Reflections on Helaman 7
Posted by joespencer on May 23, 2013
For a project I’m hard at work on, I’m reading carefully through Helaman 7-16, chapter by chapter. In order to organize my thoughts as I’m working along through the text, I’m thinking I’ll write up posts on each chapter. These notes will simply be here, ready for anyone who cares to read through them.
Before 1879, when Orson Pratt divided the text of the Book of Mormon up into verses, the chapter breaks were substantially different from what they are now. From work that’s been done by Royal Skousen, it seems that the original chapter breaks in the Book of Mormon reflected breaks in the actual Nephite text, and not just something Joseph and Oliver used to make sense of what they were translating. Close study of how the original chapter breaks organizes the text of the Book of Mormon is often quite fruitful. And that’s reason enough to take seriously the chapter breaks in the Book of Helaman. What’s now chapter 7 of Helaman was the opening of what was originally Chapter III, which continued through what is now chapter 10. (Here’s the whole breakdown: today’s chapters 1-2 were Chapter I; today’s chapters 3-6 were Chapter II; today’s chapters 7-10 were Chapter III; today’s chapters 11-12 were Chapter IV; and today’s chapters 13-16 were Chapter V.) It’s probably important to investigate how what we know as Helaman 7-10 made up a single story.
As it turns out, this is particularly imposed on us by the text. The italicized heading above Helaman 7 (which was part of the original text) gives us a three-part outline of Helaman 7-16. It reads as follows: “The Prophecy of Nephi, the Son of Helaman [General Title of Helaman 7-16]—God threatens the people of Nephi that he will visit them in his anger, to their utter destruction except they repent of their wickedness. [This is clearly a summary of the original Chapter III, today's chapters 7-10.] God smiteth the people of Nephi with pestilence; they repent and turn unto him. [This is clearly a summary of the original Chapter IV, today's chapters 11-12.] Samuel, a Lamanite, prophesies unto the Nephites. [This is clearly a summary of the original Chapter V, today's chapters 13-16.]” Note what’s going on here. The heading, in three clearly distinct sentences, gives us a summary of the three original chapters, one by one. And I think that ought to be reason enough for us to think that Helaman 7-10 is a total story, indivisible in a certain regard. We probably ought also to take seriously the summary of Helaman 7-10 as a kind of guide: “God threatens the people of Nephi that he will visit them in his anger, to their utter destruction except they repent of their wickedness.” As we look at Helaman 7 and the three chapters following it, we’d do well to keep an eye on that summary way of understanding the narrative: it apparently focuses first and foremost on God’s “threat” regarding destruction, etc.
So what’s going on in Helaman 7? It opens with Nephi, the son of Helaman, showing up in the land of Zarahemla after a six-year mission in the land northward (the land once inhabited by the Jaredites, and only recently inhabited by the Nephites—see Helaman 3). Things didn’t go well for him there, and his return to Zarahemla isn’t a happy one. He comes home only to find out that the Gadianton robbers, who had retreated into the wilderness before Nephi had left on his mission (see Helaman 1-2 for the story of the rise of the Gadiantons, and for their departure), had begun to infiltrate the government. As a consequence, Nephi laments rather openly on a tower in his garden, which attracts a crowd that is curious about his deep sadness. He takes the gathering of the people as an opportunity to issue a call to repentance and to warn—as stated in the heading already discussed—that serious destruction looms on the horizon for the unrepentant Nephites. That’s the basic story of chapter 7. It can be read in a few minutes, of course. What I’d like to do in this post is raise a number of exegetical and theological questions about it, providing my thoughts.
My reflections here won’t be systematic. Particularly unhelpful, I suspect, will be my exegetical comments. They’ll seem slapdash, and I think I’d do best to recommend that anyone not interested in that sort of thing simply skip them to look at the theological points I raise. I mean with my exegetical notes only to jot a few things I’m keeping in one place for my own purposes. My theological discussion will, I suspect, be of more interest to most people. I’ve riddled out of the text of Helaman 7 eleven different points of particular theological interest. I’ll work through them one by one, perhaps a bit too quickly, but with an aim to spelling out some basic thoughts on each one—at the very least developing a problem that deserves further theological attention.
Hopefully, something here is of use or interest to someone out there.
Without further ado, I turn to exegesis.
Verse 1 – Nephi returns to the land of Zarahemla in the sixty-ninth year of the judges’ reign. Since we know he left for the land northward in the sixty-third year (see Helaman 6:6), it’s clear that he served a full six-year mission in the land northward, about which we know almost nothing. Why was that mission so long? His mission in the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi—which resulted in the mass conversion of the Lamanites!—was undertaken in its entirety in just the sixty-second year! Why a one-year mission to the vast majority of Nephites and Lamanites, and then a six-year mission to the small minority that had moved into the land northward?
Verse 2 – The phrase “been forth” (rather than “gone forth”) is a bit strange, perhaps. (It appears elsewhere in scripture only in Alma 26, where Ammon uses it to refer to their journeys among the Lamanites.) A bit of research reveals that it’s a now-archaic way of saying “been abroad.” (The word “forth” was interchangeable, in certain uses, with “abroad” right up into the nineteenth century.) So that’s apparently how we should read this phrase, even though we tend to insert “gone” in the place of “been” when we read it, and so hear something just like “gone.”
Verse 10 – Nephi’s lament takes place on his “tower” in his “garden.” That is perhaps innocuous enough, but both towers and gardens appear often in scripture, raising the question of whether there are echoes that might be heard in this story. Might it be fruitful to compare Nephi’s lament with Benjamin’s speech, or with Noah’s plea for his people’s safety? Is his lament connected in some way with the image of the prophet who watches carefully from the watchtower? And what of the many gardens in scripture, ranging from Eden to Gethsemane? Is there perhaps something significant about Nephi bowing himself to the earth in a garden when he pleads for a certain kind of release (and comes to a kind of resignation), since Jesus Christ did something similar in Gethsemane?
Verse 13 – The punctuation in this verse is a little unstable. It’s possible to read Nephi as asking one question (“Why have ye gathered yourselves together that I may tell you of your iniquities?”) or two (“Why have ye gathered yourselves together? That I may tell you of your iniquities?”) It is worth asking whether one of these approaches is the better, perhaps in light of the questions asked further in verse 14.
Verse 16 – The earliest versions of this text have Nephi speaking of “him who art” instead of “him who is” when referring to Satan. Although this is probably best explained as an instance of Joseph Smith’s not-entirely-good grammar getting in the way of the translation, it is worth asking about the possibility that Nephi strays from his third-person talk about Satan to address the adversary in second-person form, criticizing him directly.
Verse 16 – There’s a kind of tension between the image of Satan “enticing” and the image of him “seeking to hurl away . . . souls.” Part of this is just a matter of the strangeness of the idea of hurling away. Why does Satan not simply hurl souls down to misery and woe? Why does he instead hurl them away down to misery and woe?
Verse 16 – The concluding phrase of this verse, “everlasting misery and endless woe,” rather obviously echoes Helaman 5:12, a verse that (along with others) reports the teachings of Helaman to his sons Nephi and Lehi, one of whom is speaking in these verses in Helaman 7. It may be important to do close exegetical work on ways that Helaman influenced the shape of his son’s theological discourse.
Verse 17 – The question “Why will ye die?” appears a handful of times in scripture, three times in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 27:13; Ezekiel 18:31; 33:11) and once elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 6:6). These other texts may be helpful for making better sense of Nephi’s words here. One reference in particular seems particularly relevant because it also uses the phrase “turn ye, turn ye”: Ezekiel 33:11.
Verse 18 – Nephi uses the name “Good Shepherd” to speak of Christ. This is a name that derives from the Johannine gospel (see John 10), but it’s one that is also picked up in the Book of Mormon in one major sermon: Alma 5. That it appears only in Alma 5 (seven times!) and then in this singular reference in Helaman 7 is curious. There’s a suggestion here that there’s some kind of relationship between Nephi’s words and Alma’s sermon in Zarahemla.
Verse 19 – The phrase “scatter . . . forth” seems a bit awkward, but perhaps the indication above that “forth” could mean simply “abroad” is helpful here as well: the threat is that the Lord would scatter the Nephites abroad.
Verse 19 – Nephi’s reference to “becom[ing] meat for dogs and wild beasts” seems to be related to two other Book of Mormon texts: Mosiah 12:2 (Abinadi tells the unrepentant Nephites in the land of Nephi that they would “be slain, and the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts” would “devour their flesh”) and Alma 16:10 (the narrator reports that the people of Ammonihah were destroyed in one day, “and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness”). These connections suggest a kind of parallel between the destructions coming upon Zarahemla and other destructions in Nephite history.
Verse 22 – Nephi threatens the people with having their lands “taken away,” so that they would have “no place in them.” That’s a real threat, of course, but it’s something that his audience had only just barely experienced already. The Lamanites had taken all of their lands up to the land Bountiful (they had, in other words, been driven right into the land northward—see Helaman 4:5). Is Nephi threatening them with a kind of repetition of what had just taken place? Is he drawing on a recent experience in order to make quite vivid what he’s predicting? Is he bringing recent events to their attention in order to remind them that the only way this situation was overcome before was through his own preaching efforts (see Helaman 5:51-52)?
Verses 25-27 – In these verses, three “woes” are pronounced, but they’re arranged in a curious order. The woe of verse 25 is presented in the imperative (“woe be unto you”), the woe of verse 26 is presented in the future tense (“woe shall come unto you”), and the woe of verse 27 is presented again in the imperative (“woe be unto you”). It’s difficult to know what’s indicated by the shift from the imperative to the future and back to the imperative. Might other instances of “woe” in this sermon be of help in interpretation?
Theological Points of Interest
So much, for the moment, for exegetical details. The above are hardly comprehensive, but they note things that jumped out at me as I’ve been reading through the text carefully. Here, though, I’d like to raise eleven theological points of interest, developing each of them in a little bit of detail, although without producing a full-blown theological development of them. They’re all occasions for further theological reflection, and I hope to think them through further at some point.
1. Nephi’s Typical But Unprecedented Mission in the Land Northward
We’re told in verse 3 that the people in the land northward “did reject all [Nephi's] words, insomuch that he could not stay among them, but returned again unto the land of his nativity.” There’s no surprise, of course, in hearing about a prophet being rejected, but there’s something strange nonetheless about this report—specifically, this bit about Nephi’s not being able to stay among the people in the land northward. First, it’s strange to say something like that about a six-year mission! But more importantly, it’s strange to say that he simply couldn’t stay. Does this mean that there was a certain threat to his life? Does this mean that the Spirit told him to leave? Does this mean that he was physically forced to leave? Or what?
In trying to make sense of this, one might note a certain echo of other stories in the Book of Mormon. Alma went to preach in the city of Ammonihah, and his words were entirely rejected, such that he turned his back on the land and left. Samuel the Lamanite will later do the same thing with the people of Zarahemla. And from these stories, it’s perhaps possible to say that there’s something typical about Nephi’s mission to the land northward: as a foreigner (remember that “forth”-means-”abroad” business from above), a prophet is often enough rejected in such a way that they leave off their efforts to preach in a certain location. (We might cite a few others—Aaron and his brothers in the Lamanite city of Jerusalem, for instance.) But even as there’s a certain typical character about this experience, there’s something unprecedented about Nephi’s experience: those others in the Book of Mormon who left a city they had undertaken to preach left by choice (though perhaps encouraged rather strongly by the locals). Nephi, we’re told, couldn’t stay among the people in the land northward. How are we to understand that?
Another difference between others in the Book of Mormon and Nephi deserves attention. Alma left Ammonihah, only to be turned back. Samuel will do exactly the same: he’ll go to leave Zarahemla, and then he’ll be sent back to preach again. Nephi was forced to leave the land northward, and in that he echoes the experience of others in a way, but he’s not sent back. Is that because he couldn’t remain among them to preach? Or is there more to the story?
But here we might play around with a really strange possibility. Nephi is forced out, and he returns home. His lament leads to the opportunity for the sermon that occupies the rest of chapters 7 and 8. His prophecy at the end of chapter 8 gets him involved in a strange sequence of affairs, culminating in a further prophecy that no one can deny turned out true (his prediction of the actions of the chief judge’s murderer). A dispute breaks out, and everyone walks away from Nephi, arguing over his status, such that he’s left alone. And then—mark it!—Nephi begins to walk away, only to be turned back to the people (see Helaman 10:11-12). There are rather clear echoes of that moment in the story in the others we’ve mentioned: Alma and Samuel, etc.
Might we read Helaman 7-10 as a protracted repetition of other such stories, then? And might we see in this story something else that happens in those stories: the granting of a certain miraculous power. Alma is sent back to Ammonihah, and he’s given the ability to bring the prison down and escape; Samuel is sent back to Zarahemla, and he’s given the ability to dodge the stones and arrows of the angry Nephites. Nephi will be given the power to smite the earth with famine or pestilence, and to escape out of the hands of dangerous crowds.
Does Nephi at some subsequent point return to the land northward, though we’re not told of it? Does he go back now with the ability to stay? It’s an open question, and a key one.
2. Nephi’s Vision and Its Effect
Verse 4 makes Nephi’s return from the land northward an experience of seeing, and this is confirmed again in verse 6: “And seeing the people in a state of such awful wickedness,” etc., “and when Nephi saw it, his heart was swollen with sorrow within his breast” (Helaman 7:4, 6). These two references to seeing enclose a brief report of the “state” of the people: awful wickedness, yes, but in particular the Gadianton robbers infiltrating the government and perverting justice (letting the wicked go because of their money, and punishing the righteous for their righteousness, etc.). The emphasis on seeing here sets off these three verses as a kind of vision. Nephi comes back from the land northward and has a kind of vision when he returns. (Let me be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that he had a vision in the strict sense. I just mean to say that the narrator here presents his recognition of what things are like in the land of Zarahemla as if it were a vision, and specifically by using the language of “seeing” on both ends of the report.)
This would be small potatoes, but for the curious detail that concludes verse 6: “and when Nephi saw it, his heart was swollen with sorrow within his breast.” Why is that of interest? Because we have another visionary experience in scripture that results in a (rather memorable) swelling of the heart: the vision of Enoch. Hopefully you remember the story. Enoch sees something of the wickedness and then the consequent destruction of the people of his day and immediately after, and then he sees the heavens weep. That confuses him, and he asks God about it. In response, God begins to teach him about His love, such that Enoch comes to understand the situation as God understands it. The result is this: “And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41). When Enoch sees the wickedness of the people correctly, he weeps and “his heart swell[s] wide as eternity.” This isn’t terribly far from what happens with Nephi in Helaman 7. He sees the wickedness of the people, and his heart swells within him.
This is a curious connection because most other instances of hearts swelling—and they’re all in the Book of Mormon except Enoch’s experience—are joyful ones: Ammon when he realizes he can “show forth [his] power” to his fellow servants (Alma 17:29); Lamoni when he delivers the news of Christ to his wife (Alma 19:13); Captain Moroni when he feels thanksgiving for the blessings of his people (Alma 48:12); the Nephites rather generally after they defeat their enemies (3 Nephi 4:33). The only other instance of sadness or sorrow or something like it is when the Lamanites who kill the Anti-Nephi-Lehies realize what they’ve done: “there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done” (Alma 24:24). Note, however, that in all these instances, positive or negative, there’s a kind of association of the swelling of the heart with a certain kind of reflectiveness or recognition: the person or persons involved see what’s going on, realize the stakes of their experience, recognize the poignancy of the situation they’re in—and then their hearts swell within them. All this is suggestive simply about what it means to have one’s heart swell. There seem to me to be the rudiments of a certain theological theme buried in all this.
3. The Transformation of Benjamin’s Words
In the middle of the report of Nephi’s “vision,” we’re told that the Gadianton robbers had begun to manipulate the government in such a way that they “might . . . steal and kill and do according to their own wills” (Helaman 7:5). This is a most interesting formulation, because it seems to be a deliberate reworking of the words of King Benjamin. Early in his celebrated sermon, King Benjamin’s focus is on the unprofitability of human beings as servants of God. You remember the words: “if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). But remember what it is that makes us unprofitable: (1) our createdness, which puts us always in debt to him (see Mosiah 2:23: “in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him”); (2) our sustainedness, which keeps us always in debt to him (see Mosiah 2:24: “secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever”).
If that much is clear, then we ought to note the way that Benjamin first describes human createdness-and-sustainedness, which establishes a relationship of indebtedness to God. He speaks of “that God who has created you [createdness], and has kept and preserved you [sustainedness]” (Mosiah 2:20), and then he speaks again of “him who has created you from the beginning [createdness], and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another [sustainedness]” (Mosiah 2:21). Now, how is this helpful for thinking about what we find in Helaman 7? The bit I’ve just italicized is clearly echoed in the description of what the Gadianton robbers secure for themselves: to “steal and kill and do according to their own wills,” but “live” and “move” are replaced with “steal” and “kill.” There’s much to think about there.
Notice what the parallel suggests. The Gadianton robbers assume a position not unlike God’s (by analogy): they assume a position of real sovereignty through their usurpation of the government, such that they are “held in office at the head of government, to rule” (Helaman 7:5). This is parallel in certain obvious ways to the description of God in Mosiah 2, where Benjamin speaks of Him as our “heavenly King” (Mosiah 2:19). The parallel, however, serves only to highlight a major difference: where God assumes a position of sovereignty in order to give to others to “do according to [their] own will,” the Gadiantons assume a position of sovereignty in order to give to themselves to “do according to their own wills.” The parallel, in short, highlights the perverted nature of Gadianton sovereignty.
Obviously, more can be said about the replace of “live and move” with “steal and kill.” Where God gives His subjects to live, the Gadiantons give themselves to kill! That especially calls for thought. But I think I’ve established the thought worth pursuing here, so I’ll move on.
4. These Days, Those Days, the Only Days
In verses 7-9, we get a report of Nephi’s lament on his tower. It turns on the use of the word “days,” and it encapsulates a spirit of melancholic nostalgia that permeates the Book of Helaman: “O that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem . . . . Yea, if my days could have been in them days . . . . But behold, I am consigned that these are my days.” Notice what’s going on here: “my days” is distinguished from “them days,” but in a complex way. In verse 7, Nephi expresses a wish that the two were identical. In verse 8, he further explores the possibilities that would derive from such an identification. In both of these verses, then, both sets of “days” are mentioned. In verse 9, we get Nephi’s resignation, and the result is that Nephi’s days are entirely distinguishes from, established as non-identical to, the days of that other Nephi. That distinction or non-identity is established by a sudden lack of a second reference to “days”: we have only “my days” in verse 9, after the “my days”/”them days” references in verses 7-8.
All this seems rather obvious, I imagine, but there’s much to think about here. It’s only through the comparison of his own days with the days of his ancient ancestor, and through the subsequent resignation that the ultimate impossibility of identification, that Nephi can mark his own days as uniquely sorrowful. And of course, it’s well worth noticing that we, as readers of the small plates, can recognize that Nephi’s being problematically nostalgic here: his ancient father Nephi emphatically didn’t have an easy time with his brothers (verse 8 here sounds almost crazy!), and he didn’t even have an easy time with his people after the separation from the Lamanites (as a number of things in the small plates make clear).
So here it becomes clear that there’s a complicated study of memory and temporality at work in Nephi’s lament. The impossibility of reversing time is what allows him both to compare his days with those of another and to determine that his own days are sorrowful. At the same time, the fact that time is irreversible means that he can’t ever actually compare his days with another, and so his attempt to do so turns out to be ideological and problematic. Memory, always rewriting the past for its own purposes, allows him to think he experiences something unique in history, when he’s only experiencing what the records suggest has been the norm. All of that calls for further thought.
5. The Spectacle of Nephi’s Lament
After the report of Nephi’s words of lament, we get a report of “certain men” who, passing by the garden, “saw Nephi as he was a pouring out his soul unto God” (Helaman 7:11). Note there’s no mention here of hearing, which is a bit surprising, not only because the emphasis in verses 6-10 is on Nephi’s “exclaim[ing]” his sorrow (Helaman 7:6), but also because “seeing” and “hearing” are almost always coupled in reports of experiences in the Book of Mormon. These men, though, only “see” something. Further, they run and gather a multitude together, telling them “what they had seen” (Helaman 7:11). Again there’s no talk of hearing, but only of seeing. They don’t tell the people what they’ve heard—if indeed they’ve heard anything—only what they’ve seen.
How should this emphasis on seeing be interpreted? Is it that there’s something a spectacle at work here, regardless of the actual words? Or is it perhaps that the seeing of these men is to serve as an echo of Nephi’s seeing of a kind of vision upon his return from the land northward? Is there a kind of crossing of visions here: what the mourning prophet sees leads him to lament; the people over whom the prophet mourns then see his lament and they’re led to marvel? Is that the key to this singular seeing?
There’s another possibility—one that will prove, a little further along, to be quite poignant. Verse 10 emphasizes the fact that “Nephi had bowed himself” to the ground “in his garden.” That image is significant. In Matthew 26:39, we read that Jesus “fell on his face, and prayed” in a garden; in Mark 14:32, that He “fell on the ground, and prayed”; in Luke 22:41, that He “kneeled down, and prayed.” In each of these texts, His prayer is the same: He laments what’s coming, and asks for it to be removed. Note that something remarkably similar happens in 3 Nephi 17, and that part of what’s happening in that text is that those who are there with Him actually remain awake and alert, such that they experience His lamenting prayer. There’s a kind of spectacle about Jesus kneeling to the earth in a lament over the wickedness of Israel. Here in Helaman 7 we find something not entirely dissimilar. The prophet bows down and laments, and it causes something of a spectacle. But here it’s for all the wrong reasons.
There are some possibilities here, but I’ve only just sketched them. There’s more here to be pursued as well.
6. The People’s Marveling, and the Reversal of that Marveling
When those who witness Nephi’s lament go to announce what they’ve seen, they gather people who want to “know the cause of so great mourning for the wickedness of the people” (Helaman 7:11). Nephi notes this point well when he subsequently addresses them: “And because of my mourning and lamentation, ye have gathered yourselves together and do marvel!” (Helaman 7:15). There’s a kind of bafflement about Nephi’s lament on the part of the Nephites: they can’t make sense of why anyone would be so upset about things. Therein, it seems to me, lies a key to making sense of the whole spirit of the Book of Helaman. Most of the people whose history it recounts saw the times they were living in as times of great optimism, times of real progress and productivity. Only in that sort of a context could anyone be so remarkably brought up short by the lament of a prophet. They can’t make sense of his mourning because they see nothing but reasons to be excited in their day.
This is a point we ought to dwell on, since we’re so easily driven by the spirit of the narrator in the Book of Mormon. We’re prone to see the history through the deeply critical lenses of Mormon, but the people living through the history Mormon records had no such critical view of their own times. They seem to have seen things as prosperous, forward-looking, encouraging. We have in Nephi, then, what Nietzsche called an “untimely man.” He didn’t fit, and he couldn’t fit, in his own era. Indeed, as all the emphasis on seeing I’ve just noted makes clear, Nephi stuck out like a sore thumb. He’s something of a sideshow attraction, a curiosity or an oddity that draws the eye. That he’s just returned from being out of town for six years may well have added to all this. He didn’t come back and celebrate the social progress that had been made in absence; he came back and lamented that everything had turned sour.
What’s especially nice about Nephi’s reaction to all this is that he tells the gawkers that they ought to marvel: “Yea, and ye have great need to marvel! Yea, ye had ought to marvel because ye are given away that the devil hath go so great hold upon your hearts!” (Helaman 7:15). This is very nice. He asks his listeners to marvel at their ability to marvel at him. He turns his listeners’ marvelings back on themselves: “You ought to marvel at the fact that you can marvel at me.” This is something we ought all to watch for, I should think. Whenever we marvel, we might wonder (we might marvel) about our marveling. Marvel is, on our part, almost always a symptom of our ideological commitments, and marveling at our marveling might help us at least to be aware of them. If that’s right, then, as Nephi suggests, the problem today (at any time) isn’t that we marvel too much; it’s that we don’t marvel enough. We marvel only at what makes us marvel; we don’t marvel at the fact that we marvel at what makes us marvel. I suspect we’d do a fair bit more repenting if we could marvel at our marveling.
7. Nephi’s Implicit Theology of Giving Oneself Up to Wickedness
In verses 15-16, Nephi twice speaks of the Nephites in terms of “giving away,” and each time it is the devil who takes advantage of this “giving away,” but each instance is structurally distinct. In verse 15, the Nephites “are given away that the devil hath got so great hold” on them. In verse 16, however, they “have given away to the enticing of him” who seeks to hurl them to misery and woe. Note two major differences between these two formulations: (1) the first is passive (“are given away”) and the second is active (“have given away”); (2) the first is a “that”-construction (“given away that”) and the second is a “to”-construction (“given away to”). How are these complexities to be thought about? And how, especially, are these to be thought about in light of the relatively ungrammatical form of the second of the two instances (they’ve “given away,” perhaps, but what have they given away?)? I suspect that there’s nicely woven into these two references an entire theology of what it means to give into temptation, but it needs to be unraveled.
This theological lead is one that would take me far too long to develop, I think, than I want to take space for here. So I’ll leave it as a shorter provocation.
8. A Distorted Theologia Crucis
Verse 17 ends with an unmistakable allusion, but one that can be interpreted in two distinct ways: “Why hath he forsaken you?” To begin with the relatively innocuous interpretation, this can be read as an allusion to or adoption of Psalms 22:1. That psalm opens with the following words: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” The clear intention of the psalm this verse opens is to summon God to the defense of someone who suffers in His name. The psalmist (it’s attributed, of course, to David) seeks respite but finds none. For Nephi to allude to this psalm is already ironic, since it seems that the people he addresses neither have appealed to the Lord for help or relief nor have believed that they need any such relief. (Indeed, remember: they marvel that anyone would appeal to God in lamentation!) But this makes one wonder whether it isn’t actually Nephi who feels forsaken, feels abandoned, and his question, although it’s applied to his listeners, is actually a kind of continuation of his lamentful prayer. Of course, it may be that Nephi’s use of the allusion is a way of trying to force his hearers to recognize that they’re in a much more difficult situation than they realize. By alluding the psalm, he tries to bring them to lament with him.
But then we might play with another interpretation, one that’s a little more disturbing. What if we’re to hear in the text an allusion less to Psalm 22:1 than to Matthew 27:46 or Mark 15:34—that is, to Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If we hear that, then Nephi’s words are much more ironic than they seemed at first. They’d serve to identify the people of Nephi with the suffering Christ in a certain register—except that they are rightly forsaken by God, while Christ was, if we can put it this way, wrongly forsaken by God. Indeed, Nephi can go on to provide reasons for their being forsaken, but there’s no answer from heaven to Christ’s lament. That’s all the more interesting in light of the fact that the reason Nephi gives for their being forsaken is precisely that they would not “hearken unto the voice of the Good Shepherd” (Helaman 7:18). Because they couldn’t hear the cry of the Christ (including, perhaps, His cry from the cross?), He can’t hear the cry they aren’t making to Him.
Even if the allusion is principally to Psalm 22:1 (the New Testament wasn’t, of course, yet written at the time of Nephi’s words!), it’s difficult to avoid the power of this approach to the text. There’s here something like a reworking of a theology of the cross, but one that deserves further work and elaboration.
9. Nephi’s Theology of Revealed Strength
In verse 23, Nephi says something very strange: “For behold, thus saith the Lord: I will not shew unto the wicked of my strength, to one more than the other, save it be unto those who repenteth of their sins and hearken unto my words.” This plays on a theological theme running throughout the Hebrew scriptures—those texts that provided the Nephites with the bulk of their imagination. This theme can be found in Isaiah, for instance, and in fact in a passage from Isaiah that plays a dominant role in the Book of Mormon: Isaiah 52:10. That passage reads as follows: “The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” Given that “arm” was a common metaphor for “strength,” note well what this passage says: the culmination of history comes when the Lord makes his strength visible in the eyes of all nations. (This is an important verse in Book of Mormon history because it’s in the passage Abinadi radically reinterprets the set up the tradition that stretches from him through Alma’s church to the time of Christ’s visit, at which point Christ Himself radically reinterprets the passage for the Nephites.)
What’s curious about the text in Helaman 7 is that it has the Lord saying something about when He won’t reveal His strength, about when and why His arm won’t be revealed. And that’s a bit curious. In context, it’s obvious that Nephi means by all this talk to refer to the Lord helping peoples out in their wars and that sort of thing: only the repentant will be given divine assistance in self-protection. But the wording chosen complicates that picture by tying it to the Isaiah text (and other similar texts), such that there’s a kind of refusal on the Lord’s part to reveal His arm or strength to those who don’t repent.
I’m not yet sure exactly where to go with this lead, but there’s something unfolding here well worth considering.
10. An Uneasy Revitalization of the Nephite View of the Lamanites
Much of the Book of Helaman turns on the status of the Lamanites, on their becoming more righteous than the Nephites for a whole stretch of Lehite history. This is stated right in the italicized heading that opens the Book of Helaman, for instance. And it’s a clear emphasis in Helaman 5—unmistakably clear. There’s something strange, then, about Nephi’s repetition in verses 23-24 of a long-established view of the Lamanites that, one would think, has been deeply unsettled by the mass conversion of the Lamanites in Helaman 5—a mass conversion that Nephi himself brought about. Here’s what the text in question says: “Now, therefore, I would that ye should behold, my brethren, that it shall be better for the Lamanites than for you except ye shall repent. For behold, they are more righteous than you, for they have not sinned against that great knowledge which ye have received. Therefore, the Lord will be merciful unto them. Yea, he will lengthen out their days and increase their seed, even when thou shalt be utterly destroyed except thou shalt repent” (Helaman 7:23-24).
Much here is familiar from elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. Note the similarities between this passage and Alma 9:15-16: “Nevertheless I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment than for you, if ye remain in your sins,” yea even more tolerable for them in this life than for you, except ye repent. For there are many promises which are extended to the Lamanites; for it is because of the traditions of their fathers that caused them to remain in their state of ignorance; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them and prolong their existence in the land.” (There are other such passages; see Jacob 3, for instance.) And much of this will be echoed quite directly in Samuel’s speech in Helaman 15. But note what appears in Nephi’s words that doesn’t appear in Alma’s: “they are more righteous than you.” Nephi had witnessed the mass conversion of the Lamanites, through the Lamanites actually became more righteous as a nation than the Nephites were. This Alma couldn’t say in his day.
So why bring all this up? Because the fusion of the Lamanites’ actual righteousness with the same old view of the Lamanites is uneasy. How does it make sense to talk about the ignorance of the Lamanites after their conversion? How does it make sense to talk about things being more tolerable for them after their conversion? How does it make sense to pin their eventual preservation on their less privileged status after their conversion? This is, I think, fascinating. Nephi draws rather directly on a well-established theological motif, but he doesn’t recognize the necessity of transforming it in light of recent developments. How to make sense of that? And how to think about the ways in which we do the same thing?
11. A Final Sketch of the Nature of Prophecy
Helaman 7 closes with Nephi making a prophetic gesture that appears in the Book of Mormon often: “Behold, now, I do not say that these things shall be of myself, because it is not of myself that I know these things. But behold, I know that these things are true because the Lord God hath made them known unto me. Therefore I testify that they shall be” (Helaman 7:29). For a similar motif, take a look at Alma 36. Indeed, this appears in Alma’s sermons with some frequency. What’s crucial here, though, is the role being played by the “therefore” in this passage: because Nephi doesn’t know these things of himself, his announcement of them amounts to testifying. That’s a move I don’t remember seeing in previous Nephite figures. What we have here is Nephi’s own—very brief—attempt to determine what it means to be a prophet, what it means to testify, what it means to speak on another’s behalf.
This is crucial to what’s happening in Helaman 7-10 more generally. As I suggested above, the point of these chapters is to work out something about the nature of prophecy. Here we have Nephi anticipating that theme and providing a first clue to how it will unfold. This is something that can’t be developed here yet, since it will depend heavily on what comes in the following chapters. Nonetheless, the basic theme is making itself clear already.
And that’s enough for now.
5 Responses to “Reflections on Helaman 7”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.