Hebrew poetry is a rhythmic interplay of ideas that adds depth and meaning through the structure of
sentences. One common method used was a literary device called a chiasm, which is based on the Greek letter
X (chi) describing the x-shaped literary structure. The ideas of this structure take the following sequential
form A-B-C-X-C-B-A. Analogous to inverted parallelism, a chiasm draws attention to and emphasizes the center
idea where the inflection or turning point has occurred. The whole structure acts like a frame to prepare
the reader for the most important message.
1. Examine Jonah 1:3. Rewrite the verse in a manner
to reveal the chiasm in word order. Notice how different translations can affect your ability to located
subtle literary devices (NASB vs. NIV). Because of the translation method, modern Bible translations may
not attempt to translate the nuances that carry the subtle literary devices over.
to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD
to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD
Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah proceeds in the opposite direction! This was the
emphasis of this chiasm.
2. There is another chiasm immediately following in Jonah 1:4-2:10.
Do you see it? Hint: look for the ideas / concepts. What does the chiasm reveal?
The sailors became afraid.
Every man cried to his god.
They tried to save the ship (they threw the cargo).
The captain calls Jonah for help (the captain approached him and said, "How is it that
you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will
The sailors seek a solution (Each man said to his mate, "Come, let us cast lots so we
may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.").
The sailors question Jonah (they said to him, "Tell us, now! On whose account has this
calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what
people are you?").
Jonah confesses (He said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven
who made the sea and the dry land.").
The sailors question Jonah (they said to him, "How could you do this?").
The sailors seek a solution (they said to him, "What should we do to you that the sea
may become calm for us?").
Jonah answers the call for help (He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea.
Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.").
They tried to save Jonah (the men rowed).
They called on the LORD.
The men feared the LORD greatly.
The chiasm focuses on the identity of Jonah! Jonah, who feared the LORD God, yet rebelled
against Him?!! The paradox was that the Gentiles, who didn’t know God, feared God!
3. Study Jonah 3 and 4.
What is the cultural context of this passage? What did Jonah know about God and how does the chiasm
affect your understanding of the passage? How did God feel towards the Ninevites?
The Ninevites were cruel and ruthless enemies of the Jews, and Jonah wanted to see
this large city ("Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk") entirely destroyed. But
Jonah knew of God’s love and grace and feared that He would forgive them.
Through the chiasm, the Jonah emphasizes his determination to "go to Tarshish from
the presence of the LORD" and focuses on his refusal to go to Nineveh by highlighting "to Tarshish." So
desirous of their destruction that Jonah chose to disobey God by removing himself as far away as quickly
possible. Nineveh must not have a chance to repent and, least of all, have Jonah himself be used to save them!
From a human perspective, one could understand Jonah’s anger towards his enemies the
Ninevites; however, God revealed a different perspective of them. God describes the Ninevites as people
"who do not know the difference between their right and left hand," which is a Hebrew term describing
children. God saw them as children who needed guidance! And with that conclusion, God shows that, through
the experience with the shade plant and worm, Jonah had only thought selfishly of himself and hadn’t fully
realized God’s compassion for both Jews and Gentiles who were His children and creation.
Despite being a prophet of God, one who clearly and intimately knew Him, Jonah was willing to die for
his anger and vengeful attitude towards Nineveh; it was easier to hate instead of love. Jonah was an illuminating
juxtaposition of human nature against a Divine nature. Jonah wanted to turn to anger, God wanted to turn
from anger; Jonah wanted to condemn and execute, God wanted to forgive and let live. So much is revealed
in God’s question to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry?"
While today’s form of communication is increasingly moving away from literal towards more visual and
pictorial forms, it is incumbent for accurate Bible study to have a sense of the literary styles and devices
of Hebrew and Greek. The vulnerability is whether your language skills will limit your understanding of
Scripture and influence what translation you will select for Bible study. The above is an example of how
the subtleties of language can influence your observation, interpretation, and application of Scripture.
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