Q&A: Literary Structure of the Jacob Stories

Literary Structure of the Jacob Stories

What is the broader literary structure of the Jacob story in Genesis 25:19–37:1?

High Definition Video Standard Definition Video
Loading...

(Right click this link to download video.)

Answer

Any time you talk about the outline of a section or a part of the Old Testament, you have to keep in mind that, with rare exception, biblical writers did not write their stories, or their poems and the like, with an outline in mind. As if, Now I'm on part one. Now I'm on part two. Now I'm on part three. Instead, what we're talking about is interpreters looking at texts that were written and finding patterns that are identifiable, which means, then, that every outline is using certain criteria to analyze the structure and the logical connections. And depending on what criteria you use, you're going to come up with different outlines.

Well, one of the criteria that you can use is that of balance, or echo, or reflection, or parallels, between earlier sections and later sections. And when it comes to the story of Jacob, this is certainly the case that we can see very plainly, just obviously, that Jacob's story divides into three main parts. The middle section of chapters 29–31 is where Jacob is with Laban. That's the centerpiece of this story of Jacob's life because on the front side of that you have the events between Jacob and Esau, and on the backside of that you have events concerning Jacob and Esau. So, obviously then, the story of Jacob divides into these three main parts, and the first part correlates with the last part, and the middle section, on Jacob and Laban in chapters 29–31 is something of a hinge or a transition piece between that first and that last part.

Now, you could call that a chiasm, if you want to, and to say that the centerpiece is the crossing of the two others and that sort of thing, but when you find even more detailed parallels, say, between the first section and the last section as in the case of Jacob, then you come to the point where, if you have enough of these parallels, you could actually call it an "intentional chiasm," where the writer is thinking in terms of, "I've done this. I've done this. I've done this in the first part; now I'm going to do these things that have rough correlations back to the earlier part."

The biggest problem, though, with identifying chiasm is the way people treat them, the way they understand their interpretive significance. Naturally, it almost seems inevitable that people want to say that the centerpiece of a chiasm is the most important part. But that just isn't always the case. In the case of Jacob's story, it would be hard to prove that Jacob and Laban together, that middle section of his life, is the most important part of the story of Jacob. A better way to go at this is to say that what's most important from a chiasm, from noticing chiastic structures, is that one part correlates with another. And because of those correlations that come out in that kind of a structure, you have the opportunity then to compare and contrast the correlating sections. And that's what's valuable when it comes to the story of Jacob. The early parts of Jacob's life correlate to later parts of Jacob's life, and when you see those correlations, which involve both contrasts and comparisons, when you see both of those together and they pop up between these various sections, then you have the opportunity to see what Moses as the author is emphasizing in both of those sections. Comparisons and contrasts, that's the key for understanding the significance of a chiasm.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.