Reflections on Helaman 13
Posted by joespencer on July 26, 2013
Well, we’ve covered what was originally chapters III and IV of Helaman (chapters 7-10 and chapters 11-12 of today’s Book of Helaman). We turn now to the last of the original chapters (V), which consists in the story of Samuel the Lamanite. It’s made up, of course, of four full chapters of today’s text, so this will take four weeks to work through. It should, though, be quite worth the effort. Samuel is profoundly underappreciated.
I’ll follow my usual pattern.
The turn to Samuel’s speech is odd and abrupt. We have only a verse of transition before this most curious of characters shows up: “And now it came to pass in the eighty and sixth year the Nephites did still remain in wickedness—yea, in great wickedness—while the Lamanites did observes strictly to keep the commandments of God according to the law of Moses” (Helaman 13:1). That’s not much by way of fanfare (although its reference to Lamanite righteousness and Nephite wickedness is interesting and suggestive). One naturally wonders whether there wasn’t, as several details suggest, a great deal more resistance to Samuel than to other prophetic figures. It’s one thing to be preached-to by a Nephite prophet, distasteful as they apparently was for the people; it’s another thing entirely to be preached-to by a Lamanite prophet! Racism was a real problem among the Nephites, the record makes clear, from the very beginning (read Jacob 3, for instance!).
Samuel’s message is complex, spread as it is over three chapters. The sermon as a whole divides into two major parts, separated by an editorial note in Helaman 14:1. For our purposes, then, we can take the whole of Samuel’s preaching in Helaman 13 as a kind of unit, looking at it as in some sense separable from the remainder of his discourse. And we can go further, detecting something of an internal structure to this separable unit as well. The first few verses of Helaman 13 are, of course, the backstory. Samuel’s actual words in this chapter divide into five clearly distinguishable parts: (1) opening and basic message, verses 5-11; (2) series of woes, verses 12-17; (3) the curse on the land, verses 18-23; (4) attack on Nephite rejection of prophecy, verses 24-28; (5) prediction and condemnation, verses 29-39. Even from this simple division of the text into parts makes clear how complex this discourse is. It covers a whole host of issues and concerns. It is very different from those discourses in the Book of Mormon that trace a single thread through from beginning to end. It is more a series of prophetic interventions than a single discourse. That should be kept an eye on.
Verse 1 – The phrase “remain in wickedness” is an interesting one. It appears a series of times (starting with this passage) between here and the end of Nephite history (see Helaman 16:10; 3 Nephi 2:10; 4 Nephi 1:47). Otherwise it appears, and apparently with an echo of these passages, only in Ether 4:15, where it’s applied to the latter-day Gentiles.
Verse 1 – This is the only place in the Book of Mormon where the Lamanites are connected to the Law of MOses. Does this imply that they’ve only recently come into contact with it—through the religious conversions and social transformations recounted in the Book of Helaman?
Verse 2 – The phrase “there was one” often introduces new figures in scripture. What’s interesting is that the formula appears only twice in the Book of Helaman: here, with the introduction of Samuel, and in Helaman 2:4, with the introduction of Gadianton. The contrast is likely deliberate.
Verse 2 – This verse describes Samuel’s preaching as a message only of “repentance.” In verses 7-8, however, Samuel will say more about his original preaching in Zarahemla, and it’s a matter of announcing the good tidings of Christ. Of course, these could have been woven, but the difference between the two descriptions is worthy of note.
Verse 4 – The only instance of the formula “suffer that [X] enter” in the Book of Mormon before this point is Alma 5:60, where Alma warned the people of Zarahemla not to suffer any ravenous wolf to enter among them. Is it possible that the people had something like Alma’s injunction—obviously in a wicked appropriation—in mind when they barred Samuel? Is it possible at least that Mormon wanted us to hear some such thing?
Verse 5 – The phrase “the sword of justice” (along with some variants) appears a number of times throughout the Book of Mormon. It never appears in the Bible (as some critics, suggesting it was borrowed by Joseph Smith from the image of the sword of Damocles, have noted). Why this image rather generally in the Book of Mormon?
Verse 6 – The phrase “heavy destruction” is entirely unique to this passage. What does it mean? How are we to understand the idea that destruction can be heavy?
Verse 7 – The phrase “glad tidings” appears a number of times in the Book of Mormon, always rather obviously an echo of the nativity narratives of the Gospels. The phrase is always connected to the announcement of Jesus’s incarnation.
Verse 10 – The mention of “fierce anger” rather obviously echoes Helaman 11:12. Here, as before, “fierce anger” is supposed to be characteristic of the Lord. Why the connection?
Verse 10 – Samuel’s mention of the Nephites’ “enemies” is interesting. The rather obvious referent is the Lamanites, but this is spoken at a time when the Nephites and the Lamanites aren’t exactly enemies. Does Samuel then mean to point to the Gadianton Robbers, in whatever iteration? Or is the reference to something else still?
Verse 11 – Samuel uses two distinct “repent and X” phrases here: “repent and return” early in the verse, and “repent and turn” at the verse’s end. What of this slight variation? Is it significant that the one is issued as Samuel’s own injunction and the other as the Lord’s own word?
Verse 12 – The Lord is said here to “perceive . . . that there are many . . . that will harden their hearts.” The hardening, it seems, had not yet taken place irreparably at Samuel’s time, but it was fully anticipated by the Lord nonetheless. How should this detail be thought about?
Verse 13 – This verse opens with a promise of being spared to the repentant. To what event might this refer? The deliverance of the “more righteous” during the destructions of Third Nephi? Or what else might it refer to?
Verse 13 – The reference to fire coming from heaven seems a clear reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, especially in light of the reference to the possibility that the presence of the righteous delivers the entire city. But what might be missed is that fire comes from heaven only in one other story in Helaman: when fire comes down to surround the Lamanites during their conversion in the prison in Helaman 5. It would seem that the comparison is real: the Nephites are apt to be destroyed by fire from heaven, the Lamanites to be saved by fire from heaven.
Verse 16 – The list of cities Samuel might have produced is truncated: Zarahemla, Gideon, and then “all the cities which are in the land round about,” etc. Why this truncation? Did Samuel say more and Mormon has shortened the list? Or did Samuel want to focus on two cities in particular? Or what?
Verse 17 – Rather suddenly, the title “the Lord of Hosts” appears here. It doesn’t appear before this in Samuel’s sermon, or in any other chapter in Helaman. Its appearance here is curious for several reasons. It appears alongside the announcement of the curse (and is repeated when that curse is specified in verse 18). It’s suggestive of war, but it’s not clear why that should be the case here. And it’s repeated once more in verse 32, in a somewhat distinct context. How is all this to be made sense of?
Verse 18 – The phrase “great and true God” is entirely unique to this text. Is it a specifically Lamanite locution? Or why does it appear here, and so uniquely?
Verse 20 – Those who hide up treasures unrighteously receive a double curse: “cursed be they and also their treasures.” This might be reminiscent of the New Testament’s “thy money perish with thee,” etc., which appears elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. It might also, though, be an echo of Helaman 12:18-21, where Mormon laid out the parallel possibilities of God cursing treasure and of God cursing human beings.
Verse 20 – The motivation for hiding up treasures in wicked ways is identified rather clearly: they “hide up their treasures when they shall flee before their enemies.” The idea, it seems, is that treasures are hid up for a later time when the enemies are out of the way and one can return to retrieve (“redeem”) them.
Verse 22 – This is the only instance of pride being unto boasting, though pride and boasting are often coupled in the Book of Mormon.
Verse 24 – Verse 17 shifted from woe oracles to the pronouncement of a curse. Here in verse 24 there’s a return to woe oracles. It’s worth asking whether there’s any apparent reason for the hiatus or for the return.
Verse 27 – There are rather obvious echoes of 2 Nephi 28 in this verse. It remains a question, though, whether the echoes are intentional allusions or not. The clearest indication of a direct connection, though, comes in verse 28: “he saith that all is well.”
Verse 27 – The command to “do whatsoever your heart desireth,” issued by the would-be prophet criticized by Samuel, echoes Samuel’s own prophetic modus operandi. But the echo is beautifully ironic: where the true prophet speaks whatever God puts into his heart, the false prophet tells his listeners to do whatever they put into their own hearts.
Verse 29 – Remarkably, it’s only here in all of scripture that “foolish” and “blind” appear together in a description of someone. It might be worth asking what’s at stake in that coupling.
Verse 29 – The phrase “darkness rather than light” appears a handful of times in scripture. Most famous, of course, is John 3:19, but perhaps more relevant is 2 Nephi 26:10, a passage close connected with 2 Nephi 28, echoed in the preceding verses.
Verse 30 – Samuel returns from woe oracles to the pronouncement of his curse again. It should be asked again whether there’s any particular pattern or reason behind this back-and-forth between woe and curse.
Verse 32 – The coupling of “weep” and “howl” appears a few times in the prophets, but much more significantly it will appear in 3 Nephi 8:23 and 3 Nephi 10:8, at the bookends of the narrative that describes the very event Samuel here predicts. The tight connection makes clear that this prediction points to that event—or at least that Mormon wanted his readers to see such a pointing.
Verse 34 – There’s something a bit odd or curious about the coupling of tools and swords here. Why the emphasis on tools? And then why the emphasis on swords? What have these to do with riches and treasures?
Verse 37 – It’s only here in scripture that there’s talk of being surrounded by demons. That makes one wonder whether the people’s predicted talk is meant to be accurate, or whether it’s not a reflection of their beliefs and superstitions more generally. Of course, when “demons” is replaced with “the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls,” things sound less mythological, and more like the usual beliefs of the Nephite prophets.
Verse 37 – The prayer that the wicked will offer, according to Samuel’s prediction, rather ironically echoes Nephi’s prayer in Helaman 11: “O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us?” It’s important also to recognize an echo between this verse and verse 11 from this same chapter, where the Lord declares that He will “turn away [his] anger” if the people repent. This locution will appear again once more in verse 39, at the close of this first part of the sermon.
Verse 38 – It’s a bit of a surprise to learn that the phrase “too late” shows up only in this passage in all of scripture. Likewise, the word “everlastingly,” as an adverb, appears only here.
Verse 38 – The reference to “happiness in doing iniquity,” as well as the description of this as “contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and eternal Head,” marks a rather obvious link to Alma’s discussions with Corianton in Alma 39-42. It’s a question, though, whether those texts would have been widely available—available enough that Samuel would have known them.
Verse 38 – The phrase “great and eternal” appears a number of times in the Book of Mormon (though nowhere else in scripture). Curiously, however, it is elsewhere always applied to God’s “plan” or God’s “purposes,” never—as it is here—to God Himself. It’s well worth asking about this curious use of “great and eternal.”
Verse 39 – While the phrase “people of the land” is quite common in the Hebrew Bible (where it arguably takes on, eventually, a technical meaning), it appears only four times in the Book of Mormon. There’s no clear indication that it has a unified meaning. Here, then, it seems to be linking Samuel’s audience with all that’s been said about burying riches and the like.
Theological Points of Interest
1. From Preacher to Prophet
When Samuel first arrives in Zarahemla in verse 2, he’s described as a praecher: “he did preach many days repentance unto the people.” When he’s sent back after being rejected in verse 3, however, he’s now described as a prophet: “he should return again and prophesy unto the people.” This is a curious difference, and one that I’m not sure appears in other cast-out-but-commanded-to-return stories in the Book of Mormon. Samuel’s very status is transformed as he is sent back to preach a second time. This raises a host of questions about the distinction between preaching and prophesying. At least one of those questions is as follows: Is it impossible to be a preacher when one has been fully rejected, since there’s left only the task of announcing coming disaster—a fully prophetic task? This sort of question perhaps helps to highlight the significance of the shift. It’s not clear why Samuel isn’t described as a prophet from the start, but it’s relatively clear why he has to be described as a prophet eventually.
This shift from preacher to prophet is significant in another regard: We’ve only just finished working through a story in which Nephi’s status as prophet is developed and vindicated—and then confirmed in the most remarkable way! Nephi had to establish his role as prophet through a succession of signs and proofs, and that proved a bit slippery. But then in the midst of it all, he was given the most remarkable prophetic power: to say and it would be done. There was in Helaman 7-10 a kind of systematic radicalization of Nephi’s prophetic calling. Are we watching a parallel transformation occur right in the first verses of the story of Samuel’s sermonizing? We won’t watch any further development, it seems, since we’ll just be getting Samuel’s words (at length!) and then his quick disappearance (quite briefly!). But is the parallel significant?
Another point worth noting is that there’s a consistent formula in verses 3-5 that seems to outline the nature of Samuel’s prophetic task in a particularly forceful way. He’s told to “prophesy . . . whatsoever things should come into his heart” (verse 3), we’re told he “prophesied . . . whatsoever things the Lord put into his heart” (verse 4), and we hear him announce that “I . . . do speak the words of the Lord which he doth put into my heart, and and behold, he hath put it into my heart to say unto this people . . .” (verse 5). Somewhere in this repeated phrase, it seems, is something of Samuel’s prophetic mode of attack. How does this approach to speaking to the people differ from Samuel’s preaching? And how does Samuel’s mode of prophecy differ from that of others in the Book of Mormon, if at all? All these questions need further attention.
2. The Stretched-Forth Hand of Prophecy
In verse 4, Samuel “stretche[s] forth his hand” as he begins to prophesy. This gesture appears alongside prophecy a few different times in the Book of Mormon, but it appears in a number of interesting contexts throughout scripture. These deserve at least brief notice.
The first instance is Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of Isaac: “Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son” (Genesis 22:10). The implicit violence of this instance is echoed in the series of instances in Exodus, where the phrase describes the Lord’s actions against recalcitrant Egypt, sometimes directly, sometimes through Aaron or Moses (see Exodus 7:5; 8:5; 9:22; 10:22; 14:27). Similarly violent are the instances where David speaks of attacking the Lord’s anointed (see 1 Sam 24:6; 26:9, 11; 2 Sam 1:14). Similar gestures are found in the writings (see Psalm 138:7) and the prophets (see Isaiah 5:25 and Daniel 11:42). Clearly, the gesture is one of violence and attack throughout the Hebrew Bible. Things are less clear in the New Testament. Two references bear this same violent sense (see Luke 22:53; Acts 12:1), but most instances of the phrase are descriptions of simple acts of stretching forth the hand in a variety of contexts: healing (see Acts 4:30) or being healed (see Mark 3:5 and parallels), requesting help (see John 21:18), seeking someone (see Romans 10:21), indicating a specific object (see Matthew 12:49). Nothing in the New Testament seems either clear or clearly relevant.
The phrase appears more often in the Book of Mormon than elsewhere. It indicates violence at least a few times (see the instances in 1 Nephi 17, as well as the instance in Alma 20:20). But it appears also in connection with care and love as often (see the instances in Jacob 5-6, as well as the references in Alma 14-15). At the outset of the Abinadite tradition, it’s explicitly connected—and by the Lord Himself—with prophecy (see Mosiah 12:2; 16:1). Alma and Amulek follow that Abinadite pattern, but seem to link the gesture with peculiar passion, making the gesture when their testimonies come to a kind of culmination (see Alma 10:25; 13:21; 32:7). Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Jesus Himself opens His sermonizing among the Nephites with a gesture of stretching forth His hand (see 3 Nephi 11:9; 12:1). Where does Samuel fit in all this? Is his stretched forth hand a gesture of violence and warning? Is it rather a gesture of reaching out in care and love? Or what else? This is difficult to know.
3. The Long View
One of the oddest details in Samuel’s message comes right at the outset: He comes to warn the people of destruction that will come only four centuries later. It’s entirely unclear what to make of this strange gesture. It would be one thing to announce that things are on an irreversible downward slope, and that it will culminate several centuries later in absolute destruction. That might make some sense. But, since we know what’s going to happen in the Book of Mormon, the weirdness of Samuel’s prophecy can’t be missed: He’s not predicting some irreversible descent; he’s predicting a turn for the worse after the most righteous period of community living ever had on the earth! Samuel has the bizarre task of warning the people of his day that their actions are connected with a period of darkness and destruction that will come only after everything goes well for a very long time. What on earth is to be made of this bizarre prophecy?
We might play with a few possibilities. It’s the secret combinations of Samuel’s day that will return in the end of Nephite history, and so this generation is laying the groundwork for the destruction of a later generation. Perhaps there’s a kind of causal connection between the wickedness of Samuel’s day and the eventual destruction of the Nephites, a kind of “because that, now this.” Or some other way of linking these two things together might be drummed up. But we should recognize how remarkably odd any such connection is. There’s simply no easy way of explaining this prophecy. It deserves, though, to be wrestled with.
4. Nothing But Faith and Repentance
Way back in Mosiah 18, just after the famous baptism sequence at the Waters of Mormon, Alma the Elder outlined the task of the priests in his newly organized church: “he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord” (Mosiah 18:20). That formula is most interesting, and one Latter-day Saints would do well to spend more time reflecting on. (What does it mean to preach only repentance and faith? It certainly doesn’t mean only to talk about repentance and faith, I suspect, but rather indicates a certain style of preaching—that whatever one preaches, one preaches it in a way that calls for repentance and faith. Perhaps?) Here in Helaman 13:6, there’s a fascinating echo of that passage: “Heavy destruction awaiteth this people, and it surely cometh unto this people. And nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, as in Mosiah 18, we have a “nothing but repentance and faith” formula. But here it’s a question of what might save the people from their promised destruction, not a question of what needs preaching in the organized church. How might we think about this connection?
The formula in Helaman 13 is all the more notable given that formulas like it usually mention only repentance: nothing can deliver you at this point but repentance. (We’ve seen that again and again in recent chapters in Helaman: “except they repent!”) Here, though, we get repentance and faith, a formula that links the passage to Alma’s words. Nothing but repentance and faith. So what does that mean here? I’m not at all sure how to move forward with the allusion, but it seems to me profoundly significant. Some good theologizing I’m apparently entirely unprepared to do needs to happen here.
5. Samuel’s Miniature Christology
At this point in the Book of Mormon, one might feel a bit starved for Christology. After Abinadi’s intervention and Alma’s subsequent organization of the Nephite church, there’s a string of Christological sermons—starting from Abinadi’s own sermon (with its clear connections to Benjamin’s speech), and then moving through a bunch of sermons by Alma (and Amulek): Alma 5; Alma 7; Alma 9-13; Alma 32-34; Alma 36-37; Alma 40-42. But once the war chapters interrupt all the preaching, there’s nothing of theological sermonizing in the Book of Mormon. (I suspect it’s because of that lack, more than because of the presence of war narratives, that make people frustrated with the second half of the Book of Alma.) By this point, I think, many have simply tuned out as they read the narrative. Interestingly, we get no atonement theology from Nephi in the preceding chapters. And even more interestingly, we’ll get no atonement theology from Jesus when He visits a few chapters later! (Christ’s focus is entirely on the Abrahamic covenant and the reading of the Old Testament—something that ought to make us reflect.) Here in Samuel, though, we get just a bit of atonement theology.
The longer Christology and theology of atonement in Samuel will come in the next chapter (see Helaman 14:15-19), where it’s a brief, but rich, aside during the announcement of the sign of Christ’s death. But here in Helaman 13 there’s a very short Christological note. It’s found entirely within verse 6: “the Lord Jesus Christ, which surely shall come into the world and shall suffer many things and shall be slain for his people.” That this is meant to be read as a Christology is clear from the next verse: “And behold, an angel of the Lord hath declared it unto me; and he did bring glad tidings to my soul.” So here we have a very brief Christology. But what’s to be made of it? Is there enough here for a basic theological exposition?
It seems to me that there is. The emphasis is clearly on suffering and death. There’s no mention of resurrection here, no mention of redemption. (And it might be noted that Samuel almost seems apologetic about this point in Helaman 14, since it’s in connection with the sign of Jesus’ death that he offers his more robust theology of atonement—accounting for the necessity of Jesus’ death.) The whole focus here is on suffering and death. It’s vague, certainly: “many things” is all we know of His suffering, and “for his people” is the only qualifier of His death. But these details are what qualify Jesus’ “com[ing] into the world.” That language is Johannine, and that might indicate a kind of Johannine flavor throughout: Jesus’ suffering and slaying are themselves a consequence of the world’s inability to handle the Messiah’s entering into it. But again, things are vague here, making any too strict of an interpretation a bit worrisome. We have an outline, and no more.
6. The Quasi-Remnant Theology of Saved Cities
The Bible is filled with theologies of the remnant. In the Old Testament, the theme of the remnant is closely tied to Israel, with the basic idea that the people of the covenant will always be left with remnant after every destruction they face—a remnant that, produced through destruction, consists of a kind of holy seed who will have the right relationship to God and so will allow the work of the covenant to go forward. It’s a theme that appears in the narratives recounting the earliest history (the flood story, the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, etc.), in the stories of the oral prophets (especially Elijah), in the writing prophets from the very beginning (Amos, for instance, but most richly in Micah and Isaiah, before it’s taken up by Jeremiah, etc.), and right on through to the end of the tradition. The theme appears in the New Testament as well, but in a new way. Saint Paul reworks the theme of the remnant in rather remarkable ways, in light of his theology of the relationship between Israel and Gentiles. From there, then, there’s generated a specifically Christian remnant theology that has proved remarkably influential.
All these themes are carried over into the Book of Mormon, which describes itself as addressed to the remnant of Israel. The book’s interest in Isaiah and Micah, its sources in non-biblical Hebrew prophecies that center on the remnant, and its consistent focus on a people headed for destruction—there’s no surprise that remnant theology lies at the heart of the Book of Mormon. (There’s even an anti-remnant theology in the Book of Ether—though spelling out its details would take me too far afield.) In light of this constant presence of the remnant theology in the Book of Mormon, it seems best to read Samuel’s references beginning in verse 12 to cities being saved because of the few righteous left there as a kind of remnant theology, albeit a remnant theology with a bit of a twist.
If the usual theme in remnant theologies is the pattern through which the Lord produces a holy remnant through destruction, then the twist in Samuel’s sermon (and it’s a theme that appears elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, note) is that the presence of a remnant of the righteous is what prevents cities from being destroyed. There are echoes here of remnant passages from the Hebrew Bible—Abraham’s intervention on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance. But what seems to be unique here is the idea that the wicked will eventually cast out the righteous, eschewing the very possibility of there being a remnant. Or maybe we could put it this way: the wicked will themselves produce the remnant by casting the would-be remnant out of their cities, bringing on their own destruction. There’s much to think about here, and obviously it would take a bit of work to put these kinds of themes in conversation with the much larger theme of the remnant, but it’s work well worth doing.
7. On Hiding Treasures unto God
In verse 19, Samuel quotes the Lord as saying the following: “I will . . . that they shall hide up their treasures unto me, and cursed be they who hideth not up their treasures unto me, for none hideth up their treasures unto me save it be the righteous.” This is curious. Perhaps we’d expect Samuel to get angry about all treasure-hiding, about every attempt to secure the possession of something by placing it within the earth for subsequent “redemption.” But he doesn’t. Indeed, he seems to believe that there’s a good or even commanded treasure-hiding. The question, then, is what on earth that would mean. What does it mean to hide treasures unto the Lord?
One might play around with the idea that one here trusts the buried material to the Lord’s keeping. That’s a kind of minimalist reading. Maybe all one does in hiding up treasure to the Lord is ask the Lord to protect it. There’s certainly a tradition of this sort of thing, as Hugh Nibley used to point out: the Qumran community (who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls) did this sort of thing, for instance. But perhaps there’s more to the reference than just this. We might experiment with the possibility that hiding up treasure to God is an identifiable ordinance—as with, maybe, Moroni’s hiding up of the Nephites’ greatest treasures for a future generation. Is there a certain authoritative sealing up of a part of the earth, in something like the fashion of sealing a grave in our contemporary practice? But perhaps that’s a bit too anachronistic, placing talk of ordinances and (implicitly) of priesthood authority within the Lehites’ culture. So what other possibilities?
We might experiment with the possibility that there’s reference here to the Hebrew tradition of the ban (herem). Whatever is buried in the wrong way is cursed (herem) because it’s being hid up for illegitimate retrieval, and whatever is buried in the right way is blessed because it’s consecrated (herem) for the Lord’s purposes. Either way, the act of burying something up will result in the thing ceasing to be property—whether because no one will redeem it, or because it will have been dedicated to the Lord. And there are certainly other ways of thinking about this. But it’s well worth thinking it through quite carefully.
8. The Oath at the Heart of Samuel’s Accusation
In verses 25-28, Samuel spells out his most remarkable accusation against the Nephites. They reject true and accept false prophets in a most fascinating way. The details will wait for another time, but it’s worth noting that there’s a kind of spelled-out ideology at work here: “when ye talk, ye say” (verse 25). Samuel’s point is in part, it seems, to identify how the Nephites’ way of talking is designed to obscure what’s really going on. I’ll say a little more about this below (though through a link), but the major point to get for the moment is that Samuel is attempting to cut through ideological talk in order to come right at what the Nephites actually believe.
It’s in that context that Samuel uses an oath: “as the Lord liveth” (verse 26). There’s much that could be said about this particular oath—Hugh Nibley (him again) had quite a bit to say about this in some of his early work on First Nephi. The basic idea is just that this oath is the highest of Israelite oaths—guaranteeing what’s being said by predicating it on the life of the Lord, which can’t be taken away. To make such an oath and then to break it is to blaspheme—punishable by death. We might reflect rather generally on the nature of the oath, as a kind of attempt, performatively through language, to guarantee against the slipperiness of language. Oaths attempt to keep language within necessary bounds, warding off deception and the like.
Why bring all this up? Well, because it’s fascinating to see the prophet here use an oath when he’s trying to cut through ideological nonsense. He’s assessing the Nephites’ use of language (“when ye talk, ye say”), and in order to do so in a way that’s effective, he uses an oath. His demystifying discourse won’t take, it seems, without an oath, and so he uses it to make clear that his claim is one he’s willing to stake his life on—and even the life of God! With this gesture, Samuel guards against the slipperiness of his own language even as he attempts a kind of direct attack on the slipperiness—ideological bent—of the Nephites’ language. Such, at any rate, is the basic frame. I suspect there’s far more to be discovered in close interpretation of this text.
9. A Theology of Time
I won’t say much about this, but rather just provide a link to a post I wrote a couple of years ago about Helaman 13. I find here in Samuel’s opening part of his sermon a fascinating theology of time and the role it plays in sin. Here’s the link: https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/08/23/the-time-of-sin/. I might note that I’ve recently developed these thoughts a bit further in a piece for publication, so there’s more to come.
For the moment, I’ll let my older post outline the basics of this theological theme.
10. God as Head
In verse 38, Samuel refers to God as “our great and eternal Head.” It’s a curious title for God, one that doesn’t appear anywhere else. And it’s worth asking what kind of theological implications are bound up with calling God our Head. Is there any way of determining what Samuel means to imply with this title?
One might, of course, turn to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary. It’s slightly helpful. The most promising possibility to be found there is this definition: “A chief; a principal person; a leader; a commander; one who has the first rank or place,and to whom others are subordinate; as the head of an army; the head of a sect or party. Eph.5.” The reference to Ephesians 5 is to talk of the husband as the head of the wife, and to Christ as the head of the husband. However we’re to think about the gender implications of that passage, the use of “head” there is clear: it refers to a certain position of authority or leadership. And it’s possible to think that something like this is implied in Samuel’s use as well: God is a kind of authoritative commander—the Lord of Hosts, as we often call Him. But helpful as this first attempt might be, there are other, perhaps more fruitful ways to approach the theme.
There are actually a number of somewhat odd uses of “head” in the Book of Mormon, and perhaps it would be best to associate this one with those instances. One might think of Mosiah 5:8, where Benjamin says that it’s only “under this head,” namely Christ, that one is made free. The language there almost sounds as if Joseph meant to dictate “heading,” with the idea that it’s only by falling under a certain name or category that one finds freedom. (Perhaps especially in light of Alma 3:10, which sounds even more that way.) But if we take “head” seriously, then it’s clear that Christ is being described as a head. Some scholars have suggested that “head” here is reference to the head of the goat on the Day of Atonement who carries the sins of Israel into the wilderness—an obvious symbol of Christ is to be found in the goat, and the sins of Israel are transferred to the goat through an ordinance of laying hands on the head. That’s a possibility, but it’s not clear how far to take it. On the other hand, we have references in Alma 60 to “head” as a references to government rather generally, and that might well be the kind of thing Samuel means. If he means to speak of government as head, then we’re speaking only of the possibility of a “great and eternal” government.
All these are possibilities, but Samuel’s determinate meaning remains to be decided.
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