Helaman 11 is a pretty darned fascinating piece of scripture. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of God, the ability of humans to affect the will of God, and the nature of humans to choose evil over good — and that’s just the first 20 verses. The latter half of the chapter speaks to our penchant for recidivism, our inability to root evil out from among us, and how the only way to vanquish evil is to fight it relentlessly and tirelessly.
But for this post I want to talk about the narrative in the first 20 verses, when the Lord begins to make good on Nephi’s promise from Helaman 10: repent or be destroyed.
The Gadianton robbers, in concert (one supposes) with the Nephite leadership, begin to make war and be slain by the sword. The reasons for these wars are not given; instead they are simply described as “contentions”. What was the nature of these contentions, their origin? It’s unclear from the text, but somehow rooted in an inability to hear the word of God via Nephi that they should repent and believe in Christ. They begin to kill each other with the sword, and there are wars everywhere. The description of the wars is very brief and conveys almost the impression that these are wars without purpose, without origin, that the people have been possessed by some mad spirit of destruction.
Nephi is grieved of these battles, and does something pretty unusual: he takes this to the Lord. Nephi’s argument is that war results in rapid bloodshed and swift destruction — but if people are allowed to suffer more slowly, this will perhaps give them time to reflect, to repent and be saved. From a pure means-of-death perspective, this makes sense; suffering can lead to repentance, because it can work on our mind and humble us in ways that, say, getting our heads chopped off do not allow. Remarkably, the Lord agrees. I say ‘remarkably’ because it is always a fairly major event in scripture when a mortal is able to alter the course of God. Moses, Amos, Jonah, a few others in the Old Testament have been witnesses to when God has changed his mind (see, e.g. Exodus 32:11-14 as an example, though the JST has in some measure altered the meaning here). Perhaps God always intended for Nephi to present his argument and to change his initial course. Regardless, whatever it was that provoked the swordfighting now is turned off, and instead the famine switch is turned on.
Nephi’s argument is shown to be correct: the Lamanites and the Nephites, suffering hunger and thirst and dying by the thousands, repent. They entreat Nephi to talk to God on their behalf. Nephi does so, and the famine switch is turned off. Three verses later and they have returned to evil, and the Gadianton robbers return in force and there is war again, but (this time) it is not to the utter destruction of the Nephites.
There’s a lot in these verses to unpack, and the narrative is brief, but the part that has always bothered me here is the neatness of the armed conflict vs. the famine. Wars happen for a reason, typically over scarcity of resources: territory, water, food, property. Interpersonal conflicts happen all the time over dumb stuff, fits of passion, but wars need governments/tribes/organization and they need reasons. The Book of Mormon treats wars almost like an infectious disease, something that comes over a people and possesses them to their destruction. The Jaredites, for example, engage in a generational blood feud down to the last man. The Nephites are ultimately destroyed, and the reason for the final wars is never really clearly outlined other than broad terms of formerly-good vs. evil. But we know that there is always more to war, and at the base of it all is economics.
Similarly, famine doesn’t work quite this way, either. When wells dry up and crops fail, people don’t just sit in their doorsteps and languish. If the strong do not have food, they take it. People guard resources. People fight. In other words, wars happen because of famine (with some exceptions in modern times thanks to modern trade – for example, trade has largely kept South Korea going despite famine, while in many parts of Africa famine has resulted in immense armed conflict). It is surprising that there is no mention of this result in the Helaman 11 narrative, and I don’t know why it’s not there. When the economic demands hit, conflict is inevitable. Typically, a request like Nephi’s would have resulted only in more armed conflict, coupled with the backdrop of intense famine.
I guess I bring this up because I was reading some remarks by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Coates has a series of tweets along this theme, and he reminds us that racism, homophobia, sexual harassment are not just aberrations of logic that occur in the abstract mind. These pestilences are real because they deny others their rights to property and liberty — in other words, economics. Even me calling them “pestilences” attributes to them some non-volitional abstraction when they have always been much more nakedly about taking what you want at someone else’s expense. When you treat others as non-human, it’s to defend your stuff. This is fallen human nature, and it’s at the heart of the Book of Mormon — except when it comes to large-scale destruction such as here in Helaman 11. When these wars and famines are happening in this chapter, the text gives us the impression of this neat separation between economic suffering and war, but the two are so inherently linked that it almost seems unbelievable that one would switch off in favor of the other so neatly. Perhaps this is a testament to the divine origin of these Nephite destructions, because they have an incomplete or artificial air. More likely, the narrative is abbreviated and incomplete.
I recognize that what Coates is describing is different from what Helaman 11 is describing. What I’m trying to do here is take the text seriously and understand how these events are happening based on what I know about human nature and how war works. There’s a lot more to the story.