Ancient literature, including classical Greek and Latin, and also the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, made extensive use of what are called “chiastic” structures. Here is a good reference on chiasmus that will introduce you to the subject.
The greatest master of the English language, William Shakespeare, also used chiasmus, especially as he matured as a writer. I like this article on the Bard’s use of chiasmus.
Basically the idea of chiasmus is that the critical or key point of the chiasm is at the center of the structure, and that corresponding supporting ideas parallel each other on either side of the chiasm. The ideas do not always use exactly the same words, but the thoughts and ideas are parallel. Here is an example from Isaiah Chapter 6 verse 10.
A “Make the heart of this people fat,
B and make their ears heavy,
C and shut their eyes;
C1 lest they see with their eyes,
B1 and hear with their ears,
A1 and understand with their heart, and convert [return], and be healed.”
Chiasmus is a potent literary device to enhance the impact of writing (and associated reading of the written word, common in an oral tradition).
Mormons assert that the Book of Mormon was written by a people with their linguistic roots in Hebrew from about the 6th century B.C. If Book of Mormon is an authentic book, then it likely contains chiasms. And indeed it does—it contains many of them.
Professor John Welch discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and has written extensively on it. I recommend the writings of Professor Welch if you want to learn more about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Here is a good link to get you started, but don’t click on it right now. Wait a few minutes, trust me, please. 🙂
My favorite chiasm in the Book of Mormon is found in Alma 36. The entire chapter is a chiasm, and it is probably the best chiasm in all the literature that I have ever read. With all due respect to the Bard of Avon, Shakespeare never wrote any chiasm nearly as long or as powerful as the one in Alma 36. Here is the chapter in question.
The writer of this chapter was a man named Alma (yes, an authentic male name with Hebrew roots–that is yet another piece of evidence that I will consider in another blog). In his youth Alma rebelled against God, using his great powers of language to lead people away from God. A visit from an angel of God got Alma’s attention and turned him around. Alma outlines that process, and his attendant suffering, in this chapter.
The central doctrine of Christianity is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, his vicarious sacrifice on behalf of humankind to free us from the effects of death and sin. Alma describes the suffering he underwent until his mind “caught hold” on the Atonement. The central point of this chiasm is the Atonement of Jesus Christ (see verses 17 and 18; the whole chapter turns on this key point, and there are seventeen chiastic elements on either side of that central point. Before you proceed any further reading this blog, try to find all seventeen of the chiastic elements on either side of the central thought: the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
OK, have you struggled enough? 🙂
Now you can go to the link above at jefflindsay.com and read the subsection dealing with Alma 36. I have copied below from Lindsay’s article the chiastic structure of Alma 36 with the seventeen parallel ideas and their corresponding verses in parentheses.
(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1)
(b) KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS of God and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (2)
(c) DO AS I HAVE DONE (2)
(d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2);
(e) for they were in BONDAGE (2)
(f) he surely did DELIVER them (2)
(g) TRUST in God (3)
(h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3)
(i) shall be 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 of God (6-9)
(m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10)
(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, 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 their 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 is according to his WORD (30).
This complex, parallel arrangement of ideas cannot be an accident. This was a deliberate, designed use of chiasm by a great writer, a man named Alma.
I am completely bowled over by this complex, beautiful chiasm, a whole chapter long, on the central doctrine of Christianity, the Atonement. What a wonderful witness that Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer.
So my dear readers, your education is infinitely better than Joseph Smith’s. And you have much more time to write, research and revise your writing than ever he did. He actually had none. He and his family were busy grubbing out a living in upstate New York in the early 1800s. They had to work all the time just to stay alive.
So I ask you: did you know about chiasmus before now? And even if you knew about it, could you write a chiasm as extensive and beautiful as the one (Mormons believe) was written by an ancient prophet named Alma? I respectfully invite you to try to write one on some serious subject. I am a decent writer, and I cannot even come close, although I have tried.
And if you cannot write a chiasm like Alma 36, would you please seriously consider the proposition that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be: a record of an ancient people and their dealings with God?
I invite you to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder it, think about it, struggle with it, and then ask God if it is true. Ask with a deep sincerity and commitment to follow the consequences of your answer wherever they may lead you. And you will know for yourself.
I have done so. I know the Book of Mormon comes from God and is powerful evidence that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.
Oh that clever kid Joseph Smith, he not only knew about chiasmus, but he was able to write what I believe is the best chiasm in all of literature.