Thank you to everyone who participated in getting me Rabbi Fohrman’s new book, Genesis: A Parsha Companion. I just got it, so I figure I have to use it for this week’s parasha class. His chapter on לך לך is all about chiasmus, which I assume most of those listening to this shiur know about. But I’m going to talk about it.
Chiasmus is one of those words that sounds fancy because it comes from Greek, but it just means “X-ing”, “marking with an X”, from the Greek letter chi, χ. There’s a similar word in תנ״ך:
In ancient Hebrew (כתב עברית) the letter ת was just an “𐤕”:
(Thanks to Mitch Wolf for pointing this out to me)
So what does that have to do with תנ״ך? Biblical poetry is all about parallelism, and sometimes the two parallel parts are in fact anti-parallel; the themes are repeated in reverse order. So, to diagram it, you have to write an “X”:
There’s a specific form of chiasmus called antimetabole, where the exact words are repeated in reverse order, as (בראשית ט:ו) שפך דם האדם, באדם דמו ישפך.
It’s not clear how important it is for understanding Biblical poetry; as James Kugel says, it may only be a way of keeping the verse from being too monotonous:
So there are a lot problems with looking for chiasms in תנ״ך. It isn’t a Jewish idea; the classical מפרשים aren’t interested in poetic style and look at the words, not the arrangement of them. It has no deeper meaning (or at least no one has proposed a deeper meaning), beyond sounding nice: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. And when the term is used in ”modern“ תנ״ך studies, it means something much broader. It’s not the structure of individual verses, but the arrangement of entire paragraphs and sections of תנ״ך that have this ”antiparallel" structure.
He gives the example of מגילת אסתר:
But the problem remains: it’s not a Jewish approach to תנ״ך; there’s no hint of this in any traditional source. Why do it?
Part of the answer is that it is rewarding; it feels like you’re discovering new layers of Torah that no one has ever seen before. And you can propose deep meaning to the structure: it represents a “bullseye” as Rabbi Fohrman puts it, drawing our attention to the center of the X. But it has a “Bible codes” feeling to it; am I reading too much into the text? Would I find the same structure in a Berenstain Bears book?
I think we need to find this kind of structure because there is an obvious problem with the text of the Torah: it doesn’t seem to have much structure. Things get repeated, stories seem to happen multiple times, laws come up in contradictory ways.
The traditional answer is to not worry about it. The Torah will leave some details out and fill them in elsewhere.
The academic approach is to say that the text we have in front of us is an amalgamation of older fragments of stories, each incomplete retellings of older tales. This is the Documentary Hypothesis. They were assembled by a “redactor” who couldn’t decide which one to include, so they threw everything together. As believing Jews, this is anathema when applied to the Torah, and even for נ״ך, it misses the point. What we have is a single text, and assuming the redactor was drunk makes reading “the Bible as literature” meaningless.
Looking at the structure of the narratives of Torah started in modern times because it only became relevant in modern times. We look for answers to the questions that we are asking.
Rav Copperman dedicates his 2-volume magnum opus to this question, but the analysis of chiasmus is one answer. The repetition creates a literary structure that gives meaning to the text as a whole, drawing our attention to the central point around which the entire narrative revolves.
Back to Rabbi Fohrman. At the end of our parasha (פרק יז) there are two mentions of Avraham’s age (פסוק א and פסוק יז), two renamings (Avraham and Sarah), two ויפל אבר[ה]ם על פניו, two ברכות of children. He even makes a Fohrman-esque pun between (פסוק ו) והפרתי אתך במאד מאד and (פסוק יד) וערל זכר אשר לא ימול…את בריתי הפר, connecting הפרתי with הפר and thematically as the parallel of “having a legacy” and “cutting off the legacy”.
The overall structure is:
Now, he has to cheat a little; he skips the last 10 psukim of the perek, which would end the chiasm nicely (with ואברהם בן תשעים ותשע שנה) but the section about ישמעאל doesn’t fit in as well.
But it does help us see what we really did know: בני ישראל are a nation not because of a shared history or land, but because of the בירת. The chiastic structure moves in an “X”, with the role of הקב״ה predominant in the first half (והפרתי אתך, ונתתי לך…את ארץ מגריך) and the role of human beings increasing in the second half (המול לכם כל זכר, את בריתי הפר), centered around the pivot of את בריתי תשמר אתה וזרעך אחריך לדרתם.