Feast upon the Word Blog

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“when a man was dead, that was the end thereof”: Korihor and the primacy of death in thinking

Posted by joespencer on September 19, 2007

Let me begin by embarrassing Kim by quoting from an e-mail she wrote to me about Alma 30:

First off, in verses 7 – 11, we get what appears to be a discussion on equality, which seems to be the political residue of Mosiah 27:3 and 29:32…. Included in this discussion seems to be an interplay (dare I say, a dialectic?) between Beliefs and Actions. In first reading this chapter, I found this incongruous—the Law can punish actions, but not belief? What if someone truly believed that murder and robbery are the best ways to glorify God? But then my American Heritage training kicked in—all societies must create laws—social contracts—that allow for the organization and perpetuation of that society. If this is merely a social necessity (allowing the society to thrive by restricting actions like murder and robbery), how did it develop in Alma 30? In Mosiah 29, it appears as if the judges were intended to judge by the laws of God. Where did the change occur? How can they refuse to judge someone based on their beliefs, and then punish them for not obeying the Law (I’m assuming that here this refers to the Law of Moses; perhaps only the more secular restrictions, such as what to eat, how to dispose of waste, etc.)? Are they creating a break in the Law of Moses, separating the temporal from the more blatantly spiritual? Or are they following an entirely different set of laws, written by the judges?

Now, there are too many insights for me to write much about this, and especially because I’m playing the “I just got internet access again at last and I’m trying to catch up like mad” game. But this does raise, I think, at least the following general question, one I will expostulate on as a response to this post when I have a chance:

Why is Korihor so focused on death, what has that to do with equality, and what does it tell us about philosophy/theology?


5 Responses to ““when a man was dead, that was the end thereof”: Korihor and the primacy of death in thinking”

  1. Robert C. said

    Joe, is your reference to death referring to verse 10, where it says that someone who murders was “punished unto death”? Or do you have some other reference to death in mind in all this? What I find rather interesting about all this is that there is a separation here that seems to have some rather interesting parallels with the Pharisaic view of law (that only actions are what “matter”, here in terms of punishment, and with the Phrarisees perhaps what counts from a spiritual perspective? that’s probably not a fair representation of Pharisaic views, however…).

    I’ve often wondered about verse 29 where Korihor is bound and taken to the chief judge, not for breaking any particular law, it seems, but by preaching a set of beliefs. Doesn’t this contradict the view of law proposed in verse 7, “there was no law against a man’s belief”?

    I think this notion of equality based on actions and explicitly not on beliefs is indeed quite interesting. Curious, in fact: spiritually, it seems more natural (from our modern perspective) to think in terms equality being based on the intents of our heart, not just our actions. Of course, we’re used to think about a separation of church and state, and so this idea doesn’t strike us as peculiar, but if we take away this presupposition of church and state, this seems rather surprising, at least to me. Interestingly, in Mosiah 23:7 “equality” is talked about in what seems to be a protection against persecution, and looking at those who were persecuted through Book of Mormon times seems to be those who are either poor or humble. This is likely a stretch, but it is interesting that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first” is not among the recorded teachings of Christ in the Book of Mormon, and perhaps we might think of as this as not wholly unrelated to this seemingly ingrained teaching that the poor and humble should be treated as equals, rather than looked down upon as “the last”….

  2. Clark said

    My big question with Korihor is whether he was making the angel bit up or not. It sounds like a rival religion put in Alma’s terms. That is the ideas don’t fit. Why would you, on the basis of an angel preach a kind of nihilism due to folks going after an unknown God?

    I think once you can answer that then you can answer his focus on death.

  3. Jeff G said

    Being a Korihor-ite of sorts, I think I can provide some insight here, though I imagine it won’t be anything breathtaking.

    Two points:

    1. The atheist thinks that a belief in the afterlife leads, almost but not quite inevitably, to a depreciation of this life. “Yes, let us suffer through this life by way of sacrifice, obedience, sobriety (in the broad sense of the word), etc. because this life is nothing compared to the life to come.” says the religionist from Korihor’s perspective. Instead, since we don’t know anything about any afterlife and what relation it has to this life, if there be an afterlife at all, why not live this life to it’s fullest?

    2. It must be remembered the author of Alma 30 does NOT have as his primary goal doing full justice to Korihor’s position and the arguments which can be brought in its favor. With this in mind, we might suggest that Korihor’s preaching wasn’t entirely as negative as the author presents it to be, just as religionist’s view of the afterlife which I have presented above is not a inspiring or compelling as the religionist would himself/herself describe it.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Joe Spencer said

    One learns a great deal about how one asked a question by reading the responses to it! I’m about to take this in a very different direction, though I certainly—thoroughly, in fact—enjoyed these few first comments (as discussion on those points continues, I will be sure to respond to them more directly).

    Verse 18: “telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.”

    This little part of verse 18 is so rich in implications. Why does the author (is this Mormon or is he quoting some other writer?) include this tidbit so late in the account (after all other discussion of Korihor’s doctrine), and why is it summarized rather than quoted? Why is this the last word before Korihor’s going over to Jershon, and why does it follow the mention of “lift[ing] up their heads,” of “whoredoms”? How might it be connected—or why is it connected—to a rather curious deprecation of Korihor’s women, with a late inclusion of Korihor’s men as well? Why “telling”?

    And then the grammar of this phrase in particular. Why split it by the comma? Why, that is, make it a question of a “when” and a state (“was”)? Why use the word “end” instead of something more philosophical? And why describe this philosophical point positively (“dead” and “end”) rather than negatively (the author might have said he told them there was no afterlife, no resurrection, etc.)? And why the past tense here (“was” and again “was”)? All of this deserves attention.

    But this is just to get a sense for what Korihor is telling the people, according to the author. Down to the focus itself: why such a focus on death, or why make that the end of things?

    It thrusts me immediately into the whole of Western philosophy, into especially everything in the wake of Plato, for whom philosophy (which I will expand to all culture here) is the practice of (an anticipation of) death. And lest I be taken as importing to an Eastern text some sense of Western thinking, I think Isaiah 28 is nicely cognizant of these same issues.

    That said, what of death, then? Hmmm…. I don’t know that I have time right now to get into that as much as I’d like to (since I will be doing a few live podcasts this morning, and I probably ought also to get my schoolwork done!). More soon.

  5. Matthew said

    Joe (or others) I’m interested in hearing more on this. Maybe the question of why death is so important to Korihor is closely related to the question of why life after death (the resurrection) is so important to us. We often point to the resurrection as the single most important event.

    It is hard to know what importance was placed on the (future) resurrection in Korihor’s time, but I think that is key to understanding what it means for him to reject it. I’m thinking from the pretty explicit revelations in the BC BOM about Christ that maybe their views of the resurrection were similar to ours–i.e. that it was to them considered a super-important event. This is in contrast, it seems, to the New Testament where we know that not all Jews accepted the resurrection–specifically the Sadducees rejected it. Maybe this is a bit of a tangent but it is interesting to me that in the pre-Christ Israel, life after death was a question open to debate within the religion. It is hard for me to understand how this defining belief for us today could be open to debate among the Jews at the time.

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