When we read passages of Scripture, we sometimes get so caught up in our own personal interests that we miss the main point the author was emphasizing. In doing this, not only do we risk confusing the meaning of the passage but we can miss some life-changing truths that God wants to use to strengthen us and help others.
The Flood narrative is a good example. Studying the details to prove that it was a global, not a local, catastrophe is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but have you ever asked yourself why the author devotes so much attention to certain details of the Flood?
Before you answer, consider: What message did the Hebrews need to hear on their hazardous trek from Egypt to the Promised Land? Finding the answer may provide insights that will help us in truly unexpected ways.
The Value of Studying Literary Structure
The main message of a passage is often plainly evident, as the Bible typically gives us many valuable clues, both direct and indirect. In the Flood account the overarching message is remarkably clear—God’s judgment and mercy. But by looking carefully at the details, we find that there is more to the Flood account. It highlights certain facets of these grand truths in extraordinary ways.
To gain a more complete understanding of what a biblical author is communicating in passages like this, a reader needs to look at not only the content of the presentation but also the arrangement of the content. Many of us have never considered this aspect of studying a biblical passage, so some more background on the topic is in order.
The manner in which the content is arranged is referred to as the literary structure. The authors of Scripture, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit, employed a variety of different arrangements to communicate the message vividly and with great impact. So it helps to know some of these arrangements. One of the most interesting types of literary structure found in Scripture—and one that will help us most in identifying the central point of the Flood account—is called a chiasm or chiastic structure.
A Powerful Type of Literary Structure in Hebrew: Chiasm
Chiastic structures appear in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, in both prose and poetry. Chiasm has nothing to do with fiction or nonfiction; it’s just a method of rearranging words for effect, often to highlight statements or themes that are of central importance.
Simply defined, a chiastic structure is a literary device in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are stated in a particular order and then are repeated in reverse order (sometimes with modification).1 It is perhaps easier to illustrate a chiastic structure rather than to define it. Consider the following examples from the book of Daniel.
Daniel 1:1–21 describes how Babylon besieged the city of Jerusalem and then carried away the young man Daniel and his friends as prisoners of war. Notice how the first and last points parallel each other, as do the second and second-to-last points, as well as the two central points. More importantly, notice how the author uses the chiastic structure to focus attention on the central point: Daniel’s faithfulness to God.
A. Babylon assumes supremacy over Israel (1:1–2).
B. The young men are subjected to pagan training (1:3–7).
C. Daniel seeks to remain faithful to God (1:8–14).
C'. Daniel succeeds in remaining faithful to God (1:15–16).
In the famous account of Daniel in the lions’ den, notice again how the first and last points in the account are parallel, as are the second and second-to-last points, etc. The account begins and ends with Daniel’s success, and the central portion uniquely focuses on Daniel’s deliverance (Daniel 6).
A. Introduction: Daniel succeeds (6:1–3).
B. Darius signs a decree and Daniel takes a stand (6:4–10).
C. Daniel’s opponents seek to orchestrate his demise (6:11–15).
D. Darius hopes for Daniel’s deliverance from the lions (6:16–18).
D'. Darius witnesses Daniel’s deliverance from the lions (6:19–23).
Chiasm in the Flood Account
The literary structure in Genesis 6–9 highlights the central point of the Flood account: "God remembered Noah."
The Flood account in Genesis 6:9–9:19 employs an elaborate chiastic structure on a much larger scale (see sidebar below). Notice the central statement of remarkable theological significance: “But God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).3 This, it turns out, is the central point of the passage.
The passage begins with an introduction about Noah and his sons (6:9–10) and concludes with another description of Noah and his sons (9:18–19). Between these two “bookends” is a series of points that appear later in reverse order. For example, chapter 6 talks about the corruption of all flesh (6:11–12) and the end talks about God’s covenant with all flesh (9:1–17). We see God’s resolution to destroy the earth by Flood (6:13–22), followed by God’s resolution never again to destroy the earth by Flood (8:20–22). The pattern continues until the focal point, God’s remembrance of Noah (8:1a).
The strategic organization of key numbers marks progression of time in the Flood account and reinforces the chiastic structure (again, see the sidebar). The account opens with “seven days” (7:4, 7:10)
and closes with “seven days” (8:10, 8:12). Next we see a reference to “forty days” (7:12), which appears later, in reverse order (“forty days,” 8:6). At the center are two references to “one hundred fifty
days” (7:24, 8:3), bracketing the key verse “
God remembered Noah” (8:1).
In a sense, one structure (key numbers) is woven together with the other (key events), amplifying the central point of the Flood account. Again, at the very center of the structure is the pivotal statement,
But God remembered Noah.”
The Chiastic Structure of Genesis 6–9
Genesis 6–9 employs a literary structure called a chiasm, named after the Greek letter chi (χ). The concepts are carefully arranged in a particular order and then are repeated in reverse order to highlight a central theme. It is easier to illustrate than to describe. Notice the central statement.
A. Transitional Introduction: Noah and His Sons (6:9–10)
B. The Corruption of All Flesh (6:11–12)
C. God’s Resolution to Destroy the Earth by Flood (6:13–22)
D. God’s Command and Noah’s Response: The Entrance into the Ark (7:1–10)
E. The Beginning of the Flood: The Inundating of the Earth (7:11–16)
F. The Rising of the Waters (7:17–24)
G. God’s Remembrance of Noah (8:1a)—central theme of the account of Noah's Flood
Interestingly, key numbers marking the progression of time appear in a similar progression and reversed order: 7, 40, 150, 150, 40, 7. The order of these key numbers amplifies the central point of the Flood account: “God remembered Noah.”
A. “Seven days” (7:4, 7:10)
B. “Forty days” (7:12)
C. “One hundred fifty days” (7:24)
C'. “One hundred fifty days” (8:3)
Precious Truths Highlighted by the Structure
Paying close attention to the literary structure of the Flood account unveils many precious truths that can encourage us and anyone else who may be wavering in their faith.
First, the chiastic structure is one evidence of the majestic unity of the divinely inspired Flood narrative. With the rise of the theologically liberal Documentary Hypothesis (JEPD) in the nineteenth century and the continued denial of Moses’s authorship of Genesis, the unity of the Flood narrative has come under severe attack from liberal critical scholars. The Documentary Hypothesis sees in the Flood narrative two (or sometimes more) sources, pieced together by a redactor (editor).
Even without considering the problem that this view contradicts other Scriptures’ clear claims that Moses authored Genesis,4 the Flood account’s incredible organization argues strongly against the notion that some haphazard editorial process produced the Flood account.
It is highly unlikely that material drawn from multiple sources written by different authors at different times (as the Documentary Hypothesis claims) could later be successfully compiled to read so coherently.5 The Flood account’s chiastic structure evidences a level of organization that would be expected of a work written by a single, masterful author trained in Pharaoh’s best schools.
Second, the chiastic structure aids in emphasizing that the focus of the Flood narrative moves beyond the message of judgment to one of mercy. Prior to the climactic focal point in Genesis 8:1, everything in the Flood account serves to depict, step by step, the acts of God’s justice that brought cataclysmic destruction upon the earth and the wiping out of all land-dwelling creatures not in the Ark. After Genesis 8:1, the narrative aims to describe the unfolding of divine acts of compassion that brought a renewal of life to the devastated world.6
It is important to note that the center of the Flood account (marked by the center point of the chiasm) is not the same as the climax of the Flood event (when the floodwaters reached their highest level). Equating the center point and the climax has led to some confusion in interpretating the Flood account, especially as it relates to determining the date on which the floodwaters reached their peak.
Third, and perhaps most important, the chiastic structure highlights a statement of exciting theological significance. The chiastic structure emphasizes that God’s remembering Noah is of utmost significance. Here, God’s remembrance does not mean He has forgotten something but that in His faithfulness He focused His attention on Noah and those with him on the Ark. The result was God’s loving and gracious intervention to bring about the end of the Flood.7
The concept of God remembering those faithful to Him is prominent throughout Scripture. The same terminology appears when God remembers Abraham, Rachel, and Hannah (Genesis 8:1, 19:29, 30:22; 1 Samuel 1:19). Scripture employs the same idea when it introduces God’s work of rescuing Israel from slavery: “and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 2:24). Prayers asking God for His remembrance appear conspicuously in the lives of Samson, David, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, and Nehemiah (Judges 16:28; 2 Kings 20:3; Nehemiah 5:19, 13:14, 13:22, 13:31; Psalm 25:7; Isaiah 38:2; Jeremiah 15:15).
In each of these passages, it is readily apparent that God’s remembrance means that He focuses His attention on those who trust in Him. Almost invariably His remembrance is coupled with His loving and gracious intervention.
This reassuring point applies to the life of present-day believers as well. Even though the New Testament does not employ the same terminology as Genesis 8:1 in speaking of redemption through Christ, a strong case can be made that God’s work of salvation parallels His “remembrance” in the Old Testament, theologically speaking.
The Bible is clear that salvation flows out of God’s love and grace (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:8–9; 1 John 4:10; etc.) Also, salvation requires God’s intervention. Those who are “dead in . . . trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) are incapable of doing anything to bring about their own salvation. However, the Bible goes on to say, “
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love
with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places
in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4–7).
So it is fair to connect God’s act of remembering Noah and His ongoing keeping of believers as the focus of His attention. God lovingly keeps us in mind throughout our lives, as He did Noah; and He will ultimately deliver from the coming judgment all who trust in Jesus Christ, just as He delivered Noah from the Flood.