Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Spirituality, Law and Politics in the Book of Mormon

I remember hearing an apocryphal story about Brother Hugh Nibley during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Apparently he was among the first wave of American soldiers to go ashore and while he was wading up the beach he said he realized how magnificent a book the Book of Mormon really is! (Not only, of course, from a religious and spiritual perspective, but also as a historical document of profound importance if it really is what it claims to be). This shows the mindset of a scholar like Brother Nibley who never stops thinking- especially when under stress! But this is a profound challenge for all of us as members of the church. Too often we are content to look at the Book of Mormon as only an abstract spiritual guide and we don’t really understand that these were real people with real challenges who lived in a society that was very different from our own and yet lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ the same as we have.
These two books by John W. Welch (one was written by him, the other was edited by him) were extraordinarily satisfying to me- both intellectually and spiritually. I would like to briefly outline the books contents and some of the things that I particularly enjoyed and then tell you what I thought about it.

The first The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon is a description of the transcripts of several trials found in the Book of Mormon (Abinidi, Sherem, Alma, Korihor, etc.) and discusses these cases in the context of the Law of Moses and other Near Eastern legal traditions. Aside from these interesting bits of evidence and analysis there are some interesting things that we often miss when we read the text because we don’t understand the context (Brother Welch’s explanation of Sherem’s demand for a sign is particularly enlightening).

It was really awesome to see how a specialist views some of the important cases in the history of the Book of Mormon, both from a totally legal point of view and from a LDS point of view. In particular the far reaching effects of the reforms of King Mosiah that altered the law so that a person could not be charged with breaking the law only because of his belief was very interesting to me. I must confess that this seems a bit strange at first glance in an ancient book, and nothing could be further from the Law of Moses than some of Mosiah’s reforms, but with additional analysis the author points out how the change was both consistent with ancient Near Eastern (but not biblical) law and with the needs of the Nephites in this period of history. There are so many political and social things in the Book of Mormon that are only hinted at in the text but which fit together so perfectly with what we know of Lehi’s Jerusalem!

Furthermore the way that these trials fit together consistently to show the gradual evolution Nephite legal traditions is remarkably consistent- if, for example, we were to switch the trials of Korahor and Sherem chronologically then the entire thesis would fall flat on it’s face. But set in their respective time periods they make perfect sense!

There is no way that a twenty something farm-boy in nineteenth century New York could have produced a book that is that consistent with itself and with the evidence of the ancient world! In fact I don’t think that a modern professor could write something that nuanced and consistent!

The second book King Benjamin’s Speech is a much more focused study of the famous discourse by the Nephite king found in chapters two through six of the Book of Mosiah. There are fourteen different chapters in this book which represent a wide variety of scholarly interpretations of King Benjamin and his discourse. I was particularly delighted by the comment found in the introduction to the book that “apologized” to the reader if it took them more than a day and a half to read this book, but then reminded the reader that it only took Joseph Smith about that long to translate this entire section of the Book of Mormon

Perhaps most interesting to me is a literary analysis of the speech as a classical farewell speech (see Ch. 6 Benjamin's Sermon as a Traditional Ancient Farewell Address) in the context of other farewell speeches. Using a rubric set up by a non-LDS scholar for the tradition of Hebrew, Greek and Roman farewell speeches, the authors analyze King Benjamin’s speech and find that it is perhaps the BEST example of a farewell speech in ancient literature, conforming to nearly all of the set pieces of this traditional literary formula.

Another interesting analysis of this speech is in the context of the Ancient Israelite festivals surrounding the Day of Atonement and Feast of Tabernacles. Just read Nehemiah 8-13 and compare it with the first part of the Book of Mosiah and you’ll see many of these similarities for yourself.

Aside from the literary and historical analysis of this text, however, it is important to keep in mind its tremendous spiritual power. Indeed a nuanced reading of the text suggests many of the same principles of covenant making and revelation that are the basis of the sacramental prayers and even of the temple ceremonies of the Latter-Day Saints. Elder Maxwell aptly pointed out in the first chapter of this book that the best interpretation of Benjamin’s speech is as “a manual for discipleship.”

I am profoundly grateful for the authors who worked on these two books for the spiritual insights, intellectual stimulation and added measure of testimony that I have gained by reading these books. I would highly recommend the books to people, particularly those who could use a spiritual boost delivered in an academically sound way.