Category:Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language/Hebraisms/Chiasmus

Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language/Hebraisms

“Chiasmus” is an elegant literary device where parallel phrases are inverted.

Chiasmus was popular in the ancient languages like Greek, Latin, and especially Hebrew. It is found in the Bible and the Quran and other ancient documents.

Here is a simple example:

(A) And he shall turn the heart of the fathers

(B) to the children,
(B’) and the heart of the children

(A’) to their fathers. Malachi 4:6

Use of Chiasmus in American writing was virtually non-existent until the mid-nineteenth century. It wasn't until 1967 when John Welch first discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.[1]

Consider that Joseph Smith had almost no formal education, and chiasmus was virtually unknown in Western civilization in 1830 when the Book of Mormon was published.[2] The majority of the chiastic passages were written by three Book of Mormon authors: Nephi, Benjamin, and Alma, who all were descendants of Lehi and his Hebrew traditions, but almost completely missing from writings of Mormon, Moroni and Ether.[3] Also consider that there are several examples in the Book of Mormon, including Alma 36, which is one of the best chiasmus anywhere.

Chiasmus in Alma 36:

John Welch, who discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in 1967 wrote the following:

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...

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. [4]

Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7–13

John Welch, who discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in 1967 wrote the following:

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...

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).

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.[5]


  1. John W. Welch, “The Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: Forty Years Later,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, no. 2 (2007): 74–87, 99.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.