Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Rethinking Mosiah 26 and the Conduct of Nephite Priests

              [To strengthen my reading comprehension I've been reading the Book of Mormon in Chinese. I came across Mosiah 26 and thought a re assessment of the chapter would aid my ideas that perhaps we might be getting a slightly white washed view of history from Nephite priests.  
             This applies to the paper I wrote about Gideon, which is now the first chapter of my second book. I'm also still annoyed at the anonymous peer reviewer that dismissed my argument out of hand, didn't like anything I wrote, and basically tossed my paper in the garbage. I think my argument is a good one that reassess the text, and I'm happy to provide additional support. Its still a work in progress so I welcome any comments, particular those that help me refine my main points.]   
             The idea that what was recorded, Gideon’s innocent death by Nehor, might be suspect is increasingly support by research and a careful reading of Mosiah. Noel Reynolds argued that Nephi’s text had political overtones designed to strengthen his claim to leadership.[1]  And Biblical scholar David Bokovoy went a step further and argued that Nephi’s account is propaganda that read like a classic Hebrew folktale designed to make him look like a hero. (And conversely, presented Laman and his descendants as villains.)[2]   
                Mosiah 26 in particular gives an account that could easily have been manipulated by record keepers or rulers to enhance their political power. Verse one details those that were two young to have heard and understood King Benjamin’s words. As King Benjamin was the one to initiate the covenant with his people and act as a mediator between them and God, their refusing to listen represents a break with this covenant.  They are then portrayed as a villainous other in verse six, since they flatter, deceive, and draw the people into wickedness. The political importance is first revealed in verse 10, where Alma is hesitant to use his power as High Priest. He is so hesitant and troubled at the thought of using his power (v.10), that he refers the case to King Mosiah, who again sends it back to Alma (v. 12). Alma then receives a long answer to his prayer that blesses him, recounts their foundational narrative at the Waters of Mormon and captivity, and God gives him authority to expel those from the church (v.15-20). Alma wrote this down, creating a new precedent for later generations, and “went and judged” those sinners (v. 32-33).
                At first reading this sounds like a heartwarming story of somebody who leads the church with such humility that he delays punishment as much as possible. While Alma the Elder and other Nephite leaders may indeed have been sincere, the account in Mosiah 26 is ripe for abuse. In less than ten years for example, Alma the Younger said the people of Zarahemla were in an “awful dilemma” (Alma 7:3). And this doesn’t include the almost complete wickedness seen increasingly in the books of Helaman and 3 Nephi. Those that wished to expel their brethren for political or financial gain could point to the precedent established by Alma in Mosiah 26. With that text in hand they could claim to be conscientious of God’s will, reluctant to use its power, but forced to expel them from the church (and its associated political and financial privileges in being among the Nephite elite.) Few people in history willingly usurp power, it is always done humbly and with great reluctance.  Reading Julius Ceasar’s account for example, we are forced to conclude that if only certain senators (who just happened to be his opponents) left him alone, he wouldn’t have had to illegally cross the Rubicon and make himself emperor. 
                To cite another example, the Venetians in the Fourth Crusade had prepared a large fleet to sail to the Middle East. Yet they hadn’t been paid and faced a difficult bind. If they disbanded the coalition army in Venice they faced significant economic disruption and hostile intent. They attacked the port of Zara which was on their way, a convenient hold over for the winter away from Venice, and economically beneficially to them (since it flanked their trade routes.). But the ruler of Hungary had given lip service to the same crusade, wasn’t doing anything to fight in it, but managed to get the Venetians excommunicated for their conduct in actual fulfillment of the crusade.  Not to mention that the crusades themselves were often done for power and money as much as spiritual enlightenment. Hence, religion is often intertwined with politics, strategy, and money. 
                Going back to Gideon’s dispute with Nehor.  Power, even reluctantly procured, is very dangerous and often justified after the fact and its often used inappropriately for political and financial reasons. Its possible that church leaders were not as innocent as claimed, but that they sometimes abused their authority (perhaps the awful dilemma that Alma cited), and acted violently (Gideon against King Noah and possibly Nehor), or encouraged political leaders to incite violence (Moroni’s Title of Liberty- see below), all of which makes us pause and reassess the text as written.

[1] Noel Reynolds, “Nephi’s Political Testament,” in John Sorenson and Melvin Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991) 220-230.
[2] David Bokovoy, “1 Nephi as Propaganda”, When Gods Were Men, February, 6th 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidbokovoy/2015/02/1-nephi-as-propaganda/ (Accessed July 8th, 2015.) 


LL said...

I've always found that the struggle between Nephites and Lamanites makes far more sense when viewed in this context:

When Lehi's family arrived in the New World, they found it populated. Laman, Lemuel and their families joined with the locals to gather strength from them and they formed alliances. In the space of a generation or two, all knowledge on the part of their descendants passed. They were a drop of Israeli blood in a sea of locals.

The Nephites kept their records and their traditions intact, with the locals joining in their number occasionally - in which case the Nephites kept their identity and their history.

It explains many things: (1) The Lamanites always outnumbered the Nephites by a wide margin. Local Lamanites could call on more distant relatives for assistance in local squabbles and often received help and numbers. (2) It explains the almost immediate cultural divide between Nephites and Lamanites.

I may be wrong, but it's the only scenario that I've found that makes sense.

Matthew Roper said...


You might be interested in taking a look at Jack Welch's piece on "The Trial of Nehor" in his *Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon* (2008), 211-35. He notes some interesting things about the case. For example, Nehor was not convicted for killing Gideon by the sword (Since both men argued, started fighting, and then one was killed, the case may have been problematic under the Law of Moses. Nehor could have argued that the killing was not premeditated). Instead, Welch, argues that Nehor was convicted of trying to enforce priest-craft by the sword. Alma no doubt made the best decision he could, but the non-church faction was very unhappy about it as can be seen in Alma 1-8. I recommend giving the Welch article a read.

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks, those are both good comments.