2 Nephi 12 and the Septuagint:
Evidence for Fraud or Authenticity in the Book of Mormon?

This page deals with a recent challenge to Book of Mormon plausibility based on 2 Nephi 12:16, a verse often said by pro-LDS writers to provide evidence of ancient Semitic roots. While the pro-LDS case might not be as strong as once assumed, the recent attack based on this verse also falls short.

This is part of the LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) suite by Jeff Lindsay, my attempt to deal with many common questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My writings reflect my personal understanding and are not officially approved by the Church.

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2 Nephi 12 and the Septuagint: Evidence for Fraud or Authenticity in the Book of Mormon?

2006 Update: New Analysis of 2 Nephi 12:16

My previous comments below on the issues raised by 2 Nephi 12:16 failed to consider some of the complexities of the ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for its Biblical sibling in Isaiah 2:16. The definitive analysis of the issues involved has now been published: "Upon All the Ships of the Sea, and Upon All the Ships of Tarshish: Revisiting 2 Nephi 12:16 and Isaiah 2:16" by Dana M. Pike and David R. Seely, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 14 No. 2, 2005, pp. 12-25.

The authors show that a popular LDS view on this verse does not completely fit the facts. The Septuagint may actually be a reasonable translation of the existing Masoretic text, and comparison of the two manuscripts does not necessarily support the idea of a more ancient original text with three instead of two elements. The value of 2 Nephi 12:16 as intrinsic evidence for Book of Mormon authenticity is certainly less clear.

However, the issues involving tricola and especially paired tricola in the Book of Mormon are not muted by the analysis of Pike and Seely, and may merit further investigation.

2012 Update: Further Sources

Another source that explores the role of tricolons in the Book of Mormon can be read in part using Google Books. See James T. Duke, The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon (Cedar Fort, Springville, UT, 2004). See in particuclar Chapter 11, which contains a section on tricolons beginning on page 136. You might also enjoy the chapter on chiasmus, among many others.

One of the many subtle internal evidences that have been advanced for Book of Mormon authenticity occurs in the Book of Mormon version of Isaiah 2:16. In this article, I will discuss recent criticisms by David Wright who argues that this passage and other Isaiah variants in the Book of Mormon are unimpressive. While the vallue of 2 Nephi 12:16 for the "pro-Mormon" cause may be limited after all, especially in light of the excellent analysis of Dana M. Pike and David R. Seely, there are still unanswered questions and the possibility of unexpected new evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon that came in exploring Wright's arguments. I refer to the apparent finding of paired tricola in the Book of Mormon, an ancient Hebrew poetical form that was not recognized until over a century after Joseph Smith died. I believe it is present in the writings of Nephi, the Book of Mormon writer most familiar with Hebrew poetry. I explore this issue in Part Two: Paired Tricola.

Index to this page:

Background: 2 Nephi 12:16 and the Ships of the Sea

The Book of Mormon text for this verse gives a list of three items: "And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures." The King James Version, based on the Masoretic Hebrew text, has two of the three items: "And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures." ("Pleasant pictures" can also be translated as luxury ships or fine ships.) Interestingly, the Septuagint, a Greek Old Testament text translated anciently from another Hebrew source no longer available, lists "ships of the sea" but does not give "ships of Tarshish." One English translation cited by Wright for the whole verse is "And upon every ship of the sea, and upon every view of ships of beauty." Another translation gives "and upon every ship of the sea, and upon every display of fine ships" (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, Zondervan Publ. House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1980, p. 837, originally published by Samuel Bagster and Sons, London, 1851). Interestingly, the Targum, the Aramaic Old Testament, is similar to the Septuagint: "And upon all those who go down in ships of the sea, and upon all those that dwell in palaces of beauty." The possibility exists that Isaiah's original text or an early text available on the brass plates in 600 B.C. had all three terms, the ships of Tarshish, the ships of the sea, and pleasant pictures (or "palaces of beauty" or "every view of ships of beauty" or similar terms). The occurrence of all three terms in the Book of Mormon has long been argued, by pro-LDS writers, to be consistent with the idea that Nephi was using an ancient text that had all three, but later texts become condensed to have only two terms, with the Septuagint and Masoretic texts ending up with different groups of two. Since the Hebrew words for "ships of Tarshish" and "ships of the sea" are very similar, a scribal error or scribal simplification could have resulted in the condensed forms.

Regardless of how the differences in Old Testament texts occurred, the Book of Mormon provides a list of three items in 2 Nephi 12:16 which appear to be attested by the combination of two ancient textual variants. Joseph did not know Greek and there is no evidence that he even had access to the Septuagint prior to 1830. If he fabricated the text, how did he come up with the subtle addition of "ships of the sea" in verse 16? While there were a few books in his day that mentioned "ships of the sea" as a possible translation for "ships of Tarshish" due to the similarity of the Hebrew words, there is no evidence that young Joseph had access to any of them. Even if he did, they suggest that one could use "ships of the sea" instead of "ships of Tarshish," not as a third term.

As far as I can determine, the comparison of 2 Nephi 12:16 with the Septuagint and Hebrew texts was first discussed by Sidney B. Sperry in this century (examples include Our Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Stevens and Wallis, 1948), pp. 171-73, and Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, p. 178)). A more thorough analysis of the many differences in Isaiah passages quoted in the Book of Mormon relative to the King James text has been undertaken more recently by John Tvedtnes, who offers substantial evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon variants (John A. Tvedtnes, "Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon," in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1984), pp. 165-177. Significantly, the minor but interesting issue concerning the addition of the term "ships of the sea" was not given any publicity by Joseph Smith or those involved with the publication of the Book of Mormon. If the Septuagint had been consulted to deliberately and fraudulently provide apparent evidence for authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, it is surprising that no one called attention to this little nugget of internal evidence during the first 100 years of the Church. (A similar argument applies to the existence of chiasmus and other Semitic forms of poetry, names, and customs in the Book of Mormon.)

It's an interesting argument, but the challenge is that the Greek "sea" in the Septuagint may be a plausible translation for the Hebrew word translated as "Tarshish" in the KJV. It would seem unlikely that scribes would lose one term of three in both the Greek and the Hebrew. If a term was lost, it may have been in the Hebrew, which in turn could have been translated to the present form of the Septuagint - without the Septuagint providing evidence of loss. This is an important point raised by Pike and Seely, who note that we simply don't have all the answers for this issue.

Before we consider details of arguments about verse 16, it is helpful to know the contents of related surrounding verses. There are actually several differences between the Book of Mormon and King James versions of Isaiah 2, which are compared for verses 10 to 17 in the table below (differences in verse 9 are discussed on my LDSFAQ page about Apparent Problems in the Book of Mormon):

Isaiah 2, King James Version2 Nephi 12, Book of Mormon
10 Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty.

11 The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

12 For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:

13 And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan,

14 And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up,

15 And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall,

16 And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.

17 And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.

10 O ye wicked ones, enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for the fear of the Lord and the glory of his majesty shall smite thee.

11 And it shall come to pass that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

12 For the day of the Lord of Hosts soon cometh upon all nations, yea, upon every one; yea, upon the proud and lofty, and upon every one who is lifted up, and he shall be brought low.

13 Yea, and the day of the Lord shall come upon all the cedars of Lebanon, for they are high and lifted up; and upon all the oaks of Bashan;

14 And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills, and upon all the nations which are lifted up, and upon every people;

15 And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall;

16 And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.

17 And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low; and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

Criticisms of 2 Nephi 12

Several critics of the Book of Mormon contend that 2 Nephi 12:16 is not really evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and can be explained away as an awkward attempt by Joseph Smith to add a seemingly impressive but incorrect modification to the Book of Mormon text, exploiting readily available information about the Septuagint's version. The argument is made with the greatest detail and documentation by Dr. David Wright in an essay at https://members.aol.com/jazzdd/IsaBM4.html and at https://mormonscripturestudies.com/bomor/dpw/2ne1216.asp. I see two main arguments in his writings on this verse, which I summarize and paraphrase below:

1. The original Hebrew text probably did not have all three elements, because a) the words for "ship" and "Tarshish" are similar (yes - a point also made by Pike and Seely), making the variants (Masoretic and Septuagint texts) attributable to scribal error rather than lost phrases from a lengthier original version, and b) the use of three terms instead of two would destroy Isaiah's poetical form that uses pairs of similar ideas (bicola) in this passage.

2. Even without access to the Septuagint or Bible commentaries, Joseph "likely" would have known about the phrase "ships of the sea" by listening to the many Bible sermons going on in his area. Other students of the Bible in the early 1800's could have known about the "ships of the sea" variant and could have mentioned that in their sermons, from which Joseph could have obtained the information he needed for his clever but fraudulent attempt to create internal evidence for the Book of Mormon.

While the similarity of the Greek "sea" for the KJV "Tarshish" weakens the pro-LDS argument, I have trouble with two parts of Wright's arguments. First, I disagree that the apperance of a tricolon here is a show-stopper. Second, I don't think it is plausible for Joseph Smith to have fabricated this verse based on what he knew. Questions remain unanswered, I admit, but the analysis will lead to something interesting, I hope, in the end.

Wright's Argument #1: Are the Added Elements in the Book of Mormon Version of Isaiah 2 Improper for Hebrew Poetry?

Now let's turn to details of Wright's arguments. Here is the most relevant portion of Wright's article on 2 Nephi 12:16 taken from "https://mormonscripturestudies.com/bomor/dpw/2ne1216.asp":
Isaiah 2:12-16 displays a neat poetic pattern in the Hebrew. Here is the Hebrew text (the Masoretic text; MT) with the KJV translation (words italicized in the KJV also have an asterisk [*] before them):

(A) ki yom l-yhwh tseva'ot For the day of the LORD of hosts *shall *be

(B) cal kol-ge'e waram upon every *one *that is proud and lofty,
  we-cal kol-nissa weshafel and upon every *one *that *is lifted up; and
          he shall be brought low:

(C) wecal kol-'arzei hallevanon and upon all the cedars of Lebanon,
  <haramim wehannissa'im> <*that *are high and lifted up,>
  wecal kol-'allonei habbashan and upon all the oaks of Bashan,

(D) wecal kol-heharim haramim and upon all the high mountains,
  wecal kol-haggevacot hannissa'ot and upon all the hills *that *are lifted up,

(E) wecal kol-migdal gavoah and upon every high tower,
  wecal kol-khoma betsura and upon every fenced wall,

(F) wecalkol-'onniyyot tarshîsh and upon all the ships of Tarshish,
  wecal kol-sekhiyyot hakhemda and upon all pleasant pictures.

Each alphabetic letter in the left-hand column designates a strophe. (A) is a monocolon which introduces the series. All of the other strophes are bicola except for (C). The middle line of this strophe is probably secondary because bicola appear elsewhere in the series and because this line does not contain the pattern w- (conjunction) + cal (preposition "upon") followed by kol- ("all/every") and then two words, found in all other cases.

Apart from the issue of the phrase "... ships of the sea" in the BoMor, it has been argued that 2 Nephi 12:12-16—which has significant variants—manifests its antiquity because of its good poetic structure. This argument does not hold. The truth is, the BoMor variants break up the neat parallelistic structure of the MT. The BoMor text may be laid out as follows (strophes unique to the BoMor are marked with the letters X, Y, and Z; variants are in boldface print and curved brackets):

(A) For the day of the Lord of hosts {soon cometh}
(X) upon {all nations}
{yea, upon} every one,
(B) {yea, upon the} proud and lofty,
and upon every one {which} is lifted up, and he shall be brought low,
(Y) {yea,} and {the day of the Lord shall come}
(C) upon all the cedars of Lebanon,
{for they} are high and lifted up,
and upon all the oaks of Bashan,
(D) and upon all the high mountains
and upon all the hills,
(Z) {and upon all the nations which} are lifted up,
{and upon every people,}
(E) and upon every high tower,
and upon every fenced wall,
(F) {and upon all the ships of the sea}
and upon all the ships of Tarshish,
and upon all {the} pleasant pictures.

The BoMor has two additional bicola, (X) and (Z), which appear to fit the requirements of Hebrew parallelism: in each the second line echoes the first. Closer inspection reveals, however, that they are really at odds with the larger pattern of this passage as seen in the MT. Bicolon (X) does not have the pattern of w + cal + kol + two terms. Its first line, to convert it schematically to Hebrew, would have only cal (no w-), kol, and one following term. The second line is even less apt, having w- (for "yea"?), cal, and only kol (for "every one"), with no word following. Bicolon (Z) similarly, while having the MT pattern in the first line, has only a single term rather than two at the end of the second.

Other variants in the passage do not match the neat MT pattern. The first line of (B) does not have the term kol "all." The BoMor's unique monocolon (Y) breaks up the flow of the passage. (D) also lacks a second term ending the second line. Of course what has happened here is that the second term of (D) has been simply pushed into (Z) and prefaced with the expansion "and upon all the nations which." And (F), the passage of interest in this paper, has the extra line "and upon all the ships of the sea." This matches the MT line formulation but makes the strophe a tricolon, inconsistent with the other strophes, which are bicola.

In sum, the BoMor text is less consistent and less structured than that in the MT. It cannot be claimed that its text "enhances the parallels found in the poetry." It does the opposite. Since the MT text reads so smoothly when compared against the BoMor, the latter must be secondary. It is thus highly improbable—contrary to what has been suggested —that scribal omissions unwittingly produced the precise and neat parallelistic structure of the MT.

Thus, Wright seems to make a strong and well-reasoned argument against the Book of Mormon. But as we shall see, there are several important things he leaves out which may change things substantially.

Part 1 of Wright's argument is based partly on his expectations of what makes "neat" poetical patterns. As he points out, the verses before Isaiah 2:16 appear to be written in couplets, or bicola, and the appearance of a tricolon (three lines or cola making up a poetical unit) seems out of place. But note that there is another tricolon already there in the Masoretic text in verse 11 which he also questions. What is it doing there? Wright argues that the central colon in Isaiah 2:11 actually is out of place and is "secondary" - meaning that it was added later by someone other than the original author. Thus, he feels that the original text in verse 16 and neighboring verses were written in pure bicola and that the tricolon of verse 16 in the Book of Mormon is out of place, as is the tricolon of verse 11 in the Masoretic text used to produce the KJV.

The reality of Hebrew poetry is that it can be very complex and may not always fit our expectations of what is "neat" and what is "secondary." Wright may be hasty in dismissing the tricolon of verse 11 and in ruling out the possibility of tricola in general occurring in a passage rich in bicola. Scholars once frequently rejected such tricola as being "secondary," but now it is widely recognized that tricola, though less common than bicola, are an important part of Hebrew poetry. See, for example, the article "Poetry" in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 13, pp. 670-691 (Jerusalem: Keter Publ. House Ltd., Israel, 1972). See other examples of tricola.

One example of a tricolon comes from Isaiah 1:8:

And the daughter of Zion is left
    as a cottage in a vineyard,
    as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers,
    as a besieged city.

This example was brought to my attention by a work of John Tvedtnes and Kevin Barney, "Word Groups in the Book of Mormon," in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. J.W. Welch and M.J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1999), p. 212, in the context of word pairs and, more generally, word groups, used in Hebrew poetry.

The tricolon of Isaiah 1:8 follows what I see as two bicola in verse 7 (though one scholar, H.W.M. van Grol, parses it as a paired tricolon, a concept discussed below when I deal with van Grol's excellent work):

Your country is desolate,
your cities are burned with fire:

your land, strangers devour it in your presence,
and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.

And more bicola follow in verses 9 and 10, after an initial monocolon:

Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant,
we should have been as Sodom,
and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.

Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom;
give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.

Isaiah apparently saw no difficulty with a tricolon or two in a passage featuring bicola. Other apparent examples of tricola in the midst of bicola can be found in Isaiah 54:12; Psalms 80:9,16; 81:7; and elsewhere (I have only scratched the surface here).

One related work, called to my attention by Kevin Barney, is that of John T. 1, "The Juxtaposition of Synonymous and Chiastic Parallelism in Tricola in Old Testament Hebrew Psalm Poetry," Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 29, 1979, pp. 465-480. Willis argues against the old notion that the appearance of a tricolon in the midst of bicola is somehow inappropriate. In doing so, he differs with earlier arguments made by S. Mowinckel in Real and Apparent Tricola in Hebrew Psalm Poetry (Oslo, 1957). According to Willis:

Mowinckel goes too far in suggesting that whole psalms or distinct sessions of psalms must be regular in scansion throughout both in "thought rhyme" and in meter. Almost invariably he refuses to allow a tricolon to stand in a poem that he scans otherwise as bicolic. His monograph is filled with what justifiably may be termed a rewriting of the Hebrew text of passages which do not fit his scheme. He removes cola, adds cola to form parallels for existing cola, rearranges and emends text, and the like, all in an effort to restore the original regular poetic pattern as he envisions it, and all resulting in the removal of "apparent" tricola in the midst of otherwise bicolic poetry. (p. 466)

Wright's approach to 2 Isaiah 2 seems similar to Mowinckel's. Willis points out that Mowinckel's emendations are often without justification, and that while Mowinckel scoffs that those who would allow the Hebrew text to stand as "lovers of irregularity" (p. 62), there are good reasons to accept such irregularity. In fact, according to Willis, "what may appear to be irregular to the modern, disciplined, sophisticated, Western mind may not have seemed irregular at all to the ancient Oriental mind." The irregularities that Mowinckel (and perhaps Wright) reject are so numerous, Willis contends, "that perhaps one should take another look at the text as it stands" to see if there might be a symmetrical beauty that has been overlooked. Willis shows indeed that deliberate and beautifully crafted tricola are an authentic part of Hebrew poetry. He summarizes:

Tricola also occur quite often in early Hebrew poetry, in other Old Testament poetic books, and in the prophets. Of course, this is not to suggest that tricolic arrangements rival bicolic patterns numerically in the Old Testament. But it is to emphasize that tricola are used frequently enough to be taken seriously.... [B]icolic and tricolic schemes seem to have stood side by side throughout the history of Old Testament poetry. (pp. 478-479)

But even Mowinckel allowed for some flexibility, according to Willis (p. 467):

There may be good reasons for the incorporation of tricolic verses in the midst of non-tricolic poetry, as Mowinckel himself sometimes admits, especially in the analysis of Ps. lxviii 28 (pp. 94-5, 100).

Given the reality of tricola as a Hebrew poetical device, one that can occur in the midst of bicola, there is room for accepting both verse 11 and verse 16 of 2 Nephi 12 as legitimate tricola, though they both conflict with Wright's views on what is required for "neat" parallelism or grammatical structure. His argument may have some merit, but I think he is wrong. Generally speaking, many scholars recognize that it is improper to expect Hebrew poetry to follow neat, regular forms.

For example, Hebraic parallelism does not necessarily require that both cola in a bicola follow the same grammatical patterns, as Wright seems to require. As Adele Berlin explains ("Introduction to Hebrew Poetry," The New Interpreter's Bible, ed. L.E. Keck, vol. IV, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, pp. 301-315):

Parallelism may pair lines of different grammatical mood, as in Ps. 6:6 (Eng. 6:5) where a negative indicative clause parallels an interrogative one.

For in death there is no mention of you,
In Sheol, who can acclaim you? (p. 306)
On a related note, Berlin notes the complexity of Hebrew poetry and warns that we should not expect it to rigorously follow simple patterns of verse. Berlin explains that she and some other scholars "feel that the quest for a formal system of versification should be abandoned because it does not exist. It is preferable, therefore, to speak of 'poetry' rather than 'verse'" (p. 302). This does not mean that we should expect sudden departures from a series of couplets, but it appears that some open-mindedness is required about what we expect from authentic Hebrew poetry.

A valuable study of several forms of tricola is provided by H.W.M. van Grol in "Paired Tricola in the Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 25, 1983, pp. 53-73. In this article, van Grol takes for granted the well known existence of tricola in Hebrew poetry, focussing rather on a sophisticated form of tricolon that appears to be a bicolon plus tricolon or visa versa, but that actually proves to be two tricola interwoven into what he terms as paired tricola. In this structure, the last colon of the first tricolon is also the first colon of the last tricolon. He has identified three general classes of these paired tricola, and discusses multiple examples from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Psalms, with a total of 52 examples having been identified in his study so far, which he calls "an interim survey." He mentions that some paired tricola form strophes (complete units in the text) by themselves, while "in many cases the strophe consists of a bicolon plus paired tricolon" (p.66), though he also has identified examples with two bicola following the paired tricolon to form a strophe, as well as an example of a bicolon before and after a paired bicolon to form a single strophe. The added words in these paired tricola - words which seem out of place if one expects only bicola - often add to the meaning and poetical power of the strophe, with the use of similar sounds being one of several elements the added colon may contribute. Parallelism in Hebrew poetry commonly exploits similarity in sounds between words, particularly consonance, the grouping of words with similar consonants (Berlin, p. 307). Wright's arguments about the relationship between the words for "sea" and "Tarshish" may actually provide a reason for the inclusion of both in a legitimate tricolon. The three phrases of the Book of Mormon tricolon are all related and appear to make a "neat" tricolon with a common theme and some common sounds.

More Evidence for Hastiness in Wright's Rejection of 2 Nephi 12

Wright protests that the two added bicola in the Book of Mormon version of Isaiah are evidence of Joseph Smith's ignorance of Hebrew and of the modern fabricated nature of his revisions. He admits that these additions are bicola, though he says Joseph must have intuitively picked up this form of parallelism from his study of the Bible - something that serious scholars have become recognized for doing (aren't many brilliant discoveries "obvious" once we understand them?). In verse 14 of 2 Nephi 12, the added phrase involves a bicolon that links "people" and "nations": "and upon all nations which are lifted up, and upon every people." Of this bicolon, Wright says it does not fit the pattern seen in the Masoretic text, for while the first colon has two terms at the end (nations, lifted up), the second colon only has one (people), which is inconsistent with the pattern of nearby verses. Wright sees this as a fatal flaw betraying a clumsy fraud by Joseph Smith. If Wright were more generously disposed toward Joseph Smith, he might note that the Book of Mormon only provides an English translation, from which it is difficult to determine how many terms were present in the Hebrew used by Nephi. But more importantly, the strength of Wright's argument is weakened considerably when one realizes that a bicolon linking the terms "people" and "nations" is a classic device in Hebrew poetry, a subtle sign of authenticity that Joseph Smith, with his ignorance of Biblical Hebrew, would not likely have come up with through mere intuition. It is surprising that Wright does not discuss this point. Insight into this issue is found in a passage by the renowned scholar, Adele Berlin (an author also cited by Wright), as she again explains that we should not always expect equivalent syntax or grammatical parallelism in Hebrew poetry (op.cit., pp. 306-307):
While this lexical aspect of parallelism generally accompanies the grammatical aspect (the pairing of lines with equivalent syntax), it may occur in the absence of grammatical parallelism.... An example is Ps. 111:6:

The power of his deed he told to his people,
In giving to them the inheritance of nations.

The grammatical relationship of the lines is not paradigmatically equivalent. Moreover, people and nations do not refer to the same entity in this verse (people refers to Israel, and nations refers to non-Israelite nations). But the pair people/nation is a known association that occurs frequently, usually referring to the same entity. The manner in which the pair is used is somewhat novel, but the use of a common pair helps to draw the two lines together, making them appear more parallel.

Notice that "the pair people/nation is a known association" in Hebrew poetry, but it's hard to see how Joseph would have known that. Indeed, we now know that there are many word pairs that frequently go together in Hebrew poetry, and many of these are used in true Hebraic style in the Book of Mormon. For fascinating details, see Kevin L. Barney, "Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1995. How did Joseph fabricate such a feat? Intuition only goes so far.

Wright should have recognized that the use of a bicolon linking "people" and "nations" represents much more than a clumsy, intuitive attempt at parallelism, but employs terms that demand attention as genuine parallelism even when the grammar or other aspects of the bicola may be unconventional. Wright overlooks much in arguing that the grammar or number of terms in the English translation does not fit Wright's expected neat pattern, when a genuine bicolon is present using a widely recognized word pair from Hebrew poetry. I suggest that Wright is expecting too much of an English translation and is straining at gnats.

By the way, if the complex poetical device of paired tricola has just recently been recognized as an authentic element of Hebrew poetry, how would Book of Mormon critics react if several examples of clear, beautiful, and seemingly deliberate paired tricola occur in poetical passages of the Book of Mormon? Would the old "intuition" argument be used to explain away what scholars only recently have grasped? See my discussion of paired tricola in the Book of Mormon below (the Appendix at the end of this page).

Wright's Argument #2: Where Did Joseph Get the Tricolon of 2 Nephi 12:16?

As for the second part of Wright's argument, an attempt to explain how Joseph might have added the phrase from the Septuagint in spite of apparently not having access to the Septuagint, Wright is truly grasping at straws. Here is an excerpt of his argument:
So how does BoMor Isaiah come to have a phrase that is so similar to the interpretive reading in the Septuagint and Targum? It turns out that interpreting the phrase "ships of Tarshish" as "ships of the sea" was well-known in British and American Bible interpretation in the decades preceding the publication of the Book of Mormon.
He then cites several sources published in the British Isles, as well as a U.S. publication:
The many pre-1829 editions of Thomas Scott's The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments (Philadelphia: 1810-12; New York: 1812-15; Boston: 1823-24, 1827) also cite Lowth's comment:
"Ships of Tarshish signify in scripture, any trading or merchant ships: accordingly here the Septuagint render the words 'ships of the sea,' as our old English translation does: Ps. xlviii. 7." (Lowth.)
The appearance of this datum in so many printed sources indicates that it was not obscure, but relatively well-known. Joseph Smith could have learned about it from any one of these commentaries, or, as is far more likely, from sermons he heard or conversations he had on biblical subjects with those who might have known this particular Bible "fact." Smith may have come by this bit of information specifically via Methodist influence, since John Wesley's teachings provided the matrix for Methodism - a religion for which Smith had felt a passing affinity.
Again, there is no evidence that Joseph had access to the Wright's short list of Bible commentaries or the Septuagint prior to translating the Book of Mormon. That rural farmboy had access to very little in the way of books. Remember, this is the same Joseph of whom the anti-Mormons also claim was so IGNORANT of the Bible that he didn't know that Bethlehem was where Christ was born (referring to the alleged error in Alma 7:10). But in dealing with Isaiah 2, must they now appeal to minute details buried in a few Bible commentaries to explain how this farmboy impressively and plausibly fabricated 2 Nephi 12:16? All that work for just one verse that no one would call attention for over a hundred years after Joseph died? (By the way, in the case of the Bethlehem issue and Alma 7:10, Joseph actually scores a bulls eye for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but not because of any sophisticated understanding of Bible commentaries - Joseph was an unlearned, poorly schooled young man who did not have access to many books.)

Joseph's mother testified of his lack of familiarity with books at the time, and his wife's testimony reveals that he was unfamiliar with the Bible during the translation of the Book of Mormon (e.g., he was surprised to read that Jerusalem had walls). Those who served as scribes and were close to him never indicated that there was any consulting of the Bible or any other reference, just a steady outpouring of inspired diction at a breathtaking pace (65 days of work for the 500-plus page book - a stunning achievement even for a skilled, professional translator). Can we imagine hours of scholarly work to come up with one Isaiah variant in such a setting?

Even if Joseph did use the commentaries Wright refers to, Joseph would have simply replaced "Tarshish" with "ships of the sea," not added the phrase. Nothing in the commentaries suggests the plausible tricolon of verse 16. A poetical unit begins and ends with tricola (verses 11 and 16), with three bicola in the middle. That's plenty "neat" for Hebrew poetry, now that scholars recognize the legitimate role of tricola, even in passages otherwise dominated by bicola.

It is technically possible that some minister in New England might have been schooled enough to understand the Septuagint and perhaps even to have noticed that Isaiah 2:16 differed from the KJV, or that they paid attention to the minute details of certain commentaries. But would they have found this of such doctrinal importance to discuss it in a sermon to farm folks? I have conducted multiple searches of the Internet, with its thousands of sermons and scholarly discussions of Biblical issues, unsuccessfully seeking for articles and sermons discussing the contrast between the Septuagint and the KJV (or Masoretic text) for Is. 2:16. The relevant hits on that topic are generally restricted to discussions of the Book of Mormon. I have found non-LDS sermons that cite Isaiah 2 for various reasons, but none that disclose the alternate versions of verse 16. I've certainly never heard or read a non-LDS sermon that I can remember that gave any attention to Isaiah 2:16, and I don't recall LDS sermons digging into that verse, either. Now if modern ministers do not inform their audiences of the divergent texts for Isaiah 2, how can we expect the same of ministers in the 1820s speaking to poorly educated farmers? Why would anybody care? Whether or not Mr. Wright likes the poetry of Isaiah 2 with a tricolon in verse 16, no one can deny that the Book of Mormon tricolon includes all three phrases common to two ancient Bible texts, the Masoretic text (used for the KJV) and the Septuagint. Joseph never called attention to it or used it as evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. It is simply there as a minor but interesting subtlety, discovered long after Joseph's time, that cannot be explained by Joseph's alleged copying of the KJV and that cannot readily be explained based on what Joseph Smith probably knew about the Bible. And if it was a deliberate attempt to add an impressing piece of internal evidence for the Book of Mormon, why did Joseph fail to capitalize on this achievement? Why never mention it or cite it as evidence during his lifetime?

Frankly, I'm not convinced that access to the Septuagint or Targum, either directly or indirectly through the sermons of others, would have resulted in the plausible tricolon we have in Isaiah 2:16. Wright has already argued that Joseph's alleged familiarity with the Bible guided him in adding bicola to Isaiah 2, as if he had picked up the idea that Bible poetry was in couplets without formal schooling on the matter. Why, then would Joseph use a tricolon for verse 16? Why not simply use the bicolon in the Septuagint, or combine the Septuagint with the KJV to make a couplet like "and upon all the ships of the sea and all pleasant pictures"?

Update from 2003: Huggins' Article in Dialogue

Ronald Huggins has published an article in Dialogue ("'Without a Cause' and 'Ships of Tarshish': A Possible Contemporary Source for Two Unexplained Readings from Joseph Smith," Dialogue, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 157-179) which essentially repeats Wright's argument against the presence of a tricolon in the midst of bicola, and then points to possible sources where Joseph might have been able to learn about the differences between the King James Version and the Septuagint for Isaiah 2:16. While several sources have commentaries suggesting that "the ships of the sea" should replace "ships of Tarshish," if Joseph had been guided by such commentaries, what would have guided him to form a tricolon with phrases from the Septuagint and the King James Version instead of simply following the recommendation to replace a phrase with the "improved" reading?

Huggins recognizes that Joseph was not a Bible scholar. For example, his own wife, Emma, noted that Joseph was surprised to read that Jerusalem had walls as he translated the Book of Mormon. But Huggins suggests that Emma's Methodist family might have had books which Emma or Joseph could have used to provide the reading in Isaiah 2:16. Though there is no proof for this, he suggests that they might have had the "shelf-sagging six-volume set of commentaries on the Bible by [John] Wesley's trusted lieutenant, Adam Clarke" (p. 172). An uncle of Emma allegedly told an anonymous anti-Mormon author in 1840 that he had challenged Joseph to use the Urim and Thummim to translate some of the foreign languages cited in Clarke's pedantic text, and that Joseph refused to try. Based on this rumor from a hostile, anonymous source, Huggins infers that Joseph must have known of Clarke's commentary when he was translating the Book of Mormon and that the text must have been nearby. That's quite a stretch! But let's suppose that Joseph was a Bible scholar who, contrary to all observations of witnesses, used Bible commentaries to help in developing the Book of Mormon, and let's also suppose that Clarke's "shelf-sagging" volumes were available. What would he have gleaned from his study? According to Huggins (p. 173):

What, then, did Clarke's commentary have to say about the two passages under discussion? The response to the Isaiah 2:16 passage began: "[Ships of Tarshish] Are in Scripture often used by a metonymy for ships in general."
Huggins then fairly acknowledges that "the word metonymy might have been a difficult one" for Joseph (might have been??), but helpfully points out that "metonymy" is defined in Webster's 1828 dictionary, where Joseph could have simply looked it up to learn that it is a way of replacing one word with another related word. And so, Clarke's imposing commentaries might have been used to tell Joseph that "Ships of Tarshish" might actually refer to ships in general.

Yes, that's it. Clarke does not suggest that the original text might have been a tricolon and he does not discuss the Septuagint's variation (if so, Huggins missed a valuable point in his favor). All Joseph would have gotten from his intense study of an imposing, pedantic, massive set of commentary would be a suggestion that "Ships of Tarshish" might simply mean "ships in general" - IF Joseph happened to know what "metonymy" meant (do you?) or had bothered to look it up (but why bother? where's the motivation to change Isaiah 2 at all?).

But apart from a rumor in an anonymous and hostile 1840 source, Huggins does not even establish that Joseph could have used Clarke's commentaries. There is no evidence that they were on the shelves of Emma's family when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon. Look at Huggins' footnote which gives the reference for Clarke's discussion of Isaiah 2:16:

Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible (New York: J. Emory and B. Waugh, 1827-1831, 3:684. The introduction to Isaiah in this edition is dated 24 Sept. 1823. Late in 1831 a new edition was issued "with the author's final corrections." In that edition, the passage quoted here appears at 4:31 and is identical.
Huggins notes an 1823 date in the introduction of a volume, but this is not the date of printing. Since the printing dates for the six-volume set appear to span 1827 through 1831, we must ask when volume 3 (later volume 4) with Isaiah 2 was printed and distributed. Was it late 1829? Huggins does not provide this useful information. At the moment, I cannot tell if it was even physically possible for Joseph Smith to have had access to the pertinent volume of Clarke's edition when the Book of Mormon was being translated. He certainly didn't have time to study it in any degree of detail even if had owned it. But even if we accept Huggins' speculations, how could Clarke's comment about "ships in general" possibly account for the tricolon we find in the Book of Mormon?

Huggins work is interesting, but sorely lacking as an explanation for the actual Book of Mormon text. Wright's speculations are somewhat more plausible, though also lacking.


The Book of Mormon offers interesting variants in Isaiah 2 which include apparently legitimate poetical structures, including a tricolon with elements attested in the combination of two ancient sources, and a bicolon with an authentic word pair from Hebrew poetry. Wright's objections to awkward structures or other problems may be due to fact that it's an English translation that we have in the Book of Mormon, not a Hebrew original. While many Hebraisms have been preserved, I doubt that we can expect the length of a sentence or number of terms in a sentence in English to correspond to the number of Hebrew terms. And without the Hebrew original, some phrases and structure may seem awkward in English that were more graceful in Hebrew. In any case, though, there is no fundamental reason to reject 2 Nephi 12, and some impressive reasons to accept it as a text based on an authentic ancient Hebrew version of Isaiah 2.

The whole issue is a minor one in LDS circles, and the authenticity of 2 Nephi 12:16 is one of the least of the evidences for the Book of Mormon, if it is evidence at all. It's a minor issue, frankly, and hardly the only remarkable "parade proof" for the authenticity of the Isaiah variants or for the Book of Mormon itself that some of us amateur apologists have occasionally made it out to be. But it is an issue worth thinking about, especially in terms of what it leads to: consideration of the presence of tricola, especially paired tricola, as an authentic ancient Semitic poetical form.

Part 2: Paired Tricola in the Book of Mormon

In researching 2 Nephi 12:16 to deal with David Wright's arguments against the Book of Mormon, my search for information on tricola led me to the recently discovered concept of "paired tricola" as an authentic form of Hebrew poetry. A key reference is H.W.M. van Grol, "Paired Tricola in the Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 25, 1983, pp. 53-73. Paired tricola, at first glance, may look like a bicolon adjacent to a tricolon, but those five lines actually have two interwoven tricola wherein the last colon of the first tricolon is also the first colon of the last tricolon. A paired tricolon often appears with other bicola before or after. The added words in these paired tricola - words which seem out of place if one expects only bicola - often add to the meaning and power of the poetry.

After learning of paired tricola, I turned to two poetical sections in Nephi's writings - the author most familiar with the poetry of the Jews. I looked at 2 Nephi 4, often called the "Psalm of Nephi," and 1 Nephi 17, which contains a lot of obvious poetical couplets, many with recognized word pairs known to be significant in Hebrew poetry. With only minor effort, I think I have identified a few passages that may be paired tricola. These passages include 1 Nephi 17:45, 17:45+46, possibly 2 Nephi 4:15+16, 2 Nephi 4:17+18, 2 Nephi 4:30, 2 Nephi 4:34 (update from Sept. 2003), 2 Nephi 4:35, 1 Nephi 15:15+16 (update from Aug. 2002), 1 Nephi 22:15-17 (update from Sept. 2002), and 2 Nephi 30:16-18.

Let's begin with 1 Nephi 22. This is a poetical chapter that ends Nephi's first book. It has several elements in parallel with chapter one, such as references to destruction of the wicked, the deliverance of the righteous, fire, prophets, Nephi's father, plates and sacred records, and the Messiah. The chapter appears to be highly poetical. For example, verses 1 to 3 contain an effective chiasmus (A. things read, things spiritual; B. flesh; C. manifest, prophet; D. Spirit; D'. Spirit; C'. made known, prophets; B'. flesh; A'. read things, things spiritual), and other poetical tools are used in this chapter. In the passage from verse 13 to 19, modern readers might object to the apparent wordiness. While the style of writing is very foreign to modern English, it is highly effective in terms of ancient Hebrew poetry, driving home several points with elegance and power. One of the tools used for this purpose is a paired tricolon. Let's look at verses 14 to 17 of 1 Nephi 22:

14 . . . And all that fight against Zion shall be destroyed, and that great whore, who hath perverted the right ways of the Lord, yea, that great and abominable church, shall tumble to the dust and great shall be the fall of it.
15 For behold, saith the prophet, the time cometh speedily that Satan shall have no more power over the hearts of the children of men; for the day soon cometh that all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble; and the day cometh that they must be burned.
16 For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.
17 Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire.
I believe a paired tricolon exists in the last half of verse 15 through verse 17. I propose this structure:
A1: (15,16) day cometh ... wicked ....as stubble, day cometh they must be burned
A2: (16) time cometh - fullness of the wrath of God upon men - not suffer wicked to destroy the righteous

B: (17) He will preserve the righteous - even if fullness of his wrath must come

C1: (17) the righteous be preserved - even unto destruction of enemies by fire
C2: (17) the righteous need not fear - saved, even as by fire

I could initially present this a tricolon and bicolon together, but for this example will show it as two bicola with a double-duty colon (B) in the middle. A1 and A2 share many common elements in parallel as a complex bicolon, and so do C1 and C2. The first bicolon (A) has elements of "time"/"day," "come," and two references each to destruction (wicked burned/receiving wrath of God or wicked not destroying righteous). The second bicolon (C) has "righteous," "preserved"/"saved"/"need not fear," "even," and "fire." The middle colon, B, has "preserved," "righteous," and "fullness of . . . wrath" in parallel to fire upon the wicked to join it nicely with bicolon C, and has "come" and "fullness of his wrath" to join it with bicolon A (plus the reference to the righteous links B to A2). The deliberate link between B and A2 is especially evident when one notices that their elements form a chiasmus, with A2 being the first half and B the second half: (i) cometh; (ii) fullness of wrath; (iii) not suffer wicked to destroy the righteous; (iii') preserve the righteous; (ii') fullness of wrath; (i') come.

Colon B does double duty, forming a tricolon out of the preceding or following bicolon, thus making this passage an apparent paired tricolon.

Interestingly, this paired tricolon is apparently also blended into a larger chiasmus beginning with the last part of verse 14 (that's why verse 14 was included in the citation above). Here is the chiastic structure that I see:

(a) All who fight against Zion shall be destroyed, tumble to the dust;
(b) The time cometh speedily - Satan - children of men;
(c) The day cometh - the wicked shall be as stubble;
(c') The day cometh - they (the wicked) must be burned;
(b') The time soon cometh - God [in contrast to Satan] - children of men
(a') The righteous are preserved by the destruction of their enemies by fire

In both the tricolon and the chiasmus, the closeness of the parallels would seem to imply deliberate crafting. There are multiple parallel elements in the related elements, such as time + soon/speedily + cometh + God/Satan + children of men in elements b and b' of the chiasmus, and multiple elements joining colon B to the preceding or following bicola to form a pair of interwoven tricola. And remarkably, Nephi has managed to weave a paired tricolon and a chiasmus together. The paired tricolon, which begins with the focal point of the chiasmus, emphasizes the preservation of the righteous, while the chiasmus emphasizes the destruction of the wicked.

The structure above is my most recent discovery, and I find it impressive.

Now let's turn to the other passages that I think may contain paired tricola. The table below contains the other passages that interest me, along with nearby verses that are loaded with Hebrew poetical forms such as bicola, word pairs (heart/soul; destroy/led; day/night; and others), tricola, chiasmus, and so forth:

1 Nephi 17:
43 And now, after all these things, the time has come that they have become wicked, yea, nearly unto ripeness; and I know not but they are at this day about to be destroyed; for I know that the day must surely come that they must be destroyed, save a few only, who shall be led away into captivity.

44 Wherefore, the Lord commanded my father that he should depart into the wilderness; and the Jews also sought to take away his life; yea, and ye also have sought to take away his life; wherefore, ye are murderers in your hearts and ye are like unto them.

45 Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder.

46 And ye also know that by the power of his almighty word he can cause the earth that it shall pass away; yea, and ye know that by his word he can cause the rough places to be made smooth, and smooth places shall be broken up. O, then, why is it, that ye can be so hard in your hearts?

47 Behold, my soul is rent with anguish because of you, and my heart is pained; I fear lest ye shall be cast off forever. Behold, I am full of the Spirit of God, insomuch that my frame has no strength.

2 Nephi 4:
15 And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

16 Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.

17 Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.

18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.

19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

20 My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.

21 He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh.

22 He hath confounded mine enemies, unto the causing of them to quake before me.

23 Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime.

24 And by day have I waxed bold in mighty prayer before him; yea, my voice have I sent up on high; and angels came down and ministered unto me. 25 And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man; therefore I was bidden that I should not write them.

26 O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?

27 And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?

28 Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.

29 Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.

30 Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

31 O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?

32 May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road!

33 O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way - but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.

34 O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.

35 Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen.

1 Nephi 15:

14 And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord; and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him; wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.

15 And then at that day will they not rejoice and give praise unto their everlasting God, their rock and their salvation? Yea, at that day, will they not receive the strength and nourishment from the true vine? Yea, will they not come unto the true fold of God?

16 Behold, I say unto you, Yea; they shall be remembered again among the house of Israel; they shall be grafted in, being a natural branch of the olive-tree, into the true olive-tree.

Let's look at some of the structure. In 2 Nephi 4:17+18, for example, I see this structure:

A1) heart - exclaimeth - wretched man
A2) heart -sorroweth - flesh
A3) soul- grieveth - iniquities
B1) I - encompassed - temptations
B2) me (I) - beset - sins
Section A (cola A1, A2, and A3) is clearly a tricolon appearing after a series of bicola and followed by more bicola. But the last colon of section A fits with the following bicolon (cola B1 and B2), and the last term of section A introduces "iniquities" in parallel with temptations and sins in the following colon. That colon also marks a progression from heart to soul, turning from the flesh (heart, man, flesh) to the pained soul that grieves and struggles with sin and temptation. In section B (the bicolon), it is the soul of Nephi that struggles with sin and temptations, a natural result of the flesh. This is nice parallelism, apparently in the form of a paired tricolon. And it employs the classic Hebrew word pair, heart + soul.

In 1 Nephi 17:45+46, I see this:

A1) spoke to you in a voice of thunder
A2) caused earth to shake as it would divide
A3) God's word can cause earth to pass away
B1) his word can make rough places smooth
B2) and smooth places shall be broken up.
Again colon A3 fits with both the preceding and following pairs of lines. Section A (cola A1, A2, and A1) deals with the power of the word(s) of an angel or of God in causing thundering, shaking of the earth, and passing away of the earth. Then in section B (cola B1 and B2) the power of God's word is related to making rough places smooth or smooth places rough. Lines A3, B1, and B2 could make a unified tricolon, as could lines A1, A2, and A3, with line A3 doing double duty.

Earlier in 1 Nephi 17:45, I see this structure:

A1) you are swift to do iniquity
A2)but slow to remember God
B) you have seen an angel
C1) he spake, you heard his voice
C2) he spoke to you in a still small voice

D1) but you were past feeling,
D2)you could not feel his words
E1) wherefore, he spoke to you with a voice of thunder
E2)that caused the earth to shake as if it would divide

Colon B introduces a specific example of what Laman and Lemuel were slow to remember, with seeing an angel being naturally linked to God in colon A2 but also the basis for the following bicola in C1 and C2. Again, this "out-of-place" colon b appears surrounded by bicola, and serves to link two of them together by doing double duty.

The passage goes on to contrast the voice of thunder with the still small voice. And the state of Laman and Lemuel (swift to do iniquity/unable to feel - the leading cola of the bicola A and D) is linked with the actions of the angel (spoke in a still small voice, spoke in a thunderous voice) in a way that recalls Elijah's "still small voice" experience, linking all the bicola in this passage, with the pivotal colon being colon B, the experience of seeing an angel.

Interestingly, what follows at the end of vs. 46 and in verse 47 are two groups of three lines each in beautiful parallelism:

A1) Why is your heart so hard?
A2) My soul is rent
A3) My heart is pained

B1) I fear lest you will be cast off forever
B2) I am full of the spirit of God
B3) My frame has no strength.

The leading cola of both sections express concern over the state of Laman and Lemuel, with the following two cola of each section giving Nephi's state in parallel form. Using a classic word pair, Nephi describes the state of his heart and soul, contrasting it to the heart of Laman and Lemuel in section A. In section B, after expressing fear for the eternal spiritual state of Laman and Lemuel, Nephi in contrast exclaims that he is full of the Spirit of God to the point that his body has no strength, thus bringing in the effect on the flesh. Spirit and flesh are combined in section B, as are heart and soul in section A. Two beautiful and highly parallel tricola are employed.

In fact, for 1 Nephi 17:45 to 47, we could offer this overall structure:

1. Paired tricolon dealing with the unfeeling state of Laman and Lemuel, centered about seeing an angel. (v. 45)
2. A bicolon again explaining that they were past feeling and could not feel the angels words. (v. 45)
3. A paired tricolon showing the awesome power of the word of the angel and of God which can literally shake the earth (v. 45 v. 46).
4. A pair of parallel tricola contrasting Laman and Lemuel's state to Nephi's state (v. 46 + v. 47).
1 Nephi 17 contains many clearly parallel bicola, with other authentic poetical structures such as tricola and paired tricola. It is complex but beautiful, with many hallmarks of authentic Hebrew poetry. Now was this written with nothing more than farmboy intuition? Or did an ancient Hebrew writer, skilled in poetry, craft these passages?

Turning again to 2 Nephi 4, there may be a more complex paired tricolon in verses 30 + 31:

A1) Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord,
     A1') and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever;
A2) yea, my soul will rejoice in thee,
     A2') my God, and the rock of my salvation.
B1) O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul?
B2) Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies?
B3) Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?
Section A provides strong parallelism dealing with the word pairs heart/soul and God/Lord, not to mention the related words in A1 and A1', namely rejoice/praise and cry/say. Section A may better be described as two bicola rather than two lengthy cola, but in either case presents pairs of parallel elements. Nephi's soul will rejoice in the rock of salvation in the last half of section A, which leads to colon B1 in the following tricolon of three questions to God: "O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul?" Redeem in colon B1 is linked to salvation in A2+A2'. Further comparison of B1 with A2+A2' shows Lord is linked to God, soul is used in both lines, and they are both in a future sense, using "will" or "wilt." Thus, A2+A2' is linked to the following tricolon. And the beginning of section A echoes the beginning of section B, with "O my heart" linked to "O Lord," and heart/soul again being paired.

Shortly after these lines, in 2 Nephi 4:34, another complex parallel structure is found:

A1) O Lord, I have trusted in thee,
A2) and I will trust in thee forever.
B1) I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh;
B2) for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh.
B3) Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.
The bicolon in A1-A2 deals with trusting in God. This is contrasted to the tricolon in B1-B3 that warns against trusting in the arm of flesh. The tricolon is clearly meant to be a parallel unit, each dealing with putting of trust (the word "put" was not used in the bicolon) and with the arm of flesh. However, the structure of colon B1 fits with A2 well enough ( "I will -- trust/not trust --thee/arm of flesh") that B1 can also be grouped with the bicolon in A1-A2 to also form a tricolon; therefore, colon B1 does double duty. Verse 34 appears to be another example of a paired tricolon.

Further, in 2 Nephi 4:35, another possible paired tricolon occurs:

A1) Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh.
A2) Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss;
A3) therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee;
B1) yea, I will cry unto thee,
     b1') my God, the rock of my righteousness.
B2) Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee,
     b2') my rock and mine everlasting God.
In an inverted form relative to the previous example, this concluding passage of 2 Nephi 4 begins rather than ends with a tricolon, followed by a bicolon (or pair of bicola) reflecting the bicolon of the previous example, and using the phrase "my God, the rock of my righteousness" from the bicolon of the previous example. The tricolon here, dealing with praying to God and being heard, stands as if in answer to the tricolon of the previous example, affirming that God answers those who cry unto him, in response to the previous three pleadings. The central colon of this example, colon A3, fits almost equally well with the preceding or following lines, making it an excellent double-duty colon in a complex form of a paired tricolon matching the previous paired tricolon of verse 30 and 31.

Two paired tricola in a row! And they fit in a chiastic pattern: we begin with a bicolon about trusting in God, and end with a bicolon about crying to God. The two central tricola both make a statement using the verb "to know" and directly or indirectly describe the trustworthiness of God.

In fact, looking at verses 30 to 35, there is a mass of complex parallelism, largely bicola (but note the beauty and richness of the parallelism in verse 32), beginning and ending with paired tricola having similar complex structures, echoing each other in something of a mirror image. I find it surprisingly beautiful and clever, and consistent with other outstanding examples of Hebrew poetry. I feel both 1 Nephi 17 and 2 Nephi 4 deserve more careful attention from scholars, whether LDS or not, to better appreciate what Nephi has written.

Another tentative example of a paired tricolon following normal bicola is found in 2 Nephi 30, which quotes many verses of bicola from Isaiah 11. Let's look at verses 16 to 18, which contain Nephi's own words:

16 Wherefore, the things of all nations shall be made known; yea, all things shall be made known unto the children of men.

17 There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light; and there is nothing which is sealed upon the earth save it shall be loosed.

18 Wherefore, all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall at that day be revealed; and Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more, for a long time....

I parse key aspects of these verses in this way:
A1) Things of all nations - made known
A2) All things - made known to children of men

B1) No thing - secret - save it be revealed
B2) No work - darkness - save it be manifest in the light
B3) No thing - sealed - save it be loosed

C1) All things - revealed to the children of men - revealed that day
C2) Satan - no more power over the children of men - long time.

Section A has a nice bicolon of cola A1 and A2, with "things" and "making known" being in parallel. This is followed by a tricolon in section B, each with three elements: (1) thing/work, (2) secret/darkness/sealed, and (3) save it be revealed/manifest/loosed. But the first colon of Section B also fits with the bicolon of section A, doing double duty. For "things" of section A, colon B1 offers "no thing" (nothing), and the "made known" element is found in "revealed." Thus, I suggest that verses 16 and 17 (cola A1 to B3) form a paired tricolon.

Following the paired tricolon is the longer colon C1 (perhaps a bicolon) that reflects elements from colon A2 again ("all things", "made known/revealed" and "children of men"). Colon C2 has some parallel elements with C1: "children of men" and "long time/day." I wonder if in the original Hebrew there would be a relationship between "power" and "revealed," which would make the parallelism stronger in the bicolon of section C. That may be overreaching. However, I understand that a Hebrew word for power can refer to the open hand, which perhaps may relate to the concepts of revealing, uncovering, or opening. According to Strong's Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible, the word "yawd" (No. 3027) is translated as "power" in the KJV for Deut. 32:36; Josh. 8:20, 2 Kings 19:26, and elsewhere, with the following explanation:

Definition: a prim. word; a hand (the open one [indicating power, means, direction, etc.], in distinction from 3709, the closed one); used (as noun, adv., etc.) in a great variety of applications, both lit. and fig., both proximate and remote....
But I'm probably wrong in so speculating. Regardless of how strong the parallelism is in section C, sections A and B do appear to make a paired tricolon in a manner consistent with my (limited!) understanding of Hebrew poetry.

A Paired Tricolon in 1 Nephi 15?

1 Nephi 15:15+16 may contain a paired tricolon. Verse 14 has a tricolon structure, followed by what may be a paired tricolon in verse 15. Here is how one could parse the verses:

A1) And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord;
A2) and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer . . .
A3) they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine,
A4) that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.

B1). . . will they not rejoice and give praise unto . . . God, their rock and their salvation?
B2) . . . will they not receive the strength and nourishment from the true vine?
B3) Yea, will they not come unto the true fold of God?

C1) . . . they shall be remembered again among the house of Israel;
C2) they shall be grafted . . . into the true olive-tree.

Section A has four parallel cola (arguably two bicola), repeating the structure "our seed/they" + "shall know/shall come to the knowledge of/may know" + two elements pertaining to God and His covenants. Section B then follows with a tricolon in which each cola begins with "will they not" + a reference to God, progressing from praising God, to receiving strength from God, to be brought into the true fold of God. This progression flows naturally into the bicolon of section C, repeating the structure "they shall be" + a reference to restoration to the House of Israel/true olive tree (synonyms for "the true fold of God"), nicely completing the thoughts of section A and still beginning with "they shall" as in section A.

While section B is a clear tricolon, its last line, B3, could be grouped with lines C1 and C2 to form another tricolon, since "will they" in C1 is parallel to "they shall" in section C, and since "come unto the true fold of God" in B3 is parallel to the references to restoration in the House of Israel and the true olive tree of section C. Thus, line B3 does double duty, joining the preceding bicola of lines B1 and B2 with the following bicola of lines C1 and C2 in a way that makes tricola of both - a paired tricolon.

Interestingly, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon has "numbered" instead of "remembered" (see The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, ed. by Royal Skousen, Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001, p. 128). I don't know why there is this difference, but the use of "numbered" appears to be just as good or better than "remembered" in terms of fitting the poetical structure.

Stay tuned for more on this topic, and be sure to look at the excellent works of John Tvedtnes, Kevin Barney, Hugh Nibley, William Hamblin, John Welch and others on the Hebraic elements in the Book of Mormon.

Final Note:
I recently purchased the masterpiece edited by Royal Skousen, The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001) in order to verify that the paired tricola structures I have found were present in the original manuscript, and not somehow created accidentally by later exiting (most of which was to correct typographical errors and awkward grammar, sometimes very Hebraic in nature). The original manuscript was intact for all but two passages having apparent paired tricola (the two missing passages are from 2 Nephi 4 and 2 Nephi 30), and showed that the paired tricola structures were then in the text as dictated by Joseph Smith to a scribe. The only difference between the passages I checked and the modern Book of Mormon was the of "remembered" instead of the original "numbered" in 1 Nephi 15:16, and in this case either word fits the poetical structure.

Other Resources and Links


General questions about alleged problems in the Book of Mormon

My Book of Mormon Evidences Page

The Psalm of Nephi and Biblical Poetry by Steven Barton. Discusses Hebraisms and poetry in 2 Nephi 4, the Psalm of Nephi.

Intro to the Book of Mormon

The Interpreter Foundation - the current leading source of LDS apologetics and scholarly treatments of LDS scriptures.

Introduction to the LDS Church

Book of Mormon Central - numerous insights into the Book of Mormon. Free Online Books at the Maxwell Institute - many gems for a lifetime of reading

My LDS Links

Barry Bickmore's Early Christianity and Mormonism is one of my favorites. What a great way to understand the Restoration and the Apostasy!

Russell Anderson's Response Page - responds to many attacks of anti-Mormon critics.

SHIELDS - dealing with LDS historical and intellectual issues, including good answers to some common anti-Mormon questions.

DCP's Gospel Research Pages (archived from 2003) by D. Charles Pyle.

FairMormon.org - an organization dedicated to providing an intelligent defense of the truth. Many serious and well written papers can be accessed at their site.

Mike Ash's Mormon Fortress - a rich site loaded with great material.

Tricola and Other Poetical Forms

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