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Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

For this article I am going to discuss an ancient literary form known as chiasmus. Chiasms appear in Greek, Latin, English and other languages, but it was most highly developed in Hebrew. This writting style was essentially unknown in Joseph Smith's time.

Chiasmus can be defined most simply as an inverted type of parallelism. This is where two thoughts might be mentioned and then they are repeated in reverse order.

For MY thoughts are not YOUR thoughts, Neither are YOUR ways MY ways, saith the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)

It we look at this graphically, the simple chiasm takes on the form of a X:

        a   b
        b   a

The name chiasmus, derived from chi (X), the 22nd letter in the Greek alphabet. A couple examples from English are: "Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he", and "He who fails to prepare, prepares to fail."

Whereas in languages such as Greek, Latin, and English, chiasms are most often composed of two elements, in Hebrew there appears to be no limit to the number of terms or ideas that may be employed. An illustration of this with five elements is found in Psalm 3:7-8;

        a. Save me
          b. O my God,
            c. For thou has smitten
              d. All my enemies
                e. On the cheek-bone
                e' The teeth
              d' Of the wicked
            c' Thou has broken.
          b' To Yahweh
        a' The salvation.

A second example comes from Isaiah 60:1-3:

        a. Arise,
          b. Shine,
            c. For thy light is come,
              d. And the glory
                e. Of Yahweh
                  f. Upon thee is risen
                    g. For behold, dimness shall cover the earth
                    g' And gross darkness the peoples.
                  f' But upon thee will arise
                e' Yahweh
              d' And his glory shall upon thee be seen
            c' And nations shall come to thy light
          b' And kings to the brightness
        a' Of thy rising.

This can show why Chiasmus was attractive to the ancient Hebrew. First, chiasms are easy to memorize and would be useful since the Hebrew tradition was mainly oral. Second, chiasmus was simple a vogue. Just as 16th century English poets were fond of the sonnet, chiasmus seems to have been preferred by many of the ancient Hebrew writers. Third, the form can be very pleasing aesthetically.

Although the form was recognized and published as early as 1820 in London, it was not until 1854 in a study by John Forbes (The Symmetrical Structures of Scripture) that a full appreciation or understanding of chiasmus was developed. Nils Lund in 1942 published some of the rules that chiasmic forms followed. Three of these are particularly interesting for this study:

1. The center of the passage is always the turning point
2. Identical ideas will often be distributed so as to occur at the beginning, middle, and end of a chiasm, but nowhere else.
3. There is often a mixture of direct parallel and inverted parallel lines in the same unit.

John Welch accidently discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in the late sixties. He had been studying chiasmus in Homer and other ancient books and reasoned that it should be expected in the Book of Mormon. He found that not only are chiasmic structures found in the Book of Mormon, but that they cover whole chapters and books. Until his studies were published in 1969 no scholar had been able to propose a satisfactory reason for the division of Nephi's history into two books--First Nephi and Second Nephi--the first books in the Book of Mormon. The First Book of Nephi has been shown to be a large and complex chiasm from beginning to end while Nephi's second book is simply a narrative without form.

 Ch. 1          a. Lehi's dream leads him to PROPHESY WARNINGS to the Jews.
 Ch. 2            b. The DEPARTURE from Jerusalem.
 Ch. 3-5            c. Nephi accomplishes a great FEAT in obtaining the brass
                       plates; the brothers are confounded. (1 Nephi 3:7)
 Ch. 7                d. ISHMAEL joins the group with his daughters.
 Ch. 8                  e. The Tree of Life
 Ch. 10                   f. Lehi prophesies about the OLD WORLD
                             and the coming of the Lamb.
 Ch. 11                     g. Nephi and the Spirit of the Lord.
 Ch. 12-14                f' Nephi prophesies about the NEW WORLD and the
                             coming of the Lamb.
 Ch. 15                 e' The Tree of Life interpreted
 Ch. 16               d' The sons of Lehi marry the daughters of ISHMAEL
                         and ISHMAEL dies.
 Ch. 17             c' Nephi accomplishes a great FEAT by building a ship; the
                       brothers are confounded. (1 Nephi 17:3)
 Ch. 18           b' The DEPARTURE from the Old World.
 Ch. 19-22      a' Nephi WARNS the Jews and quotes the PROPHECIES of Isaiah.

John Welch points out several interesting insights: "Should we consider it contrived that Ishmael is mentioned only twice in the entire Book of Mormon and that these two occurrences just happen to fall symmetrically around 1 Nephi 11 (chapters 7 and 16)? How else, except by chiasmus, can we explain the postponed interpretation of the vision of the tree of life? One would expect the interpretation to follow immediately after the dream, as most interpretive passages in the Book of Mormon do, and not several chapters later."

"Are we to believe that the unruly brothers of Nephi really waited nine chapters to marry the daughters of Ishmael: are we to neglect such specific parallels between the first half of 1 Nephi and its second half--e.g. 3:7 and 17:3--or again the fact that Nephi wrote two books (1 Nephi and 2 Nephi) instead of just running it all together into one, except by reference to the individual structure of each book?"

After announcing in an academic journal the remarkable discovery that an ancient and highly specialized Hebrew literary style could be found in the Book of Mormon, a world-famous, non-Mormon scholar called it the "most stunning information I've learned concerning the Book of Mormon."

Another good example of a large chiasmic structure is from a speech given by King Benjamin. This was a speech that was prepared beforehand and given to the people at the time when the kingdom was to be passed to his son. That particular gathering could be the subject for another complete proof for the Book of Mormon that Hugh Nibley calls one of the most object proofs. The whole speech is a large chiastic structure of over 13 elements and at the center of that speech is the following:

Mosiah 3:18     A. ". . . HUMBLE themselves and
                  B. become as little CHILDREN
                    C. through the ATONING BLOOD OF CHRIST, THE LORD Omnipotent.
Mosiah 3:19           D. For the NATURAL MAN is an enemy
                        E. to GOD, and
                          F. HAS BEEN from the fall of Adam,
                          F' and WILL BE, forever and ever,
                        E' unless he yields to the HOLY SPIRIT, and
                      D' putteth off the NATURAL MAN and becometh a Saint
                    C' through the ATONEMENT OF CHRIST THE LORD, and
                  B' becometh as a CHILD, submissive, meek,
                A' humble . . ."

Another example from the speech of King Benjamin from Mosiah 5:10-12:

        a. Whosoever shall not take upon him the NAME OF CHRIST
          b. must be CALLED by some other name;
            c. therefore, he findeth himself on the LEFT HAND OF GOD.
              d. And I would that ye should REMEMBER also, that this is
                 the name . . .
                e. that never should be BLOTTED OUT,
                  f. except it be through TRANSGRESSION;
                  f' take heed that ye do not TRANSGRESS,
                e' that the name be not BLOTTED OUT of your hearts . . .
              d' I would that ye should REMEMBER to retain the name . . .
            c' that ye are not found on the LEFT HAND OF GOD,
          b' but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be CALLED,
        a' and also, the NAME by which he shall call you.

The prophet Alma uses chiasmus to very forcefully protray his conversion process. His experience is related in the book of Mosiah but only here in the 36th chapter of the book of Alma does he use chiasmus in relating the experience to present a powerful message to his son. Verses in parentheses.

    a. My son, give ear to my words (1)
      b. Keep the commandments and ye shall prosper in the land (1)
        c. Do as I have done (2)
          d. Captivity of our fathers--their bondage (2)
            e.He surely did deliver them (2)
              f. Trust in God (3)
                g. Support in trials, troubles and afflictions (3)
                  h. I know this not of myself but of God (4)
                    i. Born of God (5)
                      j. Alma seeks to harm the church (6)
                        k. Limbs paralyzed (10)
                          l. Fear of the presence of God (14)
                            m. Pains of a damned soul (16)
                              n. Alma remembers Jesus Christ (17)
                                o. Christ will atone for the sins of the
                                   world (17)
                              n' Alma calls upon Jesus Christ (18)
                            m' Joy as exceeding as the pain (20)
                          l' Longing to be with God (22)
                        k' Use of limbs returns (23)
                      j' Alma seeks to bring souls unto God (24)
                    i' Born of God (26)
                  h' My knowledge is of God (26)
                g' Supported under trials, troubles, and afflictions (27)
              f' Trust in him (27)
            e' He will deliver me (27)
          d' Egypt--captivity (28-29)
        c' Know as I do know (30)
      b' Keep the commandments and ye shall prosper in the land (30)
    a' This is according to his word (30)

>From John Welch: "Given our twentieth-century understanding of chiastic writings and their historical occurrences, this one chapter is strong evidence that the Book of Mormon was not written in the nineteenth century."

"This chapter is as extensive and precise as any chiastic passage I am aware on in ancient literature. Besides having practical structural value, chiasmus has a distinct charm and beauty in a passage such as this. The first ten verses and the last eight form an artistic frame around the central motif which contrasts the agony of conversion with the joy of conversion. In the center Alma makes this contrast explicit, when he says in verse 20, "my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain." No literary device could make this contrast more forcefully than chiasmus. Moreover, chiasmus allows Alma to place the very turning point of his entire life exactly at the turning point of this chapter: Christ, because of the effects of the future atonement, belongs at the center of both. Compared with the antithetic parallelisms found in the recounting of this incident recorded in Mosiah 27, the chiasmus in Alma 36 is monumental and meaningful."

There are other equally impressive examples, but this is long enough for now.

To those who might say that Joseph Smith just included these examples of chiasmus because he noticed it in the Bible, let me add.

1. The King James translation reorders some of the phrases and the chiasmic structure is not evident.

2. It takes a great deal of time and effort to write chiasmic passages, and what reason would he have had to write them anyway?

3. If he did expend the effort to write chiasmic passages, doesn't it seem strange that he didn't try to exploit that effort by pointing it out?


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John Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," THE NEW ERA, February 1972

John Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," BOOK OF MORMON AUTHORSHIP Ed: Noel B. Reynolds, (Bookcraft, 1982)