Reflections on Helaman 15
Posted by joespencer on August 9, 2013
We come, now, to the last of the three chapters making up Samuel’s delivered speech. This one is a good deal shorter than the last two, making at least my exegetical notes a good deal shorter than has been my wont. (I’ve still found plenty to say at the level of the theological.) I’ll get right to work.
If there’s a kind of natural divide between chapters 13 and 14—a brief narrative aside separates the first sequence of Samuel’s sermon from the second sequence—there’s a less-natural divide between chapters 14 and 15. Less natural, but not imaginary: the “and now, my beloved brethren” that opens chapter 15 does mark a certain transition, and the back-and-forth feel of chapter 14 ends definitively when Samuel comes to this last part of his words.
What we have here, then, is Samuel’s final tirade, and his focus is unmistakable: the Nephite/Lamanite difference. He’s already said a few things about this—concerning the Nephite rejection of Samuel’s words because he’s a Lamanite, etc. But the focus here is a great deal more intense, even as it’s less personal. Here Samuel takes as his task to lay out the differences between the two nations because he’s delivering a final word of destruction and judgment to the Nephites. He’s following a rather frequent pattern in the history of Nephite preaching—on display in Jacob 3, in Alma 9, etc. There are, nonetheless, a number of elements unique to Samuel’s presentation of this theme, and these deserve some attention.
I’ve not yet found any particular sense of structure in Samuel’s closing remarks. They seem a straightforward warning, and they’re short enough that I’m not seeing any larger patterns. It seems to be a question here just of getting a certain message across, though it may just be that I’m not looking hard enough.
Verse 3 – There’s a certain point of transition here in verse 3, where the brief development of the apocalypse of Jesus (see the theological discussion below) gives way to a focus on “this people which are called the people of Nephi.” From this point, apocalyptic borrowings are replaced by a focus on the Nephite/Lamanite difference.
Verse 3 – The specificity of the event of expected repentance here is surprising: “except they shall repent when they shall see all those signs and wonders which shall be shewed unto them.” The theme of repentance will swallow up all talk of signs, but this brief indication ties what Samuel’s doing here to the preceding chapter.
Verse 3 – The phrase “chosen people” appears only three times in scripture. One of those is in Daniel, but the other—the only other in the Book of Mormon—is in the prayer of the Zoramites in Alma 31. That’s a disturbing connection to make, perhaps deliberately ironic, in an affirmation of the chosenness of the Nephites.
Verse 3 – The phrase “the days of their iniquities” appears only here, and no close variant appears elsewhere either. It might well be asked what the phrase, which sounds so formulaic, means, then.
Verse 3 – A basic theology of chastening-because-of-love appears elsewhere in scripture, and Samuel reproduces it here.
Verse 5 – The phrase “path of duty” appears only here in all of scripture. Here again we have a formulaic phrase that’s unique to this text. The phrase “walk circumspectly,” however, appears a few other times—once in the New Testament, and then two other times in the Book of Mormon.
Verse 6 – Yet again a formulaic phrase apparently unique to this text: “unwearied diligence.”
Verse 6 – Here Samuel describes the Lamanite converts as “add[ing] to their numbers daily. This seems an obvious echo of Acts 16:5, which describes the slow expansion of the early Christian congregation. But it’s more immediately tied, it seems, to Helaman 11:25, where a very similar phrase is used to describe the Nephites’ constant expansion of the Gadianton robber band. The irony is clear.
Verse 7 – The phrase “the holy scriptures” is actually quite rare in the Book of Mormon. Apart from this reference, it appears only in the Book of Alma—though it appears there a number of times. It would seem as if the use of this phrase here is predicated on the use in Alma.
Verse 8 – The coupling of “firm” and “steadfast” is actually rare—appearing twice elsewhere in scripture (in 1 Nephi 2:10 and 3 Nephi 6:14). Interestingly, there’s something especially unique about the present coupling: only it couples these two terms without adding “immovable” (which seems to appear in other instances because of the occasional coupling of “steadfast” and “immovable”). As it turns out, however, the coupling of just these two terms here serves a certain structural role—which I’ll clarify further along.
Verse 8 – The formula “wherewith . . . made free” appears a number of times in the Book of Mormon, all echoes of the formula in Galatians 5:1. Its appearance here might need further explanation, perhaps, but it’s frequent enough in the Book of Mormon that it doesn’t seem particularly surprising or unique.
Verse 9 – Here we’re told that the Lamanites have buried their weapons of war, etc. Is this meant to be a reference all the way back to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies? It seems unlikely. So it seems instead to be a reference to Helaman 5:51, which doesn’t speak of any act of burying, but only of “lay[ing] down.” It would seem that the Anti-Nephi-Lehi gesture of burial has been repeated, though we’ve not been told about that before this point.
Verse 10 – Here the coupling of “firm” and “steadfast” appears again, but more complexly. The order of the two terms is reversed, and each term is distributed into a different clause: “because of their steadfastness when they do believe in that thing which they do believe, for because of their firmness when they are once enlightened . . . .” It would seem that there’s some kind of intentional reversal of the ordered pair here, setting up certain structural details. What they amount to, though, isn’t clear.
Verse 12 – The language of promises being extended is actually relatively infrequent in scripture—appearing only here, in Alma 9, and in Alma 17. The use in Alma 9, where it appears twice, is obviously quite relevant, since it’s there that we have a similar discourse about the Lamanites and the promises to them.
Verse 12 – The reference to there being “no place for refuge” here brings the focus of the sermon back to verse 2, where, drawing on the apocalypse of Jesus, we get the same phrase. Ironically, it’s here applied to the Lamanites in the time of their difficulties before restoration; when it’s applied to the Nephites at the beginning of the chapter, it’s not to be followed by promise.
Verse 16 – The phrase “day of my wisdom” is, yet again, formulaic but unique to this text. (Not even “day of wisdom” appears elsewhere.) Here it’s meaning is relatively clear—it refers to the day that, in God’s wisdom, will arrive—but it’s formulaic nature again surprises in its uniqueness.
Theological Points of Interest
1. Beloved Brethren
Given the intense focus in this chapter on the relationship between the Nephites and the Lamanites—and given that this chapter follows on Samuel’s accusation that his hearers rejected his original message precisely because he was a Lamanite—there’s something remarkable about the way verse 1 opens: “and now, my beloved brethren.” It’s not uncommon for “my beloved brethren” to appear in sermons in the Book of Mormon—we see it often enough in Nephi’s writings, in Jacob’s sermonizing, in Alma’s many discourses—but there’s something rather apparently incongruous about its appearance here. Why should Samuel feel kindly enough toward this people to open this last part of his sermon with “my beloved brethren”? Or is this meant to be ironic? Or does he express this sort of fellow-feeling in order to highlight their hatred in contrast to his own love?
The appearance of this interjection is all the more striking in light of the fact that it doesn’t appear elsewhere in the Book of Helaman. It appears nowhere else in Samuel’s discourse—he usually refers to his hearers as “this people of Nephi” and the like—and it, rather remarkably, never appears in Nephi’s discourses to the people in Zarahemla. In the whole of Helaman, it’s only Samuel who speaks to anyone as his “beloved brother” or “beloved brethren,” and it’s only at this turning point in his sermon that he does so. The irony is thus radicalized, and one is forced to ask what this usage means. What, theologically, is to be learned here?
2. The Apocalypse of Jesus and of Samuel
The first two verses of chapter 15 contain what seem to be deliberate echoes of Matthew 23-24. (There are echoes, as well, of the parallels in Mark and Luke, but the closest parallels are to the Matthew text, and there’s an important focus in Mormonism on Matthew 24, such that I’ll give my attention just to that text here.) Verse 1 here gives us this: “except ye shall repent, your houses shall be left unto you desolate.” This is clearly parallel to Matthew 23:38: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” The context at the end of Matthew 23 is the conclusion of Jesus’ final condemnation of the rebellious in Jerusalem before he goes out to the Mount of Olives to provide the apostles with an apocalyptic series of prophecies, all focused on the destruction of Jerusalem in the years following His own death. Importantly, the reference to the house left desolate comes in the wake of Jesus’ famous reference to gathering Israel as chicks under His wings—an image that will appear several times during the destruction Samuel here prophesies (recorded in 3 Nephi 8-10). The reference couldn’t be clearer.
Verse 2 here in Helaman 15 is then connected to Matthew 24:19. The Matthean text reads as follows: “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” This is reworked in an interesting way in Samuel’s words: “Yea, except ye repent, your women shall have great cause to mourn in the day that they shall give suck, for ye shall attempt to flee and there shall be no place for refuge. Yea, and woe unto them which are with child, for they shall be heavy and cannot flee—therefore they shall be trodden down and shall be left to perish.” Note that the rather short but fraught line from Matthew is expanded and clarified, but also reversed (“with child” and “give suck” are reversed in order in their expansion). All that’s implied in the Matthew version is spelled out in Samuel’s words, but the connection is clear.
Now, these allusions are odd. Jesus’ apocalypse clearly refers to the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in the decades following His own death (though it should be noted that there’s a long tradition of interpreting the apocalypse more eschatologically, including in Mormonism—especially given the reworking of Matthew 24 in the Joseph Smith Translation project). Samuel’s apocalyptic warning here seems to refer, though, to the destruction of Zarahemla at the time of Christ’s death—that is, to within days of when Jesus was Himself to speak the words of His apocalypse to His apostles outside Jerusalem. The similarities are real—the central city is to be destroyed for its apostasies, etc.—but the differences are equally striking. What’s at stake, theologically, in this transformation of the only apocalyptic prophecy we have from the Christ?
3. Working on the Text of Malachi
Verses 3-4 of Helaman 15 seem to be a reworking and reapplication of the first verses of Malachi. The Book of Malachi opens with an announcement of love on God’s part—a declaration of love that establishes the relationship analyzed through the remainder of the prophet’s words. But then that love is clarified through a complicated distinction between Jacob, whom God has loved, and Esau, whom God has hated. Here’s the text: “I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us?Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:2-3). The point here is, of course, to prove God’s love by referring to the different ways in which He has treated the nations in the area of Palestine. He’s treated Israel with love, but he’s treated Israel’s rival (Edom, understood to be the descendants of Esau) with hatred.
Something similar appears here in Helaman 15. The Nephites, Samuel announces, “have been a chosen people of the Lord.” He then adds: “Yea, the people of Nephi hath he loved, and also hath he chastened them—yea, in the days of their iniquities hath he chastened them because he loveth them. But behold, my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated because their deeds have been evil continually—and this because of the iniquity of the tradition of their fathers” (Helaman 15:3-4). Here again we have the double gesture: love for the chosen nation, hatred for their closely related neighbor (indeed, for the people descended from their own ancestor’s rivalrous brother). But the differences also are quite interesting. There’s no attempt at proof here: the Nephites aren’t looking for evidence of God’s love; indeed, it’s not clear at all that they care about God’s love. Also, Samuel talks about the Lord chastening those He loves, where Malachi emphasizes only the maltreatment of Esau’s people.
Given that Malachi’s words will become relevant in Third Nephi, in much the same way that other bits and pieces of Jesus’ apocalypse will become relevant in Third Nephi, this allusion and reworking is also quite significant. And given the eschatological appropriation of Malachi, as well as its own implicit apocalypticism, the connection between the Matthew text analyzed above and the Malachi text drawn on here, there’s a kind of systematic apocalypticizing of Samuel’s message here, all accomplished just through allusions and reworkings of the biblical text. All this deserves closer attention.
4. The Cause of Prolongation
Twice in the course of Helaman 15, Samuel provides explanations of the prolongation of the Lamanites’ days. The first comes in verse 4: “But behold, salvation hath come unto [the Lamanites] through the preaching of the Nephites [a reference, it seems, to Helaman 5], and for this intent hath the Lord prolonged their days.” The second explanation comes in verse 10: “And now, because of [the Lamanites’] steadfastness when they do believe in that thing which they do believe—for because of their firmness when they are once enlightened—behold, the Lord shall bless them and prolong their days, notwithstanding their iniquity.” There’s a certain tension, or at least complicated relation, between these two explanations of prolongation. For one, they seem to refer to rather different prolongations. For two, they seem to be intertwined, even in their differences. How should this be thought through?
In the one reference to prolongation, the claim seems to be that the Lamanites have been prolonged, and specifically because the Lord had an intention to accomplish—He intended to make sure that something happened among them (namely, their conversion in Helaman 5). In the other reference to prolongation, the claim seems to be that the Lamanites will be prolonged, and specifically because they have done something—they’ve demonstrated firmness and steadfastness in their convertedness (after the events of Helaman 5). We have two different sorts of causality here. The first reference to prolongation works from a sort of final causality: the Lord prolongs the Lamanites because He has something He wants to accomplish through it. The second reference to prolongation works from a sort of efficient causality: the Lord will prolong the Lamanites because of something they’ve done.
What emerges out of this weave of prolongations is a rather unique picture, in the Book of Mormon—or rather, a finally-explicit picture that may have formed a kind of implicit background in the book. The Lamanite conversions—beginning already, one might guess, with the events of Alma 17-19 but coming to a more immediately relevant culmination with Helaman 5—have amounted to a kind of test. The Lord has prolonged the Lamanites through the first several centuries of their stay in the New World so that He could provide them with the possibility of conversion, and because they’ve responded as they have—with perfect fidelity—He confirms their eventual prolongation into the last days (while the Nephites will be completely obliterated). This is an interested picture, one that perhaps finally works out the relationship between the Lamanite conversions within the Book of Mormon and the promises extended to the Lamanites in the much longer run—promises associated with the day of the Book of Mormon’s eventual emergence in the modern world. There’s much to do in bringing this vision of things into conversation with the rest of the Book of Mormon.
5. Lamanites and the Law
In verse 5, Samuel describes the steadiness of the Lamanites in terms, interestingly, of their relation to the Law of Moses: “the more part of them are in the path of their duty, and they do walk circumspectly before God, and they do observe to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments according to the law of Moses.” This is, it should be noted, not the first time there has been talk of the Lamanites being obedient to the law of Moses. We have also this report from Alma 25, which comes at the end of the narrative of the first major Lamanite conversion: “They began to be a righteous people, and they did walk in the ways of the Lord and did observe to keep his commandments and his statutes. Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses, for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet (for it was not all fulfilled). But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them. Now, they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses, but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ. And thus they did retain a hope through faith unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come” (Alma 25:14-16).
That passage is a bit lengthy, but well worth quoting. Although Samuel’s reference to the law of Moses is rather brief, one presumes that it’s closely connected to the passage from Alma 25. It’s most interesting that the law of Moses is mentioned both times a major Lamanite conversion takes place. Note also that the Lamanites are connected with the law of Moses in Helaman 13:1. Twice, then, are the Lamanites connected to the law here in Helaman—and there are no other references to the law of Moses in the Book of Helaman. There are perhaps a good many questions that might be asked about the status of the law of Moses at this point in Nephite history. Are the Nephites keeping the law of Moses at all? Has it faded in any way? Does Samuel mention it precisely because the Nephites have neglected it? Why is it such a focus for the Lamanites? Has it been a focus among Lamanite converts all along?
6. A Theology of Scripture
Samuel in verse 7 suggests that Lamanite conversion is, at least in part, a matter of conversion to scripture. In his own words, the Lamanites are “led to believe the holy scriptures.” This is perhaps unsurprising—after all, the conversion narratives concerning the Lamanites, especially in the Book of Alma, often refer to the role the scriptures played. What’s interesting is that Samuel here provides a brief aside that spells out a fair bit about this role. The “holy scriptures” are clarified as “the prophecies of the holy prophets which are written, which leadeth them [the Lamanites] to faith on the Lord and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them.” Perhaps there’s little here that’s surprising as well, but I think there’s reason to linger on this description. How does Samuel understand the nature of scripture?
First, it’s of interest that Samuel wants to make the prophets the focus of scripture. Actually, it’d be more accurate to say that he wants to make prophecy (rather than the prophets) the focus of scripture: it’s content and not just figures that deserve attention. Given all that’s been developed over the course of Helaman 7-12, and all that’s been confirmed and expanded in Helaman 13-15, about the nature of prophecy and prophethood, this gesture is of real theological significance. What makes scripture scripture for Samuel, it seems, is its prophetic nature. There’s no talk of law, of history, of poetry, etc. There’s talk only of prophecy—of prophecies in the plural. The central interest in scripture is its ability to provide an anticipatory view of the future. This is something, of course, that draws the attention of Lehi’s children from the very beginning of their history. It’s fascinating to see this emphasized so clearly nonetheless.
But there’s more to Samuel’s statement. The prophecies do something. Because they’re written, it seems, they lead those converted by and to them “to faith on the Lord and unto repentance.” (Is it of any significance that here, but so seldom elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, faith precedes repentance?) Given the focus on prophecy, does faith here have a rather specific meaning? Is faith a certain orientation to the possible in light of what’s been announced—a certain fidelity to what’s been said in a prophetic vein? And how do we read the phrase “unto repentance”? Is this a matter of being led unto repentance, or is this a matter of developing faith unto repentance? The text is ambiguous. And then we might note that Samuel goes a little further still: faith and repentance here “bringeth a change of heart.” How is this change of heart different from faith and repentance? How is it that, whatever the change of heart in question amounts to, it’s brought about by faith and repentance? And why is there a bit of a distance established through this formula between scripture itself (as a set of prophecies) and the change of heart in question? There’s a whole set of theological questions to ask about what scripture accomplishes on Samuel’s view.
7. Samuel and the Small Plates
If Samuel has a kind of theology of scripture rather generally in verse 7, he gets to specifics in verse 11. Here he mentions both what “hath been spoken of by our fathers” and what was said “by the prophet Zenos and many other prophets.” If there’s a way of bringing these two sources together—the things spoken by the Lehites’ fathers and the things spoken of by Zenos and other prophets—it would be in looking to the small plates of Nephi. There one finds the most specific prophecies Samuel seems to have in mind: prophecies regarding not only the prolongation of the Lamanites’ existence, but also regarding “the restoration of . . . the Lamanites again to the knowledge of the truth.” From these details, then, it seems somewhat likely that Samuel had access in some way to the small plates.
Is that too much of a stretch. There are indications that the small plates were not terribly accessible during these years. It’s possible, of course, that something had changed, or that the Lamanites had somewhat uniquely been given access to the small plates prophecies. But it seems more likely that the small plates remained out of circulation right through to the visit of Christ, when the visiting Savior drew attention to Nephi’s theological work anew. I don’t know that it’s particularly worth asking what source Samuel might have had, but I think it’s well worth asking what sort of relationship his words here suggest he had to the kind of prophetic work that appears on the small plates. No one quoting Zenos in the Book of Mormon after Jacob bothers to see in his writings a set of prophecies about the Lamanites. Why is Samuel so privy to that very early Nephite interpretation of the prophet?
8. Mighty Works and Comparisons
Talk of “mighty works” in verse 15, especially because it’s woven together with a comparison between different peoples and their responses to such mighty works, seems to be connected to Matthew 11. Here’s the relevant Matthean passage: “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matthew 11:20-24). Set side by side with Samuel’s statement, the connection is rather obvious: “It shall be better for them [the Lamanites] than for you except ye repent. For behold, had the mighty works been shewn unto them which have been shewn unto you—yea, unto them which have dwindled in unbelief because of the traditions of their fathers—ye can see of yourselves that they never would again have dwindled in unbelief” (Helaman 15:14-15). The parallels are strengthened by the fact that elsewhere in Samuel’s sermon the language of “more tolerable in the day of judgment,” etc., also appears.
What’s to be made of this connection? Jesus compares His hearers to Tyre and Sidon, and then to Sodom! Samuel compares the Nephites to the Lamanites. Jesus makes His comparison in a kind of theoretical or hypothetical vein—asserting that others would have repented and believed, though there’s no evidence for that. Samuel makes his comparison in a concrete and evidential vein—pointing directly to the fact (“ye can see of yourselves”) that the Lamanites believe when they see mighty works. These differences are important, but what do they suggest, in the end, about the connection?
And why, we might ask, does all this come back at the very end of Samuel’s speech to the question of signs. Why should “mighty works” be a motivation for conversion? Is this not ultimately a problematic theology—something we’ve asked before?
9. Closure with an Oath
Helaman 13:25-28 contained an important oath, which I said a few things about before. The wording there was “as the Lord liveth.” Here at the very end of Samuel’s sermon, at least as it’s recorded, we get the very same oath: “And as surely as the Lord liveth shall these things be, saith the Lord” (Helaman 15:17). Why the repetition of the oath? Note that the oath appears in Samuel’s words—as well as in the whole of the Book of Helaman—only in these two passages. Why should it appear there and here?
In discussing the earlier oath before, I speculated that it had something to do with the fact that Samuel was criticizing ideological talk: “when ye talk, ye say . . . .” Here, however, the oath is doing something rather different. There’s no direct accusation to be confirmed, no ideological talk that has to be cut through. Instead, Samuel seems to offer his oath in order to secure his entire sermon. And it’s all the more complicated that, at least on one interpretation of the passage, the oath here isn’t really Samuel’s, but the Lord’s. The “saith the Lord” that concludes the line in which the oath appears might apply only to the “shall these things be” bit, but it might also apply to the “as surely as the Lord liveth” bit. If the latter is the case, then we have Samuel’s sermon closing with an oath on the life of the Lord uttered by the Lord Himself (but not, oddly, in the first person formula that appears sometimes in scripture: “as I live,” etc.).
Why this closure with an oath? I think that remains an open theological question.
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