Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A beautiful example of Alma's use of chiasmus to call a wicked people to repentance

The text of the Book of Mormon makes much more sense when viewed through the lens of Hebrew rhetoric.  This is easy to miss, mostly because we live in a world founded upon an entirely different set of ideas.

Even so, when we look for the patterns of Hebrew rhetoric in the Book of Mormon, we find them all over the place. Poetic forms are one example.  There are certain patterns of repetition an author can use to make a certain point. Repetition is at the heart of Hebrew rhetoric, unlike modern rhetoric, which builds ideas up in a sequential, linear fashion. These Hebrew rhetoric techniques are older than punctuation, word spacing, and paragraphs.

In my last post I looked at a three-fold pairing of "forget/remember" in Alma-2's sermon to the wicked Nephites in Ammonihah, found in Alma 9.  He was setting the stage for the next part of his sermon. See if you can find the structured repetition in the next part of his sermon (or just scroll down to see what I came up with):

19 For he will not suffer you that ye shall live in your iniquities, to destroy his people. I say unto you, Nay; he would rather suffer that the Lamanites might destroy all his people who are called the people of Nephi, if it were possible that they could fall into sins and transgressions, after having had so much light and so much knowledge given unto them of the Lord their God;
20 Yea, after having been such a highly favored people of the Lord; yea, after having been favored above every other nation, kindred, tongue, or people; after having had all things made known unto them, according to their desires, and their faith, and prayers, of that which has been, and which is, and which is to come;
21 Having been visited by the Spirit of God; having conversed with angels, and having been spoken unto by the voice of the Lord; and having the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and also many gifts, the gift of speaking with tongues, and the gift of preaching, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the gift of translation;
22 Yea, and after having been delivered of God out of the land of Jerusalem, by the hand of the Lord; having been saved from famine, and from sickness, and all manner of diseases of every kind; and they having waxed strong in battle, that they might not be destroyed; having been brought out of bondage time after time, and having been kept and preserved until now; and they have been prospered until they are rich in all manner of things—
23 And now behold I say unto you, that if this people, who have received so many blessings from the hand of the Lord, should transgress contrary to the light and knowledge which they do have, I say unto you that if this be the case, that if they should fall into transgression, it would be far more tolerable for the Lamanites than for them.
24 For behold, the promises of the Lord are extended to the Lamanites, but they are not unto you if ye transgress; for has not the Lord expressly promised and firmly decreed, that if ye will rebel against him that ye shall utterly be destroyed from off the face of the earth?

Did you catch the chiasmus?  I didn't at first, but having recently improved both my motivation and ability to detect it, I picked up on the mention of "light and knowledge" in verses 19 and 23. After digging in a little deeper, I put it together. It's beautiful!

Here is the same passage again, color-coded to highlight the chiasmus:

19 For he will not suffer you that ye shall live in your iniquities, to destroy his people. I say unto you, Nay; he would rather suffer that the Lamanites might destroy all his people who are called the people of Nephi, if it were possible that they could fall into sins and transgressions, after having had so much light and so much knowledge given unto them of the Lord their God;
20 Yea, after having been such a highly favored people of the Lord; yea, after having been favored above every other nation, kindred, tongue, or people; after having had all things made known unto them, according to their desires, and their faith, and prayers, of that which has been, and which is, and which is to come;
21 Having been visited by the Spirit of God; having conversed with angels, and having been spoken unto by the voice of the Lord; and having the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and also many gifts, the gift of speaking with tongues, and the gift of preaching, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the gift of translation;

22 Yea, and after having been delivered of God out of the land of Jerusalem, by the hand of the Lord; having been saved from famine, and from sickness, and all manner of diseases of every kind; and they having waxed strong in battle, that they might not be destroyed; having been brought out of bondage time after time, and having been kept and preserved until now; and they have been prospered until they are rich in all manner of things
23 And now behold I say unto you, that if this people, who have received so many blessings from the hand of the Lord, should transgress contrary to the light and knowledge which they do have, I say unto you that if this be the case, that if they should fall into transgression, it would be far more tolerable for the Lamanites than for them.
24 For behold, the promises of the Lord are extended to the Lamanites, but they are not unto you if ye transgress; for has not the Lord expressly promised and firmly decreed, that if ye will rebel against him that ye shall utterly be destroyed from off the face of the earth?
What follows below is my best attempt to group the paired concepts together and highlight the central theme -- that the Nephites have been blessed both temporally and spiritually by God, and if they do not repent, they will be destroyed, both temporally and spiritually.


19/24 For he will not suffer you that ye shall live in your iniquities, to destroy his people. / for has not the Lord expressly promised and firmly decreed, that if ye will rebel against him that ye shall utterly be destroyed from off the face of the earth?

Alma likens living in iniquity to rebelling against God and pairs the destruction that comes to a people through their own wickedness to the destruction promised by God to the chosen people who rebel against Him.

19/23-24 I say unto you, Nay; he would rather suffer that the Lamanites might destroy all his people who are called the people of Nephi, / it would be far more tolerable for the Lamanites than for them. 24 For behold, the promises of the Lord are extended to the Lamanites, but they are not unto you if ye transgress;

Alma reminds the Nephites if they continue to reject God (1) The Lamanites will destroy them and (2) the promises made to the Lamanites remain in force even though their promises will be replaced with a curse.

19 /23 if it were possible that they could fall into sins and transgressions, / if they should fall into transgression,

19/23 after having had so much light and so much knowledge / should transgress contrary to the light and knowledge which they do have,

Alma reminds these wicked Nephites that they have fallen into transgression despite their having "so much light and so much knowledge."

19-20/23 given unto them of the Lord their God; 20 Yea, after having been such a highly favored people of the Lord; / 23 And now behold I say unto you, that if this people, who have received so many blessings from the hand of the Lord,
These words bracket the central theme of the passage (discussed below). Alma wants to highlight the spiritual and temporal blessings that have come to the Nephites.  They are both "highly favored" and "delivered" but they risk losing it all.

In the central passage, Alma outlines the many blessings enjoyed by the Nephites.  He starts with the spiritual list, then pivots to the temporal list.

  • yea, after having been favored above every other nation, kindred, tongue, or people;
    • after having had all things made known unto them, according to their desires, and their faith, and prayers, of that which has been, and which is, and which is to come; 
    • 21 Having been visited by the Spirit of God; 
    • having conversed with angels, and having been spoken unto by the voice of the Lord; 
    • and having the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and also many gifts, the gift of speaking with tongues, and the gift of preaching, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the gift of translation; 
  • 22 Yea, and after having been delivered of God out of the land of Jerusalem, by the hand of the Lord; 
    • having been saved from famine, and from sickness, and all manner of diseases of every kind; and they having waxed strong in battle, that they might not be destroyed; 
    • having been brought out of bondage time after time, 
    • and having been kept and preserved until now; and they have been prospered until they are rich in all manner of things—
This is a remarkable example of chiasmus, and the structure serves a much bigger purpose than just inverted repetition.  Alma uses the structure to stir up some of the people to repentance. (Ironically, these believers are later killed by the wicked leaders.)

Critics of the Book of Mormon would have us dismiss all of this internal structure as either coincidental or nothing more than "Hickory Dickory Dock" or Dr. Seuss-like repetition.  I don't buy it.  This goes way deeper than that.

Scriptural repetition -- An introduction

In this paper , Alan Goff makes a good case for intentional repetition in ancient Hebrew scripture (including the Book of Mormon whose write...