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How Does the Book of Mormon Text Reflect a Seventh-Century-BC Israelite Writing Style?

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Post contributed by BMC Team
June 28, 2022
KnoWhy #635
3D Rendering of Gold Plates by Laci Gibbs. Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
3D Rendering of Gold Plates by Laci Gibbs. Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews.”

1 Nephi 1:2

The Know

Since the discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in 1967,1 scholars have found many examples of this literary structure within the book and have highlighted a variety of ways in which it is significant for understanding the Book of Mormon as an ancient text.2 Recently, biblical scholar David R. Seely has taken a closer look at the specific rhetorical forms of chiasmus in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon and found “four specific usages of chiasmus that are relatively distinctive in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah as possible indicators of the seventh-century [BC] Judahite rhetorical tradition.”3 These four chiastic types are found in the Book of Mormon, suggesting it is part of this same rhetorical tradition.4

First, Seely identified what he called “chiasmus of speaker” rather than of topic: “The inversion in the chiasmus is not with the themes or the keywords of the passage, but rather with the speakers.”5 An example of this chiastic form can be found in Deuteronomy 1:20–31. In these verses, Moses speaks first (vv. 20–21), then the Israelites (v. 22), then Moses (vv. 23–24), with the spies in the middle (v. 25), and then Moses, the Israelites, and finally Moses again to conclude (vv. 26–31). This creates an ABCDCBA pattern. Central to this chiasm is the all-important positive report of the spies sent into Canaan (v. 25).6 Another chiasm following this pattern can be found in Jeremiah 8:18–21, which details an ABCBA conversation between Jeremiah and the Lord, with the words of Jehovah at the center.7

In the Book of Mormon, Seely has not yet identified any chiasms using this same pattern of speakers, but he noted “a similar example involving the reversal of the subjects in the text.”8 In 2 Nephi 25–30, Nephi uses a chiastic pattern to discuss three groups of people—namely, the Jews, the Lehites, and the Gentiles—and their acceptance of the gospel:9

A

25:9–30 Jews: Messiah goes to Jews and is rejected

 

B

26:1–18 Lehites/Nephites: Christ visits the Nephites and is accepted then later rejected

   

C

26:19–29:14 Gentiles: pride of the Gentiles

   

C

30:1–3: Gentiles: Gentiles accept the Book of Mormon and Christ

 

B

30:4–6: Lehites/Lamanites: Lamanites accept the Book of Mormon and Christ

A

30:7 Jews: Jews accept the Book of Mormon and Christ

Second, Seely found that chiasms were “frequently used to complete poetry—usually occurring at the end of a poem or a stanza.”10 Some examples of this use of chiastic structure are found in Deuteronomy 32:43, completing the Song of Moses, and Jeremiah 6:21, which ends a poetic stanza.11 Many instances of chiasms used to complete a stanza or unit of text in the Book of Mormon have likewise been found, including the end of 1 Nephi’s introduction in chapters 1 and 2:12

1:20:

A

and they also sought his life, that they might take it away.

   

B

But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.

2:1:

   

C

For behold, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream.

     

C

and said unto him: Blessed art thou, Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done;

   

B

and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold

 

A

they seek to take away thy life.

Another instance of this use of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon includes Alma 5:62, which concludes Alma’s sermon to the people of Zarahemla:13

A

I speak by way of command unto you

 

B

that belong to the church

 

B

and unto those who do not belong to the church

A

I speak by way of invitation.

Third, in the seventh century BC, chiasmus or semi-chiasmus often used a common particle in the middle of two ideas. For example, Deuteronomy 32:27 creates a semi-chiasm by the repeated use of the word lest, which Seely and others have argued gave Jeremiah a formula to follow in his own prophetic writings.14 This can be seen in Jeremiah’s use of the words like in Jeremiah 9:22 and before in Jeremiah 13:16 to create semi-chiasms.15 Many similar examples can be found in the Book of Mormon, such as Mosiah 29:20:16

A

But behold, he did deliver them

 

B

because they did humble themselves before him;

 

B

and because they cried mightily unto him

A

he did deliver them out of bondage

Fourth, chiastic forms often involved a rhetorical question or a series of rhetorical questions appearing in the middle of the chiasm. Because Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and the Book of Mormon “are full of preaching both to contemporary audiences as well as to future audiences,”17 these questions are used to invite the reader to reflect on the messages presented. Deuteronomy 4:1–14 forms a chiasm that contains two rhetorical questions regarding the greatness of Israel near the center (vv. 7–8), and Jeremiah 8:18–21 similarly has a central question posed by the Lord to his people.18

2 Nephi 29:3–6 contains a marvelous use of chiasmus, focusing on the powerful rhetorical questions presented in verse 4:19

A

3 And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.

 

B

4 But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible;

   

C

and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people.

     

D

And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them?

       

E

Yea, what do the Gentiles mean?

         

F

Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me,

           

G

in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?

           

G

5 O ye Gentiles,

         

F

have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people?

       

E

Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them.

     

D

But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads;

   

C

for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.

 

B

6 Thou fool, that shall say:

A

A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?

 

The Why

It has been nearly fifty-five years since chiasmus was first discovered in the Book of Mormon. As scholars have looked more closely at the use of this literary and rhetorical feature of the text, it has increasingly rewarded close reading with more and more insight. As John W. Welch noted not long after first making the discovery, because that book employs “numerous chiasms, it thus becomes logical to consider the book a product of the ancient world and to judge its literary qualities accordingly.”20

Originally presented at the fiftieth anniversary international jubilee celebration of Welch’s discovery, Seely’s study put Welch’s observation to the test, examining the Book of Mormon’s use of chiasmus more specifically within the context of Israelite literature from the seventh century BC. As Seely meaningfully concluded, these four types of chiasmus are part of “literary patterns [which] are prominent and, in some cases, distinctive features of a seventh-century [BC] Judahite rhetorical tradition. Similarly, the discovery of these same literary features in the Book of Mormon can sharpen our reading and study of this ancient book coming from the same period and rhetorical tradition.”21

As has been often observed, given how little was known about the biblical use of chiasmus in 1829,22 it is unlikely Joseph Smith could have not only written hundreds of elegant and effective chiastic structures but also done so in a way that accurately follows literary and rhetorical conventions common to Israelite literature of the seventh century BC. Thus, recognizing these stylistic features further strengthens the Book of Mormon’s claim that the earliest writings within its pages were originally written by a small group of Israelites from that time period.

It also deepens the reader’s appreciation of the elite scribal skill and literary art that Nephi possessed and passed on to his record-keeping successors—no doubt part of “the learning of the Jews” Nephi received from his father (1 Nephi 1:1–2).23 Understanding more about how the rhetorical tradition of Lehi and Nephi’s time influenced and shaped the Book of Mormon’s very strong use of this literary style can help all readers better value, respect, and obey this elegant, powerful, and complex testament of Jesus Christ.

 

Further Reading

David R. Seely, “‘With Strong Hand and with Outstretched Arm’ (Deuteronomy 4:34); ‘With Outstretched Hand and with Strong Arm’ (Jeremiah 21:5): Chiasmus in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah,” in Chiasmus: The State of the Art, ed. John W. Welch and Donald W. Parry (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University; Springville, UT: Book of Mormon Central, 2020), 129–150.

John W. Welch, “How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?,” FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 47–80.

John W. Welch, “What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 199–224.

John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1969): 69–83.

 

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KnoWhy Citation

Book of Mormon Central, “How Does the Book of Mormon Text Reflect a Seventh-Century-BC Israelite Writing Style? (1 Nephi 1:2),” KnoWhy 635 (June 28, 2022).