The Book of Mormon: Forty Years After
Hugh W. NibleyReprinted with permission from The Prophetic Book of Mormon, vol. 8 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 533—69.
The talk I gave a year ago on this occasion was entitled, when it was published, "Last Call." That should have brought a sigh of relief to all who have suffered my apocalyptic fervor these many years. It was more than forty years ago that I started teaching the Book of Mormon in Provo. Last fall, after years away from it, I returned to the book. Was it weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable as any book would be after one hundred readings? On the contrary, it was a new book. But forget forty years. In the past year alone the world has stumbled, slipped, and slithered downward to a point where it has almost caught up with the later chapters of the Book of Mormon. The past year, as the culmination of forty years, bids me forward cast my eye and read, and fear!
When we were growing up, no one had any doubts at all about what the future would be like. It was simply a matter, as my old paleontology professor used to say, of "projecting the curve of experience into the curve of behavior," and that would tell you exactly where you were going. The two phrases constantly on our lips, the two factors which conditioned everything, were "unlimited opportunities" and "inexhaustible resources." We knew exactly where we were going. The mural in the public library or high school showed you the hulking Neanderthal marching toward the Pyramids, the Parthenon, Notre Dame, the Washington Monument, and finally the triumphant culmination of the skyline of New York around 1930. Mr. Wells told us what the wonderful world of tomorrow would be, and he lived to see it become a nightmare. The one future that no one could have imagined was what we could read about in the Book of Mormon; but that we tolerantly consigned to a fantastic realm of the long-ago and far-away, a sort of overdone science fantasy. As it turned out, the Book of Mormon was not dashing off into Never-Never Land but bringing us down to reality if we had only believed it. But we did not and we still don't. But the past year has torn aside veils that we would prefer to have left in place, and we find ourselves enacting what our ancestors would have called a mad melodrama.
In the short time I have here, let me call your attention to some sixteen items among many which have not caught my attention until this year. They add to the impressive underpinning of evidence which is building up in support of the Book of Mormon, and I marvel that they should have escaped me for so long, and can only wonder how Joseph Smith or anyone else could have hit upon them by chance a hundred and sixty years ago.
First a few speculative points:
1. The documents discovered in the Cave of Letters in the Nahal Hever in 1966 show us a number of rich people fleeing from Jerusalem and taking important legal documents with them. These show how a well-heeled party living in Jerusalem could own estates and ranches off at the south end of the Dead Sea, and even have title to farms in Egypt. To one such estate a wealthy woman retreated when Jerusalem fell to the Romans.1 Four centuries after the burying of the Scrolls, when the Barbarians invaded Europe, things were reversed, and rich Roman ladies bought up expensive places in Palestine to which they could retire in what was then the safest place in the world This is a picture of landholding and international ties which is truly surprising, quite modern, and wholly in keeping with the affairs of Father Lehi as they are set forth in 1 Nephi.
2. Clues to proper names keep turning up. Of course, they're all speculative, but some of them are pretty good. A new catalog of Bullae from the time of Jeremiah (and Lehi), has been published by Avigad.2 Bullae were seals attached to formal documents. Among some hundred-odd familiar Old Testament names of important Jews living in Lehi's time, we find a scant dozen nonbiblical names. The chances of a Book of Mormon name turning up among them might appear astronomical, yet the theophoric name Mi-amon contains the Amon element which is dominant in the Book of Mormon and which one would hardly expect in this setting.
3. Then of course there is the work of the "Berkeley Group" under the guidance of John L. Hilton, which has demonstrated by word-prints that the statistical "confidence of Nephi and Alma having been written by different authors is greater than 99.5%."3 But since this was none of my doing I need not pursue it here.
4. In the course of this year's teaching I have noticed literary qualities which have come as a complete surprise—language usages and cultural traits as distinctive as fingerprints. One example I like very much; it puts us into the mainstream of world literature.
The beginning of Enos's story in a hunting scene has always been treated as a picturesque detail and sometimes cited as justification for the philosophy of the National Rifle Association. It is the classic motif of the king's son engaged in an activity which should keep him out of mischief and trouble. However, royalty on the hunt is already at risk, and the next-in-line hunting alone is courting the fate of a Siegfried, or a William II, and no less than that of sixty seven Shahs of Persia or their heirs, all murdered on the hunt. It is easy to see why princes should not hunt alone. But it was not the risk to his life and crown that distressed Enos. Prince Hal, kept safely in the sidelines until his time would come, was indulged in all manner of wild and irresponsible horseplay. But intelligent princes, men worthy to be kings, do not feel at ease wasting time and talents in trivial pursuits. They become brooding and morose as did Hamlet and the Buddha and also Enos. The discontented prince is a stock figure in legend and literature but no less in history. Enos, exactly like Gautama (Siddartha) or Harun al-Rashid, was not at all satisfied with the way his life was going. He "wrestled" not with God but with himself, struggling in the spirit before God "before [he] received a remission of [his] sins" (Enos 1:2). He had to come to peace with himself. It is an intensely personal story. If he had nothing better to do than to hunt by himself, he was wasting his talents and he knew it: he knows he is missing something, that this is not what he should be doing—his father had told him about that. "And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul" (Enos 1:4). He prayed all night long, determined to find release from an intolerable situation. He felt implicitly as every intelligent person does, "Woe unto himâ€¦that wasteth the day of his probation, for awful is his state!" (2 Nephi 9:27). As a good prince, once his frustration, or, as he says, "my guilt was swept away" (Enos 1:6), his next thought was for his people; and when he got what was clearly a highly conditioned promise for them, the great-hearted young man then "prayedâ€¦with many long strugglings for [his] brethren the Lamanites" (Enos 1:11). Here we have a situation which is recurrent in the history of royal houses and religions.
But the most significant parallel is certainly that between Enos and Gautama. The latter was born in 563 B.C., which makes him strictly contemporary with Enos, a grandson of Lehi. His father too bore the title of king, Rajan, but he was also like Jacob more of a counselor and tribal leader. Living in luxury, "the thoughtful young prince," according to his biographer, "must have become increasingly aware of the emptiness of such a life."4 So he left his wife and child and, "as did many young people of his time, â€¦sought higher knowledge in the silence and solitude of the forest."5 Is the author of the Book of Mormon simply following the Buddhist story? Far from it. The two tales end up at opposite poles. Buddha found the answer to his quest in "the two fundamental principles of Buddhism," namely that there is no permanent existence, and that there is no enduring soul—no "I" nor "Self," since these depend on the five factors of body, feeling, awareness, the will, and consciousness. These things which Gautama renounced are the substance of Enos's salvation. And this parallel brings up a very important point which has never been sufficiently emphasized.
For many years critics of the Book of Mormon fondly believed that if they could find some striking parallel in the Bible or in U.S. history to a situation in the Book of Mormon, they had proven that Joseph Smith had plagiarized the whole thing. But when equally striking parallels are found to things of which the ancient Book of Mormon writers, had they existed, would surely have been aware, but of which no one in Joseph Smith's day could have had an inkling, they were ignored. Our lives consist of recurrent scenarios or syndromes, things that happen routinely, such as brushing one's teeth, having breakfast, going to work, and so on, all very minor scenarios. More pretentious scenarios are played out with crowds at church meetings, public games, banquets, plays, lectures, concerts, and the like. Such may cause great passing interest and have about them an element of ceremonial display but small historical importance. More significant are the ancient yearly practices of seasonal festivals, coronations, formal warfare, and the like. Eric Hornung (whom I consider the most enlightened Egyptologist of our time) has recently written of ancient Egypt: "For the people of that time history was no sociological or economic process, but a cultic activity and festive game."6 "Historical deeds repeat mythical events and are supposed to restore the perfect and primal condition of things."7 In the annals, everything the king does follows a prescribed sacred pattern; what an Egyptian pharaoh or Roman emperor or English monarch did was both ceremony and history, consisting of things that are done over and over again. That being the case, how can one hope to prove that an author is guilty of plagiarism when he recounts an event that strikingly resembles something that happened in another time or place?
But then how, on the other hand, can one confirm the bona fides of the Book of Mormon because it tells a story that has an authentic ancient ring? If these things happen all the time, how can we exploit apparent parallels as indicating either plagiarisms or sources? There is an answer to that, it is the oddities of each particular situation that make it different from all the others. The fall of ancient cities, for example, is a stock scenario rehearsed in the stereotyped lines of the poets and playwrights. But historically the fall of Troy, Jerusalem (which fall?), Rome, Constantinople, Paris, and so on, each had its peculiar attendant circumstances. The Lachish Letters tell of one of the many falls of Jerusalem, that in 587 B.C., and in many important aspects it was like no other taking of the city. And it is these aspects of the tragedy that receive full attention in Nephi's account of the event. Throughout history technology changes, but the issues remain the same; the styles of furniture, dress, and other properties of the play must alter, but the human comedy is always with us. It is that which makes the Book of Mormon highly relevant, now painfully relevant, to our own time. But in checking for historical accuracy, it is the oddities we must look for. I have time for only a few examples. First there is the affair at the waters of Sebus.
5. The whole affair at the waters of Sebus must strike anyone as very strange; I always thought that it was rather silly until the other day when I gave it a moment's thought. All the Lamanites would drive their flocks to a particular watering place (Alma 17:26). And when they got there, "a certain number of Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered theâ€¦ [king's] flocks." After the flocks of the king "scatteredâ€¦and fled many ways," the servants lamented that as a matter of course, "now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren" (Alma 17:28). And they began to weep. What insanity is this, the king kills his own servants for losing a contest that had been acted out before? In fact, "it was the practice of these Lamanites to stand by the waters of Sebus and scatter the flocks of the people," keeping what they could for themselves, "it being a practice of plunder among them" (Alma 18:7). So it was no secret to anyone; this was not an ambush but something to be expected. But the king's own flocks? Didn't he have enough men to protect them if this happened regularly? Well, for one thing the Lamanites played the game for sport; it was more than meat that they were after, for "they delighted in the destruction of their brethren; and for this cause they stood to scatter the flocks of the king" (Alma 17:35). The fun of it was their main interest, but Ammon spoiled the fun when he "stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling." They were outraged: "They began to be astonishedâ€¦ [and] angry" (Alma 17:36)—he wasn't playing fair. So they came after him with clubs; why only clubs? He had a sword. There is only one way you can wield a club; you cannot cut or thrust with it but have to raise it up over your head and thus expose your arms. Ammon took full advantage of the situation, slicing away at the arms raised against him. And yet, with his overwhelming advantage, Ammon "slew none save it were their leader with his sword" (Alma 17:38). He knocked six of them out with his sling and cut off the arms of others as they raised their clubs, but he only contended with the leader to death. After that, the winning party or team brought back the trophies to the king, "bearing the arms which had been smitten off by the sword of Ammon" (Alma 17:39). By now it should be clear that we are dealing with a sort of game; a regular practice, following certain rules. This becomes apparent when a few days later, the very men "who had stood at the waters of Sebus and scattered the flocks" (Alma 19:21) mingled freely and openly with the crowd of people gathered at the palace at the report of strange things going on there. Some in the crowd said these things were happening because the king "slew his servants who had had their flocks scattered at the waters of Sebus" (Alma 19:20); and the very men who had scattered the king's flocks loudly announced their presence by shouting abuses at Ammon for what he had done "to their brethren at the waters of Sebus" (Alma 19:21). The brother of the head man (whom Ammon had killed with his sword) drew his own sword on the spot and made at Ammon (Alma 19:22). So the men had swords but only used clubs. Isn't that odd, and isn't it odd that those same wicked Lamanites walked around right in front of the king's palace where everybody recognized them, and nobody did anything about it? And no one held it against the winning team that they had stolen their flocks back, but the losers were only angry with Ammon because he had thrown rocks and used his sword against men bearing only ceremonial clubs.
All this reminds us of those many ceremonial games in which the loser also lost his life, beginning with an Aztec duel in which one of the contestants was tethered by the ankle and bore only a wooden mace while his heavily armored opponent wielded a weapon with sharp obsidian edges. Then there were the age-old chariot races of the princes in which one was to be killed by the Taraxippus, and the equally ancient game of Nemi made famous by Frazer's Golden Bough.8 Add to these such vicious doings as the Platanista, the Kyrpteia, the old Norse brain-ball, the hanging games of the Celts, and so on. But the closest are those known to many of us here, namely the bloody fun of the famous basketball games played in the great ballcourts of the ceremonial complexes of Mesoamerica. In these games either the captain of the losing team or the whole team lost their heads. Surviving into the present century among the Pueblos was the race between the Coyote and the Swallow, in which the winner killed the loser as he crossed the finish line. Equally horrendous and popular was the Wa-Wa rite in which the participants swung head downward from around a great pole mounted at the edge of a mesa from which individuals were expected to fall to their death. The purpose of such games was to make a human sacrifice, but as at Olympia or in the Roman arena, the religious nature of the thing could be lost in the fun and excitement of the brutal contests. Granted that the Lamanites at Sebus were depraved barbarians and real Yahoos, what is the logical or ritual explanation, the aesthetic appeal, or sporting spirit of the tag-team wrestling, demolition—or roller-derbies, or laser-tag of our own enlightened age? Nothing could be closer psychologically and historically to the ancient version of this insanity than the doings by the waters of Sebus.
The games of chivalry were just as rough and deadly as the Sebus sport, and far more ancient. Sinuhe is a thousand years older than Achilles or David, and monuments from prehistoric Egypt show the first "pharaohs" bashing the heads of rival rulers with the ceremonial mace. The famous scenes of the battles of Megiddo and Carchemish display the piles of severed hands and arms brought as trophies to the king. Incidentally, the Egyptians commonly use one word—c3—for both hand and arm. From the days of the Jaredites to the final battle at Cumorah, we find our Book of Mormon warriors observing the correct chivalric rules of battle—enemies agreeing to the time and place of the slaughter, chiefs challenging each other to single combat for the kingdom, and so on. I have written elsewhere of the martial formalities of the Battle Scroll observed in the Book of Mormon.9
6. One of the aspects of ancient American religion that archaeology is bringing increasingly to the fore is the dominance of the familiar Great Mother in religion: Where is she in the Book of Mormon? The Book of Mormon brands all non—Nephite cults as idolatry and does not go on to describe them—Nephi says he does not want to run the risk of conveying the details of such enticing abominations to posterity. But there is one broad hint. When Alma's youngest son wanted to misbehave with the harlot Isabel, he had to go into another country to do it (Alma 39:3). Parenthetically, Isabel was the name of the Patroness of Harlots in the religion of the Phoenicians.10 Remembering that this took place in a Mulekite setting, we have more than immoral behavior here—Corianton could have misbehaved anywhere. But we are also told that the lady Isabel had a large following. Others went over to join in the rites which Alma declared to be "most abominable above all sins" (Alma 39:5). In such a guarded manner Alma also refers to other hierodules (Alma 30:18).
7. I think we have also in the Zoramites a clear example of the contamination of Nephite religion by older cults that may have been found in the land or transplanted from the Old World. The Zoramites were dissenters from the Nephites (Alma 31:8). Under a charismatic leader they went off by themselves and started "perverting the ways of the Lord" (Alma 31:1). These were no minor changes but "great errors," which effectively nullified "the commandments of God and his statutes according to the Law of Moses" (Alma 31:9). Under the new system they would not "observe or keep them" (Alma 31:9). What amazes Alma is not the denial of Christ—everywhere Nephite intellectuals were teaching that—but the strange actions these people were up to, having departed from the "performances of the church" (Alma 3l:10). The change had been abrupt and spectacular—Alma and his brethren were astonished by it "beyond measure" (Alma 31:12, 19). The brethren were horribly depressed by what they found; they could hardly stand it (Alma 31:30—33). The Zoramites had only been off by themselves for a short time, yet what they were doing was all new to Alma. At first sight it looked like pure idolatry (Alma 31:1). The Zoramites had meeting places like the Jews (synagogues) but worshipped "after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld" (Alma 31:12). Where did they get all this stuff all of a sudden? The most prominent fixture of their ceremonial center was a praying-stand at the top of a stairway—suggesting, of course, the standard appointment of the ancient American ceremonial centers: the tall towers with their steep stairways (Alma 31:13). The stair-tower went by the very alien name of Rameumptom (Alma 31:21). Alma, who never accuses these people of immorality, is shocked that their prayers are accompanied with a great showing off of costly and ornate vestments. Heavily adorned—in striking contrast to the garments of the Mosiac priesthood, they paraded around in gorgeous attire while they prayed (Alma 31:27—28). This in turn reminds us of the indescribably heavy, lavish, ornate, awkward adornments of the priestly grandees who parade before us in the pre-Columbian murals and jar paintings. The rites were celebrated once a week (Alma 31:12), like the Hopi dances—were they on a lunar calendar exclusively? In drastic departure from the law of Moses, masses of people were forced by the priesthood to work on ceremonial buildings or meeting places, which were, however, taboo to the common people, who were not properly dressed (Alma 32:1—3). The Zoramites, a well-organized and enterprising body, had simply moved in and taken over among less sophisticated inhabitants—a procedure now believed by Americanists to be almost routine in Mesoamerica. Everybody, Alma tells us, was convinced that only at these holy centers was proper worship possible (Alma 32:5, 9—12).
So here we have a competition between two religions as well as a fusion. "Their souls are precious," says Alma, "and many of them are our brethren; â€¦give unto usâ€¦power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee" (Alma 31:35). "Many" means not all; who were those who were not their brethren? They boasted a superior religion, and the Zoramite priesthood claimed to be eminently rational and spiritual, accusing the Nephites of "childish" beliefs and practices—Alma lays great stress upon their boasting, in the manner of all barbarians. In short, "they did pervert the ways of the Lord in very many instances" (Alma 31:11), but not in all. Did they still think of themselves as Israelites? They certainly thought of the Nephites as apostates. In particular, they rejected the redemption by the Messiah as naive and unnecessary (Alma 31:16—18, 29), for they considered themselves very advanced, very superior as they strutted amidst the almost comically exaggerated splendor of their Mesoamerican dress and architecture (Alma 31:25—27). The moral of this is that the bemused LDS tourist, when he walks through a Mayan or Aztec ruin of a museum, need not see either Nephites or wild Lamanites all around him; there were other things going on too, though the Book of Mormon is strictly edited to exclude them as demoralizing or irrelevant.
8. One point that every passing year makes clearer is the complete ethnic mix, not only of the people of the Americas, but no less of those in the Book of Mormon. With Lehi we already have a rich mixture of Near Eastern blood. He was of the tribe of Half-Manasseh, which may mean that he was half Aramaic or Arabic to begin with.11 The family of Ishmael belonging in that same tradition, with a name like that, should almost certainly have been of the desert strain. The Manasseh part was in turn half Egyptian, and the Egyptians from the beginning were a blend of "nomads, cattle raisers, farmers, Africans, Asiatics, Semites, and Hamites."12 The infiltration of these people began in the earliest times and mounted steadily through the centuries, families of every class enjoying strong infusions of "foreign" blood. In Lehi's day both Egypt and Palestine were swarming with Greek mercenaries and sailors (the Egyptian fleet was Corinthian), which may explain the few Greek names that pop up in the Book of Mormon. Zoram was a servant or slave and hence probably not an Israelite. To the very end his descendants form a distinct ethnic group in the New World. So Lehi's company and the Mulekites, and especially the Jaredites from the primal mixing and mustering center of the Tower, were already about as mongrel a people as you could find when they arrived in the New World.
But it is in the New World itself that the mixing really goes on. Nephites and Lamanites from time to time freely mingle. Lamanite warriors favored stolen Nephite brides, and Nephites, like the priests of Noah and the people of Amulon, gladly took Lamanite wives. Throughout the Book of Mormon, there are from time to time massive migrations toward the north and east, the equivalent of the American frontier and the Western movement. These found extensive evidence of previous inhabitants in the land—not all of them Jaredites, though the Jaredites were swarming by the millions while Zarahemla flourished as a great city to the south. Though Zarahemla is the center of the action in the Book of Mormon, it was not a Nephite city at all, but one of the Mulekites'; and the Mulekites brought no records with them from Jerusalem—they were apparently more numerous and heterogenous than Lehi's company.
What everyone has overlooked, however, is that the Mestizos of both North and South America, whether from the Spanish or Portuguese side, are as qualified to be called Israelites as the Nephites themselves were. For, as is well known, for seven centuries the people of Spain and Portugal mingled and intermarried with their large and important Jewish populations. We have underestimated or rather completely ignored the European strain of Jacob in the New World. Ethnically, what we find in Mesoamerica is what the Book of Mormon should expect us to find if we read it with any care:
These Pacific basin people whom the Spanish invaders found in Mexico showed a cross-bred physiognomy embracing every physical feature and skin color known anywhere around the Earth. They were so crossbred that they could no longer be spontaneously differentiated into separate "color" races. This crossbreeding is most advanced in Mexico and India today, but now embraces all the European features as well. Every variety of angular pattern variation in physiognomy is found in both countries in every skin color and every shade from intensely dark to intensely light. Hair ranges through every known variety between straight to tight curly, in every hue from black to platinum blond, and all varieties of hair adorn all varieties of skin color in all degrees of shading from dark to light, which in turn adorn all varieties of facial features and head shapes, wherefore few Mexican individuals can be identified as being of any hybrid race. They are simply worldians.13
The worldian theme is very prominent in the Book of Mormon.
9. This is not the time to go into doctrinal matters, except to say that the Book of Mormon contains by far the clearest exposition "in words of exceeding plainness" of the mysteries, beginning with the meaning of that elusive word itself. The mysteries are not magic or occultism, but any knowledge that men cannot obtain by their own efforts, knowledge to be had only by revelation. The whole Book of Mormon is such a mystery. There you will find clear, concrete definitions of such daunting words as faith, heaven, hell, creation, atonement, resurrection, redemption, preexistence, hereafter.
One point that stands out today deals with the all-important issues of authority. Every hero in the Book of Mormon is a dissenter, bucking the system, usually a Rekhabite type who goes off into the wilderness with whoever is willing to follow him. These men are at odds not with the godless, depraved, barbaric society, but with a community and nation that considers itself the heirs of true religion, the elect, pious, and proper people. The prophets usually appear in numbers, and often, like Samuel the Lamanite, hold no office; and indeed, Alma and others divested themselves of all official titles to be more effective in their prophetic mission.
All of man's dealings with God in the Book of Mormon are on an individual basis. All covenants and agreements made at the great national assembly convened by King Benjamin are made between the individual and Jehovah, beginning with the king, who protests that he is only a man, answerable to God alone for his management of the kingdom: "I myself have labored with my own hands" (Mosiah 2:14). "I can answer [with] a clear conscience before God this day" (Mosiah 2:15). "If that man repenteth not, â€¦the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt" (Mosiah 2:38). Eternal punishment and reward are entirely personal and individual: "They shall be judged, every man according to his works, â€¦consigned to an awful view of their own guilt" (Mosiah 3:24—25). At the end the king "thought it was expedient [to] â€¦take the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God" (Mosiah 6:1). And to emphasize this individualism, the new king "also, himself, did till the earth" (Mosiah 6:7).
When the Lord comes in person to establish the true order of things, all his dealings are with individuals as such. Just before his arrival a voice from on high introduces the Lord as the one responsible for all the great natural upheavals that have occurred. Thirty times in 3 Nephi 9, the Lord says that he alone has done this because people have turned their backs on him. But by a natural screening the more righteous save themselves by moving toward the temple. Upon arriving in person simply as "a manâ€¦ [dressed] in a white robe," the Lord introduced himself personally to everyone, the people "going forth one by one" (3 Nephi 11:14—15), giving to each the signs and tokens. The angels also appeared to individuals, "for they all of them did see and hear, every man for himself, â€¦men, women, and children" (3 Nephi 17:25). Especially the children. When the Lord blessed them "he took their children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them" (3.Nephi 17:21). When he gave them the Ten Commandments, they were all in the singular. In short, we make all our covenants with him as individuals, person to person: "The keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel, and he employs no servant there" (2 Nephi 9:41). We can see why in his great sermon on faith, Alma speaks much of faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost and the Word of God but never mentions the church. In the Book of Mormon, the worst sinners of all are members of the traditional church, which was often under condemnation as the church has been in this dispensation. It is quite unthinkable, of course, that the gospel should ever be under condemnation, for that is the Word in which we can put our entire faith.
10. After centuries of buildup looking toward that greatest of events, the coming to earth of the Creator himself, when the day finally arrives, we ask, "Where are the special effects of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas?" All the people see is "a man dressed in a white robe" who has to introduce himself. Also, he brings a lot of angels along with him.
And what do they do? They "minister" to the people. What does that mean?
An angel is a messenger; when he visits he not only talks with people, he converses with them—that is the word used both in the Book of Mormon and in the Bible. The angels circulated among men, women, and especially the children and chatted with them. That is how they carry out their mission or ministry.
Why don't we see angels?
The people raise that question in the Book of Mormon, and the answer there is very clear. Angels do not pose as ornamental fixtures; they come only to deliver important messages and at moments of crisis. Throughout the Book of Mormon, when things reach a hopeless condition, it is the visit of an angel which moves things off dead center and invariably inaugurates a new turn of things. They appear only to specially qualified persons—men, women, and children—not high officials. But if angels do not come, we are left on our own resources in a perilous condition. How fortunate that the whole Book of Mormon story begins with Moroni, the clinically specific and detailed account of an angel's visit to Joseph!
We are clearly told by Moroni how things operate. First of all he says, "Neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men," but they minister only as messengers "subject unto him [God], to minister according to the word of his command," and they show themselves only "unto them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness" (Moroni 7:29—30), not to hysterical, overimaginative, or ambitious people, but only to sane, sober, and intelligent ones. And these highly qualified people, "not only men, but women also" (Alma 32:23), have, as "the office of their ministry, â€¦to fulfill and to do the work of the covenants," and by teaching these covenants, have "to prepare the wayâ€¦by declaring the word of Christ unto chosen vessels of the Lord" (Moroni 7:31). These in turn bear testimony of him, "that the residue of men may have faith in Christ" (Moroni 7:32).
Isn't that a sort of trickle-down theory, like the thirty Aeons of the Gnostics, with the low man on the totem pole miles removed from the sublime source? Nothing of the sort. The last person to receive the message has as much right to revelation as the first. For it is given to "the residue of menâ€¦that the Holy Ghost may have a place in their hearts, according to the power thereof; and after this manner bringeth to pass the Father, the covenants which he hath made unto the children of men" (Moroni 7:32). So here we go clear back to the Father of all sharing the power with all. How this is done is most perfectly shown in 3 Nephi.
11. This is one side of the picture. A fundamental teaching of the Book of Mormon is that of the "awful gulf" that separates the two ways of life from each other. The Book of Mormon is edited to give equal attention to each, because our business here is to make a choice between them: "The devilâ€¦inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continuallyâ€¦ But behold that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually" (Moroni 7:12—13). Drawn with equal attractive force toward either orbit, it is the individual who makes the final choice. Let us look at the dark side.
The Book of Mormon ends as it begins amidst scenes of destruction. The fearful process of this deathmarked tale is the syndrome familiar to all Latter-day Saints. God causes a righteous people to prosper, and the prosperous inevitably become corrupted by their prosperity. Inevitably? So it would seem: "And thus we can behold how false and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of menâ€¦ At the very time when he doth prosper his people, â€¦then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity" (Helaman 12:1—2). Must it be that way? Helaman, completely fed up with the exasperating routine, has composed a neat example of the mingled genres of ancient wisdom literature and lamentation literature, which is now recognized as shared by Egypt and Israel. Helaman has given us a little gem: "O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world! â€¦Yea, how slow to walk in wisdom's paths! â€¦O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth," and so on. (Helaman 12:4—7). This is precisely the conclusion of Sophocles: "O human race, after careful calculation I conclude that you are equal to exactly nothing!"14
In keeping with the genre, this particular piece is the only part of the Book of Mormon which considers cosmology, an indispensable element of ancient wisdom literature, and one which abounds in the book of Moses (published at the same time as the Book of Mormon) and the book of Abraham. It takes the form of the well-known apostrophe on the obedience of all nature to the eternal laws and even includes a sensational discovery that had been made back in Lehi's day, "for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun" (Helaman 12:15).
12. In turning again to economic matters I am, alas, not beating a dead horse.15 Teaching a Book of Mormon class last semester, I was brought to my senses with a shock—the Book of Mormon has become alarmingly, terrifyingly, relevant. If a superabundance of riches virtually guarantees destruction, why doesn't God put an end to the comedy by simply withholding the dangerous wealth, as he withheld the rain when Nephi asked him to? (Helaman 11:4). That is a question with which the Book of Mormon is especially concerned, laboring the point that this life is "a state of probation" in which all must be put to the test (2 Nephi 2:21); and for that "it must needs be that there was an opposition" (2 Nephi 2:15), and that men might be given a good chance, to make their decisions: "And the days of the children of men were prolongedâ€¦that they might repent while in the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:21). And to be effective the test must be, as Karl Popper assures us,16 the hardest possible test: Would you be willing to turn down a certificate which is good for "anything in this world"? As drugs are not the real problem in the world today, nor armaments, nor sex, nor pollution, nor corruption in business and government, and on and on, so likewise in the Book of Mormon a multitude of sins is invariably traced back to one source: it is, of course, money which is the spoiler: "Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this: â€¦pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world" (3 Nephi 6:15). It is the rich mix of our prime-time TV. This "common whore of mankind that put'st odds among the rout of nations"17 leads in the Book of Mormon from great wars to the more assured way of acquiring power and gain—organized crime. Kishkumen wants to run things by occupying the chief judgment seat, from which he could reward his supporters and have his friends "placed in power and authority among the people" (Helaman 2:5). He hired a fast-talking professional hit man, Gadianton, who was "exceedingly expert in many words and also in his craft," to organize his mafia for a highly efficient brand of "secret work of murder and of robbery." He took over Kishkumen's operation (Helaman 2:4). But when a servant of Helaman the Chief Judge was able to penetrate the organization as a "plant," Gadianton had to get out of the country (Helaman 2:11). At this point we are assured that, in time, Gadianton's gang would prove "almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi" (Helaman 2:13). If ever a story was worth heeding after that announcement, this is one to which we should pay the closest attention—a nation helpless to resist the march of crime!
In Helaman 3, after a thumbnail picture of a civilization—a skillfully condensed vignette like one of those astonishing ivory panoramas carved on a single elephant's tusk (Helaman 3:14), we are introduced into the underworld and are told how skillfully the crime families gradually infiltrate the whole society during a time of peace and prosperity, getting themselves "established in the more settled parts of the land" so quietly that their activities "were not known unto those who were at the head of the government" (Helaman 3:23). The prosperity of the time is actually called "astonishing beyond measure," a time of "peace and exceedingly great joy" (Helaman 3:25, 32). Yet scarcely two years later "prideâ€¦began to enter into the church" (Helaman 3:33), and soon "the more humble part of the people," suffering great persecutions, "did wax stronger and stronger in their humility" (Helaman 3:34—35), while the great majority had their vices "grow upon them from day to day, â€¦because of their exceedingly great riches and their prosperity" (Helaman 3:36—37). Such was the way of the church. The general public (not the church members) were able to drive out the worst criminals, who went to stir things up among the Lamanites (Helaman 4:1—2) and finally persuaded them to make war against the Nephites who had thrown them out. The worst offenders in those days were "those who professed to belong to the church of God. And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, of their oppression of the poor, withholding their substance from the hungry," and so on (Helaman 4:11—12), that "in the space of not many years" (Helaman 4:26) the Nephites were reduced to a sorry, materialistic people, hopelessly outnumbered by their enemies but with no inclination whatsoever to call upon God. "The voice of the peopleâ€¦chose evil, â€¦therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted" (Helaman 5:2). Nephi gave up the judgment seat in disgust (Helaman 5:4).
At this time, thanks to free and open intercourse with all trade barriers removed between the Lamanites and the Nephites, both enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. With the usual result: "For behold, the Lord had blessed them so long with the riches of the world thatâ€¦they began to set their hearts upon their riches; yea, they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another." In short, they became more competitive, "therefore they began to commit secret murders, and to rob and plunder, that they might get gain" (Helaman 6:17). It was time for the syndicate "formed by Kishkumen and Gadianton" to come out into the open (Helaman 6:18). Their system of protection worked so well that "the more part of the Nephitesâ€¦did unite themselves with those bands of robbers, and did enter into their covenants and their oaths, that they would protect and preserve one another, â€¦that they should not suffer for their murdersâ€¦and their stealings" (Helaman 6:21). And this is ominous. They operated by the rules of their organization and "not according to the laws of their country," which they felt were too confining (Helaman 6:24). Money was the name of the game (Helaman 6:31); the prospect of huge profits "seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils" (Helaman 6:38). With this solid public support, the crime syndicate was able to "obtain sole management of the government," and, as their first act, "turn their backs upon the poor and the meek and the humble followers of God" (Helaman 6:39).
The Gadiantons knew where the real power lay, and they were careful to fill the judgment seats with their own people who could make and interpret the laws to their own advantage, "letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money." And what could anybody do about it, now they were the law, "held in office at the head of the government, to rule and do according to their wills" (Helaman 7:5), deciding for themselves what was right and wrong and enjoying unlimited power? Nephi was helpless in his high office and looked on "in the agony of his soul" (Helaman 7:6). I have told about these things before, but in the light of recent events, they begin to take on a new meaning. The Nephite society had achieved a rich mix of prime-time TV, which has become the domestic fare of our own time; with everybody out "to get gain, to be praised of men, â€¦[setting] your hearts upon the riches and the vain things of this world, for the which ye do murder, and plunder, and steal, and bear false witness" (Helaman 7:21). And yet in all this they considered themselves very righteous—it was all perfectly legal (Helaman 7:5; 8:1—7). It was time for something to happen—a terrible drought at Nephi's request brought the people to their senses and broke the Gadianton power (Helaman 11:4—10).
But a new threat arose. The criminal element took to the hills and there established retreats where they built up strength from dissenters joining them until they were able to reestablish the Gadianton organization. Terrorism was the name of the game. From their secure places they would strike and withdraw, making a special effort to kidnap "especially women and children," to assure the permanence of their society (Helaman 11:33). At the same time, Zoramite recruiters brought a host of young Nephites into the organization by the prospect of such things as romantic adventure, gaudy makeup, danger, loot, and license to kill (3 Nephi 1:28—30). Soldiers of fortune also flocked to the camps. The fact that at this time the victims too were becoming cynical and corrupt leads Helaman to his outburst of wisdom literature (Helaman 12).
13. At this point the Book of Mormon scores another hit. These bands of robbers it describes are not some exotic invention of romantic fancy, but a major factor in world history. We think of the age-old traditions of Seth and his robber bands in the Egyptian literature (al-cArish, Sieg über Seth), of the Pompey's Pirates or the Algerians, the Vikings, the Free Companies of the fourteenth century, the Kazaks, the Robber Barons, the Assassins, the Bagaudi, the Druze, the militant orders that imitated them (Templars, Knights of Rhodes, and so on), the Vitalian Brothers, the Riffs, and finally the Medellin drug lords of the south, whose long arm can constrain the leaders of nations. All of these operators were terrorists, and they held whole armies at bay and overthrew kingdoms. The best and perhaps the earliest description of such bands in action is from the Amarna letters where we find Lehi's own ancestors, the wandering, plundering Khabiru of the fourteenth century B.C., actually overthrowing city after city in Palestine and disrupting the lives of nations.
In the manner of such hosts, the Gadiantons were able to defy the police and the military and put punitory forces to flight (3 Nephi 2:11—12). It took a general strike to starve them out because, like all military, "there was no way that they could subsist save it were to plunder and rob and murder" (3 Nephi 4:5). Then there came another time of peace, and many of the robbers were reformed and rehabilitated—they were human beings after all; "and now there was nothing in all the land to hinder the people from prospering continually, except they should fall into transgression" (3 Nephi 6:5). It was clear sailing ahead, a happy ending to a storm-tossed journey, a splendid economic boom and the flowering of a business civilization. And how long did it stay on course? For about two years—when "there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up" (3 Nephi 6:14). Broken up into what? Why, to be sure, into "ranks, according to their riches and chances for learning," a yuppie civilization (3 Nephi 6:12). And what caused it all? The same rich TV mix: "Now the cause of this iniquity was this: â€¦Satanâ€¦ [was] stirring up the peopleâ€¦with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world" (3 Nephi 6:15).
14. And now comes another episode which in the past few years has taken on painfully familiar aspects. There was a law that every warrant of execution had to be signed by the governor of the land, so that "no lawyer nor judge nor high priest" could get rid of inconvenient witnesses or critics (3 Nephi 6:22), as they had tried to get rid of Nephi when only the force of public opinion stopped them (Helaman 8:7—10). "Manyâ€¦who testified of the things pertaining to Christâ€¦were taken and put to death secretly by the judges, so that the knowledge of their death came not unto the governorâ€¦until after their death" (3 Nephi 6:23). In other words, they sometimes found it necessary to go beyond the law. Since that was grossly unconstitutional "a complaint cameâ€¦to the governor of the land against these judges" (3 Nephi 6:25). There was an investigation and indictment. When the time came for the judges to be brought to trial, their supporters closed ranks, determined to get them off: "Nowâ€¦those judges had many friends and kindreds; andâ€¦almost all the lawyers and the high priests did gather themselves together and unite with the kindreds of those judges who were to be tried according to the law" (3 Nephi 6:27). This inbred and influential establishment was determined to block any conviction of those upright judges. They agreed on a coup to get the release of the guilty parties "from the grasp of justice which was about to be administered according to the law [their Constitution]. And they did set at defiance the law and the rights of their country; and they did covenant one with another to destroy the governor, and to establish a king over the land" (3 Nephi 7:29—30). They wanted a leader who would not be hampered by legislative checks and restraints of any kind. The standard solution lay ready at hand: They murdered the chief executive. In the confusion that followed, the people broke up into tribes, "every man according to his family and his kindred and friends, and thus they did destroy the government of the land" (3 Nephi 7:2). At last they were free of annoying government regulations of which Korihor and others had complained long before: "And the regulations of the government were destroyed because of the secret combination of the friends and kindreds" (3 Nephi 7:6). Needless to say, everything was thrown into confusion and was a free-for-all game of grabbing, since "the more righteous part of the people had nearly all become wicked" (3 Nephi 7:7). And this, Nephi marvels, had all taken place in six short years. If we think these switches are too sudden, we have only to consider the changes that take place in our own society with a change of administrations, or compare the state of the world in one decade with that of the next. The people immediately missed the advantages of the central government and were united only in their hatred of the people who had led in its destruction (3 Nephi 7:11).
15. Less than a month ago I gave students in a Book of Mormon class the choice of writing a term paper on either a religious or economic theme. Ninety-four percent of the class chose the theme "Discuss the problem of riches in the Book of Mormon." Almost every scholar began by evoking the sacred cliche: there is nothing wrong with wealth itself; wealth as such is good. It is only how you use it that may be bad. They insisted that a free market was the perfect and flawless order of things, the ordained sanction of free agency. It is only when the system is abused that things go wrong, and that in itself proves that it is good in itself.
How do we escape abuses? How do we avoid breathing polluted air on a busy street? Simply stop breathing. In the Book of Mormon, the destructive power of wealth is pervasive and inescapable, since, as Helaman discovered, we can always count on humanity to do foolish things. The question is, what economic system would suit such people? The Book of Mormon answer is clear: None that they could devise. The Nephites willfully and repeatedly rejected the way that is shown them "with exceedingly great plainness" (Enos 1:23); have we any assurance that we, whom the book is designed to warn against that very folly, are doing any better? Christ gave them the economic system by which they lived happily for a far longer period than any of the brief boom-cycles enjoyed by the Nephites. And we know what he taught; should that not suffice? Should not 4 Nephi put an end to all argument and sophistry? If we want answers, here they are. Yet, strangely, for Mormons this is off limits and out-of-bounds—so long ago and far away! But the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to make all things present to us; it has been edited to delete anything not relevant to our condition. It makes no difference where or in which dispensation we live (Mosiah 3:13), all are tested equally. And now the Book of Mormon is holding the mirror up to our ugliness—no wonder we look the other way as it pleads with us, "[O], be more wise than we have been!" (Mormon 9:31).
The two passages which the students choose to score their point are anything but a brief for riches if we read them with care. They were highly favored by the class because out of more than sixty statements on the seeking of wealth in the Book of Mormon, these are virtually the only ones that can be interpreted as giving countenance to the profit motive. The first of these passages is Jacob 2:18—19: "But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ, ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them." That is the great favorite.
It is standard practice to stop there and leave it at that. But even if we go no further, the plain lesson of the injunction is to seek the kingdom of God first of all. And how do we build up the kingdom of God and establish Zion? By observing and keeping the law of consecration. What does that mean? The preceding verse, routinely overlooked, explains: "Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance." How free? "That they may be rich like unto you" (Jacob 2:17). That looks suspiciously like equalizing the wealth—this is with reference to "substance"; you cannot get out of it by saying you will make them "spiritually rich." We give to the poor enough to make us feel virtuous and keep them on the leash, but the order here is for a basic redistribution of wealth. And when do you stop seeking the kingdom of God on the earth and turn to seeking riches? Certainly not as long as the Lord's Prayer is effective. If God's kingdom is to come (a place on earth where his will is done), then we must remove the great obstacle to it—the burden of debt which binds all mankind and robs them of freedom of choice and action. That removal is "the Lord's release" (like Solon's seisachtheia), the cancellation of all debts, required by what we think of as the primitive, savage, tribal law of Moses (Leviticus 25)—far more humane than our own. The Lord's Prayer given in the Book of Mormon preserves the correct business terminology of Matthew 6:12: "Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors" (routinely softened to read "trespasses"). It is a literal cancellation of debt which is required by the Mosiac Law before we can have the kingdom of God on earth. "It is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin" (D&C 49:20). But when do you start seeking riches for yourself? Never, according to Jacob, since your intent in seeking them is to give to others. That is no way to maximize profits! But we are still ignoring that big "if," which admonishes us to consider the context of the speech. Jacob has gathered the people together because he has been commanded to give them two messages which he is very reluctant to deliver, the first being an impassioned rebuke to people possessed with gold fever. He must hold their attention and not lose them completely. The best he can do is to tell them that if they must seek riches, they should get them under only two conditions, (1) seeking for the kingdom of God, which means not giving up until you have found it, and (2) seeking with the intent to give to others, to the point of achieving the kingdom.
Did anyone heed Jacob's advice? At the end of his life he was still pleading desperately with his people (Jacob 6:5—13). And under his son Enos, we find that "'the people were a stiffnecked people, hard to understand. And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, â€¦and continually reminding them of death, â€¦continually to keep them in the fear of the Lordâ€¦ [to] keep them from going down speedily to destruction" (Enos 1:22—23). So much for the Jacob formula as a franchise for big money.
The other passage they all love is Alma 1:29: "Because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, â€¦and thus in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked or that were hungry, â€¦and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, â€¦whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to [not among] those who stood in need." So much for those convenient weasel-words "the deserving poor." How long did the people thus described resist the eroding effects of riches? Within five years "Alma saw the wickedness of the churchâ€¦ Yea, he saw the great inequality among the people, â€¦some turning their backs upon the needy; â€¦and seeing all their inequality, [Alma] began to be very sorrowful" (Alma 4:8—15).
Nothing has surprised me more this past year than to discover how aware our young people are of the extent of injustice, arrogance, and greed where it should not be. In particular they have wide experience of the singular disregard by LDS employers of the Lord's command given personally in the Book of Mormon not to "oppress the hireling in his wages" (3 Nephi 24:5).
There is one remarkably lucid and direct fable on the possibility of being both rich and righteous which should pretty well settle the issue. Amulek was an eminently successful man, a direct descendent of Nephi (Alma 10:2—3) and proud of his genealogy and important family connections—a true aristocrat: "I have many kindreds and friends, and I have acquired also much riches by the hand of my industry" (Alma 10:4). A model citizen, hardworking, rich, well-born, immensely respectable: "And behold, I am also a man of no small reputation among all those who know me" (Ahna 10:4). But to get rich this man could not neglect his business; he was contracted to Mammon instead of God: "Nevertheless, after all this, I never have known much of the ways of the Lord," even though he had the best opportunity to know them, "for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous powerâ€¦ Nevertheless, I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hearâ€¦ I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore I went on rebelling against God, in the wickedness of my heart" (Alma 10:5—6). That went on until an angel stopped him (Alma 10:7). Being thus admonished, Amulek forsook "all his gold, and silver, and his precious things which were in the land of Ammonihah, for the word of God" (Alma 15:16). It had to be one or the other. But all was not lost, you might say, he still had his old friends and admirers and loved ones. Please let us not underestimate the power of money. Having lost his fortune, he was promptly "rejected by those who were once his friends and also by his father and his kindred" (Alma 15:16). Had Joseph Smith studied Timon of Athens?
Now this Amulek, during the years of his prosperity, would have merited the praise of one student who told in his term paper how he lived in the richest ward in the stake which was full of very many, very rich and successful businessmen, who were none the less Christlike because they gave to the poor. So do the Mafiosi, thus purchasing public respect and even sanction for their gains. Students are fond of evoking the names of highly successful Latter-day Saint businessmen, who have endowed monuments to themselves with their left hand while none of their admirers knew what their right hand was doing. Wherever giving or money is the issue, "How much?" is the only question. The widow's mite? Were the donors still rich after they had given? Was it enough to bring everyone up to an equal level, as the Book of Mormon commands? (Jacob 2:17).
16. Let us recall how the Nephites had to be constantly brought into line by "exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, â€¦stirring them up continually to keep them in fear of the Lordâ€¦ Nothing short of these thingsâ€¦would keep them from going down speedily to destruction" (Enos 1:23). This is an important phenomenon in the history of the church. We always seem to be right on the brink—because we are. If world history is a succession of recurrent scenarios, then we must look forward to certain set situations, good and bad. We are told, for example, that Jerusalem was destroyed again and again: "And as one generation has been destroyed among the Jews because of iniquity, even so have they been destroyed from generation to generation according to their iniquities; and never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord" (2 Nephi 25:9). So here is our standard Book of Mormon scenario. For a hundred and sixty years we have been calling these the last days. The forlorn figure with the sign reading "The World Will End Tomorrow" is much nearer to reality than the smart readers of the New Yorker who laugh at him; merely change that "tomorrow" to "the near future," and the bell tolls for every one of them. Throughout the Book of Mormon, people are looking forward to the coming of the Lord, and the Master of the House does not want anyone to know the exact time—not even the angels (Matthew 25:13, D&C 49:7 ). He plans to catch us doing our normal thing. So the lesson is that we must keep plugging away at the business of repentance as if the Lord were to come and inspect us today.
Until that time, we must withhold judgment of others. Another teaching that is coming into full force just now is the Book of Mormon admonition to be more patient with the imperfections of the church and less patient with our own. The church is a training school in which everyone is there for the training. So don't waste time criticizing the authorities. In that regard the Book of Mormon gives us another neat example. Moroni had very good reason to complain about the top men of the nation "sitting upon [their] â€¦thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor" while the work of death was going on all around them (Alma 60:7). Many today are complaining of a like situation. Anyone can see the horrendous abuses, incompetence, dishonesty, cruelty, and immorality thriving on all sides; but from the control centers comes only a dignified silence. Many are very disturbed by this. "Brutus, thou sleepest!" is the cry. But the moral of the story, as it turns out, is that Moroni in his criticism was wrong, completely out of order, he simply did not understand the situation. He was quite right about the crime, but it was not for him to apportion the guilt. So let us, when distressed by the inadequacies of others, remember the number-one instruction of the Book of Mormon: "This is my doctrineâ€¦that the Father commandeth all men everywhere to repent and believe in me" (3 Nephi 11:32). This life is "a state of probation" (2 Nephi 2:21). "Be wise in the days of your probation" (Mormon 9:28). "Wo unto himâ€¦that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!" (2 Nephi 9:27).
Repentance is the main message of the Book of Mormon, which also tells us what repentance is. Metanoia, the New Testament word, contains no hint as to how we go about it, but the Greeks had a better instruction in the two great maxims from the temple at Delphi: "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess." Both are lamely translated as advice for making friends and influencing people. Actually they are the rules by which the universe is governed; the one sets us on the right track, and the other keeps us there. The Book of Mormon tells us that the essence of repentance is knowing exactly what we are. King Benjamin really rubs it in: "Therefore, of what have ye to boast? And now I ask, can ye say ought of yourselves? â€¦Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth" (Mosiah 2:24—25). "Retain in remembrance the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and longsuffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humilityâ€¦ If ye do this ye shall always rejoice" (Mosiah 4:11—12). And this was on the occasion of a great national assembly celebrating years of victory and prosperity—the king is careful to throw cold water on the slightest indication of self-congratulation. The very purpose of our being here is repentance, and repentance is an unsettling exercise in self-knowledge: "O how great is the nothingness ofâ€¦men" (Helaman 12:7). This is the time of probation and preparation; though we are born innocent, there are flaws in our nature, and it is the purpose of our earthlife to bring them out in the open through repentance and eradicate them through baptism, to clear the way for further progression. If there is any weakness in our characters, this is the setting in which it is bound to show up, this life is the day of our probation; whether we find ourselves in an unstable and dangerous or a safe and prosperous environment, it makes no difference—the bad stuff in us will come to the surface. We all feel the unreality of this life, and it makes us afraid of everything, "living lives of quiet desperation." Young and old people today are beset by hidden anxieties and will go for anything that promises security. Latter-day Saints even know what it means when the Lord says, "My Father worked out his kingdom in fear and trembling, and I must do the same."18 That is exactly what we are doing. Until the reality of existence is found not in the great and spacious high-rise, but in that wholly different ambience on the other side of the Yawning Gulf, there will be no peace on this distracted globe. Apart from the way the Book of Mormon puts it, nothing else makes sense of a world that works like a badly assembled, badly repaired, badly operated, but beautifully designed machine.
But in seeking to know ourselves, we must not forget that other injunction—"'Nothing in excess." Once we are on the path, we must stay with it. "Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way" (3 Nephi 14:14, 27:33). This not only refers to the control of appetites, desires, and passions, but it is what keeps the universe itself viable—without it life would be impossible. It is that fine-tuning that guarantees that the earth is not too near or too far from the sun, not too wet or too dry, not too hot or too cold, does not move too fast or too slowly, is not too large or too small, and so on. It is that constant fine-tuning which correlates the fifteen constants and makes this life possible. The Book of Mormon teaches us that we must observe it in all that we do. It is interesting how the wicked in the Book of Mormon, like the Zoramites and the people of Zarahemla and even the Gadianton society, go overboard, in both directions at once, balancing their excess of worldly vanity by an equally obnoxious excess of ceremonial piety. Recently a scientist has written that we can philosophize and theologize all we want to, but still there is no saving ourselves from the ultimate tragedy of a life that suddenly stops. John G. Taylor has written,
We have come to the end of our story about the universe. It is full of violent actions and grim forebodingsâ€¦ The natural reaction to such a tale is [for] â€¦each of us to live our lives untouched by these immensities, and by the catastrophes to come. The satisfaction gained from the simple round of life need be unalteredâ€¦ We may live and die without raising up our eyes to the heavens, secure in the safety of our cotton-wool globe. Yet that is false. We cannot divorce our lives from our understanding of the world around us, and especially the basic problems of existence, the impossible questions of the universe. It is our answers, or lack of them, which determine our actions, even from day to day. For whatever we do, we must somehow come to terms with the infinite before we can act.19
And we ask ourselves in view of our untouched potentialities, "Is that all there is?" That is the question of the day, the terrible question. We are in the position of the Nephites in their final stages who were frantic with grief—not for their sins, as Mormon laments, but because they could not go on enjoying them indefinitely; the whole society, so to speak, had the AIDS mentality: "But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, â€¦but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin" (Mormon 2:13). Suddenly it becomes clear how the ultimate lessons of the Book of Mormon converge on the present scene. The futility of military solutions: "It is by the wicked that the wicked are punished" (Mormon 4:5). "Ye must lay down your weapons of warâ€¦and take them not again" (Mormon 7:4). "Man shall not judge, neither shall he smite" (Mormon 8:20). This in accordance with what I call the Great General Order: "For the Lord worketh not in secret combinations, neither doth he will that man should shed blood, but in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man" (Ether 8:19). This rule was actually observed by the Saints during Johnston's War, and it reads now like the epitaph of the modern world. We now know the fate of all those who set their hearts on riches. We know that God esteems all flesh in one. We discover that the powerful appeal of the Book of Mormon is a deep, warm, personal affection miraculously conveyed to the reader personally from the writers. We know that this is not our real existence—even the Gentiles feel that and resent the madness of it all. Here we are nothing, but here we want everything, because we think this is our only chance. And it is indeed our only chance in a sense. Our great day of probation in which we show how we can adjust ourselves to eternity—here is where we do it.
1. Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kochba (New York: Random House, 1971), 247—48.
2. Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986), 133—36.
3. John L. Hilton, "Book of Mormon 'Wordprint' Measurements Using 'Wrap-Around' Block Counting" (Provo: F.A.R.M.S., 1988).
4. H. Haertel, "Buddha," in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen: Mohr, 1957), 1:1469—73.
6. Erik Hornung, Grundzüge der ägyptischen Geschichte (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftlich Buchgesellschaft, 1978), 2.
7. Ibid., 4.
8. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 12 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 11:285—86.
9. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 178—89; reprinted in CWHN 6:209—21.
10. Friedrich Jeremias, "Semitische Völker in Vorderasien," in A. Bertholet and E. Lehmann, Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (Tübingen: Mohr, 1925), 1:620, 641; Izebel is a goddess named "na" in a Phoenician inscription from Cyprus, world center of the love-cult, also in Palestine.
11. The intermarriage of these people is discussed in Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 58—69; in CWHN 6:71—83.
12. Hornung, Grundzüge, 5.
13. S. C. Northrop Filmer, The Meeting of East and West (New York: Macmillan, 1946), cited in R. Buckminster Fuller, Earth Inc. (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1973), 391.
14. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, lines 1186—89.
15. These topics are also discussed in Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 336—65; in CWHN 6:400—43, Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1970), 373—435; in CWHN 7:337—97.
16. Karl R. Popper, "Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities," Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 22 (1963): 963—64.
17. William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act 4, Scene 3, line 43.
18. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 349.
19. John G. Taylor, Black Holes (New York: Avon, 1975), 187—88.
This talk was delivered on May 10, 1988, at the Sunstone Book of Mormon Lecture Series in Salt Lake City.