This approximates the lesson I taught in my ward today, adding a few things I wanted to get to if we’d had more time.
In 1999 I was a missionary in Helsingør, Denmark (familiar to Shakespeare buffs as the setting for Hamlet). In the good ol’ Danish Mission getting let in to teach was a pretty rare occurrence, but we met this woman, taught her a first discussion, and even came back for a second. When we showed up for the third, though, we found the Book of Mormon hanging in a bag on her doorknob, with a note saying, “God is not a racist. 2 Nephi 5:21.”
Obviously I’m still around, almost 17 years later, so this episode (and that verse) didn’t destroy my testimony, but it does raise questions about what to do with passages, like that one, that grate against our modern sensibilities. (Mike’s recent post has some good ideas!) Conveniently, today’s chapters talk a good deal about scripture, giving us occasion to think about such questions.
Chapter 3 verse 12 records words spoken by God to Joseph of Egypt about the purposes of the scriptures that his descendants (and those of his brother Judah) would write:
Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.
A major purpose of scripture—mentioned twice in this one verse—is bringing about peace, and the prophecy suggests that this cause will be served by reading the Book of Mormon together with the Bible. Augustine’s analogy of faith (see his De Doctrina Christiana, book 3) suggests that difficult places in scripture might be resolved by recourse to the teaching of the Church and the plain places of scripture. Obviously the issue arises of who gets to decide which places are plain, but for my part I believe that the term best applies to major scriptural themes that recur in many places. The verse above suggests that knowledge of covenants is one such theme, and I agree: that God covenants with us and is unflaggingly faithful to us, notwithstanding our weakness, is indeed a centrally important theme in scripture.
Chapter 4 is justly famous for the passage that’s come to be known as “Nephi’s psalm,” but it’s worth remembering that the first half of the chapter talks about the contentions with his brothers after their father’s death. Amidst this discussion, Nephi interjects an aside about his record-keeping practice. After mentioning that the more historical record can be found in his other plates, he writes:
And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children. Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. (2 Ne. 4:15-19)
It’s interesting that Nephi transitions directly from talking about writing scripture (probably in the sense of copying out Isaiah) to exclaiming his own wretchedness. Juxtaposing frankly fallible humanity with the writing of scripture can be jarring if we expect that either scriptures or the people who write them are perfect, and yet Nephi is quite clear about his own failings:
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy? (2 Ne. 4:27)
One of Nephi’s apparent struggles has to do with getting angry at his brothers—an understandable failing, but still a failing. Is it possible that Nephi’s anger colored the way that he wrote about his brothers? I think he’d hardly be human if it didn’t.
Coming, then, to the difficult passage in chapter 5, it’s worth noting first that it seems to interrupt a discussion about the building of the Nephite temple. Recall, though, that the chapter began with Nephi taking his people and leaving for a new land to escape the murderous wrath of his brothers, so this temple-building comes on the heels of some serious family trauma. These verses might therefore be trauma recurring, as trauma does:
And behold, the words of the Lord had been fulfilled unto my brethren, which he spake concerning them, that I should be their ruler and their teacher. Wherefore, I had been their ruler and their teacher, according to the commandments of the Lord, until the time they sought to take away my life. Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence. And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done. And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction. (2 Ne. 5:19-25)
Perhaps the place to start with these verses is to note that, whatever they may have meant to Nephi, they played very easily into early 19th-century American racist ideas about the superiority of white people over lazy “colored” people. A complication of 19th-century American racism that may be relevant to Nephi’s situation, though, is that race often has more to do with perception than with any empirical data about skin pigmentation (see David Roediger’s classic The Wages of Whiteness for a history of how, say, the Irish weren’t considered white, or Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color, which shows that 19th-century Mormons sometimes weren’t considered white, either).  Phrases like “fair and delightsome,” contrasted with “loathsome,” suggest that matters of perception and taste are at play here: it’s not that Irish skin magically got lighter as anti-Irish prejudice waned in the 20th century.
What’s most troubling about the passage, though, is that Nephi gives the agency in this change to God. Troubling, but not necessarily surprising, nor indeed unfamiliar, because Mormonism did much the same thing with the priesthood and temple ban. These are Brigham Young’s words before the Territorial Legislature on 16 January 1852:
… any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it … 
By this means Young gave the patina of revelation to the racist and scripturally insupportable notion that the “curse of Cain” explains African skin pigmentation—a teaching that the Church has now repudiated.
My point here is not to beat up on either Nephi or Brigham Young, but rather to observe the dangers that can come from privileging relatively narrow swathes of scripture over major themes of covenantal promises , the faithfulness of God, injunctions to love God and neighbor, and universalist messages (beginning with Abraham in Genesis, or arguably even in Gen. 1 ) holding out the prospect of salvation to all of humanity. Certainly, there’s plenty in the scriptures to complicate each of these larger messages, but compared with the speculation and frankly biased reading between the lines that it takes to make “doctrine” out of a few verses that may or may not even be about skin pigmentation or access to priesthood or whatever, the picture comes through with considerably greater clarity.
Of course the greater risk isn’t that interpreters end up with egg on their faces, but that we end up denying saving ordinances to people for ca. 125 years for apparently no good reason whatsoever, in the process pushing people away from the Church and creating cultural norms that even today can make being black and Mormon more than a little difficult. Similarly, Nephi’s perceptions, in addition to deriving from the troubles with his brothers, could have exacerbated them further.
But the good news is that, even though the scriptures do contain passages where humans simply got it wrong (as humans are known to do), and even imputed their wrong ideas to God, they also repeat, on a large scale, the ultimately hopeful message that God can and does work with imperfect people to accomplish good things. As Nephi concludes his psalm:
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen. (2 Ne. 4:34-35)
We can and should follow Nephi’s example in calling to and trusting in God amidst our weakness. Honestly, that’s why I’m glad that 2 Ne. 5 has its moment of racism, because seeing that it can happen to someone like Nephi calls me to reckon with my own racism (which, having grown up white in America, I can hardly avoid). The strong scriptural witness that God is faithful gives me hope that, in my imperfection, I can still play my own small part in bringing about the covenantal promises to all of God’s children. I stand with Paul: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If none of those things can separate God’s children from God’s love, our puny efforts to do so seem foolhardy. How much better to undertake the work of welcoming people—especially those we’re inclined by culture or experience to distrust—into the arms of Jesus, where we can finally learn to love them as we ought! In doing so lies our best hope of fulfilling that purpose of scripture mentioned in chapter 3: to end contention and bring about peace.
Such at least is my testimony.
 I’m aware that some people (Brant Gardner, Ethan Sproat, and others) have argued that the “skin of blackness” doesn’t have anything to do with skin pigmentation per se. I basically agree, but instead of finding an alternative reading of “skin,” like Sproat does, I think that what we’re dealing with here is a matter of perception, not physiological change.
 Quoted in Lester Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue 8, no. 1 (1973), 26.
 Yes, I’ve read Deuteronomy 28. I get that cursings are part of Ancient Near Eastern contracts/covenants.
 Read alongside the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, it becomes clear that a major purpose of the creation story in Gen. 1 is to make Elohim God over everywhere, everything, and everyone.