Many characters in the scriptures use questions extensively in their teaching. A database of questions in The Book of Mormon was produced and analyzed. Five hundred and fifty eight questions were identified in the text, an average of 1.05 questions per page and one question every 11.8 verses, and the majority of these were classified as rhetorical questions. Several passages stand out as being particularly question-dense, including Alma chapter 5. A study of questions in the Book of Mormon yields valuable insights.
A few months ago I was leading a discussion in a Teacher Council Meeting about how to use questions effectively while teaching. I asked each person in the room to find a scripture passage where someone used a question while teaching the gospel. There is so much to be learned from pondering these questions!
A few days later I decided that I would study the Book of Mormon to look specifically at the way questions were used, and that I would mark each question in the text with a colored pencil. In this article I will summarize what I learned. This study was inspired by President Thomas S. Monson’s final General Conference address, where he urged the members of the Church to study the Book of Mormon with new intensity. He said:
“My dear associates in the work of the Lord, I implore each of us to prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon each day. As we do so, we will be in a position to hear the voice of the Spirit, to resist temptation, to overcome doubt and fear, and to receive heaven’s help in our lives.” (from “The Power of the Book of Mormon,” April 2017)
President Russell M. Nelson responded to this challenge by making “lists of what the Book of Mormon is, what it affirms, what it refutes, what it fulfills, what it clarifies, and what it reveals. Looking at the Book of Mormon through these lenses has been an insightful and inspiring exercise! I recommend it to each of you.” (from “The Book of Mormon: What Would Your Life Be Like without It?,” October 2017)
Just for fun I have structured this post as a scientific publication, because working so much with a spreadsheet and doing the calculations reminded me of my old days in academic medicine, preparing manuscripts for publication. But don’t be fooled — this is not a peer-reviewed article, just the observations and musings of a scripture geek. I minimized my use of the horrible third person passive voice, so common in research publications, because the first person voice is more readable. And of course I included the obligatory request for further research at the end of the article. If you find the Methods and Results sections are too heavy to read then you can skip forward to the Discussion. Most people reading scientific journal articles will skip over those parts anyway.
I started by reading a paper copy of the Book of Mormon with a colored pencil in hand, marking every question as I read. Every sentence that ends with a question mark was noted. In addition, there were several exclamations and a small number other statements which are directly phrased as questions, and these were also marked. At one point I started broadening the search to include narrative statements which include some form of the words “ask,” “inquire,” “petition,” or “beg,” or which were felt in the context of the passage to represent a question, but I decided that I was falling down a slippery slope when I realized that prayer is a form of petition, and that if I followed this to its logical conclusion I would have to mark and include all of the passages which include some discussion of prayer. I decided to save that inquiry for another day.
Once I had finished marking the paper copy I created an electronic spreadsheet using LibreOffice Calc (because I’m a cheapskate and a Linux user), and copied the text of each question into the spreadsheet. The scriptural reference, including a link to the online scriptures, was included, and the questioner and questionee were noted for each question.
Each question was classified as one of four types: inquiries (ex: “What cause have ye to come up to war against my people?“), rhetorical questions (ex: “For behold, are we not all beggars?“), contentious questions (ex: “How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts?” Note that contentious questions are usually rhetorical), and prayers (ex: “O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul?“).
A total of 558 questions were identified in the Book of Mormon text, an average of 1.05 questions per page in the English edition, and one question every 11.8 verses. The distribution of questions throughout the book can be appreciated in the following graph, where a few outlier chapters are obvious:
In order to identify the outliers, the chapters were listed in descending order of how many questions each chapter contained, and the top 10% (24) were selected. This method has the potential to bias the results in favor of longer chapters, because longer chapters are more likely to have more questions, but shorter chapters with high question frequency could be overlooked. In order to correct for this bias, I also calculated the ratio of verses to questions for each chapter (v/q), which is a measure of the question frequency. I made a second list, ordering the chapters by the v/q ratio, and again the top 10% (24) were chosen. The two lists were subsequently merged to produce a single list of 30 chapters, and the result is given in the following table:
|2 Nephi 7||11||8||1.38||Jacob quotes Isaiah|
|Alma 5||62||42||1.48||Alma preaches in Zarahemla|
|2 Nephi 29||14||9||1.56||The Lord explains the need for the Book of Mormon|
|Jacob 6||13||6||2.17||Final prophecy of Jacob|
|Mormon 9||37||17||2.18||Moroni lectures the unbelievers|
|Alma 26||37||15||2.47||Ammon discusses his missionary labors with his brethren|
|Alma 30||60||22||2.73||The preaching of Korihor|
|1 Nephi 15||36||13||2.77||Nephi explains Lehi’s vision to his brothers|
|Helaman 8||28||10||2.80||Nephi II contends with the corrupt judges|
|Mosiah 12||37||13||2.85||Abinadi before the priests of King Noah|
|Alma 18||43||15||2.87||Ammon teaches King Lamoni|
|Alma 21||23||8||2.88||Aaron contends with Lamanites|
|Alma 14||29||10||2.90||Alma and Amulek are imprisoned and interrogated at Ammonihah|
|2 Nephi 32||9||3||3.00||Nephi’s final teachings|
|Alma 60||36||12||3.00||Moroni reads Pahoran the riot act|
|3 Nephi 24||18||6||3.00||Jesus quotes a prophecy of Malachi|
|Alma 39||19||6||3.17||Alma counsels his son Corianton|
|2 Nephi 24||32||10||3.20||Nephi quotes Isaiah|
|Alma 32||43||13||3.31||Alma teaches the Zoramites|
|2 Nephi 20||34||10||3.40||Nephi quotes Isaiah|
|Alma 11||46||13||3.54||Amulek teaches in Ammonihah|
|3 Nephi 14||27||7||3.86||Jesus quotes the Sermon on the Mount|
|2 Nephi 8||25||6||4.17||Jacob quotes Isaiah|
|2 Nephi 31||21||5||4.20||Nephi’s final teachings|
|Alma 31||38||9||4.22||Alma prays as he prepares to teach the Zoramites|
|Alma 9||34||8||4.25||Alma teaches in Ammonihah|
|Alma 22||35||8||4.38||Aaron teaches the king of the Lamanites|
|3 Nephi 13||34||7||4.86||Jesus quotes the Sermon on the Mount|
|Moroni 7||48||9||5.33||Mormon teaches a church meeting|
|Jacob 5||77||10||7.70||Allegory of the olive tree|
|Table: Book of Mormon chapters containing the most questions. v = verses in the chapter, q = questions in the chapter, v/q = number of verses per question; ie, question frequency.|
The majority of questions were classified as rhetorical (305, 54.8%). There were 137 contentious questions (24.6%), 93 inquiries (16.7%), and 22 prayer questions (3.9%).
A downloadable copy of the spreadsheet used to record the questions and make these calculations, and a tabular list of all questions identified in the Book of Mormon can be found in the supplementary materials.
The Evolution of Nephi’s Questions
Nephi, the first author in the Book of Mormon, asks 43 questions in his writings, excluding quotes from Isaiah and questions attributed to others in his dialogue. In his early writings (1 Nephi 1 through 2 Nephi 3) the overwhelming majority of his questions (21 of 24, 88%) are directed to his brothers Laman and Lemuel, and 16 of of these 21 (76%) are contentious.
The character of his questioning changes remarkably at 2 Nephi chapter 4, in the Psalm of Nephi. This chapter contains 4 rhetorical questions to himself, followed by 3 prayer questions. Nephi’s remaining questions in 2 Nephi chapters 5-33 are all rhetorical questions directed to his reader, whom he addresses as “my beloved brethren.” (Contrast this with 2 Nephi chapter 4, where he refers to his older brethren as his “enemies.”) Nephi’s living “after the manner of happiness” after separating from his enemies, Laman and Lemuel, is therefore reflected in his style of questions.
A side observation from the writings of Nephi is that there are no questions attributed to the prophet Lehi, despite 9 chapters containing extensive dialogue from him, including prophecies and teachings. Lehi is the most prominent character in the Book of Mormon with no attributed questions.
Questions in Isaiah
Any serious student of the Book of Mormon must become familiar with the writings of the prophet Isaiah, at least those 20 chapters of his which are quoted in the Book of Mormon. Four of these chapters are included in the list of chapters with the highest question frequency. 2 Nephi chapter 7 has the highest question frequency of any chapter in the Book of Mormon (1.4 verses per question). The literary complexity of Isaiah’s writings often makes it difficult to determine the questioner and questionee with confidence. A comprehensive study of questions in the book of Isaiah is beyond the scope of this article.
Alma the Younger, Champion Questioner
In contrast to his father, Alma the Elder, who asks only one question, Alma the Younger asks 380 questions, comprising 68% of all questions in the Book of Mormon. This is partially due to the sheer volume of dialogue recorded, as Alma the Younger speaks in more chapters than any other character in the book.
Alma 5 stands out as an extraordinary chapter for its length and consistency of questions throughout the text. It is the second-longest chapter in the Book of Mormon, and contains nearly twice the number of questions as any other, with an average of one question every 1.5 verses. In this chapter Alma addresses the people in his home town of Zarahemla. He had been unable to attend to their spiritual shepherding during his busy tenure as the first chief judge of the Nephite nation, and the people had fallen away from their duties in the church. His mission was to call them to repentance, and he does this by asking them challenging questions in rapid succession, hoping to get them to think introspectively and see how they had gone off course. Here is a brief sampling of questions from this discourse:
And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God?
Have ye received his image in your countenances?
Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you?
I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?
Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you?
An interesting contrast with his chapter 5 discourse is found two chapters later, where Alma gives a similar address in the town of Gideon. Unlike in the previous address, however, he asks only 1 question in 27 verses: “And now my beloved brethren, do you believe these things?” (Alma 7:7)” The answer to his question, unlike the answer in Zarahemla, was yes. Alma was therefore able to spend his time in Gideon prophesying of Christ and confirming their faith instead of stirring them up to repentance with questions.
Alma chapter 29 provides an interesting parallel to 2 Nephi 4, where two rhetorical questions directed towards himself in verses 6 and 7 form a cognitive transition, similar to the transition in 2 Nephi 4:26-27 (discussed above). After this transition Alma focuses on the joy he feels from his own missionary labors and from the success of his brethren in their work among the Lamanites for the rest of the chapter. The parallels between these passages had never occurred to me before reading with a focus on the questions in the text.
In chapter 30 Alma encounters Korihor, the anti-Christ, who also uses questions extensively in his teaching. Their exchange is one of the greatest debates in the Book of Mormon, and parallels the modern debates between believers and scientific skeptics. Alma comes out ahead, no small thanks to his expert use of questions to seize control of the dialogue in verses 34-45. (As an aside, the questions in verse 51 may be the only direct quotes from Nephihah, the second chief judge, although he is not specifically named in the text.)
Ammon and Aaron
Alma 17-26 is an account of the remarkable missionary journey of the Sons of Mosiah, led by Ammon and Aaron, and it contains 4 of the chapters with the highest question frequency in the Book of Mormon. The mission of the Sons of Mosiah provides a template not only for successful missionary work in general, but also a specific tutorial on the use of questions in teaching the gospel. Ammon and King Lamoni exchange 13 inquiry questions within a stretch of 20 verses in chapter 18, with Ammon deftly and gently guiding the discussion while showing a clear willingness to answer Lamoni’s concerns. Here is their dialogue from verses 18-33, condensed to highlight the questions:
Lamoni: Who art thou? Art thou that Great Spirit, who knows all things?
Ammon: I am not.
Liamoni: How knowest thou the thoughts of my heart? Thou mayest speak boldly, and tell me concerning these things.
Ammon: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee.
Lamoni: Yea, I will believe all thy words.
Ammon: Believest thou that there is a God?
Lamoni: I do not know what that meaneth.
Ammon: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
Ammon: This is God. Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?
Lamoni: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens.
Ammon: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels.
Lamoni: Is it above the earth?
Ammon: Yea, and he looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning.
Lamoni: I believe all these things which thou hast spoken. Art thou sent from God?
This passage provides a clear model for using questions in teaching. Notice that Ammon assesses Lamoni’s willingness to learn, probes his baseline understanding, and teaches the simple doctrines of the gospel, all using questions. He is not afraid of Lamoni’s questions, which are sincere inquiries and not contentious. Ammon is teaching by the Spirit, and Lamoni is learning by the Spirit, so that “he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:22).
Ammon’s brother Aaron is initially less fortunate when he tries to preach in the Lamanite city of Jerusalem, where in chapter 21 he is accosted by 7 contentious questions within 2 verses, and he is unable to teach them anything. He has better luck while teaching King Lamoni’s father in chapter 22, where their discussion is strikingly similar to the dialogue above from chapter 18.
Near the close of their missionary journey, chapter 26 records a discussion between the missionaries which is mostly a monologue by Ammon wherein he praises God for the marked success of their mission. This chapter includes 13 rhetorical questions, such as: “Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord?” (Alma 26:16).
Questions To and From the Lord
Twenty-six questions in the Book of Mormon are directed towards the Lord, and 22 of these are classified as prayers. The exceptions are all in 3 Nephi 24 (which is a quote of Malachi chapter 3) wherein the tone of the inquiries between the people and the Lord is more of a contention than a prayer. Sixty-eight questions are asked by the Lord, 25 of which (37%) are from the writings of Isaiah (ex: “For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?” (1 Nephi 21:15)
The third highest question frequency in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 29, which is entirely in the voice of the Lord. This chapter is his answer to those latter-day Gentiles who reject the Book of Mormon, saying, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible” (2 Nephi 29:3). All of the chapter’s 9 questions are found in 5 consecutive verses, culminating in the powerful rhetorical questions in verse 8: “Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another?” (2 Nephi 29:8).
During his personal ministry to the Nephites the Lord asks 17 questions in 3 Nephi chapters 12-14, wherein he quotes the Sermon on the Mount, with a question frequency for these chapters of 6.4 verses per question. By contrast, 3 Nephi chapters 11 and 15-28, which are predominantly in the voice of the Lord, have a much lower combined question frequency of 22.7 verses per question. This difference may partially be explained by the Lord’s ability to alter his own rhetorical style to suit the needs of his hearers, especially their readiness to understand and accept his teaching, such as in his abrupt change to teaching exclusively in parables in Matthew 13. The Nephites visited by the Lord in 3 Nephi were more similar to the righteous people of Gideon in Alma chapter 7 than to the people of Zarahemla in Alma chapter 5. The low question frequency in the later chapters of 3 Nephi also reflects the subject of his teachings in those chapters, which deal predominantly with prophecies concerning the last days, including the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Matthew chapter 24, which also contains the voice of the Lord giving prophecies about the last days, contains only one question within 48 verses of the prophecy.
Ether chapters 2 and 3 contain questions between the Lord and the brother of Jared, demonstrating the Lord’s ability to teach through questioning. Here is the dialogue in Ether 2:22-25, condensed to highlight the questions:
Brother of Jared: O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?
Lord: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire. […] Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?
The Brother of Jared is not given the answer to his question, but the Lord instructs him, through questions, to come up with his own answer. In the next chapter the Brother of Jared returns to the Lord with 16 small stones, which he asks the Lord to touch with his finger to make them shine, so that they will be a light source in their barges. When the Lord touches the stones the Brother of Jared falls to the earth with fear when he sees the finger of the Lord. Their subsequent dialogue, condensed here from Ether 3:7-13, again demonstrates the Lord’s masterful use of teaching questions:
Lord: Arise, why hast thou fallen?
Brother of Jared: I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.
Lord: Because of thy faith thou hast seen that I shall take upon me flesh and blood; and never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast; for were it not so ye could not have seen my finger. Sawest thou more than this?
Brother of Jared: Nay; Lord, show thyself unto me.
Lord: Believest thou the words which I shall speak?
Brother of Jared: Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie.
Lord: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you.
Notice that the Lord uses questions to encourage the Brother of Jared to express his desire to see the Lord, and to bear his testimony that God is a God of truth. Questions in a church lesson can similarly encourage class members to work out their own challenges, develop their desire to grow closer to God, and to bear testimony of what they believe.
Three similar chapters appear in the table above: Mosiah 12 (Abinadi before the priests of King Noah), Alma 14 (Alma and Amulek before the judges of Ammonihah), and Helaman 8 (Nephi II before the chief judges of the Nephites). Righteous men are defending themselves before wicked government leaders in all three chapters. Abinadi and Nephi II both seize control of the dialogue by asking their own questions, but Alma and Amulek passively endure their inquisition.
We also encounter contention in our lives, in trying to preach the gospel and in other settings. How we respond to that contention will say much about our character, and we should seek to be guided by the Spirit to know what to say and do in those situations.
Other Notable Passages
Alma chapter 60 includes 12 contentious questions from Captain Moroni to the chief judge Pahoran in a wartime epistle when the central government was not sufficiently supporting the army. Moroni was unaware of intrigues in the government which prevented Pahoran from supporting the war, and accuses Pahoran of various degrees of willful neglect. Pahoran responds to this wilting verbal assault with meekness, and after explaining the situation to Moroni he writes, “And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9).
The final testimonies of Nephi (2 Nephi 31 and 32), Jacob (Jacob 6), and Moroni (Mormon 9) are particularly dense with rhetorical questions. Mormon 9:26 contains 5 questions, which is the greatest number of questions within a single verse in the Book of Mormon. Note that the verse following these questions contains a wonderful counterbalance of faith and positive exhortation:
“26 And now, behold, who can stand against the works of the Lord? Who can deny his sayings? Who will rise up against the almighty power of the Lord? Who will despise the works of the Lord? Who will despise the children of Christ? Behold, all ye who are despisers of the works of the Lord, for ye shall wonder and perish.
“27 O then despise not, and wonder not, but hearken unto the words of the Lord, and ask the Father in the name of Jesus for what things soever ye shall stand in need. Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him.”
Mormon’s wrenching lament over the destruction of the people of Nephi contains three exclamations which are phrased as questions: “O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen!” (Mormon 6:17,19) The phrasing of this lament as a series of rhetorical questions, asked to his people as they lay dead upon their final battlefield, greatly amplifies the pathos of this passage.
Studying the questions in the Book of Mormon highlights several notable features of the text and brings into focus a number of parallel passages. Nephi’s “manner of happiness,” the missionary successes of Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah, the rhetorical powers of Abinadi and Nephi II, and the teaching style of Jesus Christ can all be appreciated and better understood by awareness of their use of questions.
Time and space prevent me from making a full discussion of the subject in this article, which must necessarily serve as an introduction to the topic. This study also suggests there there would be benefit from conducting a similar study of questions in the Old Testament, New Testament, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. This is left as an exercise to the reader.
One of the take-home messages of this post is that you can take your study of the scriptures to a new level just by doing something different. Start with a question, and see where it leads you. Don’t be afraid to get a little geeky, and be willing to spend time on it. I promise you that every effort to study the scriptures is worth it, and every minute in such an effort is time well spent. As President Nelson said, this “has been an insightful and inspiring exercise! I recommend it to each of you.”
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.