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.
“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!