1 Nephi 4

Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

1 Nephi 4:13

There’s lots that could be said about this chapter and Nephi’s killing of Laban. As Elder Holland has pointed out, the fact that this is so near the beginning of the Book of Mormon (as opposed to sandwiched somewhere between 2 Nephi’s Isaiah quotations) suggests that we’re meant to confront this issue early on. It should definitely shape how we read 1 Nephi 3:7 which Elder Holland suggests we sometimes recite all too “casually”.

But I find my mind caught on 1 Nephi 4:13, part of the Spirit’s explanation to Nephi. Because these words are very reminiscent of words found elsewhere:

And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,

Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.

John 11:49-50

While this is by no means an exact quotation, it’s close both in wording (“one man”, “perish”, “nation”) and similar in concept. Which may be a wee bit troubling when we know it’s Caiaphas saying this, about Jesus.

Some people might make a historical issue about this, but as we shall see in 1 Nephi 10 Lehi’s going to openly and explicitly quote someone hundreds of years in the future, God and the Spirit not being bound by such petty things as time. The who and about whom might be more troubling to us. Certainly Caiaphas’ example shows we should be extremely careful about such reasoning. But I do not think this close parallel is portraying Laban as Christ (considering the Book of Mormon’s high Christology – including its aim to convince not just that “Jesus is the Christ” but also that he is “the Eternal God”), or Nephi as Caiaphas.

However, when it comes to Caiaphas, what John says next is very interesting:

And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;

And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the bchildren of God that were scattered abroad.

John 11:51-52

John doesn’t treat Caiaphas words as invalid or merely his own words – John actually treats it as an actual and true prophecy. But while Caiaphas, by virtue of his office, could be the receptacle for such a prophecy, he also could not understand or intend their true meaning (presumably in part due to his wickedness, in contrast to the likes of John and Nephi), and so he conspired against the Christ. The words were true – it is Caiaphas’ intent and actions that are a different matter: “for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7).

2020 Edit:

And I was led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.

I feel this line in verse 6 really deserves more attention. It sometimes seems that in our Church service that we feel very attached to goals and targets and plans, techniques borrowed from our other endeavours. We set numerical goals for things we have very little influence over, targets despite the counsel to avoid such things in works like Preach My Gospel and the earlier Missionary Guide, and complicated plans that may or may not actually get us where we want to go. Now there’s nothing wrong with plans per se: i think one can look at things like the creation and the plan of salvation, and see that God is very fond of them, and certainly when we have a task we should do what is in our power to try and carry them out. But I think we like to feel that we’re in control. We can rely too much on our own plans, believe too much is solely within our own power, and forget how much we don’t know, that God does (and I feel he likes to surprise us), and how much we rely on him. Nephi and his brothers came up with several plans to retrieve the plates, and they all failed. Now I don’t think they would have eventually succeeded had they not made that effort, but the fact also remains that their plans (which actually seem fairly reasonable, and aren’t over-complicated) did not succeed, and eventual success came down to this: Nephi having to rely on the inspiration of the spirit, having no idea of what was going to come next.

I think of many of the other great acts of service within the gospel, such as the missionary endeavours of the sons of Mosiah, and it’s likewise instructive: they didn’t have any overly elaborate plan, other than to preach the gospel, and they did not have any great numerical goals (“we supposed our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some”, Alma 26:30). What they had was complete dedication, a willingness to serve without reservation and endure whatever trials they were called to suffer, and the companionship of the spirit to guide them. Likewise, while it’d probably be unwise to abandon any concept of plans, I feel many of us would benefit by realising that there will be times when we, too, will need to follow the guidance of the spirit, and do it without reservation, even though we don’t know where it’s going.

Of course, Nephi’s killing of Laban is the most noticeable feature of this chapter, as I noted when reading it and writing the original post. To elaborate on some of what I alluded to above, I’d come to feel that we have a tendency to quote 1 Nephi 3:7 a bit too easily, not paying attention to 1 Nephi 4 that follows it. I was gratified to learn that I wasn’t alone in these feelings, and that Elder Holland, as I linked to above, has spoken similarly that we quote that verse too casually. He speak’s of Christ’s introduction of himself to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11, and particularly his statement in 3 Nephi 11:11 that:

And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.

Christ thus emphasises his obedience to the Father, but such obedience is not easy or without price: it is “that bitter cup”, and he speaks of having “suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning”. Christ obeyed the Father completely, but we should not forget that such obedience was painful:

…which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink

(D&C 19:18).

We are not called upon to atone for the sins of the world. But Christ does call us and states “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The path of obedience is one of self-denial, of obedience despite pain and difficulty. Nephi’s statement in 1 Nephi 3:7 is true, but it does not mean that it is as easy as some of those who quote it (and perhaps as Nephi himself felt when first saying it) feel. And Nephi really learns that in 1 Nephi 4:

Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.

And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.

And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

(1 Nephi 4:7-10)

It’s interesting at first that Nephi seems to have little idea of what he’s about to be asked to do, so that his attention is first concentrated on admiring the craftsmanship of Laban’s blade. It is then that he first receives the instruction to kill Laban, one that Nephi is very reluctant to follow. Notice how similar the wording is here to Christ’s own feelings about the bitter cup: they “would that I might not” and both “shrink”/”shrunk”. And Nephi has been asked to do what many would see as a shocking thing: to kill, and not only to kill, but to kill a drunken, helpless human being in cold blood. Some have sought to claim that this was an act of self-defence under the Law of Moses, appealing to passages like Exodus 22:2-3, but that passage specifically addresses the matter of those slain while found breaking into people’s own homes at night. Laban may have previously threatened Nephi and his brothers’ lives, and he certainly stole their property, but he’s not presently breaking into Nephi’s own and is at this point unconscious. What Nephi is being asked to do is shocking, and we’re meant to find it shocking, because Nephi finds it shocking too. Nephi, normally so gung-ho about obedience, must in fact be heavily persuaded by the Spirit to carry it out.

We all find some things harder than others. We’re all going to find some commandments more difficult than others, and which ones they are will vary from person to person. But there is one constant, which is that God will test us. As Joseph Smith stated: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God”. There may come points at our life where we will be asked by God to act in ways that go against our pre-conceived political, social and religious views, and which we, like Nephi here, find personally challenging. Indeed God seems to have a habit of it. What those areas are will likely be different: some might find killing drunk people a bit too easy for God’s comfort, so they won’t get asked to do that. Instead they will be asked to do something that they find personally challenging, that forces us to make the stark choice between our will, and God’s will.

I have to confess to a measure of speculation about how Nephi managed to remove Laban’s head without getting too much blood on Laban’s clothes that he subsequently wore. Perhaps if the body was on a slope, and the head positioned downward… I’m aware I’ve given this far more thought than most people (and so probably do not have too many drunken corpses in my own future).

1 Nephi 3

And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.

And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.

But Laman fled out of his presence, and told the things which Laban had done, unto us. And we began to be exceedingly sorrowful, and my brethren were about to return unto my father in the wilderness.

1 Nephi 3:11-14 (my emphasis)

Casting lots is portrayed as an acceptable way of determining decision and even ascertaining the divine will in the scriptures (perhaps most notably in determining Judas replacement in Acts 1:26, but it can be found from the Old Testament to the Doctrine and Covenants). So we might find it surprising here, but it isn’t really.

What it got me think of, however, is that while from our perspective it certainly seems no coincidence that the lot fell upon Laman, and that Laman’s failure (and Nephi’s with the loss of their property in vv. 22-26) are but the prelude to what happens in chapter four, from their perspective it may have been very disheartening. They’d made the attempt, and perhaps felt they’d secured divine guidance on the matter (and we’d probably concur), so why on earth had they failed? How could it have gone wrong? Thus all of them – including Nephi – “began to be exceedingly sorrowful”. It was difficult to see from their perspective that they might well have been rightly guided, but that this earlier failure might fit into God’s plan.

2020 edit: I find it interesting to read what I’ve written above, which I wrote almost 4 years ago. I came across it again for the first time several months ago, having forgotten all about it. In that space of time, I’ve had my own encounter with serious failure, which has caused me to wonder if I had done something wrong or messed something up, or misinterpreted guidance to begin with. It was a bit of a shock to come across something I’d written that entirely anticipated what was about to happen to me 18 months later. An interesting reminder, not just that “failure” can be part of the plan, necessary steps leading towards what God really wants to happen, but also that sometimes we can be seeking answers to questions, unaware that we’ve already been given, and even know, the answers we’re looking for.

Another line stood out to me in verse 5 (my emphasis):

And no, behold thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them; but behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord.

Sometimes we can struggle with things that are required of us. Sometimes that’s simply because of our weaknesses, which is simply part of the human condition, and which we must try to overcome (and seek divine help in doing so). Other times, we may not understand what is being required, and even disagree. If that requirement is coming from a human being, than that may be fair enough: they may be wrong. But the basic commandments we find in the scriptures and teachings of the Church don’t claim to just come from a human being, and Lehi really gets to the crux of the issue if we’re struggling in verse 5: is a particular commandment from God? If it is, then even if we don’t understand it, our belief – that is our trust – in him and his goodness and knowledge should impel us to follow and obey anyway. If we don’t know if something comes from him, than we can seek and God can provide confirmation of that, but even with such confirmation we may never receive understanding of why he commands any given thing of us in this life. But that doesn’t matter, if we know it comes from him and know who he is. It may be hard, and we may not understand, but we can obey anyway if we trust him.

1 Nephi 2

And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.

1 Nephi 2:7

Lehi had to flee into the wilderness because the people were trying to kill him, he had to leave behind all his property and riches, and we subsequently learn that his family did not believe him (and seem to have been most unconcerned about any death threats). Yet the first thing Lehi does when he reaches a stopping point is to build an altar, make an offering and give thanks to the Lord!

He’s a better man than I am!

2020 Edit:

Several things stood out to me today.

Firstly, there’s Lehi’s dream in verses 1-2. This is the third visionary experience of Lehi’s we have record of (after the two in 1 Nephi 1), although obviously there may be more. This is the one that kicks off the account of the Book of Mormon as we have it, however, since it’s the one that commands Lehi to take his family and flee into the wilderness (more on that in a bit).

One thing that struck me when reading it, however, was how much clearer it was that Lehi’s first two, the first of which we really only have Lehi’s reaction (1 Nephi 1:6), and the second couched very much in apocalyptic terms (in the original, not popular sense). This may be an artefact of how they are recorded, but then that too would be a deliberate choice. I wonder if one implication is that, since Lehi was obedient to what God had commanded him to do earlier (as he is particularly commended for in 1 Nephi 2:1), that further instructions came with increased clarity. In the same way, as we learn to follow the promptings of the spirit and revelation, it becomes easier to hear the spirit and understand what we are to do. That’s one suggestion.

Turning now to the journey into the wilderness. This is a motif, of course, that occurs throughout scripture, especially in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon: Abraham was commanded to leave his home and kindred and promised a land of promise; Jacob fled the home of his father-in-law to return to said land; Moses leads the people of Israel across the wilderness in the exodus; in the Book of Mormon not only do Lehi and his family embark on this trek, but many groups of their descendants will likewise have to flee into the wilderness; and it turns out that long before them the Jaredites had to do the same thing. It is a recurring pattern, one that has also recurred in more recent eras, and may well do so again.

One reason for that, I believe, is the important symbolic meaning attached to these journeys, as both Alma the younger and the author of Hebrews point out. As Alma states, speaking of Lehi’s journey, in Alma 37:45:

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

And in Hebrews 11:13-16, speaking of the patriarchs:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.

And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

These recurrent treks in the wilderness, leaving behind previous comforts and braving the trials of the journey for a new land of promise, are a type of our journey through mortality, seeking the “better country”, the “far better land of promise”, that is our hopefully heavenly destination, one that we too might not always see clearly.

Why did these thoughts pop up while reading this today? Well not just because this is the beginning of Lehi’s journey, but also because of what he did (1 Nephi 2:4):

And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.

This again is a recurrent part of the pattern, but I think a vital one. Such treasures are of course little use on such a journey: facing the trials of a genuine wilderness, the accoutrements of civilisation shed their apparent value. Perhaps that’s one reason why the people of God have to recurrently make such trips literally. But we too, travelling through mortal life, must also learn to leave such things behind: not just material treasures (though often them), but also all the other things that the world would teach us are utterly necessary but which are ultimately transitory: titles, position, careers, awards, degrees and much else. These may be useful for a season, but we cannot take them with us, and we need to be prepared to give them up, lest we end up like Laman and Lemuel whose opposition to their father was rooted in the fact that he had lead them “to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things” (1 Nephi 2:11). We must, as the book of Hebrews states, hold the attitude that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth”, because as C.S. Lewis pointed out in the Screwtape Letters, it is when we feel we are finding our place in the world that it is finding its place in us.

Speaking of the Exodus, one thing to note as we read through 1st Nephi is how closely tied the account is to the Exodus narrative. There’s several deliberate allusions and references, of course (most especially in 1 Nephi 17), but one detail I first noted when I wrote an undergraduate essay on the topic (while in Jerusalem) can be seen in this chapter, which is the detail that Laman and Lemuel “murmur” against their father (v. 11). The word choice is interesting, because one can find that “murmur” and its derivatives (“murmuring” and so on) are used 22 times in the Exodus narrative in the KJV, and only 18 times in the entire rest of the Bible. The same pattern occurs with 1 Nephi, which uses “murmur” and so on 19 times, compared to only 14 times for the entire rest of the Book of Mormon. The word choice is deliberate.

As a final item, it’s also worth noting in verse 20 onward is the first appearance of the oft-quoted promise to Nephi’s descendants in the Book of Mormon: “And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper…”. Of course, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the Lord’s notion of prosperity may not be the same as the world’s and – per C.S. Lewis – worldly prosperity was often highly spiritually dangerous for the Nephites.

1 Nephi 1

My attention today fell on the following verses:

And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.

And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!

1 Nephi 1:13-14

As I was reading this, it again seemed a bit of a strange dichotomy. Much of what Lehi reads in his vision is about the judgments coming upon Jerusalem and the forthcoming activity. And Lehi’s response is to rejoice (explicitly so in v.15), and among other things single out God’s mercy (twice in fact, particularly with the mention that he ‘wil[l] not suffer those who come unto [him] that they shall perish’). This seems at first glance a little odd.

Now it’s possible this reaction is to the other stuff he read that isn’t mentioned (the ‘great and marvelous things’), and we know from verse 19 that one of the things he read about is ‘the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world’. But verse 18 also emphasises that the principle subject of the ‘many marvelous things’ shown to Lehi ‘concern[ed] the destruction of Jerusalem’.

I think it’s possible there’s something else also going on here. Lehi’s original encounter with ‘a pillar of fire’ occurred because he was praying ‘in behalf of his people’ (vv.5-6). Now it’s easy to assume that ‘his people’ meant the people at Jerusalem, but I think its possible that this may be a more specific reference. Verse 4 recounts ‘many prophets’ coming to tell the people of Jerusalem, to ‘repent, or the great city of Jerusalem must be destroyed’. And we know, both from the Book of Mormon and the Bible, how such prophets such as Lehi and Jeremiah were received. Jeremiah 26:20-23 is particularly illustrative, where another prophet by the name of Urijah fled to Egypt for safety, but King Jehoiakim (Zedekiah’s brother and predecessor) sent agents after him to retrieve him, and once he was retrieved the king had Urijah killed.

Could Lehi have perhaps been praying on behalf of these prophets and those (like Lehi) who believed on them? If so, it’d make Lehi’s reaction to the forthcoming destruction – seeing it as a form of deliverance for those who were seeking to ‘come unto [him]’ (1 Nephi 1:14) – make much more sense, particularly as it’d be a direct answer to his actual question. Nor would this be the last time in the Book of Mormon that divine judgment on some be seen as providing deliverance for others, with perhaps the clearest association of these two concepts being seen in 1 Nephi 22:16-17 (and perhaps, thinking about it, it is no coincidence that concept comes up in the last chapter of this book if it’s also here in the first chapter).

Minor Notes:

The 2013 edition has changed the type-face, so that the introduction to the book of Nephi is in un-italicized text indicating it’s part of the sacred text, while chapter headings are not. It’s interesting that Nephi feels the need to spoil much of the ‘plot’ of 1 Nephi in advance, further indicating that telling a story is not his primary aim. It is interesting that Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life and Nephi’s own vision, with associated discussions, are not mentioned when they occupy a considerable portion in the centre of the book.

2020 Edit:

Several  things caught my eye while reading today, a couple of which it turns out I hadn’t already commented on above!

A brief thing to note is Nephi’s use of the word abridgment and abridged in verse 17:

But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life.

Mormon famously talks of having abridged the previous records in making most of the book, and I think a lot of people assume from that that his role was more that of an editor, snipping bits out to shorten it, but otherwise leaving the words of Alma, Helaman etc untouched. Which isn’t the case, since careful reading shows that it’s Mormon narrating through most of Words of Mormon to Mormon 7, and he’s usually pretty careful when he introduces a quotation from someone else (like Alma or Helaman). I think this example by Nephi, however, shows what the Book of Mormon means by using this word: it’s quite clear that this passage is in Nephi’s words – he’s writing it – but he’s telling a shortened account of his father’s visions (and may be using his own father’s writings described in verse 16 – which we sadly don’t have a full record of – as a source for said dreams and visions).

The other thing that really popped out at me, and which has done before, comes in verse 1, possibly the most-read verse of the Book of Mormon:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

The line that has caught my eye on more than one occasion is the line about “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days”.

I think this is striking for the balance it strikes between acknowledging trial and suffering on one part, but also confessing the Lord’s hand and his help and aid on the other. I think it’s important to realise we can acknowledge both at the same time. It sometimes seems that some feel that in order to maintain a positive perspective, one must deny when one is suffering, or feeling sad or unhappy, or so forth. The gospel can bring us peace, yes, but “not as the world giveth” (John 14:27). We are not promised permanent happiness, in the sense of an absence of any negative emotions, in this life, no matter how diligently we live the gospel: Christ himself experienced upset, grief, and deep distress (see John 11:35, Luke 19:41, Mark 14:33 and Luke 12:50), while a prophet like Jacob writes of “mourn[ing] out our days” (Jacob 7:26). “Men are, that they might have joy”, but one only learns to experience joy by also learning to experience misery (2 Nephi 2:25, 23). Now it is right to count our blessings, to look for the positive, and not to dwell or trap ourselves in negative emotions and experiences. But we don’t need to deny that we are or have experienced those things in order to do so. As I’ve written before, to deny that we’re going through bad times or feeling bad things when we are strikes me as less than honest. Which is counter-productive, because as Elder Cook has pointed out (quoting Arthur Brooks): “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are’”? Acknowledgement of our afflictions can co-exist with gratitude for divine assistance.

But I also think the dichotomy that Nephi points too goes beyond acknowledging both experiences, but also points to a relationship between those two things. As I’ve indicated in several places before, several years ago I went through a prolonged period of trial and extremely negative feelings. Yet, it’s worth point out that it was during the midst of those trials that I was blessed with some of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. These came as oases in the wilderness, brief moments which when they came blotted out how I was feeling and all I was going through, and which – even if only for a brief moment – filled my soul with peace and joy. Those moments passed, but holding onto those experiences gave me strength to endure when life as it was resumed. I believe that not only were those experiences “previews”, so to speak, of the joy we can and will experience permanently in the eternities, but also came not despite, but because of the trials I was going through. And I believe Nephi is pointing to the same truth: the favour of God came not just as a way of navigating the afflictions he was experiencing, but because of those very afflictions, that the Lord can “consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:2).

Reading the Book of Mormon: Title Page

As I have done many times before, as part of my personal study I have started reading the Book of Mormon from the beginning once again. This time around, however, I thought I do something a little different and record something here – however small – that catches my attention in each chapter I read. I plan to read a chapter a day, so should have some small thing each day. Anyone who happens to have any observations on the same chapters is welcome to chime in on the comments.

Without further ado, today I read the Title Page and the Testimonies (as well as the introduction, though that isn’t part of the sacred text itself). I’ve commented to a lot of people on the importance of the Title Page in particular, especially once we understand that it is the actual beginning of the Book of Mormon (and not 1 Nephi 1:1!). This time around, however, my eye was caught on the wonderfully ambiguous phrase that the Book of Mormon was “written by way of commandment“. This doubtless refers principally to the fact that the various authors of the Book and its source documents were commanded to write it, but it also carries a potential meaning applying to us: that the Book of Mormon was not just written because of commandments, but is written as commandments, and that its writings carry the force of divine commandments for us.

EDIT (from additional reading for 2020 “Come Follow Me” schedule): Reading the Title Page again (I will make separate posts for the other front matter), I am struck once again by its tone. This was a big insight I got while preparing The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. I write in that about how much of the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible is related to the key themes laid out on the Title Page (namely revelation & prophecy; the covenants with and the restoration of the house of Israel; and the divinity and messianic role of Christ), but one big thing to simply notice and bear in mind throughout the rest of reading the Book of Mormon is the difference it makes realising that this – which is part of the plates proper – is the beginning of the book, and not “I Nephi, having be born of goodly parents”. Reading through the lens of the latter, one is tempted to think of it as a story. Reading the book with this as the beginning means that it opens up with a declaration of where it came from, the divine inspiration and commandment that it was written and will be translated under, and a declaration of its essential aims. It makes the Book of Mormon as a whole read less as a story, and more of what it is: what one perceptive non-LDS scholar termed “a burning manifesto”. The Book of Mormon will recount history to serve its purposes, but it is not doing so merely to entertain or inform, but to convince and persuade its readers, and while it may disavow complete inerrancy (“if there are faults”), it also fiercely asserts divine authority, and that those who reject and condemn it will be held accountable before the judgment-seat of Christ.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats

“Behold ye are worse than they”

And now when ye talk, ye say: If our days had been in the days of our fathers of old, we would not have slain the prophets; we would not have stoned them, and cast them out.

Behold ye are worse than they; for as the Lord liveth, if a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil.

But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.

Helaman 13:25-27 (My emphasis)

I happened to read this today, and it seems particularly applicable in an age when – to quote Elder Holland – “if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it“.

Not Luz

There was a man in a land that was not Luz. And the Lord, looking upon the man, saw Satan approaching.

And the Lord said unto Satan, “Whence comest thou?” Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, “From wandering in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.”

And the Lord said, “Consider this man. He has often fallen short, and oft stumbled. Yet he has always put his trust in me, and never denied me.”

“Of course he does!”, replied the Devil. “Does he trust you for naught? You have given him so many assurances of what is to come: of his purpose and meaning, of hopes of love and marriage and family, of your own care for him. Even if he finds them hard to believe, you give him comfort about what is to come, and he knows you can and have told him of these things. Remove them from him, strip him of his hopes and assurances, give him doubt that he can or has ever heard your will, rob him of any knowledge of your love and he will deny you to your face.”

“Behold, he is in thine hand”, said the Lord.

And the man was plunged into thick confusion. He no longer knew whether he could tell the difference between an impression from God and his own thoughts, desires and fears. He no longer knew if he could trust the assurances he had relied on. He feared his labours had been in vain, and that he had spent ten years following a false path. He feared he could not correctly hear the answers to his prayers and that he had been falsely guided, decieved by the devil or his own thoughts. He worried that he was a failure, and that even God misliked him.

And the man was grieved at heart and vexed in spirit. He wished for death, and his mind put forth designs for it. But he prayed unto the Lord:

“Lord, I do not know thy will and I am sick at heart. Please save me from despair, for I am alone! Lord, I know that thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie. I know that thou hast all power, and can tell me of thy will. I know that thou knowest all things, things past and things to come, and so can guide me right. Please guide me now, and help me to know what is true and not be deceived.”

And the man remained despondant and low in spirit. He feared he could not trust any answers for he knew not where it came from. Yet he continued to pray:

“But may thy will be done. For I know that whatever thou willest – even if it be my ill – is right.”

Thus it was that the Devil was confounded, and the Lord was vindicated, and in time the Lord gave the man peace and clarity.

The Scriptures – Harold B. Lee

I say that we need to teach our people to find their answers in the scriptures. If only each of us would be wise enough to say that we aren’t able to answer any question unless we can find a doctrinal answer in the scriptures! And if we hear someone teaching something that is contrary to what is in the scriptures, each of us may know whether the things spoken are false—it is as simple as that. But the unfortunate thing is that so many of us are not reading the scriptures. We do not know what is in them, and therefore we speculate about the things that we ought to have found in the scriptures themselves. I think that therein is one of our biggest dangers of today.

The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 153.

If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth

Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24-26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69.

But God ceaseth not to be God

I frequently run across the claim, often given by members of the Church themselves, that LDS doctrine teaches that God is limited, that He is bound by moral or physical laws to which he is subject and which have power over him. These ideas have a long pedigree, but continue to pop up: For some recent examples, consider the references to “ultimate reality” being “constituted by moral natural laws as well as physical natural laws” that are “prior to Divine Will” in this interview by Ralph Hancock of Terryl Givens, or in a very recent example, the comment following this article on having confidence in the prophets attempts to disagree with the article by suggesting that there are “celestial limitations” such as “there are physical and moral laws that he cannot break (or he would cease to be God)”.

I have never been happy with these ideas. I dislike the implication that places something else (such as impersonal moral and physical laws) as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, which implies we are worshipping the wrong being. I dislike the formulations that result, such as the idea of God as the “ultimate scientist” who has simply discovered more laws, and that in consequence there is no such thing as a truly supernatural miracle. I find such notions contrary to the very emphasis the Book of Mormon places upon the power of God and the reality of miracles. It seems to me to be very bizarre that on one hand we have the Book of Mormon insisting upon God’s power and capacity for miraculous intervention, and that Christ himself at one of the fulcrums of the Restoration puts the issue as being one where people “hav[e] a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and yet Mormon philosophical discourse is filled with discussions of God’s supposed limitations. I can’t help but feel that if Latter-day Scripture (and General Conference et al) is pointing one way and “Mormon philosophy” is pointing another, there’s something severely wrong with the latter.

I discuss briefly some of the issues when it comes to “physical” laws here. In short, Section 88 is very explicit about God being the source of law for all things, and God’s power being the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). In fact Section 88 appears to be pointing at a very different set of metaphysics than by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate reality. The latter appears to be a simple extension of very common Western metaphysics (as witnessed by those – such as Stephen Hawking – who assert such such laws can entirely explain the existence of the universe, when those very laws postulate initial conditions under which physical laws break down). Section 88 seems to have more in common with Islamic metaphysics than Western metaphysics. We should certainly not assume our culture has gotten such questions right, and we should be very careful about imposing our cultural expectations upon what scripture actually says.

But I believe many of these issues are not just down to importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. While there may be other issues (I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), I think that when it comes to the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” that this is due to the misreading of one chapter in particular: Alma 42.

 

Alma 42

The influence of this chapter can even be seen in the comment cited above, which paraphrased Alma 42:13 (and 22 and 25) with its talk of God ceasing to be God. There has been much speculation, based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“, that God can, in essence, lose His divine status. Since it is repeated three times in reference to the notion of “justice” being “destroyed”, some have argued that this entails a law of justice supreme above God Himself which if not obeyed may in a sense “demote” God. Most arguing this appear to have suggested that justice is a “natural” law, akin to gravity, and seemingly self-regulating (ignoring what Section 88:42-43 describes as the ultimate source of gravity). Cleon Skousen, however, takes a different tack, asserting that God’s power is dependent upon the obedience of matter and of ‘intelligences’ within it which, however, will cease to obey should He prove unjust, depriving Him of power.

Yet these ideas are wrong. They are, as I plan to show, logically inconsistent, carry implications at odds with what we know of God, His works and His character, and I believe seriously misunderstand Alma’s statements. Above all else, however, they seem to lack a full understanding of what makes God God.

 

Justice is not a law

Firstly there seems to be a profound misunderstanding in the sense of justice as this eternal, self-regulating, natural law. As previously stated, scripture affirms that God who gives law to all things (D&C 88:42). There are no “natural laws” independent of God: they were given in the first place and sustained by the power of God. If justice, however, has the power to “demote” God, or if God’s power is somehow dependent upon justice, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful that God. God would seemingly have no power to make or change laws. Moreover we would seemingly be in no need of a God – why would God need to give or enforce law if there were a natural, self-regulating one?

Yet there is no sign of such a natural, self-regulating, force enforcing justice. Alma 42 itself points out that “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (v.22). But those laws and that punishment are given by God. It is God who shall judges us at the last day, it is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14). It is in the hope of God’s justice that we put our trust, because from the perspective of this life only, the wicked and tyrannical often escape the penalty of their crimes while the innocent suffer. But our trust in the eternal operation of justice is based on God’s interventions and actions. Were God not to judge us, there is no impersonal force that would take over the task of eternal judgment for us, or for Hitler, or for anyone else.

Moreover justice is not a law, in and of itself, but is a moral ideal (though oft-misunderstood). Indeed, the phrase “law of justice” is not to be found in the scriptures (Alma 34:16 comes closest, but the “whole law of the demands of justice” is not the same thing). Justice is ensuring that the wicked are punished in proportion to their crimes, and that the righteous are blessed for their obedience, and that those who suffer receive a fair recompense. It is true that as an ideal, justice can only be maintained when law has been given, as Alma points out: “And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?” (Alma 42:21). But there can be just laws and unjust laws. Law can be administered justly or unjustly. God, however, gives both just laws and administers them justly. Yet there would be no need for Him to do so were there some impersonal “law of justice”. And if God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it?

Skousen’s interpretation is a little different, but has its own problems. His idea places final moral judgment – judgment over God and whether His acts are “just” or not – not in the hands of a perfectly good and omniscient being but in the hands of “intelligences” even more limited than mortal men. Can the full justice of an act ever be measured without both impeccable character and full knowledge of the consequences of the act? Yet while God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, Skousen places supreme moral authority over the universe into the hands of the largest and logically most ignorant committee ever conceived. Universal mob rule has never been so literal.

 

Misreading the chapter

Another problem with these interpretations is the way they misread the chapter as a whole. Two points here are worth pointing out. Firstly is the question of who the chapter means when it speaks of God. Many espousing the the ideas I’m discussing seem to suppose that it refers to God the Father. Yet this cannot be entirely the case, for the chapter itself states “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world” (Alma 42:15). This then speaks of God the Son, or at least the entirety of the Godhead.

More importantly, however, is the question that motivates the existence of the entire chapter. Alma 42 is the final part of Alma’s counsel to his son Corianton, who has gone astray somewhat, and needed correction and has some concerns. And in the very first verse of this chapter we learn that Corianton doubts “concerning the justice of God” (Alma 42:1), specifically in reference to the punishment of the sinner. This chapter is therefore not attempting to explain (as some have supposed) the atonement of Christ. Rather the question being addressed is whether God is just. The Atonement is used here to explain the justice of God, not the other way around. And this remains the key point throughout the chapter, for in verse 30 Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“. Yet the interpretations offered above would have Alma’s defence of the “justice of God” be the assertion that God is just because He is kept in line by some law superior to Himself. Yet the claims that God is just only because he is forced to be by an impersonal law or that his power is subject to the veto of the rest of the universe are terrible defences. The claim that God is just because He is forced to be is a poor service to God’s character, and seems to deny God of the very agency which He gave to man (Moses 4:3).

 

Logical Inconsistencies

These approaches are also logically inconsistent. To take a key example, it is worthwhile noting the “if” in all three statements – if the works of justice are destroyed, God would cease to be God. It appears then that the works of justice can be destroyed – such is the precondition. But if justice was a natural law, supreme above even God – indeed if He were dependent upon it – this would be impossible. How can God destroy the works of justice, if he can be overridden and demoted by it?

A similar logical inconsistency lies when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above are logically inconsistent on this very point. They argue strongly that God’s power is limited – that there is something or someone that can deprive Him of it. Yet they also define God “ceasing” to be God as meaning God losing His power, thus they define God in terms of power. They are therefore in the position of arguing simultaneously that power is the defining characteristic of God (since to lose it is to cease to be God) and yet to argue that He isn’t defined by power, since His power is dependent on and subservient to the approval of something or someone. This is contradictory.

 

What makes God God?

To understand what Alma was getting at in Alma 42, and to resolve the conundrum these ideas leave unanswered, we must ask ourselves the question what makes God, God?

The Apostle John states amongst other things that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). God is also described in other places in terms of His knowledge of all things (2 Nephi 9:20), His wisdom (Mosiah 4:9), His goodness (Mosiah 5:3), His eternal nature (Mormon 9:9), His truthfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and indeed His mercy (Alma 26:35) and His justice (2 Nephi 9:17). God is described in more terms than that of just power including that of His character – and justice and mercy are included amongst those attributes. I suggest then we should view God in terms other (or rather, in addition) to that of raw power. We might then ask ourselves the question – would God still be God if he lacked any one of these attributes?

It is this that seems key to the whole matter. Elsewhere, in Alma chapter 12, Alma teaches that the “works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). God, it appears, cannot destroy the works of justice not because He lacks the power, but because it would be contrary to His “goodness” – His character. Abinadi speaks in a similar fashion when he states that God does not redeem the unrepentant “…for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:27). Here to deny justice is not equated with disobedience of some external law but rather a denial of Himself – again a denial of His character. Justice then is not some supreme all-powerful law of nature, but an attribute which in mankind is an unrealised ideal but in deity a fully realised attribute, as also is His goodness and mercy (it is strange that those advocating a natural law of justice appear not to conceive of a natural law of mercy capable of similar demotions). So I suggest that God would cease to be God if He were not just because justice is an essential part of His divine character, even if He were still omnipotent. God is God not just because of His omnipotence and omniscience (though He is those, and they are essential) but also because of His goodness, love, mercy and justice. We believe in God as God because He is good. Were He to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.

I believe this is a more accurate understanding of what Alma was saying in Alma 42, and such an understanding carries important consequences. Firstly, with all the emphasis that ancient and modern scripture put upon the power and capacity of God, I feel it is spiritually unhealthy and perilous to our faith to have some sort of understanding that (aside from its other issues) convinces us to think of God in terms of supposed limitations, limitations that scripturally do not exist and in an age where Christ himself asks whether faith shall be found on the earth (Luke 18:8). Secondly, I believe this helps us better understand the Atonement. The Atonement is not some method of cheating justice, some scheme to get past a natural law. Rather the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy. Jacob teaches earlier in the Book of Mormon that without the Atonement all mankind would be subject to a total and universal damnation (2 Nephi 9:7-9), which would hardly be just to such as infants. Jacob also reveals that the Atonement “satisfieth the demands of justice” (2 Nephi 9:26) by rescuing those without law from an undeserved fate. The Atonement does not cheat justice, rather it provides means “that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

Thirdly, and growing from the other two points, this understanding shows better, in my view, Alma’s point: that God is so impeccable in His character, so just and yet so merciful, that He has gone to enormous lengths to reconcile those divine attributes. God is just, and merciful, and perfect, and Alma teaches his son to no more “deny the justice of God” but rather “let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). This is a God whom we need not doubt and think of as limited; rather, knowing the full perfection of His character and his power, we can have even greater faith in Him. We worship God, we have faith in God – indeed we can only accept God as God – as we come to know not only of His power and knowledge but also of His perfect, unwavering character. And it is as we come fully to realise the perfection of His character that we will increase in our faith and trust in Him and better realise the object of our goal – not the mere obedience to natural laws, but the perfection, through Christ, of our characters and very beings.

Edit:

There was some disagreement with this blogpost on facebook, arguing that this was mainly an issue of semantics, appealing to the idea of eternal regress of divinity (i.e the idea loosely based on the King Follett discourse that God was made a God by another God, and so on forever), and suggesting that God may embody justice through his choices though it be an independent law. My reply is effectively as follows:

1) Obviously I disagree that this is a mere issue of semantics – ideas have consequences, and semantics don’t usually require counterarguments.

2) On supposed LDS beliefs in eternal regress, I asked for chapter on verse on this. Because the King Follett discouse a) isn’t canonical scripture and b) does not go that far. The KFD cites John 5:19 as its prooftext, which would make the Father’s incarnation similar to that of the Son’s. The Son, of course, being divine prior to his mortal birth. But that whole topic (i.e on a mortal incarnation of the Father) is one on which very little has been revealed, which is precisely why President Hinckley said we didn’t really know very much about it. But even if one grants an eternal regress scenario, it is still divinity that is the eternal constant and any eternal laws are those given by divinity – they are not independent (there’s also the issue that this thinks of eternity as simply time going forever, but that’s an issue for another day).

3) This still leaves what Section 88 says about God being the provider of Law to all things, which is a canonical revelation. Now I’d certainly describe God as embodying justice and mercy et al – in an earlier version of this article I used that very term. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are ideals, and not actual objects, nor make justice a law, nor make it a force *independent* and *superior* to God.

4) Finally there was the suggestion that this doesn’t make any difference. Yet I’ve seen plenty of examples, where people were talking of God being limited, or that there’s no such thing as actual miracles (especially when the BoM spends so much time warning against such ideas) to see that if taken to their conclusions certain ideas can be damaging to faith. Yes, what we need to most understand is that God’s promises are sure. But to know that requires us to know He has both the desire and the capacity to fulfill them.