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Reflections on Helaman 14

Posted by joespencer on August 2, 2013

Turning now to the next chapter of Samuel’s sermon (see my first post here), we begin to look at the series of “signs” Samuel provides for the Nephites as they near the events of Christ’s birth and death. The focus here shifts away from Nephite sinfulness. And the content of this chapter is, consequently, more intensely theological. We’ll have to see, of course, how it unfolds.

Preliminaries

Helaman 14 opens with a note that sounds as if Mormon is done with his report of Samuel’s words—as if chapter 13 is sufficient. But then we get a great deal more directly drawn from Samuel in this chapter, and then even a bit more in chapter 15. The theme, as already mentioned, is a series of signs associated with events in the life of the mortal Christ. Two signs in particular help to organize the material in the chapter: a first sign concerning the birth of Jesus (verses 2-8), and a second sign concerning the death of Jesus (verses 14, 20-29). Between the discussion of the first sign and the first announcement of the second sign is a discussion of Samuel’s call to prophesy and of the reasons for his rejection. Between the first announcement of the second sign and its full exposition is a tangential discussion of atonement theology—introduced as a point of clarification regarding Jesus’ death. In the final two verses of the chapter—following, that is, the discussion of the second sign—is a brief word about freedom and justice.

Just from this outline, it’s possible to see how much more overtly theological this chapter is than so much of the Book of Helaman. Woven into this discourse on the signs surrounding the birth and death of Jesus is a series of theological clarifications: the status of the Lamanite prophet, the nature of the atonement, the weave of freedom and justice. And these theological clarifications appear alongside what must be said to be theological presentations of the signs as well—presentations clearly woven into the Hebrew prophetic tradition. The whole chapter is thus presented as a theological exposition.

Since chapter 15 will return to the call to repent, the question here is one of determining how the theological content of chapter 14, woven into a prophetic anticipation of two events in particular, helps to clarify the call to repentance. We’ll have to keep that question ready to hand.

Exegetical Details

Verse 1 – There’s something a little odd about the interruption of verse 1. It’s common enough in the Book of Mormon to announce that not everything could be written, and so to truncate a narrative report. (Note that the very words that appear here appear once more: 1 Nephi 9:1.) But it’s not at all common to do so, and then to go on providing a narrative. It’s not clear how this trope is functioning.

Verse 2 – The language of someone deliberately giving another person or persons a sign is uncommon. There’s talk elsewhere of signs being given, etc., but not of one person giving a sign to others. Except, that is, for Helaman 2:7, where Helaman’s servant gave Kishkumen a sign. That’s an odd parallel, but an intriguing one.

Verse 2 – The phrase “to redeem all those who shall believe on his name” is strikingly like Alma 19:13, though it’s not clear why there should be a connection with that verse alone.

Verse 3 – The phrase “at the time of his coming” appears a handful of times in the Book of Mormon, all in connection with Alma the Younger: Alma 13:24, 26; 16:16; 39:17. There seems to be a certain continuity between Alma’s preaching and Samuel’s prophecy.

Verse 3 – The phrase “great lights” appears elsewhere only twice, in Genesis 1:16 and Psalm 136:7. In each case, it refers to the sun and the moon. And at any rate, there seems here to be an allusion to themes of creation.

Verse 3 – The locution “appear … as if” is unique to this text, which is pretty remarkable. Nonetheless, it might be compared to Helaman 12:15. The connection is all the more important given the idea that night is day by appearance, etc.

Verse 4 – In just the last part of this verse, “ye” is replaced with “they” for a moment. This is odd, and it suggests that Mormon here inserted a bit of summary of things Samuel said. Or might there be other explanations?

Verse 5 – It’s of interest that Samuel (and Third Nephi after him) explicitly describes the appearance of a new star. The text of Matthew, where the wise men are guided by a star, never actually states that a new star appeared. The text says only that they were guided by a star, and that they were asked subsequently when the star appeared. There’s an implication, perhaps, that there was a new star, but it’s never explicitly stated. Here it is.

Verse 6 – The phrase “many signs and wonders” appears elsewhere twice: Acts 5:12 and Mosiah 3:15. It’s interesting that neither of these other appearances actually seems to be connected to the present text.

Verse 9 – Is there a tension in this verse between “this thing” and “these things”? How is the slight shift to be understood?

Verse 10 – The language of “hard against” appears elsewhere in scripture only in Nephi’s record. See 1 Nephi 16:2-3; 2 Nephi 9:40.

Verse 11 – The word “intent” appears a remarkable number of times in this chapter. It appears here for the first time, but it appears also in verses 12, 28, and 29. Why is there such an emphasis on intent here?

Verse 12 – Half of this verse is a lengthy quotation of Mosiah 3:8, the words of the angel to Benjamin that announce the coming of the Christ. This is just another of so many allusions to Benjamin’s speech that it begin to amaze. Why so many connections to that sermon specifically?

Verse 15 – Though the ideas appear elsewhere, the language of “surely must die, that salvation may come” is unique to this passage. Similarly unique to this verse is the coupling of “behooveth” and “becometh expedient.”

Verses 15-16 – Phrases along the lines of “to bring to pass the resurrection of the dead” and “bringeth to pass the resurrection” appear often in the Book of Mormon. There are unique theological claims here, but the language is familiar and precedented.

Verse 19 – The coupling of “knowing” and “doing” echoes (but with a replacement of belief with knowledge) Mosiah 4:10, another bit from King Benjamin.

Verses 21 and 26 – Much of the talk of destruction opens with talk of “thunderings and lightnings” in verse 21. Then a number of other details are discussed. Then verse 26 comes back to “thunderings and lightnings.” It would almost seem as if these two things are the key to the rest, as if they were the larger framework of all the destructions. Why is that so?

Verse 28 – The claim that “many shall see greater things than these” draws quite directly on the language of John 1:50. How might a comparison of the two texts be productive?

Theological Points of Interest

1. Giving Two Consecutive Signs

There’s nothing terribly surprising about the existence of parallels between Samuel and Nephi. Not only are they the only two prophets we have in the second half of the Book of Helaman, they’re work is clearly intertwined. We’ll see Samuel’s converts going off in chapter 16 to find Nephi for baptism, for instance. We’ve already seen a few parallels, and there are unquestionably more to be expected. And here in chapter 14, in rather broad outlines, we see a parallel between them that deserves a bit of thought. Both Nephi and Samuel present themselves in their respective stories as giving the people of Zarahemla two successive signs. It’s worth asking about what differences there are between their respective understandings of this gesture, and it’s worth asking what role these two presentations play in the larger Book of Helaman.

Nephi, it’ll be remembered, presented his first sign in the form of an announcement of the chief judge’s murder. He then presented his second sign when that first sign proved too slippery to secure his prophethood: an announcement of the true murderer, and in a way that exonerated himself of the crime. Even that sign ultimately proved slippery, since, although it initially convinced all the people of Zarahemla that he was indeed under some kind of divine influence (or even was divine himself), nothing really changed about the behavior of the people in response to that conviction. Samuel’s two signs are rather different in nature. They are given long in advance, and neither is meant to prove the prophetic status of the speaker. They’re both about the Christ—His birth and His death—and not about mere human beings. And they serve, in Samuel’s apparent understanding, to secure belief (a curious detail about which I’ll say more below).

Interestingly, Samuel’s two signs will prove slippery as well. Although the sign of Jesus’ birth will result in widespread belief at first, that belief will fade rather quickly. And the sign of Jesus’ death will result in so much destruction that it’s only the believers who survive—not exactly a forced conviction concerning the Christ. Throughout the Book of Helaman, signs remain a complicated affair.

2. Specified Advance Signs, Unspecified Subsequent Signs

The first sign Samuel gives to his listeners is actually a kind of complex of signs. He begins with “great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before [Christ] cometh there shall be no darkness,” but then he goes on to mention a new star arising as well. And then he adds this odd detail: This is not all: there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven” (Helaman 14:6). This complex of signs, then, is a weave of specified signs, given in advance of the events in question, and of unspecified signs, also given in advance. There’s perhaps little surprising, in a certain way, about the specified signs—the people know what to expect, and they know what it means to believe in light of the signs being given. But what on earth (or in heaven!) is to be made of unspecified signs being given? How is that supposed to help Samuel’s hearers?

Of course, we might simply claim that there’s a different sense to “signs and wonders,” something different at work there from what we have in “a sign.” To give “a sign” is to specify in advance something that, because it couldn’t be known in advance, signifies the truth of a set of claims put forth by the sign-giver. For there simply to be “signs and wonders” is for there to be all kinds of strange things going on, all of which collective signify that God is at work in things, regardless of any prophetic announcement. That distinction can be granted, and yet it’s fascinating to have “signs,” with whatever significance, presented side by side with a determinate “sign” or two, given for the express purpose of convincing people of the truth of a prophetic project.

How are these two sorts of sign to be thought together, since they appear together? And how does their appearing side by side complicate or clarify everything else that’s said about signs here in this discourse, or indeed in the whole Book of Helaman?

3. Signs and Belief in Samuel’s Sermon

Already in connection with the first of his two major signs, Samuel outlines a theology of signs-leading-to-belief. Verses 7-8: “ye shall be amazed and wonder, insomuch that ye shall fall to the earth, and it shall come to pass that whosoever shall believe on the Son of God, the same shall have everlasting life.” This passage is a little ambiguous, because it might just be that whoever already believes on the Son of God will have everlasting life, regardless of any given signs, but the flow and logic of the passage suggests that there’s more going on here. The implication seems to be that the signs will make a certain space for belief, or even that the signs, through their affective power, will drive many to belief. This is, of course, surprising to find in this text, since there’s so much on offer in scripture claiming that belief doesn’t come by signs—not only in, say, the New Testament, but also and in complex and interesting ways in the Book of Mormon. (See, for instance, the developments of Alma’s thinking on this question over the course of Alma 31-32.)

The connection between signs and belief is stronger a few verses later. Samuel says that he has come “that ye might know of the signs of [Christ's] coming, to the intent that ye might believe on his name” (Helaman 14:12). Here it seems that the link is unmistakable. Those who know the signs of Christ’s coming will apparently develop believe when those signs come true—thus being prepared to meet Him at His coming. Of course, one might point to context, and suggest that here again there’s a possibility that Samuel meant to say this only to those who were already righteous and believing—that because he’s here summarizing the “glad tidings” of his first, rejected message (more on that in a minute), he’s actually saying something about the way that signs should work for those who receive him as a true messenger. And maybe that’s right. And yet the bald statement of verse 12 seems pretty straightforward.

Perhaps all this is brought to a kind of culmination in verse 28: “the angel said unto me that many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe—that these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men.” The first half of this verse perhaps again could be contextualized along the lines just suggested (he mentions here the angel, who was associated with his earlier glad tidings), but the second half of this verse seems unmistakable: there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men. Robert C. has done some interesting work on this passage, exploring the implications of its use of the word “cause” and what Samuel’s apparent theology of belief-by-signs means in connection with Alma’s critique of signs in Alma 32. I’ll leave further discussion of that problem for another occasion. Here it’s necessary just to recognize how odd it is to find Samuel making this kind of claim. At the very least, it’s necessary just to see how the negative construction of this most explicit link may be important: no cause for unbelief doesn’t amount to caused belief. And maybe that nuance is crucial.

4. Re-Staging the First Preaching

As Samuel concludes his discussion of the first sign to be given—the sign associated with Jesus’ birth—he makes reference to his source: an angel. This is interesting because in chapter 14, Samuel has indicated that his two attempts at teaching in Zarahemla—first a preaching mission that ended in rejection, and second, now, a prophetic intervention that will be delivered miraculously—began from two rather distinct sources. His original preaching mission seems to have been launched by an angelic visit (see Helaman 13:7), and it consisted in the announcement of “glad tidings” (see the same verse). When the Nephites wouldn’t receive him, however, he left off glad tidings and the angel’s words to give rather directly “whatsoever things should come into his heart” from God (Helaman 13:3)—and his message at that point was one of destruction.

That seems relevant to the first part of Helaman 14, since here, with talk of Jesus’ birth, Samuel addresses himself to what would seem to be glad tidings—indeed, the phrase “glad tidings” is rather closely associated with Jesus’ birth in scripture. And then in verse 9 he tells his audience that what he’s been announcing in these first verses are what “the Lord commanded me by his angel that I should come and tell.” (It would seem that his additional mention of prophecy in that verse, especially because it is further coupled with a cry of repentance, has reference to his second intervention.) All this seems to be confirmed in verse 10, when Samuel then goes on to describe the reasons for his being rejected: it would seem that he can only follow up his talk of good tidings with a kind of recounting of how those good tidings were rejected when he came among the people of Zarahemla the first time.

All this suggests that the first part of Helaman 14 is a kind of summary of Samuel’s earlier preaching. The question that’s left for us as interpreters is why he interrupts his prophetic sermon with a kind of reiteration, however brief, of his earlier preaching. Why is that necessary? Or why is that productive? Is there anything in particular about the earlier preaching that needs to be included here? Is it necessary to reiterate this first sign before going on to talk about the second—which has a much less savory set of consequences and so is associated with the prophetic message of destruction? There are many details here that deserve further attention.

5. The Conditions of Repentance

In verse 11, Samuel says that part of his “intent” in coming up on the city’s walls is to ensure that his hearers “know the conditions of repentance.” When that phrase—“the conditions of repentance”—is thus first introduced, it’s meaning is ambiguous at best. Its meaning is presented as already known by his hearers, since he doesn’t say anything immediately about what constitute the conditions of repentance. Are the conditions in question a set of conditions for the possibility of repentance? Or are we talking here about those things that have to be done if repentance is to result in a remission of sins? Or what else might this phrase mean? Given the rather tight context in the surrounding verses, one would suppose that “the conditions of repentance” in question are specific to the Nephites’ then-current situation—that Samuel was coming to deliver a message of destruction, but that he was willing to provide them with the conditions that had to be fulfilled if they would avoid destruction.

Interestingly, the phrase appears again in verse 18, and here it seems to be quite general—entirely unconnected with any particular context. The resurrection, verse 18 explains, “bringeth to pass the conditions of repentance, that whosoever repenteth, the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire.” Here the conditions of repentance—whatever they actually are—are tied to the resurrection of Christ, and in such a way that they are fully generalized. There would seem to be conditions of repentance that simply exist, always and unchangingly. What the phrase refers to still remains obscure, though there’s the possibility that the rest of the sentence quoted above is meant to explain the conditions in question: “whosoever repenteth, the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire.” If that is meant to be an explanation, then the “of” in “the conditions of repentance” seems to be doing something a little odd. It’s not that there are conditions that allow for repentance; it’s that repentance itself is the condition for avoiding destruction. That may be, but there’s reason still to wonder about the meaning of the phrase.

One might, of course, look elsewhere in scripture for other instances of this phrase, and it turns out that it appears a handful of times. Instances in Alma would seem to confirm the possibility just mentioned—that repentance itself is the condition for avoiding destruction (see Alma 17:15 and 42:13), as do the two references in the Doctrine and Covenants (see D&C 18:12; 138:19). The phrase appears once elsewhere in Helaman as well (see Helaman 5:11), though in a passage the meaning of which is remarkably obscure. Its meaning is difficult, to say the least. From all this, it would indeed seem as if “the conditions of repentance” is meant only to indicate the role repentance plays as a condition for the possibility of avoiding destruction. But then this leads to a series of theological questions as well. How might we think further about the idea that repentance is a condition? And is it always that? Is this just an occasional theology of the nature of repentance?

6. Samuel’s Doctrine of Resurrection

In verses 15-19, Samuel works through an aside about the resurrection—all set off by his introduction of the sign of Jesus’ death. This is the last in a series of studies of atonement theology to be found in the Book of Mormon. And it’s a somewhat unique conception, short as it is. Of course, it has elements that have appeared elsewhere: the resurrection brings people back into God’s presence, the fall cuts human beings off from God’s presence, etc. But it’s the unique elements here that deserve some attention. And chief among them is the instrumentalized notion of death on offer.

From verse 15: “it behooveth him and becometh expedient that he dieth to bring to pass the resurrection of the dead.” Or again, from verse 16: “this death bringeth to pass the resurrection.” In both of these snippets, it seems clear that death—specifically Christ’s death—is somehow the means through which the resurrection is effected. Where the emphasis elsewhere in the Book of Mormon is on how Jesus’ peculiar nature allows Him to rise from the dead (see, for instance, Mosiah 15), here the emphasis is unmistakably on how Jesus’ death itself effects the resurrection. It would almost seem that a certain conception of Jesus’ nature is presupposed here, and in such a way that His death alone “automatically” leads to the resurrection. The emphasis here, then, seems to be on the way that Jesus joins with us in His death. The point isn’t to make clear that, in rising from the grave, Jesus’ conquered death for Himself and then derivatively for us. The point is apparently to make clear that He joined with us in death, and so made for the possibility of all of us rising from the dead. Just in that He took on Himself what all human beings experience, He made universal resurrection possible.

So it seems. There may be a good deal more to think about here. And certainly all this has to be read along with or even in the light of what Samuel has to say about death more generally—this talk of first death and second death, for instance. For the moment, what’s basically unique in his discourse is clear.

7. First Death, Second Death

In the course of his brief remarks on the resurrection and the atonement, Samuel says a few very surprising things about the first and second deaths. Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, there seems to be a rather consistent use of “first” and “second” when it comes to speaking of death. The first death is generally understood to be the death that comes on human beings as a result of the transgression in Eden. Having transgressed the first commandments, Adam and Eve and their posterity face a first death—the death of their bodies as a fulfilling of God’s word. The second death is then generally understood to be a metaphorical death that comes on human beings as a result of further transgression, that results from sinfulness in the world inhabited by human beings after the fall. If we transgress the second commandments, those given to us here in the prolonged state of probation, then we’re going to face a second death, an everlasting but metaphorical death, according to which we’re cut off from God’s presence forever. The first of these deaths is called temporal rather consistently (its clearest exposition is in Alma 12, I think), and the second is called spiritual rather consistently (I’d probably say that its clearest exposition is in Alma 40-42).

If all that is clear, then we’re set up nicely for the surprise of verse 16: “this death bringeth to pass the resurrection and redeemeth all mankind from the first death, that spiritual death—for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead.” Here, rather clearly, the first death is presented in spiritual terms rather than temporal. What’s interesting is that the same should be said for the second death. Verse 18 states that “whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire, and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death—yea, a second death—for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.” Here the second death is also a spiritual death, as is emphasis by the twice-repeated “again.” Both deaths, on Samuel’s account, are spiritual. (We might note that the first death is also described as regarding “things temporal” and “things spiritual.” But that’s a relatively minor detail at this point.)

How are we to make sense of this double focus on the spiritual? It would seem that the first death is still the death associated with the Garden of Eden and the transgression that took place there. But here it’s regarded as a spiritual death—and not, it seems, in a metaphorical sense. That first death is regarded as spiritual simply in that the reality of temporal death cuts human beings off from God’s presence in a rather straightforward way. The second death is then spiritual in exactly the same way—not as metaphorical (as it is elsewhere), but simply in that it cuts human beings off, again, from God’s presence. Either it’s the case that neither death is metaphorical, or it’s the case that both deaths are metaphorical. Either way, there’s a kind of flattening of the difference that appears elsewhere. Above all, then, what seems to mark Samuel’s development of atonement theology is his privileging of the idea that death amounts to separation from God. Why that should be privileged in particular isn’t clear, but it’s of obvious importance.

8. Samuel’s Classic Prophecy

Beginning in verse 20, Samuel takes up the mantle of classic Hebrew prophecy. That might not seem surprising, but it’s actually quite unique in the Book of Mormon. He says that “the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light,” as well as “the moon and the stars” (verse 20). He says also that “there shall be many mountains laid low like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains whose heighth thereof is great” (verse 23). And he says, finally, that “many highways shall be broken up, and many cities shall become desolate” (verse 24). The first of these several prophecies rather directly echoes Isaiah 13:10; Ezekiel 32:7; Joel 2:10; 3:15. The second echoes Isaiah 40:4; Micah 1:4. The third, finally, echoes Isaiah 6:11; 27:10; 33:8; Jeremiah 9:11; 33:10; 48:9; Ezekiel 29:12. Quite clearly, Samuel takes on a kind of classic prophetic role here.

Of course, it should be noted that these classically prophetic motifs (sun, moon, and stars being darkened; mountains and valleys replacing one another; highways being broken up and cities made desolate) are woven in Samuel’s sermon into a series of more classically Nephite sounding prophecies—direct and straightforward announcements of things to come, without metaphor. The result is that what appears in classic prophecy as largely metaphorical, as largely imagistic, seems here not at all to be so. Thus there’s a kind of echo of classic prophecy even as the classically prophetic gesture is slightly changed. The point here isn’t to lay out a kind of apocalyptic scenario through exaggeration, etc., but to explain exactly and in rather straightforward terms what’s coming. There’s something most fascinating about the literalization of the prophets: what elsewhere isn’t supposed to be taken literally, here is presented literally.

What’s all this supposed to teach us? We might, in a historical-critical vein, play around with the possibility that Samuel is quite acquainted with the brass plates, and so that he borrows from the prophets of that record, etc. But what’s most striking here is the transformation of that prophetic legacy. Does the Book of Mormon, at least through Samuel, recommend a kind of literal reading of the prophets? Or is this a conscious transformation, one that leaves the metaphorical and imagistic nature of Hebrew prophecy more or less in tact apart from the borrowing? Or what? How are we to think about classic prophecy after Samuel?

9. Samuel’s Matthean Fix-Up Job

Verse 25 is actually quite striking and important, though I can’t claim any of the insight connected to it for myself. I heard a paper given at a conference earlier this year—given by Grant Adamson, to give him his due—in which this passage, in connection with a few others in the Book of Mormon, was analyzed. The basic gist is as follows.

The classically secularist book of the era in which the Book of Mormon came out was Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. In it, he criticizes the Gospels in terms of historicity. One of his criticisms in particular is that only the Gospel of Matthew mentions that many saints rose from the grave and went into the city and visited people at the time of Christ’s resurrection. Paine raises two major objections. First, such a remarkable event, should it have happened, would have been recorded by all the evangelists, and not just by one. It’s too astounding an event to be addressed by only one person. Second, such a remarkable event, if it’s to be believed, would have been prophesied of by the prophets. It’s too important an event not to have been prophesied of, since it’s occurrence would be proof beyond doubt regarding the truth of the prophets. That the event isn’t in the prophets, and that it’s only recorded by one of the Gospels Paine takes as evidence against the historicity of the event.

In the Book of Mormon, we see an attempt at explaining that problem. First, we get Samuel actually prophesying of the same sort of event: “And many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their death—and many saints shall appear unto many” (Helaman 14:25). Second, however, the fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecy isn’t actually recorded, just as in the New Testament (where it’s only barely recorded). But then Jesus comes to visit the Nephites and Lamanites, and he calls them on this detail: Why didn’t you record the fulfillment of this prophecy? They remedy this point then. But what’s striking is that there’s an implicit explanation of the absence of the prophecy and of the widely reported fulfillment of the prophecy: these were left out of the record most likely because Samuel was a Lamanite! The marginalized were ignored, and so this crucial prophecy was ignored. The implication is that the Bible screws things up for the same reason—because of the way the marginalized are handled.

10. A Righteous Judgment

Chapter 14 closes with an unmistakable echo of Benjamin’s sermon—another among so many echoes of that sermon. This one’s a bit peculiar, however. Samuel says that signs and wonders will remove “cause for unbelief among the children of men” (verse 28), and that “to the intent that . . . a righteous judgment might come upon them” (verse 29). This seems to be a direct echo of Mosiah 3:10: “all these things are done that a righteous judgment might come upon the children of men.” Although Samuel’s emphasis is on signs removing cause for unbelief and Benjamin’s emphasis is on Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, the basic idea seems to be the same: it’s necessary to ensure that the judgment is fully just. Samuel is perhaps a little quicker to emphasize what this implies: “if they are condemned, they bring upon themselves their own condemnation” (verse 29). And it’s this further development on Samuel’s part that leads him into his final words in the chapter, clearly drawn from Lehi (in 2 Nephi 2) and Alma (in Alma 40-42). This deserves attention.

After reiterating (“whosoever perisheth perisheth unto himself, and whosoever doeth iniquity doeth it unto himself”), Samuel states the following: “ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves—for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge, and he hath made you free” (verse 30). This couldn’t be a much clearer allusion to 2 Nephi 2, to Lehi’s great sermon to his son Jacob. This is clearly recognized to be the background of every idea of restoration to one’s own wonted state. And that idea of restoration is worked out most clearly—and also with constant allusion to 2 Nephi 2—in Alma’s talk with Corianton in Alma 40-42. As if to make this connection all the clearer, Samuel provides in the next verse a weave of 2 Nephi 2 and Alma 40-42: “He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death. And ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you, or ye can do evil and have that which is evil restored unto you” (verse 31). The first half of this verse is unmistakably drawn from Lehi, and the second half is unmistakbly drawn from Alma.

Why is Samuel’s attention rather suddenly on all that? How does this use of Lehi and Alma help to clarify what he’s saying about signs and cause for unbelief? That remains an open and important question, one I’m happy to leave open at the end of these notes.

8 Responses to “Reflections on Helaman 14”

  1. g.wesley said

    “Verse 5 – It’s of interest that Samuel (and Third Nephi after him) explicitly describes the appearance of a new star. The text of Matthew, where the wise men are guided by a star, never actually states that a new star appeared. The text says only that they were guided by a star, and that they were asked subsequently when the star appeared. There’s an implication, perhaps, that there was a new star, but it’s never explicitly stated. Here it is.”

    this is a great point and a careful reading. for any interested in the reception of matthew 2, it is worth checking out powell’s chasing the eastern star (wjk 2001) and trexler’s the journey of the magi (princeton 1997). i would argue that the novelty of the star in the history of christianity in general is first imported from the novelty of the virgin birth a la ignatius of antioch, letter to the ephesians 19.1-3.

  2. Kim Berkey said

    v. 2 – “Son of God” –Note that Nephi had used the same title in Hel 8:14–15. Earlier Samuel had named the Messiah directly (“the Lord Jesus Christ – Hel 13:6). Why call him “the Son of God” here? Might it have anything to do with this being a sign of his birth?

    v. 3 – “it shall appear unto man” – as you note, we ought to think through this in connection with Hel 12:15. In both cases there is a sign in heaven that reveals something to man. The sun’s motion/lack thereof is contrary to expected reality, and that constitutes a revelation of some sort.

    v. 4 – “the night before he is born” – why not the night Christ is *actually* born? Why mark an event the night *before* it happens? Will all of their awe about the sign have been gotten out of the way so they can contemplate Christ’s entrance into the world in its own right without having to approach that experience through transcendent signs? Are signs a kind of distraction?

    v. 5 – “this also shall be a sign unto you” – why are there multiple signs of Christ’s birth, but only one of his death? His death has several events correlated with it, sure, but they’re never called signs. Why?

    v. 7 – “ye shall fall to the earth” – I’m probably still just too caught up in this heaven/earth business, but notice how the signs in heaven drive them to the earth.

    v. 9 – “prepare the way of the Lord” – Echoes NT quotation of Isaiah, used to describe John the Baptist’s mission. How might we think of Samuel as a figure of John?

    v. 10 – “because it was hard against you” – cf. 1 Ne 16:1–2, where Laman and Lemuel complain that Nephi’s words are “hard.” It’s a nicely ironic touch to have a Lamanite rebuking his Nephite brethren for their resistance to “hard” words.

    v. 19 – Knowing and not doing – cf. Alma 32:19

    v. 21 – “the earth shall shake and tremble” – cf. Hel 12:9–12

    v. 23 – “laid low, like unto a valley” – cf. Hel 12:9–10

    v. 25 – “many saints shall appear” – Why just saints? And in what capacity? It must be important, though, because it is precisely in *this* detail that Jesus told Nephi to correct the records. It was *this* event that he wanted recorded. Sadly, we don’t get any more detail than we have here.

    v. 28 – “no cause for unbelief” – the language of cause for belief/unbelief only shows up one other time in the Book of Mormon, in Alma 32:18.

    v. 31 – “know good from evil … choose life or death” – both phrases are objects of what God “hath given unto you.” Why is good/evil a question of knowledge, while life/death is a question of choice?

    1.) Comparison with Nephi’s Signs

    Like Nephi, Samuel gives two signs to the people. In each case: the people respond with violence and “seek to destroy” Nephi/Samuel (9:24–25; 14:10), the two signs are practically identical (both of Nephi’s signs revolved around the murder of the chief judge; both of Samuel’s signs deal with the relative light/darkness of the sun, moon, and stars), and the signs point to relatively imminent events (“it is now even at your doors” – 8:27; “five more years cometh” – 14:2).

    I’m especially struck by this last similarity. The signs are given to reveal a situation that is practically upon these people, and yet it’s a situation which they can’t seem to see. This is even more conspicuous when we remember that the Nephite scriptural tradition at one time contained knowledge of when Christ would come (1 Ne 10:4; 19:8; 2 Ne 25:19), and they had apparently forgotten all about it (at least by Alma 13:25). Signs here serve to make visible the reality of the situation.

    Several differences between the two sets of signs also deserve comment. Both of Nephi’s signs were signs of death and he identified the first as a “sign” only after he had given it (9:24), not before, as Samuel does (14:2). Nephi also didn’t give an explicit reason for his signs—they weren’t signs *of* anything. Samuel, on the other hand, ties his signs to specific events from the very beginning (“a sign at the time of his coming” – v. 3; “a sign of his death” – v. 14, 20). Nephi’s signs seem to mark his own prophetic knowledge/power; Samuel’s signs mark events.

    Samuel’s signs are also noticeably apocalyptic in flavor—the closest thing to apocalyptic we find in the Book of Mormon, in fact. Samuel’s signs take place in heaven, marking events; Nephi’s are more earth-bound and condemnatory. What’s the connection there? Are Nephi’s signs meant to show the necessity (on earth) for the Messiah to come, while Samuel’s signs in heaven mark the Messiah’s actual coming?
    And as much as Samuel’s delivers two main signs (of Christ’s birth and death), he mentions several more—“a new star” (v. 5), “many signs and wonders in heaven” (v. 6), “signs [plural!] of his coming” (v. 12), “these signs and wonders” (v. 28). Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon signs are one-time, isolable, earth-bound events. For Samuel signs are numerous and apocalyptic. What do we make of all this?

    2.) Correspondence with Israel

    Samuel’s signs function as a way of keeping tabs on what’s taking place on an entirely different continent. Signs, for Samuel, are a way of communicating the events happening in a different location. Apparently the Lord wanted the Lehites to be aware of events in Israel as they were occurring, and so he commissioned Samuel to deliver two signs that nicely bookend the Messiah’s ministry, setting off the Savior’s life as an isolable chunk of time. Perhaps this is why the two signs (of Christ’s birth and Christ’s death) are so similar. The intent is not to separate out two independent events by attaching signs to them; rather, the effect is to separate out the Messiah’s *entire life* by marking its beginning and end with these corresponding omens.

    All of this, then, turns the Lehites toward Israel and gives them to experience Christ’s life in real time. Jesus himself will reiterate and complement this correspondence when he appears in 3 Nephi. The Lehites have experienced the *duration* of his life in a way somehow similar to the Israelites but they lack a particular content, and so Jesus fills in the gaps by discussing what took place in Jerusalem, delivering some of the same teachings, and identifying the Lehites as his “other sheep” (see 3 Nephi 15 in particular).

    What does this imply for Lehite identity? Jesus will come to the Americas in person, of course, but first the people must experience the length of his life in a certain way. Why? Why all this emphasis on a birth they won’t witness, prior to a ministry they won’t experience? They’re a people whose God is, in some sense, a foreigner, a people whose principal events take place in a different land. It would be very easy to feel (at best) rejected by or (at worst) suspicious of (cf. Hel 16:18–20) this fact. What does this imply for God’s people? Does being God’s chosen people require a particular shared experience/content? Are there a certain set of teachings (one might even say ordinances?) that are required for everyone to know/experience?

    It’s especially poignant to find these questions raised in a text intended for our day, a day of a world-wide church, when we have our greatest growth in nations with no familiarity with 19th-century America or pioneer treks or polygamy. The Mormon church would seem to be a church of Utah Mormons in much the same way that the early Christian church would seem to have been a church of Jews and Near Eastern cultures. What might all of this mean for understanding the organization of God’s people across disparate cultures?

    3.) Messianic Time

    The sign at Christ’s birth is perhaps the best-known element of Samuel’s sermon. He describes the sun setting but the sky remaining light all night long, “as if it were one day.” It will be as if time stopped, even though the people can still see the actual mechanics of time’s passage (“ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting”).

    What’s going on here? Are events somehow outside of time? Why suspend time at Jesus’ birth but not his death? Or is the same thing taking place in the second sign, as well? Or is Christ’s whole life meant to be a kind of cosmic day—birth in the morning and death in the evening?

    I’m sure that Agamben could help us think through this, but I don’t know my Agamben well enough to supply any useful ideas here.

    4.) Samuel’s Asides

    Following the first sign, Samuel moves immediately to a discussion of belief in v. 8. He then goes on in v. 9–12 to reflect on his mission. Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon it’s clear that belief is only made possible through a messenger (Alma 32:22–23; Moroni 7:25), and so, in good Book-of-Mormon-faith-theology fashion, Samuel reflects on his status as a messenger. Faith and messengers go hand-in-hand, and so it’s perfectly natural for Samuel to take this moment to contemplate his mission.

    Samuel seems remarkably well versed in Nephite theology, and that’s most obvious in his second aside, v. 15–19 and 30–31. He seems to be drawing on Alma 39–42 with rare phrases occasionally pulled from Mosiah 3 and Alma 12.

    Where on earth is he getting all of this? Is this anachronistic? Is Mormon interpolating to fill in the gaps? Was there enough cultural interaction between Nephites and Lamanites during this era (6:7–8) that these things just bled through? Were these theological precepts part of a more organized teaching circuit following the Lamanite conversion? Why would *these* particular theological teachings be the ones Samuel picks up on, rather than others? Etc.

    5.) Sign of Christ’s Death

    In v. 14 Samuel had started to talk about this second sign, but quickly got distracted. He comes back to the question in v. 20 and introduces the topic exactly as he had in v. 14—“another sign, a sign of his death.” Both times he emphasizes that this is *another* sign. The important thing, to Samuel, seems to be the repetition/plurality that this second sign represents. It is only secondarily “a sign of [Christ’s] death.” It ought to be related to primarily as “another sign.” Why?

    As I mentioned above, this second sign seems to invert the first; where we initially had light, now we have darkness. While this makes a nice devotional point about the presence of Jesus bringing light, etc., we ought to notice the way in which heaven is responding to what takes place on earth. How does this relate to Hel 10:7 and 12:15?

    This entire sign, in fact, seems more focused on the earth compared to the first. Although the sun/moon/stars are still a factor here (v. 20), there’s a greater emphasis on the earth—its weather, its earthquakes, darkness being “upon the face of this land” (v. 20), its mountain/valley inversions, graves being opened, etc. Why does the second sign take place on earth while the first sign takes place in heaven? Or is that entirely a misreading of the way these two signs correspond?

    One further note about this sign: how are we to understand its duration for “three days” (v. 20)? As is commonly pointed out regarding the space between Christ’s death and resurrection, the first-century Jewish system of counting “days” was inclusive, such that the space between Friday night and Sunday morning constituted three days. Thus, where the sign of Christ’s birth involved two days and a night, the sign of Christ’s death involves two nights and a day. The two signs not only involve similar phenomena (light vs. darkness), but they take roughly the same amount of time. What’s the significance there?

    And if the signs take roughly the same amount of time, why is Samuel so specific in the first case (“one day and a night and a day;” “two days and a night” – v. 4) and so general in the second (“three days” – v. 20)? Is it simply because the first sign involves the actual motion of the sun in a way that the second doesn’t? Delineating out the day/night business in the first case helps them know which risings/settings they’re supposed to be on the lookout for?

    6.) Witnesses, Remnants, and Communal Faith

    Samuel’s asides in v. 8–13 and 26–29 are similar in some interesting ways. Both occur immediately after laying out one of his two major signs, both include mention of the angel (v. 9, 26–28), and both use the phrase “to the intent that ye might believe” (v. 12, 28). That’s a significant hint that these sections ought to be read as parallel, but I’m going to blatantly ignore that and focus solely on v. 28! :)

    Amidst delivering all of these signs and wonders, the angel informed Samuel that “many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs … should come to pass,” and this was “to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men.” It sounds as if Samuel has in mind visions or angelic messengers or some such thing that will be given to a handful of people sometime between when he delivers his sermon and the sign of Christ’s birth appears (and that seems to be exactly what happens in Hel 16:13–14).

    Obviously we could ask several questions about any number of elements of this verse, but I’m interested in the relationship between these “many” and “the children of men.” The presence of a believing few somehow eliminates any “cause for unbelief.” A small dose of faith among a few seems to open onto a possibility for broader belief among everyone else. How? We often talk about how helpful it is to have models of faithful academic inquiry in the church. Is that the idea—the belief of these few will open a realm of (salvific! – v. 29) faith for everyone else? It’s as if the question is a sort of communal faith and it’s seated in the faith of a few.

    It’s almost as if there’s a remnant of the faithful. Something about this faithful few is crucial to the faith of the whole. How might v. 28 dialogue with remnant theology, or perhaps the implicit remnant theology you brought up relative to 13:12–14? Or perhaps we ought to think of these “many” as simple witnesses and ask how all of this communal faith business might explain the law of witnesses?

  3. JKC said

    One point that may worth noting about the entire sermon is the question of provenance. Who exactly wrote what is reported here as Samuel’s speech? Given the Savior’s rebuke of Nephi for failing to record Samuel’s prophecy, I’m inclined to believe that what we have here is at best a reconstruction by Nephi approximately four decades after the fact, if not a reconstruction by Mormon much later. So I’m not sure how much of this sermon is actually Samuel’s. (Of course, there are other possibilities: maybe it really was recorded at the time, and the Lord wasn’t rebuking a failure to record Samuel’s prophecies, but a failure to record their fulfillment; maybe the verbatim text was given to Nephi by revelation after the Lord rebuked him and commanded that it be recorded; maybe it had been recorded somewhere, but just not in the records that Jesus looked over, and it was recovered from some other source). In one sense, it doesn’t matter because it’s fascinating stuff whoever wrote it. It’s also especially interesting given that the Savior’s focus on Samuel’s prophecy is not on his preaching of faith and repentance, which seems to be the focus of Samuel’s sermon as reported here, but rather, on the prophecy of the resurrection of the saints at the time of the Savior’s resurrection. Not sure what conclusions to draw from it all, but it raises some very interesting questions.

    • joespencer said

      Nice, JKC. This are real problems throughout the Book of Mormon, and questions that deserve attention from folks better trained in historical-critical methodology than I am. Anyone out there who knows how to trace several voices in a text, get to work!

  4. Robert C. said

    Nice work, guys. I esp. like Kim’s thoughts regarding the communal aspect of v. 28 as interesting way to answer Joe’s questions regarding “A Righteous Judgement” and the links here to 2 Ne 2 and Alma 40-42….

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