Monday, July 27, 2015

A Duckling Called Love

Ducklings in City Creek Park, a block away from Temple Square in Salt Lake City, are an event--even a Sabbath delight.

A family, who had been strolling by the Temple, caught sight of the ducklings, and an excited mother quickly steered children toward the pond, as Dad crouched down by the bank to shoot some pictures. They appeared to be an assortment: Mom, Uncle, Dad, Aunt, and the various 'ducklings.'

"They don't have any names," I offered. "Nobody's given them any names yet!"

The children eagerly responded. A wee Fairhair, pointing out her duckling, cried out: "That one's Grandma."

Paddling nearby were two female mallards, and one of the mothers said: "Look, two mommy ducks!" Fairhair, not-quite-three, immediately corrected her: "No! It's the mommy and the daddy!"

There came to mind a story from President Boyd K. Packer: "Hey there, you little monkeys. You'd better settle down." "I not a monkey, Daddy; I a person!" ("Little Children," Conference Report, October 1986).

What about that yellow duckling named Grandma? Childish absurdity? You never know. . . "Grandma" might have been any of the young ladies present. To the little ones, Grandma has nothing to do with age anyhow--what do they care about age?--and everything to do with Love.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Title of Liberty: "In the air" and On the Air and Through Cyberspace

In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children

So reads Moroni's Title of Liberty, written on a rent piece of cloth and "fastened" "on the end of a pole" (Alma 46:12). Title recalls both Hebrew zikkaron (memorial sign or inscription) and, given the specific reference to a pole, tsiyyun (roadmark, signpost; see KJV 2 Kings 23:17).

Moroni waved the Title of Liberty "in the air, that all might see" (v. 19); we can broadcast religious freedom and family values on the air and through cyberspace.

Friday, July 24, 2015

David Reeder: Willie Handcart Company

The justly famed hardcart pioneer, Levi Savage, made the following entry in his journal:

Platte R. Wednesday 1st Oct 1856

Today This morning, Brother David Reader was found dead in his bead. He has ben ill Some time. He had no pertient deseas. But debility He was a good man and a worthy member of the Church.

Robert Reeder gives us precious added insight into the nature of a Mormon pioneer's "debility":

My father, David Reeder, would start out in the morning and pull his cart until he would drop on the road. He did this day after day until he did not rise early October 1, 1856.

I thankfully acknowledge my pioneer ancestry, those of the tall ship and of the handcart, those of the last wagon, and those of the first.

I am grateful, humbled, to know that my grandfather, David Reeder, belonged to the Willie Handcart Company. I am far more grateful to know that he lived and died "a worthy member of the Church."


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Follow Thou Me

Of late, a flurry of articles and media discussions hovers about the matter of vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Speculation abounds over who might be called and how newer members of the Quorum might help direct the future of the Church. Journalists seek out experts from the fields of history, anthropology, and what-not, to weigh in.

The wise look to the past. They will remember stories about men and women who were called to service by prophets. They will remember reading about the simple yet moving pledge of a young Thomas S. Monson to President David O. McKay to put "my very life on the line if necessary." They will remember the simplicity of the call to Boyd K. Packer. Brother Packer had been invited to join President Joseph Fielding Smith and his counselors in greeting a delegation from Japan. After the meeting, as Brother Packer readied to leave, President N. Eldon Tanner said to him: "I think the President wants you to stay" (Heidi S. Swinton, To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, 215-217; Lucille C. Tate, Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower, 170).

Catch the humility in that statement: "I think the President wants you to stay."

N. Eldon Tanner knew what pertained to him as a counselor in the First Presidency--and he knew what did not pertain to him. 

We recall the visit of President Spencer W. Kimball to the hospital bed of Neal A. Maxwell. The invitation to serve came quietly.

Latter-day Saints may someday learn of the serene manner in which prophets will call any future members to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or to the Quorums of the Seventy. A serene sky may still produce a bolt out of the blue! As quiet as such stories often seem, they will become a matter of record, of the History of the Church, for angels and children to look upon. What shall we say then of articles, experts, interviews, political and ecclesiastical surmises? Will not these all descend into the footnotes or step aside to the marginalia?

The apostolic calling is "not of men, neither of man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead" (Galatians 1:5).

The "plain humility" of the Lord Jesus Christ stands far removed from the flurry of speculation (Ether 12:39). We do not know what Peter said to Joseph and Oliver when Peter, James, and John conferred the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood and then ordained them to the holy apostleship; we do know the words of Jesus when He first called Peter and Andrew to discipleship: "Follow me, and I shall make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:18-19). "He called them"--even Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip, Nathanael, and the rest (Matthew 4:21; John 1:43). "And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles" (Luke 6:12-13; Mark 3:13-14).

So it was with Moses on "the mountain of God," for "God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses" (Exodus 3:1, 4). Pharaoh, when he first faced meek Moses, sensed nothing of the power attending Moses' prophetic calling. Power came by demonstration; yet a continuing darkness and ignorance enshrouded the divine king all the way to the Sea. I would love to know the name of that Pharaoh. I've consulted an expert or two, but his name, though appearing in its turn in the king lists--carved into stone--remains out of reach. Yet even should we come to know the Pharaoh of the Exodus; given the power and glory of the divine triumph of Israel, the name would slip into the footnotes of God in History. Don't be part of a footnote.

The invitation to prepare for the future comes to all. Speculation may hover; the invitation stands. "And he said unto the children of men: Follow thou me" (2 Nephi 31:10). The "beloved of God" are all "called to be saints" (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2). The calling of beloved saints "into the grace of Christ" surely also comes "by his grace" (Galatians 1:6, 15).

Prepare for new scripture by reading and observing the scriptures we now have. Prepare for new apostolic messages at General Conference--all 19 or so new apostolic messages--by reading and applying those shared in April or October by apostles and prophets, seventies, bishops, and the other chosen leaders. Each message carries an imprimatur, the prophetic imprimatur of President Thomas S. Monson and of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ.

The simple stories of the special callings will take care of themselves. Slipping under the media radar, they will join the historical record of the joy of the saints (see Enos 1:3).


I solely am responsible for what I post; nothing, here, represents the official viewpoint of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Study of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ

The testimony of the two witnesses of Christ, the Bible and the Book of Mormon, runs together. The flood of truth "shall grow together" "unto the laying down of contentions, and establishing peace" (2 Nephi 3:12). We do not take up Scripture to contend, for by Scripture comes the millennial peace.

Such rising scriptural convergence changes for all time the very nature of Scripture, even as it bursts open the sluices for yet "other books" to swell the tide. The Book of Mormon, in expression of its own witness, both signifies and clarifies the Bible and thus contains "the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ." That being so, can we ever truly separate, even in casual speech, what has so fruitfully grown together? 

See Doctrine and Covenants 20:9; Boyd K. Packer, "The Reason for Our Hope," Conference Report, October 2014; Neal A. Maxwell, "The Book of Mormon: A Great Answer to 'The Great Question,'" The Voice of My Servants: Apostolic Messages on Teaching, Learning, and Scripture, 221-38.

Hugh Nibley felt the Book of Mormon to run deeper even than Shakespeare: We should not be surprised at finding traces and echoes on every side. Conjuring up enemies and apostates on every side is a different matter; the waters of life will inevitably flow into the dry patches, "unto the confounding of false doctrines," if we will keep up with our reading and sharing (2 Nephi 3:12).

To find and to trace, and to listen well, is inevitably to write--and to write well. But I hope readers of the Book of Mormon will dust off scholasticism and a clinging Alexandrian staleness. I hope those who take up the Book of Mormon as their theme will be so caught up into the heavens that their words will ring with a high beauty. I hope writers will let endless geographies alone, let insincere critics alone, let entirely alone online debates (see Titus 3:9; 1 Timothy 1:4).

May we teach, not tilt.

Latter-day Saints, by the millions, give themselves to daily study. Such spirited and spiritual absorption among the general membership partakes of more intellectual horsepower and yields more insight than do the methods of the schools. And how sophomoric to label someone else's reading devotional and one's own, academic (2 Nephi 9:28)--how close to sophistry. There is no advanced Book of Mormon scholarship beyond the scope of child or teen. Even so, none of us can daily approach the Book of Mormon from every angle or, daily, multiply comment beyond measure. 
See Elder David A. Bednar, "Three Methods of Scripture Study," CES Fireside, 4 February 2007.

One method stands superior to the rest:

We must all discover the scriptures for ourselves. 

Then we must walk in their light.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Detecting Nephi: Detection in Helaman Chapter 9 (Part Two)

Detect is one of the unanticipated words of the Book of Mormon. It pops out of the air. Readers, bred on Poe and Conan Doyle, see in it a bit of fun. Dorothy Sayers would point us to the riddles of Solomon and Daniel. We may find in Helaman a trace of detective literature. . . 

So what does Helaman mean by "detect this man"? It's not Sherlock Holmes, and it also goes beyond the plain dictionary meaning. 

I  This Man

The demonstrative pronoun also merits a look through the magnifying glass: "We will detect this man." In many languages the demonstrative pronoun can carry a powerful pejorative punch. In Hebrew ha-ish ha-zeh, lit. "the man, the this," often signals despite, criminalization, and accusation. Think of Shebna in Isaiah 22:15: ha-sokhen ha-zeh ("the premier, the this": "this (so-called) premier"). This pretender is about to fall from his high office. Even more biting are the deictic forms hallaz or hallezeh (Here comes this dreamer). This man, in Helaman's Nephite, answers, in both spirit and form, to hallezeh: We will detect hallezeh. And as Baruch Levine notes, these pejorative pronominal expressions only appear in direct discourse--another linguistic detail Helaman gets right. 

But Helaman works even more subtlety into the narrative, for, in their pointed expression this man, the unrighteous judges unwittingly place Nephi in the prophetic role of "this man, Moses." Here is the doctrine of the one righteous man, a favorite Book of Mormon theme for Hugh Nibley. "Have ye not read that God gave power unto one man, even Moses, to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea, and they parted hither and thither". . .[and] if God gave unto this man such power, then why should ye dispute among yourselves, and say that he hath given unto me no power[?]. . .Ye [thus] deny not only my words, but ye also deny. . . the words which were spoken by this man, Moses, who had such great power given unto him" (Helaman 8:11-13). 

Not only do we see power added to knowledge as Leitwoerter par excellence in Helaman 7-9, Nephi's emphatic use of the demonstrative, in logical argument, trumps its echoed pejorative use in the pretended detection of "the pretended prophet." The demonstrative pronoun, subtly but significantly interwoven into the narrative, works much of its magic as metadiscourse, and not solely as a deictic marker in an isolated instance of direct speech. That is to say, as a linguistic marker, it becomes even more essential to the ironic workings of the narrative, than to the one-liner occasion of speech. And Helaman's irony is never more effective: "We will detect this man" leads reader and judge alike to the discovery in Nephi of a man like Moses. One man, armed with knowledge and power, can champion the cause of God.

II  First Definitions

On to the verb. Because it appears to fall to the prerogative of judges, we might understand the verb detect as a technical term in Nephite law, as would be the case for words such as interrogate or discovery. But detect need not be a technical term to be a lawyerly word. An air of cynicism, of craft, here attaches to detect; it connotes cunning and "divers questions," rather than discovery. We get the sense judges are using the word quite often these days and that such detection serves them well. It's so simple, and it requires no magnifying glass: the judges detect who has money and who has none; by means of their secret signs they detect who belongs to Society, and who does not. In their choice of detect, the judges only reveal themselves. 

Because the Book of Helaman comes to us in English, we start with the Oxford English Dictionary, IV, 544. We first learn that detect comes from the Latin detegere, unroof, take off a covering: "to uncover, discover, detect." The judges seek to uncover the true murderer of the Chief Judge; they will discover what Nephi, as confederate, knows about the matter. Such a plain reading of detect gives the idea, but not the whole idea. 

Detecting Nephi may require more than removing a roof. Explain the meaning, if you will be so kind, of the following line, spoken by the disguised duke--the undetected duke--in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: 

I never heard the absent duke much detected for women.

Does Shakespeare mean to say that the detecting duke never took either missing-persons or infidelity cases? or that he himself was the object of such like detection? Perhaps he means the duke, unlike Guy Noir, never heard the knock of the femme fatale at his office door? And why the intensifier: much detected? In "much detected" lies much happy irony.

I never heard the absent duke much detected for women.

Definition 2a in the OED reads: "To expose (a person) by divulging his secrets or making known his guilt or crime; to inform against, accuse." The usage is often self-referential: I detect myself! The OED marks definition 2a: obsolete.

"Detected, that is, accused, impeached, charged," Halliwell (ed.) The Works of William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, Comedy of Errors, (1854), 146.

By willing to detect this man, the elites are already formulating an official accusation. We will accuse this man. We will expose this man as a fraud. We will force him to confess his "fault." The decision about Nephi's "fault," which is based on will rather than evidence, precedes the humiliating interrogation. Breaking under the "struggle session," Nephi shall detect himself: divulge his secret confederacy and inform against his "confederate" brother.

Detection, however, following this last definition, is not simply about establishing through investigation Nephi's "fault," or complicity, in the governor's assassination, or about finding the "true murderer"; it's mostly about exposing a self-proclaimed "some great man" and "prophet," who seeks to "convert" everyone, as a fraud. The judges hustle Nephi from fault to fraud. 

The modern detective does not appear by name or in method until the 1840s, and our great detectives work their magic clue-by-clue. The detecting Gadiantons could not be any more different; the judges are in a wild rush to make known Nephi's guilt and thus expose him as a false prophet by any means possible, legal, evidentiary, or not. Poirot and Holmes, step aside! Such railroading, a standard judicial proceeding in American and Egyptian media-cum-courts today, as everybody knows, has not a touch of wit or grace.

To detect, in this game of wits--accusation and counter-accusation--consists of pressuring Nephi with "divers questions" to "cross" and trip him up, and a show of bribes. The show of bribes would not have been in the public eye: the judges likely put the people on hold, while subjecting an already dejected and lamenting Nephi to a rapid-fire "struggle session." But the crowd, to whom the decision had been leaked, stood by in anticipation of the scheduled news-conference, verdict, and summary execution. Hugh Nibley sees the interrogation as unfolding in public, bribes and all as part of the show, "with the judges at their best." During China's Cultural Revolution such "struggle sessions" were always a public pummeling--so Nibley may be right. The contrast betweet public fair play and open debate versus secretive, confederate, and conspiratorial private doings (and knowledge) makes up another theme of these chapters. Nephite fair play, according to Nibley, is the only thing that keeps Nephi alive throughout the day, even as the prophetic signs continue to unfold to his ultimate vindication (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 387-388).

Detect, more surely than any other word in the text, thus signals that great contest in which each side tries to expose and even destroy the other as illegitimate claimant to power or as a secret confederate of criminals. But Nephi, the "honest man," never uses the word, nor has need: all truth is present to his view. In their very use of the word, the elites, to the amusement of the reader, expose only their own ignorance and their love of darkness and intrigue. 

Why expose Nephi? The judges, in detecting Nephi as "confederate" of a brotherhood, propose anything but an true act of de-tegere. They want Nephi to name names, yes; but their overriding purpose is to silence him as quickly as possible, and thus thatch over their own secret combination. By exposing Nephi, they cover themselves. On his garden tower, Nephi presented himself openly and spoke freely--there was no search for cover; Seantum hides under his roof. 

III  Detection as Oracular Narrative and Narrative Oracle

The elites finally leave dejected Nephi to detect Seantum. Ironically, their detection and interrogation follow Nephi's instructions to the letter. Of themselves, they ask nothing, find nothing, detect nothing. Detection tellingly comes as a Sign. So is the questioning and examination oracle or analytic detection literature? All is one: the action of detecting comes significantly wrapped in a prophetic oracle.

Has Nephi, the pretended prophet. . .agreed with thee, in the which ye have murdered Seezoram, who is your brother?. .  

He shall say unto you Nay. . . 

Have ye murdered your brother? 

And he shall stand with fear, and wist not what to say. . . 

He shall deny. . .he shall make as if he were astonished. . . he shall declare unto you that he is innocent. . . 

Ye shall examine him, and ye shall find blood upon the skirts of his cloak. . . 

From whence cometh this blood? 

Do we not know that it is the blood of your brother? 

And then shall he tremble, and shall look pale, even as if death had come upon him. . . 

Because of this fear and this paleness which has come upon your face, behold, we know that thou art guilty. 

And then shall greater fear come upon him; and then shall he confess" (9:27-35).

The tell-tale signatures of guilt but rarely appear in the writings of the ancients, but comparable to Helaman is a place in the Ayurveda (900 BC?): 

"A person who gives poison may be recognized. He does not answer questions, or they are evasive answers; he speaks nonsense, rubs the great toe along the ground, and shivers; his face is discolored; he rubs the roots of the hair with his fingers; and he tries by every means to leave the house."

True detection comes at the last: the prompted judges observe signs of paleness and terror in Seantum's face and voice and manner and, finally, even "examine" the skirts of his cloak for delicate traces of blood. Here is a seeming moment of triumph for the elites; yet Nephi has won the game, and the secret combination, of whom Seantum was a leading and promising light, has suffered irremediable injury in the eyes of the people. They now know the truth about "the great Chief Judge" and his family, the great man whose murder they were so poignantly mourning. The idea of the "great man" is swept away and the mourners, weeping dramatically turning to anger and argument, march off in a huff. Sic transit gloria mundi--and the stage is empty, leaving Nephi, like all the prophets of Christ, "standing alone."    

In all literature, no one resembles Nephi so much as solitary Elijah, and it is the story of the false accusation and judicial murder of Naboth that forcibly comes to mind (1 Kings 21). The very difference in the two narratives heightens the suspense, as unanticipated twists make of Nephi, at first, Naboth, at denouement, Elijah. Was all this interplay of narrative intended solely for a latter-day readership? Helaman certainly also had his ancient admirers. Professor John W. Welch rightly sets alongside Helaman 9 the story of Joshua and Achan (Joshua 7; The Legal Cases in The Book of Mormon). But in the case of Achan, finding comes by oracular lot, not by oracular narrative as narrated prophetic sign. The taking of Achan works, step-by-step, by objective instrument, or, as technique; the prophet, by contrast, himself instrument, appears in dramatic subjectivity: flesh-and-blood, face-to-face--and facing kings. Helaman "had his eye fixed" on "one of the prophets": he looks back to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nathan, and in particular, Elijah (Doctrine and Covenants 128:17). And oracular Elijah, in detection's denouement, plays Dupin or Lord Peter Wimsey far better than either Solomon or Daniel, Dorothy Sayer's prototypes:

"Hast thou killed and taken possession?"

"And Ahab said to Elijah, 
Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? 

And he answered, I have found thee" 

(1 Kings 21:19-20; Heb. matzah, find; cf. Helaman 9:31).

IV  Detecting Nephi: Coming to Acknowledgment

In the OED's third definition of detect, we find the clue to unravel the full significance of Helaman's narrative--and it plays out as irony. It's one thing to "find blood upon the skirts," and another

3. "To find out, discover (a person) in the secret possession of some quality, or performance of some act; to find out the real character of."

Facing accusations of complicity in the teeth of a shaken crowd, Nephi's whole concern is now to prove "that I am an honest man, and that I am sent unto you of God." Proof of honesty will not only save the man from death; of foremost concern to Nephi, it will save a prophet from death under shadow of fraud, it will confirm his witness and, by conviction, stir the wavering people to repentance. Indeed honest Nephi is not detectable; his true character resists unrighteous detection. At story's end the judges do detect Nephi--and, here, the irony--they find out that "this man" is in the secret and true possession of the sure prophetic witness, and they find that his real character mirrors his assertion: "I am an honest man." 

Detecting Nephi is a powerful coming to acknowledgment through signs, evidences, and examinations. The pain and humiliation of the judges has come full circle from prophetic exposure to forced acknowledgment. By detecting Nephi, their own qualities, secrets, and character stand exposed, a house without roof. The narrative tells us no more about these specific judges; there is no slaughter as on Carmel, nor a sudden fall from power, though the confidence of the people has been shaken to the core. Justified Nephi escapes death--that is all. Nevertheless. the tell-tale signs marking out the "true murderer" but tell the loss of their own "great cities," a prophetic toll of doom they rejected out-of-hand just the day before. Nephi's victory spells a zero-sum game. Zarahemla stands detected. She will soon "be taken away" by her enemies. 

Nephi alone stands beyond detection: some in the crowd think him a prophet, others say "he is a god." They never fully see him as he is. Nephi is left "standing alone in their midst." 

Jesus stands separate. 

Mihaly Munkacsy's Christ Before Pilate portrays Jesus on trial before assembled humanity. The debate rages on, the Divinity of Jesus Christ the "Great Question" on all minds (see Alma 34:5). Though at the center of the painting, as of the debate, Jesus stands increasingly unnoticed. Captivated by argument, germane or no, few now turn their gaze toward Him: certainly none penetrates the calm Divinity of His mind. None disturb His silence. Pilate absorbed, attuned only to his own inner debate, looks on Jesus with a scowl. He doesn't really see Jesus. No one does. All are distracted or abstracted. At that very moment, stands Mankind Before Jesus.


1) Stuart Lasine has written on detection and riddling in the Bible and Apocrypha: "Solomon, Daniel, and the Detective Story: The Social Functions of a Literary Genre."

2) For the well-known pejorative use of the demonstrative in Classical Greek and Hebrew, now see Scott B. Noegel, "The 'Other' Demonstrative Pronouns: Pejorative Colloquialisms in Biblical Hebrew," Jewish Bible Quarterly 33:1 (2005), 23-30; I believe the usage has also been noted in print for the Book of Mormon.

3) Ayurveda: Paul V. Trovillo, "History of Lie Detection," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 29:6 (1939), 849.

4) The reader may wish to compare the semantics of detection in the Doctrine and Covenants: "But the hypocrites shall be detected and shall be cut off" (50:8); "The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light!" (128:20); "you may therefore detect him [the devil, by his attempt to deceive] (129:8).

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Helaman 7-9: Contest at Zarahemla--The Contest of Knowledge at the Hierocentric Center (Part One)

I  The Great Contest

Helaman Chapters 7-9 present the reader with a great contest of knowledge and of the ways of knowing. The vocabulary of knowing, detecting, finding, confessing, signifying, proving, testifying, witnessing, and acknowledging packs the short narrative. Even the repeated theme of secret combinations and corruption in high places sounds the theme: the prophets, drawing on their hidden sources of knowledge, will expose the members, deeds, and plans of the "secret band," for "There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light" (2 Nephi 30:17). The greatest knowledge of all is the prophetic witness of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to redeem His people.  

We might fashionably refer to such repeated words of knowing as Leitwoerter, words judiciously placed in the narrative to carry a theme, but in Helaman we don't so much see Leitwoerter, as we see the idea in every other word: the vocabulary of signification and knowing doesn't just move things along, it drenches the whole. In Chapter Five Helaman repeats the verb remember thirteen times in six verses. And that's not all he repeats: more than one "Leitwort" leads the way to Christ. No reader misses the repeated words and themes. The Book of Mormon is a very pointed book. (For Helaman 5, see Ronald D. Anderson, "Leitwoerter in Helaman and 3 Nephi," The Book of Mormon: Helaman through 3 Nephi).

The Book of Mormon teaches the same lesson about contested knowledge twice over. Robert A. Rees shows us a parallel to Helaman in 1 Nephi 16-17, not only in Leitwoerter, but also in the idea of a conflict or contest over ways of knowing ("Irony in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 12:2 (2003), 20-31). Rees titles the section on 1 Nephi, Nephi and His Elder Brothers: Knowledge versus False Knowledge. False knowledge includes boastful assertions, the famous boast that springs to mind being: "We knew that ye could not construct a ship" (1 Nephi 17:19). Rees also notes the thematic importance of a coming to acknowledgement: the brothers submit to Nephi's superior knowledge and power--and the ship is built: "Like earlier and later episodes of fraternal conflict in the book [of Nephi], this one is about power, but it is also about epistemology, about what one knows and doesn't know." And it is certainly about how one knows what one knows.

In a later generation another Nephi was counseled to remember ancestral Nephi and his works. Here is proof that Nephi listened! What a carefully constructed book we have in Helaman!  

Back to Helaman, then. Building on the dichotomy of False Assertion versus Correct Knowledge, in the contest of power, comes a second theme of the innocent accused and "the true murderer" or, "the very murderer." Combine this switcheroo with the hilariously mistaken proclamation about the (assumed) murderers, and you have a near map-cap mix-up. More on this later, but Americans who lap up the 24-hour news cycle will readily get the point.

A first draft of this essay on knowledge in Helaman 7-9 was written 25 years ago, when I was reading Robert Alter and thinking about clues and traces and literary devices. Yet the Book of Mormon comes with a special plainness and urgency--we may catch at the echoes, but nobody ever misses the point. Let's not miss the point. And Helaman is anything but opaque: Readers by the tens and even hundreds of thousands--"yea, more"--have noted Helaman's repetitive use of the words knowledge, know, power, powerful, sign, evidences, testify, and witness. 

The contest in Helaman 7-9 thus pointedly recalls that of Elijah and Ba'al, primarily because Helaman consistently portrays Nephi as an Elijah figure. Building on 1 Kings' portrayal of Elijah as a type of Moses, Helaman also portrays Nephi as a type of both great prophets. If God gave such great power to this man, Moses, why can He not also give power to me? So Nephi argues. Prophets like Moses and Elijah, Mordechai Cogan tells us, only show up at crucial junctures. Like Elijah, Nephi pits himself against the power structure at a moment of national crisis. All plays out as a zero-sum game, with the prophet's life--as the state itself--in the balance. (For Moses, see "Nephi Son of Helaman: A Prophet Like Moses," Ether's Cave. A Place for Book of Mormon Research; Mordechai Cogan, Anchor Bible, 1 Kings.

Elijah's power consists in bringing the priests of Ba'al to a recognition of their folly; he wins the game, in the name of God, by means of a sign: fire from heaven. He wins; then flees for his life. Nephi wins the game by giving signs which confirm professed--and startling--knowledge from heaven about conspiratorial deeds on earth. And the knowledge-signs come as powerfully as the fire.

Though traced throughout the footnotes, I have but recently noticed the many specific points of comparison between Nephi and Elijah; a contest of knowledge purposely reflecting Elijah at Carmel also just dawned on me, though it had occurred to other readers--perhaps to most. Bryan Richards ( writes: "Another example of this sort of dramatic demonstration of God's power, happened between Elijah and the priests of Baal," famously "a contest of God's power." By "dramatic demonstration," Brother Richards primarily references Nephi's demonstration of signs, but if the episode on Mount Carmel was a contest, so perforce, mutatis mutandis, was that of Nephi and the judges. The judges nicely parallel the priests of Baal, though it is apostate governance not pagan cult we find here. Helaman speaks to our own circumstances. Besides, where you have judges calling for trials and conducting interrogations, interspersed with dramatic speech-making: there is contest (see Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture). The contest on Mount Carmel ends a blistering famine; in Helaman famine follows the contest at Zarahemla. Here is no accident; for in both narratives these two episodes "are not independent of one another but are intimately entwined," Coogan, 1 Kings, 446.

II  Setting the Stage

Zarahemla on market day, drenched in color, bustling with energy, is City as Festival.

Hugh Nibley notes how the events described in Helaman 7-9--which also describe a great circle--unfold at hierocentric points to which the assembled multitudes come as if magnetically drawn: 1) the tower and garden of Nephi by the capital's main highway and chief market and 2) the place of the judgment-seat (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, vol. 3; "The Hierocentric State," in The Ancient State, 99-147). The scenario recalls the annual year-rite, a drama which may be recast on selected days throughout the year, "Hierocentric State," 111. Indeed, according to Nephi's own description, Zarahemla herself sits at the geographic center of the state, as if surrounded by so many satellites: "this great city, and also all those great cities which are round about" (7:22). The multitudes, as if awaiting the summons, are called by special runners and proclamations. Nobody except Seantum seems to be at home. 

So "all Israel" was summoned to Mount Carmel for the Contest of the Age (1 Kings 18).

Such hierocentric gatherings feature the great yearly contests. And the reader duly notes the high energy of these chapters with their repeated action of running, fleeing, seizing, falling, and liberation. And killing--"The purpose of such games," says Hugh Nibley, "was to make a human sacrifice." Helaman 7-9 only mirrors the opening chapter of the book, which, at once, describes the contest for the governorship "in the commencement of the fortieth year" (Helaman 1:1) and the swiftly following death of the three contestants. Paanchi was "taken," "tried," "and condemned unto death" (1:8); Kishkumen "murdered Pahoran as he sat upon the judgment-seat. And he was pursued by the servants of Pahoran; but behold, so speedy was the flight of Kishkumen that no man could overtake him" (1:9-10); "Pacumeni, who was the chief judge, did flee before Coriantumr ["a large and a mighty man," noted for his "exceedingly great speed"], even to the walls of the city. And it came to pass that Coriantumr did smite him against the wall, insomuch that he died" (1:21). The running "so speedy" is perforce a race: the five who run to the place of judgment in Helaman 9, wish to be the first to know whether the governor has indeed been killed. Even more importantly, they wish to "know of a surety" whether portent-bearing Nephi is a true prophet of God. Where does the reader draw the line between ritual and history? Helaman's runners are certainly not described as festival runners; the five "did run in their might" in a moment of intensity, even panic: Zarahemla's race is run. (For the sacrificial purpose of the ritual game, see Hugh Nibley on the game at the Waters of Sebus, "The Book of Mormon: Forty Years After," The Prophetic Book of Mormon, 541.)

Noteworthy, too, is the divided crowd (at both Nephi's garden tower and at the place of judgment), something recalling an antiphonal chorus or a class and political division into partes. We recall "that part of the people" who backed Paanchi and sent Kishkumen (Helaman 1:7). We also find the idea of substitutes in a moment where topsy-turvy chaos runs the show: untrue proclamations, mistaken identity, "garb[s] of secrecy," false accusation, false imprisonment. Like a storm wind suddenly still, the multitudes, divided, exit, "leaving Nephi alone, as he was standing in the midst of them" (10:1), even as he once prayed alone, before standing in his tower above them. His utter aloneness at beginning and at end, bright morning and gathering dusk, both frames and heightens the tension of the crowded moment. 

Helaman astonishes! Why would a purportedly historical narrative come chock full with the telltale signs of panegyris, of combat and of contest? Can history and ritual collapse into one tale? We turn again to Brother Nibley for an answer: Remember, he says, this is "a sacral culture." And as Mircea Eliade also reminds us, the sacral view escapes the modern, secular mind. In reading Helaman we play the detective as we watch for "literary qualities," even "language usages and cultural traits as distinctive as fingerprints," Hugh Nibley, "Forty Years After," 535; Nibley, here, also cites Erik Hornung.

Ironic Helaman does not mean to say that Nephi enters Zarahemla during New Year's celebrations; it's the echo that counts. Helaman does speak patriotically of the "land of his [Nephi's] nativity," and Nephi at prayer paints an idealized, and famously ironic, picture of the time when ancestral Nephi "joyed in" his "land of promise." Nephi then launches into a panegyric about Israelite history, "our fathers," tracing the story back to Moses victory over the Red Sea, and even to Abraham and beyond--"many thousands of years." He then sets forth the principles of good and bad governance, giving embarrassing examples of the latter. The Tower discourse thus takes on the character of an official state event--though perhaps in antithesis. 

Helaman's glimpse of Zarahemla is not so much about calendar as it is about color. Zarahemla, in a sentimental moment, unfolds to view as a colorful, ever festive cityscape recalling both Mexico-Tenochtitlan with her towers, canals, floating gardens, quadrants, thoroughfares, plazas, and markets, and the tropically painted pyramids of archaic El Mirador. (Nibley makes much of this distinctively American likeness.) We enter a hustling, bustling capital on an active market day, and it could be any day, just a couple of hours before Noon, when the foot traffic to market is starting to slow. Indeed it is Everyday. In Egypt we have History as Celebration; Ancient America yields City as Festival, the City at Play, or, as cast in the City Dionysia, tragedy pending. As cultural center, Zarahemla, the Red City, lends herself to imagery-laden portrayals as the idealized festival, Zarahemla as permanent panegyris. (For Egypt, see Erik Hornung, Idea into Image; for Mexico City, Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, vol. 3:256.)

Morning in Zarahemla is Everyday. Yet timing is everything. And Hugh Nibley shows that Nephi's two prophetic signs are a matter of perfect timing--because, after all, a chief judge in such an unstable atmosphere might be killed at Any Time. "Ripeness is all." And taking the tide at its flood, Nephi powerfully presents a Sign and an end of times scenario, the close of the Great Year of Zarahemla in Festival. Nephi, once chief judge, has delivered the divine verdict: Zarahemla rings in its Day of Judgment.

John W. Welch is thus delicately correct when he describes Nephi on the Tower as "conducting a recognizable mock mourning or funeral ceremony," "a prophetic allegory" as "funeral sermon," 239-240. The "agony" Nephi felt was real beyond all enduring: and the expression of that pain found spontaneous expression. Yet, again, timing is everything. Whether Nephi was lamenting by plan--he was not--matters not at all. After all, Welch notes, the hand of death has just struck and "the great Chief Judge" is dead. Within moments all will eerily join in Nephi's cry of murder and lamentation (John W. Welch, "Was Helaman 7-8 an Allegorical Funeral Sermon," Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 239-241). Here is prophetic fore-shadowing indeed.

The death of the "governor of all the land" (Alma 30:29) marks the beginning of a general mourning, fasting, and lamentation, the introduction of chaos into the bright festive dawn. The moment of death indeed marks a disruptive juncture in the times and seasons. Does the universal Great Year-Rite mark the moment of demise or coronation? Is it Osiris or Horus? All is one. More significantly, what we see in the murder of Seezoram is the killing of the false ruler, the pretender, the Seth. And before long the mourning populace will be forced to so acknowledge. He sat in judgment as the "great man" or "great chief judge," but now lies beside the judgment-seat as the fraud exposed, a man in disguise, even in the "garb of secrecy," as a member of Gadianton's secret society. Just so, the hero Teancum, a generation earlier, slew the deceptive, murderous, and false king, Amalikiah, moments before dawn on New Years' Day (Alma 50; cf. Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 209). (And Amalikiah's name reminds us who the True King is.) In the Year-Rite the substitute ruler, the pretender, must die, and Helaman 7-8 does follow the ceremonial pattern of a mock lament for a mock king in a doomed city. 

III  Contest at Zarahemla

The stage now set, Contest at Zarahemla casts two competing professions and portrays two different professions to knowledge: the "secret combination," or Gadiantons, with its insider knowledge and secret signs versus the prophetic gift. In 2 Kings we observe two competing cults or priesthoods or prophets: Israel and Baal; Elijah and Ahab--and Jezebel. In Helaman we see the elite knowers, who solidly rely on "what everyone knows" and on preparation and education and culture suited to their social class; they also are in on the secret vouchsafed to members only. What does Nephi bring to the contest? He himself, as his father and great-grandfather before him, once governed the state, and his name also mirrors that of the founder and first king of the Nephite people. And like his fathers, Nephi is a prophet. In Nephi, then, we see an entire tradition of just governance in a sacral society contesting governance by a rich, well-educated, elite class of what Helaman bluntly labels robbers and usurpers (Helaman 7).

Nephi's hidden knowledge, known only through revelation and manifest solely through preaching and signs contrasts with a false knowledge, a way of knowing best seen as, at once, patriotic boasting and elitist condescension: a boasted, almost professorial, knowledge. The boasting elites attempt to cow Nephi by asserting: We know absolutely the following things--don't be ridiculous! When Nephi prophesies the loss of cities to the enemy, the judges counter with Laman-like boasting: "And now we know that this is impossible, for behold, we are powerful, and our cities great, therefore our enemies can have no power over us" (Helaman 8:6). Such emphasis on power and the impossible must mask uncertainty, and Nephi, in full view of the crowds, unmasks the phony pretentions of security and power.

As Nephi prays and laments from a garden-tower, situated in the wealthy central district, startled citizens on their way to the chief market "ran and told"; crowds gather in astonishment. Why should crowds gather? As in the Orient, the market likely "was the one place where the people could legally gather in large numbers," as well as being "the privileged site for the communication of messages from the rulers to the people." It was also a place for the "public spectacles" associated with fine clothing, wealth, and power. And the wealthy would have lived on the "chief thoroughfares" near the market, as Nephi's own neighbors (Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, 80, 84). The market crowds would also have been a barometer for the fluctuating moods of the people--a sort of jittery stock market--and, as we see from those who joined in Nephi's critiques, "not completely under the government's control," 84.

As Hugh Nibley points out, uncertainty grips Nephite society, and the anxious people long for a way out. Nephi opens with an ironic and telling question, a single question that captures both the state of emergency in which the people unwittingly find themselves, and the disaster at hand: "Why have ye gathered yourselves together?" As already set forth, for the Nephites "to gather themselves together" before a tower clearly is a customary act belonging to festive, official, and patriotic occasions, and it reveals the constant need of the people for self-congratulatory reassurances of supremacy. Nephi appends a sarcastic follow-up to that "Why?": "Have ye gathered yourselves together that I may tell you of your iniquities?" So are they caught--by their own curiosity and their own choice; for they came unbidden. As Nephi turns to denunciation and threat, members of the power elite, in knee-jerk response, accuse him of treasonous talk and demand that he be silenced. Nephi, after all, is busy describing to the crowd the secret doings of the corrupt elite, who perforce respond in anger and ridicule, and, asserting their superior knowledge, attempt to silence him by counter-accusation and by sarcasm and logic.

He responds with a first sign: the assassination of the governor.

Five men run to the place of judgment to find out. They disbelieve Nephi's tale but soon find all to be true and fall to the earth in fear. 

Meanwhile, just before the arrival of the five, the governor's servants, discovering the murder, "ran and told" the city crowds, "raising the cry of murder." The telling phrase ran and told thus describes a racing circuit, and as literary sign, an inclusio, or ring pattern, framing the drama. 

Crowds surge about the place of judgment (another place where crowds are legally wont to assemble), which looms in the likeness of Nephi's judgment tower, and promptly seize the five fallen as the assassins. They assert that God has smitten the five for the crime and broadcast a proclamation.

A great ceremony of mourning unfolds on the next day, even as the elitist judges from the market road show up for the burial and identify the five runners as their own messengers. These same judges now accuse Nephi as "confederate" in the assassination, declare that they know his guilt with certainty, and begin to interrogate him to discover the governor's "true murderer." They are working very hard here, as they play the game of bribery and of entrapment with "divers questions." 

Nephi responds with a second sign: Go and interrogate Seantum, the brother of the judge and he say respond with the words I now give you. Then you will come to a knowledge of the true murderer, my innocence, and ultimately, of my prophetic call. You will then be compelled to acknowledge my superior knowledge and power.

Surprisingly, they respond--but remember the drama unfolds as a contest. So they play the game, and to every one's astonishment, Nephi's sign reveals his superior knowledge. The power elites, including culpable Seantum himself, are forced to acknowledge that Nephi has prevailed. 

But even this is only a first and begrudging acknowledgement. Nephi, like Elijah, escapes, it is true, but the powers that be yet are. As with Elijah and Elisha, the uncompromising contest of power must continue through seasons of sword and through seasons of famine, until the "the people began to plead with their chief judges and their leaders, that they would say unto Nephi: Behold, we know that thou art a man of God, and therefore cry unto the Lord our God that he turn away from us this famine, lest all the words which thou hast spoken concerning our destruction be fulfilled. And it came to pass that the judges did say unto Nephi, according to the words which had been desired (Helaman 11:8-9; 18).


See Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 387-388, and John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon. Welch ably analyzes the trial of Nephi and the confession of Seantum in light of Ancient Israelite and later Jewish law. I do not find the legal analysis airtight, but it prompts discussion. Readers may also wish to consider Joseph Spencer's "Reflections on Helaman 9" (, another discussion starter, as part of an on-going workshop of "close readings" of the Book of Mormon. Such "reflections" help show just how "reflective" and "self-reflective" the books of Mormon truly are. Hugh Nibley felt the Book of Mormon to run deeper even than Shakespeare: We should not be surprised at finding traces and echoes on every side.