Feast upon the Word Blog

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The Lament of the Book of Mormon

Posted by BrianJ on December 26, 2007

Two Book of Mormon authors, Nephi and Moroni, lament what they see as a weakness in their writing. Those who have come to love the Book of Mormon usually dismiss this as false modesty. But what if we actually took them at their word?

In this three-part post, I’d like to do just that. Specifically, I’d like to discuss the following questions:

1) Why would Nephi and Moroni feel like they were weak in writing? (We’ll discuss that on this current thread.)
2) Were Nephi and Moroni actually weak in writing? (We’ll discuss that on a second thread.)
3) Why didn’t the Lord make them mighty in writing like they were in speaking? (We’ll discuss that on this final thread.)

First, let’s look at what the Nephi and Moroni actually wrote (with a little emphasis added):

And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men. (2 Nephi 33:1)

And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness (2 Nephi 33:11)

And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them; And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them. (Ether 12:23-24)

“Weak” and “strong” are subjective—“weak” really means “weaker than.” So, what were Nephi and Moroni comparing their writing to that made their own writing seem inadequate?

The fact that they saw a shortcoming in their writing suggests that they had some other writing that they esteemed to be much better. Moroni even makes this explicit: “We can’t write like the brother of Jared.” Who would Nephi compare himself to? As far as we know, Nephi only had two texts: his father’s writings and the Brass Plates.

Since we have neither Lehi’s nor the Jaredites’ writings (only a redaction of them), I’ll focus on the Brass Plates. I’ll assume, also, that whatever writing skill Nephi saw in them that Moroni saw as well. What this all boils down to is a simple argument: Nephi and Moroni felt clumsy in writing because they compared their own writing to what they found in the Brass Plates.

If that’s the case, it’s worth thinking about what made and makes the Old Testament (our approximation of the Brass Plates) such powerful literature. Now, one quick caveat: I have no idea how the Brass Plates compare to our Old Testament. I’m sure someone (FPR?) could do an intriguing analysis, but I’m going to take a more naïve approach.

Here are a few characteristics of the Old Testament. Most make for truly superb study, others make it indecipherable, and some do both:

1. Complex Structure: most everyone loves a good chiasmus, especially when someone else works it out for you—and the Old Testament has chiasmi within chiasmi.
2. Rhetorical Poetry: Hebrew poetry employed repetition, parallelism, grammar, and word-plays; western poetry is more about rhymes and meters. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of the “poems” in the Old Testament, and the emphasis they anticipate; are missed by English readers.
3. Unidentified Redactors: much of the Old Testament was written, edited, and revised by unknown or unidentified authors. Were they wise, righteous, inspired, vengeful, manipulative, or perverse? (Note: I don’t think this is a benefit, but the point will be important later.) One thing is probably certain, they were trained and educated in theology, language, etc.
4. Oral Tradition: many of the stories and events were passed down orally from person to person until much later a scribe captured them in ink. The benefit: the stories were adapted to sound good to the ear, not just look good on papyrus.
5. Culture Context: when we say “ancient” Hebrew, we often mean “very ancient.” And throughout that history Israel sat in the center of the world: it knew Sumeria and the birth of Egypt, the long reign of Assyria and the relative flash of Babylonia, it neighbored Phoenicia and traded with the Greeks—and every page of the Old Testament is soaked in the richness of that history and changing culture.
6. Birth of a Religion: we get to follow God’s continuing struggle to establish not only a nation, but a religion. The Israelites were really all converts—surrounded by other religions—and we learn line upon line as they struggle to learn the basics and the intricacies of God.

That is just a partial list of what Nephi and Moroni may have felt they were up against. Now, put yourself in their shoes: you just finished your study of Isaiah, and the Lord asks you to write your own scripture. How would you view the results?

6 Responses to “The Lament of the Book of Mormon”

  1. It appears to me Nephi was comparing his writing to his speaking, and that Moroni was comparing himself to the Brother of Jared.

    Probably what they needed was the technology to publish the transcripts of their sermons.

  2. brianj said

    Eric Nielson: I noted in the post that Moroni was comparing himself to the brother of Jared. I agree that Nephi explicitly compares his writing to his speaking, but I think it’s fair to think that he had the Brass Plates in mind as well. The Brass Plates were evidence that it was possible (for some people, but not Nephi) to write powerfully. That’s my thinking.

  3. Robert C. said

    I think Eric has a good point, but I can’t help thinking that Nephi is also comparing himself to Isaiah, at least partially, and Isaiah is surely a very rich and poetic book. What is ironic, though, is that by today’s standards of writing where clarity and simplicity are highly valued, Nephi’s writing would probably be judged as much better than Isaiah’s more abstruse writing style. So I really wonder how all of this relates to Nephi’s comment that he glories in plainness (which also relates to Matthew’s recent question on the wiki about the sense in which John’s Revelation is “plain”…).

    These are all very difficult questions to me, so I’d really appreciate comments by others.

    I will add that the more I think about these issues, the more I think “plainness” and “mighty in writing” are concepts that are very different than the way we are typically inclined to think about them. That is, I think we have to break ourselves out of our own modern, cultural inclinations and presuppositions to understand what’s going on. That is, I think “mighty in writing” and “plainness” may both have reference to the kind of symbolic script(ure)s that are enacted in the temple—not very familiar or easy to our way of thinking and understanding, but perhaps “plain” in the sense of giving us a very clear vision of how the purpose and trajectory of this life should be understood….

  4. brianj said

    Robert – Just a thought: When I taught my Sunday School class on Revelations, I started by talking about symbols and speaking in code. I asked the class to imagine that I said something like, “You all need to find your own personal sacred grove to pray in.” Would they understand what I meant? Would an outsider (i.e., non-LDS) understand? Mormons would, of course, know immediately what I meant, and the ‘sacred grove’ as a symbol is powerful. Non-LDS would either think I was weird, or they would think I was being purposefully secretive by speaking in code. So what is plain and obvious to one group is quite bizarre to another.

    “What is ironic, though, is that by today’s standards of writing where clarity and simplicity are highly valued, Nephi’s writing would probably be judged as much better than Isaiah’s more abstruse writing style.” Well said (and I wish I had put it that way in Part 3, point #2).

  5. s james said

    Brianj: You raise some good points. The weakness in writing is for me one of the strengths of the BoM’s authenticity. Orality is a primary organising system for much of the written text reflecting the state of a culture where some writing was known but the lifestyle remained predominantly oral.

    The writings of Nephi, for example exhibit features of oral ‘texts’: event-dominated rather than object-dominated, situated rather than abstract, additive, close to the life-world, etc.

    Nephi clearly admired Isaiah’s style, and perhaps was not able to reproduce it. He wrote as he spoke, or as he was commanded to write, much of which was about what he saw: ‘Look!’ His ‘plainness’ in writing appears to be an attempt to accommodate the plainness of his people’s understanding. Yet, his reference to his people casting ‘things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ reflects what is noted elsewhere in the world (amongst Oral cultures), a suspicion with regard to the ‘truth’ of writing. So perhaps you are on to something here, that the BoM was prepared for the literate mind.

  6. clarkgoble said

    One way to think of this is that when speaking there’s a connection to an audience. The Holy Ghost helps (especially with those of certain spiritual gifts) to reach the person almost independent of the ‘normative’ meaning of ones words. That is the focus is less on the words you have than the effect on the person in question. There is that spiritual connection and words become more like the fingers of a potter.

    When writing though, that is far less the case. The ‘immediacy’ fails. It would be like trying to make a vase out of clay on a wheel by writing a bunch of locations for fingers. It is amazingly harder. When writing, that ‘time gap’ entails that the normative meaning of the words and the interpretive process becomes far more important.

    In the case of the Book of Mormon we have authors (Nephi, Jacob, and Mormon) who are primarily writing for a totally absent audience of unknown culture. That can’t help but be difficult.

    Of course beyond all that there is probably the more practical and straight forward issue that writing is hard. Often harder than speaking. And that’s for us today in a culture that tends to use writing far, far more than oration now. In the ancient world when paper was so precious and there were no computers with backspaces writing was rarer and more difficult. Add in that we have the unknown nature of ‘reformed egyptian’ which almost certainly was harder than even ancient Hebrew (which had its own share of problems) and writing is probably very difficult.

    The closest analogy is probably those folks who wrote in a kind of shorthand in a cipher. (That didn’t used to be that uncommon, and there are even examples in the early Church of folks writing in Masonic ciphers) That takes time and if one isn’t terribly good at it, probably is frustrating. The fact that you have to plan and think through things so much may also make it harder to catch the spirit of things that one could do when simply speaking by the spirit.

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