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Interpreting Interpreter
Imperfect Symmetry

This post is a summary of the article “Asymmetry in Chiasms, With a Note About Deuteronomy 8 and Alma 36” by Stephen Kent Ehat in Volume 59 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Ehat argues that the imperfections in the symmetry of chiasms, or skews, do not necessarily invalidate a proposed structure, but may have been included on purpose to highlight portions of the text or to avoid imitating divine perfection. He applies this to the skews of Alma 36, suggesting that they may serve a literary purpose and that they align with skews seen in biblical chiasms.


The Summary

In this article, Stephen Ehat discusses imperfections—termed skews—in the symmetrical pattern of proposed chiasms. Critics have occasionally pointed to skews identified in the large chiasm of Alma 36 to suggest that it is not a valid or intentional chiasm. But scholars have found skews in some of the most notable chiasms in biblical scripture, and have proposed that these were included intentionally as part of a practice labelled “symmetrophobia”, the purposeful avoidance of perfect symmetry. The reasons behind this asymmetry vary—though some cases may be accidental, they may also reflect a culturally based aversion to perfect symmetry (e.g., obedience to the second commandment’s injunction to avoid making a representation or likeness of God), or to emphasize portions of the text. He quotes a number of scholars who accept asymmetry as an important characteristic of Hebrew literary practice. As one scholar notes:

“Literary structure was never a straitjacket but was always a flexible tool whereby subdued as well as powerful communicative effects could be achieved when the need arose.”

Ehat uses this framing to analyze the various skews proposed within Alma 36. These skews differ somewhat depending on the proposed structure of the overall chiasm, but include:

  • Verse 28, featuring an unexpected repeat of the concept of being “lifted up at the last day”, which appears earlier in the chapter.
  • Verse 26, where the concepts of being “born of God” and that they do “know of these things” appear in parallel with those same ideas in verse 5 instead of being inverted.
  • Verse 3, wherein Alma unexpectedly repeats an injunction to his son to hear his words.
  • Verse 23, which may feature a negative correspondence between “I stood on my feet” and “I fell to the earth” in verse 10.
  • A second proposed skew in verse 26 focusing on the phrase “born of God”.
  • Verse 19, with a possible skew using the phrase “harrowed up”.

Ehat then explores whether these skews might enhance a “levels analysis” of Alma 36, which is an analysis of a chiasm’s potential higher-level structure at conceptual and narrative levels beyond the words themselves, as well as the relationships between higher and lower levels. Some have proposed chiasms at multiple levels for Alma 36, particularly Noel Reynolds. Ehat looks at each skew in turn within a number of different proposals, generally concluding that Reynolds’ approach succeeds in conceptually accounting for all of the text of the chapter and might be enhanced further by consideration of the skews. This may apply to verses 27–28, as well as verse 3 and verse 26—each may include smaller parallelistic structures that could serve to emphasize the higher-level concept. As for the remaining skews, Ehat suggests that their negative impact on the chiasm is limited, either because they’re not based on a significant enough parallel, or because they can be meaningfully accounted for within other proposed structures.

Despite these proposals, it is fair to ask why there are so many potential skews and if there is a line beyond which skews should be deemed to invalidate the chiastic nature of a text. Ehat provides no firm response, and suggests that experts on chiasmus would themselves disagree on the answer. Many commonly accepted proposals of biblical chiasm include what seem to be a substantial number of skews, including as many as eight in one put forward for the book of Genesis. That most analysts identify only a small handful for Alma 36, which Ehat suggests that it fits well in that context. Ehat specifically draws a number of parallels between the proposed chiasms in Alma 36 and Deuteronomy 8, which not only express similar ideas (e.g., admonitions to keep the commandments, an emphasis on obedience, a remembrance of travels in the wilderness and deliverance from bondage, among others), but also exhibit similar structure, each being framed by an inclusio, sharing a centerpiece focusing on the blessings of the Lord, and featuring skews with apparent rhetorical function. Ehat goes so far as to suggest that Alma may have been inspired by Deuteronomy 8 in some of the message and structure of his chapter-long chiasm. In light of this, a joint comparison of these chapters might elicit new insights for each passage, and similar analyses might help capture the purpose of their respective skews.


The Reflection

Ehat’s analysis is an eye-opening one for me, as most analyses I’d seen had either attempted to downplay Alma 36’s skews or tried to use them as leverage to tear apart the whole project. To not only acknowledge the skews but see them as a valid construction within a poetic framework is a refreshing idea, and one that will help me take a second look at such structures when they crop up in the Book of Mormon and elsewhere.

Though Ehat does well to include some cautionary notes, one additional caution I’d add has to do (unsurprisingly) with probability. Relaxing the requirement of symmetry provides new degrees of freedom for analysts, leading them to see meaning in structures that could have formed purely on the basis of chance. Though the probability that chance could produce, say, a 17-level chiasm may be vanishingly small, but allowing skews to enter the picture would, by definition, increase that chance. This doesn’t necessarily mean that chance must have produced a specific skew (especially if the skew is itself parallelistic or contributes to the meaning of a text), but we should keep in mind that chance is always a possible explanation for the structures we see. Regardless, Ehat has convinced me that the skews of Alma 36 aren’t as problematic as I’d been led to believe, and has helped remind me that the lack of perfection, in literature as well as life, is rarely a good reason for rejecting inspiration when it presents itself.

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