Friday, June 28, 2013
Feminized Courage and other Gender Ideas from the Book of Mormon
In one of my more sarcastic moments I thought I should write some sort of feminist study of the Book of Mormon. But the more I started thinking about the topic the more I realized how fruitful it could be.
In both Nephi’s visions (1 Nephi 14:12) and in a talk from Alma the Younger to his son there is a discussion of whores and harlots.(Alma 39: 3, 11) The sexual impurity contrasts with the laws of purity that described by John Welch. He cites scriptures in the Law of Moses about being ritually pure (Deuteronomy 23:9; Joshua 3:5) and Book of Mormon verses with related concepts. These include Captain Moroni insisting that his soldiers not “fall into transgression,” (Alma 46:22) and the exceeding faith and purity of the Stripling Warriors. (Alma 53:21; 57:26) One of the central promises of the Book of Mormon concerns those that prosper for keeping commandments. Hence sexual impurity would stand as a significant loss of virtue and strength.
A Women’s Tale:
In the very beginning of the story, in Mosiah 9:2 Zeniff has to relate the sad tale of civil war and strife to the new widows. Before facing battle Zeniff hid his women and children in the wilderness. (Mosiah 10:9) Underlining the importance of sexual purity and honoring covenants, one of the first things King Noah does is begin take many wives and concubines. ( Mosiah 11:2) The soldiers of King Noah were forced to leave behind their women and children. (Mosiah 19:11) These soldiers were so angry they rebelled and burned King Noah at the stake. (Mosiah 19:19-20) The remaining soldiers that didn’t flee with King Noah put their women in front of their army to mollify the Lamanite force. (Mosiah, 19:13) (That tactic worked which raises all sorts of questions.) In Mosiah 20:1-5 the priests of King Noah abduct Lamanite daughters. (In chapter two of my book I suggest this is an early version of bride stealing- see also Helaman 11:33.) The people of Limhi are blamed and then attacked and they fought with extra vigor for their women and children. (Mosiah 20: 11) (This of course, predates the famous Title of Liberty, and also underscores the same tactic used by Mormon, Mormon 2:23-24) And towards the end of the story in Mosiah 21:17 we find so many widows that the remaining men had to support them.
Upon closer reflection it seems the fate of women and children are closely intertwined with the entire story of the people of Zeniff. Their inclusion accounts for motivation of many of the actors, adds pathos to the major events, and makes this one of the more inclusive and humanistic accounts in the Book of Mormon. This is so intriguing I will likely transform this into a full paper.
The famous Stripling Warriors often give credit to their mothers for their victory. (Alma 56: 47-48) What is interesting is this feminized origin of martial bravery. Many narratives would place the origins of courage in a father based setting. Perhaps the warriors learned courage from hunting with their fathers, (see Enos 3) or from a campaign on which they accompanied their fathers as children. But here they learned battlefield courage from their mothers. This could represent the somewhat unique situation where their fathers refused to take up arms. So the Stripling Warriors had little chance to witness combat from their fathers. Or this could be an intriguing lesson from Mormon. It could act as a subversive teaching that undercuts the idea that fighting is exclusively man’s business. One of my favorite Disney songs is “Be a Man” from Mulan, since by the end of the movie the soldiers are dressed like women and following the lead of the female protagonist. The reference to mothers could also undermine the idea that people need to fight in the first place. After all, the pertinent teaching here is a trust in God, which is similar to idea of surrendering our lives, and control of our lives, to the care of Heavenly Father found in step three of the LDS recovery program. (See also Alma 61:12-13)
Token of Bravery:
In one of the last chapters of Moroni we read about the horrible treatment of women and children in probably the most graphic verses in all of scripture. The Nephite women and children are held captive by the Lamanites and forced to eat the flesh of their slain husbands or fathers. While the Lamanite women are captured, raped, and then eaten ravenously as a token of bravery. (Moroni 9:8-10) The phrase, token of bravery is interesting and makes me wonder what other tokens of bravery they had. I know for example that many of the elite Aztecs wore the bones of their dead enemy, and rather colorful clothes. The word token is also associated with the temple, so I wonder if this is some sort of perverse ceremony that took place in the corrupted Nephite temples. Sacrifices to the gods were a part of pre-battle rituals of Mesoamerica. So if the Nephites had apostatized to the God of War, and we know that a warlike cult from Teotihuacan (modern Mexico city) was spreading throughout Mesoamerica at this time, it would make sense that a brutal act of conquest against women would satisfy that false God. It would also act as almost the exact opposite of the Laws of Purification expected of God’s people. This works thematically too, since the last chapter exhorts the readers to study the book, remember God’s mercy,(Moroni 10:3) and then apply Christ’s saving power in their lives. (Moroni 10: 32-33) Much like the book Hosea in the Bible, that uses an unfaithful and whoring wife to highlight the strength of God’s covenants, the depravity of chapter nine could serve to highlight the sanctifying and saving power of Christ in chapter ten.
As you can see, a study of women and their associations with sex raise a host of interesting issues that would enhance our understanding of the Book of Mormon. These are a few preliminary ideas and essentially little more than a brainstorming session but I look forward to presenting these ideas in greater detail.
 John Welch, Law and War in the Book of Mormon in Warfare and The Book of Mormon, Stephen Ricks, William Hamblin eds. (Provo, Salt Lake City: FARMS, Deseret Book, 1991).