Mosiah 1

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.

2020 edit:

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.

2 Nephi 12

And it shall come to pass that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

For the day of the Lord of Hosts soon cometh upon all nations, yea, {shall be} upon every one; yea, upon the {that is} proud and lofty, and upon every one who {that} is lifted up, and he shall be brought low.

Yea, and the day of the Lord shall come upon all the cedars of Lebanon, for they {that} are high and lifted up; and upon all the oaks of Bashan;

And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills, and upon all the nations which {that} are lifted up, and upon every people;

(2 Nephi 12:11-14//Isaiah 2:11-14, bold indicates text not found in the KJV, underlined text indicates substitutions for text in curly brackets)

Pride is a major theme of the Book of Mormon, which depicts pride as the pre-eminent source of evil. Much of the narrative of the Book of Mormon shows the dangers of pride. But the book not only warns against pride – it also warns that the time left for such pride is limited, and a reckoning is coming. It is little surprise that the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah so much, since that too warns of God’s judgment upon the proud. When one looks at the textual differences between Isaiah as quoted in the Book of Mormon and in the King James Version, however, its striking that many of the textual differences stress this impending judgment: both the imminence (“soon cometh upon all nations”) and the universal scope (“upon all the nations” and “upon every people”) of this divine wrath are emphasised above.

While there’s obviously a personal application to this, and maybe personal pride is what I and maybe others should be most concerned about, in my current sombre mood I can’t help but reflect on our culture as a whole. When I read Isaiah, and read (as I will once again in forthcoming chapters) of divine judgment coming upon rich and proud cities, I can’t help but see not ancient Babylon or Tyre, but our own cities and our own wealth. Even in the recent political commotion, when people are perhaps shocked a little out of complacency and the assumption that nothing bad can happen to us, the response seems to be one of rage and enmity. Humility is derided and mocked. Yet perhaps there’s more to be learned personally from this too: that in all these things, big and small, grand or personal, salvation will come from humble acceptance of the Lord’s will. Angry striving and proud self-assertion will not change our fate, but will only bring upon us the Lord’s judgment. And that applies to any of us, for:

O house of Jacob, come ye and let us walk in the light of the Lord; yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways.

(2 Nephi 12:5//Isaiah 5, bold as above)

Yet while much of this chapter warns all of us about the Lord’s forthcoming judgments, it does also promise an age of peace. The Lord will “rebuke many nations”, but after that – and I believe this must apply to our own personal conflicts and the weapons of our pride as much as it does actual weapons – “they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks – nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2 Nephi 12:4//Isaiah 2:4).

2020 Edit:

This is the beginning of a 13 chapter-long quotation of Isaiah, by far the longest of the explicit quotations. Some of the quoted chapters exhibit greater variations from the KJV (& Masoretic Text) than others, so 2 Nephi 21//Isaiah 11 is identical to that found in the KJV, while 2 Nephi 12//Isaiah 2 – today’s chapter – shows a number of significant variations, beyond that spoken about above.

Some, as mentioned above, emphasise this theme of judgment, as in verse 10 (bold are additions relative to the KJV, text in triangular brackets is omitted from the Book of Mormon):

O ye wicked ones, enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for the fear of the Lord and <for> the glory of his majesty shall smite thee.

Others emphasise other elements, such as the changes in verse 9:

And the mean man boweth not [ET/1830 omit: not] down, and the great man humbleth himself not [ET omits: not], therefore, forgive him {them} [ET: them] not.

The insertions of not here are interesting, because it changes the problem from the mean and great man bowing themselves (presumably to idols, in keeping with verse 8), to one of they not bowing themselves (a problem of pride). Both elements are a concern of Isaiah, and the textual differences here may leave verse 9 less consonant with verse 8, but they do leave it more in keeping with some of the passages that follow:

And it shall come to pass that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

(2 Nephi 12:11//Isaiah 2:11)

And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low; and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

(2 Nephi 12:17//Isaiah 2:17)

And especially:

And the mean man shall be brought down, and the mighty man shall be humbled, and the eyes of the lofty shall be humbled.

(2 Nephi 15:15//Isaiah 5:15)

With the changes to 2 Nephi 12:9//Isaiah 2:9, 2 Nephi 15:15//Isaiah 5:15 becomes the perfect counterpoint: the mean man shall be brought down and the mighty man humbled after all. It should be noticed that both idolatry and pride are condemned in Isaiah and in the Book of Mormon; what the Book of Mormon variant does here is shift some of the emphasis more towards a condemnation of pride, but it is not introducing nor removing either strand of Isaiah’s critique.

One thing I did find striking in reading this chapter today, however, was that despite all the emphasis the chapter places on the forthcoming judgment and destruction to come upon the proud and idolatrous, that the chapter opens instead with what comes after that, with a description of the Temple in its rightful place (for surely “top of the mountains” and “exalted above the hills” has a social meaning, not merely a geographical one), with all peoples looking towards it for guidance, and being blessed with peace:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, when the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it.

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks—nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(2 Nephi 12:2-4//Isaiah 2:2-4)

It is this vision of righteousness and peace that the quotation begins with, rather than the process by which it will get there, even if it ultimately devotes more textual space to the latter. It begins not by describing the way things are, and what needs to be done about that, but by describing how things should be, the ideal that is God’s design. And perhaps that’s what we need to accomplish anything: to start in the first place with a vision of what things can and should be.

 

 

1 Nephi 17

And it came to pass that according to his word he did destroy them; and according to his word he did lead them; and according to his word he did do all things for them; and there was not any thing done save it were by his word.

1 Nephi 17:31

Nephi’s speaking here of the children of Israel in the wilderness, and how as they followed God or rebelled against him they were led or punished accordingly. But, particularly as I was reading it today, the line ‘there was not any thing done save it were by his word’ seemed to have broader import. Lots of stuff happens to us – some stuff happens to me – that we/I would rather not. Sometimes those things get in the way of our righteous efforts. Now on occasion it may indeed be the case that – like the children in Israel – we’re meeting the consequence of our misdeeds. But there are also plenty of scriptural examples of trials and difficulties hindering or afflicting the faithful. And God either permits these to happen, or in some cases ordains them for reasons that – at least at the time – we are unable to perceive.

Just thinking about this now, I’m reminded of the example of Joseph in Egypt. It would have been very understandable for him to be frustrated and even angry at what happened to him; indeed I’m sure there times he probably was. It would have been easy to feel that one was almost being punished for doing the right thing: check his brothers are well for his father, and get sold into slavery by his brothers; serve faithfully as a slave, get falsely accused and thrown into jail for years; correctly interpret the dream of Pharaoh’s chief butler, get forgotten about and left in jail for even more years. Every righteous effort appears rewarded with failure. It certainly be understandable if he held a grudge against his brothers.

Yet – and this is admittedly after the great turn around in his fortunes, although it’d also have been easy to let years of slavery and prison hold their mark – when he reveals himself to his brothers his perspective is quite different:

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

… And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

Genesis 45:5, 7

While Joseph’s  brothers did sell him into slavery, Joseph ultimately attributes this to God. But he does not blame God, rather his acknowledges divine foresight and providence, that all this misfortune he has experienced ultimately has placed him in a position to save his family and indeed and entire nation. God’s ways are indeed higher than ours, and Joseph sees divine providence even in the ills he experienced at the hands of others.

It’s quite possible we may not quite get that perspective in this life, and may only see how the various events and circumstances fit together at that point when all things are revealed. But I think it’s important to hope for that. I myself have been experiencing quite a bit of frustration in areas of my life where it feels like the Lord would have me progress, and yet it often feels like one step forward and two (or many) back; that my righteous efforts are being rewarded with failure. But it’s important to acknowledge in all these things that God has his own purpose in these events, and that nothing happens without his foreknowledge and without his permission, and in many cases because he expressly wills it. And God can turn misfortune and even evil events to good purposes.

All that matters on our part is that we too seek to do all that we do ‘by his word’.

Edit 2020:

I think 1 Nephi 17 is one of my favourite chapters. Not the favourite chapter, but its up there. There’s just so much to it. The bulk of it is Nephi’s whole recap of the Exodus story, which isn’t just telling that story, but is also the culmination of 1 Nephi’s references and allusions to the Exodus account as a whole. I commented briefly upon that connection when writing about 1 Nephi 2, and its something that’s often been on my mind as I read this book since I wrote an essay on the relationship between the two as an undergraduate while studying in Israel. Both are accounts of a group of people, led through the wilderness and delivered from their enemies by divine power (Pharoah/Laban – 1 Nephi 4:2-3 makes the connection explicitly). These people travel to a new land of promise, but often struggle in their journey due to “murmuring” and rebelliousness on the part of the travellers. Despite this, the Lord provides food for them and points out the direction they should go, and is their “light in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:13). Both journeys likewise involve crossing a body of water (well two in the case of the Exodus, and one really big one in 1 Nephi), again with divine aid.

By recapping the story here, Nephi makes all these connections explicit, particularly placing his brothers – who again reject their father’s revelations as “foolish imaginations of his heart” (v. 20) – in the same position as those who “reviled against Moses and against the true and living God” (v. 30). Against Laman & Lemuel’s claims that the people of Jerusalem were a righteous people (v. 22), Nephi builds on the conquest of Canaan, pointing out that God in truth does not play favourites: “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favoured of God”. The Canaanites had “rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity, and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them” (v. 35). But by becoming wicked in turn, and rejecting the word of God by seeking to kill the prophets (such as Lehi), the people of Jerusalem have become just like them, and will likewise be destroyed, and because Laman and Lemuel have likewise “sought to take his life” Nephi declares: “ye are murderers in your hearts and ye are like unto them” (vv. 43-44).

It’s a brilliant sermon, as it builds to Nephi’s denunciation of Laman and Lemuel’s hardheartedness (v. 45):

Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder.

That very last episode we just saw in 1 Nephi 16:38-39; Nephi is not just recapping the Exodus, but their own journey too, with its displays of divine power and aid and their rebelliousness. And after the brothers turn once more to murderous anger, which is quelled once more by a further display of God’s power, Nephi affirms once more that – contrary to their earlier claims – he can indeed build a ship, with a verse that is on one hand so simple in wording, and yet seems to me to have powerful import for us too (v. 51):

And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?

A ship – or whatever we’ve been asked to do – seem so paltry compared to that which God has already done, and which we may have already witnessed.

A couple of other points that stick out: I find it interesting that Nephi notes he’d been at Bountiful “for the space of many days” before he received further instruction. This suggests to me that likewise in our own journeys that there may be periods of pause, and comparative peace which the Lord allows us, particularly after periods of intense trial. However, such times our not our final destination, and we must press on. Likewise it’s interesting that the first command Nephi received in this chapter was simply the direction to go up the mountain, and it was up there he was commanded to build a ship; similarly divine instruction to us may sometimes simply be a small thing which directs us to a better position for us to receive further revelation.

On a final note, there’s the brothers’ complaint that Lehi had “judged” the people of Jerusalem, which couldn’t help but remind me of our own society, in which “judging” is likewise held in negative regard. It is true, of course, that the Saviour commanded us to “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1), but it strikes me that there’s a difference between that and “don’t judge me!”. The first prompts us to humility, to remember our own sins and accountability before God rather than go round condemning everyone else. The latter sentiment, however, is prideful, an arrogant resentment that one might ever be disapproved of or held to account, including by God. It should be remembered that Christ not only also taught “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24, because as I’ve noted before some judgment is unavoidable, like who you let look after your children), but the former restriction doesn’t apply to God, to whom we will very much be accountable. The resentful mode expressed by Laman and Lemuel also tends to break down under its own weight, as one is left holding that it is wrong to judge people, except for being “judgmental”. At which point things start looking quite silly.