Monday, January 12, 2015

Futile Victory in Jacob 7:26

[This is my application to the Mormon Theology Seminar. Last time there were over 80 applications for seven spots, but I'm still very proud of my ideas regardless of the decision and hope to pursue this line of thought in the future.]

The poignancy contained in Jacob 7:26 serves to highlight Nephite military conflicts. They combine with several key words and phrases, and a judicious comparison to the legendary Chinese general Yue Fei, to suggest that Jacob talked as a martial leader that was victorious in battle, but also sensed the failure represented by those victories.   

Confucianist and Taoist teachings on war highlight the contentions mentioned in verses 24 through 26. Alastair Johnson argued that Chinese thought held what he called a Mencian view, named after a prominent disciple of Confucius, which believed that the righteousness and good governance of a ruler could prevent conflict.[1]  Much like Doc& Cov 121: 121:46, a righteous ruler would have power “flow unto [him] forever and ever.” For example, the martial leader and philosopher Wuzi wrote. “The Sage rests the people in the Way [Tao], orders them with righteousness, moves them with forms of propriety [li], and consoles them with benevolence. Cultivate these four virtues and you will flourish. Neglect them and you will decline.”[2]  Even when military thought didn’t condemn violence, one of Sunzi’s principle beliefs said that a commander must configure his troops in order fight with the military power of a suddenly unleashed torrent of water.[3]  As a result, ancient Chinese historians blamed the defeat of the Northern Song (960-1126 AD) on rulers who forfeited Heaven’s Mandate through unrighteous behavior.[4]

So the need to use military force represented a moral failure and these thoughts amplify the poignancy of the Nephite’s failure to persuade the Lamanites. If we accept Grant Hardy’s strong argument that Nephi’s mission was to keep the brothers from splintering,[5] the “continual” warfare and “eternal hatred” (v.24) of the Lamanites represented a stunning defeat of that mission. Even though the Nephites were successful in their martial defense (v.25), Jacob was perhaps the last living person to hear Father Lehi’s voice and understand how Nephite success on the battlefield couldn’t overcome the moral failing that required fighting in the first place. 

Moreover, Jacob was only a link in the chain of Nephite record keepers and spiritual leaders; after Jacob there is a noticeable decline in the spirituality, length of writing, and marvelous testifying within their writing. A few generations after Jacob, one author confessed he was a “wicked man” (Omni 2), another couldn’t claim any additional revelation (Omni 11), and Jacob’s descendants were inconsequential third person observers of Nephite history that actually turned over the plates to the secular king and historian (Omni 24-25).  On top of his personal link, Jacob presumably knew of Nephi’s prophecy concerning the eventual destruction of his people, suggesting a subtle and parallel pattern within the text.

Yue Fei (1103-1142 AD) only rose to prominence during the collapse of the Northern Sung Dynasty, but despite all of his victories he never did recover Northern China. For various political reasons he was arrested and had his death arranged by the Emperor he faithfully served. He fought to preserve his people, but the need to fight in the first place represented moral failings on the part of rulers. And he died knowing that his fight, despite all of his victories, remained futile.   Jacob’s personal link in the chain seemed futile, his defense of his people represented the failure of Nephi and himself to unite the people, he was the last link before the deteriorating spirituality of descendants, and he feasibly knew that the Nephites were destined for extermination.  It is no wonder at the end of his book he compared his journey to that of a solemn and lonesome wanderer. Conceivably, like Yue Fei or Moroni, he wandered a desolate, war scarred landscape, shell shocked at the failure of his life’s mission, and “mourning” (Jacob 7:26) his days while feeling his contribution was “small” (v. 27) and ultimately futile.

Update 3/21/20: An expanded version of these ideas can be found in my book, Saints to Sinners: Reassessing the Book of Mormon


[1] Alastair Iain Johnson, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (New York: Princeton University Press, 1998) 155.
[2] Wuzi, Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, (New York: Westview Press, 1993), 207.
[3] Sunzi, The Seven Military Classics, 165, 168.
[4] Neo Confucianist historians that dominated the court of the Southern Song Dynasty would have especially believed that. Contemporary historians, though, argue it was stunningly poor military and political choices of the Emperor that turned a devastating Jurchen raid into utter collapse. Peter Lorge, War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China: 900-1795, (New York: Routledge Press, 2005), chapter 2.   
[5] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Readers Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). 


Manda said...

How very interesting. I hope you get to expound on it at the conference!

Grant said...

Happily, he was not as much a failure as he may have thought - the book of Jacob is a wonderful part of the Book of Mormon.

Morgan Deane said...

I agree Grant. There was a great deal more I could have added but didn't have the space. If I do get the chance to attend this seminar I'm sure I'll study that and so much more. Thanks for all of your comments.