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The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Historical Books

Posted by joespencer on February 22, 2010

Having taken up the theme of the remnant in the Old Testament, the Isaiah Chapters in Second Nephi, and the writings of Nephi in general, I want to turn now to the few appearances of the word and theme in the books of Mosiah and Alma. Significantly, the word/theme does not appear at all in the books of Jacob, Enos, Jarom, or Omni, and it is missing also from the book of Helaman. Moreover, there is only a single reference to the theme in Mosiah, and only a small handful—most of them insignificant—in the book of Alma. What follows, then, will ultimately be mostly a discussion of Alma 46, where an extended discussion of the theme oddly appears. First, though, I’ll deal briefly with the reference in Mosiah and the less significant references in Alma.

Less Significant References to the Remnant (Mosiah and Alma)

The only appearance of the word “remnant” in the book of Mosiah is found in Mosiah 8:12. The verse reports the words of King Limhi when he asks the visiting Ammon about the possibility of translating the twenty-four (Jaredite) gold plates his people discovered:

12 And I say unto thee again: Knowest thou of any one that can translate? For I am desirous that these records should be translated into our language; for, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of a remnant of the people who have been destroyed, from whence these records came; or, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed; and I am desirous to know the cause of their destruction.

Here the word “remnant” seems to be used in its simpler sense: the remnant in question would be a group of survivors left behind by a people that was destroyed for the most part. If I’m not reading the text amiss, it seems that Limhi hopes that the plates will provide him with some information about a Jaredite remnant that was not destroyed, but failing that, he hopes that the record will give them an understanding of the remnantless people that were destroyed. As it turns out, of course, those very plates will assert that the Jaredites were left without a remnant, which sets them apart from Israel and the entire Adamic/Abrahamic covenantal tradition, in which there is always a remnant left. (Indeed, the inclusion of the Jaredite story in the Book of Mormon—in the shape, of course, of the book of Ether—seems to serve to set up a massive antithetical parallelism between the history of the Lehites and the history of the Jaredites, the one being a part of the covenant and so leaving a remnant behind to receive the written record, and the other not being a part of the covenant and so not leaving a remnant behind even though a written record is nonetheless produced. The play between Israel and the Gentiles is crucial in all this, I think.)

Here, then, it seems that while the remnant business brought up in Mosiah does not at first appear to have anything to do with the larger remnant themes introduced in the small plates, it ultimately does have something to do with those themes: the Book of Mormon sets up important questions of the Israelite-Gentile relationship through its treatment of the lack of a Jaredite remnant, questions that are crucial for latter-day readers of the text, caught up as they are in the same Israelite-Gentile relationship, at least according to Nephi and his visionary projections concerning the latter-day remnant of Israel.

But if the reference in Mosiah turns out in the end to be theologically significant, the first two references in Alma appear to be somewhat less complex. The first of these appears in Alma 2:21:

21 And Alma sent spies to follow the remnant of the Amlicites, that he might know of their plans and their plots, whereby he might guard himself against them, that he might preserve his people from being destroyed.

Here it seems clear that the word “remnant” is being used in its fully secular sense. The remnant of the Amlicites exists after the initial battle, but it needs to be cut off, or its existence will allow for a full recomposition of the apostate group. As it turns out, however, Alma does not fully eradicate the Amlicites, and they turn out to be a very negative influence later in the Book of Mormon. (If, that is, it really is the case that the Amlicites and the Amalekites are the same people, as Christopher Conkling has argued: see here). The second appearance of the word in Alma is similar, and is to be found in Alma 25:7:

7 And it came to pass that those rulers who were the remnant of the children of Amulon caused that they [Lamanite converts in the eastern wilderness] should be put to death, yea, all those that believed in these things.

Here again the remnant is a group that is left after other destruction, though it appears that this remnant is eradicated through Lamanite retaliation (a fulfillment, incidentally, of a prophecy from Abinadi). Again the sense of the remnant here is essentially secular. But it is worth pointing out that the book of Alma, through these two references to remnants—one to the remnant of the Amlicites and one to the remnant of the Amulonites—makes mention of the remnants of the only two apostate Nephite dissenter groups that appear in the first half of the book of Alma. There may be something more significant—at least historically significant—at work in this double referencing. For now, though, I’d like to turn to the obviously much more theologically significant references to a remnant in Alma 46.

Captain Moroni’s Discourse about the Remnant

The last references to a remnant in the historical books are all to be found in Alma 46:23-27. Here the word appears several times, and within a heavily inflected theological discourse. Moroni brings up an Old World tradition that appears nowhere else in scripture (Nibley famously provided some parallels to this story in Arabic sources, but this is the only reference to this tradition that appears in canonical scripture), and it is tied quite heavily to the question of the remnant. The passage is found immediately after Amalickiah has begun to raise up a following, and after Moroni has responded by creating the title of liberty and going out among the people to garner support against the split-off group. I’ll begin by quoting verses 21-27 from chapter 46:

21 And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.
22 Now this was the covenant which they made, and they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni, saying: We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression.
23 Moroni said unto them: Behold, we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces; yea, and now behold, let us remember to keep the commandments of God, or our garments shall be rent by our brethren, and we be cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain.
24 Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph; yea, let us remember the words of Jacob, before his death, for behold, he saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said—Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment.
25 Now behold, this giveth my soul sorrow; nevertheless, my soul hath joy in my son, because of that part of his seed which shall be taken unto God.
26 Now behold, this was the language of Jacob.
27 And now who knoweth but what the remnant of the seed of Joseph, which shall perish as his garment, are those who have dissented from us? Yea, and even it shall be ourselves if we do not stand fast in the faith of Christ.

What ought to be said about these verses?

It would seem that Moroni’s rending of his own garment—something the people had not directly witnessed, but which they could surmise from the fluttering title of liberty that had been made from Moroni’s rent garment—is what motivated the crowds to rend their own garments. It is Moroni, however, who goes on to connect the whole scene up with the (presumably brass-plates) story of Joseph’s garment (“coat of many colors”). The covenant is made with two distinct symbolic actions, associated with two metaphors—one reported twice, first narratively and then eventually in the words of Moroni himself (if the people falter, God will rend them as they have rent their garments), the other announced directly in the covenant-making speech of the people between the two iterations of the other metaphor (the second: if the people falter, God will allow them to be trampled on as Moroni tramples on their rent garments). All of this sets up Moroni’s actual speech, which is where the focus of this discussion must remain: with the covenantal stage set, one can move on to what Moroni has to say about the remnant.

Verse 23 comes, narratively speaking, with a bit of a shock: “Moroni said unto them: Behold, we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob.” Why a shock? Simply because it has, by the time the reader has come to Alma 46, been hundreds of pages since there has been a mention of the remnant of Jacob—indeed of anything associated directly with the Abrahamic covenant. One becomes accustomed, as one works through Mosiah and Alma (and on into Helaman) to the idea that all focus on Israel’s covenants had been only an early Nephite tradition—that all such business had faded after the first generation or two of the Lehites. Here, though, it suddenly reemerges with what appears at first to be full force. The phrasing, though, is confessedly a bit odd. In all of Nephi’s talk of the remnant, he never uses the phrase “remnant of the seed of Jacob.” Mormon, however, will go on to borrow this phrase from Moroni on three subsequent occasions: 3 Nephi 5:24; Mormon 5:24; Mormon 7:10. It thus appears at first as if Moroni is being theologically inventive here, but it should be noted that he will go on to root his phrasing of the remnant theme in what seems to be some actual scriptural text he had at his disposal (see verse 24).

Even more interesting and peculiar, Moroni, having reintroduced the theme of the remnant of Israel, quickly narrows the focus of his reference: “yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph.” His double way of announcing the remnant theme (first Jacob’s seed, then clarified as Joseph’s seed) turns out to be significant: by describing the people as a remnant of the seed of two distinct people in a single breath, Moroni opens his little speech by naming the two intertwined characters of the scriptural tradition he is about to take up. More important, then, than the apparent logic of narrowing is a logic of anticipation: “Jacob, or rather Joseph” points to what he’s about to do as much as it tries to clarify.

Moving on, Moroni’s immediately subsequent description of Joseph is certainly of some significance: “Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces.” The reason, it seems, for drawing on Joseph in the first place was to make a thematic connection between what was going on in the covenant-making process and what had happened anciently. Here, then, the question of the remnant seems to be, from the very beginning, a question of a reenactment, a ritualistic connecting up of two different events or periods of time. And Moroni goes on to complete the parallel with the remainder of verse 23: “yea, and now behold, let us remember to keep the commandments of God, or our garments shall be rent by our brethren, and we be cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain.” (Here, note, Moroni adds his own metaphorical interpretation of the covenantal act: it is a question of the people’s being themselves rent if they do not fulfill their obligation—not of their being trampled under their enemies’ feet, as they had phrased it. One is tempted to look at how the two interpretations of the act intertwine, how one might be tied to the leader figure, and how the other might be tied to the masses. But this would be beside the point for me here.)

Verse 24 opens with Moroni’s encouragement: let’s fulfill the covenant so that we can “preserve our liberty” (rather than be “cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain”). Interestingly, though, Moroni ties this encouragement to liberty directly to the question of the remnant: “Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph.” What does this mean? Of course, on the one hand, the answer is only unfolded over the remainder of verses 24-27. But, on the other, there is something strikingly peculiar about the phrase from the very beginning that deserves immediate attention: why is it that the remnant of Joseph should be so particularly keen about preserving liberty? Is the implication that the chosen people should always preserve their liberty? Or is it that the story of Joseph’s rising to freedom from his imprisonment, his slavery, and from his being originally a target for fratricide is being taken here as an indication that Joseph’s remnant should likewise rise out of such situations of captivity? These questions deserve attention.

Moroni’s own answer to them, it seems, is worked out at some length. His next statement finally turns to the tradition of Joseph’s garment in full force: “yea, let us remember the words of Jacob, before his death, for behold, he saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said . . . .” That these words can apparently be “remembered” suggests that there was a scriptural source for it, likely in the brass plates—though it might be that some Nephite prophet had provided this “tradition” or story to the Nephites at some previous point, and that Moroni has reference to that. Whatever is the case, the circumstances under which the event was supposed to have taken place seem quite clear. The event takes place, apparently, just before Jacob’s death (perhaps in connection with the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim in Genesis 48?). And on the occasion, strangely, Jacob sees that “a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed.” The coat, it seems, had been kept for the decades between the pretended death of Joseph (when his brothers ripped and bloodied the coat) and the death of Jacob—and only now, just before death, Jacob notices that a part of it has been preserved.

Strange circumstances, perhaps. But these should not distract from the important details. It should be recognized that Jacob is here dealing with a part of a part of the garment: it is not a remnant of the coat alone that is in question, but a part of a remnant. One would presume that the remnant of the coat was a piece that had been left after the brothers had mangled it. It would seem that only a part of this is what survived, while other parts of what had remained had not fallen apart. (I find myself curious about whether it would have been the bloodied part that made the difference, as if, perhaps, the bloodied part of the remnant of the coat survived, while the material without the blood had not. Or perhaps vice versa.) At any rate, this part of a part will be important in the actual prophecy of Jacob, which is now worth quoting: “Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment.” Of what had been left of the garment after the debacle with Joseph’s brothers, it seems part of it had perished, and part of it had remained, and Jacob prophesies that each part of the remnant represents something of what will happen with the remnant of Joseph’s seed. The point, interestingly, is not that a remnant will remain, but that a part of what might be called the remnant of Joseph’s seed will remain, while another part of the same remnant will perish. All of this will become crucial in verse 27.

In the meanwhile, though, Jacob finishes his prophecy with verses 25-26: “Now behold, this giveth my soul sorrow; nevertheless, my soul hath joy in my son, because of that part of his seed which shall be taken unto God. Now behold, this was the language of Jacob.” This appears at first to be relatively straightforward, but a closer look shows that it is a bit more complex than it might seem: what on earth does Jacob mean by “shall be taken unto God”? It is relatively understandable why Jacob would sorrow over the one part of Joseph’s seed perishing, and why he would have joy over the other part, but why is that other part described as being “taken unto God”? I don’t know that I’ll explore that here, though—I’ll only note it.

Finally, in verse 27, Moroni draws his conclusions from this whole business, and this is the most surprising moment, I think, in light of the small plates understanding of the remnant. The first part of his conclusion: “And now,” says Moroni, “who knoweth but what the remnant of the seed of Joseph, which shall perish as his garment, are those who have dissented from us?” Though Nephi never mentions this whole perishing-but-not-entirely garment business, it isn’t difficult to guess how he would have interpreted it: the surviving part of the remnant would have been the Lamanite line that continues into the last days, and the perishing part of the remnant would have been the rest of the Nephites and Lamanites who perish along the way. Moroni, however, goes in a completely different direction. He suggests that the entirety of Joseph’s remnant of garment refers to the Nephites (and the Nephites alone, it seems), and so plays with the possibility (“who knoweth but . . . ?”) that the Nephite dissenters are the part of the remnant that perishes. He extends this reading in the second part of his conclusion: “Yea, and even it [the perishing part of the garment] shall be ourselves if we do not stand fast in the faith of Christ.” At this point, Moroni has drawn the line in the sand: if one wants to be included in the surviving part of the remnant of garment, one must stick with Moroni and the Christian cause.

Moroni’s approach to the tradition/text is surprising. The Lamanites are, as it were, subtracted entirely from the formula: the prophecy applies only to the Nephites. But perhaps this surprise lessens the shock of verse 23: one, it seems, was right to feel that something strange was at work in Moroni’s coming quite suddenly back to the theme of the Israelite remnant—right, as verse 27 reveals, precisely in that it turns out that Moroni is not really bringing up the small plates tradition of the remnant, but inventing his own doctrine of the remnant in light of his own circumstances. And hence, it seems, the “exception” of Alma 46 (as the only discussion of the Israelite remnant in the historical books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman) turns out to prove the rule: there seems to have been no real comprehension during these years of the small plates doctrine of the remnant. Even when a Nephite did turn to the theme, it was appropriated in a unique way that effectively dismissed the small plates tradition. The Nephites were focused first and foremost on their own survival and the continuation of Christian preaching.

And that, it seems to me, leads nicely up to the usage of the term “remnant” in Third Nephi, where Christ reintroduces the theme to the children of Lehi, and which I will take up in my next post.

11 Responses to “The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Historical Books”

  1. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Historical Books […]

  2. Nice job on this.

    Something that this suggested to me was that perhaps Jacob was making a comparison between the remnant of Joseph’s coat that was taken back to Jacob himself and the remnant of Joseph’s seed that would be preserved and taken back to God. Remnant of coat taken to back to Jacob, remnant of Joseph’s seed taken back to God.


  3. Robert C. said

    Joe, I haven’t finished reading yet, but I want to get this thought out in case I don’t have time to finish this morning:

    In Sunday school last week, the question was raised as to why God needed to establish a covenant with Abraham. After all, hadn’t God already established a covenant with Noah (and Adam)? The Book of Ether, then, if read alongside the Noah account (which would be a very productive undertaking, which I don’t think has been undertaken before, at least not to any significant degree in print…), serves to underscore—through similarity and dissimilarity—the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, in the Book of Mormon especially, but in the Bible as well.

    More particularly, it seems there are important similarities between the promises extended to the Jaredites and the promises that Abraham receives in Genesis 15 (and Gen 12:2), but what is unique to Abraham, and thus Israel, is the blessings given in Genesis 17 (and Gen 12:3), that Abraham’s seed would be a blessing to all the earth (which typifies of Christ especially, I would argue, to continue the spirit of the comment I just made on the previous thread…).

    Also, I think all of this can be very productively thought in light of the related and contrasting themes in the Book of Jonah. Jonah flees to the water, but in disobedience rather than obedience like Noah, Nephi, and the Jaredites (and the Israelites crossing the the Red Sea with Moses, or the River Jordan with Joshua…). And Jonah is reluctant to have God’s blessings extended to the people of Ninevah, in contrast to the promise of universal blessing given to Abraham, and the desire for continued blessings for posterity and others that we read about in the Book of Mormon (Nephi and Enos’s prayers esp.) and in the New Testament (viz., Paul, esp. Romans 9-11).

    [Addendum: This part about the part of the part that you write is very fun to read, since I’ve been slowly reading Ranciere’s Disagreement which uses similar language—the fundamental political act is to give voice to the part without a part…. :-) ]

  4. kirkcaudle said

    Comparing the Jaredites with Genesis 15 is something I have never even considered. You have peaked my interest. Maybe I should read that tonight.

    • Robert C. said

      I didn’t mention this, and you probably caught this anyway, but it was actually the cutting imagery of the covenant in Genesis 15 as related to the rending imagery/symoblism of the title of liberty that first got me thinking about possible connections….

  5. David said

    We’ve written an article about out understanding of the Book of Ether (http://www.achoiceland.com/jaredites). From the record of Ether alone it appears there were other families that arrived in the new world with Jared and his Brother (Ether 6:16). Understanding there were eight barges and at least 22 adults that arrived, where did the go? It is clear that the Book of Ether is ONLY a record of the descendants of Jared, where did all the other families go and where are their records. All we know is that they “spread upon the face of the land” (Ether 6:18).

    I had never noticed the reference of remnants that you pointed out, but I do believe it suggests there were at least others on the continent that were related to the arrival of Jared and his brother. Using empirical evidence of DNA, one can see the relationship of the asian people to the native americas of North America. I believe the Book of Ether actually supports that finding.

  6. David said

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the remnants of the Jaredites suggested by Mosiah 8:12 and asked myself how did Limhi know there were two different groups? Those that were still living and those that had been destroyed. Let me speculate for a moment.

    Coriantumr, who was a descendant of Jared dwelt with the people of Zarahemla for nine months (Omni 1:21). During this time I suspect he shared with the people about his lineage and where his people came from. The people of Zarahemla also had a stone (Omni 1:20) that talked about the people that had occupied their lands before. I would suspect Coriantumr told about the crossing of the sea by his ancestor Jared, and if there were multiple families that crossed with Jared and his brother, how they eventually dispersed (Ether 6:16, 18). Coriantumr would have also then known that his ancestors (or lineage) was one of many groups. Remember the Book of Ether is just a record of his ancestors, not all the people that arrived which may be why we don’t know the name of the brother of Jared, even though he appears to be the leader. Coriantumr must have known there were others.

    This information would have been given to the people of Zarahemla and spoken about among the people of Zarahemla even before Mosiah arrived. As Mosiah’s group arrived the information would have been shared with them of an ancient people. Eventually, Zeniff and those that would follow him, travelled to the Land of Nephi, probably still retaining the basic knowledge that there were multiple ancient groups that existed before them. This knowledge would have been transferred down two generations to Limhi while they lived in the Land of Nephi.

    When Limhi realized they had found an ancient record because he couldn’t read it, he must have associated it with what he knew about ancient groups and asked the question, which of the two groups did the record pertain too, those who were remnants or those that were destroyed?

    This leads to a strong correlation that there were multiple groups in North America and that they would have come at the time of Jared and his Brother (Ether 6:16). This then touches on why there is a strong correlation of the DNA in Asia with the DNA of the Native Americas.

  7. […] The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Historical Books […]

  8. […] Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Visit of Christ « Feast upon the Word Blog on The Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Historical BooksThe Remnant in the Book of Mormon: The Visit of Christ « Feast upon the Word Blog on The […]

  9. […] by joespencer on March 24, 2010 In a series of posts (see here and here and here and here and here and here), I have worked through the basic contours of the remnant theology in the Book of […]

  10. […] long series of posts here at Feast on the theme of the remnant in scripture. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That crucial theme, worked out over the whole book, […]

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