Literary Bookends in the Scriptures

December 30, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 12:56 pm   Category: Scriptures

We have had some good discussions of hermeneutics here in the past (here’s one), but usually only on the large scale about guiding principles and so forth. Sometimes I wonder about hermeneutical minutia, as it were. What follows is an example.

In 2 Nephi 2, Lehi begins and ends with two very similar passages:

3 …Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men. 26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men
4 And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh; for the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, from the fall.
and salvation is free. 27 And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever
5 And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. knowing good from evil
And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever. to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
6 Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. 27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil

This strikes me as an important literary device used by Lehi to emphasize his primary points and frame the whole discussion of redemption and agency. However, I am not sure how this bookending strikes you. How much stock do you put in something like this as a hermeneutical guide to the rest of 2 Nephi 2? These parallel expressions could potentially cast a new light on 2 Nephi 2:4 and what Lehi means when he says “salvation is free.” Should we interpret “free” in the context of the rest of the chapter which focuses on the freedom of agency and the redemption’s role in providing that agency? Does this bookending support that kind of exegesis?

Let’s go to another example from just a few chapters away. In 2 Nephi 6-10 Jacob delivers one of the most important sermons in the Book of Mormon. Chapter 6 is introduction, chapters 7 and 8 quote Isaiah 50-52:2, chapter 9 is the well known chapter on the atonement, and chapter 10 wraps things up. On my mission, I was very familiar with chapter 9, but I started wondering what it had to do with the Isaiah that preceded it. While trying to answer that question for myself during personal scripture study, I noticed the following bookends to Jacob’s sermon:

2 Nephi 6 2 Nephi 10
9 Nevertheless, the Lord has shown unto me that they should return again. And he also has shown unto me that the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, should manifest himself unto them in the flesh; 3 Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world;
and after he should manifest himself they should scourge him and crucify him, according to the words of the angel who spake it unto me. and they shall crucify him—for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.
4 For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God.
10 And after they have hardened their hearts and stiffened their necks against the Holy One of Israel, 5 But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified.
behold, the judgments of the Holy One of Israel shall come upon them. And the day cometh that they shall be smitten and afflicted. 6 Wherefore, because of their iniquities, destructions, famines, pestilences, and bloodshed shall come upon them;
11 Wherefore, after they are driven to and fro, for thus saith the angel, many shall be afflicted in the flesh, and shall not be suffered to perish, because of the prayers of the faithful; they shall be scattered, and smitten, and hated; and they who shall not be destroyed shall be scattered among all nations.
nevertheless, the Lord will be merciful unto them, that when they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer, they shall be gathered together again to the lands of their inheritance. 7 But behold, thus saith the Lord God: When the day cometh that they shall believe in me, that I am Christ, then have I covenanted with their fathers that they shall be restored in the flesh, upon the earth, unto the lands of their inheritance.
8 And it shall come to pass that they shall be gathered in from their long dispersion, from the isles of the sea, and from the four parts of the earth; and the nations of the Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of me, saith God, in carrying them forth to the lands of their inheritance.

These literary bookends struck me (and still do strike me) as very important keys to unlocking the rest of this speech. In my study as a missionary, I was able to pull 6 main points from these passages which I then looked for in Isaiah and in 2 Nephi 9. Using these points to map the two, I found the points of correlation between Isaiah 50-52 and Jacob’s commentary on those chapters in 2 Ne 9. Incidentally, Jacob seems to me to take some dramatic artistic license in his use of Isaiah.† Be that as it may, the question I am focused on is the here is the hermeneutical question.

Do you find my use of these bookends to be at all compelling, or are you more likely to write off these parallels I am using to define the bookends as accidental? Am I justified in using these points as a lens through which to view the rest of the speech, or is this over-doing it?

I am continually interested in what kinds of issues strike different people as the most important when trying to discover the meaning of scriptural texts.‡ Does anyone have thoughts on these specific examples or on the more general hermeneutical question about this (potential) literary device?

† I ended up writing a paper exploring the relationship between Isaiah 50-52 and 2 Nephi 9 but I could never get any of my fellow missionaries excited about it (shocking, I know). Later, I noticed that the 6 points I generalized from Jacob’s bookend show up prominently in King Benjamin (Mosiah 2-5) and Abinadi (Mosiah 12-16). Within the passages dealing with the same topic (according to this mapping of the texts) I discovered that the later speeches sometimes quoted the earlier ones and built subtly on the same points, convincing me that the earlier speeches had an impact on the later ones. I ended up writing a paper about that which I have similarly never been able to get anyone interested in (I used to write a lot of boring papers before I started blogging. Now I write boring blog posts).

‡ For example, this type of hermeneutical question is my real reason for being interested in this post. On questions where it could go either way, it is interesting to see which issue tips people over the edge to one position over another.


  1. The framing effect of this rhetorical device is called inclusio. For some examples from the Hebrew Bible, see here.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — December 30, 2007 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Jacob, give me around ten more weeks and I will be in Isaiah 50. When I get there, try me with your paper.

    Comment by Todd Wood — December 30, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

  3. Kevin,

    Awesome, thanks for the info. Knowing that this is a recognized literary device with a name is very helpful. (And like everything else, I see now that you have mentioned this at least once over at BCC.)

    Of course, it remains to be seen whether people agree that the examples above qualify as genuine examples of inclusio and how big of an exegetical structure we should build on it if found (as in my suggested unorthodox interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:4).


    As I said, I wrote the paper over ten years ago when I was on a mission, so I expect it is not in a good shape to circulate. I’ll have to pull it up and give it a read through to see if it can be salvaged.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 30, 2007 @ 6:55 pm

  4. While I wasn’t smart enough to know this is inclusio, (I always lump all this stuff under Chiasmus, being not smart enough to know the difference.) I do put stock in these types of things when reading scripture. I think it is because I am typically looking for some new way to grasp more out of the scriptures than I already have. (Sometimes that can be a bad thing)

    I’d love to know the 6 main points, incidentally.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 30, 2007 @ 6:56 pm

  5. Matt,

    The 6 points are actually shown in the second table of the post. One thing I find interesting is that Jacob focuses on 3,4,5 (Jews reject the Messiah, judgments come crashing down, scattering occurs), King Benjamin goes through the same six points but focuses on 6 (gathering), and then Abinadi goes through the whole set but focuses on 1,2 (God himself shall come down among the children of men, he will be mocked, scourged and crucified). So, the speeches are remarkably complementary.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 30, 2007 @ 7:21 pm

  6. Jacob: Do you find my use of these bookends to be at all compelling

    Not normally. Do you think recognizing them leads us to interpret the chapters in unusual ways or does a pretty straight forward reading of them still hold true either way? I suspect it is the latter, and if so I see this as some marginally interesting evidence that Joseph Smith could not have made this stuff up. But since I am already deeply convinced of that I personally don’t have a lot to get excited about regarding these sorts of things.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 30, 2007 @ 8:37 pm

  7. Geoff,

    I know you are not into this kind of thing, so your general response doesn’t surprise me.

    Do you think recognizing them leads us to interpret the chapters in unusual ways or does a pretty straight forward reading of them still hold true either way?

    That’s a good question, very pragmatic. I think things like this can potentially help us quite a bit when trying to understand a text. I gave the example of figuring out what Isaiah 50-51 had to do with 2 Ne 9. Of course, if you don’t care about a question like that then it is not adding anything.

    Another example I gave is the ambiguous “salvation is free” phrase from 2 Ne. 2:4. This phrase gets used to support all sorts of different ideas. The institute manual says this refers to the universal redemption of the human family from original sins. Others use it to support various versions of salvation by grace alone from the Book of Mormon. Others suggest it means that it is available to everyone and at every time in history. Others have suggested that it means that salvation is free to us in the sense that Christ already paid the price of salvation for us. In the post I added yet another possibility, but that is beside the point. The way I think something like this can help is in arbitrating between all the different views. Something like this can potentially help add credence to one interpretation over another.

    So, in addition to suggesting potentially unusual readings, it can arbitrate between several possible meanings all of which seem plausible.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 30, 2007 @ 9:40 pm

  8. Jacob,

    I have used chastic structure to argue for a certain reading of scripture, specifically as a way of adding creedance to my interpretation.

    I think it is useful in the sense that it helps the reader note what the intended point of the author was, in an otherwise ambiguous or difficult text.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 30, 2007 @ 10:39 pm

  9. Um…I just wanted you to know that I read your posts and I’m supportive of you. I’m just the “special kid” here at the thang so I don’t have a whole lot to say on the subject of hermeneutics. You do come across as super smart and a little intimidating as I read your post. Good job!

    Comment by Kristen J — January 1, 2008 @ 9:34 am

  10. Kristen,

    That is very nice of you, thanks. I’m distressed about coming across as intimidating (I can live with “super smart”). Incidentally, it’s all an act, I’m sure you are smarter than me.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 1, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  11. Well, you are only intimidating when you use big words like hermeneutics.

    Comment by Kristen J — January 1, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  12. I’m sorry Jacob, I’m a threadkiller!

    Comment by Kristen J — January 2, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  13. Please, the thread was dead long ago. Don’t flatter yourself.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 2, 2008 @ 11:25 am

  14. The thread’s not dead yet! Great thoughts, Jacob—sorry to be so late to the party….

    Comment by Robert C. — January 14, 2008 @ 8:18 pm