Book of Mormon Lesson #14: “For a Wise Purpose,” Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon (Gospel Doctrine)
Posted by joespencer on March 13, 2012
We’re on our way from the small plates to Mormon’s abridgement, and that way is paved by several short books. What I’ll do in this lesson, mostly, is attempt to set the stage for the Book of Mosiah. I’ll have relatively little to say about what’s usually talked about in Enos and Jarom, and I’ll get rather quickly to the details of the discovery of Zarahemla in Omni and the Words of Mormon. After all that, I’ll have a handful of things to say about the small plates as such, also drawn from Omni and the Words of Mormon. And then I’ll leave the small plates behind to turn to King Benjamin.
We’re generally focused, when we read the Book of Enos, on the forgiveness of sins that comes through Enos’s “wrestle” before God. But, to be a bit frank, I don’t think that was his wrestle. He prays for his own soul, and he does so at length, and it results in his hearing a voice announce that his sins were forgiven, yes, but that’s only the first part of his wrestle. What seems to be much more focal for Enos, in the end, is what comes afterward—since it’s only there that he talks about “struggling” with God:
Now it came to pass that when I had heard these words, I began to feel a desire for the welfare of my brethren, the Nephites. Wherefore, I did pour out my whole soul unto God for them, … struggling in the Spirit … . And I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren the Lamanites. (Enos 1:9-11)
We’re wont to read this as an indication that once our sins are forgiven us, we turn outward and begin to focus on others—that charity is a consequence of the atonement’s work on us. I don’t doubt that’s true, but I think there’s a good deal more going on here. The most important wrestle Enos has concerns the covenant first granted to the Lehites in 1 Nephi 2:19-24. Thus, in response to his prayer for the Nephites he hears this:
I will visit thy brethren according to their diligence in keeping my commandments. I have given unto them this land, and it is a holy land. And I curse it not save it be for the cause of iniquity. Wherefore, I will visit thy brethren according as I have said, and their transgressions will I bring down with sorrow upon their own heads. (Enos 1:10)
This is, simply put, a reaffirmation of what the Lord had said to Nephi long before. A similar reaffirmation concerning the Lamanites comes in response to his prayer in that regard, but it’s presented in a more complicated fashion—and at much greater length—in the text, all indicating that this the climax and central focus of this wrestling match.
It begins as follows:
And after that I, Enos, had heard these words [concerning the Nephites], my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord, and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren the Lamanites. (Enos 1:11)
Already, a couple of points shouldn’t be missed. The prayers for his own soul and for the Nephites have been undertaken in faith, but not in faith unshaken. Put another way, he hasn’t dared before this to ask on behalf of the Lamanites. But the kind of experience he’s having with the Lord has now given him trust enough to ask for something he was much less confident about. He describes his petition a little further along:
And now, behold, this was the desire which I desired of him: that if it should so be that my people the Nephites should fall into transgression and by any means be destroyed, and the Lamanites should not be destroyed, that the Lord God would preserve a record of my people, the Nephites—even if it so be by the power of his holy arm—that it might be brought forth some future day unto the Lamanites, that perhaps they might be brought unto salvation. (Enos 1:13)
His petition isn’t simply that the Lamanites be blessed or watched over or granted grace. Rather, what he asks for is a whole historical plan: a book to be kept safe so that it can turn the Lamanites to the covenant at a later point. And then he explains why this was his petition:
For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers. Wherefore, I, knowing that the Lord God was able to preserve our records, I cried unto him continually. For he had said unto me: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive, in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it. And I had faith, and I did cry unto God that he would preserve the records. (Enos 1:14-16)
Note the core motivation: Enos and others have been trying to teach the Lamanites of “the true faith,” and this has led to specific threats on the part of certain Lamanites that all Nephite records will be destroyed. I can only wonder here whether Enos’s preaching among the Lamanites, however that’s been undertaken, has included a description of Nephi’s vision (in 1 Nephi 11-14) and so has included talk of a Nephite record eventually coming among the Lamanites’ descendants. It might be this sort of thing that could have provoked such a threat. At any rate, Enos’s deepest concern is that the Lamanites will somehow thwart God’s historical plan as witnessed in Nephi’s vision, and his prayer is that the plan come off as announced.
Enos reports the Lord’s answer twice. The first report comes in verse 12:
And it came to pass that after I had prayed and labored with all diligence, the Lord said unto me: I will grant unto thee according to thy desires because of thy faith.
The other report comes later:
And he covenanted with me that he would bring them [the records] forth unto the Lamanites in his own due time. … And the Lord said unto me: Thy fathers have also required of me this thing, and it shall be done unto them according to their faith, for their faith was like unto thine. (Enos 1:16, 18)
This is the focus of Enos’s prayer: the promise that the covenant talked about throughout the small plates thus far will be kept. At any rate, it’s this that Enos takes back to the people as his message after the experience:
And now, it came to pass that I, Enos, went about among the people of Nephi, prophesying of things to come and testifying of the things which I had heard and seen. And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. (Enos 1:19-20)
These efforts, undertaken in the wake of Enos’s wrestle with God, prove unfortunately unfruitful, however. And the remainder of Enos’s contribution to the small plates deals with the sorry times the Nephites were passing through: despite their sedentary busyness, they “were a stiffnecked people” (Enos 1:22), such that “there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prohpesying of wars and contentions and destructions, and continually reminding them of death and of the duration of eternity and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord—I say, there was nothing short of these things and exceeding great plainness of speech would keep them from going down speedily to destruction” (Enos 1:23). Unsurprisingly, then, Enos was witness to “wars between the Nephites and the Lamanites” in his days (Enos 1:24)
And then he hands the record off to Jarom.
Jarom continues in the same vein as his father, noting from the start that “these things are written for the intent of the benefit of our brethren, the Lamanites” (Jarom 1:2). The Nephites, in the meanwhile, would seem to have taken a turn for the worse: God’s mercy is to be marked by the fact that He hasn’t “yet swept them off from the face of the land” (Jarom 1:3). There’s talk of the Nephites holding fast the law, but apparently that was because the laws were “exceeding strict” (Jarom 1:5). Their focus, at this point, is apparently artillery (see Jarom 1:8), and Jarom lived through a few serious wars with the Lamanites as well. The prophets, still more disturbingly, don’t so much prophesy as “threaten the people … according to the word of God” (Jarom 1:10). But even in the midst of all that, the focus is still on the Nephite messianism that has been spelled out in Nephi’s writings: they teach “the law of Moses and the intent for which it was given, persuading [the people] to look forward unto the Messiah and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11). But this sounds more promising that it apparently really was: “by so doing,” the prophets barely kept the Nephites “from being destroyed upon the fact of the land” (Jarom 1:12).
And then the plates are handed onto Omni to begin the series of short notes that make up the first half or so of the Book of Omni.
We’re generally familiar, I assume, with the series of authors who occupy the Book of Omni. The most striking moment in that sequence, in my opinion, comes in Amaron’s words in verse 6. He reports that “the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed” (Omni 1:5), and then explains:
For the Lord would not suffer, after he had led them out of the land of Jerusalem and kept and preserved them frmo falling into the hands of their enemies, yea, he would not suffer that the words should not be verified, which he spake unto our fathers, saying that: inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments, ye shall not prosper in the land. (Omni 1:6)
Why is this so striking? Most straightforwardly: because the Lord never said that last line to Amaron’s fathers. The Lord said that “inasmuch as ye will keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land”; He never said that “inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments, ye shall not prosper in the land.” What we see at this point is that things among the Nephites have gone so sour that the Lord’s original word to Nephi no longer makes sense in its original form. The very Lehitic covenant on which this New World Israelite tribe is built has been rendered a negative claim, a promise specifically for those who won’t keep the commandments, not a promise for those who will. This says, I think, much about the way things are going among the Nephites at this point.
Amaleki, of course, turns the tide in the Book of Omni, and I’ll have a good deal to say about him. But note that the very last thing said before he takes over the record is this:
And I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy. Wherefore, that which is sufficient is written. (Omni 1:11)
These are the last words Abinadom wrote in the small plates. And they’re remarkable because they make clear that he had no idea what was coming, how much things would suddenly seem to turn around. It’s that turn-around that I want to focus on from this point, as well as on how that turn-around is connected with the Nephites’ move to Zarahemla.
Right after verse 11’s disavowal of revelation, verse 12 reports a revelation (and it’s clearly important to Amaleki, because he’ll later make in his final testament—in verse 25—an exhortation to “believe in prophesying and in revelations and in the ministering of angels and in the gift of speaking with tongues and in the gift of interpreting languages,” etc.):
Behold, I am Amaleki, the son of Abinadom. Behold, I will speak unto you somewhat concerning Mosiah, which was made king over the land of Zarahemla. For behold, he being warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi—and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him into the wilderness—and it came to pass that he did according as the Lord had commanded him, and they departed out of the land into the wilderness, as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord. (Omni 1:12-13)
This sudden revelation comes to Mosiah, about whose background we know nothing. And we’re left with an endless set of questions: Was Mosiah connected with the royal family in any way? Was he, perhaps, the king of the Nephites already? Or was he merely a member of the royal family? Or was he in no obvious way connected with royalty—a mere commoner? Or was he, perhaps, connected with royalty but not actually directly related to royalty—a priest maybe? Why did the revelation come to him? Was this warning the first of his communications with the Lord? Was he a kind of prophetic figure long before this? Was there any preaching involved in this situation? Was Mosiah the leader of some kind of minority group—a religious sect or a political faction? What was Mosiah being warned about? Was there danger from the Lamanites? Were the Nephites, apart from those willing to flee with Mosiah, about to be destroyed because of wickedness and apostasy? Were Mosiah and his followers being warned to flee from danger from within the Nephite government? Was there some kind of natural disaster—an earthquake or a volcanic eruption—that Mosiah’s people escaped? Many more questions can be asked, but the point is that we know precious little about the background of the situation. We’ve watched—and in very few verses—the whole of Nephite civilization take a turn for the worse, but now we get the chance to see some few escape from that situation to begin afresh.
Whatever gets Mosiah and his followers moving, the consequences are enormous. Whoever doesn’t follow seems either to have been destroyed or to have been assimilated by the Lamanites, because it won’t be long before the land of Nephi—the land from which Mosiah’s group flees—will be under Lamanite control, indeed, will be the center of Lamanite territory. (This seems to me to make it most likely that the Lamanites were about to attack, and the Lord warned Mosiah so that the righteous would escape destruction while the remainder of the Nephites fell before the Lamanites in a fulfillment of the unfortunate words given to Nephi centuries before.) The journey from Nephi seems to have been a remarkable one, though it’s described quickly:
And they were led by many preachings and prophesyings, and they were admonished continually by the word of God, and they were led by the power of his arm through the wilderness, until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla. (Omni 1:13)
Three times Amaleki characterizes the journey as one closely focused on the Lord’s mercy. It is, in many ways, a direct echo of much earlier migrations in Nephite history—from Jerusalem (to the New World), from the “land of their first inheritance” (to the land of Nephi). But it ends, it’s clear, with arrival in the valley of Zarahemla.
Now, a word or two about geography, since enough readers of the Book of Mormon seem relatively unfamiliar with the basic geographical layout of the lands within the Book of Mormon. It’s clear from a number of details in the Book of Mormon that the land of Nephi, where the Nephites were settled from the time of Nephi until Mosiah was warned to leave, and where the Lamanites were settled from shortly after Mosiah’s departure, is in a mountainous region. The land of Zarahemla, on the other hand, is in a lowland valley surrounding a river (the river Sidon) that, presumably, flows out of the mountains of the land of Nephi. Between the two lands (of Nephi and Zarahemla) is a heavily forested area that extends northward along the east side of the land of Zarahemla, separating the Zarahemla from the ocean (into which the river Sidon flows). The mountains of the land of Nephi, it seems, also extend northward, but on the west side of the land of Zarahemla, separating Zarahemla from the other ocean. North of Zarahemla, the land mass narrows at the place the Nephites will later call Bountiful, and there is then a “narrow pass” into what the Book of Mormon refers to as the “Land North.” The stories in Mormon’s abridged history, beginning with the Book of Mosiah, will constantly refer to this geographic layout, so we’ll have to refer often to these details. For now, a basic map is sufficient.
The arrival in Zarahemla is a most complex situation, and for one reason in particular:
And they discovered a people which was called the people of Zarahemla. (Omni 1:14)
The next few verses provide a few details about this people. For one, they’re quite happy (“there was great rejoicing”) about the arrival of Mosiah’s people, as is their king (“Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly”), and apparently particularly because Mosiah had the brass plates with him (see Omni 1:14). This is to be explained, it seems, by what Mosiah subsequently discovered, namely, that “the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon” (Omni 1:15), and by the fact that “they had brought no records with them” (Omni 1:16). Their excitement, it would seem, was driven principally by the fact that Mosiah comes as if in order precisely to bring them a record of their ancient origins.
It seems. It’s very difficult to know exactly what to make of these details. Some have suggested that initial contact between the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites was less friendly than it first appears. Certainly, it was a longer process than these first verses of description suggest, since we’re told at the end of verse 17 that “Mosiah—nor the people of Mosiah—could not understand them.” Progress is only made, apparently, when “Mosiah caused that they should be taught in his language” (Omni 1:18). Here it is worth asking whether there isn’t a bit of cultural imperialism at work. Why is that the people of Zarahemla have to be taught the Nephites’ language, and not vice versa? We point, naturally, to the fact that the Nephites had records, but is that enough to justify the one-way relationship we begin to see unfolding? At any rate, some have suggested that, as Zarahemla began to see what was going on—the Nephites were moving in and quickly taking over—and once he learned a bit about the Nephites’ background—they claimed to hail from an ancient land called Jerusalem, to be found on the other side of the world, and were led to this land by the hand of God—he simply lied and claimed that his people were from the same land (establishing the possibility of equality?) and in fact that he was a direct descendant of Zedekiah (establishing the possibility of his own right to rule over Mosiah?). In short, we might well wonder whether there isn’t more to the story than Amaleki realized.
Whatever the truth behind the situation, and however the details were worked out, the end result of the Nephites’ arrival in Zarahemla is clear: “the people of Zarahemla and of Mosiah did unite together, and Mosiah was appointed to be their king” (Omni 1:19). We’ll see a little later on that this union was, however, rather tenuous—and real or effective unification would really take place until Benjamin’s last days. We’ll be coming to that.
Verses 20-22 report the translation of the stone that alerts the Nephites to the existence of the Jaredites. I’ll leave that out of my notes here and turn instead to the reign of Benjamin, Mosiah’s son.
Benjamin’s Life-Long Battle
Amaleki closes his contribution to the small plates—indeed, closes the small plates as such—with a brief account of Benjamin’s reign. Though it’s only a few verses long, it tells us much about the historical setting of the Book of Mosiah. Let’s take a look at it closely, as well as at some subsequent details on offer in the Words of Mormon.
Benjamin is introduced in verse 23, and then we’re immediately told about a major war that took place in his days:
And behold [says Amaleki], I have seen in the days of king Benjamin a serious war and much bloodshed between the Nephites and the Lamanites. But behold, the Nephites did obtain much advantage over them—yea, insomuch that king Benjamin did drive them out of the land of Zarahemla. (Omni 1:24)
By this point, it’s clear, the Lamanites have entirely settled in the land of Nephi and have discovered, as well, the existence of the settlement in Zarahemla. Perhaps infuriated that there are still surviving Nephites (might the Lamanites have believed the Nephites to been extinguished entirely after whatever battles took place in the land of Nephi?), the Lamanites launch a major offensive against Zarahemla, but Benjamin sees his people to a victory—indeed, to a victory strong enough that the Lamanites are ejected from the valley of Zarahemla entirely and a period of peace between the two peoples exists for a good while (indeed, for much longer than any subsequent period between Benjamin’s time and the visit of Christ to the Lehites). Benjamin’s deliverance of the Nephites and Zarahemlaites would seem to have been quite important for his reputation. He set up a buffered zone in which the Nephites and Zarahemlaites could begin to work out their own difficulties and differences—and he clearly had his hands full with that task, as we’ll see from the Words of Mormon.
As well as from the last details in the Book of Omni. The last couple of verses report a most important development:
And now, I would speak somewhat concerning a certain number which went up into the wilderness to return to the land of Nephi, for there was a large number which were desirous to possess the land of their inheritance. Wherefore, they went up into the wilderness. And their leader being a strong and a mighty man—and a stiffnecked man—wherefore, he caused a contention among them. And they were all slain save fifty in the wilderness, and they returned again to the land of Zarahemla. And it came to pass that they also took others to a considerable number and took their journey again into the wilderness. (Omni 1:27-29)
The details of the contention and slaughter don’t concern us much here (we’ll be coming back to this event with rather different eyes and a different focus when we get to Mosiah 9). What’s much more important immediately is the mere fact that there were Nephites who wanted to go back to the land of Nephi. There are several ways this can be interpreted, and every one of these possible interpretations suggests that things were not going very well in Benjamin’s Zarahemla.
What drove these particular Nephites to want to return to the land of Nephi? Was it that they felt the Nephites had done wrong in merging with the Zarahemlaites? Was it that they felt it was wrong to merge with the Zarahemlaites on relatively equal terms? Was it, in short, that they felt the Nephites had somehow compromised something in establishing their new settlement? And does it reflect a kind of general concern about the shape of things in Zarahemla once the Lamanites are out of the way and things are focused on Nephite-Zarahemlaite relations? To go in a rather different direction, was the motivation connected more with nostalgia for the land of their inheritance? Was there a conviction that something had been lost when they had left their original home behind? And if so, was that attitude a symptom of a kind of general dissatisfaction with the Mosiah-Benjamin regime? And what had this decision to do with the recent expulsion of the Lamanites? Did these people feel that their victory over the Lamanites meant that they had the strength to be rid of their enemies once and for all? Was the idea that there would never really be peace until the Lamanites were exterminated?
These questions can go on and on. What shouldn’t be missed is that every interpretation suggests that, though Benjamin had repelled the Lamanite attack, he had some real issues still to deal with just among his own people—issues that ran deep enough that a “considerable number” of them were happy simply to walk away from Benjamin’s peaceful kingdom in the valley of Zarahemla to return to the land of Nephi. The Words of Mormon have much to say about the difficulties Benjamin faced. I’ll come to those in a moment, however. It’s necessary first to say just a bit about the way that the split between Benjamin’s kingdom and what will become Zeniff’s kingdom opens up a crucial historical pattern in the Book of Mormon.
With the departure of the would-be settlers of the land of Nephi, Nephite society is effectively divided in two. There’s a kind of split that divides the Nephites against themselves—indeed, so deeply here that there are two Nephite monarchies. This split will be the principal subject of the Book of Mosiah, and the book will conclude with its healing—only to see it reproduced in a rather different way: instead of having two parallel regimes in two distinct lands, there will be a set of missionaries (the sons of the king in Zarahemla) who go to the land of Nephi and there will be a high priest (the son of the high priest in Nephi) who goes about the land of Zarahemla. That split will in turn be overcome halfway (literally halfway) through the Book of Alma, only to be reproduced yet again, but in a different shape: Amalickiah will be a Nephite military leader running the Lamanite show, something like a corrupt reworking of Ammon’s missionary work from the first half of the Book of Alma. When all these splits between the two lands (Nephi and Zarahemla) and two peoples (Lamanites and Nephites) are overcome at the end of the Book of Alma, however, they will be replaced by another sort of split in the Book of Helaman, though at that point a split internal to Nephite society: the Nephites will be split between robbers and non-robbers, and that split will hold until Nephite society completely breaks down immediately prior to the visit of Christ in Third Nephi. (It’s worth noting that this split might even be said to have obtained before Zarahemla, in that the large plates were split off from the small plates—until the two sets of records were united in Benjamin’s possession, but that union takes place precisely when Nephite society splits in two.)
Thus, what we see happening in the last verses of Omni is the beginning of a kind of constantly repeated pattern of a self-divided Nephite nation that will drive the history Mormon recounts up until the coming of Christ. That pattern, it seems, is almost a necessary consequence of the move from Nephi to Zarahemla: cut off from the land of their inheritance—occupied for centuries—leads to a kind of self-division, a problematic non-self-identity, that keeps things moving, but always moving toward dissolution. We’ll see a whole series of attempts at solving this problem by changing the nature of Nephite government, but it will always lead to more chaos.
And it all begins with chaos as well, as the Words of Mormon make clear. While the departure of those who desired the land of Nephi might well have solved some internal problems (those discontents have at least gone elsewhere in the meanwhile), there was much more to be solved in Zarahemla. Here’s what Mormon says:
And now, concerning this King Benjamin: he had somewhat contentions among his own people. … And it came to pass that after there had been false Christs and their mouths had been shut and they punished according to their crimes, and after there had been false prophets and false preachers and teachers among the people and all these having been punished according to their crimes, and after there having been much contentions and many dissensions away unto the Lamanites—behold, it came to pass that king Benjamin, with the assistance of the holy prophets which were among his people (for behold, king Benjamin was a holy man, and he did reign over his people in righteousness; and there were many holy men in the land, and they did speak the word of God with power and with authority, and they did use much sharpness because of the stiffneckedness of the people), wherefore, with the help of these, king Benjamin, by laboring with all the might of his body and the faculty of his whole soul (and also the prophets), wherefore, they did once more establish peace in the land. (Words of Mormon 1:12, 15-18)
The problems, note, have been manifold: contentions, false Christs, false prophets and preachers and teachers, dissensions away to the Lamanites (the first we’ve heard of that in the Book of Mormon!), etc. These aren’t everyday problems even among the Nephites. False Christs? What does that indicate? That certain persons pretended to be prepared to redeem the people in what sense? In returning them to the land of Nephi? In replacing Benjamin’s authority with their own? Dissensions to the Lamanites? Why so much treachery? Why traitors at this time specifically—at a time of war with the Lamanites precisely? What sort of reason could Nephites, so soon after being delivered by a perfectly timed warning, have for deserting to the Lamanites? And what sorts of messages were the false prophets and preachers and teachers delivering? That something was amiss in Zarahemla? That Benjamin shouldn’t be in power? That the Zarahemlaites should have more power in government? That the royal priesthood was corrupt? And then how is all this overcome? What sort of “sharpness” are Benjamin and his holy men using, and how is it effective? And what sort of peace is actually obtained in the end? Is it just that things are strict and oppressive enough that there’s principally a sort of pax romana? There’s far too much that remains obscure at this point.
And all this will have to be asked about again and again over the next couple of lessons. It’s clear that it’s precisely these sorts of contentions and the peace apparently obtained in the end that motivates Benjamin’s speech. We’ll have much to say about that. And it’s all these same concerns that seem to lie behind the two chapters of Zeniff’s writings, and more especially behind the problems surrounding Noah and Abinadi. We’ll have much more still to say about that. The whole Book of Mosiah hangs on these most complex historical issues.
But I want to get on to a few last details about the nature of the small plates.
The End of the Small Plates
Amaleki ends the Book of Omni with the following words:
And I am about to lay down in my grave. And these plates are full. And I make an end of my speaking. (Omni 1:30)
Already before this, Amaleki announced what he would do with the record:
ANd it came to pass that I began to be old, and, having no seed, and knowing king Benjamin to be a just man before the Lord, wherefore, I shall deliver up these plates unto him. (Omni 1:25)
From the Words of Mormon we learn that Amaleki did as he planned:
Wherefore, it came to pass that after Amaleki had delivered up these plates into the hands of king Benjamin, he took them and put them with the other plates which contained records which had been handed down by the kings from generation to generation until the days of king Benjamin. (Words of Mormon 1:10)
With this event, the completion of the small plates record and the eventual surrender of that record to Benjamin, a whole complex history comes to an end. Mormon describes the small plates as a “small account of the prophets from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin” which also contained “many of the words of Nephi” (Words of Mormon 1:3). That description helps us to see the sense in which a whole line of prophets (very few of whom seemed to be particularly prophetic) came to an end. With Amaleki’s death, what had been a distinction between the kings and the prophets among the Nephites (sharpest at the time of Jacob, it seems) collapses, and Benjamin becomes both king and prophet—as he’ll show himself to be quite clearly in his sermon at the beginning of the Book of Mosiah.
But what’s really happened in the course of the small plates? Isn’t it strange that Mormon describes the record as he does, since we read it mostly as the record of Nephi, with a couple of appendices? Why does he give pride of place to the line of (mostly non-)prophets?
Here let me quote a brilliant little analysis of these shorter small plates books by Terryl Givens (to be found in his Very Short Introduction to the Book of Mormon, published by Oxford University Press):
When Nephi addresses a reading audience directly, that audience is at first undefined. “I would that ye should know” of his father’s faithfulness, he writes only eighteen verses into his record, and then a few verses later, “I will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Ne. 20). But not until near the end of his record does he specify more exactly whom he has in mind. In the midst of his borrowings from Isaiah, he writes that he is sending his writings “forth unto all my children” (2 Ne. 11:2). Then Nephi follows up with almost one hundred direct addresses to “my people,” “you, my children,” and “my beloved brethren.” Clearly, he has in mind that he is writing a family history to be read by his descendents. When the Gentile peoples (or non-Israelites) are referred to, as they are dozens of times, it is always in the third person. In one exception, Nephi foresees the Gentiles mocking the Book of Mormon (“We have got a Bible”) and turns his prophetic fury on them in an extended apostrophe (2 Ne. 29). Even then, the abrupt transition from “do they remember” to “O ye Gentiles” reveals the direct address as rhetorical, not literal. He immediately goes back to “you,” i.e., my brethren, another seventy-some times. From first to last, then, in spite of occasional intimations of a larger, future audience, Nephi has his posterity in mind. As he bears final witness, he prays that his words will “be made strong unto them.” Seen in this light, his final farewell to “my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth” is formulaid (2 Ne. 33:4, 10). Nephi is writing to Nephites.
The first hint of a transition in the Book of Mormon’s intended audience occurs with Nephi’s brother and successor Jacob. He praises the Lamanites for their chastity and perceives that because of this “the Lord God will not destroy them” (Jac. 3:6). By contrast, he warns the wicked Nephites that they “may bring [their] children unto destruction” (3:10).
The sense that the originally intended audience may not be around long enough to profit from this record intensifies with Enos, who prays that “if … the Nephites, should … be destroyed, that the Lord God would preserve a record of … the Nephites … that it might be brought forth at some future day unto the Lamanites” (Enos 1:13). by the time his son Jarom writes, the writing on the wall is all too apparent. While dutifully maintaining the family genealogy, Jarom simply assumes that he is really writing for “the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites,” though he still uses the first person plural (1:2).
His son Omni operates under the new assumption that the Nephites will be no more than a distant memory to futurity, finding it necessary to explain to his distant audience that “the Nephites” are “[his] people” and indicating that the Lamanites are “their enemies,” rather than simply referring to “us” and “our enemies” (Omni 1-2). His son Amaron likewise refers to the Nephites as “them” (6-7), and in the next writer Amaleki’s longer narrative the Nephites have become entirely third person, even though he is writing an account of contemporary events. So the transformation of both voice and audience int he small plates of Nephi is now complete. We have gone from “I, Nephi,” speaking of “we Nephites,” and writing to and for the benefit of “my people, a remnant of the House of Israel, my brethren and my children,” to “I Amaleki,” speaking of “those Nephites,” and doing so “for the benefit of the Lamanites.” (pp. 85-87)
Givens hits the nail on the head. What we see taking place between Jacob and Benjamin is an increasing sense of despair for the Nephites, a developing conviction that the Nephites are a lost cause and that all hope must be placed in the Lamanites’ future interest in the record that has been under way. That increasing conviction, of course, only makes sense in light of Nephi’s “many words” and prophecies, but there’s something very crucial about that development itself. Though the line of prophets from Jacob may not seem very often or very consistently to be prophetic in the sense we’re accustomed to, they do consistently keep their prophetic sights trained on the long-distant future in which the Lamanites are set to receive the record they’re producing. Their insistence on keeping the genealogy straight and the tradition of watching for the redemption of the Lamanites is exemplary and deeply prophetic. It’s this, it seems, that interests Mormon, indeed, leads Mormon to insert the whole of the small plates directly into his record.
And yet the small plates end on a remarkable note of hope: with Mosiah’s departure from Nephi and Benjamin’s repulsion of the Lamanites, there seems to be a revival of sorts on the horizon. And so the closure of the small plates opens onto an era in which there is a new hope for the possibilities outlined in Nephi’s record. All this deserves to be laid out more clearly. So let me see if I can’t make quite clear the stakes of the small plates.
I’ve pointed out in earlier posts (see here especially) that Nephi seems originally to have understood the record that would eventually come forth (i.e., the Book of Mormon) to be a record principally, if not exclusively, of the teachings of the visiting Christ to the New World Israelites. What Nephi thought would come forth was something like an account just of Jesus’s Third Nephi teachings. Why, then, did Nephi write? He seems to have seen his own project as one of setting the Nephites on the path that would prepare them for the visit of the Christ, to ensure that they would produce the record that would need to come forth eventually. Only much later in the work of producing his own record did Nephi begin to glimpse the possibility that his own writings might be included with or in that record eventually to circulate. Consequently, Nephi’s own massive contribution to the small plates hovers between an attempt to set his own people straight enough that they can produce the necessary record of Christ’s visit and an attempt to produce his own set of texts that might help eventual readers of the text to understand what he was up to.
Nephi’s death, as Terryl Givens’s comments above help to demonstrate, seems to have launched an era of despair over the likelihood that a record would be forthcoming at all. Jacob’s early interventions after Nephi’s death seem to have introduced this sense of despair because the prophetic word was largely rejected and an era of apostasy was setting in. It’s telling that when Jacob takes up Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree in order, originally, to talk about how the Jews can come into relation to Jesus Christ, he gets sidetracked into an application of the allegory to the Nephites: how can they ever turn back to a right focus on their task of producing a record that will redeem the Lamanites at some future time? It’s more telling still that the only thing that can turn Jacob back toward some kind of hope is the horrific situation surrounded Sherem, an event that brought the people to fear God. Jacob’s last days opened up an era of legal strictness and sermonic fieriness, all of which barely kept the Nephites from being destroyed before Christ could come to visit them.
Interestingly, by Enos’s time, as we’ve seen, the focus is just on the possibility of the small plates surviving. There’s no longer any talk of a record to be produced at the time of Christ’s visit, but only of ensuring that at least this little record can be preserved so that Nephi’s teachings at least will help to turn the Lamanites in the right direction in the last days. The future looks bleak. And things only get bleaker as time goes on. With Jarom’s writings, and then the string of authors occupying the first part of Omni, there’s more or less no hope of anything going rightly. The wicked among the Nephites are destroyed, but things don’t for all that get any better, really. The small plates seem to be the only possibility of hope.
But then Amaleki comes along. He witnesses a massive turn-around, and he glimpses the possibility of hope. There’s a departure from the land of apostasy, and there’s a possibility with a righteous king or two of turning things around among the Nephites. Things are only a little more than a century out from the predicted coming of Christ, and so there’s a possibility of Nephi’s vision actually coming true. And so the small plates end on a strong note of hope, with a cheery anticipation of good things to come. It isn’t hard, then, to see why Mormon was so interested in the small plates. He wanted Nephi’s prophecies—so much good to be had there—but he also wanted to set up Benjamin’s speech in the right way, to show the way that it infused Nephite religion with real hope. The small plates set up very well the history Mormon wants to tell from this point on.
And so we’ll turn next to Mormon’s history, beginning with king Benjamin. There’s much yet to learn, though we leave the small plates behind at this point.
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