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. 

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