Mosiah 29

Mosiah 29 is where a lot of the transformations we’ve been talking about in previous chapters come to a head, and the Nephite government, under the urging of its last king, Mosiah, changes from a Monarchy to a system of Judges.

I comment on some of the political issues in this chapter in my article “The Daughters of the Lamanites and the Daughters of Shiloh“. However, to recap some of the overall big issues here, it’s worth pointing out and bearing in mind that the debate – particularly as Mosiah lays it out – isn’t a straightforward one between democracy and monarchy. Rather, Mosiah’s criticisms of monarchy focus on the degree to which it follows the commandments of God:

Therefore I will be your king the remainder of my days; nevertheless, let us appoint judges, to judge this people according to our law; and we will newly arrange the affairs of this people, for we will appoint wise men to be judges, that will judge this people according to the commandments of God.

Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.

(Mosiah 29:11-12)

Indeed, if a king could always be trusted to implement and follow God’s laws, it would be preferable to have a king:

Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.

(Mosiah 29:13)

However, the problem is is that they can’t, as their recent example of King Noah demonstrates. And a wicked king can rewrite the laws to his heart’s content and impose them on the people:

For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.

(Mosiah 29:22-23)

And fixing such a situation usually cannot be achieved by any steps short of civil war:

And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.

(Mosiah 29:21)

Thus Mosiah proposes a system of judges instead, chosen “by the voice of this people” (v. 25). The term judges is significant: it calls back to the pre-monarchical government of Israel (and indeed, I believe episodes like Mosiah 20 are meant to do likewise), but it also points to the principal duty of these new governors. Mosiah isn’t proposing outright democracy, where the laws are to be made by the people. Rather, the judges are to judge “according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” (v. 25); that is according to the laws of God that have been handed down, not to make and implement new laws.

Of course, Mosiah is proposing that the people have significant say in selecting the judges, though this isn’t necessarily a new feature (notice that – much like previous Nephite monarchs – he consults the people as to their choice for a king at the beginning of the chapter, vv. 1-2. This appears to be in keeping with Northern Israelite traditions of kingship, which included popular acclamation & prophetic endorsement, as compared to Judah’s stricter following of a hereditary principle). However, Mosiah’s justification for this is interesting, as he argues that it is less likely for the majority of the people to “go bad” than for a minority (or presumably, an individual), in what seems to be an early argument for the wisdom of crowds:

Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.

(Mosiah 29:26)

However, it should be noted that while it may be less likely for them to go wrong, the majority is not infallible, and when they do the consequences are correspondingly more severe than if simply misled by an iniquitous leader:

And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.

(Mosiah 29:27)

I’ve long found that last point quite thought-provoking. On one hand, this may be part of the reason that the consequences for the Nephites going astray (namely, extermination), were far more severe than for their old world counterparts. But I also think of its application to us. On which side of Mosiah’s scale does our system principally fall, and if so, what level of consequences are we likely to incur as we choose iniquity?

There’s several other things this chapter that stuck out to me upon reading this time around. One was the fortuitousness that Mosiah’s sons had both been converted and then left on a mission to the Lamanites prior to this point being reached. Could Mosiah even have proposed the judges otherwise (one also wonders why Mosiah asked first, knowing his sons were unavailable. Perhaps he wanted to make sure there wasn’t another – more available – leading candidate before proposing his alternative)?

Secondly, it’s interesting that a lot of the justification for the new system, versus the old, also centres on the issue of moral accountability. Mosiah argues, in verses 30-32 (my emphasis):

And I command you to do these things in the fear of the Lord; and I command you to do these things, and that ye have no king; that if these people commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads.

For behold I say unto you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings; therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of their kings.

And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people; but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land, yea, even as long as any of our posterity remains upon the face of the land.

And indeed when the people accept his proposal (v. 38, my emphasis):

Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.

I find it interesting that both equality and liberty are considered to be so closely tied to this sense of moral accountability: that in order to be equal and free we need to be responsible, and suffer the consequences for, our own sins and iniquities. It’s interesting to think of the ways in which this moral accountability is seen not just as a duty or responsibility, but as part of ones “rights and privileges” as well.

Finally, the chapter closes with the selection of the first chief judge, namely Alma the younger (again, events two chapters previously seem very fortuitous!). Last chapter he was also chosen by Mosiah to look after the records, and in this chapter he also becomes high priest over the Church (v. 42). It’s thus interesting that even though we’ve had a stage in which church and state have developed as separate institutions, that all three of these offices (record-keeper, high-priest and chief judge) are once again combined in one person. However, as we shall see in the next few chapters, the different needs of some of these institutions will mean that this isn’t viable for long.

 

Mosiah 27

Featuring the angelic visit to, and the conversion of, those rebellious youngsters, Alma “the younger” and the sons of Mosiah. Their campaign against the Church must have particularly challenging, considering it featured the son of the high priest of the Church in conspiracy with what were effectively royal princes and heirs of the king. That Alma senior rejoices when he finds out he son has been struck down by the power of God (v. 20) suggests their relationship had become somewhat fraught.

First things first, however. There’s a very interesting sentence in verse 1 (my emphasis):

And now it came to pass that the persecutions which were inflicted on the church by the unbelievers became so great that the church began to murmur, and complain to their leaders concerning the matter; and they did complain to Alma. And Alma laid the case before their king, Mosiah. And Mosiah consulted with his priests.

It’s just a small reference, so blink and you’ll miss it, and indeed it seems most people do; I’ve not come across any commentary on the line “[a]nd Mosiah consulted with his priests”. And it’s a really interesting line, a mention of an otherwise unmentioned group of priests associated with the king who are not so as part of the organization of the Church that Alma established.

And yet it makes sense. As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to picture the Church as this monolithic, all-encompassing organization as it has been in this dispensation, but that’s not always been the case in previous dispensations. Thus the early Christian church continued to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and as we’ve seen, many of those who’d entered into a covenant with God under King Benjamin’s urging also felt to unite with Alma and his church. I remember thinking about this when I came across this verse, because there’s some interesting possibilities here. For example, it’s mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites – up until the visit of the risen Christ – kept the law of Moses, which would include its sacrifices and offerings. And yet the principal duties of priests in the Church, as laid out for instance in Mosiah 19, don’t really cover sacrifices and offerings. Furthermore, since King Benjamin’s people kept the law, someone there must have been performing these ordinances too. My suggestion is that it is these priests who are mentioned here. It’s also possible that they continued co-exist with the Church and perform these offerings after this point, which would account for the fact that such must have been happening, but no one – not even the Church leaders that are mentioned – is ever mentioned as performing them. The existence of an otherwise unmentioned group performing these ordinances (possibly for most of the Nephite populace, in the same way that the priests at the temple in Jerusalem did for Sadducee, Pharisee and Christian alike) would explain this, and the fact that the record is silent about them entirely fits with the fact that it’s a very selective account that’s entirely silent about a lot of matters that must have existed (Nephites with XX chromosomes, for example).

Moving from the interesting to the important. The experience of Alma and the sons of Mosiah is of course dramatic: an angel appears, declaring with a voice of thunder a warning not to fight against the Church of God. It’s been compared to the conversion experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, and I think there’s a lot of a parallels, although also a few crucial differences (Paul, at least, thought he was doing God’s work). It may seem unfair – I’ve certainly been privy to discussions in this vein – that Alma and his crew would have this sort of experience, that it made it “easy” for them. However, I think there’s some things to bear in mind:

  1. Divine intervention can often appear unfair. I remember pondering this at a time I was experiencing a significant degree of poverty, but was also blessed that God inspired some people to help me. I was aware that not everyone got that, and that it wasn’t because I “deserved” it. Likewise there have been many faced with the threat of death by fire for the gospel. Some, like Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-Nego are delivered by miraculous means. Others, like Abinadi as we’ve recently read, or the people in Ammonihah as we will read, burn to death. This is obviously not due to the righteousness of the people involved, or any other factor that we can see. But God sees more than we do, indeed sees all, and so his reasons for intervening in one case, and not another, encompass far more than we can comprehend. A key challenge of this life, after all, is not that God have to justify his moral reasoning to us, but that we have enough faith in him to trust him, to trust that he knows best even if we’re not in a position to see why.
  2. While Alma and the sons of Mosiah do indeed convert at this point, there’s ample scriptural evidence, especially in the Book of Mormon, that such experiences are not sufficient. Laman and Lemuel’s progress in the wrong direction was barely slowed by an angelic visit, for instance. That Alma, Ammon and so on responded in this way and turned their entirely lives round at this point is down to them and their decisions. Furthermore, while certainly swift, Alma’s repentance does not appear to have been easy (“wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death”, v. 28), and he elsewhere talks of “fast[ing] and pray[ing] many days” to know the truth of the Gospel (Alma 5:26).
  3. Finally, and this may seem obvious but it only really stuck out to me on this reading, the point of the angelic appearance (at least for the humans involved; God knowing all things I’m sure considered every factor) was not so much to convert Alma and his party (although that appears to have been a factor, since Alma the elder had prayed that his son “be brought to a knowledge of the truth”, Mosiah 27:14), but to to stop them going about to destroy the Church in answer to “the prayers of his people”. Thus the angel declares: “And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more, that their prayers may be answered, and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off” (v. 16; interestingly this very instruction seems to have played a crucial role in Alma’s conversion according to his own account, Alma 36:9-11). The divine intervention was as much on behalf of everyone else to protect the people of the Church from Alma and the sons of Mosiah as it was to save them. That it also resulted in the latter is a happy side effect.

Finally, there’s Alma’s great statement when he rises from his stricken state. It’s a wonderful passage, beautiful and powerful, that speaks directly to the point that we all need to change, to be reborn, not just symbolically through baptism but inwardly also. Frankly I like it so much I’m just going to quote it in full:

For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

I say unto you, unless this be the case, they must be cast off; and this I know, because I was like to be cast off.

Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God.

My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

I rejected my Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken of by our fathers; but now that they may foresee that he will come, and that he remembereth every creature of his creating, he will make himself manifest unto all.

Yea, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess before him. Yea, even at the last day, when all men shall stand to be judged of him, then shall they confess that he is God; then shall they confess, who live without God in the world, that the judgment of an everlasting punishment is just upon them; and they shall quake, and tremble, and shrink beneath the glance of his all-searching eye.

(Mosiah 27:24-31)

Mosiah 7

I’m about to plow through exams and don’t really have a handle on things like metamorphic rocks, so there’s going to be a bit of pressure when it comes to these posts. They will simply have to be a few things I pick out or notice rather than the (sometimes unplanned) more extensive posts that I occasionally do.

Turning to Mosiah 7, several things I ended up thinking about today while reading:

And it came to pass that on the morrow they started to go up, having with them one Ammon, he being a strong and mighty man, and a descendant of Zarahemla; and he was also their leader.

(Mosiah 7:3)

I find it interesting (and this is an observation I’ve had before) that the individual who is called upon to lead the party is called Ammon. This will not be the first time in the Book of Mormon when someone named Ammon will take a leading part in leading a small party up to the land of Nephi, and (spoilers!) come back with thousands of people who have become converted to the gospel of Christ.

We find this sort of repeating story in the Bible too (Abraham/Isaac disguising their wife as their sister; a betrothal at a well; a messenger from God telling a barren woman she is to have a child, and other examples), which Robert Alter, in his The Art of Biblical Narrative, termed a type scene (basing the idea on typology), in which a similar narrative is repeated, although often with differences, and for those familiar with the pattern, even small differences can thus be quite revealing. I think in this context too, we’re not just dealing with a type scene but with an actual type (a type being a kind of prophecy in the form of an event or person): the first Ammon, who goes and retrieves the descendants of Zeniff’s party, is a type of the second, who goes and ends up retrieving thousands converts from the Lamanites.

Also while reading today, I was struck by the events in these verses:

And behold, they met the king of the people who were in the land of Nephi, and in the land of Shilom; and they were surrounded by the king’s guard, and were taken, and were bound, and were committed to prison.

And it came to pass when they had been in prison two days they were again brought before the king, and their bands were loosed; and they stood before the king, and were permitted, or rather commanded, that they should answer the questions which he should ask them.

And he said unto them: Behold, I am Limhi, the son of Noah, who was the son of Zeniff, who came up out of the land of Zarahemla to inherit this land, which was the land of their fathers, who was made a king by the voice of the people.

And now, I desire to know the cause whereby ye were so bold as to come near the walls of the city, when I, myself, was with my guards without the gate?

And now, for this cause have I suffered that ye should be preserved, that I might inquire of you, or else I should have caused that my guards should have put you to death. Ye are permitted to speak.

(Mosiah 7:7-11)

Now there’s several observations that could be made: apparently the situation is dangerous enough that anyone approaching the king outside the city could be considered dangerous. While Limhi’s people pay tribute to the Lamanite king, there seems to be no protection as a result of this, so the relationship seems more like banditry than one in which there are responsibilities towards the vassal. But what caught my eye was simply how fortuitous it was that Ammon and his party happened to bump into the king, and then that the King chose to question them directly. They could easily have met someone who would have compromised or sabotaged their goal. But I don’t believe this is meant to be seen as mere chance, but as the result of that sometimes unseen guiding hand by which God steers events. While sometimes God’s guidance is direct, via an instruction, sometimes he steers or allows events to unfold in such a way that it is only by looking back that we can discern his hand, his providence, at all.

Which takes me onto the last passage that really stood out to me today:

And it came to pass that when they had gathered themselves together that he spake unto them in this wise, saying: O ye, my people, lift up your heads and be comforted; for behold, the time is at hand, or is not far distant, when we shall no longer be in subjection to our enemies, notwithstanding our many strugglings, which have been in vain; yet I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made.

Therefore, lift up your heads, and rejoice, and put your trust in God,…

(Mosiah 7:18-19)

The people of Limhi had tried to free themselves many times before, but had failed repeatedly (for a number of reasons). Limhi’s statement of hope here – “yet I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made” – is in itself worth noting, a counsel against despair and for perseverance, that victory over whatever ails or hinders us may come. But I think the very next line (in the 1830 edition, part of the very same paragraph) also clarifies this: an effectual struggle can be made if they put their trust in God. They’ve been unable to liberate themselves by their own strength, but can with God’s strength.

I find together these things very comforting: that God acts to steer events to fulfil his purposes in ways beyond our perception, and that – despite failures on our part – if we trust in him he can bless us to overcome things in which we’ve failed in the past. I think it’s important to realise that God isn’t sitting back, doing nothing unless asked otherwise: he’s actively working to do his work, which includes our eternal salvation. Sometimes I often feel that we (or I) can hinder than, though our failings, our weakness, our sins, or just general mistakes. But while obviously our actions and the desires of our hearts play a part in what we will ultimately be blessed with, we can really only sabotage our own plans and goals, not God’s. As stated in a passage I was reminded of when reading today:

The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught.

Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men;

(Doctrine and Covenants 3:1 & 3)

We might experience many failures in this life, some of which may be our own fault. But our own plans – our own “work” – may not have much eternal value, indeed our failures in these areas may serve to help God’s eternal purposes. Furthermore, we cannot hinder or stop God’s work through our own failings or even simple incompetence, for he acts constantly, many times in ways we cannot even perceive – to ensure his purposes are fulfilled. And where we fall short in doing his will, “there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made”: if we put our trust in him, deliverance will come.

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?

2020 Edit:

I’ve commented before that sometimes, when going over these posts I’ve made previously, I’ve found the same elements sticking out to me when reading much later. The same is true today, even down to the very phrase “must surely come to pass” (v. 1). The inevitability of prophecy – at least of those that aren’t conditional – is awe-inspiring, and can be hard for people to believe. It can be difficult to look at the world around us and imagine it being much different. And yet things can change, in most unexpected ways. A year ago, I did not anticipate that in six months I’d be returning to university to study the sciences (indeed, it was about a week from a year ago today that I discovered that the opportunity even existed). Several months ago, I did not anticipate that the city I was living in would be about to enter lockdown due to a virus, with mass social isolation and huge economic impacts even setting aside the disease itself. I anticipated that there would be widespread pestilence at some stage (both from prophecy, and historical precedent), but I didn’t anticipate it would happen in a matter of months, where suddenly it’s not clear whether I’ll even sit my “first” year exams.

Things change, in ways we often cannot expect or anticipate, and can do so with bewildering speed. And yet prophecy can mark out sure events, hundreds or even thousands of years before they happen, and what’s more help us to realise in all of life’s events what is truly at stake, and that God is at the helm. Thus Jacob used Zenos’ prophecies to teach his own people, although they were far more remote from their fulfilment then we are. For wherever we are in the great chronicle of prophecy and history, and whether such events will happen next week or a century hence, they can teach us that what we obtain in this life is of little import, but what we do with this life has eternal consequences and shapes our immortal soul.

Thus Jacob taught his own people:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts.

Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts; for why will ye die?

For behold, after ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire?

(Jacob 6:5-7)

And:

O then, my beloved brethren, repent ye, and enter in at the strait gate, and continue in the way which is narrow, until ye shall obtain eternal life.

O be wise; what can I say more?

(Jacob 6:11-12)

 

“Be not troubled”

I am somewhat amused to see that people are now looking at my “Trump will not save you post”. It’s a tad late now!

As I’ve mentioned before, the US election was in many respects lost some time ago, when it became the Alien vs Predator election. However, as I happened to mention on Facebook today, I actually feel completely calm at the latest turn of events (although I am disappointed Utah ultimately voted for Trump). This is not because I believe bad things won’t happen. In fact I’ve repeatedly posted about how they will. I also believe the scriptural warnings I mention here in the Book of Mormon are especially relevant.

But as I stated on Facebook, its those same warnings that paint a bigger picture. There are certain things that must happen, to pave the way and make room for things – including good things – that are to come. And so I feel reassured when I see prophecy unfold, even if it foretells unwise choices and unfortunate events in the short term, because it shows a greater hand is involved. Human nations and civilisations may and will crumble, and politics won’t save anyone, but the human soul and divine promises are eternal. God will not save certain nations from their mistakes, but he will deliver the faithful and those who seek to do right.

On a personal and selfish note, I’d like to thank the American electorate for making the third and fifth chapters of my thesis much more relevant. 🙂

Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)

2 Nephi 2

2 Nephi 2 has been one of my favourite chapters of scripture for several decades now (and I really feel old saying that). There is always so much in it, and more to be found.

While reading today, the early verses stuck out to me:

Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.

Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.

2 Nephi 2:2-3

Verse 2 really needs no elaboration; it just seems a precious promise that Jacob’s (and hopefully our) afflictions can be consecrated by God for our gain, that he can turn evil into good.

In verse 3 I was struck more than usual by the line that ‘I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer’. It’s an invaluable reminder that – while full redemption comes only to those ‘who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit’ (v.7) – it is by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we our saved. Indeed it clarifies that later offering: ‘by the law no flesh is justified’ (v.5), so we cannot simply offer up our deeds on our own merits. Rather we offer up ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and all ‘they that believe in him shall be saved’ (v.9).

Minor notes:

There really is so much in this chapter: from the importance of meaningful opposites and consequences (vv.10-13); the concept of ‘things to act’ and ‘things to be acted upon’ (v.14, and which are we? Are we choosing, or are we being acted upon by outside forces or our own passions?); being ‘enticed by the one or the other’ (v.16); the fall (vv.15-25); the necessity of knowing misery to know joy (v.24); the choice that is before each of us (v.27) and so much more.

2020 Edit:

As mentioned above, there’s a lot in this chapter. It’s interesting how with both Jacob and Joseph that Lehi chose to speak about profound things, but covered such different topics. With Lehi’s teachings to Jacob, I think I discern a thread that then runs into the things that Jacob teaches too, that can be seen in passages such as 2 Nephi 9 and the latter part of Jacob 3.

It begins with Lehi discussing the trials and the blessings that Jacob has experienced, but particularly the witness he has received of Christ, and then moves on to teach how none of us are justified by the law (and not just speaking of the law of Moses either: “by the spiritual law” we “perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever”, v. 5). Hence our universal and utter need for Christ’s grace, expressed here both powerfully and succinctly:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

(2 Nephi 2:8)

Lehi then speaks about how Christ’s intervention makes it possible for us to receive happiness, in contrast to punishment, one being the consequence of the atonement, the other the law, and this turns him to the subject of opposites. While I don’t think this is the most misunderstood chapter of the Book of Mormon (I believe that honour goes to Alma 42), I do think the statement that “there is an opposition in all things” (v. 11) is often misunderstood. Most of the time I hear it quoted is in reference to the existence of trials and so on, but while it is true that trial and afflictions are an inevitable and even necessary part of this life, that’s not what this statement is talking about. Rather it is talking about the existence of philosophical opposites: happiness and punishment, wickedness and righteousness, law and sin. As Lehi states in verses 11-12:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

These opposites are necessary for there to be meaningful existence: life must have choices and those choices have consequence or else existence itself would possess no definable quality and would “have been created for a thing of naught”, or in other words, pointless. The truth of this statement can be seen even when we consider unimportant, trifling decisions: which ice cream flavour to eat would be an utterly pointless choice if all the flavours tasted the same (that is, they had the same consequence). It is the existence of these possibilities, of good and bad acts and real consequences, that make choice possible.

There’s another interesting element to the ability to choose that’s worth pointing out here too. Speaking of the fall, Lehi teaches (vv. 15-16, my emphasis):

And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

It is not just the existence of opposites and alternatives that make choice possible, but mankind needs factors to appeal to them, to pull them in each direction. In a lot of discussions about agency, it often seems that people treat this as an innate trait of mankind, but it really isn’t. Human beings can be both “things to act” and “things to be acted upon”. Where much of our agency, speaking of our choice between good and evil, lies rests in our ability to tip the scales between the two forces pulling upon us, namely the influence of God, particularly through his Holy Spirit, and the temptations of the devil and his angels. Which is why the possibility of the Lord’s spirit not always striving with man is such a threat (variations on that statement – first appearing in Genesis 6:3, appearing in 1 Ne. 7:14; 2 Ne. 26:11; Mormon 5:16; Ether 2:15; Ether 15:19; Moroni 8:28; Moroni 9:4, and on a national scale generally portending complete annihilation). If we persist in wickedness to such a degree that the Lord’s spirit gives up on us, then only one factor is left, and we become for the most part something “to be acted upon”, save by an act of grace.

Lehi then continues his discussion of the fall, one which many people have commented on (although one where some seem to over-correct on, for the fall while necessary is still a fall). The fall is part of God’s plan for mankind: “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (v. 24). And again, a profound though sometimes misunderstood statement:

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

(2 Nephi 2:25)

It should always be understood that this statement is referring to God’s ultimate aim for mankind, that we might have joy. It is not a guarantee to permanent and complete joy in this life. I’ve addressed that topic before, but verse 23 just before this verse is worth noting in this regard: Adam and Eve pre-fall had “no joy, for they knew no misery”. This is a return to that notion of opposites (for likewise they did “no good, for they knew no sin”). In this life, in order to develop the capacity to have joy, we must also have the possibility of knowing and experiencing misery.

Which leads to Lehi’s ultimate conclusion, about (fittingly) the ultimate choice we face between ultimate joy with Christ or ultimate misery with the devil:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

This is the most important choice, the most important opposite, that lies before us, and the one choice that cannot be taken from us save we give it up ourselves. And in this, we have those factors each side enticing us one way or the other:

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.

(2 Nephi 2:28-29)

In essence we have both internal and external factors. The external factors are the teachings and commandments of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit on one side, and the temptations of the devil on the other. But each of us also faces an internal battle against those things inside us: “the natural man” as Mosiah 3:19 puts it, or “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” as it is so vividly put here. If this chapter helps correct some wider misapprehensions held about the fall in wider Christendom, it also does teach (for those who take it too far the other way) that the fall did bring about real consequences in terms of instincts and inclinations within all of us to stray, one which Satan will take advantage of if we let him. This seems to be a hard concept for some people to accept (indeed some don’t seem to realise that LDS scripture teaches this at all), but a necessary one not just to understand the world (including understanding that just because something is natural doesn’t make it good), but to understand ourselves. If mankind is not wholly corrupt, it is not wholly good either, nor perfectible by its own efforts. Rather, it is our individual human souls (that is the body and spirit as a unit, D&C 88:15) that are the battleground for the great war that wages between good and evil.

We can’t defeat our own evil inclinations purely by our own efforts, but fortunately and miraculously we don’t have to, and that path is laid out in this chapter. What we have the power to do is to make that ultimate choice and keep making it. And it is as we choose Christ, as we put our faith in him and “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), that his grace and power and mercies come with even greater power into our life. And it is that grace that will give us the ability to follow him, to act and not to be acted upon, and pave the way to that joy that is the point of our existence.

 

1 Nephi 22

For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.

Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire.

Behold, my brethren, I say unto you, that these things must shortly come; yea, even blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke must come; and it must needs be upon the face of this earth; and it cometh unto men according to the flesh if it so be that they will harden their hearts against the Holy One of Israel.

For behold, the righteous shall not perish; for the time surely must come that all they who fight against Zion shall be cut off.

1 Nephi 22:16-19

I sometimes joke that one of the biggest things I’ve learned from my thesis is that one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon is “judgment is coming”. Except it’s not a joke, not really: judgment is coming. God will hold us all accountable, and for our civilisation – unless it repents – that accountability is coming quicker than people think.

However – as I mentioned with 1 Nephi 1 – God’s acts of judgment in the Book of Mormon are often deliverance for others. Much of 1 Nephi 22, and many other parts of the Book of Mormon, are about how the Lord will remember his covenant with scattered Israel. Here it is made clear that the Lord will protect and deliver the righteous: that protection, however, will come in the form of divine judgment upon the wicked. Mercy and justice, judgment and deliverance are mirror images of each other, two sides of the same coin of divine providence.

2020 Edit:

I’m picking out things that stuck out to me this time round, but it several cases they are things I’ve noticed before, and in some cases written at length on (from a more academic perspective) along with other stuff in chapter 3 of the much aforementioned book. This is Nephi’s “commentary” on the quoted material of 1 Nephi 21-22//Isaiah 48-49. I use “commentary” loosely, since it’s not a systematic commentary by any means, but rather (in response to questions by his brothers) Nephi expands upon some of its meaning in a passage that also draws upon a range of other scriptural references (Isaiah, Deuteronomy, something akin of Malachi, Psalms & so on) and his own visionary experiences, all interwoven together.

A question faced early on is a question that may seem outwardly familiar (v. 1):

And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had read these things which were engraven upon the plates of brass, my brethren came unto me and said unto me: What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?

A number of readers have seen this question, dividing between things “according to the spirit” and others to “the flesh”, as addressing the perceived divide between literal & allegorical interpretation of scripture, one which was an issue in Joseph Smith’s day, although that’s principally because it’s been a live issue since the early years of the Christian era and before (e.g. Philo of Alexandria, Origen and so on). Of course, it can be a mistake to see a hard divide between these in the first place: with typology, things can be both literal and allegorical. But it’s also not quite the issue that is faced here. Consider verse 6:

Nevertheless, after they shall be nursed by the Gentiles, and the Lord has lifted up his hand upon the Gentiles and set them up for a standard, and their children have been carried in their arms, and their daughters have been carried upon their shoulders, behold these things of which are spoken are temporal; for thus are the covenants of the Lord with our fathers; and it meaneth us in the days to come, and also all our brethren who are of the house of Israel.

As I point out on pp. 139-140 of tBoM&irwtB (I really need a better acronym), Nephi interprets the imagery of the children (interesting enough this should be sons, as it is in 1 Nephi21:22/Isaiah 49:22, but this would be an easy mistake to make if one were working in any Semitic languages) and daughters being carried in the Gentiles arms and shoulders as temporal events (as opposed to spiritual), but said arms and shoulders are not literal, they are metaphorical. The two divisions do not exactly tally up.

It’s also worth noting that Nephi resists such a sharp divide in the first place in his initial response (vv. 2-3):

And I, Nephi, said unto them: Behold they were manifest unto the prophet by the voice of the Spirit; for by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets, which shall come upon the children of men according to the flesh.

Wherefore, the things of which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual; for it appears that the house of Israel, sooner or later, will be scattered upon all the face of the earth, and also among all nations.

Thus he emphasises that the prophecies were made manifest by the Spirit, but concern events that happen “according to the flesh“. Then Nephi goes further, stating that the things he read are about things “both temporal and spiritual” (and indeed, both at the same time, I’d say).

However, the fact that such details were manifest to the prophets in the first place by the Spirit also implies that interpretation should come from the same source, and here I think it’s important to recognise the significance of Nephi using his visions alongside wider scripture to interpret. Because academia likes big words I referred to that as a Hermeneutic of Revelation. The principal however is quite simple: understanding revelation requires revelation. The implication is that we too likewise need to be able to access the same resource when we study scripture, to gain understanding through the Spirit.

Nephi of course addresses the big topic of the past several chapters, namely the redemption and gathering of Israel, and conversely the judgment and destruction that come upon those that have oppressed them. It’s worth noting here that the designation “a mighty nation among the Gentiles” (v. 8), which seems a clear reference to the United States (and about which I’ve seen some more patriotic readers wave metaphorical flags) is not a compliment. It is the designation used when it talks about the scattering of the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples: “and by them shall our seed be scattered”. This is after quoting Isaiah, speaking of how Israel will be redeemed, and that “the prey be taken from the mighty” and “the captives of the mighty shall be taken away” (1 Nephi 21:24-25//Isaiah 49:24-25, my emphasis). Unlike many 19th century American perspectives (which saw the colonists and the US as the new Israel), this passage paints them instead in the role of the new Assyrians and Babylonians, historic oppressors and scatterers of Israel. Hope for the Gentiles rests in the same place as it does for Israel, in the “marvelous work” that God will begin amongst the Gentiles, which will be of “worth” to them, providing they repent (vv. 8-9; Jesus speaks even more explicitly about this subject, including some pretty dire things for the Gentile nations, in 3 Nephi 16, 20-21).

Tying up with what I wrote in the original post, my eye was caught once more on verse 16:

For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.

This is a very… blunt verse. It perhaps caught my attention because of several recent conversations I’ve been part of, in which people expressed the opinion (and believing said opinions were substantiated by several currently popular LDS academics), that the idea of God’s wrath was some sort of mistaken idea we’ve inherited from Protestantism, that God doesn’t have wrath or anger, but solely expresses an accepting love. In short, sentiments I’ve already taken some issue with here, here and here. In short, I believe the essence of the problem is one of over-correction (a frequent problem for us mortals): some depictions of deity have indeed focused overmuch on God’s wrath and justice and hatred of sin, and not enough on his love and mercy and forgiveness. Such depictions were very influential (especially around the 17th century). But in many cases we’ve moved to the opposite extreme, to denying the existence of God’s wrath.

This verse addresses that twofold. On one hand it is one (though one of many) verses that speak of the topic in Restoration scripture, for those inclined to (unjustly) view the Bible with suspicion in this regard. But also it gets to one of the core parts of the issue: God will express his wrath “for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous“. A God without wrath is one that would accept the righteous being destroyed at the hands of the wicked, indeed in some conceptions not even expressing disapproval for doing so. A God who cares is a God who grieves, a God who demands better of us, and a God that is angry at atrocity. A God without wrath is a God without love, for those who need deliverance from oppression.

1 Nephi 21

Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.

And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.

1 Nephi 21:4-5

Thinking about the actual lives of many of the prophets, it would have been easy for many of them to feel a sense of failure. Israel was still worshipping idols when Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha. Mormon and Moroni saw the destruction of their entire people, while the fruit of their labours would not be read for another 14 centuries, while Isaiah himself died during the reign of King Manasseh, who led Judah further into idolatry than any before him and who – according to tradition – had Isaiah sawn in half (which is referred to in Hebrews 11:37).

Failures… from a mortal perspective that cannot see any further than the metaphorical end of our nose. From an eternal perspective, we have the transmission of sealing powers, the writing and preservation of sacred scripture and visions of the eternities that have and will benefit countless in future generations. So it is with us. It’s very easy – I tangle with this feeling quite a lot – to look upon some facet of life or some task and think we have failed. But we do not know all things; we don’t know what might happen in the next year, let alone in generations to come. I guess what we/I need to do is to “work with my God”, leave our judgment with him, exercise some predictive humility and trust in his strength.

2020 Edit:

Onto the second half of this quotation, in which the focus is the restoration of Israel, and the Lord’s servants (of whom Christ is the ultimate fulfilment, but these verses can apply in part to the likes of Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith and others as well) by whom the Lord will accomplish this task. This is despite, as mentioned above, the fact that many of these figures might be perceived to be, and may have felt themselves to be, failures in this task in the eyes of contemporary witnesses. Once again, Christ is perhaps the preeminent example of how God gains victory through apparent defeat, where Christ’s condemnation and death on the cross (perceived as a shameful death) was actually the most comprehensive victory of all time, over the previously unassailable foes of sin and death.

It’s quite common within the Church, I feel, to see the Book of Mormon as a necessary stepping stone to the restoration of the Gospel, and to believe that it predicts and talks about that restoration. And it is and it does. But it is worth paying attention to the fact that the Book of Mormon’s focus is on a wider concept, that when the text speaks of a restoration it is often not just talking about the restoration of the Gospel, but the restoration of the House of Israel, of which the restoration of the Gospel is in itself but a part and necessary step. The events the Book of Mormon prophesies of go beyond what occurred in the 1820s-1840s, and extend beyond the bounds of the organised Church itself, and many of the biggest events it speaks of are yet to come (and I’m not talking about the Second Coming; the Book of Mormon’s focus is on the period before that). We may have the chance to see and participate in some of the most pivotal events in human history.

And yet, like all scripture and yet more so, Isaiah’s words do not just speak of one thing at one time. The words of reassurance in the his chapter to scattered Israel, that God has indeed not forgotten them, can apply not just to a collective but to each of us, no matter how we have stumbled (1 Nephi 21:14-16):

But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.

For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.

Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.

It is for each of our sakes that Christ bears the marks that are on the palms of his hands. For each of us he bore unimaginable pain, and for each of us he died. No matter what we have done, or how far we may have wondered, he has not and will not forget us.

 

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.