and flow of the passage.
- Step Eleven: Look for the progression or building of the passage in its intensity until the climax (central theme) or pivotal point is reached. When you see this pattern, you can see the structure.
A final point to be made about the study of biblical or literary structure is the importance of examining Hebrew and Greek words. This is of vital concern, as oftentimes the structure may be evident in the Hebrew or Greek, but not in the English. This is because our English bibles are "translations" of the languages that were used to originally record the scriptures. Our English bibles are not "transliterations". As a translation, words do not always carry the meaning they were originally intended to convey. In addition, there are many times similarities in spelling/pronunciation (homonyms) or meaning (synonyms) of Hebrew or Greek words that shed light when examining biblical structure. As there are differing English translations, some may "hide" the biblical structure more than others. Although other languages are oftentimes difficult to study and grasp, this does make the task of identifying structure easier. Other variables to consider would include, but not be limited to, such things as figures of speech, mannerisms, orientalisms and customs. The biblical frame of reference is interwoven with ancient civilizations and their respective cultures. The student of the bible must keep these things in mind when embarking on any journey through the scriptures. We keep in mind that oftentimes that which is lightly-esteemed carries the most weight. There is an abundance of "helps" along the way and any references as such would be of invaluable assistance. We believe any investment in time would be worth its weight in gold!
The following sources were referenced, found extremely helpful and come highly recommended;
Bullinger, E.W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.
Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi.
Breck, John. The Shape of Biblical Language; Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond.