Janus Parallelism: Book of Mormon Hints? Part 1

In my previous post on Janus parallelism in the Hebrew Bible, I noted that if this poetical technique were used by any Book of Mormon authors, it would be very difficult to detect since all we have is the English translation. The double meaning of a Hebrew word facing forwards and backwards might be guessed based on the English translation if the translation is sufficiently literal to help point to the relevant words of the original and if it preserves the order of the original units of text before and after the pivotal word.

Even if the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient Semitic record as claimed, and even if one or more authors chose to employ Janus parallelism, recognizing its presence now would seem to be unlikely. Any tentative finds may simply be fallacious. Yet a cautious look still seems warranted, given the frequent occurrence of other ancient Near Eastern literary devices in the Book of Mormon, including a wide range of structured parallelisms including chiasmus.

For low-hanging fruit to explore, why not start with the examples of Janus parallelism that have already been identified by scholars exploring the Hebrew text? Scott Noegel’s outstanding Janus Parallelism in the Book of Job identifies over 50 cases. A few of these employ concepts that are also treated in the Book of Mormon, and thus it might be interesting (though ultimately fruitless) to examine relevant portions of the Book of Mormon text for possible indications of Janus parallelism.

My brief and unlearned application of Noegel’s work does not point to anything strongly suggestive of original Janus parallelism in the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, there are a few possibilities that others may wish to explore. Here I’ll mention three, and will share a couple more later. Page numbers below refer to pages in Noegel’s Janus Parallelism in the Book of Job.

Possibility #1. On page 39, Noegel examines Job 3:23-24 and the dual meanings of וַיָּסֶךְ from the roots סָכַךְ (cakak, Strong’s H5526) meaning “hedged in, fenced in, enclosed, cover, covering” and the root סוּךְ (cuwk, Strong’s H5480) meaning “pour out, anoint.” In Job 3:23, this word plus the preceding text can be translated as “to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has fenced in.” But if given the alternate meaning of “poured out,” then “whom God has poured out” anticipates “my groans are poured out for me as water” in the last part of Job 3:24. It’s a nice example of the two-sided technique of Janus parallelism. Turning to the Book of Mormon, we find a use of “poured out” in Alma 8:9-10 that might play a similar dual role:

9 Now Satan had gotten great hold upon the hearts of the people of the city of Ammonihah; therefore they would not hearken unto the words of Alma.

10 Nevertheless Alma labored much in the spirit, wrestling with God in mighty prayer, that he would pour out his Spirit upon the people who were in the city; that he would also grant that he might baptize them unto repentance.

Satan is gaining hold upon the hearts of the people, and in response Alma seeks to gain a hold upon God as he wrestles in might prayer. If the word original word translated as “poured out” also means “enclosed, fenced in, or covered,”  then the preceding concepts of “getting hold upon” and “wrestling” may be echoed, while the other meaning of “poured out/anoint” naturally fits the following text regarding the sought after influence of the Spirit and Alma’s desire that the people might be baptized. But this is highly speculative and those skilled in Hebrew may see this as impossible or improbable.

Possibility #2. On page 43, Noegel discusses a Janus parallelism in Job 4:2–3 in which one Hebrew root, יָסַר (yacar, Strong’s H3256) in verse 3 plays a Janus role with its meanings of “bind” (primarily in Aramaic) and “chastise, admonish.” As “you have chastised” it related to the reference to words and speaking in verse 2. As “you have bound,” it relates to the following “you will strengthen/bind,” where “strengthen” comes from the root חָזַק (chazaq, Strong’s H2388). The word pair yacarchazaq can also be found in Isaiah 8:11 and Hosea 7:15, strengthening the significance of the pairing in this case of apparent Janus parallelism.

Mosiah 23 may offer something similar in a passage that begins and ends with a discussion of events in Helam, under the guidance of Alma the Elder. Here the key word is “chasten,” which is one of the ways the KJV translates yacar (e.g., Proverbs 19:18 has yacar behind the KJV “chasten thy son”):

18 Therefore they did watch over their people, and did nourish them with things pertaining to righteousness.

19 And it came to pass that they began to prosper exceedingly in the land; and they called the land Helam.

20 And it came to pass that they did multiply and prosper exceedingly in the land of Helam; and they built a city, which they called the city of Helam.

21 Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.

22 Nevertheless — whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people.

23 For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob.

24 And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings.

25 For behold, it came to pass that while they were in the land of Helam, yea, in the city of Helam, while tilling the land round about, behold an army of the Lamanites was in the borders of the land. 

Here the word “chasten” in vs. 21 with the meaning of “chastise or admonish” fits the following statement that God “trieth their patience and faith.” But if “chasten” in the Book of Mormon comes from Hebrew yacar, it could also have a meaning of “bind” which, as Noegel points out, can be paired with the concept of strengthening. If so, the preceding text may link up with that sense of yacar, as it describes the nourishing given to the people and their prospering under the help of the Lord. An interesting aspect of this passage is that the name Helam may mean “to strengthen” according to the Book of Mormon Onomasticon. The name also occurs as a geographical name in 2 Samuel 10:16–17 (חֵילָם, cheylam, Strong’s H2431). While the etymology may be uncertain, Blue Letter Bible gives a meaning of “stronghold.” Helam obviously comes from a different root than chazaq which is paired with yacar in Job 4:2–3 and in 2 other verses in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Helam instead of chazaq with its meaning related to strength could also fit the “bind” or “bind up” sense of yacar and possibly form part of a Janus parallelism akin to that in Job 4:2–3.

The sense of “binding” for yacar, the tenuously proposed source for “chasten,” not only looks backward to Helam and related concepts in Mosiah 23, but may also foreshadow “bondage” in verse 23.

Possibility #3. On page 60, Noegel introduces a Janus parallelism from Job 18:4–5 based on “rock” and “enemy” being possible readings of a single Hebrew word, צוּר (tsuwr, Strong’s H6697), with the concept of “enemy” deriving from the root צָרַר (tsarar, Strong’s H6887) which can mean “to show hostility toward” or “to bind.”


If the Book of Mormon takes advantage of a single Hebrew word meaning both “rock” and “enemy,” perhaps we should examine Nephi’s psalm, 2 Nephi 4, which has the Book of Mormon’s highest concentration of the word “enemy/enemies” (7 times in one chapter, with 6 occurrences in verses 27–33) and also employs the word “rock” in the very center (vs. 30) of the final string of 6 instances of “enemy/enemies,” with two more occurrences of “rock” in the closing verse, vs. 35. A dual meaning is inappropriate in most of these occurrences, but a Janus function might be possible in verse 33:

33 O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way — but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.

If the second sentence of verse 33 employed tsuwr, then “escape before mine enemies” might also have the sense of “escape before my rock” suggestive of deliverance before the eyes or under the oversight of the Savior. “Before my rock” would look back to the first sentence of verse 33 and the beginning of the second sentence of verse 33, both of which are addressed to the Lord, identified as the rock of Nephi’s salvation (vv. 30, 35). But read as “before my enemies” as we have in the English translation, the meaning naturally points to the latter half of verse 33, where Nephi seeks a clear path to escape and asks that his way not be hedged up, but the ways of his enemies.

The tentatively proposed alternate reading of “rock” in this case would not only look backward to “Lord” but forward to the “stumbling block in my way” – a contrasting, negative sense of a rock-like object that instead of providing escape can cut off escape.

None of these may have any merit. But for fun, I’ll raise a few more possibilities in a subsequent post.

Naturally, I welcome further exploration and feedback. But is there really any hope of finding traces of actual Janus parallelism with only an English translation to go on, even if it were present in the original ancient text? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s a question worth considering. Yes, of course, any tentative finds could easily be false positives.

As a final note for today, Janus parallelism is something I would not expect to be added by Mormon, in my opinion, for
he I think he understood his writings would probably only be known after
translation into a remote foreign language in the future where
something like Janus parallelism simply would not survive. Nevertheless, he might preserve parallelism that was already present in records from other writers whom he is quoting or drawing upon in his compilation, and certainly would not remove it from the small plates in particular. Possibilities 1 and 2 above, if they have any merit, would thus might need to be viewed as cases of text from earlier Nephite authors being preserved.

For more, see Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

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