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Reflections on Helaman 11

Posted by joespencer on July 12, 2013

Helaman 7-10 out of the way, we turn now to Helaman 11-12, which together made up a single (and relatively short) chapter in the original text. I’ll take up Helaman 11 this week and Helaman 12 next.

Preliminaries

After the detailed narrative of Helaman 7-10, which mostly covered the events of just a few days, Helaman 11 speeds through a good deal of history, covering fourteen years! In certain ways, of course, it continues the same story recounted in Helaman 7-10: Nephi uses the (complicated) power he’s been granted to cause a famine among the people, and that in order to bring to an end the violence that would seem, at the end of Helaman 10, to have begun because of the controversial status of Nephi himself. (It seems a bit wrongheaded to continue to assume that the contention entirely centers on him once Helaman 11 gets rolling, but the narrative is clearly meant to suggest something like that at the end of Helaman 10.) But the second half of Helaman 11 turns from the continuation of the story to a more general story about subsequent events.

In a way, then, Helaman 11 divides rather cleanly into two parts. In verses 1-19, there’s a continuation of the story of Helaman 7-10, and Nephi remains a central figure. The events of those first nineteen verses, moreover, take place over just a couple of years. In verses 20-38, with the people at first repentant, we shift from the narrative about Nephi to a more general narrative about the Nephites and the Lamanites, tracing their rather quick decline from repentant righteousness to impenitent wickedness. A full decade (and more!) of history is covered in that second half. And what differentiates the two rather precisely is the complete absence of Nephi from the narrative of verses 20-38. We haven’t any idea what Nephi’s doing during those years, how he responds to the rapid return from repentance to wickedness, what he does to intervene when the Gadianton robbers are reinstated, etc.

Whatever the differences between the two halves of Helaman 11, though, it’s worth noting that the more general tone of the second half opens very naturally onto Helaman 12—Mormon’s sudden interruption of the narrative with a veritable diatribe against Nephite wickedness. Obviously, we’ll come to that next week. In the meanwhile, I’ll take up my usual approach: exegetical details and theological points of interest.

Exegetical Details

Verse 1 – The last verses of Helaman 10 suggest that the series of contentions mentioned in the first verse of Helaman 11 had their origins in Nephi’s preaching, but the development of these contentions here seem to have to little to do with Nephi’s preaching. This is perhaps especially clear when it becomes a matter of “wars,” clarified in verse 2 to be tied to the Gadianton robbers. (It might be noted that there’s something a little odd about describing the difficulties caused by robber bands as “wars.” Is there something to learn from that description? And why is “wars” reduced to “this war” in verse 2?)

Verse 2 – The phrase “secret band” is one that appears only here and in Helaman 7-8, where it mostly appears on the lips of Nephi (but also once on the lips of the narrator). The phrase “work of destruction” is similarly infrequent, appearing only four times outside of Helaman 11 (all in the Book of Mormon) and four times in Helaman 11 (see verses 5, 6, and 28 as well).

Verse 4 – The phrase “O Lord” appears with some frequency in scripture, and often enough in the Book of Mormon. Curiously, though, it appears with startling frequency in this chapter: eight times (it appears only once more in all of Helaman)! All instances are, of course, in Nephi’s prayer, more or less to be found at the beginning of each sentence of his petitions. It’s not clear what’s to be made of this.

Verse 5 – With the formula “it was done according to the words of Nephi,” there’s a clear echo of the word/deed formulae of Helaman 10. Interestingly, it appears here in the narrative description of the Lord’s response to Nephi’s prayer, but not in Nephi’s prayer itself. In verse 13, it will appear in Nephi’s later prayer (to avert the famine), but not in the narrative description of the Lord’s response to that prayer (see verse 17). What’s to be made of that difference?

Verse 6 – The note about thousands perishing in the more wicked parts of the land is curious. Is there supposed to be some natural explanation of this—perhaps that the most wicked have done the least to prepare for famine, or that the most wicked end up fighting over what scant resources there are? Or is there supposed to be only a supernatural event at work here?

Verse 9 – The mention of sackcloth is actually a bit surprising. Although sackcloth is mentioned often enough in the Bible, it appears in the Book of Mormon only four times—and two of those are in quotations of Isaiah. The other two references are this one and Mosiah 11:25. One would guess at first that the traditions of mourning with sackcloth simply weren’t carried over into the New World. But then we have these two, very occasional references. What’s to be made of this?

Verse 10 – Nephi reports to the Lord that the Gadianton band had been “swept away,” but it’s unclear how this was accomplished. No efforts at battling the band are mentioned in the narrative. Is the point that they’ve been destroyed by the sword/famine? Or is the point that even the Gadianton’s have repented? Who, at any rate, has done the burying of the Gadianton “plans”?

Verse 13 – The phrase “season of grain” is unique to Helaman 11. Similarly, the phrase “season of fruit” that appears a few verses later is unique to Helaman 11. This is perhaps a bit surprising, but not entirely.

Verse 16 – The phrase “try again” is entirely unique to this text, which may be quite significant, given the fact that it’s the Lord who’s asked to try again. Also of interest in the relatively uniqueness of “thou canst” when spoken to the Lord. It appears only here and Ether 3:5, where it also appears in a remarkable scene of human faith that exerts some kind of control over God.

Verse 18 – The people “did no more seek to destroy Nephi,” the narrator tells us. Were they seeking to destroy him before the famine began? Is this a hint anew that the contentions or wars were connected to Nephi? Or is this a reference back to the trial?

Verse 20 – The language of “waste places” seems to be drawn from Isaiah, where it appears a handful of times—and mostly in texts that appear elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. Indeed, in the Book of Mormon, the phrase “waste places” appears only in quotations of Isaiah, except here in Helaman 11. Why this connection here and rather suddenly? What’s the connection supposed to imply?

Verse 23 – Nephi and Lehi are described here has “having many revelations daily.” This is pretty clearly supposed to be contrasted with the description of the dissenters of a few verses later: they’re described as “receiving daily an addition to their numbers.” Both extremes grow in their wickedness or righteousness “daily.”

Verse 24 – Without warning, dissenters appear here—dissenters who had dissented earlier, unnarrated. They join, moreover, with “real descendants” of the Lamanites (that phrase, “real descendants,” is unique to this text). This situation is sudden and unanticipated, though it follows the usual pattern.

Verse 27 – The word “havoc” appears only here and in Acts 8:3 in all of scripture. There doesn’t seem to be a real connection between the two passages, either.

Verse 28 – The phrase “search out” is used here to describe the army’s efforts to root out the Gadiantons. It echoes, rather ironically, the use of the same phrase in verse 26 to describe the way the dissenters became Gadiantons: “they did search out all the secret plans.”

Theological Points of Interest

1. Is Destruction Inevitable at this Point?

According to verse 5, the result of Nephi’s intervention was that “the work of destruction did cease by the sword, but became sore by famine.” One sort of destruction, it seems, is substituted for another. Nephi’s prayer in verse 4, however, doesn’t ask for such a substitution—at least not directly. Here’s the prayer: “O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword. But, O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee.” In Nephi’s actual prayer, it would seem that destruction was to be replaced by remembrance. How should this be read? Are we to understand that Nephi was asking between the lines for a substitution of one sort of destruction with another, because the one sort would lead to remembrance? Or are we to understand that Nephi was asking for a cessation of destruction and the imposition of something that would lead to destruction? Is the subsequent destruction by famine part of what Nephi envisioned or not?

These questions are important theologically because of a theme I’ll take up again below: the fierce anger of the Lord. There’s much to think about in this narrative so far as that complicated theme is concerned. This matter of inevitable destruction plays into it. Could Nephi not have asked for a complete cessation of destruction? Would that have worked against God’s intentions somehow? Did he, perhaps, ask—but a little ambiguously—for a complete cessation of actual destruction? Did he ask for the destruction to cease entirely, but the wicked imposed destruction on themselves (through contention over scarce resources, for instance)?

All these questions are difficult to answer, obviously, but the theological stakes are high, it seems to me.

2. Remembrance of the Lord, Remembrance of Nephi’s Words

Nephi’s prayer in verse 4 is that the people might, by means of famine, be stirred up to repentance. The idea isn’t terribly odd: there’s such a strong association in the Hebrew tradition between the Lord and the fertility of the earth that famine might more easily than most difficulties turn Israelites back to their God. Ironically, though, it seems it’s not until people “perish by thousands” from the famine that anyone begins to remember the Lord. And even then, it’s not so much that they remember the Lord who controls the heavens and the earth than that they remember the Lord who threatened them through Nephi—as verse 7 makes clear. There’s something a bit odd about this sort of remembrance, and it deserves attention.

Verse 7 says this: “they began to remember the Lord their God, and they began to remember the words of Nephi.” Is it significant that they don’t begin to remember the words of the Lord, that begin to remember the Lord Himself on the one hand, and the words of Nephi on the other? Or how else might we understand the double gesture? Should we hear in this a double remembrance, or a single remembrance with a double aspect? If the latter, is there any real remembrance of the Lord—since it seems it’s really the destruction prophesied by Nephi that they come to remember? And how does the tight coupling of “the Lord their God” with “the words of Nephi” play into the complicated power granted to Nephi in chapter 10? All of these questions, complex though any answer to them would have to be, need answering.

3. Who Seeks Repentance?

When remembrance dawns and repentance becomes a real possibility—in verses 7-8, that is—it’s difficult to know exactly what’s happening. We’re told this in verse 8: “the people began to plead with their chief judges and their leaders that they would say unto Nephi: Behold, we know that thou art a man of God, and therefore cry unto the Lord our God that he turn away from us this famine,” etc. How’s this to be thought about? Should we hear in this—as we might well have heard in chapter 8—a certain tension or distance between the people and the leaders, a certain difference between their desires and vision? Should we hear in this a certain inability on the part of the people to take responsibility for themselves? Should we hear in this a certain desire to make things official in petitioning the prophet? Or what?

It’s not hard to feel that the people approach their judges and leaders because they want to make a kind of united front in their collective repentance. They ask the judges and leaders to confess (“we know that thou art a man of God”!) and to ask for intervention with God based on that confession. Do the judges and leaders believe what they’re asked to say, or is that the belief solely of the people? And how might we think about the theme of confession? How does confession work in this setting, where the officials find themselves confessing to the unofficial figure of Nephi? What, further, is contained in the phrase “man of God” here? Is there a recognition of the sort of power that’s been granted to Nephi in chapter 10? Or is there merely a recognition of Nephi’s prophetic foreknowledge—concerning the destruction they’re now witnessing, for instance? What is it that the people—and, on their behalf, the judges and leaders—see in Nephi?

The gesture of collective confession, urged on the judges and leaders by the people, is obviously a remarkably complex one. It isn’t clear exactly what the stakes are, nor is it clear what’s to be accomplished by it apart from a removal of the famine. But all these difficulties are just preludes to a still-greater difficulty, which I’ll take up next.

4. Petitioning a Prophet to Forestall His Own Predictions

The last line of verse 8, reporting the words the people request (require?) the judges and leaders to say to Nephi, is this: “lest all the words which thou hast spoken concerning our destruction be fulfilled.” The people hope for a diversion of the famine, but specifically so that Nephi’s prophecies won’t be fulfilled. That’s an audacious move on the people’s part: they’re looking to petition the prophet to intervene with the Lord against his own prophecy. Of course, we might soften the gesture in several ways. We might point out that there were clauses of “except ye repent” and the like in Nephi’s prophecy, so that even their petition falls within his larger prophetic message. Or we might suggest that “all the words” speaks to a certain fulfillment, such that the request is only that the fulfillment be limited in important ways. Be all that as it may, the gesture is still one of asking a prophet to help his prophecy from being fulfilled in its entirety.

How should we think, theologically, about that gesture? We have other scriptural instances of unfulfilled prophecy. I have in mind here particularly Jonah, whose prophecy of destruction (he said nothing of repentance) fails to come true because the people repent. Jonah’s response was to pout and whine about God’s failure to fulfill—in response to which the Lord had a few things to say and to do. How might we read this situation with Nephi in light of that sort of narrative, farcical though it is clearly intended to be (animals repenting in sackcloth!)? And how might we reflect on the fact that Nephi seems entirely satisfied with the request from the people through the judges and leaders? We’ll see that, if anything, it’s the Lord who’s presented as reticent to avert the famine, and not the prophet—as if the Jonah story were inverted. (At least, it’s the Lord as Nephi seems to view Him that’s intent on destruction. We’ll have more to say about that.)

Perhaps more philosophically, there’s much to think about in this gesture of asking for prophecy to fail. The very gesture assumes the reality of the prophetic gift; the gesture is inevitably a gesture of faith. How do we think about a faithful attempt to subvert prophecy? How do we think about a kind of faith that fully recognizes divine retribution, but does all it can to counteract it? Is there a parallel here with Abraham’s pleading with the Lord in Genesis 18, or with Job’s constant petition to God for a fair trial? How do we think about this complicated way of approaching the Lord?

5. Concealed Plans

In verse 10, Nephi reports to the Lord that the people had “swept away the band of Gadianton from amongst them, insomuch that they have become extinct.” This comes to the reader as a bit of a surprise, since the narrative leading up to Nephi’s prayer never mentions this detail. All the reader has been told is that the people “did perish by thousands in the more wicked parts of the land” (verse 6). Consequently, one isn’t entirely sure what’s been done to sweep the Gadiantons “from amongst them.” Is the idea that the Gadiantons have been eradicated (“extinct”)? Is the idea that they’ve been driven out of town but not actually entirely obliterated (“from amongst them”)? Is the idea that the Gadiantons have been converted (and the unconverted destroyed)? Or what other possible interpretations might there be? It simply isn’t clear exactly what’s been done with the Gadianton robbers.

This is compounded by the not-entirely-comforting language of the next line of verse 10: “and they have concealed their secret plans in the earth.” At first, this note about the people’s repentance seems to be good news: not only are the Gadiantons gotten rid of, but even the texts and traditions they’ve produced have been gotten rid of. But a moment’s further reflection makes one less comfortable: the plans weren’t destroyed, but simply buried, it seems. And sure enough, these same plans will be retrieved shortly after from wherever they were buried (see verse 26). That the plans had to be “searched out” at that point is perhaps suggestive (they’ve been buried in a secret location), but they turn out to be retrievable, and one wonders whether that retrieval isn’t itself accomplish supernatural means—given the way the text describes the event. Indeed, the process of searching the secret plans out might suggest retroactively that there’s something more at work in verse 10’s use of the word “concealed.” The Gadianton band’s secret plans aren’t “buried” but “concealed.” That word appears only five other times in the Book of Mormon, and most often in connection with strategy and subterfuge. Does this talk of concealing here suggest that things aren’t as glowing as Nephi wants them to be?

How might we think theologically about this development? Is Nephi a little to optimistic in his representation of the people? And if so, why does the Lord go along with him? Indeed, how should we understand the Lord’s earlier claim that Nephi wouldn’t ask anything contrary to the Lord’s will, if indeed Nephi’s at little to optimistic here? Are we to think that the Lord would have been merciful like Nephi? Do we have here a certain willingness on the Lord’s part to give a chance to the Nephites when they’ve not entirely turned in the right direction? Or is all this just a bit too speculative, and the Nephites had “concealed” the Gadianton plans in full repentance?

6. The Fierce Anger of the Lord

Throughout Nephi’s prayer, he assumes a kind of (nearly) irreparable anger on the part of the Lord. Five times he uses the word (“anger”), and he suggests several times along the way that the Lord’s anger demands a certain satisfaction. In verse 12, the Lord’s anger is even described as “fierce anger,” a common-enough phrase in connection with the Lord in scripture, but one we’re usually not terribly happy about as readers. Most startling, perhaps, is this note in verse 11: “wilt thou . . . let thine anger be appeased in the destruction of those wicked men whom thou hast already destroyed.” The picture this presents is not one we’re generally going to be comfortable with. Nephi’s words suggest that the Lord has sought in the destruction of the people a certain satisfaction for His anger—as if His anger had a kind of appetite for desolation. Further, Nephi seems to assume that that anger can’t be turned away until it has been fed at least enough to justify putting a stop to destruction. None of this settles well with most contemporary folks.

How should we think about this text? We might, of course, play with the possibility that there’s a certain exception to God’s usual lovingness—an exception that’s tied up with the excessive destructiveness caused by secret combinations. (The Book of Mormon, it must be remembered, works eventually toward a kind of manifesto that ties all of the most wicked things to secret combinations.) Is the fierce anger of the Lord here less a manifestation of that supposed “God of the Old Testament” we sometimes talk about and more a manifestation of a certain absolute intolerance for a certain kind of wickedness? Another direction we might go, though, would be to wonder whether Nephi, just like he was perhaps a bit too optimistic about the people’s repentance, is perhaps a bit too pessimistic about the Lord’s anger. Do we get a kind of general sense from Nephi’s prayer, maybe, that Nephi is trying to be extra deferential to what might be the Lord’s intentions?

There are, of course, other accounts that might be made regarding this point. However we think about it, it’s perhaps the most difficult point—and therefore the point most demanding of our attention—in this chapter.

3 Responses to “Reflections on Helaman 11”

  1. Kim Berkey said

    v. 5 – “among all the people of Nephi” quotes v. 1, but replaces war with famine. Not at all surprising, since this is exactly what the narrative is about, but perhaps makes a nice point of literary emphasis.

    v. 6 – The repeated use of the word “smitten” is obviously meant to connect with 10:6, 10-11

    v. 7-8 – “began” is repeated 3x. How might this comment on 9:22 (“ye ought to begin to howl and mourn”)? Is this a way of emphasizing that Nephi’s intervention will be preemptory, a bit too soon? This “beginning” is a response to their realization in v. 7 that they were “about to perish.” It’s as if they’ve almost come to the end of that line of behavior, almost accomplished what that route holds in store for them, and when it’s clear that they can’t continue down that road, they “begin” another one.

    v. 8 – “chief judges and leaders” – Might the plural “chief judges” have anything to do with the plural “wars” of v. 1? Have we divided into several tribes? It seems likely. Their behavior toward Nephi is nothing like the confident, domineering role we saw in chapter 9. These chief judges seem to be pretty compliant messengers on behalf of the people. Although, as you note, there’s a lot more that could be read into their behavior.

    v. 10 – Yet again, Nephi demonstrates that he’s kept his eye on this Gadianton issue throughout these chapters. Mention of the Gadianton robbers punctuates his initial call to repentance (7:25), his prophecy that sets the whole narrative in motion (8:28), and his prayer to end the famine (here, 11:10). At each stage of Nephi’s active, sermonic role in these chapters, he mentions secret combinations.

    v. 10 – “secret plans” only shows up in the Book of Mormon, and always refers to secret combinations. That’s unsurprising, but we might reflect more on why they’re always called “plans.” Do they amount to a long-term scheme of overthrowing government? A fail-proof multilevel marketing approach to wickedness?

    v. 18 – “great prophet” echoes the overwrought language of 9:10. Is this another clue that the people relate to authority figures in a problematic way? In chapter 9, something about this overwrought language hinted at their easy distraction from the funeral. Could the similar language here indicate their easy distraction from righteousness?

    v. 24 – Mormon is clearly interested in explaining the Nephite-Lamanite relationship with detail and precision.

    v. 28 – “strong men” is fairly rare in scripture (7x in the OT, 3x in BoM). One parallel of interest is 1 Kgs 2:16, where fifty “strong men” go to meet Elisha.

    v. 28 – “upon the mountains” – every time this phrase is used in the Book of Mormon prior to this, it’s a quotation of Isaiah. In this chapter we also see a couple other fairly-common phrases that get repurposed to refer to secret combinations and become the sole way of using that phrase for the rest of the Book of Mormon: “Upon the mountains” (here, v. 28), “work of destruction” (also v. 28), “infested” (v. 31).

    v. 33 – “more especially their women and their children” – are we meant to hear in this a parallel with the events of Alma 14?

    v. 34 – “stir them up again in remembrance of the Lord their God” – this is a direct echo of Nephi’s prayer in v. 4. What’s intriguing is that v. 7, while it also echoes v. 4 (“began to remember the Lord their God”), doesn’t echo it as fully as v. 34 (“began to remember” vs. “stir them up … in remembrance”). Whereas the famine seemed successful in some ways, the wars are actually more effective at stirring up remembrance, and that’s indicated by a more complete fulfillment/quotation of v. 4.

    1.) Scattered Thoughts on Famine

    What is it about a famine that is more likely to “stir them up in remembrance” (v. 4) than destruction by the sword?

    We might play with the idea that a famine is more democratic than warfare; it’s more likely to strike everyone (including women and children), not just those on the front lines. Unlike war, which maintains the illusion of potential survival, famine is inescapable.

    Could it be that famine, because it involves a slow, drawn-out (not to mention lethargic) death, leads one to contemplate death itself? Rather than a quick confrontation with an opponent, famine brings the people into a prolonged encounter with death?

    This line of thinking might explain the distance between memory and repentance in v. 4. The people’s repentance is given mere coincidental force—“perhaps.” Being brought to “remembrance” does not necessarily result in repentance.

    Is the stirring-up process of famine, then, oriented toward death in a way that can’t be distracted or warded off, where repentance still requires an additional turn toward life? Famine might productively instill a fear of death, but that doesn’t sufficiently orient one toward life?

    Unity might also be a goal, here. Where v. 1 reports that there were “wars” (plural), by v. 2 Mormon is commenting on “this war” (singular). Although the situation manifests itself as so many individual, disparate conflicts throughout the land, Mormon sees a single unifying force at work behind all of them—namely, the Gadianton robbers—and so he can call it a “war” (singular). Perhaps a famine was preferable because of its uniting force (everyone is equally threatened by famine). If so, it may explain why the Lamanites must experience it too (v. 6)—it eliminates even the possibility of defining themselves against the Lamanites.

    Of course, all of this is somewhat removed from Nephi’s rather naïve interests expressed in v. 4. We tend to read this as a request that the *method* of destruction change. Like you mention, Joe, there’s the possibility that Nephi asks that the destruction itself cease altogether. Rather than saying, for instance, “do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword … rather let them be destroyed by famine,” all mention of destruction drops out of Nephi’s suggested strategy. Does Nephi optimistically hope that they’ll all just get really hungry and quickly repent, not realizing the full horror of death by starvation? Is this why his second prayer seeks to appease God’s wrath? He interprets the gap between his expectations and the gruesome reality as a manifestation of God’s anger?

    2.) Ecotheology, For Fun

    v. 6 follows a trajectory we first saw in chapter 10. In 10:6, Nephi is told that he would “smite the earth,” but by 10:10–11 it’s clear that the ultimate object of smiting is actually “this people.” Here in 11:6 something similar is going on. It’s in the smiting of the earth that the people are destroyed (“the earth was smitten … so that they [the people] were smitten”).

    I wonder how this focus on the earth (which here in v. 6 clearly means “dirt”) interacts with the Book of Helaman’s odd fascination with burying things—secret plans, treasures.

    For more ecotheological fun: it’s also interesting to note the way that fruit and grain get brought into the discussion. In v. 6, the famine manifests only in the fact that the earth “did not yield forth grain in the season of grain.” By v. 13, however, in Nephi’s prayer, fruit gets added to the picture: “that she may bring forth her fruit, and her grain in the season of grain.” And by v. 17, when the famine is removed, fruit’s *season* is also mentioned, so that it’s now fully parallel to grain: “it did bring forth her fruit in the season of her fruit. And … it did bring forth her grain in the season of her grain.”

    Even more fun: why does Nephi picture the earth as feminine (“her” in v. 13), while Mormon pictures it as neuter (“it” in v. 6)? And what of v. 17, where Mormon now uses the female pronoun to refer to the earth? Could it be that “it” in v. 17 refers to the rain, and “her” refers to the earth, such that we have a fairly-standard ancient fertility cosmology? If so, what could we read into the different pronouns that precede “bring forth” in v. 13 and 17?

    3.) The People’s Response

    As you also noted, the famine successfully causes the people “to remember the Lord their God” (v. 7; cf. v. 4), but instead of repenting, which was next in the sequence of Nephi’s hoped-for responses, they begin “to remember the words of Nephi” (v. 7; cf. 10:15). I chose to read it as a doubling; instead of repenting, they double their remembrance. They were, indeed, “stir[red] … up in remembrance” (v. 4), and it seems they can’t break out of that cycle. Instead of turning to God, they turn to Nephi.

    God seems, in some sense, invisible to the people. When they send their leaders to speak to Nephi, they talk about “all the words which *thou* hast spoken concerning our destruction,” not *God’s* words concerning destruction. And when the famine is finally removed, they still refuse to see anyone other than Nephi at work—they “esteem him as a great prophet” (v. 18). If this reading is tenable, it adds a nice ironic touch to v. 19’s out-of-the-blue mention of Lehi. Despite the consistent relationship between Nephi and God throughout all of chapters 7–10, the people refused to look vertically past Nephi to the Lord. They can only turn their gaze horizontally to another transcendent prophetic figure.

    The people’s response in many ways echoes Israel’s plea for Moses to act as their intermediary (Exod 20:19; Deut 5:23–27). What’s going on in that move of seeking mediation? What does it reveal about how they view the situation? For them, Nephi has all the transcendent status and power of God (9:41), and in their response to the threat of destruction, thy miss the real hierarchy at work. For the people, God appears to be nothing more than a remote power. They reorder the relationship between Nephi and God, such that Nephi is the one directing how things will go, and God is merely the muscle/power behind it. Maybe?

    So what, then, do we do with the fact that they “remember the Lord their God” (v. 7) and “glorify God” (v. 18)? Perhaps I’m just a pessimist, but I see zero genuine repentance among the people. Remembering the Lord without remembering his words suggests that God is largely a remote cult figure. In v. 8, the people express zero penitence, merely fear at what is now the real possibility of their destruction. When Nephi reports that “this people repenteth” (v. 10; and note the present tense!), the best he can seem to point to is their ritual use of sackcloth (v. 9) and the political elimination of the Gadianton robbers (v. 10), neither of which seems to demonstrate the “humility” Nephi ascribes to them (v. 11). The silence of Mormon on this point is also quite telling. If the people really had repented and really had eliminated the secret combinations, it’s entirely unlike Mormon not to underscore that point. Even the fact that “the church did spread throughout the face of all the land” (v. 21) sounds more like an indication of the larger general expansion taking place, a further sign of their growth, rather than a spiritual awakening in any real sense. Their related doctrinal disputes (v. 22) sound merely academic. Add to this the fact that things fall apart relatively quickly, leading Mormon to lament (chapter 12) rather than rejoice in the Nephites’ supposed repentance, and I’m convinced that Nephi is overly optimistic, at best.

    4.) The Second Prayer

    There’s more humility, it seems, in Nephi’s second prayer with its repetition of “wilt thou” (v. 11–13, 16) rather than “do not” and “let there be” (v. 4). The first prayer sounded confident and assured. Nothing about the second, however, sounds like a prophet who’s exercising any sort of ritualistic divine empowerment. Why is he so tentative?

    Is Nephi afraid that he might, actually, be asking contrary to the Lord’s will (10:5)? The first time, a famine was something the Lord had explicitly laid out for him as acceptable to do (10:6), but here he’s in uncharted territory.

    And perhaps his hesitancy has to do with an implicit awareness that he’s acting quickly, optimistically, before the people have completed their repentance (cf. all the language of “began” in v. 7–8). He’s subconsciously aware that his behavior is preemptive, a little hasty.

    Or perhaps Nephi is humbled by the power he wielded in beginning the famine in the first place. He exercised his divine power, and God did exactly what he requested. He begins to see that words have extreme power, and he needs to be careful with them.

    Or perhaps he’s timid because the famine was his idea to begin with, and he’s ashamed of his fickleness in reneging on his request.

    My favorite reading for Nephi’s fear and trembling, however, turns on the way he puts words into the Lord’s mouth. In v. 14 Nephi reminds the Lord “for thou sadist that: If this people repent I will spare them.” The Lord never said this! The exact words were, in fact, “except ye repent … ye shall be smitten even unto destruction” (10:14). There was no talk of sparing them if they did repent. And even if the inverse was implied, Nephi is still taking great liberty in reformulating “the word of the Lord” (10:14) as a positive. Furthermore, “the word of the Lord” as it was originally given *has* been explicitly fulfilled—they’ve been “smitten” (v. 6) unto “destruction” (v. 2, 5–6, 11).

    What if Nephi is exercising his power from chapter 10 (“if ye shall say that God shall smite this people, it shall come to pass,” 10:10) to subvert God himself? No wonder he’s so timid! Nephi is reversing God’s initial word of destruction!

    Is this the role of a prophet? To mediate between God and the people by breathing genuine possibility and novelty into a previously foreclosed situation? It’s certainly a Mosaic model of prophecy…

    5.) Speculation, For Fun

    What if Nephi wrote the chapter 7 heading? I’m basing this speculation on two items from chapter 11—Nephi’s optimism, and his use of the word “pestilence.”

    First—as I noted above, I think Nephi comes across as a remarkably optimistic prophet. He reads the situation completely contrary to Mormon, much as Mormon might have tried to harmonize things. The sense of distance between Nephi’s assessment of the situation (v. 10, 15) and Mormon’s feels very similar to the distance between the chapter 7 heading and the larger narrative. If Mormon’s original source was a sayings document, written by Nephi, it would be a simple task to give the heading a positive slant to make one’s prophetic calling look more successful than it perhaps really was. Without the same kind of narrative reworking that Mormon has added, here, it wouldn’t be at all difficult to read the history in a positive light.

    Second—Nephi uses the word “pestilence” twice in his prayer. In v. 14, he talks about “the pestilence of the sword.” Here he’s reminding the Lord of his initial request in v. 4, but yet again we see Nephi misremembering particular words. In v. 4, he hadn’t talked about the “pestilence of the sword,” but being “destroyed by the sword.” Why does Nephi misremember his initial prayer, and replace the idea of destruction with the idea of pestilence? Especially given that “pestilence,” in scripture, already has its own content as a kind of agricultural blight?

    In v. 15, Nephi refers to “pestilence” again, this time quoting Hel 10:6, when the Lord had given him power such that he could “smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction.” Curiously, when Nephi quotes 10:6, he glosses over the active role the Lord had initially ascribed him. Instead of Nephi smiting the earth (as in 10:6), he reports that this trio of famine/pestilence/destruction has simply “come unto” the people. What if Nephi is trying to avoid personal responsibility for the results of his emotional entanglement with two of these three terms? Perhaps his use of the word “pestilence” in v. 14 and (speculatively) in the chapter 7 heading reflects a selection of the one word that remains ‘safe’ to him from the Lord’s initial endowment in 10:6? Nephi asked for the horrific “famine” out of his eagerness to avoid “destruction” (v. 4). Could his use of the word “pestilence” reflect a deep sense of guilt about his entanglement with the other two elements of his power? This is the one word that Nephi wasn’t involved in, the one curse that he doesn’t have a hand in, the one word he *didn’t* use in his prayer in v. 4, and hence the one word for which he isn’t responsible.

  2. […] Kim Berkey on Reflections on Helaman 11 […]

  3. Robert C. said

    I’m finally reading this excellent posts (and I’m commenting here to keep track of which ones I’ve read). Great job, guys!

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