Alma 36:9

Yesterday someone asked me the following question:

Every time I read Alma 36:9, I wonder if this is a Hebrew construct[ion] that doesn’t do well on the literal translation into English. Yet it isn’t listed among the Hebraisms found in various sources. Am I interpreting this correctly?

I thought I would try to put together a little procedural detailing how I went about trying to respond to this question.

In pertinent part, the verse reads “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.” This phrasing is repeated with a minor variation two verses later.

This was not something I had ever really looked at before, and I could immediately see the questioner’s dilemma, as the English seems very awkward there. My first thought was to do a google search to see what others might have said about this. Since I knew the awkward first phrase wouldn’t occur in English outside the BoM instance I used that in quotation marks for my search. I got three pages, most hits simply being quotations without discussion.

One hit demonstrated that the passage is indeed difficult to read and liable to misinterpretation. I found this in Dan Peterson, “A Modern Malleus maleficarum,” FARMS Review 3/1 (1991), reviewing Loftes Tryk, The Best Kept Secrets in the Book of Mormon:

But this is not yet all, for the chapter [Alma 36] also twice advises Latter-day Saints to content against God. Or so says Loftes Tryk. Thus, when the angel advises Alma the Younger that he should give up his persecution of the saints, even if he has no care for his own soul, he says “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God” (Alma 36:9; repeated, for subliminal seduction, at 36:11). But the real message, according to Loftes Tryk, is not what appears on the surface. “For any who wish not to be destroyed, the advice which applies is to seek to destroy the church of God.” “This chapter, then, is Satan’s real masterpiece…. It shows how he delights in the crucifixion and would puff himself up by pasting it between the lines of his evil book.”

Poor Loftes. I can see where he is coming from. The words seem to say “If you want to be destroyed, stop trying to destroy the church”! And one can take the implication from that, that if you don’t want to be destroyed, you should keep trying to destroy the church.

But the last item in my search was very helpful. It was a catalog of BoM figures, apparently based on Ludlow’s book on Isaiah. When I first looked at this yesterday, I couldn’t tell who had put it together, but now I see that it was Naccler Clark Goble. Anyway, in this catalog this passage is identified as an example of anapodoton.

Now, I have an interest in rhetorical figures, but I was unfamiliar with anapodoton. So of course I did a google search. The first item happened to be from a BYU source, although it made no reference to this scripture. To understand this, it is helpful to understand the structure of a conditional sentence:

If X, then Y.

In this example, X is called the protasis, the subordinate conditional clause, and Y is called the apodosis, the main clause. The word anapodoton (like most technical terms of rhetoric) is Greek and derives from ana- “without” and apodosis “main clause.”

So anapodoton is a figure in which a main clause is suggested by the introduction of a subordinate clause, but that main clause never occurs. It is a kind of anacolouthon (Greek for “not following”), since grammatical expectations are interrupted. English examples include:

“If you think I’m going to sit here and take your insults…”

“When you decide to promote me to manager–when you see more clearly what will benefit this corporation–I will be at your service.”

Various species of anacolouthon may be intentional for rhetorical effect (for instance, to avoid saying something or saying it only by indirection), or in contrast may be unintentional based on speed or carelessness.

Our friend Loftes (badly) misconstrued the passage because he assumed (understandably) that the second part of the verse was the apodosis. But it is not; there simply is no apodosis. The first part of the verse is a sentence fragment (which is what an anapodoton is by definition). The structure of the sentence has changed in mid-course, as in this example of anacolouthon:

“Athletes convicted of drug-related crimes–are they to be forgiven with just a slap on the wrist?”

Then last night when I went home I looked this passage up in Skousen’s textual commentary, and that was very helpful, with two pages of discussion.

First, it was interesting to me that there was one edition each in the LDS and RLDS traditions that inserted a “not” to try to make it make better sense: “If thou wilt not of thyself be destroyed….” There is, however, no textual basis for this insertion, and to the credit of the various editors they removed the “not” in the next editions.

Also, David Calabro, one of Skousen’s frequent commenters, suggested based on a parallel in Mosiah that the “if” at the beginning should read “even if.” If one reads it that way, the “even” is only implicit, because again there is no textual evidence to support it.

Skousen writes:

“The use of uncompleted positive if-clauses with a negative meaning is characteristic of strong imperative and declarative statements in Hebrew. Similar Hebrew-like uses of uncompleted conditional clauses can be found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon text…. For a general discussion of uncompleted conditional clauses, see under Hebraisms in volume 3 [not yet published].”

So Skousen calls this an “uncompleted positive if-clause with a negative meaning.” (The uncompleted nature of the clause is what renders it an example of anapodoton.) He proposes that it is indeed a Hebraism, although unfortunately his detailed discussion of this point has not been published yet.

I have not had the opportunity to look for myself how this type of a construction appears in Hebrew literature. To do so I would probably need the sophisticated searching software of a Nitsav. I may try using some simple searches looking for the word “if” in the OT and seeing if I can find a conditional clause that hasn’t been completed.

So, in conclusion, this may indeed be a Hebraism, just as the questioner posited. I will await Skousen’s volume 3 on that point with interest. Or it may be an intentional rhetorical device in English–but if so, it doesn’t work very clearly and is almost incoherent. Or it may reflect simple sloppiness. Whatever it is, it certainly is not intended to convey the meaning Loftes Tryk assigned to it!

Bookmark Alma 36:9

Comments

  1. I always thought that the phrasing was reflective of the angel warning Alma, but also taking compassion on him.

    Likening this scripture unto me, I could hear my mom’s scolding voice saying something like: “If you want to destroy yourself, that’s your business, but don’t go blaspheming at the same time, because then you’ll be in a world of hurt”.

    This interpretation is high on inference, but it does bridge the gap between the 2 phrases.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I think that’s basically adding the implicit “even” at the beginnning, which is the way I’ve always read it myself, and I note is the way Dan takes it in his paraphrase responding to Tryk.

  3. H. Nibley claimed that it was a Semitic threat or warning (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, 2:455).

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    OK, I found an example in Hebrew (suggested to me by a friend). NET Genesis 26:29 reads:

    so that71 you will not do us any harm, just as we have not harmed72 you, but have always treated you well73 before sending you away74 in peace. Now you are blessed by the Lord.”75

    71tn The oath formula is used: “if you do us harm” means “so that you will not do.”

    72tn Heb “touched.”

    73tn Heb “and just as we have done only good with you.”

    74tn Heb “and we sent you away.”

    75tn The Philistine leaders are making an observation, not pronouncing a blessing, so the translation reads “you are blessed” rather than “may you be blessed” (cf. NAB).

    You would never see this in the KJV, because it is obscured by the English translation, but this is indeed an uncompleted positive conditional with a negative meaning, as explained in NET note 71. Presumably this is the sort of oath formula usage Skousen intends to discuss in greater detail in his volume 3.

    Now that I see that passage in Hebrew, I’m much more impressed by this passage in the BoM than I was originally as I tried beating my head against it. That’s actually rather cool, I think.

  5. JEW1967 Says says:

    Wow….that’s alot of big words to talk about and over analyze such a simple little phrase.

    It is quite easily understood in context. To put it in our modern verbacular it might read “unless you yourself want to be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.”

    Now how easy is that to understand?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s very easy to understand as you have phrased it. But you have added a negative (unless) that isn’t there in the original. Textual problems are always easy if we can just manipulate the text. That’s why all the big words and analysis are necessary.

  7. Randall says:

    #5: Uh oh….

    If you don’t want to be rhetorically destroyed, seek no more to mock the intellectual rigor of Kevin Barney.

  8. JEW1967 Says says:

    #7: Randall, you brown noser. : )

    The “unless” is not negative, it is conditional the same as “if.”

  9. Cynthia L. says:

    #7–Randall, you should have said, “Unless you want to be rhetorically destoryed, …” :-)

  10. Steve L says:

    #7:

    you mean, “If thou WILT of thyself be rhetorically destroyed. . .”

  11. Wow, jews got really bitter since 1967.

  12. Steve L says:

    I was way too slow on the punch on that one.

  13. If you’re going to destroy your own life, don’t you dare destroy anyone else’s life.
    Seems like we use this in English not so terribly infrequently.

  14. JEW1967 Says says:

    The word”destroyed” is the negative. Try replacing “destroyed” with “exalted” or “saved” or “redeemed.”

    “if thou wilt thyself be saved, seek no more to destroy the church of God.”

    To understand the complete meaning of a text message you must consider the context and tone of the sender. Over analyzing the text itself is not helpful.

    That’s why we have all these miscommunications, misperceptions, and misinterpretations of all our blog comments and e-mails because our personal context and tones aren’t readily perceived in a “sound-byte” of a text only message.

    Ah great….now you guys got me talking with big words. : )

    Are you able to sense my tone a centext? That’s why we sometimes use these emoticons “: )” to help relay our tone and context.

  15. If we were only trying to understand the meaning, none of this would be worth wasting time doing. However, since we also are looking for ways to understand authorship in a way that builds faith and deeper appreciation for the text, this is well worth pursuing.

    Thanks, Kevin, for pursuing this. It’s not something of which I was aware, and it’s fascinating to me.

  16. clarkgoble says:

    It was a catalog of BoM figures, apparently based on Ludlow’s book on Isaiah. When I first looked at this yesterday, I couldn’t tell who had put it together, but now I see that it was Naccler Clark Goble.

    Actually it was from the Church Translator’s guide as it was available in 1988. (I nabbed in on my mission) Then I expanded it on my own while in college.

  17. clarkgoble says:

    Whoops. Anyway, a lot came from Ludlow while in college. I actually have a longer version around somewhere that’s about 5-6 times as big. (Not in electronic form though) That version was put together way, way back in the early days of Morm-Ant and Mormon-L while they were both hosted by BYU.

  18. Eric Russell says:

    Good point, #14, miscommunications and misperceptions is exactly right. It reminds me of that time that Eshkol sent Nasser a text message that said, “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the people of God.” Nasser failed to take the text message into context and, like Tryk, thought the text was a call to action! Too bad for him.

  19. “If thou wilt of thyself be confused, seek no more to find hidden Hebraisms or rhetorical knots in our canon of scripture”.

    The missing negative here must be “without Kevin Barney’s able assistance”.

  20. #8, unless is most definitely negative. It is the logical equivalent of “if not”. If you were a perl programmer this would be second nature.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    As Jacob suggests, while if and unless are both conjunctions, they do not mean the same thing. There is a negative inherent in unless (the un-).

    To summarize:

    After all of that, I think we have to make a choice as to how to read it. There are basically two options, I think. First is the implicit “even” reading. That is, “Even if thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.” This is frankly the way I had always understood it, and the way Dan P.’s paraphrase takes it. In other words “If you don’t care about your own soul, knock yourself out, but stop beating up on the church.”

    The other way to take it is with a negative in the protasis, rather like Jew suggests in his paraphrase. In other words, “If you don’t stop destroying the church you’ll be destroyed yourself.”

    The problem with this last reading is that there is no actual negative in the protasis. We could just stick one in there, as one BoM edition did or as Jew suggests. Or we could say it’s just missing; its omission is just a mistake.

    Or we could follow Skousen in seeing the uncompleted conditional in the protasis as having a negative force.

    I frankly was skeptical of this when I wrote the OP. But when I independently found an example from the Hebrew Bible and could read it in Hebrew and see the way the oath formula literally reads “if you do us harm” but in English means “so that you will not do us harm,” I became much more impressed by Skousen’s argument.

    All of which is to say that I’ve changed my mind in how I read this passage. Instead of the implicit “even” approach, I’m buying the second approach over the first.

    Even this is a tentative conclusion, as I look forward to reading Skousen’s more detailed treatment in the future.

  22. So Clark Goble’s first name is Naccler? ;-)

  23. Noray #22, I thought the exact same thing for a moment.

    This is really cool, Kevin. Good find!

  24. Really great stuff Kevin, thanks.

  25. That phrase bugs me every time I read it. The correct meaning of the Angel’s words seems obvious from the several other tellings of Alma’s conversion, so I’ve generally considered this phrase a mistake by someone: perhaps Oliver Cowdery, perhaps Mormon. It’s nice to hear that it may actually be a hebraism.

    I believe the Book of Mormon to be the most correct book on earth, but I don’t believe it to be perfect :-).

  26. On reviewing Alma 36:9, 11 and also Mosiah 27:16 I now see that my previous comment was mistaken. In all three places the same unusual grammar appears. The intended meaning still comes through, but it is sure seems awkward in English. This appears to yet another evidence that the Book of Mormon is truly what it claims to be.

    Note that my testimony of this wonderful book came from the Spirit of God, not from an accumulation of intellectual evidences. I have read it many, many times. I continue to be blessed and rewarded by it. Thanks for these intriguing details!

  27. What if the problem is the punctuation? If it read, “If thou wilt of thyself, be destroyed; seek no more to destroy the church of God.” That seems consistent with the general consensus of the meaning without having to resort to Greek anything.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Sam, that is a suggestion made by Brant Gardner in his Second Witness commentary. I agree that that’s a helpful thought and a possibility.

  29. Beautiful, Brother B.

    Extra credit for “Textual problems are always easy if we can just manipulate the text.”

  30. JEW1967 Says says:

    Kevin Barney, you are right and I concede that “unless” is negative. Another old english word would be “lest” to help understand the meaning. If you study old english poetry like shakesphere and other scriptural documents the phrase “if thou wilt” and “if thou wilt of thyself” are used quite differently. The “if thou wilt” seems to be used with a positive condition, but when you add the “of thyself” it switches to a negative condition.

    #21 Did you just agree with me? If so I’m glad I was a stepping stone to an epiphany you had.

    Many thanks and God Bless

  31. JEW1967 Says says:

    For some added interesting study, check out this article at Meridian about the extraordinary poetic hebrew chiasmic structure of Alma 36.

    http://www.meridianmagazine.com/bookofmormon/051207conversion.html

  32. Though perhaps not exactly the same, I think this passage from the Doctrine and Covenants (122:7) could offer a parallel example:

    And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

    I think this is an instance where contemporary English speakers would say “even if.” Another interesting usage of “if” is in D&C 124:87:

    If ye love me, keep my commandments; and the sickness of the land shall redound [contribute] to your glory.

    Not clear to me whether this is an if/then/then construction, or more of an if/then/”P.S.”

  33. Is BCC not down with the “quote” html tag?

  34. Cynthia L. says:

    Portia, try “blockquote” html tag. (I tried to fix it for you)

  35. If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed,
    ^——————————————-^
    If you want, destroy yourself.

    [Then as a separate, independent, clause]

    seek no more to destroy the church of God.

    It doesn’t use quite as many big words, but it draws upon high school English class. Does that count?

    For the record, I failed high school English class. :)

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