Abstract: Robert Smith makes the case that “poetic art in the Book of Mormon is highly developed” — you just need to have the eye to recognize it. Though many readers are aware of the stunning examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, thanks to the pioneering work by John W. Welch, fewer are acquainted with the other important forms of parallelism that pervade the text, often placed strategically to highlight the importance of a particular passage. Smith also shows why apocalpytic texts, sometimes thought to originate at a later period, can be found, for example, in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon.
[Editor’s Note: Part of our book chapter reprint series, this article is reprinted here as a service to the LDS community. Original pagination and page numbers have necessarily changed, otherwise the reprint has the same content as the original.
See Robert F. Smith, “Poesy and Prosody in the Book of Mormon,” in “To Seek the Law of the Lord”: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, UT: The Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 429–67. Further information at https://interpreterfoundation.org/books/to-seek-the-law-of-the-lord-essays-in-honor-of-john-w-welch-2/.]
[Page 42]It has often been said that there is no real poetry in the Book of Mormon—no real English poetry, that is.
Hugh W. Nibley1
Poetic art in the Book of Mormon is highly developed. We can see this clearly despite our having to read it in translation and despite the lack of poetic presentation in most published sources. Of course, not all the Book of Mormon is poetic. Most of it is prose narrative and much of it is oracular narrative, as is also true of major portions of the Bible.
A characteristic of Book of Mormon poesy, which it has in common with classical Hebrew poetry, is orality. It bears the marks of oral composition not only in the visions and declamations of Lehi (presumably written down for him then or later by Nephi, just as Baruch took dictation from Jeremiah)2 but also in the formulaic, symmetrical, and sometimes lyric poetry found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon.
The writers and final editor of the Book of Mormon have sometimes chosen to use or place poetry strategically within the overall prose structure, inserting poetry at emotional or spiritual high points,3 just in the way that a composer has a vocalist break into an aria at the appropriate moment in an opera.4 Note, for example, how Nephi inserts poetic, parallel phrases at 1 Nephi 8:2 in order to introduce a narrative account of his father’s dream-vision:
|I have dreamed a dream;||חלמתי חלום|
|or, in other words,|
|I have seen a vision.||ראיתי חזון|
[Page 43]This parallel pair is well-known in Hebrew from Joel 2:28 (MT 3:1),5 and I have therefore applied the likely biblical Hebrew translation immediately opposite. Interestingly, at both Numbers 12:6 and Daniel 4:9, where the same root words appear, the Massoretic Hebrew text (MT) breaks into a brief poem, while the author of Acts (Luke) likewise inserts the same poetry of Joel into his prose narrative account (Acts 2:17–21). Nothing odd or unaccountable here, although it is also worth pointing out (following the late William F. Albright) that “the prophets were originally called rōʼîm, ‘diviners’ (1 Sam. 9:9),” from Hebrew rōʼe, a synonym of ḥōzîm, from Hebrew ḥōzê, both of which are normally translated “seers”6 (cf. 2 Sam. 24:11), and both of which are likely the root words used by Father Lehi in the second line of his announcement of his dream-vision, which in hypothetical Hebrew *rāʼîtî ḥāzôn means “I have seen a vision.”7
The placement of that poetic announcement is strategic in that the allegorical visions of Lehi and Nephi (1 Ne. 8:1–15:36) are complementary and are the chiastic focus of the entire book of 1 Nephi.8 Moreover, the first-person visions and narrative of the Small Plates of Nephi (no doubt true also for the lost Book of Lehi) are paralleled by the first-person narrative accounts of Mormon and Moroni at the conclusion of the Book of Mormon in an overall vision-fulfillment pattern. Both were used to frame the third-person narrative accounts of the books of [Page 44]Mosiah through 4 Nephi, thus forming a kind of triptych or overall ABA pattern.9 This pattern is centered on the Atonement at Alma 34:12–13, which is the focus of the extraordinarily beautiful chiasm at Alma 34:8–17,10 at the physical center of the book.
Poetry is also placed architectonically by the editor at 3 Nephi 9:20–28:18—a chiasm centering on the ascent of the Lord in 18:39–19:1, i.e., Isaiah 52:8–10 is used there as a flanking device (at 16:18 and 20:40), just as it was used in the book of Mosiah (chapters 12 and 15) to flank the center there.11 David P. Wright commented on the direct parallel or inverse chiastic parallel structuring in the Book of Mormon and defined it as an integral part of the nature of the book.12 Wright notes, “That the Book of Mormon has a style which involves parallelism and repetition is not [an] imposition upon the text. And [Wade Brown] does not go too far in trying to see these structures throughout the entire book. They really are there.”13 As we shall see, parallelism is only one aspect, even if the key aspect, of the poetic art employed within both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, along with a host of other rhetorical features woven into a grand tapestry by master editor(s).
Adhering to the text on the Brass Plates of Laban, Nephi quotes directly from Isaiah 2:2–4 (2 Ne. 12:2–4; Micah 4:1–3). I have laid the Book of Mormon version out as poetry below and placed the Hebrew of the Massoretic Isaiah text in the right-hand column for comparison:
|[Page 45]And it shall come to pass in the last days,||והיה באחרית הימים|
|When the mountain of the Lord’s house
||נכון יהיה הר בית־יהוה|
|Shall be established in the top of the mountains,||בראש ההרים|
|And shall be exalted above the hills,
|And all nations shall flow unto it.||:ונהרו אליו כל־הגוים|
|And many people shall go and say,
||והלכו עמים רבים ואמרו|
|“Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,||לכו ונעלה אל־הר־יהוה|
|To the house of the God of Jacob;
||אל־בית אלהי יעקב|
|And he will teach us of his ways,||וירנו מדרכיו|
|And we will walk in his paths;
|For out of Zion shall go forth the law,||כי מציון תצא תורה|
|And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
|And he shall judge among the nations,||ושפט בין הגוים|
|And shall rebuke many people;
||והוכיח לעמים רבים|
|And they shall beat their swords into plow shares,||וכתתו חרבותם לאתים|
|And their spears into pruning hooks
|Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,||לא־ישא גוי אל־גוי חרב|
|Neither shall they learn war any more.||:ולא־ילמדו עוד מלחמה|
The systematic use of parallel couplets or bicola (distichs) here is typical of Isaiah and Micah and many other biblical prophets. It is a classic example of what is known as parallelismus membrorum or “parallelism of members.”14 Grant Hardy found such parallel poetic structure useful in laying out and analyzing 3 Nephi 22:4 (= Isa. 54:4):
|[Page 46]‘Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed;||אל־תיראי כי־לא תבושי|
|neither be thou confounded,
|for thou shalt not be put to shame;||כי לא תחפירי|
|for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth,
||כי בשת עלומיך תשכחי|
|and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth,
|and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.’15|
|:וחרפת אלמנותיך לא תזכרי־עוד|
The line in italics, which is essential to the poetic balance, is not to be found in the Printer’s Manuscript, the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, nor in the Massoretic Text (MT) of Isaiah, which is much later than the Brass Plates of Laban, but was restored in the 1837 and subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon, perhaps on the basis of the Original Manuscript, which no longer exists for that section. Royal Skousen thinks that the line was mistakenly added by the 1837 typesetter through dittography.15a The line may have been lost anciently from the Massoretic Text because of a simple mistake in scribal copying known as homoeoarcton in which errors are introduced because a line has the same beginning as a subsequent line and is inadvertently skipped. The same scribal error was possibly made by Oliver Cowdery for the Printer’s Manuscript.
Another poetically meaningful restoration (which Hugh Nibley saw as a “way of clarifying” the text16), presented below in italics, was made by Joseph in the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon at 1 Nephi 20:1 (Isa. 48:1),
|Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob,||בית־יעקב
|[Page 47]Which are called by the name of Israel,||בשם ישראל
|And are come forth out of the waters of Judah.||יהודה יצאו
|Or out of the waters of baptism,
|Which swear by the name of the Lord,||בשם יהוה
|And make mention of the God of Israel,||ישראל יזכירו
|Yet they swear not in truth,||לא באמת|
|Nor in righteousness.
|Nevertheless, they call themselves of the holy city,||מעיר הקדש נקראו
|But they do not stay themselves upon the God of Israel,
|Which is the Lord of Hosts,|
|Yea, the Lord of Hosts is his name.||צבאות שמו
Italics here indicate the English cola (stichs) which are absent from the Massoretic Hebrew text. A variety of explanations might be given for this, but at the very least balance is here restored to two sets of bicola. For as the late William F. Albright pointed out many times, losses are more common than glosses.17 Moreover, in the first instance, a similar phrase related to baptism occurs in Testament of Levi 18:7,
And the glory of the Most High shall burst forth upon him,
And the spirit of understanding and sanctification
shall rest upon him [in the water ἐν τῶ ὓδατι].18
[Page 48]Parallelismus Membrorum
The systematic use of repetitive parallelism of members (with stylistic variation) in ancient Hebrew, Canaanite, and Egyptian poetry is well-known and long studied,19 and is clearly a major feature of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, since the Book of Mormon has generally been printed in double-column pages with a focus on citation of chapter and verse, the power of poetic scansion has been lost on most readers. The fact of parallelism therein is most readily seen in specialized, scholarly publications on the Book of Mormon.20 Thus, only those who diligently search frequently find isolated parallels embedded in prose narrative biblical text,21 as well as at Jarom 3 in the Book of Mormon,
the hardness of their hearts,
and the deafness of their ears,
and the blindness of their minds,
and the stiffness of their necks.
[Page 49]Or at Jacob 3:1,
Look unto God with firmness of mind,
And pray unto Him with exceeding faith.
Some examples of more sustained poetic use of parallelism in the Book of Mormon can be excerpted from the Psalm of Nephi, found in 2 Nephi:
|4:17c||My heart sorroweth because of mine flesh|
|My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities
|4:20||He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness|
|And he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep
|4:26b||Why should my heart weep|
|And my soul linger in the valley of sorrow|
|And my flesh waste away|
|And my strength slacken because of mine afflictions?
|4:27a||And why should I yield to sin because of my flesh?|
|Yea why should I give way to temptations?
|4:28||Awake my soul
No longer droop in sin
|Rejoice O my heart
And give place no more for the enemy of my soul
|4:32a||…my heart is broken|
|And my spirit is contrite|
Similarly at Alma 5:40,
Whatsoever is good cometh from God,
And whatsoever is evil cometh from the Devil.22
And 1 Nephi 4:3,
The Lord is able to deliver us,
even as our fathers,
And to destroy Laban,
even as the Egyptians.
[Page 50]Parallelism is also used in larger units, as with the tricolon at 1 Nephi 19:9,
They scourge him,
and he suffereth it,
And they smite him,
and he suffereth it,
Yea, they spit upon him,
and he suffereth it,
Since the “chief characteristic of Hebrew poetry in the Bible is balance or symmetry, commonly called parallelism,”23 the consistent appearance of parallelism as the controlling feature of Book of Mormon poetry is not at all remarkable. Indeed, some of the above examples are actually part of even more complex and magnificent poetic structures typical of the Bible (which we discuss below), and frequently partake of the same parallel word pairs common to Hebrew (and Ugaritic) poetry,24 e.g., in light of 2 Nephi 4:32a (above), note Psalm 34:18,
The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart;
And saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.
and the chiastic parallel in hymnal epic dialect in Job 28:2,
|Iron from ore is taken,||ברזל מעפר יקח
(barzel mē’āpār yuqqāḥ)
|and from smelted rock, bronze.|| ואבן יצוק נחושה
(wĕ’eben yāṣûq nĕḥûšâ)
[Page 51]Numerical Sequences
Then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty,
Yea, or even than his tens of thousands?
Compare similar progression at Mosiah 11:19, Alma 3:26, 60:22; compare Ugaritic Aqhat tablet 3 (CAT 1.19), 1:42–44, “Seven years is Baal absent, |Eight, the Rider of Clouds,” or in The Epic of Baal tablet 1 (CAT 1.1 III), IV:2–3, “From a thousand acres, |ten thou[sand hectares,]” or in tablet 3 (CAT 1.3), V:24, “Across a thousand acres, |a myriad of hectares,” or as in Psalm 91:7, “A thousand shall fall at thy side, |and ten thousand at thy right hand” (1 Sam. 18:6–7); or Psalm 84:10, “How much better is one day in your Court, than a thousand in the Cemetery!”27 “Commanders of thousands, |and commanders of hundreds” (1 Sam. 22:7; 1 Macc. 3:55); cf. also “Five…hundred” |”hundred…ten thousand” (Lev. 26:8).28 The same sequential phenomenon occurs in ancient Egyptian, as in Book of the Dead spell 125, “in the second hour of the night, in the third of the day.”29
[Page 52]Climactic Tricola, Tetracola, and Beyond
Ordinary tricola (tristichs) can be found, as displayed above from 1 Nephi 19:9 (as laid out by Grant Hardy in his 2003 Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon). There are likewise extraordinary, beautiful, chiastic tricola in the Hebrew Bible, such as the one at Genesis 1:27, which has a well-balanced 4:4:4 Hebrew stress accent metric pattern:
|And God created man in his image,||ויברא אלהים את־האדם בצלמו|
|In the image of God created he him,||בצלם אלהים ברא אתו|
|Male and female created he them.||זכר ונקבה ברא אתם|
However, the climactic forms are even more interesting. In Ugaritic epic,30 in ancient Egyptian,31 and in the Hebrew Bible,32 we frequently find climactic tricola,33 tetracola, etc. Note the following examples of climactic tricola in Egyptian from the Tomb of King Intef (Papyrus Harris 500), as translated by Miriam Lichtheim:34
|vi,5–6||Those who built tombs,
Their places are gone,
What has become of them?
|vi,7||Their walls have crumbled,
Their places are gone,
As though they had never been!
An example from Psalm 106:21–22 is instructive (NRSV), following an offset introductory line (in which the proposed etymology of the name Mosiah is to be found):
|They forgot God, their Savior||(מושיעם “their Savior”; Môšîˁām)|
|Who had done great things in Egypt||(מצרים “Egypt”; Miṣrāyîm)|
|[Page 53]Wondrous works in the land of Ham||(חם “Ham”; Ḥām)|
|And awesome deeds by the Red Sea||(ים־סוף “Red Sea”; Yam-Sûf)|
Thus, it should be no surprise that we find the same phenomenon in the Book of Mormon. In 2 Nephi 26:15, for example, in the midst of midrashic exposition on Isaiah 29:3–12,35 we find a nice climactic tricolon:
The words of the righteous shall be written,
And the prayers of the faithful shall be heard,
And all those who have dwindled in unbelief shall not be forgotten!
The first two cola here provide direct parallel statements, while the final, climactic colon (the one with the highest apparent syllable count) is antithetically parallel. We can find another example of a climactic tricolon at 3 Nephi 8:13 (cf. Isa. 40:4), as laid out by Donald Parry:
And the highways were broken up,
And the level roads were spoiled,
And many smooth places became rough!
Another climactic tricolon (which Donald Parry terms a “progression”) appears embedded in a larger poem, at 1 Nephi 2:20bc:36
And shall be led to a land of promise;
Yea, even a land which I have prepared for you;
Yea, a land which is choice above all other lands!
A set of twin climactic tricola again à la Donald Parry (united by antithetical parallelism) is to be found in Alma 9:28, and can be laid out as follows:
[Page 54]If they have been righteous,
they shall reap the salvation of their souls,
according to the power and deliverance of Jesus Christ;
And if they have been evil,
they shall reap the damnation of their souls,
according to the power and captivation of the Devil!37
At Jacob 3:11, another couple of climactic tricola follow a call to repentance:
O my brethren, hearken unto my word:
Arouse the faculties of your souls,
Shake yourselves that ye may awake from the slumber of death,
And loose yourselves from the pains of Hell!
That ye may not become angels to the Devil,
To be cast into that lake of fire and brimstone,
Which is the second death!
Such climactic tricola are regularly encountered in ancient Ugaritic narrative poetry, as at the beginning of the Epic of Kirta tablet 1 (CAT 1.14), I:7–9, which also contains a numerical progression:38
|7||bt / [m]lk.itbd||The house of a king has perished:|
|8||dšbʿ / [a]ḫm.lh.||A house with seven brothers,|
|9||tmnt.bn um /||Even eight mother’s sons!|
Another Ugaritic example is from the obverse of The Birth of the Gracious Gods tablet (CAT 1.23):39
|[Page 55]9||yzbrnn.zbrm.gpn||May vine-pruners prune him,|
|10||yṣmdnn.ṣmdm.gpn.||May vine-binders bind him,|
|11||yšql.šdmth / km gpn||May they trim his tendrils like a
Not only are these basic parallel features characteristic of ancient Hebrew40 and Canaanite poetry but also they are expanded there and in the Book of Mormon into climactic tetracola, as for example in 2 Nephi 33:6:
|I glory in plainness;||אני מתהלל בפתי|
|I glory in truth;||אני מתהלל באמת|
|I glory in my Jesus,||אני מתהלל בישועתי|
|For he hath redeemed my soul from Hell!||כי גאל נפשי משאול|
I have placed my own hypothetical Hebrew translation opposite so as to display the stable syllable-count (8-8-9-8) and accentual count (3-3-3-3) used in a hypothetical original form.41 In this case, I have not used the prosaic particle ʼet ־תא (object indicator) nor the pronoun “he” אוה—though the tetracolon would remain climactic simply based on obvious intensification of meaning.
As Wilfred Watson has pointed out, the Bible features a climactic pentacolon at Proverbs 1:26–27:42
I also at your calamity will laugh,
I will mock when panic strikes you,
[Page 56]When like a storm panic strikes you,
And your calamity like a whirlwind will come,
When comes upon you distress and anguish!
And we can find another climactic pentacolon, this time in Middle Egyptian, again in the Tomb of King Intef, as translated by Miriam Lichtheim:43
|vi,7–9||None comes from there,
To tell of their state,
To tell of their needs,
To calm our hearts,
Until we go where they have gone!
We also find remarkably well-balanced twin climactic tricola at the center of an inclusion at Psalm 93:2–5 (as translated by the late Mitchell Dahood):44
|The floods have lifted up, O Lord,||נשאו נהרות יהוה|
|The floods have lifted up their voice,||נשאו נהרות קולם|
|The floods lift up their roaring!
||ישאו נהרות דכים|
|More (majestic) than the thunders of mighty waters,||מקלות מים רבים|
|More majestic than the waves of the sea,||מקלות מים רבים|
|Majestic on high is the Lord!||מקלות מים רבים|
Such intensification can also be seen in the climactic tricolon at Psalm 18:9 (KJV 18:8 = 2 Sam. 22:9), following Adele Berlin’s translation:45
|Smoke went up from his nostrils;||עלה עשן באפר|
|From his mouth came devouring fire;||עלה עשן באפר|
|[Page 57]Live coals blazed forth from him!||גחלים בערו ממנו|
More ambitious still is the complex chiastic and climactic format in Psalm 137:5–6 (New Jerusalem Bible translation),
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither!
May my tongue remain stuck to my palate if I do not keep you in mind,
if I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of my joys.
We find a similar, parallelistic phenomenon in Classical Arabic. Several examples are noted by Michael Sells, as in the long one at Qur’án sura 89:1–6—the climax is the destruction of the people of ˁAd who failed to heed the words of the Prophet Hud:
|wa l-fajr||By the dawn|
|wa layalin ˁašr||By the nights ten|
|wa š-šafˁi wa l-watr||By the odd and the even|
|wa l-layli ida yasr||By the night as it eases away|
|hal fi dalika qasamun li di hijr||Is there not in that an oath for the thoughtful mind?|
|a lam tara kayfa faˁala rabbuka biˁad?||Don’t you see what your lord did with ˁAd?|
Early Meccan suras frequently swear an oath by the signs of creation, as here.46
Jeff Lindsay has called attention to a possible case of a double-duty colon47 in the midst of paired tricola at 2 Nephi 4:34:
[Page 58]O Lord, I have trusted in thee,
And I will trust in thee forever.
I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh;
For I know that cursed is he that putteth his
trust in the arm of flesh.
Yea cursed is he that putteth his trust in man
or maketh flesh his arm.
Other of Lindsay’s examples are unconvincing. However, he does correctly point out that paired tricola are a known feature of biblical Hebrew poetry.48
Chiasmus – Distant Parallelism
Another type of repetitive parallelism common in the Bible is chiasmus, which is characterized by inverse or mirror imagery, sometimes at a distance. We have already seen several instances, inter alia, above. Such inverse parallelism can be employed on a relatively small scale, as at 1 Nephi 22:2:
They were made manifest unto the prophet,
By the voice of the Spirit:
For by the Spirit
Are all things made known unto the prophets,
And at Alma 50:14, with geographical significance:
And they also began a foundation for a city
Between the city of Moroni
And the city of Aaron,
Joining the borders of Aaron
And they called the name of the city, or the land, Nephihah.
2 Nephi 1:5–7 provides a compact example of this rhetorical figure at the next level:
|5||A||Notwithstanding our afflictions|
|B||we have obtained a land of promise|
|a land which is choice above all other lands|
|a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me|
|should be a land for the inheritance of my seed|
|[Page 59]C||yea the Lord hath consecrated49 this land unto
me and to my children forever
|D||and also all they which|
|should be led out of other countries by the
hand of the Lord
|6||E||Wherefore I Lehi prophesy according to
the workings of the Spirit which is in me
|D||that there shall be none come into this land|
|save they should be brought by the hand of the
|7||C||wherefore this land is consecrated unto him|
|whom he shall bring|
|B||and if it so be that they shall serve him according
to the commandments which he hath given it
shall be a land of liberty unto them
|A||wherefore they shall never be brought down into captivity|
Much larger concentric or ring structuring (chiasm) can be applied at the literary narrative level, as for the ABA triptych of the entire book of Mosiah, in which the Benjamin section (A) is contrasted with the Noah section (B) and reinforced by the Abinadi section (A’).50
Used on both a large and small scale,51 chiasmus has been so widely discussed by proponents and detractors of the Book of Mormon52 that some fail to realize that it is merely one rhetorical figure among many which can be found in both Bible and Book of Mormon. However, when properly analyzed, chiasmus can exhibit quite a distinctive and useful structure in disclosing the meaning and intent of the section or pericope [Page 60]involved, and this is well-understood by most biblical scholars—and by most scholars of the ancient Near East in general.53
Donald Parry calls attention to several very interesting parallelistic progressions, stair steps, or gradations in both Bible and Book of Mormon—some ascending or descending, and some climactic. They share common methods of anadiploid chaining which cleverly lead from one related item to the next, often with allegorical meaning, as in Isaiah 51:10–11a, 63:1–6; Hosea 12:3–6; Psalms 19:7–9, 121:1b–2a;
3 Nephi 9:31–38, 29:12; Mormon 9:12–13; and Moroni 8:25–26, 10:21–23.54 For example, here is Joel 1:4:
That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten;
And that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten;
And that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten.
Lyric Poetry: Song
As we have already seen above, the Psalm of Nephi (2 Ne. 4:15–35) makes full use of parallel cola. It is also the best example of the lyric form in the Book of Mormon.55 The ABAB tetracolon in verses 21–22 (following Donald Parry) is characteristic:
He hath filled me with his love,
even unto the consuming of my flesh.
He hath confounded mine enemies,
unto the causing of them to quake before me.
[Page 61]The next bicolon (verse 23) could be added for intensification, as noted by Richard Rust:56
Behold, he hath heard my cry by day,
and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime.
Classical Arabic poetry exhibits a similar structure, as in the following rhyming tetracolon by Ibn Malek Ibn e’Rakaa of Damascus (8th century AD):
If before she herself wept, love for Sada had caused my tears to flow,
I should have lightened my heart before repentance (choked it);
But she wept first, her tears excited mine,
The merit, I cried, belongs to the predecessor.57
The Lyric-Elegiac Qaṣida-Introduction
Very quickly, following the opening scenes of the Book of Mormon in Jerusalem, we find the clan of Lehi-ben-Manasseh in a completely different, ancient Arabic environment—which Hugh Nibley threw into such stark relief with his Lehi in the Desert over a half-century ago.58 Among the myriad Arabic components of this environment, which Nibley used to interpret the strange actions of the members of that clan, there was the naṣib, the pastoral and paradisiacal archetype of the pre-Islamic ode, or qaṣida59—which later took on such importance in Classical Arabic poetry and literature (including the Thousand Nights and a Night).60 Here is an example mourning the loss of Valencia, excerpted from a poem by Ibn ˁUmayrah al-Makhzumi of 13th century al-Andalus, Spain:
|4||O mountain of water-sated verdure, like none I knew,|
|How time’s ill turns of fortune slighted your spring.|
|5||And O you people that I love—but events now exact|
|That I stand alone, apart from those who merit love61|
[Page 62]Were we to follow the hints contained in that Classical Arabic tradition, i.e., going by a typical oral declamation at the Abbasid court of the Caliph in old Baghdad, we might imagine a dramatic scene in which Lehi stood grasping his staff or bow solidly planted on the ground before him as he stared at his encampment and declaimed his lyric naṣib to his eldest sons (1 Ne. 2:9–10):
And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied
into the fountain of the Red Sea,
he spake unto Laman, saying:
“O that thou mightest be like unto this river,
continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!”
And he also spake unto Lemuel:
“O that thou mightest be like unto this valley,
firm and steadfast and immovable in keeping the
commandments of the Lord!”
Later in the book, at the other pole of the book-length chiasm of 1 Nephi (deliberately placed for maximum poetic effect, and again using parallelism of members), we find the antiphonal and elegiac response62 to Lehi’s apparent naṣib in a tricolon quoted from Isaiah 48:18 (1 Ne. 20:18):
O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments!
Then had thy peace been as a river,
And thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.
The lesson here is primarily addressed by Isaiah (or his school) to the disobedient of Judah who could have avoided the consequences of Exile by the Chaldeans/ Neo-Babylonians (verses 19–22), but is secondarily applicable also (with particular force) to some disobedient members of the clan of Lehi, who have gone into a separate exile, for they liken all Scripture unto themselves (1 Ne. 19:23, 2 Ne. 6:5, 11:2,8).
[Page 63]Poetry in Midrash and Apocalyptic
Midrash is part of that likening process, and is specifically the exegesis or interpretation of a holy text, along with application to the situation in life (Sitz im Leben) of those making that interpretation, and it can be found taking place already in Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk, i.e., quite early.63 Above, we have seen a climactic tricolon in 2 Nephi 26, in the midst of a midrash on Isaiah 29 (midrash can be found throughout 2 Ne. 26–27). We can also find a kind of progressive or climactic parallelism combined with a midrash on Isaiah 52:7 in Mosiah 15:15–18, in the words of Abinadi:
And O how beautiful64 upon the mountains were their feet!
And again, how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet
of those that are still publishing peace!
And again, how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet
of those who shall hereafter publish peace,
yea, from this time henceforth and forever!
And behold, I say unto you, this is not all.
For O how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet
of him that bringeth good tidings,65
that is the founder of peace,
yea, even the Lord, who has redeemed his people;
yea, him who has granted salvation unto his people;
That apocalyptic texts can be found in 1 Nephi 8–14,66 and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, is likewise not an indicator of late development. As part of his early work on the FARMS Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, Grant Hardy noted that 1 Nephi 1 contains the pillar of fire, heavenly book, mystery of God, and prophecy (in an angelic vision), which are likewise to be found in Revelation 10:1–11.67 Such parallels may be quite useful. And as noted by John W. Welch in his 1986 BYU Book of Mormon Symposium paper, the motifs in both 1 Nephi 1 and Revelation 10 are among the normal items to be expected as part of a prophetic call in the Classical Israelite period68 and later.69
Portions of the visions recounted in 1 Nephi 8–14 can likewise be compared with the book of Revelation, though undoubtedly for the same reasons as just mentioned, i.e. the chiastic manner in which Nephi lays the visions out is another pattern of rhetorical importance. Claims that apocalyptic is a late literary genre, and so must be anachronistic in the Book of Mormon, ignore the sage observations of scholars like the late Frank Moore Cross, Jr.: “The origins of the apocalyptic must be searched for as early as the sixth century BC”70 Thus, not only are Second Isaiah, and Isaiah 24–27 (the so-called Isaianic Apocalypse), 34–35, all from no [Page 65]later than the 6th century BC, but (according to Cross), “the mythological lore of Ugarit will be increasingly important for apocalyptic studies. One thinks of the superb paper of J. A. Emerton, ‘The Origin of the Son of Man Imagery.’”71
The origins of apocalyptic, it seems, must now be sought for at least as early as the second millennium BC, and perhaps earlier, according to the 1984 University of Oslo dissertation of Helge S. Kvanvig,72 especially comparing Daniel 7 with the Akkadian “Vision of the Nether World.”73 The arguments for the transmission of major apocalyptic traditions from such early times down to the time of Joseph Smith have been dealt with elsewhere, and will not concern us here.74
Proverbs—The Wisdom Tradition
The wisdom tradition in the Book of Mormon is also early, and a very early origin is likewise evident for the Wisdom tradition in Israel, as noted by John Bright:
Personified Wisdom has nothing essentially Hellenic about it, but stems ultimately from Canaanite-Aramean paganism, being attested in the Proverbs of Ahiqar (about sixth century). The [Page 66]text of Prov., chs. 8;9, must go back to a Canaanite original of about the seventh century with roots in still earlier Canaanite lore.75
This ought to be of some interest, since (as noted by Margaret Barker) the Book of Mormon clearly participates in the proverbial Wisdom tradition,76 e.g., at 2 Nephi 2:11–29 (see below on the “Two Ways”), Jacob 4:10, Mosiah 8:20–21, Alma 3:27, Ether 12:26, etc.77 Indeed, the pre-exilic Israelite Wisdom tradition focused upon esoteric temple rites, much of which Barker has insisted, was carefully removed from the Hebrew Canon by the revisionist Deuteronomistic School.78 I will leave that issue for a separate discussion.
However, aside from the tradition of personified Wisdom (ḥokmâ) qua Holy Spirit in biblical usage, there was also the centrality of mȝˁt, “Truth, Justice, Order, and Righteousness,” in the Egyptian wisdom tradition,79 along with the more generic, didactic and sapiential sense of wisdom: Noteworthy among the latter are the profound and powerful bicola in 2 Nephi 2:25 (abbc),
Adam fell that men might be;
And men are, that they might have joy.80
[Page 67]Alma 40:8,
All is as one day with God,
and time only is measured unto man.
This life is the time for men to prepare to meet God;
The day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
The clever chiasm in Moroni 7:11,
A bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water,
Neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water.
And Mosiah 2:17, which consciously labels itself as wisdom,
That ye may learn wisdom
That ye may learn that
When ye are in the service of your fellow beings,
Ye are only in the service of your God.
Mosiah 8:20b–21, presents feminine Wisdom in climactic fashion,
For they will not seek Wisdom,
Neither do they desire that she should rule over them.
Yea, they are like a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd,
And scattereth, and are driven, and are devoured by the beasts of the forest!
And Alma 37:35, which likewise consciously labels itself as wisdom,
O remember, my son,
And learn wisdom in thy youth;
Yea, learn in thy youth
To keep the commandments of God.
Egyptian religious poetry consists of many hymns and prayers which may entail any of these sapiential characteristics. Jan Assmann argues that such “poems share the spirit of personal piety which dominates late Egyptian Wisdom Literature, exemplified in the Wisdom [Page 68]of Amenemope”81 (ANET3 421–24; COS 1.47), which we mention immediately below.
Several of the Ten Commandments, which were on the Brass Plates of Laban and which appear in Mosiah 12 and 13, are very similar to advice in ancient Egyptian wisdom compilations, as in the Instruction of ˁAnkhsheshonqy 6/6: “Serve your father and mother that you may go and prosper” (Exod. 20:12, 1 Ne. 17:55, Mosiah 13:20), and 6/10 “Do not set your heart upon the property of another” (Exod. 20:17, Mosiah 13:24). Indeed, much of what passes for Israelite wisdom can often be traced to ancient Egypt, e.g., Proverbs 22:17–23:11 is heavily dependent upon the content and structure of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope, and is even specifically referred to in the Syriac, LXX Greek, Qumran Hebrew, and qeri of Proverbs 22:20 “thirty sayings of admonition and knowledge” (NRSV; Amenemope had thirty chapters). Psalm 1, and Jeremiah 17:5–8 are likewise dependent on the Instruction of Amenemope (ANET 421–24; COS 1.47).82 Note also the Instruction for Merikare 99 (COS 1.35), “For as you do, so it will be done to you,” where we find the same wise counsel as in 3 Nephi 14:2 (Matt. 7:2):
For with what judgment ye judge,
Ye shall be judged;
And with what measure ye mete,
It shall be measured to you again.83
[Page 69]In other cases we have very archaic Wisdom from the East (Arabia), such as that of Lëmû’ēl of Massā’ in Proverbs 31:1–9, or (as we see immediately below) the rumination at Job 14:1–2, in characteristic 3+3 meter:
Man that is born of a woman,
Is of few days, and full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down;
He fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.
However, “the most striking verbal similarity occurs in a Mesopotamian text, the Gilgamesh Epic (ANET, 72–99,503–07)” (COS 1.132), as well as in the Babylonian Theodicy (ANET, 601–04; COS 1.154), the Dialogue between a Master and His Slave (ANET, 600–01; COS 1.155), and I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom (ANET, 596–600; COS 1.153), all of which have specific parallels with Ecclesiastes.84
Of even greater importance is the river and tree of Life motif as a stock exemplar of wisdom in both Bible85 and Book of Mormon,86 particularly at Proverbs 3:18, 11:30, Psalm 1, and 2 Nephi 2:11–29 (Lehi’s Opposites), as part of the early Doctrine of the Two Ways,87 while Divine [Page 70]Wisdom and the Law are the source of life eternal and the Spirit, which are symbolized by spring water (living water).88 Note the Community Rule Scroll from Qumran Cave 1 (1QS 4:21–22):
God…will purify…him with the Holy Spirit
Will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth
Like waters for purification from all abominations.
And some striking lines from Ethiopic Enoch (1 Enoch 48:1):
In that place I saw the fountain of righteousness,
Which does not become depleted,
And is surrounded completely by numerous fountains
Moreover, Wisdom is the Holy Spirit in Proverbs 8, Wisdom of Solomon 7–8, and Ecclesiasticus 24 (Ben Sira).89
Not incidentally, the “Two Ways” (life & death, good & evil) was likewise an integral part of ancient Egyptian theology,90 as well as significant at Qumran and in intertestamental literature (apocrypha & pseudepigrapha).91
To find more such material, one ought to take careful note also of the powerful homilies (sermons) which can be found in Mosiah 1–5 (a combined New Year, covenant renewal ceremony, pilgrimage festival of ingathering, and coregency ritual), Alma 5, and Moroni 7—all of which include poetry.
[Page 71]Poetry Using Typologies, Metaphors, Similes,
Allegories, Parables, and Puns
Richard Rust and Donald Parry have explained in short compass the typologies (type–antitype) in 2 Nephi 11:4, and Mosiah 13:31,92 but these are merely hints of things to come, as suggested by Rowan Greer and then Northrop Frye in a biblical context:
We cannot read Luke’s infancy narratives without being reminded of the story of Sam.’s birth. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is clearly meant to take us to a new Sinai. The miraculous feeding of the multitude in the wilderness harks back to the manna miracle in the wilderness, as John 6 makes explicit. Behind Christ hover the figures of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David. . . . the Hebrew Scriptures become a type of Christ, foreshadowing him and his work, or an allegory in which the letter of Scripture points toward the timeless truths explicitly defined in the New Testament writings. John 3:14 treats Moses’ lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness (Num. 21:9) as a type of Christ’s exaltation on the cross. Matthew 12:39ff. (cf. Matt. 16:4) treats Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale as a type of Christ’s three days in death, but Luke 11:29ff. interprets Jonah as a sign of repentance. 1 Peter 3:21 understands the deliverance of Noah as a type of Christian baptism. And in Galatians 4, Paul interprets the story of Abraham’s two children in a partly typological partly allegorical fashion to argue for the incorporation of the Gentiles into God’s people.93
This typological way of reading the Bible is indicated too often and explicitly in the New Testament itself for us to be in any doubt that this [Page 72]is the “right” way of reading it—“right” in the only sense that criticism can recognize, as the way that conforms to the intentionality of the book itself and to the conventions it assumes and requires.94
Not just the garden and Tree of Life (along with path and river) are rendered allegorically and typologically, but other agricultural metaphors are rendered particularly well in the Book of Mormon. Exilic Israel and the Israel of the Restoration are, for example, each compared to an olive tree in Jacob 5 (a long parable, with interpretation in Jacob 6).95 While the human soul expands in Alma 5:9–14, it is the word of God in Alma 32:28–34 (which Rust & Parry term an “extended metaphor”) compared to a seed which begins to grow as it is cultivated, first swelling and sprouting, and finally leading to full flowering of the soul in whom it was planted, bringing enlightenment and understanding. Such metaphors, similes, and allegories are quite common biblically,96 and extra- biblically,97 and they play an essential part in the composition and understanding of poetry (and epistemology) in the Book of Mormon. Rust and Parry note the simile curse in Abinadi’s denunciation of King Noah at Mosiah 12:10–11.98 Jacob’s Blessing in Genesis 49 includes alliterative punning at verse 19, which is reminscent of the best etymology for Book of Mormon Gaddianton-robbers:99
|[Page 73]Gad will be raided by raiders,||(Gad gĕdûd yegûdennû)
גד גדוד יגודנו
|And he will raid at (their) heel(s).||(wĕhûʼ yāgud ˁaqeb[am])
והוא יגד עקב
Wordplay (paronomasia), which takes various forms in the biblical tradition,100 is difficult to establish in a translated text for which the original is inaccessible, but it is clear that punning (which was exceedingly popular in ancient Egypt as well) does take place in the Book of Mormon. Pedro Olavarria and David Bokovoy have noted the puns on the name Zarahemla “Seed of compassion” at Mosiah 9:2 and 3 Nephi 3:24, based on KJV use of the word “spared; compassion” (ḥml) there and at 1 Samuel 15:9. We also have instances of metonymic naming, such as that of Zeezrum (hypothetical Hebrew *Ze-ezrum, “That-Ezrum-Guy; Silverman,” following a suggestion of Ben Urrutia), the “Money-man,” or “Mister-Silver,” bearing as he does the name of a type of Nephite silver-measure, the ezrum, for which the otherwise inexplicable digression on weights & measures in Alma 11 makes sense, as well as Antionah (a chief ruler in Alma 12:20), possibly meaning “That-Gold-Guy; Goldman; Money-man,” similarly based on the Nephite gold-measure, the antion (Alma 11:19).101 The two puns thus apparently frame the explanatory digression into Nephite weights & measures as part of an ABA triptych. The same sort of thing can be found in the book of Isaiah, in a section quoted in the Book of Mormon (Isa. 5:8–25; 9:7–10:4) in which the Emmanuel Booklet of 6:1–9:6, and/or the Denkschrift – Isaianic Memoirs of 6–8, at first appear to be intrusive, since this central material separates two perfectly matched poems, with a double inclusio of Seven Woes [Page 74](deliberately concluded at 10:1), and thus giving us an unexpected, but deliberate overall ABCDCBA chiastic structure.102
Other examples of wordplay can be found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. In his opening lines (1 Ne. 1:1), for example, Nephi appears to exhibit a play on the sound of his likely Egyptian name, nfy “Captain; Wind; Sail,” and nfr “good,”
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents,
We see these plays on just such words in the Egyptian story of The Eloquent Peasant, for example, at B1 305,103
That goodness should be good is good indeed.
nfr nfrt nfr rf
Other puns may be based on various Book of Mormon place-names, including Jershon, “Place of Inheritance,”104 Nahom, “Place of Rest, Comfort,”105 and perhaps one may also see dual Hebrew word-play between the theophoric place-name Ammonihah, “Ammon-YHH; My- Kinsman-is-the-Lord,”106 and its diabolical alternative designation, “Desolation of Nehors” (Alma 16:11), owing to their knowing rejection of the Gospel (Alma 1:12–16, 8:9–25, 15:15), and sinning against great “light and . . . knowledge” (Alma 9:19). Compare this to the esoteric, [Page 75]temple-centered pun in Daniel, “Horrifying Abomination,” שממות נחרצת(Dan. 9:27); השקוץ משומם (Dan. 11:31, 12:11 “abomination that maketh desolate”), in which Hellenizing Jews went along with the sacrilege of King Antiochus Epiphanes’ requiring observance of pagan rites, and putting up the pagan image of Baal-Shamem “Lord of Heaven” (=Olympian Zeus) on the Jewish Temple altar in Jerusalem—the once and future “Abomination of Desolation,” τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως (Matt. 24:15; cf. 1 Macc. 1:54, 6:7, and 2 Macc. 6:2). Note the marked contrast in each case.
In light of all the poetic beauty, depth, diversity, and power of the Book of Mormon, what is the upshot? It is that many of those not accepting the divine origin of the book have now actually admitted and openly announced that, even if it is in their opinion unhistorical, apocryphal, and fictional, the Book of Mormon is yet a “sacred text” which makes “a powerful statement of humanity’s worth in a world where human worth is everywhere questioned,”107 and does indeed include visions and sermons of “beauty and brilliance,” in a variety of literary genres including “parables, poetry, hyperbole, psalms, historical verisimilitude,”108 and chiasmus. This is a compelling legacy of the modern scholarship assaying and extolling the literary value of the Book of Mormon, which has not only brought considerable respect to the book from outside the LDS faith,109 but which has been accompanied by some very sophisticated analysis and exegesis of the text.110
[Page 76]The cornucopia of ancient Near Eastern parallels and insights which 1 have presented here suggests that we should continue to seek Chabad in the Book of Mormon, i.e., wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (ḥokmâ, bînâ, daˁat = CHaBaD), through pre-exilic Israelite poetry (and other ancient Near Eastern poetry), since this will surely lead us to something much deeper and more esoteric.