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Book of Mormon Sunday School Lesson 44, “I Speak Unto You As If Ye Were Present” (Mormon 7-9)

Posted by joespencer on November 20, 2008

Tackling Mormon 7-9, rather than, say, Mormon 1-7 or Mormon 8-9, forces us to come to grips with the question of textuality, with the play of authorial intentions, and with how all of these issues affect us as readers of the Book of Mormon. Why? Because Mormon 7 is Mormon’s last word (after so much!), and Mormon 8-9 is Moroni’s first (and, at first glance, last!) word. Indeed, one could say that it is in the play alone of these three chapters that one can begin to ask about the Mormon-Moroni entanglement. What of this father-and-son, and what of their joint record?

What follows is a two-fold approach to the lesson this week. The two folds are, though, quite intertwined. I’ll take the first in some detail, the second in somewhat less detail. I hope that the following says less than it asks: I hardly know how to grapple with these three chapters, and what follows is a rambling, searching attempt to begin to think about what they imply for us as readers of this singular text, the Book of Mormon. That said….

Imperfections

Reading Mormon 8-9, what immediately leaps out at one is the sudden obsession with the flaws, faults, and imperfections of the text to be transmitted. Mormon 8:12: “And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things than these.” Mormon 8:17: “And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire.” Mormon 8:23: “Search the prophecies of Isaiah. Behold, I cannot write them.” Mormon 8:33: “Why have ye transfigured the holy word of God, that ye might bring damnation upon your souls?” Mormon 9:8: “Behold I say unto you, he that denieth these things knoweth not the gospel of Christ; yea, he has not read the scriptures; if so, he does not understand them.” Mormon 9:31-34: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been. And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written.”

This only introduces Moroni’s obsession, one that appears again and again in the subsequent chapters as well as on the title page (which, presumably, was also Moroni’s work). Indeed, let me quote from the latter: “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” I quote this specifically because it gives us the work “mistakes,” which is the word Mormon employs in only mention I can find in Mormon’s contribution to the text of imperfections in the record. Interestingly, though, Mormon does not refer to imperfections in his record, but the possibility of imperfections in one of the records from which he draws: “And now it came to pass that according to our record, and we know our record to be true, for behold, it was a just man who did keep the record—for he truly did many miracles in the name of Jesus; and there was not any man who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus save he were cleansed every whit from his iniquity—And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away” (3 Nephi 8:1-2).

A first question, then: Why is Moroni so unsure about the record he carries around, finishes off, and eventually buries? This obsession with textual imperfection will become the ground of one of the most remarkable passages in the Book of Mormon: Ether 12. The prayer-and-response that takes place in that chapter deserves sustained attention, not least because Joseph Smith quoted from it just before his martyrdom (how might that change the way we think about Joseph’s mission, etc.?). But of course, it outstrips the aims of this particular lesson: I will have to leave any detailed look at that further development to the appropriate lesson. But this much can perhaps be said within the confines of the present lesson’s concerns: Moroni receives the text from his father in far less confidence than that in which his father gave it to him. What does this curious fact have to teach us about the entanglement of Mormon and Moroni, especially of their textual entanglement?

To what extent does Mormon 8 through Moroni 10 amount to a kind of constant attempt on the part of Moroni to supplement what he sees as his father’s writerly failings? Might this explain the constant stop-and-start movement of these final writings, Moroni finishing the record once with Mormon 9, again with Ether 15, and again with Moroni 10? And how might such a model of the Mormon-Moroni entanglement change the way we read the remainder of the Book of Mormon? It is perhaps natural to read Mormon 8-9 as a kind of supplementary epilogue, but is that natural reading thwarted by the double appendix of the books of Ether and Moroni? And do we read the Book of Ether as a kind of patching up of Mormon’s record, since Mormon promised eventually to record the content of the Jaredite record but failed to do so himself? And what of the Book of Moroni, which might also be read as a kind of (double) patching up of Mormon’s record as well, the first six chapters providing institutional details that Mormon seems to have forgotten to include, the next three chapters providing sermons and letters from Mormon himself that flesh out details that apparently should have been included in the text?

In a word: is the Book of Mormon, in the end, the Book of Mormon or the Book of Moroni, the author’s or the redactor’s product? The question is perhaps all the more pertinent in light of the Book of Ether, where Moroni essentially tells us that he has written up and sealed a massive text that will not be read until the people are prepared for it, containing the contents of the vision of the brother of Jared. It would seem that the materials Mormon assembled are thus recast as a kind of introduction to what Moroni put together for us: whereas Mormon was commanded not to include the marvelous teachings of the Christ in his Third Nephi account so that the faith of the people could be tried, Moroni includes something like them but then is commanded to seal that portion of the record up.

What is this book that we are reading? In the end, the above complications are only meant, really, to get us to ask again this vital question.

The Day of the Book’s Emergence

Mormon’s final word, comprising chapter 7, is addressed solely to the remnant of Lehi’s seed, the latter-day Lamanites. His words are quite forceful: a series of “know ye that” statements are followed by a brief summary of the gospel as the Book of Mormon systematizes it, a commandment to repent, and a word or two of promise/explanation associated with the fulfillment of that commandment. Moroni’s two chapters that follow, however, are addressed to the Gentiles rather than to the Lamanites. This is, of course, in keeping with—perhaps is to be regarded as the explanation of?—everything discussed above: Moroni is concerned with the reception of Mormon’s book, concerned that the Gentiles will get in the way of its being delivered eventually to the Lamanites (a genuine concern!!!), and so he finds himself obsessing over the book’s fluency.

I find this very interesting, from Mormon 8:5: “Behold, my father hath made this record, and he hath written the intent thereof. And behold, I would write it also if I had room upon the plates, but I have not; and ore I have none, for I am alone.” Note that Moroni says he hasn’t the room to write the intent of the Book of Mormon, asserting that Mormon has himself written it (in such detail that Moroni hasn’t the room to write it again? where? in the first chapters of the lost manuscript?). But then what is that intent? Assuming that it is, at least in its outlines, precisely what we have in Mormon 7 (something I do indeed assume), then it is significant that Moroni dedicates what little space he has to a kind of negative supplementation of that purpose: recognizing the purpose as Mormon laid it out, Moroni is afraid that the purpose will be subverted because of the wickedness of the Gentiles, and so he spends his space writing to the latter, condemning them and clarifying their own place in the plan.

This, of course, is what fills in all the gaps around the verses I cited in the first section above: wherever Moroni is not specifically apologizing for the weakness of the text, he is condemning the Gentiles who will live in the day the Book of Mormon will be brought out of darkness.

That condemnation is poignant, and it needs little comment. Indeed, perhaps this will suffice as commentary for the whole thing: Do we believe it? Do we believe that, even now, we still need to look for revelations and miracles? Do we believe that, even now, we might just have a prophet who speaks the will of the Lord, regardless of our own predilections? Do we believe that, even now, we should rid ourselves of all this trivial self-adornment and the like?

If the gifts of God have ceased to appear, wo is unto us.

So, back we turn to the record Mormon left us.

2 Responses to “Book of Mormon Sunday School Lesson 44, “I Speak Unto You As If Ye Were Present” (Mormon 7-9)”

  1. robf said

    I am increasingly nervous that we’re missing the boat here on taking the BoM to the descendants of Lehi. Do we even know who they are?

    I’m also struck this time about the similarity between Mormon 9–have miracles cased? with his later appeal in Moroni 7–have angels ceased appearing to men?

    Its so easy to think that the BoM was written just for us–a self help book for the latter-days. Too bad it doesn’t say anything about that anywhere in the BoM itself!

  2. Robert C. said

    Any thoughts on the Mormon 9:33 phrase stating that “if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record”?

    I think we (i.e., I!) have a tendency to think about writing itself as a kind of unavoidable weakness (I think Adam Miller has an article in the SMPT journal Element that takes up this question more generally of writing as a weak form of communication a la Ether 12), but Moroni seems to have something very different in mind.

    Also, to what extent did Joseph’s role in and mode of translation make Moroni’s concerns moot? One thing that I think is somewhat ironic about this is that if the record had been written in Hebrew, I would guess there would be a whole host of different kinds of criticisms about the Book of Mormon (i.e., from Hebrew scholars).

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