Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Merry Christmas from the Communist Party

On Dec. 24, as we were at the Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai on our way to Hong Kong, I was touched by the abundant Christmas themes on display and the frequent use of the words "Merry Christmas"--not "Seasons Greetings," "Happy Holidays," or "Merry Xmas," but the greeting that sends frigid shivers up the spines of some folks because it reminds them that there is some kind of  religious concept or religious figure that was once associated with Christmas, before it was fully incorporated (now owned as part of a joint venture between Amazon and Google). Fortunately, China's Communist Party, which owns and operates the airports and much more, isn't afraid to spread a little authentic Christmas cheer. Here's a view of the passenger carts that scurry around the airport. Most adorable Communist Party ever!


Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas at the Mosque (in Hong Kong)

On Christmas day, I visited the Jamia Mosque in Hong Kong, and it was a highlight of our day. It was my youngest son's idea. It began with his desire to try the world's longest outdoor escalator system in the Mid-Levels section of Hong Kong, where many consecutive escalators allow you to scale a steep section of town that is loaded with interesting restaurants and shops. Along the way up, he saw a mosque and suggested we visit. All of us were interested and hoped to learn a little more about an important world faith, so off we went.

It was a Friday and an open-house day. My wife wasn't sure if she would be able to come in, but we were warmly greeted by a tall, friendly man who encouraged all of us to enter and have a look. I told him we'd like to learn a little more about his faith. He was so happy to share! Our new friend, Othman, comes from Yemen, and was passionate and eloquent in sharing his beliefs. I thought to myself that many of us could learn from him and his kind, enthusiastic manner in sharing his faith.

I was both pleased but saddened when he told us how excited he was about our visit, for in his years there at the mosque, he's never had people just come up and say "We'd like to learn more, please." He said Christians sometimes come to say critical things, like "Why did you people blow up our buildings in New York?" or "Why did you kill those people in France?" While he speaks Chinese, Chinese tourists don't want to talk and just come in to take photos and then rush away. So he was delighted to have curious people actually listening and asking questions. I was glad we did, but sad that we seemed to be the first. Sigh.

Since he was from Yemen, I also took a moment to ask about the Nihm Tribe in Yemen, the ancient tribe whose tribal area has been labeled as "Nehem" or "Nehhm" on some old maps. When I said "Nihm," I pronounced it incorrectly. Othman helped us with the correct pronunciation. I would transliterate it as something closer to "Nehem," with a hard, guttural "h". He confirmed that the tribe is ancient, prominent, and important in Yemeni history--something Book of Mormon students may already know since it relates to Nahom in the Book of Mormon. 

Take time to visit your local mosque and say hello from Jeff and Othman!




Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Lesson from the Great Sign of the Birth of Christ in the Book of Mormon

One thing has long puzzled me about the Book of Mormon account of the birth of Christ. Why did the believers mourn and begin to fear that Samuel the Lamanite's prophecy had failed regarding the promised sign of Christ's birth?

The Book of Mormon has a scene where Samuel the Lamanite gives a prophecy of a dramatic sign to come the night before the birth of the Messiah. In five years, there will be a night when it stays bright as the sun sets, giving a sign of the Savior's birth. From Helaman 14 we read:
[1] And now it came to pass that Samuel, the Lamanite, did prophesy a great many more things which cannot be written.
[2] And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.
[3] And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.
[4] Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore they shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born.
[5] And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.
[6] And behold this is not all, there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven.
[7] And it shall come to pass that ye shall all be amazed, and wonder, insomuch that ye shall fall to the earth.

Over the next five years, many other less dramatic signs have come to pass, which are easily handled by the critics with arguments similar to what we often hear today in discussions, say, of Book of Mormon evidence, as we read in Helaman 16:
[16] Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken.
[17] And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:
[18] That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?
[19] Yea, why will he not show himself in this land as well as in the land of Jerusalem?
[20] But behold, we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers, to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant, a land which we know not; therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.
[21] And they will, by the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one, work some great mystery which we cannot understand, which will keep us down to be servants to their words, and also servants unto them, for we depend upon them to teach us the word; and thus will they keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives.
[22] And many more things did the people imagine up in their hearts, which were foolish and vain; and they were much disturbed, for Satan did stir them up to do iniquity continually; yea, he did go about spreading rumors and contentions upon all the face of the land, that he might harden the hearts of the people against that which was good and against that which should come.
[23] And notwithstanding the signs and the wonders which were wrought among the people of the Lord, and the many miracles which they did, Satan did get great hold upon the hearts of the people upon all the face of the land. 
 Lucky guesses and logical fallacies, nothing worthy of any interest.

The anti-Messiah sentiment in Nephite society had become powerful among the movers and shakers in their society, so powerful that a plan was even concocted to provide a final solution to manage the divisive, retrograde believers who were such a roadblock to progress. The opportunity came with the apparent failure of Samuel's prophecy and the huge momentum this gave opponents of the Church, as we read in 3 Nephi 1:

[4] And it came to pass that in the commencement of the ninety and second year, behold, the prophecies of the prophets began to be fulfilled more fully; for there began to be greater signs and greater miracles wrought among the people.
[5] But there were some who began to say that the time was past for the words to be fulfilled, which were spoken by Samuel, the Lamanite.
[6] And they began to rejoice over their brethren, saying: Behold the time is past, and the words of Samuel are not fulfilled; therefore, your joy and your faith concerning this thing hath been vain.
[7] And it came to pass that they did make a great uproar throughout the land; and the people who believed began to be very sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass. 

 This was a difficult time for the believers, for the argument against their faith was strong enough, in spite of other prophecies and signs having been fulfilled, that they began to be very sorrowful, wondering if the sign had actually failed. I presume that some turned from their faith at this point, and that it was the "true believers" who held on and waited, as we read next, and as we read of the audacious and intolerant deadline imposed by those in power:
[8] But behold, they did watch steadfastly for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain.
[9] Now it came to pass that there was a day set apart by the unbelievers, that all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except the sign should come to pass, which had been given by Samuel the prophet.
The prophecy would be fulfilled right before the deadline given, but it does not appear that the believers were dealing with the arguments against them by saying, "Hold on, guys. Samuel said five years, and it's only been 4.9. Nothing is supposed to happen yet." No, they were worried and fearful.

Going back to Samuel's prophecy, he doesn't exactly say that the sign would come in five years. He says five years will pass, "and then" the sign will come. So it's after five years. Five years and a month? Six months? I'm not sure. But I suspect that the prophecy became widely understood as a sign to come in five years. After five years had passed, the critics could rejoice and the believers began to fear. There's a subtle point in Helaman 14:2 that I didn't notice until yesterday, right before I gave a talk in sacrament meeting and was inspired by the Primary children having just sung about Samuel the Lamanite. As I was wondering about that prophecy and the misunderstanding, that's when I noticed Helaman 14:2's wording, and decided to change my talk to emphasize that story. I asked people if they would be able to hold onto their faith in that day, with such influential arguments and popular sentiment against it? And can they hold onto it today, when there is still much we don't understand, in spite of many signs, miracles, and blessings we have received? That's another story. Here's what happens with the story in Third Nephi 1:
[10] Now it came to pass that when Nephi, the son of Nephi, saw this wickedness of his people, his heart was exceedingly sorrowful.
[11] And it came to pass that he went out and bowed himself down upon the earth, and cried mightily to his God in behalf of his people, yea, those who were about to be destroyed because of their faith in the tradition of their fathers.
[12] And it came to pass that he cried mightily unto the Lord, all that day; and behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying:
[13] Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.
[14] Behold, I come unto my own, to fulfill all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son -- of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh. And behold, the time is at hand, and this night shall the sign be given.
[15] And it came to pass that the words which came unto Nephi were fulfilled, according as they had been spoken; for behold, at the going down of the sun there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came.
[16] And there were many, who had not believed the words of the prophets, who fell to the earth and became as if they were dead, for they knew that the great plan of destruction which they had laid for those who believed in the words of the prophets had been frustrated; for the sign which had been given was already at hand.
[17] And they began to know that the Son of God must shortly appear; yea, in fine, all the people upon the face of the whole earth from the west to the east, both in the land north and in the land south, were so exceedingly astonished that they fell to the earth.
[18] For they knew that the prophets had testified of these things for many years, and that the sign which had been given was already at hand; and they began to fear because of their iniquity and their unbelief.
[19] And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, according to its proper order; and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born, because of the sign which had been given.
A wonderful story to ponder as we remember the birth of Christ long again in a manger in Bethlehem (part of the ancient "land of Jerusalem" per Alma 7:10 and the Dead Sea Scrolls and Amarna Letters, but that's another story, too.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Dusting Off a Famous Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, Alma 36

Executive Summary

In exploring Noel Reynolds' hypothesis that some material in the Book of Moses may have been present on the brass plates that Nephi used, I wondered if Nephi or other authors might have referred to "chains of darkness" in Moses 7:57. Though that phrase is not used in the Book of Mormon, I found 2 Nephi 1:23, quoting Lehi, combines "chains" and "obscurity," where "obscurity" can have the meaning of darkness. Further, there may be a Hebraic wordplay behind Lehi's words when he tells his wayward sons to "come forth out of obscurity and arise from the dust," based on the similarity between  ʼôphel (obscurity) and ʼâphar  (dust). Further exploring this connection pointed to the significance of the theme of dust in Lehi's words and the surrounding passages from Nephi and Jacob, building on analysis from David Bokovoy and an important paper of non-LDS scholar Walter Brueggemann on the rich symbolic and covenant-related meanings of "rising from the dust" and "returning to the dust" in the Bible.

Brueggemann informs us that rising from the dust invokes themes of creation and receiving life, of covenant making and keeping, of receiving power and authority from the Lord, of enthronement and kingship, of receiving glory and of being resurrected. Returning to the dust, on the other hand, can be a symbol of death, of breaking covenants, and of loss of status and authority.   Brueggemann's work adds new layers of meaning to Lehi's words and the surrounding text, especially Nephi and Jacob's usage of Isaiah. Lehi's dust-intensive speech, drawing upon the "Arise from the dust" theme in Isaiah 52:1-2, is actually sandwiched between two repeated quotations of the same dust-related passage of Isaiah--a puzzling redundancy were it not for the poetic emphasis it adds.

Recognizing the usage of dust-related themes in the Book of Mormon can enhance our understanding of several passages. An appeal to the Book of Mormon's use of dust-related themes may even help fill in some gaps in the complex chiastic structure of Alma 36 and add meaning to other portions of that voice from the dust, the Book of Mormon.

Background: Digging into Dust

In recent posts I've discussed a hypothesis from Noel Reynolds about the relationship between the Book of Moses and the brass plates of Nephi. Along with the theme of the devil, one concept in the Book of Moses not mentioned by Reynolds that I also see in the Book of Mormon is the symbol of the chain. In Moses 7:26 and 7:56, Enoch sees Satan with a great chain, and we see that people are held captive in "chains of darkness" until the judgment day. When I read that after reading Reynolds, I wondered if there might a relationship in the Book of Mormon. Chains and the captivity of Satan are themes there, but I was disappointed to not find "darkness" and "chains" used together in the text.

Finding that connection might be helpful in exploring influences on Nephite writers but would not be significant in terms of LDS apologetics since the Bible also mentions chains and its obvious link to captivity. Rev. 20:1 mentions a great chain associated with the bottomless pit, and "chains of darkness" are mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, though possibly connected back to the Book of Enoch mentioned in Jude 14. First Enoch, published in 1912 from a text in the Ga'ez language, often called "Ethiopic," mentions great iron chains and has often been asserted to have connections to the passages from Peter and Jude (The Book of Enoch or First Enoch, transl. by R.H. Charles (Escondido, CA: The Book Tree, 2000), pp. 105-108, 141). Both Peter and Jude write of angels who sinned and are held in chains of darkness until the judgment day, aligning well with the discussion of Satan's rebellion in heaven in the Book of Moses and also with Moses 7:57, where Enoch sees spirits in prison in "chains of darkness until the judgment of the great day." But in the KJV Old Testament, the connection between chains and darkness doesn't seem to be there, so if Nephi or others used a similar term, perhaps it was known from the brass plates. However, Psalm 107:10 could also be relevant. In the KJV, considering the context of verses 9-11, this speaks of rebellious souls who "sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron." But several other translations use "chains," such as the NIV for Ps. 107:
10. Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
11. because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
While I didn't find "chains of darkness" or similar phrases in my first search of the Book of Mormon, I soon noticed 2 Nephi 1, Lehi's speech to his sons, where verse 23 may be relevant:
  1. And now that my soul might have joy in you, and that my heart might leave this world with gladness because of you, that I might not be brought down with grief and sorrow to the grave, arise from the dust, my sons, and be men, and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye may not come down into captivity;
  2. That ye may not be cursed with a sore cursing; and also, that ye may not incur the displeasure of a just God upon you, unto the destruction, yea, the eternal destruction of both soul and body.
  3. Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.
  4. Rebel no more against your brother, whose views have been glorious, and who hath kept the commandments from the time that we left Jerusalem; and who hath been an instrument in the hands of God, in bringing us forth into the land of promise; for were it not for him, we must have perished with hunger in the wilderness; nevertheless, ye sought to take away his life; yea, and he hath suffered much sorrow because of you.
In verse 23, a connection between chains and darkness is provided, though not verbatim. In the entry for obscurity in the 1828 dictionary of Noah Webster, the first definition listed for obscurity is "Darkness; want of light." Ah, another link in the chain.

In that verse, chains are contrasted with the armor of righteousness. Obscurity and dust are linked, and possibly contrasted with Nephi, "whose views have been glorious"--vision and glory (light) are in contrast with obscurity (darkness) and dust. The Hebrew word for dust, (H6083 in Strong's Concordance) is   `aphar, which comes from H6080, the primitive root ʻâphar, "meaning either to be gray or perhaps rather to pulverize". The gray aspect of this word would seem to go well with obscurity.

Obscurity and dust are both mentioned in Isaiah 29, a part of Isaiah that Nephi quotes heavily, so it is reasonable to assume that similar Hebrew words were used in Nephi's statement. In Isaiah 29:4, the speech that whispers from the "dust" (actually occurring twice there) is from Strong's H6083, `aphar, mentioned above. This word occurs 15 times in Isaiah, always translated as dust except in Is. 2:19, where it is "earth." Most occurrences of dust in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament are from the same root (accounting for 15 of the 17 cases in Isaiah), though "dust" in Is. 5:24 and 29:5 is taken from a less common root, 'abaq, referring to an especially fine powder. It occurs 6 times and accounts for less than 5% of the occurrences of "dust" in the Old Testament (KJV). (Analysis done using the Blue Letter Bible app from BlueLetterBible.org.)

The KJV word "obscurity" in Isaiah 28 is tied to Strong's H652:
ʼôphel, o'fel (from H651, ʼâphêl); meaning "dusk:—darkness, obscurity, privily,: while ʼâphêl is "from an unused root meaning to set as the sun; dusky:—very dark."
So "obscurity" could be ôphel/ʼâphêl, while "dust" is probably from ʻâphar. To me, that looks like a potential wordplay that I don't think has been noted. This seems to add to the parallelism and poetry of Lehi's words, in a passage that appears to draw from Isaiah 52 and, perhaps, a touch of the Book of Moses or related content on the brass plates.

Later I would find chains linked to darkness in other verses. Alma 5:7 speaks of souls who were in a "deep sleep" and the "midst of darkness," in describing those who were "encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell," facing destruction. But they were liberated as the chains of hell were loosed, causing their souls to expand and thus they did "sing redeeming love." In adjacent verses at Alma 26:14-15, we also have both: chains and darkness
  1. Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice?
  2. Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God, and has loosed our brethren from the chains of hell.
  3. Yea, they were encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction; but behold, he has brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation; and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.
Chains in the Book of Mormon are frequently associated with Satan or hell, captivity, destruction, and encirclement. Chains are also often associated with shaking and trembling, as in 2 Nephi 1:13 ("shake off the awful chains", spoken by Lehi the "trembling parent" in vs. 14); 2 Nephi 1:23 ("shake off the chains"); 2 Nephi 9:44-45 ("shake of the chains" in parallel to shaking of garments and shaking off iniquities in v. 44), 2 Nephi 28:19 (the great and abominable church "must tumble to the earth" in vs. 18, and then in vs. 19 "the kingdom of the devil must shake . . . the devil will grasp them with his everlasting chains").

In the Book of Mormon, those who once were encircled with the chains of hell but are freed may be described as "encircled" with God's love, per Alma 26:15 above, or encircled with the robes or righteousness, as Nephi writes in his psalm (2 Nephi 4:33, after asking that he may "shake" at the appearance of sin in vs. 31). They are to be lifted up (the "arise" motif ) at the last day, and also tend to break out into song. In addition to Alma 26:13-15 above, also see Alma 12:5-6,11,17; Alma 5:6-11; Alma 13:29-30; and the last place where chains are mentioned in the Book of Mormon, Alma 36:18:
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
Interestingly, "encircled about by the chains of death" is how Alma sums up his miserable state as he turns to the Lord. This is at the heart, the pivot point, of the Book of Mormon's most famous chiasmus. Could it be related to Lehi's words and the themes associated with dust? Could there be more to Alma 36 than previously recognized?

I think so. To explain, though, I need to share some further information that I feel will be relevant. I apologize for the dusty detour that follows.

Key Insights on Dust from Bokovoy and Brueggemann

After finding the theme of darkness and chains apparently embedded in 2 Nephi 1:23, and finding what looks like a possible wordplay, I searched for further commentary to see what others had found. This took me to David Bokovoy's blog at Patheos.com, where his 2014 discussion of Lehi's poetic speech to his sons shows how Lehi draw upon the theme of "rising from the dust" in Isaiah 52:1-2. The excerpt below from Bokovoy follows Grant Hardy's formatting for the poetic portions of the Book of Mormon (Grant Hardy, The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Chicago: Illinois Press, 2005), pp. 62-63):
At the end of his life, the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi called his children together and delivered a series of final sermons.  Facing the prospect of his own mortality, Lehi encouraged his sons to wake up and avoid spiritual death. While facing physical death, Lehi used resurrection imagery in his final effort to inspire his sons:

O that ye would awake;
awake from a deep sleep,
yea, even from the sleep of hell,
and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound,
which are the chains which bind the children of men,
that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery
and woe.
Awake! and arise from the dust,
and hear the words of a trembling parent,
whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave,
from whence no traveler can return;
a few more days and I go the way of all the earth…
Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness.
Shake off the chains with which ye are bound,
and come forth out of obscurity,
and arise from the dust (2 Nephi 1:13-14, 23).

Lehi’s poem clearly draws its inspiration from Isaiah 52, a poetic text that seeks to reverse the sufferings experienced by the exilic community through a promise of royal restoration:

Awake, awake;
put on thy strength, O Zion;
Put on thy beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city:
for henceforth
there shall no more come into thee
the uncircumcised and the unclean.
Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down,
O Jerusalem:
loose thyself from the bands of thy neck,
O captive daughter of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2)

Lehi’s sermon features the dual imperative “awake, awake,” the image of being loosed from bands, arising from the dust, and putting on armor of righteousness/beautiful garments.  The Book of Mormon sermon, therefore, clearly echoes this poetic refrain from Isaiah 52.
Many people are puzzled by a phrase in Isaiah 52:2: "Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down." If you are shaking yourself from the dust, why would you sit down in it after rising? But the meaning is not to sit back down in the dust, but to arise and sit on the throne that God has prepared. This will become more clear below as we explore how the theme of dust in the ancient Near East and in the Book of Mormon relates to enthronement and related themes. But first, let's see how Lehi's speech ties to subsequent writings of Nephi and Jacob.

According to Bokovoy, Nephi shows that he accepts Lehi's charge to "awake" shortly after recording Lehi's speech when he records his own psalm:
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
Rejoice, O my heart,
and give place no more for the enemy of my soul (2 Nephi 4:28).
Nephi's words strengthen the case for Nephi as Lehi's successor and the legitimate king over the Nephite people.

I should add that Nephi also fortifies his acceptance of Lehi's plea when he asks God in verse 31 to make him that he "may shake at the appearance of sin," following Lehi's command to "shake off the chains with which ye are bound" and Isaiah 52:1 with "Shake thyself from the dust." Dust, chains, shaking, are connected to enthronement, life, resurrection, and glory. Nephi's acceptance of Lehi's commands and his worthiness as authorized leader of the Nephite people should come as no surprise, of course, since Lehi already endorsed Nephi in his speech in 2 Nephi 1 and observed that, in contrast to the chains and obscurity hindering his wayward sons, Nephi's "views have been glorious." Sight and glory stand in contrast to the chains, dust and darkness encircling the wicked.

Two chapters later, Jacob explains that he is about to read words from Isaiah that Nephi asked him to discuss (2 Nephi 6:4). He then begins reciting and discussing Isaiah, starting with Isaiah 49:22 and then Isaiah 50, 51, and finally concludes with the same passage that Lehi drew upon, Isaiah 52:1-2 ("Awake, awake, … shake thyself from the dust….").

Bokovoy sees Jacob's use of this passage, following Nephi's assignment to him, as further cementing the legitimacy of Nephi's reign and establishing the authority of Nephi and Jacob.

Bokovoy sees the issue of Nephite leadership and authority and the use of Isaiah 52:1-2 as especially meaningful in light of a scholarly work that establishes a connection between "rising from the dust" and kingship, enthronement, and authority. The source is Walter Brueggemann's 1972 publication, "From Dust to Kingship," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 84, no. 1, 1972; (the link provides only the first page and a means to purchase).  I feel that Brueggemann's work offers some gems of insight for the Book of Mormon, the record we often call "a voice from the dust."

Brueggemann's study of this topic began with an investigation of 1 Kings 16:2, where the Lord tells Baasha that “I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel.” But then the antithesis is given: “Behold I will utterly sweep away Baasha and his house,” referring to Baasha losing his status as a ruler and becoming dust again. This is tied to the Creation story, where we read that God formed man out of the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and that we are dust, and will return to dust (Gen. 3:19). (After being formed from the dust, Adam and Eve are put in charge of caring for the garden--in other words, they are given authority and responsibility.)

I should add that in light of modern science, we can say that we are not only formed from the dust of the earth, but from the dust of the stars and the cosmos, and that the whole earth has been formed from the dust of space. Dust is such a fitting word to describe the origins of our physical bodies and even the world around us. The Creative work of God in bringing about His ultimate goals begins with forming us from the dust.

Brueggemann builds on the 1967 work of J. Wijngaards, "Death and Resurrection in Covenantal Context (Hos. VI 2)," Vetus Testamentum, vol. 17, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1967), pp. 226-239.  Wijngaards observed that “dying and rising” describe the voiding and renewing of covenant relationships, and that calls to “turn” or “repent” involve changing loyalties or entering into a new covenant. He also cites other scholars who found that New Testament themes of resurrection are built on Israel’s ancient enthronement rituals, and that when Christ was “raised up” from the dead "on the third day," the concept was dependent upon a variety of related Old Testament passages. “The important gain of these studies is the recognition that the motifs of covenant-renewal, enthronement, and resurrection cannot be kept in isolation from each other but they run together and serve to illuminate each other" (p. 1).

Brueggemann's exploration of the dust theme in the scriptures led him to conclude that rising from the dust is tied to divine covenants. To keep sacred covenants is to rise from the dust--not only to rise, but to also be endowed (my term) with power and authority. Rising from the dust is a symbol of enthronement, which I believe is God's ultimate goal--His work and His glory--in creating us from the dust in the first place. Brueggemann explains that to break covenants is to return to the dust and to lose one's position of authority. Dust is used to describe the status of the covenant maker:
Behind the creation formula lies a royal formula of enthronement. To be taken “from the dust” means to be elevated from obscurity to royal office and to return to dust means to be deprived of that office and returned to obscurity. Since the royal office depends upon covenant with the appropriate god, to be taken from the dust means to be accepted as a covenant-partner and treated graciously; to return to the dust means to lose that covenant relation. …To die and be raised is to be out of covenant and then back in covenant. So also to be “from dust” is to enter into a covenant and to return “to dust” is to have the covenant voided. Dust is not to be taken literally but as a figure for being out of covenant, impotent and unimportant, or as Wijngaards has suggested, “dead”. The dramatic movement of dust to life to dust [Gen. 2:7, 3:9, 1 Kings 16:2-3] is in fact imagery describing the fortune and standing of the royal occupant. (pp. 2-3; emphasis mine)
Since my explorations on this topic began with 2 Nephi 1:23, where "dust" and "obscurity" are linked and seem like an poor fit in the midst of easily recognized parallels, it was intriguing to read Brueggemann's statement that "To be taken 'from the dust' means to be elevated from obscurity to royal office and to return to dust means to be deprived of that office and returned to obscurity" (emphasis mine). That fits Lehi's speech nicely. Brueggemann's finding that rising from the dust is also related to kingship, to enthronement, to covenant keeping, and resurrection also fits beautifully with Book of Mormon usage.

Brueggemann explains that being in the covenant means having royal power and authority, and being out of the covenant means losing such power and status. Being in the dust, without power or authority, is contrasted to “sitting with princes” in 1 Samuel 2:6-8. Thus “the phrase ‘from the dust’ appears here also as a formula relating to enthronement.” Thus "sitting" in 1 Samuel 2:6-8 is akin to the "sit" in Is. 52:2, where "arising from the dust" and "sitting" are both references to enthronement. The 1 Samuel passage ends with a reference to the creation: “for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.” (p. 3) This reference points to the stability that comes from sound kingship.

Brueggemann considers resurrection an important theme related to rising from the dust. He explains that resurrection in the Old and New Testaments is clearly linked to "rising from the dust," and says that these related themes run into each other and reinforce one another (p. 1).

Let's turn briefly back to Wijngaards' work, the foundation for Brueggemann's analysis. Wijngaards looked at Hosea 6:2 and its reference to reviving and rising on the third day. He also examined the related ancient Near Eastern theme of gods dying and "rising on the third day" (p. 228). He also notes that revival from sickness was a symbol of resurrection from God (p. 229), and that "killing" was used metaphorically to describe dethroning a king and removing people from power (p. 231) or with replacing one king/lord with another (p. 232), an act that has covenantal implications. Thus raising someone to life can refer to entering into a covenant, and death and killing can refer to breaking the covenant. There are ancient Near Eastern contexts, according to Wijngaards, where these concepts have rich covenantal implications, and one of the key words associated with these concepts is yada, to know, as in a covenant relationship (p. 237). Finally, in this study of Hosea 6:2, Wijngaards concludes that the verse means this:
Jahweh is said to "revise" and "raise" his people when "on the third day" he will renew his covenant with them. This renewal is called a "raising from death to life" because it will restore the reign of blessing and fertility that are consequent on and inherent in good covenantal relations. (p. 237; emphasis original)
Repentance, accepting and keeping covenants, enthronement, and resurrection are tied together, as are the themes of covenant breaking, dying, loss of power and status, and obscurity--these are part of the complex of interlocking dust-related themes that we should consider in Lehi's speech and related passages of the Book of Mormon.

In Part 2 of Bokovoy's post on the "arise from the dust" theme, he notes that Christ also cites Isaiah 52:1-2, and that Moroni quotes it to conclude the Book of Mormon, a fitting closure in light of Lehi's early words. Here is Moroni 10:30-31:
And again I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing.
And awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.
This is a call to enter into a covenant relationship with the Redeemer, to acquire every gift that he offers--gifts that are good (echoing Nephi's name perhaps), a reminding us of Lehi's plea to his children to "arise from the dust" and, in parallel to putting on the armor of righteousness that Lehi spoke off (contrasted with the chains Satan offers), Moroni asks us to put on our beautiful garments, garments that are linked to (or a symbol of) the covenants of the Father with us. These garments may well refer to the robes and garments of the Temple, where we lay hold of every good gift and learn to cast out Satan and reject his evil gifts. Satan's gifts, like his chains, are those of darkness, or rather, the "obscurity" that Lehi begged his wayward sons to flea. Come forth out of obscurity, shun evil gifts and covenants, arise from the dust, and put on beautiful garments tied to holy covenants from the Father, and do this by coming unto Christ.

A Dusty Inclusio Around Lehi's Words?

A Hebraic language pattern also found in the Book of Mormon is inclusio. Wikipedia gives a reasonable description:
In biblical studies, inclusio is a literary device based on a concentric principle, also known as bracketing or an envelope structure, which consists of creating a frame by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a section, although whether this material should consist of a word or a phrase, or whether greater amounts of text also qualify, and of what length the frames section should be, are matters of some debate. Inclusio is found in various sources, both antique and new.

While this may not be evident to many of the Bible's modern lay readers, the Hebrew Bible is actually full of literary devices, some of which, having fallen out of favor over the years, are lost on most modern readers. Inclusio, of which many instances can be found in the Bible, is one of these, although many instances of its usage are not apparent to those reading translations of the Bible rather than the Hebrew source.

Particularly noteworthy are the many instances of inclusio in the Book of Jeremiah.
This form of bracketing or framing by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a passage is related to chiasmus, which sometimes can seem like "recursive inclusio." As with chiasmus, the presence of inclusio is easily missed by modern readers reading translations of an ancient Semitic texts such as the Bible or (in my opinion) the Book of Mormon, so it is an area of ongoing investigation, with inclusio, like chiasmus, only having been relatively recently discovered in the Book of Mormon, well over a century after publication. A recently discovered example of inclusio in the Book of Mormon, coupled with apparent Hebraic wordplays, was just published: "Nephi’s Good Inclusio" by Matthew L. Bowen at Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.

There appears to be a notable example of inclusio in the way Isaiah is quoted both before and after Lehi's speech in 2 Nephi 1-3 and the related passages from Nephi and Jacob in 2 Nephi 4-6 and the preceding chapter, 1 Nephi 22. Back in 1 Nephi 19 quotes material no longer extant in our Bible from the brass plates, and then says that in order to "more fully persuade [his people] to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scripture unto us" (1 Nephi 19:23). Nephi then begins quoting Isaiah 48 in 1 Nephi 20 and Isaiah 49 in 1 Nephi 21. Interestingly, when he quotes Isaiah 49:13, he adds two phrases:
Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established; and break forth into singing, O mountains; for they shall be smitten no more; for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.
One Hebrew root sometimes translated as "establish" is quwm, Strong's H6965, which is the same root used in Isaiah 52:1 for "arise." It occurs as "establish" 27 times in the OT, but far more frequently as "arise," "rise," or related terms. If this was the word Nephi used and presumably was found in the brass plates, it would fit some aspects of the "rise from the dust" theme. In view of the dust-related themes that follow and Abinadi's later discourse on another verse in Isaaih 52 ("how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet…"), I suggest that this addition may be meaningful, and that feet + mountains + rejoicing/singing paint a picture of the redeemed ascending the cosmic mountain, Mount Zion or the House of the Lord, where they have risen away from and have been washed from from the mundane dust of the world. There they have accepted the Lord's covenant , have put on the Lord' beautiful garments, and in joy received the enthronement or endowment of power and grace that the Lord offers.

The Isaiah quotations before Lehi's speech begin with 1 Nephi 20, quoting Isaiah 48:1 "O house of Jacob, who ... are come forth out of the waters of Judah," to which Joseph Smith added a clarification: "or out of the waters of baptism." This chunk of Isaiah begins with a reference to a former washing for those who are now breaking the covenant, and end in 1 Nephi 21 with the closing verses of Isaiah 49, giving a powerful image related to dust and enthronement/dethronement while also emphasizing the theme the primary topic of Lehi, redemption and salvation through the Redeemer:
  1. Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.
  2. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; they shall bow down to thee with their face towards the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord; for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
  3. For shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captives delivered?
  4. But thus saith the Lord, even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered; for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
  5. And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; they shall be drunken with their own blood as with sweet wine; and all flesh shall know that I, the Lord, am thy Savior and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Kings and queens will bow down and lick up the dust of those who are gathered by the Lord--what an amazing reversal that again employs the relationship of dust to enthronement.

When I read these words, I cannot help but think of another related image: that of the King of Heaven bowing down before his mortal disciples to wash the dust from their feet shortly before His crucifixion. Surely He who took on a tabernacle of dust descended below all things, even below the dust itself as he entered the grave for three days and three nights. That act must be considered in light of its profound links to the role of dust (or dust and feet) in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon.

That is the first bracket. The second bracket occurs after Lehi's Redeemer-centric words in 2 Nephi 1-3, after Nephi's Psalm where he accepts Lehi's charge to "awake, awake" and "shake" at sin (in light of Bokovoy's analysis, showing his worthiness to serve as the legitimate heir of Lehi as ruler over the Nephite people), and after Jacob's introductory comments in 2 Nephi 6, where Jacob announces that he is now going to read the words of Isaiah that Nephi has asked him to teach. These are carefully chosen passages, but with a surprise, for the next chunk of Isaiah is unnecessarily redundant. Jacob begins quoting Isaiah not from where Nephi left off, but repeats verses that Nephi just quoted. A redundant oration is understandable, but given the limited space on the small plates of Nephi and the difficulty of engraving, a redundant quotation involves genuine labor and certainly intent. But why? This new excerpt from Isaiah begins with Isaiah 49:22 and quotes the verses about licking of dust from the feet, and the reference to the Redeemer.

This redundant section may have seemed like sloppiness to casual readers and critics, but it is highly thematic and is a clever use of a Hebraic literary tool, inclusio, to bracket and highlight the dust-related themes of the chapters in between, and to emphasis the importance of this dust- and Redeemer-related passage in Isaiah. Jacob then continues in Isaiah until he gets to Isaiah 52:1-2, the dust-related passage that underlies Lehi's words--and perhaps more of the Book of Mormon than we realized before.

One rough way of portraying the structure here is:
A. First Isaiah passage
Beginning: 1 Nephi 20:1 (Is. 48:1): Arising from the waters of Judah (baptism)--as if washed from dust

End: 1 Nephi 21:22-26 (Is. 49:22-26): Kings and queens to lick the dust off the feet of the covenant people of Israel; all shall know the Savior and Redeemer.


B. Words of Nephi, Lehi, and Jacob in 1 Nephi 22 and 2 Nephi 1-6, with Lehi's repeated references to Isaiah 52:1-2 and themes of dust, deliverance from captivity, and redemption.

C. Second Isaiah passage
Beginning: 2 Nephi 6:6, quoting Is. 49:22-23 (kings licking dust from the feet) in 2 Nephi 6:6-7, and then continuing with Is. 49:24-26 in 2 Nephi 6:16-18, then Isaiah 50 in 2 Nephi 7 and Isaiah 51 in 2 Nephi 8.

End: 2 Nephi 8:24-25, quoting Is. 52:1-2 ("Awake, awake . . . Shake thyself from the dust, arise, sit down, loose thyself from the bands of thy necks, O captive daughter of Zion."
It's more than "just" inclusio. You could say this is a textual example of going "from dust to dust." Nephi appears to be using the structure of his words, including the choice of Isaiah passages to cite, to frame and amplify a core theme for the Book of Mormon.

With that background, let's dust off the chiasmus in Alma 36.

Dusting Off a Loose Portion of Alma 36

The chiastic nature of Alma 36 has been a popular topic for LDS apologists, and one that the critics have learned to criticize. It is too fuzzy, too loose, they argue, and with some fair points. The beginning and end of the chiasmus are strong and compact, and the center point, where Alma turns to Christ, is also distinct and relatively compact. The portions in the middle, though, are of a different nature, with some steps in the chiasmus spread out as a general concept covering multiple verses where critics can accuse us of looking for patterns that aren't there. There is a reasonable response to this objection: when relating history, there are things that need to be said that won't fit nicely and compactly in a chiasmus. But at the pivot point, generally the most important part of the chiasmus, and at the end points, which are also particularly important, the chiasmus is clear and strong in Alma 36. The middle ground is still chiastic, though necessarily more diffuse.

Here is a typical framing of Alma 46, taken from John Welch, "A Masterpiece: Alma 36," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. J.L. Sorenson and M.J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991) showing his proposed structure of the verses:

(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1)

 (b) KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS of God and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (2)

   (c) DO AS I HAVE DONE (2)

    (d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2);

     (e) for they were in BONDAGE (2)

      (f) he surely did DELIVER them (2)

       (g) TRUST in God (3)

        (h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3)

         (i) shall be lifted up at the LAST DAY (3)

          (j) I KNOW this not of myself but of GOD (4)

           (k) BORN OF GOD (5)

            (l) I sought to destroy the church of God (6-9)

             (m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10)

              (n) Fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD (14-15)

               (o) PAINS of a damned soul (16)

                (p) HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS (17)

                 (q) I remembered JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD (17)

                 (q') I cried, JESUS, SON OF GOD (18)

                (p') HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS no more (19)

               (o') Joy as exceeding as was the PAIN (20)

              (n') Long to be in the PRESENCE OF GOD (22)

             (m') My LIMBS received their strength again (23)

            (l') I labored to bring souls to repentance (24)

           (k') BORN OF GOD (26)

          (j') Therefore MY KNOWLEDGE IS OF GOD (26)

        (h') Supported under TRIALS, TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (27)

       (g') TRUST in him (27)

     (f') He will deliver me (27)

         (i') and RAISE ME UP AT THE LAST DAY (28)

     (e') As God brought our fathers out of BONDAGE and captivity (28-29)

    (d') Retain in REMEMBRANCE THEIR CAPTIVITY (28-29)

   (c') KNOW AS I DO KNOW (30)

 (b') KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (30)

(a') This is according to his WORD (30).

Some loose spots include item i' in verse 28 apparently showing up a verse late (I'm not sure why--a slip or a necessity?) and big gaps or significant looseness around item l (the concept of destroying the church of God, verses 6-9), item m (MY LIMBS paralyzed in verse 10) and item n (fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD. verses 14-15).

Shortly after reading Brueggemann, I reread Alma 36 to respond to a critic at Mormanity challenging the validity of Alma 36 as a significant achievement. As I looked at the weakest spots,  I noticed some dust-related terms that caught my interest:
7. earth did tremble (shake) beneath our feet … fell to the earth … fear of the Lord
8. …the voice said unto me, Arise. And I arose and stood up
9. …destroyed … seek no more to destroy the church of God
10. … I fell to the earth … three days and three nights …
11. …destroyed … destroy no more … fear … destroyed … fell to the earth and did hear no more
The earth trembles, the dust of the ground is shaking under their feet, and he falls down, toward the dust. A possible relationship with dust themes?

Alma has broken the covenant and is at risk of losing his status and even life. Surprised by an angel, amazed at God's power and reality, he falls to the earth, to the dust. As Lehi commanded his sons, the angel commands Alma to "Arise." Literally, he is to arise from the ground, from the dust. He stands, but cannot remain standing in light of his sinful state. He faces destruction for the work of destruction he has done. The flame of guilt ignited, he falls again to the earth, to the dust, and is as if dead, as if in the grave for three days and three nights. And again we are told that faced with destruction, in fear and amazement, he fell to the earth and could hear no more.

He falls to the dust and then falls again.

On the other side of the pivot point, where item m' refers to limbs receiving strength in verse 23, there may be even more parallels in this chiasmus:

22. Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
23. But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.
24. Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
25. Yea, and now behold, O my son, the Lord doth give me exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors;
26. For because of the word which he has imparted unto me, behold, many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen; therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God.

In light of Brueggemann's work, falling to the earth in Alma 36 may do much more than just convey Alma's great fear, but may serve as an equivalent to returning to the dust, invoking these symbols:
  • physical death
  • spiritual death (falling away from God)
  • rebellion, sin, breaking the covenant
  • losing power, authority, life
  • destruction
The association of death with falling to the earth is reinforced with many elements, including references to destruction, the deathlike state of his body, suffering the pains of hell, and Alma's being in this state "for three days and three nights" (v. 10), an apparent reference to the prophesied time that Christ would spend in the grave (see Nephi's prophecy in 2 Nephi 25:13, and the related prophecy of Zenos on the brass plates, mentioned in 1 Nephi 19:10), which is also consistent with the theme of rising on the third day discussed by J. Wijngaards in the above-mentioned work, "Death and Resurrection in Covenantal Context (Hos. VI 2)."

The possibility that Alma's fall to the earth is meant to be associated with the dust-related themes introduced by Lehi is reinforced by the words, or rather word, of the angel to fallen Alma: "Arise" (v. 8). This word is repeated as Alma states that "I arose and stood up," unnecessarily redundant unless Alma were reinforcing the word "arise" (possibly from quwm in Hebrew). Alma even explicitly mentions Lehi in Alma 36:22.

In considering the terms that could stand in contrast to such a fall to the dust of the earth, what could be more appropriate in this context than being "born again" with its implications of spiritual renewal, entering into the covenant, and receiving life, power and grace from God? Just as our "loose" upper midsection of the chiasmus mentions Alma's fall to the earth three times, the related section in the lower midsection also mentions being born again three times.

In light of the dust/death/fall themes in the upper midsection and the contrasting concepts of being born again and entering into the covenant with God in the lower midsection, perhaps the sparse, amorphous mid-sections of the chiasm's wings are actually loaded with more than previously realized when Brueggemann's insights are added.

The loose section, comprising verses 5 to 15 on the upper side and verses 23 to 26 on the lower, spanning elements k, l, m, and n in Welch's mapping of the chiasmus, actually has more than just 4 little phrases in common. There are multiple concepts with multiple dimensions interspersed in a complex passage. Rather than neatly parse it as a simple linear chiasmus, look at the interwoven block of themes.

The first section has these major themes:
  • Alma falls to the earth. After being told to "arise," he arose and stood up but soon falls again. He is literally "fallen again" in the presence of an angel, fallen from God. His falling to the earth is mentioned three times (vv. 7, 10, 11).
  • Alma is like one who is dead. He can't move his limbs (v. 10), his can't open his mouth (v. 10), and he can't hear (v. 11). Three times we learn that his body isn't working: limbs, mouth, and ears are not functioning.
  • He is not only as if dead, but as if in hell, experiencing the pains of a damned soul (vv. 12-13). Body and soul are affected.
  • Alma was seeking to destroy the Church of God. This is mentioned 3 times (vv. 6, 9, 11). Speaking of destruction, he is warned that he will be destroyed if he keeps seeking to destroy the Church of God.
  • He has not kept God's commandments, meaning that he has departed/fallen from the covenant (v. 13). Worse yet, he has led others away from God, causing them also to die, or he "had murdered many of his children" (v. 14), causing inexpressible horror at the thought of coming into God's presence.
  • He yearns to "become extinct [dead] both soul and body" (v. 15)..
  • These events are precipitated by the appearance of an angel (v. 6), who speaks to the sons of Mosiah with the voice of thunder (v. 7).

Now compare that section from verses 6-14 with the related loose section on the other side of the pivot point, verses 23 to 26, which has these major themes:
  • Alma returns to life (physically) and is born again (spiritually), in contrast to being "extinct both soul and body" and in contrast to his deathlike state before.
  • Being "born of God" is mentioned three times (vv. 23, 24, 26) in this section.
  • He regains the use of his limbs (v. 23) including his feet. His mouth functions for he "manifests" his change to the people (v. 23) and helps others to taste as he tastes (v. 24). His eyes function for he helps others to "see as I have seen" (v. 26). This is in contrast to the three ways his body wasn't working properly before.
  • Now he can arise without falling: he stands upon his feet (v. 23) and is able to "labor without ceasing" (v. 24).
  • His labor now is not destroying the church of God, but bringing others to repentance, that they might also be born of God and be filled with the Holy Ghost (v. 24). Thus, instead of "murdering" others (recall Wijngaards' point about killing and dethronement), he is giving them newness of life in the covenant. Now "many have been born of God" because of his work (v, 26). In bringing souls to repentance, he is implicitly warning them of the destruction sin brings, as the angel warned him.
  • In helping others enter into the covenant with God, he now has "exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors" (v. 25) instead of fear and horror.
  • The role of the angel in speaking to Alma before is parallel to the function of the Holy Ghost and the Lord who fill Alma with great joy and impart God's word to him (vv. 25-26).
Alma's fall to the dust, involving the spiritual death of his soul and the apparent physical death of his body are described in multiple, intertwined ways in the upper mid-section, and they are reflected in the description of Alma's new "born again" state in the lower section. From death to life, from sin to repentance,  from destruction of the Church to building it, from fear and pain to joy, from murdering others to giving them life, all made possible by the divine grace initiated by an angel, amplified by the Holy Ghost, that this lost and fallen soul might rise from the dust literally and figuratively to be born of God.

With the perspective that comes from understanding the Book of Mormon's use of dust-related themes as introduced by Lehi and used multiple times right up to the closing page of the Book of Mormon, we find that a large gap in the otherwise brilliant chiasmus of Alma 36 becomes much more meaningful. A loose, sparse section in the mid upper-section previously mapped with only a few parallel words among many verses actually becomes a relatively tight cluster of intertwined themes, with almost every major concept being reflected on in the corresponding section below the pivot point.

As for the "chains of darkness" in the Book of Moses that began this study and took me to the theme of rising from the dust, yes, chains are also mentioned in Alma 36, but "chains of death." In fact, they are mentioned almost at the very pivot point of the chiasmus where Alma turns to Christ, and then in contrast to the chains of death, Alma beholds light and experiences joy:
17. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
18. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
19. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
20. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
The encirclement of chains of death in Alma's dust-like state of spiritual death is later contrasted with another form of encirclement:
22. Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
In addition the Welch's mapping that leaves some gaps where the chiasmic content seems sparse, the somewhat densely packed content brought out by exploration of the Book of Mormon's motif of rising from the dust with related thematic elements (keeping covenants, receiving glory and power, being revived or resurrected, or, as Alma puts it, born again) gives us more noteworthy parallels to consider. This material can be remapped in multiple ways, though I prefer to leave it as a cluster of dust/death related themes above the pivot, and life/born again themes below.

One approach to mapping it is to consider different strands of parallel structures almost as if  they are themes in a fugue, weaving in and out of the main structure and not necessarily aligned with the primary pivot point. Thus, superimposed on the overarching structure Welch proposed, we may also add  strands such as:

Death and Destruction Strand
Three days and three nights - like dead (v.10)
  loss of body functions (can't speak, limbs don't move, can't hear) (vs. 10-11)
    destroy, destroy (v. 11)
      fear (v. 11)
      amazement (v. 11)
    destroyed (v. 11)
      torment for sins (v. 12)
      remembered all my sins (v. 13)
    murdered/destroyed others  (v. 14)
      inexpressible horror (fear) (v. 14)
  extinction of body and soul (v. 15)
three days and three nights - like dead (v. 16)

I think three days and three nights as a symbol of death and revival needs to be considered here as part of Alma's structure. It's a beautiful fit for the dust-related themes of the Bible and possibly the brass plates. 

Encircled/Surrounded Redemption Strand
A plea to Jesus Christ (v. 17)
   encircled by the chains of death (v. 18) 
      liberated, sees light (v. 19)
         joy as exceeding as my pain (v. 19)
         joy as exquisite as my pain (v. 20)
      saw God (v. 21)
   surrounded by angels (v. 22)
Singing and praising God (v. 22)

Once again, when the chains come off, there isn't just light and joy, there is singing. I like that!

Divine Voice Strand
God, by the mouth of a holy angel, made things known unto me (v.5)
   my unworthiness (v. 5)
   seeking to destroy the church of God (v. 6) 
God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way (v. 6)
The angel spake unto us, as with the voice of thunder (v. 7)
   the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; (v. 7)
   we all fell to the earth in fear (v. 7)
      The angel's voice said unto me: (v. 8)
         Arise (v. 8)
         I did arise, and stood up (v. 8)
      I beheld the angel, and he spoke: (vs. 8-9)
   destroyed, destroy (v. 9)
   I fell to the earth as if dead (v. 10)
The angel spake more things unto me, but I did not hear (v. 22)

For the "Divine Voice" strand, contrasts occur in the lower half of the overall chiasmus, with reference to the word of God that been has imparted to Alma (vs. 26), the words he now imparts to others to bring them to God (vv. 23-26), and, of course, the voice of angels who are singing and praising God (v. 22) as well as his own praise of God (v. 28).

Rising Strand (emphasis on "rising from the dust/ returning to the dust" themes)
Lifted up at the last day / delivered from trial, troubles, afflictions (v.3)
   born of God (v. 5)
      Fell to the earth / arise, arose / fell to the earth (vv. 7-10)
          three days and three nights, limbs cease working, (v. 10)
             racked with eternal torment (v. 12)
                presence of God: inexpressible horror (v. 15)
                    yearns to be extinct, to not stand (v. 15)
                in presence of God (v. 15)
                    three days and three nights: death (v. 16)
                       pains of a damned soul, torment (vv. 16-17)
                          Jesus Christ atones for sins of the world (v. 17)
                          (to break) the chains of death (v. 18)
                       pains removed (v. 19)
                sees God sitting on his throne, singing, praising (v. 22)
                    yearns to be there (v. 22)
          limbs receive their strength (v. 23)
       stands upon his feet (v. 23)
   born of God (v. 23)
Raised up at the last day / supported in trials, troubles, and afflictions (vv. 27-28)

The "Rising" strand looks at the chains as a potentially significant term linked to the motif of rising from the dust, and naturally also includes the "lifted up" and "raised up" passages at the ends.  

Like the main chiasmus, the "rising strand" also works better if either of phrases "raised up" or "lifted up" (at the last day) are moved slightly, for then two more elements fit a cleaner chiasmic structure ("trials, troubles, and afflictions," and also being "delivered").  Welch's outline above labels the latter instance, element i', as out of place, which is a logical suggestion for the overall structure, but the "Rising" strand works better if the first instance, "lifted up" in verse 3 is just moved up a few words in the text, so that elements i and h in the first part of the chiasmus are switched.  It works better because it gives more emphasis to the theme of rising, putting it at the end points of the strand and closer to the end points of the main chiasmus.

These strands are crude initial efforts and don't necessarily mean anything. These strands may not be intentional and could be wishful thinking on my part (finding false positives, etc.), but in any case I find the "rising from the dust" theme of the Book of Mormon to be a potentially important lens to understand some of its passages. It seems that Nephi was keenly aware of those themes in the way he framed Lehi's speech in an inclusio with redundancy from Isaiah followed by a nice build to the critical Isaiah 52:1-2. Alma's contrast between falling to the earth, being like dead, and then being born again and freed from the chains of death also suggests awareness and intelligent use of those concepts. However you map it or unpack it, there is a lot going on in Alma 36 and I think a lot more going on in the Book of Mormon than we may have realized. What a remarkable voice from the dust!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

False Positives

Fun with Dice in a Workshop for Management

"Facts" and "data" are what most people use when they make decisions, especially decisions that others see as hopelessly biased and idiotic. The challenge is learning how to interpret facts and how to analyze data so that are decisions are less likely to be blunders based on the many biases and fallacies that can mislead all of us.

In a training class on decision making that I was invited to do for managers in one of my employer's groups in China, I brought in a big bag of dice to help local managers understand a serious example of self-deception in leadership. In particular, I sought to illustrate why criticism of employees for poor results seems to work better than praise for good results. It's an example where solid experience and significant data can actually mislead and deceive..

Everybody in a group of about 50 people were given three dice. I then explained their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators--an important phrase in modern Bizspeak) for the exercise: the company needs high scores. Everyone was asked to shake their dice and roll them once, then record their score. The few with the highest scores (e.g., a sum of 15 or higher) were brought up to the front. A group with about the same number of people with the lowest scores (e.g., less than 6) was also brought up to the front.

Now it was time for their performance review. I approached the high performers and personally congratulated them. I shook each person's hand, thanked them for their amazing achievement, gave them gifts (a candy bar) and cash incentives (a Chinese bill--real money), and praised them as good examples for the rest of the company. The whole room then joined me in loud applause for these high-achievers.

Then it was time for consequences for the low-performers. I shook my head, grimaced, wagged my finger at them, and scolded them for their failure in giving such disappointing results. They were a shame to the company, and we might need to demote them or fire them if they didn't shape up.

With proper rewards and punishments having been meted out, the people in these two outlier groups were given three more dice each and allowed to roll again. Amazingly, the average score of the former top performers now dropped significantly. Almost everyone in that team did more poorly after receiving praise and rewards. But for the ones who had been scolded and criticized, a notable improvement was observed. Almost all of them showed significant gains in their scores. Wow, praise hurts and criticism helps, right?

This pattern is fairly reproducible, and coincides with the vast experience of many coaches, bosses, generals, and leaders of all kinds: criticism and punishment works better than praise; yelling works better than kindness. They have solid experience to prove it, and they are often right, in a sense, but also perhaps terribly wrong.

Obviously, the results with the dice were not likely to be affected by praise or rewards (as long as the participants behaved honestly). What was happening here is a common statistical phenomenon that results in a great deal of self-deception in many fields of life. The phenomenon is "regression to the mean." When there is a degree of randomness, as there is in much of life, random trends that depart above or below the mean tend to come back. Results that are extreme are often statistical outliers, explainable by chance, that are not necessarily caused by the explanations we try to concoct. It's why athletes who make it to the cover of famous sports magazines after a string of remarkable successes tend to disappoint immediately after, leading to the "Sports Illustrated jinx" which may not be a real jinx at all. It's the reason why highly intelligent women such as my wife tend to marry men who are less intelligent, like certain bloggers around here. Since the correlation between female and male intelligence in marriage is not perfect and therefore involves some degree of randomness, the most intelligent outliers among females will tend to marry men who are not such extreme outliers themselves, and the probability is that they will tend to be less intelligent. This works both ways.

Two Books That Inspired My Workshop

My experiment with dice and other parts of my workshop were inspired in part by two outstanding books that I recommend. The exercise with dice was inspired by a story in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). I picked this up for airplane reading a couple years ago and found a real gem that I have applied in a variety of ways, though I still readily fall into many of the fallacies of human thought that so easily beset us. The story that motivated my dice exercise for management came from Chapter 17, "Regression to the Mean," pp. 175-176.

Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, once taught Israeli air force instructors about the psychology of effective training. He stressed an important principle: that rewards for improved performance worked better than punishment for mistakes. This is something that we employees tend to understand easily, but is often a mystery to those dishing out the punishments and rewards. One of the instructors challenged him and said that this principle was refuted by his own extensive experience. When a cadet performed exceptionally well and was praised, he would usually do worse on the next exercise. But when someone performed poorly and was criticized, he usually did better on the next run. This was a "a joyous moment of insight" to Kahneman, who recognized an important application of what he had been teaching for years about the regression to the mean. The instructor had been looking for a cause-and-effect explanation to natural, random fluctuations, and had developed an iron-clad theory that was dead wrong. He had extensive real data, but had been deceived by a failure to understand the impact of randomness. Real data + bad statistics (or bad math) = bogus conclusions.

Regression to the mean is one of several important principles Kahnema discusses. Many have roots in mathematics. All have connections to human psychology and the way our brains work. Kahneman is brilliant in illustrating how often we make flawed decisions, and gives us some tools to overcome these tendencies.

Related to Kahneman's work is another math-oriented book which I relied on in my workshop on decision making, and which I highly recommend: Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (New York: Penguin Press, 2014).

Ellenberg shows how basic mathematics can quickly expose many of the fallacies that we make in our thinking and decision making. Some of his discussions have application to matters that come up in discussions of LDS religion and in evaluation of evidence to support or discredit a theory. He decimates one of the classic "Texas sharpshooter" disasters in religious circles, the utterly bogus methodology used in The Bible Code in which the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was treated as a miraculous, absolutely perfect text filled with hidden prophecies that could be obtained by mathematically rearranging the letters of the text in numerous different grid patterns and then searching for new words in something of a hidden-word puzzle. With computerized tools, thousands of grids could be formed to lay out the letters in new two-dimensional patterns and then these patterns were searched to find all sorts of modern topics.

There's an old joke about a man in Texas who took a rifle and fired a few dozen random rounds into the side of a barn. Wherever the shots were clustered together, he painted a target around them and then told people that he was a sharpshooter. Drawing circles around spaced-apart Hebrew letters on, say, arrangement number 47, 356 and finding a hidden prophecy is analogous to the Texas sharpshooter.

Further, the very premise of a perfect text for the study is completely without logic. There are multiple versions of the ancient Torah with obvious gaps and uncertainties (e.g., compare the Torah in the Dead Sea Scrolls to the version used today: there are differences). Changing one letter in the text would through off the alignments on the selected grid patterns that give mystical results, making the whole exercise obviously bogus.

In "Dead Fish Don't Read Minds" (Chapter 7), Ellenberg warns of the dangers of amplifying noise into false positives when we have the resources of Big Data to play with. With numerous variables to explore and map, it is incredibly easy to find some that seem to correlate. This was brilliantly illustrated in a real but still somewhat tongue-in-cheek paper that managed to be accepted for presentation at the 2009 Organization for Human Brain Mapping in San Francisco, where UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist Craig Bennett presented a poster called "Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for multiple comparison corrections." (See discussion at Scientific American.)  Basically, this paper reported statistical results from MRI brain mapping taken in a dead fish as the fish was shown photos of people in different emotional states. Dr. Bennett used the power of Big Data to explore MRI signals from millions of positions and found a couple spots in the fish's neural architecture where the fluctuates corresponded well with the emotional state shown in the photos. His paper was a clever way of illustrating the dangers of using Big Data to find correlations that really don't mean anything, much like the work to find "smoking guns" for Book of Mormon plagiarism by doing computer searches of short phrases with hundreds of thousands of books to toy with.

Ellenberg is often critical of religion and believers, and probably with good reason, and mocks some aspects of the Bible a time or two, but religious people can learn much from his mathematically sound approach to thinking.

What Are the Odds of That? Actually, Unlikely Results are Guaranteed

The many fallacies explored by Kahneman and Ellenberg can affect all of us in our thinking and decision making. When it comes to apologetics, Latter-day Saints can fall into related traps if we treat anything from anywhere, anytime as potentially being a relevant parallel to the Book of Mormon or other LDS works. Not every New World drawing of people in two or more tones implies that we are looking at Nephites and Lamanites. Not every drawing of a horse means we are looking at evidence for Book of Mormon horses. And a place called Nehem on a map of Arabia is not necessarily evidence that a name like Nahom existed anywhere in Arabia in Lehi's day. Those things can be random parallels. If they are meaningful, there should be further data that can support the hypotheses put forward. Such finds would be most meaningful if they are part of a large body of information from multiple sources that can serve as convergences useful in assessing the particular question at hand, such as "Is the story of Lehi's trail plausible? Could there have been a place called Nahom where Ishmael was buried, with a fertile place like Bountiful nearly due east?" Such questions can be framed in ways that do not leave the infinite wiggle room of Bible Code explorations. (It was such a question, in fact, that motivated Warren Aston to undertake exploration in the Arabian Peninsula at great personal cost with predetermined criteria for Bountiful, a target already drawn before he ever touched the coast of Oman.)

When we are exploring a hypothesis, false positives can easily result from errors in thinking due to failure to understand randomness and regression to the mean, as well as other mathematical and logical fallacies. A key element in the field of statistics is recognizing that a random result can seem to support a hypothesis when there is not actually a cause-and-effect relationship. The science of statistics provides tools and tests to help differentiate between what is random and what is real, though it certainty is almost always elusive. Statistics gives us some tools to help reduce the risk of seeing things that aren't there, or to know when we might be missing something that is (these topics involves the issues of "significance" and "power," for example). Even for those trained in statistics, there are abundant errors that can be made and false conclusions made.

I'm not a statistician, but I did have 10 hours of graduate level statistics and have frequently had to rely on statistics to assess hypotheses. I even published a little paper on a mathematical issue related to a statistical issue known as the "collector's problem." The publication (peer-reviewed, but still lightweight, IMO) is J.D. Lindsay, "A New Solution for the Probability of Completing Sets in Random Sampling: Definition of the 'Two-Dimensional Factorial'," The Mathematical Scientist, 17: 101-110 (1992), which you can also read online as a Web page or as a Word document. But what really matters is that I am married to a statistician (M.Sc. degree in statistics, now math teacher at an international school in Shanghai)--what are the odds of that? Well, 100%, since that's what happened.

That reminds me of the many mistakes that people on both sides of the debate can make as they argue probabilities. It's easy to see significance in something that happens by chance, especially when we find something that did happen, possibly by chance, and then try to make a case for how improbable that was. Richard Feynman once joked to a class that one the way to campus that morning, he saw a car with a specific license plate, ARW 357. "Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight?" This fallacy of a posteriori conclusions is an easy one to make. It's inevitable that any particular license plate will be rare, maybe even unique in all the world or at least all the state. That odds of that happening are low--a priori, before the event--but a posteriori, the odds are high, as in 100%. Making much of something because it is unusual is an error. But again, today, much of the serious evidence being raised for Book of Mormon plausibility is not of that nature.

Parallels occur all over the place. Parallel words, themes, and motifs occur across large bodies of literature, even when they are surely unrelated. I can take any two texts and find some parallels. Within a sufficiently large text, I can probably find parallel words and phrases that I can sketch out as a chiasmus. If we scour all the names introduced in the Book of Mormon, we should not be surprised to find a few might have apparent connections to ancient languages. We might even not be shocked to find an occasional one whose purported meaning might be construed to relate well to its context. But when numerous names begin to have support and offer useful new meaning for the text, when things like Hebraic wordplays occur many times and in interesting, meaningful ways, then the evidence can become more significant. When linguistic and archaeological evidence bring about interesting and repeated convergences, it may be time to take a deeper look at the evidence rather than assuming it's all chance.

Seemingly unlikely findings are actually quite likely to happen. That truism, however, is not an excuse to disregard meaningful bodies of evidence and convergences that enlighten a text in question.

Progress in Avoiding False Positives

Fortunately, the risk of methodological fallacies is frequently and openly considered among many LDS apologists, contrary to the allegations of critics who sometimes seem blind to their own biases and methodological flaws.

For example, while chiasmus can and does occur randomly, just as rhymes and other aspects of poetry can be found in random text, there are reasonable criteria for evaluating the strength of a chiasmus that can help screen random chaff from deliberately crafted gems. The possibility of false positives was an important factor in the analysis of John Welch as he explored the role of chiasmus in scripture. Others build upon his foundation and even offered statistical tools for evaluating chiasmus. It is still possible for something that appears elegant, compact, and brilliantly crafted to be an unintended creation, but we can speak of probability and plausibility in making reasonable evaluations.

In the early days of LDS apologetics, evidence of all kind was enthusiastically accepted. But gradually, I see LDS writers becoming more nuanced and cautious. A prime example of this is, in my opinion, Brant Gardner in his book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015). He is fully aware of the risk of fallacious parallels, but in evaluating the relationship between a text and history, they must be considered. What matters is how they are considered and what they data can plausibly support. On page 47 [visible in an online preview], Gardner discusses an insight from William Dever, a prominent professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona who has been excavating in the Near East for several decades:
Some form of comparison between text and history is always required to discern
historicity. Texts are always compared to archaeology and/or other texts. Sometimes even artifacts require explanation by comparison or analogy to similar artifacts from another culture. Comparisons must be made. The problem cannot, therefore, reside in an absolute deficit in any methodology that makes comparisons, but rather in the way the comparisons are made and made to be significant. One important type of controlled parallel is ethnographic analogy. Dever explains his version of this method:
One aspect shared by both biblical scholarship and archaeology is a dependence on analogy as a fundamental method of argument. . . .

The challenge is to find appropriate analogues, those offering the most promise yet capable of being tested in some way. Ethnoarchaeology is useful in this regard, particularly in places where unsophisticated modern cultures are still found superimposed, as it were, upon the remains of the ancient world, as in parts of the Middle East. Analogies drawn from life of modern Arab villages or Bedouin society can, with proper controls, be used to illuminate both artifacts and texts, as many studies have shown. [William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 77-78.]
Dever's work deals with the concept of "convergences" wherein multiple lines of evidence, such as evidence from archaeology and from a text, come together and support the historicity of a text in question. In spite of the risk of fallacious parallels or false positives, convergences can be strong and can create compelling cases for the historicity of a text. Dever's work is also relied on by John Sorenson in Mormon's Codex, where extensive correspondences between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon in many different topical areas are explored. Gardner observes his requirements for a convergence are more demanding than the criteria in Sorenson's approach. But I feel both authors are aware of the risk of random parallels being mistaken as evidence, and are seeking to provide a thorough methodology that combines multiple approaches to establish meaningful though tentative connections that do more than just buttress one point, but which also provide a framework that solves other problems and makes more sense of the text. Convergences that are fruitful and lead to new meaningful discoveries are the most interesting and compelling, though there is always the risk of being wrong.

Gardner's approach also draws upon wisdom from the field of linguistics, which offers many analogies to the problems of evaluating the historicity of a text based on parallels and convergences.

As a result of my orientation, I suggest that we will be best served by an approach applied with great success in the field of historical linguistics. Bruce L. Pearson describes both the problem and the solution:

Sets of words exhibiting similarities in both form and meaning may be presumed to be cognates, given that the languages involved are assumed to be related. This of course is quite circular. We need a list of cognates to show that languages are related, but we first need to know that the languages are related before we may safely look for cognates. In actual practice, therefore, the hypothesis builds slowly, and there may be a number of false starts along the way. But gradually certain correspondence patterns begin to emerge. These patterns point to unsuspected cognates that reveal additional correspondences until eventually a tightly woven web of interlocking evidence is developed. [Bruce L. Pearson, Introduction to Linguistic Concepts, 51]

Pearson’s linguistic methodology describes quite nicely the problem we have in attempting to place the Book of Mormon in history. We cannot adequately compare the text to history unless we know that it is history. We cannot know that it is history unless we compare the text to history. We cannot avoid the necessity of examining parallels between the text and history.

The problem with the fallacy of parallels is that it doesn’t protect against false positives. What is required is a methodology that is more recursive than simple parallels. We need a methodology that generates the “tightly woven web of interlocking evidence” that Pearson indicates resolves the similar issue for historical linguists.
In my studies of foreign language, I've often been intrigued by false cognates that can trick people into imagining connections between languages that might not exist. An interesting involves the English and Chinese words "swallow." In English "swallow" can be a noun involving the ingestion of food or liquid and it can be a noun describing a particular bird. Something similar happens in Chinese, where 燕 (yan, pronounced with a falling tone) is the Chinese character for swallow, the bird, while the same sound and nearly the same traditional character, 嚥, is the verb, to swallow. The latter just adds a square at the left, representing a mouth. It's a cool parallel. If this kind of thing happened frequently, or if there were, say, hundreds of ancient Chinese words that showed connections to English, we might have a case for a systematic relationship between the languages. But there really are not meaningful connections between the languages apart from modern borrowed words and a few rare occurrences that can be chalked up to chance. But exploring parallels between languages is a vital area for research and study--it's how relationships between languages are established in the first place and can help fill in huge gaps in the historical and archaeological record. When the parallels become numerous and show patterns that begin to make sense, it's possible that two languages share historical connections. To me, Gardner's appeal to lessons from historical linguistics makes sense. Parallels can be real and meaningful, or they can be spurious. It's a matter of exploring the data and being open to convergences that enlighten and reveal useful new ways of understanding the data.

In evaluating the Book of Mormon, I believe LDS scholars today generally recognize that there is a risk of finding impressive parallels to, say, ancient Mesoamerica or ancient Old World writings that may be merely due to chance.

In my own writings, I've often pointed to the risk that my conclusions are based on chance, misunderstanding, and so forth, and use my blog as a tool to get frequent input from critics. In spite of their repetitive dismissal of all evidence as mere blindness, bias, and methodological fallacy on our part, occasionally they engage with the data and provide some helpful balance or even strong reasons to reject a hypothesis. It's a healthy debate. We don't have all the answers, we are subject to biases of many kinds, but there is still a great deal of exploration and discovery to do that goes beyond finding random items and painting a bullseye around it.

Sometimes the target was there before the bullseye was there long before the bullet holes were discovered, as in the Arabian Peninsula, which has long been a target for criticism of the Book of Mormon before the field work was done that helped us recognize just how many impressive hits had been scored by the text in First Nephi.

Methodological Error: Not Unique to Mormons

Fallacies of logic and math, of course, aren't unique to believers.

When it comes to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy and related problems with false positives, the critics of Mormonism also have some particular gifts in this area as they scour modern sources to support theories of plagiarism or modern fabrication of the Book of Mormon. Examples of improperly finding meaning from randomness coupled with serious methodological flaws include computer-assisted database searching among thousands of texts for short phrases found in common with the Book of Mormon or allegedly pointing to implausible sources for the Book of Mormon such as the The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain. Naturally, texts written in imitation of the King James style score highly with their abundance of such words as "thou" and "thee" instead of "you," but there is no substance to the claim of plagiarism.

"Parallelomania," in fact, is an increasing problem in the works of critics purporting to explain the Book of Mormon by appeals to numerous other texts. An excellent discussion of false positives from parallels in an anti-Mormon work is found in "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part One" by Benjamin L. McGuire in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 1-59. In Part Two, he gets more heavily into the methodology of treating parallels.

There is no doubt that there are many parallels, as there can be between any two unrelated texts. One of my early essays on the Book of Mormon sought to expose the problem of false positives for those claiming Book of Mormon plagiarism by coming up with even stronger examples of parallels than the critics were delivering. The result was my satirical essay, "Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass?" (May 20, 2002, but slightly updated several times since then), which Brant Gardner kindly quotes from in The Book of Mormon as History (2015, pp. 44-45). Based on the data alone, one can make a strong case that the Book of Mormon borrowed heavily from Whitman's 1855 work or at least had a common source (perhaps Solomon Spaulding was plagiarized by Whitman as well?). That's ridiculous, of course--but the parallels show just how easy one can be mislead by random parallels, coupled with a little creativity and a dash of zeal. If those claiming plagiarism can't clearly outdo Whitman as a control, a reasonable case has not been made.

One of latest posts at Mormanity dealt with my explorations of a hypothesis from Noel Reynolds about the possibility of the Book of Moses and the brass plates sharing some common material. Reynolds' article includes a detailed discussion of what it takes to determine the relationship between two texts. It begins with a consideration of the requirements for one text to depend on another. He is aware of the risk of random parallels and discusses the issues rather carefully, aware of risks and aware of the kind of evidence that is required to find meaningful parallels. He also offers a test case also in the Book of Abraham. Does it depend on the Book of Mormon or visa versa? Very little sign of relationship is evidence in that case. But further tests and more rigor is needed. It's very tentative and speculative, but interesting. Not completely illogical methodology at all, though the results are controversial.

But just as alleged evidence sometimes falls prey to the sharpshooter fallacy as it is improperly used to buttress a theory, the sharpshooter fallacy can easily be misapplied to dismiss legitimate, meaningful evidence. A noteworthy example is found when Dr. Philip Jenkins, a professor of history, dismisses the significance of the evidence for Nahom in the Arabian Penninsula, an important but small piece of the body of evidence related to the plausibility of Nephi's account of his journey through Arabia along the route we often call Lehi's Trail. Jenkins has this to say as he dismisses this evidence:
One other critical point seems never to have been addressed, and the omission is amazing, and irresponsible. Apologists argue that it is remarkable that they have found a NHM inscription – in exactly the (inconceivably vast) area suggested by the Book of Mormon. What are the odds!
By the way, the Arabian Peninsular covers well over a million square miles.

Yes indeed, what are the odds? Actually, that last question can and must be answered before any significance can be accorded to this find. When you look at all the possible permutations of NHM – as the name of a person, place, city or tribe – how common was that element in inscriptions and texts in the Middle East in the long span of ancient history? As we have seen, apologists are using rock bottom evidentiary standards to claim significance – hey, it’s the name of a tribe rather than a place, so what?

How unusual or commonplace was NHM as a name element in inscriptions? In modern terms, was it equivalent to “Steve” or to “Benedict Cumberbatch”?

So were there five such NHM inscriptions in the region in this period? A thousand? Ten thousand? And that question is answerable, because we have so many databases of inscriptions and local texts, which are open to scholars. We would need figures that are precise, and not impressionistic. You might conceivably find, in fact, that between 1000 BC and 500 AD, NHM inscriptions occur every five miles in the Arabian peninsular, not to mention being scattered over Iraq and Syria, so that finding one in this particular place is random chance. Or else, the one that has attracted so much attention really is the only one in the whole region. I have no idea. But until someone actually goes out and does some quantitative analysis on this, you can say precisely nothing about how probable or not such a supposed correlation is.

It's a fair question, but one that has been answered for many years. The NHM name turns out to be exceedingly rare in the Arabian Peninsula. As far as we can tell, it is only found in the general region associated with the ancient Nihm tribe. It's in the region required by the Book of Mormon, with a convergence of data showing that this tribal name was there in Lehi's day, in a region associated with ancient burial sites, a region where one can go nearly due east and reach a remarkable candidate for Nephi's Bountiful. It's part of an impressive set of convergences pointing to plausibility for the journey of Lehi's trail. In light of the new body of evidence, the task of critics has suddenly shifted from mocking the implausibility of Nephi's account to explaining how obvious it all is in light of the knowledge that Joseph and his technical advisory team surely must have found by searching various books and maps, all the time lacking any evidence that such materials were anywhere near, and still being unable to explain the motivation for plucking "Nehhm" or "Nehem" off a rare European map amidst the hundreds of other names, ignoring every opportunity to use the map for something useful. They also fail to explain how any of these sources could have guided Joseph to fabricate the River of Laman and Valley of Lemuel, the place Shazer, or the place Bountiful, each with excellent and plausible candidates. Here appeals to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy or any other fallacy miss the reality of serious evidence and serious convergences that demand more than casual dismissal and scenarios devoid of explanatory power.


Yes, it's fair and important to worry about false positive (and false negatives) as we approach issues of evidence for the Book of Mormon, and against the Book of Mormon as well. Methodology, logic, and intellectual soundness are fair topics for debate. Let's keep that in mind as we explore the issues and watch out for the many fallacies that can catch us on either side of the debate.