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BoM Lesson 16: Mosiah 4-6, “Ye Shall Be Called the Children of Christ”

Posted by joespencer on April 26, 2008

First things first, a word or two about how I read Benjamin’s speech as a whole.

It seems absolutely vital to me that Benjamin reports the words of an angel (ch. 3): this signals immediately to me that there is some kind of creation/fall/atonement/veil business afoot, since atonement (in this pattern) is, in the Book of Mormon, almost always a question of angelic messengers being sent (and, of course, since this is all happening at the temple…). And indeed, the first half of the discourse quite clearly works according to this pattern:

Creation — 2:19-28 (note not only the many explicit mentions of creation, but also the talk the council in verse 28, etc.)
Fall — 2:29-41 (Benjamin goes on and on here about rebellion, obeying the evil spirit, withdrawing oneself from God, shrinking from the presence of God, etc.)
Atonement — 3:1-27 (the angelic messenger now delivers a message detailing the meaning of the atonement, and what a message!)

Two questions, then: (1) What of 2:9-18? (2) What of the veil? Well, here we go!

2:9-18 provide a framework for what Benjamin hopes to accomplish with his temple sermon: I think these can be read as suggesting that Benjamin has invited them all up to become kings and queens (implicitly also: priests and priestesses). Verse 9 can be read as a kind of initiation/initiatory message: they must open their eyes to see, their hearts to understand, their minds that the mysteries of God (!) can be unfolded to their view. They are being prepared for the endowment that is about to come. Benjamin then speaks, for the remainder of this passage, about what it means to be a king, what its relationship to service is, etc. (It is probably worth mentioning that all the references to “slaves,” “service,” “work,” “labor,” and “subjects” would represent similar words, all derived from the same root, in Hebrew. I wonder if there isn’t quite a bit of subtle wordplay that is missed in translation here.)

Important also, I see Benjamin as using the small plates themselves–with their undeniable creation/fall/atonement/veil pattern–as the script for his drama. There is explicit mention in the first verses of ch. 2 that the people came up to this Tabernacles experience with the early sojourn of Nephi in the wilderness, etc., in mind. All of this would suggest that Benjamin is doing something rather radical in the speech: he hopes to exalt the individual (families, gathered in their tents?) through his word. Now, all of that said, what of the veil?

Chapters 4-5 give us the veil experience, now in the detail Nephi could not apparently get away with. Just as the brother of Jared before the veil, they have fallen to the earth, which they attribute to having “viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth” (v. 2). Though they stand before the veil, they recognize their inability to enter into the presence of the Lord as yet. So they offer there, standing before the veil, a prayer, one that summons the Spirit in great power. But before this prayer can break open the veil for them, Benjamin intervenes.

I see Benjamin’s words here as vital: he breaks up their experience by interposing himself, thus prolonging the veil encounter. He gives them, as a result, a kind of lecture at the veil, a sort of recap.

The first half of chapter 4 is given to the most marvelous teaching in the entire speech: verses 11-12. Happinness is knowing one’s own nothingness and God’s goodness. Hallelujah!

The remainder of chapter 4 is summarized in the lesson manual as “King Benjamin exhorts his people to teach the gospel to their children, impart of their substance to the poor, and obey the commandments of God.” But to be quite correct, he doesn’t exhort to do it, he tells them that they will do it if they recognize their own nothingness and God’s infinite goodness. If they will give themselves to this marvelous paradox, they will live out all the commandments. I think verse 30 must be read in this light: Benjamin is not enjoining his people to some kind of constant fear about whatever little things they might do wrong. Rather, he is telling them that they have got to make sure that everything they do recognizes their own nothingness and God’s great goodness. It is as simple as that.

This lecture at the veil having concluded, Benjamin’s people announce themselves clean and prepared to pass into the presence of God in the beginning of chapter 5. They even seem to declare that the veil has been broken for them, since they can prophesy of all things, etc. But before they actually do pass through the veil, they make a final covenant. Then Benjamin speaks up again.

Benjamin’s words about this covenant are beautiful. The covenant amounts to an adoption covenant–they become Christ’s sons and daughters–as one might expect (cf. Exodus 21 and Isaiah 22: ordinances at the veil in the OT temple happen to be adoption rituals–there you are made His daughter/son). Then Benjamin describes–almost as if he were the chorus in a drama–the adopted’s passing through the veil: “whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called . . . . this is the name that I said I should give unto you that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression . . . . I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts . . . . hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also, the name by which he shall call you. . . . Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable [Benjamin is here quoting 2 Nephi 31:20, Nephi’s description of passing through the veil], always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his [!!!], that you may be brought to heaven [can it get any clearer?], that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life . . .” (Mosiah 5:9-15).

Of course, as one might expect, this is followed in chapter 6 by a registering of the names of those who entered into the covenant: the priesthood of writing seals up the endowment experience by writing the righteous into the book of life, etc.

Quite a sermon this Benjamin gives.

17 Responses to “BoM Lesson 16: Mosiah 4-6, “Ye Shall Be Called the Children of Christ””

  1. robf said

    Thanks Joe. Lots to think about,as usual. Benjamin’s address, like all scripture, seems holographic to me–every little part contains the whole. I’ve been thinking about the phrase “listeth to obey”–with all that listing implies–leaning (as a ship), lusting, listening, and enlisting (placing oneself on a list to enroll in service). A lot there.

    Also all the discussion here (and here, here, and here!) about the “natural”/psuchikos man–the man of breath–being an enemy to God. What is there about the animating breath or mind of a “fallen” man that resists the breath/spirit of God? Adam is originally given God’s breath, but after the Fall, somehow the breath of a fallen psuchikos man is different? Still a lot more to do on this I think.

    As for service/work/’abad–just what is commanded of Adam after the Fall. I agree, a lot more here that we might be missing, or at least only glimpsing, in our English translation.

    And this whole business of prospering (Heb: sakal= to be prudent, be circumspect, wisely understand, prosper) and how that is tied more to having wisdom than to gaining riches or a comfortable life. We could do a whole post on wisdom in this discourse.

    Maybe this isn’t a hologram after all, but a rich textual stew!

  2. Rick S said

    Joseph Smith taught that prophets seek to bring their people into the presence of God. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, Joseph Smith, p. 105, last paragraph: “This is why Adam blessed his posterity; he wanted to bring them into the presence of God. … Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the priesthood, but he could not.” (See also D&C 84:23.) This ties in to what Joe points out here. It appears that King Benjamin succeeded in bring his people through the veil into the presence of God.

  3. JennyW said

    Fun stuff, Joe. As I was reading through the passage, I was struck by the reappearance of the angel at key moments: at the beginning of the veil section (4:1, “by the angel of the Lord”), right at the heart of 4:11-12 (“which was spoken by the mouth of the angel”) and again at the point where the people enter into the final covenant before Benjamin takes them through (5:5, “as has been spoken by the angel”). Even though it’s Benjamin speaking to the people, it’s important for them to contextualize his words as those of the angel (which brings up the interesting possibility of their seeing Benjamin as an angel sent to them in his kingship—I think 5:5 can be read this way at the very least). There’s something going on here that I think might be part of the meta-message on how we are to learn/be taught/open our eyes both at the temple and in our covenantal lives more generally.

  4. joespencer said

    Very helpful comments, all.

    Jenny, I especially like the way you’ve opened up the further elaboration of the angel theme. It highlights a theme that, it seems to me, underpins much of the Book of Mosiah. The obvious comparison between Noah and Benjamin has been pointed out often enough (the Mosiah-Benjamin-Mosiah stretch is obviously parallel to the Zeniff-Noah-Limhi stretch, etc.), but it is not often pointed out that what most characterizes the parallel is displacement (rather than good vs. bad governing): Benjamin speaks to his people, but Abinadi, the dispossessed, speaks to Noah’s people instead of the king. Oh, but there’s more to the story than just that as well: an angel came to Benjamin—would it not be best to take Abinadi as the parallel angel to Noah? (The parallels between Mosiah 3 and the teachings of Abinadi are remarkable.) On that reading, Benjamin makes constant reference to the angel, putting him at the heart of his teachings, while Noah has the angel killed, etc.

    That massive parallel, it seems to me, must be recognized if one is to make any sense of what follows in the Book of Mosiah as well. The two different royal reactions to the angelic visitation issue in two radically different political situations: Mosiah vs. Limhi/Alma. On the one hand, the effective political absorption of the angelic in Zarehemla results in an almost hegemonic—though clearly idyllic—political situation, while the rejection of the angel in Nephi results in a weak political organization that is radically called into question by Alma’s revolutionary fidelity to the scapegoating event. Of course, these two political situations come up against each other (thanks to the hegemonic outreach of Mosiah’s having sent Ammon, etc.) beginning with Mosiah 25, and a fascinating dialectic then characterizes the remainder of the chapter, resulting at last in the rearrangement of Nephite affairs (and the mission to the Lamanites).

    In a word, the rearrangement of affairs that concludes Mosiah may most profitably be read, in my humble opinion, as issuing from the question of what it means to recognize true messengers, etc. And that rearrangement of affairs can thus be understood as a reworking of the milieu into which messengers will be sent (Alma the Younger as an angel, etc.).

  5. MattM said

    Joe: I’m sure you’re aware, but I thought it might be helpful to make explicit the reference to Todd Parker’s comparison (I’m pretty sure it was Brother Parker… someone correct me if I’m wrong on that) of Benjamin’s angel and Abinadi, with Parker suggesting the possibility that Abinadi might be the angel who taught Benjamin. I haven’t thought deeply enough to express an independent opinion on that idea, but the parallel you draw in the meta-Mosiah narrative seems worthy of at least mentioning Parker’s thoughts. I assume your parenthetical was intended as such, but just wanted to clarify and turn anyone interested in further reading to Parker’s paper.

    As to the substance, I would merely suggest that perhaps the collision of the politico-religious spheres separated by their response to the Lord’s call through the angel served as a conversion catalyst. The dialectic to which you allude, rearranging Nephite affairs and leading to the sending of new messengers does offer much to digest.

    Two added points:

    1-Mormon as editor must have had some hand in imposing this framework, utilizing our current Book of Mosiah as a springboard into the more preaching-centered Book of Alma. How did Mormon’s own life experience of a recent dialectic of dissolution (4 Ne. to Mormon) inform this presentation of Mosiah toward Alma?

    2-The Father, as super-Editor, arranged history such that Mosiah is our introduction to Mormon’s words. How does this contribute to the trajectory of the book.

    Just a few thoughts with little to contribute on my own…

    -Matt

  6. joespencer said

    Matt,

    I was not at all aware of Parker’s paper. Any idea where it appears? Though I will confess that I get a bit nervous about identifying Abinadi with the angel that visits Benjamin—so far as Parker gets away from the text into speculation… but he certainly is right to point to the textual parallel between Benjamin’s angel and Noah’s Abinadi.

    Much more intriguing, however, are these two further questions you ask. I’ve been doing some work in the last little bit on the overarching structure of Alma, and the way you’ve asked your first question here makes me see some possibilities there, some I’ll have to write up another time. Your second question asks a question that needs to be asked much, much more seriously by readers: How does the displacement of the Book of Lehi frame our approach to Mormon as readers? Very fruitful questions I’d like to take up seriously as I have time in the next couple of days.

  7. JennyW said

    For what it’s worth, Todd Parker did do a two-part discussion of Abinadi that was transcribed and is available here1 and here2. The first part, “Abinadi: Man and the Message,” does discuss the idea that Abinadi was the angel who taught Benjamin. Here’s the most relevant paragraph:

    Notice, there is a reference out of chapter 3 and some out of 13, 14, 15, and 16 of Mosiah. Each one taught approximately the same thing. Is there any connection between these two prophets? Who came first? Benjamin or Abinadi? Abinadi came first. Abinadi is dead when Benjamin teaches this. An angel comes to Benjamin and says, “Awake, and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy” (Mosiah 3:3). Perhaps this angel has an affinity for these words. It’s an example of the Bible’s phrase “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Is it possible that this angel is none other than our friend Abinadi? They certainly teach the same things. Notice what Benjamin says. He says, “The things which I shall tell you are made known unto me by an angel” (Mosiah 3:2). In essence, he’s saying, “I’m just giving you what the angel gave me,” and it’s almost scripted all the way through. Well, you can make your own decision there, but I think there’s definitely a correlation between those two messages.

  8. JennyW said

    Bother. I always mess up links. The “here1” and “here2” work, and just ignore the “and” …

  9. MattM said

    Thanks for covering for me, Jenny. Sometimes I’m not as fast on the draw as I’d like to be. That is, in fact, the “paper” to which I was referring. And Brother Parker ventures further than I am comfortable myself in suggesting that Abinadi=Benjamin’s angel; however, the parallels he draws are a good summary of the similarities, although not as in depth as could be imagined.

    Joe, I look forward to some thoughts on those two questions–the meta-narrative questions are probably the most ignored in my (and possibly others’) study. I’m still stewing over them myself, but those questions give a decent starting point…

    -Matt

  10. JennyW said

    Matt and Joe, I appreciate the narrative and framing questions you bring up—I’ve been thinking about them all day and have yet to arrive at anything too definitive, other than the not completely-thought-out-yet-idea that Mosiah works as a shift in or opening of the covenant: the small plates record the covenant in the family, and from Alma onwards we have a continual opening and offering of the covenant to any who will listen. The political trajectory of Mosiah from kingship (a hereditary, familial form) to judgeship (a form theoretically open to all) as well as the various conversions (revelation from an angel to a man is then shared with all; a pointedly personal, singular conversion [Alma] immediately prompts a sharing and preaching with all who will listen) thematically reinforce this opening of the covenant. I find this interesting because the more I study Lehi, the more convinced I am that his conversion and message is one that ruptures the received understanding of the covenant (Jews as the chosen people), opening it to all mankind. Anyway … I did say it was pretty rough.

    As an additional tangential remark, it might be interesting to know that my sources tell me that Todd Parker has become more uncomfortable with that interpretation of the angel as Abinadi, and that he does not claim to have originally come up with that speculation (the original idea is presented by someone who’s in his class packet, which I don’t have access to at the moment. My sources also came up with another nice speculation on the subject, which is that it might be much simpler to explain the similarities between the two sermons by saying that both Benjamin and Abinadi were taught by the same angel. … But the real point is that I’ve got top-secret sources—you know you’re jealous :)

  11. robf said

    Jenny, I think we have to be careful about our assumptions about Nephite political systems. I’m not sure that Mosiah really had a firm hereditary leadership established (we don’t know if Mosiah was a hereditary king before he hit the Land of Zarahemla). Since Mosiah-Benjamin-Mosiah labored for their own support, they probably weren’t “kings” in the sense of running a complex stratified society, let a lone a “state”. There isn’t really evidence for Mosiah and Benjamin’s leadership to extend beyond Zarahemla (and no evidence that it was all that big of a place in those days)–so we might be talking about, at best, a simple chiefdom governing a single place, rather than a complex chiefdom ruling over several places, with sub-chiefs.

    In fact, if anything, the transition from “kings” to “judges” with local governors may actually indicate the failure of Mosiah to hold together a small almost egalitarian chiefdom, and its expansion to a complex chiefdom. If so, “king” Mosiah and Benjamin should really be seen as “big men” trying to establish a hereditary simple chiefdom, which fails with the abdication of the potential heirs. In addition, with the addition of the colonists from the Land of Nephi presumably establishing new cities (eg. Gideon), rulership of the now larger united Nephite polity became more complex–hence, the establishment of the “judgeship” which was really a complex chiefdom, leading perhaps to the establishment of a fully stratified state.

    Its all pretty complex, so we need to be careful with our reading here not to just impose our own political preconceptions on the text. Whatever the Nephite systems were here–at least early in the Mosiah-Benjamin-Mosiah time period–they don’t seem to directly match anything we see in the historic or anthropological record.

  12. JennyW said

    Robf, thank you for your comments. I’m the first to admit that my grasp of political systems in general is not the best, and I think you’re quite right to insist on our not reading our own political preconceptions into the text. And, even though I need to think about this more clearly and carefully, my initial impression is that the political history you describe articulates something I was trying to get at in my own round-a-bout way above: that there is a shift over the arc of the Book of Mormon, beginning with the story of a specific family and then gradually opening up into the story of a very complex, composite society, and that that historical/political shift possibly parallels an understanding of the covenant as really being about open to the entire world. My interest in the book of Mosiah lies in thinking through the various complicating elements that occur throughout this section of the text. I’m interested in the failure you discuss “to establish a hereditary simple chiefdom” and the eventual resultant complex chiefdom in that they thematically echo the failure of a simple understanding of God’s chosen family being in the covenant and the evental understanding of the covenant being available to all. But I’m getting pretty far away from the text here—I really need to take some time to read more carefully before I push this anywhere.

  13. MattM said

    JennyW, I enjoy your insights, thanks. I agree with Robf that we ought to reserve judgment on the nature of the political systems to a degree and thought I perceived that in your earlier comment, but perhaps that’s just me. I do like the parallel you bring up. I wonder how the interactivity in Mosiah between the two primary Nephite groups might play into your thoughts and would be curious about your take on that. I also like your equating Benjamin’s and Abinadi’s angel–this makes much sense given some angels’ specific missions and spheres of responsibility. It also gives emphasis on the theme of angelic messengers throughout the Book of Mormon–perhaps a topic for a new thread here altogether.

    And I’ll admit jealousy of secret sources. :o)

    As to the meta-narrative thoughts, I haven’t yet thought it all out, but perhaps a starting point for the latter (2) could be the way that our “introduction” to Mormon’s writings is the abrupt beginning of Mosiah, without mediation by a narrator, was a way of thrusting us into an already-existing history. The last few times I read the Book of Mormon in its entirety, I began with Mosiah where translation picked up after the Book of Lehi incident. I find it fascinating that we enter the Nephite world thrown into the midst of political upheaval and unrest. We then get a little bit of the background information and see how the society transforms from agrarian chiefdom to stratified “nation.”

    The parallels to Abraham and early Israel seem prevalent in this–especially as Benjamin oversees the making of a covenant and giving of a name. The Nephite travels portion could be Mormon’s attempt to paint Nephite history after the fashion of Hebrew history, taking up the wanderings in the wilderness before a prophet-leader installs judges to lift up his hands, so to speak (with the Jaredite plates acting as the Jethro figure, although admittedly that could be a stretch). The gradual expansion of the Nephite nation with its counterpart Lamanites could pair up with either the Judah/Ephraim divide or the Israel/Babylon divide–and may take up both, in turn. All this, of course, is off-the-cuff speculation on my part and may amount to nothing; however, thinking about how Mormon’s record so abruptly begins, it doesn’t seem entirely outlandish to think that he takes up Nephite politics first as a parallel to the Law, then begins addressing more specific preaching (the Prophets).

    One final note before I end my seemingly-endless ramblings… The promise to the Nephites from the outset–that Lehi’s posterity will be restored to their place in Israel (returning to the familial king- and queen-ship of parents over their households of faith?)–may frame Mormon’s writing as well. He writes from the perspective of post-dissolution. Certainly he would have drawn some comfort and parallel to the Jews who had been put into captivity and lost their promises. Thus, the entire work ends largely where it began. The house of Israel in Jerusalem was about to be taken captive; the covenant-bound descendants of Lehi likewise are approaching annihilation. Mormon would see the promises to both the Jews generally, and to the Nephite prophets as indicating hope in future reconciliation. Thus the prophesies and writings directed to our day stem from the Nephite prophets of their “exile.” If these ramblings say anything, it is that we as readers can see how Mormon’s (and Moroni’s) casting of Nephite history may have been framed to closely parallel that of their Israelite forbears. How this informs our reading of their words and where it leads is more than I have time at the moment to attempt to even begin…

    But thanks for the chance to go off on a long, chain-of-conscious, likely indiscernible to anyone but myself (and even then, I can’t guarantee that I’ll follow my line of thinking later on) meander.

    I’ll be looking forward to more thoughts!

    -Matt

  14. robf said

    Jenny, I think there is something to what you are saying about opening up the covenant to the entire world. Perhaps another way to get at this is by more carefully examining the Jaredite/non-Israelite record in the BoM. And interestingly, the Mulekites, who the Nephites attempt to absorb in Omni/Mosiah are all tied up with these people.

    Traditionally, I think we read the Coriantumr story (Omni 1: 21) as happening soon after the Mulekites arrive in the Americas (ca. 580 BC?) but the text actually says it is the “people of Zarahemla” that found him, so perhaps this happened much later during the reign of Zarahemla, and just before the arrival of Mosiah? That would mean that much of the Jaredite history was actually happening contemporaneously with the history of the small plates.

    But even if the Jaredite history we have did happen much earlier, many scholars conjecture that remnants of the Jaredites were associated with the Mulekites (they have Jaredite names, etc.), so by the time of Mosiah, what you have is an intermingling of Nephite, Mulekite, and Jaredite descendants and traditions (to say nothing of Lamanite contributions that are hinted at in Mosiah and much more apparent in Alma).

    So by giving the combined Nephite, Mulekite, remnant Jaredite population of the Land of Zarahemla the name of Christ, Benjamin is effectively bringing the covenant to perhaps a much wider cast of characters than we might appreciate at first brush.

  15. marf said

    Mormon wrote that he didn’t write even a hundreth part of what he could have taken from the numerous records of which he became caretaker. He said he included that which would be of most benefit to those who would come after, according to the knowledge and the understanding which God gave him. I appreciate the fact that it is written in plainness, and easy to be understood, coming through a pure translation.

    While I find these discussions to be of interest, I hope that the REAL message the author hoped to convey is not lost in all the ideas and all the words.

  16. joespencer said

    marf,

    I agree, though I wonder how it is possible to get to the “real” message without working through the details. In other words, I think we have to take every aspect of the Book of Mormon seriously enough that the “real” message begins to show itself. Otherwise, I imagine we are not at all getting the message Mormon meant for us, but just deciding in advance what the text must say, regardless of what it actually says.

    I think this is especially the case since we’re missing the Book of Lehi, which I would assume had a kind of introduction to the whole work, with Mormon’s explicit intentions laid out. Perhaps one could say that the Lord’s arrangement of affairs (such that we are without the Book of Lehi) forces us to ask the kinds of questions that are being asked here. (If the Book of Mormon is only meant to convince us that Christ is the Savior, it would be, strictly speaking, both unnecessary and—as this very discussion would evidence—in the way.)

  17. robf said

    marf, I have to admit, that watching my kids swimming today, I thought about all of the people in all of the past dispensations who didn’t even have access to scriptures in their own language, let alone “originals” in multiple ancient languages. What does it mean for us to have all of this? How did they “come unto Christ” differently than we do? Does it matter? When does having “the Book” or “the Books” help us, and when might it get in the way? Then my head started to hurt, so I stopped thinking about it and just enjoyed watching my kids. I think that’s probably what most folks do most of the time. I usually think that’s too bad. Today, not so sure.

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