Deconstructing the Book of Mormon, Introduction

February 1, 2008
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While in law school I had the chance to talk with Jack Welch about the kingmen in the Book of Mormon. From that discussion in 1980, I started to apply the tools of deconstruction to the text of the Book of Mormon. There is an amazing amount of perspective that can be found by taking the Book of Mormon as what it claims to be and then looking into the text to see what the text says for itself.

For example, 1 Ne 2:4 points out that Lehi took only his family, provisions and tents (and worlds have been written about the importance of tents). Yet Ishmael took his household, not just his family (1 Ne. 7:5). How large could a household be, how much difference could that make?

Well, Abraham’s household was large enough to include at least 318 warriors trained from birth to no other task (Genesis 14:14). Tradition puts his household at well over three thousand male adults.

It is possible that when Ishmael joined Lehi that he took not only his children and their extended families but that he took bondservants, servants and slaves with him as well. The total group could easily have broken three hundred people. That is a far different image from the twenty or so most people envision when they think in modern terms (not I’m not saying it is necessary, but that is a probable household for a wealthy house).

The way one reads parts of the text becomes much different if you are thinking of 15-20 people vs 300-400 people. Take the story of Nephi’s bow.

15-20 people and everyone thinks of hunting in terms of a modern deer hunt. 300 or so and you are back to a more historically normative hunt with beaters driving all the game towards the hunters who wait in a kill zone.

In such a context, possession of a bow is not only functional, but symbolic. Which is why they hunted with slings and bows and why, interestingly enough, Ishmael’s sons are never mentioned, nor is Zoram. Note that while Nephi took his sling when he went back out hunting, he also took the bow that he made. That he also made an arrow (singular) to go with his new bow is also highly symbolic.

That also changes the context and the meaning of his consulting his father before he goes out.

I will visit this in additional places, building a boat, how Jacob’s people could have concubines that their wives and children were unaware of, “he made us slaves in the wilderness” (they spent eight years, at seven a Hebrew has to choose between freedom and permanent slavery), etc. Just some thoughts about alternative approaches to go with studying the Book of Mormon this year.

  • WestBerkeleyFlats

    I don’t see how this deconstruction of a text as opposed to textual analysis.

  • WestBerkeleyFlats

    “There is an amazing amount of perspective that can be found by taking the Book of Mormon as what it claims to be and then looking into the text to see what the text says for itself.”

    This seems to me to be more reminiscent of New Criticism than Deconstructionalism, which carries with it suggestions of an attempt to deconstruct a text by identifying its implicit biases and perspectives, particularly those concerning matters such as race, class, gender, and culture, and how examining how these views are revealed and concealed in the text.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    You make a good point about how I’ve addressed this part. I’m being too general with my use of the term.

  • WestBerkeleyFlats

    Deconstructing the Book of Mormon could involve looking at how the text reveals the perspectives and prejudices of putative ancient authors (e.g. how Nephite authors such as Nephi, Jacob, etc. portrayed Lamanites and what this reveals about their racial, economic, and political biases and preferences), or how the text reveals Joseph Smith’s concerns and perspectives. The latter has obviously been done in many forms. The former is mildly interesting, although I don’t think that Smith was sophisticated enough of an author for much value to be derived from a study of the extent to which the supposed authors of the book may be viewed as unreliable narrators.

  • http://www.politicsandanarchism.com/ Stephen Wellington

    You raise good points Stephen. Living in Saudi Arabia and the middle east for over 13 years I had the chance to travel the route that they would have gone. There is a lot of work being done in that area. The Frankinscense(spl) trail was a route used by the Yemeni Jews and other travelers when Jerusalem was destroyed. The evidence for 1st Nephi in terms of archaeology and theology are very strong. However, I tend to move towards the agnostic position about the historicity of the BoM as that helps me focus on the principles rather than the polemics. For a chance to learn more about 1st Nephi and the Old World I would recommend Margaret Barker for Theology…Daniel Peterson’s essay about Asherah, Richard Wellington and George Potter’s book about Lehi in the Wilderness and also the new work by S. Kent Brown. The arguments for and against the historicity of the Book of Mormon are both good but it is important to balance these.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    Stephen, my parents were is Saudia for a while, through the 70s and 80s. First at Kamish and then on the East Coast, both times with Northrop. That’s why they couldn’t make it to my wedding.

    I was able to visit them once in the late 70s, got to climb bell mountain (a small hill), go down to the red sea, and experience the area some.

    This particular part of the Book of Mormon gives a different picture to a number of things, including the conflict between Nephi and his brothers, why they accuse him of trying to make himself a king or ruler in the wilderness (which would tie in well with the hunting incident) and leads into a number of other threads.

    Had I gotten started on these posts sooner, I’d have wanted to focus on a significant part of the iron rod/tree of life visions that people miss.

    Lehi is pondering. He has family problems, he is virtually alone in the wilderness. In a dream an angel comes to him and basically dumps him off in a wasteland. He is there for hours.

    Not exactly what one expects from divine intervention. He then begins to pray for relief and apparently having waited patiently. Then he starts the vision as we talk about it. But I think it gains something to realize that even when God heard him in Lehi’s distress, part of the vision God sent involved Lehi being lost and in distress.

    Another interesting part is how while it is Lehi’s capstone vision, Nephi in discussing it points out things that Lehi missed or failed to understand. It is interesting that there can be an almost transformative revelation, with significant features missed. For example, without Nephi’s additions, almost anyone in Lehi’s context would have interpreted the fountain of waters that he mentions as an obvious sign of the blessings of God (typical desert archetype of water) and Lehi completely overlooks what it really is.

    I’m looking at elements of the Book of Mormon, not for polemics, but for the implications. I’ve a few more posts along these lines, looking at things with a different perspective, such as the kingmen and why they would have felt that they were in the right (Nephi’s story joins them when they are in the middle of civil wars, always makes me wonder at the untold story in the way the kingdom passes to his descendants in that context). There is a lot going on there in terms of biases and perspectives, particularly those concerning matters such as race, class, and social groups that is revealed by looking at what is brushed by or almost concealed by the text.

    Anyway, there is a lot going on in the story, regardless of what it is, that is missed by reading it as mom and pop down at the circle k campground ;)

  • http://bookofmormononline.net KC Kern

    Stephen,

    Not too long ago one of my team members posted a something on my other blog about just that–Lehi getting dropped into the wasteland after following divine orders:

    http://bookofmormononline.net/blog/lehis-wasteland

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    I just found http://bookofmormononline.net/blog/lehis-wasteland/ and logged on to post it … ;)

    Yes, KC Kern, I agree that is a wonderful post, right on the sort of thing that generally gets missed.

  • JH

    Stephen,

    For some of us who are less familiar with the concept of “kingmen of the book of mormon” and some of the other allusions you’ve made but not expounded on, is there a place we can go for more information? It sounds interesting, and I may be revealing my ignorance here, but it wasn’t clear to me what the significance of some of the symbolism was. Care to expound, or is it up to me to do more homework?

  • http://bookofmormononline.net KC Kern

    JH,I’m not sure what Stephen’s discussion with Jack Welsh entailed, but the king-men were essentially a political party in Zarahemla who wanted to overthrow the judicial goverment and replace it with a monarchy. The chief judge, Pahoran, deals with them, but the Nephites soon become entangled in a war with the Lamanites. With Moroni and Teancum fighting in the east and Helaman busy holding his ground in the west, the king-men stage a coup d’état, and civil war breaks out in the capital city.

    You can get a clearer overview of the story here: http://bookofmormononline.net/war/101

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    When the Nephites come to Zarahemla, the people there are in the middle of a civil war. The Nephites end up as the ruling party. Every time power passes, the indigenous peoples attempt to take power back, and those forces generally are called kingmen, for their desire to restore their own dynasties as kings over the people. It is probably not a coincidence that Mulek and King are similar words.

    It is easy to miss that they arrive in the middle of a series of civil wars since the references are scattered. There are lots of notes that are easy to miss. For example, Alma has a question that touches upon the intersection of civil and canon law. He talks to the king. The king talks with his priests and they reach a decision that goes back to Alma.

    Gee, Alma is the head of the Church. The king is at least nominally a member of the Church. What kind of collection of priests does he have?

    Or there is an election. Elections seem to happen rarely, and to be serious struggles. Once elected, the civil authority pretty much keeps the job for life. More of an acclamato than an election of the type we are familiar with. Alma has to face one. He is concerned because the Church is small enough that they will lose their civil rights if he loses the election. That is a hint that there is quite a bit more going on than meets the eye, an entire story not being told.

    With the older Alma, the sphere of influence is one city ruled by the king, with some affiliates with their own rulers. By Captain Moroni’s time it is a federation of cities, with the original one at the heart of it.

    Many times, in reading the Book of Mormon, I feel like I am getting history the way the history of Europe would read if it focused on the dynamics of Jewish families with the rest as only background noise.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulekite Mulek (BoM Arabic مولق Mūlaq) for some basics on Mulek.

    To quote from another cite In Hebrew, ha melek means “the king” (ha is the definite article “the,” and melek is the word for “king”).

    I also like Orson Scott Card’s speculation. I confess that I cite Orson Scott Card’s speculations purely because I agree with them, not because they are necessarily (or even probably) right:

    http://whitebinder.org/content/view/82/48/1/6/

    Anyway, coming full circle, what struck me was how quickly and cohesively the kingmen moved and organized, over and over again. That points to more than an opportunistic wake up in the morning and want to be king sort of thing.

    Feel free to ask questions about symbolism. You will find KC Kern and a host of others more than willing to answer any questions you have, we are all here to speculate together ;)

    Some of it is pretty simple. The right to a strong bow is the right of the ruler, as is the right to lead the hunt. Arrows are used for hunting, but a single arrow is used to mark dominion (and a specially crafted one is often fired to begin a hunt). In some ways the broken bow story can be read as Nephi claiming the right to leadership, consulting with his father can be seen as his claiming the mantle and the transmission of authority, something completely different from what is usually read into the story. You will note that he never consults with his father again after that incident.

  • JH

    KC,

    Thanks, I was interested with what he was saying but I felt like an undergrad who showed up two weeks late to class for the first time. Generally lost.

  • JH

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the further info. After I posed the question I went back and read it again. Some of those ideas started to emerge.

    So, the implications of the struggles with the kingmen are that of a theocratic take over of sorts? With the fervor of captain Moroni that is oft admired being a large force in suppressing the natives?

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    Well, Moroni is resisting the native elites, that is far different from suppressing the natives, or is from Moroni’s viewpoint. A deconstructionist would take a different tack, looking at how it might have played to others, and you’ve got it framed exactly as to why the Kingmen felt they were only seeking their rights and why they wanted to control (Moroni would have said oppress) the theocrats. Race, class and other issues suddenly become much more important.

    Now, long cut scene to the end of the book, before and after the Nephite faction is destroyed; before, Moroni is proud to be a descendant of Nephi (to which someone might ask, wasn’t everyone, obviously not), to after, when the wars continue without them. To the Nephites that (destruction of their society and the hunting down of individual Nephites) was an important event, but it appears to have been a side show to the rest of the conflicts.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    I don’t think that Smith was sophisticated enough of an author for much value to be derived from a study of the extent to which the supposed authors of the book may be viewed as unreliable narrators.

    WBF, that kind of statement points to one reason the book appears to be what it claims to be.

    I was always struck by people like Arthur Henry King who joined the Church because they were entranced by the depth of the Book of Mormon.

    Analyze Samuel the Lamanite. Ask yourself why some of his prophecies were excluded, then go and read his sermons out loud and you can tell why. The oratory, which I’d be tempted to use if I were calling people to repent, lacks the artistic grace of the sermons that otherwise made the final cut to the Book of Mormon in its final edited state. Which is why when Christ asks them why the prophecies are missing, no one answers him (would you tell a resurrected Christ “Samuel lacked artistic merit and we just quit recording what he had to say”?).

  • JH

    Stephen,

    To your point at the end of comment 11. It is interesting to me, in light of your points there that I went to Sunday School today and heard all about how Nephi was respecting the spiritual “chain of command” (of sorts) by seeking out his father’s advice. No discussion on his bold move to usurp his older brothers’ rights to the patriarchy and what that meant within the politics of the family. While I see this as a contradiction (or even an ambitious move by Nephi), I see it as one that makes the story more interesting and complicated, not one that defeats it.

    I have been thinking a lot about Laman and Lemuel since we started studying the Book of Mormon again in Sunday School. At least in my ward they get set up and knocked down pretty regularly and with great gusto. I like to wonder about their opinions of what was going on (I can just imagine, skinny little snot-nosed Nephi telling his teen-aged brothers what they’re doing is wrong, and them letting him have it as older brothers often do. Then Nephi going back to his writing project and painting them in the light that he does, it makes for a great image even if it isn’t anywhere near the truth). And I also like to remember that I’m a lot more like them most of the time (especially grumpy when traveling/wandering aimlessly), then I am like Nephi.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    Part of Laman and Lemuel’s problem is that Jerusalem was undergoing a religious revival at the time. Now they were being particularly abusive to the poor and the powerless, but they had gotten very self-righteous. That is part of the reason they felt comfortable in the rebellion they were planning and the Egyptian alliance.

    They had an influx of wealth from trade, associated wealth with holiness, all the basics. It would be easy for Laman and Lemuel to reject Lehi’s vision and the prophets he followed for the school of the prophets (the one that had gone corrupt and that Jeremiah was called in contraposition to).

    Not to mention, I was re-reading the brass plates story this morning. Laman goes in, asks for the plates (which means he must have had a right of some sort to them) and gets chased out as a thief and a robber. Nephi’s great idea? Return with all their money, to a rinse and repeat of the same scenario. Not necessarily a great start.

    I don’t see Nephi as a skinny, snot-nosed little brother so much as seeming privileged and overly lucky (to his brothers).

    By the time of the bow incident, there is an interesting friction going on. Laman and Lemuel are back in the lead (with Nephi, but not behind him). Nephi takes a long, long time to truly replace them. He keeps going back to “if you would just shape up, I will follow you” which as a dynamic just leads to further conflict.

    But at the bow incident he finally takes charge.

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