Jacob marks a distinct and important break of sorts in the Book of Mormon. Why? Unlike Nephi, Jacob did not grow up in Jerusalem. Born in a wilderness, the first eight or so years of his life were spent… we don’t know. Maybe in captivity, maybe in the desert, definitely under duress and hardship. Point is, everything Jacob knows about Jews, Jerusalem, Hebrew, etc. he has learned from his family and whatever peoples they have encountered along the way. It’s a socio-cultural-linguistic founder effect. From here on out in the Book of Mormon, ancient Near Eastern parallels and such should become less of a cultural player, except as mediated through the written texts they have.
Jacob picks up 55 years after they have left Jerusalem, which makes 47 years after they left Bountiful on a boat, and 25 years from the time Nephi began writing the small plates (i.e. 1st Nephi.) Nephi is not yet dead (Jacob 1:9-10) but virtually so, and he expires in 1:12.
Jacob now spends some time on names and designations; “Nephi” becomes a either a throne-name or title of the kings who follow (1:11), and Jacob also tells us why the Book of Mormon seems so binary and simplistic sometimes. Regardless of tribe, anyone friendly is a Nephite, and anyone unfriendly (or unknown?) is a Lamanite (1:13-14). It’s almost a “political designation.” See how Ammoron “becomes” a Lamanite when he changes sides in Alma 54:24, where the punctation should be “Behold, now I am a bold Lamanite” instead of “Behold now, I am a bold Lamanite.” (See here, p. 2 for discussion.)
Now, over its 1000 years, not all of the record keepers follow this schema (e.g. 4 Nephi 1:37). John Sorenson, for example, identified 6 distinct meanings of the term “Nephite” in his classic Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 54. (For the fascinating story of Correlation and how Sorenson came to write this book and two associated Ensign articles, see here.)
Nevertheless, the impression of the Book of Mormon is that it is literally a simplistic story of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. As already pointed out, part of this is deliberate, but it’s also misleadingly simplistic. Grant Hardy writes about Book of Mormon complexity, and Mormon as editor, and him using that editorial power to drive home spiritual lessons. (He greatly expands on the complexity of the Book of Mormon here.) In a fantastic article from 1993 FARMS “The Spirituality of the Outcast in the Book of Mormon,” Todd Compton writes,
Critics of the Book of Mormon have accused it of racism in portraying whites (Nephites) as the “good guys” and dark-skinned peoples (Lamanites) as the “bad guys,” as in typical Westerns…. a careful reading, or even a reasonable cursory reading, of the Book of Mormon shows that the Nephites are often more wicked than the Lamanites, despite being more “civilized” than the Lamanites and having the “true church” in full development. The wilderness-dwelling Lamanites, lacking in education and civilization (“they delighted in wars and bloodshed,” says Jacob; Jacob 7:24) and without correct religious traditions, often have a great aptitude for spirituality. This fits in with an important pattern found in the Book of Mormon in which the outcast is often more spiritually in tune than the more urban, overtly favored Nephites who usually have access to a well-developed church; much of the time they are on the downside of the pride cycle. The centralized (in the sense of city-dwelling), “civilized” religionist is often rich, and the outcast is often poor; the “civilized” religionist often overtly despises the outcast.
It does not take long for this pattern to be established. In chapter 3, Jacob lambasts the Nephites for their choices against charity and chastity, while holding up the Lamanites as an example. So, are the Nephites or the Lamanites “the good guys” in the Book of Mormon? The answer, deliberately so, I believe, is “yes.” Compton raises a related issue, that of racial(?) rhetoric. I’ve already addressed that in context of the Book of Mormon’s Deuteronomistic background of cursing here and here, so besides Compton’s article, I’d recommend this one by Brant Gardner as well. As is often the case with the Book of Mormon, these issues are much more complex than first appear, and that’s a good thing. The Book of Mormon rewards close, careful reading.
Jacob chapter 2 records a discourse of Jacob, delivered in/from the temple constructed by the Nephites. Jacob is a “priest and teacher.” This is one office, not two. Temple priests not only performed ritual sacrifice and sprinkled blood in the temple, but also had a duty to teach Torah to the people per Lev 10:8-11 and lots of other passages (see my handout.) Jacob, then, is under obligation to teach the people, which he feels almost painfully
we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day. 1:19 (c.f. 2:2)
Perhaps Jacob had heard from Nephi some of the same views that Ezekiel would write in Babylon (Ezekiel 22:26), that the failure of the priests to teach, to distinguish between holy and unholy, had been the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. After all, no one has a copy of the Law, few people can read; how can they follow it unless they are taught it by the priests? Failure by the priestly leadership, then, leads to failure by the people. Not on Jacob’s watch, he says grimly.
What, then, does Jacob focus on? What are the sins of the people? Skipping their meetings? Not offering the right sacrifices? Nope.
Wealth, pride, and sexual immorality. He’s not happy with his job, but he does it well. Now, embedded in chapter 2 are some hints as to what might be happening. We misread some of these clues because of cultural differences (a fantastic general book on that topic is here, btw), but Brant Gardner offers an interesting analysis tying them all together and finding what “goes without being said.” That is, Gardner thinks some of the Nephites are establishing trade routes with their neighbors. (See his early presentation here, but also his commentary and books.) Jacob ties together social stratification, riches, expensive clothing and… polygamy. Kind of. Jacob speaks of the “daughters of Jerusalem being led away captive”( 2:32-3) and These polygamous marriages were connected to the establishment of trade routes, just as ancient Near Eastern kings often married foreign princes as political deals and unions.
Their adoption of plural wives would be modeled after foreign law, not Nephite law, and therefore subject to Jacob’s denunciation as a non-sanctioned union, even though it could be seen as a legitimate wife in the greater cultural context of the region…. We may easily imagine that a daughter who was brought out of Jerusalem, as noted in Jacob 2:32-33, who was sent to another village might consider her marriage as a form of captivity because of the separation from her known community and background. The children are under threat of destruction because of the foreign ideas being brought into the community. Certainly children born of Nephite women in other communities would have little opportunity to grow up with the Nephite god, and therefore be subject to spiritual destruction.
Compare Deu 28:15ff
But if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. [Curses on the land and production] Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock….
[God will use their enemies against them and bring them into bondage.] The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out against them one way and flee before them seven ways. You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth…. The LORD will bring you, and the king whom you set over you, to a nation that neither you nor your ancestors have known, where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone….therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you. The LORD will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young.
It is in this context that Jacob brings up the Lamanites by comparison, and makes explicit reference to “skins” and color at judgment. This seems to render the issue one of righteousness, not biological or modern notions of race. (3:7-9)
Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?8 O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God. 9 Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers.
In other words, if correct, the Nephites despise the Lamanites because they don’t appear religious enough. They’re ritually or religiously filthy and dark. This is something we’ll see again, with the Zoramites’ rameumptom in Antionum, Alma 31. The poor there are despised and kept out because they don’t meet the dress code.
Hugh Nibley (Old Testament and Related Studies, 221-222), drew some harsh parallels.
For the rest of the time I want to talk about those human qualities Isaiah describes as pleasing to God and those he despises. They both come as a surprise. As to the first, the traits and the behavior Isaiah denounces as the worst of vices are without exception those of successful people. The wickedness and folly of Israel do not consist of indolence, sloppy dressing, long hair, nonconformity (even the reading of books), radical and liberal unrealistic ideas and programs, irreverence toward custom and property, contempt for established idols, and so on. The wickedest people in the Book of Mormon are the Zoramites, a proud, independent, courageous, industrious, enterprising, patriotic, prosperous people who attended strictly to their weekly religious duties with the proper observance of dress standards. Thanking God for all he had given them, they bore testimony to his goodness. They were sustained in all their doings by a perfectly beautiful self-image. Well, what is wrong with any of that? There is just one thing that spoils it all, and that is the very thing that puts Israel in bad with the Lord, according to Isaiah. The Jews observed with strictest regularity all the rules that Moses gave them—”and yet . . . they cry unto thee . . . and yet” they are really thinking of something else. “Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, . . . all their precious things . . .; their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish.”
Along those lines, Compton concludes in his article, the Book of Mormon pattern is that (my emphasis)
if we are affluent, well-educated, part of the racial majority, urban, and have easy access to the true church, we are in particular danger [of apostasy]. The Book of Mormon shows us that the pride cycle is always at work on church members. It is an inevitable process, though individuals may resist it. Certainly, the rich and educated are not automatically wicked, just as they are not automatically righteous. In the Book of Mormon’s pride cycle, the righteous tend to become rich because they are industrious, honest, living in harmony with God’s laws, peaceable. But then they tend to become caught up in their possessions: pride, expensive buildings and clothes, stark social divisions, spiritual and governmental disintegration follow (capitalism, carried out in an inhumane way, can be a factor in the spiral of the pride cycle outlined there. It can also be administered in a constructive, humane way also, obviously.) Though richness is a characteristic of both up and down sides of the pride cycle, the rich are in motion toward spiritual danger. The tendency for the well-to-do to fill church positions—natural because the wealthy are often good managers and have some education—nevertheless has some ambiguity in it.
An obvious implication of the pattern I’ve discussed is that we should be careful not to exclude the poor, the apparent sinner, the racial minority from our communities or our buildings of worship. A subtle way of excluding the poor, the sinner, the racial minority, is by simply ignoring them. One of the great Christian acts of the Book of Mormon is the mission of the sons of Mosiah to the Lamanites. Ironically, not too many years after that event, a Lamanite prophet would stand on the walls of a Nephite city and call the Nephites to repentance.
As a white, educated, urban, multi-generational Mormon, that lesson of the Book of Mormon always makes me think really hard.
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