Deconstructing the Book of Mormon, Part Two

Stephen Marshbook of mormon 21 Comments

Deuteronomy 15:12-15

“in the seventh year, you shall let him go free from you …”



“be your servant forever”

That is right. Eight years in the wilderness. Anyone who stayed, went from a seven year hitch to a permanent slave under the law. The entire household, except for the masters, became property. That could well be part of the events in the wilderness that later descendants would remember as their losing their rights and being led away to be made slaves in the wilderness.

Which makes it possible that when Nephi goes to build a boat and labor is withheld from him, the labor is not the personal labor of two of his brothers, but the labor of their share of the servants and slaves. That takes a step back, so that rather than going to work every day on the boat and suddenly realizing it is a quality piece of workmanship, which causes a temporary change of heart, they are withdrawn and go down to look at it one day and are astounded.  Also note that when Nephi goes to build the boat he doesn’t ask his father for any input.  There was a definite transition in the broken bow incident.  Nephi has fired an arrow made by his own hands over the land and claimed leadership over the people.

Back to the ship, how big was that ship? Large enough to hold a dance on the deck.  No wonder it was a wonder of a sort the brothers had never seen before.

Then, when they get to the new world, and Nephi leaves his brothers behind, he takes a listed group and an “all the rest” sort of group … he is decamping with a significant portion of the servants and slaves. If he had just taken off by himself do you really think his brothers would have missed him or cared?

Which leads to Jacob in the temple. Just how many people do you need to have in a group before some of the elite having extra wives or mistresses is something they could keep from their primary wives and children? Especially if they had by this time become a foreign elite dominating or interacting with a large group of natives, then the sermon makes sense. You have men who have native families on the side. A community of thousands makes that situation make sense, with men in the elite numbering at least a hundred and allowing scores of them to be participating in the sin Jacob is addressing.

By this time the Nephites are very possibly already submerged in the native environment, acting as an outside colonizing elite. Use that for a perspective that takes us through to Mosiah, and you have a completely different look at the Book of Mormon, especially if the “Lamanites” are doing the same thing.

This is actually the proper foundation to start applying the tools of deconstruction to the Book of Mormon.  It is a way to see the Nephites as colonizers, part of a larger group of colonizers, with Lehi as a politician rather than a caravaner and his sons having been trained to the same trade.  The roots of Nephi claiming kingship in the wilderness in the incident of the broken bow (with later generations complaining about it), of bondservants becoming slaves (with later generations complaining about it) and native peoples becoming second class citizens (at least as a source of concubines, and with later generations complaining about it).

You can also look at Jacob’s sermon (with a later reprise by Samuel) as setting the theme that prosperity does not equal holiness and the approval of God and that the Lamanites are not inferior, regardless of their appearance and lack of culture (and we will later see multiple groups of Lamanites with differences in sophistication, remembering that the term generally means everyone who is not a Nephite).

It is an entirely different book read from that perspective with all sorts of nuances suddenly having meaning and significance rather than just being odd bits of texture. There is a lot to be gained from taking the Book of Mormon as true and then reading the text against the background that is implied or consistent with the world it is set in.

Comments 21

  1. Just got home from Church and read this. Very interesting, Stephen. In your last post you mentioned the household of Ishmael being included.

    1 Ne. 7: 5
    5 And it came to pass that the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness to the tent of our father.

    Now I’m going to do this from memory, so sue me if I’m wrong. (I’m probably wrong) but it seems like I remember Royal Skowsen’s work on the critical text for that passage reading:
    “And it came to pass that the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his whole household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness to the tent of our father.”

    Compare to Alma 22:23

    Not sure it makes that big of a difference, but it would seem to support your theory that there were more people than mentioned.

  2. My challenge with this interpretation is that the Book of Mormon as a text is almost completely devoid of anything that would suggest other people being around. The populations may necessitate this interpretation, but the text doesn’t suggest even though given the nature of the Book of Mormon, I think that it would.

    Start first with the Jaredites. The texts shows them coming from the Tower of Babel. They were required to bring animals, given the fact that the land was recently depopulated via a global flood, and there is no mention of any other people throughout the history. Ether’s prophecy to Coriantumr would not be relevant at all if one of two things were the case. First, if other Jaredites escaped the destruction, what would be the point of saying he would be the only survivor. And second, if other people ever came into contact with the Jaredites it would make the prophecy null and void. For the record to be factual, you have to make the assumption that the Jaredites were a large and significant nation comprising several hundreds of thousands but never came into contact with any other people.

    The Nephite record is also silent in regards to other populations. Like the Jaredite record, the Book of Mormon is silent but says the land was covered with useful animals (thanks to the Jaredites). The only mention of another people occurs when they encounter the descendants of Mulek. As already mentioned, I think the very nature of the Book of Mormon would compel the authors to write of these other people. The authors stress the importance of coming unto Christ and its necessity for salvation. With this important message, many missionary journeys and initiatives are recorded – but the people mentioned in each of these initiatives are parts of the already identified groups. The text implies that travel was extensive and not confined to a small area, but still only Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites and all the people associated with them are discussed.

    You might hope to think that others were present, but text would undoubtedly present this.

  3. Devin, while the Book of Mormon does not explicitly identify other groups, I would challenge the idea that it doesn’t suggest it.

    A careful reading of the story of Sherem (Jacob ch7) gives us some things to think about. If Jacob (a first generation Lehite) is still alive, he would have known all of the Nephites—there would not yet have been that many, even if we consider all the “households” involved. Sherem comes in, and introduces himself for what appears to be the first time. If Sherem was a Lamanite, he would have killed or at least attacked Jacob. But he doesn’t—in fact, he seems to have learned the Nephite language and religion. This is an overwhelmingly strong indication that Sherem was an outsider who was on the continent independent of the Lehites. If this is the case, he probably was not alone.

    Also, keep in mind that Laman and Lemuel forsook the covenant (which included a mandate to marry within the covenant) so they probably had no inhibition of integrating with whatever native cultures might exist. The Nephites on the other hand, marrying in the covenant, would have been reluctant to do so. Thus, we would have an ethnic division of two groups fairly early on. However, the Nephites search the brass plates, read the words of Isaiah and Zenos, and “liken them unto them.” For pages and pages in 2 Nephi and Jacob we read about Gentiles coming into the covenant through adoption, grafting, gathering, merging, etc, suggesting the concepts of coming into the fold of God by accepting Christ, regardless of lineage. The Nephites build a temple, surely to bring people into their fold, then afterwards, we read very little of these societal and convenantal issues, because they seem to have been resolved: Nephite no longer simply meant descendant of Nephi, but implied acceptance of a covenant. These lengthy discussions about the house of Israel seem terribly out of place if the Nephite group was a homogeneous island.

    One last thing about the Mulekites, their lack of records gives great reason to doubt their oral folk-lore about having come from Zedekiah and Jerusalem. This uncertainty leaves nearly unlimited possibilities regarding their true origin, so I don’t think we should be too hasty in taking their own traditional account of their origin at face value.

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    KC, after your post, there wasn’t much for me to add.

    While my prior deconstruction text was more of a critical analysis, it is the introduction to this post which introduces deconstructionist thinking more directly. Once you start thinking in those terms, little things keep jumping up out of the text (I like the pointer to Alma 22:23 for another instance of household).

    BTW 2 Nephi 1:5 “and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord” in the context of those who are a part of who partake in the heritage of the land as “my children forever.”

    That is completely separate from the curse of bringing other nations unto them in verse 11 — interesting to think of the White settlers as a plague and an affliction. Scarcely the way seems to think the gospel sees the White members in the USA, but an interesting perspective.

    Right up front they acknowledge others in the land, explain that they are going to identify everyone in the history as either Nephites or Lamenites and then they rarely look back. Deconstruction helps us look to subtexts and to implications of things such as 2 Nephi 1:5 which otherwise seems irrelevant.

    I’d note that Nibley and others did not feel a need to read the story of Coriantumr the way you do.

    Anyway, think about Jacob’s talk about immorality. Get past the discussion of polygamy to ask yourself how many men in your ward could have mistresses amount the other members of the ward without their wives and children having a clue about what was going on. Even in a large ward that just isn’t going to happen. Right there the text implies much more than most people read into it. This isn’t seventy people (including children) and a temple. This is a larger group than that with a ritual center they’ve built and a colonizing influence.

  5. Great stuff!

    Devin, I definately see where you are coming from. The way I see it is the Bible leaves out a lot of information that biblical scholars have pieced together giving new contexts and meanings to many biblical stories. I think it is plausible that this occurs in the Book of Mormon as well. The challenge is we don’t have the historical information that biblical scholars do with the Book of Mormon and are left to throw out limited theories.

  6. In several places in the scriptures the Lord makes plain that he doesn’t tell the whole story. He never told those in Jerusalem about the Nephites. And, the scriptures often make reference to _mysteries_. Apparently, the Lord often creates those mysteries or allows those situations/facts to be mysteries to us.

    Therefore the absence of scriptural evidence of non-Lehites is not evidence of their absence.

    And let’s not forget, there’s 2/3rd’s of the Book of Mormon that was sealed and not translated.

    And Mormon often reminds us: the _source documents_ that he used to make the abridgement known as the Book of Mormon contain at least 100 times as much information as what is in the Book of Mormon.

    We don’t know who else was here when the Lehites got here. Those people could have been outside the Nephite/Lamanite sphere up until any point and then interacted, or could have been in their sphere all along. Either way, Mormon could have been told not to mention them.

    I used to wonder why an abridgement was necessary. Couldn’t the prophets just have made the inspired abridgement as they went along? Why keep the details in the large plates then? Seems like extra effort, or a waste.

    Now I see that the abridgement was so that only a little could be released at first, but then the 2/3rds part of the BoM a little later, and then the whole set of large plates later on. We really can or will benefit from the whole set, but not yet. By going through one man, Mormon, as editor, the Lord precisely controlled what was released to us in our day.

    Back to other groups… We don’t know who arrived during the Nehite dynasty, and again, whether they kept themselves separate and unknown until 400 AD, or intermingled and were purposely not mentioned.

    We don’t really know who all could have arrived from 400 AD until Europeans covered most of the continent and created a history that could be relied on.

    We do know from 2nd Nephi and Jacob that the Lord led at least two other groups out of “the land of Jerusalem” unto “the isles of the sea” and that _someday_ their records will come forth. And Jacob mentions that the continent where the Nephites resided counts as an “isle of the sea.” Using that pattern, the Lord could have led people anywhere, including Polynesia or other places within the Western Hemisphere.

    I recently saw a show on the History Channel about what can happen over 1000 years after man disappears, and how weathering and decay can erase practically all signs. It’s really a miracle that archealogists find anything. And so little of South and Central America has really been explored and excavated.

  7. I love this stuff!

    Reading it this way gives a whole new perspective. I started reading the Book of Mormon a few years ago respecting the Nephites as British-style colonizers and Laminites as Spanish-style colonizers. The first group were separatists, the second, were integrated. That the Book of Mormon is inexplicit about others being here is juxtaposed by the implied elements such as Sherem. I imagine that the Lehite colony landed in a fairly isolated place, Nephi and his bretheren struck out, again, still pretty isolated, while the Laman colony found natives, wherein Laman adopted their rituals and rites, in retun, he became a king and ruler over them. Nephi was no longer present to witness how that took place, so he might not have known about an integrated colonization by his brothers. Laman and Lemuel hadn’t the inclination for nakedness and shorn heads in the Old World, granted, the New World is much more friendlier to nudity than the desert cultures of the Middle East. Nevertheless, their behavior seems adopted, because it would take a few generational leaps for Laman and his children to truly begin acting as savage as noted.

    I still think that the Nephite colony remaind fairly isolated, at least until they encountered the Mulekites and adopted them. My reasoning is that they were always outnumbered by the Lamanites, that the wars undertaken by the Lamanites would make sense as Nephites would be seen as separate, apart, invaders of their home land. Had they integrated or adopted a native colony, I don’t think they would have seen as much of a threat.

    I don’t think the fornications and polygamy in Jacob needs a large oolony to be successful. Indeed, the rationale of building up seed would help us see why the justified polygamy in the first place. They could have been secretive with only a small group of 100 or less.

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  9. Okay, I have to throw this one in. Orson Scott Card advanced the theory that the Mulekites weren’t actually Jews. He believes they were actually another group all together, probably left over Jaredites, and that is the real reason they had a different language and customs that were so alien to the Nephites. He thinks that they “made up” the story of coming from Jerusalem (and from a royal line nonetheless) as a way of trying to fit in with, or possibly a vain attempt to trump, the culturally superior Nephites.

    So there you go, the Book of Mormon *DOES* mention a group of non-Lehites! 😛

    So go put that into your spiritual pipe and smoke it for a while. 😉

    >>> I don’t think the fornications and polygamy in Jacob needs a large oolony to be successful.

    Go back and read Jacob 2. It doesn’t say they practiced polygamy, it says they talked about doing it. So I’d say it could happen with a pretty small group.

  10. Here’s a heretical way to deconstruct the text. Where in the text do we find evidence that the narratives occur in North or South America? Can we imagine the BOM narrative taking place anywhere else? Australia, Oceania, Asia, Africa?

    I understand there are huge, possibly insurmountable problems with this idea I’m tossing out that have to do with Church history, but I just don’t get references to “mother Gentiles” and so forth in 2 Nephi as ineluctably having to do with Columbus or the Brits…with the increasing distance the Church is putting between the nineteenth-century interpretations of the BOM and the 21st century, is this a possibility for scholarship in the future?

    I also think many of the issues raised by Devin above can be dealt with if we jettison a certain reading of the Bible (global flood destroying other populations for the Jaredites to interact with) etc. If we accept that Noah’s flood was local, we deal with these issues much more handily.

  11. >>> Can we imagine the BOM narrative taking place anywhere else? Australia, Oceania, Asia, Africa?

    I vote for Greenland! The viking raids were actually Lamanites!

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    Genesis does indicate that by the time Noah had grandchildren, one of them worked out series of peace treaties with the “gentiles” after their languages — well before the Tower of Babel. That was a real surprise the first time I was reading along in the text and hit that point.

    And I like Card’s take on things, but that is because he agrees with me. 😉

    I’m glad of Google, so often we reference things and then start over the same conversations (or similar ones) and without search engines it would be impossible to keep track of all the citations and still hold down a day job.

  13. Once we admit that the scriptures don’t contain all the pertinent _historical_ information, it seems easy to speculate to fill in the blanks with the unmentioned possibilities.

    With all the geological upheavals at the time of the crucifixion, the geography of this hemisphere could be much different. Important Book of Mormon lands could be underwater. And what is now underwater could have been land. the BoM even mentions as much, but the question is one of degree and acreage. Zarahemla could be in the Gulf of Mexico.

    I’m leaning towards the “layer of water vapor in the sky” theory of the flood, and the belief that the mountains weren’t as high, and the ocean floor not as deep pre-flood. Therefore it could have been a universal flood, and by causing the mountains to be lifted up, and the ocean floor made deeper, that could have caused the waters to receed. If prophets could have removed mountains or filled valleys with their word, the Lord could have created and removed them too.

    Has anyone ever calculated what the depth of water would be if the earth surface was uniform (no valleys, no hills or mountains) just a ball, and the current volume of sea-water were spread over it? And who’s to say that the Lord didn’t do something else with the water? It could have been removed off-planet and dissipated to outer-space, or left on earth and separated into oxygen and hydrogen molecules. Believing that the total amount of water on earth post-flood remained the same as pre-flood would be an assumption.

    At a future time when all mysteries are revealed (as promised in scripture), I think the scriptural history of the earth is going to make a lot more sense, even with just the added “fill in the blank” things that the scriptures have left out.

    Another item, if all the animals that were not on the ark perished, how is it that we have more species than could have fitted? Answer: God may have resurrected the rest. He certainly has that power. If he can do it to Lazarus, to bring him back to mortal life, he could have done it to animals. Or some animal species might have been created or re-created anew. My reading of Genesis doesn’t rule out a resurrection or re-creation of animal species post flood.

  14. Stephen: Some non-lds bible scholars have said that Shem was the father of the Semites, Ham the father of Africans, and Japheth the father of Asians. I think some pre-1978 LDS scholars agreed with that. Do any post-1978 LDS scholars lend any credence to that belief in relation to the anthropological history or history of racial origens of mankind?

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    Bookslinger, the simple answer is that “I don’t know” as to Do any post-1978 LDS scholars lend any credence to that belief in relation to the anthropological history or history of racial origens of mankind?

  16. Bookslinger:

    Genesis 7:19 says, “And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.”

    Although many scientists are skeptical of the possibility of the entire earth being covered in water, the Bible makes that truth clear. How is it possible with the height of mountains and the amount of water on the earth today?

    Genesis 8:1-3 says, “And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;
    2 The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;
    3 And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.”

    Verse 2 lists at least two sources of water — the fountains of the deep AND the rain from heaven. I believe that the majority of the water came from under the earth and later abated back under the earth. Some have speculated that pressure built up and burst out between the continents beginning the division of the earth. Perhaps this is when the continents began their division and in the days of Peleg (several hundred years later) the division was complete. In addition, the movement of the continents outward would have caused the creation of much larger mountainous regions on the west side of the western hemisphere and on the east side of the eastern hemisphere. One can look at the topography of the earth today to see this.

  17. This has been very interesting reading. Please consider the following. Joseph married Ashkenoth, the daughter of pharoah, who I would was 100% Egyptian. Therefore, Lehi was Shemite and Hamite. As a response to the statement made by an earlier writer, the Nephites were not white. In addition, color would not have had the significance that many people place on color in these latter days. The important seperation points would have been language, customs and beliefs. ultimately, nephites came to represent believers in Christ and partakers in the covenant. There was not meant to be a racial implication. COMMENTS?

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