Pattern in Scripture: The Visual Scriptures

Editor’s Note: In order to preserve the formatting of the chiasmus, some of the type in this article may be almost impossible to read. If that is the case on your computer, please click on the “format for print” option at the right side of your screen. That will allow you to read the article with its formatting intact.

On May 15, 1988, while in the midst of an extensive study of the scriptures of the atonement, I discovered the inverted parallel arrangement of “redemption” and “resurrection” in DC 88:14-16, with a nice point of emphasis in between.  Having read Welch’s writings on chiasmus [i] , and even finding a couple of small ones in the Book of Mormon, I was totally unprepared to find this supposedly ancient literary pattern in a modern document.  Surely it must be a chance occurrence.  However, it quickly became apparent that the Doctrine and Covenants is loaded with this type of parallelism.

I ended up reformatting the entire book to show the parallelisms.  In the course of doing this, I identified 549 inverted, 294 direct, 17 climax, 9 random, 6 other systems involving parallelism.  Almost all of the text was structured one way or another.  The book literally opened up before my eyes to a far greater depth than I had ever seen it before.  Fascinating parallels were discovered that facilitated my understanding of what was written.

Of course, it turned out that others had been there before.  Richard Shipp and Charles Kroupa had published a little paper 16 years before [ii] , and Shipp had written his MA thesis on the subject [iii] .  They presented chiastic structure in several sections.  As is typical in patterns in the scriptures, their work and mine have strong similarities and some differences.  The differences are sometimes as enlightening as the similarities.

There followed a three-year “runner’s high” of discovery of structure in all four standard works, during which many insights and answers to old questions came.  The end of it saw the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, about half of the Book of Mormon (the doctrinal discourses) and numerous excerpts from the Bible reformatted and held in fat looseleaf binders.  The reformatted pages revealed the content in an unusually visual manner.  They are now available on the Web at


In searching for structure I have found it useful to print out the passage and then encircle with red ink the words, phrases or ideas that are repeated, connecting the related material with a line.  Often the structure becomes immediately obvious, but sometimes it can take some effort to work it out.  The text then can be reformatted, with labels (capital and lower case letters, and Arabic and Roman numerals) and indenting to show the parallelism.

There are four basic patterns in which each member of a set of ideas is repeated exactly once (except the point of emphasis may not be repeated): inverted (of which chiasmus is a subset) (ABCDDCBA or ABCDCBA), direct (ABCABC, ABCABCD, and rarely ABCDABC), climax (AABBCCD) (see 2 Peter 1:5-8), and random (no particular order in the repeated set) (see D&C 121:1-6).  Inverted is most common, with direct not too far behind.  Climax is much less frequent and random is quite rare.  Inverted systems tend to have a point of emphasis at the center.  The other three forms often include an unrepeated point of emphasis (the D elements above).

Each of the elements of a given structure – single words, phrases, sentences, or larger blocks of text -can be thought of as packets of information.  Paired elements are similar, opposite, or otherwise related.  Sometimes an element helps explain or elaborate upon its partner.  The structure gives the scriptures a sort of internal commentary that assists the student in understanding their meaning.

In addition to these parallel patterns, there are numerous examples of lists of similar items.  Often the number of members of these lists is consistent with the biblical number symbolism described by Bullinger [iv] ; this will be discussed in a future article.

Don Parry [v] describes nearly two dozen different poetic forms.  Since I was interested more in seeking understanding rather than poetry, I made no attempt to classify my findings along the lines he shows.

Why pattern in scripture?

From time to time I pondered the significance of the structure.  Most of the more than twelve hundred inverted parallel systems I had found are simply interesting and beautiful, but don’t seem to carry significant insights.  The answer seems to be that the scriptures are written in a structured way so we would know that patterns are to be expected.  Then when we find a system that seems at first to violate the pattern, we should look more carefully at the asymmetry and imbalance and see if there are hidden parallels.  It is in these examples of apparent broken symmetry where the real insights come.  At the same time, one learns to not take a pattern as the sole source of an idea.

Scholer and Snodgrass, in their 1992 preface to the reprinting of Lund’s classic 1942 book, Chiasmus in the New Testament [vi] , put it this way, “Despite Lund’s admitted excess, his focus on chiasmus has placed biblical scholarship forever in his debt.  Chiasmus is of unquestioned significance for interpreting texts.  Examples exist, of course, in which the identification of a chiasmus is merely interesting and does not contribute significantly to understanding …  Other examples, however, radically alter the way texts are perceived.  If the chiasmus is longer than four elements, the center of the structure is emphasized and the corresponding parallels provide commentary on each other.”

As a quick example of an insight derived from an inverted parallelism, see D&C 88:37 – “…there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space…”  The second half teaches that no exalted couple gets a null or figurative dominion.

The visual scriptures – Ezekiel 37 as an example

Reformatting and printing the text to show the parallelism opens up the scriptures to view in a manner that is impossible in the traditional format.  The thoughts and flow of ideas spring quickly to the eye.  The reformatted pages might be thought of as the visual scriptures.  An Institute student recently remarked, “When you print out the scriptures in chiastic form it makes them so easy to see.”  We had just considered Ezekiel 37.  Here is what it looks like.  Elements are labeled with capital and lower case letters in two levels of structure. (Print it out and lay the pages end to end to get the full impact.) (Note: Verse numbers are in their proper order, but placed at the end of the previous verse if they would otherwise occur at the beginning of a line.)

A     The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, 2 And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. 3 And he said unto me,

       a   Son of man, can these bones live?  And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. 4

               b  Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones;

                      c   Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: 6

                             d    And I will lay sinews upon you,
                                   and will bring up flesh upon you,
                                   and cover you with skin,
                                   and put breath in you,
                                   and ye shall live;
                                   and ye shall know that I am the LORD. 7

                                    e   So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. 8

                             d   And when I beheld, lo, the sinews
                                 and the flesh came up upon them,
                                 and the skin covered them above:
                                 but there was no breath in them. 9

                      c   Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.  11

               b  Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say,

                   Our bones are dried, and
                    our hope is lost:
                    we are cut off for our parts. 12

     Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD;

       a   Behold, O my people, I will open your graves,
                      and cause you to come up out of your graves,
                             and bring you into the
land of Israel. 13
                                    And ye shall know that I am the LORD,
               when I have opened your graves, O my people,
                      and brought you up out of your graves, 14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live,
                             and I shall place you in your own land:
                                    then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.  15

       B     a  The word of the LORD came again unto me, saying, 16

                      b   Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions:

                             c   then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions: 17

                                    d   And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.  18

               C  And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? 19 Say unto them,

       B   a  Thus saith the Lord GOD;

                             c   Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows,

                      b   and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah,

                                    d   and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand. 

20 And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thine hand before their eyes. 21

A  And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD;

       a   Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: 22

               b  And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel;
                          and one king shall be king to them all:
                   and they shall be no more two nations,
                          neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all: 23

                      c   Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. 24

                             d   And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. 25

                                    e   And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt;

                                    e   and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever:

                             d  and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. 26

                      c  Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them:
                                    and I will place them,
                                    and multiply them,
                                    and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. 27

               b  My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28

       a   And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.

The overall pattern is of the simple form ABCBA.  The first A, itself being a chiasm, gives a famous description of the resurrection, and often is quoted to that purpose.  However, the second A shows that the resurrection is being used as a metaphor of the gathering of Israel after their long dispersion.  A hint to this is already found in verse 11, which sounds like scattered Israel lamenting their dispersion.  Likewise, the inscribed sticks of the first B are used as metaphors of the two books of scripture that are to be joined into one.  And the joined sticks are to be important in the gathering, as indicated in verses 21-22. 

Many scholars propose that the two sticks to be joined refer to the two kingdoms of Judah and Ephraim being joined, but the structure teaches otherwise.  Moreover, the stick of Joseph is to be in the hand of Ephraim, so it is to be an entity in its own right, well fitting in meaning to the Book of Mormon.

Between the metaphors and the explanations lies the anticipated request of the people, the C element, asking for an explanation of both the resurrection and stick metaphors.  Thus the structure helps us readily see both the metaphors and their explanations.

An example of random parallelism exists in the sub-structure of the B elements, where close relationships exist between the paired elements, but the second b and c elements are switched with respect to the first.

The chiasm in the second A includes an interesting parallel between the mountains of Israel (first b and the tabernacle (second b).  Further insights can be gained by studying the indicated inverted and direct parallels in this chapter.

Other examples and discussions will be presented in Part 2.

[i] (John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon”, BYU Studies, pp. 69-84, Autumn 1969; John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon”, Book of Mormon Authorship, Edited by Noel B. Reynolds, Bookcraft, Inc., Salt Lake City, 1982, p 33-52; John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon”, John W. Welch, Ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity, Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim, 1981, pp 198-210)

[ii] “From the Mind of God”, Shipp Bros. Publishing, Salt Lake City, 1972

[iii] “Conceptual Patterns of Repetition in the Doctrine and Covenants”, BYU, 1975

[iv] “Number in Scripture,” 1894, reprinted by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI, 1981

[v] “Poetic Parallels of the Book of Mormon”, Ensign, Oct. 1989; FARMS

[vi] Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1992