Putting Women on a Pedestal (Nephite Edition)


So I’m reading Mosiah 1-3 to prepare for tomorrow’s lesson on King Benjamin’s speech. Recall from Mosiah 2:5 that it was not just men present; it was also their wives, their daughters, their granddaughters who were there.

So I’m minding my own business reading along when I come to Mosiah 2:40:

 40 O, all ye old men, and also ye young men, and you little children who can understand my words, for I have spoken plainly unto you that ye might understand, I pray that ye should awake to a remembrance of the awful situation of those that have fallen into transgression.

And I immediately think, “Huh? Where’s the women? They were here just a minute ago!”

Benjamin makes several references to children who are old enough to understand. So although it is anachronistic, I read this as analogous to our modern concept of accountability, our baptismal line of eight years old and older. I read “young men” as comparable to Hebrew na’arim, which are basically teenagers (under 20 or so). And I suspect “old men” should be read not as 70 year olds in the High Priests Group, but in contradistinction to the young men, and thus mature men over 20 (especially since in antiquity men generally had much shorter life spans than we enjoy today). So the set being addressed includes the mature men, the young men, and children (in this case presumably gender inclusive) of the age of understanding.

So why are women excluded from this list?

Maybe there is another reason I haven’t thought of; if so, please give us your reading in the comments. But later in the verse King Benjamin talks about “the awful situation of those that have fallen into transgression.”

And all of a sudden it hit me. This is the ancient version of why the men get reamed out for prOnography and all manner of various sins and failings in priesthood meeting, and the women get fawned over and told how wonderful they are in the women’s meetings. This is a little bit of pedestaling, a little bit of benevolent patriarchy. (If you’re not familiar with the concept, read this classic post by our own Karen.)

So what do you think? Am I misreading this? Is there another plausible reason why the women present are explicitly omitted from this verse? And if you think I’m reading it correctly, is it a good idea for our people to internalize the notion that women by very definition are angels who can do no wrong and men are pond scum?

Your thoughts appreciated.




  1. A simpler explanation, that also makes sense of “little children” which is otherwise an awkward non-parallel, is that “men” is the general “persons” or “people”. There’s plenty of precedent for that. So it might be rendered “all of you, old and young and children who can understand my words.”

  2. Eponymous says:

    Sorry, thus doesn’t work in Benjamin’s address because throughout Chapter 2 he uses the generic “brethren” as he addresses the entire multitude. Note his opening statement in verse 9:

    “My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day; for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.”

    He refers to brethren 4 more times before verse 40 in 15, 20, 31 and 36. Note how he also shifts from brethren to people in verse 32. And then shifts to man in 37-39.

    Either he’s addressing everyone in this entire address or he’s completely excluding the families.

    And I don’t think you can make the case that this male focused because Benjamin uses the generic brethren again in Chapter 3 as he teaches the people and prophesies of Christ’s coming. A discussion that is applicable to all.

    Sorry Kevin, I don’t think the argument flies.

  3. Adam the Younger says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Christian and Eponymous, but there is evidence elsewhere in the Book of Mormon for Nephite pedestalization, I think. Check out Jacob 2, in which Jacob expresses his regret that he must chastise the men “before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate.” (2:7) The sins he targets? Pride and unchastity. “For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people…because of the wickedness and abomination of their husbands.” (2:31)

    I suspect that in a period when pride and adultery were apparently peaking, men alone weren’t to blame, but I suppose it is possible that the Nephite women remained righteous at this time.

  4. Adam the Younger, isn’t it the definition of pedestalization to suppose that the “Nephite women remained righteous” while the men were out being bad? It’s bothered me since I was old enough to see it (around age 12 or 13) that the General Authorities seem to be unaware that women are as capable of committing sin as men.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Fascinating suggestion, guys. I’m going to half agree with you and half disagree with you.

    On the question whether the repeated “brethren” is meant to be gender inclusive, I’m inclined to agree with you that it is. In the NT the masculine plural adelphoi, typically render “brethren” in the KJV NT, often has a gender inclusive sense and should be rendered “brothers and sisters.” (Of course in any particular case the devil is in the details and these matters are hotly debated.) Gender inclusive usage of the masculine plural achim in the OT is considerably rarer, but it does exist, one example being Deuteronomy 15:12: “And if thy brother [HEB ach], an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, . . . .” Contextual clues are important, and you suggest an excellent one, the switch from brethren to people in 2:32. I find that persuaive.

    I disagree that the use of “man” (singular) or “men” (plural) starting in v. 37 is meant to be gender inclusive “person.” It’s a judgment call, but I actually see all the usage of “man/men” in vv. 37-40 as gender specific. I invite readers to make their own call. (I think it’s gender specific to men for the same pedestaling reasons v. 40 is gender specific, as it is using sharply negative examples.)

    37 I say unto you, that the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness; therefore, the Lord has no place in him, for he dwelleth not in unholy temples.

    38 Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever.

    39 And now I say unto you, that mercy hath no claim on that man; therefore his final doom is to endure a never-ending torment.

    40 O, all ye old men, and also ye young men, and you little children who can understand my words, for I have spoken plainly unto you that ye might understand, I pray that ye should awake to a remembrance of the awful situation of those that have fallen into transgression.

    Verse 41 then reverts back to gender inclusive (“those that keep the commandments”) because the referents are now positive and not negative:

    41 And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    At the end of the book King Benjamin’s Speech edited by John Welch and Stephen Ricks there is an excellent commentary on the text of the speech. The authors of the commentary read v. 40 as gender specific as I do: “No women are mentioned here, although they were present (Mosiah 2:5).”

    Here is an excellent OT parallel to our BoM passage that I just now found: “Both young men, and maidens; old men, and children:” (Psalm 148:12). Note that this short passage has all three key terms from 2:40 (young men, old men and children) but omits maidens. “Old men” is based on the adjective zaqen “old” used as a substantive “old men” (and as I guessed, “old” is a relative concept). In the original post I guessed that “young men” was a translation of na’arim, but here that is the word underlying “children.” “Young men” is bachur, denoting a young man of mature age but unmarried (sometimes used of warriors. I’m unaware of a genger neutral usage of this word.

    Of course none of this is definitive. But I stand by my sensee that “old men” and “young men” in 2:40 are meant to be gender specific.

  7. If you believe, as I do, that the B of M is not a literal translation of the plates—Joseph, after all, lacked the training and expertise required to translate Reformed Egyptian, hieroglyphics, or any other language—but was functional and conceptual in nature and imbued with Joseph’s 19th century cultural attitudes and theological beliefs, then the “pedestalization” we see here, along with the practice of falsely equating female virtue with virginity that we find in Moroni 9:9, becomes easier to understand.

  8. Eponymous says:

    I don’t buy it. First time I read Welch and Ricks’ book I didn’t agree either. The speech flows with an emdash from 36 to 37 and carries over the message from the brethren to the man. Man in this case is all inclusive. Given the context there’s no reason to see the explanation of how one can lose the Spirit and then the warning that follows as not being part and parcel.

  9. I’m always surprised at how little women show up in the B of M narrative – even at times when you’d expect them to be there. For example, early in 2 Nephi, when Lehi is dying, he gives a father’s blessing to all of his sons… and not his daughters. Wait – Lehi had daughters? Yep – Nephi mentions in ONE VERSE that he has sisters as well as brothers.

    I get that 600 B.C. was a more sexist time, but the B of M has even fewer women in it than the Old Testament, even though it’s supposed to be a more pure record.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Eponymous, I very much appreciate you sharing that perspective. It’s a valuable possibility to consider and throw in the mix. We do disagree on this point, though.

  11. I think you are seeing what you want to see, but I am too. Approaching the text with a prior (belief or understanding) means you look for support and will never be completely persuasive. Further complicated by the fact that none of the “translation” models that make sense to me would lend themselves to a word-by-word analysis.
    On the other hand, I do find whole phrases, especially from the KJV but with changes, more persuasive. As a result, Psalm 148:12 is more useful to my way of reading than anything else.
    For what it’s worth, an argument from context (Eponymous above) is usually very persuasive and the overall speech is directed to all, but when the basic argument is that the negative warning is turned to men, that already answers the contextual argument. (Also, perhaps already noted, “speaking plainly” has echoes, in the BoM and in other Joseph Smith and other modern prophets work, indicating that what follows is addressed to men. As if there’s nicer language required in talking to the “fairer sex.”)

  12. Perhaps this stems from my cynicism of (lack of) women in the BoM, but as I read the verses in the OP, I just figured the women were forgotten/omitted/not considered important enough to be mentioned.

  13. Wonder Woman says:

    To me, more interesting than the original intent of the verse is the gender breakdown in current understanding of it. Granted, very few people have commented thus far and commenters on this blog may not be representative of church members as a whole. However, the OP (male) reports that, as an adult, he suddenly realized that these verses were not explicitly gender-inclusive. Two commenters with stereotypically male monikers asserted that these verses are most likely aimed at “men” in the non-gender-specific sense of the word, while two other commenters with stereotypically female monikers reported that they had *always* read it as gender-specific. (Sorry, eponymous, I’m not sure if you’re male or female).

    When communicating, there is what you mean (the original intent) and what others understand based on what you say (what is communicated). Based on my experience, I would not be surprised if this difference in how men and women understand to the masculine plural is fairly common, i.e., men read it as being universal while women read it as male-specific.

    It has always been tricky in the church context for me, as a female, to figure out when “men” means mankind and when it means males– because we certainly use it in both ways. For men, I can imagine it would be less tricky because in either case the advice or chastisement would apply to them. For me, it only applies some of the time.

  14. Wonder Woman: Interesting observation. Anecdotally (no statistics) I think the BCC commenters are NOT representative. I think men in the Church overall are much more likely to read these verses as gender specific, largely because without close examination the phrase “spoken plainly” (with variants) has come to be a “speaking to men, (usually) about sex” preamble. Whether that’s what it means in the BoM, I think that’s what it means now.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonder Woman, great insight, thanks for sharing.

  16. Mary Ann says:

    Adam, it wasn’t a general violation of chastity in the book of Jacob. It was men using the Bible to justify multiple wives and concubines. God indicates that women and children were the ones specifically harmed by those practices, as it was *their* cries that he was hearing.

    As to the OP generally, that we are dealing with a patriarchy is a given. Captain Moroni’s call to arms began with “In memory of our wives…” The examples of Isabel and daughter of Jared later in the BoM prove they were aware that women could sin. Some of the daughters of Ishmael followed Laman, and some followed Nephi. Sariah clearly expressed doubt at one point.

    I don’t think that Benjamin was purposefully excluding women from his call to repentance. Women were clearly among those in the audience who repented and had no more desire to do evil, entering in to the covenant with Christ. I think it was a figure of speech.

  17. Joni, I’m not sure that the Book of Mormon being a “more pure record” means that the people it records are necessarily more righteous than the people of the Old Testament. The revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants remind us multiple times that the Book of Mormon is a record of a fallen people and explicitly warns us to beware of pride lest we become as the Nephites were. And if that weren’t enough, Mormon and Moroni themselves talk about the wickedness of the Nephites. So the fact that the Book of Mormon may have been translated more correctly than the Old Testament does not mean that the people depicted in the Book of Mormon should be taken as a model for us to follow.

  18. Kristine says:

    To piggyback on Wonderwoman’s point: I noted when I was teaching these chapters yesterday, my own less-than-100-years-ago experience of MTC gatherings regularly being addressed as “Elders” suggests that scriptural patterns of language can influence our thinking in both helpful and unhelpful ways. This is an instance of it being profoundly unhelpful, I think.

    I often prescribe singing “As Sisters in Zion” in Elders’ Quorum as a corrective exercise for men who think it should be easy to accept that gendered language is universal.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Kristine, I love your “As Sisters in Zion” idea! That would spur some reflection, I’d wager…

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Although it’s anachronistic to Mosiah 2, it might be useful to consider the longstanding Mormon debate about whether it’s possible for women to become sons of perdition (er, daughters of perdition?), especially since some of the negative language of our Mosiah 2 verses looks a lot like that kind of an issue. My sense is that over time the more common position has been that women cannot become sons of perdition, which would seem to be a sort of pedestaling analagous to what we find in Mosiah 2.

  21. I love that this discussion is happening, even if there isn’t agreement. Whether or not this language is sexist, I think conversations like this can go a long way towards ameliorating other practices and cultural beliefs within Mormonism that are more clearly sexist.

    I’m reminded of an interesting essay by Carol Lynn Pearson called “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” and a response to that by Kevin and Shauna Christensen. Lots of food for thought here.



  22. eponymous says:

    I completely agree with Kristine, the question of gender neutrality is always a challenge when trying to read scriptures and consistently reading man, brethren, etc. It feels like a call to the Lord to provide a more modern translation of the Book of Mormon for the benefit of all would be a good thing in order to cast out some of the gender specific thinking that is probably wrong-headed on so many levels. Women would probably have to have the priesthood – I’m neutral on that proposition – before that pursuit ever was considered. How would you do that? Well, we still have the stone, don’t we? It seems like it was never really about the plates except perhaps as a starting point for providing something Joseph could focus on.

    Spent Sunday doing some further studying of Mosiah 1-4 and asking myself to whom is Benjamin speaking? I think the entire speech has to be considered and eliminate the verses and chapters and see it as one free flowing speech broken up in a couple of points based on interaction with the audience.

    As I reflected on it the I accepted that it’s possible there’s a call out to men in those verses Kevin highlights but then there are a number of instances in chapters 3 and 4 where man gets used as what I can only assume is a gender neutral. So where is he calling out men in particular? Because in Chapter 4:4 we get this language when he responds to their positive reaction in calling down the blessings of God:

    “And king Benjamin again opened his mouth and began to speak unto them, saying: My friends and my brethren, my kindred and my people, I would again call your attention, that ye may hear and understand the remainder of my words which I shall speak unto you.”

    He then spells out blessings for man in verse 6 in receiving salvation:
    “I say, that this is the man who receiveth salvation, through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world for all mankind, which ever were since the fall of Adam, or who are, or who ever shall be, even unto the end of the world.”

    Probably gender neutral.

    Then he later offers a warning to man for ignoring the beggar’s plea (verse 18):

    “But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

    and later in verse 23:

    ” I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world.”

    I’m not sure but my gut tells me this is gender neutral.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    sponymous, I only read to the end of chapter 3, because that is where the lesson ended. So I hadn’t seen 4:6. I agree that that complicates the picture considrably. I think you’re right there that we’re forced to see “man” as gender neutral, both because of its positive (and not negative like the others) sentiment and the “all mankind” in that verse.

    Once we see this instance of “man” as gender neutral, that complicates the previous instances of “man.” So now I’m not really sure what to think about those.

    (But I continue to have a hard time seeing “old men” and “young men” as gender neutral. If that were the intent, it has to count as one of the worst efforts at masculine gender neutral language that I have ever seen.)

  24. Clark Goble says:

    I think it undeniable that treatment in the Book of Mormon towards women and often towards Lamanites is inexcusable. That said, this silencing is a problem with the text. I hope that whatever is on the sealed portion at least includes more women’s voices. (According to most accounts the sealed portion is either at least as big as our Book of Mormon or potentially 2 – 3 times as big)

  25. Kristine says:

    “” I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world.”

    I’m not sure but my gut tells me this is gender neutral.

    Except that women couldn’t own property, so what would that even mean to them?

  26. Kristine @2:45 — my mind goes to Isaiah 3:18 et seq: “In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings, and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the veils.”

  27. Clark Goble says:

    Kristine, we probably should be careful reading near eastern views of women into the Nephites too much. Clearly there is some semblance of Jewish culture but how much and how long it lasts is unclear. While I’ll confess to not knowing that much about Aztec or other related cultures they do seem somewhat better than in the near east. I don’t want to portray them as enlightened. Women were still given an inferior status as was sadly so common in the ancient world. But women could own property and had degrees of power in public authority. Again we ought be careful assuming Nephite culture was Aztec culture just as we’re careful not to read later post-exilic Judaism too much into the Nephites.

  28. Eponymous says:

    With regards to women not owning property, the scriptures offer a few pointed instances where the widow offered her last substance either to a prophet (Elijah) or to the temple (the widow’s mite). If there is a more powerful statement of not being possessive of material wealth I cannot think of one elsewhere in the scriptures. Precisely because of their situation in society these lessons demonstrate through women the meaning of sacrifice that Benjamin is teaching the people.

  29. Kristine says:

    Christian–I’m sort of inclined to read that as Isaiah’s sexism: to suggest, in the face of the sort of grotesque inequities that existed in that world and the precarious status of even wealthy women that jewelry is a major sin, strikes me as misogynist. I don’t mean to suggest that women aren’t capable of greed or vanity, only that their opportunities to inflict pain on others with their greed and vanity were somewhat limited. In the Nephite case, women might have been proud of their fine apparel, but it was certainly only men who had the power to exclude the poor from congregations.

    /end Marxist distortion :)

  30. Kristine, no doubt Isaiah 3 has a strong Marxist theme, as also the Book of Mormon generally. (Set aside long debates about ‘Marxist’.) But I think it unfair to label Isaiah sexist or misogynist on this basis. Isaiah might well be, but his using jewelry–the example available in his society–to slam “haughty daughters of Zion” doesn’t make it so. Perhaps you’re disturbed that Isaiah calls out women at all? Thinking that all criticism should be directed toward men, i.e., those with power? Isn’t that sexist too? (At least it takes a turn back to the OP.)

  31. Clark Goble says:

    I’ll skip the Marxist debate as I don’t even know what that means in this context. (One can decry inequity or oppression without using a Marxist scaffolding after all)

    The issue of jewelry seems a bit more complex. I’m sympathetic to Christian’s critique here. I’d also say that even if women’s exercising power was indirect (which was based on a misogynist culture) that doesn’t mean that exercise of power isn’t hurtful. To suggest that women exercising power somehow isn’t harmful seems wrong. Just ask John the Baptist who was effectively killed by Herodias & Salome. Now that wasn’t primarily about jewelry but women who had power/wealth often wanted to keep it. (Somewhat understandably considering the alternatives) So rich and powerful women abusing their position in either the middle east or mesoAmerica certainly ought be criticized without that criticism being inherently misogynist.

    The parallel might be to say how people viewed Imelda Marcos and her shoes in the Philippines. We might decry the society that makes those issues the ones the public latches onto. Yet it seems hard not to see the actions as wrong and blameworthy. As Christian notes, to suggest that women like that should be exempt from criticism because of the sexist society they are in just seems misplaced.

  32. The simplest explanation to me is that King Benjamin – like most Mesoamerican rulers, and many in other Native American traditions – simply didn’t think much of women at all.

    The Book of Mormon is almost ruthlessly indifferent to women. It even surpasses the Old Testament in this respect – where at least you have stories of devious harlots, evil queens, chaste maidens and so forth scattered throughout the account. But the Book of Mormon almost acts like women don’t exist as moral societal agents at all. Aside from the odd Abish, women are not mentioned in the book – except in the same breath as property (“defend your wives, your liberty and your property”).

    Rather odd for a book coming out of Victorian America – where just about everything in literature was about a woman. Everything was done for the love of a woman, the greatest prize was always a woman, and everything was hopelessly romantic and sappy (if you want evidence, Joseph Smith’s letters to Emma probably count). Victorian writing usually did put women on a pedestal. But the Book of Mormon does not.

    The Book of Mormon ignores women altogether by and large (Nephi’s account of Saria, the daughters of Ishmael and so forth don’t count – Nephi was still basically a Palestinian). It doesn’t put them on a pedestal so much as sweep them under the rug. Women do not seem to have been regarded as significant moral agents in Nephite culture. Even Lamanite culture seems more warm to women than the Nephites (see King Lamoni’s wife, and the mothers of Helaman’s warriors).

    This is very odd for a 19th century book, and also quite odd for a book trying to do another take on the Bible. But not odd at all for a Mesoamerican document for example. Those documents act like women don’t even exist.

    (Hat tip to Orson Scott Card – who I stole this insight from)

  33. Eponymous says:

    Brilliant point Seth. I had forgotten about Card’s critique and that offers excellent perspective.


    The challenge of not projecting a modern perspective and expectations onto an ancient prophet and how we expect them to behave.

  34. Clark Goble says:

    Seth, women as I understand it in Mayan civilization had more place and influence than they did in most mideastern areas and certainly more than is portrayed in the Book of Mormon. As you and others mention, when women are significant it’s usually among the Lamanites. That’s a really good point. Likely, although still speculatively, the Nephites were a few small city states caught up in trading and politics with the wider Mayan culture. Also likely the Lamanites merged with indigenous Mayan communities to the point the Nephites didn’t really distinguish them well. Thus the Nephites were, according to this reconstruction, much more a city state or two among many, attempting to maintain their uniqueness in fairly racist ways against the rest of the area.

  35. Kristine says:

    Chris, you are probably right. It’s not as though powerful men get off easy in Isaiah! I don’t mind women being called out–in fact, I think it is a necessary sign of respect to treat women as fully human and therefore capable of sin–I just get nervous about policing women’s appearance and the ways that they use it as a way to access power indirectly. It’s a little bit the same problem as decrying women’s immodesty in a culture where women have power only to the extent that they are attractive to powerful men. It’s a mighty fine line between being attractive enough to have access to some self-determination and influence that we think is the perfect right of men, and being too attractive, or attractive in the wrong way.

    But maybe I’m just hypersensitive because I have waaaaaaaaaaaay too many shoes :)

  36. Kristine, I hoped my great care not to mention shoes would gain me a small credit. ;)
    And not to say that I thought this all through in advance, but upon rereading Isaiah I think he makes the distinction you want, by referring to the daughters of Zion as “haughty.” According to Strongs, the Hebrew word means high, tall, exalted, lofty (in a good sense, about Jehovah), arrogant (in a bad sense, about people).