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Book of Mormon Lesson #12: “Seek Ye for the Kingdom of God,” Jacob 1-4 (Gospel Doctrine)

Posted by joespencer on February 29, 2012

This is the first of the two lessons dedicated to the relatively short Book of Jacob. The task here is to tackle chapters 1-4, while the next lesson tackles chapters 5-7. I’ll arrange my notes slightly differently. It’s quite clear that chapters 4-6 make up a single unit (chapters 4-5 were a single chapter in the original Book of Mormon, at any rate), so it seems strange to me to couple chapter 4 with chapters 1-3, which also form a single unit (with chapters 2-3 being a single chapter in the original Book of Mormon). So, in this post, I’ll tackle only the first three chapters of Jacob here.

As the original chapter breaks suggest, it’s probably best to take chapter 1 on its own, and then to take the pair of chapters 2 and 3 together. That’s what I’ll do.

Jacob 1

This chapter is pretty easily divisible into a few parts:

Jacob 1:1-4 — On the small plates
Jacob 1:5-8 — On the prophets
Jacob 1:9-12 — Nephi’s death
Jacob 1:13-14 — Political aside
Jacob 1:15-16 — Social deterioration
Jacob 1:17-19 — Jacob’s prophetic task

I don’t want to deal with each of these subsections in detail. I’m happy to let much of this chapter speak for itself. I’d like to focus, principally, on those passages that help to set up the sermon delivered in chapters 2-3. So let me say a few words about the priesthood (verses 5-8) versus the royalty (verses 9-12, 15-16), an opposition that comes to fruition in the last bit of the chapter (verses 17-19)

The Priesthood

Verses 1-4 focus on Nephi’s words to Jacob concerning the small plates, but this brief discussion—in which there are no surprises for the careful reader of Nephi’s record—opens onto Jacob’s description of the work of the priesthood at this early point in Nephite history. He constantly speaks in the plural first person through this passage (“we,” “us,” “our”), suggesting either that he’s referring specifically to the vision that he and Nephi shared, or that he’s referring to the collective priesthood, made up at least of himself and his brother Joseph. Interestingly, as he describes the work of the priesthood, he draws on what seems clearly to be Psalm 95—on which he will be drawing again in Jacob 6, after his quotation of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree. But he only comes to the psalm in verse 7. He begins, instead, with two statements about what he and his companion(s) had anticipated prophetically:

For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning out people what things should happen unto them. And we also had many revelations and the spirit of much prophecy—wherefore, we knew of Christ and his kingdom, which should come. (Jacob 1:5-6)

There are, it seems, two things the Nephite spiritual leaders anticipated prophetically: (1) the future history of their own people; (2) the coming Christ and His kingdom. These are here presented as two distinct things, but Jacob then describes the priestly task as one of bringing these two distinct prophetic anticipations into a particular relation, and it’s here that he draws on the psalm:

Wherefore, we labored diligently among our people that we might persuade them to come unto Christ and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest—lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness. (Jacob 1:7)

The task, it seems clear here, was understood to be to bring the Nephites, whose history was anticipated prophetically, into relation to the kingdom of Christ, the coming of which was also anticipated prophetically. The task was, as always, that of “persuad[ing people] to come unto Christ.” But Jacob adds this bit drawn from Psalm 95: “that they might enter into his rest—lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness.” Here’s the passage as it reads in the Book of Psalms:

To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest. (Psalm 95:7-11)

Note that much of the language of this passage has been taken over verbatim, though most of it has been rearranged in the order it appears. Also note that the very beginning of the passage has not been used, but it’s that that will appear later in chapter 6. That is, here the language of Psalm 95 is borrowed only in order to describe what is being warded off—the unfortunate past, etc. It’ll only be toward the end of Jacob’s record that he actually takes up the “today” versus “then” distinction. It’s worth noting that, as in the Epistle to the Hebrews (where this same psalm is also quoted), this passage spiritualizes the imagery of the psalm: it’s about “rest,” but not rest in a promised land (which the Nephites would seem to have already received). Also as in Hebrews, the appropriation of the psalm’s “today” (which won’t appear in Jacob for a while, but is at least implicit here) sets up an opposition between Israel-under-Moses and Israel-under-Christ. If the task is to get the Nephites into a certain relation to Christ, the task is to leave behind the rebelliousness of a certain understanding of the Law of Moses, it would seem. This will become a focal point in chapter 4.

For the moment, though, Jacob simply expands his focus by turning from the Nephites specifically to “all men”:

Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ and view his death and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world. (Jacob 1:8)

That’s the vision of the Nephite priesthood, already at this early point. But then it’s set against what turns out to be its polar opposite at that point in history.

The Royalty

Jacob recounts the death of Nephi in the immediately following verses, but in the course of that report he also begins to spell out the nature of the Nephite monarchy. Nephi anoints a new king and ruler over his people. Nephi’s own position as king Jacob describes in the following terms: he was “a great protector for [the people], having wielded the sword of Laban in their defense and having labored in all his days for their welfare” (Jacob 1:10). But it doesn’t look much like things continue in Nephi’s own way. Verses 15-16 report an unfortunate turn:

And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices—such as like unto David of old, desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon his son. Yea, and they also began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride. (Jacob 1:15-16)

It isn’t entirely clear whether “second king” refers to Nephi’s immediate successor or to the second king after Nephi (the successor of his successor), though I think there’s actually pretty strong reasons to suspect that the former is meant. (I won’t bother with those reasons, though, until we get to the Book of Mosiah.) At any rate, it’s clear that things go sour after Nephi passes. Why? Well, it isn’t terribly hard to guess: the promised land has been acquired; the Lamanites are being held at bay; things have turned out pretty decently. So to what do the Nephites naturally turn when they haven’t much to worry about? Sex and money—the same things Nephi saw connected with the great and abominable church.

And it’s this deterioration that seems most sharply to mark what is now a split between the priesthood and the royalty. In Nephi’s time, there seems to have been a much closer relationship between the two as the first verses of the chapter suggest with all the talk of “we” and “us”—an inseparability, then (perhaps marked especially by the fact that the same person, Nephi, kept both the large and the small plates; now that they’ve been separated, the monarchy and the priesthood separate as well). The priesthood continues in the spiritual vein, keeping the sacred record of the small plates and focusing on the question of the covenant and the prophecies of Christ; the royalty immediately assumes that they have the power to oppress, both sexually and economically.

This split, importantly, will continue right up until the time of Benjamin, several centuries later. Jacob’s going to intervene in the next couple of chapters, but we’ll see that it seems only to have made him less influential.

Priesthood and Royalty

With the last verses of the chapter, Jacob introduces the sermon of chapters 2-3—“these words … taught … in the temple,” and that according to the “errand” of “the Lord” (Jacob 1:17). And how seriously he (and his brother Joseph) took the task:

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads, if we did not teach them the word of God will all diligence. Wherefore, by laboring with our mights, their blood might not come upon our garments. Otherwise, their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day. (Jacob 1:19)

Note how Jacob already had this perspective back in 2 Nephi 9, taking off his garments and shaking them to show that his sermonizing had left him innocent. Here again he has the same focus: if he doesn’t make quite clear what’s at stake in the Nephite turn for the worse, he and the other members of the priesthood would be held responsible before God for their sins. But note what that implies about the relationship between the royalty and the priesthood. This sermonizing shifts the responsibility from the priesthood to the monarchy. The priests assume the responsibility for the people’s sins, but by making clear that sin is sin, they can shift that burden to the monarchy itself. That’s a not terribly happy situation, and it isn’t surprising that there seems subsequently to be a kind of rift between the two parts of Nephite leadership.

But let’s take a look at what Jacob actually teaches. And hold on to your hats: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Jacob 2-3

Given what has already been set up, it isn’t surprising that Jacob’s sermon in chapters 2-3 focuses on two things in particular: sex and money. But it has much larger ramifications as well. I think it can be divided up into the following major parts:

(1) Jacob 2:2-11 — Prologue: On the burden of preaching repentance
(2) Jacob 2:12-21 — First Topic: On seeking many riches
(3) Jacob 2:22-33 — Second Topic: On seeking many wives
(4) Jacob 2:34-3:4 — Brief Aside: On pure and impure hearts
(5) Jacob 3:5-11 — Final Word: On the Lamanites

Note that I’ve left out the first verse of chapter 2, as well as the last three verses of chapter 3. In my comments, I’ll leave out also the transition from chapter 2 to chapter 3 (section 4 in the above structuring), since I’m regarding here principally as an aside. I want to take up just the prologue, Jacob’s two central topics, and his final word on the Lamanites.

On Preaching Repentance

What I’m here calling the prologue to Jacob’s sermon is among the more memorable passages in the Book of Mormon. He begins with an echo of the close of chapter 1:

Now, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob, according to the responsibility which I am under to God to magnify mine office with soberness, and that I might rid my garments of your sins, I come up into the temple this day that I might declare unto you the word of God. (Jacob 2:2)

Once he’s made clear that this sermon will be a question of shifting responsibility away from himself through preaching repentance, he begins to express his characteristic anxiety:

And ye yourselves know that I have hitherto been diligent in the office of my calling. But I this day am weighed down with much more desire and anxiety for the welfare of your souls than I have hitherto been. For behold, as yet ye have been obedient unto the word of the Lord which I have given unto you. But behold, hearken ye unto me and know that by the help of the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth, I can tell you concerning your thoughts—how that ye are beginning to labor in sin, which sin appeareth very abominable unto me, yea, and abominable unto God. (Jacob 2:3-5)

Desire and anxiety, and because Jacob is witnessing a turn for the worse—to which we’ve already been introduced in the last chapter. It’s interesting that Jacob knows about this turn less because of what he’s actually seeing happen among his people than because of what he’s learned “by the help of the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth.” It isn’t, it seems, that the people have already begun acting on anything (and this may be what Jacob means by “as yet ye have been obedient unto the word of the Lord”), but that they’ve begun to shift their interests and desires—and it’s that that worries Jacob. This is a question of their thoughts.

It’s also deeply interesting that, while Jacob doesn’t yet indicate that they are sinning, he does indicate they are “beginning to labor in sin.” This is an interesting phrase, one that deserves attention. What does it mean to “labor in sin” if it doesn’t (as seems to be the case) actually mean to sin? Is the indication that the real work of sin comes long before any actual transgressions are committed? Is the indication that sin is a kind of master-slave relationship in which the would-be-sinner has to get to work on something that will only eventually come to fruition? At any rate, it’s from this labor that Jacob seeks to free his people.

But first, Jacob wants to make clear how much the task of preaching repentance on this occasion affects him:

Yea, and it grieveth my soul and causeth me to shrink with shame before the presence of my Maker that I must testify unto you concerning the wickedness of your hearts. And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceeding tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God. (Jacob 2:6-7)

Jacob seems doubly weighed down by the task. First, he’s ashamed before God, and second, he’s ashamed before the women and children present on the occasion. What should be said about each of these frustrations, if I can call them that? It isn’t difficult to guess that it’s principally the discussion concerning the oppression of women that gives Jacob shame, both before God and before the Nephite women and the Nephite children. Riches and pride are something Jacob’s had to talk about to this people before (see 2 Nephi 9), so it seems that’s not what drives his shame. But this business of the oppression of women—that’s something new, and something that will turn out to be characteristic of the Nephites from this point on. And the fact that this question of oppression of women will be connected quite specifically with the relationship between the Nephites and the Lamanites (we’ll have a good deal more to say about that as we go along!) seems to be of real importance as well.

It is hard not to wince at Jacob’s expressed concern about having to use boldness before the women and children, since it seems to suggest that he’s classically patronizing to the women—assuming that women are too delicate to hear bold speech concerning sinfulness. It sounds, in other words, like Jacob’s doing what many do in today’s Mormon culture: speaking of women as naturally pure or naturally chaste and in some sense incapable of sin or corruption—all of which speech is problematic. But I hope I’ll make it clear that that’s not what Jacob’s saying. The next verses make this, I think, quite clear:

And it supposeth me that they [the women and the children present] have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God—yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul. Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those which are already wounded instead of consoling and healing their woulds. And those which have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God, have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2:8-9)

I think we need to read this carefully. The last line of this quotation reveals that, indeed, part of what worries Jacob is that he’s about to reveal to some who are pure and tender and chaste and who aren’t prepared to hear this sort of thing. But he’s not concerned that they can’t hear it because of their natures, I think. He’s worried, rather, that that sort of person, unsuspecting that secret and not-yet-acted-on desires are harbored in the hearts of husbands and fathers, will be shattered by what he will be revealing. That can only lead to mistrust and suspicion, which, though it perhaps ought already to have existed, is nonetheless anything but a happy state of affairs to help bring about. Thus where Jacob seems to be patronizing, I think it’s actually better to read him as concerned about causing rifts in relationships where rifts have not yet been created.

But the rest of this last quotation reveals that Jacob has other reasons still to be concerned about his message, and those other reasons make quite clear that there’s nothing patronizing about his concerns. He seems to know that many of the women—and perhaps even some of the children—recognize what’s beginning to happen, and so they are already suffering. He doesn’t at all assume that all the women (and children) present are somehow too tender to hear about the sort of thing he has to talk about. He recognizes that many of them have already begun to see it. His worry is that these have been looking forward to Jacob’s sermon as a time of spiritual uplift, a time when they can get a brief respite from their worries and frustrations, from their sufferings and heartache. But as it turns out, they’ll come to this meeting only to hear what is hurting them talked about quite explicitly and directly. Of course, some will take heart at that: some will see their concerns justified and their sufferings recognized, but others will feel it too painful to listen to.

All this bothers Jacob quite deeply. But it’s something he can’t get around. He’s already spoken of “the strict commandment … received from God.” He now mentions it again:

But notwithstanding the greatness of the task, I must do according to the strict commands of God and tell you concerning your wickedness and abominations in the presence of the pure in heart and the broken heart and under the glance of the piercing eye of the Almighty God. Wherefore, I must tell you the truth according to the plainness of the word of God. (Jacob 2:10-11)

The pure in heart, and the broken heart. There are the two groups—the one innocent and unsuspecting, the other sadly all too aware of what’s happening and suffering for it. And Jacob has to talk about what’s going on. And lest he not be believed, he provides the actual words delivered to him by God:

For behold, as I inquired of the Lord, thus came the word unto me, saying: Jacob, get thou up into the temple on the morrow, and declare the word which I shall give thee unto this people. (Jacob 2:11)

And now, finally, we’ll get the actual word.

On Wealth and Pride

“And now behold, my brethren,” Jacob begins, “this is the word which I declare unto you” (Jacob 2:12). And what is it?

Many of you have begun to search for gold and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in which this land—which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed—doth abound most plentifully. And the hand of Providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that ye have obtained many riches. And because that some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren, ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because that ye suppose that ye are better than they. (Jacob 2:12-13)

The problem begins with the acquisition of wealth, but it’s neither the pursuit of wealth nor its acquisition that Jacob identifies, here, as the problem. The problem is the resultant class structure, the fact that the pursuit of wealth has immediately led to pride and comparison. What Jacob is witnessing, in this regard, is the dawn of social stratification in what had to this point presumably been an unstratified (because tiny?) clan. It’s a most unfortunate development, and one that we ought to think about carefully. Why think about carefully? Because Jacob had already had things to say about wealth in 2 Nephi 9. What’s changed, and how does it affect Nephite society?

In 2 Nephi 9, importantly, Jacob was more directly condemnatory of wealth than he is here. Here he affirms the role played by the smiling hand of Providence in the Nephite acquisition of wealth; before he seemed to condemn wealth directly and without apology. Does this suggest that Jacob was not actually talking to any wealthy people in 2 Nephi 9, that he was talking to a pre-acquisition-of-wealth Nephite society, such that the direct condemnation could be undertaken without offending anyone in particular? Now he’s stepping more carefully, or even being stricter with himself about what’s really at issue? But what Jacob said in 2 Nephi 9 would seem to apply nicely in Jacob 2 as well. Earlier he stated straightforwardly that riches lead immediately to social stratification and persecution; now he’s stating that the Nephites have obtained wealth, and the result has been social stratification and persecution. What he warned about before has come to pass. Why should he give a nod to the hand of Providence?

Whatever is behind that somewhat more approving gesture, he’s unmistakably condemnatory of the pride that comes along with wealth. So let’s take a look at what he has to say about that:

And now, my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you: Nay! But he condemneth you! And if ye persist in these things, his judgments must speedily come unto you! (Jacob 2:14)

Well, it couldn’t be clearer that the stratification that’s happened is to be condemned. Even if we can allow that the riches themselves are not necessarily bad, what they’ve immediately led to is unquestionably corrupt. The question that has to be asked, then, is whether riches necessarily lead to stratification, or whether there’s a way at all to be rich without producing pride and class. Because it couldn’t be clearer that the pride and class business, the social stratification associated with these riches, is to be condemned. Jacob makes this still clearer, in fact, with the next two verses:

O! That he would show unto you that he can pierce you! And with one glance of his eye he can smite you to the dust! O! That he would rid you from this iniquity and abomination! And O! That ye would listen unto the word of his commandments, and let not this pride of your hearts destroy your souls! (Jacob 2:15-16)

Why this “piercing” bit? Why this “one glance of the eye to smite to the dust” bit? The point, it seems to me, is clear: God’s difference from us is so deep and so radical that every difference we might pretend holds between us and our fellows should be regarded as insignificant. Also this: God’s punishing power is real, and so we ought to be quite wary of what we’re doing. So Jacob wants God to rid his people of this iniquity and abomination.

So what’s to be done? And does Jacob leave the door open to the possibility that wealth can be acquired without slipping into class structures and social stratification? The next verses are the crucial ones:

Think of your brethren like to yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance that they may be rich like unto you. But before that ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after that ye have obtained a hope in Christ, ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them. And ye will seek them for the intent to do good: to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob 2:17-19)

Let’s take this a piece at a time, since it’s a passage that we are wont to use but without looking terribly closely at what is actually said.

“Think of your brethren like to yourselves.” Jacob begins with a commandment, and a commandment about the way we think. We’re to think of our brothers and sisters “like to ourselves,” hence to obliterate—first at the level of thought—any stratification or classification of people. Pride, it seems, has to be uprooted first. Part of the implication is that we will think of others, but the question is how we’ll do so—whether we’ll look on others in a stratifying or classifying way, or whether we’ll look at them without such strata or classes in mind. Now, if this were all Jacob had to say, one might conclude that there isn’t a necessary link between acquiring riches and producing social classes. Since Jacob says we can think of others as like us, but doesn’t condemn wealth itself, it would seem that we can uncouple the actual possession of wealth from maltreatment of others. Fortunately, though, Jacob does not stop here. And what he goes on to say makes quite clear, I think, that wealth and pride can’t actually be disentangled—so that 2 Nephi 9 is no harsher or less careful than Jacob 2. Let’s see why.

“And be familiar with all and free with your substance.” This couldn’t be much clearer. Though everything begins, it seems, with one’s thoughts, right thoughts lead inevitably or immediately here to a ridding oneself of riches. If one thinks of others as like oneself, one can’t but “be familiar with all and free with one’s substance.” What does Jacob mean by “be familiar with”? The first definition that appears in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, importantly, is not what we tend to think of with the word (which appears as the second definition: “Accustomed by frequent converse; well acquainted with; intimate; close”), but rather this: “Pertaining to a family; domestic.” To be familiar with all could mean to be friendly with them, close to them, etc. But it could also, and more productively, mean to regard everyone as family—and so to dispense with the idea of atomic individuality, merely contractual relations, etc. The idea, I take it, is to share and share alike, as one would with one’s own family. At any rate, “be … free with your substance” couldn’t be much clearer. If we get our thoughts in the right place, there’s an immediate consequence in terms of the riches that produced wrong thoughts: we get rid of them and share them around. This suggests that the link from 2 Nephi 9 (that riches always and inevitably lead to persecution) is one Jacob doesn’t want to deny. He doesn’t seem to think that wealth can be uncoupled from pride, because the immediately consequence of ridding oneself of pride is sharing out one’s wealth. Unless….

“That they may be rich like unto you.” Unless, that is, everyone is wealthy. Here’s the rub. This is why Jacob can allow for the hand of Providence in all this. Riches are fine if everyone is rich, but, it seems, under no other circumstance. Jacob is pretty blunt on this point. Unless all others are rich too and classes are thus overcome, my riches are illegitimate. God is fine with wealth, but only if it’s universal. And if we look around ourselves, we’ll see that it’s anything but universal today.

“But before that ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.” And now Jacob lets us know that even the caveats he’s just given—where wealth is alright if everyone’s wealthy—are secondary. We shouldn’t be bothering with wealth at all yet, at least not until we’ve discovered the kingdom of God. We ought to let our pursuit of wealth go while we actually get to work on the kingdom of God first. Wealth is, for the moment, entirely a distraction. Unless, that is, we’ve found the kingdom. Have we?

“And after that ye have obtained a hope in Christ, ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them.” Well, this clarifies things. It seems that finding the kingdom is the same thing as “obtaining a hope in Christ.” And most of us in the Church have done that, right? We’ve got a hope in Christ. And so we can seek riches and we’ll obtain them. That seems clear enough. Except that Jacob goes on as follows.

“And ye will seek them for the intent to do good.” How do I know I’ve got a hope in Christ? Well, one way is that if I seek riches, I will seek them only for the intent to do good, not for the intent to enjoy the good things of life. If I have a hope in Christ, then it seems I seek riches only in order to relieve the poor. If I seek riches for any other reason, it would seem that my hope is not so much in Christ as in myself or in the saving power of wealth. It isn’t Christ who delivers me, but my nest egg; it isn’t Christ who blesses me, but my stock portfolio; it isn’t Christ who instructs me, but the market; it isn’t Christ who gives me my tasks, but the demands of my job; it isn’t Christ who directs me to serve, but my superiority; etc. We have to be infinitely careful about this business. Jacob’s worries are real, and we all too often use his very words in order to justify our pursuit of wealth. We ought, rather, to be nervous as kittens about wealth, because if we’ve got it, we should only have it in order to make those with less as rich as we ourselves are. Jacob doesn’t care about whether that’s good financial advice; he cares about whether we’re right before God. And I suspect that most of us are not right before God most of the time on this count. Whether we’re rich or poor, we most likely trust in wealth and the market, not in God, and our hope is thus in anything but Christ. This is made clear especially in the list of things Jacob goes on to end this passage with.

“To clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” Is Jacob just making reference to tithing and a decent fast offering? I don’t think so. Our task is to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to liberate the captive, to administer relief to the sick and afflicted. And we’re to do so with our riches. Indeed, it’s only to do so that justifies the pursuit of riches. One doesn’t become rich, according to Jacob, by seeking riches. One finds the means to alleviate suffering and that’s it. Clothing the naked and feeding the hungry perhaps seem simple enough, and administering relief to the sick and the afflicted we can generally make sense of. And we do some of it—though we should be doing a great more of all of it. But what of liberating the captive? Do we do much of that? Who is captive? We’re not talking about freeing prisoners, because we no longer have debtor’s prison, and we’re not talking about freeing slaves, since we don’t seem to have those. But what are their contemporary equivalents? Should our wealth be freeing those who aren’t locked up in an actual building but are indeed imprisoned because of debt? Should our wealth be freeing those whose jobs are more slave labor than anything else? I think that’s the implication. And we ought to get to work on this.

Well, that’s enough of soap-boxing for the moment. “One being is as precious in [God’s] sight as the other, and all flesh is of the dust” (Jacob 2:21). We ought actually to believe that and so rid ourselves of our wealth. There is absolutely no reason for any Latter-day Saint to have more than another Latter-day Saint. D&C 49:20 states it clearly: “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” Sin is that there are distinct classes. Let’s get rid of them, at least among the Saints.

But there’s more to talk about. Class isn’t the only difficult Jacob was watching unfold, because gender had also become an issue—what he calls “a grosser crime” (Jacob 2:22). So I turn to that now.

On the Oppression of Women

A grosser crime, but one serious enough that Jacob can say that “were it not that I must speak unto you concerning a grosser crime, my heart would rejoice exceedingly because of you” (Jacob 2:22)! What we’ve just covered is serious. What we’re about to cover is much, much more serious.

And here’s the story:

For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people beginneth to wax in iniquity. They understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms because of the things which are written concerning David and Solomon his son. Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. (Jacob 2:23-24)

What are the Nephite men seeking? Many wives concubines, it seems. And worse, they seek to justify their own abomination by appealing to scripture. (I can’t help but note the irony that we draw on Jacob 2:17-19 constantly to justify our wealth….) And this makes clear that they “understand not the scriptures.” They don’t understand the actual texts? Likely. But also: they don’t understand the very nature of scripture, thinking that it can be mined for prooftexts that justify current practices or desires. Scripture is something quite different from that, as Nephi has been teaching from the beginning.

But the real crux of this situation is the oppression of women that’s dawning in Nephite society. Jacob gets very explicit at this point:

Wherefore, thus saith the Lord: I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem by the power of mine arm that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph. Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old. Wherefore, my brethren, hear me and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife, and concubines he shall have none. For I, the Lord God, delighteth in the chastity of women, and whoredoms is abomination before me. Thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. (For, if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people. Otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things.) For behold, I the Lord have seen the sorrow and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem—yea, and in all the lands of my people—because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands. And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts. For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction. For they shall not commit whoredoms like unto they of old, saith the Lord of Hosts. (Jacob 2:25-33)

I quote all of that at once, because it seems that it’s all one long statement from the Lord (interrupted briefly by Jacob at one point). We learn in verse 34, moreover, that this particular statement from the Lord is not something Jacob is now introducing to the people, but something Lehi had already pointed out long before.

Now, there’s a lot going on in this long quotation. Let’s identify a few major points: (1) The word of the Lord that appears prior to Jacob’s brief interruption does not mention oppression of women at all, and there may be reason to believe that it is actually a distinct statement, one that Jacob is here introducing and then weaving into the statement of the Lord taught by Lehi. (2) That first statement, it should be noted, is entirely focused on the break between the old and the new, making clear that the new (the Nephites) has been created precisely in order to mark a break with the abominable old (Jerusalem and its ways). That itself, given what was said in the previous verses about scripture, would seem to be a clear indication of how the Nephites are to relate to the brass plates. (3) After Jacob’s interruption, we presumably get the actual words of the Lord as Lehi reported them earlier, and this is focused very closely on the question of gender relations. (4) The direct commandment from the Lord was that Nephite men are to have one wife and no concubines, and that anything else amounts to whoredom and (forced) unchastity on, it seems, the women’s part. There’s something crucial in this gesture: whoredom, female unchastity—these are men’s sins, though the unchastity and whoredom would seem to be enacted by the women. (5) Obedience to this commandment is, importantly, tied to the land, and so to the Lehitic covenant that orients everything the Nephites do (beginning from the end of 1 Nephi 2!). (6) As every Latter-day Saint feels compelled to point out, there is a brief parenthetical aside that makes clear that what’s being laid out here is not an absolute: it isn’t that plural marriage is in itself bad, but it is something human beings can never get started on their own (or even by God’s will) without it going wrong. (7) Oppression of women is something the Lord has seen happen not only in Jerusalem, but in all lands. And that oppression, it seems, tends to be associated with manipulation, tends to be a question of men playing on certain tendernesses characteristic of women (whether those tendernesses are “natural” or “socialized” doesn’t matter immediately here). And all these abuses result in prayers and cries to the Lord against men. (8) If this happens among the Nephites, it will result in destruction.

As I say, that’s a lot. And I’ve skimmed through this rather quickly. The upshot would seem to be that the Lord had actually brought the Nephites out of Jerusalem at least in part to produce a new sort of gender relation, one that breaks with the patriarchy of the Old World—but that the Nephites have already failed in that regard (and will only fail all the more clearly and spectacularly as history moves on), and this will be one of the reasons the Nephites will be destroyed. Carol Lynn Pearson asked, I think, exactly the right question a few years ago when she wrote her piece entitled “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” Feminism is a tricky matter, of course, like every political project, but Jacob is making pretty clear here that oppression of women was one of the things that got the Nephites destroyed.

This becomes clearer still when Jacob turns to talk about the Lamanites. He indicates that he’s headed in this direction with a word from verse 35: “Behold, ye have done greater iniquity than the Lamanites, our brethren.” The Nephites will be destroyed precisely because of the role they’ve forced women to play in their society (which they won’t change, but will make worse), while the Lamanites will be delivered because of the role women play in their society. Let’s take a look at the details by turning to chapter 3.

On the Lamanites

I start with verse 5:

Behold, the Lamanites, your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you. For they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father, that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them. (Jacob 3:5)

This couldn’t be much blunter. Lehi gave a commandment. The Nephites have flouted it. The Lamanites have kept it. And despite this obvious distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful, the unfaithful, thinking themselves faithful, have hated the faithful, thinking them unfaithful. And, quite bluntly, they’ve used as their ridiculous excuse the Lamanites’ skin color.

At this point, it becomes clear that the Nephites have produced in this second generation three closely related problems, all deeply troubling: class oppression, gender unbalance, and racism. It’s as if they’ve completely ignored Nephi’s couldn’t-be-clearer statement in 2 Nephi 26:33: God “denieth none that come unto him, black and white [race], bond and free [social class], male and female [gender].” Throwing Nephi’s conviction of God’s universalism entirely out the window, the Nephites have within just a few short years produced a society that is economically, sexually, and racially oppressive and corrupt. All this spells disaster.

Hence Jacob’s warning, a few verses earlier:

Except ye shall repent, the land is cursed for your sakes, and the Lamanites—which are not filthy like unto you (nevertheless they are cursed with a sore cursing)—shall scourge you even unto destruction! (Jacob 3:3)

But coming back from the Nephites’ wickedness to the Lamanites’ righteousness, Jacob goes on:

And now this [Lehitic] commandment they [the Lamanites] observe to keep. Wherefore, because of this observance in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them—and one day they shall become a blessed people. (Jacob 3:6)

Again with the frankness. Jacob’s quite clear here. The destruction of the Nephites will be bound up with their grossest crime: oppression of women. And it’s precisely because the Lamanites do not oppress women as the Nephites do, they will not be destroyed, and will one day be restored, etc. The difference between the Nephites and the Lamanites at the end of the Book of Mormon—the one group being entirely destroyed, the other surviving to receive a full-blown restoration in the last days—is a question in large part of the relationship between men and women. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised—though we should be appalled!—at the difference between the Nephite and Lamanite men in relation to women at the very end of the Book of Mormon. In Moroni 9, you’ll remember, we learn that the Lamanite men are acting quite depravedly—feeding women prisoners on the flesh of their husbands (see Moroni 9:7-8). But we learn there also that what the Lamanites are doing is nothing to the Nephite men, who rape, then torture, then kill, and then eat the Lamanite women they take prisoner (see Moroni 9:9-10). Cruelty in war from the Lamanites, yes. But utter reprehensibility from the Nephites, and all done “for a token of bravery” (Moroni 9:10)—so much masculine display, so much machismo.

And this pattern, incidentally, holds through the whole Book of Mormon. It’s the Nephites who cast women into the fire in Ammonihah. It’s the Nephites who never so much as mention women by name. It’s the Nephites who steal Lamanite daughters to make them their wives without their volition. It’s the Nephites who produce a military figure who beats up his female servants. And on the other hand, it’s the Lamanites who have their mass conversion set in motion by the intervention of a single female slave. It’s the Lamanites whose queen is given a dominant role in a major narrative. It’s the Lamanites whose mothers are presented as role models in teaching their children. What Jacob identifies at this early point in the Book of Mormon holds throughout its history. Jacob’s message is loud and clear, but few Nephites seem to have heard it.

At any rate, what seems to have held among the Lamanites is a kind of gender equality:

Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands, and their husbands and their wives love their children. … Wherefore, how much better are you than they in the sight of your great Creator? (Jacob 3:7)

It isn’t exactly clear what this equality amounted to, but it’s a great deal more equal than anything we tend to find in the ancient world. The Lamanites, should we know more about them, might have a fair bit to teach us about gender balance. At any rate, Jacob was convinced that the Nephites had something to learn from the Lamanites on this score:

O my brethren! I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins, that their skins will be whiter than yours when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God! (Jacob 3:8)

We might well have reason to flinch at the implicit racism of Jacob’s words there, but I think he can be given a more charitable reading than that. He adopts something of his hearers’ racism, but only in order to reverse it: If what you want is white skin, then realize that they’re the ones with white skin, and not you! At any rate, this becomes clear when Jacob goes on immediately to say:

Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you—which is the word of God!—that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skin. Neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness. But ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers. Wherefore, ye shall remember your children, how that ye have grieved their hearts because of the example that ye have sat before them. And also remember that ye may, because of your filthiness, bring your children unto destruction, and their sins be heaped upon your heads at the last day. (Jacob 3:9-10)

Jacob explicitly issues a commandment against racism. And he demands that they recognize anything apparently unseemly in their enemies’ culture as a product of a previous generation. And what is to be learned from that? That instead of criticizing their brothers and sisters, they should be looking to their daughters and their sons—making sure that they don’t produce exactly what they’re criticizing (only worse!). All this has to come to an end. And so Jacob warns his people again their wickedness and calls them explicitly to repentance.

We’ll see that they don’t listen at all.

9 Responses to “Book of Mormon Lesson #12: “Seek Ye for the Kingdom of God,” Jacob 1-4 (Gospel Doctrine)”

  1. […] Karen « Book of Mormon Lesson #12: “Seek Ye for the Kingdom of God,” Jacob 1-4 (Gospel Doct… […]

  2. cherylem said

    Joe,
    Thank you for your reading of Jacob 3 & 4 and your comments regarding gender – these are mind-opening.

    3 comments/questions:
    1) Women’s thoughts are referred to as “exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God” (2:7) whose hearts are wounded (v. 8), yet their “delicate minds” are about to be wounded further (v. 9). How would you talk about this word, “delicate.” It seems a word connoting weakness to me, and I wrestle with it. Delicate flowers fail at the first storm. Delicate things, when shipped, have to be given special care. So in this context, I don’t understand the word. as women have never been delicate, but above all, strong in adversity, health, child bearing, thought and deed. And even in these verses, women are wounded, but . . . delicate? I don’t get it.
    2) In this vein, in 2:10 Jacob says he is going to have to talk about things in the presence of “the pure in heart, the broken heart” speaking, I assume, of the women.in 3:1 when Jacob addresses “the pure in heart,” he is addressing the women, yes?
    3) In this section the comparisons to OT kings are instructive. the 2nd Nephi king is compared to David and Solomon, who are BAD kings. Thus the 1st Nephi king (Nephi himself) by association must be compared to Saul, a GOOD king. This is quite a different understanding/reading than we traditionally give to those kings.

    ??

    Cheryl

  3. joespencer said

    Hey Cheryl,

    Thanks, and thanks again for your questions. A couple thoughts:

    (1) First, I think it’s important that Jacob says “many of” the women have “feelings” that are “delicate.” There are several qualifiers here that may be important. He doesn’t claim that there’s anything necessarily delicate about women as such, but asserts that “many of” those women can be spoken of in such terms. Whether “many” points to a majority or just to a relatively sizable minority isn’t clear. It’s also important, I suspect, that it is “feelings” that are said to be delicate, rather than people as such. It isn’t that they are delicate, but their feelings. I’m not sure how important that difference is, but it isn’t irrelevant.

    Second, I suspect it would be worth reflecting further on the word “delicate.” I’m wondering if we shouldn’t have an eye on the fifth definition from Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which seems the most applicable of those on offer there: “Nice in forms; regulated by minute observance of propriety, or by condescension and attention to the wishes and feelings of others; as delicate behavior or manners; a delicate address.” Perhaps delicate in this instance doesn’t so much mean fragile, intricate, or soft—easily damageable—as “proper,” “outwardly oriented,” “socially graceful.” That seems to fit particularly because it’s boldness of speech that Jacob’s worried about—as if he were to be committing some kind of impropriety.

    Perhaps?

    (2) I assume the reference in 3:1 points not to the women as such, but to those among the women who are pure in heart. It seems clear that, at least for the purposes of his discussion, he’s bracketing the men from that category. But, as I suggest in the original post, Benjamin seems to distinguish between those two groups among the women being addressed. I suspect that carries over to 3:1.

    (3) I like this, though I’m a little nervous about drawing such a sharp parallel. Interestingly, we’ll see this from-a-first-good-king-to-a-second-corrupt-king pattern repeat itself in subsequent Nephite history (from Zeniff to Noah—I’ll have lots to say about this in the relevant lesson notes). That makes me want to say that the Nephites have their own pattern of things developing.

    That said, the comparison with David and Solomon is there, and that makes what you’re saying more compelling. But might the comparison be more with the Israelite kings generally? I’m thinking here of the words of the Lord to Lehi quoted in Jacob’s sermon, words that suggest that this sort of thing characterized the Old World Israelites more or less continually—and not just under the rule of a couple of particularly self-arrogating kings.

    Perhaps?

    At any rate, thanks for your thoughts here!

  4. cherylem said

    Joe,
    I was hoping you would refer to that old dictionary. Would you remind me if it is online?

    Regarding Saul, David, Solomon, it is my understanding that for a LONG TIME there was controversy within the Jewish ranks/historians etc about who was the good and bad king (Saul or David). Since David’s history in its current configuration was not really written until after the exile, it is very possible that Lehi was, for lack of a better term, a “Saulist.” After all, it was David and later Solomon who introduced riches as well as concubines and many wives into the narrative, which part of the narrative still remains even as we try to wrap our brains around the fact that David was a great hero. Saul was explicitly scapegoated in the narrative, too, so the record which we have is not kind to him. In any event, my point is that depending on the records that Lehi took, his loyalty could have been directed toward the Saul line.

    Cheryl

  5. cherylem said

    Wikipedia, FWIW, has a nice summary of the feeling toward Saul: “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul

  6. cherylem said

    Last, regarding your reply to my “delicate” question, it is so very apparent that Jacob is apologizing and apologizing for having to speak like he is, in the presence of the wounded ones, and, I think, in general. I hear a strong cultural discomfort in these verses – against public scoldings, against speaking so frankly, and as you said, having to say all these indelicate things in front of the delicate ones.

  7. CarlH said

    Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary is available online at 1828-dictionary.com

  8. joespencer said

    Cheryl,

    Webster’s can also be found here.

    It’s a possibility that the Lehites held some kind of a “Saulist” position. I wish we had even the slightest bit better sense for the histories they had in their brass plates. It’s clear that Lehi had certain anti-Davidic sentiments, but it isn’t clear what else can be said about their perspective on the history. In many ways, the question would hinge on Lehi’s or the brass plates’ relationship to the Deuteronomists, and that’s something that’s only just begun to be investigated….

  9. Robert C. said

    Cheryl #4, I esp. like your thought about David and Solomon introducing riches as well as concubines. This is something I’m currently quite intrigued by—the whole rise of riches, secularism, and the wisdom tradition in ancient Israel, and how I think the apocalyptic genre of writing came out of it, and how I think there are similarities to the rich apocalyptic language and images in Restoration rhetoric and scripture….

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