1 Behold, it came to pass that I, Omni, being commanded by my father, Jarom, that I should write somewhat upon these plates, to preserve our genealogy—
Literary: Omni begins precisely as Jarom did, with a formal declaration that he will preserve his genealogy, and just as his father did, he gives not a single begat (other than the clear indication that he is the son of his father). Given the brevity of Omni's addition to the small plates, we may be sure that his opening phrase is copied from that which his father had written, and is to be considered as formulaic rather than descriptive.
2 Wherefore, in my days, I would that ye should know that I fought much with the sword to preserve my people, the Nephites, from falling into the hands of their enemies, the Lamanites. But behold, I of myself am a wicked man, and I have not kept the statutes and the commandments of the Lord as I ought to have done.
Sociological: Omni declares himself a Nephite, and that he has personally fought to preserve his people - the Nephites - from falling into the hands of the Lamanites. We also have his personal admission that he is not a man who follows the ways of the Lord. Of course we get the "as I ought to have done" because of the permanent record.
What may we understand from Omni's brief description? First the obvious, that there are increasing numbers of wars with the Lamanites. Conflict has been a major sub-theme of the small plates from the time of Nephi, and we will see it continue. Secondly, it should be very clear that Omni's use of the term Nephite is absolutely political. That is, he is a Nephite because of his allegiance to his community, not because of his religion. He is also a Nephite due to lineage, and Jacob (in Jacob 1:13) does indicate that there is a continuation of clan designations, but Omni is using the term in the wider collective sense ("my people"). He is fighting not for a clan, but for the political collective called Nephites under the wider usage Jacob had indicated.
3 And it came to pass that two hundred and seventy and six years had passed away, and we had many seasons of peace; and we had many seasons of serious war and bloodshed. Yea, and in fine, two hundred and eighty and two years had passed away, and I had kept these plates according to the commandments of my fathers; and I conferred them upon my son Amaron. And I make an end.
Historical: Omni's first date is 276 years after the departure from Jerusalem. This would be 310 BC.
Textual: Omni clearly writes at different times. From the breaks in the text, we may suggest that he wrote at least twice, and perhaps three different times. The first entry is the easiest, and comprises at least our current 1 and 2. This first entry may have concluded with the dating given at the beginning of verse three, or that dating might indicate a separate entry. The last entry is clearly the one beginning with the final date, as there is no reason in the text for the two dates to have been given at the same writing.
With the little information we receive from Omni, it is very likely that there were only two occasions when he wrote, the first being 276 years after the departure from Jerusalem, and the second 282 years after, at which time he apparently sees the end of his life coming, and gives over the plates to his son.
The last date given in Jarom is 238 years after the departure from Jerusalem, at which point the transfer of the plates occurs. We may suppose, therefore, that Omni waits 45 years before making his first entry onto the plates. This would not be unusual given the process we have seen from Enos on, and especially when combined with Omni's admission that he has not kept the statutes as he ought. Since these plates were to record the spiritual history of the Nephites, Omni clearly did not see himself in a position to expand on spiritual matters.
We haven't sufficient information to even speculate what occasion transpired to urge Omni to his first recording after 45 years. One might suspect that with the declaration of his experience in combat that perhaps he was injured at thought it wise to make a record just in case - however he would have been older than 45, which would make it rather unusual for a war wound. For whatever reason, Omni does write 45 years after receiving the plates, and does not make a final entry at that time. He closes his entry 6 years later. At that point we may safely presume that he viewed his mortality as imminent. In any case, Omni considers that he has fulfilled his charge to "keep the plates." For Omni, the charge is not so much to write, but to preserve, which thing he did.
History: Using the 586 BC date for the departure from Jerusalem, we have Omni writing in 310 BC to 304 BC. In highland Guatemala at this time we are in the Middle Preclassic time period. In highland Guatemala, this is known as the Miraflores phase. It is during this period that we find an increase in the religious architecture in Kaminaljuyu.
What must be understood from the archaeology, however, is that the evidence of religion is not evidence of Israelite religion. The religious architecture and artifacts reflect the known religious trends in Mesoamerica. The imagery is Mesoamerican, not Israelite.
How then should we see the people of Nephi in this context? I suggest that the underlying currents in the Book of Mormon are completely consistent with this picture. The Nephites are being acculturated to their surroundings, and are picking up the artistic trappings that go with the area's conceptions of what architecture and pottery should be like. With the posited increase of trade connections with other people, and thereby the influx of external ideas, Jacob's speech makes a lot of sense in the context of the physical catalog of the peoples of highland Guatemala at this time.
Of course this requires that we understand that the accommodation to the physical culture need not preclude the continuation of the revealed religion among them. Modern LDS use Christmas trees that trace their origins to pagan rites, and we are quite able to recontextualize them into an acceptable part of our religion. Indeed, in the absence of the typical Christian crucifix, LDS homes might be hard pressed to find physical imperishable artifacts that clearly delineate us as LDS as opposed to the religion (or non-religion) of any of our neighbors.
4 And now I, Amaron, write the things whatsoever I write, which are few, in the book of my father.
Textual: Amaron dispenses with the formulaic introduction, and simply begins his text with the self-declaration of his authorship. It is interesting that at the very beginning he knows that he will write but little. Both this declaration and the nature of his text indicates that this was written at a single sitting. Additionally, we have Chemish's indication that all was written in a single, final, sitting (see verse 9).
5 Behold, it came to pass that three hundred and twenty years had passed away, and the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed.
Historical: 320 years after the departure from Jerusalem places this destruction at 266 BC. From the time Amaron receives the plates to the time of this writing we have a span of 38 years. In that 38 years the political situation of the city of Nephi has certainly become worse, with an increase in the wars with the Lamanites. In 266 BC the City of Nephi falls under some type of even that will destroy "the more wicked part of the Nephites." What might have happened that resulted in destruction for many, but the salvation of some? The only evidence we have comes in the following verses.
6 For the Lord would not suffer, after he had led them out of the land of Jerusalem and kept and preserved them from falling into the hands of their enemies, yea, he would not suffer that the words should not be verified, which he spake unto our fathers, saying that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land.
7 Wherefore, the Lord did visit them in great judgment; nevertheless, he did spare the righteous that they should not perish, but did deliver them out of the hands of their enemies.
Historical: The facts we have are these: there is a great destruction involving the enemies of the Nephites, and the wicked were destroyed and the righteous preserved. In the end, the City of Nephi continues. It was "deliver[ed] out of the hands of their enemies."
These cryptic remarks allows us to reconstruct a major Lamanite military action that was taken to the City of Nephi. Where other actions might have occurred in the lands surrounding the city, it appears that this action occurs within the city itself. The primary reason for presuming this is that there was a large destruction of people. A military action involving only warriors would result in casualties, but not in anything that would be given as the destruction of a large number of people.
Additionally, we note that it was the "more wicked part" of the Nephites who were destroyed. This group is contrasted with the more righteous part, who were preserved. To understand the inferences of this passages we need to understand that Amaron is writing after the fact, and from the perspective of the survivors. No military action could have been precise enough to have singled out all of the "wicked" and ignored all of the "righteous." The story of the stripling warriors told later in the Book of Alma is remarkable precisely because it was an exception to the general rule of combat. Casualties are expected, even among the righteous.
The probable cause of the disparate destruction lies in the nature of the "more wicked part." If we return to Jacob's discourses and their probable target, Jacob is addressing those of the city who have become wealthy - and likely powerful. In the reading of the situation presented, this element of Nephite society gained political ascendancy during Jacob's lifetime, and while the religious atmosphere had returns to righteousness, there were yet great pressures away from the religion preached by the Book of Mormon prophets. With the integration of religion into society, we may expect that in addition to competing political systems, we have the beginnings of competing religious systems, and that the wealthy and powerful were espousing some other version of religion than the one that Jacob and Enos (and the other prophets) preached.
Nevertheless, there are adherents of the true gospel. Those do not appear, however, to have been among the rich and powerful. Thus there appears to have begun a social separation in religion that mirrored the social separation of wealth that Jacob preached against. It is this duality of social structure that allows us to explain the way in which only the "more wicked part" of the Nephites were destroyed.
First, it is imperative that the fighting occur within the confines of the city itself, as many of the powerful would not likely be among the warriors fighting in the field. Secondly, the target of Mesoamerican warfare was not destruction, but dominance. In the process of dominance, the conquerors would capture the leaders of the community and remove them as captives of war. In later Mesoamerican societies, these captives were the subject of public humiliation and usually ritual sacrifice.
In this scenario, the city of Nephi would have been invaded by the Lamanites, and most of the powerful of the city would have been take away captive. This effectively is described as a destruction, for they were no longer present in the city of Nephi, and many could have been sacrificed after their removal. The lesser economic/political status of those that were seen as "righteous" would have preserved them from the capture, because they did not carry the same prestige as the rich and powerful. Thus this social/religious distinction that developed in the city of Nephi becomes the basis for understanding the divergent fates of the "wicked" and the "righteous."
It is also very predictable that after the survival of the "righteous" that a religious revival would have occurred, where the remaining group would have recognized their salvation, and any others who remained would have undergone a repentance process as part of their process of recovery from the invasion.
We have so little information here that filling in the gaps is necessarily speculative. Using later Mesoamerican practices as our model, we may reconstruct this episode in the city of Nephi as follows:
This background explanation for the social factors surrounding the City of Nephi will become even more important later in the Book of Omni when Amaleki records the exodus of Mosiah and the righteous from that city.
8 And it came to pass that I did deliver the plates unto my brother Chemish.
Other than Nephi himself, Amaron is the only writer on the small plates to pass them horizontally to a brother rather than vertically to a son. It would appear that he had no son to whom the records could be passed. The next date we will see in the Book of Mormon text is found in Mosiah 6:4 at the coronation of Mosiah II, noting that 476 years have passed since Lehi left Jerusalem. According to the dating we have been using, that will be the year 110 BC. Between the destruction of the "more wicked part" of the Nephites and the coronation of Mosiah, son of Benjamin, we have 156 years. It is impossible to be precise about the dating of events in between, but into a time span only 30+ years longer that we needed to trace the small plates between Jacob and Enos we have to account for the lives of no less than 7 people; Amaron, Chemish, Abinadom, Amaleki, Mosiah I, and Benjamin, and Mosiah II. Amaron and Chemish are brothers, and so we may presume that Chemish's jurisdiction over the plates was relatively short. Amaleki's life begins in the "days" of Mosiah I, and he dies during the reign of Benjamin. When we reach the date of 110 BC, Amaleki has already died.
In the plate tradition, we have five people, and four generations: Amaron/Chemish, Abinadom, Amaleki, and Mosiah II (where we have the next date, even though it is after Amaleki has given the records to Benjamin. Were the generations of equal duration, we have only 39 years for the plates to be in the hands of each of the writers (including the time to Mosiah II's coronation). This cannot be the correct distribution of years, however, as Amaleki has the plates through much of the life of Mosiah I and sees the coronation of Benjamin, which would have occurred only after Benjamin had reached an appropriate age, let's say 20 on the young side.
Since Amaleki uses the phrase "began to be old" (verse 25), a phrase we know for Nephi, Jacob, and Enos place those men in their 70's and later (see Jacob 1:9, Jacob 7:26, and Enos 1:25), I think we can be justified in giving Amaleki an age of 70+ when he dies. While that age is consistent with Nephi, Jacob, Enos, and probably Jarom, it then leaves only around 86 years to cover the time the plates were in the hands of Chemish, and Abinadom. And this would assume that Mosiah II's coronation happened immediately after Amaleki gave the plates to Benjamin, which is unlikely.
If we give at least 20 years to Benjamin after he receives the small plates, and before he gives the kingship to Mosiah II (Benjamin was old at the time, dying three years later Mosiah 6:5) then we have only 66 years for the two. While 33 years apiece is plenty, it is still much shorter than the lives of the other keepers of the small plates. It may well be that the wars they mention so frequently had some role to play in their apparently shorter lifespan.
9 Now I, Chemish, write what few things I write, in the same book with my brother; for behold, I saw the last which he wrote, that he wrote it with his own hand; and he wrote it in the day that he delivered them unto me. And after this manner we keep the records, for it is according to the commandments of our fathers. And I make an end.
Chemish makes an extremely short entry. Chemish indicates that he saw his brother's last entry. This is at least suggestive that Amaron was on his deathbed when writing. It is tempting to link his death with the events he has just described. The event of the destruction was certainly impressive, and Amaron gives us virtually no indication of how the community was restructured after the loss of a significant part of their population. These omissions are at least suggestive that Amaron was wounded in the war, and eventually died of his wounds, passing the records to his brother Chemish.
Textual: I would suggest that Chemish writes his brief account in two sittings. The first comes very soon after receiving the plates. He describes the way he receives them, and his words appear to be an opening statement for the record. The phrase "and after this manner we keep the records" would appear to belong with the charge to keep the plates. Rather than mention "genealogy" as did Jarom and Omni, he simply notes the charge that the plates be kept.
Since the paragraph is essentially introductory, I suggest that Chemish wrote it soon after receiving the plates with the intent to write more later. However, he clearly had nothing to say, and at some later point when he was ready to pass the plates on, he simply ended his entry and gave the plates to his son. Of course there is no indication of how long he kept them, but we may suppose that they were not in his possession for a large number of years, as he was of the same generation as Amaron who had the plates for 38 years. Chemish would be expected to have been at least that old when he received the plates, and perhaps older (though clearly a younger brother to Amaron, as it would have been the right of the firstborn to receive the plates).
10 Behold, I, Abinadom, am the son of Chemish. Behold, it came to pass that I saw much war and contention between my people, the Nephites, and the Lamanites; and I, with my own sword, have taken the lives of many of the Lamanites in the defence of my brethren.
Textual: In contrast to the record of his father, Abinadom writes some time after receiving the plates. The brevity of his text and the brusqueness of the conclusion suggest that he is writing near the end of his life, immediately prior to giving up the plates to his son. I would suggest that his entire message was written in a single sitting, sometime when he realized that he was about to die (which may also account for some of the brevity of the text).
Historical: Abinadom notes that he has seen "much war and contention" between Nephite and Lamanite. While brief, he yet gives us some very important information. The salient ideas are that there was more than one incident, and "much war" suggests more than two or three. In addition, Abinadom notes that he has been a warrior, and taken the lives of Lamanites "in the defense of my brethren." While it is possible that the term "in the defense" might be formulaic, it is more probable that he means it literally, and that the wars being fought are defensive rather than offensive.
Following the logic of the social model that has been described, the Lamanites have made a significant incursion into Nephi in 266BC. In the years following that event, the city of Nephi remains, and is able to rebuild sufficiently to be defensible. At some point their relations with surrounding towns deteriorates, and with the power of their position diminished, they are open to more attack from more peoples.
The wars with the Lamanites do not appear to be large scale military actions, however, as the larger population of the Lamanites suggests that had they been motivated to cooperate and put together a large army they could have overwhelmed the Nephites. This did not happen, and the defensive strategies of the Nephites were successful. This suggests that the military actions where on a smaller scale, and therefore probably related to specific surrounding towns rather than a cohesive Lamanite "country." We must remember, at this point, Jacob's definition that anyone who seeks to destroy the Nephites was a Lamanite (Jacob 1:14). At this point we see no evidence of a "Lamanite" nation. The evidence is much more suggestive of smaller towns or smaller cities who act against the Nephites. A single town or city might not keep up a multiple year war that they keep losing, but multiple towns might try for the same prize, with the result being that the Nephites continually see war, where the losing Lamanites are not as consistently engaged in warfare.
That the Nephites are able to fend on the multiple wars suggests a remaining population that is still fairly large, even after the destruction of the "more wicked part" of the people. They may have also retained technological superiority, although the number of years spent in trade contact with other locations would suggest that the technological basis for superiority would be waning as the other communities learned what the Nephites knew (to the extent that it could be copied - military secrets are usually guarded, even in trade relations).
11 And behold, the record of this people is engraven upon plates which is had by the kings, according to the generations; and I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy; wherefore, that which is sufficient is written. And I make an end.
Abinadom sees no need to write much, as the official record is kept with the kings, and Abinadom is not privy to any revelations. As a man of war, he appears to have concentrated on physical survival rather than spiritual survival. The only thing we might glean from his account is that he has a sure knowledge of the existence of the other set of plates, and he knows that they are being maintained. Since those plates are following the reigns of the kings, and the isolation of Jacob's lineage is complete by this time, we must presume that the recording of the history of the people was common knowledge. This would indicate that those plates were somehow referenced publicly, either by reading them or by mentioning the things that are written.
While it appears that the Nephites were a generally literate people from later indications, it would still be consonant with the sacred nature of texts that there be some type of understanding, and perhaps veneration, of the textual history that was being kept. We must remember also that the Lamanites sought to destroy the records, and we may presume that they also knew of them. If the Lamanites know of the records, it comes either from tradition, or the information exchanged during the trading expeditions.
Chronological: Abinadom does not specifically mention passing the plates to his son, and yet his son does have them. When his son Amaleki begins writing, Amaleki is in Zarahemla. It would be very difficult to conceive that Abinadom would have nothing to write had he been on the journey from Nephi to Zarahemla. Since that occurs only in Amaleki's writings, we must assume that Abinadom lived out his days in Zarahemla.
Perhaps this "oversight" in delivering the plates to a named successor is not necessarily an oversight, but a recognition of the fact that Amaleki was very young at the time, and could not receive them directly from his father.
12 Behold, I am Amaleki, the son of Abinadom. Behold, I will speak unto you somewhat concerning Mosiah, who was made king over the land of Zarahemla; for behold, he being warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi, and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him, into the wilderness—
Biographical: The sparse evidence of the break between Abinadom's writings and Amaleki's suggests that Abinadom did not make the trek to Zarahemla, and died in Nephi. However, since Abinadom did not take care to give the plates to any other (such as a brother) we may also expect that he knew he had a son to whom they would be given, but that his son was too young to receive them at that time.
Amaleki tells us: "Omni 1:23 Behold, I, Amaleki, was born in the days of Mosiah…" Mosiah does not become a king until he is in Zarahemla, and we would not normally expect that "the days of" would apply to a time prior to his political rule. However, in retrospect, it may have been just as easy a way to indicate the general era of his birth. Because Abinadom does not reassign the plates elsewhere, I shall presume that Amaleki was very young, and traveled with his mother (but not his father) on the trip to Zarahemla.
Textual: After so many writers who have had nothing to say, Amaleki has very important information, but he condenses it tremendously. We do get the summary of events, not the written history while they occur. Amaleki is clearly writing well after these events have taken place. If we go with the hypothesis that Amaleki was very young when the exodus occurs, that fact would explain why his account is retrospective rather than first hand, he might have been too young to have all of the important details.
While the shorter length of the earlier entries virtually guaranteed that they were written in a single sitting, Amaleki's record also appears to be written in a single sitting near the end of his life. As he sees his end near, he decides to write the important historical events he has witnessed. Having written of them, he closes the record. There are no breaks in style nor narrative that would suggest that he left the material and returned to it.
Stylistically, it also appears to be the writing of one who is composing as he is writing, rather than carefully composing and then writing. He doesn't tell us of how he is witness to the events until they have been recorded, and the ending of the book in particular has the feel of someone who is wandering through his own narrative rather than closing powerfully (such as Nephi did, for instance).
History: One of the most significant events in the history of the Nephites occurs in verse 12, and passes in the second half of the sentence. With so little to go on, once again we are left to reasoned speculation to fill in the gaps of the events.
The first known fact is that Mosiah receives a commandment from the Lord to flee the land of Nephi. This fact virtually assures us that Mosiah is a prophet (prophets are clearly not lineage based in the Book of Mormon). The second interesting fact about Mosiah is that he is made king over Zarahemla.
What Amaleki does not tell us is Mosiah's status in Nephi. Since he was made king in Zarahemla, we might want to assume that he was also king in Nephi, but that would be an unsupported assumption. In fact, strong inference may be made that Mosiah was not the king.
Jacob told us that the kings of Nephi took upon themselves the name Nephi:
" Jacob 1:11 Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would."
Using the model of other historical kings, the acceptance of rule initiated a formal change in name, a change that signified a transformation from the "common" into the "regnal." We should assume, therefore, that once a king in Nephi, the person would be called Nephi, and not return to a previous name. Not only do we have Mosiah named as Mosiah (and not Nephi the X) but the tradition of naming the ruler of the people of Nephi after Nephi completely disappears from the Book of Mormon from this point on. While we have no confirming evidence of the continuation of the practice from Jacob to Amaleki, it is very clear that after the time of Mosiah it is not a tradition at all. Why not?
The easiest explanation is that Mosiah was a prophet, but not the king. When the command to flee came, it came as it did to Nephi when his brothers threatened. The group of people who leave have nearly the same categorical designation as did those who followed Nephi. Those who follow Mosiah are: "…as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord…"
Mosiah leaves with only a portion of the population of Nephi. What might we make of this? If we piece together the continuing puzzle of Nephite political life, we have a city continually under siege from various Lamanite populations. The increasing pressure from the Lamanites suggests two plausible scenarios for the command to flee:
One: The city was under threat of another attack that the Lord knew would be more effective than previous attacks. Thus Mosiah and the righteous were asked to flee the destruction.
Two: The pressure from the Lamanites was ameliorated by accommodation to the Lamanite culture. This would have been an official capitulation by the rulers, and the city would have continued, but the environment would have been untenable for the righteous.
While the first is more straightforward, the second serves as a better explanation of why the king is not the one leading the exodus. Were the king of the Lamanites to go with Mosiah, we should have known it, and the right of kingship would have been to that Nephi upon entering Zarahemla. Assuming the analysis of the names of the kings is correct, the absence of the king must be explained. The king is either dead, or chooses to remain. It was rare to have a king endangered, and so we can reasonably assume that the king chose not to go.
When we return to the undercurrent of acculturation that flows through Nephite history and the tension between the religious and the wealthy, a break between the religious (those who head God's call through Mosiah) and the worldly/wealthy (who follow the king) is quite understandable, with the tension finally erupting into division. Unlike the event that precipitated the break between Nephi and his brothers (the death of Lehi) we don't have a single event to which we can ascribe this particular division, but the noted increase in warfare suggests that it is the Lamanite pressure that causes it - a pressure that is resolved in either victory, defeat, or accommodation. The way I read the evidence, I suggest that it was accommodation.
Archaeological: When Mosiah flees the city, we may rightfully ask why he chose to go in the direction he did. Of course the Lord was leading him, but it was also a natural direction for him. As Sorenson notes, there is no southward travel out of Nephi mentioned (Sorenson p. 12).
What there is to the more northerly direction (through the wilderness area) is a known trade route. Trade routes are difficult to trace archaeologically, but they may be presumed when an identifiable trade good moves from one location to another. In the case of Kaminaljuyu (Sorenson's identification for Nephi) a major export was obsidian. The source for the obsidian was close by, and the obsidian was even worked in Kaminaljuyu.
The creation of obsidian leaves sufficient traces of its location that pieces of obsidian found long distances away can be accurately traced to their source. The Kaminaljuyu obsidian is known as El Chayal. The trade in El Chayal obsidian in the early years of the Book of Mormon would have been down through the coast, but at the time period we are examining, it appears that a primary distribution channel had been developed whereby El Chayal obsidian is traded into Veracruz, which is Northwest of Kaminaljuyu. (Pires-Ferreira, Jane W. "Obsidian Exchange in Formative Mesoamerica." In: The Early American Village. New York, Academic Press. 1976, p. 302-3).
Thus there were already cultural predispositions to move north, and the sure knowledge that there were friendly towns in that direction. Mosiah's flight northward is therefore fully understandable.
13 And it came to pass that he did according as the Lord had commanded him. And they departed out of the land into the wilderness, as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord; and they were led by many preachings and prophesyings. And they were admonished continually by the word of God; and they were led by the power of his arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla.
Geography: When Mosiah leads his people out of Nephi, he leads them into the wilderness. "The term 'wilderness' in the Book of Mormon apparently refers to mountainlands or forests as well as dense jungles. The term 'wilderness' means uninhabited areas." (Allen, Joseph L. Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon. Orem, Utah. SA Publishers. 1989, p. 287).
While there are many "wildernesses" in the Book of Mormon, we are particularly interested in one "wilderness" that is consistently described as a buffer between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi:
" In late B.C. times a continuous wilderness strip separated Nephite Zarahemla from Lamanite territory. Furthermore, at least during the events recorded in the books of Mosiah and Alma, the city of Nephi (also called Lehi-Nephi) was some distance from the "narrow strip of wilderness" proper. On the Lamanite side of the border zone considerable wilderness space seems to have separated the city of Nephi from the transition strip. A good deal of searching for lost lands, marchings and countermarchings of foes, and wilderness travel went on in that extensive space. (See, for example, Mosiah 19:9-11, 18, 23, 28; 23:1-4, 25-31, 35; Alma 17:8-9, 13; 23:14, in light of verses 9-12; 24:1.) (Sorenson, John L. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. FARMS. 1985, p. 12).
Sorenson suggests the mountain range along the North/Northwest border of the valley of Guatemala that separates that area for the Grijalva river valley, his location for Sidon (see Sorenson p. 153). Thus when Mosiah leads his people out of the land of Nephi, they head towards the general area of Zarahemla, passing through the "wilderness" which in this case is a mountainous strip.
Coming out of the "wilderness" the people of Mosiah are going "down" to Zarahemla. Sorenson has pointed out that in the pre-modern-map world, terms such as up and down have to do with elevation, and not cardinal direction (Sorenson 1985, p. 23). In the case of Zarahemla, it is consistently "down" from the land of Nephi (Allen, 1989, p. 289). This makes sense as Zarahemla is located along a river, and the river necessarily is in the lower elevations of the valley it courses through. Even so, highland Guatemala is yet a higher elevation, and the real world topography fits the consistent references given to it in the Book of Mormon.
History: We do not know how long the journey from Nephi to Zarahemla took. We do know that it was not necessarily a short journey. When Ammon leaves Zarahemla for the land of Nephi, it takes them 40 days (Mosiah 7:4) and Alma's people traveled the opposite direction in 21 days (Sorenson 1985, p. 8). Sorenson specifically notes that the area into which they went was a location where many appeared to "wander" through (Sorenson 1985, p. 12), as indicated by the widely different times for Ammon and Alma (especially considering that Ammon was with a small party, and Alma had both a large group of people and flocks with him).
With the variability of the time to travel the plausible 180 miles (according to Sorenson's reconstruction - see the map on p. 11) it would appear that Mosiah's group might have taken a significant amount of time. Note the way in which the journey is described: "And they were admonished continually by the word of God; and they were led by the power of his arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla."
To be "admonished continually" suggests that this was not a short journey, but was long enough that the patience of the people might have been tried to the point where the Lord needed to "admonish" them. They were guided through the wilderness, but we must remember that Israel was also guided and supported by the arm of the Lord in their "wilderness," and their journey was also very long. We may suppose that Mosiah's people did not take the most direct route, but eventually found their way. It would not be out of the question to presume at least the 40 days Ammon's group required, and given the larger numbers of Mosiah's people, perhaps longer than that.
During their trek through the wilderness they would have had to subsist on the land, as they were fleeing and probably were not able to provision well for travel. As city dwellers, they would have been most familiar with agriculture, but we need remember only as far back as Enos to understand that the arts of hunting would not have been unknown to them. Indeed, many of those who tended the land might have supplemented their diet by hunting, and thus the party moving through the wilderness would not be without the ability to provide for that long journey.
15 And they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. Now, there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla; and also Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews.
Geographical: Sorenson notes some of the factors surrounding his suggestion that the site of Santa Rosa along the Grijalva is a candidate for the location of Zarahemla:
"The largest archaeological site on the upper Grijalva in an appropriate position to qualify as Zarahemla is Santa Rosa… By 1974 the site had been inundated by waters backed up nearly 70 miles behind Angostura Dam…
Linguistic research tells us that the upper Grijalva lay at the juncture of two major areas where long-established peoples and their languages existed. A couple of thousand years ago the Mayan languages probably extended throughout much of Guatemala to about the mountainous wilderness strip that separates the highlands of that nation from the Grijalva River valley. Downstream, from near Chiapa de Corzo and extending north and westward, were speakers of Zoque dialects; in the isthmus proper was the closely related Mixe language. Both blocs, the Mayan speakers on the Guatemalan and groups using tongues of the Mixe-Zoquean family on the isthmian side of Santa Rosa, had been there a long time. Ancestral Mixe-Zoquean has been shown to be the probable language of the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, while Mayan speakers likely had been in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of Guatemala since well before 1000 B.C. (Evidence is uncertain, however, whether Mayan languages were spoken until post-Book of Mormon times in the actual areas of the southern Guatemalan highlands where the Nephite and Lamanite settlements are best placed.) But neither major language group seems to have been established on the upper Grijalva, at least not until well into A.D. times. That intermediate zone seems to have been a linguistic frontier. Zarahemla's people had moved into the area from the Gulf Coast through lands occupied by Zoque speakers for centuries. His local followers in Mosiah's day likely spoke a language like Zoquean. Mosiah and his party, coming from the opposite direction, were among the first of a long series of groups who drifted down out of Guatemala into this valley over the next thousand years.
The archaeological sequence at Santa Rosa is interesting in terms of the Book of Mormon, although the findings will always remain incomplete because the site is now underwater. Major public construction in the form of what seem to have been "temple" or "palace" foundation mounds started on a modest scale at approximately 300 B.C. That coincided with growth in population, which produced the "city" of Zarahemla that Mosiah's party encountered a couple of generations later. The place remained no larger than a modest town, as we think of size, during the time when Mosiah, Benjamin his son, and Mosiah II reigned. Around 100 B.C. a spurt in the city's prosperity is evident, and a large number of major public structures were erected. That condition continued for around a century. Except for the site of Chiapa de Corzo far downstream, Santa Rosa became the largest, most significant "city" in the Grijalva basin just at the time when Zarahemla is reported by the Book of Mormon as becoming a regional center. (Sorenson 1985, pp. 153-155).
As Sorenson points out, an interesting complex of factors comes to bear on Santa Rosa as a potential site for Zarahemla. The archaeological indication of a population explosion right at the time we have Mosiah and his people entering the city is quite suggestive. While the linguistic data do not tell us much at the moment, the position of Zarahemla along a linguistic, probably cultural frontier will have decided impact on our understanding of some of the events later discussed for Zarahemla.
Sociological: Most fascinating is the reception that Mosiah's people receive as they enter Zarahemla. They are met with rejoicing. This is most interesting if we remember that Mosiah's people have been struggling through the wilderness for forty or more days. They certainly would not have been able to present themselves as a royal procession. They most certainly would have been bedraggled, and in need of the food and rest of a city.
How is it that there was rejoicing when Mosiah arrived? Part of our problem is that we are getting this history from Amaleki long after their arrival. The story is slightly disjointed, because we rejoicing from the beginning, and apparent knowledge of genealogy, but this does not actually occur until later, as noted in verse 18. From that future perspective looking back on the past, the important part was the rejoicing, and Amaleki does not take care to mention whether the rejoicing occurred immediately or sometime after their arrival.
I would suggest that the standard processes of strangers meeting would dictate that the rejoicing was not immediate. First there would have been some determination that Mosiah and his people were not a military patrol. They might then have been welcomed and fed. It is during the process of exchanging information so that they might know how to treat each other that the rejoicing occurs. From the brief text, we may suppose that the thing that keyed the transition from potential-enemy/befriended-stranger to rejoiced-arrival was the presence of the brass plates:
"…there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla; and also Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews."
Note that the rejoicing is because of the brass plates. The plates will have this effect for two reasons. The first is the very possession of the plates would mark Mosiah as an important man, for we must suppose that such records would have been rare on most writing materials, but quite rare on metal plates. Thus the very plates themselves would serve a talismanic function identifying Mosiah as an important man. Since the acceptance based on genealogy occurs after the initial reception, it appears that it was the very fact of the possession of such an important item as the plates was the initial pivot on which swung the acceptance of the Nephite refugees.
Much later, the examination of the content of the plates would show the common genealogy of the Zarahemlaites and the Nephites. This common genealogy would provide a linkage of responsibility between the two peoples, and make their combination into one people less of a stretch than one might imagine. It would be seen as long lost relatives rejoining.
Biographical, Mosiah: We have already suggested that Mosiah was not the king. Nevertheless, he must have been of Nephi's lineage both because he is later made king, and because he had access to the brass plates. Those plates would have been kept with the kingly line (Jacob and his descendants never mention transmitting the brass plates, only the set we know as the small plates of Nephi). Thus Mosiah had to have the genealogical right to have access to where they were. As we shall see later, Mosiah took more than the brass plates, he also took with him the Liahona and the Sword of Laban.
The Book of Mormon is entirely silent about the people who remained in Nephi, and indeed, who it was that constituted the threat to Mosiah and the believers in God. We may expect either a new conquering invasion of Lamanites, or the leaders of the Nephites turning on the people of God as those leaders became more and more wicked. Either possibility is plausible, and the result of either would be that the City of Nephi becomes a Lamanite holding (using the definition of Lamanite as those unfriendly to the Nephites).
Biographical, Zarahemla: At this point we have only the barest of information about Zarahemla, but it is curious. We know that Zarahemla is the leader of the land, and that the land is named after him. Of course it is not unusual to name a city after its founder, but placing Zarahemla as the founder of the town is problematic. Amaleki indicates that the people of Zarahemla have been in this land since their arrival:
"Omni 1:16 And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth."
Sorenson suggests that being in "the land" is covering a larger territory, and not referencing Zarahemla specifically:
"The people of Zarahemla" seem to have been named after their leader, who reported to Mosiah that his ancestors had arrived from the Mediterranean area by boat and that he was a descendant of "Mulek," a son of Zedekiah, the last of the Jewish kings before the Exile. The voyage arrived first in the land northward, then moved south. Probably they first settled at the east-coast site known later as "the city of Mulek" (note Alma 8:7). "And they came from there up into the south wilderness" (Alma 22:31), where Mosiah later encountered them. Factions had warred among themselves; Zarahemla was now chief over one group (Omni 1:17). If the city of Zarahemla was named after him (or his father), then his group would not have been in that spot for very long, although they might have lived in the general locale for some time. (Sorenson, 1985. P. 148).
This makes geographical sense, as they only way the Mulekites could have been in the area where they arrived would be to stay along a coast, and clearly Zarahemla is not a coastal town. Therefore they did move in the greater geographical designation of "the land" which in this case would have the same meaning as the promise Lehi gives for "the land" which was not limited to the specific location where Lehi lived in the New World, but extended to the whole of that area.
15 Behold, it came to pass that Mosiah discovered that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.
Sociological: How is it that the two people know so much about each others genealogy so quickly? Precisely because this was of extreme importance. Sorenson discusses the principle of kin interactions for a later Book of Mormon event:
"… when Alma had approached him, Amulek identified himself as a "Nephite" (Alma 8:20). "I am Amulek . . . a descendant of Nephi," Alma 10:2-3 reports him saying. Mosiah 17:2 gives Alma's descent in identical language. We understand, then, that the two were establishing that they belonged to the same lineage. A Mayan practice at the time of the Spanish conquest shows the same principle governing how to get along in strange territory: "When anyone finds himself in a strange region and in need, he has recourse to those of his name [kin group]; and if there are any, they receive him and treat him with all kindness." (Sorenson, 1985, p. 212, citing: William A. Haviland, "Principles of Descent in Sixteenth Century Yucatan," Katunob 8, no. 2 (December 1972):64.).
It is therefore quite understandable that one of the first "orders of business" with the newcomers straggling in out of the wilderness would be to examine genealogies to see if there were any kinship obligations between them. What they found was not only a kinship, but one of utmost importance as the tie returned to the origins of both groups in Jerusalem, which by now must have been nearly the stuff of legend and myth.
Having thus established an important bond linking them both to a common sacred origin, the ties of kinship took over, and Mosiah's people were welcomed - with rejoicing.
16 And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth.
Scriptural history of the Mulekites (up to this point): The story of Zarahemla begins in the same place as that of Lehi, and at roughly the same time - the reign of King Zedekiah. It is during the reign of King Zedekiah that the Lord instructs Lehi to leave Jerusalem, and the origins of the people of Zarahemla come not much later in time.
Siegfried Horn provides the following historical background on Zedekiah:
"When Nebuchadnezzar put Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, on the throne of Judah, the Babylonian king changed his name from Mattaniah, "Gift of Yahweh" to Zedekiah, "Righteousness of Yahweh." He probably did this so that the new name would serve as a continual reminder of his solemn oath of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar, by his own God Yahweh who was considered to have acted as a just witness (2 Kings 24:17; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Ezekiel 17:15-19). Zedekiah, however, was a weak character, and although he was sometimes inclined to do right, he allowed himself to be swayed from the path of loyalty and fidelity by popular demands, as the history of his reign clearly shows.
For a number of years—according to Josephus, for eight years— Zedekiah remained loyal to Babylonia. Once he sent an embassy to Nebuchadnezzar to assure the Babylonian monarch of his fidelity (Jeremiah 29:3-7). In Zedekiah’s fourth year (594/593 B.C.), he himself made a journey to Babylon (Jeremiah 5 1:59), perhaps having been summoned to renew his oath of loyalty. Later, however, under the constant pressure of his subjects, particularly the nobility, who urged him to seek the aid of Egypt against Babylon, Zedekiah made an alliance with the Egyptians (see Jeremiah 37:6-10, 38:14-28). In doing so, he disregarded the strong warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. This Egyptian alliance was probably made after Pharaoh Psamtik II had personally appeared in Judah in 591 B.C. and had given Zedekiah all kinds of assurances and promises of help.
Nebuchadnezzar had prudently refrained from attacking Egypt, in order to avoid the trap that the Assyrians had earlier fallen into. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to lose any of his western possessions to Egypt; he therefore marched against Judah as soon as Zedekiah’s Egyptian alliance became apparent. Nebuchadnezzar systematically devastated the land, practically repeating what Sennacherib had done a century earlier.(Horn, Siegfried H.. "The Divided Monarchy." In: Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershel Shanks. Washington, DC. Biblical Archaeological Society. 1991, p. 146-7).
Zedekiah reigns from 597 BCE to 586 BCE. Lehi is called as a prophet in the first year of his reign (1 Nephi 1:4), and Mulek would not leave prior to the end of his reign. The Biblical account reports that as vengeance upon Zedekiah for his treachery, Nebuchadnezzar kills his sons before his eyes, and then blinds Zedekiah and carries him off to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). This is all the information we receive from the Bible's reporting of the event, but the Book of Mormon makes it clear that somehow a son named Mulek was spared this slaughter, and came across the ocean as part of the group that eventually becomes the people of Zarahemla (Mosiah 25:2 and Helaman 8:21).
Of the name Mulek and this enigmatic son of Zedekiah, Sorenson notes:
"Mulek" appears as "Muloch" in the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon and as "Mulok" in printed editions from 1830 to 1852; the name then became "Mulek."3 However it was pronounced, the name comes to us of course as Nephite ears heard it from the people of Zarahemla, and their pronunciation could have changed it somewhat from the Old World Hebrew familiar to us. What is clear throughout these variations in the spelling of the name is that we have here a reflex of the Hebrew root mik, as in Hebrew melek, "king."
Nowhere in the Bible are the children of Zedekiah enumerated, let alone named, although we are told that he had daughters as well as sons (Jeremiah 43:6, 52:10). He was twenty-one on his accession to the throne. Being a noble, he already had the economic resources to have possessed a wife and child(ren) at that time. After his accession, he took multiple wives in the manner of the kings of Judah before him (Jeremiah, in 38:22-23, refers to Zedekiah’s "wives") so that when he was captured at age thirty-two, he might have had a considerable progeny.
Robert F. Smith has mustered evidence that a son of Zedekiah with a name recalling Mulek may actually be referred to in the Bible. Jeremiah 38:6 in the King James translation speaks of Jeremiah’s being cast into "the dungeon [literally, "pit"] of Malchiah the son of Hammelech." The last five words should be rendered more accurately, "Malkiyahti, the son of the king." This personal name could have been abbreviated to something like "Mulek." Thus Jeremiah might have been put into "the [very] dungeon of Mulek[?], the son of the king [Zedekiah]" referred to in the Hebrew text of Jeremiah 38:6" (Sorenson, John L. "The Mulekites." In Nephite Culture and Society. New Sage Books, 1997, pp. 108-9. See also Wirth, Diane E. A Challenge to the Critics. Horizon Publishers. 1986, p. 110-111).
At this point we are left with the question of how Mulek survived when all other sons were killed. Allen suggests four hypothesis:
"1. Some Book of Mormon readers suggest that Mulek was only a baby and that those who were charged with his care literally carried him away from Jerusalem and saw to it that he was brought to the New World.
2. Other readers propose that perhaps Mulek was disguised as a daughter and was taken into Egypt prior to coming Promised Land.
3. A further possibility is that the mother of Mulek may have been pregnant at the time and that she was the one escaped the wrath of the Babylonians. This proposal explain, as do the above two proposals, the reason for this group’s not having any records with them. The group time to collect records, as they were fleeing. The mother's major concern probably was the protection of her unborn and, as such, she played the role of other great women in history who were inspired by the Lord that their children had very significant missions to fill.
4. A fourth proposal reflects the possibility that Mulek was not even born at the time his older brothers were killed. This proposal suggests that Zedekiah/Mattaniah, who was blind, had children while in captivity among the Babylon. Thirty years later, when the Jews were released from Babylon would then be the time that Mulek, now a young man, was led by the Lord to the "Land North." These proposed are then in line with the commentary of Archaeologist Warren, who identified the date of the Mulekites’ arrival to Mesoamerica at about 536 BC, which matches a significant date in the Nuttall Codex. (Allen, Joseph L. Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon. SA Publishers, 1989, p. 272).
Allen appears to prefer the fourth proposal based upon the data correspondence in the Nuttal and his interpretation of the danzante figures at Monte Alban. I would suggest that it may be the least viable of the alternatives. The Nuttal is a Mixtec document from much later in history, and dealing with a very different culture group, so the correspondence is shaky on those grounds alone. The presence of a date in any document means nothing without other information as to why that date is there in the record, and the events of the Nuttal are able to be read well enough to correlate most of the events to much later in Central Mexico's history. Mixtec dates are cyclical, with the same date recurring every 52 years. Unlike the Maya Long Count, the Mixtec dating system had no way to determine which 52 year period the date fell in. It is rather like having a month/day calendar, but no year date. We know that an important date is April 6, but seeing that date alone does not tell us the particular year in which April 6 occurs.
Allen appears to prefer this reading based on his association of Monte Alban as the probable site for the city of Mulek. Using that site, he reads the danzante figures as reminiscences of the Babylonian captivity. There is no consensus on the interpretation of the danzantes, but even if they are depictions of a captivity, the correlation with a specifically Babylonian captivity would depend entirely upon the acceptance of the "born in Babylon" hypothesis first. That is further than I would be willing to push the available evidence. This commentary follows Sorenson's geographic correlations, which would place the city of Mulek at the Mesoamerican site of La Venta rather than Monte Alban. The internal distances in Sorenson's correlation appear to fit the data better, and suggest that Allen may have been looking to Monte Alban precisely to use the reinterpreted danzante figures.
As a final issue with the "born in Babylon" hypothesis, Omni 1:15 specifically notes that: " that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon." It would appear to be a stretch to use "at the time" to include sufficient time thereafter for a child to be born in the Babylonian captivity.
In any case, the death of his siblings is a good reason for Mulek to flee the Old World, whether he was able to make that decision for himself, or it was made by a caretaker. Sometime around "the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon" a group of people including Mulek left Jerusalem. It is quite likely that Mulek was either an infant or very young child when this group left Jerusalem (if not in womb) and so Mulek himself would not have exerted any influence on the management of the group nor on their travels. However, his status as a nominal prince would have easily supplied the reason that he was recognized with a city in his name in the New World (see Washburn, J.N. Book of Mormon Guidebook and Certain Problems in the Book of Mormon. (no publisher). 1968, p. 25).
Just as with Lehi and his family, their initial journey was through the "wilderness" (Omni 1:16). We have no more detail of the "wilderness" than that sole statement, so the particular path cannot be traced. Since it is not unusual for the people of Israel to see their history in terms of sacred models, having any journey begin "in the wilderness" has symbolic associations with the Exodus from Egypt, regardless of the specifics of geography.
After their time in the wilderness, the band crossed the ocean, landing on a shore in the "north" as compared to Lehi's landing (Helaman 6:10). Their landing appears to have been in Jaredite territory, as their original homeland was in the area of "Desolation," a Nephite geographical reference to the homeland of the Jaredites so described because of the evidence of the awful final battles in that area (Alma 22: 29-30) and the location of the City of Mulek on the east coast (Palmer, David A. In Search of Cumorah. Horizon Publishers and Distributors, 1968, p. 147). From that original location, the Mulekites eventually moved though the land, arriving in the land that came to be called Zarahemla. Zarahemla is "south" of Desolation, and "north" of the Land of Nephi.
Archaeological History of the Mulekites: Of course entitling this section an "archaeological history" has problems both from the ability of archaeology to elucidate history, and particularly for the identification of any archaeological artifact as "Mulekite." At the outset it must be admitted that there is no better evidence for the Mulekites than for the Lamanites and Nephites as far as archaeology is concerned. For all Book of Mormon peoples, the question is not one of firm identification, but rather of a plausible context into a known time period and culture.
With the combining of Nephite and Mulekite peoples, the story of the Book of Mormon becomes more culturally diverse, as it includes now a people with a different background than that of the Nephites who arrived in Zarahemla. To best be able to understand the nature of Book of Mormon society from this point on, it is important to take some time to understand the plausible relationship of the Mulekites to Mesoamerican archaeology.
The oldest major civilization of Mesoamerica is called the Olmec. This is a name that has been given to the people, and should does not represent a name they called themselves. This culture provided the foundational shape of much of later architectural and artistic forms, including writing with glyphs (though few of the early forms have been found, and have disputed translations). The Olmec are generally considered to date from 1500 to 600 BC, and were at their most influential between 1200 and 600 BC, with fading influence lasting to AD1 (Diehl, Richard A. and Michael D. Coe. "Olmec Archaeology." In: The Olmec World. Ritual and Rulership. The Art Museum, Princeton University. 1996. pp. 11-13). They are considered to be Mesoamerica's most advanced and influential culture during the time of their florescence (Diehl and Coe, 1996, p. 22).
It is into this cultural milieu that the Mulekites arrived during the final years of Olmec influence. As the Olmec culture is diminishing in importance, the Mulekites are entering the area. While we cannot be certain of anything other than the Mulekite survival, it would appear that their ability to remain a political and cultural entity may have been related to their arrival at this time in history when a potential disruption of political alliances had occurred. In such a scenario, it would be easier for newcomers to enter and maintain their separate identity, rather than being swallowed whole into the larger society.
Sorenson has suggested the Olmec site of La Venta as a plausible location for the City of Mulek. In particular, he notes of La Venta Stela 3 : This massive monument dating about the sixth century BC seems to show the meeting of leaders of two ethnic groups. The man on the right looks very much like a Jew of that time." (Sorenson 1985, p. 121). The stela is suggestive, but the iconography of the area is such that I would be hesitant to firmly make the connection. Nevertheless, the suggestion is important. Describing the move of the Zarahemlaites from the City of Mulek, Sorenson further suggests:
"One gets the impression reading about chief Zarahemla's people in the Book of Omni that they were localized and unsophisticated (for example, they were not literate). Those characteristics ring true for what was going on at the same period in Mesoamerica. Reference to warfare in their background in the centuries before 200 BC (Omni 1:17) fits too. In light of these agreements it is not unreasonable that the descendants of the shipload constituting Mulek's party were able to find a niche for themselves in the land, incorporating and ruling over some remnant of the people left in the land southward after the abandonment of Olmec La Venta." (Sorenson, 1985, p. 120).
It is absolutely certain that the Mulekites would have adapted to the Olmec cultural ways during their time there (remembering that we have some 200 years between their landing in the Olmec heartland and their discovery by Mosiah at Zarahemla - a location on the periphery of Olmec influence). Thus just like the Nephites, the physical culture of the Mulekites would have approximated that of their powerful neighbors, and they would have become Mesoamericanized in the three hundred years of their stay.
When they move to Zarahemla they have moved the periphery of the Olmec influence, perhaps again as a result of the political upheavals following the disintegration of the Olmec power structures. When they meet with the Nephites we have the joining of two separate physical/intellectual cultures. Even though both would have begun in Jerusalem, in their respective 200 year sojourn among different cultures, they would have absorbed much of the physical and intellectual culture of the area - which would have similarities to each other, but differences as well. Thus from this point on in the Book of Mormon we will see an increase in the notable Jaredite influences (brought into Zarahemla as part of their Mesoamerican experience) as well as the necessity of cultural accommodation, as indicated by the problem of language mentioned in verses 17 and 18.
17 And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.
Sociological: We find immediately that the people of Zarahemla are considered to be "exceedingly numerous." We don't know quite how to interpret this, as they are still relegated to a single land surrounding a single main city. Their influence is therefore not all that great. What was certainly significant for Amaleki, however, was that there were many more Zarahemlaites that there were Nephites (Mosiah 25:2).
We next find that the Zarahemlaites have been engaged in wars and contentions, just as the Nephites have. Of course the Zarahemlaites would not have typified their opponents as "Lamanites" because they would not have know of that designation until after the time of contact with Mosiah. It is also important to underline the necessity of other peoples in the land, presuming that if the Nephites did not find the Zarahemlaites (after their move much closer to the Nephite homeland) until 200 years later, then it is logical that the "true" Lamanites would not have found them either. Nevertheless, the Zarahemlaites have been engaged in wars and contentions for 200 years far north of where the lineal Lamanites would have been.
These wars and contentions virtually guarantee us that the Book of Mormon is speaking of other peoples in the land, and simply not naming them. In the context of Mesoamerican archaeology, this picture of war and political unrest it thoroughly believable as the remnants of the Olmec polities are readjusting - and the Zarahemlaites would be a group moving out of the homeland to a safer area.
Our next information about the Zarahemlaites is particularly important. We are given three important facts: their language is corrupted, they brought no records, they deny the creator. What may we understand of these three pieces of information?
First, let's consider their "corrupted" language. Later in the Book of Mormon, Mormon indicates that their language has changed from the Hebrew of the first fathers: "Mormon 9:33 …but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also…" It is subtle but significant that Mormon suggests that the Hebrew had been "altered" but that Mosiah found the Zarahemlaites' language to be "corrupt." The connotations are very different, and suggest the differing perspective of the insider and the outsider. For the insider, changes are simply alterations. For the outsider who must confront "alterations," and particularly alterations of such magnitude that the other group cannot be understood, it is a case of "corruption."
We must remember that we are dealing with 200 years. While there are certainly linguistic changes over that period of time, British English and American English and Australian English are not mutually unintelligible - even though specifics of some vocabulary are quite different in each flavor of the language. Thus when Mosiah and Zarahemla cannot understand one another's speech, something probably more drastic is going on that simply linguistic shift. Since these two groups which began in Jerusalem are now unable to easily communicate, at least one of the two is no longer speaking Hebrew, and possibly neither is.
The lack of records pertaining to Jerusalem (and therefore scripture) with the Mulekites is significant.. Whiting suggests that "the lack of records had been a stumbling block for the Mulekites, in that without them to stabilize their language it had become corrupt…" (Whiting, Gary R. " The Testimony of Amaleki." In" The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy. Religious Studies Center, BYU. 1990, p. 300). While the lack of records was surely a stumbling block, linguistic trends suggest that it is not because the text slowed down the pace of change of the language. Indeed, even without records, the three hundred years of separation between the Nephites and Zarahemlaites is not likely to be sufficient for mutual unintelligibility. What is more probable is that without records there was no reason to hold to a language that was not of benefit to communicate with any but their own people, and therefore created an even greater reason for the adoption of the language of the people among whom they found themselves upon arrival.
This suggests that they would have learned common Zoquean or common Mixean (Campbell, Lyle "Mesoamerican Linguistics" mimeographed notes, n.d. section giving language groupings from 600 BCE to 1 CE). Given the probable location of Zarahemla in the Grijalva river basin, this places them in the territory historically associated with Zoque speakers (Campbell, Lyle. "Mesoamerican Linguistics" mimeograph, April 1976, p. 7).
We may therefore suppose that the Mulekites entered into the area speaking common Zoquean, and ended up at Zarahemla because it was an area to which those speakers gravitated. It is perhaps this linguistic affinity with others in the area that creates Amaleki's description as "exceedingly numerous" in reference to the numbers of people speaking that language rather than specifically to those in residence in Zarahemla.
The lack of records would have had two effects. The first has been described, in that the absence of need allowed the more rapid disintegration of linguistic ties to the Old World - a language for which they would have had no real use in the New World, particularly without records requiring that the language be retained to read (much as Latin continues in the modern world, but is retained principally as a means of reading texts written in Latin). The second effect of the lack of records probably led directly to the third facet noted, the loss of their religion.
Without the tie of the scriptures, they were less tied to the conceptions of the Old World, and more susceptible to changes relating to the deities of the New World. Because we know that the Nephites not only retained the brass plates, but attempted to maintain their form of the Mosaic Law, the fact that the Nephites record that the Zarahemlaites have lost their knowledge of the create indicates that the Zarahemlaites have been acculturated to more than physical culture and language. It is most likely that they have also adopted the deities of the people among whom they have lived. Once again this is important to understand the development of the Nephite religion from this point on. We have a smaller group of religious people merging into a larger body of people having a differing language, physical culture, and religion. These tensions will help elucidate future changes in the way religion works among the Nephites, and in particular, the rise of churches during the time of Alma the Elder.
18 But it came to pass that Mosiah caused that they should be taught in his language. And it came to pass that after they were taught in the language of Mosiah, Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory; and they are written, but not in these plates.
In describing the merging of the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites, J. N. Washburn suggests that "the lamb ate the lion." (Washburn, 1968, p. 26). Of course he is referring to the smaller population dominating the larger. The evidence is certainly the choice of Mosiah as ruler of the combined population, and probably this reference to the Nephites teaching their language to the Zarahemlaites rather than the other way around. While the verse clearly indicates that there was a teaching of language in that direction, we must remember that this would be rather unusual if Nephite became the dominant language of the area. When we correlate language to geography, we find the Nephites bringing perhaps a Hebrew heritage, and perhaps a Maya heritage to the merger. The Zarahemlaites bring a Zoquean background. The persistence of Zoque in that geography throughout discernable history suggests that this teaching of Nephite (whatever language they spoke at this time) did not become the dominant language of the Zarahemlaites, and therefore of the future Nephites. If anything, we may assume Zoque as the probable daily language of the Nephites from soon after their arrival in Zarahemla.
Amaleki also notes that other records are being kept. We may safely presume that Mosiah has kept the large plate tradition, and continues to update it. Thus when Mormon is abridging the record, it is an abridgement of the large plate tradition, which would have had a much fuller account of this meeting. Since Amaleki is our best source on the Mulekites/Zarahemlaites, we may assume that Mormon had written of this incident in his abridgement, somewhere in the pages that we have lost.
19 And it came to pass that the people of Zarahemla, and of Mosiah, did unite together; and Mosiah was appointed to be their king.
Anthropological: We are now faced with a fascinating conundrum. We have a small number of people straggling out of the wilderness, and suddenly find the leader of that smaller group as the king over the established larger population in the city of Zarahemla. Why is Mosiah made king?
As with most of these reconstructions, we are in the realm of speculation, but the combination of factors that come together in placing Zarahemla in a Mesoamerican milieu in a particular time and place can provide some interesting hypotheses. As a preliminary, we must return to the plausible location of Zarahemla at the archaeological site of Santa Rosa (Sorenson's correlation).
First we must understand that Santa Rosa has a history of occupation in one form or another dating back to 1000 BCE (Delgado, Agustin. Archaeological Research at Santa Rosa, Chiapas and in the Region of Tehuantepec. BYU, New World Archaeological Foundation. 1965, p. 79). Thus when the Zarahemlaites enter the picture, they are moving into an area already having some organization and structure. Santa Rosa does undergo a marked development in the late Preclassic period, however, which time period covers both the Zarahemlaites and the Nephites. It is during this period that the site is "characterized by its advanced architecture, known to be of imposing dimensions in at least a few instances. Typical are stone walls and sloping batters (talud) covering earthen fills, and the use of floors of tamped, sometimes burned, clay. (Delgado 1965, p. 79). The florescence of the site will occur later, however, in the Protoclassic, (Delgado 1965, p. 79) which in terms of the Book of Mormon makes sense as the new Nephite nation begins to regain power and importance.
The next most fascinating aspect of Santa Rosa as a candidate for Zarahemla was noticed by John L. Sorenson. One of the temple mounds has a remarkable feature. Delgado simply notes: "The plaster floor continued in both trench extensions. In contact with it, both above and below, was a thin layer of gravel. That below was of different natures to either side of the medial line of the temple. To the north it was composed of larger fragments of broken stone, while to the south it was natural gravel. The difference was probably due to different sources of material." (Delgado 1965, p. 29).
Another archaeologist working at Santa Rosa expanded the analysis of this unusual gravel sub-floor: "To the north the gravel was broken and to the south it was rounded. I supervised that excavation and, upon noting the difference, carefully searched the gravel, finding no mixture whatever. Not only does the difference suggest two sources of materials but it may be taken to imply two separate groups, each working on its section. Further, the medial line runs roughly east-west." (Brockington, Donald L. The Ceramic History of Santa Rosa, Chiapas, Mexico. BYU. New World Archaeological Foundation. 1967, p. 60-61.)
Of course one cannot be certain that we are dealing with two differing political groups, but virtually all sites would represent more than one kin line, and kin groupings do not seem to be an adequate explanation for the separation of types. The east-west median is certainly explainable as the transit of the sun, but in the possible context of the meeting of Zarahemlaite and Nephite, the segregation into a north section and a south section, given the descriptive differences between the homelands of the two parties, we have an even more fascinating possibility.
Another interesting facet of Santa Rosa comes in the ceramic evidence. Santa Rosa has its own ceramic styles that change through time, allowing for rough dating to types that were popular during certain times. In addition, the ceramics do show some correlations to ceramic styles from other sites. In the time period in which the Nephites would have arrived at Santa Rosa, certain pottery show ties to Kaminaljuyu - ties sufficient to be termed "perhaps the closest linkage of our material to other regions." (Sanders, William T. Ceramic Stratigraphy at Santa Cruz, Chiapas, Mexico. BYU. New World Archaeological Foundation. 1961, p. 53).
Remembering that the plausible location for the City of Nephi was Kaminaljuyu, the close connection between pottery styles suggest some type of correspondence between the two sites. Given the separate culture and language between the two, the correspondence would be surprising except that in the Book of Mormon context it is completely understandable.
Thus there is reasonable evidence to suggest a tie between Santa Rosa and Zarahemla. Assuming that tie, we can use that information to assist us in understanding the way in which the Nephites and Zarahemlaites merged, and the reason for the selection of Mosiah as the king. Kaminaljuyu at this time period is both larger and more wealthy than Santa Rosa. If the impetus to the improvements in buildings is related to the arrival of the Nephites, then Mosiah's people would have arrived at a town that while populous, was not nearly as well built nor elegant as Kaminaljuyu. Delgado notes that while Santa Rosa might have been grander than its nearer competitors, it was "rather poor when compared with Chiapa de Corzo." (Delgado 1965, p. 79). Chiapa de Corzo might be closer to the development of Kaminaljuyu.
Using these real world sites as a background to the Book of Mormon, we have the City of Nephi becoming more and more wealthy, and prosperous in the ancient world. At some point, that prosperity causes either the internal or external pressure that forces out the believers who follow Mosiah. Since that tradition of belief traces clearly to the teachings Jacob, we are justified in suspecting that Jacob's antipathy to the accumulation of worldly wealth would have been continued by Mosiah's believers. Thus these are not necessarily the wealthy who leave, but certainly Mosiah and others would have been part of the upper eschalons of the city of Nephi. When they arrive at Santa Rosa they have come to a lesser location, a place of fewer riches, fewer fine buildings. With their beliefs this would not necessarily be a major problem (and particularly compared to the necessity of finding a place to live). Therefore we have the Nephites coming from opulence to relative poverty among the Zarahemlaites.
In this context, we note that Zarahemla is not called a king, yet is clearly the leader of the town. This is a distinction in the type of rulership, and it may be that the Zarahemlaites had not yet grown sufficiently independent and powerful to adopt a king as a mode of government. Mosiah, however, came from a tradition of kingship. As has already been noted, Mosiah carried the sacred symbols of power, and his possession of the plates indicates some relationship to the ruling line at the City of Nephi, although (again as noted before) he probably was not the king in the City of Nephi. Mosiah's arrival from a more powerful location, his immediate connection to a regnal line, and his demonstrable ties to ancestral right of rulership through the evidence of the plates are all factors that would make his selection as king logical, even in the face of a larger population of people with a foreign language and customs.
20 And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God.
Archaeological: The Mesoamerican area is unique in the Western Hemisphere for its developed writing system. While it is best know for the Maya, the roots of the writing system extend much earlier in time, probably to the Olmec (Campbell, Lyle. The Linguistics of Southeast Chiapas, Mexico. BYU. New World Archaeological Foundation. 1988, p. 19). Part of the known tradition is writing on stela, or large stones. The description of a large stone being brought to Mosiah is unusual only in the idea that it was "brought." Most of the stela would have been quite heavy, and we may presume that this is a slight linguistic error. It is much more likely that Mosiah was "brought" to the stone.
While most of the stela with hieroglyphs are known for the Maya area, earlier texts that are written in the early forms of Mixe and Zoque, with the most complete text (Stela 1 of La Mojarra) having Zoque as the underlying language (Justeson, John and Terrence Kaufman. "Un descriframiento de la escritura jeroglifica epi-olmeca: metodos y resultados." In: Archaeologia, July-December 1992, p. 15,20). There are only 11 texts of this epi-Olmec script currently known (Justeson, Kaufman, 1992, p. 16), but it is certain that there were many more in antiquity. Thus the Zarahemlaites come through an area with a literate tradition in the language they were likely speaking, yet they were unable to read this stone.
There are two possible explanations for the inability of the Zarahemlaites to read the stone themselves. Either they were illiterate (as Sorenson has suggested 1985, p. 120) or the stone was written in the earlier form of the language. The second is possible since the stone will tell of Coriantumr who was a Jaredite survivor, and might have therefore spoken a different language. However, the Zoque is a later evolution from the earlier Mixe-Zoquean, and one would suspect that a literate population would have been able to make some sense of it since the glyphs are now known to be generally phonetic, and the gross form should have been understandable. Sorenson's suggestion is therefore the more likely, and the illiterate status of Zarahemla's people further suggest their relative poverty of status if not fact when compared to the immigrating Nephites.
21 And they gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them for the space of nine moons.
22 It also spake a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people; and the severity of the Lord fell upon them according to his judgments, which are just; and their bones lay scattered in the land northward.
It would appear that Coriantumr is the same man who is given as the last remaining Jaredite in the Book of Ether. While is "discovered" by the people of Zarahemla, it is not clear when this occurred, whether after in the land of Zarahemla, or earlier in their history.
The brief explanation of the events depicted on the stela all have counterparts on the various stelae from the later Classic period among the Maya, though the correspondence is not precise. There are ancestors present that provide the connection to the source of the right of rulership (Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings. New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1990, p. 141). That Coriantumr as king would be the central figure is attested on so many stelae that references are almost not needed. Schele and Freidel discuss the stela for 16 named nobles (see the index under "stela").
The victory over another people is also frequently commemorated, but it is at this point that we have our difficulties with the putative "stela of Coriantumr." Not only is it nearly impossible to find a king who creates a stone monument to the defeat of his people, but we have unanswered the question as to who could have carved the stela if the people of Coriantumr have been vanquished. Carving a stela takes time and the dedication of resources to support the carvers. With the dissolution of the kingdom, Coriantumr would have had no means of providing the support, and would be unlikely to himself have been a carver (not to mention the inexplicable memorialization of his defeat).
I can offer only a single suggestion. Since we have the information on Coriantumr through Mosiah's inspired (perhaps not literal?) reading of the stone, we may have a prophetic/seer "reading" of the stone for information that was not directly written in the text of the stone itself. Mosiah would be using the stone as a base text, but expanding the "text" with the extra information about the end of the Jaredites.
The discussion of the Jaredites will be reserved for the commentary on the Book of Ether, as much more relevant information is found there. For the moment, it is sufficient to remember that the Jaredites fit into the time and space for the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica. It must be clearly noted that this does not mean that the Olmec were the Jaredites, or that the Jaredites were the Olmec. Rather, it means that the Jaredites would have participated in the Olmec culture, and we may use that culture as a backdrop for understanding the Jaredite cultural milieu.
23 Behold, I, Amaleki, was born in the days of Mosiah; and I have lived to see his death; and Benjamin, his son, reigneth in his stead.
Amaleki is younger than Mosiah, but younger than Benjamin. Amaleki is certainly writing his contribution to the plates while in Zarahemla.
24 And behold, I have seen, in the days of king Benjamin, a serious war and much bloodshed between the Nephites and the Lamanites. But behold, the Nephites did obtain much advantage over them; yea, insomuch that king Benjamin did drive them out of the land of Zarahemla.
By now it is no surprise that there are serious wars in the land. The only important issue is that we remember that the definition of Lamanite is by now political and not lineal. That is, Lamanites are the "gentiles" of the Book of Mormon. It is a collective term for anyone who is against the Nephites.
In this case, it is much more likely that these particular Lamanites are not the same ones who had been vexing the City of Nephi. Those Lamanites would have to come 180 miles away from their normal territories to find Zarahemla. It is much more likely that the war comes from other peoples in closer proximity to Zarahemla, perhaps more related to those with whom Zarahemla had been fighting in the years before the arrival of Mosiah and the other Nephites.
25 And it came to pass that I began to be old; and, having no seed, and knowing king Benjamin to be a just man before the Lord, wherefore, I shall deliver up these plates unto him, exhorting all men to come unto God, the Holy One of Israel, and believe in prophesying, and in revelations, and in the ministering of angels, and in the gift of speaking with tongues, and in the gift of interpreting languages, and in all things which are good; for there is nothing which is good save it comes from the Lord; and that which is evil cometh from the devil.
26 And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved.
Amaleki bears his final testimony as he prepares to close out his record. Unlike his father and grandfather, Amaleki is a man of demonstrable faith, and he witnesses his faith in Christ as he closes the record.
Textual: Amaleki indicates that he has no children. Since he says that he has "no seed" it may be that he has no children at all, though there is a slight possibility that he means he has no sons, as the Book of Mormon transmission lines are always through the male. In any case, the transmission line which began when Nephi gave these plates to his brother Jacob is now complete, and these plates will be reunited with the transmission line of Nephi's other plates.
27 And now I would speak somewhat concerning a certain number who went up into the wilderness to return to the land of Nephi; for there was a large number who were desirous to possess the land of their inheritance.
28 Wherefore, they went up into the wilderness. And their leader being a strong and mighty man, and a stiffnecked man, wherefore he caused a contention among them; and they were all slain, save fifty, in the wilderness, and they returned again to the land of Zarahemla.
29 And it came to pass that they also took others to a considerable number, and took their journey again into the wilderness.
30 And I, Amaleki, had a brother, who also went with them; and I have not since known concerning them. And I am about to lie down in my grave; and these plates are full. And I make an end of my speaking.
Textual: It is difficult to see the reason for these four verses that follow Omni 1:26. Verse 26 is very clearly a terminating verse. Omni has done all of the "correct" things; he has declared the future transmission line, and he has born personal testimony. That should have been the end of the plates. After that very final piece, and before he actually does give the plates to Benjamin, he tacks on another bit of history. It is tempting to assume that the triggering event was the departure of his brother mentioned in verse 30, but that does not seem likely. Amaleki is now old and facing his death, and a brother could be younger, but that still places the brother as a relatively old man for such a speculative journey. In addition, Amaleki notes that he has not heard from his brother since he left. Had the brother left only days before, this would be an odd statement. Therefore we must assume that these are events from years before.
While we may speculate that a delay in access to Benjamin gave Amaleki the opportunity to write more, there is nothing in the text that explains why he chose to add this information.
Historical: Amaleki is giving a brief description of the people of Zeniff. This story is more fully told in Mosiah 9-22.
Sociological: There are two pieces of information that help us get a relative dating for the expedition of Zeniff. The first is that Zeniff was one of the Nephites who came from the City of Nephi (Mosiah 9:1) and the second is Amaleki's information that his brother was one of those who went with Zeniff (verse 30). Both of these men had to have been young enough for the rigors of the journey, and we may therefore understand that this attempt to return to the City of Nephi occurs relatively soon after the arrival of the Nephites in Zarahemla, say perhaps no more than ten years.
What is of greatest interest, however, is the reason why there were two separate movements to return to the City of Nephi within perhaps ten years of having to flee that city for their lives. Zeniff appears to have been a participant in both expeditions mentioned by Amaleki, and from Zeniff's record it would appear that the purpose of the first was military conquest and the second a more peaceful entry into the land.
While we might understand a military reprisal for the expulsion of the Nephites, it is still a question as to why they would want to mount a military expedition that had to travel around 180 miles through the "wilderness" before they could actually be in a position to fight.
The most reasonable suggestion comes from the comparison between the sites of Kaminaljuyu and Santa Rosa. Kaminaljuyu was clearly the larger and richer. It would appear that the Nephites had a nostalgia for the lost good life, something very similar to the desire of Laman and Lemuel to return to their comfortable life in Jerusalem rather than endure the hardships of the wilderness. Likewise, there were many of the Nephites who appear to have desired to return to what they had lost. While more will be discussed of this expedition when Zeniff's record is entered into the Book of Mormon record, there is a fascinating piece of information in Zeniff's introduction:
Mosiah 9:1 I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers' first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.
Zeniff is part of a reconnaissance party that scouts out the City of Nephi prior to moving up the army that is with them (referenced in Mosiah 9:2). The interesting part is that Zeniff lists his qualifications as a spy. There are two. One is that he is familiar with the land of Nephi. The other is that he has been "taught in all the language of the Nephites." Why is it that a knowledge of the language of the Nephites is an advantage in a spy mission?
There are two reasons. One is that there are certainly those in the army who are Zarahemlaites, and therefore do not speak "Nephite." Secondly, "Nephite" is apparently still the language of the land of Nephi! Remember that there were two possibilities for the group that drove out Mosiah. The first was invading Lamanites (who might be presumed to have a different language) and the second was the power structure of the Nephites who no longer believed in the God of Israel (or at least in his living prophets). Internal evidence suggested previously that the Nephite wealthy remained in Nephi (since apparently the reigning king did not come with Mosiah), and the need to speak "Nephite" upon their return appears to confirm that cultural Nephites still possess that land.
|by Brant Gardner. Copyright 1999|