In exploring Noel Reynolds’ hypothesis that some material in the Book of Moses may have been present on the brass plates that Nephi used, I wondered if Nephi or other authors might have referred to “chains of darkness” in Moses 7:57. Though that phrase is not used in the Book of Mormon, I found 2 Nephi 1:23, quoting Lehi, combines “chains” and “obscurity,” where “obscurity” can have the meaning of darkness. Further, there may be a Hebraic wordplay behind Lehi’s words when he tells his wayward sons to “come forth out of obscurity and arise from the dust,” based on the similarity between ʼôphel (obscurity) and ʼâphar (dust). Further exploring this connection pointed to the significance of the theme of dust in Lehi’s words and the surrounding passages from Nephi and Jacob, building on analysis from David Bokovoy and an important paper of non-LDS scholar Walter Brueggemann on the rich symbolic and covenant-related meanings of “rising from the dust” and “returning to the dust” in the Bible.
Brueggemann informs us that rising from the dust invokes themes of creation and receiving life, of covenant making and keeping, of receiving power and authority from the Lord, of enthronement and kingship, of receiving glory and of being resurrected. Returning to the dust, on the other hand, can be a symbol of death, of breaking covenants, and of loss of status and authority. Brueggemann’s work adds new layers of meaning to Lehi’s words and the surrounding text, especially Nephi and Jacob’s usage of Isaiah. Lehi’s dust-intensive speech, drawing upon the “Arise from the dust” theme in Isaiah 52:1-2, is actually sandwiched between two repeated quotations of the same dust-related passage of Isaiah–a puzzling redundancy were it not for the poetic emphasis it adds.
Recognizing the usage of dust-related themes in the Book of Mormon can enhance our understanding of several passages. An appeal to the Book of Mormon’s use of dust-related themes may even help fill in some gaps in the complex chiastic structure of Alma 36 and add meaning to other portions of that voice from the dust, the Book of Mormon.
Background: Digging into Dust
In recent posts I’ve discussed a hypothesis from Noel Reynolds about the relationship between the Book of Moses and the brass plates of Nephi. Along with the theme of the devil, one concept in the Book of Moses not mentioned by Reynolds that I also see in the Book of Mormon is the symbol of the chain. In Moses 7:26 and 7:56, Enoch sees Satan with a great chain, and we see that people are held captive in “chains of darkness” until the judgment day. When I read that after reading Reynolds, I wondered if there might a relationship in the Book of Mormon. Chains and the captivity of Satan are themes there, but I was disappointed to not find “darkness” and “chains” used together in the text.
Finding that connection might be helpful in exploring influences on Nephite writers but would not be significant in terms of LDS apologetics since the Bible also mentions chains and its obvious link to captivity. Rev. 20:1 mentions a great chain associated with the bottomless pit, and “chains of darkness” are mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, though possibly connected back to the Book of Enoch mentioned in Jude 14. First Enoch, published in 1912 from a text in the Ga’ez language, often called “Ethiopic,” mentions great iron chains and has often been asserted to have connections to the passages from Peter and Jude (The Book of Enoch or First Enoch, transl. by R.H. Charles (Escondido, CA: The Book Tree, 2000), pp. 105-108, 141). Both Peter and Jude write of angels who sinned and are held in chains of darkness until the judgment day, aligning well with the discussion of Satan’s rebellion in heaven in the Book of Moses and also with Moses 7:57, where Enoch sees spirits in prison in “chains of darkness until the judgment of the great day.” But in the KJV Old Testament, the connection between chains and darkness doesn’t seem to be there, so if Nephi or others used a similar term, perhaps it was known from the brass plates. However, Psalm 107:10 could also be relevant. In the KJV, considering the context of verses 9-11, this speaks of rebellious souls who “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron.” But several other translations use “chains,” such as the NIV for Ps. 107:
10. Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
11. because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
While I didn’t find “chains of darkness” or similar phrases in my first search of the Book of Mormon, I soon noticed 2 Nephi 1, Lehi’s speech to his sons, where verse 23 may be relevant:
- And now that my soul might have joy in you, and that my heart might leave this world with gladness because of you, that I might not be brought down with grief and sorrow to the grave, arise from the dust, my sons, and be men, and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye may not come down into captivity;
- That ye may not be cursed with a sore cursing; and also, that ye may not incur the displeasure of a just God upon you, unto the destruction, yea, the eternal destruction of both soul and body.
- Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.
- Rebel no more against your brother, whose views have been glorious, and who hath kept the commandments from the time that we left Jerusalem; and who hath been an instrument in the hands of God, in bringing us forth into the land of promise; for were it not for him, we must have perished with hunger in the wilderness; nevertheless, ye sought to take away his life; yea, and he hath suffered much sorrow because of you.
In verse 23, a connection between chains and darkness is provided, though not verbatim. In the entry for obscurity in the 1828 dictionary of Noah Webster, the first definition listed for obscurity is “Darkness; want of light.” Ah, another link in the chain.
In that verse, chains are contrasted with the armor of righteousness. Obscurity and dust are linked, and possibly contrasted with Nephi, “whose views have been glorious”–vision and glory (light) are in contrast with obscurity (darkness) and dust. The Hebrew word for dust, (H6083 in Strong’s Concordance) is `aphar, which comes from H6080, the primitive root ʻâphar, “meaning either to be gray or perhaps rather to pulverize”. The gray aspect of this word would seem to go well with obscurity.
Obscurity and dust are both mentioned in Isaiah 29, a part of Isaiah that Nephi quotes heavily, so it is reasonable to assume that similar Hebrew words were used in Nephi’s statement. In Isaiah 29:4, the speech that whispers from the “dust” (actually occurring twice there) is from Strong’s H6083, `aphar, mentioned above. This word occurs 15 times in Isaiah, always translated as dust except in Is. 2:19, where it is “earth.” Most occurrences of dust in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament are from the same root (accounting for 15 of the 17 cases in Isaiah), though “dust” in Is. 5:24 and 29:5 is taken from a less common root, ‘abaq, referring to an especially fine powder. It occurs 6 times and accounts for less than 5% of the occurrences of “dust” in the Old Testament (KJV). (Analysis done using the Blue Letter Bible app from BlueLetterBible.org.)
The KJV word “obscurity” in Isaiah 28 is tied to Strong’s H652:
ʼôphel, o’fel (from H651, ʼâphêl); meaning “dusk:—darkness, obscurity, privily,: while ʼâphêl is “from an unused root meaning to set as the sun; dusky:—very dark.”
So “obscurity” could be ôphel/ʼâphêl, while “dust” is probably from ʻâphar. To me, that looks like a potential wordplay that I don’t think has been noted. This seems to add to the parallelism and poetry of Lehi’s words, in a passage that appears to draw from Isaiah 52 and, perhaps, a touch of the Book of Moses or related content on the brass plates.
Later I would find chains linked to darkness in other verses. Alma 5:7 speaks of souls who were in a “deep sleep” and the “midst of darkness,” in describing those who were “encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell,” facing destruction. But they were liberated as the chains of hell were loosed, causing their souls to expand and thus they did “sing redeeming love.” In adjacent verses at Alma 26:14-15, we also have both: chains and darkness
- Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice?
- Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God, and has loosed our brethren from the chains of hell.
- Yea, they were encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction; but behold, he has brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation; and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.
Chains in the Book of Mormon are frequently associated with Satan or hell, captivity, destruction, and encirclement. Chains are also often associated with shaking and trembling, as in 2 Nephi 1:13 (“shake off the awful chains”, spoken by Lehi the “trembling parent” in vs. 14); 2 Nephi 1:23 (“shake off the chains”); 2 Nephi 9:44-45 (“shake of the chains” in parallel to shaking of garments and shaking off iniquities in v. 44), 2 Nephi 28:19 (the great and abominable church “must tumble to the earth” in vs. 18, and then in vs. 19 “the kingdom of the devil must shake . . . the devil will grasp them with his everlasting chains”).
In the Book of Mormon, those who once were encircled with the chains of hell but are freed may be described as “encircled” with God’s love, per Alma 26:15 above, or encircled with the robes or righteousness, as Nephi writes in his psalm (2 Nephi 4:33, after asking that he may “shake” at the appearance of sin in vs. 31). They are to be lifted up (the “arise” motif ) at the last day, and also tend to break out into song. In addition to Alma 26:13-15 above, also see Alma 12:5-6,11,17; Alma 5:6-11; Alma 13:29-30; and the last place where chains are mentioned in the Book of Mormon, Alma 36:18:
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
Interestingly, “encircled about by the chains of death” is how Alma sums up his miserable state as he turns to the Lord. This is at the heart, the pivot point, of the Book of Mormon’s most famous chiasmus. Could it be related to Lehi’s words and the themes associated with dust? Could there be more to Alma 36 than previously recognized?
I think so. To explain, though, I need to share some further information that I feel will be relevant. I apologize for the dusty detour that follows.
Key Insights on Dust from Bokovoy and Brueggemann
After finding the theme of darkness and chains apparently embedded in 2 Nephi 1:23, and finding what looks like a possible wordplay, I searched for further commentary to see what others had found. This took me to David Bokovoy’s blog at Patheos.com, where his 2014 discussion of Lehi’s poetic speech to his sons shows how Lehi draw upon the theme of “rising from the dust” in Isaiah 52:1-2. The excerpt below from Bokovoy follows Grant Hardy’s formatting for the poetic portions of the Book of Mormon (Grant Hardy, The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Chicago: Illinois Press, 2005), pp. 62-63):
At the end of his life, the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi called his children together and delivered a series of final sermons. Facing the prospect of his own mortality, Lehi encouraged his sons to wake up and avoid spiritual death. While facing physical death, Lehi used resurrection imagery in his final effort to inspire his sons:
O that ye would awake;
awake from a deep sleep,
yea, even from the sleep of hell,
and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound,
which are the chains which bind the children of men,
that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery
Awake! and arise from the dust,
and hear the words of a trembling parent,
whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave,
from whence no traveler can return;
a few more days and I go the way of all the earth…
Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness.
Shake off the chains with which ye are bound,
and come forth out of obscurity,
and arise from the dust (2 Nephi 1:13-14, 23).
Lehi’s poem clearly draws its inspiration from Isaiah 52, a poetic text that seeks to reverse the sufferings experienced by the exilic community through a promise of royal restoration:
put on thy strength, O Zion;
Put on thy beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city:
there shall no more come into thee
the uncircumcised and the unclean.
Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down,
loose thyself from the bands of thy neck,
O captive daughter of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2)
Lehi’s sermon features the dual imperative “awake, awake,” the image of being loosed from bands, arising from the dust, and putting on armor of righteousness/beautiful garments. The Book of Mormon sermon, therefore, clearly echoes this poetic refrain from Isaiah 52.
Many people are puzzled by a phrase in Isaiah 52:2: “Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down.” If you are shaking yourself from the dust, why would you sit down in it after rising? But the meaning is not to sit back down in the dust, but to arise and sit on the throne that God has prepared. This will become more clear below as we explore how the theme of dust in the ancient Near East and in the Book of Mormon relates to enthronement and related themes. But first, let’s see how Lehi’s speech ties to subsequent writings of Nephi and Jacob.
According to Bokovoy, Nephi shows that he accepts Lehi’s charge to “awake” shortly after recording Lehi’s speech when he records his own psalm:
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
Rejoice, O my heart,
and give place no more for the enemy of my soul (2 Nephi 4:28).
Nephi’s words strengthen the case for Nephi as Lehi’s successor and the legitimate king over the Nephite people.
I should add that Nephi also fortifies his acceptance of Lehi’s plea when he asks God in verse 31 to make him that he “may shake at the appearance of sin,” following Lehi’s command to “shake off the chains with which ye are bound” and Isaiah 52:1 with “Shake thyself from the dust.” Dust, chains, shaking, are connected to enthronement, life, resurrection, and glory. Nephi’s acceptance of Lehi’s commands and his worthiness as authorized leader of the Nephite people should come as no surprise, of course, since Lehi already endorsed Nephi in his speech in 2 Nephi 1 and observed that, in contrast to the chains and obscurity hindering his wayward sons, Nephi’s “views have been glorious.” Sight and glory stand in contrast to the chains, dust and darkness encircling the wicked.
Two chapters later, Jacob explains that he is about to read words from Isaiah that Nephi asked him to discuss (2 Nephi 6:4). He then begins reciting and discussing Isaiah, starting with Isaiah 49:22 and then Isaiah 50, 51, and finally concludes with the same passage that Lehi drew upon, Isaiah 52:1-2 (“Awake, awake, … shake thyself from the dust….”).
Bokovoy sees Jacob’s use of this passage, following Nephi’s assignment to him, as further cementing the legitimacy of Nephi’s reign and establishing the authority of Nephi and Jacob.
Bokovoy sees the issue of Nephite leadership and authority and the use of Isaiah 52:1-2 as especially meaningful in light of a scholarly work that establishes a connection between “rising from the dust” and kingship, enthronement, and authority. The source is Walter Brueggemann’s 1972 publication, “From Dust to Kingship,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 84, no. 1, 1972; (the link provides only the first page and a means to purchase). I feel that Brueggemann’s work offers some gems of insight for the Book of Mormon, the record we often call “a voice from the dust.”
Brueggemann’s study of this topic began with an investigation of 1 Kings 16:2, where the Lord tells Baasha that “I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel.” But then the antithesis is given: “Behold I will utterly sweep away Baasha and his house,” referring to Baasha losing his status as a ruler and becoming dust again. This is tied to the Creation story, where we read that God formed man out of the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and that we are dust, and will return to dust (Gen. 3:19). (After being formed from the dust, Adam and Eve are put in charge of caring for the garden–in other words, they are given authority and responsibility.)
I should add that in light of modern science, we can say that we are not only formed from the dust of the earth, but from the dust of the stars and the cosmos, and that the whole earth has been formed from the dust of space. Dust is such a fitting word to describe the origins of our physical bodies and even the world around us. The Creative work of God in bringing about His ultimate goals begins with forming us from the dust.
Brueggemann builds on the 1967 work of J. Wijngaards, “Death and Resurrection in Covenantal Context (Hos. VI 2),” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 17, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1967), pp. 226-239. Wijngaards observed that “dying and rising” describe the voiding and renewing of covenant relationships, and that calls to “turn” or “repent” involve changing loyalties or entering into a new covenant. He also cites other scholars who found that New Testament themes of resurrection are built on Israel’s ancient enthronement rituals, and that when Christ was “raised up” from the dead “on the third day,” the concept was dependent upon a variety of related Old Testament passages. “The important gain of these studies is the recognition that the motifs of covenant-renewal, enthronement, and resurrection cannot be kept in isolation from each other but they run together and serve to illuminate each other” (p. 1).
Brueggemann’s exploration of the dust theme in the scriptures led him to conclude that rising from the dust is tied to divine covenants. To keep sacred covenants is to rise from the dust–not only to rise, but to also be endowed (my term) with power and authority. Rising from the dust is a symbol of enthronement, which I believe is God’s ultimate goal–His work and His glory–in creating us from the dust in the first place. Brueggemann explains that to break covenants is to return to the dust and to lose one’s position of authority. Dust is used to describe the status of the covenant maker:
Behind the creation formula lies a royal formula of enthronement. To be taken “from the dust” means to be elevated from obscurity to royal office and to return to dust means to be deprived of that office and returned to obscurity. Since the royal office depends upon covenant with the appropriate god, to be taken from the dust means to be accepted as a covenant-partner and treated graciously; to return to the dust means to lose that covenant relation. …To die and be raised is to be out of covenant and then back in covenant. So also to be “from dust” is to enter into a covenant and to return “to dust” is to have the covenant voided. Dust is not to be taken literally but as a figure for being out of covenant, impotent and unimportant, or as Wijngaards has suggested, “dead”. The dramatic movement of dust to life to dust [Gen. 2:7, 3:9, 1 Kings 16:2-3] is in fact imagery describing the fortune and standing of the royal occupant. (pp. 2-3; emphasis mine)
Since my explorations on this topic began with 2 Nephi 1:23, where “dust” and “obscurity” are linked and seem like an poor fit in the midst of easily recognized parallels, it was intriguing to read Brueggemann’s statement that “To be taken ‘from the dust’ means to be elevated from obscurity to royal office and to return to dust means to be deprived of that office and returned to obscurity” (emphasis mine). That fits Lehi’s speech nicely. Brueggemann’s finding that rising from the dust is also related to kingship, to enthronement, to covenant keeping, and resurrection also fits beautifully with Book of Mormon usage.
Brueggemann explains that being in the covenant means having royal power and authority, and being out of the covenant means losing such power and status. Being in the dust, without power or authority, is contrasted to “sitting with princes” in 1 Samuel 2:6-8. Thus “the phrase ‘from the dust’ appears here also as a formula relating to enthronement.” Thus “sitting” in 1 Samuel 2:6-8 is akin to the “sit” in Is. 52:2, where “arising from the dust” and “sitting” are both references to enthronement. The 1 Samuel passage ends with a reference to the creation: “for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.” (p. 3) This reference points to the stability that comes from sound kingship.
Brueggemann considers resurrection an important theme related to rising from the dust. He explains that resurrection in the Old and New Testaments is clearly linked to “rising from the dust,” and says that these related themes run into each other and reinforce one another (p. 1).
Let’s turn briefly back to Wijngaards’ work, the foundation for Brueggemann’s analysis. Wijngaards looked at Hosea 6:2 and its reference to reviving and rising on the third day. He also examined the related ancient Near Eastern theme of gods dying and “rising on the third day” (p. 228). He also notes that revival from sickness was a symbol of resurrection from God (p. 229), and that “killing” was used metaphorically to describe dethroning a king and removing people from power (p. 231) or with replacing one king/lord with another (p. 232), an act that has covenantal implications. Thus raising someone to life can refer to entering into a covenant, and death and killing can refer to breaking the covenant. There are ancient Near Eastern contexts, according to Wijngaards, where these concepts have rich covenantal implications, and one of the key words associated with these concepts is yada, to know, as in a covenant relationship (p. 237). Finally, in this study of Hosea 6:2, Wijngaards concludes that the verse means this:
Jahweh is said to “revise” and “raise” his people when “on the third day” he will renew his covenant with them. This renewal is called a “raising from death to life” because it will restore the reign of blessing and fertility that are consequent on and inherent in good covenantal relations. (p. 237; emphasis original)
Repentance, accepting and keeping covenants, enthronement, and resurrection are tied together, as are the themes of covenant breaking, dying, loss of power and status, and obscurity–these are part of the complex of interlocking dust-related themes that we should consider in Lehi’s speech and related passages of the Book of Mormon.
In Part 2 of Bokovoy’s post on the “arise from the dust” theme, he notes that Christ also cites Isaiah 52:1-2, and that Moroni quotes it to conclude the Book of Mormon, a fitting closure in light of Lehi’s early words. Here is Moroni 10:30-31:
And again I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing.
And awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.
This is a call to enter into a covenant relationship with the Redeemer, to acquire every gift that he offers–gifts that are good (echoing Nephi’s name perhaps), a reminding us of Lehi’s plea to his children to “arise from the dust” and, in parallel to putting on the armor of righteousness that Lehi spoke off (contrasted with the chains Satan offers), Moroni asks us to put on our beautiful garments, garments that are linked to (or a symbol of) the covenants of the Father with us. These garments may well refer to the robes and garments of the Temple, where we lay hold of every good gift and learn to cast out Satan and reject his evil gifts. Satan’s gifts, like his chains, are those of darkness, or rather, the “obscurity” that Lehi begged his wayward sons to flea. Come forth out of obscurity, shun evil gifts and covenants, arise from the dust, and put on beautiful garments tied to holy covenants from the Father, and do this by coming unto Christ.
A Dusty Inclusio Around Lehi’s Words?
A Hebraic language pattern also found in the Book of Mormon is inclusio. Wikipedia gives a reasonable description:
In biblical studies, inclusio is a literary device based on a concentric principle, also known as bracketing or an envelope structure, which consists of creating a frame by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a section, although whether this material should consist of a word or a phrase, or whether greater amounts of text also qualify, and of what length the frames section should be, are matters of some debate. Inclusio is found in various sources, both antique and new.
While this may not be evident to many of the Bible’s modern lay readers, the Hebrew Bible is actually full of literary devices, some of which, having fallen out of favor over the years, are lost on most modern readers. Inclusio, of which many instances can be found in the Bible, is one of these, although many instances of its usage are not apparent to those reading translations of the Bible rather than the Hebrew source.
Particularly noteworthy are the many instances of inclusio in the Book of Jeremiah.
This form of bracketing or framing by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a passage is related to chiasmus, which sometimes can seem like “recursive inclusio.” As with chiasmus, the presence of inclusio is easily missed by modern readers reading translations of an ancient Semitic texts such as the Bible or (in my opinion) the Book of Mormon, so it is an area of ongoing investigation, with inclusio, like chiasmus, only having been relatively recently discovered in the Book of Mormon, well over a century after publication. A recently discovered example of inclusio in the Book of Mormon, coupled with apparent Hebraic wordplays, was just published: “Nephi’s Good Inclusio” by Matthew L. Bowen at Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.
There appears to be a notable example of inclusio in the way Isaiah is quoted both before and after Lehi’s speech in 2 Nephi 1-3 and the related passages from Nephi and Jacob in 2 Nephi 4-6 and the preceding chapter, 1 Nephi 22. Back in 1 Nephi 19 quotes material no longer extant in our Bible from the brass plates, and then says that in order to “more fully persuade [his people] to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scripture unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23). Nephi then begins quoting Isaiah 48 in 1 Nephi 20 and Isaiah 49 in 1 Nephi 21. Interestingly, when he quotes Isaiah 49:13, he adds two phrases:
Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established; and break forth into singing, O mountains; for they shall be smitten no more; for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.
One Hebrew root sometimes translated as “establish” is quwm, Strong’s H6965, which is the same root used in Isaiah 52:1 for “arise.” It occurs as “establish” 27 times in the OT, but far more frequently as “arise,” “rise,” or related terms. If this was the word Nephi used and presumably was found in the brass plates, it would fit some aspects of the “rise from the dust” theme. In view of the dust-related themes that follow and Abinadi’s later discourse on another verse in Isaaih 52 (“how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet…”), I suggest that this addition may be meaningful, and that feet + mountains + rejoicing/singing paint a picture of the redeemed ascending the cosmic mountain, Mount Zion or the House of the Lord, where they have risen away from and have been washed from from the mundane dust of the world. There they have accepted the Lord’s covenant , have put on the Lord’ beautiful garments, and in joy received the enthronement or endowment of power and grace that the Lord offers.
The Isaiah quotations before Lehi’s speech begin with 1 Nephi 20, quoting Isaiah 48:1 “O house of Jacob, who … are come forth out of the waters of Judah,” to which Joseph Smith added a clarification: “or out of the waters of baptism.” This chunk of Isaiah begins with a reference to a former washing for those who are now breaking the covenant, and end in 1 Nephi 21 with the closing verses of Isaiah 49, giving a powerful image related to dust and enthronement/dethronement while also emphasizing the theme the primary topic of Lehi, redemption and salvation through the Redeemer:
- Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.
- And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; they shall bow down to thee with their face towards the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord; for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
- For shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captives delivered?
- But thus saith the Lord, even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered; for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
- And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; they shall be drunken with their own blood as with sweet wine; and all flesh shall know that I, the Lord, am thy Savior and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Kings and queens will bow down and lick up the dust of those who are gathered by the Lord–what an amazing reversal that again employs the relationship of dust to enthronement.
When I read these words, I cannot help but think of another related image: that of the King of Heaven bowing down before his mortal disciples to wash the dust from their feet shortly before His crucifixion. Surely He who took on a tabernacle of dust descended below all things, even below the dust itself as he entered the grave for three days and three nights. That act must be considered in light of its profound links to the role of dust (or dust and feet) in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon.
That is the first bracket. The second bracket occurs after Lehi’s Redeemer-centric words in 2 Nephi 1-3, after Nephi’s Psalm where he accepts Lehi’s charge to “awake, awake” and “shake” at sin (in light of Bokovoy’s analysis, showing his worthiness to serve as the legitimate heir of Lehi as ruler over the Nephite people), and after Jacob’s introductory comments in 2 Nephi 6, where Jacob announces that he is now going to read the words of Isaiah that Nephi has asked him to teach. These are carefully chosen passages, but with a surprise, for the next chunk of Isaiah is unnecessarily redundant. Jacob begins quoting Isaiah not from where Nephi left off, but repeats verses that Nephi just quoted. A redundant oration is understandable, but given the limited space on the small plates of Nephi and the difficulty of engraving, a redundant quotation involves genuine labor and certainly intent. But why? This new excerpt from Isaiah begins with Isaiah 49:22 and quotes the verses about licking of dust from the feet, and the reference to the Redeemer.
This redundant section may have seemed like sloppiness to casual readers and critics, but it is highly thematic and is a clever use of a Hebraic literary tool, inclusio, to bracket and highlight the dust-related themes of the chapters in between, and to emphasis the importance of this dust- and Redeemer-related passage in Isaiah. Jacob then continues in Isaiah until he gets to Isaiah 52:1-2, the dust-related passage that underlies Lehi’s words–and perhaps more of the Book of Mormon than we realized before.
One rough way of portraying the structure here is:
A. First Isaiah passage
Beginning: 1 Nephi 20:1 (Is. 48:1): Arising from the waters of Judah (baptism)–as if washed from dust
End: 1 Nephi 21:22-26 (Is. 49:22-26): Kings and queens to lick the dust off the feet of the covenant people of Israel; all shall know the Savior and Redeemer.
B. Words of Nephi, Lehi, and Jacob in 1 Nephi 22 and 2 Nephi 1-6, with Lehi’s repeated references to Isaiah 52:1-2 and themes of dust, deliverance from captivity, and redemption.
C. Second Isaiah passage
Beginning: 2 Nephi 6:6, quoting Is. 49:22-23 (kings licking dust from the feet) in 2 Nephi 6:6-7, and then continuing with Is. 49:24-26 in 2 Nephi 6:16-18, then Isaiah 50 in 2 Nephi 7 and Isaiah 51 in 2 Nephi 8.
End: 2 Nephi 8:24-25, quoting Is. 52:1-2 (“Awake, awake . . . Shake thyself from the dust, arise, sit down, loose thyself from the bands of thy necks, O captive daughter of Zion.”
It’s more than “just” inclusio. You could say this is a textual example of going “from dust to dust.” Nephi appears to be using the structure of his words, including the choice of Isaiah passages to cite, to frame and amplify a core theme for the Book of Mormon.
With that background, let’s dust off the chiasmus in Alma 36.
Dusting Off a Loose Portion of Alma 36
The chiastic nature of Alma 36 has been a popular topic for LDS apologists, and one that the critics have learned to criticize. It is too fuzzy, too loose, they argue, and with some fair points. The beginning and end of the chiasmus are strong and compact, and the center point, where Alma turns to Christ, is also distinct and relatively compact. The portions in the middle, though, are of a different nature, with some steps in the chiasmus spread out as a general concept covering multiple verses where critics can accuse us of looking for patterns that aren’t there. There is a reasonable response to this objection: when relating history, there are things that need to be said that won’t fit nicely and compactly in a chiasmus. But at the pivot point, generally the most important part of the chiasmus, and at the end points, which are also particularly important, the chiasmus is clear and strong in Alma 36. The middle ground is still chiastic, though necessarily more diffuse.
Here is a typical framing of Alma 46, taken from John Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. J.L. Sorenson and M.J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991) showing his proposed structure of the verses:
(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1) (b) KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS of God and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (2) (c) DO AS I HAVE DONE (2) (d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2); (e) for they were in BONDAGE (2) (f) he surely did DELIVER them (2) (g) TRUST in God (3) (h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3) (i) shall be lifted up at the LAST DAY (3) (j) I KNOW this not of myself but of GOD (4) (k) BORN OF GOD (5) (l) I sought to destroy the church of God (6-9) (m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10) (n) Fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD (14-15) (o) PAINS of a damned soul (16) (p) HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS (17) (q) I remembered JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD (17) (q') I cried, JESUS, SON OF GOD (18) (p') HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS no more (19) (o') Joy as exceeding as was the PAIN (20) (n') Long to be in the PRESENCE OF GOD (22) (m') My LIMBS received their strength again (23) (l') I labored to bring souls to repentance (24) (k') BORN OF GOD (26) (j') Therefore MY KNOWLEDGE IS OF GOD (26) (h') Supported under TRIALS, TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (27) (g') TRUST in him (27) (f') He will deliver me (27) (i') and RAISE ME UP AT THE LAST DAY (28) (e') As God brought our fathers out of BONDAGE and captivity (28-29) (d') Retain in REMEMBRANCE THEIR CAPTIVITY (28-29) (c') KNOW AS I DO KNOW (30) (b') KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (30) (a') This is according to his WORD (30).
Some loose spots include item i’ in verse 28 apparently showing up a verse late (I’m not sure why–a slip or a necessity?) and big gaps or significant looseness around item l (the concept of destroying the church of God, verses 6-9), item m (MY LIMBS paralyzed in verse 10) and item n (fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD. verses 14-15).
Shortly after reading Brueggemann, I reread Alma 36 to respond to a critic at Mormanity challenging the validity of Alma 36 as a significant achievement. As I looked at the weakest spots, I noticed some dust-related terms that caught my interest:
7. earth did tremble (shake) beneath our feet … fell to the earth … fear of the Lord
8. …the voice said unto me, Arise. And I arose and stood up
9. …destroyed … seek no more to destroy the church of God
10. … I fell to the earth … three days and three nights …
11. …destroyed … destroy no more … fear … destroyed … fell to the earth and did hear no more
The earth trembles, the dust of the ground is shaking under their feet, and he falls down, toward the dust. A possible relationship with dust themes?
Alma has broken the covenant and is at risk of losing his status and even life. Surprised by an angel, amazed at God’s power and reality, he falls to the earth, to the dust. As Lehi commanded his sons, the angel commands Alma to “Arise.” Literally, he is to arise from the ground, from the dust. He stands, but cannot remain standing in light of his sinful state. He faces destruction for the work of destruction he has done. The flame of guilt ignited, he falls again to the earth, to the dust, and is as if dead, as if in the grave for three days and three nights. And again we are told that faced with destruction, in fear and amazement, he fell to the earth and could hear no more.
He falls to the dust and then falls again.
On the other side of the pivot point, where item m’ refers to limbs receiving strength in verse 23, there may be even more parallels in this chiasmus:
22. Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
23. But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.
24. Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
25. Yea, and now behold, O my son, the Lord doth give me exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors;
26. For because of the word which he has imparted unto me, behold, many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen; therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God.
In light of Brueggemann’s work, falling to the earth in Alma 36 may do much more than just convey Alma’s great fear, but may serve as an equivalent to returning to the dust, invoking these symbols:
- physical death
- spiritual death (falling away from God)
- rebellion, sin, breaking the covenant
- losing power, authority, life
The association of death with falling to the earth is reinforced with many elements, including references to destruction, the deathlike state of his body, suffering the pains of hell, and Alma’s being in this state “for three days and three nights” (v. 10), an apparent reference to the prophesied time that Christ would spend in the grave (see Nephi’s prophecy in 2 Nephi 25:13, and the related prophecy of Zenos on the brass plates, mentioned in 1 Nephi 19:10), which is also consistent with the theme of rising on the third day discussed by J. Wijngaards in the above-mentioned work, “Death and Resurrection in Covenantal Context (Hos. VI 2).”
The possibility that Alma’s fall to the earth is meant to be associated with the dust-related themes introduced by Lehi is reinforced by the words, or rather word, of the angel to fallen Alma: “Arise” (v. 8). This word is repeated as Alma states that “I arose and stood up,” unnecessarily redundant unless Alma were reinforcing the word “arise” (possibly from quwm in Hebrew). Alma even explicitly mentions Lehi in Alma 36:22.
In considering the terms that could stand in contrast to such a fall to the dust of the earth, what could be more appropriate in this context than being “born again” with its implications of spiritual renewal, entering into the covenant, and receiving life, power and grace from God? Just as our “loose” upper midsection of the chiasmus mentions Alma’s fall to the earth three times, the related section in the lower midsection also mentions being born again three times.
In light of the dust/death/fall themes in the upper midsection and the contrasting concepts of being born again and entering into the covenant with God in the lower midsection, perhaps the sparse, amorphous mid-sections of the chiasm’s wings are actually loaded with more than previously realized when Brueggemann’s insights are added.
The loose section, comprising verses 5 to 15 on the upper side and verses 23 to 26 on the lower, spanning elements k, l, m, and n in Welch’s mapping of the chiasmus, actually has more than just 4 little phrases in common. There are multiple concepts with multiple dimensions interspersed in a complex passage. Rather than neatly parse it as a simple linear chiasmus, look at the interwoven block of themes.
The first section has these major themes:
- Alma falls to the earth. After being told to “arise,” he arose and stood up but soon falls again. He is literally “fallen again” in the presence of an angel, fallen from God. His falling to the earth is mentioned three times (vv. 7, 10, 11).
- Alma is like one who is dead. He can’t move his limbs (v. 10), his can’t open his mouth (v. 10), and he can’t hear (v. 11). Three times we learn that his body isn’t working: limbs, mouth, and ears are not functioning.
- He is not only as if dead, but as if in hell, experiencing the pains of a damned soul (vv. 12-13). Body and soul are affected.
- Alma was seeking to destroy the Church of God. This is mentioned 3 times (vv. 6, 9, 11). Speaking of destruction, he is warned that he will be destroyed if he keeps seeking to destroy the Church of God.
- He has not kept God’s commandments, meaning that he has departed/fallen from the covenant (v. 13). Worse yet, he has led others away from God, causing them also to die, or he “had murdered many of his children” (v. 14), causing inexpressible horror at the thought of coming into God’s presence.
- He yearns to “become extinct [dead] both soul and body” (v. 15)..
- These events are precipitated by the appearance of an angel (v. 6), who speaks to the sons of Mosiah with the voice of thunder (v. 7).
Now compare that section from verses 6-14 with the related loose section on the other side of the pivot point, verses 23 to 26, which has these major themes:
- Alma returns to life (physically) and is born again (spiritually), in contrast to being “extinct both soul and body” and in contrast to his deathlike state before.
- Being “born of God” is mentioned three times (vv. 23, 24, 26) in this section.
- He regains the use of his limbs (v. 23) including his feet. His mouth functions for he “manifests” his change to the people (v. 23) and helps others to taste as he tastes (v. 24). His eyes function for he helps others to “see as I have seen” (v. 26). This is in contrast to the three ways his body wasn’t working properly before.
- Now he can arise without falling: he stands upon his feet (v. 23) and is able to “labor without ceasing” (v. 24).
- His labor now is not destroying the church of God, but bringing others to repentance, that they might also be born of God and be filled with the Holy Ghost (v. 24). Thus, instead of “murdering” others (recall Wijngaards’ point about killing and dethronement), he is giving them newness of life in the covenant. Now “many have been born of God” because of his work (v, 26). In bringing souls to repentance, he is implicitly warning them of the destruction sin brings, as the angel warned him.
- In helping others enter into the covenant with God, he now has “exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors” (v. 25) instead of fear and horror.
- The role of the angel in speaking to Alma before is parallel to the function of the Holy Ghost and the Lord who fill Alma with great joy and impart God’s word to him (vv. 25-26).
Alma’s fall to the dust, involving the spiritual death of his soul and the apparent physical death of his body are described in multiple, intertwined ways in the upper mid-section, and they are reflected in the description of Alma’s new “born again” state in the lower section. From death to life, from sin to repentance, from destruction of the Church to building it, from fear and pain to joy, from murdering others to giving them life, all made possible by the divine grace initiated by an angel, amplified by the Holy Ghost, that this lost and fallen soul might rise from the dust literally and figuratively to be born of God.
With the perspective that comes from understanding the Book of Mormon’s use of dust-related themes as introduced by Lehi and used multiple times right up to the closing page of the Book of Mormon, we find that a large gap in the otherwise brilliant chiasmus of Alma 36 becomes much more meaningful. A loose, sparse section in the mid upper-section previously mapped with only a few parallel words among many verses actually becomes a relatively tight cluster of intertwined themes, with almost every major concept being reflected on in the corresponding section below the pivot point.
As for the “chains of darkness” in the Book of Moses that began this study and took me to the theme of rising from the dust, yes, chains are also mentioned in Alma 36, but “chains of death.” In fact, they are mentioned almost at the very pivot point of the chiasmus where Alma turns to Christ, and then in contrast to the chains of death, Alma beholds light and experiences joy:
17. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
18. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
19. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
20. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
The encirclement of chains of death in Alma’s dust-like state of spiritual death is later contrasted with another form of encirclement:
22. Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
In addition the Welch’s mapping that leaves some gaps where the chiasmic content seems sparse, the somewhat densely packed content brought out by exploration of the Book of Mormon’s motif of rising from the dust with related thematic elements (keeping covenants, receiving glory and power, being revived or resurrected, or, as Alma puts it, born again) gives us more noteworthy parallels to consider. This material can be remapped in multiple ways, though I prefer to leave it as a cluster of dust/death related themes above the pivot, and life/born again themes below.
One approach to mapping it is to consider different strands of parallel structures almost as if they are themes in a fugue, weaving in and out of the main structure and not necessarily aligned with the primary pivot point. Thus, superimposed on the overarching structure Welch proposed, we may also add strands such as:
Death and Destruction Strand
Three days and three nights - like dead (v.10) loss of body functions (can't speak, limbs don't move, can't hear) (vs. 10-11) destroy, destroy (v. 11) fear (v. 11) amazement (v. 11) destroyed (v. 11) torment for sins (v. 12) remembered all my sins (v. 13) murdered/destroyed others (v. 14) inexpressible horror (fear) (v. 14) extinction of body and soul (v. 15) three days and three nights - like dead (v. 16)
I think three days and three nights as a symbol of death and revival needs to be considered here as part of Alma’s structure. It’s a beautiful fit for the dust-related themes of the Bible and possibly the brass plates.
Encircled/Surrounded Redemption Strand
A plea to Jesus Christ (v. 17)
encircled by the chains of death (v. 18)
liberated, sees light (v. 19)
joy as exceeding as my pain (v. 19)
joy as exquisite as my pain (v. 20)
saw God (v. 21)
surrounded by angels (v. 22)
Singing and praising God (v. 22)
Once again, when the chains come off, there isn’t just light and joy, there is singing. I like that!
Divine Voice Strand
God, by the mouth of a holy angel, made things known unto me (v.5)
my unworthiness (v. 5)
seeking to destroy the church of God (v. 6)
God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way (v. 6)
The angel spake unto us, as with the voice of thunder (v. 7)
the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; (v. 7)
we all fell to the earth in fear (v. 7)
The angel's voice said unto me: (v. 8)
Arise (v. 8)
I did arise, and stood up (v. 8)
I beheld the angel, and he spoke: (vs. 8-9)
destroyed, destroy (v. 9)
I fell to the earth as if dead (v. 10)
The angel spake more things unto me, but I did not hear (v. 22)
For the “Divine Voice” strand, contrasts occur in the lower half of the overall chiasmus, with reference to the word of God that been has imparted to Alma (vs. 26), the words he now imparts to others to bring them to God (vv. 23-26), and, of course, the voice of angels who are singing and praising God (v. 22) as well as his own praise of God (v. 28).
Rising Strand (emphasis on “rising from the dust/ returning to the dust” themes)
Lifted up at the last day / delivered from trial, troubles, afflictions (v.3)
born of God (v. 5)
Fell to the earth / arise, arose / fell to the earth (vv. 7-10)
three days and three nights, limbs cease working, (v. 10)
racked with eternal torment (v. 12)
presence of God: inexpressible horror (v. 15)
yearns to be extinct, to not stand (v. 15)
in presence of God (v. 15)
three days and three nights: death (v. 16)
pains of a damned soul, torment (vv. 16-17)
Jesus Christ atones for sins of the world (v. 17)
(to break) the chains of death (v. 18)
pains removed (v. 19)
sees God sitting on his throne, singing, praising (v. 22)
yearns to be there (v. 22)
limbs receive their strength (v. 23)
stands upon his feet (v. 23)
born of God (v. 23)
Raised up at the last day / supported in trials, troubles, and afflictions (vv. 27-28)
The “Rising” strand looks at the chains as a potentially significant term linked to the motif of rising from the dust, and naturally also includes the “lifted up” and “raised up” passages at the ends.
Like the main chiasmus, the “rising strand” also works better if either of phrases “raised up” or “lifted up” (at the last day) are moved slightly, for then two more elements fit a cleaner chiasmic structure (“trials, troubles, and afflictions,” and also being “delivered”). Welch’s outline above labels the latter instance, element i’, as out of place, which is a logical suggestion for the overall structure, but the “Rising” strand works better if the first instance, “lifted up” in verse 3 is just moved up a few words in the text, so that elements i and h in the first part of the chiasmus are switched. It works better because it gives more emphasis to the theme of rising, putting it at the end points of the strand and closer to the end points of the main chiasmus.
These strands are crude initial efforts and don’t necessarily mean anything. They may not be intentional and could be wishful thinking on my part (finding false positives, etc.), but in any case I find the “rising from the dust” theme of the Book of Mormon to be a potentially important lens to understand some of its passages. It seems that Nephi was keenly aware of those themes in the way he framed Lehi’s speech in an inclusio with redundancy from Isaiah followed by a nice build to the critical Isaiah 52:1-2. Alma’s contrast between falling to the earth, being like dead, and then being born again and freed from the chains of death also suggests awareness and intelligent use of those concepts. However you map it or unpack it, there is a lot going on in Alma 36 and I think a lot more going on in the Book of Mormon than we may have realized. What a remarkable voice from the dust
5 thoughts on “Dusting Off a Famous Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, Alma 36”
You are quite correct that Alma 36 is a very impressive chiasmus. It is even more impressive when it is considered that the parallismus membrorum or primarily natural Hebrew word pairs and it often takes some knowledge of Hebrew word pairs to spot the parallel in the book.
Another great post. I'll have to go through it again — worthy of study.
Even Christmas has to prove something?
The rest of us manage to just enjoy the spirit of it. But á chaqun son goüt and Happy Holidays!
Ashes, which were the after-effects of burnt sacrifices, are like dust and can be seen with the same symbolism. Check out the first few verses of Isaiah 61 and pay attention to verse 3, which describes the process of going from ashes (dust) to being anointed, clothed and named (elements of enthronement or coronation) –
Isaiah 61:3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
Joe, great comment. Beautiful and relevant verse. May I credit you? I am guessing you are Joe S. Right?