A Clear Poetic Voice


The Book of Mormon bears the unmistakable mark of ancient Hebrew literary forms.

In Judeo-Christian scripture, one book continues to stand out as “the greatest book of devotional literature in existence.” 1 It is a collection of poems known as the Book of Psalms. The Psalms capsulize Israelite thoughts, hopes, and dreams of glory and exaltation. Their poetry glows with the fire of devotion, spiritual love, and, in places, even defiance against the enemies of God.

So powerful has been the impact of the Psalms upon all Israelites that these poems in our time provide strong internal evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The Psalms, with their peculiar and even chartable style, seems to have so influenced Lehi and his descendants that some of that style appears in their writings.

The Book of Psalms grew out of far different traditions from those that spawned Anglo-European and American poetry. For example, central to the style of this Hebraic poetry are two key words: parallelism and chiasmus. Scholars and poets have traced Hebraic parallelism for more than two hundred years. Chiasmus, according to John W. Welch, made itself known in the 1930s but burst much more dramatically into public view in the 1960s. 2

One clear example of Book of Mormon parallelism, written by the prophet Zenos, has been preserved in Alma 33:4–11. I here cite just one verse to convey its typically parallel structure. Note that the ideas of mercy and answered prayer found in the first three lines are repeated in the last three lines.

Thou art merciful, O God, for thou
hast heard my prayer, even when I was
in the wilderness; yea, thou wast
merciful when I prayed concerning those
who were mine enemies, and thou didst
turn them to me.

The other seven verses are every bit as psalmlike, with Alma using the poem (which he says is scripture!) as a key part of his discourse on prayer and worship.

To the varied outcroppings of parallelism, a sample of which we have just noted, we must add an even more remarkable trait of Hebraic poetry. That is chiasmus.

Chiasmus is neither a canyon nor a terminal disease. It is a clearly identifiable type of Jewish verse. The Greek word chiasmus begins with chi, the Greek letter X. The American Heritage Dictionary defines chiasmus as “a rhetorical inversion of the second of two parallel structures, as He went to the theater, but home went she. 3

That’s a simplified example of what Hebrew poets did. At midpoint in that sentence, the writer restates, in reverse order, what he has already written. In this example, he also changes his subject from male to female; that is stylistically legitimate, too. Charted out, the sentence forms a rhetorical X, represented visually like this:

He went to the theater, but home went she.

Welch has uncovered many chiastic examples in the Book of Mormon and even analyzes the entire Book of First Nephi by chiastic chapter arrangement. To his citations, let me add some others, with this observation: I am convinced that the parallelisms and chiasmus we cannot find in certain parts of the Book of Mormon are as meaningful as those we can find in other parts. I’ll explain that statement later.

Alma the Younger, in the course of his candid advice to Corianton (a son who had strayed from righteousness), wrote a piece of classic chiasmus. Follow along through Alma 41:12–15, noting the words I’ve emphasized in boldface:

And now behold, is the meaning of the
word restoration to take a thing of a natural
state and place it in an unnatural state, or
to place it in a state opposite to its nature?
O, my son, this is not the case; but the
meaning of the word restoration is to
bring back again
evil for evil, or
devilish for devilish—
good for that which is good;
righteous for that which is righteous;
just for that which is just;
merciful for that which is merciful.
[Here is the X point.]
Therefore, my son, see that you are
merciful unto your brethren;
deal justly ,
judge righteously ,
and do good continually;
and if you do all these things then
shall ye receive your reward; yea,
ye shall have mercy restored unto you again;
ye shall have justice restored unto you again;
ye shall have a righteous judgment restored
unto you again; and ye shall have good
rewarded unto you again.
For that which ye do send out
shall return unto you again ,
and be restored ;
therefore, the word restoration more fully
condemneth the sinner, and justifieth
him not at all.

Earlier, Alma had recounted his sinful past to another son, Helaman. Since this account fills the entire thirty-sixth chapter of the Book of Alma, it is too long to include here. But it can be charted chiastically:

Alma asks Helaman to hear his words and keep the many commandments of the Lord if he expects to prosper (Alma 36:1, 30). In that same “backtracking” manner, Alma talks about the bondage, captivity, and deliverance of his ancestors (Alma 36:2, 28–29); the need to trust in God (Alma 36:3, 27); and the belief that such trust will be of support in trials, troubles, and afflictions (Alma 36:3, 27). Alma knows all this through inspiration from God (Alma 36:4, 26) and asserts that he was born again of God (Alma 36:5, 26).

Alma had sought to destroy the church but repented (Alma 36:9, 24); he fell paralyzed to the earth but stood firmly upon his feet when his limbs received their strength again (Alma 36:10, 23). He tells of this agony of conversion as contrasted with the joy of conversion (Alma 36:11–16, 19–22), while at the X point (Alma 36:17, 18), he recalls his father’s prophecy about the coming of Jesus Christ and cries within his heart for the Savior’s mercy. It all emerges as a neatly balanced example of “working both ends against the middle.”

King Benjamin was apparently as well schooled as Alma in chiastic poetry. During his famous address from the tower, he says:

But men drink damnation
to their own souls except they
humble themselves
and become as little children ,
and believe that salvation was, and is,
and is to come, in and through
the atoning blood of Christ, the
Lord Omnipotent.
For the natural man
is an enemy to God ,
and has been from the fall of Adam,
and will be, forever and ever,
unless he yields to the enticings
of the Holy Spirit ,
and putteth off the natural man
and becometh a saint through
the atonement of Christ the Lord,
and becometh as a child ,
submissive, meek, humble, patient,
full of love, willing to submit
to all things which the Lord seeth fit
to inflict upon him,
even as a child doth submit to his father.

At the end of his stirring speech, King Benjamin delivers his brief but powerful “name of Christ” remarks. This commentary is replete with repetition and chiasmus, again unmistakable marks of Hebraic poetry:

And now it shall come to pass,
that whosoever shall not take upon him
the name of Christ
must be called by some other name;
therefore, he findeth himself on the
left hand of God .
And I would that ye should remember
also, that this is the name
that I said I should give unto you
that never should be blotted out ,
except it be through transgression ;
[Here is the X point.]
therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress ,
that the name be not blotted out of your
hearts. …
I would that ye should remember to retain
the name written always in your hearts,
that ye are not found on the left hand of God ,
but that ye hear and know the voice by which
ye shall be called ,
and also, the name by which he shall call you.

Steven P. Sondrup has examined in detail 2 Nephi 4:16–35 [2 Ne. 4:16–35], which he calls “The Psalm of Nephi.” 4 In this poem Nephi sings lyrically of his reliance on the Lord, complains of his personal inadequacies, and even manages to berate those who trust in matters of mere mortality. How Hebraic! A careful reading of this psalm shows that, although it was translated from New World metallic plates, it is as clearly chiastic as if it had appeared on Old World papyrus.

There are marks other than chiasmus that distinguish Hebrew poetry, however, and many are found in the Book of Mormon. Although most of us read the Old Testament after at least one translation, there remains a clear commonality among Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and some other prophets. They write with an emotional fervor that pounds rhythmically on the ear. Whether or not we miss a cultural nuance here and there is not so important as are those things no careful reader can possibly miss: that fierce spiritual fire, that sometimes trancelike imagery that lifts their writing far above the prosaic ploddings of others, perhaps as much inspired but less given to poetry. Several of the Nephite prophets, no doubt familiar with those records so perilously pried from Laban, couched similar visions in similar poetic flow.

The Lord himself used such language in speaking to the Nephites. Christ loved the Psalms, quoted often from them and, with his Apostles, even sang a hymn at the Last Supper—a hymn that was probably a Psalm. 5 On the American continent, even before he appeared in the flesh, Christ spoke to the Nephites in that poetic address that broke dramatically on the blackened air of Zarahemla. His words reflect his—and his listeners’—Hebraic literary heritage.

Wo, wo, wo unto this people;
wo unto the inhabitants of the whole earth
except they shall repent;
for the devil laugheth, and his angels
rejoice, because of the slain
of the fair sons and daughters
of my people;
and it is because of their iniquity
and abominations that they are fallen!

What follows is a veritable atlas of destroyed cities, an extension of Christ’s arm of mercy, a testimony of his divinity and mission. After lamenting that his own had failed to accept him in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “And the scriptures concerning my coming are fulfilled.” (3 Ne. 9:16.)

The scripture that sang of his coming and that he quoted even as he died on the cross (compare Ps. 31:5 and Luke 23:46) was, of course, taken directly from the Psalms. How fitting that his first speech to these “other sheep” sings in the poetic language of his earthly forebears!

Many other instances of Hebraic poetic language add their lyricism to the pages of the Book of Mormon, yet the absence of poetry can also be strong evidence that the book is what it purports to be.

I have read and reread the Book of Ether and find in its pages nothing that sounds to me like poetry. It is straight prose. And it should be. Hebraic poetry traces its origins to the Song of Moses, recorded in Exodus 15:1–21 [Ex. 15:1–21]. The men who lived through and wrote the pre-Mosaic history of the Jaredites could not have known anything about Hebrew poetry. It did not exist. At least, it had not yet been written in sufficient quantity nor over enough time to have developed a poetic tradition.

The Jaredite record, authentic to the period in which it was written, contains no evidence of parallelism, chiasmus, or other distinguishing marks of the Psalms. By contrast, the presence of those poetic traits in later Book of Mormon writings helps convince us of the Hebraic origins of Nephi, King Benjamin, Alma, and others.

One thing appears certain. Joseph Smith simply did not know about chiasmus—a poetic structure that scholars did not uncover until a century after the Prophet’s birth. Although he studied the Hebrew language and undoubtedly was introduced to much of the “learning of the Jews” by Professor Joshua Seixas (after the Book of Mormon was printed), neither man reflects anywhere the understanding necessary to suggest detailed knowledge of Hebraic verse. Joseph Smith’s own revelations catch the prose style of the Old Testament prophets. But even when they become poetic, as some do (see D&C 121, D&C 122, and, in part, D&C 65, D&C 88, and D&C 133), they emerge as poetry because of their imagery—not because of parallelism or chiasmus.

Archaeologists may disagree over direct relationships between pre-Columbian ruins and the Nephite, Lamanite, or Mulekite civilizations. But literary style, traceable even through translation, strongly suggests that the Book of Mormon blossomed from roots sunk deep into the Hebrew literary tradition.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

R. Paul Cracroft, Director of Lectures and Concerts at the University of Utah and father of six children, is a gospel doctrine teacher in his Salt Lake City ward.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Sidney B. Sperry, The Spirit of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1940), p. 90.

  2.   2.

    “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: Or The Book of Mormon Does it Again,” New Era (Feb. 1972), pp. 6–11. See also “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies (Autumn 1969), pp. 69–84. In some of his articles Brother Welch uses a more literal translation from the Hebrew. The chiastic approach works equally well in the more accessible King James translation, used here throughout. For some other poetic treatments of Nephite scripture, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: A Preliminary Survey,” BYU Studies (Aug. 1970), pp. 50–60; and Bruce W. Jorgensen, “The Dark Way to the Tree: Typological Unity in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1981), pp. 217–31.

  3.   3.

    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, William Morris, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978). New College edition, p. 232.

  4.   4.

    “The Psalm of Nephi: A Lyric Reading,” in “Proceedings of the Symposia of the Association for Mormon Letters, 1978–79,” pp. 79–86.

  5.   5.

    See Matt. 26:30; s.v. “Hymns” and “Hallel,” Bible Dictionary, LDS edition of the King James Version.