Sympathy for the Devil



So if you manage to make it through the Allegory of the Olive Tree, you’ll come to the story of Sherem in Jacob 7.

Sherem “came among the people of Nephi,” (v. 1) perhaps suggesting he was not himself a Nephite. He begins to preach in a flattering manner to the effect that there should be no Christ. (v. 2) He succeeded in leading many of the people away, and sought an audience with Jacob himself. (v. 3) He was learned, had a strong knowledge of the Nephite language, and had the capacity to use the power of speech “according to the power of the devil.”[1]

Sherem wanted to speak directly to Jacob in the hope of shaking his conviction concerning the Christ. (v. 5) In v. 6, the sought after confrontation finally happens, and in v. 7 Sherem lays out his case against Jacob (text broken up for ease of parsing):

 And ye have led away much of this people that

they pervert the right way of God,

and keep not the law of Moses which is the right way;

and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence.

And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy;

for no man knoweth of such things;

for he cannot tell of things to come.

And after this manner did Sherem contend against me.

Jacob for his part rhetorically asks him “Deniest thou the Christ who should come?” (v. 9) to which Sherem replies “If there should be a Christ, I would not deny him; but I know that there is no Christ, neither has been, nor ever will be.”

Then Jacob makes an appeal to the scriptures: “Behold, I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.” (v.11) Jacob continues in v. 12: “And this is not all—it has been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen; and it also has been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost.”

Having come to an impasse, Sherem asks Jacob for a sign (v. 13) so that the deity may resolve the issue. The Lord does indeed smite Sherem, and he was incapacitated for the space of many days. (v 15) He calls a meeting on the morrow, and then makes an eloquent confession that he (obviously in light of the Lord’s action towards him) had been wrong, after which he died. (v. 20) That’s the story in a nutshell.

Now here’s the thing. I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for Sherem and his point of view.

Sherem’s point of view is essentially what the Israelite view would have been back home. We live the law of Moses; we already have a God; who is this other God we’re supposed to worship, who’s supposed to come along hundreds of years from now?

This is easy for us to accept, because this other God already came–2,000 years ago from our perspective–and his life and ministry is a fait accompli. And I for one grew up in a Christian home (well, the Mormon version of Christian, anyway), in a largely Christian nation. So it is a natural belief for us. But this is five centuries before the coming of this Christ.

Imagine for a moment that President Monson gets up in General Conference and announces that on April 6, 2516 the God Vanu will come, and so we are to worship him now. That to me is a very hard ask.

Jacob claims that the scriptures thoroughly testify of this other god, but that point of view is reliant on Christian reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. For example, as Christians (and fans of Handel) we read Isaiah 7:14 as a clear messianic prophecy “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” To us, that’s a slam dunk prophecy of the Christ. But in its immediate context it only makes sense if the sign is going to come within a year or two; the application to Christ 700 years in the future is only something that Christians came up with in retrospect and is secondary to the historical, contextual meaning.

So yes, I’m a Christian, but that notwithstanding I have some pretty significant sympathy for Sherem. I’m not at all sure that were I in his shoes, not knowing what I know now, that I wouldn’t take exactly the same position he did.

[1] Jack Welch has a lucid discussion of this episode in his Legal Cases of the Book of Mormon, 107-38. Jack points out that “the devil” would be ha-satan, and could possibly have the original connotation of the adversarial skill of a (divine) prosecuting attorney.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    I’ve long wondered if Sherem is a unique evolution among the Nephites or is tied to Lamanites in some way. There’s an argument to be made that Laman and Lemuel were Deuteronomists and somewhat opposed to the the type of religion that Lehi and Nephi probably had. Hints of that pop up throughout the text. Of course such things needn’t come from the Lamanites (who by this time may have lost most of their religion)

  2. hope_for_things says:

    Are there any 19th century corollary stories for Sherem or Korihor that Joseph may have borrowed from? I’m curious if stories of anti-Christ figures were popular in the revival meetings of the day or literature of the times. Does anyone know about material that could have influenced these stories?

  3. Jack Welch rocks. Great scholar, great guy.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent observations all, thanks.

    As for whether there were 19th century Anti-Christ figures that might have served as an inspiration of sorts for Sherem, Nehor and Korihor, I don’t know offhand. Although there are significant differences among the three, they do seem to represent a sort of type figure.

  5. Thanks! I had some of the same thought last week when reading the account. I was wondering why the nephites were given a clear understanding of Christ with rite of baptism and less emphasis on law of Moses when there was none in the old world. Were they just too entrenched in the law to be able to receive such a change?

  6. It almost seems that Sherem’s religion was not all that different from Lehi’s religion before his visions (perhaps precipitated by reading the prophecy in the brass plates) led him to prophesy about the coming of a Messiah.

    Perhaps what separated Lehi and Sherem (at least at first) was not primarily differences in doctrine or theology, but rather the difference between believing that one’s understanding of God and the scriptures is complete and needs no revision, addition, or refinement, and believing that God may yet reveal more light and knowledge.

  7. hope_for_things: It looks like you’re assuming that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, rather than acting as a translator.

  8. Sherem’s anti-Christ position makes sense to me in a ~500BC world. (A way of saying that I agree with the OP.) Including the story of Sherem in the Book of Mormon makes sense too. It’s there–I have always believed–as an object lesson, to tell the fear and confession and give up the ghost part (Jacob 7:19-20). But what’s Sherem doing preaching anti- among the Nephites? I never have understood the motivation. Bravely entering the lion’s den for the glory of God or salvation of your friends has the heroic martyr aspect that I understand even if it’s not me. But sticking out your neck just be negative? The narrator doesn’t make it work, for me.

  9. Whatever the Jews at the time thought of the coming Messiah, Jacob’s older brother’s vision of the Savior established Nephi as a prophet and was a large theological leap forward. (It is probably no coincidence the Lord gave Nephi this spectacular vision after his family had permanently broken off from Israel.) Jacob was Nephi’s spiritual successor and likely looked on as leader of the people. (And Jacob had seen Jesus Christ in vision, just like Nephi.)

    Sherem wasn’t trying to have a doctrinal debate. He was trying to discredit Jacob as a prophet and wrestle leadership of the Nephite people away from Jacob.

  10. Angela C says:

    The pre-Christ Christology is the hardest sell of the BOM. Fortunately, episodes like the Sherem story show that the uniqueness of this position is not taken for granted in the text. It’s another complexity to a text that is more nuanced than we usually discuss.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Christian, I think it’s clear not just with Sherem but even with Noah that there’s different strands of religion. Apologists have argued for a big influence of the Deuteronimist religion with Lehi representing a kind of anti-Deuteronomist position with the novelty of more idea of a demiurge of a sort (Christ). Speculation is that the Christ figure ends up being tied to the lesser YHWH and perhaps even Metatron in Nephite thought. The problem with that is that Merkabah mysticism tends to be seen as developing in Babylon and afterwards and so it’s a bit problematic to read into the Book of Mormon. (Despite Mosiah 15 in particular fitting the genre well and Nephi’s vision having some aspects of traditional Enochean literature)

    One of the key doctrines of the Deuteronomist is a practical end to prophesy. (Think how certain protestants reacted to Mormonism or other visionary religious movements in the 19th century) It’s worth noting that scholars see the Deuteronomists editing and especially redacting prophetic works like Jeremiah prior to the exile. So some of Nephi’s comments about the Bible being tampered with make sense in terms of the era. Some also see Jeremiah and these others as two factions within the Deuteronomist movement.

    Regarding Christ speculation among the Nephites it’s worth noting that there are structural similarities to religions Nephi may been exposed to. So for instance the Persians had God in the person of the Persian king. (This is a big point among the Deuteronomist view of history too) I don’t know if anyone has written on Mithraism as an influence on Nephi for these passages about Christ, but it works at least on a superficial level. This also resolves some of the claims of ahistorical conceptions of Christ in the Book of Mormon. The big difference is of course there’s no resurrection for Mithra. Although of course most of our knowledge comes from the Roman era about Mithra.

    Realistically though from a historical view, we know little about the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews as well as fairly little about the details of the Persian conquest. Typically scholars discount much of the history that is presented in the Old Testament.

  12. The story of Sherem makes no sense to me. If Lehi’s group was the only group in the vicinity of where they landed, then why would Jacob, the presumed author of the Book of Jacob, bother to note that Sherem had “a perfect knowledge of the language of the people”? Wouldn’t that be a given if Sherem were a nephew or grandnephew of Jacob’s (assuming that Sherem was a child or grandchild of Laman’s or Lemuel’s, from whom Nephi’s group broke off not long after landing). I can’t imagine that the language of Laman and Lemuel’s group would change from the language of Nephi’s group in just a couple of generations to the extent that Jacob would assume them to speak or be surprised at them speaking a greatly different dialect or language.

    If Sherem was a complete outsider, why would he insist on keeping the law of Moses? Why would he care so much about a tradition completely foreign to him? How would he have access to Nephi’s group’s scriptures to inform himself of Hebrew traditions?

  13. Clark Goble says:

    One possible explanation is that Sherem came from outside among the more assimilated Laminates and the Lamanites still had some remnant of their Hebrew beliefs left yet there were already language differences.

  14. I think there’s a good circumstantial case to be made that Sherem was perhaps a son of Laman or Lemuel–Jacob’s nephew and perhaps a near cohort in age. Someone who witnessed or maybe even contributed to the “rudeness” (AKA violence in 1830s English) of the treatment Jacob received as a kid. Check out final published papers from last year’s Mormon Theology Seminar when they become available for more on these thoughts. There’s some really cool stuff going on there.

  15. In order to accept the story of Sherem as true, you would have to accept that there were other people on the American continent when Lehi’s group arrived, that Laman and Lemuel’s group mingled with an outside group (who spoke a different language), adopted their language (in part), kept a written copy of parts of the Old Testament (that Sherem could have read), and held firmly to the law of Moses. You would also have to accept that Sherem kept himself informed as to what Jacob was doing and saying (either through direct contact beforehand or accounts of others who had visited them).

  16. Michael: Is that such a bad assumption?
    hope_for_things: I’m not a historian, but I’m guessing that Smith’s inspiration for Sherem was Jews. More specifically, rabbis arguing that the Christians were all wrong about how to interpret the Torah and the prophets. That, and Smith may have just wanted to symbolically smite down anyone calling him wrong (consider what Smith had God do to Korihor).

  17. Mark N. says:

    If God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, He sure seems a lot less willing to openly smite blasphemers and those who doubt His existence these days.

  18. I found Brant Gardner’s interpretation of the Sherem story interesting (see He suggests that Sherem was a non-Lehite native American (who in my view were of Jaredite origins, but that’s another discussion) who had been introduced to Nephite religion because of commercial and/or political influence of these newly arrived and more technologically advanced Middle Easterners. My addition to the this interpretation is to note that there is reason to believe the Lehite family were smiths as well as traders, which would explain the Nephites’ quick acquisition of wealth from gold, silver and “precious ores” earlier described, and denounced, by Jacob. Sherem’s attack on Jacob was motivated by a desire to gain influence among these newly arrived wealthy and powerful invaders, and his point of attack was the issue on which Jacob was adding to the invaders’ received religion, and was the basis for Jacob’s claimed authority to criticize the Nephite elite’s corruption. This was Jacob’s theologically innovative prophecy of Christ.

    Note that the presence of preexisting non-Lehite populations also explains the rapid rise of a wealthy Nephite elite (wealthy from trading metal goods with indigenous people), the source of their extra wives, and the comment that Sherem was skilled in the “language of the people.” Either Sherem was speaking Hebrew as a second language or, more likely and more poignantly, the “people” were the non-Lehite population which had come under Nephite control, and it was Jacob who was trying to work in an indigenous language.

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