Source:Echoes:Ch11:5:Chiasmus in Helaman 6

Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7–13

Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7–13

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....

Another fine example of chiasmus is found in Helaman 6:7–13, the annual record for the sixty-fourth year of the reign of the judges. Its main features are as follows:

a "And behold, there was peace in all the land" (6:7).
b [Freedom of travel and trade in both lands is discussed (6:7–8)]
c "And it came to pass that they became exceedingly rich, both the Lamanites and the Nephites;
d and they did have an exceeding plenty of . . . precious metals, both in the land south and in the land north" (6:9).
e 1 "Now the land south
e2 was called Lehi, and
e3the land north
e4 was called Mulek,
e5 which was after the son of Zedekiah;
5 for the Lord
4 did bring Mulek
3 into the land north,
2 and Lehi
1 into the land south" (6:10).
d' "And behold, there was all manner of gold in both these lands, and of silver, and of precious ore of every kind;
c' and there were also curious workmen, who did work all kinds of ore and did refine it; and thus they did become rich" (6:11).
b' [Economic prosperity in both lands is discussed (6:12–13)]

a' "And thus the sixty and fourth year did pass away in peace" (6:13).</blockquote>

This composition is remarkable in several ways. First, the report itself is beautifully executed. The overall structure is concentrically organized, and individual words, phrases, and ideas that appear in the first half are repeated with precision and balance in the second half. This entry exhibits both fine quality and admirable length.

Second, since the chiasm encompasses the entire report for the year, this unifying structure strongly suggests that the account was written as a single literary unit that Mormon found on the large plates of Nephi. If the contemporary historian used chiasmus to record the events of the sixty-fourth year of the reign of the judges, the form draws attention to the fact that it was an extraordinary year in the annals of his people. Indeed, this report documents the great changes that occurred during that year involving prosperity, free travel, and peace between the Nephites and Lamanites. Significant trade and peace treaties must have been entered into in order for this kind of peace and prosperity to occur, since before this time, limited travel was the norm in Nephite society, as is evidenced by Mosiah 7:1; Mosiah 8:7; Mosiah 28:1; Alma 23:2; Alma 50:25; and Helaman 4:12. In addition to marking an unprecedented turning point in Nephite history, using chiasmus would insure against additions to or deletions from the text, since any alteration would be strikingly apparent.

Third, and most remarkable, is the way in which the center of this chiasm involves two individual words. Just as divine names often appear at the center of biblical chiasms, at the very apex of this passage in Helaman 6, the words Zedekiah and Lord stand parallel to each other. The parallelism between these two names is intriguing not only because Zedekiah was the king and adoptive royal son of Yahweh, the Lord, but also because the Hebrew word for Lord (YHWH) constitutes the final syllable, or theophoric suffix, -yah, at the end of the name Zedekiah. Thus the central chiastic structure in Helaman 6:10 actually would have worked better and would have been more obvious in Hebrew (or its related Nephite dialect) than in the English translation. Joseph Smith would have had no way of consciously concocting this parallelism on his own.

Finally, it may be that other reports from antiquity were written in chiastic form. The Mesoamerican Chilam Balam of Chumayel, like Helaman 6, not only focuses chiastically on the migration of the people into the land they now occupy, but also similarly features, at the center, a wordplay on the land's name, as J. E. S. Thompson has noted.20

Helaman 6:7–13 deserves to take its place among the finest examples of chiasmus found in the Book of Mormon. Through understanding this masterful composition, we can better appreciate the precision and richness of an Old World literary legacy in the Nephite records.[1]</blockquote>

Notes

  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.