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What is an inclusio?

what is an inclusio

Inclusio refers to a literary framing device that repeats a keyword, phrase, similar groups of words, or themes at the beginning and end of a section of text. The repeated language forms a bracket, like bookends; or a pocket of thought, like an envelope. An inclusio frames words and ideas and delineates them into a unit. Inclusios occur frequently in Scripture to create both long and short literary units. Inclusio is sometimes called bracketing.

The word inclusio is a Latin term meaning “confinement, enclosure.” The literary technique of using inclusio strategically informs readers that everything enclosed or inserted between the opening and closing brackets of repeated words or parallel themes supports the passage’s central idea or message. Inclusios help illustrate the unity, correlation, and association of a few lines of prose, multiple stanzas of a poem, or even an entire book.

Full-line inclusios, in which an entire line of text is repeated verbatim, are frequently used in biblical poetry to identify an important theological concept developed throughout the whole psalm. For example, Psalm 8 begins and ends with this line praising God’s greatness: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (verses 1, 9). The body of the psalm reflects on God’s awe-inspiring works and ways, lifting the worshiper’s thoughts away from self and onto God’s greatness.

Throughout every line of Psalm 103, David encourages his whole being to praise the Lord. The idea is encapsulated in this repeated refrain: “Let all that I am praise the Lord” (Psalm 103:1, 22, NLT). Psalm 118 opens and closes with an inclusio summarizing the liturgical purpose of the hymn as a priestly call to worship: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (verses 1, 29).

Full-line inclusios sometimes appear in biblical prose, such as in Ecclesiastes. The theme “everything is meaningless” is introduced in the beginning bracket of Ecclesiastes 1:1–3. The idea develops throughout the book and culminates in the ending bracket of Ecclesiastes 12:8.

Partial-repetition inclusios of the same or similar words and themes are found throughout the Bible. One example is in Jeremiah 30 to 33. The inclusio reveals a unifying “restoration of fortune” theme arising between the bookend verses of Jeremiah 30:3 and 33:26. Hezekiah’s prayer (Isaiah 37:14–20) contains a double inclusio: “You alone are God” and “all the kingdoms of the earth” in verse 16 correspond with “you, Lord, are the only God” and “all the kingdoms of the earth” in verse 20. The preamble of the book of Proverbs envelops the book’s principal purpose and theme in an inclusio that advises readers that Solomon’s proverbs are “for gaining wisdom and instruction” (see Proverbs 1:1–7).

The Gospel writer Matthew employs an inclusio to illustrate the perpetual presence of “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23; cf. Matthew 28:20). Luke uses an inclusio to frame Jesus’ public ministry. In Luke 4:18–20, Jesus declares His mission statement and then launches His ministry. Later, at the close of His public ministry, Jesus gives another mission statement: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

The apostle John uses inclusio to capsulize and develop his teachings about the nature of Christ. Jesus as the Son of God is the theme in John 5—10. The bookends appear in John 5:18 and John 10:33–36, spotlighting Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, who is equal to God and therefore divine.

Chiasm (sometimes called chiasmus) is another literary device involving a patterned set of inclusios in which the opening and closing brackets of words or themes are presented in opposite or reversed order, like so: (A [B {C — C} B] A). An excellent example of chiasm is found in the prayer of Jonah (Jonah 1:17—2:10). The four-level chiasm sets the limits of the literary unit and emphasizes God’s constant redemptive involvement:

Inclusio A (Jonah 1:17—2:1) — God provides a great fish to swallow Jonah
  Inclusio B (Jonah 2:2) — Jonah prays to God from Sheol, a cry for help
    Inclusio C (Jonah 2:3–4) — Although banished from God’s sight, Jonah looks to His holy temple
     Inclusio D (Jonah 2:5–6b) — God causes Jonah to descend to the deep
     Inclusio D (Jonah 2:6c) — God brings Jonah up from the pit
    Inclusio C (Jonah 2:7) — Although His life is ebbing away, Jonah continues to look to God’s holy temple
  Inclusio B (Jonah 2:8–9) — Jonah prays to God from the temple, a shout of praise and thanksgiving
Inclusio A (Jonah 2:10) — God commands the great fish to spit Jonah back onto dry land

These are just a few examples of inclusios in Scripture. This bracketing device has been utilized since the beginning of storytelling (see Genesis 39:2–3; cf. Genesis 39:21–23), allowing orators, writers, and composers to return to their opening theme and reinforce the message by neatly packaging it in an envelope.

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This page last updated: April 24, 2024