Anabasis and Catabasis in the Old Testament and The Book of Mormon
As I have studied Hebrew writing forms at a beginner level, I have found both styles known as anabasis and catabasis very interesting. The following is an excerpt from Hugh W. Pinnock’s Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon:
Anabasis: Up the Staircase
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term anabasis is derived from a Greek word that means “to go or walk up.” Donald Parry defines it as “a poetical device where there is an apparent stepping up from one sense to another, until, at the pinnacle is a culmination of thought. Because anabasis consists of an ascension of thought, it is also known as gradational or staircase parallelism. (Donald Parry, The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted according ot Parallelistic Patterns, Farms, 1992, Provo, UT, p. xxi)
Two excellent examples are found in the Old Testament. The first is in Psalm 1:1—2. The following examples of anabasis are meant to be read from bottom to top.
|D But his delight is in the law of the Lord|
|C nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.|
|B nor standeth in the way of sinners,|
|A Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,|
The first level is the blessed man who does not take counsel from unrighteous people. In the second level he does not commit sinful acts, and in the third he does not glorify wickedness where scorners have rejected that which is godlike. Note that each level names a more serious sin than its predecessor, but the blessed man rejects each sin, leading him to what is most important: finding delight in the joy of the Lord.
The second Old Testament example, Zechariah 8:12, tells us:
|E and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.|
|D and the heavens shall give their dew;|
|C and the ground shall give her increase,|
|B the vine shall give her fruit,|
|A For the seed shall be prosperous;|
In the previous example we see a rise from a seed, to a vine giving fruit, to the ground giving increase, to the heavens giving dew, to the Lord providing all blessings.
When Alma counseled with his son Helaman he used this form:
|F and if ye do these things, ye shall be lifted up at the last day.|
|E and when thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God;|
|D that he may watch over you in your sleep;|
|C yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord,|
|B and he will direct thee for good;|
|A Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings,|
Note how effectively the following verse from the book of Helaman builds from merely stating that the people heard the Lord’s voice, to describing the voice, to explaining how powerfully the voice affected the people:
|E and it did pierce even to the very soul|
|D as if it had been a whisper,|
|C but behold, it was a still voice of perfect mildness,|
|B neither was it a voice of a great tumultuous noise,|
|A and beheld that it was not a voice of thunder,
And it came to pass when they heard this voice,
Alma described Melchizedek using these words found in Alma 13:18—19:
|G . . . but none were greater|
|F for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.|
|E therefore he was called the prince of peace,|
|D And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days;|
|C did preach repentance unto his people.|
|B received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God,|
|A But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and|
In the preceding verses, we see even more clearly that Melchizedek became greater with each succeeding event (thus the anabasis moves from lesser to greater). These verses somewhat remind us of the few words in Luke 2:52 when Luke wrote of the progress Jesus made as a boy: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” Here we learn that Jesus increased in (1) wisdom, (2) stature, (3) favor with God, and (4) favor with man. This is not an anabasis, however, because it does not lead from a lesser state to a greater level. If it did, the order would more naturally begin with “stature” and end at “favor with God.”
Sometimes this “up the staircase” poetic form moves from the specific to the general, as in 2 Nephi 29:12:
|D and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.|
|C and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it;|
|B and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it;|
|A For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it;|
The tribe of Judah is one specific branch of the house of Israel. The Nephites (including the Zoramites, Ishmaelites, and Mulekites) descended from Manasseh and Judah, and perhaps other tribes. The other tribes of Israel encompassed the rest of the house of Israel, and all nations included the whole world. In other words, the anabasis moves from the one tribe to the whole world, or from specific to general. Let us not miss identifying two cycloides of importance—I shall speak and they shall write—that tightly bind the verse together. The verse is a simple alternate and an example of epibole (see pages 30—35, 73—77).
As a reminder, a number of the verses in scripture have more than one writing form present in the words, phrases, and sentences. Also, one author may have formatted verses differently than another writer did. A further testimony that these forms were carefully designed into the scriptures is an exciting threesome of verses (Moroni 10:3—5) inscribed by Moroni in an “up the staircase” anabasis:
|I And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.|
|H he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.|
|G and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ,|
|F I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true;|
|E ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things,|
|D receive these things, and|
|C that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall|
|B if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them,|
|A Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things,|
In these three extraordinary verses we find sound spiritual advice pertaining to the Book of Mormon, truth, and the Holy Ghost. This is an anabasis because the verses describe a progression in the reader’s commitment: (1) read the Book of Mormon, (2) remember how merciful God has been and ponder that truth, (3) pray to the Eternal Father in the name of Christ, (4) know the Book of Mormon is true by the power of the Holy Ghost, and (5) know truth of other things by the power of the Holy Ghost. We see from these choice verses that anabasis is a sound, effective way of teaching truth.
Some additional examples of anabasis are Job 4:19—20; Psalm 29:1; Proverbs 30:15—16, 21—23, 29—30; Isaiah 1:4; Ezekiel 2:6; Daniel 9:5; 1 Nephi 2:20; 4:32; 8:24; 12:18; 2 Nephi 24:13—14; 29:11; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 15:15—17; Alma 1:30—31; 7:23—24; 8:31; 3 Nephi 10:12—17. There are dozens more.
Catabasis: Down the Staircase
Donald Parry explains, “Catabasis (Greek ‘going down’) is characterized by a lowering of the sense, from one level to another, with each succeeding line.”32 It is much as if the message were descending a staircase. Thus catabasis is defined as “descending or declining by degrees.”33 A good example of catabasis can be found in Isaiah 40:31. In this verse, those who wait on the Lord renew their strength in every way. They fly as eagles, then run, and, lastly, walk at the end of the course:
|A they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;|
|B they shall mount up with wings as eagles;|
|C they shall run, and not be weary; and|
|D they shall walk, and not faint.|
The previous example is a catabasis because those who wait on the Lord first fly, then run, and, lastly, walk. Examples of catabasis often move from positive to negative.
We find this catabasis, also in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel 22:18:
|Son of man, the house of Israel is to me become dross:|
|A all they are brass,|
|B and tin,|
|C and iron,|
|D and lead, . . .|
|E even the dross of silver.|
The house of Israel descends from being a place of great value in the eyes of the Lord, to the level of brass, to tin, then iron, then lead, and at last to the dross of silver, which is slag left over from the refining procedure. Thus the catabasis format serves to accentuate the message of descent both by word and form. The metals decrease in value. A similar catabasis is found in Daniel 2:31—43, in which deteriorating world powers are also described as substances that descend in value: fine gold, silver, brass, iron, and clay.
The Book of Mormon probably describes conflict as accurately and helpfully as any book ever written. Various climactic forms help to communicate the ups and downs in Nephite and Lamanite societies as they experienced righteousness and evil, power and weakness. For instance, we read in Helaman 11:36—38:
|A And in the eighty and second year they began again to forget the Lord their God.|
|B And in the eighty and third year they began to wax strong in iniquity.|
|C And in the eighty and fourth year they did not mend their ways.|
|D And it came to pass in the eighty and fifth year they did wax stronger and stronger in their pride, and in their wickedness;|
|E and thus they were ripening again for destruction. And thus ended the eighty and fifth year.|
In each succeeding year, the people persisted in becoming more and more ungodly. First they forgot the Lord, then began to wax strong in iniquity, then did not repent, and finally became so prideful and wicked that they were ripe for destruction.
Catabasis is an excellent literary form to use for describing a disintegrating society, such as is found frequently in the Book of Mormon. A short example is found in Helaman 3:2—3:
|A And there was no contention among the people in the forty and fourth year;|
|B neither was there much contention in the forty and fifth year.|
|C And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions|
From my assessment of the Old Testament and Book of Mormon, it seems that prophets used anabasis, the “up the staircase” form, a little more often than catabasis, because the scriptures are generally written in a positive manner, even when dealing with negative topics such as sin or evil. But, as said before, there are many examples of both forms.
Additional examples of catabasis follow: Lamentations 4:1—2; Amos 9:2—3; 1 Nephi 13:5, 7—8; 17:18, 20, 30; Alma 9:11, 21—22; 17:7; 53:7.
(Hugh W. Pinnock, Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon)