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Source:Echoes:Ch11:4:Chiasmus in Alma 36
Chiasmus in Alma 36:
Chiasmus in Alma 36:
Chiasmus is a style of writing known in antiquity and used by many ancient and some modern writers. It consists of arranging a series of words or ideas in one order and then repeating it in reverse order. In the hands of a skillful writer, this literary form can serve several literary and structural purposes. In the 1820s, two British scholars (John Jebb in 1820 and Thomas Boys in 1824 and 1825) published books about their new recognition of this form of parallelism in the Bible, and the 1825 edition of Horne's encyclopedic guide to the critical study of the Bible, printed in London and Philadelphia, discussed the main arguments and gave a few examples from Jebb.16 But I see little reason to believe that the young and unlettered Joseph Smith was aware of these books or, even if he were, that he would have been sufficiently equipped to create elaborate and meaningful passages utilizing a form rather foreign to his own culture's way of thinking and writing.
Not all chiasms, of course, are created equal. They differ in significance, precision, and artistic achievement. Some are very clear; others are not. Some are very long; others are short....
Alma 36 is, in my opinion, the very best chiasm in the Book of Mormon, if not in all of world literature. Alma 36 was one of the first chiasms I discovered while serving as a missionary in Regensburg, Germany, in 1967.17 Many years later, it still remains my favorite. It is a masterpiece of composition on several levels.
- Level 1: The overall structure. This text features at least seventeen key elements, each repeated twice (italics identify repeated elements, and verse numbers are indicated 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 Remember the captivity of our fathers (2)
- e They were in bondage (2)
- f He surely did deliver them (2)
- g Trust in God (3)
- h Supported in trials, troubles, and afflictions (3)
- i Lifted up at the last day (3)
- j I know this not of myself but of God (4)
- k Born of God (5)
- l I sought to destroy the church (6)
- m My limbs were paralyzed (7–11)
- n Fear of being in the presence of God (14–15)
- o Pains of a damned soul (16)
- p Harrowed up by the memory of sins (17)
- q I remembered Jesus Christ, a Son of God (17)
- q' I cried, Jesus, Son of God (18)
- p' Harrowed up by the memory of sins no more (19)
- o' Joy as exceeding as was the pain (20)
- n' Long to be in the presence of God (22)
- m' My limbs received strength again (23)
- l' I labored to bring souls to repentance (24)
- k' Born of God (26)
- j' Therefore my knowledge is of God (26)
- h' Supported under trials, troubles, and afflictions (27)
- g' Trust in him (27)
- f' He will deliver me (27)
- i' and raise me up at the last day (28)
- e' As God brought our fathers out of bondage and captivity (28–29)
- d' Retain in remembrance their captivity (28–29)
- c' Know as I do know (30)
- b' Keep the commandments and ye shall prosper in the land (30)
a' This according to his word (30)
The structural design of this text is amazing. I am especially impressed with the repetition of Jesus Christ as the Son of God at the precise center of the chapter.
- Level 2: The full text. At a more detailed, literary level, we are able to detect how individual panels of text fill in the gaps between the main elements. There is no simple way to display these segments here, but they have been discussed in previous publications noted above. As has been shown, virtually every word serves to enhance the chapter's overall structure. Sometimes they skillfully bridge from one section to the next. Other times they strengthen individual segments. Altogether, they work in masterful harmony.
- Level 3: Detailed relations between the paired sections. The impressive overall structure of the full text of this complex passage becomes even more evident as pairs of sections are examined. For example, elements a and a' introduce and conclude the chapter by referring to Alma's "words" and the "word" of God (see 36:1, 30), and d-e-f and f'-e'-d' speak reciprocally of bondage and deliverance. Indeed, the elements in d-e themselves constitute a small chiasm:
- for they were in bondage,
- 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 (36:2; see 36:29)
Elements h and h' are both marked by the same triplet "supported under trials, troubles, and afflictions" (36:3, 27). In h' the third member is stressed ("yea, and in all manner of afflictions") to make the repetition clear (36:27).
Sections l and l' draw the contrast between Alma's persecution of the church on the one hand and his work to bring souls to repentance on the other. In m and m' the comparison is between being stricken by the angel of the Lord and then recovering and regaining strength; both of these sections speak of "limbs," "feet," and falling down or standing up (36:7–11, 23).
Most dramatically, n and n' contrast the agony of Alma's suffering (36:12) with his joy following his conversion (36:20). Indeed, the contrast is made explicit: "Yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain" (Alma 36:20, emphasis added). This overt comparison strongly supports the idea that Alma consciously created the chiastic structure of this chapter in order to strengthen these linkages.
A remarkable thing about Alma 36:22 is that Lehi's words are not just summarized but precisely quoted. These twenty-one words are a verbatim quote of 1 Nephi 1:8. Such exactness cannot be explained by thinking that Joseph turned to 1 Nephi and copied the words of Lehi from what Oliver Cowdery had already recorded from Joseph's dictation, for 1 Nephi may not yet even have been translated at the time when Joseph and Oliver were translating Alma 36.18 Evidently, Alma was very meticulous in quoting Lehi's words from the small plates of Nephi when he composed Alma 36, and Joseph Smith's dictated translation preserved that exactitude.
Elements q and q' stand at the epicenter of this composition, twice mentioning the Savior by name: "Jesus Christ, a Son of God," and "Jesus, thou Son of God" (36:17, 18). Only when Alma called upon Jesus Christ after remembering that his father had spoken of the atonement of Christ did his tormented condition change. At the absolute center stand the words atone, mind, and heart, bordered by the name of Jesus Christ (36:18, 19). The message is clear: Christ's atonement and man's responding sacrifice of a broken heart and willing mind are central to receiving forgiveness from God.
- Level 4: Weaving factors. The fact that each segment flows smoothly into the next adds another dimension to the textual complexity of this chapter. No awkwardness, no sharp breaks are found here. Bridges connect each section to the one that follows it. These linkages are accomplished largely by introducing a minor item in one section that anticipates ideas in the next. For example, the phrase my words, which appears at the end of the first section, blends into the beginning of the next, which begins with the phrase for I swear (36:1). Captivity at the end of the third compositional section blends directly into bondage at the beginning of the fourth (36:2). These weaving links are subtle but effective. They make the transitions from section to section smooth and flowing. This reflects a highly polished literary product. If an author uses chiasmus mechanically, it can produce rigid, stilted writing (a poor result from misusing or poorly implementing any artistic device). Alma, however, does not simply stick a list of ideas together in one order and then awkwardly and slavishly retrace his steps through that list in the opposite order. His work has the markings of a skillful, painstaking writer, one completely comfortable with using this difficult mode of expression well.
- Degree of chiasticity. Overall, the degree of chiasmus in this text is exceptionally high. Chiasmus can occur in any literature, but it only becomes meaningful when its degree of chiasticity, to coin a phrase, is high. When the chiastic format is truly complex and concise, we are most justified in supposing that the author intentionally followed the pattern. At least fifteen criteria, including objectivity, purposefulness, climax, centrality, boundaries, length, density, and balance, as described here, demonstrate that the chiasmus in Alma 36 can best be explained only if Alma learned it as part of a long literary tradition extending back to Old Testament prophets.