The Middle Matters: Chiasm in the Pentateuch
One of the things I appreciate most about the Bible Project material, and Biblical Theology in general, is its recognition that the Bible is one big story. From beginning to end it tells us about God, his creation, and what he has done and is doing to save a people for himself. Most of us know that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Collectively these books are called the Pentateuch – the Five Books. They introduce the great themes in our Bible and are foundational to our understanding of who God is and who we are. Like the Bible itself, there is a unity and structure to the Pentateuch.
Working under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Moses arranged the five books of the Pentateuch in a chiastic structure to help us see what God is saying in the very first words he has given us. A chiasm gets its name from the shape of the Greek letter Chi – Χ. If you cut the letter in half vertically, you get something that looks like an arrowhead. Like that arrowhead, a chiasm is a literary structure where the main point is found in the center and is flanked by matching sets of supporting points.
Deuteronomy is a second telling of the law. Here Moses is preparing the people to enter into the land promised to them in Genesis 12 and 15 (Deut. 1:8). He does so by giving them instructions on how they should live in the land that God is giving them (Deut. 4:1). He urges them to teach their children how to live before God (Deut. 6:4-9) that God might secure them in the land, increase their number, and bless them (Deut. 7:12-14, 11:1-25). So, Genesis and Deuteronomy jointly introduce and reinforce the reality that is God who gives us the land from which we are sustained, offspring in whom we hope, and ultimately the blessing of himself.
Similarly, Exodus and Numbers form a pair. Exodus opens by telling us how God brought his people out of Egypt. It closes with detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Numbers inverts this sequence. It begins with instructions for serving in the Tabernacle and with the Tabernacle's consecration. It ends with the people setting out toward the land of promise. All of this moves us toward the covenant promises of land, seed, and blessing.
In the center of it all is the book of Leviticus. This book forms the very heart of the Pentateuch because, in this chiastic structure, what stands at the center is what it is all about. God has promised his people a land to sustain them, the fruitfulness to become a people, and his very blessing. He has saved them from oppression in Egypt, set the promised land before them, and given them the Tabernacle that he might dwell among them. But how is it that a sinful people can live in the presence of a holy God? How can deceitful hearts rightly worship the God who is truth? Leviticus answers these questions. (https://kenwoodbaptistchurch.com/sermons/in-the-beginning)
Leviticus tells us that God has made a way for his people to live in peace with him, to worship him rightly, and to enjoy his blessing forevermore. That way is composed of three parts. Chapters 1-7 and 23-27 describe the sacrifices God has provided to atone for our sins. Chapters 8-10 and 21-22 tell us about the priesthood he has given to intercede for us. Chapters 11-15 and 17-20 includes the laws he has ordained so that we might live lives of purity before him. Finally, at the theological center of the book, we find the Day of Atonement. (https://bibleproject.com/blog/old-rituals-new-realities)Despite all the sacrifices outlined in chapters 1-7 and 23-27, the people are still guilty. There is sin that we have forgotten, never realized we committed, or are too ashamed to confess. The day of atonement addresses that sin. It is a way of saying that try as we might, we cannot live in peace with this God by our own effort. He must make a provision for the depths of our sinfulness that even we don't fully appreciate or understand. So, Leviticus describes for us how God has made a way to deal with our sin, provided priests to interceded for us, and crafted laws that allow us to live in his presence.
The amazing thing is that all these sacrifices, priestly duties, and rituals point forward to Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of all those Old Testament sacrifices. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He is the great High Priest who stands in the presence of God and intercedes for us (Heb 4:14-16, Rom 8:34). It is by his righteousness that we are made righteous (Rom 3:21-22, 2 Cor 5:21). The whole point of the Pentateuch is that God has called a people to be his own. He longs to bless them with a home, with a family, and with his presence. Yet those people are more than flawed, they are sinful. Leviticus tells us how God will accomplish his purposes for us in spite of our rebellion against him. He will do it by sending his Son to be the sacrifice for our sins, to serve as the priestly intercessor we need, and to provide the righteousness without which no man shall see God.
Wow. Really eye-opening. I have recently, last two years, had my eyes opened to chiastic structure of many small sections of biblical text and had seen Leviticus was designed in that pattern but had never realized the entire Pentateuch is a chiasm. Once you start to see it, you realize it’s everywhere in the scripture. It fits the cosmic mountain, Temple, Mount Zion, garden imagery with a same literary high point. Thanks much. This is helpful.