Source:Rediscovering the Book of Mormon:Ch:11:1:Chiasmus in Alma 36

Poetry in the Book of Mormon text: Chiasmus of Alma 36

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language

Poetry in the Book of Mormon text: Chiasmus of Alma 36

Chiasmus is a style of writing known in antiquity and mused 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 purposes. The repeating of key words in the two halves underlines the importance of the concepts they present. Furthermore, the main idea of the passage is placed at the turning point where the second half begins, which emphasizes it. The repeating form also enhances clarity and speeds memorizing. Readers (or listeners) gain a pleasing sense of completeness as the passage returns at the end to the idea that began it. Identifying the presence of chiasmus in a composition can reveal many complex and subtle features of the text....

We now are in a position to see how complex the chiasm of Alma 36 really is. Chiasmus can occur in any literature, but it only becomes meaningful when its degree of chiasticity is high. Only when the chiastic format is truly complex and concise are we justified in supposing that the author intentionally followed the pattern. Judged by the following criteria, the degree of chiasmus in Alma 36 is extremely high and can best be explained by concluding that Alma learned it as part of a long literary tradition extending back to Old Testament prophets.

Objectivity. The chiastic pattern of Alma 36 is objectively verifiable. It is not based on loose connections, imaginative synonyms, or conceptual relationships. Few texts contain such overt evidence as this.

Purpose, climax, and centrality. Chiasmus is an excellent literary device to convey the sense of conversion. The turning point of Alma's chapter communicates both in form and substance the turning point of Alma's life. Thus, the placement of the name of Jesus Christ at the center of Alma 36 is highly purposeful. The central elements of this passage are its focus.

Boundaries. Chiasm is strongest if it operates upon a whole literary unit. Alma 36 is a literary unit.

Length. The longer and clearer the chiasm, the higher its degree of chiasticity. Alma 36 is among the longest clear chiasms found anywhere.

Density and dominance. Alma 36 contains 1230 total words. Around 175 figure directly in the chiasm. And these 175 are substantial, not minor, words in the text.

Mavericks and random repetition. A chiasm is less convincing if important words in the structure appear elsewhere in the text outside the suggested arrangement. Alma 36 meets this rule very well. For example, of the thirty key structural words, only three ("word," "commandments," and "know") ever appear outside their respective sections. There is very little random repetition of these thirty key words or of any other words in Alma 36.

Balance. Alma 36 exhibits a strong degree of balance. The first half of the structure contains 52.4% of the words, and the second half, 47.6%. Even minor words like "behold" (six times in each half) and "my" (eighteen times in the first half and seventeen in the second) occur equally in the two halves.

Return. Alma 36 conveys a powerful sense of completeness. It clearly returns to the ideas with which it began.

Stylistic Compatibility. Alma wrote other passages that are strongly chiastic. For example, there is Alma 41:13-15, which was apparently given by Alma to Corianton on the same day he gave Alma 36 to Helaman. Obviously chiasmus was distinctly part of Alma's literary style and not a one-time fluke.

Aesthetics. Alma 36 is fluent and harmonious. Chiasmus is a rather rigid pattern, yet here it does not draw undue attention to itself, and it does not detract from the warmth we would expect in such a personal account.

Setting. Perhaps Alma gave Helaman a kind of double blessing such as was customary for Israelites to give their firstborn son (see Deuteronomy 21:17). At least this blessing was double-structured. In contrast, Alma's blessing to his second son, Shiblon (in Alma 38), consists of only the first half of Helaman's blessing. This is not likely to have occurred by chance.

Intentionality. Short of an actual statement by Alma certifying that he used this pattern on purpose, it is difficult to imagine a clearer case than Alma 36. This conclusion is further supported by comparing Alma 36 with Mosiah 27 and Alma 38.—(Click here to continue)[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Masterpiece: Alma 36," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, edited by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co.; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), Chapter 11.