Sunday, October 9, 2016

Designation, Demonstration, and Confirmation: Nephi and the Three-Stage Process of Gaining Power in Israel

Nephi about to slay wicked King Laban, by Jody Livingston
While reading in Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press, 2003) last night, I came across some interesting remarks about the process by which Saul came to power. According to Long, et al. (Long is the primary author of the chapter on the early monarchy), “the process by which leaders in early Israel came to power seems to have entailed three stages: designation, demonstration, and confirmation” (p. 210). Long, et al. are drawing the work of Baruch Halpern here, which I have not read (though I have read other things by Halpern, and I find him to be a rather good scholar).

Long, et al. further explained, “First, an individual would be designated by some means for a particular role. Next, the new designee would be expected to demonstrate his status and his prowess by engaging in some feat of arms or military action. Finally, having thus distinguished himself and come to public attention, the designee would be confirmed in his leadership role” (p. 210). My understanding, based on Long, et al.’s discussion of this (pp. 210–214), is that the designation comes through divine means (anointed by the prophet, or chosen through a medium believed to reveal divine will, like casting lots), demonstration is, as pointed out in the quote, usually of militaristic nature, and confirmation comes through the people via public ceremony.

With all that in mind, I got to wondering about whether anything like this might show up in the Book of Mormon. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything like this Mormon’s abridgment (and wouldn’t necessarily expect it, since he lived in pre-Columbian America, and his ancestors had also for the last 1000 years). But it was pretty easy to come up with examples, in the proper order, for Nephi—who was probably schooled in Israelite scribal practices, and whose record has been seen as something of a royal apology (that is, a defense of his right to rule).

Designation

Nephi is designated a ruler by the Lord via revelation in 1 Nephi 2:22, and then again by an angel to his brothers in 1 Nephi 3:29. Interestingly, in between these two is the casting of lots, which selects not Nephi, but Laman (1 Nephi 3:11). I would suggest this could be read as a counter designation, which plays a specific and somewhat polemic role in the narrative.

Demonstration

I would propose at least 2 demonstrations in 1 Nephi. The first demonstration is when Nephi obtains the brass plates. The slaying of Laban has long been recognized as one of the most politically charged narratives in 1 Nephi. It plays a major role in Nephi’s argument for his right to rule. It is full of militaristic elements, from his speech in 1 Nephi 4:1–2 to his actual beheading of Laman and donning his armor, Nephi’s obtaining the plates easily qualifies as “a feat of arms.”

What is interesting here is that as part of the narrative you have the counter-designation of Laman in between, followed up with Laman’s failure to accomplish his charge. This is followed Nephi’s own failure, in which Laman then beating Nephi with a rod (1 Nephi 3:22–28). Laman’s beating Nephi with a rod (a symbol of authority/rule in the ancient Near East) could be seen as an attempted demonstration on Laman’s part, which is interrupted by the angel who redesignates Nephi.

The second demonstration comes in the broken bow narrative in 1 Nephi 16. The bow is another symbol of authority in ancient Near Eastern perspectives, and so Nephi’s fashioning bow (while his brothers bows have lost their spring’s), and then successfully killing prey and returning victoriously with food could be seen as another demonstration of Nephi’s right to rule (1 Nephi 16:18–32).

Both of these demonstrations are interesting because, I as I mentioned above, there seems to be some polemical implications in them. They are not just demonstrating that Nephi is fit to rule, but also that Laman is not—he fails to obtain the plates, his attempted demonstration of authority over Nephi is stopped by Nephi’s own divine redesignation, and his bow is defective and he fails to obtain food for the family.

Confirmation

This is vaguest of the three in Nephi’s record, but I believe it is there. It does not come until 2 Nephi 5:18, where Nephi is chosen as king by the people. Granted, Nephi himself expresses reluctance to accept, but Jacob 1:9–11 tells us that Nephi appointed a king as his successor, filled the functions of a king, and his name became a royal title. So it would seem that Nephi did, in fact, become a king for the people. Many scholars have even suggested that 2 Nephi 6–10 was a speech given at Nephi’s coronation, as it has many themes coronation themes in it.

Final Thoughts


It should go without saying that this is extremely preliminary. More reading on this three-stage process is needed, along with greater analysis of the Book of Mormon, particularly 1 and 2 Nephi. But I think this sketch sufficiently illustrates that there is some potential here and that such a framework might have some interesting interpretive possibilities for how we read 1 and 2 Nephi. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

King Noah and Maya Kingship

Tikal, Temple V. During the Classic Era, some
of the most powerful Maya kings reigned at Tikal
I’ve recently enjoyed reading about the expeditions and adventures of John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood in the recently published Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (William Morrow, 2016), by William Carlson. The narrative of their travels in Central America is interrupted three times; first, for a brief biography of Stephens; second, for a brief biography of Catherwood; and finally, for an overview what is now known about the Maya. It is during this third excursus that Carlson describes Maya Kingship as follows:
For the ruling classes, especially the kings, a great deal is known because of the record left in Maya art and hieroglyphs. We know the holy lords lived polygamous lives surrounded by wives and courtiers in royal palaces. They sat on thrones covered with jaguar pelts, commanding their subjects, dispensing justice, greeting emissaries, royal allies, and foreign merchants. In scenes chiseled into limestone and standstone, on painted murals and polychrome pottery, they were finely dyed textiles with geometric designs and flamboyant headdresses heavy with the long iridescent feathers of the quetzal and other tropical birds. They drink frothy brew made from the cacao bean (and gave the world chocolate). They prized exotic goods brought from the coasts and the mountains in trade or tribute: marine shells, stingray spines, coral, finely cut chert, obsidian, pyrite, polished into mosaic scepters and mirrors—and, most of all, jade …. Control and display of these prized goods reinforced their status and power. 
But nothing demonstrated their supremacy like their ability to mobilize mass labor forces, corps of engineers, artisans, and artists, to build and embellish monumental centers devoted to their reigns and dynasties. (pp. 382–383)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Warfare and the Book of Mormon: A Bibliography

Battle at the Sidon River, by James Fullmer
For most Latter-day Saints attending Gospel Doctrine, the infamous “war chapters” are approaching (or some have perhaps already begun to cover them in Sunday School). There is, unfortunately, only two lessons dealing with the war chapters, and those do not even cover all of the war chapters.

So, if you are interested in spending more than just two weeks on the topic and taking an in-depth look at warfare in the Book of Mormon, I’ve put together the following bibliography. This is not a comprehensive bibliography, but represents some of the major resources me and my colleagues at Book of Mormon Central drew upon while writing KnoWhys on the war chapters, which will be coming out in the coming weeks. Some additional resources I found after we finished those KnoWhys are also included in this list.

I have included more than just books specifically on warfare in the Book of Mormon, but also books on warfare in the ancient Near East and pre-Columbian America (mostly Mesoamerica), so those interested can pursue such resources in their own efforts to study the Book of Mormon warfare in ancient historical and cultural contexts.

Friday, July 15, 2016

“The Dominant Narrative is Not True”: Some Thoughts on Recent Remarks by Richard Bushman

Richard Lyman Bushman
The following is making its rounds on Facebook (from this video):
Questioner: In your view do you see room in Mormonism for several narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?
Richard Bushman: I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that's what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.
As I have seen this quote flash across my Facebook news feed and thought about how to make sense of it, I have been reminded of the short essay response questions I would often have on tests or assignments in college or even high school. It would not be uncommon for these questions to be built around a quote from an important scholar or historical figure, with the essay prompt asking something along the lines of (a) what do you think this means, and (b) do you agree or disagree, why or why not?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

KnoWhy’s By the Numbers: The First 6 Months

Book of Mormon Central Staff,  February 2016
Last Friday, Book of Mormon Central closed out its sixth month of KnoWhy publication, cranking out 133 KnoWhys (each between 2–3 pages long) in that time. Each KnoWhy explores a specific detail in the Book of Mormon, drawing on the vast body of scholarship already available on the Book of Mormon, as well as scholarship on the Bible, the ancient Near East, and pre-Columbian America, etc., to shed light on the text in various ways.

Altogether, in the first six months, Book of Mormon Central drew from 657 different publications from 398 different authors, 141 of whom are non-Mormons (that is 35% of all authors cited, slightly more than one-third). That comes out to an average of about 5 (4.94) sources used per KnoWhy, from almost 3 (2.99) different authors each, including at least 1 (1.06) non-Mormon each time. The number of different publications per author cited is less than two (1.65).

Of those nearly 400 authors, only 13 (including 1 non-Mormon) have been cited in at least 10 KnoWhys, and of those, only 4 have been cited in more than 20. The two most frequently cited authors show up in 58 and 38 different KnoWhys, and no one else appears in more than 21.

I find these numbers interesting because, to me, they indicate an impressive diversity of sources from which insights into the Book of Mormon have been drawn. Far from being a small, academically incestuous group Mormon scholars, Book of Mormon Central has drawn from over 650 different sources, by nearly 400 different authors and scholars, of which slightly more than one-third are not Latter-day Saints. Even those who are more frequently cited are still not excessively leaned on, with most (all but two) being cited in less than 16% of all KnoWhys, and even the most frequently cited author appearing in less than half of all KnoWhys.


Book of Mormon Central has already produced enough material to keep the diligent student of the scriptures busy for years (should they choose to probe the content of each KnoWhy further beyond a mere reading of it). Yet, there is much, much more in the pipeline, which will continue to draw from an ever wider array of both Mormon and non-Mormon sources in an effort to shed more and more light on this most-sacred, keystone text.