Category:Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language/Rhetoric

Old World Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language


In the Book of Mormon the Lord clearly outlines his gospel, particularly in 2 Nephi 31:, 3 Nephi 11:, and 3 Nephi 27:, using a pattern with six major points of doctrine: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism of water, baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, endurance to the end, and eternal life. This same doctrinal pattern appears in the teachings of all the Book of Mormon prophets in the form of injunctions to the people. Throughout the Book of Mormon, the many statements regarding the gospel contain instructive variations on terminology and are often elliptical, leaving out one or more of the six points in any one articulation. However, for an audience familiar with the basic pattern, the allusion to that pattern is perfectly clear.

The elliptical references often take the form of merismus, a classical rhetorical device in which the division of an important topic or statement into component parts allows for its full invocation by explicit listing of selected parts only. In the Hebrew Bible merismus occurs as concise or condensed expressions that, by mentioning the first and last or more prominent elements of a series, invoke the entire list.28 In other words, once a pattern is established in the form of A, B, C, D, E, F (such as the list of elements of the gospel), the mere mention of two or more of these items, such as A and F, is used to represent the entire series. Understood as a formula composed of a list of ordered items, the gospel lends itself well to this rhetorical device. For example, a typical Book of Mormon merism states that believing in Jesus and enduring to the end is life eternal (see 2 Nephi 33:4). While repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost are not explicitly mentioned, they are implied by the use of merismus. Thus, using the pattern described above, the scripture uses the items A, E, and F to evoke the entire list in the minds of readers.

A conservative count of gospel-related merisms in the Book of Mormon gives at least 130 meristic statements of the gospel or doctrine of Christ.29 The use of this ancient rhetorical device in the Book of Mormon, combined with the use of other ancient literary devices, most famously chiasmus, is strong evidence that the Book of Mormon was not the product of nineteenth-century America. Though not the way American writers would ordinarily have invoked formulas or lists, it is an appropriate rhetorical device for a book with ancient biblical connections.[1]

Simile curses

Simile curses are well-attested literary forms in the Old Testament and ancient Near East.2 They also appear in the Book of Mormon.3 A simile curse combines the elements of a simile (a comparison of two things or a resemblance, customarily marked with like or as) with a curse (a statement that misfortune, injury, or death will befall the recipient of the curse). They are found in prophecies, treaties between suzerains and vassals, and in texts pertaining to religious covenants.

A treaty between Ashurnirari V, king of Assyria, and his vassal Mati'ilu contains an example of an ancient Near Eastern simile curse, wherein Mati'ilu is cautioned against breaking the treaty:

If Mati'ilu sins against [this] treaty made under oath by the gods, then, just as this spring lamb, brought from its fold, will not return to its fold, will not behold its fold again, alas, Mati'ilu, together with his sons, daughters, officials, and the people of his land [will be ousted] from his country, will not return to his country, and not behold his country again. This head is not the head of a lamb, it is the head of Mati'ilu, it is the head of his sons, his officials, and the people of his land. If Mati'ilu sins against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is torn off, . . . the head of Mati'ilu be torn off.

An example of an Old Testament simile curse appears in 1 Kings 14, which registers Jeroboam's evil deeds and idolatries in verses 7–8 and then records the curse in verse 10: "Therefore, behold, I [the Lord] will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam . . . and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone." Note the simile marker as, which connects the two points of comparison (house of Jeroboam and dung) to graphically portray the manner whereby the remnant of Jeroboam's family will be exiled. In another example, in 2 Kings 21:12–13, the Lord curses Judah's king Manasseh, members of the tribe of Judah, and Jerusalem for their considerable iniquities. The curse compares the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah to the cleaning of a dirty dish: "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle. . . . I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down."

Given the ancient Near Eastern background of the Book of Mormon, the presence of simile curses therein is not surprising to those who embrace it as an authentic ancient record translated through divine inspiration. For those who believe otherwise, the presence of simile curses in that record is hard to explain, since not many examples of simile curses appear in the Old Testament and it is doubtful that Joseph Smith was aware of their form or setting in scripture.

In the Book of Mormon, the Lord, speaking through his prophet Abinadi, curses king Noah because of his great wickedness. Following the Lord's command, Abinadi stretches forth his hand, introduces his words with the phrase "Thus saith the Lord," and pronounces three curses upon Noah's head, each in the form of a simile. In the first, Abinadi says, "And it shall come to pass that the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace; for he shall know that I am the Lord" (Mosiah 12:3; see v. 10). In the second, Abinadi promises that Noah shall be "as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot" (v. 11); and in the third, the prophet promises the king, "Thou shalt be as the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land" (v. 12). King Noah, the point of comparison in each similes, is likened to a garment, a dry stalk, and the blossoms of a thistle. Noah's subsequent death by fire is recorded in Mosiah 19:20.

The narrative of commander Moroni's raising the title of liberty contains three simile curses. The first is recorded in Alma 46:21: "And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments." In the very next verse the people throw their garments at Moroni's feet and declare: "We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression" (v. 22).

The simile curses in the Book of Mormon have the same form as those of the Bible and ancient Near East, and they appear in similar religious contexts, thus providing additional indications that this volume of scripture was framed in antiquity.[2]


  1. Noel B. Reynolds, "By Objective Measures: Old Wine in New Bottles," 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 6, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Donald W. Parry, "Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon," 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 7, references silently removed—consult original for citations.

Pages in category "Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language/Rhetoric"

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