Covenants Taught through Chiasmus

Eric William Graham, “Covenants Taught through Chiasmus,” in BYU Religious Education 2009 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 17–31.

 

Covenants Taught through Chiasmus

Eric William Graham

Eric William Graham is a senior in economics.

 

The Hebrew poetic technique of chiasmus is often cited as an internal evidence for the Book of Mormon as ancient scripture. Since John Welch’s landmark article,[1] many have searched for chiasmi to support the idea that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient work. Examples are found throughout the text and range from single verses to entire books. They gain strength when compared to similar instances in the Old and New Testaments, where there is a longer scholarly record on the subject.[2] Despite the focus of so much study, there is a lack of scholarship on the use of chiasmus by God himself. Rather, most students of the subject in the Book of Mormon look at the work of prophets such as Nephi and Alma. Because the Savior invites us to learn of him (see D&C 19:23), we should seek patterns in his teachings as well as those of his prophets. “The course of the Lord is one eternal round” (1 Nephi 10:19), and chiasmus is effectively used both in his scriptural covenants and the entire plan of salvation to symbolize this truth.

Chiasmus: An Overview

This paper gives only a brief description of chiasmus as a literary device. For more detailed information, refer to studies by Welch and McCoy, among others. Basic parallelism contains two parallel statements or ideas as a poetic device. Chiasmus inverts that relationship and expands it to any number of conjugate elements. A simple example follows:

 

If you fail to plan

You plan to fail.

 

Written to emphasize this relationship, we get the following:

 

If you fail

to plan,

you plan

to fail.

 

The structure written in this way shows a top-to-bottom mirror image. Chiasmus, then, takes its definition from the Greek letter c, or chi, as a symbol of that shape. There is essentially no limit to the number of chiasmic elements within a Hebrew chiasmus, allowing for a beautifully complex poetic structure.

There are many standards described for defining proper chiasmi, and scholars disagree at times on what qualifies as chiasmus. Foundational work by Nils Lund[3] began to establish criteria for chiasmi in textual analysis. John Welch applied and amplified these,[4] and he provides a strong introduction to the subject. These criteria, however, will be discussed with each example cited in this paper. Furthermore, Edwards and Edwards[5] give a mathematical approach to chiasmic analysis. Given the purposes of this paper, such rigidity is unnecessary. The mathematical approach only analyzes the strict pattern and oversimplifies the underlying teaching method, which has greater importance in understanding God’s covenants.

Textual Examples of Covenants

The word of God is revealed in many ways through the scriptural record: as quoted by prophets, as given in the prophet’s own words, or as recorded directly from the mouth of Jesus himself. While the New Testament provides excellent examples of the Savior’s use of chiasmus, simple and complex, our present focus will be on the Old Testament examples, quoting Jehovah. These have wonderful parallels in the Book of Mormon, both from the premortal Christ in Ether and from the resurrected Christ in 3 Nephi as the covenants of the Lord are explained and expanded. Since Jesus Christ of the New Testament is Jehovah of the Old Testament, a comparison of the two periods covers thousands of years and demonstrates that Christ is “the same yesterday, to-day, and forever” (1 Nephi 10:18). Specific examples from each text are cited, chosen to illustrate specific covenant relationships with analysis by the author. The lists are by no means exhaustive, but rather are chosen to illustrate a variety of chiasmi. In each described chiasmus, the key elements are highlighted, and the centerpiece of the chiasmus is presented in all capital letters.

Covenants in the Old Testament

The following Old Testament verses follow the New Revised Standard Version.[6] Only conjugate phrases are shown to highlight the chiasmic nature of the verses.

 

Example 1: Jehovah describes this covenant following the end of the flood using chiasmic structure.

 

Genesis 9:9–17

Sign of the covenant

Every living creature

All future generations

Bow in the clouds

Covenant

Clouds

BOW

Clouds

Covenant

Bow in the clouds

Everlasting covenant

Every living creature

Sign of the covenant

 

The Lord expresses a covenant to Noah, as Noah is the patriarch and recipient of revelation for his family. The beginning and ending of the chiasmus define the entire passage, which centers on the actual sign described, the rainbow. This gives focus and boundary to the piece. In addition, there is repetition of a number of key words within the text, both as parts of the chiasmus and related thereto. We see the Lord explicitly establish a covenant and give the sign for the covenant by building up and then reviewing again the key points of his promise.

 

Example 2: Jehovah expresses a chiasmic covenant to Abraham.

 

Genesis 17:1–17

Ninety-nine years old

Abram fell on his face

(Abram becomes Abraham, nations and kings shall come of him)

I will establish my covenant

Everlasting covenant

I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land

You shall keep

My covenant

This is my covenant,

Which you shall keep

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins

Everlasting covenant

He has broken my covenant

(Sarai becomes Sarah, nations and kings shall come of her)

Abraham fell on his face

Hundred years old

 

This piece from Genesis is another example of an explicitly stated covenant. Abram’s age is made a frame for the covenant, which will be for all generations of time. The Lord compares Abram’s new name with Sarai’s new name in a strong parallelism within the overall chiasmic structure. He also compares his promised blessings that nations and kings will come from Abraham with his requirements for that blessing: the law of circumcision. This sets up a parallel of the two sides of a covenant, the literary device strengthening our understanding of the nature of covenants. The centerpiece, of course, is the covenant that he should keep, again using inverted parallelism to center our attention on the Lord’s promises to Abraham and Abraham’s to the Lord within the covenant.

 

Example 3: Moses also receives a covenant of the Lord through chiasmus.

 

Exodus 6:2–8

I am the Lord (Jehovah)

Appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

The Lord (Jehovah)

I also established my covenant with them

Egyptians are holding as slaves

I have remembered my covenant

I AM THE Lord

I will free you

Burdens of the Egyptians

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God

I am the Lord (Jehovah)

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

I am the Lord (Jehovah)

 

Within this statement to Moses, we see pervasive repetition of important elements. Central and forming both boundaries is the statement “I am the Lord.” By designing his statement in such a way, we can see the relationship of the covenant more clearly. Inverted parallelism gives a comparison between the Lord remembering his covenant and freeing the children of Israel, teaching that he has promised to redeem his people. When he establishes his covenant with them, he takes them as his people, showing the dual nature of a covenant.

Other examples from the Old Testament could be used to equal effect, showing the Lord’s use of chiasmus in teaching his covenants.

Covenants in the Book of Mormon

Similarly, we can find numerous examples of the words of Jehovah within the text of the Book of Mormon.

 

Example 1: There are chiasmic elements in the Lord’s invitation to covenant with him.

 

Ether 4:10–16

He shall know

He that will not believe me

COME UNTO ME, O YE GENTILES . . .

SHOW UNTO YOU . . . GREATER THINGS . . .

HID UP . . . BECAUSE OF UNBELIEF

COME UNTO ME, O YE HOUSE OF ISRAEL . . .

MANIFEST UNTO YOU . . . GREAT THINGS . . .

LAID UP . . . BECAUSE OF UNBELIEF

 Rend the veil of unbelief

Then shall ye know

 

Here Jehovah, speaking to Moroni, sets up an interesting comparison between the Gentiles and the house of Israel. The centerpiece of the chiasmus is a parallel structure first inviting the Gentiles to come unto him and see the knowledge hid up because of unbelief, and second inviting the house of Israel to come unto him and see what they have lost because of their unbelief. By teaching the similarities between the groups and the eventual revelation of truth to the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike, he speaks of his promise and covenant to reveal truth.

Other examples contain the words of Jehovah as the God of the Old Testament, the Messiah, or the premortal Christ. To show that chiasmus is a key part of his teaching style, we must consider later verses, such as the Book of Mormon account of the appearance of Jesus Christ in the Americas.

 

Example 2: A prophecy of the Restoration of the gospel is found in chiasmic pattern.

 

3 Nephi 20:43–21:10

Servant shall deal prudently

Visage was so marred

Kings shall shut their mouths at him, for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider

Father hath covenanted

Sign, that ye may know the time

My people, O house of Israel

Power of the Holy Ghost

Gentiles

My people who shall be scattered

Shall come forth

WISDOM IN THE

FATHER THAT

THEY SHOULD

BE ESTABLISHED

IN THIS LAND,

AND BE SET

UP AS A FREE

PEOPLE BY

THE POWER

OF THE FATHER

Shall come forth

Send, which shall dwindle in unbelief

Gentiles

His power

My people, O house of Israel

Sign unto them, that they may know

Covenant which he hath made

Kings shall shut their mouths; for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider

He shall be marred

My wisdom

 

The covenant of the Lord to establish a people in the promised land is described here in relation to the Restoration of the gospel. We again see references to signs and covenants and the importance of keeping the covenants of the Lord, now described as repentance and baptism with the revelation of the full gospel by the resurrected Lord in the Americas. Word counts before and after the capitalized centerpiece, as in the other chiasmi, are nearly equal, which is an important qualification for true chiasmus.

 

Example 3: The gospel covenant, or doctrine of Christ, is taught through chiasmus.

 

3 Nephi 11:30–40

My doctrine

This is my doctrine

And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.

I bear record of it

Will the Father bear record of me

FOR HE WILL VISIT HIM WITH FIRE AND WITH THE HOLY GHOST 

Will the Father bear record of me

Holy Ghost will bear record

And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God

This is my doctrine

My doctrine

 

The gospel covenant is again described in this passage from the Savior’s first discourse in the New World. He teaches the promised blessing of the Holy Ghost and purification with the qualifications of repentance and baptism. This is his doctrine, and so he states it clearly. There is a two-word difference between the first and second sections of the chiasmus, centered on the promised blessing of the Holy Ghost.

Purposes of Chiasmus

The above examples show that the Lord regularly uses chiasmus in describing his covenants. This pattern is continued by many of his prophets in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The nature of chiasmi makes them highly effective in teaching. Through a chiasmus, the Lord can give a central focus, establish patterns, construct meaning through opposing ideas, and invite reflection on the part of the student. Each of these concepts is highly significant to the specific purpose of the Lord in teaching his covenants to his children.

Central focus. In the chiasmi analyzed here, the center points are highlighted with purpose. Often they relate with the boundaries of the chiasmus and point to either the promise we make (come unto Christ, keep the covenants) or the promise he makes (gift of the Holy Ghost, Restoration of the gospel, or revelation of truth). Other chiasmi with intentional center points include Alma 36, centered on Jesus Christ,[7] and Matthew 5–7, centered on the Lord’s Prayer. We can see a turning point in subject from Gentile to Jew in 3 Nephi 20:43–21:10, clearly stated with the repetition of an invitation to come unto Christ. McCoy states it this way: “Since chiasm involves the parallel inversion of corresponding components in a particular discourse, resulting in an overall structural balance revolving around the distinct central component of the overall unit, a recognition of chiastic structure leads the interpreter properly to appreciate the pivotal function and the emphatic importance of that central thought unit.”[8] Christ’s chiasmi are constructed to place key concepts at the center.

Design of a structure to centralize attention is common in many disciplines. The artist draws converging lines of perspective to a central point. The scientific method pulls all effort toward proof of a central theory. Chiasmus is a formalized structure that allows us to see the author’s intent for a given speech. It gives a framework for the idea and builds us to a pivotal idea. In the Old Testament and Book of Mormon, the covenants of the Lord are his central messages and are placed in a framework to concentrate our attention on that relationship.

Pattern. In our disordered world, our brains gravitate to that which we can understand and quantify. According to Robert Park, “We invent poetry and higher mathematics because our brains hunger for patterns. The wonderful pattern recognition equipment residing in the higher centers of the human brain allowed our ancestors to adapt to changing conditions with remarkable ease, by quickly picking up the patterns that are characteristic of the new environment.”[9] Because we are so interested in patterns, chiasmi form a natural way for the Lord to capture our attention and teach us through symmetry and poetic device. Physiologically, memory is created when connections are drawn within new material. Thus a highly patterned method of teaching is useful for doctrinal instruction. The relationships drawn through parallel structures and word repetition greatly increase our understanding.

Constructive opposition. A key to understanding chiasmus is the relationship between the noncentral poetic elements. They are extremely significant to the creation of a chiasmus, but are not always exactly synonymous. “The conjugate elements in a chiasmus (e.g., b and b’) can be related in several ways—direct repetition (synonymous parallelism), contrasting ideas or terms (antithetic parallelism), complimentary concepts (synthetic parallelism), and so forth.”[10] This provides literary freedom and greater opportunity for illustrative comparison. In 3 Nephi 20:43–21:10, for example, the Gentiles are compared directly with the house of Israel within the chiasmic framework. These contrasting groups are nevertheless conjugate elements, as the greater theme of the chiasmus shows. Demonstrative of meaningful contrasts is Alma 36, which develops a stark contrast between the darkness of Alma in sin and the light he receives through Jesus Christ, the centerpiece. Constructive opposition is necessary for a meaningful contrast within a chiasmus. If ideas are opposed and contradictory, the poetic device is lost. “A relationship of ‘complementarity’”[11] assists two opposing ideas in bringing meaning to the chiasmus. In order to preserve the chiasmic meaning, we must be careful in defining two nonsynonymous ideas as chiasmic conjugates.

The Lord, in describing his covenants, often sets up a contrast between what he will do and what we will do in the promise. In the above-cited examples, he invites us to repent and be baptized and promises the gift of the Holy Ghost. He invites Abraham to circumcise his posterity and promises the Israelites the land of Canaan in return. These concepts contrast yet build on each other in a meaningful manner to illustrate the nature of a covenant.

Reflection-based teaching. In speaking to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful, the Lord gives the invitation, “Go ye unto your homes and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand” (3 Nephi 17:3). The invitation to reflect upon teachings as a method of absorbing principles is a constant pattern in the scriptures. Reflection is a means to change future possibilities by modifying perspective. “Past and present are reviewed in the light of possible futures. This marks reflection as a transcending and, potentially, innovatory act. It presents a spatial and temporal bridge quintessential to human adaptations.”[12] With the scriptural invitation to “put off the natural man” (Mosiah 3:19), it follows that the Savior uses well-organized and intentionally structured mechanisms to invite us to reflect and repent.

Macrochiasmus: The Plan of Salvation

God has very specific purposes as he teaches throughout the scriptural record. He wants us to understand the basic principles of the gospel and the plan of salvation. His desire is our growth, building on what we have been and understood previously to reach a higher ideal. Taking the pattern established earlier through analysis of covenant-teaching text, we can apply God’s purposes to a more general scheme. The same principles that lead to chiasmus as he teaches his covenants may be extended to the entire plan of salvation. The macrocovenant of the plan of salvation is described with a macrochiasmus, paralleling the chiasmi describing the covenants of the Lord in the Old Testament and Book of Mormon. Though we often consider the plan as linear, consider the following summary text with a chiasmic approach. There is no apparent intention to design a chiasmic structure in these specific words, and placement here is simply to illustrate the macrochiasmus of our Heavenly Father’s plan.

 

Preach My Gospel (2004), pp. 55–56

Happiness

God is our Father, and he loves us

We lived with him before we were born

We use our God-given agency

Earth

Physical body (mortal)

Physical death . . . and spiritual death

JESUS CHRIST IS CENTRAL

Physical and spiritual death

Physical bodies (immortal)

Spirit world

Judged according to our works and desires

Eternal life in his presence

Our Heavenly Father has again reached out to his children in love

His plan of happiness  

 

Though this text is not intended as a chiasmus, through its framework we see instructive relationships. The overarching covenant of accepting the Atonement of Jesus Christ to receive immortality and eternal life is structured with chiasmic intonations. We begin and end in Heavenly Father’s presence. Agency is coupled with judgment. Life on earth is the conjugate of the spirit world. As in the earth we experience physical and spiritual death, so later those effects can be overcome. Jesus Christ is central to the plan. Just as the Savior is the central focus of many important literary chiasmi, such as Alma 36, he is the center of the plan of salvation. A pattern is established of Heavenly Father’s love and of an eternal continuity from our current point. We are consistently invited to reflect and to focus on the centerpiece of the plan. Rather than a simple linear depiction, a chiasmic understanding of the plan of salvation makes it a spiral staircase, Christ serving as the center pole. The Lord’s way becomes one eternal round.

Conclusion

An understanding of chiasmus is not necessary for eternal salvation. Generations of the faithful lived and died before it was understood in the Bible and recognized in the Book of Mormon. However, recognition of patterns of inverted parallelism and true chiasmus within the plan of salvation and the exposition of covenants in the scriptures can be a powerful tool. Such literary devices bring us to ponder on the scriptures. They are mechanisms for constructive opposition and become the foundation for patterns of repetition. Surely the Lord, as the Master Teacher, understands these principles and uses them in his teaching and in designing his plan. He invites us to seek out of the best books, which contain his covenants.

We must seek learning by faith, inviting the Spirit. The scriptures are to be understood spiritually, for “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (NRSV, 2 Peter 1:20). It is in pairing our seeking of spiritual truth by faith with diligent study and reflection that we can truly gain wisdom.

Notes



[1] John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, no. 1 (1969): 69–84.

[2] John Jebb, Sacred Literature (London, 1820), in Brad McCoy, “Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 9 (Fall 2003): 23.

[3] Nils Lund, “The Presence of Chiasmus in the New Testament,” Journal of Religion 10 (January 1930): 74–93; Nils Lund, “The Presence of Chiasmus in the Old Testament,” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 46 (January 1930): 104–26.

[4] John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4, no. 2 (1995), 1–14.

[5] Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43, no. 2 (2004): 103–30.

[6] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible; full text online at http://bible.oremus.org/bible.cgi.

[7] Jeff Lindsay, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” http://www.JeffLindsay.com/chiasmus.shtm.

[8] Brad McCoy, “Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 9 (Fall 2003): 31.

[9] Robert Park, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), 38.

[10] Lindsay, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.”

[11] David Goodwin, “Toward a Grammar and Rhetoric of Visual Opposition,” Rhetoric Review 1 (Fall 1999): 95.

[12] Peter Silcock, “The Process of Reflective Teaching,” British Journal of Educational Studies 42, no. 3 (June 1994): 277.