A Book to Kill For #BOM2016

1 Nephi 1-5

“There’s a question at the beginning of this story: what kind of book is so important, what kind of story is so important, that you would kill for it. Literally kill. Well, this is that kind of book.” —Avi Steinberg, The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, & Kansas City, Missouri

I have long suspected that the main character in the Book of Mormon is the Book of Mormon. It is a book whose primary narrative arc tells the story of how it came to be a book–a book about its own bookification. And though all books are about themselves at some level (usually the level of the advanced undergraduate English major writing a term paper), the level of metafictional self-referentiality in the Book of Mormon is something we normally associate with contemporary post-Modern experimental fiction–or at least with Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote.[1]

The first chapter of the original Book of Mormon (which comprises Chapters 1-5 in modern editions) serves as a remarkably coherent introduction to the Book of Mormon’s bookness. This would have been important to a reader in 1830. The first edition does not come with most of the introductory material that we are used to. There are no witness testimonies, no excerpt from the Joseph Smith History, no clearly worded introduction telling readers what they are getting into. The book does have a very short preface, though, explaining the theft of 116 pages of the original manuscript and the translator’s instructions from the Lord not to retranslate the material. I quote it in its entirety here:

As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated,  by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written,  one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from  the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from  the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said  account, some person or persons have stolen and kept  from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again—and being commanded of the Lord that  I should not translate the same over again, for Satan  had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God,  by altering the words, that they did read contrary from  that which I translated and caused to be written; and  if I should bring forth the same words again, or, in other  words, if I should translate the same over again, they  would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan  would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they  might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord  said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt  translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that  which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and  thus I will confound those who have altered my words.  I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea,  I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than  the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient un to the commandments of God, I have, through his grace  and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform  you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were  found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county,  New-York. (iii-iv)

This preface tells historians several important things. First, we know that Joseph Smith was so concerned about the prospect of the 116 pages resurfacing as part of a critical narrative that he chose to start out with a pre-emptive rebuttal. The preface also tells us that Joseph believed, probably correctly, that the impending publication of the Book of Mormon had been the cause of considerable speculation in the surrounding community. Its first generation of readers would not be approaching it as a blank slate, but as the subject of fanciful gossip and unbridled speculation. They would already have a set of expectations, most of which would not be fulfilled by the actual text.

It is also important to know what this preface tells readers—which is that they are about to be thrust, in media res, into a story that began 116 pages ago. Nephi tells us this right out of the gate:

And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen; yea,  which the Lord had shewn unto him. And now I, Nephi, do  not make a full account of the things which my father hath  written, for he hath written many things which he saw in vi ions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things  which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I  shall not make a full account; but I shall make an account of  my proceedings in my days—Behold I make an abridgment of  the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with  mine own hands; wherefore, after that I have abridged the  record of my father, then will I make an account of mine own  life. (1 Ne 1:15-16) [2]

Nephi, in other words, wants us to know the same thing that Joseph Smith wanted readers to know in the preface: that the book we are reading has some gaps in it, especially towards the beginning, where a part of the original story is missing. As readers, we need to make some allowances for this as we engage with the story.

Nephi tells us a lot more useful stuff about the book in the first chapter. For one thing, he pegs it to a very specific time, “the first year of the Reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (1 Ne 1:4). Any reader familiar with the Bible will know that this places the beginning of the Book of Mormon narrative just a few years before the Babylonian captivity. Contemporary Latter-day Saints, of course, learn this very early. But, for the first generation of readers, it was a vital bit of information; this one fact demystifies the text by situating it in a known, or at least knowable, historical and theological context.

But the most important thing that the first Chapter of the Book of Mormon tells us is that we are reading a really important book—maybe the most important book ever. To make this point, about half of the chapter (now chapters 4-5) is devoted to Nephi and his brothers’ attempt to retrieve the brass plates of Laban–which would become the basis for the Book of Mormon.

The story is too familiar to need much of a gloss here. Suffice it to say that Laban, a Jewish priest, is the custodian of the plates that Nephi and his brothers—who are about to sail across the world to set up a new civilization in the Americas—need to get ahold of. If they don’t, they will have no records, no history, no culture, and no scripture. More importantly (to us at least) we won’t get the Book of Mormon, since the brass plates of Laban–the first records that the Lehites obtained and took with them to the Promised Land–formed the nucleus of the book we are holding in our hands.

Nephi and his brothers ask Laban nicely for the plates, which doesn’t work (would you give up a priceless religious artifact to four teenagers who knocked on your door and asked for it?). They also tried bribery, which Laban accepted without actually delivering the plates. And then, in one of the most famous scenes in the Book of Mormon, Nephi is constrained by the spirit of God to kill Laban, to impersonate him in his household, and to kidnap one of his servants at sword point to prevent discovery.

Nephi, in other words, acts in the most un-Nephi way possible in order to obtain the plates. In the first part of the Chapter, Nephi is described as righteous, law-abiding, and devout. But soon thereafter, he commits at least three capital crimes (murder, impersonation, and kidnapping) to secure a written record that he has no legal right to—but that he must obtain in order for the civilization that he is about to create to survive. And, the narrative tells us, God approves—and even constrains—these actions.

Thus, by the end of Chapter One, we know that the book we are holding in our hands is the descendent of a book that was so important that a blameless man was willing to kill for it, to kidnap for it, and to betray the core elements of his being for it. Readers in 1830, who had just paid the equivalent of $50.00 to buy the book from travelling preachers, found out in the first chapter that it was worth far more than they had paid. They understood the importance of a written record to the survival of a civilization. And they knew that they were in possession of a book worth killing for.

 

[1] In thirty years of trying, I have never encountered a single supposedly modern, postmodern, contemporary, or radically experimental literary innovation that was not first employed by either Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy (1759-1757) or Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605-1615). We moderns only think we’re clever.

[2] To allow readers to follow along, I am citing modern chapter and verse numbers, which are not in the original edition. But I am using the text of the 1830 edition, which differs slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, from the modern text

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I was just reading chapters 1-7 of 1 Nephi to prepare for Sunday’s lesson. And I noticed something I had never focused on before. In chapter 5, after the Brass Plates have been recovered and Lehi has eagerly perused their contents, Lehi is filled with the Spirit and begins to prophesy concerning his seed– “That these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed. Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time” (Verses18-19)

    What slapped me in the face was that, read literally, this was a completely failed prophecy. Where are these Brass Plates? Not even Joseph Smith had them. I for one have never seen them. They seem to be completely vanished from among the sons of men.

    I suppose that to make sense to us today, the prophecy cannot be read literally of the specific, material plates made of bronze that inspired it. Rather, the Brass Plates stand by mentonymy for what we know today as the Book of Mormon. So with your insight that in some respects the Book of Mormon is about, well, the Book of Mormon, this passage all of a sudden made more sense to me than when I first read it.

  2. Michael, great insight about the meta-narrative of a book about itself in the introductory chapters of The Book of Mormon.

    Your analysis of the brass plates (the plates of Laban, as you describe them) as “the basis for the Book of Mormon” and “the nucleus of the book we are holding in our hands” caught my eye. I’d be grateful for a little more explanation of this given that, as Kevin notes, the brass plates aren’t included in The Book of Mormon. Nephi described the brass plates as basically containing the first five books of Moses and some of the writings of prophets up to Nephi’s time, including principally Isaiah. Obviously, the Pentateuch and Isaiah heavily influenced the beliefs of Nephi and his civilization, and the former informs much of Nephi’s perspective as he compares his family’s experience to the experience of the children of Israel being rescued out of Egypt and the latter is heavily quoted both by Nephi and others who inherited the golden plates. But how do you figure the brass plates as being the basis for The Book of Mormon?

    I think Kevin has a good answer: “Rather, the Brass Plates stand by mentonymy for what we know today as the Book of Mormon.” But that’s not the same thing as the actual brass plates being included in the current Book of Mormon.

  3. John, as I read the narrative account, the Brass Plates represent the record of which the subsequent plates are a continuation. So, if (as I am suggesting) the Book of Mormon is a story about how the Book of Mormon got to be itself, then the Brass Plates are the initial record to which everything else in the Book of Mormon is, basically, a sequel–in much the same way that the New Testament presents itself as a sequel to the Old Testament.

    So how I am seeing it is that the large record that is eventually edited down into what we call the Book of Mormon includes the Brass Plates of Laban, the records of Lehi, Nephi, etc. as one big ol’ record of a people–one which they saw as comprehensive. Even though only a small portion of the brass plates–from what we know–end up being quoted in the BOM, they are part of the overall narrative arc that became the BOM. Once the Lehites got the Brass Plates, they added to them to create their own record, and the whole expansive thing eventually got boiled down into the book that we are holding in our hands.

    Note that I am not making a historical point. I have no idea how the history of the plates worked. I am making a literary point of how the first chapter seems to construct its own history–what somebody reading the BOM for the first time, with no real introduction to the text, would understand. And I think it is clear that we are meant to understand the BOM as part of, or at least a logical extension of, the Brass Plates that Nephi retrieves–or at least to understand that, without those brass plates, there could never have been a Book of Mormon.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Kevin I always took the brass plates prophesy as about the Old Testament, not Book of Mormon, going out to the world. Thinking of the Book of Mormon as a continuation of the Brass Plates is something I’d never considered but makes complete sense. I just don’t know if that’d apply to the particular prophesy of Lehi.

  5. So how I am seeing it is that the large record that is eventually edited down into what we call the Book of Mormon includes the Brass Plates of Laban, the records of Lehi, Nephi, etc. as one big ol’ record of a people–one which they saw as comprehensive.

    Excellent. I wasn’t thinking in terms of the pre-abridgment mass.

  6. For this particular reading of the BOM, I am doing my darndest to forget everything that I know about it and approach it like a farmer in 1830 encountering this strange and wonderful book for the first time. This is impossible, of course, because I am nothing like a farmer in 1830 encountering the text for the first time. But I am trying to bracket any knowledge that someone reading the first chapter of the 1830 BOM would not have. So everything that I know about how things eventually turn out, or about the way that the text was ultimately edited and abridged is all in brackets when I say that the plates of Laban are presented as part of the BOM record.

    So, what I am really saying is that, if the only thing one knew about the BOM came from what we now call 1 Nephi 1-5, one would be likely to consider the brass plates as part of the record that Nephi tells us up front that he is creating. This is what gives the original Chapter One its narrative cohesion. It ties it all together as the story of how this record came to be.

  7. I think it relevant that the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the book itself as an object of reverence, the nature of the book as an ancient artifact, are standard fare in traditional Mormon testimony. Contrast the number of times you’ve heard something about the Book mentioned as testimony to the number of times you’ve heard a teaching or sermon or story or character from within the Book mentioned as testimony.

  8. The Other Clark says:

    The brass plates are the older parts of the Old Testament, not the Book of Mormon.

  9. eponymous says:

    I appreciate Michael’s focus on emphasizing only what is known as the chapters reveal the story so I will attempt to stay true to that perspective. As I reflect upon the importance of the Brass plates, as he states without them,

    [the Nephites] will have no records, no history, no culture, and no scripture. More importantly (to us at least) we won’t have the Book of Mormon, since it is the plates of Laban that form the nucleus of the book we are holding in our hands.

    Nephi alludes to this in his own statement in verses 13-16 of Chapter 4:

    13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

    14 And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.

    15 Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.

    16 And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.

    This justification by Nephi for slaying Laban gives evidence of the necessity of the Brass Plates to ensure his nation does not dwindle and perish in unbelief. If we step outside those first five chapters we find validation of Nephi’s concerns in the experiences of the Mulekites as is described by Amaleki in the book of Omni what becomes of a people who separate themselves off from the branch of Israel without a book of Law to ensure the continuation of their culture:

    And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.

    As such, not only were the Brass Plates incorporated into the teachings and were quoted by the Nephite prophets in the plates that were edited to become Book of Mormon but more importantly they ensured the people retained a language and culture and an attachment to the Law such that spiritual records could and would be kept in the first place. Otherwise the Nephites would have become fallen and an unfruitful olive tree like the Mulekites. In my mind, that is actual fulfillment of Lehi’s Brass Plate prophecy.

  10. I’ve always understood Lehi’s prophecy there to refer to the Bible, rather than the Book of Mormon, and keeping with Michael’s focus on the 1830 reception of the Book of Mormon, I would think that would be a fair reading given that Nephi describes them as basically containing the Old Testament.

    At the same time, Lehi prophesies not that they will go out to the entire world, but that they will go out to “all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people *who were of his seed.*” That sounds more like a Book of Mormon prophecy than a bible prophecy.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    JKC, that’s a good point especially when tied to various other prophecies of the Lamanites (however to take that category). However it’s fair to note that any place the Book of Mormon went the Bible had been there before.

    Other Clark, I’m not sure what you mean by “older parts.” I assume the plates contained at minimum Isaiah or prototypes of what became Isaiah in the exile and post-exilic period. Sounds like the original texts out of which the various ideologically warring scribes selected texts were likely in there. Over at T&S we had an interesting discussion about whether or how Deuteronomy would be in there. I think in many ways the content of the brass plates is a bit of a mystery given how much of our Bible is really a product of the post-exilic period.

  12. John Harrison says:

    Here’s a question: how would it be possible to discredit Joseph by publishing the 116 pages, assuming that he re-translated them?

    I have never, even as a child, understood this.

    If the translation doesn’t match then both parties are going to be asked to produce a manuscript. Is Martin Harris going to forge 116 pages of similar but different text to enable this?

    If they do match, well, wouldn’t that be something?

    The rationale for not re-translating doesn’t make any sense unless the process of translation is either fake, or much more imprecise than the excuse given for not re-translating implies.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    John, I think we are used to the idea of a loose translation but probably his contemporaries had some idea of inerrancy and extremely tight control. I think there was also a worry that they would change the original text.

  14. John Harrison says:

    Clark,

    While we are comfortable with a loose translation the revelation and related explanation do not imply a loose translation. Was Joseph under them impression that it was a loose translation?

    Also, the revelation outright states that whoever stole the 116 pages WOULD change the text. My comment is that while that is an interesting conspiracy I don’t see how it could possibly work. If you claim to have the original but refuse to provide the manuscript then your claim isn’t worth much.

    Frankly there are a lot of other aspects to the lost 116 pages that don’t add up well either. For instance everyone states that the Book of Lehi is what was lost, but they picked up at the midpoint of Mosiah, the earlier part of Mosiah being lost.

    Additionally the exact spot where the narrative resumes includes a massive shift of geography and culture due to the integration with the Mulekites. This is takes the remainder of the book completely out of the context established by the 116 pages. If someone did have them and wanted to find discrepancies the sudden shift would make that impossible.

    It seems like the concerns about evil designs are overblown yet we accept them without examination. The 116 pages episode is incredibly problematic, as Joseph himself seems to indicate. Yet we gloss over it now.

  15. eponymous says:

    I think John makes an excellent point about the 116 pages. One I had not previously considered. I suspect it depends on the state of technology at the time including any form of graphology and forensic document examination as well as a question of the quality of forgery possible. Would Lucy Harris and those around her have had the capacity forge Martin’s handwriting (I think that’s possible) and to what authority might a fledgling prophet have appealed? He had no money to seek representation. It strikes me that the scandal might just have been enough among a superstitious people to discredit Joseph before he really gained traction.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    There’s a new book coming out on the 116 pages which reportedly has a lot of new information on it and shake things up a lot on the topic. I don’t think it’s possible to argue too much about this until Don’s book is out and gives us a bit more data. At least I’m withholding most arguments on the topic until I read it.

    On loose translations we should distinguish between the text being loose from the method being loose. It’s quite conceivable to believe in tight control during the process but think the product is very loose – and perhaps inconsistently so depending upon the area of text in question. So far as I know in terms of the text, not the process, Joseph didn’t really say much. Brigham Young seems to have thought it was a loose translation in both method and text but that doesn’t mean his was an informed view in that regard. I think the overwhelming evidence is that it’s a loose translation in method due to how scriptural paraphrases and outright quotations are used to translate texts unrelated to that passage. Brant Gardner has a book on this that I find extremely persuasive. I think the evidence is reasonable although not necessarily overwhelming that the method was tight in some fashion, at least during portions of the translation process.

    On the book of Lehi, I think that’s the typical way it’s discussed but clearly it isn’t just that but more a historical text. As you note it is pretty abrupt where the text picks up.

  17. To me it has always been apparent that the BOM is about the BOM and the rise of Joseph Smith. Of course it is about other grand and spiritual things and certainly captures the sad fact that even after conversion God’s people slowly tend to apostasy and violence. Too me its ending is the most real ending of any book I have ever read.