Reflections on Helaman 8
Posted by joespencer on May 30, 2013
As I explained in my first post, today’s Helaman 7-10 was originally a single chapter in the Book of Mormon, Chapter III, rather clearly identified in the italicized heading above Helaman 7 as telling the following story: “God threatens the people of Nephi that he will visit them in his anger, to their utter destruction except they repent of their wickedness.” What begins in Helaman 7 continues in Helaman 8.
The basic story of chapter 8 is relatively simple. Having given a kind of initial call to repentance, and especially having called out the Gadianton robbers, Nephi ends up causing a bit of trouble. The chapter opens with some of those present—judges and robbers—trying to stir up the people against Nephi, which results in a bit of contention, because there are those present also who defend Nephi as a prophet. The inconclusive response of the people constrains Nephi to start talking again, and his focus is now on the nature of prophecy—clearly an attempt to expand the last verse of chapter 7, as well as to defend his status rather generally. The bulk of the chapter is thus focused on a kind of ongoing list of prophets: Moses, Abraham, those before Abraham, those since Abraham, etc., culminating in a kind of theology of the prophets’ relationship to God.
There is, nonetheless, a certain unevenness about Nephi’s sermon in this chapter. His focus shifts without explanation back and forth between the idea of the prophet as the one who predicts destruction and the idea of the prophet as the one who testifies of the Son of God. It isn’t clear why the one focus gives way rather frequently to the other, and it isn’t clear whether this is a kind of topical instability on Nephi’s part or a consequence of Mormon’s editorial abridgment. The focus on the Son of God ties Nephi to many other similar sermons in the Book of Mormon, while the focus on destruction seems to be more local.
The sermon of chapter 8 culminates in a direct instance of prophecy, one that will force the Nephites to decide on Nephi’s prophetic status. Everything here works toward that moment, and that will be the ultimate focus of the next two chapters of the text—the rest of the story of chapters 7-10 collectively. I’ll turn now to some exegetical details, just as I did with the last chapter. These are entirely optional reading: I’m mostly just trying to gather notes together in one place. What’s obviously of more significance is the set of theological points at the end of this post.
Verse 1 (etc.) – The phrase “cried out against him” (repeated almost identically in verse 4; cf. 9:16) is the first of many allusions in this chapter to the narrative of Alma 8-14, the mission to Ammonihah (see Alma 10:28, where the outcry is almost identical). Note also the talk of “reviling against,” which appears only here (in verses 2 and 5) and in the Ammonihah story (see Alma 10:24, 29; 14:2, 5). And note the talk of “raising contentions” in verse 7.
Verse 1 – One might well wonder whether there isn’t a hint here about how the Nephite system of judges worked. The people have to decide to seize someone, and then, it seems, they collectively deliver that person to the judges— as if the judges are the executives for the will of the people. At any rate, this seems to be confirmed by the demanding, but ultimately impotent, “Why?” questions the judges ask in the first verses of this chapter.
Verse 3 – It’s not uncommon in the Book of Mormon for us to learn only after the fact that we’re getting an abridgment, but the indication of this here is perhaps helpful: there’s much about this chapter that seems to be particularly abridged, as we’ll see as we go on. It’s also particularly interesting that we get this note here about the fact that Nephi spoke nothing that was “contrary to the commandments of God,” a detail that might be important given Nephi’s self-defense regarding his act of testifying (see Helaman 7:29).
Verse 6 – There’s a rich irony in the fact that the judges call the fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy “impossible”: this word appears elsewhere in Helaman only in 4:19, where it describes the impossibility the Nephites faced in regaining the lands they had lost to the Lamanites. That connection shows how ridiculous their claim about the impossibility of losing their lands really is: they’d only just gotten them back!
Verse 11 – It’s most peculiar that Nephi is described as being “constrained” to continue his speech. The word isn’t terribly uncommon in scripture, but it appears nowhere else in Helaman, and, more importantly, it just doesn’t make a good deal of sense to introduce the language of constraint here where it seems Nephi would obviously want to continue to teach. One might ask what it is that constrain him (the Spirit? the people? the situation?), but perhaps there’s a hint in verse 12’s reference to a “dispute”: Nephi was constrained by certain accusations to make a full response.
Verse 14 – There’s a kind of unevenness about Nephi’s sermon, wandering back and forth between the validity of his prophecy of the Nephites’ destruction and the validity of his conviction that the Son of God will come. It isn’t at all clear where the focus on the Son of God comes from, since that isn’t his topic at all until this verse. It’s worth noting, though, that the association of all the prophets with the theme specifically of “the Son of God” (rather than, say, the Christ) is found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (see, for instance, Alma 33).
Verse 18 – There’s already something surprising about Nephi’s interest in “the days of Abraham,” but at this point he attempts to move back beyond Abraham into the days that preceded him. The precedent—and rather obvious source text—is Alma 13, yet another bit of the Ammonihah narrative. At any rate, much of the language of this verse is drawn rather straightforwardly from the language of Alma 13.
Verse 19 – It’s only here, after a handful of verses, that talk of “testifying” returns to Nephi’s lips. The act of testifying was the focus of prophecy already in the anticipatory last verse of chapter 7, but it has disappeared in all this talk of prophets who mostly see and know for themselves. With this return to testifying, the real danger of being a prophet becomes a part of his focus.
Verse 25 – There’s a rather obvious allusion here to Matthew 6:20 (or, anticipatorily, to 3 Nephi 13:20). The text is almost identical for a long stretch (“laying up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where nothing doth corrupt”), but then Jesus’ “where thieves do not break through and steal” is inexplicable replaced with “where nothing can come which is unclean,” a phrase that’s entirely unique to this text in all of scripture. (It might be noted that talk of “treasures in heaven” appears also in Helaman 5:8.)
Verse 26 – It might be noted that the word “fornication” is remarkably uncommon in the Book of Mormon. (It appears, in scripture, most frequently in the letters of Paul.) It appears only here and in Jacob 3:12 and 3 Nephi 12:32 (and it should be noted that the latter of these two references is one borrowed directly from the New Testament). Why is there talk of fornication here? It makes sense for it to appear in Jacob 3, where much of Jacob’s sermonic focus is illicit sexuality. Why does it make its only other unique appearance in the Book of Mormon here, where there’s no other talk about illicit sexuality?
Theological Points of Interest
As I did last time, I’ll conclude with a series of theological points of interest, all developed just enough to point directions for further reflection. There are ten of them this time.
1. The Corruptness of Nephite Law
In verse 3, we’re told that Nephi “had spoken unto [the gathered crowd] concerning the corruptness of their law.” Interestingly, we don’t know exactly what Nephi said about this point, since we only learn about this after we read a summary of Nephi’s accusations that never mentions the corruptness of the law. This comes up here only because we now hear the judges’ claim that Nephi “revile[d] against this people and against our law” (verse 2). It’d be quite nice, of course, to know what Nephi actually said about this point, but we don’t get that. We get only Mormon’s brief reference to the fact that Nephi had said something about it.
But it should be noted that it’s only in the Book of Helaman in all of scripture that we get talk about corruption of law. There’s of course a great deal of talk about law in scripture, as well as about how law is mishandled in various ways, but it’s only in Helaman that we hear direct accusations of law becoming corrupted. That’s especially significant given the story that Mormon wants to tell over the course of his history concerning the gradual collapse of Nephite political order. What we have in the Book of Helaman, with the rise of the Gadianton robbers, is a particular moment in that history of gradual collapse where it’s the very law that is transformed and corrupted.
This theme develops over the course of the Book of Helaman. It’s first mentioned in Helaman 4:22, when the Nephites, because of their inability to recover their lands, “began to remember the prophecies of Alma, and also the words of Mosiah,” as well as begin to see that “they had been a stiffnecked people, and that they had set at naught the commandments of God” (Helaman 4:21). In that context, Mormon tells us that the people saw for the first time that “they had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted” (Helaman 4:22). It was this situation that spurred Nephi and his brother, Lehi, to begin preaching in the first place. The corruptness of the law is mentioned again at the beginning of chapter 5, and specifically in connection with Nephi’s stepping down from the judgment seat: “Nephi delivered up the judgment-seat to a man whose name was Cezoram, for as their laws and their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction—for the laws had become corrupted” (Helaman 5:1-2).
It’s worth asking what role this development plays in Mormon’s political theology, what it suggests about the narrative he wants to construct about the gradual dissolution of political power as it grapples with a developing sense for the faith of those who believe Christ is coming. It should be noted that every one of these mentions of the corruptness of the law comes on the lips of Mormon as narrator, and not on the lips of any actual character in the story. This is surprising but especially important here in Helaman 8: it’s not Nephi who tells us about the corruptness of the law, but Mormon reported that Nephi had addressed the topic in a sermon that had apparently been abridged in a way that we missed that topic. (One might well ask why Mormon would abridge the sermon in such a way that his privileged political theme was edited out.) Obviously, though, more work needs to be done on this.
2. Nephi’s Plain Speech and Jesus’ Parables
There appears to be a direct allusion or two bound up with verse 4’s “they feared to the people.” The first that comes to mind is to Mark 11, the story of Jesus’ question to his enemies concerning whether John’s baptism was “from heaven” or “of men” (Mark 11:30). Mark tells us that “they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then did ye not believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; they feared the people: for all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed. And they answered and said unto Jesus, We cannot tell” (Mark 11:31-33). Here the enemies of the Savior fear the people because the people count John a prophet. This is parallel in rather obvious ways to what’s happening here in Helaman 8. Nephi is regarded as a prophet by some of the people, and that’s what the judges fear: their belief that he’s a prophet, and the consequent outcry if they were to do something directly. But note a certain distance between the two stories as well: Jesus’ enemies fear the people because of their belief in a non-present prophet (John), not because of their belief in the Prophet standing before them (Jesus).
Perhaps, then, the allusion is more directly to Mark 12, the story which immediately follows. As soon as Jesus’ enemies explain that they “cannot tell” whether John was from heaven or of men, “he began to speak unto them by parables” (Mark 12:1). He begins with a parable about a man who planted a vineyard and then “let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country” (Mark 12:1). When he later sends a servant to those renters, they beat him; a second is stoned; a third is killed; etc. Finally, the man sends his son, “his wellbeloved, . . . saying, They will reverence my son” (Mark 12:6). They don’t, of course: “they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard” (Mark 12:8), apparently because they thought that by killing their heir, they could seize the inheritance. Jesus concludes with the claim that “the lord of the vineyard” will naturally “come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard unto others” (Mark 12:9).
The response of Jesus’ enemies to this parable is reported as follows: “And they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them: and they left him, and went their way” (Mark 12:12). Here again we get this “feared the people” business, and regarding the same group of people. This time their fear is due to the people’s belief in the Prophet actually present—and thus more obviously parallel to the story in Helaman 8. And yet, there’s a curious difference here as well. There’s a strong emphasis in Mark 12 on the fact that Jesus spoke “unto them by parables,” indirectly. There’s an equally strong emphasis in Helaman 8 on the fact that Jesus “spake plain” to the gathered crowd, and that it was precisely that plainness that cause the judges’ anger. It’s the indirection of the one that causes anger, but the directness of the other that causes anger.
All this might be reflected on further: Why this difference between parable-speaking and plain-speaking? And why join the two stories in a way by drawing on this “they feared the people” business in each case? There’s more work to be done on this question as well.
3. The People’s Theory of Prophecy
Verses 7-9 provide a defense of Nephi set forth by a number of people in the gathered crowd. Verse 8 is especially interesting, because it sets forth a full-blown logic of prophecy. The logic set forth, however, is complicated and unintuitive. Here are their words: “all the judgments will come upon which [Nephi] hath testified unto us, for we know that he hath testified aright unto us concerning our iniquities.” Notice that they repeat this logic immediately, in the second half of the verse: “he knoweth as well all things which shall befall us as he knoweth of our iniquities.” The logic here seems to be something like this: because Nephi (1) knows something of the people’s sins, he (2) knows something of the judgments to come. That seems a strange idea, that because he recognizes that they’ve done wrong, he somehow can tell the future.
But perhaps this can be clarified if we think again about the reversal of marveling that Nephi called for in Helaman 7 (I discussed this in my last post). Nephi marked the people’s surprise at his mourning for sin, and told them that they ought to marvel at their own marveling. They were, it seems, entirely convinced that everything about their times was positive, progressive, and optimistic, and so they couldn’t make sense of someone who believed that their society was in serious decline. Might it be, then, that those who’re convinced by Nephi’s initial sermon are so taken by the surprise of his diagnosis, that they become convinced that he might be able to see where their sinfulness will lead? In other words, those who feel that Nephi is right that the prosperity and optimism of their times are a mask that covers a world of iniquity—those who feel that he’s right about this entirely surprising claim—believe that he could only see such a thing if he were given divine insight.
Maybe the point could be put less transcendently. Perhaps those who believe Nephi (they talk about him being “a prophet” in verse 9, but as simply “a good man” in verse 7) feel that someone with so much insight into what’s going on in their society must have the kind of insight necessary to see where all of what they’re doing is ultimately headed. That’s a very real possibility as well. And the logic of prophecy that they’re working with is something well worth thinking about: To what extent is prophecy a kind of essential insight into the inner workings of what’s going on? To what extent is prophecy a kind of divine transfer of humanly unknowable knowledge? To what extent is prophecy a kind of fusion of both of these?
4. Nephi’s Interest in Scripture
There’s something a bit surprising about verse 11’s question—the question with which Nephi opens up this whole second sermon: “Have ye not read?” Does this suggest a kind of widespread literacy on the part of the Nephites? Or is he only addressing the judges themselves—those who, one would suppose, were the most likely to be literate among the Nephites? And how much knowledge are the people and/or the judges supposed to have specifically about scripture? They’ve likely heard the story of Moses, but who would have read it? How commonly available were the texts from the brass plates? (Note that Nephi will go on to talk about much more than Moses: Zenos, Zenock, Ezaias, Isaiah, Jeremiah!)
Here again, though, there seems to be an allusion to Jesus. The question “Have ye not read?” appears again and again on the lips of Jesus in the gospels. There seems to be a kind of parallel being established at length between Nephi and Jesus. Just as Jesus stirs up controversies by His teachings and then uses scriptural interpretation to get Himself out of the consequent difficulties, Nephi seems to be doing the same. (Of course, that sort of strategy appears elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, but not with such a clearly allusive phrase.) What’s interesting is that Jesus could definitely assume literacy on the part of those to whom He asked His question: the scribes and company were very familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. Does this suggest that Nephi really was addressing only the judges here?
Of course, we might raise more general theological questions about what sort of model for scriptural study this sets forth. Jesus’ scriptural interpretations tend to look at single verses or passages. That is, He tends to quote just a verse here and just a verse there, offering Rabbi-like interpretations of real novelty in order to complicate any belief that there’s a cut-and-dried answer to how everything is to be done. Nephi does something different, despite the allusions and parallels. Nephi’s approach is to assume that there’s a kind of monolithic interpretation of scripture, a kind of thematic or even prophetic consistency that can be identified by absolutely anybody reading scripture. Thus, there’s a different sense at work in Nephi’s “Have ye not read?” His question doesn’t mean something like: “Have you really read such-and-such a text carefully enough? Maybe then you’d recognize that your position isn’t the only possible approach to things.” His question rather means something like: “Have you read the scriptures at all? If you had, you’d agree with me.”
Which of these is the better approach to scripture? Are we better off destabilizing assumptions by careful, creative re-readings? Or are we better off assuming a kind of monolithic scriptural message?
5. The Claim that Moses Was One Man
I’ve already identified above a number of allusions to Alma’s preaching in Ammonihah. These are, I think, quite significant generally. In verse 11, we get a very interesting allusion to the Ammonihah experience, one that bears within it a handful of surprises. Key is the simple phrase “one man.” In the opening verses of Alma 9—apparently directly drawn from Alma’s original record of the Ammonihah preaching—the people of Ammonihah object to Alma’s preaching that he was only “one man”: “Suppose ye that we shall believe the testimony of one man, although he should preach unto us that the earth should pass away?” (Alma 9:2). Again: “Who is God that sendeth no more authority than one man among this people to declare unto them the truth of such great and marvelous things?” (Alma 9:6). Alma doesn’t address these concerns directly, but simply goes on with his sermonizing. Later, though, when Amulek begins to offer his testimony of Alma’s status as prophet, “the people began to be astonished, seeing there was more than one witness which testified of the things whereof they were accused” (Alma 10:12). There’s thus a strong emphasis in the Ammonihah narrative on (1) the accusation that Alma wasn’t enough of a witness as “one man” and (2) the realization on the part of the people that Alma was one of two witnesses, and so that they couldn’t attack him on that part.
Nephi, of course, serves as a sole witness in Helaman 8. His usual companion Lehi isn’t in the scene (indeed, we might well begin to ask what’s come of him), and he preaches alone. The argument among the people is over whether he’s “a good man” (Helaman 8:7). And he remains alone throughout the whole narrative of Helaman 7-10. He’s only one man, as Alma seemed at first to be before him. That Nephi turns to Moses, “one man,” in order to defend his prophetic status thus seems to be important, as if Nephi were a bit too conscious of the fact that his interlocutors might raise Ammonihah-like concerns about his being a lone witness. He seems to be mounting a defense of the singular witness, of the prophet who stands alone.
Of course, we might well ask why he draws on Moses to establish this precedent. Moses wasn’t obviously one man, since he had Aaron as his spokesman, etc. Of course, we might play with the possibility that the Nephites had a rather different version of the story than our own patched-up Pentateuch, but then we’d have to worry about 2 Nephi 3, with its talk of Moses being given a spokesman. So we can’t, it seems, go that route. So why is Moses here described as “one man”? It makes sense, certainly, to talk about Abraham as “one man,” given Isaiah’s word of the Lord: “Look unto Abraham your father, . . . for I called him alone,” or more literally: “Look to Abraham your father, . . . for I called him as one man” (Isaiah 51:2—and note that this is a passage that appears in the Book of Mormon itself). So there’d be no surprise if Nephi attached this one-man business to Abraham when he turns to him a few verses later. The same could be said for Jeremiah (and, presumably, for Zenos, who was killed for his testimony). But Nephi ties this one-man theme to Moses. Why?
And, more generally, we might well raise questions about this theology of the lone prophet. How are we to make sense of that theme, perhaps especially in an age where those we collectively regard as prophets, seers, and revelators stand together as an impressive and sizeable body? Or in an age where those we might regard as prophets outside the leading councils of the Church are usually surrounded by a large coterie of disciples? How might we think about this theme of the lone prophet?
6. Prophecy as Revelation, Prophecy as Power
The view of the people in verses 7-9 seems to be that prophecy consists in a certain kind of revelation—an ability to make known what otherwise isn’t known. When Nephi begins his defense, though, beginning in verse 11, his focus isn’t on making known what otherwise isn’t known—at least not a first. His focus is instead on power. This is clearest, perhaps, in verse 12: “And now behold, if God gave unto this man [Moses] such power, then why should ye dispute among yourselves and say that he hath given unto me no power whereby I may know concerning the judgments that shall come upon you except ye repent?” There is here still talk of revelation, of making known what’s unknown, of course. But the example of Moses points toward some kind of divinely granted ability, and Nephi articulates his defense in terms of having been granted something similar, some kind of ability.
Nephi refers at the beginning of this verse to a “dispute” that we apparently don’t have in Mormon’s summary of the people’s reaction, and it would seem that the dispute turned on the question of impossibility. This, at any rate, would seem to be what lies behind Nephi’s putting all this in terms of power. One would guess, that is, that he’s interested in power because there are those in the crowd who are claiming that no one can have the power to know of what’s coming. (This again bears on the words of the people that are reported: those who think Nephi knows what he’s talking about make reference to his capacity to see through the optimism of society, and so suspect that he has certain abilities or powers that might otherwise seem impossible.)
What’s interesting theologically about all this, though, is that we’re effectively offered two different basic conceptions of what it means to prophesy. What’s more basic or essential to the act of prophecy—the act of uncovering the hidden, or the power/ability to do what’s otherwise impossible? This is something that perhaps deserves further reflection.
7. Nephi’s Messianic Message
Verse 13 presents us with a very strange move: Nephi refers to “the coming of the Messiah.” Now, perhaps that doesn’t seem so very strange at first, but a bit of study reveals how odd this is. What’s odd? Nephi is one of only two people to use the word “Messiah” in the whole of Mormon’s history (between the books of Mosiah and Mormon, that is). The only other person to use this word in the historical books of the Book of Mormon is Abinadi (in Mosiah 13:33). Now, it should be noted that the word appears with great frequency in the small plates. But it seems that it more or less disappeared from Nephite theological usage after the first generation or two of Nephite history. Once the Nephites gained an understanding of the Messiah as the Son of God, and once they had a name for the Messiah—Jesus Christ—they collectively stopped bothering with talk of the Messiah as such. Why, then, does Nephi use the term here?
The connection with Abinadi may be of real importance. There’s actually a series of connections between what Nephi’s doing in precisely these verses and what Abinadi does in Mosiah 13. Having been attacked by Noah’s priests concerning the institution of prophecy (there’s a lot of detail there that I can’t go into now), Abinadi defends his conception of prophecy by turning to the example of Moses—exactly as Nephi’s done here. Further, he turns from Moses at the end of Mosiah 13 to other prophets, focusing on Isaiah, in a manner very like Nephi here (though with some differences I’ll take up below). There would seem, then, to be a kind of direct borrowing from Abinadi, and it’s certainly significant that the title “Messiah” comes up here in connection with Moses’ prophecy, exactly as it does in Abinadi’s sermon. (A quick comparison of the two passages shows them to be almost identical in content.)
That Nephi borrows from Abinadi is significant enough, and perhaps it’s enough to explain the lone and entirely surprising reference to the Messiah. Nonetheless, we’d do well to ask further about it, to ask if there’s any further significance in the title’s appearance in this curious place, after so many, many chapters without a single reference to it. Can we say anything about the history of Nephite messianism, about a kind of underground current of interest in the Messiah as Messiah? And we could use this set of questions, also, to ask about the strange shift that’s happening precisely here in Nephi’s speech from a focus on judgment (the message of Helaman 7) to a focus on advent (the message, for the most part, beginning here in Helaman 8). Why is Nephi sliding in the direction, suddenly, of talk about the Son of God and His coming? Had he said more about this sort of thing in the previous sermon (of Helaman 7), but it was edited out in Mormon’s abridgment? Or is he only now coming to this topic, and more or less without transition?
Obviously, there’s much to think about here. Further work needs to be done on a whole set of questions concerning the Messiah in Nephi’s thought.
8. The Brazen Serpent and Nephi’s Unique Interpretation
In verse 14, Nephi refers to the familiar story of Moses raising up the serpent in the wilderness, at which the poisoned Israelites needed to look in order to be healed (see Numbers 21). This story is drawn on a few different times in the Book of Mormon, suggesting that it had a particularly strong influence on their thinking—or, really, on Nephi’s thinking (Nephi, son of Lehi, that is). It appears in 1 Nephi 17:41, when Nephi is arguing with his brothers, Laman and Lemuel, about whether they should contribute to his work on building the ship. And it appears in 2 Nephi 25:20, when Nephi is writing to his descendents about their responsibilities to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (There’s a possible allusion to the same story in Alma 37:46, but it’s indirect at best.) For the most part, then, it would seem that it’s been five centuries since this story was last used among the Nephites—at least, so far as we have record.
And there are a few peculiarities about the way that Nephi here in Helaman 8 uses this story. First, he refers to the “brazen serpent,” using a phrase that appears nowhere else in the Book of Mormon—and not at all in Numbers 21. The phrase appears elsewhere only in 2 Nephi 18:4, incidentally. Further, while Nephi, like his Nephite predecessors, refers to the possibility of looking on the serpent and so living, and while he, like his predecessors, notes that this provides a certain model of faith for others, he breaks with his predecessors’ approach by seeing in the brazen serpent a direct testimony of the coming of the Son of God. Here’s what he says: “Yea, did [Moses] not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so should he be lifted up which should come” (Helaman 8:15). If there’s a cross-reference here, it happens to be John 3:14, not elsewhere in the Book of Mormon or in the Old Testament. John 3:14 has Jesus saying: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”
There’s a rather complex set of questions to be asked here, then. This reference to the brazen serpent deserves closer and more extensive attention.
9. Nephi’s Interest in Jeremiah
I’ve already mentioned the parallel between Nephi here and Abinadi in Mosiah 13. They make similar moves in their parallel defenses of prophecy: first by turning to Moses and defending his prophetic anticipation of the Messiah’s coming, and then by turning to other prophets. But where Abinadi gives his further attention primarily to Isaiah (quoting the whole of Isaiah 53, for instance, and then developing it in complicated ways), Nephi gives his further attention first and foremost to Jeremiah. He has a bit to say about Zenos, and he mentions a few others—including Isaiah, incidentally (and that deserves further attention as well, given the dearth of interest in Isaiah between Abinadi and Nephi)—but he spends the most time thinking about Jeremiah.
This is fascinating. Jeremiah receives attention elsewhere in the Book of Mormon only in First Nephi, where his writings are mentioned as being on the brass plates (see 1 Nephi 5:13), and where he’s mentioned as having been cast into prison (see 1 Nephi 7:14). Nowhere else does anyone bother with him, despite the fact that the Nephites had many of his writings, and despite the fact that his writings would have given them a much clearer picture of the world they’d left behind. Of course, there’s a possibility that the Nephites gave more attention to Jeremiah, but it’s only here that their interest found its way into the record Mormon put together. Be that as it may, here we have the only substantive discussion of Jeremiah in the Book of Mormon.
Here again, though, we get a bit of a surprise. If we ask why Nephi is interested in Jeremiah, it would seem that there’s an obvious answer: Jeremiah prophesied of the destruction of Jerusalem, just as Nephi has prophesied of the destruction of his own people. But that’s not what Nephi does with Jeremiah. He does talk about Jeremiah’s prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, yes, but in a different way: “Jeremiah [was] that same prophet which testified of the destruction of Jerusalem. And now we know that Jerusalem was destroyed, according to the words of Jeremiah. O, then, why not the Son of God come according to his prophecy?” (Helaman 8:20). Notice the move here: Jeremiah prophesied of the destruction of Jerusalem, and that was fulfilled—so let’s trust him about the coming of the Son of God. Here again there’s this strange shift—more emphatic even than before—from Nephi’s focus on destruction and woe to a focus on the coming of the Son of God.
Notice, too, how this characterizes Jeremiah’s prophecy. Instead of being the figure we know from the Old Testament—the sad and lonely figure who weeps over Jerusalem’s destruction—we get someone who prophesied of destruction so that the fulfillment of his prophecy would confirm the truth of his other prophecy, concerning the coming of Christ. Maybe in that, though, we have some kind of explanation about the constant shift we’ve been witnessing in this sermon. Nephi, perhaps, is doing something similar: I’ll prophesy of your destruction, but my main purpose in doing so is to provide you with a kind of confirmation of my prophetic abilities such that you’ll take seriously what I’m saying about the Son of God. That, I think, helps to make sense of where the whole story of Helaman 7-10 is going. He’s going to conclude this chapter with an explicit prophecy about the murder of the chief judge, but the point is to gain their confidence so that he can talk about the Messiah with them. I think.
10. An Abinadite Theology of the Prophets
Verse 23 brings Nephi’s echoes of Abinadi to a fascinating culmination. He’s followed Abinadi’s focus on Moses (right down to talk of the Messiah), and he’s followed Abinadi’s shift to another Old Testament prophet (though replacing Isaiah with Jeremiah). And he’s transformed that other Old Testament prophet into a preacher of the Son of God (just as Abinadi had done with Isaiah). Now he follows Abinadi one step further. Abinadi follows up his lengthy quotation of Isaiah 53 (in Mosiah 14) with an articulation of a the relationship between Christ and the prophets—focused on the line “he [Christ] shall see his seed” from Isaiah 53. Nephi offers his own version of this here, but drawn rather obviously from Jeremiah (rather than from Isaiah).
Here’s the key passage in Helaman 8: “And behold, he is God, and he is with them [the prophets], and he did manifest himself unto them, that they were redeemed by him. And they gave unto him glory because of that which is to come” (Helaman 8:23). Where’s Jeremiah in this? I assume that the “he is God, and he is with them” business is a direct echo of the constant refrain in Jeremiah of “I will be your God” (see Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 32:38). That phrase is one Jeremiah uses again and again to express the relationship God wishes to have with Israel, the establishment of a new covenant where the divine law will be written right on the hearts of the chosen people. But, as the history in Jeremiah recounts, the people never receive that promise because of their refusal to hear the prophet. I hear Helaman drawing on that phrase and transforming its meaning: if Israel won’t receive God as their God, the prophets at the very least did.
What we have here, then, is a kind of outline of a privileged relationship between God and the prophets, between Christ and the prophets. There’s a kind of private intimacy spelled out in Nephi’s words, and one that he’s trying to articulate in order to clarify his own nature. This will be confirmed in the poignant opening scene of Helaman 10, about which we’ll have much to say in a later post. Here Nephi is trying to introduce the people to it. And we’re only ourselves getting a glimpse. There’s much more work to be done on this question of what Nephi understands by prophecy, and of what we’re to learn from it.
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