1 And it came to pass that I did go forth among the Nephites, and did repent of the oath which I had made that I would no more assist them; and they gave me command again of their armies, for they looked upon me as though I could deliver them from their afflictions.
2 But behold, I was without hope, for I knew the judgments of the Lord which should come upon them; for they repented not of their iniquities, but did struggle for their lives without calling upon that Being who created them.
These may be some of the saddest verses in the entire Book of Mormon. We have Mormon the former general who is now nearly sixty five years old deciding to “repent of the oath which I had made that I would no more assist them.” We might be inclined to see this as a hope that he might turn things around, but we see that same Mormon in verse 2 admitting that “I was without hope.” Thus we have an aged man assuming a responsibility at which he knows in his heart he will fail. Surely he changed his mind because he desires to put up the best struggle possible, but he has already decided that the end is in sight.
The people who accept him back appear to do so with hope of their own. They “looked upon me as though I could deliver them from their afflictions.” They had great hope that a man who had once stopped the invaders might do so again. The people’s great hope is a dramatic contrast to the man himself, in whom no hope survived.
3 And it came to pass that the Lamanites did come against us as we had fled to the city of Jordan; but behold, they were driven back that they did not take the city at that time.
4 And it came to pass that they came against us again, and we did maintain the city. And there were also other cities which were maintained by the Nephites, which strongholds did cut them off that they could not get into the country which lay before us, to destroy the inhabitants of our land.
Mormon is initially successful in defending some of the cities. He repulses an attack on Jordan two times. Other cities were also able to hold off the onslaught. The people must have been extremely hopeful at this point. Mormon had returned to them, and immediately they are more successful than they had been in recent years. The people would be growing more hopeful. Mormon would not.
5 And it came to pass that whatsoever lands we had passed by, and the inhabitants thereof were not gathered in, were destroyed by the Lamanites, and their towns, and villages, and cities were burned with fire; and thus three hundred and seventy and nine years passed away.
The Lamanite/Gadianton army is enforcing a type of scorched earth policy. As they beat back the Nephites, they completely destroy the cities that they take. This tactic removes usable land and resources from both armies. It is effective for an attacking army if they can move swiftly enough, of if they have a strong enough line of supply. Apparently, the Lamanites had both.
Chronological: Three hundred and seventy nine years would be 370 A.D. Mormon the general is now about 69 years old.
6 And it came to pass that in the three hundred and eightieth year the Lamanites did come again against us to battle, and we did stand against them boldly; but it was all in vain, for so great were their numbers that they did tread the people of the Nephites under their feet.
Mormon’s lack of hope is unfortunately the better predictor of the ultimate fate of the Nephites. The Lamanite army appears to be increasing in size. This would suggest that as they have moved through the Nephite lands, many of the people of those lands shifted allegiance to the army that was clearly going to be the victor. Such opportunism was a matter of survival for many.
The Lamanites come with an army that is apparently even larger than the army that was so large it could not be counted. There is doubtless slaughter involved on both sides, but the shere weight of numbers is clearly on the Lamanite side. The end is now upon the Nephites.
7 And it came to pass that we did again take to flight, and those whose flight was swifter than the Lamanites' did escape, and those whose flight did not exceed the Lamanites' were swept down and destroyed.
When the defensive positions are overrun, there is no calculated retreat, no strategic withdrawal. There is flight. The flight is rapid and cannot make certain to retreat in a group. There are stragglers, and those who can escape faster are unable to slow to help their former comrades-in-arms. This is a panicked and desperate headlong flight away from the massive numbers that have overrun their positions.
8 And now behold, I, Mormon, do not desire to harrow up the souls of men in casting before them such an awful scene of blood and carnage as was laid before mine eyes; but I, knowing that these things must surely be made known, and that all things which are hid must be revealed upon the house-tops—
Narrative: Mormon breaks his story. He has lived through it, and doubtless does not want to relive the scene. By the time Mormon is writing these words, he is more aware of the end of his people than every before. Since he cannot save his people, his thoughts increasingly turn to those he might save – those future readers of his writings. This shift in Mormon’s attention, away from his doomed people, and toward the future readers of the Book of Mormon who have hope in repentance and in the gospel, happens at this verse, and continues through the end of Mormon’s original chapter (which coincides with the end of this chapter in our current Book of Mormon).
9 And also that a knowledge of these things must come unto the remnant of these people, and also unto the Gentiles, who the Lord hath said should scatter this people, and this people should be counted as naught among them—therefore I write a small abridgment, daring not to give a full account of the things which I have seen, because of the commandment which I have received, and also that ye might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people.
[also that a knowledge of these things must come unto the remnant of these people]: Mormon understands that he is writing for a future audience. He had no hope that he could save his contemporaneous people, but he does have hope that he can save the future remnant of that same people. At this point where he sees the current failure, he turns more fervently to the possible future success.
Textual: Mormon tells us rather certainly that he is writing an abridgement at the time he is describing. Therefore he was in the process of writing during the three hundred and eightieth year, or when he as nearly 70 years old. We cannot tell where he was in the creation of the abridgement, but we can be certain that at this year he was in the process of writing it.
10 And now behold, this I speak unto their seed, and also to the Gentiles who have care for the house of Israel, that realize and know from whence their blessings come.
[to the Gentiles who have care for the house of Israel]: This is an interesting phrase because it describes a relationship between Israel and the Gentiles that has no obvious antecedent. Mormon is citing this information rather quickly, and without explanation, therefore assuming that it is something that we ought to know. Mormon is referencing scripture, and he is referencing passages in Isaiah that we have see twice before, but only in the holographic text of Nephi, son of Lehi (see 1 Nephi 21:22-23 , and 2 Nephi 6:6-7). The reference is:
22 Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.
23 And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
These are the only verses in our current Book of Mormon that clearly position the Gentiles as the protectors of Israel. The discourse of the Savior during his visit explains the role of the Gentiles in bringing for the gospel and the Book of Mormon, but never describes them as protectors. Only in this passage do we find the Gentiles in such a position relative to Israel.
11 For I know that such will sorrow for the calamity of the house of Israel; yea, they will sorrow for the destruction of this people; they will sorrow that this people had not repented that they might have been clasped in the arms of Jesus.
Mormon is addressing the Gentiles who are the protectors of Israel, and those who “realize and know from whence their blessings come.” (verse 10).
These Gentiles will be the ones who will recognize the true state of the house of Israel and understand their sorrow rather than condemn them. The contrast between types of Gentiles was part of the Savior’s message that Mormon recorded:
3 Nephi 16:6-9
6 And blessed are the Gentiles, because of their belief in me, in and of the Holy Ghost, which witnesses unto them of me and of the Father.
7 Behold, because of their belief in me, saith the Father, and because of the unbelief of you, O house of Israel, in the latter day shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them.
8 But wo, saith the Father, unto the unbelieving of the Gentiles—for notwithstanding they have come forth upon the face of this land, and have scattered my people who are of the house of Israel; and my people who are of the house of Israel have been cast out from among them, and have been trodden under feet by them;
9 And because of the mercies of the Father unto the Gentiles, and also the judgments of the Father upon my people who are of the house of Israel, verily, verily, I say unto you, that after all this, and I have caused my people who are of the house of Israel to be smitten, and to be afflicted, and to be slain, and to be cast out from among them, and to become hated by them, and to become a hiss and a byword among them—
The Gentiles who are true believers will support truth and Israel in the latter days. The Gentiles who are not will consider Israel a “hiss and a byword.”
12 Now these things are written unto the remnant of the house of Jacob; and they are written after this manner, because it is known of God that wickedness will not bring them forth unto them; and they are to be hid up unto the Lord that they may come forth in his own due time.
As Mormon focuses on the one task in which he has hope, that this record will fulfill its prophesied role, he writes down the thoughts he has about that future. First, the people to whom it is directed. While Mormon usually includes the Gentiles as a target, his first interest is always in the remnant of the house of Jacob. Mormon understands that the Book of Mormon will come to the Gentiles, but his interests are heavily weighted towards his own people, the remnant of the house of Jacob.
[they are written after this manner, because it is known of God that wickedness will not bring them forth unto them]: This statement is enigmatic. Mormon is stating that there is something in the manner in which is message is written that is ordained of God because of the way it will come forth. The next sentence confirms that the coming forth of his text in latter days is what is on his mind. Therefore, it would appear that the manner of the writing was selected to assist in the manner of the coming forth. The probable meaning here is that the writing of his text on plates rather than on a perishable material is ordained of God so that the text would survive the method of delivery, which was to include being “hid up unto the Lord.”
13 And this is the commandment which I have received; and behold, they shall come forth according to the commandment of the Lord, when he shall see fit, in his wisdom.
14 And behold, they shall go unto the unbelieving of the Jews; and for this intent shall they go—that they may be persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; that the Father may bring about, through his most Beloved, his great and eternal purpose, in restoring the Jews, or all the house of Israel, to the land of their inheritance, which the Lord their God hath given them, unto the fulfilling of his covenant;
In our Book of Mormon, which was translated by Joseph Smith, there is a distinction to be made between the remnant of the house of Israel or Jacob and the “Jews.” Scholars have pointed out that the use of the term “Jew” in the Book of Mormon is anachronistic to the time of the text, and it is. A “Jew” is a reference to one who was one of the remaining two tribes in the southern kingdom after the destruction and dispersal of the northern kingdom. However, by Joseph Smith’s time, it was the common word for the people of the Bible, and understandably part of the way he understood what he was translating.
When Joseph translates, a distinction that was on the plates survives in the way he uses vocabulary. That distinction is between his own people, who are lineally of the same people as those of the Old World. The distinction that is made in the Book of Mormon is that the New World “people of the Book” are a branch of, or more typically, a remnant of, the house of Israel. The Old World branch is designated as the Jews.
What we have at this point in Mormon’s writing about the future of his text is Mormon writing first and foremost to the remnant, or to the future descendants of his own people. When he mentions the intended reader of his text in verses 9 and 10, he declares that the text is form “the remnant of these people” (verse 9), or “their seed” (verse 10). Only after directing the text to those people does Mormon add, almost parenthetically, and in both cases, “also unto the Gentiles.”
Now Mormon adds a third intended audience, and that is the Jews proper. The Book of Mormon is intended for a wide audience, but Mormon presents the order as remnant, Gentile, Jew. It is interesting that the actual order of presentation was Gentile, remnant, Jew, which was the prophesied order (such as in 3 Nephi 21).
15 And also that the seed of this people may more fully believe his gospel, which shall go forth unto them from the Gentiles; for this people shall be scattered, and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites, and this because of their unbelief and idolatry.
Mormon still returns to his primary interest, the “seed of this people.” At this point, Mormon repeats the cultural statement that defines the comparison between Lamanite and Nephite, between bad and good in the Nephite vocabulary. The righteous who are “white and delightsome” are becoming unrighteous, or “dark and loathsome.” There is no missing the point that these two phrases are intentionally opposite. They are meant to describe opposite conditions.
What Mormon also tells us is that the way in which his people will survive to the time of the coming of the Book of Mormon is becoming in every way like the Lamanites around them. They will adopt all of their culture, including “their unbelief and idolatry.” While that statement specifically defines the current Nephites, it is indicative of the ways in which the Nephites have already become just like their enemies.
[beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us]: This is a statement that appears to be quite similar to common statements from virtually every period of man’s history, that we are more wicked now than we have ever been. Mormon is stating that his descendant Nephites-become-Lamanites will become even more wicked. While this may be read as a generic statement, it is also possible to read this statement in the context of Mormon’s times. We have already seen that there are two types of innovations happening in Mormon’s world that we have not seen before. There is a war of destruction that will actually burn enemy cities, and there is the sacrifice of women and children that is apparently so new and appalling that Mormon comments upon it specifically. It is therefore very tempting to have this Mormon witnessing the transformation of his land and culture under the imported threat of the Central Mexicans from Teotihucan with their newly imported ideas, and Mormon understanding that those Teotihuacanos represent the world into which his descendants will pass. It would be no wonder that he would see their future as “beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us.”
16 For behold, the Spirit of the Lord hath already ceased to strive with their fathers; and they are without Christ and God in the world; and they are driven about as chaff before the wind.
[their fathers]: The fathers of the descendants of the Nephites, or the Nephites of Mormon’s day. Mormon’s pessimism in his own people is most evidence in this verse when he declares that “the Spirit of the Lord hath already ceased to strive” with his people. They have already gone so far into the mindset of the world that they have forgotten their God, and will not allow God back into their hearts. That condition will always lead to destruction, of the soul if not the body.
17 They were once a delightsome people, and they had Christ for their shepherd; yea, they were led even by God the Father.
18 But now, behold, they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her; and even as she is, so are they.
Mormon is lamenting the transformation of his people. Note that his vocabulary continues to echo the cultural comparative statement “delightsome.” He notes that they were once delightsome, but now they are not. Once they have followed Christ, now the follow Satan.
Translation: Joseph Smith’s cultural assumptions arise in his translation of Mormon’s lament. While it is quite certain that the intent of these passages was what Mormon attempted to communicate, it is equally certain that the specific phrases come from the modern context rather than the ancient ones. From a Mesoamerican standpoint, none of the items used to create the imagery used in this last sentence were part of Mesoamerican culture at the time that Mormon was writing.
Chaff: The imagery of chaff is related to grains such as wheat where the chaff around the edible portion must be removed. The chaff is light, and therefore flies away in the wind. It is an image frequently used in the Bible, which was a culture familiar with this type of grain. Mesoamerica, however, did not use such grains. Neither the stable corn nor beans would have anything that would work be similar to chaff. This imagery comes form the Bible or modern idiom rather than plate text.
Vessel with sail, no way to steer: The vessel adrift on the waters is another ready image in seafaring peoples of the Old World, and those who came to the New World from the Old. Mesoamerica had sea-going vessels, but they were large man-powered canoes. There were no vessels with sails, so an image of a vessel without a sail would hardly be appropriate for the Mesoamerican context. Similarly, the lack of a way to steer refers to the loss of the rudder, another innovation that was available in the Old World, but not in Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican canoes were steered by the paddlers, not rudders.
19 And behold, the Lord hath reserved their blessings, which they might have received in the land, for the Gentiles who shall possess the land.
Mormon indicates that the Lord’s foundational blessing for the land, which was possession upon conditions of righteousness, was to pass from the Nephites to the later Gentiles. Thus the land is blessed for the benefit of those who inhabit it, and the same conditions apply. Righteousness will bring freedom from domination by others.
20 But behold, it shall come to pass that they shall be driven and scattered by the Gentiles; and after they have been driven and scattered by the Gentiles, behold, then will the Lord remember the covenant which he made unto Abraham and unto all the house of Israel.
Mormon’s mind’s eye is looking to the future. He began with the coming forth of his text, but since his focus was on his people, he returns to the future conditions of those people. The destruction of the Nephites and the scattering by the Gentiles is an old prophecy (most notably 1 Nephi 13). Mormon restates it here. The Nephites are currently being driven by the Lamanites. The mixed remnant will similarly be driven by the Gentiles. Mormon likely sees this coming entrance of the Gentiles as just such a parallel event, brought on the by the similar wickedness of the mixed descendants of his people who will survive until that time.
21 And also the Lord will remember the prayers of the righteous, which have been put up unto him for them.
22 And then, O ye Gentiles, how can ye stand before the power of God, except ye shall repent and turn from your evil ways?
Just like the current Lamanites/Gadiantons who are causing the destruction and scattering of the Nephites are not righteous, Mormon has no expectations that those Gentiles who will perform the parallel scattering of this currently dominant people will be any more righteous. Mormon is now looking past the historical event of the coming of the Gentiles to the events that will usher in the last days, when the Gentiles will be able to receive the book Mormon is now writing.
23 Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God? Know ye not that he hath all power, and at his great command the earth shall be rolled together as a scroll?
Reference: Mormon makes an interesting reference here that is difficult to assess because of the translation. The obvious reference is to the ultimate power of God. The problem is not in the idea, but in the presentation of the idea. The idea that something should be rolled as a scroll is certainly a Biblical image, as there were no scrolls in Mormon’s world. Therefore we understand that this is a reference to Biblical text such as we have seen before. However, this reference is not quite the way we have seen it before.
The ultimate reference is Isaiah. It is a passage that was also intentionally referenced in Revelation, and that reference from the New Testament to the earlier Isaianic passage highlights the curiosity of the Book of Mormon passage:
4 And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.
14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
In both the original and in the reference in Revelation, there is a comparability of elements. Not only is the rolling of the scroll similar, but there is an agreement that it is the heavens that will be rolled, and that it will cause the disappearance of the heavens. The Biblical reference uses the imagery of the flexible scroll as a counterpart to the cosmic image of the tent over the world, which is also flexible. When the tent-heavens are rolled up, they disappear as a barrier between the upper world and the earth. The imagery is one of removing that which separates us from God. Note that when this tent-heaven is removed in the Isaiah passage, “all their host shall fall down.” There is nothing holding the hosts of heaven up away from us any more.
Now we contrast that to the usage in Mormon. Of course the rolled scroll imagery is there, but out of cultural place, as noted. The second “problem” is that it is the earth that is being rolled, not the heavens. There is no indication that the earth will disappear.
What we have is Joseph Smith mixing his contexts. The plate context had one set of meanings, and the translation used imagery from a different context, although Biblical and understandable to Joseph. The common thread here is the end of the world. In that context both usages fit comfortably. It would appear, however, that in Mormon’s original writing the reference should have been to the earthquakes as destruction, as that would be the culturally bound notion of “rolling” in a Mesoamerican context. Joseph translated the right ideas with something that was out of place in a cultural sense. This suggests that unlike the very clear reference in Revelation that takes the full meaning and context, Joseph’s borrowing was lexical only.
24 Therefore, repent ye, and humble yourselves before him, lest he shall come out in justice against you—lest a remnant of the seed of Jacob shall go forth among you as a lion, and tear you in pieces, and there is none to deliver.
Textual: This is the end of a chapter in the 1830 edition. At this intended ending, Mormon’s appropriate conclusion is an exhortation to his future audience to do what his people have not, to humble themselves before God. The last reference is to the role reversal that is mentioned in 3 Nephi 21:12 (see the commentary on that and surrounding passages for more information on this reversal.)
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002