Jacob 6

Several years ago I began a series of posts related to my personal reading of the Book of Mormon, in which I would pick out something that struck me through that read through. As happens, other pressures meant that while I continued reading, the posts stopped just after Jacob 5. I don’t think that’s a complete coincidence considering the approximately 20,000 words that I wrote on that chapter and the surrounding passages, for The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. At the time it doubtless seemed a tad exhausting, and I certainly felt I’d written a lot about it.

However, it is my conviction that we can always learn more from reading the scriptures, that we can never – except at the perfect day – say we have learned everything from any particular passage, especially since the Lord may well use such passages to teach us things that the human authors never had in mind. And since I’ve always intended to return to the series (and have briefly from time to time) and finish it, that includes those chapters I might have written a lot about elsewhere, like today’s.

There is much that could be said about Jacob 6, especially as it relates to Jacob 5, but what stood out for me today as I read it comes in the very first verse:

And now, behold, my brethren, as I said unto you that I would prophesy, behold, this is my prophecy—that the things which this prophet Zenos spake, concerning the house of Israel, in the which he likened them unto a tame olive tree, must surely come to pass.

That last phrase – “must surely come to pass” – really stood out. Sometimes those things which are prophesied of seem so distant or far off from every day life. But, no matter how long it will take for them to happen, they will be fulfilled. Sometimes that requires waiting longer than thought: when reading this I thought of 3 Nephi 1, where despite being given a time-frame, many thought the time had already passed, and those who still kept faith with the prophecy faced extermination from those who did not. It seems some times that faith in such things is tested to the very brink, and then beyond some. And yet, all such things “must surely come to pass”.

The prophecy that Jacob is referring to here, of course, is particularly about the restoration of Israel, and then the end of the world (v. 2):

And the day that he shall set his hand again the second time to recover his people, is the day, yea, even the last time, that the servants of the Lord shall go forth in his power, to nourish and prune his vineyard; and after that the end soon cometh.

I’ve commented to some people before that the Book of Mormon is principally focused on the gathering of Israel, and the accompanying judgment upon the Gentile nations, rather than the Second Coming itself and those events that immediately precede it (see, for example, Nephi being commanded to leave writing about the latter to John the Revelator in 1 Nephi 14:18-25). And that’s true, but the Book of Mormon does talk about end of the world, and while distinct, the two events are linked: the gathering of Israel and everything accompanying it will be a necessary precursor to the Second Coming that will follow. And while some people have perhaps focused too much on such events, it is at the same time important to keep this in mind. This world – and the culture, and habits, and entertainments and so on built around it – will end. If we want anything we do to be of lasting value, we must build for another.

I’m also slightly intrigued by the mention that the servants of Lord (depicted as the servants of the Lord of the vineyard in Jacob 5) will both nourish and prune the vineyard. It’s easy to see things like the work of the Church, especially in things like missionary work, to be part of nourishing the vineyard (and in Jacob 5 itself, transplanting the various branches about). But what form will the pruning take, and what part will the servants of the Lord play in that?

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Helaman 15

Much of this chapter is a warning for the Nephites, and compares the Lamanites and the Nephites and their prophetic future. It’s typical for those who have not read the Book of Mormon in depth to think that the Book of Mormon is a straightforward account of “good guys” and “bad guys” (such as described by Thomas O’Dea, for instance). I’d wager that most of those who’ve read the book through realise this is not the case, and this chapter is likewise a good instance of that. At first, even while warning the Nephites, it seems to be making that distinction (vv. 3-4):

Yea, wo unto this people who are called the people of Nephi except they shall repent, when they shall see all these signs and wonders which shall be showed unto them; for behold, they have been a chosen people of the Lord; yea, the people of Nephi hath he loved, and also hath he chastened them; yea, in the days of their iniquities hath he chastened them because he loveth them.
But behold my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated because their deeds have been evil continually, and this because of the iniquity of the tradition of their fathers…

Yet there then comes a significant twist (vv. 4-5, 7):

… But behold, salvation hath come unto them through the preaching of the Nephites; and for this intent hath the Lord prolonged their days.
And I would that ye should behold that the more part of them are in the path of their duty, and they do walk circumspectly before God, and they do observe to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments according to the law of Moses.

And behold, ye do know of yourselves, for ye have witnessed it, that as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them—

Many of the Lamanites have converted, and not only converted, but have genuinely remained faithful. And because of this, they will be blessed (vv. 10-12):

And now, because of their steadfastness when they do believe in that thing which they do believe, for because of their firmness when they are once enlightened, behold, the Lord shall bless them and prolong their days, notwithstanding their iniquity—
Yea, even if they should dwindle in unbelief the Lord shall prolong their days, until the time shall come which hath been spoken of by our fathers, and also by the prophet Zenos, and many other prophets, concerning the restoration of our brethren, the Lamanites, again to the knowledge of the truth—
Yea, I say unto you, that in the latter times the promises of the Lord have been extended to our brethren, the Lamanites; and notwithstanding the many afflictions which they shall have, and notwithstanding they shall be driven to and fro upon the face of the earth, and be hunted, and shall be smitten and scattered abroad, having no place for refuge, the Lord shall be merciful unto them.

Despite future “dwindl[ing] in unbelief”, and despite the afflictions they will suffer, the Lamanites will ultimately be blessed. Again, it’s been commonplace for scholars to fit the Book of Mormon into the context of common 19th century American beliefs about the USA being the new Israel. But (as I discuss in the 3rd and 5th chapters of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible), the Book of Mormon does not articulate those beliefs: rather it is the descendants of Israel (including the descendants of the Lamanites) who are heirs of the promises attached to Israel, not the Gentile colonists, despite whatever role said colonists may have in being a conduit for the Gospel (much as the Nephites have been here in fact).

So what of the Nephites?

Therefore I say unto you, it shall be better for them than for you except ye repent.
For behold, had the mighty works been shown unto them which have been shown unto you, yea, unto them who have dwindled in unbelief because of the traditions of their fathers, ye can see of yourselves that they never would again have dwindled in unbelief.
Therefore, saith the Lord: I will not utterly destroy them, but I will cause that in the day of my wisdom they shall return again unto me, saith the Lord.
And now behold, saith the Lord, concerning the people of the Nephites: If they will not repent, and observe to do my will, I will utterly destroy them, saith the Lord, because of their unbelief notwithstanding the many mighty works which I have done among them; and as surely as the Lord liveth shall these things be, saith the Lord.

(Helaman 15:14–17)

A fascinating thought struck me while reading this: it seems to suggest that the (future? the “again” seems suggestive) Lamanite “dwindl[ing] in unbelief” could have been outright prevented, had the Lord showed them the same miracles that he did the Nephites. So why didn’t he? Would acting in this way somehow invalidate the purpose of mortal existence (by robbing them of the need to act in faith)? Whatever the answer, however, one thing is very clear, which is that while the Nephites have been favoured, this now turns to their condemnation. The Lamanites would not have gone astray had they been witnessed the same miracles, and when aware of the truth are faithful. The Nephites however have still apostatized. Thus while the Lamanites will be preserved and ultimately blessed, the Nephites face the threat of being “utterly destroy[ed]”.

Jacob 5

Everything I said about Jacob 4, in terms of being able to mention all sorts of things, applies even more to Jacob 5. Most of chapter four of my thesis is a detailed examination of Jacob 5, and I can confidently say after that exercise that there’s a lot to examine. I’ve also happened to post about Jacob 5 before in part, in commenting on an article that I felt was inadequate in its approach to the allegory. So there’s a lot that could be said, and a lot that I have said elsewhere.

What struck me reading through it this time though was the very first few verses (Jacob 5:1-3):

Behold, my brethren, do ye not remember to have read the words of the prophet Zenos, which he spake unto the house of Israel, saying:

Hearken, O ye house of Israel, and hear the words of me, a prophet of the Lord.

For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.

Aside from the incongruity of a olive tree in a vineyard (something I do happen to discuss in the thesis), this opening reminded of thoughts I had when I was first writing the chapter, and unravelling the vast number of ways in which Jacob 5 connects to biblical passages that use olive tree imagery. It’s one of those things where the more you dig down, the more complex the issue actually gets. Scholarship tends to be very focused on the issue of where such ideas came from, and Jacob 5 has attracted similar commentary. But who first used the Olive Tree to symbolise Israel? The deeper one digs the more it seems like a chicken and egg scenario where it’s not quite clear what influenced what (assuming direct contact at all). And of course, Zenos does not attribute this image to himself but directly to the Lord.

It’s while I was thinking of this chicken and egg issue that my mind turned to a couple of other scriptural passages:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

(2 Nephi 11:4)

And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.

(Moses 6:63)

From these verses we learn that all things given by God typify Christ, and that all things are created – both spiritual and temporal – to bear record of God, Christ and the plan of salvation (see Moses 6:62). With these verses in mind, I wondered if this whole thing went even further? Perhaps it’s not an issue of ascribing who first used the olive tree to represent Israel to any one author, even God? With the above verses in mind, is it not possible that the Olive Tree was purposely created and permitted to have the traits that it has, precisely so that it might serve as such a symbol (for God would know of the destiny of Israel)? In other words, is it the symbol that came first, before the actual tree and even the world itself was created?

2 Nephi 24

For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land; and the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob.

(2 Nephi 24:1//Isaiah 14:1)

While a quotation from Isaiah (and this verse is quoted word for word, unlike say verse 2), this verse manages to encapsulate one of the major messages of the Book of Mormon. Despite misdeeds, trials and tribulations, God has not forgotten Israel, and will have mercy upon them and keep His covenants with them; meanwhile salvation for the Gentiles required becoming part of the House of Israel. While there were exceptions, this was not a common view at the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon; most of Christianity was supercessionist at least in part, believing that the Gentile Church had replaced or was the true continuation of Israel. The Book of Mormon declares the opposite: Israel has not been forgotten, God is about to fulfil his covenants with them in restoring them spiritually and physically, and that the Gentiles need to repent or face the judgment of God.

God’s long suffering, mercy and faithfulness towards a people to whom he has made promises can of course be reassuring to us on a individual scale. Despite the elapse of hundreds of years, God had not forgotten Israel. Likewise, despite our own personal weakness and wanderings, he will not forget us (Isaiah 49:15-16) and “he is faithful that promised” (Hebrews 10:23).

2 Nephi 6

And now, the words which I shall read are they which Isaiah spake concerning all the house of Israel; wherefore, they may be likened unto you, for ye are of the house of Israel. And there are many things which have been spoken by Isaiah which may be likened unto you, because ye are of the house of Israel.

(2 Nephi 6:5)

This refrain can be found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (for instance in 1 Nephi 19:24, or Jesus himself in 3 Nephi 23:1-2): the people of the Book of Mormon are members of the house of Israel, and as Isaiah prophesied concerning the entire house of Israel, his words are applicable to them too. This is likewise true of modern Israel, by blood or adoption, and the Gentiles also (3 Nephi 23:2). Isaiah, and many of the other prophets, prophesied concerning us. If Isaiah’s words are applicable to Jacob’s audience, they are also applicable to us. Sometimes we read the scriptures as if they are purely about people long ago. Sometimes we do seek to learn some lesson from them, but in too general a fashion, failing to recognise that Isaiah and others speak about us too, being blessed by the Almighty to see our day. We should be able to read to read the scriptures and recognise ourselves in them, to place ourselves in them and to feel and understand those words as they are spoken to us, even if they were first uttered many years ago or “from the dust”.