1 And now it came to pass that in the three hundred and sixty and third year the Nephites did go up with their armies to battle against the Lamanites, out of the land Desolation.
Geographical: The Nephites come “out of the land Desolation.” This land lies to the north of the narrow passage, and in times up to and including 3 Nephi, was not a part of Nephite holdings. It appears that the Nephites expanded northward in the three hundred years after Christ’s visit. We will see that a larger number of actions will occur in this northward land as we close out the events of the Book of Mormon.
The land Desolation is named for the remains of a previous people in that area:
29 … even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful.
30 And it bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their first landing.
Desolation was the original homeland of the Zarahemlaites/Mulekites. It was also the homeland of the Jaredites, and in the correlation we are using, the area of Mesoamerica associated with the Olmec. More will be discussed about the Olmec in the Book of Ether. The important point for our current understanding is that the Nephites have moved into ancestral Jaredite lands, and that the endgame of Nephite civilization will take place in the same general geographic area as the end of the Jaredites. This is an irony that is not lost on Mormon.
Chronological: The one hundred and sixty third year would be 353 A.D.
2 And it came to pass that the armies of the Nephites were driven back again to the land of Desolation. And while they were yet weary, a fresh army of the Lamanites did come upon them; and they had a sore battle, insomuch that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation, and did slay many of the Nephites, and did take many prisoners.
This verse is the fulfillment of the vow made by the Nephites in Mormon 3:10. Mormon has removed himself from leadership of the army because he knows that they are fighting without the Lord, and engaging in what Mormon understands will be a futile offensive. Rather than fight defensively, as Mormon had been doing, these Mormon-less Nephites take the attack to their Lamanite/Gadianton enemies. The result is that they are defeated, and when they retreat, they are in a sufficiently weakened state that they lose the city of Desolation. The descriptions of the results of war have shifted in these last wars from the previous wars. We have noted that the previous wars tended not to be for territorial acquisition, but for the imposition of tribute, retaining the local leadership. Now the wars are shifting to a more virulent type, and one of the accompanying figures is the taking of “many prisoners.”
The shift in the nature of the warfare is likely the result of the influence of the Gadianton robbers in the Lamanite army, and the connection made in this commentary between the Gadianton robbers and the Teotihuacan influence. Part of this influence would extend to an escalation in the cult of war, and the taking of prisoners would be an indication of the intention of using those prisoners in human sacrifice.
3 And the remainder did flee and join the inhabitants of the city Teancum. Now the city Teancum lay in the borders by the seashore; and it was also near the city Desolation.
4 And it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them.
Mormon had assessed the situation and decided that only a defensive war would allow the Nephites to prevail against the “exceeding great power” of this new kind of army (see Mormon 2:3 and commentary following). Nevertheless, the Nephites had decided to take the offensive. An offensive tends to require more men, and certainly more effort, than a defensive war. With the advantages of defensible position and virtually unassailable supply lines of Mormon’s last defensive stronghold, the Nephites were able to withstand. However, when they had to turn the tables and attack an enemy position that certainly would have had some defensive perimeter, they were on equal footing at best, and at worst (and it seems worst was the case) in a much worse position. The defeat of the Nephite army created the need for rapid retreat, and weakened both the army and the nature of the defenses. Significantly, the Lamanite/Gadianton robber army is now through the narrow pass, and that natural barrier that was a protection once from the north, and now from the south is no longer a factor.
From this point on, the Lamanite/Gadianton force that had “exceeding great power” is once again in more open territory, and occupies cities in the most northern parts of the Nephite lands.
5 But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.
For Mormon, the Nephite failing is not simply military, it is also moral. They are failing because God is no longer fighting battles with them, and God is not there because the Nephites refuse to invite him.
6 And it came to pass that the Lamanites did make preparations to come against the city Teancum.
7 And it came to pass in the three hundred and sixty and fourth year the Lamanites did come against the city Teancum, that they might take possession of the city Teancum also.
Chronological: the three hundred and sixty fourth year would be 354 A.D. In the course of 1 years worth of seasonal war, the Nephites have attempted an advance (in Mormon 4:1) and have been defeated. They have lost their first city of defense, Desolation, and now the battle begins for their second city of retreat.
8 And it came to pass that they were repulsed and driven back by the Nephites. And when the Nephites saw that they had driven the Lamanites they did again boast of their own strength; and they went forth in their own might, and took possession again of the city Desolation.
The year interval between the first Nephite initiative and this stand at Teancum suggests that the initial foray that was defeated created a rapid retreat. That rapid retreat was followed by the Lamanite/Gadianton army. The Nephites stopped at Desolation, but with the pursuing army on their heels, they had to rely on existing defenses, which were inadequate. After the retreat they stop at Teancum.
This gives us a picture of a Lamanite/Gadianton army in Desolation (the first city north of the narrow pass) and the Nephite army at Teancum. The result of the Lamanite/Gadianton attack on Teancum is different, and it appears to come about one year later. It would appear that between the conquest of Desolation and the attack on Teancum, the fighting ceased in typical Mesoamerican fashion to allow for planting. When hostilities resumed, the Nephites would have had more time to strengthen the defenses around Teancum, and those efforts were successful. Of course it might also be that Teancum was already a larger, better-defended city, but the timing suggests that there was a respite where the Nephites could recover.
When the Nephites counter attack, it is now the Lamanites who have a tenuous supply line, perhaps exacerbated by the narrow neck of land. While the Lamanites had a supply system south of Desolation, it had to come through the narrow neck, implying that it would be restricting to a supply column. The supplies would be available, but stretched out for longer, and therefore take longer to arrive. With just the single city north of that point as a defensive position, and with the likelihood that they had attacked after planting but before harvest, the Lamanite/Gadianton army would be in a position of tenuous supply. Mormon gives us little details of the retaking of Desolation, but the supply-line picture suggests that Desolation was probably given up quite easily in a strategic retreat.
9 And now all these things had been done, and there had been thousands slain on both sides, both the Nephites and the Lamanites.
The death toll in this war will continue to mount. While there have been deaths in war before, it appears that this war is particularly devastating. Even though captives are being taken, the goals of the war are such that deaths in conflict are high. Hassig reminds us that the reporting of dead in a war is sometimes related to the intent of the chroniclers. Victories perhaps underestimate dead, and defeats might overestimate them (Ross Hassig. Aztec Warfare. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1988, p. 117). For instance, in victories, the Aztec report large numbers of captives, and relatively few Aztec dead (in the hundreds). In contrast, the defeats give numbers such as 21,900 Aztec dead, and 8,200 dead in another account (Ross Hassig. Aztec Warfare. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1988, p. 301).
The problem with a devastating war with many dead is that it takes removes a greater percentage of the productive male population among the Nephites than it does among the Lamanite/Gadianton army. That army is extended a long way from its homeland, and is succeeding because the alliances of the people who remained in the former Nephite lands southward has been turned to this new army (Mormon 2:8). Thus in a war of attrition, the Nephites are doomed. They simply don’t have the available population from which to pull their armies as do the Lamanite/Gadianton army.
10 And it came to pass that the three hundred and sixty and sixth year had passed away, and the Lamanites came again upon the Nephites to battle; and yet the Nephites repented not of the evil they had done, but persisted in their wickedness continually.
11 And it is impossible for the tongue to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of the blood and carnage which was among the people, both of the Nephites and of the Lamanites; and every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually.
12 And there never had been so great wickedness among all the children of Lehi, nor even among all the house of Israel, according to the words of the Lord, as was among this people.
13 And it came to pass that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation, and this because their number did exceed the number of the Nephites.
The war halts for two years. Certainly the Nephites would spend some of that time increasing their defenses, but the Lamanite/Gadianton army certainly spends it preparing for a massive assault on the Nephite lands. When the war begins, Mormon can only lament that “it is impossible for the tongue to describe… the scene of the blood and carnage.” The Nephites were in defended positions, but the Lamanite/Gadianton army had come prepared with and army that “did exceed the number of the Nephites.” It is quite certain that “did exceed” was not to be measured in a few troops, but in a rather overwhelming presence. The Lamanite/Gadianton army had been preparing for two years. This would give them time to collect a large army, and gather the supplies that would be needed for a sustained assault.
Desolation is the first city north of the narrow pass, and they take it, although with much bloodshed. Nevertheless, the Nephite losses are also great, and cost more than numerically comparable losses among the Lamanite/Gadiantons. The percentage of loss would be much higher among the Nephites.
Chronological: The three hundred and sixty sixth year would be 357 A.D.
14 And they did also march forward against the city Teancum, and did drive the inhabitants forth out of her, and did take many prisoners both women and children, and did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods.
Cultural/Textual: Mormon has mentioned prisoners previously. This is the first time that he mentions women and children being taken as prisoners, and it is the first time that he mentions that the “did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods.” In a Mesoamerican context, human sacrifice was an entrenched part of the culture, and was certainly practiced before this particular mention in Mormon. As discussed in the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the best explanation of the events of that story revolve around the need for sacrifices to accompany an enthronement of a new king (see the commentary following Alma 16:3-4).
If human sacrifice had been a part of Mesoamerican culture for hundreds of years, and captives from the Nephites had quite likely been sacrificed before this time, why mention it now? The key is that there is a shift in the rules of the game. The men would have understood that this was an aspect of warfare. However, this instance is not male captives, but women and children. It is this shift in the type of captives taken for sacrifice that enrages the Nephites, not just the sacrifice.
How may we be certain that it was the women and children being captured and not specifically sacrifice that was the notable aspect of this event? There is very little chance that the sacrifices would be performed on the field of battle. Captives were taken back to the cities for sacrifice. Therefore, the Nephites would not have seen the sacrifice. For Mormon to know that the women and children were headed for sacrificial altars requires his unstated cultural understanding that sacrifice was the reason for taking captives. Since they were captured, therefore they were to be sacrificed.
It is this type of information that tells us about the nature of the text that we have from Mormon. Mormon is writing in a high-context society. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this type of society and writing for the Biblical writers:
“In this way biblical authors, like most authors writing in the high-context ancient Mediterranean world, presume that readers have a broad and concrete knowledge of their common social context. That is a given. Moreover, a document like John makes the additional assumption that its original readers/hearers were members of an alternate society. It expects them to have a high knowledge of that peculiar context and thus offers little by way of extended explanation.
…By contrast, “low-context” societies are those that assume “low” knowledge of the context of any communication. They produce highly specific and detailed documents that leave little for the reader to fill in or supply.” (Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1998, pp. 16-7).
The example at hand demonstrates how this high-context expectation works. Mormon has never mentioned human sacrifice before, even though stories like the Anti-Nephi-Lehies are strongly suggestive that the practice was known in the Book of Mormon times. We have no mention, even though archaeology also suggests that it would be present in those times. It is never mentioned, precisely because it is part of the high-context cultural information that Mormon assumes should be part of the background his reader brings to the text.
When we do get a mention of the sacrifice, it is not because Mormon is explaining that human sacrifices occur, but because they have taken women and children for those sacrifices. This is the “new” piece of information that would have been significant in the high-context society. The rules had changed, and that change was worthy of special note. This instance substantiates the assumption that Mormon is living in a high-context ancient culture, and that what he writes requires that we understand that background to fill in the details. Details he explicitly mentioned come from the contrast to expectations, but provide for us some of the most valuable clues to rectify our cultural vision to that of Mormon.
15 And it came to pass that in the three hundred and sixty and seventh year, the Nephites being angry because the Lamanites had sacrificed their women and their children, that they did go against the Lamanites with exceedingly great anger, insomuch that they did beat again the Lamanites, and drive them out of their lands.
This change in procedure violated moral rules that were assumed in war. The Nephites would have assumed that one of the consequences of war was the capture and sacrifice of men. The change to include women and children so violated their understanding that their anger increased their strength. It is also quite probable that the Lamanite/Gadianton army had been counting on defections in the land just as they had had in the more southern areas. This defection may have reversed upon this action, as the Nephite defectors would have had similar cultural abhorrence of the sacrifice of women and children (an abhorrence that was not shared in the greater Mesoamerican community. Certainly such sacrifices were known for the later Aztecs). This loss of support and the increased fury of the Nephites is successful in driving the Lamanite/Gadianton army back, “out” of Nephite lands.
It might be tempting to assume that driving the Lamanite/Gadiantons out of the Nephite lands meant that Bountiful and Zarahemla were recaptured. There is no textual evidence for this. Indeed, when the Lamanite/Gadiantons come again, their first named target is Desolation. It would appear that the Nephites had conceded the loss of lands south of the narrow pass. The “Nephite lands” of their final battle were not even part of the traditional Nephite lands that centered on Zarahemla. That territory had been irretrievably lost.
16 And the Lamanites did not come again against the Nephites until the three hundred and seventy and fifth year.
17 And in this year they did come down against the Nephites with all their powers; and they were not numbered because of the greatness of their number.
The last incursion had been eight years earlier. The previous invasion had been two years in preparation. The Lamanite/Gadiantons had brought a massive army the previous time, but this time they seem to decide to erase all change of defeat. They come with “all their powers.” Since Mormon adds this phrase to his description of their virtually numberless number, he appears to have some other “power” in mind. This is perhaps a reference similar to the “exceeding great power” that we saw in the beginning of this conflict in Mormon 2:3. Perhaps the participation of Teotihuacan military forces has not been consistent, as was present in the earliest, and now in this massive (and final) incursion.
Chronological: The three hundred and seventy fifth year would be 365 A.D.
18 And from this time forth did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun.
Mormon is certainly writing after the fact. This is a statement that foreshadows what will come, indicating that the author knows, and therefore shows us that this is truly the ending scenes. Mormon’s description does not even appear to allow for much struggle on the part of the Nephites. They melt away before this invasion like “dew before the sun.” It is inevitable.
19 And it came to pass that the Lamanites did come down against the city Desolation; and there was an exceedingly sore battle fought in the land Desolation, in the which they did beat the Nephites.
20 And they fled again from before them, and they came to the city Boaz; and there they did stand against the Lamanites with exceeding boldness, insomuch that the Lamanites did not beat them until they had come again the second time.
In spite of the overall inevitability, there were some temporary successes for the Nephites. They are able to make a stand at Boaz, but only against the first assault. In the second, that city is taken as well.
21 And when they had come the second time, the Nephites were driven and slaughtered with an exceedingly great slaughter; their women and their children were again sacrificed unto idols.
Two things are important here, beyond the loss of the city. The first is that the Nephites were “slaughtered with an exceedingly great slaughter.” The Nephites are already vastly outnumbered, and their physical numbers are diminishing. Their fighting population with the skills to resist are dwindling. Attrition is on the side of the invaders.
The second point is that the women and children are again sacrificed to idols. This tells us that this is a part of the cultural catalogue of these invaders. It is not something done to infuriate the enemy. The last time it occasioned a fierce response. There is no fear on the part of the Lamanite/Gadianton army that this will happen again. Again, they take women and children prisoners, and they are destined for sacrifice.
22 And it came to pass that the Nephites did again flee from before them, taking all the inhabitants with them, both in towns and villages.
The response to the previous occasion when women and children were taken captive for sacrifice was an impassioned and successful counter attack. This time, it is a full retreat. The new information that we have here is that in the retreat they took “all the inhabitants with them, both in towns and villages.” Once again, the details that Mormon presents allows us to understand that these are the unusual cases. We are therefore to understand that the typical mode of retreat left the inhabitants of towns an villages in place while armies fought around them. This is, in fact, the typical mode of warfare known from that region of the world.
In this case, something has changed. What has changed is the sacrifice of women and children. Since the Nephites can no longer protect them by driving the Lamanites from the land, they must protect them by removing them from the possibility of capture. Mormon gives us this information because it is a change in the way Nephites fought wars. It is a logical tactic in response to the sacrifice of the women and the children.
23 And now I, Mormon, seeing that the Lamanites were about to overthrow the land, therefore I did go to the hill Shim, and did take up all the records which Ammaron had hid up unto the Lord.
With the entire land in danger, the sacred records are also in danger. Mormon takes them from the hill Shim to keep them in his personal protection. He also takes them to have access to them. If Shim held the records, and the Lamanites held Shim, Mormon would be cut off from the sources that he needed to write his great work of warning for future generations.
Textual: There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002