The first time that our family read the Book of Mormon, we used the four-volume children’s version by Deta Petersen Neeley. After completing the second volume, I asked my ten-year-old son what he thought of it. “Well,” he said, “I’m not sure what it means, but there sure are a lot of people sneaking out in the middle of the night.”
As I thought about this, I realized that he was right. In the part of the book identified as the Plates of Nephi, three different groups of people are instructed by the Lord to sneak out of the place they are currently living and head into the wilderness. The whole Book of Mormon begins with Lehi receiving the instruction to leave Jerusalem (1 Ne. 2:1-4). Years later, as Laman and Lemuel are plotting to take his life, Nephi is told to do pretty much the same thing (2 Ne. 5:5-10). And finally, in the last book on the Small Plates, we are told that Mosiah was “warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi, and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart with him, into the wilderness” (Omni 1:12). This same sort of sneaking out happens three more times in the Book of Mosiah–and the last two really do happen in the middle of the night.
These three stories constitute a type scene, or a similar story told at different points in the narrative in ways that invite readers to compare them with each other. The “sneaking-out-in-the-middle-of-the-night” type scene ties together the various narrators featured on the Small Plates of Nephi. But it also joins the story of the Nephites typologically to the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament, who were also directed by God to flee from Egypt and journey to a Promised Land.
A number of articles on the Book of Mormon as literature have emphasized the importance of the Exodus type in the framing of the BOM narrative. It is an important connection, but we need to be careful not to overread the similarities. The differences are important too. In several key ways, the Book of Mormon revises and softens the archetypal story of a people directed by the Lord to escape from their enemies.
In the first place, the Children of Israel did not sneak out in the middle of the night. Their escape required spectacular intervention by God: miracles, plagues, the death of first sons, the parting of seas, and the drowning of armies. The Book of Mormon has very different optics. In all three of the Exodus type scenes, God whispers to a prophet that the people need to leave their homes and depart into the wilderness. And the people leave their homes and depart into the wilderness with a minimum amount of drama.
The more important difference, however, comes at the end of the journey. In the Bible, the promised land has to be emptied of its current inhabitants before the Israelites can inherit it. This leads to some of the most disturbing chapters in the Bible, in the books of Joshua and Judges, as the Israelite conquer the Land of Canaan and massacre its inhabitants.
In the Book of Mormon, the Promised Land is already empty. The people get there and set up a colony without committing a single act of genocide. They do not encounter anybody for some time, and when the Nephites finally do come upon an inhabited city (after sneaking out in the middle of the night), the inhabitants welcome them as cultural saviors and happily turn the government over to their king. Nobody has to die for anybody else’s covenant with God.
When compared to the Bible, then, the Book of Mormon gives us a kinder, gentler Exodus with no fighting and no dying on either side of the divide. However, when we places these parts of the Book of Mormon into their nineteenth-century context, they become much more problematic–as they replicate the false, but common view at the time of an uninhabited, empty continent waiting for white people to colonize it.
Over and over, contemporary American texts describe the American continent as uninhabited, and nineteenth-century America treated it precisely as such. We “bought” a huge section from France, negotiated with England for another parcel, and “won” most of the rest of it from Mexico—all without concern for the population that had been there for centuries. This population was considered an inconvenience to be removed, and the removal was in many ways as brutal as the Conquest of Canaan. But in the collective imagination of the American people, the land was empty and the American Indians were the intruders. The white settlers were like unto the Nephites colonizing an empty land.
Not long after the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the Latter-day Saints would become a big part of that colonization— beginning with their dramatic exodus from Nauvoo. Like most Americans, the Mormons conceived of the West as substantially empty. But they also believed that the Native peoples who were there were descendants of the Lehites in the Book of Mormon–and therefore a people to whom they had a moral and religious responsibility.
The Book of Mormon gave the Mormon settelrs a perfect analog for their situation: like Mosiah and the Nephites coming upon the City of Zarahemla, the Mormons imagined themselves to be the cultural saviors of their Lamanite brethren—restoring their history and their sacred books, and expecting in return to be made their kings. Though it didn’t always work out so well in practice, the Mormons did at least acknowledge the essential humanity of the Native Americans in a way that many American settlers did not.
This softening of the colonial imperative can perhaps be traced back to the patterns of population displacement in the Book of Mormon. The Exodus type in the Book of Mormon is a very real thing, but the typology is as much corrective as it is connective. The Hebrew narratives from the Exodus through the Conquest contain some of the most horrifying and indefensible passages in the Standard Works. And the bulk of the horror comes from God’s decision to lead His people to safety in a land that is already inhabited.
In the Book of Mormon, the same God does pretty much the same thing over and over again without anybody having to massacre anybody else–which, all practical limitations aside, strikes me as a much better way to set the people free.
 This happens first in Mosiah 18:34, when Alma and his small band of converts is warned by the Lord that King Noah seeks their lives, and later. In Mosiah 22: 9-12, the people of Limhi send a tribute of wine to the Lamanites guarding their city and, quite literally, sneak out in the middle of the night. And in Mosiah 24: 18-20, the people of Alma, who are being oppressed at the time by Amulon and the remnant of the Priests of Noah, gather their flocks together “at nighttime” and “departed into the wilderness.”
 See, for example: George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 245–62; S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 75–98.