1 And now, king Benjamin thought it was expedient, after having finished speaking to the people, that he should take the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments.
2 And it came to pass that there was not one soul, except it were little children, but who had entered into the covenant and had taken upon them the name of Christ.
Textual: The simple description of this event is that a census is taken and all pledge their covenant except the children, who not only may not be accountable for their covenant, but also are already covered under Christ's atonement according to Benjamin in Mosiah 3:16. There may be more to this than the simple explanation, however.
Two aspects of this event are unusual. The first is that this is a complete census of the people, but the taking of this census appears to be in contradiction to the explicit statement in Mosiah 2:2 that a census was not taken because there were so many people. Of course this difference is easily explained as a difference in time and purpose. The declaration that a census was not taken comes at the beginning of the gathering, and possibly refers to a typical facet of the recurring ceremony. Once again, if this is a feast of the Tabernacles, or any version of the Israelite autumnal festivals the first census not taken would have been a part of the expected order of events, and expectation that was unfulfilled, and therefore notable.
This counting comes later in the ceremony, and has as its purpose a declaration of covenant rather than a census. This declaration would have two functions. The first is that the very act of physically responding to the question reinforces the personal covenant that was communally acclaimed. The other aspect, however, that was equally important and should not be missed, is that this "census" actually took the names of those entering into the covenant. As discussed earlier, the power of the name was tremendous, and the name of Christ was given to the people. In this action, the reciprocal is made explicit, and the name of the individual covenanter is given to Christ (through the intermediary of the king).
The second problematic aspect of this census is the timing. Taking such an exhaustive physical census would be time consuming, even with all of the people assembled together in one place. Just as the delivery of the text of Benjamin's words would require the distribution through literate servants, so too would the recording of the name require literacy. While the Zarahemlaites might have been universally literate, that would run counter to most ancient literate societies in both the Old and New World, but particularly the New World. Assuming even a slightly higher literacy rate than might be expected, this taking of the names would still require physically distributing scribes with recording instruments (including sufficient ink and paper).
The next event that follows in the text is the coronation of the new king, an event which likely occurs with substantial ceremony. This assembly of people is very clearly a multiple day event, but it is most probable that while the taking of the names occurred during the festival, while all were assembled, it probably did not begin and finish prior to the coronation, as that wold have delayed the coronation significantly. The ordering here is literarily motivated not historically explicit. The taking of the names symbolically follows the bestowal of the name and belongs with that event, however the actual event took place.
It is impossible to discern if this juxtaposition of the historical with the spiritual event occurs in Mormon's source or in Mormon' abbreviation. To speculate, however, it is more probable that Mormon is recording the events in the general order in which he finds them in his source. The spiritual significance of the taking of the names would have been very significant to the original historian, and Mormon' s treatment-in-passing suggests that Mormon did not see the reciprocal exchange of names as being as significant as the original participants would have. Additionally, to this point we see little evidence of Mormon consciously reworking his material. His abridging efforts appear to consist of creating the narrative ties between cited speeches. If that is his operational mindset, the symbolic reworking of the linking narrative would be out of place and therefore suggests that this was the order given by the original scribe.
3 And again, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of all these things, and had consecrated his son Mosiah to be a ruler and a king over his people, and had given him all the charges concerning the kingdom, and also had appointed priests to teach the people, that thereby they might hear and know the commandments of God, and to stir them up in remembrance of the oath which they had made, he dismissed the multitude, and they returned, every one, according to their families, to their own houses.
Textual: This is Mormon's summation of the end of the festival. We understand that Mormon's purpose in including these sermons is spiritual, not historical. In a significant renewal event including both the naming of the people and the anointing of a new king, Mormon is exclusively interested in the spiritual transformation of the people into a new covenant society united under the name of Christ. Thus we have this single sentence to cover what were surely other significant events taking more than a single day to complete (particularly the census as noted above).
Anthropological: Note that as the multitude is dismissed and the festival ends that all return home according to their families. Once again we have the subtle emphasis on the organizing power of the kin group. In this case, we have the kin group associated with their "homes". Reading between the lines of this simple statement we have confirmation that Benjamin's people followed the typical Mesoamerican pattern of kin-based housing clusters. When each individual returns to his own house according to his family, the implication is that housing and families are geographically linked.
In Mesoamerica, this pattern continues to the present in more traditional communities, and can be seen archaeologically in the types of shelter/temple groupings in many sites.
4 And Mosiah began to reign in his father's stead. And he began to reign in the thirtieth year of his age, making in the whole, about four hundred and seventy-six years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem.
Historical: We have two important pieces of historical information here, first that Mosiah begins his reign at the age of thirty, and that his reign begins 476 years after the departure from Jerusalem. In the dating system being used in this commentary, the anointing of Mosiah would have taken place in approximately 111 B.C.
5 And king Benjamin lived three years and he died.
This short sentence is all we have for the end of one of the greatest figures of the Book of Mormon, a man who took a two separate nations in the midst of external and internal turmoil, and fashioned a new people for God of them. At least in his last years he was able to enjoy the peace that he had worked so hard to achieve (see verse 7 where there is continual peace for three years - the length of time that Benjamin lived).
6 And it came to pass that king Mosiah did walk in the ways of the Lord, and did observe his judgments and his statutes, and did keep his commandments in all things whatsoever he commanded him.
Textual: We may be reasonably certain that these are not only the words of Mormon, but Mormon's synopsis of Mosiah. Recall that for Mormon the impact of history is to highlight the spiritual. Therefore, regardless of the historical, what Mormon needs to declare is Mosiah's righteousness. If we play guessing games with Mormon's source for Mosiah, a record created in the historical context would not have such a simple summary of the actions of the king. While declarations of kingly piety are well known, they come in the context of actions, not a simple summation. In this verse, then, we see Mormon the editor at work, creating from his source the essential information that Mormon wants to communicate.
7 And king Mosiah did cause his people that they should till the earth. And he also, himself, did till the earth, that thereby he might not become burdensome to his people, that he might do according to that which his father had done in all things. And there was no contention among all his people for the space of three years.
Social/Textual: Mormon lists the simple statement that Mosiah and his people tilled the earth, and that thereby Mosiah did not become a burden to his people. Once again we find Mormon creating a synopsis of the material in his sources. We can learn much of Mormon and his editorial process from this verse.
First, we actually have the verse. That Mormon writes this information indicates that it was present in his source. The real question is why we have this information. Where Mormon simply notes in a passing summary that a new king was anointed, he is clearly abbreviating significant information. While we may debate whether or not Mormon fully understood the reason for including this information, we can use what he know of Benjamin's discourse to understand why it was included in the original record and make some guess as to its original importance. I would suggest that the reason that Mormon makes sure that he tells us this is that while he is abridging the material on the plates, he found a rather important section relating to this topic. Just as the anointing of a king must have been more important to the original writers than to Mormon, so this too was more important to the original writers than to Mormon. Just as he notes but diminishes the space allocated to the anointing, so too here he notes but diminishes the space allocated to this event.
To reconstruct what Mormon was seeing is certainly presumptuous, but may be approached cautiously. The salient pieces of information come from what we have of Benjamin's address:
Against this background we have a reconstructed mindset for Benjamin's people, a social context that was much more important to them that to Mormon (whose primary interest is the spiritual covenant). In the historical context, however, the economic/social disparity would have been a continuing concern. Since the covenant had a social dimension, we can reasonably expect that the historical recorders would be interested in the social result of this covenant.
We have only two pieces of what that result would have been. The first is that the people till the soil. and the second is the Mosiah does also. These two elements must mean more than they appear to, especially to those who wrote the historical record. Imagine this scenario, we have Mormon reading a text, and then extracting these two pieces of information as a conclusion. So far so good. Now however, imagine the original writers. Why would the original writer spend effort noting that the people tilled the soil?
For the historical writer, saying that people tilled the soil is the equivalent of a modern writer summarizing General Conference and noting that afterward it ended the people shopped at grocery stores. This is obvious information. It is usually unremarkable information. In the Book of Mormon we rarely read of the tilling of the soil or of the harvests, or of the weather conditions that affected the harvests. We hear that the early Nephites are tillers of the soil, but only to distinguish them as civilized as opposed to the "savage" Lamanites (see Enos 1:20:21). Why would these statements be on the original source in the first place and particularly to have been sufficiently emphasized that they impressed Mormon enough to include them?
The original writers were probably giving the result of the social covenant. It is unlikely that every single person exclusively tilled the soil and gave up the trading that would have created the economic divisions in the first place. Nevertheless, the tilling of the soil is symbolic of the leveling of the society. Thus the original intent was probably to show that in addition to Mormon’s "peace" that might have been construed as an external peace, there was a social reorganization that followed Benjamin' new covenant. Both the people and their leader till the ground" as an indication that they have no stratification between them. If there is not social distance between the king and the tillers of the ground, then there is no distinction throughout the society. The peace in the land is not from the Lamanites, but is as the result of the acceptance and implementation of both the spiritual and social covenant.
Textual: This closes a chapter in both our current edition and in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. The break between this chapter and the next follows a different organizational principle than the chapter breaks Mormon created in the story of Benjamin's address. In this case, he is clearly separating stories, with this chapter the conclusion of Benjamin's new covenant and the next chapter beginning the story of the excursion to find those of their number who years earlier had departed to return to the Land of Nephi.
Because this break occurs between two major stories, we may presume that this is a textual break that relates to Mormon's selection of material and does not reflect precisely the source material Mormon is using. That source material appears to have a more chronological ordering marked by the passage of years. This passing of years allows Mormon to summarize them (3 years pass, for instance). The recording of historical texts within year markers is also a known feature of at least later Mesoamerican documents.
Many of the extant codices use year markers to separate scenes and actions. Perhaps the most interesting text in European script is the Annals of Cuauhtitlan a document originally in nahuatl. That document structures the entire narrative around the passage of time. Typically, a year is given, and then events relevant to that year are discussed. In several cases, multiple years are noted with no attached information (Anales de Cuauhtitlan. Tr. Primo Feliciano Velazquez. Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas, UNAM 1975, p. 5). It would appear that the author of the Annals of Cuauhtitlan is copying the gross structure from a pre-Columbian document, and that the structuring by years was a native conception.
This structuring by years is not quite as clear in the Book of Mormon as it is in the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, but the similarities are suggestive nevertheless. This will be particularly true as we get into the reign of the judges where this marking of text by years will become more prominent in the Book of Mormon itself. In any case, there does appear to be some organizational structure in Mormon’s source material that does not always make it through his abridgement.
|by Brant Gardner. Copyright 1999|