Alma 36:9 Revisited

Note: I previously took a shot of making sense of an odd construction in Alma 36:9. Since that text is part of this coming Sunday’s GD lesson, I would like to take this opportunity to update that first, preliminary effort at making sense of it. Since that original post my views have changed somewhat. I hope you will find the below helpful in trying to parse the meaning of this verse.

Alma 36:9 reads as follows: “And he said unto me: 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.

The Problem
On March 3, 2009, an LDS correspondent sent 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 could immediately see the questioner’s dilemma, as the English seems very awkward here. The words seem to say “If you want to be destroyed, stop trying to destroy the church.” And one can take the negative implication from that, that if you don’t want to be destroyed, you should keep trying to destroy the church(!)

It scarcely seems possible that anyone would actually attempt to read the passage in such an (over)literal and mechanical way, but we can never overestimate the desire of detractors to attack the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. As Daniel C. Peterson writes in his review of 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 contend 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.”[1]

This simplistic but deeply strained reading is nonsensical and certainly incorrect. But the question remains as to how we should understand this awkward construction.

Solution 1: Textual Error
The earlier account of Alma’s conversion in Mosiah 27:16 does not have this problem, since it adds the word even before the conditional if:

and now I say unto thee Alma
go thy way and seek to destroy the church no more
that their prayers may be answered
and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off.

If we could emend the text in Alma 36 by adding the word even, the problem would be solved. Another grammatical emendation would be to replace if with unless, the negative conjunction corresponding to if: “unless thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.” There is, however, no textual evidence for either an even or an unless in Alma 36, and since the same usage occurs twice (in both verses 9 and 11) and verse 9 is preserved in the original manuscript, this absence would appear to be intentional.[2]

In reading one feels the need for some sort of a negation in the subordinate if-clause so strongly that two editions of the Book of Mormon (1852 LDS and 1953 RLDS) actually added the word not: “if thou wilt not be destroyed.” But this emendation was completely without textual warrant, and thankfully the editors of subsequent editions removed this extraneous insertion into the text.

Most readers of the text do not even notice the problem, because as they quickly read the words they mentally supply the missing negative (whether even, unless or not) in the conditional clause. It of course remains possible that the omission of the negative here was a slip of the tongue during the original dictation of the text, as perhaps suggested by Mosiah 27:16, but there is no way for us to prove that such was the case.

Solution 2: Revise the Punctuation
One suggestion that has been made to improve the reading is to change the punctuation: “If thou wilt, of thyself be destroyed: seek no more to destroy the church of God.”[3] While that helps, “of thyself be destroyed” standing alone strikes me as idiomatically strained and not an ideal solution.

Solution 3: A Rhetorical Device
Another possibility is that this passage is to be identified as an example of anapodoton.[4] 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.

The confusion involved in a literal rendering of the passage is based on an assumption that the end of the verse is the apodosis. If this is an example of anapodoton, however, it is not; there simply is no main clause, and the subordinate conditional clause is not completed. On this theory, the structure of the sentence has changed in mid-course, as in this English example of anacolouthon:

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

Although there is indeed a certain felt lack of completion to the protasis here, that may simply be a function of the missing negative in the protasis. In any event, I don’t think a rhetorical approach really explains the construction.

Solution 4: A Hebraism
Royal Skousen argues that the construction is indeed a Hebraism:

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. See, for instance, the examples discussed under 1 Nephi 19:20-21 and Alma 30:39. For a general discussion of uncompleted conditional clauses, see under HEBRAISMS in volume 3.[5]

I frankly was skeptical of this suggestion when I first read it. It seemed completely counterintuitive to me for an uncompleted, positive if-clause to have a negative force. I wanted to see an actual Hebrew example for myself, but Skousen’s more detailed treatment of the issue has not yet appeared.

A search in the Hebrew Bible led me to Genesis 26:29, which indeed begins with an uncompleted, positive if-clause. The Hebrew reads ‘im-ta’aseh immanu ra’ah, which literally means “if you do us harm.” The New English Translation (NET) renders the verse as follows, with the accompanying explanatory note:

so that[71] you will not do us any harm, just as we have not harmed you, but have always treated you well before sending you away in peace. Now you are blessed by the Lord.”

71tn The oath formula is used: “if you do us harm” means “so that you will not do.”[6]

Another example is Song 2:7, where NET note 30tn explains that the literal Hebrew conditional clause ‘im-t’iyru we’im-te’oreru ‘eth-ha’ahabah “if you arouse or awaken love” means “do not arouse or awaken love.” The NET note further points out that if the consequences for violating the oath were extremely severe, they would not even be spoken. Thus, the apodosis in this passage, which would have contained the statement of consequences for violating the oath, is omitted. (For further examples, see Appendix A.)

Although this usage at first blush seems completely counterintuitive, there is a certain logic to it once one understands its origins:

The reluctance to pronounce the full oath replete with imprecations, for fear that, even though divine agency is assumed, the words themselves might inflict harm, led to the suppression of the conditional curse and the further reduction of the formula until only a vestige of the protasis remained: “if,” and “if not.” With the omission of the curse in the apodosis, the positive conditional protasis becomes a negative asseveration (if I do thus and so, may I be accursed—i.e., I surely will not do it), and the negative condition becomes a positive asseveration (if I do not thus and so, may I be accursed—i.e., I surely will do it).[7]

Thus, in contexts of warning, swearing or adjuring, or where a strong imperative or negative is meant to be conveyed, the conditional ‘im “if” is [in effect but not in fact] a negative, just as ‘im lo’ “if not” is affirmative. In such contexts, ‘im “if” stands [in effect] for “not.”[8] In other words, an affirmative condition is to be understood as representing a negative oath and vice versa.[9]

As I tried to apply this insight to Alma 36:9, however, I realized that it wasn’t quite working for me. It took me awhile, but I finally figured out what my problem with it was. If this were an example of the Hebrew oath formula similar in structure to the attested Hebrew examples, I would expect it to look more like this:

If thou seek any more to destroy the church of God [, thou wilt of thyself be destroyed].

Now, you can either express the apodosis containing the curse, or omit it. If you express it, it would read like the above (removing the brackets). If you omit it, then a literal rendition of the uncompleted protasis would be:

If thou seek any more to destroy the church of God.

Which we would then translate into smooth English by flipping the positive if-clause into a negative:

Thou shalt certainly no more seek to destroy the church of God.

In the Alma passage, not only is the curse explicitly present, but it is in the protasis, not the apodosis. If this were intended to be an example of the oath formula, it has been significantly garbled.

Tentative Conclusion:

In light of the above, at this time I am inclined to see this as a textual (or, more precisely, a dictation) error, with Mosiah 27:16 showing us how the expression was actually intended to read:

“And he said unto me: Even if thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.”

Appendix A
Further Examples of the Oath Formula

1. 2 Samuel 20:20:
Hebrew Construction: ‘im-‘aballa’ we’im ‘ashechayth

Literal Rendition: if I swallow up or if I destroy

Translation (NET): And Joab said, “Get serious! I don’t want to swallow up or destroy anything

2. Isaiah 5:9:

Hebrew Construction: ‘im-lo’ batim rabim leshammah yiheyu

Literal Rendition: if not many houses will become desolate

Translation (NET): The Lord who commands armies told me this: “Many houses will certainly become desolate, large, impressive houses will have no one living in them.

3. Isaiah 22:14:

Hebrew Construction: ‘im-yekupar he’aon hazzeh lakem ‘ad-temuthun

Literal Rendition: if this sin will be forgiven until you die

Translation (NET): The Lord who commands armies told me this: “Certainly this sin will not be forgiven as long as you live,” says the sovereign master, the Lord who commands armies.

4. Job 6:28:

Hebrew Construction: ‘im-‘akazzab

Literal Rendition: if I lie

Translation (NET): Now then, be good enough to look at me; and I will not lie to your face!

Notes:
[1] Daniel C. Peterson, “A Modern Malleus maleficarum,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 3/1 (1991): 245-46.
[2] See the discussion in Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2007), 2331-2333.
[3] Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Kofford, 2007), 500.
[4] This suggestion was made as part of a catalog of rhetorical devices in the scriptures posted on the internet by Clark Goble at http://www.ldsgospeldoctrine.net/kn/random/scrippoetry.txt accessed September 12, 2010.
[5] Skousen, 2331.
[6] The King James Version similarly renders: “That thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: thou [art] now the blessed of the LORD.”
[7] M.H. Pope, “Oaths,” in George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 Vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1962), 3:577.
[8] See Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’s Hebrew Grammar, trans. Benjamin Davies (London: Asher & Co., 1869), 333 at Sec. 155.2(f).
[9] Miguel Perez Fernandez, An Introductory Grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew, trans. John Elwolde (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 216. This rabbinic usage is a continuation of and based on the biblical usage.

Comments

  1. Thanks for going over this. I’ve been perplexed by this phrase for a long time, and this is a very nice resource!

  2. Fascinating, I’ll be passing this along to some friends. Thanks.

  3. Always appreciate your thoughts on this stuff, Kevin.

  4. With little background in Hebrew or rhetoric, I read it that way just assuming it was one of many awkward constructions found in the Book of Mormon, and for which the authors are always apologizing (Bless Their Hearts). Apparently, in my case, God can instruct fools and children directly. Thanks for the background. I feel less childish or foolish already.

  5. Great legwork, Kevin.

  6. Great fun Kevin. Thanks.

  7. Great post. I think there’s some strong ambiguity at times about whether something’s an error or something odd about the underlying language we don’t get. (While there’s clearly a Hebrew element I sometimes worry that folks make assumptions about the kind of Hebrew the Nephites new at the time as well as influences from other languages)

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