Reading Complexity: The Problems and Possibilities of Mosiah 9-22 #BOM 2016

Mosiah 9-22

Let’s start with the great Arabic text, One Thousand and One Nights, compiled throughout the Golden Age of Islamic culture. I have always found this to be one of the best places to start any discussion of narrative complexity. The entire collection is set in the compelling frame tale of Scheherazade, the daughter of the Grand Vizier who must save her life one night at a time by telling stories to  the love-wounded Sultan who  has vowed to take a new wife every day and execute her the next morning. But Scheherazade does not tell stories in the traditional fashion, for to do so would risk ending too soon. Rather, she embeds stories within stories, adding the layers complexity that have made the collection so famous. Just keeping the layers straight exercises cognitive muscles that we rarely get to use.

This proliferation of framing narratives became an important device in the development of the novel, from Cervantes’ Cid Hamete Benengeli in Don Quixote to Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. These narrative layers create a distance between the author and the reader and inject the possibility narrative unreliability at multiple points in the story. We can never be quite sure how much of the voice that we are hearing belongs to Dostoevsky, how much belongs to  Ivan Karamazov, and how much belongs to the Grand Inquisitor. This ambiguity is itself part of how stories mean things.

All of this was going through my mind last week as I read one of the the most complex narrative passages in the Book of Mormon: the Record of Zeniff (Mosiah 9-22), which contains the record of the people who left Zarahemla to re-colonize the Land of Lehi-Nephi. The Story of Zeniff, which contains the crucial story of King Noah and Abinidai—and of Alma’s founding of the Nephite Church at the Waters of Mormon—comes to us through several narrative layers. We need to pay attention to this because it matters.

In the text of the Book of Mormon, Zeniff’s record (most of which occurs after Zeniff dies, so another narrator is implied) is framed by Ammon’s Journey from Zarahemla in search of the Nephites who left three generations earlier. When we read this story, we necessarily encounter its characters through four distinct narrative levels:

  • The narrator of the record of Zeniff, which is part of . . . .
  • The narrative of Ammon, which has been compiled and edited into. . . .
  • The abridged record created by Mormon, which was translated by. . . .
  • Joseph Smith as the Book of Mormon

We need to keep in mind that each of these narrators had a different audience and rhetorical objectives. The original author of the record is trying to preserve a history and explain the founding of the Church. Ammon is creating a narrative that frames his journey to the land of Lehi-Nephi as a success. He is the hero of the story, of course, but most people are heroes of the stories that they write. Readers at least need to take this into consideration as they draw conclusions from the narrative.

Mormon’s rhetorical objectives in this passage are perhaps the most interesting and the most important. Like most historians, he was compiling the various records available to him into a narrative that explained how his society got to be the way it was. This means that he emphasized some details and de-emphasized others according to the interests of people 600 years removed from the actual events—much as a modern historian would when describing the Wars of the Roses or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. We usually want to know how what happened then got us to what we see now.

At the time that he was redacting the Nephite records, Mormon was fighting two different battles: the religious battle for the Church in Nephite culture, and the political battle for the survival of the Nephites against their Lamanite emenies. This means that he had very strong incentives to emphasize 1) the divine revelation at work in creating the Church of which he is one of the few surviving members; and 2) the faithlessness of the Lamanites, who are in the process of exterminating his people. It should be no surprise, then, that these become two of the story’s most important elements, as they reflect the culture of the person who turned it into a story in the first place.

But Mormon was a good enough historian that he left traces of a very different perspective that, with a bit of imagination, we can reconstruct like this:

Seventy five years ago, some people claiming to be the descendants of Nephi came to our land and demanded to settle there because it had “belonged to their ancestors.” We let them start their own colony in the middle of our country and asked only that they pay a fair tribute of their crops and livestock each year—a common practice that reflects the fact that we were giving them our land. In exchange for their tribute, we left them alone and protected their people. But then, a group of them kidnapped and raped our daughters. Naturally, this outraged our people, and we increased their tribute. They complained about this, and relations between us soured, so they snuck out in the middle of the night and went back to Zarahemla. Good riddance!

We don’t have any actual narrative from this perspective, of course, because Mormon got to write the story. His point of view is the only one that we have access to. But narratives always come from a perspective, and human perspectives are always limited. One of the great challenges (and, I would argue, great pleasures) of reading complicated narratives is learning how to untangle the voices and isolate the biases and insights of each one. That we must do so with the text of the Book of Mormon means that we cannot always take every narrative judgment as the pure word of God. But we should not see this as a flaw. It is simply the way that rich and complex narratives are supposed to work.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    One of the most interesting aspects of the Book of Mormon is this sort of complexity. The narratives undermines the narrator’s summary in many places. (The other place I always point out in addition to Zeniff history is the gadianton robber narrative in late Alma and early 3 Nephi)

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff.

  3. Great, and deserves repeating: “we should not see this as a flaw. It is simply the way that rich and complex narratives are supposed to work.”
    And while I’m waiting anxiously for you to unravel all the rest of the narrative threads, I find it interesting that the big arc, the Mormon as teller, redactor, editor thread, is history from a Nephite point of view with a large dollop of victim rather than victor.

  4. This is a great point. I’ve got a manuscript in with the publisher, Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, that performs the same reconstruction you did. I explore the history contained within the Book of Mormon and offer a bold reassessment of events. In even simpler terms, it is the story of the three little pigs as told by the wolf. As you correctly said, in most cases we don’t have the arguments the Lamanites made, but we do have a good deal of Nephite misbehavior that we can reconstruct those arguments.

    An early chapter offers insights into the actions of Gideon and suggests his legacy included more militarized and aggressive policy. Another chapter takes a deeper look at Alma 47 and Amalickiah’s long journey to power. One of these arguments are shared in the chapter, but we can infer many others that he made. On top of this, as a dissenter from the Nephites he would have had a great deal of dirt- real, exaggerated, or made up, but convincing nonetheless that would have made his calls for military action seem necessary and defensive to the Lamanites. For example, Amalickiah would likely have known of the strike that the Nephites desired (Alma 25:25), and the preemptive seizure of Lamanite territory (Alma 50.)

    My favorite chapter details the negative consequences of the great war. With the understanding that divine providence still has rather practical manifestations, I saw four factors there were vital in Nephite victory: increased use of heavy armor, reliance upon fortifications, preemptive warfare, and the seizing of territory in the east wilderness. Instead of analyzing the war itself, I wanted to see if these things affected the book of Helaman. And they did a great deal. Things like heavy armor and fortifications require more. More money means more taxes, and rapacious taxation easily fuels an insurgency. The “getting gain” in the Book of Helaman, and the unrighteousness of Nephite society could refer to unscrupulous tax collectors. I point out how military gains usually require military expenditures to keep. On top of that, soldiers can easily develop a sense of corporate identity and strike out violently (such as killing seeking to kill a prophet like Nephi) when their interests are threatened. In short, I look at the political fragmentation, desire for money, insurgency, and impotency of the army in the Book of Helaman and see a straight line from the military innovations by Moroni. As the strategist Edward Luttwak pointed out, the strange logic of war is that sometimes victory can be the worst thing for a nation. Because in victory every unexamined assumption, regardless of its contribution to victory, becomes enshrined as untouchable doctrine, and needed reforms become harder to implement. While defeat brings truth that much faster and discredits opponents of reform. (You could even see this in the danger to the Nephite nation that allowed Lachoneus to make needed reforms. 3rd Nephi 3:12-15)

    Anyways, there are many more great chapters to the book but this post is getting rather long. The short version is I think you could make many of the points you did for much of the text and I’m glad you introduced the concept here. When we read the BoM, we don’t often ask how the Nephite rulers were naturally concerned over their self interest, and perhaps unaware of the negative consequences their decisions could have. I thought it was time we start reassessing Nephite leadership and ask if maybe the wolf had a point, and the little pigs weren’t quite as innocent as they seem. Thanks for the great post.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    Great analysis Morgan. I look forward to your book. These sorts of literary complexity are among the bigger areas of why I think it hard to discount the book as unconscious writing by Joseph Smith or even something composed in a simple way to teach 19th century controversies the way some critics present it. While they are right that some parts of the book are hard for believers to explain (horses, metal) it seems like things like this are difficult for critics to explain.

  6. This is something we’ve done more of with our family scripture study as our kids get older. In addition to helping us understand the scriptures better, it also makes them a lot more interesting.

  7. Jason K. says:

    Great stuff, Mike. I’m really enjoying your voyage through the text.

  8. Thanks for your interest Clark. The publishers work on their own schedule of course but I’m hoping to have it published later this year or early next.

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