Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Importance of Literary Structure

Have you ever wondered why certain books of the Bible repeat phrases over and over again?

Have you ever wondered why certain "chapters" of the Bible appear, at first glance, to be disjointed?

The reasons for these are actually quite simple, even though most people remain unaware as to why such carelessness of organization exists. In his book, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi, David Dorsey comments about this apparent oddity and how it led him to discover the importance of identifying literary structures within each book of the Bible. He writes:
My fascination with the subject [of Hebrew literary structure] was kindled when I began teaching Old Testament courses in seminary. At that time I was struck by the apparent lack of order within many of the biblical books. Jeremiah seemed hopelessly confused in its organization; so did Isaiah and Hosea and most of the prophets. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes appeared to be in almost complete disarray, and even the more orderly historical books, such as Joshua and Kings, showed signs of strangely careless organization. Why did the biblical authors write like this? I would never write a book, an article, or even a private letter with such carelessness of arrangement. 
I was intrigued by the possibility that the Hebrew authors might have organized their compositions according to literary conventions that were different from ours. I began to discover, over a period of years, that several structuring patterns rarely used by us were remarkably common in the books of the Hebrew Bible, particularly chiasmus (symmetry), parallelism, and sevenfold patterns. I was increasingly struck by how often these patterns had been utilized to arrange biblical books. The task of analyzing the structures of the books of the Old testament was a long and arduous one.1

Further into his book, Dorsey follows through with an explanation of how important these structuring patterns are for understanding a given biblical text. He observes that:
A sermon would not be appreciated or understandable if it simply consisted of... unrelated statements, one after another without any discernible order. The practice of structuring communication, whether written or oral, is universal among humans, as shown by studies among numerous languages and dialects throughout the world. Humans need and appreciate communication that is arranged and organized. This is true of ancient Israel. The pages of the Old Testament reflect a keen interest in literary structure. Hebrew authors and editors generally took great pains to arrange their compositions in ways that would help convey their messages.... 
[But] the Hebrew authors used no visual, graphic structure markers to help readers follow their organization. ...In contrast to modern Bibles, the text of ancient Hebrew manuscripts generally ran on and on without [a] break, filling column after column from top to bottom and from side to side, without set-off titles, subtitles, indentations, or any other visual structure indicators. Modern readers are unaccustomed to such lack of visual helps... As H. Van Dyke Parunak observes:  "Graphical signals bombard the reader of a book in modern western culture. Italics or underlining highlight words and phrases of special importance, while parentheses, footnotes, and appendices remove peripheral material from the direct course of the writer's argument. Chapter headings, section titles, and paragraph indentations divide the text into segments whose limits coincide with the units of the writer's thought. Tables of contents outline the entire book, and sometimes even chapters or articles within the book."
The absence of such visual structure markers does not mean that ancient authors were unmindful of the structure of their compositions or that their compositions had less rigorous structural patterns than our modern books. On the contrary, numerous linguistic studies of various unwritten tribal languages suggest that aurally oriented compositions generally feature sophisticated structural patterns, indeed often more sophisticated than our modern Western counterparts... 
For example, symmetry, parallelism, and structured repetition... appear throughout Old Testament literature; these and related patterns are so foreign to modern readers that it is easy to miss -- or misunderstand -- them. To investigate structure in the Hebrew Bible, the reader must lay aside Western expectations and watch for these less familiar structuring conventions that were indigenous to ancient Israel -- much as modern linguists must do when working with unwritten tribal languages.2

After these comments, Dorsey provides a few examples of what these biblical patterns look like and the importance of the way each pattern functions. He begins with the basic linear pattern (a-b-c-d-e-f-g), which is essential to every known system of literary structuring; but then he goes on to describe nonlinear patterns:
Nonlinear schemes, particularly symmetric (a-b-c-b'-a') and parallel (a-b-c-a'-b'-c') patterns, are quite popular in the Old Testament... For example, in a symmetric (chiastic) arrangement the central unit generally functions as the turning point or climax or highlight of the piece (e.g.  a-b-c-d-c'-b'-a'). Thus in the symmetrically arranged Book of Amos the central unit (Amos 5:1-17) features Amos's call to repentance; in Song of Songs the center (Song 3:6-5:1) serves as the book's climax, celebrating the lovers' wedding; and in Ruth the center (chap. 2) represents the story's turning point--the meeting of Ruth and Boaz. Therefore, if a composition is found to have a symmetric configuration, the central unit's key role in the book should be considered. On the other hand, in a linear scheme or parallel pattern, the final unit often carries the climax or highlight.3 

Now, stop for a few moments to think about how much Scripture you have studied in your life. Have you ever considered that the "chapters" of your Bible may not reflect the literary structure which the author intended his audience to follow?

What if the repeated phrases were intentionally parallel in structure (a-b-c-a'-b'-c'-d), and you overlooked the fact that the author was trying to lead his original audience to the climax of the story in the final unit of that pattern?

What if so much of the apparent disorder was really structured as a chiasm (a-b-c-d-c'-b'-a') with the climax or key turning-point in the very center of the story?

Doesn't this explain more?!

1.  David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on genesis-Malachi [Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, MI; 2005] p. 9
2.  Ibid. p. 15; Dorsey footnotes the reference of H. Van Dyke Parunak from "Oral Typesetting: Some Uses of Biblical Structure," Biblica 62 (1981) 153.
3.  Ibid. pp. 17-18

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