As always, these posts are not, and do not claim to be, exhaustive overviews of the chapters in question, but simply a reflection of what I happen to pick up or think upon as I am personally reading them. Sometimes that ends up being quite a bit, like last time, and sometimes its quite brief, like today. That’s not a reflection on the chapter itself, simply of what impinged on me during my reading.
As it happens, it was actually the very first verse that made the most impact on me today:
And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla, among all the people who belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days.
This life often isn’t easy, and it isn’t meant to be easy. While the gospel ultimately offers happiness, we’re not promised continual happiness in this world. We need at times to experience misery (2 Nephi 2:23), to truly follow Christ and be glorified with him we also need to suffer with him (Romans 8:17), and then there’s simply the trials attendant to living in a fallen world surrounded by other people who have agency too. This life is often unfair, as Christ himself – who received a death sentence due to false witnesses and a corrupt court – could tell us.
Yet while it is important to bear these things in mind, and not have false expectations that living the gospel should bring ease, I believe it’s also important not to go the other way. This life often isn’t one of unremitting trial. Lehi and family experienced trials crossing the wilderness and the great deep, but found sanctuary at Bountiful in between. King Benjamin here has had to deal with foreign invasion and internal sedition, and the peace that followed came at the cost of great effort on his part and the part of the prophets (Words of Mormon 16-18), but he did get to experience peace. Those moments do come, the oases of life do exist, even if sometimes they can feel so remote and hard to come by.
I was struck by verses 11-12:
And moreover, I shall give this people a name, that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I do because they have been a diligent people in keeping the commandments of the Lord.
And I give unto them a name that never shall be blotted out, except it be through transgression.
Names are funny things. On one side, it might be argued that names are relatively unimportant: they do not change the actual nature of a thing (“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;” and all that). On the other hand, others have held the act of naming to be very significant indeed. Thus in teachings attributed to Confucius, the act of naming is regarded as supremely important in maintaining order, with proper naming needing to correspond to reality:
A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect
(Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4–7, trns. James Legge)
I think it’s fair to say that both perspectives have a degree of truth to them: the name of something, in and of itself, doesn’t change the nature of a thing. On the other hand, the act of naming can have a very significant effect: giving something its proper name can be a vital act of truth telling, and conversely accepting a false name or label for something can be a form of lying (as can be seen in several modern examples).
We may think our culture does not place much importance on names, but even here there are powerful exceptions. We may be reluctant to accept treatment from someone who gained the name “doctor” in illegitimate ways, for instance. When we call someone a “Judas” or a “Quisling”, we are laying a powerful charge by imputing the attributes of well-known traitors. Some current political movements, as linked to above, insist on certain names for things in their attempt to shape reality.
Likewise, naming is a significant act within the scriptures. There are multiple examples, but one might merely begin with God himself naming things in creation, culminating with Adam, Adam naming the animals, or examples like the renaming of the patriarchs Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel. Scriptural names are often not just names but also titles, describing the very thing or person at stake. As seen in the examples of Abraham and Israel, new names can reflect new or intended attributes, a change that has already happened or a change or promise that will come to pass.
King Benjamin here obviously intends to give a rather specific name to his people; those who’ve read the Book of Mormon before will know what that name is, and I’ll cover that when we get to it. But this is rather significant for us, especially as we end up taking the same name upon us. I think once again there can be two elements to this, as can be seen in King Benjamin’s act: firstly there’s the element of proper naming. The name must reflect in some way the underlying reality, or it will not work. Thus the people have had to be diligent in keeping the commandments of God to be given this name (v. 11), and if they transgress, the name can be “blotted out” (v. 12).
However, there’s also a degree to which the naming is aspirational: to give a new name when it belongs to someone else (as the name King Benjamin plans on, and the name we take upon ourselves, does) is to seek to clothe the named with the attributes of the name. It is to seek to place the one named in a course in which all the attributes and characteristics that go with that name may be acquired and thus belong in truth to the one named. Thus – one day, far from now – we hope that we will have become like the One to whom that name becomes, and share in his virtue and his nature.