Peter Leithart on Multiple Structures of Biblical Texts

I deeply enjoyed Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture by Peter Leithart.  Chapter 5 is called “Texts Are Music” and it speaks to the literary structure of biblical texts.

Essentially Leithart argues that there may be more than one valid way to arrange a biblical passage.  Furthermore, multiple structural possibilities do not muddle the text but enhance and enrich it.

Leithart says, “Like intertextuality, multiple structure is virtually inescapable, especially in narratives and poetry” (143).  And, “Biblical writers are sensibly complicated, happy to tell several stories simultaneously and arrange their texts in three or four ways at once, just like normal people” (144).

Lately I’ve been preaching through the Book of Daniel, so I want to apply Leithart’s point to the whole work.  There are multiple ways scholars arrange Daniel’s twelve chapters.

First, here’s a simple arrangement into two parts:

  • Chapter 1-6:  Primarily Court Narratives
  • Chapter 7-12: Primarily Apocalyptic Visions

Second, there’s a well-established chiastic arrangement of the Aramaic section (which comprises Daniel 2-7):

  • Chapter 2: A Vision of Empires as 4 Metals
  •      Chapter 3: The Deliverance of Three Faithful Jews
  •           Chapter 4: The Arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar
  •           Chapter 5: The Arrogance of King Belshazzar
  •      Chapter 6: The Deliverance of Daniel
  • Chapter 7: A Vision of Empires as 4 Beasts

Third, from p. 325 of God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, Jim Hamilton develops the chiasm even more, including chapters 1 and 8-12:

  • Chapter 1: Daniel Exiled
  •      Chapter 2: Nebuchadnezzar’s Vision
  •           Chapter 3: Deliverance from the Fiery Furnace
  •                Chapter 4: Nebuchadnezzar Humbled
  •                Chapter 5: Belshazzar Humbled
  •           Chapter 6: Deliverance from the Lion’s Den
  •      Chapters 7-9: Daniel’s Visions
  • Chapters 10-12: Daniel’s Vision of the End of the Exile

Fourth, on p. 27 of his article “Daniel’s Seventy Weeks and the New Exodus,” Peter Gentry offers two chiastic structures between the book’s prologue and epilogue:

  • Chapter 1: Prologue
  •      Chapter 2: Image of Four Metals: Triumph of God’s Kingdom
  •           Chapter 3: Persecution of Daniel’s Friends
  •                Chapter 4: Humbling of Nebuchadnezzar Before God
  •                Chapter 5: Humbling of Belshazzar Before God
  •           Chapter 6: Persecution of Daniel
  •      Chapter 7: Vision of Four Beasts: Triumph of God’s Kingdom
  •      Chapter 8: Vision of Future History
  •           Chapter 9: Daniel’s Prayer and God’s Response
  •           Chapter 10: Daniel’s Grief and God’s Response
  •      Chapter 11:1-12:4: Vision of Future History
  • Chapter 12:5-13: Epilogue

Now to summarize.  If readers simply divide the Book of Daniel in half, the transition from court narratives (1-6) to apocalyptic visions (7-12) is highlighted.  If the Aramaic section (2-7) has its own structure, then the chiastic arrangement makes this section distinct.  But perhaps the Hebrew section (1, 8-12) should also be incorporated, so Hamilton and Gentry present two ways on how to do it.

The Book of Daniel demonstrates that multiple legitimate literary structures can exist within one work.