Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon


One of the more amazing capabilities of the human mind is its ability to pick out patterns from apparently random data. It is this ability which enables us to recognize an animal as a bird, for example, even if we have never seen that particular species before. It enables us to recognize voices over a telephone line, even though the instrument drops over sixty percent of the harmonic information from the signal. It enables us to establish causal patterns between events – we learn at an early age that touching a hot stove results in pain, and this pattern prevents us from getting hurt in this manner again.

Occasionally, however, this pattern recognition ability misfires, and it creates patterns where none exist. We have all stared up at the sky, and seen familiar objects in the clouds. We stare at the moon and see a face. (Some people have even imagined a face on Mars!) We experience an involuntary fear response when suddenly confronted with an object that vaguely resembles a snake, even though it may be nothing more harmful than a twig. In short, we can be deceived by this marvellous ability.The deception is heightened when emotion is involved. Fear turns ordinary shadows into menacing figures. An unfamiliar voice is briefly mistaken for that of a lover. Emotion clouds our judgment, and often results in perceived patterns where none exist. For example, we find ourselves thinking about a friend, just before the person calls. Immediately, the mind imagines a causal link between the two events, ignoring all the occasions when the friend called without our thinking about them, or when we thought about the person and they failed to call.

So it is, in my opinion, with the issue of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Some of these examples may seem to be compelling, but when closely examined, they turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. An example given by John Welch is that of Alma 36. The chiastic structure, according to Welch, is as follows:

(a) words (vs 1)
(b) keep commandments, prosper (1)
(c) do as I have done (2)
(d) the captivity of our fathers (2)
(e) they were in bondage (2)
(f) deliver (2)
(g) trust in God (3)
(h) supported in trials, troubles and afflictions (3)
(i) lifted up at the last day (3)
(j) know of God (4)
(k) born of God (5)
(l) destroy the church (6)
(m) limbs paralysed (10)
(n) presence of God (14)
(o) pain (16)
(p) memory of sins (17)
(q) Jesus Christ, son of God (17)
(q’) Jesus Christ, son of God (18)
(p’) memory of sins (19)
(o’) pain (20)
(n’) presence of God (22)
(m’) limbs freed (23)
(l’) bring souls to repentance (24)
(k’) born of God (24)
(j’) knowledge of God (26)
(h’) supported in trials, troubles and afflictions (27)
(g’) trust in God (27)
(f’) deliver (27)
(i’) raised up at the last day (28)
(e’) delivered from bondage (28)
(d’) remembered their captivity (29)
(c’) do as I have done (30)
(b’) keep commandments, prosper (30)
(a’) word (30)
In order to dissect this structure, I have included the full text of Alma 36 below, with the chiastic elements marked.1 My son, give ear to my words; (a)
for I swear unto you,
that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments
of God ye shall prosper in the land. (b)
2 I would that ye should do as I have done, (c)
in remembering the captivity of our fathers; (d)
for they were in bondage, (e)
and none could deliver them except it was the God of Abraham,
and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he surely did deliver them in their afflictions. (f)
3 And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth,
and therefore, I beseech of thee
that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me;
for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God (g)
shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their
afflictions, (h)
and shall be lifted up at the last day. (i)
4 And I would not that ye think that I know of myself–
not of the temporal but of the spiritual,
not of the carnal mind but of God. (j)
5 Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God (k)
I should not have known these things;
but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel,
made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself;
6 For I went about with the sons of Mosiah,
seeking to destroy the church of God; (l)
but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
7 And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder,
and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet;
and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.
8 But behold, the voice said unto me:
Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel.
9 And he said unto me:
If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed,
seek no more to destroy the church of God.
10 And it came to pass that I fell to the earth;
and it was for the space of three days and three nights
that I could not open my mouth,
neither had I the use of my limbs. (m)
11 And the angel spake more things unto me,
which were heard by my brethren,
but I did not hear them;
for when I heard the words–
If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself,
seek no more to destroy the church of God–
I was struck with such great fear and amazement
lest perhaps I should be destroyed,
that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.
12 But I was racked with eternal torment,
for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree
and racked with all my sins.
13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities,
for which I was tormented with the pains of hell;
yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God,
and that I had not kept his holy commandments.
14 Yea, and I had murdered many of his children,
or rather led them away unto destruction;
yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities,
that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God
did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. (n)
15 Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and
become extinct both soul and body,
that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God,
to be judged of my deeds.
16 And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked,
even with the pains of a damned soul. (o)
17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment,
while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, (p)
behold, I remembered also to have heard my father
prophesy unto the people concerning the
coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, (q)
to atone for the sins of the world.
18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought,
I cried within my heart:
O Jesus, thou Son of God, (q�)
have mercy on me,
who am in the gall of bitterness,
and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
19 And now, behold, when I thought this,
I could remember my pains no more; yea,
I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. (p�)
20 And oh, what joy,
and what marvelous light I did behold; yea,
my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! (o�)
21 Yea, I say unto you, my son,
that there could be nothing so exquisite
and so bitter as were my pains.
Yea, and again I say unto you, my son,
that on the other hand,
there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.
22 Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw,
God sitting upon his throne,
surrounded with numberless concourses of angels,
in the attitude of singing and praising their God;
yea, and my soul did long to be there. (n�)
23 But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, (m�)
and I stood upon my feet,
and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.
24 Yea, and from that time even until now,
I have labored without ceasing,
that I might bring souls unto repentance; (l�)
that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy
of which I did taste;
that they might also be born of God, (k�)
and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
25 Yea, and now behold, O my son,
the Lord doth give me exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors;
26 For because of the word which he has imparted unto me,
behold, many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted,
and have seen eye to eye as I have seen;
therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken,
as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God. (j�)
27 And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind,
yea, and in all manner of afflictions; (h�)
yea, God has delivered me from prison,
and from bonds, and from death;
yea, and I do put my trust in him, (g�)
and he will still deliver me. (f�)
28 And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, (i�)
to dwell with him in glory;
yea, and I will praise him forever,
for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt,
and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea;
and he led them by his power into the promised land;
yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage
and captivity from time to time. (e�)
29 Yea, and he has also brought our fathers
out of the land of Jerusalem;
and he has also, by his everlasting power,
delivered them out of bondage and captivity,
from time to time even down to the present day;
and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity; (d�)
yea, and ye also ought to retain in remembrance,
as I have done, their captivity.
30 But behold, my son, this is not all;
for ye ought to know as I do know, (c�)
that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God
ye shall prosper in the land; (b�)
and ye ought to know also,
that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God
ye shall be cut off from his presence.
Now this is according to his word. (a�)
When we look at the passage in its entirety, several things become obvious.The first thing that we note is that there is an awful lot of repetition in this passage. In fact, this is a feature of the Book of Mormon in general. Mark Twain noted that the book was ‘chloroform in print’. A number of other commentators have alluded to the large amount of repetition in the Book. Given that there is so much repetition, does this not increase the chances that at least some passages would display a roughly chiastic structure? Especially when we depart from the strict definition of a chiasm, and note that there are a number of elements that have no parallels, and still others that have parallels that are outside of the chiastic structure.Take, for example, the phrase ‘born of God’. It occurs four times in this passage (and seven times in the book of Alma). Two of these occurences are worked into the chiastic structure by Welch – verses 5 and 24. A third occurence, in verse 26, can also be worked into the structure, because it occurs between elements L and J. The fourth occurence, in verse 23, is found between elements M and L. If, as Welch asserts, this passage were deliberately intended to be chiastic, why would the author include elements that break the structure? A similar problem afflicts element I, which is actually misplaced in the chiastic structure. Again, to labour the point, the phrase ‘harrowed up’ occurs three times (verse 12, 17 and 19). Two of these, verse 17 and 19, can be worked into the chiastic structure. The third, in verse 12, cannot.In short, it is my belief that Joseph Smith did not intend for Alma 36 to be chiastic. He was probably completely unaware of the technique. The chiasms that Mormon researchers find all over the Book are, in fact, a result of the incredible amount of repetition contained therein, and are well within the bounds of probability. This, coupled with the rather loose definition of a chiasm employed by the researchers, wherein they can include only those elements which fit the structure, and discard those elements which don’t, results in a large number of imaginary chiasms in the Book.

To illustrate this point, I close with a rather specious example. I opened the first book that I found on my desk, which happened to be a copy of the INFORMIX-OnLine Database Administrator’s Guide, and turned to the introduction. There I found the following passage, with the chiastic elements marked –

OnLine is a server for client applications (a). More specifically, OnLine is a database server that processes (b) requests for data from client applications. It accesses the requested information from its databases (c), if possible, and sends back the results. Accessing the database includes activities such as coordinating concurrent requests from multiple clients, performing read and write operations to the databases, and enforcing physical and logical consistency on the data.The client is an application program (d) that a user runs to request information from a database. Client applications use Structured Query Language (SQL) to send requests for data to OnLine. Client programs (d’) include the DB-Access utility and programs that you write using INFORMIX-ESQL/C, INFORMIX-4GL, or INFORMIX-NewEra.Client processes are independant of OnLine processes. Database users run client applications as the need arises to access information (c’). The OnLine administrator starts the OnLine processes by executing the oninit utility. OnLine processes are presumed to execute continuously during the period that users access the databases. See Chapter 10, “What is the Dynamic Scalable Architecture” for a description of the OnLine processes (b’), and the methods by which they serve client applications (a’).