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Fun with Mosiah… (Book of Mormon Sunday School lessons 15-20)

Posted by joespencer on May 28, 2007

We don’t begin studying the Book of Mormon until next year, but I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on Abinadi in writing a chapter of my book, and I’m increasingly convinced that we have paid far too little attention to this book. So let me anticipate six lessons to be taught next year and see if I can’t generate some discussion that might be profitable for me (and others) now as well as for teachers a year from now.

What is at work in the Book of Mosiah?

Often enough it is pointed out that it sets up a kind of parallel between a righteous king (Benjamin) and a wicked king (Noah), and then that the possibility of the latter leads through a series of events to the dissolution of the Nephite kingship.

Nice and good, but profoundly reductionistic!

The other tack is to take up Benjamin and Abinadi as parallel prophets, both of which feed into the difficulties at the end of the book, and both of which are involved, indirectly of course, in the dissolution of the Nephite kingship.

Again, nice and good, but profoundly reductionistic!

So what is at work here? I’d like to leave that question quite open in some ways, but I’d also like to make a few suggestions. I’ll see if I can’t accomplish both at once by just listing a few curious details, all of which could easily be the foundation of a lengthy paper.

In Mosiah:

Does Mosiah 2:9 suggest that Benjamin was aiming at making all of the Nephites into kings and queens? Might there be the suggestion here that the eventual dissolution of the Nephite kingship has its seeds in Benjamin’s discourse?

Is it significant that Benjamin receives his Christology from an angel, whereas Abinadi provides it himself?

What are we to make of Zeniff? Is his return to the Land of Nephi connected with a kind of return to Nephi’s era? (Notice that the second king, Noah, follows the second king in the beginning, and with the same two sins; that Abinadi comes to call that into quesiton just like Jacob, etc., etc.)

Why are there two parallel kingships? Which one is more fundamental? Is it significant that Benjamin establishes his peace by war, while Zeniff establishes his by covenant?

What about the timing of everything? Ammon leaves Zarahemla to find Zeniff’s group the very year that Benjamin dies (Mosiah’s third regnal year). That seems to mean that Alma and Limhi, etc., show up the very year of Benjamin’s death. What is significant about all of that?

How do we even begin with Abinadi? How significant is he in the long run? Why is it that his teachings become a kind of creed for the Nephite church formed by Alma? What can we read into his death? What important things emerge in his speech? What does it tell us about the ideology of kingship in the Land of Nephi? Etc.

How political is Alma’s establishment of the Church? Is Noah’s reaction rash or justified?

Why does the Nephite church start here, of all places? And why does it start on the border of the ancient land of inheritance? Why does it not start in Zarahemla? Could it have even done so? Might one argue that Noah’s wickedness opens the possibility for the church?

Limhi’s years as king seem radically insignificant, relatively speaking. What more might there be here?

Is it significant that Ammon and Ammon are the two travellers to the Land of Nephi? Is there any kind of a connection between the two?

The captivity of the church in Helam is profoundly influenced by the exodus tradition. Why is that? What of all the covenant speech? Does the church begin here to overthrow the broader Lehitic covenant tradition?

What ought we to be finding in the arrival of the several groups in Zarahemla? How might Alma’s followers, who have been taught not to trust any man as a king over them, respond to being in the boundaries of a kingdom again, albeit with a righteous king? What of Limhi’s claim to a more primordial kingship? How does Mosiah deal with these things? Does all of this mark the introduction of pluralism into Nephite thinking?

How does Alma the Younger’s conversion open the possibility of the dissolution of the kingship?

Is it significant that Benjamin’s teachings are denigrated precisely as Abinadi’s teachings receive an explicit endorsement from the Lord?

How are we to think about the nature of the kingdom and the nature of the church here? And what might all of this have to say about church and state? What is a citizen? What is a subject? What changes in Nephite thinking with the shift in government? Does this kind of shift happen anywhere else in antiquity?

And on and on…

What a book!

7 Responses to “Fun with Mosiah… (Book of Mormon Sunday School lessons 15-20)”

  1. Cstanford said

    Hey, this is a very good topic for study! Shameless plug: I have done a bit of scratching at the surface of this myself.
    http://minarchivist.blogspot.com/2007/02/book-of-mormon-and-politics-part-iv.html

  2. Robert C. said

    So much (too much!) to think about here, Joe. I’m quite fascinated with kingship in the Book of Mormon, so these questions are all very interesting to me. How about taking up the first question (with a link to the verse):

    Does Mosiah 2:9 suggest that Benjamin was aiming at making all of the Nephites into kings and queens?

    Are you saying the “mysteries of God” in that verse might be referring to becoming kings and queens, or priests and priestesses? Did you per chance mean verse 19? There, the reference to “heavenly King” indeed seems interesting.

    I see more clearly, however, in your follow up question, how the seeds of democracy (or “dissolution of the Nephite kingship” as you put it) can be discerned in this speech.

    Also, I think it’s a bit peculiar that references to Old Testament kingship (David esp.) is hardly mentioned in the Book of Mormon. What should we make of that? The Brass Plates didn’t contain records or references to these periods? Since so much is made of the institution of kingship in the Old Testament (1 Samuel esp.), isn’t it strange that there’s no reference to this by the Nephites? Is this simply a case of forgetting Samuel’s warnings about kings? Are there ways to theologically link up the discussion of kings in Mosiah with that in 1 Samuel? (Or are there existing papers that already do this? Oops, I guess I’m just adding insult to injury with these additional questions…!)

    [Cstanford, wow, that’s quite a post you’ve written, thanks a lot for posting the link. I don’t have time right now to finish reading it, but I particularly like the issue you bring up about Alma’s subversive action. Lots to think about indeed!]

  3. BrianJ said

    Joe: Sorry that I can’t take this all in right now, but as I just happen to be reading these chapters in my personal reading, I want to make one quick comment. You ask, “Is it significant that Benjamin receives his Christology from an angel, whereas Abinadi provides it himself?”

    That question came back to me this morning as I read, in Mosiah 4:

    ” 1 And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude…
    4 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.

    Just thought it was interesting that part of his speech was from the angel and the other part was (apparently) his own thoughts.

    Robert, #2, asks, “Also, I think it’s a bit peculiar that references to Old Testament kingship (David esp.) is hardly mentioned in the Book of Mormon. What should we make of that?”

    I assumed it is because Lehi and his family are from the Northern Kingdom (even though Lehi apparently lived in Judah). I assume the Brass Plates were written and passed down within the Northern Kingdom as well. So perhaps Nephi doesn’t mention David because he doesn’t recognize the Davidic kingship.

  4. Robert C. said

    Thanks Brian, interesting thought, though the kingdom didn’t split till well after David’s reign—because of Rehoboam wasn’t it?

  5. Cstanford #1, thanks for the link. You have some interesting thoughts there, and I’m interested in reading through your other posts on politics in the Book of Mormon.

    Robert #2, I did mean Mosiah 2:9. I think it is significant that Benjamin uses language reminiscent of coronation rituals when he lays out his purposes in calling the people up that day. He has brought them up, not so much to see Mosiah as the new king, but to become kings and queens themselves. It is highly significant to me, then, that the next dozen or so verses all deal with what it means to be a king (and these verses are much more fruitfully read if one recognizes that the Hebrew ebed can be translated “servant,” “slave,” and “subject”).

    As for the Davidic kingship, I think this question is rather difficult. Nephi’s extensive quotation from First Isaiah involves him inevitably in the question of the Davidic Zion (as von Rad’s work on First Isaiah makes abundantly clear). And yet there is, as Brian points out, this important question of the Northern Kingdom ties that Lehi’s family has. Really, that question of the Northern Kingdom influences in Book of Mormon thinking is worth taking up at some length, because it would obviously clarify much of our thinking in these kinds of questions. It is, for example, fascinating that the only Southern Kingdom prophet Nephi takes up at length is Isaiah, who began prophesying before the fall of the Northern Kingdom, and whose prophecy is very much involved in the Assyrian campaigns (explicitly in the chapters Nephi quotes). There is much to be sorted out there, and that might give us an important starting point for thinking about the connections between Nephite kingship and OT kingship.

    By the way, if you have not read it, you must take a look at Noel Reynolds’ “Nephite Kingship Reconsidered”: http://farms.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?bookid=&chapid=93

    Brian #3, yes, I had precisely that shift in mind. I think it is interesting that everything “Christological” that Benjamin has to say is to be found in chapter 3, where he quotes the angel, while the remainder of his own words are relatively unconcerned with the question of the Christ. There is much to think about there, still. And I have to wonder about the gap between that and Abinadi, who comes almost as if he were the angel… and to the king… hmmm….

  6. BrianJ said

    Robert: maybe I was unclear. When I say that a Northerner would not recognize the Davidic kingship, I mean that he would not see the Davidic lineage as the only legitimate lineage. Certainly all Northerners (I think) would accept that David himself was a legitimate king. And so they play down the Davidic kingship precisely because the Southerners play it up.

    As to whether the split was because of Rehoboam—I think some might say it was because of Jeroboam. {smile}

    Joe, “It is, for example, fascinating that the only Southern Kingdom prophet Nephi takes up at length is Isaiah.” Where were the prophets Zenock and Zenos from? (Not that Nephi dwells at length on either of them, but his brother Jacob was quite partial to Zenos.)

  7. Zenos’ familiarity with olive trees alone might suggest a Northern Kingdom origin (olive trees were almost entirely limited to the regions in the Northern Kingdom, if I’ve read rightly somewhere along the way). And there are other clues, but it has been long enough that I’d have to dig through notes somewhere to find them again. The others we know too little about, as you say.

    We certainly ought, however, to be raising the question of the nature of the brass plates: what was in such a collection, and what were its ties to the Southern Kingdom?

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