Book of Mormon Lesson #17: “A Seer Becometh a Great Benefit to His Fellow Beings,” Mosiah 7-11 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on April 23, 2012
Let’s say that this lesson serves as a kind of bridge between Benjamin and Abinadi. At least, that’s how I want to take it. There’s much to learn as we cross this bridge, but my principal aim will be to set up as well as possible Abinadi’s speech and circumstances. We’ll see why especially in the next lesson.
So what are we looking at here?
Chapter 7 opens with a return to the matter of “the people which went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi, or in the city of Lehi-Nephi” (verse 1). These people, remember, were introduced to us back in the brief words of Amaleki in the Book of Omni: a group, desirous to possess again the land of their inheritance (the land they inhabited before they had to flee from the Lamanites into the land of Zarahemla), had gone up to the land of Nephi, only to have a massive battle among themselves in the wilderness and then to return to Zarahemla as a small band of tragic survivors; but then those survivors, or at least some of them, put together a new group—apparently more united—who left again for the land of Nephi. We’ll learn more details concerning this whole sequence in the first part of Mosiah 9 further along. For now, it’s enough just to remember what we said before about this group of people. In fact, somewhat against my wont, let me quote a bit from my earlier post on this bit:
What’s … important immediately is the mere fact that there were Nephites who wanted to go back to the land of Nephi. There are several ways this can be interpreted, and every one of these possible interpretations suggests that things were not going very well in Benjamin’s Zarahemla.
What drove these particular Nephites to want to return to the land of Nephi? Was it that they felt the Nephites had done wrong in merging with the Zarahemlaites? Was it that they felt it was wrong to merge with the Zarahemlaites on relatively equal terms? Was it, in short, that they felt the Nephites had somehow compromised something in establishing their new settlement? And does it reflect a kind of general concern about the shape of things in Zarahemla once the Lamanites are out of the way and things are focused on Nephite-Zarahemlaite relations? To go in a rather different direction, was the motivation connected more with nostalgia for the land of their inheritance? Was there a conviction that something had been lost when they had left their original home behind? And if so, was that attitude a symptom of a kind of general dissatisfaction with the Mosiah-Benjamin regime? And what had this decision to do with the recent expulsion of the Lamanites? Did these people feel that their victory over the Lamanites meant that they had the strength to be rid of their enemies once and for all? Was the idea that there would never really be peace until the Lamanites were exterminated?
These questions can go on and on. What shouldn’t be missed is that every interpretation suggests that, though Benjamin had repelled the Lamanite attack, he had some real issues still to deal with just among his own people—issues that ran deep enough that a “considerable number” of them were happy simply to walk away from Benjamin’s peaceful kingdom in the valley of Zarahemla to return to the land of Nephi. …
[And] with the departure of the would-be settlers of the land of Nephi, Nephite society is effectively divided in two. There’s a kind of split that divides the Nephites against themselves—indeed, so deeply here that there are two Nephite monarchies. This split will be the principal subject of the Book of Mosiah, and the book will conclude with its healing—only to see it reproduced in a rather different way: instead of having two parallel regimes in two distinct lands, there will be a set of missionaries (the sons of the king in Zarahemla) who go to the land of Nephi and there will be a high priest (the son of the high priest in Nephi) who goes about the land of Zarahemla. …
Since the time this group of people left for the land of Nephi, there’s been no word from them, and, the text now reports, the people “wearied [Mosiah] with their teasings” (Mosiah 7:1). What to do? “Mosiah granted that sixteen of their strong men might go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi to inquire concerning their brethren” (Mosiah 7:2).
With this concession, we leave the land of Zarahemla behind—and for eighteen chapters! We won’t get back to events in Zarahemla itself until Mosiah 25. And the events that begin to unfold in Mosiah 25 will be consequences of, precisely, what takes place in these interim chapters. The next several weeks of lessons in the Book of Mormon, then, might be said just to set up the difficulties of Mosiah 25-29. We’ll see how that works. In the meanwhile, of course, as I’ve already said, our task is just to set up the first major sequence of the story in the land of Nephi—the story of Abinadi.
The small group of “strong men,” led by “one Ammon” (Mosiah 7:3), go up to the land of Nephi but, curiously, get lost on the way because “they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness” (Mosiah 7:3). After “forty days” (why these allusions to the exodus?), they finally find themselves at “a hill which is north of the land of Shilom,” just outside the city of Lehi-Nephi (Mosiah 7:5). From there, a representative group of four men (Ammon, of course, but also Amaleki, Helem, and Hem) head down into the land of Nephi.
What happens next is a surprise, and it will take Mormon a goodly number of chapters to explain why it happened:
And behold, they met the king of the people which was in the land of Nephi and in the land of Shilom, and they were surrounded by the king’s guard and was taken and was bound and was committed to prison. And it came to pass, when they had been in prison two days, they were again brought before the king, and their bands were loosed, and they stood before the king and was permitted—or rather, commanded—that they should answer the questions which he should ask them. And he saith unto them: Behold, I am Limhi, the son of Noah, which was the son of Zeniff, which came up out of the land of Zarahemla to inherit this land, which was the land of their fathers, which was made a king by the voice of the people. And now I desire to know the cause whereby ye were so bold as to come near the walls of the city when I myself was with my guards without the gate. And now, for this cause have I suffered that ye should be preserved, that I might inquire of you. Or else I should have caused that my guards should have put you to death. Ye are permitted to speak. (Mosiah 7:7-11)
Having come merely to inquire about their “brethren,” this harsh treatment—almost culminating in summary execution—seems strange. But, as I say, it will take a fair bit of narrative to explain why the king treats these men so harshly. Of course, already being familiar with the Book of Mormon, we know the basic outline of the explanation: Limhi thinks he’s captured a few of his father’s priests, priests who have caused a great deal of war and confusion. We’ll come back to all that, obviously, in later chapters.
Despite all this harsh treatment, though, Ammon is (for obvious reasons) deferential, bowing before the king and addressing him honorably. And once he explains who they really are, and what they’re there for, Limhi “was exceeding glad and said: Now I know of a surety that my brethren which was in the land of Zarahemla are yet alive. And now I will rejoice, and on the morrow I will cause that my people shall rejoice also” (Mosiah 7:14). Note further that Limhi immediately assumes that these sixteen men can help to get them out of their difficulties, because it turns out that this Nephite colony has come under “bondage to the Lamanites” and has to pay “a tax which is grievious to be borne” (Mosiah 7:15). But there’s no expectation, curiously, on the part of Limhi that all this will be done for them simply through brotherly love. Rather, he offers to make his people “slaves to the Nephites,” since that would be better than paying tribute to the Lamanites (Mosiah 7:15). Note that with this gesture, the tables have turned drastically: while Ammon comes before Limhi in chains in the first place, it quickly becomes a situation in which Limhi offers to be bound and chained before Ammon. There’s a kingship in the Nephite colony in the land of Nephi, but it’s without much self-confidence or power.
The prisoners are released, they retrieve their brethren still in the wilderness, and everyone gets a chance to eat, etc. Then all the people are invited to “gather themselves together to the temple to hear the words which [Limhi] should speak unto them” (Mosiah 7:17). That language should sound familiar. Almost exactly the same words appear in Mosiah 1:18; Mosiah 2:1; Mosiah 2:6; and Mosiah 2:7 (and nowhere else in the Book of Mormon). It is almost a deliberate formula associated with one other event in the whole of Nephite history: Benjamin’s speech. And remember that it has only been, at this point, three years since Benjamin’s speech at the temple—and indeed, Benjamin is either still alive or only just passed away. In short, it’s clear that Limhi’s speech here is being set side by side in a certain way with Benjamin’s.
That’s curious because, as we’ll see, Benjamin’s speech is in a whole set of other ways clearly meant to be parallel to Abinadi’s speech before Noah and his priests. But perhaps that isn’t actually as curious as it appears at first. I’ll be going into more detail about all this when we actually come to Abinadi’s speech, but let me just spell out in broad terms what I’m after here. It isn’t that the whole of Benjamin’s speech is clearly parallel to or connected with the whole of Abinadi’s speech. Rather, it’s Mosiah 3—the words Benjamin attributes to his angelic visitor—that is deeply connected with the whole speech Abinadi delivers. It is thus less Benjamin and Abinadi who are parallel than Abinadi and the angel who visits Benjamin. It’s as if Abinadi is the angelic visitor to the kings in the land of Nephi, parallel to the angelic visitor to the kings in the land of Zarahemla, whose words are reported in Mosiah 3. (One might even play around with the possibility, given that Abinadi’s death would have occurred long before Benjamin’s speech was delivered, that it was Abinadi in angelic form who came to visit Benjamin.) From all this, it would seem that Noah-and-Limhi, as the parallel to Benjamin-and-Mosiah, is free to give the parallel speech at the temple. What we see in the land of Nephi is a kind of delayed response to the angelic message: Abinadi comes, like Benjamin’s angel, to the kings, but it’s only much later that they’ve put things right and so give the temple speech that is parallel to Benjamin’s.
At any rate, we have this clear echo of Benjamin’s speech. The sermon Limhi gives isn’t short. It begins in verse 18 of chapter 7 and continues through verse 33, the end of the chapter, and we learn at the beginning of chapter 8 that “only a few of them” appear in the text we have, not to mention the fact that Ammon also spoke on the occasion, and we have none of his words at all. What needs to be said about the content of Limhi’s speech itself?
He opens with a fascinating echo of Mosiah 3:4-5. Here’s Limhi’s opening:
O ye, my people! Lift up your heads and be comforted! For behold, the time is at hand—or is not far distant—when we shall no longer be in subjection to our enemies! (Mosiah 7:18)
Compare this to Mosiah 3:4-5, in which the angel explains to Benjamin:
For the Lord hath heard thy prayers and hath judged of thy righteousness and hath sent me to declare unto thee, that thou mayest rejoice, and that thou mayest declare unto thy people, that they may also be filled with joy. For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that, with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men.
Note the obvious connections: “O ye, my people” and “that thou mayest declare unto thy people”; “Life up your heads and be comforted” and “that they may also be filled with joy”; “For behold, the time is at hand—or is not far distant” and “For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant.” These couldn’t be much closer to each other. But where Benjamin goes on to announce the coming of Christ, Limhi announces the imminence of escape from their enemies. The one bears the message of subjection, at last, to a righteous king; the other bears the message of non-subjection, at last, to a wicked king. The situations are remarkably parallel, but in a deeply antithetical way.
Limhi goes on by referring to the exodus (again?):
Therefore, lift up your heads and rejoice, and put your trust in God—in that God who was the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and also that God who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt and cause that they should walk through the Red Sea on dry ground and fed them with manna that they might not perish in the wilderness (and many more things did he do for them). (Mosiah 7:19)
That God, the God who brings people out of bondage and leads them to safety through miraculous care, is the God they have to trust in.
Next he calls the people as witnesses—again echoing Benjamin. Here’s Limhi:
And ye all are witnesses this day that Zeniff, who was made king over this people, he being overzealous to inherit the land of his father, therefore being deceived by the cunning and craftiness of king Laman, who having entered into a treaty with king Zeniff and having yielded up into his hands the possessions of a part of the land … —and all this he done for the sole purpose of bringing this people into subjection or into bondage. And behold, we at this time do pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites, to the amount of … one half of all we have or possess … or our lives! And now, is not this grievious to be borne? (Mosiah 7:21-23)
Now this from Benjamin:
I say unto you that as I … have not sought gold nor silver nor no manner of riches of you, neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another, or that ye should murder or plunder or steal or commit adultery … and even I myself have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievious to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day. (Mosiah 3:12-14)
Note again the clear connections: “ye all are witnesses this day” and “ye yourselves are witnesses this day”; “bringing this people into subjection or into bondage” and “dungeons … slaves,” etc.; ” we at this time do pay tribute to the king” and “that ye should not be laden with taxes”; “is not this grievious to be borne” and “there should nothing come upon you which was grievious to be borne.” Whether in terms of topics in some instances or direct language in others, the parallels here are again startlingly clear. There is a deliberate echo of Benjamin in Limhi’s words. But, again, it’s a matter of an antithesis: where Benjamin called his people to witness his refusal to let them be in bondage or to pay taxes or to bear anything grievous, Limhi calls his people to witness the fact that they’ve been in bondage and paid tribute and borne everything grievous—and all because of the shortsightedness of their king (to be compared with the wisdom of Benjamin, the other king). The parallel—and difference—couldn’t be clearer.
And these parallels continue. Here’s what Limhi says next:
For if this people had not fallen into transgression, the Lord would not have suffered that this great evil should come upon them. But behold, they would not hearken unto his words, but there arose contentions among them, even so much that they did shed blood among themselves. (Mosiah 7:25)
But, O my people! Beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit which was spoken of by my father, Mosiah. … And now I say unto you, my brethren, that after ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which hath been spoken … the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God. (Mosiah 2:32, 36-37)
Again with the clear parallels: “fallen into transgression” and “if ye should transgress”; “suffered that this great evil should come” and “ye list to obey the evil spirit”; “there arose contentions among them” and “beware lest there shall arise contentions among you.” Deliberate echoes, but again with a clear point of contrast. Where Benjamin was warning his people against certain dangers, Limhi identifies those dangers as ones his people have already passed through. Benjamin is trying to keep his people from transgressing, listing to obey the evil spirit, allowing contentions to arise among them; Limhi notes that they did fall into transgression, had great evil come upon them, and there did arise contentions among them. The comparison and contrast is as stark as ever.
The next few verses continue in this vein, though with a little less of the direct borrowing of words:
And a prophet of the Lord have they slain—yea, a chosen man of God—who told them of their wickedness and abominations and prophesied of many things which is to come—yea, even the coming of Christ. And because he saith unto them that Christ was the God, the Father of all things, and saith that he should take upon him the image of man, and it should be the image after which man was created from the beginning (or, in other words, he said that man was created after the image of God), and that God should come down among the children of men and take upon him flesh and blood, and go forth upon the face of the earth—and now, because he said this, they did put him to death. And many more things did they do which brought down the wrath of God upon them. Therefore, who wondereth that they are in bondage, and that they are smitten with sore afflictions? (Mosiah 7:26-28)
Here, as I say, there aren’t the strikingly direct echoes of Benjamin’s words, but the connections are nonetheless quite as clear. I’ve already mentioned the fact that the angelic visitor to Benjamin is obviously meant to be parallel to Abinadi as the visiting messenger to Noah. What’s being set up here, it seems, is precisely the antithetical parallel between the response of Benjamin’s people to the angel’s words and the response of Noah’s people to Abinadi’s words. The message of the prophet as recounted in these verses describes not only what Abinadi taught, but just as clearly what the angel taught Benjamin and Benjamin recounted to his people: that Christ was God, and that God would come down among the the children of men, etc. But whereas, as we’ve seen, Benjamin’s people fully embraced this message, making it the cornerstone of their faith—even taking the name of Christ as their collective new name, leaving behind their Nephite/Zarahemlaite differences—the people of Noah saw this revelation as reason to put the messenger to death. And, of course, the murder of Abinadi is, for Limhi, exactly why bondage has ensued.
I’ll leave the next few verses—dealing with the promise of the Lord that destruction will follow wickedness—for another time and turn to the last verse of the chapter, the last verse of Limhi’s speech:
But if ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put your trust in him and serve him with all diligence of mind—and if ye do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage. (Mosiah 7:33)
With that last word, a word, at last, of positive promise, Limhi leaves off the unfortunate implicit comparison with Benjamin’s people. There is the possibility, it would seem, of Limhi’s people becoming like Benjamin’s, and the key is repentance and consequent deliverance from the Lamanites.
Ammon takes the stand next in order to “rehearse unto them all that had happened unto their brethren [in Zarahemla] from the time that Zeniff went up out of the land, even until the time that he himself came up out of the land” (Mosiah 8:2), and his discourse, unsurprisingly, focuses on one event in particular: “he also rehearsed unto them the last words which king Benjamin had taught them, and explained them to the people of king Limhi, so that they might understand all the words which he spake” (Mosiah 8:3). There are many questions that might be asked about this detail. Did Ammon have a copy of Benjamin’s sermon with him (written copies had been passed around, remember)? Did he have it memorized (and what might that tell us about the importance of that speech among Zarahemlaites)? Did he just do as much as he could from memory? And what’s to be said about the fact that he offered a running commentary on Benjamin’s words, rather than simply repeated Benjamin’s words? And, finally, how would all this have sounded next to Limhi’s speech? (It’s more than possible—indeed, quite likely—that Limhi’s actual words have been altered by an editor along the way so that they deliberately parallel Benjamin’s, but perhaps that comparison was in some ways already evident even on this occasion, or perhaps this occasion helped that comparison to be brought out subsequently.)
And then comes this curious bit about records. First, of course, Limhi lets Ammon read the record of his people—a part of which we seem to have in at least Mosiah 9-10, perhaps even in subsequent chapters—but then he asks Ammon a strange question: “the king inquired of him to know if he could interpret languages, and Ammon told him that he could not” (Mosiah 8:6). And then we get the story, and this already begins to fill in the background of another story we’ve already heard. Here’s what Limhi says:
I, being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three and of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage. And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days. Yet, they were diligent and found, not the land of Zarahemla, but returned to this land having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men and of beasts, etc., and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people which were as numerous as the hosts of Israel. And for a testimony that the things that they have said is true, they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold. And behold, also, they have brought breastplates which are large, and they are of brass and of copper and are perfectly sound. And again, they have brought swords. The hilts thereof hath perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust. And there is no one in the land that is able to interpret the language, or the engravings that are on the plates. (Mosiah 8:7-11)
We readers of the Book of Mormon know the end in advance, of course: the land discovered was the land of the Jaredites. Importantly, the people in Zarahemla seem to know something about this already. In Omni 1:20-22, just after the Nephites had settled in the land of Zarahemla, Mosiah is brought a stone with engravings on it, which he translates, learning about Coriantumr’s brief stay with the then-newly-arrived Zarahemlaites. The last part of that passage reads as follows:
[The stone] also spake a few words concerning [Coriantumr’s] fathers, and his first parents came out from the tower at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people. And the severity of the Lord fell upon them, according to his judgments, which is just, and their bones lay scattered in the land northward. (Omni 1:22)
From that it seems clear that from Mosiah I’s translation of the early Zarahemlaite stone the people of Nephi already knew both about the Jaredites to some extent and about the fact that the bones of that annihilated people lay in the land northward.
But whatever knowledge was had about this, it wasn’t obvious to Limhi or Ammon that there was a connection. And so they put their heads together about trying to get the gold plates brought back by Limhi’s task force translated:
Therefore I said unto thee: Canst thou translate? 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 which have been destroyed, from whence these records came. Or perhaps they will give us a knowledge of this very people which hath been destroyed. And I am desirous to know the cause of their destruction. Now Ammon saith unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the record. For he hath wherewith that he can look and translate all records that are of ancient date. And it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters. And no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he had not ought and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer. And behold, the king of the people which is in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and which hath this high gift from God. (Mosiah 8:11-14)
It’s interesting that Mosiah II, like Mosiah I, has this gift from God. And there’s a lot of thinking that can be done about these interpreters themselves. Where did they come from? They aren’t directly associated with the record produced by the brother of Jared, because Mosiah had not yet even seen that record, but he already has the interpreters. Are the interpreting stones Mosiah has connected with the curious story recounted ever so briefly in Alma 37:23? And then there are many questions to be asked about how Joseph and Oliver would have responded to this as they translated. How did this text shape Joseph’s self-understanding (or, the skeptic might ask, how did Joseph’s self-understanding shape this text)?
But I’m not keen to spend time here on these questions. The next verses provide a further exchange, one that deals with the nature of the seer, her or his relation to the prophet, and the kinds of things that can be learned through the gift of seeing. Most interesting, I think, is this bit in verse 17: “by them shall all things be revealed—or rather, shall secret things be made manifest—and hidden things shall come to light.” This plays into a much larger Book of Mormon theme: the purpose of seers and seer stones, etc., is to some extent to reveal dark things. We’ll be dealing with that later.
For the moment, I want to turn to Limhi’s response to all this:
And now, when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words, the king rejoice exceedingly and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates! And these interpreters was doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men! O how marvelous are the works of the Lord! And how long doth he suffer with his people! Yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men, for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them! Yea, they are as a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd and scattereth, and are driven and are devoured by the beasts of the forest! (Mosiah 8:19-21)
This is most interesting. Why do we get Limhi’s reaction at such length? And why do we get his turn from praise for God’s goodness and interest in God’s mysteries to misery over human corruption? And then this most important question: Why does the flashback that begins with the very next verse pick up right here? Let me develop this point just a bit.
What happens beginning in verse 9 is a major historical flashback. We leave the present of the story—the time of Mosiah II’s reign, the time of Ammon’s arrival at Lehi-Nephi, the time of making plans for escape, etc.—and we turn very suddenly to the time of Benjamin, when Zeniff and others left the land of Zarahemla for the land of Nephi in the first place. It’s natural enough to fill us in on this background history that has been overlooked thus far, certainly. But why is there no warning that it’s coming? And why does it come immediately after Limhi’s exclamations? Why doesn’t Mormon, as he does elsewhere, stop here in order to point out what he’s doing. Why doesn’t chapter 8 end with something like, “And now, king Limhi and his people began to make preparations to flee from the Lamanites. But I will now recount the record of Zeniff and return to Limhi later”? We’re quite literally in the middle of a private conversation when the record of Zeniff begins. And though we work, historically, from Zeniff back up to the time of Ammon’s arrival, there’s never a return to this conversation. It’s as if we’re meant to be left hovering on this matter of plates and interpreters—and that as we turn to the record that doesn’t contain the great mystery.
What should we say or think about this interruption? Why would Mormon have produced it? Is there something we’re to be learning here? Is there something we should be reflecting on when the conversation is interrupted so suddenly? Why no further explanations?
I’ll leave these questions in suspense as I, like Mormon, turn to chapter 9.
The record of Zeniff opens suddenly for us. The first two chapters of it (a single chapter in the original Book of Mormon) give us the actual first-person account of Zeniff himself. Once we get to chapter 11, however, we return to third-person narration—whether that’s how the actual record of Zeniff read, or whether Mormon begins again to abridge the record, it isn’t clear. For two chapters, though, we get a glimpse of these times through the eyes of one of the original writers. And there’s much to learn.
What’s particularly important for my own purposes here is the way the writings of Zeniff set up Abinadi’s speech. I’ll keep my focus on that, while noting a few other points as well. Allow me to recommend from the very beginning Grant Hardy’s wonderful treatment of these two chapters in Understanding the Book of Mormon. I’ll be stealing insights from him along the way.
I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and I having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed. (Mosiah 9:1)
Though much of the content is different, there is a most obvious allusion here to 1 Nephi 1:1:
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents—therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father—and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days, yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God—therefore, I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
What marks the allusion? Of course, the “I, Zeniff,” bit, but that’s not that uncommon in the Book of Mormon. What’s striking is the “having been,” “having had,” “having been” pattern, clearly reminiscent of Nephi’s “having been,” “having seen,” “having been,” “having had” pattern. Still more, there’s a clear parallel between the first elements in each version of this pattern. Zeniff: “having been taught in all the language of the Nephites.” Nephi: “having been born of goodly parents—therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” Moreover, each refers specifically to having had knowledge. Zeniff: “having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi.” Nephi: “having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God.” All these allusions are, I think, quite deliberate.
It is, at any rate, certainly significant that Zeniff is himself telling the story of his becoming the first king in the Nephite resettlement of the land of Nephi, the “land of [their] fathers’ first inheritance.” There’s a strong sense in which Zeniff must have seen himself as a kind of new Nephi (notice the almost anagrammatic relation between “Zeniff” and “Nephi”), a Nephi redux—as if he were starting the history of the Nephites all over again. His clear allusions to the first verse of Nephi’s small plates are more than appropriate. And, at the same time, they’re quite telling: Zeniff isn’t just aware of the way in which he’s a kind of Nephi redux; he wants every reader of his record to be aware of it as well.
We’ll see, as we go along, how important this theme is—how important it is to recognize that Zeniff saw himself as starting Nephite history over. It will turn out, in fact, to be indispensable if we want to understand Abinadi.
Zeniff begins as a spy, but when his heart is softened toward the Lamanites, it leads to friction among the Nephites:
Therefore, I contended with my brethren in the wilderness, for I would that our ruler should make a treaty with them. But he being an austere and a bloodthirsty man commanded that I should be slain. But I was rescued by the shedding of much blood—for father fought against father, and brother against brother, until the greatest number of our army was destroyed in the wilderness. And we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla to relate that tale to their wives and their children. (Mosiah 9:2)
There are several important things to note here. First, note that Zeniff isn’t originally in charge. There’s no indication that he was a minor noble or a part of the royal family—someone who wanted to get to the land of Nephi in order to reclaim his royal privileges. Rather, he seems to have been just another person in the original army that set out to fight for their lands. Second, note that, for that very reason, Zeniff—like Nephi before him—ends up contending with his brothers. Families, specifically, are torn apart as Zeniff is rescued. All that is clearly reminiscent of the Nephite beginnings. Third, note that all this contention and destruction takes place in the wilderness, before actually settling in the land of Nephi. Again with the echoes of the earliest Nephite history. Fourth, that this whole story begins with the machinations of “an austere and a bloodthirsty man” who, it would seem, meets his demise, might well be an echo of the Nephi-and-Laban story that launches the small plates. All this, it seems, is important.
But note also the personality that begins to emerge with this and the last verse. Grant Hardy notes: “[Zeniff’s] morally indeterminate status, along with the self-reflection that leads him to write candidly about his mistakes and weaknesses, makes him one of the most intriguing personalities in the Book of Mormon, at least according to modern sensibilities” (see Understanding the Book of Mormon, p. 125). It’s thus striking that Zeniff is so soft-hearted toward the Lamanites in the first place, but it’s even more striking that Zeniff adds the final detail of verse 2. Again from Hardy: “We might expect those who had narrowly escaped such a harrowing and unexpected catastrophe to return gratefully to their own wives and children, but Zeniff does not say, We related this tale to ourwives and our children. Rather, he indicates that it was the sad duty of the survivors to try to explain the terrible turn of events to the dependents of the men whom they themselves had killed” (p. 126). This pattern of the startlingly human, startlingly compassionate Zeniff will continue.
And it continues with verse 3:
And yet I, being overzealous to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land, and started again on our journey into the wilderness to go up to the land. But we were smitten with famine and sore affliction, for we were slow to remember the Lord our God.
Note two human elements here: Zeniff is forthcoming about his excessive zeal (admitting from the beginning, here, that it may have been a mistake), and he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he and his followers were slow to remember God during their journeys. There are, here, further echoes of Nephi—not only the excessive zeal (which I tried to note in <a href=https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/01/01/book-of-mormon-lesson-2-all-things-according-to-his-will-1-nephi-1-7-sunday-school/my post on 1 Nephi 1-5 especially), but also the famine and sore affliction that attends a group that, collectively, forgets God. And the next verse, as Hardy notes, “manages to combine time-honored scriptural themes with [Zeniff’s] own unique sensibilities” (p. 127). Here is verse 4 with Hardy’s inserted comments:
Nevertheless, after many days wandering in the wilderness [just like Lehi], we pitched our tents in the place where our brethren were slain [why revisit that terrible site? for a moment of reflection? a memorial service?], which was near to the land of our fathers [this proximity makes the failure of the last attempt all the more poignant: they almost made it]. (Mosiah 9:4)
This really is a striking, if brief, verse. But now the second attempt to enter the land of Nephi begins, and now in peace:
And it came to pass that I went in again with four of my men into the city, in unto the king, that I might know of the disposition of the king, and that I might know if I might go in with my people and possess the land in peace. And I went in unto the king, and he covenanted with me that I might possess the land of Lehi-Nephi and the land of Shilom. And he also commanded that his people should depart out of that land, and I and my people went into the land that we might possess it. (Mosiah 9:6-7)
Soon enough, they’re building buildings, repairing the city’s walls, and planting crops. Verse 9 ends with “And we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land.”
This is a most curious development. Why on earth would the Lamanite king let them settle? And especially: Why on earth would the Lamanite king even remove his people from the land to allow for such a settlement? The whole situation is far too suspicious for the reader to feel comfortable, and soon enough it will all turn out quite badly. Zeniff himself will be grumbling about the trickery of the situation, whether that was the original intention or not. But everything seems a bit too good to be true. And that fact—that everything seemed too good to be true—would likely have had all kinds of effects on the thinking of those settling the land. They could only have seen the hand of God in it all, could only have suspected that they were being given the land of their inheritance. One wonders how Zeniff talked about all this when it was first going on, as opposed to years afterward as he does in the record we have.
It isn’t long before Zeniff warns us about what he subsequently comes to believe was going on:
Now, it was the cunning and the craftiness of king Laman, to bring my people into bondage, that he yielded up the land that we might possess it. Therefore, it came to pass that, after we had dwelt in the land for the space of twelve years, that king Laman began to grow uneasy, least by any means my people should wax strong int he land, and that they could not overpower them and bring them into bondage. (Mosiah 9:10-11)
This, perhaps, doesn’t surprise the reader. This was all a plot, a bit of trickery to get the sedentary Nephites to produce a fair bit of surplus food, and then to massacre them or subjugate them so as to take control of their goods. But twelve years? Isn’t that a bit long to wait around? How long were the Lamanites going to wait? They only get acting, it seems, when the Nephites become a threat. Why not act sooner? And what other events were going on that Zeniff fails to mention? He says in verse 13 that “king Laman began to stir up his people that they should content with my people,” but one wonders whether there wasn’t friction caused by mutual hostility. If the Nephites were well convinced that their settlement had been arranged by God, and if they weren’t terribly quiet about that conviction, they would likely have caused the same kind of trouble locally that the Saints did in Missouri in 1831-1833. One wonders if there really was a plot on the Lamanites’ part.
At any rate, a bit of a battle begins in verse 14, and Zeniff arms his people both with weapons and with prayer, so that “in the strength of the Lord” they went forth to battle (Mosiah 9:17). This sounds like the righteous against the wicked, but Zeniff is again too honest: “for we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers” (Mosiah 9:17). Is this a hint that there hadn’t been a whole lot of remembrance before this? But we should note that there’s another crucial aspect to this talk of remembrance: it’s another recognition of reliving the beginnings of Nephite history. Just like Nephi’s young colony was protected from the then-nascent Lamanite nation, Zeniff’s people saw themselves as holding out against a similar enemy in a brand new re-founding of the Nephites’ original lands.
The Nephites win, and that could only have strengthened their conviction that God was behind their efforts, as well as their conviction that they were in reality beginning Nephite history anew. At the same time, we get another note of Zeniff’s personality, as Hardy notes: “We might suspect that [Zeniff’s] careful counting [of bodies] is evidence of his concern for his enemies as individuals, and this conjecture seems to be borne out by his sad comment, ‘And I, myself, with mine own hands, did help to bury their dead (v. 19). Not our dead, but their dead” (p. 128).
Following this military victory, there is talk, for the first time, of the Nephite “kingdom”: “And it came to pass that we again began to establish the kingdom, and we again began to possess the land in peace” (Mosiah 10:1). It would seem that, after this providential victory—in which ten times as many Lamanites as Nephites died!—gave the colony to see itself, finally, as the original Nephite kingdom, newly founded and recognized by God. (Note that as late as Mosiah 9:15, Zeniff isn’t so much understood to be the Nephite king as their protector: “[they] did call upon me for protection.” There are clear echoes there, as well, to Nephi. See 2 Nephi 5:18; 6:2; Jacob 1:10.) At this point, though, what had been a kind of colony with a protector is finally recognized as a full-blown kingdom. And, as kingdoms are wont to do, this kingdom takes self-protection as its first priority from this point on.
Though verse 1 states that “we again began to possess the land in peace,” it’s clear that this is pax romana:
And it came to pass that we again began to establish the kingdom, and we again began to possess the land in peace. And I caused that there should be weapons of war made of every kind, that thereby I might have weapons for my people against the time the Lamanites should come up again to war against my people. And I sat guards round about the land, that the Lamanites might not come upon us again unawares and destroy us. And thus I did guard my people and my flocks and keep them from falling into the hands of our enemies. (Mosiah 10:1-2)
This is peace?
But whatever it is, it allows them to “inherit the land of [their] fathers for many years, yea, for the space of twenty and two years,” and that without any major difficulties, while they “till the ground and raise all manner of grain and all manner of fruit of every kind,” and while they produce “fine linine, yea, and cloth of every kind” as well (Mosiah 10:3-5). Indeed, trouble doesn’t start up again until king Laman dies and his son, apparently frustrated with the Nephites, comes to power. He again “began to stir his people up in rebellion” against the Nephites (Mosiah 10:6). Notice the difference here. King Laman stirred up his people “that they should contend with” the Nephites; Laman’s son stirred up his people “in rebellion against” the Nephites. Here again we get a sense for the shift from colony, more or less subordinate to the Lamanites, to kingdom, now seen as a kind of ruling power against with the Lamanites rebel.
At any rate, war follows, and Zeniff is more than prepared, using spies, strategy, and morale-boosting rhetoric. The sermon of sorts he gives to his people is most interesting—and in two ways. It’s interesting first just to see how it was that he “did stimulate” his people “to go to battle with their might, putting their trust in the Lord” (Mosiah 10:19). But it’s interesting also to note that we find ourselves in the middle of the sermon without knowing it. Verse 11, presumably, begins the sermon, but it’s not presented as such. It speaks in the past tense (“the Lamanites knew nothing concerning the Lord”), as does verse 12 (“they were a wild … people”). The next handful of verses continue speaking in the past tense, but they now refer not to the events surrounding the war in question, but rather surrounding the ancient Nephite-and-Lamanite past. With verses 17-18, suddenly, the tense changes: “and thus they have taught their children”; “therefore they have an eternal hatred”; “for this very cause hath king Laman … deceived me”; “I have brought this my people up into this land,” “we have suffered.” With this last change, it’s not surprising that verse 19 describes Zeniff’s words as a sermon, but it isn’t clear at which point between verse 11 and verse 18 Zeniff changes from just talking to his readers about the Lamanites to actually summarizing his words as he would have delivered them.
But leaving off these difficulties, the content of verses 11-18 is most interesting. I highly recommend Richard Bushman’s “The Lamanite View of Book of Mormon History” (readable online here), which offers a close and most interesting reading of these verses. We learn in Zeniff’s sermon a good deal about how the Lamanites understood themselves and the Nephites. Verse 12 announces this straightforwardly. The Lamanites believe in “the tradition of their fathers, which,” Zeniff says, “is this,” then going on to describe it at length, from there through verse 16. Here’s the passage:
Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wrong in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wrong while crossing the sea, and again, that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance after they had crossed the sea—and all this because that Nephi was more faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; therefore he was favored of the Lord, for the Lord heard his prayers and answered them, and he took the lead of their journey in the wilderness. And his brethren were wroth with him because they understood not the dealings of the Lord. They were also wroth with him upon the waters because they hardened their hearts against the Lord. And again, they were wroth with him when they had arriven to the promised land because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands. And they sought to kill him. And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them. (Mosiah 10:12-16)
The first part of this passage reports, without interference, the traditions of the Lamanites: they believed that they were driven from the Old World because of “the iniquities of their fathers,” and that they were, after that, triply wronged—first in the desert, second on the sea, and third in the New World. Each of these deserves attention. The second part of the passage begins to weave into the report the obvious biases of the Nephite point of view: Zeniff wants to make clear that the Lamanites only felt this way because “Nephi was more faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord,” etc. And so he works back through the three “wrongs.” Laman and Lemuel “were wroth”: (1) “because they understood not the dealings of the Lord,” specifically, the fact that the Lord gave Nephi to lead “their journey in the wilderness”; (2) “because they hardened their hearts against the Lord” while “upon the waters”; and (3) “because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands” in “the promised land.” This second part of the passage ends with a brief note: “And they sought to kill him.” Finally, the third part of the passage reports one last grievance: “they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass”—and this because, on their account, it was an act of robbery.
Three wrongs, then, ultimately capped with an act of (supposed) robbery: (1) Nephi was granted the leadership role in the desert (it presumably should have gone to Laman); (2) something was not to their liking regarding the ocean voyage (though this isn’t specified, really); (3) Nephi took up a position of rulership in the New World (it explicitly should have gone to Laman); and (4) when Nephi left them to themselves, he took with him the brass plates (which, apparently, belonged to Laman). Though it has been more than four centuries since these events took place by the time Zeniff is leading his people to battle, it seems the Lamanites have remembered all this quite well, passed it on to their children, and so produced a good deal of hatred. Zeniff’s approach to all this, of course, is meant to undercut the Lamanite claims. We’ve already seen how weighted his words are. It seems clear from this that the Nephite kingdom, in their close contact with the Lamanites, had learned a good deal of contemporary Lamanite life and beliefs, and Zeniff saw it as necessary to show that those beliefs were rooted in false traditions, in misrepresentations. Only that could “stimulate” his people to “trust in the Lord” (Mosiah 10:19). Whatever the merits of Zeniff’s (still zealous, perhaps still overzealous) sermon, it certainly helped to focus his army. They “slew … so many that [they] did not number them,” and then “returned again to [their] own land” to tend their flocks and farms (Mosiah 10:20-21).
And that brings Zeniff’s record to an end. That battle seems to have cemented the Nephites’ conviction that they were in the right place, doing everything they were doing in the name of the right God. Zeniff ends his record at that point with a too-simple final word:
And now, I, being old, did confer the kingdom upon one of my sons. Therefore, I say not more. And may the Lord bless my people. Amen. (Mosiah 10:22)
End of record. We get no more from Zeniff. Did he crown the new king immediately after the battle? Was that battle the crowning achievement of his rule, something he wasn’t going to top? And what happened to the compassionate Zeniff, the one who worries about the pain of even his enemies? The record ends too abruptly, too sadly, too self-righteously. There’s still too much zeal in the end, though Zeniff seemed to have been trying to criticize himself on that score.
But note again that we’ve returned, all over again, to the earliest history of the Nephites. Indeed, the way that Zeniff gets his people riled up so that they fight well is by recounting, quite specifically, that early history—by setting the Nephite version of that early history against the Lamanite version. And he ends the whole affair by handing the kingdom over to one of his sons, one who will turn things in the wrong directions—exactly as happened with the first king of Nephi’s death. But those details come clearest in chapter 11, so let’s turn there.
Chapter 11 sets up the Abinadi story but doesn’t bring us to its conclusion. What we want to focus on is just the set-up. The chapter opens by repeating the event of the last verse of chapter 10:
And now, it came to pass that Zeniff conferred the kingdom upon Noah, one of his sons. Therefore, Noah began to reign in his stead, and he did not walk in the ways of his father. (Mosiah 11:1)
Well, we know this story all too well. Noah is the wicked king. The next verses list his vices: (1) “he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart” (verse 2); (2) “he had many wives and concubines, and he did cause his people to … commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness” (verse 2); (3) “he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, … and all this did he take to support himself and his wives and his concubines” (verses 3-4). This is the basic problem. We’ll see some of the machinations that followed. But the basic problem is crucial. He turned from the commandments, right, but that in two specific ways: he desired sex and money—the two most common lusts of the flesh (which we’ve nicely woven in our own modern world into a single massive industry—the industry driving our modern economy).
Sex and money. No surprises there. Why? Because this is exactly what happened after the death of Nephi, and all this, as I’ve been saying, is clearly being presented as a kind of replay of the early history of the Nephites. Remember the first king after Nephi? Here’s what Jacob reported:
And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old:  desiring many wives and concubines (and also, Solomon his son)—yea, and they also  began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride. (Jacob 1:15-16)
Sex and money. And notice the specific shape these take. Not simply sex, but ownership of large numbers of women. And not simply money, but exploitive pursuit of excessive wealth. What’s going on is the shift from colony to kingdom to kingdom, from colony to kingdom to empire. And what comes with empire is the complete commodification of women (owning women becomes a mark of wealth and power) and the obsessive acquisition of riches (which, we’ll see, are particularly focused on display). The times of Jacob succeed the times of Nephi.
So things are not going well. Verse 4 concludes with: “Thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom.” And then we watch Noah reorganize everything around himself: he “put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father and consecrated new ones in their stead” (verse 5), priests who would be supported by taxes; he successfully promotes, through his priests, “idolatry,” such that all the people “became idolatrous” (verses 5-6); he builds “many elegant and spacious buildings,” delicately ornamented with every kind of precious metal (verse 8), including a palace with an elaborate throne (verse 9); he revamps the temple with the same kind of ostentation (verse 10), in particular making it the place where the priests can run things in wealth and excess (verse 11); he builds towers (echoes of Benjamin, but in all the worst ways!) in order to keep an eye on his enemies (verses 12-13); etc. And, as Isaiah would have predicted, it all culminates in “riotous living” and “wine in abundance” (verses 14-15). And further, as Isaiah also would have predicted, this sort of thing leads immediately to military difficulties: first a few skirmishes and the like which, when the Nephites fend off their enemies with an ounce of bravado, give way to ridiculous military arrogance (“they did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousand of the Lamanites,” etc., we’re told in verse 19).
What’s going on here? I’ve already noted—repeatedly—that there’s a return here to the time of Jacob, to the reign of the second Nephite king. But can we say more about that return of sorts? How could Noah justify what he’s doing? And how would that justification rely in turn on Zeniff’s way of doing things?
Actually, the really crucial details concerning this won’t come out until chapter 12—when we find out how Noah’s priests are usually specifically Isaiah to justify their regime and its excesses. I’ll be looking at those details in my next set of lesson notes anyway, so I won’t get ahead of myself here. Suffice it for the moment to say that all we’ve been saying about the return of sorts to the beginning of Nephite history seems to have been understood—and likely as early as Zeniff—as a kind of fulfillment of Isaianic prophecy. We’ll see how all of that works next week.
But even at this point, the part comes to an end:
And it came to pass that there was a man among them whose name was Abinadi. And he went forth among them and began to prophesy, saying: Behold, thus saith the Lord and thus hath he commanded me, saying: Go forth and say unto this people: Thus saith the Lord: Woe be unto this people! For I have seen their abominations and their wickedness and their whoredoms, and except they repent, I will visit them in mine anger! (Mosiah 11:20)
Well, Isaiah might well have predicted that as well. Abinadi suddenly shows up as the prophetic voice of warning, letting the Nephites in Noah’s kingdom know that their monetary and sexual excesses aren’t going over well with the Lord. But don’t miss yet another echo back to the beginnings of Nephite history: Abinadi is the unmistakable echo of Jacob, Nephi’s brother. Just as Jacob had to intervene when the second king took power, intervening specifically against the quest for wealth and the reduction of women to sex objects in a game of status seeking, Abinadi shows up as the prophetic figure here. And just as Jacob found himself marginalized because of his intervention, Abinadi will find himself in serious trouble because of what he has to say.
Abinadi’s initial prophecy is quite specific:
And except they [the people] repent and turn to the Lord their God, behold, I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage, and they shall be afflicted by the hand of their enemies. (Mosiah 11:21)
There is a clear conditional here: if they don’t repent, then they’ll suffer the consequences. And the consequences are quite specific: the consequence will be bondage to their enemies. There is a kind of precision about the Abinadi story that we too often overlook. This is Abinadi’s first message. It will be rejected, and Abinadi will then disappear. When he comes back among the people two years later (in the first part of chapter 12), he’ll announce that the time for this first call to repentance has passed, and the conditional has been replaced by an absolute announcement: the people will be in bondage. But with that promise comes another conditional (as we’ll see): though bondage is at that point inevitable, complete destruction isn’t, and so the new conditional is that if you now don’t repent, the consequence will be absolute destruction. One conditional ultimately replaces the other, then.
Of course, after Abinadi’s initial message with its first version of the conditional (resulting in bondage if there’s no repentance)—and this first message runs through verse 25—the people don’t listen to a word:
Now, it came to pass that when Abinadi had spake these words unto them, they were wroth with him and sought to take away his life, but the Lord delivered him out of their hands. (Mosiah 11:26)
And then Noah gets wind of Abinadi’s message and offers his arrogant response:
Who is Abinadi, that I and my people should be judged of him? Or who is the Lord that shall bring upon my people such great affliction? (Mosiah 11:27)
And then Noah interprets all of this in strictly political terms:
I command you to bring Abinadi hither that I may slay him, for he hath said these things that he might stir up my people to anger one with another, and to raise contentions among my people. Therefore I will slay him. (Mosiah 11:28)
This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Noah must recognize that he’s setting himself up for political disaster with his heavy taxes, his opulent living, his complete reorganization of the government, his failure to watch for military disaster, etc. Noah recognizes that it wouldn’t take much at this point to tip the scales and generate a good deal of political unrest. Abinadi, whether his message is spiritual or otherwise, is a real threat.
And we’ll leave things at that point until next week.
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