A good look at patterns in the scriptures

Much has been written on chiasmus and other teaching structures in the scriptures. John Welch, Richard Shipp and Charles Kroupa have written a great deal about it, as have others. Meridian magazine has a very good article by D. Lynn Johnson discussing these patterns. Every time I read these articles I discover new meanings behind the scritpures.

One of my favorite examples of chiasmus is pointed out in a paper by Johnson on the word of wisdom:

“Isaiah 40:28-31 uses the imagery of running and not being weary, walking and not fainting:”

Hast thou not known?
Hast thou not heard,

A That the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not,
B neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
C He giveth power to the faint;
D and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
E Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
E and the young men shall utterly fall:
D But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength;
C they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
B they shall run and not be weary;
A and they shall walk and not faint

Notice the repetition of the phrases in each couplet. In A, the word “not faint,” in B, “not be weary.” The first C explains the second C: God gives power to the faint so they can mount up with wings as eagles. The first D and second D discuss renewing and increasing strength. E points out through repetition that even the youngest people will get weary and faint if they don’t rely on the Lord.

The purpose of chiasmus, it seems to me, is to provide a poetic way to repeat and drive home points the Lord uses in scriptures. Chiasmus and other structures in the scriptures help us have another understanding of the complexities in the the holy writings.

I’d encourage people to read Johnson’s fascinating insights, especially this web page on the literary structures of the scriptures and this interesting look at the patterns of Christmas scriptures.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

7 thoughts on “A good look at patterns in the scriptures

  1. Sorry, I don’t buy this line of reasoning. If one has to resort to a convoluted diagraming of scripture to prove a point (e.g., that Ezekiel is refering to the Book of Mormon) then I am afraid that the argument is lost. Why not just let the context of the words determine their interpretation.

    Personally, I prefer the concept of Occam’s razor in situations like this (i.e., the simplest explanation is usually best.)

    I am personally not a fan of Meridian Magazine’s repeated use of bizarre astronomical, mathemtical and other psuedo-scientific claims. I think that there is good reason that you don’t see articles such as this in the Ensign.

  2. Wakarusa: I’m not sure this would have been convoluted to the ancients, since it was part of their culture. That said, I’m in the neighboring stake with JOhnson, and I’ve heard him speak a few times. Generally he has good stuff. However, I don’t believe the chiasms he locates in the D&C are valid, nor do I think chiasmus “proves” much of anything. I’m also not a fan of meridian’s stuff of that nature. That said, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. wakarusa, if you read some of the chiasmus and study the history of the Hebrew language, it becomes clearer that scripture was deliberately written this way. The purpose is to emphasize certain themes and drive them home in much the same way that all fables are written a certain way (with a moral) and all short stories are written with the climax in a certain location and all movies are written in 3 acts. It was simply the convention for good Hebrew writing. I think the evidence that modern-day revelations such as the BoM have chiasmus is an another proof that, for example, Nephi was writing the way a person would really write in the 6th century, ie using the conventions of his time. Is Johnson correct that all of the D&C has patterns and chiasmus as he claims? Maybe not. Does Meridian go over the top with some of its scientific pieces? Probably. But I found his scripting of Ezekiel very interesting, and it helped me understand parts of the chapter in ways that I had not considered before. But if it doesn’t float your boat, that’s OK too.

  4. Wow Wakarusa, you come off way too negative. One of the things I like about Meridian is that they treat topics you would never see in the Ensign. The Church is understandably very careful with what is published in the Ensign but Meridian can get away with more and I find it refreshing.

    And I find the topic of chiasmus fascinating. As with anything some people go overboard. Some of the supposed chiasmus people “discover” I just don’t see or question if they were intentional but others are plain to see and obviously intentional. Also, it’s well documented they existed in Hebrew culture and were deliberate. It’s not a “bizarre astronomical pseudo-scientific claim.” It’s also very clear they exist in the Book of Mormon (Alma 36 is most obvious) which is more evidence to me that the book is what it purports to be. And chiasmus such as the one in Alma 36 highlight the central focus of the chapter so I think there is value in studying them. If you just like to keep the scriptures simple and read for the story that’s fine but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other valid ways to find meaning in them.

  5. RE: I think that there is good reason that you don’t see articles such as this in the Ensign

    See Oct 1989 Ensign article, “Hebrew literary Patterns in the Book of Mormon”

  6. It’s not proof, it’s understanding. If that doesn’t give you a heightened understanding of the scripture than you’re only looking for an argument.

    “Every time I read these articles I discover new meanings behind the scriptures.”

    Obviously the intent of the post wasn’t to prove anything other than that these things can help us better understand the scriptures.

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