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.
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.
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.
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