It’s about time I finished this book!
Well, I’ve actually read Jacob 7 multiple times since beginning this “reading through” series, but I’ve never actually managed a post on it. The first pause of posts happened right after Jacob 5, something I don’t believe is a coincidence in light of the fact that I wrote about 20,000 words on that chapter for The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. I then went back to do Jacob 6 late last year, but again never quite did the final chapter. This should never be taken as a reflection on those chapters, or Jacob 7 itself though. For one thing, there’s the warning in 1 Nephi 19:7:
For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.
Hopefully I’m not trampling Jacob under my feet, as in any case I do see much of value in it, and also believe there’s bound to be things of value that I can’t see. If I were to try and come up with an excuse, it would be that I’ve written about it elsewhere, which is true of Jacob 7 as well. That chapter factors into my consideration of Jacob’s personality here. Furthermore, there’s an excellent article by Duane Boyce, which responds to some recent readings of Jacob 7, which I happen to comment on very briefly here (better to read his article though). So while I do not waver from my opinion that the scriptures can be a boundless reservoir, I must sometimes plead human weakness in finding it difficult to see what else is there.
However, since I do believe they are a inexhaustible well, I decided to make the effort anyway, and read Jacob 7 today.
Several things stood out to me:
- Sherem is one of the three figures in the Book of Mormon commonly referred to as Anti-Christs, alongside Nehor (Alma 1) and Korihor (Alma 30). The text itself uses that title only for Korihor (Alma 30:6, 12), but it may be seen as a fair title since the one thing that seems to unite the teaching of these figures is their opposition to the idea of Christ, although this is inferred in the case of Nehor (Alma 21:7-8 indicates that his followers, if not Nehor himself, rejected Christ, and may reflect his teachings. Alma 1 doesn’t comment on the issue, although his teaching that all will be saved does imply less emphasis on sin and thus the need for an atonement, which may be why Book of Mormon prophets teach about that so much). They come from three very different directions though: Nehor teaches a form of universalism (linked to his teaching that Priests teach what is popular), Korihor outright rejects God in favour of materialism, while Sherem in contrast claims to be motivated by the need to keep the law of Moses and reject the blasphemy of worshipping another being (leading to suggestions – and I can’t remember who made it, but it was done a while back, that Sherem may have had Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in mind).
What struck me while reading this time, however, was the description of Sherem as “learned” and having “a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” (Jacob 7:4). We are accustomed to seeing those as good things, and the whole conceit of things like a debate is presumably that learning and eloquence deployed in such an environment can help lead to truth. But the example of Sherem indicates that such learning and eloquence can in fact be deployed to untrue ends (the track record of actual debates – and human responses to them – suggests likewise). Misused knowledge and artful presentation may be used to advance falsehood as much as truth. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was Jacob, speaking elsewhere, who warned that the learned may assume they are wise and reject God’s counsel, but that to be learned is good “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:28-29).
- Another thing to note is Jacob’s inherent humility in calling upon God’s intervention, which stands out when one compares the episode with Alma’s boldness in a similar confrontation with Korihor (Alma 30:49). I think it is indicative of Jacob’s character that he emphasises “not my will be done… And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine” (Jacob 7:14).
- Finally, I note again Jacob’s comments that his people were “a lonesome and a solemn people” and “did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). It makes me wonder what he spoke about with Enos that Enos refers to as “the joy of the saints” (Enos 1:3), assuming no intervening generations. That’s a subject I’ve spoken about before, as linked above, but it does really emphasise that Jacob, despite his righteousness and faithfulness, had a hard life, and that simply because we follow the gospel, we can’t expect “happily ever after”. Well, at least not in this life.
For those paying attention to my other posts, there’s this recurrent strain of argument that has, amongst other things, been pushing the idea that Laman, Lemuel, and importantly for this chapter, Sherem, were sincere and pious opponents, motivated by “Deuteronomist” ideals. There’s issues I have with this, and the broader reconstruction of supposed “Deuteronomism” and the implicit or sometimes explicit labelling of the books of Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History, and even in some cases the entire Old Testament as something to be regarded with suspicion.
Anyway, back to Jacob 7: as I mention above, there is a case (I think a solid one) that Sherem has Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in mind, based on Jacob 7:7, in which he publicly claims that he is acting in favour of the Law of Moses, and against what he describes as converting the law into worship “of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence”. Of course, the mere fact that he appears to be reading Deuteronomy 13 in this way doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the passage, any more than there’s anything wrong with the scriptural passages Satan attempted to misuse in his temptation of the Saviour. Hence Shakespeare’s “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”.
This being the case, the question emerges as to how sincere Sherem was. It’s a question that Duane Boyce’s article linked above addresses (responding to other claims on that issue). It should be pointed out that it is entirely possible for someone to be sincere, and yet very wrong about ultimate things. I think Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, was undoubtedly sincere and operating out of a misplaced zeal.
Here I think Sherem’s last words are worth quoting:
And it came to pass that he said unto the people: Gather together on the morrow, for I shall die; wherefore, I desire to speak unto the people before I shall die.
And it came to pass that on the morrow the multitude were gathered together; and he spake plainly unto them and denied the things which he had taught them, and confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels.
And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment.
And he said: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.
And it came to pass that when he had said these words he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost.
I think in reading these words it’s quite easy to feel sympathy for Sherem: I did when I first read these words several decades ago. This passage gives every appearance – at a stage in which there is little to be gained from lying – of sincere penitence. But when one approaches the question of “was Sherem sincere?”, one should keep in mind that Sherem – like many of us – is a moving target. By Sherem’s own testimony here, in his earlier teachings he had “lied unto God”; while sincere here, his own account argues that he was less than completely sincere earlier. That he may be a sincere and even sympathetic figure on his deathbed doesn’t, and shouldn’t, garb earlier words and works with a sincerity and integrity that he disclaims for himself. Yet at the same time, we need not let those earlier acts rob us of the possibility that here, at the last, he was being truthful and sincere.