Zeniff and me

In March, Natalie posted about ways of reading The Book of Mormon, especially close reading. I’ve tried applying the close reading skills I teach as a high school literature and composition teacher — a sort of basic formalism, which involves coming to conclusions about the author’s intentions based on the text and the techniques used by the author.

Focusing on the narrative, the analysis of the Nephi chapters has been a little dull. Nephi’s narrative is intensely didactic — there is no ambiguity about his theme. Characters are presented as basically good or evil, and in the narrative itself there seems to be little internal conflict or subtext. This is not a weakness if we see the Nephi story as an epic and Nephi as our epic hero. He embodies the qualities idealized by the society and defines the origins of the Nephite people, partially by defining the origins of the Lamanites in contrast. The lack of complexity in characterization and plot devices suit his purposes well.

But I was impressed this last week by the contrast of Zeniff. If you recall, Zeniff led a group out of Zarahemla to start a colony in the original land of Nephi, where the whole King Noah episode happens. Here’s the beginning of Zeniff’s narrative in Mosaiah 9:

I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.

Therefore, I contended with my brethren in the wilderness, for I would that our ruler should make a treaty with them; but he being an austere and a blood-thirsty man commanded that I should be slain; but I was rescued by the shedding of much blood; for father fought against father, and brother against brother, until the greater number of our army was destroyed in the wilderness; and we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and their children.

In these verses, Zeniff gives us a little narrative about an attempt to slaughter Lamanites, and a bloody disagreement about whether or not that was a good idea. But there is no doctrinal discussion about why this might be a good idea, or why it might not be; we’re not even sure what he saw ‘which was good among them.’ There is a possible doctrinal exposition to be had here, but it isn’t presented.

As a result, Zeniff’s moral position in the narrative is ambiguous. Is he noble for opposing the destruction of the Lamanites, or is this part of his over-zealousness referenced in verse 3 and elsewhere? Amaleki makes the ruler culpable: ‘And their leader being a strong and mighty man, and a stiffnecked man, wherefore he caused a contention among them (Omni 1:28).’ But Zeniff’s moral position isn’t mentioned.

So why are these verses included? One possibility is that it explains Zeniff’s decision to leave Zarahemla. The motivation of Zeniff to separate away from the main body of the Nephites may have grown out of his frustration with this battle erupting out of different understandings of the treatment of an ‘enemy.’ The details he provides in verse 2 indicate strong feelings about what has happened, from the leader being ‘an austere and a blood-thirsty man’ to ‘father fought against father, and brother against brother.’ Zeniff emphasizes the intensity of the disagreement and the bad feelings flowing from it. He also narrates the need to ‘relate that tale to their wives and their children,’ emphasizing the waste and cruelty of that struggle. In that bitterness, Zeniff’s desire to get away makes more sense.

But in the end, was the decision he made in verse one a result of King Laman’s ‘cunning, and lying craftiness, and his fair promises (Mosaiah 10:18)?’ When he later explains to his people why they must go to battle, is he admitting the foolishness in defending them in the first place? I don’t think so. The text of these two chapters is written in recollection, and the emotion expressed in verse two still carry a sense of moral outrage.

In the end, Zeniff ends up being someone I can relate to. He makes a moral stand, but not one that has a strictly doctrinal ‘these are the teachings of my fathers’ position. He deplores the struggle which grows out of his moral position, and responds by making bold decisions — some of which are flawed and which he regrets, others that he feels are guided by prayer and closeness to the Lord. I have learned something about the morally tricky world in which Zeniff and I both live. That’s where close reading has brought me.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks for this — it’s the lesson in this week’s Gospel Doctrine!

  2. Hunter says:

    Last night, we finished reading the Book of Mormon as a family for the very first time. But, man! Slogging through all those war and history chapters with our kids sure made my wife and I determined to try something new for our next book (say, the New Testament?). So, this morning I thank you, Norbert, for reminding me to maybe stop and think a little deeper next time we read through it.

    Go Zeniff!

  3. Great insight! Thanks!

  4. Kevinf says:


    Great post, which makes me wonder why there are only three comments here, and over 125 on the sacrament meeting prayer rule.

    I hadn’t thought that much about Zeniff until I reread this section of the BoM this week. I read it in a little different light than before, but I’ll not claim the depth of insight that you showed here. It was the comment he made about “that which was good among them” that caused me to wonder, what was it that he saw? There are lots of fascinating little glimpses into personalities in the Book of Mormon, and another that sprang to mind is Abish, the female servant of King Lamoni’s wife. She’s one of the very few women actually give n names in the BoM, and one begs to know the story of the vision of her father, that caused her to convert. Then, when she follows her prompting to bring as many people to the king’s house to see what is going on, and finds that it causes contention, rather than a mass conversion, she cries in frustration. All of her life, keeping a secret about her religion, and then her one big chance to testify seems to be going wildly astray. Just as suddenly as she appears in the narrative, she then disappears.

    I can almost see Mormon’s wife, looking over his shoulder as he edits the plates, saying “You better at least mention her name!”

    PS- If I were a betting man, I’m guessing that Captain Moroni was a Republican, and Zeniff was a Democrat. :)

  5. Catching up. Thanks, Norbert; this is great.