The Structure of a Text
When studying a biblical text, it is important to consider its structure. How does a psalm flow? How does a narrative unfold? How are legal commands linked together to create a coherent message?
Readers of Genesis are accustomed to dividing the book into 50 chapters. The chapter divisions and verse numbers are not original, however. They were added later, in order to help us refer to a particular text with greater ease. The text of Genesis itself manifests a tenfold division. After a prologue (Genesis 1:1-2:3), the Hebrew phrase Aylah toledot (“These are the generations of”) divides the book into ten parts. The sixth section begins These are the generations of Terah. It encompasses 11:27 to 25:11, and its main character is Abraham.
But what is the structure of this most important section of Holy Scripture? And how does it inform our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What follows is my current answer to these questions.
There are a few interesting events that quickly jump out to the reader of this section of Genesis. The first is the fact that Abraham twice hands Sarah over to a foreign ruler to save his own life. Didn’t Abraham just do that?! The second is the appearance and reappearance of Lot and Sodom & Gomorrah, when the story would seem to flow just fine without mentioning Lot at all. A third is the fact that Abraham twice engages with Sodom, and he does so faithfully.
It’s especially interesting that these three are joined together in the biblical text. We initially read of Sarah, with Lot and Abraham immediately following. Then, a little later, we read of Abraham, Lot, and Sarah, in reverse order.
The Chiasm of 11:27-25:11
This invites us to ask whether this section of Genesis could be chiastic, a structural technique already employed in the Flood narrative. (A chiasm is a mirroring structure, where the first part mirrors a second part. This is a small chiasm: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. It unfolds in the pattern ABC-CBA). My tentative conclusion is that this entire section of Genesis unfolds in a chiastic pattern. This is as follows:
A Nahor, Haran, Deaths, Sarah’s barrenness, Marriages & children (11:27-32)
B God’s promise and Abraham’s fidelity (12:1-9)
C Sarah – “Abraham’s sister,” taken by Pharaoh (12:10-13:1)
D Lot and Sodom & Gomorrah (13:2-13)
E Abraham is faithful toward Lot & Sodom (13:14-14:24)
F The Abrahamic Covenant is established through Sarah & Isaac, not Hagar & Ishmael (ch. 15-17)
E’ Abraham is faithful toward Lot & Sodom (18:1-33)
D’ Lot and Sodom & Gomorrah (19:1-38)
C’ Sarah – “Abraham’s sister,” taken by Abimelech (20:1-18)
B’ God’s promise and Abraham’s fidelity (21:1-22:19)
A’ Nahor’s family, Haran, Death of Sarah & Abraham, Marriage (22:20-25:11)
The Center of the Chiasm
If the above structure is correct, F, the central component of the chiasm, is being highlighted for us. Along with Old Covenant Israel, Genesis is directing our attention to the Abrahamic Covenant and Abraham’s promised seed, who is ultimately Jesus Christ.
It is worth unpacking F further. This central component alternates between the formal institution of the Abrahamic Covenant and the matter of Abraham’s elect heir. Who would become the next patriarch? This juxtaposition highlights the covenant purpose of God to establish Isaac, not Ishmael, as the chosen patriarch. The Abrahamic Covenant would be renewed with Isaac, the son of promise – not Ishmael, the son of human works.
15:1-21 Covenant-making ceremony
16:1-16 Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael
17:1-14 Covenant Sign/Seal instituted
17:15-21 Sarah, Ishmael, and Isaac
17:22-27 Covenant Sign/Seal is applied
Paul guides us in better-understanding the significance of these matters in Galatians 4:21-31. He teaches us that it was inappropriate for Ishmael, the child of a slave woman, to become patriarch, since God’s people are destined for freedom. Thus, we are like Isaac, the son of a free woman. We are not born of human effort, but rather through promise. Unlike the slave, we have an inheritance – the new creation of God, which we receive in Abraham’s promised seed, the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16).