The Book of Jacob is weird. I say this lovingly, but it’s true. It’s not that the book says weird things. It’s just that the things it does say don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. It’s more like a mix tape than a coherent narrative or a sustained argument about anything.
But the wonderful thing about Jacob as a narrator is that he knows he’s weird. And he tells us exactly why his book does not have the kind of coherence that Nephi has trained us to expect. Writing on plates, he tells us, is really hard:
Now behold, it came to pass, that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people, in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates,) and we know that the things which we write upon plates, must remain; but whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates, must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates. (Jacob 4:1-2)
This is my favorite fourth-wall lapse in the entire Book of Mormon, and it creates a very different set of expectations for Jacob’s writings than we had for Nephi’s. Nephi comes off as a luxurious writer—somebody who has all the time in the world and can even afford to reproduce about one-third of the Book of Isaiah more or less verbatim.
Jacob, on the other hand, comes across as a busy person who wants to discharge his duty without devoting much time to narrative pleasantries. He does not resent his task, as some of the subsequent narrators appear to, but neither does he relish writing for its own sake. Nephi was a poet; Jacob was a pragmatist. This means that all of the information in the Book of Jacob comes to us through the author’s “just the facts, ma’am” filter. It must be really important or he wouldn’t have spent time chiseling it onto the plates.
This sense of critical importance should govern our reading of the temple sermon in Jacob 1:15-3:14. These words are presented to us as the most important sermon that Jacob ever delivered, and the legacy that he wants to leave with anyone who reads his book in the future. And his words are not pleasant. Right out of the box, he announces that God has commanded him to inflict pain on the Nephite people:
Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul, that I should be constrained because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you, according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those which are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those which have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God, have daggers placed to pierce their souls, and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2: 9)
And what are the sins of the Nephite’s that have caused God to command Jacob to pierce their souls with daggers? Seeking after riches and marrying more than one wife at a time.
Seeking after wealth and tolerating deep inequalities was pretty much the go-to criticism for Old Testament prophets. When Jacob tells his people, “think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you” (Jacob 2:17), he could just as easily have been Isaiah or Jeremiah. Nothing is more common in the Hebrew scriptures than a prophet of the Lord chastising the Chosen People for seeking their own gain at the expense of others. To a very great degree, exhorting people not to tolerate profound inequalities in their midst is what “prophecy” means.
On the other hand, Jacob’s long discourse on the evils of polygamy at the end of Chapter 2 would have been something completely new to the Nephite people. Monogamy in the Western world was a Roman invention, not a Hebrew one. Before they became part of the Roman Empire, the Jews—like most of the other bronze-age cultures in the world—were a mildly polygynous people.
I say “mildly polygynous” because, as in most polygamous cultures, only elite men had multiple wives. Since males and females tend to be distributed equally in human populations, large-scale polygamy is an inherently unstable social system, as it tends to produce an excess of violent, sexually frustrated young men. But there is no precedent in the Hebrew Bible for Jacob’s assertion that “David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord” (Jacob 2:24).
Taken in its original Lehite context, the requirement for strict monogamy must be considered a stunningly progressive revelation—one that elevated the status of women miles ahead of the biblical standard by refusing to allow them to be considered simply sexual property.
So let’s name the elephant in the room. Jacob’s insistence that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife” (2:27) becomes cosmic irony in light of the fact that, just a few years after translating these words, Joseph Smith initiated the practice of polygamy–which the Mormons continued for more than 50 years. Indeed, anti-polygamist writers of the 19th century invariably quoted Jacob 2 as proof that Mormonism could not even live by its own supposed scripture.
But (as Mormons invariably pointed out in return), Jacob comes with an escape clause: “’For if I will,’ saith the Lord of Hosts, ‘raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things” (Jacob 2:30). But this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Even if we give Jacob 2 the most pro-polygamy reading possible, the best we can say is that it commands strict monogamy as the normal commandment for a society and that, in exceptional circumstances, the Lord may command otherwise “to raise up seed.”
While Mormons today tend to see something like this as a possible rationale for nineteenth-century polygamy, it was not presented as such at the time. The defenders of Mormon polygamy asserted it as a positive good and a superior moral and social system. They insisted that it was an inherent and unbreakable part of God’s Eternal Plan. None of the leaders of the Church in the early Utah period–Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, etc.–saw polygamy as a temporary exception to a standing commandment for monogamy. Yet this is precisely how Jacob presents it in the Book of Mormon.
The only way to square the 19th century practice of plural marriage with the Book of Mormon, then, is to agree that while the early Saints may have been acting under revelation from God, they did not understand the nature of that revelation. At the very best, they took a temporary expedient as an eternal principle and built an entire culture on the incorrect assumption that God’s will for them could never change. If we accept it, this assumption allows us to reconcile the practice of polygamy with Jacob’s strong endorsement of monogamy in his Temple Sermon.
This, of course, raises the inconvenient question of what other temporary expedients we might still be mistaking for eternal principles.