Artistic Structure

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler



Lecture #21:

Artistic Structure



What Is Artistic Structure?


            Some stories are built with an architectural structure: one wing of the narrative stands parallel to another wing, and when all of these parallels are considered together, the elements of the narrative come together in a structure that is architectural, aesthetic, and artistic. Unlike plot structure, which we have discussed in our preceding lectures, the artistic structure does not rely specifically on plot elements, although it may be based on connections of plot among different elements in the narrative. Often, the structure is sensed through the verbal network of the narrative, which creates linguistic parallels. 


            As these parallels have both corresponding and contrasting elements, the reader must distinguish among a number of different templates: narratives with two parallel halves, three parallel parts, four, etc.  There are many varieties of potential structures, but the most common ones are: classic parallelism (A-B-C/ A1-B1-C1), chiastic structure (A-B-C/ C1-B1-A1), and concentric parallelism (A-B-C-D-C1-B1-A1). Each of these structures encourages a different experience of reading, as will become clear below.


Three Steps toward Artistic Structure


            It is important to note that if only a circumstantial relationship exists between different elements in the narrative, this cannot be the basis of a narrative structure, even if the relationship has a literary value. Indeed, it sometimes appears that it is the commentator who forces a specific structure upon the narrative, ignoring significant elements in the narrative because they do not fit well into the proposed structure.


            In order to properly grasp the artistic structure of the narrative, the reader must take three steps:

1.    First, one must demarcate the narrative, with small scenes as defined elements.

2.    Second, one must investigate whether there is a linguistic or plot-related link among the small scenes that make up the narrative. Do these links create an architectural structure?

3.    Finally, one must dissect the significance of the structure and its contribution to hidden messages in the narrative.


            Let us take the well-known example of the Book of Yona. To understand its structure, we must first decide how to divide the book into secondary scenes. The conventional division is: a) Yona’s initial deputation; b) Yona on the boat; c) Yona’s prayer in the fish; d) Yona’s second deputation; e) Yona’s journey to Nineveh; f) Yona and the gourd; and g) God’s response to Yona, which concludes the book.  Naturally, we may assign different headings to these scenes, and our choice of heading will noticeably influence the different structural proposals. For example, the scene of “Yona on the boat” may be described as “non-Jews repent due to Yona,” a heading that will prove useful in creating a connection between this scene and the pivotal scene for the citizens of Nineveh.


            After the demarcation of different scenes (and the crafting of headings), the reader must determine whether links between different scenes exist and if these connections create an orderly structure.  In the case of the Book of Yona, it appears that there is indeed a clear structure (if we adopt the headings presented below):


First Command to Yona (Ch. 1-2)

Second Command to Yona (Ch. 3-4)

God commands Yona to go to Nineveh

God commands Yona to go to Nineveh a second time

The sailors repent because of Yona

The citizens of Nineveh repent because of Yona’s prophecy

Yona prays inside the fish

Yona prays by the dry gourd


God responds to Yona


            At this point, the reader must determine the nature of the theme expressed through this structure. In the context of the Book of Yona, one may take note of a number of contributions of the structure to the aim of the narrative. For the purposes of our analysis at this time, it is sufficient to mention the unusual nature of the second half of the narrative, in which a fourth element appears — God’s response to Yona, an element that is missing in the first half of the narrative.  In other words, as long as Yona is fleeing from God (chs. 1-2), there is no dialogue between God and Yona, and God does not explain His conduct to His fleeing prophet. On the other hand, in the second half — at the time Yona fulfills God’s command — Yona is worthy of an explanation from God as to why He accepts the repentance of the citizens of Nineveh. When Yona fulfills God’s demands of him, a dialogue can be conducted (even if it is an angry dialogue), but as long as Yona flees the mission that he has been assigned, there cannot be any explanatory communication at all.


Three Pitfalls


            As we noted above, we sometimes may feel that the commentator is forcing a given reading on the text. In other words, there are a number of traps into which the reader can easily fall in assuming the existence of an artistic structure when, in fact, it is the reader who is imposing this on the text, not a conscious choice of the author.[1]  There are a number of prominent pitfalls:


1.            Crafting Arbitrary Heading for the Ancillary Scenes


            Since the connections between the elements of the narrative often rely on the definition of some theme, the reader must decide what the clear theme of every scene is. Sometimes, one senses a forced heading for the sake of structure. 


            Let us take a casual look at the story of Miriam’s leprosy (Bamidbar 12).[2] We will try to organize the narrative as having an artistic structure according to the headings of the scenes that shape it:


A.  Arrival at Chatzerot (11:35)

B.  Miriam mocks Moshe for bringing in to his house a “Cushite woman” (12:1)

C.  Miriam and Aharon denigrate Moshe’s prophecy;

nevertheless, “The man Moshe was very humble” (12:2-3)

D.  God rebukes Miriam and Aharon

Miriam’s leprosy (12:4-10)

C1.  Aharon and Miriam require Moshe’s prophecy in order to heal Miriam; Moshe prays (12:11-13)

B1.  Miriam leaves the camp because she is “leprous as snow” (12:14-15)

A1.  Leaving Chatzerot (12:16)[3]


            To remove all doubt, I will state clearly that in my view, the proposed/invented structure here is not serious and far from convincing. At first glance, it may appear persuasive, but this is only because of the headings that I have given to the scenes of the narrative. Miriam’s words about Moshe do not state that he brought in a Cushite woman, but rather that “he took” in marriage, and the verse does not say that Miriam is “leprous as snow” at stage B1, but rather stage D. Nevertheless, since one must always assign headings to the subunits of the narrative, these will always remain subjective, and it will be difficult to argue with the correctness of the headings.


2.            Finding Unintentional Literary Connections

            A common danger in “discovering” the literary structure is the reliance on trivial words mentioned commonly in Tanakh that do not appear for the sake of creating a structure. Ish Boshet, for example, confronts Avner with the words (II Shmuel 3:7), “‘Why have you come to my father’s concubine?’”  The use of this root in this scene (the verb “bo” in the euphemistic sense) does not necessarily have a connection to the continuation of the narrative, where we find a repeated use of the verb “bo” in the words of David to Avner (in the causative and simple conjugates respectively): “You will not see my face unless you bring Mikhal daughter of Shaul when you come to see my face” (3:13).[4]


3.            Skipping Nonintegrated Elements


            If indeed the narrative has an intentional artistic structure, the structure is meant to include all of the elements of the narrative. One may naturally ignore connective sentences that do not constitute true scenes, but ignoring important elements in the story in order to present an architectural structure indicates that we are not discussing the author’s intentional direction, but rather the reader’s imagination.


            Bearing these limitations in mind, let us study a number of possibilities for artistic structures. 




            As we have noted, a narrative that has an artistic structure is a narrative in which there is deliberate parallelism between the parts of the story. The simplest narrative is a narrative with two parallel halves, and we will dedicate our current lecture to this structure.  Tracing the relationship between the two parallel halves can contribute to understanding the hidden theme of the narrative.


The Story of the Manna


            Let us examine this through the story of the manna (Shemot 16).  As background, let us first examine God’s response to the Israelites’ initial complaint (4-5):


And God said to Moshe:

“Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and collect a day's portion every day,

So that I may test them, whether they will follow My law or not. 

And it will be on the sixth day that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they collect daily.”


            How are we to understand the significance of the phrase, “So that I may test them, whether they will go in My law or not”? One may understand that the testing mentioned refers to the previous line: “a day’s portion every day.” In other words, the Israelites pass the test by collecting only the needs of that very day. Indeed, this is what the Rishonim (ad loc.) write: “So that they may need Me every day” (Ibn Ezra); “It is a test for them that they have no food in their hands” (Ramban); “Every single day, their eyes look to me for their food; therefore, they will believe in me and follow my law” (Rashbam).[5]


            However, one may also understand that this verse actually presages the phrase that follows it: “And it will be on the sixth day…” In other words, the test is that on the sixth day the Israelites will be required to collect a double portion of manna because on Shabbat, the day of rest, God will refrain from raining manna around the camp.


            With this as background, let us turn to the structure of the narrative of the manna. I would like to focus on the description of the collection of the manna, and therefore I will ignore the people’s complaint and God’s response to Moshe, which open the story:[6]


The Event

13 And it was at evening, that the quails came up, and covered the camp; and in the morning, there was a layer of dew round about the camp.  14 And when the layer of dew had gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness: fine and scaly, fine as the frost on the ground. 

22 And it was on the sixth day that they collected twice as much bread, two omers for each one;

Israel Reacts

15 And when the Israelites saw it, they said one to another: “What is it?” — for they did not know what it was.

And all the princes of the congregation came and told Moshe.

Moshe Explains

And Moshe said to them:

“It is the bread which God has given you to eat.  16 This is the thing which God has commanded: Collect of it, every man according to his eating; an omer per capita, according to the number of your persons, shall you take, every man for those in his tent.”

23 And he said to them: “This is that which God has spoken: Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy sabbath to God.  Bake that which you will bake, and cook that which you will cook; and all that remains over leave it for you, as a keeping until the morning.”

Israel Follows Moshe’s Words

17 And the Israelites did so, and collected some more, some less.  18 And when they did measure it with an omer, he that collected much had nothing over, and he that collected little had no lack; they collected every man according to his eating.

24 And they left it until the morning, as Moshe commanded, and it did not rot; nor was there any worm in it.

Moshe’s Command to Israel

19 And Moshe said to them: “Let no man leave of it until the morning.”

25 And Moshe said: “Eat that today; for today is a sabbath to God; today you shall not find it in the field.  26 Six days you shall collect it; but on the seventh day, it is the sabbath; on it, there shall be none.”


20 But they did not listen to Moshe; some men left it over until the morning,

27 And it was on the seventh day that some of the people went out to collect,


And it bred worms and rotted;

And they found none.

Anger of Moshe/ God

And Moshe was furious with them

28 And God said to Moshe: “How long will you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? 29 See that God has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; sit every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

Observing the Command

21 And they collected it each and every morning, every man according to his eating; and as the sun grew hot, it melted.

30 So the people rested on the seventh day. 



            It seems that the entire narrative is shaped in a fully parallel way in terms of the progress of the plot. In both halves of the story, there is a unique and wondrous event that becomes a test for the nation. In both halves of the narrative, the people at first do not withstand the test (they leave over manna until the next day; they go out to collect on Shabbat as well), resulting in anger directed at them. Nevertheless, both halves of the narrative conclude with a return to a balanced state, in which the Israelites keep God’s command and succeed in the test — they collect each day “every man according to his eating,” and they do not go out to collect on the seventh day. 


            The structure of the passage contrasts two tests intertwined in the falling of the manna: collecting the manna required for that day only (the first half) and not collecting manna on Shabbat (the second half).  From this point of view, we may return to God’s words to Moshe in the beginning of the passage and interpret it as having a dual meaning. The test that God mentions to Moshe is indeed, as the medieval commentators maintain, the collection of the manna “a day’s portion every day,” but in parallel, He alludes to another test: collecting the double portion on Friday and not collecting it on Shabbat. 


            Rashi refers to this double meaning in his commentary on the verse (4):


“So that I may test them, whether they will go in My law, or not” — if they will keep the commandments which apply to it, that they will not leave over of it and they will not go out to collect on Shabbat.[7]


            We can use the analysis of this narrative to stress the arbitrariness that at times is felt in the analysis of the narrative structure. Unlike our proposal for the structure cited above, Galbiati claims that in the first part of the narrative (1-21), there is a chiastic structure:[8]


[Introduction (1-3)]

A.  God promises manna and gives instructions (4-5)

B.  Moshe and Aharon inform the people of the two miracles in unclear words (6-7)

C.  Moshe describes in exact words what is to happen in the future (8)

D.  Revelation (9-10)

C1.  God informs Moshe about two miracles in unclear words (11-12)

B1.  Realizing the miracles (13-15)

A1.  Moshe gives instructions (15-21)


            This is a good example of how composing headings in an arbitrary manner gives the reader a false sense of structure; practically, there is no internal connection between the elements that we are discussing.  According to Galbiati, there is interplay in the narrative between clear instructions and unclear instructions. In my view, this interplay does not arise from within the verse, and these are only the critic’s headings.[9] Furthermore, the proposed heading for element A1 — “Moshe gives instructions” — is not sufficiently specific, because in this scene we find Moshe’s commands, the abrogation of these orders and a description of Moshe’s anger. Imprecise headings can blind the reader, keeping him from noticing clear connections within the plot itself solely because these connections are not expressed in the proposed structure. Here, for example, the connection between Moshe and Aharon’s words to the people about God’s impending revelation the next morning (6-7) and the immediate and stunning realization of this concept (10) disappears from the proposed structure.


The Structure of the Story of Creation


            Despite the dangers of mislabeling units, at times the subjects of the small units do indeed allude to the artistic structure. For example, one may describe the structure of the story of Creation[10] (Bereishit 1) in the following manner:


Introduction: “In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the land

First Day: Creating light

Fourth Day: Creating heavenly luminaries

Second Day: Separating the waters

Fifth Day: Creating fauna in the water and in the heavens

Third Day: Creating dry land (and flora)

Sixth Day: Creating fauna on dry land (and designation of the flora as their food)

Conclusion: “Thus the heavens and the land were completed in all their vast array.”


            The proposed structure relies on the headings that the reader gives to different creations, but since we are talking about logical headings, the proposed structure seems firm. 


            The six days of Creation can be divided into two triptychs: paralleling the creation of light on the first day, the heavenly luminaries are created on the fourth day; the second day’s separation between the lower and the upper waters allows the living things which inhabit the seas and skies to be created on the fifth day; the third day’s unveiling of the dry land similarly allows the living things that walk upon it to be created on the sixth day. True, man has a special status on this day (a separate divine pronouncement), but he is also created on the sixth day because he walks on the dry land.


            One should take note that the two halves of the narrative conclude (on the third day and the sixth day) with a double statement (the repetition of the phrase “And God said”), as well as a double assessment (the repetition of the phrase “And God saw that it was good”). These unique signatures lead the reader to equate them, encouraging the proposed division. 


            What is the contribution of this structure to the significance of the narrative of creation? In this context, it is worth pointing out that the orderly structure itself contributes to the feeling of the organized reading. One of the basic themes of the description of Creation in chapter 1 is the creation of a systematic and orderly world. The universe is created with a clear division of days that represent different states of reality; for every creation, there is preplanning (a divine statement), and at the end God sees “that it was good.” The narrative’s claim that an orderly world has been created is buttressed by the fact that that the narrative itself is orderly – a stable structure of two parallel halves.


            However, beyond the contribution of the structure to the very feeling of organization in reading the narrative, the structure shows two basic levels of the creation of reality.  On the first three days, the characteristically static materials are created, while on the final three days, action and dynamism are infused within the building blocks created previously. 


            This is the relationship between the disembodied light created on the first day and the luminaries formed on the fourth day, which are characterized by constant motion and are therefore determinative “for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (14). Similarly, we find a relationship between the second day, on which the upper and lower waters are separated, and the fifth day, on which the skies are filled with birds and the oceans with sea life. A similar thing happens also in the relationship between the exposure of dry land on the third day and the creation of man and the other creatures that will walk upon it on the sixth day. 


            This division between the two sets of three days touches also on the growing distance of Creation from its Creator. On the first three days, God is the sole Actor and Creator. Starting from the fourth day, the responsibility for maintaining reality passes, by degrees, to the creatures themselves.[11] Concerning the luminaries created on the fourth day, we read (17-18):


And God put them in the heavenly sky, to cast light on the land, and to rule by day and by night, and to separate between the light and the dark. 


Even if we are not talking about sentient beings, the very idea of “ruling” demands explanation, as does the “separation” for which the luminaries are now responsible — not God, Who has been the sole authority up until this point. 


            On the fifth and sixth days, this tendency grows stronger as the lexicon of Creation changes: “Let the waters teem” (20); “Let the land bring forth” (24) — no longer “Let there be light” or “Let there be a sky.” The impression perceived is one of the waters themselves producing the fish and the land itself producing the living things that walk upon it.[12] Needless to say that the climax of this process arrives with creation of man, who openly receives dominion over all of creation (28):


And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it, and dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and every animal which crawls upon the land.”


            This verse addresses all of the elements of the universe, as humanity is given responsibility and authority over them. “Fill the land and conquer it” recalls the unveiling of dry land on the third day; “and dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens” recalls the creation of the fish and birds on the fifth day; “and every animal which crawls upon the land” recalls the creation of land animals on the sixth day.   


            Thus, tracing the structure of the passage allows us to see the Creation of the Universe in three triptychs. Alongside the obvious division of Creation into six stages which are represented as days, we have an allusion to an additional division of Creation into two parallel, consecutive stages: the raw materials are first created by God, and then these elements becoming active and dynamic in completing the Creation.


            This structure is worthy of a more expansive analysis than this forum allows, so we will suffice with these notes. However, we cannot leave this topic without addressing the final day, Shabbat. The dual structure grants Shabbat a special status, even more so than following the model of the six days of Creation. Reading the narrative by its days, the Shabbat is presented as merely “the seventh day” — another day in the consecutiveness of Creation (even if it is a totally different day, defined by its very lack of creation!). According to the parallel structural reading, on the other hand, Shabbat is presented as a transitional day for the basic mold, beyond the framework of the days of creation. Thus, Shabbat takes us beyond the dual triptychs, bringing to fruition God’s first thought.


We will dedicate the next lecture to concentric and chiastic structures.


Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch

[1]      As justifiably pointed out by D. A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids, 1999), pp. 33-34.

[2]      Translator’s note: For convenience’s sake, we use the terms “leper” and “leprosy” for metzora and tzara’at respectively, despite the fact that in Tanakh, tzaraat is a physical manifestation of spiritual infirmity, not Hansen’s disease, which is bacterial in nature.

[3]      This fact indeed closes the previous story, but it is possible to see it as a transition and an opening to the next story as well.

[4]      Moreover, one might argue that the two verses deal with women connected to Shaul: his concubine, Ritzpa daughter of Aya, and his daughter, Mikhal.

[5]      The Rambam (ibid.) points out that this approach relies on Devarim 8:16 as well.

[6]      This division between the opening of the narrative and its essence, which describes the falling of the manna, is accepted by many; e.g., M. Noth, Exodus, OTL, trans. J. S. Bowden (London, 1962), pp. 133-7.

[7]      A similar double reading arises from Childs’s commentary on the passage: B. S. Childs, Exodus: A Commentary (OTL; London, 1974), p. 286 ("Actually, the two directives belong together").

[8]      E. Galbiati, La Struttura letteraria dell' Esodo (Milan, 1956), p. 167.

[9]      Childs voices the same criticism of Galbiati’s structure in his commentary, ibid. p. 277.

[10]    See, for example, Cassuto’s commentary on the story of Creation in the collection: “Bereishit Shemot — Dappim Le-Me’ayen U-Le-Moreh,” Herzog College, Alon Shevut. Also see: M. Fishbane, Text and Texture: Close Reading of Selected Biblical Texts (New York, 1979), pp. 10-11. An alternative suggestion may be see in the words of R. M. Breuer, Pirkei Bereishit (Alon Shevut, 5759), pp. 73-81.

[11]    To explore this theme further, see my essay, “Ba’a Shabbat Ba’a Menucha,” Alon Shevut 146 (5756), pp. 65-76.

[12]    In this context, it is particularly notable that the flora is created on the third day. According to the two parameters that we mentioned, it would have been appropriate for the flora to be created in the second half of the description of the creation, as it represents movement and action because it grows and develops. Even the language of its creation reflects this (1:11): “Let the land be covered with vegetation – plants bearing seed.”  This is not the place to expand on this discussion, but I will note that paralleling the creation of the flora on the third day stands the sixth day’s designation of flora for eating. See the abovementioned Dappim (n. 9).