Samuel, the prophet. #BOM2016

These past weeks I’ve thought a lot about Samuel, the Lamanite. And as I’ve re-read the Book of Mormon this year, I’ve realized that in the past, I’ve glossed over how significant Samuel is to the latter end of the Book of Mormon, and how appropriate a figure he is for advent.

Arguably, the three figures that loom the largest over Helaman through Ether are Jesus, Mormon, and Moroni. And all three of them draw attention to Samuel and his prophecy. When we read Samuel’s prophecy about the destruction of the Nephites, it’s easy to see that as referring to the destruction that befell them at the time of Jesus’ death. But Mormon sees it, along with the prophecy of Abinadi, as referring to his own day (see Mormon 1-3). When Moroni describes the curse that befell the Jaredites, while abridging the record of Ether, he uses the same language that Samuel used when pronouncing his curse on the Nephites, and that his father, Mormon used when describing it’s fulfillment, suggesting that Samuel’s curse and prophecy permeated not just the way Mormon and Moroni thought about their present, but the way they thought about the past. Mormon and Moroni appear to have seen Samuel as perhaps the major prophetic figure of the latter parts of the Book of Mormon. Jesus also arguably identifies Samuel as the major prophet for the descendants of Lehi (see 3 Nephi, 20:24, more on that below).

Why “the Lamanite”?

But first, what’s with that epithet, “the Lamanite”? No other prophet (or even villain) in the Book of Mormon is so consistently identified by his ethnicity. We don’t read about “Lehi, the Jew,” “Ether, the Jaredite” or “Nephi, the Nephite.”[1] But with Samuel, it is constant. Not just a few times, but almost relentlessly. It was apparently important to Mormon that Samuel was a Lamanite. Samuel’s race was, in Mormon’s mind, highly relevant to Samuel’s message. That’s not unprecedented. The good Samaritan is an important figure in the parables of Jesus not just because of his example of charity but because of his race, and the fraught history between the Jews and the Samaritans. A parable about “the good Galilean” or “the good Levite” wouldn’t exactly have the same punch. In the same way, we can’t fully understand and appreciate Samuel’s role and message as Mormon intends to present it, if we don’t appreciate the significance of Samuel’s race, given the complicated racial history between Nephites and Lamanites.

And it isn’t just Mormon that constantly refers to him as “the Lamanite.” Samuel himself explicitly makes his identity as a Lamanite important to his message. He says:

“Behold, I, Samuel, a Lamanite, do speak the words of the Lord” (Helaman 13:2; see also Helaman 14:10; Helaman 15:3-4).

As with the good Samaritan, the messenger’s identity is itself an integral part of the message, and it makes the message even more powerful. The fact that a member of a despised racial/ethnic group with a stereotypical reputation of being bad at religion is showing up to preach religion to the group that prides itself at being really good at religion is itself as much an indictment of Nephite pride as anything that Samuel said explicitly.

And Jesus himself uses the epithet when he rebukes the Nephites for apparently not taking Samuel’s prophecy serious enough to record all of it, or its fulfillment. That rebuke is itself a pretty striking thing, but Jesus appears to rub it in by specifically drawing attention to Samuel’s identity as a Lamanite when he mentions Samuel’s prophecy.

“Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he should  testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them. . . Was it not so? . . . How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?” (3 Ne. 23:9-11).

Jesus doesn’t make a cynical claim to “not see color.” In fact, he refuses to not see it. He draws attention to it without flinching. Jesus’ words here bookend Samuel’s name with two identities: “my servant, Samuel, the Lamanite.” If you pretend to be colorblind, and ignore what it must have meant that Samuel was both “my servant” and “a Lamanite,” you’re going to miss a big part of why Jesus apparently thought Samuel’s message to the Nephites was so significant.

Nearly every time Samuel is mentioned in the Book of Mormon, he is identified not just as “Samuel,” but as “Samuel, the Lamanite.” There are a few times where he is referred to as just “Samuel,” but that is usually after he has already been introduced as “Samuel, the Lamanite,” (see Helaman 16:1-6; 3 Ne. 1:5-6), and it appears in context to be just a short form of his normal name: “Samuel, the Lamanite.”

There are only three exceptions to this pattern. Only three times that Samuel is described as something other than “a Lamanite” or “the Lamanite.” The first is the one mentioned above, where Jesus calls him “my servant, Samuel, the Lamanite.” The other two are from Mormon. There are two places where Mormon calls him “Samuel, the prophet.”

First, in 3 Nephi 1, Mormon tells us that “there was a day set apart by the unbelievers, that all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except the sign should come to pass, which had been given by Samuel the prophet” (3 Nephi 1). And then Mormon goes on to describe how the prophesied sign came about and saved the lives of the believers. It is apparently not in the underlying historical record that Samuel is called “the prophet,” but in Mormon’s post-hoc commentary/summary.

Second, in Mormon 2, Mormon records that during his own lifetime, Samuel’s curse on the Nephites and their gold finally took full effect:

“And it came to pass that the Nephites began to repent of their iniquity and began to cry even as had been prophesied by Samuel, the prophet; for behold, no man could keep which was his own, for the thieves, and the robbers, and the murderers, and the magic art, and the witchcraft which was in the land” (Mormon 2:10).

Mormon tells us that he began to rejoice at their repentance, but that “my joy was vain” (Mormon 2:13) because they did not repent, but rather “did curse God and wish to die” (Mormon 2:14). This is, of course, exactly what Samuel had said would happen: he said that even though the Nephites would cry and lament, “behold your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain” (Helaman 13:38) After Samuel has been called “the Lamanite” almost every time he is mentioned, I think it is with a hint of bitter irony that Mormon finally calls him, when his prophetic curse reaches its fulfillment, “Samuel, the prophet.”

Samuel, a prophet for advent.

But while he was the only one to call him “Samuel, the prophet,” Mormon is not the first to identify Samuel as a prophet. That was Jesus, who identifies Samuel as a prophet without using the title “Samuel, the prophet” in 3 Nephi 20:23-24:

“I am he of whom Moses spake, saying: A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass that every soul who will not hear that prophet shall be cut off from among the people. Verily I say unto you, yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have testified of me.”

I think it’s significant that Jesus apparently thought that Samuel was here the most significant prophet, at least, the only one that he felt needed to be mentioned by name. It seems to me to echo Jesus’ statement that John the Baptist was:

“A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist . . . For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” (Matthew 11:9-15).

And maybe it makes sense to see Samuel as the New World equivalent of John, because like John, Samuel was also sent to “Cry unto this people, repent and prepare the way of the Lord” (Helaman 14:9). As a Lamanite, one who was despised and existed at the margins of Nephite society, Samuel was, like John, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. 

John the Baptist, with his message of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Lord, is traditionally associated with advent. At this time of year, when we are preparing for Christmas, it may be worth taking time to also listen to Samuel, another “burning and a shining light,” whose voice was as one crying in the wilderness, to repent and prepare the way for Jesus to enter our hearts as we prepare to celebrate his entry into the world.


[1] “Nephi, the Nephite” reminds me of “Gozer, the Gozerian.”

Comments

  1. I had never considered Samuel’s story in this light before. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Very nice, Samuel is certainly a pivotal figure, but I have thought it also significant that he comes at a time when Nephi, the son of Helaman, has been very active, mostly without success, in preaching repentance to the Nephites in Zarahemla. Samuel shows up, an outsider, delivers his message, then promptly flees back into the wilderness, never to be seen again directly, But his teaching did something that Nephi could not; the newly repentant Nephites turned to the prophet they had already known and rejected, to seek baptism, as in Helaman 16:1:

    And as many as believed on his word went forth and sought for Nephi; and when they had come forth and found him they confessed unto him their sins and denied not, desiring that they might be baptized unto the Lord.

  3. I really love your connection of Samuel with the spirit of Advent. I’d never thought of that before, but Mormonism has a unique scriptural basis for a period of waiting in anticipation for Jesus’ birth. Thanks!

  4. Yeah, in some ways Samuel is even more explicitly an advent figure than John, the Baptist, because while John’s message is certainly appropriate for advent, John chronologically precedes Jesus’s public ministry, rather than his birth. Samuel’s prophecy, on the other hand, is explicitly connected with preparing the way for Jesus’s birth.

  5. For Lamanite, try thinking Russian.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian [!], had much to say to the West as have many Russian novelists with deep spiritual and Christian insights, e.g. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Vodolazkin, but the West won’t listen.

  6. Leo, those are some good examples of outside voices (outside to the West) speaking prophetically. No doubt there are countless others we could name. I think it’s important to think of voices crying in the wilderness something that’s more than just hypothetical or in the past only. Otherwise we end up like the Nephites who say that if they had lived in ancient times they would have been better than their fathers, and would not have stoned the prophets or cast them out.

    I’m less familiar than I should be with them, but I have read a bit of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and you’re right that they have much to teach us. I’ve not read the others. But speaking generally, I think there is much we can learn from Eastern Christianity, even if we don’t agree with them in all particulars. There’s much that is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy, so why not seek after those things?

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Great post. Like others I’d never considered Samuel as a John the Baptist like figure. But you’re right that he is presented that way.

  8. Beautiful and enriching. Important to think about as we are entering an age where people are encouraged to discount the sayings of others if they are not of our tribe.

  9. JKC,
    Bulgakov wrote during the Soviet era. Vodolazkin is a living author. They both address religious and spiritual themes in startling and remarkable ways. But who reads them or even knows about them?

    “Fiction-writing in Russia has always been serious business. In a society without freedom, the great writers were the truth-tellers, the voice of the voiceless, and the conscience of a nation—“a second government,” as Alexander Solzhenitsyn once put it.” – See more at: http://offtheshelf.com/2014/10/10-russian-novels-to-read-before-you-die/#sthash.1BvFyKHN.dpuf

  10. Another student of Russian languages, literature, and history here. I will need to add those more modern authors to my list. I have read all of Dostoevsky’s major works. Bulgakov is fascinating. I have not read Solzhenitsyn yet because I was saturated at the time with 19th century literature.

    And, thanks for the image of Samuel as a John the Baptist type–a voice crying in the wilderness.

  11. There is a lot of good stuff in this one that made me think more deeply about Samuel.

    One thing, though… I thought that the Lamanite and Nephite labels as a racial distinction had sort of faded away well before Samuel’s time, having become more of a socio-political label. However, even if that’s what it was (socio-political) your key points about his importance still stand.

  12. eileen369,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that Samuel’s status as an outsider is equally important whether you consider the division to be racial or whether you consider it to be social/political.

    To tell the truth, I’m not convinced that there’s really a difference between “racial” divisions and “social/political” divisions. Race is almost always primarily a social/political division, justified with specious racial/genetic reasoning. What I mean is, the idea that there is actually a genetic separation between races is just not accurate (which is one reason why the whole “one drop” rule related to priesthood ordination before 1978 was unsustainable), and the differences between races are almost entirely social/political.

    The way that certain groups such as Irish immigrants went from being considered another race to being considered white is an illustration of what I mean. Or, in the Book of Mormon itself, the Lamanites and Nephites were themselves genetically part of the same family. In order to get a real genetic difference between them you have to make assumptions (not unwarranted ones) about intermarriage with an indigenous population, and even then, that’s still not a clean genetic division between Nephite and Lamanite.

    In other words, I think racial distinctions themselves are almost entirely socio-political labels.

  13. Don’t forget that 3 Ne 20:23-26 very strongly paraphrases Acts 3:22-26, in which case the first prophet Samuel being spoken of is obviously the Samuel of the Old Testament. Not sure if we can say Samuel the Lamanite is also intended, because it doesn’t fit with the “all the prophets from Samuel” onwards language. The major OT figures we call “prophets” before Samuel (with some notable exceptions) might better be termed “judges” and “patriarchs”, right?

  14. Good point, Jacob. I hadn’t picked up on the parallel, but now that you point it out, it’s obvious. If Jesus is referring to the Old Testament Samuel, that removes one of the previous few times in the Book of Mormon that Samuel is not referred to as “the Lamanite,” and Mormon really is the only one who ever refers to Samuel as “the prophet.” But even without those verses, Jesus still calls special attention to Samuel’s prophecy.