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Between Chiastic and Classical Parallelism

  • 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 #23:

Between Chiastic and Classical Parallelism





As we have already investigated the two main types of artistic parallelism (classic parallelism and chiastic parallelism), I would like to demonstrate how these two types of structures create a different process of reading, or at least allude to a different meaning of the narrative. 


Generally, we may say that chiastic and concentric structures are appropriate for a narrative that contains a certain reversal, whether a turnabout in the plot or a volte-face in the consciousness of the characters. Classical, straightforward parallelism, on the other hand, is more appropriate for a narrative that seeks to present a continuous and developing relationship between the two parts of the narrative through a one-on-one parallelism. Naturally, in many narratives, there are elements of both reversal and continuous evolution; however, the narrative structure serves to emphasize a certain facet of the narrative and its aim. 


For example, we may stress the reversal in the character of Yona. Whereas in the first half of the narrative, Yona flees from the mission given him, in the second half, Yona fulfills the command of his Master. In a case such as this, we would expect a chiastic structure.[1] However, presenting the narrative as having two parallel halves (as we have already pointed out in previous lectures) serves to emphasize the continuity of the narrative in particular. Against his will, Yona causes non-Jews to repent - in the first half, at the time that he is trying to flee his mission (ch. 1, the repentance of the sailors), and in the second half, at the time that he does so consciously (ch. 3, the repentance of the citizens of Nineveh). In fact, there is no true reversal within Yona himself; he continues to complain that his death is better than his life (4:3, 8) and to fail to identify with the mission put on him, even though he has fulfilled it.


By presenting the narrative in the structure of classical parallelism, the narrator emphasizes how one cannot flee from personal duty, from one’s destiny. Even if one attempts to escape it, against his will, he continues to act according to his destiny (even while in the process of fleeing!).


The Story of Shmuel’s Birth


We will demonstrate the relationship of the two artistic structures by employing them in the story of Shmuel’s birth (I Shmuel 1-2). Dorsey proposes that this narrative is part of a concentric structure that revolves around a turning point in the narrative — Shmuel’s birth:[2]


A.  Elkana and his family go from Rama to Shilo (1:1-8)

B.  Channa’s sad prayer (1:9-11)

C.  A painful dialogue between Channa and Eli (1:12-18)

D.  Turning point: birth of Shmuel (1:19-23)

C1.  A joyful dialogue between Channa and Eli (1:24-28)

B1.  Channa’s happy prayer (2:1-10)

A1.  Elkana returns to Rama, but Shmuel remains in Shilo (2:11)      


Obviously, in the narrative of pekida (God’s “taking account” of a childless woman and allowing her to conceive and bear a child), a concentric structure expressing reversal is appropriate. The great reversal that happened in Channa’s life is revealed in the design of the narrative — the first half of the story describes her difficult period of infertility and her painful status in relation to her husband, before Eli Ha-Kohen, and before God. After Shmuel’s birth, her life is fully changed; now the reader is invited to listen to the joyful, uplifting dialogue between Channa and Eli and between Channa and her Master.


But does this structure accurately reflect the stages of the narrative? Is it not appropriate, for instance, to relate to the dialogue between Channa and Elkana in the narrative? Moreover, one who follows the main character in the narrative — Channa — senses that even before Shmuel’s birth, there is already a true reversal occurring in the story, even if the changes are emotional. After Channa’s discussion with Eli and his blessing, we read, “And her face was not so anymore” (1:18). In fact, from this point on in the narrative, the reader senses a certain uplifting of Channa’s spirit.  In other words, already at the point that the scene foreshadowing Shmuel’s birth ends (described by Dorsey as element C), Channa is presented as believing that indeed she will merit to have a son, and the feeling of the reader who follows Channa in the story changes absolutely!  


Indeed, it seems to me that we may present the structure of the narrative in a different way, as two parallel halves (vv. 1-19/ end of v. 19/ vv. 20-28): 


A.  Elkana and his family go up to Shilo; dialogue between Elkana and Channa (1-8)

B.  Channa’s vow: “‘And I will give him to God all the days of his life’” (9-11)

C.  Eli’s blessing: “‘The God of Israel will grant your request, which you have asked of Him’” (12-18)

D.  The family bows before God and returns to Rama (19)


E.  Channa gives birth to a son — Shmuel (19-20)


A1.  Elkana and his family go up to Shilo; dialogue between Channa and Eli (21-23)

B1.  Fulfilling Channa’s vow: “And she brought him to the house of God, Shilo” (24)

C1.  Shmuel is brought to Eli: “‘And God has granted my request, which I have asked of him’” (25-28)

D1.  They bow before God (28)      


According to this proposed structure, the turning point that brings the reader from one section of the narrative to the other is the birth of Shmuel; it is clear that the climax of the narrative is the pekida. However, this structure stresses the comfortable parallelism between the parts of the narrative, not the reversal which occurs within it. As we noted above, already in the first part, after Eli blesses Channa, the verse declares, “And her face was not so anymore.” The seeds planted in the first part continue to sprout in the second half. 


In the beginning of the narrative (A), Elkana shows favoritism to Channa (“And to Channa he would give one portion, doubled, for he loved Channa” — v. 5), and he tries to appease his wife (“‘Am I not better for you than ten sons?’” — v. 8). A similar scene occurs correspondingly in the second half (A1), at the time that Channa is separated from the rest of the family because she does not want to make the pilgrimage to Shilo with them until she has weaned Shmuel. In the second half, Elkana turns to Channa his wife out of a desire to identify with her (“‘Do what is good in your eyes: sit here until you wean him, but God will fulfill his word’” — v. 23). 


In the first half, Channa makes her vow (B), and in parallel, the fulfillment of the vow is set out in the second half (B1). Eli’s blessing of a happy future, uttered in the first half (C), returns as a blessing that has come true in the second half (C1), and the conclusion of the two halves of the narrative is bowing to God (D-D1).  Following this structure does not stress the reversal in the narrative, but, on the contrary, the great symmetry between yearning for a son and realizing this yearning. The structure points to the complementary relationship between the prayer and its fulfillment.


Thus, we may describe the narrative as having two different artistic structures that create two different readings of the narrative, each with a different emphasis. Naturally, there are advantages to each structure, and it is appropriate to note that this issue is connected to the demarcation of the narrative. Is Channa’s prayer in chapter 2 the direct continuation of the narrative of Shmuel’s birth?  Alternatively, does this prayer signal that a new act begins, in accordance with the division of the chapters?[3]       


Note the different headings given to the presentation of the two structures. Channa’s prayer, for example, is described in the first possible reading as “Channa’s sad prayer” while the second option describes this scene as “Channa’s vow.” Additionally, the conversation between Channa and Eli according to the first possibility is the “painful dialogue between Eli and Channa,” while the second possibility seeks to see in this scene “Eli’s blessing.” Naturally, it is clear that one who views Channa’s prayer and Eli’s words to her as sad will feel the reversal in the narrative at the time that these exchanges are put in the uplifting context of the second half of the narrative. If, on the other hand, we read Channa’s prayer as a “vow” and Eli’s words as a “blessing,” we will pay attention specifically to the miraculous fulfillment of the prayer and of the blessing in the second half of the narrative. 


It is difficult to decide between these two possible readings of this narrative’s structure. It is logical — as happens frequently — that the worldview of the reader of the story influences the headings given to its subunits and the overall experience of reading the passage as a narrative that expresses character reversal or as a narrative that expresses the fulfillment of long-held desires.


Moshe’s Birth


One additional example will suffice to clarify the gap between the two types of proposed structures. The next narrative also relates the birth of a son destined for greatness, but it is not tied to pekida; instead, it focuses on the birth and development of Israel’s savior, Moshe (Shemot 2).


Here too, the narrative may be presented as having a chiastic structure on the one hand and two parallel halves on the other.  Radday proposes the following concentric structure:[4] 


A.  Marriage of Moshe’s parents and his birth (1-4)

B.  Pharaoh’s daughter brings Moshe home (5-10)

C.  Moshe saves “his brother” from the Egyptian (11-12)

D.  Moshe is betrayed by his brethren (13-14)

C1.  Moshe saves Re’uel’s daughters from the shepherds (15-17)

B1.  Re’uel’s daughter brings Moshe home (18-20)

A1.  Marriage of Moshe and the birth of his son (21-22)


The two halves of the narrative, according to this structure, sharply express the transposition of Moshe from Egypt to Midian. The first half deals with Moshe’s life in Egypt (born, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, saves his brother); with reverse parallelism, Moshe’s life in Midian is presented (saves Re’uel’s daughters, adopted by Yitro, has a son). We will return below to the meanings alluded to through this literary structure, but first let us examine the second possibility for the structure of this narrative — two halves presented with classic one-to-one parallelism, as David Thee proposes:[5]


A.  The bat Levi defies Pharaoh’s decree: “And she gave birth to a son” (1)

B.  The bat Levi hides her action: “And she hid him” (2)

C.  The deception is revealed: “But when she could hide him no longer…” (3)

D.  Moshe finds refuge on the water: “Then she placed the child in it and placed it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile” (3-4)

E.  A non-Jew (Pharaoh’s daughter) shows Moshe compassion (5-6)

F.  The refugee finds food and shelter: “And she nursed him… and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he was a son to her” (7-10)

G.  The naming of Moshe and the explanation thereof (10)

“And it was in those days”

A1.  Moshe defies Pharaoh’s authority “And he struck the Egyptian” (11-12)

B1.  Moshe hides his action: “And he hid him in the sand” (12)

C1.  The deception is revealed: “Indeed, the matter is known” (13-14)

D1.  Moshe finds refuge by the water: “And he sat by the well” (15) 

E1.  Moshe shows compassion to non-Jews (Re’uel’s daughters) (16-17)

F1.  The refugee finds food and shelter: “Call him to break bread… And Moshe agreed to dwell with the man” (18-21)

G1.  The naming of Moshe’s son and the explanation thereof (22)    


According to this structure, the relationship between the two halves of the narrative changes. The sharp transition of the narrative is not geographical (Egypt versus Midian), but a transition tied to the age of Moshe; the first half describes the newborn Moshe, while the second describes Moshe the young adult who acts as an independent personality. The subheading that opens the second half of the narrative — “And it was in those days that Moshe grew up” (2:11) — supports the structure proposed by Thee, because this phrase noticeably signals the opening of a new scene divorced from its predecessor on the one hand, but tied to it on the other.


What is the hidden meaning of the narrative according to these two different structural proposals? As we have said, we are not searching for a revealed meaning, as that is recognizable without relating to the structure; this is a narrative about the birth of Israel’s savior, which explains how Moshe is saved despite the decree “Any boy who is born, cast him into the Nile” (1:22) and how Moshe arrives in Midian. The structure of the narrative alludes to another meaning that complements the revealed aim of the narrative.


Reading the narrative according to the concentric structure sharpens the reversal that happens in Moshe’s life as regards everything which is tied to his national identity. In the first part of the narrative, Moshe passes into the domain of Pharaoh’s daughter, but his identity is a clear Hebrew identity, as attested to by the language of the verse: “And he went out to his brothers, and he saw their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man from his brothers” (11). Moshe leaves the Egyptian palace with the awareness that he is going to see “his brothers,” and the beaten Jew is “a Hebrew man from his brothers.” In the first part of the narrative, the verse describes how the bat Levi is able to embrace her son once again after she was compelled to separate from him, and how Moshe grows at the stage of infancy in the home of his Hebrew mother, even if she is only officially his nursemaid. 


However, after the turning point in the narrative, his brothers’ betrayal, Moshe flees from the place of his Hebrew brethren and acquires a new identity for himself. The daughters of Re’uel describe him as “an Egyptian man,” and in Midian he marries a Midianite woman and establishes a Midianite family. It is not clear at all from the narrative at which stage Moshe reveals to his father-in-law, the Midianite priest, that he is in fact a Hebrew;[6] apparently, this detail is not important in the new family-oriented gestalt of Moshe.


According to this structure, in the first half, Moshe saves his Hebrew brothers (C), while in the second half of the narrative he saves the daughters of Re’uel (C1). This does not reflect continuity or a “natural continuation;” on the contrary, this signals a true reversal — whom does Moshe save, and with whom does he forge connections? The relationship between the two rescues of Moshe is similar: at first (B), Pharaoh’s daughter saves him from the Nile, and thus he succeeds in maintaining the connection with his Hebrew-biological family as well; while in the second half of the narrative, Re’uel — priest of Midian — adopts him as a son (B1). In the first half, Moshe is born to his Hebrew family in Egypt (A); in the second, he himself merits having a son, but with his Midianite family in the land of Midian (A1).   


Thus, if we view this narrative as having a concentric structure, we find a 180-degree turnaround in Moshe’s identity and emotional reality. However, if we view it as having a classically parallel structure, we find exactly the opposite – continuity, as personal history repeats itself. As baby Moshe is treated, so adult Moshe relates to his environment in a similar way. Just as the bat Levi acts in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree while concealing the matter (A-B), so too, when Moshe grows up, he acts against Pharaoh’s decrees while concealing the matter (A1-B1). Just as in his place of refuge, Moshe the baby benefits from the compassion of a non-Jewish woman, Pharaoh’s daughter (C-D), Moshe similarly himself shows compassion and saves non-Jewish women in his place of refuge in the second part of the narrative by saving Re’uel’s daughters (C1-D1). With full parallelism, the two parts of the narrative conclude with a tranquility that demonstrates the just deserts of the compassionate and the saviors — establishing a household and expanding the family (E-F/ E1-F1).             


In the language of David Thee:


The comparison teaches us that once Moshe grew up and became a man, he reenacted the events that happened to him when he was a boy. Moshe, who knows that his life has been given to him as a gift, whether by his true mother or whether by his adoptive mother; Moshe, who understands that at the time that he is growing up in the royal household, his brothers continue to suffer beneath the yoke of slavery; Moshe who understands that he was drawn (nimsheh) from the Nile, while the rest of the boys his age were being thrown into it — he feels the pressing need to pay back good for good, to help the oppressed, to save the suffering and the persecuted himself.[7]


Thus, the determination of the artistic structure of the narrative leads to two different reading experiences. The reading that adopts the concentric structure emphasizes the reversal that occurs in the national identity of Moshe, while the reading that adopts classic parallelism emphasizes the continuity of plot in the narrative and in building the stable character of Moshe.


Our next lecture will be dedicated to three distinct cultural theses in one case study - the story of Yehuda and Tamar. 



Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch

[1] The scene of the repentance of the sailors (ch. 1) is, in fact, designed in a concentric structure, emphasizing the personal turnaround that the sailors experience in their repentance.

[2]     D. A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids, 1999), p. 130.

[3]     One may find an expansive discussion of the issue of demarcation in U. Simon,Sippur Holadat Shmuel,” Iyunei Mikra U-Farshanut (5746), pp. 57-110.

[4]     See Yehuda T. Radday, "Chiasmus in Hebrew Biblical Narrative," in J. Welch (ed.), Chiasmus in Antiquity (Utah, 1981), p. 95

[5]     David Thee, “Moshe — Ha-Yeled Ve-Ha-Ish,” Megadim 22 (5754), pp. 30-42 (with minor changes).

[6]     One example of the ambiguity is the Chizkuni’s struggle (ad loc., v. 22) to explain why Moshe’s firstborn is named “Gershom,” referring to Moshe’s foreign status in Midian, rather than “Eliezer,” the name of Moshe’s second son, which refers to his earlier escape from Pharaoh in Egypt: “When Gershom was born, Moshe was still new in his place and considered a sojourner, so he was afraid to mention why he had fled from Egypt, lest his father-in-law banish him. However, after he had settled down, it did not bother him.”

[7]     Thee, p. 41.