Alma 36 – Be Sure to Mention Chiasmus

Many Latter-day Saints will soon be discussing Alma 36 in the Book of Mormon in Gospel Doctrine classes (or some might have already done so). I’m disappointed that most LDS folks don’t seem to have any idea that Alma 36 may well be the best known example of an ancient Semitic form of poetry known as chiasmus. In fact, many Latter-day Saints still haven’t even heard of chiasmus. OK, neither had Joseph Smith, but he had a good excuse: it was virtually unknown in his day, and certainly not understood enough for even a scholar to have fabricated the powerful and intricate chiasmus we see in Alma 36. But today, there is just no excuse for not appreciating this poetical form that permeates the Book of Mormon, at least among the early writers who were most heavily influenced by ancient Jewish literary forms.

If your instructors don’t mention it, I encourage you to raise your hand and give a quick explanation of what’s going on. It’s easy to help people see some basics by comparing the first couple of verses to the last couple, and then identify the symmetry around the pivot point when Alma turns his heart to Christ. Alma 36 is such a powerful witness of Christ!


Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on “Alma 36 – Be Sure to Mention Chiasmus

  1. I’ve been tooling around with chiasm in Alma’s (and Ammon’s) words for the last little bit. Is there a good email list to discuss this on? I’d like to get some feedback on chiasms (and other patterns) I think I’ve found that aren’t listed in Parry’s 1992 book.

    Pat Eyler

  2. I actually had a BYU prof point out chiasmus in Alma 36 over 20 years ago–he had pages of notes and was really excited about it. Does it bring out any content or message otherwise hidden, or is it simply a literary artifact or structural feature? I suppose anything that makes us read scripture with great attention to detail is good.

  3. Welch has identified several reasons for chiasmus in antiquity. In addition to adding beauty and order to ones thoughts, it served to give special emphasis to the message at the focal point (the beginning and end sections were also emphasized), and may have helped in remembering the passage for oral recitation.

    Regarding the question about additional chiasmus that may have been, there are many in the Book of Mormon and you may very well have found one. Welch offers criteria for distinguishing between intentional, poetic chiasmus and the accidental ones that can occur. See John Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus
    ,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 4, Issue 2, 1995.

  4. I’ve been reading through Welch’s 15 characteristics, but had really hoped to find a mailing list or similar community I could discuss them with. I’ll try to post one today on my blog.

    Thanks for the additional information. I’ve been happily suprised at the added value I’m finding in the scriptures as I pay more attention to the structure of what’s being said.

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