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Reflections on Helaman 9

Posted by joespencer on June 20, 2013

After a couple of too-busy weeks, I’m getting back to these posts. Turning now to Helaman 9, I’ll follow the same pattern I’ve used before. I’ll begin with a few preliminaries, follow with a set of exegetical notes, and conclude with theological points that deserve further attention.

Preliminaries

We’re still in the thick here of what was originally a single story (chapter III of the original Book of Helaman, chapters 7-10 of today’s Book of Helaman). After two distinct sermons from Nephi to the crowd gathered at his garden, and that in response to his complicated lament, we get in this chapter a series of events that leads to a third sermon, rather different from the others. As a result, Helaman 9 is split between that series of events and the consequent sermon. It concludes with one further event that it leaves open-ended as the chapter gives way to Helaman 10.

The action in the first half of Helaman 9 centers on “certain men,” five of them, who go to investigate Nephi’s claim at the end of Helaman 8 (that the chief judge had been murdered), end up being accused of murdering the chief judge, are liberated when the judges from the crowd at Nephi’s garden discover what has happened, and end up contending with the judges to defend Nephi’s innocence. The sermon in the second half of Helaman 9, delivered by Nephi in response to the judges’ attempts to “cross him,” begins with a bit of theology, then addresses rather directly the strategy of the judges, and then provides in remarkable detail a further prophecy that, once fulfilled, will exonerate him.

So much by way of summary. I’d like to move on to exegesis and theology.

Exegetical Details

I assume some familiarity with my modus operandi by this point. Without further ado, then….

Verse 1 – The phrase “certain men,” which turns out to appear in the Book of Mormon only three times, appears both here and in Helaman 7:11, at the beginning of this story. Where before it referred to a group of people who went to inform others of what they’d seen, here it refers to a group of people who go to see something of which they’ve been informed. Perhaps the repetition of the phrase is meant to indicate that transformation.

Verse 2 – The phrase “then will we believe” appears here and in Alma 14 only, marking again the relationship between the present narrative and the Ammonihah story. This connection is apparently crucial.

Verse 6 – The language of this verse—“stabbed by a garb of secrecy”—is entirely unique (the word “garb” never appears elsewhere in scripture, for instance), but the event as described nonetheless brings Helaman 2 to mind, where Helaman’s servant stabs Kishkumen through a secret plot as he leads him to the judgment seat. It’s difficult to know what that connection suggests, though.

Verse 7 – There are enough echoes in this scene of Alma 19 that one should think about the possibility that we’re dealing with a type scene: a dead ruler, a servant or a group of servants gathering the people, those gathered discovering the supposedly guilty collapsed at the scene, etc. It would be productive, then, to do a closer comparison of the tensions between this story and Alma 19.

Verse 8 – This verse repeats verse 1’s “they said among themselves,” but with an interesting difference. Where verse 1 reported the sayings of the five who went to check on the chief judge, and specifically noted their skepticism, verse 8 reports the sayings of the people who come together and see those five men, and specifically notes their ignorance.

Verse 15 – The wording here is not directly connected to, but nonetheless reminiscent of, John 9:25. The five say, “we know not who hath done it [the murder]. And only this much we know: we ran and came according as ye desired, and behold, he was dead according to the words of Nephi.” This might be compared with: “Whether he [Jesus] be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”

Verse 18 – The phrase “one by one” is curious in the Book of Mormon. It appears in every other context as the action of Christ—first several times in Third Nephi (see 3 Nephi 11:15; 17:21; 18:36; 28:1), and then once in connection with the vision of the brother of Jared (see Ether 3:6). Only here is this phrase used otherwise.

Verses 19-20 – There are many echoes here, primarily of the Ammonihah story: offering money in order to draw out a confession, accusations of confederacy, attempting to cross someone through questioning in order to derive an accusation, etc.

Verse 20 – The word “confederate” is interesting. Its meaning in the nineteenth century was simply “united in a league; allied by treaty,” but it should be noted that its references in scripture often point to something like secret combinations. It’s interesting, then, that there’s a difference in terminology here between what Nephi says of the people and what the people say of him when each accuses the other of secret collaboration in murder.

Verse 21 – The phrase “uncircumcised of heart” appears only twice in the Book of Mormon, here and in 2 Nephi 9:33. The word “uncircumcised” appears twice more than that, both in quotations of Isaiah (see 2 Nephi 8:24 and 3 Nephi 20:36). Circumcision is mentioned only once in the Book of Mormon: Moroni 8:8.

Verse 23 – Here and afterward, Nephi gives names to both the chief judge and his murderer. No one else in this narrative does so. What’s to be made of that detail? Does it suggest a certain intimacy? Is Nephi attempting forcefully to draw attention back to the funereal nature of the occasion?

Verse 27 – The phrase “pretended prophet” is forceful and unique. It brings out Nephi’s remarkable sarcasm in this situation, especially in this verse (as much in “which doth prophesy so much evil concerning this people” as in “pretended prophet”). Why this style?

Verse 31 – The language of blood being found on skirts appears elsewhere in Jeremiah 2:34, marking yet another connection between this narrative and Jeremiah. There’s an interesting difference, however, between the two references: Jeremiah finds the blood of the innocent on the skirts of all the people; Nephi predicts finding the blood of the wicked on the skirts of one wicked man.

Theological Points of Interest

1. Two Distinct Sets of Presuppositions

In verse 2, when the five who run to the judgment seat to check up on Nephi’s prophecy talk “among themselves,” we see that there is a certain logic that drives their understanding: “Behold, now we will know of a surety whether this man be a prophet and God hath commanded him to prophesy such marvelous things unto us. Behold, we do not believe that he hath—yea, we do not believe that he is a prophet; nevertheless, if this thing which he hath said concerning the chief judge be true, that he be dead, then will we believe that the other words which he hath spoken is true.” It might be noted, of course, how much an emphasis there is here on Nephi’s status as prophet, something to which I’ve given attention in previous posts, but there’s a kind of logic that deserves attention as well. These five men decide in advance that the fulfillment of Nephi’s prediction (that “the chief judge … be dead”) would warrant belief “the other words which he hath spoken is true.” They decide in advance, in other words, that if Nephi’s one statement proves to be genuinely prophetic, they should believe all his other statements to be prophetic.

Note how different this is from what the judges from the crowd at Nephi’s garden decide in advance. When they learn that the chief judge is dead, they “expound the matter unto the people, … saying: Behold, we know that this Nephi must have agreed with someone to slay the judge, and then he might declare it unto us that he might convert us unto his faith” (verse 16). The judges do not at all see the kind of direct connection the five runners see between the one fulfilled prophecy and Nephi’s prophethood. This difference, moreover, is highlighted by the confrontation between the judges and the five: the latter “did rebuke the judges in the words which they had spoken against Nephi, and did content with them one by one, insomuch that they did confound them” (verse 18).

What we have on display here is two very different sets of assumptions about the nature of prophecy. In a certain way, the five appear in the narrative remarkably naive: the one sign is enough to convince them, while it takes two signs, the second one not so slippery as the first, to “convince” the judges. And yet we have that curious note—the missing details would be helpful!—that the five were able to confound the judges before the second sign was given. How is this to be understood? If it’s clear that the five are more exemplary in a certain way (they’re certainly presented as being better in a certain regard than the judges), what is it exactly that exemplary? Is their set of assumptions about the nature of prophecy somehow more faithful than that of the judges? How so?

2. Falling to the Earth

In verse 3, the narrative reports that the chief judge “had fallen to the earth and did lie in his blood,” but this differs slightly from the words of Nephi actually reported in Helaman 8:27: “behold, your judge is murdered, and he lieth in his blood.” The bit about lying in his blood appears in both texts, but it’s only in the narrative report of Helaman 9:3 that there’s any talk of the chief judge having fallen to the earth. Given the richness of this theme of “falling to the earth” in the Book of Mormon, it’s well worth asking why this detail is added to the narrative report of what the five found. Is it meant to set up parallels with other stories, like that, perhaps, of Alma 19, where Lamoni (a king, rather than a chief judge) falls to the earth (as if dead, rather than actually dead)?

But then we get an important note in verse 4. When the five runners see the king in this state, “they fell to the earth,” due to their astonishment at the fulfillment of the prophecy they had refused to believe. Whatever the addition of the note about “falling to the earth” might do by way of establishing parallels with other texts (and perhaps even by way of marking this narrative as an instance of an important Nephite type scene), it sets up an crucial parallel between the chief judge and the five runners. Where the one falls to the earth and lies in his blood, dead both in his wickedness and by the wickedness of another, the five fall to the earth in astonishment and preparatory to their conversion. They fall to the earth as if dead, while he falls to the earth actually dead. His falling to the earth leads to their falling to the earth, but where his marks an end, theirs marks a beginning.

The narrative addition in verse 3, then, does a good deal of theological work. Rather than a stray narrative detail, it’s what seems to be a carefully crafted hint. There would seem, for those who don’t initially believe, to be two ways to go, both forms of falling to the earth. For those who refuse to believe even when confronted with the truth, the end will be to fall to the earth and lie in one’s blood. But for those who give way to astonishment when the truth controverts their unbelief, the end—and beginning—will be to fall to the earth as a first step on the way to conversion. When things are as polarized as they have become in the Book of Helaman, perhaps these are the only two options.

3. The Missing Middle Part of the Story

After the funeral of the chief judge is announced and all the people are gathered together for it, we’re told that “those judges which were at the garden of Nephi and heard his words were also gathered together at the burial” (verse 11). Their sudden return to the story is uneasy, perhaps especially because they become the central figures of the remainder of the narrative part of the chapter. One naturally wonders what happened with them in the meanwhile. The five runners were dispatched to check up on the chief judge, but we learn nothing about what the judges did when they didn’t return with news, about what Nephi perhaps said further after the five left the garden, about how the events taking place at the garden came to a kind of conclusion, about what Nephi did for the rest of that day and night. Suddenly in verse 11, we’re confronted with the fact that we’re missing a goodly portion of the story, and we’re confused about exactly what the fuller context is.

But there’s theological reason to wonder about this narrative omission. How does the open-endedness of the event recounted in chapters 7-8 work on us? How might different ways of guessing at its aftermath before the funeral provide us with different ways of understanding the stakes of what takes place on the day of the funeral? How does the misdirection of the narrative perhaps rightly distract us from what might have been an unfortunate scene? What effect does it have on us as readers to have all the tensions of chapters 7-8 left unaddressed, unresolved? To what extent might a continuation of the story of chapters 7-8 have been a distraction from the central concern regarding prophecy? How might it be theologically productive to have Nephi’s sermons at the garden end abruptly with his prophetic sign, as if he said no more until the sign was completely fulfilled for all his listeners—and for all the readers of his story? There is, undeniably, a narrative lacuna here, and one might be inclined to see in it a kind of artlessness on Mormon’s part, but there are just as many reasons to wonder whether it might not be a particularly productive move on his part as well.

4. Funeral and Trial

Perhaps too subtly, once the judges are reintroduced into the narrative, they transform the funeral—apparently a rather ostentatious event, given not only the “mourn[ing]” and the “fast[ing]” mentioned in verse 10, but also the talk of “the great and chief judge” in the same verse—into a trial. So soon as they arrive at the event, the judges ask about the five; they quickly have them freed, and then they turn their attention to Nephi, having him brought bound to the funeral itself, where they attempt to cross him in order to make an accusation. There’s something deeply troubling about these moves. In the middle of a funereal occasion, the judges focus only on deciding guilt, attempting to destroy the prophet. We have no indication that the people respond negatively to this move, except perhaps in the rebuke of the five against the judges. Most of the people seem happy to go along with the transformation of the event. (I might note that several details make clear that the “trial” of Nephi doesn’t take place on a subsequent occasion.)

Other details are odd. Nephi’s second sign, concerning the identity of the actual murderer, makes clear that the chief judge’s brother isn’t present at the funeral. That itself might have been a pretty sure sign of his guilt, incidentally, but it’s suggestive in other ways as well. Also odd is the fact that the funeral/trial just sort of breaks up in the end without any real resolution (we’ll be talking about that in next week’s post, of course). It would seem that by the end of the event, everyone involved has simply forgotten why they were originally there. The fasting and mourning, the celebration of “the great and chief judge”—all this seems to have had little effect on the people in the end.

What’s to be made of this transformation of funeral into trial, of this transformation of high ritual into legalistic attack? What’s to be learned from the fact that the people go along with it all? What theological implications are there in all this, in the shift of public focus from the cult of the dead to determining the status of the prophet? Is it more than just ironic that the presence of the prophet forces a certain abandonment of cultic concerns? (Jeremiah becomes relevant again: his consistent message was that the temple cult in Jerusalem couldn’t guarantee safety against the prophet’s predictions of destruction.) What more needs to be said and thought about all this?

5. The Complicated Nature of the Five

By the end of the narrative, a whole host of tensions and difficulties concerning the five runners has emerged, but these are details to which we tend to pay little attention, poor readers of narrative that we are. In verse 1, the five runners are presented as going of their own accord to see whether the chief judge is dead, but in verse 12 the judges describe them as having been sent to check on the chief judge (perhaps sent by the judges themselves). In verses 3-5 the five are shocked to see Nephi’s prophecy fulfilled, and one would guess that they came in that instant to believe that Nephi was right about all he had said concerning the murder of the chief judge, but in verses 14-15 they deny knowing the identity of the murderer, despite the fact that Nephi identified the murderer as the chief judge’s brother in his original prophecy (see Helaman 8:27). We’ve already mentioned the tension between the apparent naivete of the five runners and their ability to rebuke and even to confound the apparently less-naive judges in verse 18. In verse 18, we’re told that the five were liberated (presumably their rebuke and confounding take place just after their liberation but before the trial of Nephi), and then we’re told again in verse 38 that they “were set at liberty”—leaving us to wonder whether there are two separate events here, or whether the first report is murky on the details. It’s only in verse 39 that we’re finally informed that the five “had been converted while they were in prison,” and one wonders naturally why more isn’t said about this sooner. In short, the five runners are remarkably unstable narrative characters throughout chapter 9.

What’s to be made of these details? Is this supposed to be an indication of Mormon’s haste in constructing this narrative? Is it perhaps an indication of a certain messiness in the original records from which Mormon was producing his own record? Or are there ways of making sense of these odd tensions and surprises in a way that brings out theological points of interest? Is there a positive way to see the late mention of the five’s conversion? Is there a theologically productive way to make sense of the tension between the two accounts of the five’s liberation? We’ve already asked how we might think about the positive nature of the logical naivete of the five. Is there a productive way to think about the tension between the five as self-selecting investigators and the five as lackeys of the judges? Although the main characters in the chapter are rather obviously the judges and Nephi, how might further investigation of the five runners help to make this narrative into a coherent whole?

This might be an especially important question given the fact that the five do a good deal of the converting in verse 39, apart from Nephi’s own prophesying.

6. Greatness, Chosenness, Prophethood

In verse 16, the accusation of the judges is that Nephi arranged the murder so that he could seem to prophesy something he couldn’t know about, and this so that “he might raise himself to be a great man, chosen of God, and a prophet.” This triple designation deserves some attention. Perhaps it’s a bit surprising to learn that the phrases “a great man” and “chosen of God” aren’t common in scripture. The first appears four times in the Old Testament, and otherwise only here in Helaman 9. The second appears twice in the New Testament, and otherwise only here in Helaman 9. There’s thus little available for close comparative work. Of course, one might point out that the sense of the phrases are relatively straightforward: “a great man” would seem to indicate someone of real importance, and perhaps someone with supernatural or at least extraordinary powers; “chosen of God” would seem to indicate someone who is in God’s favor, perhaps to the exclusion of others (as chosenness seems to indicate, for instance, in the Zoramite prayer of Alma 31). All this is quite right, but it’s nonetheless worth asking exactly what the judges have in mind, and whether there’s any theological significance to the triple designation.

The language of “great man” echoes, in certain ways, the incessant repetition of the word “man” in connection with Moses in Helaman 8. There’s the very real possibility, however, that “man” was used in that connection in order to emphasize the humanity (rather than divinity) of Moses. And it’s of real importance that the judges may want to mark Nephi’s humanity. Even as they see him trying to exalt himself, they don’t want to let on that fulfilled prophecy would make him any more than a man—albeit a great one. Hence also, perhaps, the talk of being “chosen of God.” The point isn’t at all that someone who prophesies rightly would be in some sense divine—rather only “chosen of God.” Again, then, the judges seem intent on making clear that prophets, if there are such things, are no more than human beings whom God has privileged in a certain way.

There’s at least reason, then, to see in the judges’ words an attempt to impose a certain limit on prophecy, even as they recognize in it a certain kind of superiority. (The possibility that such words would have been spoken with an edge of sarcasm or even a sneer is real.) That they carefully distribute the relationships a prophet has both to being a “man” and to the nature of “God” may be particularly important, given the debate that will take place at the end of the chapter, when the Nephites gathered at the funeral will attempt to decide whether Nephi’s second fulfilled prophecy marks him as merely human (but still a prophet) or as a god!

7. An Anticipatory Theology of Time

There’s a great deal of theological material packed into verses 21-22, the first two verses of Nephi’s sermon in this chapter. Before gets on to his second prophecy and so confirms his prophetic ability, he has a few things to say about the nature of time: “do ye know how long the Lord your God will suffer you that ye shall go on in this your ways of sin?” in verse 21 and “ye had ought to begin to howl and mourn because of the great destruction at this time which doth await you except ye shall repent” in verse 22. That’s five references to the temporal in two very short verses: “how long?” “go on,” “to begin to,” “at this time,” and “doth await.”

It might be possible, just from these brief references, to begin to reconstruct Nephi’s theological conception of how time plays a role in God’s dealings with the unrepentant: in focusing on “this time,” the present time of the wicked, he characterizes it as the time in which destruction “doth await,” as the time that is organized by and that moves toward something on its horizon; it’s a time that has a kind of closedness to the future, a time in which the unrepentant attempt to secure themselves against the reality of future judgment so that they can “go on,” but it’s a time that can’t be definitively sealed against such disaster, as Nephi’s “how long?” makes clear; as a result, Nephi calls for a certain rupture in time, the dawn of a rather different age, by pointing to the necessity that they “begin to” do something rather different. Just this brief set of references, then, is rich.

But what might be richest of all is the way that Nephi, through this set of references, anticipates Samuel the Lamanite. Helaman 13, it turns out, works out a similar theology of time, but at remarkable length and in much greater complexity. (I analyzed Helaman 13 some time ago in a preliminary way here at Feast—see here—but I’ve recently been reworking these ideas at some length for what I hope will be publication.) We’ll be coming to Helaman 13 later in this series, so perhaps we’ll need to say more at that time about these connections. For the moment, it’s just necessary perhaps to point out how similar these two verses in Helaman 9 are the whole of Helaman 13—and to ask why there might be such a connection. Does Nephi anticipate Samuel because they’re prophetically addressing the same group of people? Does Samuel develop ideas in Nephi’s sermon he was actually aware of? Do these notions of temporality appear commonly enough in scripture that there’s nothing particularly surprising about the links between Nephi’s and Samuel’s sermons? Or what other ways might we think about this connection?

8. Doubling One Sign with Another

I’ve already made reference a handful of times to the fact that Nephi doubles his first sign (the murder of the chief judge) with a second (the detection of the murderer). It’s necessary, though, to turn to the theological significance of this point. This is perhaps especially necessary given the complicated status of signs-producing-faith in the Book of Mormon.

In a certain way, this problem takes its rise beginning in Alma 30. There Alma is confronted with a kind of repetition of his experience with Nehor, except that Korihor moves in a rather different direction than Nehor ever did by explicitly denying the Christ and even the existence of God. Because of the epistemological issues in the Korihor story, we find the demand for a sign to establish belief. Alma’s reaction to that request is complex to say the least, but it might be enough just to say that he complies in a certain way. That results in a certain kind of faith spreading in Zarahemla, but not the sort that makes Alma terribly excited. Immediately after that event, Alma ends up preaching among the Zoramites, and he makes sign-seeking a central theme in his preaching, by that point explicitly denying that signs can lead to faith. All this is ironic, however, given that Mormon’s editorial style—as Grant Hardy shows very nicely in Understanding the Book of Mormon—is focused on drawing out fulfillments of prophecy as so many instances that help to prove that the prophets are figures to be reckoned with. As he progresses in his narrative toward Third Nephi, Mormon increasingly makes signs in the shape of fulfilled prophecies central to what he’s doing.

This comes to a kind of head in the Book of Helaman, and particularly in the sermon of Samuel. Samuel states in a passage we’ll have to deal with later that “signs”—and in particular, fulfilled prophecy—would be given with “the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men” (Helaman 14:28). Mormon will draw on that idea as he frames the narrative of Christ’s appearance in Third Nephi. But, as Grant Hardy has also shown very nicely, Mormon is eventually forced to abandon this methodology by the Lord Himself. Mormon has to leave off such proof-by-signs in order to try the faith of the readers of the Book of Mormon. Obviously, I’m signposting rather than providing the details here, but that’s because there’s a great deal at work here. The short version is just that there’s a good deal of complexity in the Book of Mormon about this proof-by-fulfilled-prophecy business.

What all of that implies for Helaman 9 is what needs to be thought about. Why would Nephi double his prophetic sign? Although his first sign was enough to lead to the conversion of the five runners, it was anything but enough to lead to the conversion of the judges. And we’ll be forced to see how ineffective even the second sign is to convert the people generally: they’ll be convinced in a way, but not convicted (they’ll leave him alone as they part ways, arguing about his prophetic status). Where does all this leave us with the sign-ificant status of fulfilled prophecy?

9. The Testimony of the Murderder

If there’s much to be thought about theologically in Nephi’s gesture of doubling prophetic sign with prophetic sign, there’s another curious detail of this fulfillment that deserves attention as well. Not only does Nephi use a second sign to confirm his prophethood, after a fashion (well, strictly speaking, he gives the second sign to see if they could still “seek to destroy” him, as verse 24 puts it)—not only that, but the way his prophethood is confirmed is through the testimony of a murderer! There’s something a bit off-putting, a bit unsettling, about this fact.

Here’s the passage, referring to the words of the actual murderer one he’s been detected: “And then shall he say unto you that I, Nephi, knew nothing concerning the matter, save it were given unto me by the power of God. And then shall ye know that I am an honest man, and that I am sent unto you from God” (verse 36). This is most peculiar. At the very moment that they establish both the murderousness of the murderer and the fact that he has been a deceiver and liar, they will take his testimony concerning Nephi to establish Nephi’s honesty and innocence, as well as his prophetic nature as one “sent … from God.” How should we think about the testimony of the liar to establish the honesty of the prophet?

I don’t think I want to belabor this particular point. It’s a point of theological difficulty, but one that I’m not even quite sure how I want to begin with it.

10. Nephi’s Ambiguous Nature

I made reference above to the debate that concludes Helaman 9, over whether Nephi is a prohpet or a god. I made reference to it twice: first in connection with the way the judges perhaps try to steer the direction of such a debate in advance by their talk of Nephi being “a great man” or “chosen of God”; and second in connection with the slipperiness of signs even when they’ve been confirmed by a second set of signs. There are, of course, other reasons to think about the debate that concludes Helaman 9. We might think about the basic contentiousness of the people who are so wrapped up in sin. We might think about the remarkable superstitions on display there and elsewhere in the chapter (notice how quick the people are to conclude when the find the five runners passed out at the judgment seat that God had struck down the judge’s murderers—and this from a people inherently skeptical of Nephi’s prophetic capacity!). We might think about the epistemological presuppositions on display in the two different parties arguing—the one committed to some kind of idea of prophecy, but the other committed to the idea that such power can’t actually be given to human beings. And much more, I’m sure.

I want, though, to raise a rather different question. I want to suggest that there’s something rather right-headed about the debate. The people are trying to decide whether Nephi is human or non-human, whether his prophetic capacity marks him as a gifted human or whether it marks him as a god among human beings. Perhaps in the context of Helaman 7-9, this debate seems overblown. But what of the context of Helaman 7-10, the whole narrative of which this is a part? Remember that in chapter 10, Nephi will be given power that outstrips that of the prophet. He’ll be given the power to speak and it will be done, to bind up and it is bound, to loose and it is loosed. Nephi will be given the very power of God—not derivatively so much as directly. In our own theological musings, we might wonder aloud whether Nephi doesn’t in a certain way become exactly what some among the Nephites had begun to suspect: a god.

Of course, it has to be said that Nephi can’t do anything with his gift without God actually intervening in some way, and he does much of his work in Helaman 11 by prayer, etc. But the power as it’s actually granted to him marks him as more than a prophet, and even as more than human, in important ways. Given our theological inclination in Mormonism to believe that human beings can become gods in some real sense, it’s not too far out to ask whether we’re not witnessing something very like that in Helaman 10. Of course, much of this is speculation, and it’s to deal with a set of questions we perhaps can’t answer responsibly, and it’s to turn to a text we haven’t dealt with in enough detail to say anything substantial yet, but it’s a point that deserves attention. Nephi’s nature in Helaman 10 will become ambiguous, neither quite human nor quite divine. The debate, albeit a little prematurely, may be exactly the right debate—although undertaken in all the worst ways!

2 Responses to “Reflections on Helaman 9”

  1. Kim Berkey said

    Here are my thoughts, excised of overlap:

    Exegetical Points and Minor Questions

    v. 2 – “know of a surety” – on at least a couple of occasions in the BoM it’s connected with receiving signs; cf. Alma 32:17; Hel 14:14; 1 Ne 17:55

    v. 3 – “fallen to the earth” – only once prior to this used to describe death—Alma 56:56.

    v. 6 – parallel images: a multitude surrounding Nephi (a former chief judge, alive), and a multitude surrounding the chief judge and the five men, all fallen to the earth (the current chief judge, dead). Nephi, we know, is on a tower, raised off the ground to which the other chief judge has fallen

    v. 7 – “to their astonishment” – The audience experiences astonishment in much the same way. We don’t have any narrative talk about “God made it known to Nephi, and he said…” We just have him suddenly informing us of the chief judge’s death, and then the confirmation of that. We, as readers, don’t see any of the supernatural going on. We, like the people, are simply confronted with the violence and have to figure out how to grapple with that. We just see the blood, as it were, not the spirit.

    v. 16 – “cry out against” – What’s also interesting is that whatever is going on in the judges’ words here in Helaman 9, the same thing was going on in chapter 8. In both instances the judges are “cry[ing] out against him.” Might that have something to say about the content of their “cry?” (Politicizing it? Maybe a technical term that refers to some sort of legal process?)

    v. 27 –There’s something remarkably “staged” about this entire thing—Nephi purposely tries to repeat the previous scenario (where the judges “seek to destroy” him; see v. 25) with a second “sign,” and dramatizes their lack of faith (sarcastically calling himself a “pretended prophet”). Why so staged? Is he merely being snarky? What’s he trying to accomplish here?

    v. 31 – “blood upon the skirts of his cloak” – Reminds me of Genesis 37:31–34, which, interestingly, is also a fratricide. Makes it deeply ironic, then, that Brant Gardner points out Seantum could have gotten away with this if he simply claimed it was the blood of an animal!

    v. 37 – “according to the words” – Perhaps this has something to do with the slipperiness of the judges’ locution. Nephi seems to focus in on their words, too, in v. 23–24: “ye say.” It’s almost like he responds to their word-twisting with something too solid. Like he’s just so fed up with them that he says “Fine. I’ll show you what I can really do.”

    I’m also intrigued that the most positive result seems to be this one in v. 39—“some … believed.” The next two verses focus on what people say in response—they say he’s a prophet, they say he’s a god. There’s no belief included, nothing indicating that they did more than acknowledge his peculiar status and then leave (10:1). This transmitting of knowledge across signs hasn’t converted anyone. The ones who believe do so based on words—“on the words of Nephi” or “because of the testimony of the five.”

    1.) Sending the Five

    As you note, Joe, there’s initially some ambiguity about the role of the five. Did they go of their own volition (as v. 1 makes it sound), or were they sent? By v. 15 it becomes clear that the judges sent them (“we ran and came according as ye desired”). In between those verses, however, is the curious conversation in v. 12. Betraying an unusual anxiety about this situation, the judges “inquired among the people, saying: Where are the five who were sent?” to which the people begin their answer by referring to the messengers as “the five whom ye say ye have sent.” The judges asked their question in a way that elided their role in sending the five (by asking in the passive voice), and the people respond by revealing that role (“ye have sent”).

    It’s doubly curious, then, that the people assign this information to the judges—“whom *ye say* ye have sent”—when, from the reader’s perspective, the judges never said any such thing!

    So what’s going on? Are the judges trying to appear nonchalant and not betray their deep interest in the matter? Do they speak in the passive voice because of their privileged position, such that their subjectivity isn’t visible to them?

    Can we relate this passive locution to all the passive language we noticed in Helaman 7? Maybe passivity was not a problem for the Nephites as a whole, but just for the judges? They can’t recognize their own wickedness because they can’t recognize their subjectivity?

    This relationship between the five and the judges is further complicated if we notice that the conversation in v. 13–15 is private—only between the judges and the five. This is why, in v. 16, the judges need to “expound the matter unto the people”—the people weren’t privy to this conversation. And apparently something about the judges’ report isn’t satisfactory to the five, because “they did rebuke the judges” in v. 18. It’s as if they’re watching their report being twisted, and they take the judges to task for misrepresenting the situation.

    We could even play with the idea that, over the course of the narrative, we’re watching the five achieve a kind of independence from the judges that wasn’t available to them before. v. 1, without any indication that they were sent, could be read as an indication that the five can’t see their subservient status. v. 15, where the five are caught between the judges (specifically their desire—“according as ye desired”) and Nephi (specifically his words—“according to the words of Nephi”), might represent a point mid-way along the spectrum. And finally in v. 18 (“they did rebuke the judges”) they reach full independence, also evident in v. 39 when their testimony becomes the impetus for others to believe.

    What on earth do we do with the five?

    2.) The gap surrounding the murderer

    Everyone in the narrative seems to forget that Nephi told them who the murderer was back in 8:27. In v. 15 the five say “we know not who has done it.” We could speculate that the runners left before hearing that part, or that they simply mean to say they can’t “know” properly because they’re not 100% certain who the murderer is. But they don’t even say “let’s go check out that Seantum fellow. Didn’t Nephi mention him, too?”

    And they’re not the only ones who do this. In v. 20 the judges ask Nephi point-blank, “who is this man that hath done this murder?” Perhaps this is Nephi’s complaint in v. 24—something like “as soon as you could find a way to turn this against me, you did it. You didn’t even wait to hear everything I had to say. You didn’t even follow it all the way out. The very second it was apparent how to twist this against me, that was your priority.”

    But v. 20 is a bit more complex than that, and this is where a real gap becomes apparent. V. 20 nicely splits itself into two statements, both introduced by “saying,” both opening with a bald statement (“thou art confederate” and “behold here is money”), both demanding that he acknowledge something (“thy fault” and “the agreement which thou hast made”). But the one thing that doesn’t fit the parallel is the question “who … hath done this murder?” It’s the only part that Nephi addresses in v. 21–36. It’s the only part of this verse that’s phrased as a question. And it’s also the very thing Nephi has already answered for them!

    It’s as if the judges can’t see (or don’t want to see) that he’s already answered that question. If we read v. 20 psychologically, the fact that this question is outside the structure of the otherwise-parallel statements betrays that they have no idea what to do with the prophetic knowledge he’s given them. It’s invisible to them. This question is almost like a Freudian slip betraying the gap in their thinking.

    And Nephi takes that gap and blows it wide open in the following scene. He’s *forcing* them to grapple—in its entirety—with what he’d already said.

    3.) Knowledge, signs, and v. 23

    Knowledge continues to be a persistent theme in this chapter (see v. 2, 15–16, 20–21, 23, 32, 34, 36, and 41). Interestingly, so are belief (v. 2–5, 39) and signs (v. 23). That’s a telling convergence of themes that I want to spend more time thinking about, but for the moment I want to focus on v. 23.

    v. 23 is our interpretive clue to what’s been going on through all of chapters 8 and 9. This entire time, Nephi has been responding to their concerns about the empirically un-knowable. Nephi’s testimony amounts to giving them knowledge—knowledge of his knowledge, to be specific (“I have testified unto you that ye might know … that I did know”).

    Although he is going to call the prophecy (from 8:27–28) a “sign” in v. 24, he first calls it a witness here in v. 23. What makes the difference between a “witness” and a “sign?” What separates the word “witness” from the word “sign” is the judges’ own words—“ye say that I have agreed with a man” (v. 24). The witness doesn’t become a sign until it’s mediated through their words, through their response. Does it become a sign because they’re relating to it as such? If so, the picture would become something like this: Nephi comes and tries to teach them about Christ, but they make it political. So Nephi gives them “a witness” to try and get them back on track, but they respond to that by further politicizing and distracting from the issue, and so it becomes a condemnatory sign. Given the negativity with which signs are viewed in the Book of Mormon, I can’t help but read the results of the second sign, in v. 36, as ominous. The last word we hear Nephi give to these people is: “then shall ye know that I am an honest man, and that I am sent unto you from God.” You can almost hear the implied “but you chose not to listen.” The most essential part of his message has been entirely subverted by these judges.

    By v. 25, Nephi doesn’t bother with giving them a witness any more. Here it’s a sign from the very beginning. And whatever it was in the previous sign that resulted in the judges seeking to destroy him, it sounds like he’s making that more difficult to accomplish in the next “sign.” Perhaps the previous prophecy could be taken as “a witness” because he’d left room for belief, because there was enough ambiguity and enough freedom of interpretation to relate to his words as something other than a sign. Here he’s taken that away. This sign is so specific, so stupidly rote that they can’t possibly politicize it, but they also can’t possibly relate to it in genuine belief. The judges had twisted his words before, misused the ambiguity, so here he spells it out for them so specifically that they can’t escape it. (I should also note that this might make sense of how Nephi can call this “another” sign. If the sign were in the content—the *information* that Seezoram was murdered by his brother—it wouldn’t be a new sign, since that was information Nephi had already provided. The sign has to be something other than the content/knowledge it contains. Perhaps the sign *is* the specificity?)

    I read v. 36 as closely related to v. 23. In both cases, one person’s knowledge informs another’s. In v. 23 the judges’ knowledge is raised first—when they “know concerning [Seezoram’s murder],” that will teach them that Nephi “know[s] of the wickedness and abominations.” In v. 36, however, it’s *Nephi’s* knowledge that comes up first—because Nephi “know[s] nothing concerning the matter,” the judges “shall … know that [he is] an honest man.” (Note, as well, how the first knowledge in both verses is always knowledge “concerning” something.)

    I’m interested in the way knowledge is transmitted across signs. In both v. 23 and 36, the signs function to give the judges knowledge of Nephi’s knowledge. This is slightly different from anything I’ve seen in Alma’s discussions of signs and knowledge. For Alma, knowledge is still transmitted by signs, but there’s no specific content tied to that knowledge. Here, however, the only knowledge that can be communicated by signs is knowledge *that non-empirical knowledge is possible.* Something like that?

    4.) v. 22 and Temporality

    As I had hoped, Joe, you explored what all of this might mean in terms of Nephi’s theology of time and connected it to Helaman 13. Here are a few more points that I thought about along that line.

    v. 22 is part of a two-verse (v. 21–22) stylistic and topical return to Helaman 7, and with it comes the only other use of the word “ought” in the book of Helaman. Before, in 7:15, it was “ye ought to marvel,” and here they are told “ye ought to begin to howl and mourn.” It seems that their destruction has become more sure, somehow, over the course of these last few chapters. The destruction can still be turned away, it seems (at the end of v. 22 he adds “except ye shall repent”), but it’s almost as if Nephi doesn’t believe it.

    v. 22 also points backward with its use of the phrase “at this time,” which first appeared in 8:25–26. It’s almost as if Seezoram’s murder is the thing ensuring their destruction. In 8:27 Nephi had said “It [everlasting destruction] is even now at your doors; yea … behold, your judge is murdered.” It’s almost as if the “at this time” in 8:25–26 was meant to imply what was taking place at that very moment: the judge’s murder. In both 8:25–26 and here, 9:22, the phrase “at the time” immediately precedes a “behold” followed by a prophecy (both dealing with Seezoram’s murder).

    It’s also interesting to me that the judges always try to refute Nephi’s claims on the grounds of the present. When he claims knowledge of their destruction, they claim its impossibility on the grounds that their cities *are* powerful (8:6). When he says that the chief judge has been murdered, they claim that he’s a conspirator—“thou *art* confederate” (9:20).

  2. Robert C. said

    Nice stuff, you guys. Here are a few thoughts in response.

    1. Regarding signs, I’d push back to temper Kim’s comment regarding “the negativity with which signs are viewed in the Book of Mormon.” Joe suggests several reasons to think about the positive significance of signs, and I think Helaman 14 will give us more fodder in this regard (e.g., 14:28 suggests that signs are given so there is “no cause for unbelief”).

    2. I think the it’s quite interesting that the verb “seek” (or “sought”) is used so frequently in conjunction with riches (or gain) and signs. What is the relation between signs and riches? Are riches evil when they become a status symbol, or is there a better way to think about this relation?

    3. Regarding the thoughts on time expressed here, this makes me even more excited to think more about the slipperiness of the riches (contrasting the “surety” of Helaman 9:2 and 14:4) and the sense in which financial markets give capitalism with a peculiarly temporal inflection. Inasmuch as many modern financial contracts are aimed ways to to hedge intertemporal risks, there will be an interesting irony at work when we come to read the slippery riches passages from our post-financial-crisis modern situation. On the one hand, this irony would be fun and interesting to explore. On the other hand, I think focusing on such an irony would perhaps ignore a more interesting issue: I’m less worried about the failure of modern financial markets than the successes. And perhaps the best way to express what I mean here is perhaps simply to point to Nephi’s lament in Helaman 12 about the pride cycle….

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