Feast upon the Word Blog

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Reflections on Helaman 10

Posted by joespencer on June 27, 2013

Here we go again.


Here we come to the last of the four chapters that make up the narrative of Nephi’s prophetic confrontation with Zarahemla after his mission to the land northward. We’ve looked at Nephi’s lament, the response of the people, Nephi’s consequent sermon, the judges’ machinations, Nephi’s defense, the discovery of the chief judge’s murder, the funeral-cum-trial that ensues, Nephi’s second prophecy, and the contentions that arise of Nephi’s status as prophet. This last chapter brings so much action to a culmination with the Lord’s bestowal of some kind of “sealing power” on Nephi. It then turns from fast-paced narrative to a more general summary of the kinds of things that took place in the wake of these events.

Obviously, it’s Nephi’s encounter with the Lord here that calls our attention most insistently. It’s necessary to take the measure—to whatever extent that’s possible—of the gift Nephi receives, and to decide whatever can be decided about what this culmination of the narrative means about the nature of prophecy. As regards the latter, we might well say that Helaman 7-10 serves ultimately as a kind of investigation of prophecy, of what it means for someone to be a prophet. We’d probably do well to keep a close eye on that question.

I don’t know that there’s much else to say by way of preliminaries. We’ve done a great deal of that in the last several posts on Helaman. To the text, then! I’ll pursue the pattern I’ve been using in previous posts.

Exegetical Details

Verse 1 – As it turns out, the phrase “a division” (in the singular, with the indefinite article) is remarkably rare in scripture. It’s significantly, though, most often used in the Gospel of John, where it marks several times Jesus’ controversial status. (See John 7:43; 9:16; 10:19.) Interestingly, though, when this verse in Helaman goes on to use the phraes “divided hither and thither,” it seems to make an allusion to what will be a crucial connection with the narratives surrounding Elijah. This phrase appears in the Bible only in 2 Kings 2:8, where Elijah parts the Jordan on his way to his ascension.

Verse 2 – There’s a subtle contrast between “their ways” in verse 1 (the ways all the contending people follow as the crowd disperses) and “his way” in verse 2 (the way Nephi follows after being left alone): their ways are directionless, but Nephi’s is definite: “Nephi went his way towards his own house.” This is highlighted again in verse 12, where Nephi’s pursuit of his way is interrupted but the directionlessness of the multitudes is confirmed: “Nephi … did not go unto his own house, but did return unto the multitudes which were scattered about.”

Verse 2 – The subject of Nephi’s pondering is “the things which the Lord had shewn unto him.” This is an unclear reference. We’ve got the several things of which Nephi had prophesied, though we’ve not been told that they were revealed to Nephi in vision (in any way that he could say they’d been “shewn” to him). Are these then not the things the text has in mind? Are the events rather generally perhaps what’s in view in the text? Or what?

Verse 3 – The phrase “much cast down” appears elsewhere only in Nehemiah 6:16, but it’s entirely unclear what the two texts might have to do with each other.

Verse 6 – The phrase “in the presence of mine angels” is almost unattested in scripture (variations of it appear in Luke 15:10 and Revelation 14:10). And nowhere in scripture does there appear this gesture of God declaring something specifically in the presence of the angels, as if they were serving as solemn witnesses. Of course, there are ancient traditions that would suggest something like that (traditions surrounding the council of the gods, etc.), but this is quite unique in scripture.

Verses 6-7 – A few minor differences in wording between verses 6 and 7 deserve note. In verse 6 Nephi is told that he would “have power,” but in verse 7 he is told that power is “give[n]” to him, and only “thus” would he “have power.” Further, in verse 6 the power Nephi would be given/have is described as being “over this people,” but in verse 7 it’s described as being “among this people.” This are minor differences, but not unsignificant.

Verses 8-9 – Two examples are given of the kind of power Nephi has been granted. The second is that of mountains being cast down and made smooth, a common enough image in the apocalyptic imaginary of the prophets. The first, though, is the very odd image of the “temple” being “rent in twain”! One might decide that there’s an echo here of the temple’s veil being rent in twain in the Gospels, but the idea that the temple itself will be rent in twain is most peculiar. What it means or implies is difficult to know.

Verses 8-10 – The structure of the examples (“if ye say,” and “it shall be done” or “it shall come to pass”) anticipates the structure of similar examples in Helaman 12, where the Lord’s power is described as follows: “if he saith unto the earth: Move!—and it is moved”; “if he say unto the earth: Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—and it is done”; etc. (Helaman 12:13-14, 16-21). That connection should be real fruit, though I won’t try to decide its meaning until I can get to Helaman 12.

Verse 10 – In verse 6, Nephi is granted the power to “smite the earth” such that “this people” would suffer. In verse 10, his power is described as able to “smite this people.” The intermediating element of the earth has disappeared.

Verse 12 – The description of the multitudes as “scattered about upon the face of the land” seems a bit excessive. It definitely marks the divisiveness of what’s taken place, but it seems almost to suggest that the people have begun to separate out into tribes or some such thing—though that seems entirely unlikely. The language, in fact, is that often used in the Book of Mormon to describe the scattering of Israel. It isn’t at all clear what’s to be read into that.

Verses 15-16 – Here again we have echoes of Ammonihah, which we’ve been seeing throughout the past few chapters. But there’s something curious about these last ones. In the Ammonihah narrative, the reviling and the unsuccessful attempt to lay hands on Alma, etc., takes place only at the beginning of the story; here it takes place only at the end. This is despite the fact that the attempt to imprison takes place at the end of both stories—though Alma actually does end up in prison, while Nephi doesn’t. These similarities-yet-differences deserve closer attention.

Verse 16 – Here again there are echoes of Elijah. This image of the prophet who is spirited away out of difficulties is definitively tied to Elijah.

Theological Points of Interest

1. Nephi Left Alone

Helaman 10 opens with this most poignant situation, that everything that has been building for three chapters culminates in Nephi’s simply being left alone. The funeral-turned-trial that has allowed Nephi to confirm, after a fashion, his prophetic abilities is entirely abandoned as everyone involved simply walks away. The implicit pause between verses 1 and 2—between everyone else going her or his way and then Nephi eventually going his way—leaves the reader with a picture of Nephi standing, quite solitary, in the middle of a large open space, unnaturally empty given its usual busyness. The portrait of the prophet, one begins to think, is meant to culminate in this kind of Jeremiah-like loneliness, this complete failure to fit into the larger society or setting of one’s work. That will change, since the next verses will provide yet another—and unexpected—development of the prophetic figure. But for a moment, this presents itself as the culmination of this investigation of prophecy.

What theological work might be done on this penultimate moment in the development, in Helaman 7-10, of the notion of prophecy? Are we indeed to understand that the prophet is a lone, inevitably misunderstood character? What are we to feel or to think at this point in the narrative? Is it specifically in this sort of lonely situation, this forced exile at the very heart of society, that God always delivers His most exalted blessings? Or what are we to be learning? It seems to me that there are a great many directions we can go at this point, and I’d like to leave them all open.

2. Return to Chapter 7

Verse 3 echoes in a whole series of ways the beginning of chapter 7. Back when we dealt with Helaman 7, we noted the “vision” of sorts that Nephi has upon his return to the land of Zarahemla from his preaching in the land northward. For several verses (see Helaman 7:4-6), there was a description of Nephi’s swollen heart as he encountered the wickedness of the people, their secret works of darkness, their many iniquities, etc. Here in verse 3, we find Nephi revisiting those same worries and concerns. Before, of course, he was on his garden tower, and his pondering on these miserable things led him to offer up the tortured prayer that, because it ended up being visible from the main road into Zarahemla, led to the whole series of events that’s now coming to a close. Now, instead, Nephi is utterly alone as he ponders, and he gives himself to his worries and sorrow as he walks, likely on the very same road that passes by his garden.

This return at the beginning of chapter 10 to the beginning of chapter 7 is fascinating. In a certain way, the story has come full circle. With the people’s collective dispersal, Nephi has returned, as it were, to his original worries, and he’s forced to see that all his prophetic efforts are of little worth. Everything remains, it seems, as before. In another way, of course, a great deal has happened, and perhaps a great deal has even changed. The people now seem not at all to doubt his power or even his divine gift. They’ve been forced in a way to grapple with the fact that he’s a genuine messenger of some higher power. And yet every one of those differences can only come across as all the more frustrating and frustrated, given the fact that Nephi has seen no real change in the people’s dispositions.

Most interesting, however, is one crucial difference between Helaman 7 and Helaman 10 that’s marked quite clearly by the parallels between verses 4-6 of the former and verse 3 of the latter. Nephi’s worries about the people in Helaman 7 brings a voice out of him: he couldn’t help but lament, apparently relatively loudly. When he revisits these worries in Helaman 10, what is brought out is a voice that comes from beyond him: the voice of God speaks to him, directly and profoundly. That difference, it seems, is the real point here. Every similarity helps to mark that crucial difference. This time, God speaks. And the result is rather remarkable.

3. Nephi and Lehi

The parallels with the beginning of chapter 7 continue in a subtle way in verse 4. The first of the Lord’s words to him are these: “Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done. For I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word which I have given unto thee unto this people. And thou hast not feared them and has not sought thine own life, but hath sought my will and to keep my commandments.” This is a direct and most likely deliberate echo of 1 Nephi 2:1: “Blessed art thou, Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done. And because thou has been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life.” In this just-quoted passage, we have the words of the Lord to Lehi, patriarch of the entire Book of Mormon, after his initial preaching in Jerusalem is an effective failure. In Helaman 10:4, we have the words of the Lord to Nephi, son of Helaman, after his preaching in Zarahemla is an effective failure. The echo is clear, and it’s underlined by the fact that the “blessed art thou” construction, especially coupled with the “things which thou hast done” phrasing, is unique to these two texts. (Note also the appearance in both instances of forms of the word “commandment,” and especially of the appearance in each of “life” being “sought,” albeit in rather different ways.)

Now, what has this to do with Helaman 7? Remember what Nephi expressed in his lament there: “O that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem!” (Helaman 7:7). With this deliberate echo of the Lord’s words to Lehi at the very moment that “Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem,” the Lord focuses Nephi, son of Helaman, on the fact that nothing much has changed. Here with the first of His words in Helaman 10, the Lord forces Nephi to recognize how problematic his nostalgia had been. Things weren’t better in the time of trek from Jerusalem; things were exactly the same. Nephi has had basically the same task as every prophet preceding him in his tradition, and he has faced more or less the same sorts of difficulties. Nothing much has changed at all over history.

So if we get a clear difference between Helaman 7 and Helaman 10 in terms of the source of the voice that issues out of Nephi’s worries about the wickedness of the people (Nephi’s own voice in Helaman 7, the Lord’s voice in Helaman 10), here we see what’s so very different about those two voices. Nephi’s lamenting voice focuses on the nostalgic value he attributes to a kind of mythically construed past—a fantasy that allows him to escape, even if only in open lament, the miseries of his prophetic task. The Lord’s comforting voice, however, focuses on the sameness of every prophet’s task, and that apparently in order to confirm Nephi in his work.

4. From the Existential to the Temporal

Nephi’s unwearyingness is mentioned in verse 4, but the Lord comes back to it in a particularly interesting way in verse 5: “And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever.” After this will come a specifications of the blessings in question, and they’re remarkable—but I’ll come to them in a moment. First, I want to focus on the link established between unwearying preaching and being blessed forever, a link established by the word “because” (“because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever”).

That there’s some kind of link between the words “unwearyingness” and “forever” should perhaps be obvious. Both seem to refer to a certain kind of unceasingness, a certain kind of refusal to terminate. But how the two relate here deserves closer thought. Unwearyingness—not-getting-tired-ness—is what I’d like to call an existential matter, a certain way of experiencing the world. Everlastingness—indefinite temporal extension—is, it seems to me, emphatically not an existential matter, being rather a kind of abstraction from the existential. One might, certainly, point out that being-blessed is a certain sort of existential. That’s right, I think, but it’s curious, then, that the link established by the because isn’t between the two existential aspects of the sentence, but between the existential aspect of the first part of the sentence and the temporal duration of the existential aspect of the second part of the sentence. What we have seem to have here, then, is a kind of transformation of the existential into an abstract aspect of another existential.

I’m not entirely sure how to think about that, or how to decide what’s really at stake. Perhaps this is little more than an overly philosophical reading of a minor detail. Be that as it may, it’s worth thinking about this theme more generally, since it’s one that appears in various guises throughout scripture: enduring to the end (that’s an existential) is supposed to yield eternal life (the existential aspect of the former is abstracted and attached to the existential aspect of the latter). What’s going on in the transformation of the existential of not-getting-tired-ness into a kind of abstract duration of the existential of simply-dwelling-in-the-good?

5. Words, Deeds, Requests

Verse 5 goes on to spell out the specifics of the Lord’s blessing for Nephi, and it’s a remarkably tight exposition of a host of theological issues and concerns—things we might pass over far, far too quickly. Here’s the text: “And I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works, yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” That might seem straightforward enough, but note how the clarifying aside (“in faith and in works”) helps to focus us as readers on a major point of theological debate in the modern era: faith and works. Whatever the Lord means when He speaks to Nephi of “word” and “deed,” He wants it to be understood that it’s linked with “faith” and “works.” To the extent that this passage provides a certain way of understanding the intertwining of those two terms, albeit largely in their iteration as “word” and “deed,” we have an implicit theology of faith-and-works here.

Its basic terms are already spelled out in the non-descript second part of what I quoted above: “all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word.” Notice how “word” and “deed” are here employed: Nephi will have only to speak the “word,” and the “deed” will follow, will “be done.” This is confirmed in verses 8 and 9 as well: “And thus if ye shall say unto this temple: It shall be rent in twain!—and it shall be done. And if ye shall say unto this mountain: Be thou cast down and become smooth!—and it shall be done.” Note the word/deed structure there as well: “if ye shall say … and it shall be done.” In this formula, as in “all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word,” the works in question—however they manifest themselves in connection with Nephi—are the works to be accomplished by God; the faith, however, is always, it seems, to be Nephi’s faith, the word he speaks in full fidelity to God.

How is this way of sorting out the relationship between faith and works captured in a single gesture? In asking. What will make Nephi mighty in both word and deed, according to the Lord, is (at least in part) the fact that he won’t “ask that which is contrary to [the Lord’s] will.” It’s in Nephi’s asking that words and deeds are woven together in the right sort of way. Questions or requests—asking—is what marks Nephi’s faith as genuine faith, a form of fidelity that manifests itself in faithful words. And questions or requests—asking—is what yields real deeds, real works, of manifest power and real effectiveness. Our faith and God’s works come together in the right sort of asking. There’s much to be thought about there.

6. Nephi and God

Given what’s going on the verses surrounding it, verse 6’s “thou art Nephi” seems to be an obvious echo of Matthew 16:18’s “thou art Peter.” That much seems obvious. But the passage here in Helaman does quite a bit more than what’s to be found in the formula in Matthew 16, at the very least because of the reciprocality set up by “I am God.” Where the point in Matthew 16 is to link a person (Simon, son of Jonah) with a certain idea (a rock, whether as foundation, as stumbling stone, or as seer stone)—and that in connection with a specific series of events: the establishing of the church, the granting of keys to a still-unstable disciple, and the revelatory declaration made by the disciple—the point in Helaman 10 seems to be rather different, primarily the establishment of a certain relationship: “thou art Nephi and I am God.”

Of course, it’s a bit difficult to know exactly what the formula in Helaman 10 is meant to imply. At first glance, it might appear that the point is establish the ontological distance between Nephi (a mere mortal) and God (a divine figure), but that makes relatively little sense, given the fact that Nephi seems humble enough. One might think that such ontological distance nonetheless needs establishing if such remarkable keys are to be granted to Nephi; he needs to recognize that he remains very much human, even as he’s being granted something of such divine power. That might be. But I find myself wondering about a rather different approach to all this. What if the “I am God” business is supposed to be an echo of Helaman 8:23 (or if, alternatively, Helaman 8:23 is meant to be an anticipatory note about Helaman 10:6)? This needs a bit of spelling out.

Back in Helaman 8:23, Nephi was delivering his second sermon from his garden tower. He was in the thick of spelling out what he took to be the nature of prophecy, the nature of the prophets. Along the way, he began to outline a kind of theology—apparently drawn in part from Abinadi—according to which the prophets have a kind of privileged relationship with God, not just in the sense that they uniquely receive revelation, but in the sense also that they make up the “seed” Christ would see upon His resurrection. Nephi’s version of this ran as follows: “And behold, he is God, and he is with them. And he did manifest himself unto them, that they were redeemed by him. And they gave unto him glory because of that which is to come” (Helaman 8:23). There’s much that can be done with that passage, of course, but for the moment it’s enough to recognize its broad contours, and to recognize the link between “he is God,” spoken by Nephi while outlining the private nature of the relationship the prophets have with God, and “I am God,” spoken by the Lord Himself to Nephi at the moment He reveals to him the highest prophetic (or better: seeric) keys. This, it seems, may explain the reciprocality of “thou art Nephi” and “I am God.”

7. The Sealing Power

Famously, Nephi is given, in verse 7, “power that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” We very quickly associate this power with what we call the sealing power, perhaps too quickly appropriating the narrative to our own latter-day understandings of priesthood and such things. This clearly is some kind of “sealing power,” but we need to do some serious thinking about exactly what this sort of sealing power is or was understood to be. There is, of course, the connection—already mentioned—with Matthew 16. Interestingly, though, it’s the differences between the two accounts that should strike us.

First, Matthew 16 speaks not of sealing but of binding. We could, of course, say that that’s merely a translation issue, but the Book of Mormon is so careful to follow the diction, the vocabulary, and the style of the King James Version of the Bible, that I think we’d do well to ask about this apparently slight difference. Second, Matthew 16 speaks of keys, the keys of the kingdom of heaven, where Helaman 10 speaks only of power. There are various harmonizing ways this might be explained away, but again I think there’s real value in inhabiting the tension a bit, asking what might be instructive about that difference. Third, the focus in Matthew 16 is on the church, on what power Peter will have as he goes about ordering the church, but the focus in Helaman 10 is clearly on a people. Here we might simply point out the fact that Christ hasn’t yet arrived in the Book of Mormon narrative, making talk of the church complicated anyway, but a Nephite Christian church had existed for a century by this point.

All these details suggest that there’s an uneasy relationship between what happens here with Nephi and what happens in Matthew 16. What’s to be made of Nephi’s receiving power (not keys) to seal (not bind) certain things among a people (not in a church)? These are questions that need further examination.

8. Power and Heteronomy

As we usually interpret this narrative, the granting of the sealing power to Nephi marks the dawn of a certain kind of autonomy, a certain kind of independence on Nephi’s part. To that extent, we might say that we generally see in this narrative a certain model for making sense of deification—a model for making sense of the transition we imagine we’ll pass through when we become enough like God that we no longer “need” Him, so to speak. All this, I think, is problematic. It’s problematic already because I think it’s entirely unclear still what it means to say that we can be deified (that’s a huge can of worms!), and because there’s little reason to believe that deification amounts to the dawn of independence or autonomy. But leaving aside questions of deification itself, such an approach to this text is problematic because this text itself calls autonomy into question. Nephi is granted a certain remarkable power, yes, but he becomes neither independent from God nor fully autonomous.

Why not? Well, it’s remarkable enough—this much can be granted—that he’s given the kind of power that will allow him to rip temples in two and cast down mountains. And it’s remarkable enough that God trusts him with the power to cause famines and such things, should he think it necessary—that too can be granted. Those “if ye shall say, it shall be done” formulae are quite remarkable, yes. But notice what follows them in verse 11: “And now, behold, I command you that ye shall go and declare unto this people that thus saith the Lord God, who is the Almighty: Except ye repent, ye shall be smitten, even unto destruction.” A few points here deserve notice. First, at the very moment that Nephi is supposedly being set free from God, made independent, he’s given a commandment, a bit of direct instruction about his next task. Second, the message he’s to deliver is the word of “the Lord God, who is the Almighty,” phrased in such a way that Nephi can’t miss the difference that still obtains between him and God. Third, the Lord tells Nephi to announce, specifically, the smiting that the prophet will subsequently produce through his power, making clear that even that—although Nephi will have to ask for it—it remains God’s plan all along.

All these details are odd, given the way we usually read the text. Nephi has been granted something incredible, there’s no doubt. But whatever it is he’s been granted, it’s not independence or autonomy. Indeed, it’s probably best to say that his power is heteronomous, subject to the law of another—of the Other, God. Nephi hasn’t any power that isn’t still tied to, subject to the jurisdiction of, God. If this passage is to be taken as a model for thinking about what it would mean to become a god, it would seem to suggest that we’ll never be “free” from God. And that’s something I’m inclined to celebrate.

9. Nephi’s Differences with the Lord

Unless Mormon as abridger is simply being a bit sloppy, it seems he wants us to sense a slight, but not unimportant, tension between what God instructs Nephi to do and what Nephi actually goes on to do. In verse 11, Nephi is given the instruction to “go and declare” a very specific word: “Except ye repent, ye shall be smitten, even unto destruction.” In verses 13 and 14, however, Nephi seems, Jonah-like, to put this task off as long as he possibly can. Whatever it is he preaches to the people when he “return[s] unto the multitudes” (Helaman 10:12), it’s not yet that message of smiting and destruction, but something else against which they could “harden their hearts” (Helaman 10:13) before he came to the word he’d been commissioned to deliver.

Undergirding this two-stage preaching—verse 13’s not yet preaching the commissioned message, verse 14’s finally preaching the commissioned message because of the rejection of what was preached in verse 13—is a subtle difference between what in verse 13 is described as “the words of the Lord” (note the plural) and what in verse 14 is described as “the word of the Lord” (note the singular). I’m not entirely sure what to make of that subtle difference, but I suspect it’s significant. More generally, though, we might ask in a theological vein exactly what we should think of Nephi’s Jonah-like deferral. (Well, it’s not that Jonah-like. He avoids the task for rather obviously different reasons, frankly, and he’d clearly be thrilled to see the people repent, unlike Jonah.) What’s at stake in Nephi’s resistance to go straight to “the word of the Lord” concerning destruction?

At least a hint appears in verse 13. We get this note: “notwithstanding that great miracle which Nephi had done in telling them concerning the death of the chief judge, they did harden their hearts.” Does this suggest that Nephi had some hopes that the people did change a bit in light of the prophetic signs he had set before them? Did he still optimistically wish that when he came back to the people, their argument over whether he was a prophet or a god would have helped to see that they should trust what he had to say? It seems that he didn’t see, as the Lord already saw, that their contentions had little to do with any real conviction. Or so it seems. There are likely other ways to read this as well. At any rate, more attention should be given to Nephi’s delay.

10. From Contention to Contention

I’ve noted again and again that Helaman 7-10 formed a single chapter in the original dictation. Apparently Mormon produced the narrative of these four chapters all together, and wanted them to be read as a single story. It’s worth noting how many times contention among the people breaks out in the course of this short narrative, then. Nephi’s first words to the people at his garden in Helaman 7 yielded a first point of contention, described in the opening pages of Helaman 8. Contention arose all over again, as we saw, in the last verses of Helaman 9, when Nephi’s second prophetic sign confirmed his first prophetic sign. And here at the end of Helaman 10, the story again turns to contention. In each case, the point of contention seems to be Nephi—whether he’s a prophet, or whether he’s to be believed, or whether he’s from God, etc. And each time the contention gets more serious. At the beginning of Helaman 8, the contention amounts to little more than a difference of opinion that keeps one contending group from doing anything violent. At the end of Helaman 9, the contention is sharper, and it results in the people dividing up and going separate ways. Here at the end of Helaman 10, the contention results in the people “slay[ing] one another with the sword” (Helaman 10:18).

That development is most interesting. And Mormon apparently wants to highlight it by ending this four-chapters-long narrative in the middle of this sword-driven fight. The year in which this whole narrative has taken place ends with people simply killing each other. That contention will spread in the next chapter, but that’s the introduction to the next narrative. Here we’re just being forced to grapple with the fact that Nephi’s position as prophet leads eventually to a kind of divisiveness.

That’s a pattern we can find elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, incidentally. The Book of Alma is a study in this sort of thing. The first half of Alma is dedicated to a study of how the mission to the Lamanites ultimately causes the most devastating war the Nephites had seen in their five centuries of life in the New World. It’s a war that led to all kinds of problems in subsequent years, as well. And then in the second half of Alma, the long, drawn-out series of wars (the “war chapters”) begins from a rebellion against the “regulation” of the Nephite church undertaken by Helaman after Alma’s disappearance. Amalickiah pursues his program specifically because, the narrative suggests, he didn’t like the distribution of power in the church. And all of this was originally set up by the battle with Zarahemna, which had been spurred by the preaching among the Zoramites. There’s more to say about all these details, of course, but the point for the moment is clear: Nephi’s contention-causing status as prophet is nothing new.

2 Responses to “Reflections on Helaman 10”

  1. Kim Berkey said

    Great notes, Joe. Thanks. Helaman 10 has been frustratingly opaque to me this week, so I’m glad you have a good showing to make up for my lack!

    v. 1 – “their ways” –> Hel 9:21, “your way of sin”

    v. 2 – “his way towards his own house” – parallels Samuel’s return to “his own land” (Hel 13:2). Both men, after their rejection, experience a retreat into what is familiar, a retreat from being “other.”

    v. 6 – “smite the earth” – there’s one other previous conjunction of “power” and “smite” – Helaman 8:11 (“God gave power unto one man, even Moses, to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea”). Like Moses, Nephi is being power to smite, and the element over which he chooses to exercise that control is water (11:6, 13).

    v. 7 – “power among this people” – does this parallel the division arising “among the people” in v. 1? Is Nephi’s power somehow filling the space created by their division? Or arising out of it somehow? I actually can’t see how that would make any sense, but the language was interesting.

    v. 8 – “this temple … shall be rent in twain” – it’s not unprecedented in the Book of Mormon to talk about solid, rocky objects being “rent in twain” (Alma 14:27; Hel 14:22; 3 Ne 8:18; 28:10; 4 Ne 1:30), although it is rare and only shows up in Alma 14 prior to this. It’s interesting, then, that elsewhere the only buildings being “rent in twain” are *prisons,* and here it’s (theoretically) the *temple.*

    v. 15 – “did seek to lay their hands upon him” – What’s the force of them seeking to *touch* him? We’ve noted some parallels with Christ throughout Helaman 7 and elsewhere. Is this an ironic echo of the crowds thronging Jesus, recognizing his power and wanting to be healed by it? Here the crowds seek after Nephi, wanting to touch him, but not in any sort of recognition of his power.

    v. 18 – Like Hel 10:1, the response to Nephi’s words is division. Responding violently to a prophet is nothing new, but here it’s almost as if Nephi’s miraculous deliverance “out of the midst of them” forces them, through the loss of their initial target, to direct their rage at each other.

    1.) Ammonihah

    Following our conversation last week, I did some preliminary comparative work between this chapter and Alma 8:14–18, Alma’s parallel turning-back experience.

    Both men (Alma and Nephi) are journeying, mourning the wickedness of the people. The first words both hear are “Blessed art thou” (although you’re right—1 Ne 2:1 is a stronger linguistic parallel with 10:4), and both are commended for their personal faithfulness in keeping the commandments. Both are given the same divine word (repent or be destroyed) to preach. This, however, is where the similarities end and the two scenes diverge.

    One of the most obvious differences between the scenes is that Alma’s comes *before* the episode in Ammonihah; Nephi’s comes *after* all his reported sermons. Nephi’s commission will send him to preach to the rest of the Nephites rather than return him to Zarahemla, so that makes some sense of the order of events, here, but I wonder if there might be more to it.

    For one thing, this order allows God to frame the sealing power in terms of reward—it is “because” (10:5) of Nephi’s unwearied preaching that he is granted this power. For another, this makes a nicer narrative arc; Nephi’s story has a nice, tidy climax.

    Perhaps most significantly, it keeps Nephi internal to the situation at Zarahemla. He wasn’t commanded to preach there. Where Alma’s commission in Alma 8 marks him as Other to the people in Ammonihah, Nephi can be more interior. He was a prior chief judge, he interacts with Zarahemla’s legal system and funeral culture, and in 10:2 he takes up “his way” parallel with “their ways” in v. 1—he’s just one of the masses, so to speak. Even the way his sermons come in short bursts interspersed with narrative (rather than Samuel’s chapters-long barrage of pure words) demonstrates his larger entanglement with Nephite culture and the Zarahemla situation. By placing his turning-back/commission scene *after* all this plays out, Nephi doesn’t become fully Other until after he finishes preaching to Zarahelma.

    Some other differences from Alma 8: Nephi interacts with the direct voice of the Lord while Alma’s experience is mediated by an angel. He is commissioned to preach to an entire people (the Nephites at large) rather than a single city. And, of course, Nephi is granted this curious sealing power.

    And here I have to wonder if Mormon is doing some editorial violence to Nephi’s experience. It’s fairly clear that this doesn’t fit tidily into the category of “turning-back type scenes.” He’s taken into the divine council (10:6) and granted miraculous power, something we don’t see in any of the parallels. Perhaps Nephi’s experience was something entirely different from Alma’s, and yet Mormon wants us to read them as related.

    Of course, one of the most interesting convergences between Alma 8 and Helaman 10 is actually about the question of “power.” In Alma 8:12 the people of Ammonihah initially reject Alma on the grounds that he “hast no power over” them. So is Nephi being given what Alma lacked (10:6 – “thou shalt have power over this people”)? If so, that power doesn’t make him any more effective. He simply becomes more polarizing.

    2.) A Theology of Power

    Here again I have far more questions than I have answers.

    What do we make of the sealing power as a reward for unwearied preaching? It’s not portrayed as some sort of “right of the prophet,” nor is it tied to the rare Nephite theology of priesthood. Instead, it’s grounded entirely in Nephi’s commission to preach. Everything about it is grounded in his relationship to “this people” (v. 6–7, 10–11).

    I had been really confused about how this power was meant to function, so I found your reading of v. 5 very helpful, Joe—the faith/words are Nephi’s while the works/deeds are God’s, and the connection between them is Nephi’s “asking.” I wonder if this makes sense of the relationship put on display in v. 6 (“thou art Nephi, and I am God”). I also wonder if this explains the correspondence between “on earth” and “in heaven” (v. 7). “Seal[ing] on earth” takes the form of Nephi’s faith/words, and “seal[ing] in heaven” is God’s response with the desired works/deeds. It also provides a framework for understanding why the sealing power is expressed verbally (v. 8–10).

    I wonder if the givenness of power and/or the word is important here. Whenever Nephi mentions power, it’s usually the object of the verb “give” (see Hel 8:11–13, 9:36), and we see the same thing in 10:7. In 10:4 we also see that a word had been “given” to Nephi. So I suspect that givenness is an important theme. Power is something God *gives.* But I don’t know what to do with it.

    Like you, I found it interesting that only here, among all the scriptures Mormons usually use to talk about sealing, can we actually refer to a proper “sealing” (rather than binding) power. Sealing, of course, involves notions of authority. Can your reading of v. 5 also help make sense of this? Helaman 10 displays a precise “sealing” power because it involves God’s authority on the work/deed end of things?

    I also found a tenuous-but-interesting connection between Helaman 10 and 2 Nephi 30 while I was looking up cross-references for “seal” in the Book of Mormon. It showed up again when I was searching for the phrase “smite the earth.” In 2 Ne 30:9 the Lord is described as “smit[ing] the earth with the rod of his mouth” (a phrase Nephi is quoting from Isaiah). Then, in v. 17, Nephi ties sealing/loosing with the question of (what I read to be) secret combinations: “There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light; and there is nothing which is sealed upon the earth save it shall be loosed.” Not a strong connection, again, but interesting. And, again, I have no idea what to do with it.

    As a final note, I find it interesting that this power in Helaman 10 in some ways returns the image of Nephi to his prior characterization in chapter 5—somewhat silent (no direct quotation of his sermons), surrounded by supernatural miracles—but because he’s among Nephites rather than Lamanites, he has no success.

    3.) “Words” vs. “word”

    Joe, I expect you were thinking along these lines, but it wasn’t entirely clear in your notes, so let me make sure we’re in agreement on what’s taking place in v. 14.

    Because the people reject the (plural) “words of the Lord” in v. 13, they are presented with the (singular) “word of the Lord” in v. 14, which is clearly a simple statement of destruction conditional on the people’s failure to repent. But why is the destructive word singular, and what forms the content of the plural “words of the Lord?” Is it that the latter in v. 13 constitutes something like “the gospel” generally, and that the gospel proper is full of possibilities, has more content, is open to novelty, while the condemnatory “word” of destruction is dead, closed off?

    I found it interesting that the people only “harden their hearts” and don’t “hearken” to *plural* words (the Lord’s in v. 13 and Nephi’s in v. 15). It’s as if that response is unavailable to them with regard to the singular “word,” and that’s perhaps precisely why the Lord must use it?

    I also see a kind of downward trajectory of words—at first they are presented with an abundant set of “the words of the Lord” in v. 13, but because they don’t respond to them in faith, they are reduced to “the word of the Lord” in v. 14. Again, when that is rejected, the Lord’s words disappear altogether and they’re left with “[Nephi’s] words” in v. 15.

  2. Robert C. said

    I’m only now catching up on these posts — thanks again for posting these notes.

    Regarding “unwearyingness” and “forever” in verse 5, Joe’s reflections made me think about a similar kind of tension regarding the work (say, in creation) in contrast to the rest that comes later. That is, the “forever” seems to be a kind of rest that follows the work implicit in the unwearyingness. So, I wonder if there isn’t a productive way to think about the topic of the sealing power here in relation to themes of the Sabbath.

    In a somewhat related note, rather than reading the granting of the sealing power in verse 6 in light of Matthew 16, I had Johannine literature in mind. The idea of sealing is, of course, all over the Book of Revelation, but it also appears in John 6:27 (“Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.”) I find this especially interesting in light of the complex relationship between the Father and Son in John 6-8 (which was in the back of my mind while reading Joe’s thoughts on heteronomy). Anyway, I think this would be an interesting perspective to pursue further, reading Helaman in light of these Johannine themes….

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