Reflections on Helaman 16
Posted by joespencer on August 16, 2013
Well, we’ve come to the last of this series—reflections on the last of the chapters of Helaman. This last post may prove a bit shorter, simply because there’s less here that’s jumped out at me as I’ve worked through the text. To work, nonetheless!
There are two major sequences in chapter 16, divided by a brief transition. The first sequence is found in verses 1-8, where the immediate aftermath of Samuel’s sermon is laid out. The second sequence is found in verses 13-25, where the initial responses to the fulfillment of Samuel’s predictions are laid out. The transition is, of course, found in verses 9-12, where the intervening years between prediction and fulfillment are reviewed in short order.
Of these two larger sequences, it’s the second that most interests me. The first, as I say, largely lays out the immediate aftermath of Samuel’s preaching: the response of those who believe and the response of those who don’t believe. Perhaps most interesting about the first sequence is the complicated relationship established between Samuel’s preaching and Nephi’s concurrent preaching—really the last major word we get about Nephi in the Book of Helaman. The second sequence turns to the responses of the people to Samuel’s sermon a few years later, once its predictions begin to be fulfilled. Why is it so interesting? Because there we get an analysis of the people’s “reasoning.” There’s much to be thought about in the text’s report of how the people worked their way out of belief. This draws my attention.
I’ve not found anything structurally compelling beyond this basic division of the text. My notes will focus on a few points in the first sequence, mostly those details that help to clarify the stakes of the second sequence. My notes will thus primarily focus on the second sequence.
Verse 1 – Those who immediately believe Samuel’s words find themselves with the double task, according to this verse, of seeking and finding Nephi. If there’s no real surprise in the fact that they need to go to Nephi for baptism, there’s something of a surprise in this talk of seeking and finding. Why does Nephi need to be looked for, if he’s out (as reported a few verses later) preaching and prophesying and working miracles?
Verse 1 – When those who believe Samuel find Nephi, they confess their sins before baptism, but they also are described as “den[ying] not.” What is it that they deny not? This odd detail needs further thinking.
Verse 2 – It’s here said that it’s the Spirit specifically that allows Samuel not to be hit by stones or arrows. Why the Spirit? Wouldn’t it be more natural to say that the power of God was with Samuel?
Verse 7 – Is there anything important about the use of two distinct terms here: “lands” (of the Nephites) and “country” (of the Lamanites)? How are these words being used?
Verse 12 – The word “alteration” appears only here in scripture (though the verb “to alter” appears a number of times, rather evenly distributed among the standard works).
Verse 13 – “Great signs” is coupled with “wonders” elsewhere only in Matthew 24:24 (and its parallel in the JST version of Matthew 24), which may be connected to other parallels between Samuel’s words and Jesus’ apocalypse. “Great signs” on its own appears in only another passage or two apart from these.
Verse 13 – This verse reports that “the words of the prophets” began to be fulfilled. It’s odd, though, that the prophets are reported on in a general vein, and not Samuel in a more particular vein. Why should the prophets rather generally be the referent here?
Verse 15 – The phrase “most believing part” is entirely unique to this text. Not even “more believing part” appears elsewhere.
Verse 15 – While a few other texts refer to peoples being left to their own strength, it’s elsewhere only in Mosiah 10 that any people is described as depending on their own strength, apparently deliberately. Nowhere else is anyone described as depending, apparently deliberately, on her or his own wisdom.
Verse 16 – The coupling of “great and marvelous” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but it appears more than twenty times in the Book of Mormon! Interestingly, the terms often appear, as they do here, in connection with the word “works,” though there’s a complicated pattern of their appearance. They appear with some frequency in the small plates, and then disappear more or less until Third Nephi (appearing only twice in Alma and twice here in Helaman 16). They then appear with remarkable frequency. There seems here to be a kind of anticipation of what’s coming.
Verse 17 – Only here in scripture are the verbs “to reason” and “to contend” coupled.
Verse 18 – It’s only here in the Book of Mormon that the word “reasonable” appears. It appears once in the Bible (Romans 12:1), but with a rather different meaning.
Verse 18 – The phrase “such a being as a Christ” is unique to this text, though “such a being” appears twice in Alma 54:21.
Verse 20 – It’s fascinating to note that “wicked tradition” appears only here in all of scripture. It appears in the plural once (“wicked traditions”), where it’s applied to the Lamanites (Alma 23:3), but this is the only time it appears in the singular. It’s to be emphasized, perhaps, because the accusation is one of wickedness rather than falsity or the like.
Verse 20 – The phrase “far distant” appears three times elsewhere in scripture: Mosiah 3:5; 7:18; and Alma 7:7. In all three instances, it’s time to which the phrase is applied, and it’s always negative (“not far distant”). Moreover, all three instances refer to the time of the Messiah’s coming. Here, then, we have a kind of transformation of the use of the phrase: something is far distant, and it’s a matter of space rather than time, even as it’s still a question of the Messiah’s coming.
Verse 20 – The theme of “a land” which people “know not” comes from Jeremiah, where this formula appears with some frequency.
Verse 20 – All talk here (and in verse 21) of keeping people in ignorance is an obvious echo of Korihor, who uses the same phrase in Alma 30:23. This brings out other possible allusions to Korihor (the talk of tradition, for instance).
Verse 21 – While coupling “cunning” and “mysterious” is unique to this text, there’s a rather obvious echo of 1 Nephi 16:38, where Laman and Lemuel accuse Nephi of using his “cunning arts” to deceive them through signs, in more or less exactly the same way the Nephites here accuse the believers.
Verse 22 – The coupling of “foolish” and “vain” is not uncommon in the Book of Mormon. It’s only other appearance in Helaman is in chapter 12, where Mormon lists these two attributes among others.
Verse 22 – It’s only here in scripture that “rumors and contentions” are coupled. It’s difficult to know what the two mean together.
Theological Points of Interest
1. A Division among the People
The immediate reaction to Samuel’s words, described in the opening verses of the chapter, is a split between those who “believed on his words” and so “went forth and sought for Nephi” (verse 1) and those who “were angry with him” and so “cast stones” and “shot arrows at him” (verse 2). Here we have a kind of basic division between the people, and one that echoes the initial reaction to Nephi in Helaman 7-8, where those who believe regard Nephi as a prophet and those who don’t seek to do violence to him. Just as with Nephi at that point, no one seems to regard him as anything more than a conduit for a heavenly message, and many seem to regard him as only a human being looking for power.
When Samuel, by the Spirit, proves able to avoid the stones and arrows aimed at him, however, the reaction of the people changes. “Many more,” it seems, began to “believe on his words” when they saw a kind of supernatural power in him (verse 3). But “the more part” of the people still “did not believe,” and in fact decided that he had “a devil” and that it was “because of the power of the devil” that he couldn’t be hit by his attackers (verse 6). Here the response is a further and even deeper division among the people, but now regarding two radically distinct ways of regarding Samuel in supernatural terms. Those who believe take him to be a prophet with divine power, and those who still refuse to believe him take him to be a tool of the devil. Here again there’s an echo of Nephi’s experience, but now from Helaman 9-10, where the sign-giving-and-fulfillment forces a division among the people regarding the undeniable supernatural qualities of the messenger.
Throughout, Samuel has been Nephi’s parallel. And we’ll see that that continues further.
2. Nephi’s Theology of Signs
Key to creating the division over the supernatural among Samuel’s hearers is the question of signs, precisely as it was for Nephi. (We’ve already noted in previous weeks the fact that both Nephi and Samuel provide their listeners with two signs—Nephi with the sign of the chief judge’s death and then with the sign of the murderer’s discover; Samuel with the sign of Christ’s birth and then with the sign of Christ’s death.) And what’s interesting is that in verses 4-5, in between the first and second responses to Samuel’s supernatural ability to avoid his attackers, we get a few notes about Nephi’s sign-giving that’s apparently still going on at the time. Nephi, we’re told, “was baptizing and a prophesying and preaching, crying repentance unto the people, sheweing signs and wonders, working miracles among the people,” etc. (verse 4).
What’s most striking about the details here is that Nephi is presented in this interlude as echoing Samuel’s theology of signs. The “signs and wonders,” as well as the “miracles” wrought by Nephi, were given “that [the people] might know that Christ must shortly come, telling them of things which must shortly come, that they might know and remember at the time of their coming that they had been made known unto them beforehand—to the intent that they might believe” (verses 4-5). The link between Nephi’s intentions here and Samuel’s complicated theology of signs worked out over the course of his sermon is unmistakable. For both, there’s a focus on how signs will help to cause belief among those who are give the signs. There’s at least a slight different, note: Samuel give signs that won’t happen until later, while Nephi gives signs that happen now and point to what will happen later. That’s a difference, and an important one, but the link between their doctrines is clear.
And it should be noted that the text establishes the link. The reason people seek Nephi out at all, we’re told in verse 3, is because they came to believe on Samuel because of his miraculous power. Once they see that, they seek out the miracle worker, as described in verse 4. And after we’re told that Nephi’s miracles were undertaken with the intent to cause belief, we’re told in verse 5 that “therefore as many as believed on the words of Samuel went forth unto him to be baptized.” All this is, it seems, quite deliberate.
3. New Beginnings
In verse 15, when the signs predicted by Samuel begin to be fulfilled, we’re told that “the people began to harden their hearts” and “began to depend upon their own strength” (verse 15). There’s something a little odd about these two notes. The people had already been hardening their hearts, rather consistently. And the people had been depending on their own strength, also rather consistently. In what sense does the narrator mean to indicate that the people began at this time to do these two things? We get another “began” in verse 17: “they began to reason and to contend among themselves.” And we learn in verse 18 that these contentions are definitely new. Why, then, do we have the same verb, “to begin,” attached to the actions that don’t actually seem to have been new?
It’s difficult to know what to make of this. We might play around with theological readings that take the text to be insisting on a kind of “all things became new” when the signs themselves began to be fulfilled. Did the occurrence of the first signs’ fulfillment mark a kind of new era, in which everything was transformed? Hardening of the heart and dependence on one’s own strength—these were something different from what they’d been before in light of the fact that they were now in response to clear, predicted signs? Or is there something else going on? Is there a kind of perpetual beginning at work here, a kind of consistent reinvention of wickedness? How are these to be thought about?
4. The Nephites’ Probability Game
Verse 15 describes the Nephites and the Lamanites as “depend[ing] upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom,” and then we’re told how they went about doing this. Their self-dependence was manifest in the probability game they began playing in response to the incontrovertible fulfillment of the predicted signs: “Some things they may have guessed right among so many, but—behold—we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which hath been spoken.” This gesture, described as the exemplary instance of self-dependence, is actually quite complicated, and it deserves a bit of theological attention.
First, the key to understanding the game played in verse 16 is to note the role played in it by impossibility. The presupposition that guides all the Nephites’ and Lamanites’ thinking on this score is a certain necessary impossibility: “we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which hath been spoken.” What they feel secure about, it seems, is this “cannot.” And what it is that “cannot” happen is, specifically, a certain totality: “we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass.” Faced with the reality that some of the predicted works have come to pass, the people mark their position by stating their confidence that all of the predicted works can’t happen. Recognizing the excessive nature of what’s been predicted—how many things would have to happen for all of Samuel’s words to be fulfilled—they find refuge in the denial of that totality. And they position Samuel’s success in that totality: if anything fails to happen, the whole prediction has failed to happen.
The emphasis, then, is on “some,” as well as on “guessed right.” The empirical reality of what they’ve witnessed forces them to confess that “some” of what’s been predicted has indeed taken place. But in order to make that “some” into anything but an indication that “all” will take place, they insert talk of guessing. This is a probability game. They’re gambling on the likelihood that just about anyone could have predicted some things that would or could happen, and so they can reduce the “some” to lucky guesses, rather than recognize the “some” as the firstfruits of “all.” There’s a kind of mathematical avoidance of the real relation between “some” and “all,” one existentially accomplished through the invention of a calculus of probability. So long as one has recourse to probability calculations, one doesn’t have to deal with the sign-ificant link between “some” and “all.” That’s worth thinking about further.
5. Abinadite Doctrine in Criticism
In verse 18, we get some more of the people’s reasoning, and this time it’s a question not of probability, but of rationality. It’s “not reasonable” that “such a being as a Christ” would come. That’s a not-unusual claim in the Book of Mormon, but it’s usually set forth in rather different terms from what appears here. Usually, the claim is that it’s impossible to predict the future: since no one can know what’s going to come, no one can claim knowledge about the coming Christ. Here, though, there’s something different going on. Since the people are confronted with the reality that someone knew something about the future—or at least sure seemed to have known something about the future—there’s a change of tactic. Instead of a denial of knowledge of the future, then, we get here an attack on the reasonableness of the claim that there could be anything like a Christ.
And then what’s the argument? It’s a curious one. It goes like this: If (1) there were a Christ, and if (2) he were what the Nephite church teaches about him, then (3) we end up with an absurdity, namely, that he’ll show himself only to those living in the Old World. The key here, clearly, is the church’s teaching concerning the Christ, what the text spells out in clearly Abinadite terms: that the Christ would be “the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth.” Zeezrom had attempted to find a kind of contradiction right in the Abinadite idea that one person was both Father and Son, but that’s not the direction these people go (another point of novelty!). Instead, they seem to see no particular contradiction between Father and Son because they take both terms to indicate a certain universality on the part of the Christ. If the Christ is “the Son of God,” then presumably he’d have power to visit whomever he chose, and especially if he’s “the Father of heaven and of earth,” presumably he’d want to visit all his children. Somewhere between the Father and the Son, there’s an indication that the Christ would visit the New World believers. But there’s a tradition afloat that the Christ wouldn’t, during his fleshly sojourn (what marks him as the Son), visit the New World at all.
Would it be fair to say that the wrongheaded move here is rooted in a misunderstanding of what it means to say that Christ is “the Son of God.” According to Abinadi (in those infamous opening verses of Mosiah 15), Christ’s sonship consists in His being clothed in flesh. Here, however, it seems that the people see in His sonship a certain inheritance of power, a certain ability to do as He pleases. What Abinadi saw in His sonship, however, was precisely His inability, His limitation due to the flesh. To see the Christ as the Son is, for Abinadi, to recognize that He had a certain determinate place and time in the flesh, and so that He couldn’t go elsewhere or do otherwise than His immediate circumstances established. Or so, at any rate, it seems to me. This is, for what it’s worth, one possible way of making sense of the details here.
6. Cause and Belief
We’ve already looked at the idea worked up by Samuel in previous chapters that signs somehow help to cause belief. Put in a more minimalist vein, the idea was that signs remove cause for disbelief, but there have been hints enough that Samuel took signs to help in a certain way to cause belief. And we’ve seen echoes of that here in this narrative chapter as well. In light of those developments, we should note carefully the language of verse 20. The people there, in the middle of all their reasoning and contending, claim that the “wicked tradition” of Nephite Christianity was “handed down … to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass.” Note that language carefully: it’s now a point of accusation that religion has been sustained in order, precisely, to cause belief.
It’s certainly important that signs are on the back burner at this point in the text. They return with the very next line, but in the first half of verse 20 at least the focus is on the larger religious tradition and the way that it causes belief. That said, the way this theme plays into all that’s been said about signs should be unmistakable. How does religion cause belief? And how is this related to—or not related to—the whole question of signs? What does traditionally-caused-belief look like?
However those kinds of details shake out, we should keep an eye on the fact that the unbelievers seem at this point to be conscious—quite conscious—of religious intentions to cause belief. They’re not unaware of the tactic, if such it can be called, outlined by Samuel, and they’re struggling against it in all their reasoning and contending. As we’ll see in a moment, they see a major part of that struggle as consisting in a struggle against the nature of the sign. For the moment, however, the struggle is also something that has to be taken up in a battle against tradition.
7. The Sign and the Signified
As verse 20 continues, we get a most fascinating detail. The “great and marvelous thing” in which caused belief is supposed to arise is something “which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant, a land which we know not.” Why is this important? At the very least because it tells something about how those reasoning and contending were attempting to work against the structure and nature of signs as such. They seem to recognize the structure of the sign: it’s exhausted, in a certain regard, by its referential value, its indication of an event taking place elsewhere than where the sign is actually given. This they see and insist on. The sign for them is swallowed up in the signified to which it points. That’s the “great and marvelous.” And that’s something that remains inaccessible, “far distant,” something “we know not.” To whatever extent the sign exists, it displaces the signified, positioning it elsewhere. And this is something, according to the critics here, that is accomplished intentionally: “therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.” The sign is given just to obfuscate the signified, which is said to be “great and marvelous.”
What, though, if the signified is actually less important than the sign? What if the mode of presentation, the way in which the sign is given, is itself “great and marvelous”? What if it isn’t nearly as necessary to cut through the web of signs to come to witness the signified as it is to dwell in the web of signs to see what’s to be learned there? What if, in other words, it’s a blessing that the signified is “far distant,” somewhere “we know not,” because it gives us to experience the sign as sign, as “cause for belief” (rather than “cause for knowledge”)? That, I think, is something worth thinking about. We might say that there’s a kind of Nephite insistence on the scientific here, and that’s something worth questioning. Is the scientific attempt to cut through the givenness of the phenomena straight to the “thing itself” really the best approach? Or might there be reason to worry about this reductive approach to all things significant?
8. Servants in Two Ways
In verse 21, we have two locutions together that deserve some attention: “servants to their words” and “servants unto them.” The worry here, expressed by those reasoning and contending, is that the structure of the sign renders them ignorant and so makes them into servants. But we get in their expressed worry a kind of double concern—about becoming servants to the religionists’ words, and about becomes servants to the religionists themselves. How do we think about the difference and relation between these two worries? And however we answer that question, we might do well to think about the ordering of the two worries. Is there a reason that the worry about words comes first?
All of this, it seems, is meant to be clarified by the aside in the middle of verse 21: “for we depend upon them for to teach us the word.” There’s a certain equivalence being established here between being servants “to their words” and being servants “unto them.” “They,” it seems, are little more than functionaries of “the word,” but that means that it’s a certain automatic dependence on “the word” that sets up both dependence on “their words” and on “them” themselves.
There’s much to think about here. Why is there any insistence on “the word” among the unbelievers? Why aren’t they satisfied simply to let all commitment to “the word” go? If their accusation is that the word is being mediated by a web of signs that displace the signified into an inaccessible elsewhere, why don’t they conclude straightforwardly that there’s something corrupt about the word itself? There’s a hint, here, about the nature of the religious establishment at the time, though it’s unclear exactly how to flesh out what’s at stake here. What do these people believe, and why? And what role do the believers play in the structure of that belief? These are larger questions that need attention.
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