Poetic Architecture of the Book of Mormon
Poetic Architecture of the Book of Mormon
by F. Richard Hauck
Opening the Book of Mormon is like crossing the threshold of the temple. I look about myself in anticipation, wondering what new concepts will be shared today. Who will be my teachers? Like the temple, the Book of Mormon has many rooms all dedicated to teaching the principles of life and of the gospel in a myriad of wonderful ways.
I turn and enter one room. Instead of seeing the baptismal font on the backs of twelve oxen—that dozen representing the covenant tribes of the House of Israel—I see a clear pool of water and hear its fountain of flowing pure water. I watch Helam depart the group waiting on the bank and descend down into the waters of Mormon where Alma waits.
Passing deeper into the book’s corridors, I realize a need to better understand a particular aspect in the doctrine of Christ. A doorway is open and I enter a room where a loving father explains repentance, redemption, restoration and resurrection to a wayward son. What a delight to sit near Alma and listen to his careful discourse to Corianton about rising above the follies of youth, the easy transgressions of mankind.
Yesterday I decided to spend some time in the Celestial Room. I passed through its doorway and entered the splendor and enchantment of light and space accorded Christ’s visit among the Nephites, his blessing of the little children. There, in that holy place I watch him gather them in and kneel in their midst glowing in his love for them, for all of us—his little children. And I feel the power of his blessings upon them, upon us.
Not too long ago I was depressed. Things were not going as I wanted. Opening the book, I carefully searched through its sacred chambers eventually stopping at a room named “Enos.” I opened the door and saw a young man kneeling in the forest pleading that his transgressions might be rectified. When he received his response from God he did not get up and go bouncing off down the mountain and through the brush notching an arrow and looking for deer. No, he knelt down again and sought the welfare of his brethren. After receiving that particular confirmation concerning the welfare of the people he loved, he stayed on his knees and pleaded for his enemies. He desired that they too would be remembered by the Lord. Watching Enos receive his final confirmation from a loving God brought again my remembrance of my pressing problems, but my depression was gone. In that special room, surrounded by the flowers, mountains and wilderness of an ancient time, Enos taught me that caring more for the needs of others than for my own worries brings the peace, reassurance and capacity to face my own personal doubts and fears.
I wander the corridors of this temple of paper and ink. Now I am passing a room where Mormon himself presides. Stopping here I watch this man cope with his terrible realities, this man who knows that soon everything that he knows and loves will be gone. Yet he does not rail out in anger or protest. Rather he teaches us about commitment and never fearing. When he kneels imploring the Lord that his son, Moroni, might be spared to continue his mission with the records, I have seen enough. I quietly leave that sacred place.
Over across the way there is the room where Nephi the ship builder, the hunter, the invincible, opens his heart to his God, being deeply grieved because of the hatred and open hostility of his family members. I feel his anguish. I am comforted. My family members are challenged in various aspects but they are neither a threat nor an encumbrance.
Across the corridor is a place where one can silently sit and carefully hear and observe the righteous expressions of an ancient prophet as he addresses a weak and wicked king and a room filled with apostate priesthood. I hear Abinadi’s warning, his teaching of the commandments of God and his final testimony of the Savior. I search the faces of that angry, unrepentant crowd and would that I could step forth—a specter from the far future— to help him, to add my warnings to his. I start to leave the room when his execution by fire begins. But something makes me look again in his direction and I see his specter, finally released from the flames and the smoke, ascend with joy into a greater glory.
Today I enter this book, this temple, with the continuing hope that I can absorb the structure of order that exists within its pages. We are told that the House of the Lord is a house of order. Craving the capacity to excel in orderliness of thought, word and action, I open these paper temple doors to learn how those ancient prophets understand and created order.
I turn to a different room, one I have not yet fully explored. Entering, I immediately know that this is the place where I will find and hopefully assimilate order because the writing on the wall reads: Order comes from Truth—Truth comes from a precise understanding of Context. Studying this new statement, I hesitate, thinking to myself: “I am 76 years old; surely by now I understand the meanings of Truth, Understanding, Precision, and Context; they all are elements of order.” Taking a seat, I assume that I am ready, finally, to learn ORDER.
My attention is drawn to Mormon, the great teacher and warrior prophet. “Of course,” I suddenly realize, “who else can address the subject of ORDER in this special temple than its architect; and of course, Mormon will use his own writings to teach me on that subject.” Mormon takes his seat at a table laden with manuscripts and metal plates. He pauses and then begins to press a stylus to the gold. He presses down and I watch his efforts release a thin sliver of metal which peels away from the plate. And I know that he is now about to erect a literary temple.
I study the layout that his efforts slowly reveal, the careful phrases, words and drawings that he is using to erect this holy temple. He lets me read the title: The Architecture of God’s Dealings with His Children, the Nephites.
He waves his hand to look again and I see an array of ancient prophets on the right and a separate array on the left. They are all pointing to the center, a place between the two groups. As I watch the center, the scene gradually fills with the vision of the Christ’s birth and life and death and returning. The final part of that scene shows our resurrected Savior kneeling and praying among the Nephite children.
“Of course,” I now realize, “the Christ’s atoning work and His subsequent mission among the Nephites would form the center of this literary temple—the center of any temple whether made of paper, wood or stone.”
The scene shifts. Its center featuring the Christ remains the focus but the two ends have transformed; those places to the far right and the far left of the Christ have changed. What do I see there? I see Moroni praying to the Lord and placing his life in the Lord’s hands. I shift across the scene to the opposite frame where Lehi is also praying to the Lord and is also placing his life in the Savior’s hands. Like bookends on a shelf, these two ancient prophets are alone but unified in their commitment: with single intent they place their lives in the Lord’s keeping.
The scene shifts again. Lehi and Moroni still retain their beginning and ending places but there are two new additions toward the center. On the left Lehi leads his family toward the Lord but in doing so he takes them into the wilderness seeking safety from the brutality of his culture. And in this journey towards the center, he carries with him his writings and his prophecies while moving the group in slow but steady progress toward the Savior who still waits in the center. I look to the opposite side. Here too, Moroni is alone. He too carries his writings and the prophecies of others as he steadily progresses into the wilderness and toward his waiting Savior. He too is fleeing the awful depravity that has engulfed his culture.
As the next change occurs in the architecture of Mormon’s temple, a temple built from words and thoughts, I realize that I am actually standing within a chiasmus, a poem that Mormon is fashioning before my eyes to demonstrate the sacredness of his temple. Mormon is taking the history of his people, the Nephites, and is preparing it in three parts using the architecture of his careful poetry. In true chiastic form he places the Savior’s mission to the Nephites within the center portion. Then he establishes the Nephite history from Lehi to Christ within the first third of the chiasmus, on the far left. Finally, he places the Nephite history from the Christ’s departure to the final days of Moroni within the final third, to the far right.
A new addition to the structure is exposed. Now I see Lehi and other prophets, still moving toward the center and the waiting Christ, but now prophesying about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the covenant children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
What do I see on the opposite side of the scene? In true chiastic form I see Mormon and Moroni, still moving toward the center and the waiting Christ, but their foreseeing our day, my time on earth, and prophesying about the great gathering of the House of Israel that is now taking place within the latter-days.
The next sequence emerges. Facing the central figure, the Savior, Nephi retrieves the brass plates containing the ancient prophecies given as a witness of the Being and atoning mission of the Christ. I look to the right and see the contrasting end of Mormon’s great architectural scene now features a demonstration of Moroni, who also faces the center. What is Moroni doing? He too is receiving ancient sacred records. He is receiving from his father, Mormon, that prophet’s writings, his testimony and his abridged history of his people.
Further ahead to the left in the scene I see the Israelites destroyed as a nation, Jerusalem sacked. Death and bondage are occurring according to the warnings of the ancient prophets. Prophets who now all turn toward the center pointing toward the great Jehovah/Christ and His requirements for order and righteousness among a wicked covenant-breaking people. And, on the right, the opposite portion of the scene what do I behold? I witness the Nephites’ terrible demise at Cumorah, a destruction long foretold by the many who foresaw the destruction of that covenant-breaking people.
Mormon continues engraving, making changes within this vast scene. Two ends of his careful literature always orient toward the center, always steadily moving towards the Christ and His central mission. Two different progressions of history and prophecy are evident in the Book of Mormon, two different progressions whose individual elements are always complementary as they progress steadily toward that sacred center.
Now understanding that I am witnessing just a few repetitive elements within a chiastic format, the literary layout of the Book, I finally lift my pen and begin recording this framework—Mormon’s poetic architecture for his literary temple: the Book of Mormon.
I finally understand the meaning of the words written on the wall above Mormon’s table and stack of manuscripts: Order comes from Truth—Truth comes from a precise understanding of Context. I understand that he relied on the order associated with poetic parallelism and its repetition of words and phrases to create the architectural framework for the historical narrative of his abridged Book of Mormon.
The actual text of the Book of Mormon was apparently recorded by Mormon and other Nephite prophets in two different manners: They generally wrote the historical narrative as plain unembellished text; however, to demonstrate sacred text and concepts, those authors also used poetic parallelisms of many different types of repetition of which chiasmus is but one example.[i] However, in my opinion, the poetic structure specific to chiasmus has generally been used in that book to set apart or define its most pertinent and sacred concepts.[ii]
For instance, after diagramming the book’s eight extended references to the geography described the Book of Mormon, I have discovered that the authors of that geography, Mormon and Moroni, used various forms of poetic parallelism to accentuate the sacredness of those geographical scriptural references. They used this literary technique so that those scriptures pertaining to their geography might stand apart from the historical narrative in the text. “Why,” I asked myself, “Why, would geography merit such special treatment?”
One response to that question is that these various statements concerning geography were flagged using chiastic formats as a signal that we are dealing with very special information. These statements of geography appear to be those authors’ perceptions of their sacred Promised Land, or the covenant territory that the Lord promised Lehi and gave to Nephi and to Lehi’s descendants for all time. What better way than to use poetic expressions to accentuate the sacredness of their covenant land!
There is a second reason for identifying the text’s geography using poetic parallelisms: repetition is a great agent for clarification and establishing the truthful understanding of a concept. Using chiastic and other parallelisms to explain the sacred geography of the Promised Land, the authors give us no room for divergent interpretations as to the meaning of any given word. Truly, when complex information is framed within repetitive phrases and especially when it is framed within chiastic architecture, Order does come from Truth—Truth does come from a precise understanding of Context.
When studying the overall chiasmus of the Book of Mormon, as shown above, one might ask, “Why is this chiasmus asymmetric and not balanced? Why is there more information in the upper third preceding Christ’s entrance compared to the lower third that is shown after that central or turning point?” The answer to this pertinent question comes from a comparison of the structure of the book itself. Most of the Nephite history takes place during the +/- 250 year span from the beginning reign of Mosiah I until the Savior’s arrival at the temple in the land Bountiful. This +/-250 year span is documented in approximately 283 pages extending from Omni 1:12 to 3 Nephi 9:1. In comparison, the 250 years of Nephite history that follows Christ’s visit among the Nephites is confined within just seven pages. Those pages extend between 3 Nephi 28:13 and 4 Nephi 1:41. For some reason known only to Mormon and the Lord, Mormon did not provide in detail the significant religious experiences that occurred during that latter period; had he done so, the book that we now have would be huge. What could he have omitted concerning those wonderful 250 years of peace and cultural development? This is the reason a chiasmus of what we now have as the Book of Mormon is somewhat lopsided or top heavy.[iii]
Many readers of the Book of Mormon have felt this chiasmus throbbing in its architecture; they have realized a certain underlying dynamic order of repetition that even when presented in our modern narrative format can be felt in our bones like some faraway beating of a drum. Readers frequently state this perception when they ask questions like, “Why do the Nephites keep repeating the process of prosperity, wickedness, prophets crying repentance followed by war and destruction. Then the cycle concludes with the Nephites repenting and, finally, a return to prosperity. Over and over again this pattern occurs, why?” I suppose that Mormon uses this chiastic order, this repetitious throbbing like a heart beating in our chest, to help us identify similar cycles in our own lives. His purpose is not only to demonstrate the centrality of the Christ, but to make us all aware, all of us in these the latter-days, of similar cycles impacting our own lives. He uses the music of his poetry to make us aware of where we can find release from the baseness, the wickedness contained within such a cycle.
The Book of Mormon, like a standing temple, is a house of order, a document of order. Order was used by Mormon in his abridgment of Nephite historical records to identify and highlight truths concerning the Savior, His doctrine, and even the geography of His Promised Land. As we sincerely search and study the messages contained in its many special corridors and chambers we can learn to appreciate two simple facts: The spiritual truths of the Book of Mormon are always revealed through the Holy Ghost. And finally, all of the remaining linguistic, historical and geographical truths buried within the book can only be discovered through a precise understanding of its diverse contexts as revealed through Mormon’s poetry.
[i] To examine the variety of parallelisms and repetitions existing in the Book of Mormon see Donald W. Parry’s Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon, The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, Ut.: Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2007). Other publications relating to parallelisms in the book are also available including John Welch’s Chiasmus in Antiquity (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981) which contains examples of chiasmi that have been recently discovered within the religious passages of the book.
[ii] For information pertaining to the structural integrity of the more exclusive chiastic formats see John W. Welch’s Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus, in Journal of the Book of Mormon and other Restoration Scripture, Vol. 4, Issue: 2 (Provo, Ut.: FARMS, 1995).
[iii] The chiasmus shown in this article has been extracted from an extended chiasmus of The Book of Mormon previously diagrammed by the author. That larger, more complete chiasmus occupies several pages in length and is even more asymmetrical than the shortened model provided in this article. Materials found within the extended format but not included in this reduced format include multiple repetitions of the 7, 8, 9 and 10 lines that are shown in this, the shorter version, with the exception that those repetitions always feature different prophets and wars than those included in this limited version of Mormon’s chiasmus.