1 And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.
Historical: Benjamin has concluded a specific section of his discourse, and now stops to see the effect upon the assembled population. From his vantage point Benjamin could visually survey a large number of people, and the visual indication of falling to the earth would be clearly visible, and readily interpreted.
It is an unanswerable question from history as to how much of the prostration and the "one voice" proclamation of the next verse were spontaneous or orchestrated. Certainly the effect of the spirit could be similarly and spontaneously felt. However, it is also possible that some of this process was scripted as public pageant, a process known from the Old World:
"On the theme of eternity, the closing sound of every royal acclamatio, King Benjamin ended his address, which so overpowered the people that they "had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them" (Mosiah 4:1). This was the kind of proskynesis at which Benjamin aimed! The proskynesis was the falling to the earth (literally, "kissing the ground") in the presence of the king by which all the human race on the day of the coronation demonstrated its submission to divine authority; it was an unfailing part of the Old World New Year's rites as of any royal audience (Nibley, Hugh. An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Deseret News Press, 1957, p. 264).
While the connection between this particular event in the New World and an Old World ritual over 500 years distant is legitimately questionable, nevertheless, the anthropological logic of the situation suggests that the lowering of the head and body to the ground might have been a common mode of showing respect. Thus this action of humility would be a cultural mode of displaying humility before a king in multiple cultures and contexts, whether it was a remembrance of the Old World or not.
If the event was purely spontaneous, the falling to the ground would have originated with a few, and the rest of the population would have recognized the appropriateness of the gesture, and would have followed the example of those who began the posture. If the event was orchestrated, then the populace would have understood that at a particular point in the ceremony this action was required.
The particulars of Benjamin’s speech would indicate that the action was probably spontaneous as a response to the text. Although Nibley suggests that the theme of eternity was a marker of the end of a coronation declaration, the coronation event is buried in the text and intent of Benjamin’s address. Benjamin has not yet climaxed his purpose, for the giving of the new name is yet to come. Therefore, it would appear that in the context of Benjamin’s discourse, this action flowed from the recognition of the application of Benjamin’s words to the assemblage. The very pointed way in which Benjamin has addressed their recent difficulties as well as the potential for continued contention suggests that this was indeed a very personal speech, and would be understood on a very personal level.
Textual: This verse begins a new chapter in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, and we may presume that it also began a new section on the plates themselves. We have, then a break in the story of Benjamin that Mormon sees as the conclusion of one type of entry, and the beginning of something else. As is frequent with Mormon, the conclusion of the previous section coincides with the termination of cited material.
Even though the text of Benjamin’s discourse to this point has been concluded, the event itself was not concluded. We continue with the event, and will continue with more direct citation of Benjamin, but first Mormon provides the linking material. Verses 1-3 and the very beginning of verse 4 are Mormon’s synopsis of the events. While he is certainly following the plate text, the best hypothesis is that these are his own distillation of those events rather than a citation of the way they appeared on the plates. The best reason for this conclusion is that the text is clearly past tense and descriptive. The text from the actual event may have contained more "current" language, and perhaps more detail.
2 And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.
Historical: As with the proskynesis event, the "one voice" declaration may also have been an orchestrated part of the pageant:
"In the ancient world, ‘the hazzan, the praecentor, or the stasiarch, would be handed a piece of paper,…. Then the emperor… or someone else would tell him what he wanted the people to chant.’ Referring to the account of Nathan the Babylonian, ‘the whole thing is directed by the man on the tower. The old man, the praecentor, comes down, they ask questions, the king interprets the law to them, and they all answer together… It isn’t as if they all spontaneously recited this whole thing in one voice. It says it was in one voice, but that’s the way it was done" (Nibley, Hugh, cited in "Complete Text of Benjamin’s Speech with Notes and Comments." In: King Benjamin’s Speech. FARMS 1998, p. 571).
One point that must be remembered, however, is that we are looking at Mormon’s synopsis of the event, not the original text. Note the very first line of verse 2: "And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth." This sentence is given as a cause for the proskynesis, but it requires being inside the mind of the entire population. The address certainly had an effect upon the people. It is quite likely that these were the precise feelings of every one of the prostrate population. However, it is much more likely that this is an interpretation of the event. The language is taken from Benjamin’s address, and presages the beginning of Benjamin’s next discourse. This continues to suggest Mormon as an editor creating linking material that is pulled both from the previous and subsequent address.
Similarly, the text of the unified declaration may also be an interpretation of the declaration – or at the very least, a copy of Mormon’s sources description of the events. In a spontaneous event, the intent of the declaration would have been present without the specific text. If this was truly a spontaneous event, then the specific words declared would have been added to the situation after the fact, a process quite common in ancient texts.
If the text are give was the precise declaration of the people, then this event was clearly scripted, as a text of that length and complexity would not spontaneously occur to all of the assembled population. Regardless of the spontaneous or scripted nature, however, the spiritual intent of the population was the same. They were truly humbled, sufficient that the Spirit would visit them (next verse).
3 And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them.
Theological: The people have asked that the atonement of Christ be applied to them, and the Spirit obliges. They receive a remission of their sins, and they are filled with joy. Remember that Benjamin was delivering tidings of joy and that joy in the Book of Mormon is specifically related to the experience of with the power of the Spirit (see the comments on 2 Nephi 2:25).
Historical: Based upon modern LDS interpretations of theology, the remission of sins through the atonement of Christ requires the ordinance of baptism. One of the ways in which we may read this incident is to assume that baptism was a common ordinance, and that all of the population were baptized prior to this occasion. While this may have been the case, the text of the Book of Mormon does not clearly declare it, and the contexts of baptism at this point in history suggest that baptism may not have been as common an event in the Nephite/Zarahemlaite life.
As noted in the comments on 2 Nephi 31 where baptism is introduced to Nephi’s people, it is initiated in a cleansing role, not in the full role of cleansing and covenantal acceptance of Christ. The specific function of baptism as a covenantal declaration of belief in Christ will not appear clearly in the Book of Mormon until Alma the Elder begins baptizing in the Land of Nephi.
Would all of the assembled people have been baptized? Certainly it is possible, but in order for this to have happened, Mosiah 1 (Benjamin’s father) would have had to have instituted it and required it of the entire people. The Zarahemlaites had lost their God and would have lost most of the Mosaic law, but baptism prior to Christ’s earthly mission is known in the Old World only as a cleansing ritual, and the association of that cleansing with the mission of the Messiah is known to be explicit only in Nephite history. Thus the Zarahemlaites would have had no tradition of baptism, and it would have to have been taught to them. While Mosiah as king might have required it, the very nature of the baptism as a willful acceptance of the atonement of Christ requires repentance and a willing change of heart. That requirement is inconsistent with a mandated ritual.
The political and religious difficulties that continued into Benjamin’s reign were the result of the class of cultures occasioned by the merging of the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites. The severity of those contentions in Benjamin’s reign are quite suggestive that there was no universal agreement among his people concerning the need for baptism as a signal of their acceptance of Jesus Christ. Although Christ was certainly taught to them, the Christological focus of Benjamin’s speech and the particulars of their covenant suggest that this is new to the people, at least on a city/nation-wide scale.
When we review Nephi’s introduction of baptism into Nephite ritual, we remember that it was a new covenant then, and one that had an ambiguous fit into known ritual (see the commentary on 2 Nephi 32:1). When Benjamin declares the atonement of the savior, he mentions nothing about the necessity of baptism to access it. Benjamin’s emphasis is on the atonement itself, and Christ as the provider of that atonement. The implication of his argument is that the population is still considering the rites of the law of Moses as the means through which atonement for sin would occur. When this information is combined with the story of Alma the Elder where baptism appears to receive a renewed emphasis at his hands, it is very possible that at this point in Nephite history, baptism is not a widely practiced ordinance.
When the Spirit descends upon the assembled population of the land of Zarahemla, the sins of the people were cleansed. There were probably many among them who were not baptized, yet the atonement was applied due to their faith. We should not be overly concerned that the forgiveness of sin might occur without baptism, as this event is taking place over 100 years before the earthly mission of Christ when baptism and forgiveness of sin will be inextricably linked. For peoples prior to Christ’s earthly mission, that future event could yet provide remission of sin, it is just that the mode of declaring spiritual acceptance of that atonement was different. For Benjamin’s people, it was this universal declaration of faith in the message of Benjamin. As a people supposing the remission of sin through the application of sacrificial blood, they ask that the Lord: "… apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins" (Mosiah 4:2).
4 And king Benjamin again opened his mouth and began to speak unto them, saying: My friends and my brethren, my kindred and my people, I would again call your attention, that ye may hear and understand the remainder of my words which I shall speak unto you.
Textual: Mormon returns to citing his direct source.
Sociological: Note the list of addresses: 1) friends, 2) brethren, 3) kindred, 4)people. It is easy to understand friends, kindred, and people. Benjamin would certainly have those that might be considered friends, and that category could include both those inside or outside of the definition of kindred. The term "kindred" clearly has a genealogical relationship. In Nephite society, kindred would be a tribal designation. The term "people" certainly refers to the entire assembly, not just the Nephite portion.
This leaves us with the term brethren as an oddity. The term is a kin term, indicating male siblings in the strictest sense. However, Benjamin cannot mean the term in this sense, because he specifically mentions kindred as another category. Why does Benjamin list two different kin-based terms? The answer must lie in the pseudo-kin usage of "brethren." In the modern church, the kin terms "brother" and "sister" do not refer to actual kinship, but to the fictive kinship of association. We are brothers and sisters in the gospel – not in blood.
This usage in Benjamin’s address is probably this fictive kin usage. Fictive kin, or use of kin terms for social purposes is attested in the later Nahuatl language – Gardner, Brant "A Structural and Semantic Analysis of Classical Nahuatl Kinship Terminology." Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl. 1982, 15:89-124). If these "brethren" are fictive kin, that gives reason for listing them as distinct from "kindred." They were probably fictive, but who were they? Just as with the modern religious usage, it is probable that these are those who are already part of the community of believers – prior to this communal conversion. Benjamin’s "people" would consist of believing Nephites, and willing Zarahemlaites – some of whom must not yet have fully adopted the religion of the Nephites, even though they had elected to remain with Benjamin.
Rhetorical: Once again Benjamin uses the phrase "call your attention." As with the previous instance, Mosiah 3:1, the purpose is to focus the attention of the people on his upcoming discourse. In this particular case, the physical events of falling to the earth and the influence of the Spirit would certainly have been dramatic, and have caught the attention of the crowd away from Benjamin and toward their own experiences.
We may suspect that Benjamin is now reconvening the assemblage once the effects of the Spirit had been allowed to be savored.
5 For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state—
Textual: It is probable that this verse influence Mormon’s choice of words in his synoptic remarks (verse 2 above).
Theological: Benjamin is referring to their humility before God. The ability to recognize the need for our humility before God is a precursor to both repentance and forgiveness. Clearly the people had undergone both, and Benjamin was sufficiently spiritually perceptive to know it.
Rhetorical: Verse 5-8 form a logical set in that they progress naturally from one theme to another. However, verse 10 appears to return to the conceptual beginning of verse 5. Benjamin is a sufficiently talented speaker that this second iteration does not come across as a total repetition, nevertheless, the sequence reads as an aside that returns to an original topic. This is more of a characteristic of oral discourse than considered and deliberated written form. Where the first speech appeared to be very tightly crafted, and probably written (at least composed mentally) prior to delivery, this speech appears to be more spontaneous.
The situation of the speech also suggests that this was not a composed speech, because the content depends upon the experience of the crowd with the spirit, something for which Benjamin would have hoped, but could not have accurately predicted beforehand. Once again, if Nibley’s suggestion is correct that this entire pageant was scripted, then Benjamin would be continuing to follow the script. The power of the impact of the spirit on the people could not have been scripted, however, and the incident continues to have the feel of a spontaneous interaction rather than a formulaic repetition of a script.
The more unplanned nature of this second discourse suggests that the written texts of the discourse that Mormon describes beforehand (Mosiah 2:8) were actually records after-the-fact. Rather than scripts being handed out, they were reports on the words and covenants Benjamin had declared.
6 I say unto you, if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God, and his matchless power, and his wisdom, and his patience, and his long-suffering towards the children of men; and also, the atonement which has been prepared from the foundation of the world, that thereby salvation might come to him that should put his trust in the Lord, and should be diligent in keeping his commandments, and continue in the faith even unto the end of his life, I mean the life of the mortal body—
7 I say, that this is the man who receiveth salvation, through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world for all mankind, which ever were since the fall of Adam, or who are, or who ever shall be, even unto the end of the world.
Verses 5 and 6 set up a series of conditions to which verse 7 is the conclusion. The argument Benjamin presents gives some conditions and then a blessing. The conditions are as follows:
The conclusion is that "this is the man" who does all of these things, who will therefore receive salvation.
Rhetorical: Another indication of the oral nature of this discourse is the explanatory phrase at the end of verse 6. Benjamin declares that a man must continue in faith "even unto the end of his life." This is a correct statement, but because the spiritual life extends beyond the end of our physical existence, the statement might be misconstrued. Therefore Benjamin clarifies his statement with "I mean the life of the mortal body." Were this a crafted, written text, we would not expect to have such clarificatory asides. These are manifestations of oral discourse, and typically show up in written texts only when oral discourse is being described.
8 And this is the means whereby salvation cometh. And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there any conditions whereby man can be saved except the conditions which I have told you.
It should be made clear that Benjamin has changed the theme of his discourse at this point. Prior to this time, his focus was on atonement and sin. Having reached a communal repentance/forgiveness, Benjamin is moving his people on to the next step. Repentance and forgiveness clear the slate, but they only provide the ability to progress, they are not progression in and of themselves. Benjamin is now teaching his people (or reminding them) that there is a difference between the application of the atonement and their ultimate spiritual salvation. However, since repentance and forgiveness are the first steps toward salvation, he uses Christ’s atonement as the point on which the discourse swings from one topic to another.
Throughout his discourse, Benjamin has emphasized the Christ. In the first speech, the emphasis was on the atoning blood, or that part of the atonement which provides for remission of sins. Now he continues with the theme of Christ, but moves the emphasis from atonement to salvation, still highlighting the name of Christ as the only name by which salvation may be achieved.
The conditions for salvation are those Benjamin recited in verses 5 and 6.
9 Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.
Rhetorical: The conceptual transition from verses 5-8 to verse 9 is difficult to define. Where most of Benjamin’s transitions have been purposeful and clear, this verse does not easily come as a conclusion to the previous material nor as an introduction to the next section (which, in itself, appears to return to verse 5). The reason for the difficulty in transition is that we have a shift from the clear discussion of Christ (the future, redemptive, Messiah) to an admonition to believe in God.
This transition makes the most sense when we recall that the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon contains language that more closely associates Christ and God than we would do in our modern theology. The probable Nephite association of the two has been discussed, but would appear to be evidenced by this transition that would appear to depend upon some association between Christ and God so that an admonition to believe God could flow from an admonition to have faith in Christ.
Nevertheless, there is a conceptual difference in the admonition to faith in God. There is a differing set of circumstances, and different set of items about which one must have faith. Even with a tighter correlation between the two, and absolute equation may not have been part of the Nephite theology.
Whatever the connection that allowed Benjamin to move from Christ to God, the transition is not clear, and does not readily lead into his next theme. Once again, this is an indication of orality.
10 And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.
The language of verses 5 and 10 are different, but the intent is the same. In verse 5 the emphasis is on the descriptions of humility ("a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state") and Benjamin makes the theme of humility explicit in verse 10. Verse 10, however, is a true transition from one point to another. After the partial aside of verse 5-9, Benjamin returns to the starting point of humility so that he may move the discourse to the next step. Benjamin wants to move from forgiveness to salvation, from the humility of prostration to the glory of gospel living. His transition is to repeat the things that they would have just gone through, and to indicate that "if you believe all these things see that ye do them." It is this doing that forms the conceptual theme for the next part of his discourse. Benjamin will move from communal repentance to the rules of communal gospel action.
11 And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.
Rhetorical: Verse 11 is such an obvious repetition that even Benjamin notes it; "I say unto you as I have said before…" Just when he has given use the key to move from past to future actions, he returns to reiterate those past actions. Once again, this has the flavor of orality to it. The message is powerful, but it is not as cleanly presented as the material in the first discourse.
12 And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.
Now Benjamin returns to the theme of doing. He uses their experience with the spirit to help them understand the reasons for obeying the gospel. Their experience has filled them with joy ("as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God…and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy [italics added] in your souls). With the taste of that joy in their souls, Benjamin tells them they may have that feeling with them always ("ye shall always rejoice"). If they continue in humility, and continue in faith, they will grow in their knowledge. For Benjamin, it is probable that he does not make the distinction between faith and knowledge that modern man does. For Benjamin, growing in faith and growing in knowledge would be the same thing – both leading to a continuation of the feeling of joy they can yet taste.
13 And ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due.
Benjamin begins to describe a series of attributes that describe one who has continued in humility and faith. He is now describing the actions that will flow from the spiritual humility and acceptance of the gospel. What is most interesting is that while all of these actions may be construed individually, they are all social actions.
We return again to the contentions that were so recently banished from their midst. Those contentions split apart the community. Benjamin’s purpose is to heal and restore the community which he will ultimately do with the covenant attached to their new name. We err if we separate these communal interests from Benjamin’s discourse. While the traits may be applied to the individual, the result of the actions is a type of community, and a type of communal interaction.
In this context, it is very significant that the first communal benefit from this new humility and accepting of Christ is that "ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably…." The relevant to the internal contentions is obvious. One of the fruits of their new acceptance of Christ (a communal acceptance of Christ) will be that they will have no more desire "to injure one another." Both through the removal of the source of contentions, and the infusion of a new spirit, the old antagonisms will be gone. There will be no more civil war, but they will "live peaceably" with themselves!
The final phrase of these new conditions will be that they will "render to every man according to that which is his due." What does Benjamin intend here? The only clear reference is that previously there were conditions when every man did not receive his due. It will become clearer as we examine the rest of the communal actions Benjamin declares, but our understanding of the internal conflicts within the Nephite community at the time of Jacob are suggestive. Zarahemla is at this period in time a comparatively wealthy town, and therefore contains comparatively wealthy people. To the degree that wealth is used to create social distinctions, some men are not receiving their due because wealth becomes concentrated in a limited number of hands. This was the downfall of the City of Nephi, and was probably part of the cultural inheritance of the Zarahemlaites (the Nephites who fled the City of Nephi would have seen the destructiveness of class divisions, and indeed, were likely fleeing from them – those Nephites, Benjamin among them, would be much more sensitive to the redistribution of wealth).
14 And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin, or who is the evil spirit which hath been spoken of by our fathers, he being an enemy to all righteousness.
This verse may be read in two different ways, one a modern reading, and the other a reading in the ancient context.
Modern reading: It is the duty of parents to teach their children well. It is our responsibility to care for our children, to provide for them the necessities of life, defined here as food and clothing. It is also our responsibility to teach them the laws of God. We are to teach them to avoid fights and quarrels. Of course this would not be small spats, but serious divisive quarrels, for these come of the devil and serve to divide families.
Ancient context: In the first discourse, Benjamin made a point to contrast infants and men. That earlier division continues here. This verse concentrates on the children, verse 16 will emphasize the adults ("ye yourselves"). The admonition to clothe and feed our children falls into the context of the past economic disparities in their society. The first responsibility is to the children of the family – they must be clothed and fed. By implication, this is "their due."
When Benjamin enjoins the parents to teach their children the laws of God, this is in direct contrast to those parents who might have taught the "other religion" to their children. The unity of the people depends upon the unity of their religion. They must all teach the same laws. We must remember here that the ancient world did not make distinctions between politics and religion. The laws of God are the laws of this people. Any other laws teach division, not unity.
In this context, the past internal quarrels must be banished. Therefore the children are to be taught not to quarrel and fight. Note that quarreling and fighting are specifically connected with the evil spirit, that same evil spirit against which Benjamin preached in his earlier discourse. The quarrels and fights are not family squabbles, but the kind of contentions that have ripped this people apart, with some of their families and friends dissenting away to the Lamanites. Earlier, Benjamin spoke against any who would choose to follow the "evil spirit" and declared them to be in open rebellion against God (and the people of God). Here he forbids teaching those concepts to the children, stopping the contentions at this generation, and not passing them to the next.
15 But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.
The positive side of the admonition is once again communal. Parents are to teach their children to promote truth (the gospel) and to love and serve one another. Benjamin’s earlier discourse had described their duties as servants, and he is reiterating the need for service here. The result of these actions, were all children to learn them, would certainly be the promotion of harmony and the elimination of contentions and strife.
16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Ancient context: Here the emphasis shifts from children to adults. The "children" are to be taught. The "men" must also act for the good of the community. Just as the "children" require food and clothing, so do those "men" among us require our assistance. Although the specific terms food and clothing are not mentioned, it is certain that food would be a major part of our substance that should be imparted to the needy.
Once again, we must remember that Benjamin is giving laws for communal unity. Why does he emphasize the aid to the needy? It is precisely because the pride of social divisions leads to divisions and social contentions. Just as the increasing wealth of the Nephites led them to create disparities among themselves, so too does withholding substance create disparities. Not only is the needy remaining in need, but those who have substance are hoarding it. Benjamin is giving rules for the way in which the community will heal past wounds. We must suppose that these declarations are necessary because they were real experiences among the people prior to this time.
Modern context: How should this verse be interpreted in a modern context? All of the social rules that governed Benjamin’s society have changed dramatically. Benjamin’s people were primarily agricultural and rural. His people had no monetary economy, but rather one built on exchange. Thus for Benjamin, one who had no food was one who had somehow become displaced from his land, and therefore his ability to grow his own food. Whether through war or illness, the removal of a person from his land created a condition of need, not poverty in the sense that we might understand it.
In a modern society, need is now much more complex, and related to a monetary economy. The beggars who put their petition to us may or not be in need of food. What we give is money and not food, and the money offering may or may not be used for the need of the body. Thus in the modern world, the complexities of society have changed to the point where the nature of our charity must also change. As will be evident in the next verse, the real problem is the pride of the giver, and we may give freely to fast offerings. The ability to give freely and generously gives us the ability to learn generosity and humility, and the needy will be taken care of.
17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
Benjamin is now describing the nature of social divisions along economic lines. This argument presumes first that the needy are truly in need of food, and that there are those whose substance would allow them to help. What Benjamin tells us is that the way we react to these situations has spiritual implications for us. The example gives is one of self-justification. This is a person who is unwilling to share of his substance, and invents reasons to justify his selfishness. God will know those motives, and as indicated in verse 18, this is held as sin in the person who so justifies withholding his assistance.
Once again, we must presume that these conditions existed in Zarahemla prior to this convocation. Benjamin is addressing a particular example of the economic division among his people, and concludes that those who would do this have no place in the kingdom of God. Because Benjamin is intent on creating God’s kingdom here on earth – in Zarahemla, this is a very thinly veiled threat against those who would continue this type of economic divisiveness. If they have no place in God’s kingdom, they have no place in Benjamin’s kingdom.
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
This is a masterful argument. Benjamin has just stated that one of the effects of truly living the gospel will be that they learn to impart of their substance to the needy. He has also reminded them of the ways in which they have justified withholding that substance. To understand what Benjamin is doing here, we need to remember this set of information:
Benjamin is adroitly blending multiple concepts to make an important point. First, he has described a wealthier class who is reluctant to share with the lower class (imputing their condition to their own devices, making them unworthy of assistance). Thus we have two problems, one of class and one of need. The "beggars" are those of the lower class who need food and raiment, and who "beg" that of the higher class who has gold and silver and "all the riches."
To combat this socio-economic disparity that is clearly dividing his people, Benjamin invokes another hierarchy of higher and lower status, with God being the higher status. In Benjamin’s argument, he places God above the wealthy. He specifically makes the wealthy beggars before God, as He is the source of their riches ("Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?").
Thus Benjamin is attempting to combat the class disparity by placing the wealthy in a dependent class, and showing that the same laws of charity apply to them, and have been fulfilled by a merciful God. Thus a group so blessed should show the same charity to a lower class as God has to them.
20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.
Benjamin reinforces the status of the wealthy as beggars by reminding them that they have very recently been literally begging mercy of the Lord, a petition he has filled not with small measure, but with a great measure of joy, such that "you mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy."
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
The example is now made explicit. God, who is clearly of higher status, grants to those of lower status tremendous blessings. Therefore, those among Benjamin’s people who are also of higher status should also impart of their wealth to those of lower status – to the beggars.
An unstated presumption of his argument is that these are communal laws. These are the ways in which the City of Zarahemla in its new, united form should have. The people of Zarahemla would have understood that these laws apply internally, but not necessarily externally – to enemies. In much the same way, we are able to discharge our obligations for charity through the fast offerings in the modern church.
22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
Social: The conclusion of Benjamin’s argument deals not with the withholding of substance only, but with the judgement that creates the social division. While Benjamin does not suggest that the economic disparity is in and of itself a problem, he is concerned with the judgements that flow from that disparity. It is the social division into "betters" and "lessers" on the basis of substance against which he preaches.
Thus here he focuses on the equation of treatment for similar actions. If Benjamin’s people judge someone to be of lower status, and therefore unworthy of assistance, so will God, who is of much higher status, judge them to be unworthy. This is precisely the sentiment expressed in Matthew: "Matt. 7:2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
23 I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world.
The condemnation for withholding substance from a lesser will be that God, who ultimately is the source of the substance of the wealthy, will also withhold his bounty. Therefore the wealthy will lose their status. Now, it is important that we note that Benjamin makes explicit that he is speaking of those who are "rich as pertaining to the tings of this world." Benjamin understands that there are spiritual riches as well. Those spiritual riches actually obey the same rules, but that is not Benjamin’s current concern. His immediate purpose is social, with the spiritual principles flowing from the social obedience.
24 And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.
Just as the wealthy are subservient to God, so too are the "poor without sufficient" subservient to the "poor with sufficient." Even this small differentiation in substance is sufficient to create social divisions. Even those who are poor as to gold and silver, but who do have food and raiment have an obligation to avoid creating distinctions. Therefore, even though they may not have surplus to give, they must be able to be humble in their hearts. They must be able to know that they would give if they could.
25 And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned; and your condemnation is just for ye covet that which ye have not received.
Benjamin is very clear that the problem is not the absolute possession of substance, but the attitude toward that substance. Even the poor (with sufficient) may be condemned if their attitude is not one of generosity and egalitarian acceptance of others.
26 And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.
Benjamin summarizes his intent. His people have received a remission of sin through the Spirit. In order to retain… a remission of [their] sins from day to day" they must learn to impart of their substance to the poor. Thus the entire focus of his exhortation to remain guiltless or sinless lies in the sharing of substance. This is very understandable from Benjamin’s social context, but is certainly not the only thing modern man must learn to do to remain guiltless. There are spiritual laws that we must obey above and beyond the sharing of substance, but for Benjamin’s people, this was the most critical law for their communal future.
27 And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.
Spiritual: Benjamin teaches us an important spiritual lesson. There are so many things to do before we gain our exaltation that we might become discouraged with the effort before us. Benjamin assures us that while the task is not less, the time pressures are. We may achieve our goals within our individual capacities. None of us will be required to "run faster than he has strength."
Rhetorical: While this is a tremendous teaching, it appears somewhat out of place in the context of Benjamin’s discourse. How does he move from exhorting people to share to the statement that "all these things are done in wisdom and order" and then indicate that this will take time. Why does it take time, wisdom, and order for people to learn to share?
The answer is that Benjamin is not addressing the minutia of the individual, but the larger problem of his people. While an individual might be able to easily decide to share, it isn’t the movement of substance that is Benjamin’s concern, but rather the elimination of social stratification on the basis of substance. Because the ultimate problem is social, and tied to engrained conceptions of rank and power, these things will take time to overcome. Benjamin is proposing a radical social reorganization, and the success of that reorganization will take time, wisdom, and order. Nevertheless, they must "be diligent, that thereby [we] might win the prize." They must keep their eyes on the ultimate goal as they face the realities of people who must unlearn the old social/economic order.
28 And I would that ye should remember, that whosoever among you borroweth of his neighbor should return the thing that he borroweth, according as he doth agree, or else thou shalt commit sin; and perhaps thou shalt cause thy neighbor to commit sin also.
As a final note, Benjamin addresses yet another way in which one’s substance may become a division in society. When any possession is borrowed, there is an social obligation of return attached to that possession. Goods not returned as agreed upon can also create strife and division. Therefore, one who does not return the thing borrowed "commit[s] sin". Notice, however, that by not returning the item(s) that the borrower also causes his neighbor to commit sin. How is this so?
The sin lies not in the thing borrowed, but in the tension and strife that are caused over the item(s). When one loans something, there is the expectation of a return, and if that return does not happen, then the loaner has an issue with the borrower. The more a loaner attempts to retrieve the item, and more that is resisted by the borrower, the greater the contention and strife. It is this contention that is the sin, because it violates the type of community Benjamin is trying to establish.
29 And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.
30 But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not.
Benjamin has now laid out two very specific communal "sins." The first is the social stratification occasioned by the refusal to give substance, and the second is the social tension created when substance is loaned (as opposed to given, in the first case) but not returned. In both cases, the problem is social division, and these divisive elements are declared to be sin.
Benjamin realizes that this is not an exhaustive catalog of possible sins, even of possible social sins. He therefore clearly notes that there are many ways that we may sin, and that he cannot list them all. The solution is to conform ones thoughts, words, and deeds to the commandments of God. If Benjamin’s people, and we modern readers, will so conform our lives, and continue in that effort until the end, then we may achieve salvation – then we will not perish.
Benjamin’s final statement is his plea that his people follow these commandments – that they "remember, and perish not."
Textual: This concludes this section of Benjamin’s discourse. There is a chapter division here in the 1830 edition as well, marking the end of copied discourse. The next chapter will begin with Mormon’s introduction prior to continuing with the direct copying of Benjamin’s text. In Benjamin’s discourse this constituted a concluding point.
|by Brant Gardner. Copyright 1999|