1 And it came to pass that in this same year, behold, Nephi delivered up the judgment-seat to a man whose name was Cezoram.
2 For as their laws and their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted.
Social: The essential information portrayed here is simple. Nephi is no longer the chief judge. Now it is Cezoram. What is not as clear is the way that judgment-seat is given up. It appears form verse 2 that it was not a voluntary relinquishing of the judgment-seat such as we saw with Alma the Younger. Mormon’s comment that the people who “chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good” suggest that this is the operation of the “voice of the people.” When Mosiah instituted that mechanism as the chief way that the government would operate, he noted:
26 Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
27 And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.
Mormon’s language echoes Mosiah’s cautionary clause. Mosiah declares that when the voice of the people turns to evil (that is, not the traditional Nephite values) then they are ripe for destruction. This is precisely the message that Mormon echoes. The people are beginning to chose evil, and therefore are on their way to destruction.
What we are not told is precisely how this voice of the people operates to make the change. We have seen that the transference of the judgment seat was often a lineage right, even with the voice of the people in operation. It appears in those cases that the voice of the people indicated assent. Assuming that scenario, the voice of the people would function here as a vote of confidence does in many modern governments. There was some mechanism that noted the shift in popular support, and Nephi was no longer supported. It would appear that the political faction that has been nipping at the heels of Nephite government has finally achieved majority in the Nephite culture.
Redaction: We should note that this is a passage from Mormon, and that the language in verse 2 is specifically selected to follow Mormon’s theme that the destruction of the Nephites is due to their rejection of the ways of God. Mormon has read Mosiah, and this reference to Mosiah is intentional. Mormon is demonstrating that in both the more religious and the more political branches of reality, the Nephites are straying from truth.
3 Yea, and this was not all; they were a stiffnecked people, insomuch that they could not be governed by the law nor justice, save it were to their destruction.
Social: Mormon’s statement is somewhat convoluted. He states that the Nephites “could not e governed by the law nor justice.” This makes it sound like they were refusing to be governed by law. This would not be the correct reading. Mormon’s final clause tells us why. They could not be governed by law “save it were to their destruction.” In other words, they were governed by law, but it was to their destruction. Mormon’s reference here is to the reversal of popular opinion that has removed Nephi from the judgment seat and turned the government over to the faction that has been advocating departing from the traditional Nephite ideals. As Mormon has been saying, this departure from God will lead to their destruction.
In this latest development in Nephite political structure, we should therefore expect that the government continued as before, but with a change in political parties, to use a modern analogy. For Mormon, this completely legal shift in political emphasis is nevertheless an error because it moves away from the Nephite religious ideals, and this departure into wickedness (defined as that departure) will cause their destruction because of the condition in the Nephite foundational promise.
4 And it came to pass that Nephi had become weary because of their iniquity; and he yielded up the judgment-seat, and took it upon him to preach the word of God all the remainder of his days, and his brother Lehi also, all the remainder of his days;
As with Alma the Younger, Nephi may have give up the judgment seat, but he has not given up hope for his people. Since the problem is that the people have begun to abandon their religion, the solution is to call them to repentance.
5 For they remembered the words which their father Helaman spake unto them. And these are the words which he spake:
Redaction: Mormon takes this opportunity to insert a sermon from Helaman to his sons. Mormon has held this sermon out of its historical sequence so that he may add it here as a preface to Nephi’s missionary journey. Mormon selects this particular instruction from Helaman to his sons specifically because of the theme of the unit. As noted below, this unit is leans heavily on the word remember. In Mormon’s context, he has just noted that the Nephites as a whole have moved away from their God. What Mormon is doing, though his insertion of Helaman’s admonition to his sons, is to extend that message past Nephi and Lehi and to all of the Nephites. Their social ill is that they do not properly remember. Mormon uses Helaman’s exhortation to his sons as an exhortation to all of the Nephites.
Literary: It is difficult to read Helaman’s words without noting that the word remember is repeated with unusual frequency. This is a literary technique:
“According to Robert Alter, repetition of a word or phrase is one of the most common literary devices used in the narrative of the Bible (92). Martin Buber noted this stylistic element and called it Leitworter, a German word meaning "leading words," "guide words," or "theme words." The Leitwort theory is that when a word, word-root, or phrase recurs significantly in a text, the reader is able to decipher or grasp the meaning of the text by noting these repetitions and thus can determine its theme as well (Buber 284; Alter 93-95; Fishbane xii). Alter further explained this repetition of key words or key phrases in a text, stating:
The repetition of single words or brief phrases often exhibits a frequency, a saliency, and a thematic significance.... The one most prominent device involving the repetition of single words is the use of the Leitwort, the thematic key-word, as a way of enunciating and developing the moral, historical, psychological, or theological meanings of the story. (179-180; emphasis added)
Michael Fishbane discusses the phenomenon of Leitworter as follows:
One particular recurrent and transparent technique is the Leitwort (theme-word). Because Hebrew words are essentially built around triliteral stems, the same stem may recur in one and the same text in different nominal, verbal, and adjectival forms. Such repetition, where it occurs, give a text special texture; and it also serves to highlight major and minor features of content. A reader may thus be guided or provoked towards certain interpretations on the basis of theme-words recurrent in one or several texts which are thereby brought into association. And what applies to words is equally pertinent with respect to larger themes or motifs. Through such stylistic means, latent networks of intra- and inter- textual meaning may be perceived by an interpreter. (xii)
The main function of such Leitworter seems to be to express the principal theme of a story. The narrative thus provides its own interpretation by repetition of what is essential to its understanding (Watson 288; Buber 52).” (Ronald D. Anderson. “Leitworter in Helaman and 3 Nephi.” Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Helaman through 3 Nephi 8: According to Thy Word [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1992], 241.)
It is precisely this emphasis on remembering that Mormon uses as his reason for inserting this discourse at this point in his narrative. The Nephites have forgotten their God. They must remember. It is this essential recognition of the covenants of the past that led President Spencer W. Kimball to note: "When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be remember. Because all of you have made covenants—you know what to do and you know how to do it—our greatest need is to remember... Remember is the word. Remember is the program." (cited in Robert E. Parsons. “The Practices of the Church.” Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 8: Alma 30 to Moroni [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988], 286.)
6 Behold, my sons, I desire that ye should remember to keep the commandments of God; and I would that ye should declare unto the people these words. Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how that it is said, and also written, that they were good.
As Helaman begins his charge to his sons, he begins with their names. In the ancient world names were considered as more powerful that simply a convenient identification. Names could alter the person, or at the very least were seen as a representation of the nature of the person. It is for this reason that Abram is changed to Abraham. The person did not change, but there was a change in the fundamental relationship of that person to God and to promises, a fundamental difference that was important enough that it became embodied in the name.
It is in this light that we should understand not only the naming of Nephi and Lehi, but this charge from Helaman to his sons. Helaman returns to the reasons for which his sons were named for these first progenitors. The intent was that the names would be evocative of the person of those early fathers. As Helaman notes: “and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works…” Helaman names his sons so that they are connected to the works of those first progenitors. Of course the reason for the emulation of the works is that both Lehi and Nephi are “good” in the sense that they were faithful representatives of God.
7 Therefore, my sons, I would that ye should do that which is good, that it may be said of you, and also written, even as it has been said and written of them.
Helaman uses the description of “good” that was attached to the works of the first Nephi and Lehi to now charge his sons to similarly “do that which is good.” For Helaman, the “good” is inextricable from the gospel. Just was Nephi and Lehi were righteous men, so to are these later namesakes to be similarly righteous, to be “good” in the spiritual sense rather than simply in a social context.
8 And now my sons, behold I have somewhat more to desire of you, which desire is, that ye may not do these things that ye may boast, but that ye may do these things to lay up for yourselves a treasure in heaven, yea, which is eternal, and which fadeth not away; yea, that ye may have that precious gift of eternal life, which we have reason to suppose hath been given to our fathers.
Helaman also charges his sons to be righteous for the right reasons. While Helaman does not evoke the same imagery as does Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, the intent is the same. These namesakes are to be righteous for the sake of God, not the sake of man.
Translation: The language in which this verse is couched echoes the language from the Sermon on the Mount. The concept of righteousness for the correct reason is the same, even though the form and specifics are different. Nevertheless, that linked meaning apparently triggered Joseph Smith’s selection of words that would evoke that passage in the New Testament that has the same meaning. The passage in Matthew is structurally different, but note the reference to the treasure in heaven that does not fade in verse 20.
1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 ¶ And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16 ¶ Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
19 ¶ Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
9 O remember, remember, my sons, the words which king Benjamin spake unto his people; yea, remember that there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, who shall come; yea, remember that he cometh to redeem the world.
Helaman has invoked the concept of remembering to link his sons to the great men for whom they were named. Now Helaman creates another spiritual tie to another important spiritual progenitor. Helaman evokes Benjamin. Not only were the specific words of Benjamin important in revealing the atoning Messiah, but it was through Benjamin that the covenant was made that the people would be Christian. By invoking Benjamin, Helaman invokes for his sons a renewal of their personal covenant to similarly be Christians, to have a firm commitment to and identification with, the “good” principles of the gospel that teaches them of the great mission of the Savior.
10 And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins.
Helaman now begins to shift from his theme of remembering their spiritual heritage to the most important thing they are to remember. The discourse now focuses specifically on the savior. This is not a change of focus, but rather the definition of what Helaman considered “good” in those great men whose names he has invoked as models for his sons.
11 And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance; therefore he hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.
Once again, the essential message of the Book of Mormon prophets is the emphasis on the atoning Messiah. The focus is the redemption from sin, hence as Helaman presents the most crucial aspects of their understanding of the Savior, the aspect that is emphasized is the redemption from sin and the necessity of repentance.
12 And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.
Translation: The building image would be familiar to anyone who lived in a culture where permanent buildings were erected, so this reference is not out of place in the Mesoamerican setting in which this commentary sees the Book of Mormon. However, once again the specific language is so evocative of the New Testament that it must have served as the translation model for the similar concepts:
24 ¶ Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
Of course the idea that they should be build “upon the rock of our Redeemer” is also evocative of another use of the phrase “upon this rock:”
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
In this case, however, the presence of the similar phrase is not sufficient to be more than a coincidence. Of course Joseph would also be familiar with this passage but the specific context of the building suggests that the previous set of verses from Matthew 7 is the literary model for the language used in this verse.
13 And it came to pass that these were the words which Helaman taught to his sons; yea, he did teach them many things which are not written, and also many things which are written.
Redaction: Mormon formally marks the end of his inserted passage. He now returns to his own synopsis of events. Structurally, Mormon presented the idea that there would be a missionary effort. He then inserts a discourse that is out of place in time, and then returns to the missionary journey. Mormon clearly sees this inserted charge from Helaman to his sons as intimately connected with this missionary journey. In what way?
The charge from Helaman did include one reference to a missionary experience when he evoked the memory of Amulek. However, for Mormon it is not the presence of the missionary name that was important, but rather the overall theme. As noted at the beginning of the section the leitwort of the entire passage is remember. That is the message that Mormon is emphasizing. In Mormon’s authorial intent, he sees the ills of Nephite society as begin cause by their departure from the gospel. Therefore remembering the covenants of the father is the essence of the missionary journey. Nephi and Lehi are to preach to the people so that they too will remember, and that they will repent and return to the gospel that they have abandoned.
14 And they did remember his words; and therefore they went forth, keeping the commandments of God, to teach the word of God among all the people of Nephi, beginning at the city Bountiful;
The remembering of Helaman’s words leads Nephi and Lehi to undertake a missionary jouney. The remembering of the goodness of the fathers will be the message that they take on their journey.
Geographic: The Nephites at this period are limited in their geographic reach, but the new stronghold is the land of Bountiful, and the city of Bountiful is logically the “capital” of this land, and therefore the seat of the government of the Nephite people. The missionary journey begins at home, begins in the heart of the land. Their first concern is to return the fallen among their own people.
15 And from thenceforth to the city of Gid; and from the city of Gid to the city of Mulek;
Gid and Mulek are both cities frequently mentioned as being in geographic proximity to Bountiful. Therefore the missionary journey begins in the heartland of the current Nephite society, and begins to move outward through the next closest cities.
16 And even from one city to another, until they had gone forth among all the people of Nephi who were in the land southward; and from thence into the land of Zarahemla, among the Lamanites.
The missionary journey is wending its way southward. The first mission is to the Nephites, and then the mission shifts in focus and moves out of Nephite territory and into the lands of the Lamanites. However, the land of the Lamanites is now not so far away in either space or time, as Nephi goes to the land of Zarahemla. Once the capital of the Nephite lands, it is now Lamanite territory.
17 And it came to pass that they did preach with great power, insomuch that they did confound many of those dissenters who had gone over from the Nephites, insomuch that they came forth and did confess their sins and were baptized unto repentance, and immediately returned to the Nephites to endeavor to repair unto them the wrongs which they had done.
As noted before, it is unlikely that all of the Nephites had left the land, and so this mission to the Lamanites was a mission to a different political unit, but quite likely to a number of people who had previously lived under Nephite rule and religion. Therefore this mission was not necessarily to “convert the heathen” but was still a form of a call to repentance. As Mormon notes, the success is centered in those who had been dissenters.
There are two types of dissenters that can be indicated in this verse. The first is the type of dissenter that we have seen creating the political havoc in Nephite government in the last fifty years of this history. Those dissenters were already rejecting the Nephite ideals and fomenting pressure for a change to the Lamanite system. It is difficult, though not impossible, for this type of dissenter to return. The problem is that they would already have had to make up their minds to separate, and justify that separation and subsequent rebellion or physical separation. Those who have actively decided to leave a religion may return, but it s a more difficult process than for those who had never known the religion before. It is therefore much more rare that such a person would return than that another type of person would convert to the religion.
The second type of dissenter that is the more likely target of Nephi’s preaching is the one whose dissent was one of convenience rather than conscience. This would be the great category of those who lived on the land and did not follow the political exodus of the Nephites to the land of Bountiful. These would be the people of the land, who throughout history have been more faithful to the land than to the vicissitudes of the governments that shift claims to their allegiance.
18 And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi did preach unto the Lamanites with such great power and authority, for they had power and authority given unto them that they might speak, and they also had what they should speak given unto them—
19 Therefore they did speak unto the great astonishment of the Lamanites, to the convincing them, insomuch that there were eight thousand of the Lamanites who were in the land of Zarahemla and round about baptized unto repentance, and were convinced of the wickedness of the traditions of their fathers.
Mormon presents the basic information about the conversion of the Lamanites, but does not give us the sermons that produced the conversion. This is in contrast to the way he presented Alma’s missionary journey. We can never be certain why Mormon leaves out information, but perhaps the message of Nephi and Lehi had already been covered in other sermons that had already been included.
There is a reason for the absence of the sermons that can be suggested, however. Mormon’s narrative pacing is increasing as he approaches the arrival of the Savior. He has built up the Nephite understanding of religion and the atoning Messiah in earlier parts of his text, but now he is moving towards the New World mission of the atoning Messiah. That event is the spiritual and textual focus of all that Mormon writes, so he does not delay our approach to that event with too many sermons. The explanation of history is sufficient.
In this case, the missionary journey is essential not only because it happened, but because it demonstrates repentance. For Mormon, it should be harder for a Lamanite to believe because of the “wickedness of the traditions of their fathers.” The tradition of the Nephites includes faithfulness, if only they would remember. This mission is therefore symbolic in its presentation more than it is instructive. Mormon’s intent in including it is not for the doctrine, but for the example that it provides. Regardless of where we are, it is possible for the spirit to touch us and return us to our God.
20 And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi did proceed from thence to go to the land of Nephi.
21 And it came to pass that they were taken by an army of the Lamanites and cast into prison; yea, even in that same prison in which Ammon and his brethren were cast by the servants of Limhi.
From the land of Zarahemla, Nephi and Lehi go deep into more traditional Lamanite territory, the ancestral land of the Nephites, the land of Nephi. Despite the ancestral ties to the land of Nephi, it has not been under Nephite control for almost two hundred years at this point. We are not told why they take this step to move into the heart of Lamanite territory, but we may speculate that the process of remembering their names and heritage pointed them in that direction. Certainly their success among the Lamanites in the land of Zarahemla would encourage them.
The reception in the land of Nephi is different from the land of Zarahemla, and perhaps further highlights the probable mixed heritage in the land of Zarahemla. Nephi and Lehi appear to be able to move freely through the land of Zarahemla, even though it was under Lamanite political control. When they move into the land of Nephi, they are captured and imprisioned. It is probable that the land of Zarahemla was more tolerant precisely because of the mixed nature of the people in that land. Once again, it is most probable that the government had changed without removing most of the resident farming population. That population would still be favorable to a Nephite passing through.
22 And after they had been cast into prison many days without food, behold, they went forth into the prison to take them that they might slay them.
Nephi and Lehi are in the land of Nephi. This is the same land that was the home of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies before they left to join the Nephites in Zarahemla. As discussed following Alma 24:9-11, the Mesoamerican context of the people at this revolved around captives who were often tortured and kept for sacrifice. While we do not specifically have that stated at this time, the description given here fits into this cultural context. The lack of food for several days was not atypical. The real question of this passage is how Mormon could have known that the Lamanites were coming to slay Nephi and Lehi. He must have had the information from some record of Nephi and Lehi, and it is probable that they understood that the Lamanites would be coming because of their understanding of the operation of the cult of war and sacrifice.
23 And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi were encircled about as if by fire, even insomuch that they durst not lay their hands upon them for fear lest they should be burned. Nevertheless, Nephi and Lehi were not burned; and they were as standing in the midst of fire and were not burned.
24 And when they saw that they were encircled about with a pillar of fire, and that it burned them not, their hearts did take courage.
Verses 23 and 24 form an interesting contrast. In verse 24 we have the essential information that Nephi and Lehi were surrounded by fire, and were not burned. This statement comes from the vantage point of the Lamanites, as it notes that the Lamanites were fearful to lay hands on Nephi and Lehi lest they be burned.
Verse 24 shifts to the perspective of Nephi and Lehi. It appears to suggest that they were surprised as the flames as well, and “did take courage” when they found that they were not being burned. Mormon therefore presents us both sides of the event as having been surprised at the presence of the fire.
Literary: This incident has obvious similarities to the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego as related in Daniel 3:19-28. In both cases we have men surrounded by a fire that miraculously does not harm them. Even though the similarity is obvious, there are significant differences, and a meaning in the Mesoamerican context that suggests that the similarities are superficial, and that this event has its own internal meaning in the Book of Mormon.
The first difference in the two stories is the origin and purpose of the fire. In the Daniel story, the fire is a real-world fire designed to consume those thrown into it. In the Book of Mormon the fire is a spiritual creation designed to protect those found inside it. In cultural context, however, there is an even greater likely meaning. The Lamanites had come to sacrifice Nephi and Lehi to their Lamanite gods. One of the forms of sacrifice was live immolation. Thus when the Lamanites come to bring Nephi and Lehi to sacrifice, they find them in what appeared to be an act of autosacrifice. Autosacrifice tied the Maya kings to the actions of the divive, and among the later Aztecs it was the autosacrifice of Nanahuatl in a fire that created the sun that rules over this age.
The cultural meaning of the apparition that was presented to the Lamanites was that of a symbolic sacrifice from which life was immediately present. The only cultural explanation was that Nephi and Lehi were divine, or participated in the essence of the divine.
25 For they saw that the Lamanites durst not lay their hands upon them; neither durst they come near unto them, but stood as if they were struck dumb with amazement.
26 And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi did stand forth and began to speak unto them, saying: Fear not, for behold, it is God that has shown unto you this marvelous thing, in the which is shown unto you that ye cannot lay your hands on us to slay us.
Nephi confirms their suspicions. Of course for Nephi the fire was a representation of the true God, but for the Lamanites it was some god, and they recognized the divine, even if they did not yet recognize the particular God of whom Nephi spoke.
27 And behold, when they had said these words, the earth shook exceedingly, and the walls of the prison did shake as if they were about to tumble to the earth; but behold, they did not fall. And behold, they that were in the prison were Lamanites and Nephites who were dissenters.
28 And it came to pass that they were overshadowed with a cloud of darkness, and an awful solemn fear came upon them.
Cultural: See the comments following Mosiah 27:18 for more information on the cultural context of trembling. This would have been seen as yet another sign of the presence of the divine in Mesoamerica.
Geological: There are two aspects of this event that are important. The first is the very clear reference to an earthquake, a quake of sufficient power that the walls of the jail shook violently. The next reference is to an overshadowing cloud of darkness. The combination of these two features suggests that what occurred was the eruption of a volcano. As we will see in the events leading to the arrival of the atoning Messiah in the New World, this is an area of significant volcanic activity. The trembling of the earth is part of the eruption, as is the thick, dark, vapor cloud.
29 And it came to pass that there came a voice as if it were above the cloud of darkness, saying: Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings.
30 And it came to pass when they heard this voice, and beheld that it was not a voice of thunder, neither was it a voice of a great tumultuous noise, but behold, it was a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it did pierce even to the very soul—
Compare this description of the voice to the later description from 3 Nephi:
3 Nephi 11:3
3 And it came to pass that while they were thus conversing one with another, they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.
Obviously both of these passages are not only describing the same phenomenon, the voice of the Lord, but they are doing so with a similar set of vocabulary. This suggests that the basic terminology has a common source, which might be found either in Mormon’s vocabulary or that of Joseph Smith. In this case, we have no comparable phrasing from the New Testament that we have seen become the model for Joseph’s vocabulary. We are probably seeing an accurate translation here of Mormon’s terminology for the effect of the spirit.
31 And notwithstanding the mildness of the voice, behold the earth shook exceedingly, and the walls of the prison trembled again, as if it were about to tumble to the earth; and behold the cloud of darkness, which had overshadowed them, did not disperse—
32 And behold the voice came again, saying: Repent ye, repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; and seek no more to destroy my servants. And it came to pass that the earth shook again, and the walls trembled.
33 And also again the third time the voice came, and did speak unto them marvelous words which cannot be uttered by man; and the walls did tremble again, and the earth shook as if it were about to divide asunder.
The voice is repeated three times, and each time Mormon notes that there is trembling of the earth associated with the voice. The triple repetition assures the reader that this is not a random combination of events, but that the voice is ultimately behind the trembling. As noted, the trembling would have been associated with the divine, even without the voice. With the voice, the connection with God was assured.
34 And it came to pass that the Lamanites could not flee because of the cloud of darkness which did overshadow them; yea, and also they were immovable because of the fear which did come upon them.
The “cloud of darkness” would be the thick vapor cloud that accompanies many volcanic eruptions. It would block out light because of the suspended particulate matter. The Lamanites would be immobile because they could not see well, and could not tell the effect of the earthquakes on the surrounding walk areas.
35 Now there was one among them who was a Nephite by birth, who had once belonged to the church of God but had dissented from them.
Were this man not there, Mormon might have invented him, as Mormon’s premise is that an understanding of God is Nephite, not Lamanite. Thus it would be a Nephite, albeit a Nephite dissenter, who is able to see God in these events. Of course we have the name of the man in verse 39, so we may suppose that there really was such a man.
36 And it came to pass that he turned him about, and behold, he saw through the cloud of darkness the faces of Nephi and Lehi; and behold, they did shine exceedingly, even as the faces of angels. And he beheld that they did lift their eyes to heaven; and they were in the attitude as if talking or lifting their voices to some being whom they beheld.
37 And it came to pass that this man did cry unto the multitude, that they might turn and look. And behold, there was power given unto them that they did turn and look; and they did behold the faces of Nephi and Lehi.
The events that are occurring at this time are spectacular, and awesome in the older sense of awe/fear of the almighty. With so much going on, it would appear that most of the Lamanites present had turned their attention to their own safety. This Nephite-become-Lamanite not only looks to Nephi and Lehi, but notices that their faces shown, “even as the faces of angels.” With his Nephite background he understands the connection of these men to God, and the supernatural meaning of this visual transfiguration. He therefore calls the attention of the others in the vicinity to this remarkable phenomenon.
38 And they said unto the man: Behold, what do all these things mean, and who is it with whom these men do converse?
It appears from this statement that the Lamanites understood the Nephite heritage of this man (Aminadab, as we learn in the next verse) and so they turn to him for an explanation. They recognize that something different is happening, but this is not a mode of representation of the communication with the divine that they recognize, so even though they recognize it as important and connected to the gods, they do not fully understand how to interpret the scene. They turn to Aminadab whose religious background with the Nephites should have given him the cultural background to interpret this event, even if he had left the belief system it represented.
39 Now the man's name was Aminadab. And Aminadab said unto them: They do converse with the angels of God.
Aminadab does recognize what is going on. Note that he does not see the angels, he sees only the lighted faces and the attitude of conversing. Without a background in the religion of the Nephites, it would be unknown with whom they conversed, and this is precisely the reason the Lamanites ask the question. Aminadab’s background in Nephite religion taught him the basic symbols and religious language and ideas, so he is able to interpret that they were speaking with angels.
40 And it came to pass that the Lamanites said unto him: What shall we do, that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us?
The dynamic here is an interesting one. The Lamanites know that they are in the presence of a divine event. It has been preceded by signs that they recognize from their own cultural experience as markers of divinity, the tremblings of the earth. There is also the very obvious danger that they are in as witnessed by the oppressive cloud of darkness. While they do not state that they have fear of the volcano that assuredly produced both the earthquake and the dark cloud, it is quite probable that they also fear the eruption and the potential damage of both the lava and the ash layer. Thus they have a very real concern for their personal welfare.
This concern for personal welfare is not placed in the context of two men who are clearly communing with the divine in the midst of this divine manifestation. The Lamanites do not appear to believe that they may approach Nephi and Lehi directly. Perhaps their shining countenances indicated that they were too close to the divine, and therefore perhaps dangerous by that very proximity to powers that the Lamanites did not well understand. They do need information, however, and so they turn to Aminadab as an interpreter.
This is a new experience for the Lamanites, but they can see that these Nephites have some power that is associated with the divine events. Their logic is that there must be some “Nephite thing” that they could do that might save them from this god-driven fury. It is in this light that they request assistance of Aminadab. Surely he would know the right “Nephite thing” to do so that this crisis might be averted.
41 And Aminadab said unto them: You must repent, and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ, who was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you.
Aminadab’s message is that they must believe in the voice, and he identifies the voice as that of Christ. His next identification is problematic. He notes that Christ “was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom.” This would appear to indicate that these particular Lamanites are of Zoramite heritage. At least in the text Mormon has given us, the only missionary journey with these three together is that to the Zoramites:
5 And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
6 Therefore he took Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner; and Himni he did leave in the church in Zarahemla; but the former three he took with him, and also Amulek and Zeezrom, who were at Melek; and he also took two of his sons.
7 Now the eldest of his sons he took not with him, and his name was Helaman; but the names of those whom he took with him were Shiblon and Corianton; and these are the names of those who went with him among the Zoramites, to preach unto them the word.
Of course, there may have been a different missionary journey that is not recorded, but it is also possible that these Lamanites are the apostate Zoramites. In that case, however, it simply indicates the great extent to which they Zoramites has lost their connection to the Nephite religion, as they were unaware at this time of the meaning of the scene they witnessed. It would appear that Aminadab was either a more recent dissenter.
42 And it came to pass that they all did begin to cry unto the voice of him who had shaken the earth; yea, they did cry even until the cloud of darkness was dispersed.
The Lamanites accept the admonition of Aminadab, and they do cry to the voice of Christ for deliverance. That deliverance from the cloud of darkness is granted.
43 And it came to pass that when they cast their eyes about, and saw that the cloud of darkness was dispersed from overshadowing them, behold, they saw that they were encircled about, yea every soul, by a pillar of fire.
44 And Nephi and Lehi were in the midst of them; yea, they were encircled about; yea, they were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not, neither did it take hold upon the walls of the prison; and they were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.
This event has led to the sincere recognition by the Lamanites that Christ is worthy of worship. They have had their indication of the efficacy of that worship when the cloud disappeared. Now they find themselves in another divine-evidenced event. They are surrounded by a pillar of fire. Now they are inside that same fire that they saw around Nephi and Lehi.
Visually, they can see that they have moved, but moved spiritually. They were outside of the protectivce divine fire, and now they are inside of it.
45 And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words.
Now this visual fire becomes an internal fire. Not only do they see their salvation after calling upon Christ, but they can feel that salvation.
46 And it came to pass that there came a voice unto them, yea, a pleasant voice, as if it were a whisper, saying:
47 Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world.
As in the Old World, God announces and validates his son. Christ is established as the important representation of God to man. Aminadab has identified Christ as the means of dispersing the cloud of darkness, and now it has happened. This lesson of the power of the Christ for deliverance is not reinforced by divine decree.
Symbolic: The physical dispersal of the cloud of darkness is easily representative of the effect of faith in Christ on the spiritual clouds of darkness that might beset us. From whatever source they afflict us, the solution may be seen in the application of Christ’s atoning sacrifice to our lives. It disperses physical clouds of darkness, and it disperses clouds of darkness that might haunt our souls.
48 And now, when they heard this they cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came; and behold, they saw the heavens open; and angels came down out of heaven and ministered unto them.
Apparently their faith continued to increase, and merited even greater revelations from heaven. This group of Lamanites receives one of the classic revelations given to prophets, the vision of the heavens.
49 And there were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things; and they were bidden to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt.
That three hundred people should have shared this experience certainly left no doubt as to its veracity. It is human, however, to wonder about such things after the fact, after one might leave the group in which the experience occurred and be alone with the memory. Thus there is the admonition to remember, and doubt not.
50 And it came to pass that they did go forth, and did minister unto the people, declaring throughout all the regions round about all the things which they had heard and seen, insomuch that the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of them, because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received.
This tremendous experience obviously transformed the thee hundred Lamanites who had received this experience. Their personal conversion and conviction would also be a tremendous witness to others. They had seen and participated in the divine, and they were able to communicate that to their acquaintances. They became most effective preachers because of the depth of their own conversion and experience.
51 And as many as were convinced did lay down their weapons of war, and also their hatred and the tradition of their fathers.
This description is a brief notation that parallels the events surrounding the conversion of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. (see Alma 23:6-7). It is significant that this mass conversion of Lamanites resulted in the same basic response as the Anti-Nephi-Lehi conversion. In both cases there was a laying down of the weapons of war. As noted in the discussion of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, this is most interesting given the comparison to the Nephites, who do not seem to lay down their weapons of war because of their religion.
As noted for the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, it is probable that we are seeing here a laying down of the Lamanite cult of war. They were giving up a competing religion, and one that emphasized war. Thus the laying down of the weapons becomes symbolic of the Lamanite rejection of the Lamanite religion, and their acceptance of Nephite religion. In this same way we should see the rejection of the tradition of the fathers. This is almost Nephite code for Lamanite ways and beliefs, and those are also dismissed. Mormon is telling us that these Lamanites rejected their cultural and religious heritage and adopted the Nephite religion.
What will be most interesting in this conversion is that there is no alteration of political association attached to this adoption of the Nephite ideals as there has been in the past. Even the Anti-Nephi-Lehies relocated to Nephite lands and become Nephite, even to the adoption of a new collective name (the people of Ammon).
52 And it came to pass that they did yield up unto the Nephites the lands of their possession.
This group of people does not leave their land to go to the Nephites, but rather they “yield up” land to the Nephites. The meaning of this is unclear. There is no indication in any part of the text Mormon has given us that there was any mass movement of Nephites southward into the land of Nephi. Nevertheless, we have the clear indication that land is yielded up to the Nephites.
Perhaps the problem is created by Mormon being less that clear as to which lands are yielded up. The text states that it was “lands of their possession.” This is not “lands of their inheritance” so it probably does not mean the land of Nephi. It would be very unusual for the Lamanites to yield up the land of Nephi since it has been under exclusive Lamanite control for about two hundred years. What is more logical is that there is a withdrawal of Lamanite political influence from the land of Zarahemla. The Lamanites would have relinquished their most recent acquisition. This would explain how it is that we will find Nephi back in Zarahemla without any other indication of how Zarahemla returns to Nephite control. This passage must indicate the voluntary withdrawal of the Lamanites from their most recently conquered territories.
Textual: There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition. In fact, this artificial division masks the outcome of this mass conversion of the Lamanites. As we return to the narrative in chapter 6, Mormon will be emphasizing the comparative righteousness of the Lamanites and Nephites, which is a direct outgrowth of this miraculous event described in this chapter.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002