Category Archives: history

Excerpts from the writings of Hugh Nibley - LDS nonfiction book

The Essential Nibley

Book Review This nonfiction paperback book is a compilation of some of the writings of Hugh Nibley, a highly-esteemed LDS scholar. Let’s here focus on the eighth chapter of The Essential Nibley, “The Jaradite Epic.” Part One: “The Book of Ether: A Perfect Organic History”

Individually, I find the parallels between the Jaredites and the early Asiatics very impressive, but taken together their value increases as the cube of their number. In the Book of Ether they are woven into a perfect organic whole, a consistent picture of a type of {epic} society the very existence of which has come to be known only in recent years. The only alternative to Joseph Smith’s explanation [of the origin of the Book of Ether and the Book of Mormon] is to assume . . . the existence of a forger who at one moment is so clever and adroit as to imitate the archaic poetry of the desert to perfection and supply us with genuine Egyptian names, and yet so incredibly stupid as to think that the best way to fool people and get money out of them is to write an exceedingly difficult historical epic of six hundred pages. . . . As with the Lehi story, if {the book of Ether} is fiction, it is fiction by one thoroughly familiar with a field of history that nobody in the world knew anything about in 1830. . . .

Part Three: “The Jaredite Epic”

. . .  The book of Ether takes us back thousands of years before Lehi’s time to the dawn of history and the first of the great world migrations. A vivid description of {the} Volkerwanderungszeit concentrates on the migration of a particular party—a large one, moving through the years with their vast flocks and herds across central Asia . . . and then undertaking a terrifying crossing of the North Pacific. Totally unlike the rest of the Book of Mormon, this archaic tale conjures up the “heroic” ages, the “epic milieu” of the great migrations and the “saga time” that follows, describing in detail the customs and usages of a cultural complex that Chadwick was first to describe in our own day.

Part Five: “Fierce and Bloody-Minded men out of Asia”

Though {the Book of Ether} comes to us a digest and an abridgment, stripped and streamlined, it is still as intricate and complex a history as you can find; and in its involved and tragic pages nothing is more challenging than the sinister presence of those fierce and bloody-minded “men out of Asia” known in their day as Jaredites. The whole structure of Jaredite history hangs on a succession of strong men, most of them rather terrible figures. Few annals of equal terseness and brevity are freighted with an equal burden of wickedness. The pages of Ether are dark with intrigue and violence, strictly of the Asiatic brand. . . .

. Excerpts from the writings of Hugh Nibley - LDS nonfiction book

The Essential NIbley

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Walls of Jerusalem

While translating the Book of Mormon plates into English, Joseph Smith noticed the record mentioned the walls of Jerusalem. He asked his wife if Jerusalem had walls and Emma replied that they did. Perhaps the prophet had read these words in First Nephi 4:4:

. . . nevertheless they did follow me up until we came without the walls of Jerusalem.

The modern English usage of “without” usually relates to words like “absence” or “omission” or “avoidance.” But in earlier generations of English speakers, it was often used as the opposite of “within,” meaning “outside of.” This is the meaning of “without” in an LDS sacrament hymn:

 There is a green hill far away, Without a city wall.

This is also the meaning in First Nephi, for Jerusalem did indeed have walls.

Life and Law Early in The Book of Mormon

I have noticed, on occasion, someone may become disturbed by reading about the bloody ending of Laban’s life; Nephi himself was disturbed by what he was commanded to do. One new reader of the Book of Mormon said that it was not the most pleasant part of the book for her, meaning the middle of the fourth chapter of First Nephi. I daresay it was not intended to give anyone pleasure, in the usual read-for-enjoyment sense, but we need to learn what we can about the law that God gave to the ancient people of Israel and the consequences of rebelling against that law.

God’s Commandment to Nephi Compared With Modern Law

Why did the Lord command Nephi to kill Laban? Remember that we in countries like the United States live in a different kind of society, with police and justice systems that often work to curb crime and protect the innocent, regardless of exceptions. Jerusalem at the time that Lehi left the city to protect his life—that society differed greatly from how we are now organized. People in Jerusalem, at about 600 B.C., acted under the law of Moses, or they should have. Under that law, a citizen could indeed be justified in taking another person’s life, under certain specified conditions.

Look for Clues

Let’s approach this from a detective’s point of view; I think I know that approach better than I know details of ancient Israelite law. We could avoid speculation, if the Book of Mormon had given us many detailed reasons for the course that Nephi was commanded to take; but the fourth chapter of First Nephi gives us some reasoning that God gave to Nephi (at least in part) and it gives us clues.

We first need to remember the basic law about taking human life: Thou shalt not kill. That refers to murder, in the simplest sense as follows: the willful killing of another human when the one taking that life was not defending himself and the victim was not under a sentence of death. A soldier taking the life of an enemy soldier in battle is usually irrelevant, as is an executioner’s putting to death a person who has been sentenced for that punishment. Unpleasant we find all of the above, yet our feelings, appropriate as they may be for us to feel, are irrelevant to the justice and injustice of lawful and unlawful taking of human life, respectively.

We next need to see the ancient perspective. The law of Moses provided a way for a victim to respond when another person robbed and attempted to murder the innocent one. If that robber later turned up under conditions when the robbed one could take revenge, immediate death was the punishment for the one who had robbed and attempted murder. This appears to be precisely the case in which we find Nephi, as he stands over the drunken body of Laban on that night in Jerusalem many centuries ago.

Look at this clue: In the Book of Mormon, we read that the Holy Spirit said to Nephi, “Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” That sounds to me like some reference to some law. Indeed, when we read of Nephi’s reluctance to kill Laban, we read nothing about that young man’s thoughts about any injustice or any breaking of any law regarding God’s commandment that Laban be killed. (Nephi was just repulsed by a messy job that resembled, on the surface, the vile murders that were surely taking place in Jerusalem at the time.) That’s another clue. No breaking of any commandment was involved.

I enjoyed reading the post written by Steven Reed two years ago (see “The Justified Slaying of Laban” link below), and I recommend it. Consider this:

Many people are familiar with the 10 Commandments, especially “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) or “murder” as it is more properly rendered. But most people, I think, are not quite up to speed on the entire law that the God gave the Israelites. Even though God commanded men not to kill, we must realize that He also commanded that certain acts were, in fact, worthy of execution.

I fully agree with Brother Reed on this matter. Indeed, Nephi was legally justified in taking the life of Laban. But what about legalities prior to that? Consider what happened when the four brothers attempted to buy the plates of brass. I suggest a different perspective on one point: When did Laban steal property from Nephi, Sam, Laman, and Lemuel, and what was stolen?

What Exactly was Stolen, Really?

Nephi and his brothers carried gold, silver, and other valuables into the house of Laban. Why? To exchange them for the plates of brass that contained the scriptures that God commanded they obtain. It appears to me that Laban’s taking possession of the gold and silver and other treasures was according to the general purpose of the brothers. In other words, that was not in itself a crime. But when Laban demanded that his servants kill those brothers, a serious crime was committed. In fact Laban’s crime of stealing the plates of brass and attempting to kill innocent men—that was a crime worthy of death.

Yes, I meant what I wrote. Laban stole the plates of brass, for those scriptures became the property of those brothers when Laban took possession of the gold, silver, and other valuables. Laban’s crimes at that point did not include stealing gold or silver: It was withholding those plates of brass from its rightful new owners and attempting to kill them without legal justification. That perspective explains the actions of Nephi after the death of Laban.

I realize that Nephi’s own words might suggest that gold and silver were stolen: “he also had taken away our property” (First Nephi 4:11). But even if Nephi himself believed that the riches they had taken to Laban were what were stolen, careful consideration of those details reveal otherwise, although it may appear to be a trivial technicality.

Why should we care about this technicality regarding an ancient transaction that went badly awry for those four brothers? It explains the words and actions of Nephi after he returned to Jerusalem.

Honesty in the Actions of Nephi

As I understand it, the law of Moses provided for the victim of stealing to recover four-fold of the value of that which was stolen. Nephi was entitled to four times the value of the brass plates when he took the clothing and armor from the body of Laban, yet there appears much more.

Nephi took over the authority of Laban as owner of the plates of brass and owner of the clothing and armor that he then wore. Then he met Zoram, who had been the servant of Laban. Why did Nephi act as he did with Zoram? Was that servant of God being dishonest, deceiving that servant? No, it appears that Nephi was in fact acting in honesty, albeit under limited conditions of the moment.

The four-fold compensation to which Nephi was entitled—that surely would have at least equaled the value of the clothing and armor that he then wore, but it could also have included the services of Zoram, at least for one hour. In other words, Nephi had acquired the legal ownership authority of Laban, at least regarding the plates of brass, clothing, armor, and services of Zoram.

How could Nephi communicate his authority to Zoram, under the limited conditions of the moment? How else could he act in truth and integrity except to speak with the voice of Laban? Any hint that he was the son of Lehi would have led Zoram to believe that the young man had no authority and had stolen the clothing and armor of Laban. Strange to tell, but if Nephi had immediately revealed his name and that he had killed Laban, Zoram would have been deceived into thinking that this young man had just committed murder.

In other words, Nephi appeared to have been perfectly honest in acting and speaking as he did. To explain why he was removing the plates from the treasury, Nephi then spoke the plain truth: He was taking them to his brothers, who were outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Remember that truthfulness and untruthfulness are not a matter of uttering true or false statements. The basis of honesty in truthfulness relates to leading a person into greater enlightenment. The only apparent course available to Nephi, on meeting Zoram, was to assert his legal authority, acting in the legal position that Laban had lost. In a sense, that young man who commanded Zoram to open the door to the treasury was legally the new Laban, albeit a much more worthy possessor of the plates of brass than the original Laban.

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Ten Commandments

Ten Commandments given to Moses by God

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The Justified Slaying of Laban

Key to understanding why Nephi was justified in slaying Laban is the understanding of the crimes that Laban himself committed in context of the law at the time.

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Examining a Verse in First Nephi

How far do we need to look into the first chapter of the first book of the Book of Mormon, to be able to learn something about the people who lived in 600 B.C. in Jerusalem? Consider verse two:

Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

That verse did not come from the imagination of an American farm boy in the early nineteenth century. Most farmers in the state of New York, in the 1820’s, were probably aware of the existence of languages other than English, even farmers who had never heard of German-speaking Americans in Pennsylvania. But this verse, the second verse in the Book of Mormon, has deeper meaning regarding the word “language.”

“The learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” refers (not to “record”) to “the language of my father.” The first use of the word “language” in this first does not have the same meaning as the second use. To better understand, let’s rewrite this verse:

I am now writing in the way that my father communicates, which includes the cultural perspectives and beliefs of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

Farm boys in western New York state in the early nineteenth century—those boys were unaware that the Egyptian language was important in and around Jerusalem in 600 B.C., at least with Jews of the upper class. (Lehi’s family was well off financially.) Scholars now know about such things, but not farm boys of New York state two centuries ago.

Did Joseph Smith Write the Book of Mormon?

Are the language traits of the translators of the King James Bible to be found in that version of the Bible? Of course. . . .

Lehi’s Jerusalem in 600 B.C.

About the only language we will need to know to get around Jerusalem is Hebrew. . . .  it may help to know a little Egyptian, Aramaic, or Greek, probably in that order. Greek is not yet the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, as it will become in about three hundred years, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, and as it will be during the days of Jesus. Aramaic, also in contrast to its role in the days of Jesus, is not [yet] spoken widely in this area [in and around Jerusalem] . . .

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Did Joseph Smith Write the Book of Mormon?

Let’s be precise. For this post, I only ask, “Did the language of Joseph Smith, Junior, influence the original English version of the Book of Mormon?” Questions about the contents of the book—the history, persons, and principles in the book—let’s leave for another time.

Somebody once said that Joseph Smith’s own language traits were in the Book of Mormon. What he neglected to say was what traits and to what degree. He assumed his statement was enough to discredit the idea that the book was of Divine origin. Let’s look deeper.

Are the language traits of the translators of the King James Bible to be found in that version of the Bible? Of course. But nobody suspects that the Bible originated in England a few centuries ago. That’s traditional translation. How does it relate?

Joseph Smith never said or implied, to my knowledge, that his own English had no influence on what words were used in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the early nineteenth century. What version of English would God use, if his words needed to be understood by Americans in and around the state of New York, in the 1830’s? Would not words known to a farm boy like Joseph Smith suffice? Would not many common American citizens of the early-nineteenth century understand his language?

God uses imperfect tools, mortal humans in particular. But he provides means for us to improve, including opportunities to improve our language skills. Farm boys in the new American nation, in the early nineteenth century, would sometimes learn to read the Bible, sometimes learning from school teachers, not always in school buildings but sometimes when a teacher would stay at a farm house. God sometimes provides ways for us to improve in ordinary ways, including ways of learning to use language according to accepted traditions of our own time.

Does it seem odd that God would allow the Book of Mormon to come forth in the language used by Joseph Smith? Does it seem odd that God would allow that farm boy to later learn language skills that would lead to revised versions of the Book of Mormon, with corrections in grammar in particular? Not at all.

Just as the King James version of the Bible has evidence of both ancient language origin and English language traditions, the Book of Mormon has evidence of both ancient language origin and English language traditions. Both volumes of scripture have come to us through the grace of God, although the manner of translation differs.