Literary Features

Chiasm: Saying things forwards and backwards

Chiasm (the adjective is "chiastic") is the arrangement of elements (e.g. of a text) in the form of mirror-like reflection: ABba or abcd*DCBA. Since we became aware of how much biblical authors like to arrange texts in patterns we have discovered many examples of chiasm. These are both large scale (where the echoed element is a phrase, sentence or idea), and small scale (where it is words or sounds that are echoed in the Hebrew text). E.g. Am 5:4-6a:

For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: 

  "Seek me and live;                      a
     but do not seek Bethel,                 b
       and do not enter into Gilgal            c
         or cross over to Beer-sheba;          *
       Gilgal will surely go into exile,        C
     and Bethel shall come to nought." B
   Seek the LORD and live,               A
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, 
   and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel.

Is 1.21-26 provides an example on a larger scale:

21      See how the faithful city
         has become a harlot!
        She once was full of justice;
         righteousness used to dwell in her-
         but now murderers!
22      Your silver has become dross,
         your choice wine is diluted with water.
23      Your rulers are rebels,
          companions of thieves;
        they all love bribes
          and chase after gifts.
        They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
          the widow's case does not come before them.
24      Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty,
          the Mighty One of Israel declares:
        "Ah, I will get relief from my foes
          and avenge myself on my enemies.
25       I will turn my hand against you; 
          I will thoroughly purge away your dross
          and remove all your impurities.
26       I will restore your judges as in days of old,
          your counselors as at the beginning.
         Afterwards you will be called
          the City of Righteousness,
          the Faithful City."

V. 26b echoes v. 21, vv. 25-26a echo 22-23 and v. 24 is the hinge upon which the thought turns, thus this verbal structuring device also indicates the message, which speaks of reversal.

Cohesion: How text sticks together

In our everyday reading we seldom need to think about what "sticks the text together". Our everyday texts have one author and reach us in a final polished form. If they are formal printed texts they have even had the small errors and confusions ironed out by professional editors. With most biblical texts however none of these things can be assumed. Many of the texts we have in the Bible are the product of a tradition, with pieces added at different times. For example, it is unlikely that Amos had the leisure to compose a book (see the story about him 7:10-17 for a hint about his lifestyle). Most likely friends or disciples were the first to remember, then write down his preaching. It is also likely that as time passed other generations of disciples added to the collection, and that their additions were filtered through the concerns of their time.

Reading such a text we cannot assume cohesion. So, we need to ask: is this passage / book cohesive, and if so how?

Cohesion can be produced by two sorts of textual feature: (i) structure and (ii) meaning.

  1. Structural cohesion is also of two different sorts.
    1. The conventional nature of the forms of particular genres of text produce cohesion. For example, judgment oracles usually contain an accusation linked to a judgment. So, if a passage contains a message of judgment follows one which accuses, the text will be read as cohesive.
    2. Links can be made within a text by the words used. Words which refer back ("anaphoresis") or forwards ("cataphoresis") - we know who "I" is in Am 2:9 because of the phrase Am 2:6 "Thus says Adonai"; likewise the "thus" can only be understood because of what follows. Conjunctions and words that make logical connections also link two parts of a text.
  2. Semantic cohesion is produced by the presence of unifying themes or recurring motifs within a text, and also by repetition of other kinds (words, roots, even reversals).

Although cohesion helps coherence however, it does not necessarily produce it.

Coherence: Sense or nonsense

A coherent text makes sense. Its parts work together and produce an effect on the reader. An incoherent text does not work (except in the extreme case of nonsense poetry.) To be coherent a text must be cohesive, but this is not enough alone. The following imaginary example is cohesive but not coherent:

"The cat sat on the mat but mats are made of straw. Cat has three letters and this letter came from Mary. His letter is green, however, mat has three letters."

Coherence implies relevance and meaning too.

Irony: Saying What You Don't Mean & Meaning What You Didn't Say!

Irony is a form of speech where the surface meaning is different from that intended by writer or speaker. So text that criticizes or makes fun of something or someone while seeming to speak positively of them is ironic (e.g. Am 4:4-5).

Irony is the opposition between the overt sense of the words of the text and the intended meaning (or in the case of what is called "dramatic irony" between what a character believes and the narrative reality).

This means that a reader who "misses it" will misunderstand an ironic text totally!

One definition of irony makes this clear: a text is ironic if the evident meaning of the words is absurd (but not because metaphoric language is in use), and if, at the same time, the reverse of this evident meaning makes sense.

Other indications are also sometimes present in the text. E.g. Jer 9:17-18:

17  Thus says the LORD of hosts: 
        "Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; 
                send for the skillful women to come;
18  let them make haste and raise a wailing over us, 
                that our eyes may run down with tears, 
                        and our eyelids gush with water.

Here the ironic intent is signaled by the repetition and verbose style which slow the reader, whilst the text demands that the women addressed "make haste"!

Irony tending towards sarcasm is frequent in the prophets (e.g. Am 4:1ff.) as it is in the debates in the book of Job (e.g. Job 12:2). In general the function of a biblical book will indicate whether irony is likely to be common. Thus, while common in Prophets, it is rare in Psalms, whose goal is worship not polemic.

Sometimes, irony is overtly indicated, Mic 2:6 provides a brief example:
"`Do not preach' -- thus they preach -- `one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.'"
The use of the same word for the activity they wish to forbid and for their act of forbidding it makes the real sense clear.

Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry

Even a simple reading of Hebrew poetry in translation makes us aware of parallelism - pairs of lines which in some way seem to echo each other. Within Ps 2:1-5 for example there is a kind of "thought rhyme" as the lines echo and repeat.

The Rabbis noticed this in the middle ages and Bishop Robert Lowth, in 1753, published his De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum Praelectiones Academicae which marks the beginning of widespread and systematic analysis of this phenomenon.

Following Lowth it has been conventional to distinguish three major sorts of relation between the lines: synonymic, antithetic and synthetic -

synonymic seen in Ps 2:1-5;

antithetic in Ps 2:12 but better in Prov 10.1 (this form is especially common in Proverbs);

synthetic is where the thought simply progresses Ps 2:6-7 - only a similarity of line length produces parallelism.

Recently it has become popular to distinguish many more relationships between lines some of which differ only slightly, and also to recognize grammatical as well as semantic repetitions. This leads to suggestions ranging from the non-existence of Hebrew Poetry to various clarifications and extensions of the idea of parallelism.

Where the relationship is generally synonymic the second line, usually at least, seems to add something to the first -

clarification: vv. 1 & 2; sometimes the clarification is in greater precisionv. 4 (the "one enthroned in heaven" is the LORD, his name is used in the second line, but only a description in the first);

progression is added in v. 3: the bonds are first broken, then thrown off;

intensification is also seen in v. 4: "laughing" is a word which can seem almost playful, scoffing carries rather the idea of scorn and derision.

Parallelism is much more widespread than merely correspondence of meaning, and includes correspondence of "grammatical construction". The effect of parallelism in Hebrew poetry is the cumulation of different kinds of correspondence, predominantly of meaning (semantics) and construction (syntax) but also of grammar, form (morphology) and sound (phonology).

Puns and Word Play in Hebrew Prophecy

Hebrew prophets loved puns and all kinds of word play.

Amos 9:14 at the climax of the book provides an example: וְשַׁבְתִּי אֶת־שְׁבוּת the repetition of shin ( ש ), beth ( ב ) and tau ( ת ) in the phrase "I will return the exiles..." is reinforced a few words later: נְשַׁמּוֹת וְיָשָׁבוּ ("ruined ones and inhabit them"). Each of the words in this alliterative play is from a different root, yet the sounds make an enjoyable pattern. In this case the function seems esthetic.

Puns could serve a much more serious purpose as well. At times, they stimulated the prophet's messages. In Am 8:1-2 the prophet is shown a basket of "summer fruit" קָיִץ. This prompts the message from Adonai קֵץ "the end" is coming...


Repetition is an omnipresent linguistic phenomenon, often complex in its use and effects.

Within a particular text repeating a word, expression, root or even idea can produce strong effects on the reader. Amos repeatedly speaks of "citadels" in the early chapters. During the oracles against the nations (1:3-2:16) in each case - except Israel - the punishment of fire falls on their "citadels". This establishes a negative connotation for the word, linking it to punishment and foreign oppression. When it recurs at 3:9 this seems confirmed since the "citadels" belong to Philistia and Egypt! However, the use in vv.10-11 reminds that their own citadels are guilty and will therefore be punished.

Literary repetition can also be external to the text in question. When one biblical book quotes or refers to another this can be experienced as external repetition. So, quotation, echo and allusion are in a way forms of repetition though external to a particular text (though of course internal to a particular canon). Intertextuality is another way of referring to these effects.

Repetition can also be either at the formal (e.g. where words are repeated) or semantic levels (where a synonym provides the repetition).

Many kinds of repetition are important to biblical texts. Indeed repetition is fundamental in several ways to biblical poetics and narrative.

David Yellin gives several examples from the first chapter of Isaiah, among them:
 noun phrases  v.4 "sinful nation, 
people laden with iniquity, 
offspring of evildoers, 
sons who deal corruptly"
 nouns  v.6 "bruises, sores, bleeding wounds"
 verbs  v.16 "wash yourselves; 
make yourselves clean; 
remove the evil..."


In this case it is the accumulation of synonymic expressions that creates the effect and in combination with the effect of parallelism also beautifies the text.

Rhythm, rhyme, assonance and alliteration are all formal repetitive effects. The place of rhythm in the strict sense poses highly technical problems for discussion of Hebrew poetry, however the effects of rhythm in a broader sense are evident even in prose.

Parallelism is also a kind of repetition.

Sarcastic Speech

The Hebrew prophets did not often use gentle words towards those they opposed. Rather their speech is not infrequently contemptuous, and irony often moved over into sarcasm.

Amos' likening the elite women of the Northern capital to "cows of Bashan", however prized such sleek, well-fed cattle were at the slaughterhouse, was hardly polite (Am 4:1). Nor does his promise to Amaziah: "Your wife shall whore in the city!", (Am 7:17) show the respect and courtesy due to a senior clergyman!


This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2001, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.