Evidence #309 | January 2, 2024

Chiasmus in 1 Nephi 3:3–12

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The chiasm in 1 Nephi 3:3–12 has impressive outer boundaries, a memorable central passage, good intervening parallels, and strong statistical backing.

In his study of chiastic structures in the writings of Nephi, Dennis Newton identified 1 Nephi 3:3–12 as containing a muti-layer chiasm that is “highly likely” to have been intentional.1 The chiasm is presented below in its entirety:2

A

For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.

 

B

Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brothers should go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records, and bring them down hither into the wilderness.

 

 

C

And now, behold thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them; but behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord.

 

 

 

D

Therefore go, my son,

 

 

 

 

E

and thou shalt be favored of the Lord, because thou hast not murmured.

 

 

 

 

 

F

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father:

 

 

 

 

 

 

G

I will go and do the things

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

H

which the Lord hath commanded,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

H*

for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments

 

 

 

 

 

 

G*

unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.

 

 

 

 

 

F*

And it came to pass that when my father heard these words

 

 

 

 

E*

he was exceedingly glad, for he knew that I had been blessed of the Lord.

 

 

 

D*

And I, Nephi, and my brethren took our journey in the wilderness, with our tents, to go up to the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that when we had gone up to the land of Jerusalem,

 

 

C*

I and my brethren did consult one with another. And we cast lots

 

B*

who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.

A*

And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.

Structural Analysis

Sections A and A* contain a cluster of 4 key words and phrases: (1) “Laban”, (2) “record,” (3) “genealogy of my (fore)fathers,” (4) “engraven upon (the) plates of brass.” These clusters, which are highly unlikely to have randomly appeared in parallel sections, create compelling outer-boundary points for the chiasm.

Sections B and B* feature the phrase “go/went (in) unto the house of Laban.” This long phrasal sequence is stronger than just a single key word.3

Sections C and C* have a key word (“brothers” / “brethren”) followed by a verb that signals a jointly communicative act.4 Whereas Nephi’s brothers “murmur” in C, it is notable that in C* their attitudes improve to where they “consult” with one another and even seek divine guidance as they “cast lots.”   

Sections D and D* involve movement. In D Lehi declares “go my son” and in D* Nephi and his brothers fulfill this directive as they “go up to the land of Jerusalem.”5

Sections E and E* contain parallel phrases (“favored of the lord” / “blessed of the Lord”). Not only are the terms “favored” and “blessed” conceptually similar, but they show up together in a number of Old Testament passages (e.g., Genesis 30:27; Deuteronomy 33:23; Psalm 5:12).

Sections F and F* describe Nephi’s communication to his father. In F the dialogue initiates (“I, Nephi, said unto my father”) and in F* the communication is concluded (“my father had heard these words”).6

Sections G and G* contain the key word “things” embedded in synonymous phrases (“do the things” / “accomplish the things").7

Sections H and H* contain two key words (“Lord” and “commanded”) found in closely related phrases (“Lord hath commanded” / “Lord giveth no commandments”).8

Nephi retrieving the brass plates from Laban's treasury. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Statistical Analysis

Using a statistical method developed by Boyd and Farrell Edwards,9 Newton determined that, when viewed in isolation, “there is a 98.4% chance that this chiasm was written by design rather than by chance.”10 Furthermore, when viewed in conjunction with Nephi’s other chiastic writings from 1 Nephi 1–18, the chiasm in 1 Nephi 3:3–12 is “99.94% likely to have been composed intentionally.”11

Conclusion

The chiastic structure in 1 Nephi 3:3–12 has a lot of strengths. Every section has some type of compound element—usually one or more nearly verbatim phrases, sometimes coupled with related or nearly synonymous ideas. None of them are made up of just a single word. The cluster of shared phrases in the outermost sections (A and A*) are especially compelling.

The center sections (G and G*), while not conceptually unique, are significantly enhanced by the mode of delivery. This is the type of inspiring passage that Latter-day Saints frequently quote in talks and place on walls and refrigerators, where it can be seen and remembered. As explained by Newton,

Because 1 Nephi 3:3–12 fulfills our criteria (both qualitative and quantitative) for an intentional chiasm, there can be very little doubt that Nephi wrote this by design. It is a seven-level chiasm with a less than 1% statistical probability of being by chance. It has a distinctive beginning/ ending with six specific items repeated. It builds to a climax and ultimately centers on one of the most famous of Nephi’s passages.12

Dennis Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 79–106.

Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2007), 5–6.

1 Nephi 3:3–12

1 Nephi 3:3–12

  • 1 See Dennis Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 91.
  • 2 This formatting is adapted from Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2007), 5–6.
  • 3 For instance, although the key word “Laban” shows up in sections A and A*, it is not embedded in the complete phrase found in B and B*. The other key word in the phrase (“house”) doesn’t show up anywhere else in the chiasm.
  • 4 Other sections (B and D*) feature the term “brothers”/“brethren,” but neither of these conjoin the term with a verbally communicative act, as seen in C and C*.
  • 5 The word “go” and its past tense variants “went”/“gone” appear fairly frequently throughout the chiasm (B, F, C*,  B*). Yet none of these other instances are paired, as in this case, with the phrase “I, Nephi.” Importantly, sections D and D* are the only places where Nephi’s personal name shows up in the chiasm. The correspondence in sections could be reduced to this single phrase and still be valid.
  • 6 The phrase “my father” appears one other time in the chiasm (section A*). However, in that context, it is part of the fuller shared phrase “genealogy of my father.”
  • 7 The word “thing” also shows up in section C, but it doesn’t do so in this same type of phrase.
  • 8 Even though these phrasal ideas turn up elsewhere in the chiasm (B, C, and F*), this is the only place where Nephi expresses them in his own words with such conviction. What this element lacks in uniqueness it may make up for in climactic significance. It isn’t just the words, but the way that Nephi says them at this point that seems to matter. As noted by Newton, this center of this chiasm happens to be “one of the most famous of Nephi’s passages.” Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” 90. It should also be recognized that this isn’t Nephi’s only chiasm to feature the Lord’s commandment as a centralized theme. As explained by Newton, “Of the ten abridged candidates, eight highlight aspects of the same core theme at their center. In other words, as shown in Figure 5, Nephi’s abridged text returned, over and over, to the chiastic form to underscore the message of the importance of following the words and commandments of the Lord.” Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” 92. Furthermore, Joseph Spencer has noticed that when Lehi explained his commission in 1 Nephi 3:2–6, he used the word “commandment” three times. Then, when Nephi gave his response in 1 Nephi 3:7, he similarly used “commandment” three times. Joseph Spencer, An Other Testament: On Typology, 2nd edition (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2016), 84–85. Thus, it might be that two different forms of repetition are working together in concert, which would help explain the extra occurrences of “commandments” in B, C, and F*.
  • 9 See Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43, no. 2 (2004): 103–130. See also Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “When are Chiasms Admissible as Evidence?” BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 131–154.
  • 10 Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” 86.
  • 11 Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” 88. This increased likelihood stems from the fact that multiple strong chiastic patterns appearing together in a single text makes them collectively less likely to be accidentally created.
  • 12 Newton, “Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels,” 90.
Literary Features
Parallelisms
Chiasmus in 1 Nephi 3:3–12
Book of Mormon

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