Research and Perspectives: Hebrew Literary Patterns in the Book of Mormon


“The poetry contained in the inspired books, the most ancient and the most simple, is superior to all others, and deserves exclusively to be denominated sublime. As it had no model, so it will find no successful imitators.” 1

These words, published six years before the Book of Mormon was printed, proved to be prophetic. Biblical scholars of the early nineteenth century had not the slightest hint that a companion volume to the Bible would soon come forth, with poetic forms equal in value and style to biblical poetic verse. In fact, 159 years later, few are yet aware of the prevalence and nature of scriptural poetry in the Book of Mormon.

One of the most impressive types of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. Robert Lowth is usually credited with drawing attention to the importance of this form. Though others before him had mentioned parallelism in passing, his two-volume work, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1787), developed the idea of poetic structures in Holy Writ. He defined poetic parallelisms as words, phrases, or sentences that correspond, compare, contrast, or repeat. 2 More recent scholars, like Adele Berlin, extend the definition to include both equivalent phrases scattered throughout a text as well as parallel words and sounds in dissimilar phrases. 3

Words or phrases can be parallel by appearing as synonyms or near-synonyms (heart/soul, statutes/commandments, preacher/teacher); repetitions of identical phrases (cry unto him/cry unto him); antonyms (holy/unholy, poor/rich); complementaries (bow/arrows, river/sea); inflections of the same root (to judge/a judge/judgment/judgment seat); gradations (holy/most holy, thousands/tens of thousands); superordinates (wine/drink, gold/metal); or reciprocals (to retire/to sleep, to eat/to be full, sin/pain of conscience).

Characters reportedly copied by Joseph Smith from the gold plates

Though the Book of Mormon was written in non-Hebrew script, patterns such as parallelisms could still be used. Above, characters reportedly copied by Joseph Smith from the gold plates. (Copy of original characters obtained in 1903 from David Whitmer’s heirs.)

The Book of Mormon is replete with parallelisms. The poetic patterns serve, as they do in the Bible, to emphasize messages, define and expand them, make them more memorable, and structure them. One form of parallelism, chiasmus, has been extensively studied, but surprisingly, almost nothing has been written on the abundance of other parallelisms in the Book of Mormon. Here is a review of some other types of parallelisms found in the Book of Mormon. 4

Simple synonymous parallelism. Perhaps the basic parallelism found in the scriptures is simple synonymous parallelism, in which the second phrase repeats or echoes the idea of the first. When the prophets introduced an idea, then repeated it in different words, their hearers could more easily grasp their meaning. The idea thus received a double emphasis (the fundamental effect of most parallelisms). Abinadi, for example, underscores what the Resurrection does for us by pairing two phrases that echo each other (Mosiah 16:10):

Even this mortal shall put on immortality,
and this corruption shall put on incorruption.

Simple synthetic parallelism. As a rule, simple synthetic parallelism consists of two phrases in which the second explains or adds something new or instructive to the first. The following example shows how the second element defines the first (Moro. 8:17):

I am filled with charity,
which is everlasting love.

The structure also can establish relationships between actions, as in the next example (2 Ne. 4:23), where the situation in the second phrase is the result of the situation in the first phrase:

Behold, he hath heard my cry by day,
and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime.

Contrasting ideas. One kind of parallelism compares a subject or idea with another to create a contrast between the two. By this form, prophets could more easily compare sin and righteousness, life and death, deliverance and captivity. One example is found in 2 Nephi 9:39 [2 Ne. 9:39]:

Remember, to be carnally-minded is death,
and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.

This kind of parallelism also allows for specific contrasts within a broad category. Moroni, for instance, compares the love of riches with the love of people (Morm. 8:37):

 

For behold, ye do love

more than ye love

 

money,

the poor

 

and your substance,

and the needy,

 

and your fine apparel,

the sick

 

and the adorning of your churches,

and the afflicted.

Antithetical parallelism. Parallelisms in which contrasting ideas appear as opposites are called antithetical. Biblical and Book of Mormon prophets often noted the sharp divergence of good and evil by pointing out that the two were opposites. Alma employed a double antithetical parallelism to point out what is truly the source of divine knowledge and what is not (Alma 36:4):

I would not that ye think that I know of myself—
not of the temporal
but of the spiritual,
not of the carnal mind
but of God.

Simple alternate parallelism. One of the most common longer forms of parallelism is simple alternate, in which four phrases contain two repetitions alternating with each other (A-B/A-B pattern). In this formation, the “A” phrases are identical, synonymous, or closely related, as are the “B” phrases. Such a pattern emphatically reinforces a teaching. By reading a pair of thoughts repeated twice, the reader is more apt to remember the two facets of the message. The sentence comes through with greater intensity. Following is an example in Alma’s analogy of the compass (Alma 37:44):

A It is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ,
B which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss,
A as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass,
B which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.

A reader can easily identify a simple alternate parallelism by recognizing the word pairs in the four phrases. The prophets of the Book of Mormon were inspired in their choices, employing word combinations that greatly expand our understanding of what they had to say. Even in the lengthy parallel phrases above, the heed to/heed to and straight course to/straight course to combinations tag what is being compared—the word of Christ/this compass and eternal bliss/promised land.

Repeated alternate parallelism. Sometimes the two alternating lines will repeat more than once: such a structure is called a repeated alternate parallelism. In the following example, the pattern strongly links the message—the Savior’s sacrifice—to those who delivered the good tidings—the prophets (1 Ne. 19:10):

A The God of Jacob, yieldeth himself,
B according to the words of the angel,
A as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up,
B according to the words of Zenock,
A and to be crucified,
B according to the words of Neum,
A and to be buried in a sepulchre,
B according to the words of Zenos.

Extended alternate parallelism. Another variation in the same family as simple and repeated alternates is the extended alternate. This pattern adds additional alternating lines, such as A-B-C/A-B-C or A-B-C-D/A-B-C-D. This parallelism typically delivers more complex messages than the other two, as in this example (Mosiah 7:30–31):

A And again, he saith:
B If my people shall sow filthiness
C they shall reap the chaff thereof in the whirlwind;
D and the effect thereof is poison.
A And again he saith:
B If my people shall sow filthiness
C they shall reap the east wind,
D which bringeth immediate destruction.

Parallelism of numbers. In Hebrew and other Semitic languages, numbers have no synonyms, with the exception of twenty/score. Equivalents in English like twelve/dozen and fractions like half a hundred/fifty do not exist. Numbers are therefore parallel only when they are repeated or given in multiples—the a fortiori, or “how much more so,” effect. The Book of Mormon contains both of these types of parallelisms. In 1 Nephi 3:31 [1 Ne. 3:31], for example, Nephi uses simple repetition of numbers to emphasize the strength of Laban:

Behold, he is a mighty man,
and he can command fifty,
yea, even he can slay fifty.

Only six examples of a fortiori parallelism exist in the Book of Mormon, all using the number tens of thousands in an exaggerated comparison that heightens the sense of multitude, as in Alma 60:22:

Yea, will ye sit in idleness
while ye are surrounded with thousands of those,
yea, and tens of thousands,
who do also sit in idleness?

Regular, or circular, repetition. This kind of parallelism is found when a phrase is repeated at intervals in a longer passage, as if the message keeps coming back in a circular motion to the key phrase. This is one of the most striking forms of parallelism, as the following example indicates (Alma 5:6):

I say unto you, my brethren,
you that belong to this church,
have you sufficiently retained in remembrance
the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and
have you sufficiently retained in remembrance
his mercy and long-suffering towards them?
And moreover,
have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance
that he has delivered their souls from hell?

By this repetition (in a sermon full of many kinds of parallelisms), Alma arouses his hearers’ conscience and brings to their remembrance the divine interventions of God.

Climax. When the same word or words are found at the end of one phrase and at the beginning of the next, they form a type of parallelism called climax. The continuation of thought from phrase to phrase adds power to the discourse, while also connecting lines into an inseparable body. Moroni 8:25–26 [Moro. 8:25–26] shows this easily recognized pattern:

And the first fruits of repentance is baptism;
and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments;
and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;
And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart;
and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost,
which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love,
which love endureth by diligence unto prayer,
until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God.

The idea of ascension accompanies climax, where the discourse moves from a beginning point to a climactic situation. Note in the above verses that the series begins with repentance, which is an essential step onto the path of eternal life. Repentance is followed by baptism, then obedience, and the process finally culminates with the righteous receiving an eternal station with God.

The parallel nature of biblical writing is apparent to most readers. However, the study of Hebrew poetics—the classification and analysis of many different kinds of parallel structures—began in the first half of the nineteenth century. Not until the turn of the twentieth century did scholars introduce specific definitions of the various parallelisms. A critic might say that the Prophet Joseph Smith could have been able to imitate the parallel nature of biblical writing; but it is extremely unlikely that he could have produced such a huge number of parallelisms—sometimes several per verse—of more than twenty-five types. Only the Book of Mormon prophets, who used the structural forms of ancient Hebrew poetry and who were inspired from on high, could have written such beautiful poetic structures.

Donald W. Parry pursued graduate studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem for one year. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah. Brother Parry lives in the Star Crest Ward, Salt Lake Rose Park Stake, where he is high priests group leader.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Philip Sarchi, An Essay on Hebrew Poetry (London: Richard Taylor, 1824), p. vi.

  2.   2.

    See Robert Lowth, Isaiah: A New Translation (London: J. Nichols, 1795), p. ix. For a review of the history of the study of parallelisms, see James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 96–170; and D. Broadribb, “A Historical Review of Studies of Hebrew Poetry,” Abr-Nahrain 13 (1972–73):66–87.

  3.   3.

    See The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1985), p. 3. Berlin admits that her definition is broader than most, but her study still lies within the mainstream of contemporary thinking. See, for instance, Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985); Wilfred G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1984); and David Noel Freedman, Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy—Studies in Early Hebrew Poetry (Winona Lake, Mich.: Eisenbrauns, 1980).

  4.   4.

    John W. Welch, Gary Gillum, and DeeAnn Hofer’s Comprehensive Bibliography of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986) reveals that little work has been done on the subject of Book of Mormon parallelisms.