Reflections on Helaman 12
Posted by joespencer on July 16, 2013
Now a companion piece to my last, wrapping up discussion on what was originally the fourth chapter of the Book of Helaman. This chapter—Helaman 12—is much more interesting theologically than the last.
Helaman 12 is a remarkably unique chapter. Latter-day Saints aren’t unaccustomed to noting Mormon’s occasional didactic asides (“thus we see”), but here we have an aside that lasts for an entire chapter. Moreover, it’s the first time in the Book of Mormon as we have it (that is, without the lost manuscript that would have given us the first part of Mormon’s editorial work) that Mormon speaks directly to his audience long enough to provide a sense of his interests and concerns. The consequence is that we have in Helaman 12 a kind of introduction to Mormon the person.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Mormon pushes his way through the narrative into the limelight at this point. The books of Mosiah and Alma are carefully constructed, extremely detailed, and theologically clear. The Book of Helaman seems to be a more haphazard affair—as if Mormon began to run short on time when he came to this period in Nephite history. Without the time or means to do the kind of careful work he had done on the preceding two books, perhaps Mormon found himself frustrated by his project, such that he finally exploded in a kind of tirade, hoping thereby to explain his purposes explicitly, since he couldn’t weave them artfully and implicitly into the narrative he was constructing. Or maybe this interruption was part of his plan all along. There’s at least some reason to suspect so.
There’s a kind of logic to Helaman 12, a pattern to its unfolding. It should be noted as well that it’s quite beautifully written—one of the Book of Mormon’s few genuinely artful texts. Starting from a worry, generated by the narrative he’s been reconstructing, about the falsity and the unsteadiness of human beings, he works up a careful analysis of the human phenomenon in verses 1-6. He then pursues two distinguishable sequences about God’s power in word and deed—first focused on the earthy (dust, mountains and hills, the earth itself), and then focused on a variety of phenomena (water, mountain, treasure, human persons). Finally, having turned at last to the cursing of human beings, he turns to the possibility of repentance and says a few things about his great hopes for widespread repentance.
That, it seems, is the general logic. There’s much, much more to work out in terms of details, which I’ll take up below.
Verse 1 – While the word “false” appears with great frequency in scripture, the word “unsteady” or “unsteadiness” appears only in this text. The words “steady” and “steadiness” appear a few times, most significantly in Helaman 6:1, where it describes the firmness of the Lamanite converts.
Verse 2 – The phrase “great infinite goodness” is unique to this text, but “infinite goodness” appears three other times in scripture—all in the Book of Mormon. Two of those appearances seem more or less irrelevant to the present text (2 Nephi 1:10 and Moroni 8:3). The other, however, in Mosiah 5:3 is the first of a number of connections with King Benjamin’s speech. The reference here is likely a direct echo of Benjamin’s words.
Verse 2 – It’s a bit of a surprise to learn that “welfare” and “happiness” are coupled only in this passage in all of scripture.
Verse 2 – The phrase “trample under their feet” appears a good number of times in scripture, and it’s often enough applied to the Lord. Only once elsewhere, though, is the phrase applied specifically to “the Holy One”: Alma 5:53. The connection may be significant.
Verses 4-5 – The language of “how quick” appears only here and in Alma 46:8 in all of scripture. The language of “how slow” appears only here.
Verses 5-6 – This verse seems to be a deliberate reworking of Mosiah 8:20: “they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them.” Here in Helaman the lacked desire is toward God’s rule rather than personified wisdom’s rule, and wisdom becomes the ruler over paths. The reworking is slight but significant.
Verse 7 – The word “nothingness” appears only here and in Mosiah 4. The details of Mormon’s reworking of Benjamin will appear in the theological discussion below. For the moment, it’s enough just to note the uniqueness of the language to those two texts.
Verse 8 – The words “great” and “everlasting” never qualify the same noun elsewhere in scripture. The wording is entirely unique here.
Verse 15 – The quasi-scientific aside in verse 15 actually seems to have a logic. All of verses 7-15 have an implicit focus on earthy things: dust, mountains and hills, earth, foundations, etc. In order to maintain that focus right through verse 15, Mormon has the Lord command the earth to stop in its rotation, rather than the sun to stop in its orbit—but the weirdness of that claim in a non-heliocentric ancient world apparently required comment. It’s worth noting that the shift to heliocentrism more generally makes it that all of God’s “sayings” in these verses (right through verse 22!) are spoken to earthly, and never to heavenly, things. It’s possible that there’s an implicit theology in that fact.
Verse 21 – It has to be noticed that the final installment in the series of “the Lord says X, and it is done” formulas changes the final element: “he will cause that it shall be so.” This seems, though, to be a consequence of the fact that this is spoken to a human being, to one of those things that don’t obey the word of the Lord according to the very first part of the sequence from verse 7 through verse 22. The point here, it seems, is that God can use force to maneuver human beings into the position He desires, but that it’s something He largely avoids.
Verse 24 – The phrase “great fullness” is entirely unique to this text. More will be said about its theological implications below.
Verse 24 – The phrase “grace for grace” appears originally, it seems, in John 1:16, and it’s picked up in D&C 93, of course. Otherwise, it appears only in this passage. Its theological context will be worked out below, but it’s well worth noticing its uniqueness here.
Verses 25-26 – There’s some difficulty about whether what “we read” in verse 25 is the same as “the words which saith” in verse 26. Are these two reference to a same basic text? Or does the written text perhaps fulfill the oral saying? Incidentally, there’s no direct (or non-paraphrased) text that reads like verse 26 (though it could be a paraphrase of any number of texts, whether from the Gospel of John or from Alma’s discussion with Corianton, or a handful of other places), while there’s a pretty direct source for the words before that (“consigned to a state of endless misery,” for instance, appears in exactly that phrasing in Alma 9:13). It’s not clear how this is to be decided, but the problem should be noted.
Theological Points of Interest
1. Mormon’s Implied Audience
It is very worth asking why Mormon interrupts his narrative for the first time (in the extant text) here. I’ve already mentioned the possibility that the forced rapidity of the narrative at this point annoyed him, and that he felt it necessary to say something about his approach, in case it was being lost in the brevity of his abridgment. Another important point deserves mention, though. It might be that he decided to step aside from his writing at this point to say something to a specific audience. Perhaps the concerns that drive this chapter are concerns that Mormon had about those to whom he was writing.
What’s the theme in Helaman 12? There are several, of course, but the theme that sets Mormon moving in the chapter is clearly prosperity and its dangers. It may be, then, that Mormon’s implied audience is a prosperous people prone to forget God at the very time they receive prosperity from Him. There are several ways to think about this. It’s possible that Mormon is worried about his latter-day audience, about whom he presumably knew something. (It’s Moroni who will later say things about having seen the latter days, etc., but one suspects that Mormon had a similar premonition of what the reception of his work would be like.) It’s possible also that Mormon was directing this tirade of sorts to his own people in his own—whether because Helaman 12 began as a sermon (not unlike Moroni 7) that eventually found its way into his text, or whether because the whole Book of Helaman (or the whole Book of Mormon) was something Mormon used on occasion as he produced it to teach his people. But whether it was an ancient or a modern people he had as his audience (or both!), it seems he’s particularly worried about their relationship to wealth.
Wealth and a few other things. By the end of Helaman 12, Mormon’s focus is on the possibility of a kind of universal salvation (about which I’ll have more to say below!). If his audience was his own people, this might have been particularly significant. Was he hoping for possible repentance right up to the last minute? Was he looking for a gracious forgiveness on God’s part despite the people’s general wickedness? Did he think he could turn the tide of wickedness, however slightly, by showing his people what had happened in the time of Nephi? There are all kinds of possibilities here, but the implied audience helps to bring out the theological force of the text. It’s a question worth keeping an eye on.
2. The False and the Unsteady
Mormon opens his tirade with two accusations. Nephi’s people are “false,” first, and they’re characterized by “unsteadiness,” as well. These two descriptive terms, though, are at odds in an important way. Unsteadiness is characteristic of what is without a sure point of orientation. The unsteady are literally those without a place (without a stead), a condition that results in a kind of constant mobility without a place of return. If we were to think of this in terms of covenant, we might say that the unsteady are the covenantless, those who have no centerpoint of their relationship to God because they have no grounding, orienting covenant. This is quite different, at least in general terms, from those who are false. False implies a certain act of betrayal, a certain pretension to the truth or to being true coupled with an overt or a covert act of falsehood or being false. Here again we might think in terms of covenant: the false are those who do have a covenant, but who break it or betray it. Where the unsteady seem not to have a covenant in the first place (because they refuse it?), the false have made and then abandoned a covenant (because they similarly refuse it, but only after the fact?). The difference here seems to be between those who refuse to commit in the first place because the demands are to much, and those who refuse to commit after they’ve once committed, and also because the demands turn out to be too high.
All this Mormon connects to the problematic relationship the people of Nephi had to riches. Money is, of course, the great liquidator, the most liquid of liquid things. In cash one finds what absolute has no center, no grounding, no home or place to which to return. Money is the great circulator, what dissolves everything into pure number. That’s worth thinking about. But Mormon seems to focus even more on how unsteadiness and falseness lead rather immediately to a problematic weave of the slow and the quick. In verses 4-5, the focus is on “how quick to do iniquity and how slow to do good” the Nephites have become. The very image of the quick—of the frantic, breathless, impatient Nephites, hurrying from financed iniquity to financed iniquity—is suggestive of unsteadiness. Without a place to dwell, a center place where rest might be had, the unsteady are always on the quick, moving about without any real aims or purposes. Similarly, the image of the slow—of the reluctant, resistant, recalcitrant Nephites, dragging their feet when they’re summoned to their duties—is suggestive of falseness. Having made a commitment but hating to make good on it, the false are always sluggishly responding to the Lord’s calls back to their duty.
It’s somewhere between unsteadiness and falseness, between the quick and the slow, that the Nephites are found. Unfortunately, they most likely shifted immediately from the one to the other and back.
3. The Paradox of Blessing
I suspect we naturally read too quickly through verse 2. We’re not surprised to read there that “at the very time when [God] doth prosper his people … then is the time that they do harden their hearts and do forget the Lord their God and do trample under their feet the Holy One.” But we ought to be more surprised at the note that concludes that sequence: “then is the time that they do harden their hearts,” etc., “yea, and this because of their ease and their exceeding great prosperity”! Maybe we’re not terribly surprised by that statement as well, but we ought to be more theologically reflective about it. We too quickly acknowledge that riches tend to make us forget God, and that we’re prone to do so at the very moment we receive them as a blessing from God. But we should lay more weight on the “because” of Helaman 12:2. It’s precisely because of God’s blessing that we forget Him.
This yields an important paradox: It’s impossible for God to bless His people. What do I mean by that? I mean that to the extent that God blesses His people, they reject Him and, therefore, the blessing He gives. As verse 3 goes on to point out, the only way that God can produce blessings in the first place is by imposing misery on human beings—misery enough to bring them into relationship with Him, but that’s of course to leave all blessings aside. To the extent that blessing becomes a possibility, it becomes an impossibility, and to the extent that blessing becomes and impossibility, it becomes a possibility again. This paradox undergirds the entirety of the Book of Helaman.
4. A Reworking on King Benjamin
Like Mormon, Benjamin had much to say about the dangers of prosperity. He also had a paradox to set forth—a paradox of blessing. According to Benjamin, our very lives—even the air we breathe!—are gestures of grace, gestures that put us in God’s debt. And then, the second we do anything productive in response to God, He immediately blesses us anew, such that we remain incessantly in God’s debt. Benjamin’s paradox leaves us in a situation in which it’s impossible to get out of debt to God, because of the infinite nature of His blessing. Mormon’s paradox is, as we’ve seen, a little less optimistic and edifying, but it’s an important paradox as well. Importantly, Mormon, in constructing his own paradox, seems to have been intentionally drawing on King Benjamin’s teachings.
This becomes clearest when Mormon refers to “the nothingness of the children of men” in verse 7. He could make a much clearer reference to Benjamin’s speech. When this is coupled with the references throughout Helaman 12 to God’s “great infinite goodness” (verse 1), His “doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people” (verse 2), His “wisdom” (verse 5), His position as king who “rule[s] and reign[s]” over human beings (verse 6), His “great fullness” (verse 24), etc., the allusions to Benjamin become unmistakable. In Mosiah 4, when Benjamin most profoundly outlines his theology of the relationship between human beings and God, it’s unmistakably a question of human nothingness and divine greatness, something Mormon establishes here in his own way.
Differences between Mormon and Benjamin are important as well. For instance, it’s crucial that while both speak of human nothingness, and while both do that in connection with the dust of the earth, they have rather different meanings in their statements to this effect. Benjamin emphasizes human nothingness in order to establish their basic equality—that all human beings are on a level, whether kings or peasants. His emphasis is, in short, on the fact that he too is of the dust, as anyone else is. Mormon emphasizes human nothingness, however, in order to establish a kind of radical wickedness on the part of human beings. They’re less than the dust of the earth, because the dust at least obeys the Lord. Mormon has a remarkably pessimistic view of things, one Benjamin doesn’t even approach. These differences are thus important, and it’s worth asking why they exist. Why would Mormon draw on but transform Benjamin’s teachings? Is this meant to point the difference between kings and judges, at least when the former are righteous? Or is this meant to suggest different attitudes merely? Why are these two prophets so differently inclined?
5. God and Nephi
I mentioned in a previous post that there’s a connection between the power given to Nephi in Helaman 10 and the description of God’s power in Helaman 12. The formula, analyzed before, was a weave of word and deed—of Nephi’s ability to speak and something is done. There was an emphasis in Helaman 10 on the word being primarily Nephi’s while the deed itself would be accomplished by God. That crucial distribution makes what we find in Helaman 12 all the more provocative.
In Helaman 12, starting in verse 7 or so and running, really, all the way through verse 22 or so, we have a description of God’s power that works from this same word/deed weave. God says something (“he saith unto…”) and “it is done.” The language is identical to the formulae found in Helaman 10. The difference, of course, is that there’s no gap between the word being spoken by a human being and the deed being accomplished by the divine. Word and deed here coincide, spoken and undertaken by one and the same Being. The result is that word and deed here proceed together without a sealing power. There’s no need to bind heaven and earth where the word itself produces them. This is well worth thinking about.
It might be noted that there’s implicitly here a rather different conception of God than is usually on offer in Mormon thought. It’s not unusual for Latter-day Saints to think of God as being able to do what He does precisely because He has a kind of sealing power. Here, though, there’s a subtly emphasized difference between human beings having that sort of power with God and God having that sort of power. For all we want to read in Helaman 10, we saw there already that Nephi doesn’t have quite as much autonomy as we’d think. We should keep an eye on this consistent theme here.
6. An Anticipation of Samuel
Mormon, for whatever reasons, seems interested in anticipating some of the themes of Samuel’s sermon in the course of this aside. This becomes clear in verse 18: “And behold, if a man hideth up a treasure in the earth and the Lord shall say: LLet it be accursed because of the iniquity of him that hath hid it up!—behold, it shall be accursed.” The theme here is the slipperiness of treasure, which Samuel will take up right in the next chapter, Helaman 13, more or less at the outset of his lengthy sermon. The theme continues for Mormon into the next verse: “And if the Lord shall say: Be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever!—and behold, no man getteth it henceforth and forever.” This is a strange development of thought in the course of Helaman 12. The verses leading up to this point focus on the Lord’s ability to command the earth (several instances) and His ability to command the waters (one instance). The verses following this focus on the Lord’s ability to curse human beings (in something like the way He might curse treasure). The link between commanding the earth and cursing human beings is clear, since this whole sequence of Mormon’s aside begins with the comparison between “the children of men” and “the dust of the earth” (verse 7). But why the link is mediated by the matter of treasure is odd.
Of course, one might point out that the theme of Mormon’s tirade is, from the very beginning, focused on prosperity and the like. And so it might be said that the mediating theme of treasure in verses 17-18 makes a link between the commandability of the earth and the cursability of human beings because it emphasizes what human beings do with their wealth by hiding it up in the earth. What’s interesting is that the cursing falls directly on the treasures, rather than on the earth that holds them. The preceding theme of God’s commanding the earth doesn’t entirely follow in this section, as a result. God doesn’t command the earth to hide the treasure or render it slippery; He curses the treasure buried up so that it can’t be found.
But however these complexities are to be worked out, it’s clear that the focus is on the instability of prosperity. To the extent that those under Mormon’s condemnation are false and unsteady, they are focused on their wealth, which is itself centerless and liquid. It’s precisely the cursability of treasure that marks the impossibility of trusting in wealth, the impossibility of finding a center in riches rather than in God. (One might worry that there’s something odd about the fact that God has to intervene to make treasure slippery, but perhaps there’s a good deal more to think about there.) This much seems clear, riches aren’t going to get the problematically wealthy any of the security they seek in them. That human beings nonetheless insist on finding security in wealth is what, it seems, leads to their own being cursed.
7. A Theology of Fullness
Mormon hopes aloud that God may “grant in his great fullness that men might be brought unto repentance and good works” (Helaman 12:24). There’s nothing particularly odd about Mormon’s desire that people be brought to repentance, etc., but there’s something unique about the way he states this desire. The phrase “great fullness” appears nowhere else in scripture, and the language of fullness seems nowhere else to be used to describe God’s nature. Mormon has something rather unique in mind, it seems, and it’s not entirely clear what his talk of fullness here means.
Many Latter-day Saints have played around with the emphasis on fullness in Joseph Smith’s developing theology. From his references to the fullness of the Gospel to his claim that the fullness of the priesthood can be received through a crowning ordinance, Joseph Smith seemed to believe that the Restoration was focused on allowing everything partial to be brought to a certain wholeness. Beautiful as that theology might be, it’s not entirely clear what light it might shed on Mormon’s reference here. Might the implication be that Mormon sees in God an always-already accomplished fullness, something that’s to be shared by God through His interventions among human beings? Or is the idea that God’s fullness is what things on the earth may eventually come to replicate, so that earthly things will mirror heavenly things? Or is it wrong entirely to look to Joseph Smith to make sense of Mormon on this point? Certainly none of this would make clear how God’s fullness is related to a desire for human repentance and good works.
How else might Mormon’s conception be approached? Might he have in mind the fullness of God’s love—manifest in an outreach to human beings? Might he have in mind the fullness of God’s plan—according to which human beings will be redeemed? Might he have in mind the fullness of God’s intentions—which imply that nothing will be left undone? Might he have in mind a certain completeness compromised by the Incarnation—such that Christ’s sojourn marks a certain lack of fullness that’s then overcome? Might he have in mind a certain fullness achieved by God through His coming to earth—such that Christ’s return to heaven marks the real possibility of human beings being redeemed? Or where else might one go? This is a formula that deserves much more attention.
8. That All Men Might Be Saved
At the beginning of verse 25, Mormon states that he “would that all men might be saved.” He’ll suggest that there’s something somewhat problematic about this desire, because he has reason to believe that not all will be saved. The reason for this contravening belief is, as it turns out, scripture: “we read.” I’ll have more to say about Mormon’s apparent resistance in my next point; here I want to outline the possibilities that might be pursued in thinking about Mormon’s universalism rather generally here.
First, it should be noted that Mormon’s universalism isn’t what it might at first appear. It’s not just that, with a bleeding heart, Mormon wishes that all will be saved. His desire, as verse 24 makes clear, is “that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works.” There’s much packed, theologically, into those few words. This much, though, is clear: Mormon’s hope isn’t simply that everyone be given some kind of happiness they’d prefer not to have. His hope is that everyone will be reformed, that everyone will find their way into grace through repentance, etc. Mormon’s universalism is a universalism of transformation, a universalism of repentance, and not merely a universalism of salvation.
If that much is clear, it has to be said next that Mormon wrestles with his own universalism. Even with its tempering, he finds in scripture reason to believe that he’s on the wrong track. One is reminded here of Alma 29, Alma’s longing to preach to the world as an angel might, with the trump of God, so that all could hear the message of grace with the same irresistible force he himself did. Alma there also sees in his desire a certain sinfulness. Mormon never goes so far as to call his desire a sin, however. He just gives us a point of tension: “But we read that in that great and last day there are some which shall be cast out,” etc. (Helaman 12:25). Mormon doesn’t tell us a whole lot about his wrestle on this point, but the tension—unresolved—is fascinating. Perhaps there’s a gesture of sorts here to D&C 19, with its denial of an absolute literalism about eternal punishment and the like. Mormon finds in scripture a certain reason to be worried about his desire for universal repentance, but perhaps his desire reveals a reason to wonder about the meaning of the texts. There’s implicit here, perhaps, a hermeneutic. But only perhaps.
9. Mormon and Nephi
What might be most interesting about Mormon’s wrestle with scripture—his manifest desire that seems to be at odds with the word of God—is the way it echoes Nephi’s second prayer in Helaman 11. Nephi, as we saw last week, resists God in an interesting and important way. Nephi’s prayer at once assumed a certain inflexibility on God’s part regarding the necessity of laying waste to the Nephites and pleaded for a certain leniency and recognition of sufficiency. Nephi resists (what he takes to be) God’s position, employing his granted power in order to turn God in a different direction (if indeed God wasn’t already way ahead of Nephi). Might Mormon be doing much the same thing? And might the fact that Helaman 11 and Helaman 12 together formed a single chapter be significant in light of this? Perhaps we are meant to see in Nephi and Mormon two figures of resistance against certain receptions of God—Nephi’s own view of God’s desire, and Mormon’s reading of the scriptures?
Of course, one would have to think here about the differences between the two. Nephi’s influence with God is predicated on a certain weave of saying and doing—Nephi’s saying and God’s doing. Mormon, so far as the text tells us, has no such power. Throughout this chapter, he attributes all power of saying-and-doing directly to God. And Mormon, after citing the word that needs fulfilling—which contravenes his own desire—will conclude with neither saying nor doing. He ends his reflections on this matter with “thus it is,” a fascinating echo of every small plates transition, but a definitive reference to being regardless of every saying or doing. Mormon, it seems, recognizes his inability to influence the Lord (or fails to recognize his ability to influence the Lord!) and so replaces saying/doing with being.
Why doesn’t Mormon pursue this point with God more emphatically? We’ll see Moroni do something like that in Ether 12. Of course, that comes in the wake of Moroni’s study of the brother of Jared, who is the quintessential example of attempting to sway the Lord and succeeding. Why is Mormon so reticent, so quick to let the word he’s found in scripture determine the implications of the God of fullness? Is this a reflection of Mormon’s relative rigidity as an abridger and compiler of scripture. He can’t sow any seeds of distrust in the sacred word, since he’s himself attempting to construct a volume of the sacred word? But why does he talk himself out his universalism so quickly? There’s much more to be thought about here.
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