A continuation of the the series “Adjusting the Narrative”, as a proposed response to the new header to Official Declaration 2 in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. See Introduction, Part 1a – The Scriptural Curse and Seed of Cain, Part 1b – The Blood of the Canaanites, Part 1c – The Priesthoods of Abraham and Pharaoh. The segments of Part 2 will explore a proposed reading of the narrative of the Book of Mormon.
The traditional reading of the Book of Mormon narrative presents the idea that as the Nephites and Lamanites are divided into separate peoples in 2 Nephi 5, Laman, his followers, and their descendants receive a dark skin of blackness as a mark that will indicate to the Nephites that they are a cursed lineage, and that they should not intermarry with them. References to this blackness recur throughout the narrative of the text. It leads to popular illustrations of the Nephites being Caucasian in appearance, with Lamanites having significantly darker skin.
Even if one is to acknowledge the truth that this has nothing contextually to do with African Blacks, this story, as traditionally read and understood, still presents the idea of a scriptural precedence and justification for ‘marking’ a cursed lineage with Black Skin. In fact, the readings of the texts in Abraham and Moses as having to do with a cursed black-skin lineage are generally highly influenced by and interpreted in light of these Book of Mormon passages. Those readings are traditionally seen as plausible, because the Book of Mormon appears to make the connection explicit. It is seen as a testimony of multiple witnesses. But is it really?
This skin of blackness in the book of Mormon is defended by some as literal, and others as being purely metaphorical. While I am highly sympathetic to wanting to find a strictly and completely intended metaphorical reading, in my experience, both arguments tend to break down at some point when applied to the entire story, and all of the texts. I would like to propose a more nuanced reading, that also takes the text seriously, and at face value, and making full use of Moroni’s declaration that “ if there are faults they are the mistakes of men” – and I take this to include the original participants in the action as well as their chroniclers and translators.
Last year, inspired by Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner’s wonderful and exhaustive ‘Second Witness‘ commentary, and Joseph Spencer’s ‘An Other Testament: On Typoogy’, I decided to re- read all of 2 Nephi up to the events of 2 Nephi 5, where the first notion of the troubling ‘skin of blackness’ comes, in order to apply some of their observations and methodology of critically reading the text.
While I was reading it very closely, and, with this specific issue in mind, I realized two things that I had never seen before, that, I believe, have important implications for any interpretation as to what happens (Whether you previously believed it was always understood to be literal, or always meant to be metaphorical) concerning the Lamanites:
- Within the narrative, the announcement and implication of any ‘curse’ happens contextually after the Nephites have already sent themselves into exile away from the newly-titled Lamanites. There’s even an implication that not only had Nephi been made King, but also that time had passed sufficiently to build the temple, and to establish a society before the ‘curse’ was made known to him and announced. In other words, the major implication here is that there are no Nephite eyewitnesses to the initiation and application of the ‘curse’ and any associated ‘marking’, including King Nephi himself. This is very important. Nobody in the text claims to have witnessed anyone’s skin change color.
- While Nephi states that the announcement of the curse and marking comes from God, he stops short of giving a quotation of the Lord when giving the explanation of a skin of blackness – the explanation of what the Lord did appears to be an extrapolation and an interpretation of Nephi’s own!
Let’s look at the text, 2 Nephi 5, with specific statements attributed to the Lord given a traditional red-letter edition:
20 Wherefore, the word of the Lord was fulfilled which he spake unto me, saying that: Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence.
21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. 23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing.
And the Lord spake it, and it was done. 24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.
25 And the Lord God said unto me: They shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to astir them up in remembrance of me; and inasmuch as they will not remember me, and hearken unto my words, they shall scourge them even unto destruction.
To recap: here is what Nephi reports the Lord actually said:
- Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
- I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
- And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing [ie, cut off, and made loathsome].
- They shall be a scourge unto thy seed.
Nephi goes further with his interpretation than he actually claims came directly by the revelation. He shows his interpretation of “that they might not be enticing unto my people” to mean that “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
- No Nephites, including Nephi, claim to be eyewitnesses to the initiation of the curse and associated marking that would make them ‘not enticing’.
- Nephi’s reporting of the Lord’s words do not specify any change in physical appearance, or even lightness/darkness.
I propose the interpretive possibility within the narrative that down the road, an indigenous tribe with significantly darker skin tones encountered and battled the Nephite colony, and King Nephi interpreted them as being the “loathsome” and “cut off” “scourge” who may have been connected with his brothers’ people.
Could an event like this have solidified a key interpretation of what it meant to be ‘loathsome’ to Nephi? King Nephi found a group attacking his people to be a scourge, and found their physical appearance loathsome. This was seen as a fulfillment of prophecy, and applied to the lineal Lamanites. Could the interpretation be based on a practical episode rather than the direct revelation and understanding received?
Could King Nephi have codified the misunderstanding as a ban against mixing with those of darker skin generally, rather than the actual injunction by the Lord to not mix with those who ‘would not hearken unto‘ the Lord’s principles, and not ‘repent‘?
President Uchtdorf recently noted the presence of incorrect stereotypical ‘truths’ reported in the Book of Mormon, expressing that
“both the Nephites as well as the Lamanites created their own “truths” about each other …These “truths” fed their hatred for one another until it finally consumed them all. Needless to say, there are many examples in the Book of Mormon that contradict both of these stereotypes. Nevertheless, the Nephites and Lamanites believed these “truths” that shaped the destiny of this once-mighty and beautiful people.” 
With this in mind, I will leave you with the modern explanatory header to Chapter 5 in the updated 2013 edition of the Book of Mormon  which currently reads this:
The Nephites separate themselves from the Lamanites, keep the law of Moses, and build a temple—Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.
When it used to read this:
The Nephites separate themselves from the Lamanites, keep the law of Moses, and build a temple—Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.
NEXT: Part 2b – How do later Book of Mormon prophets approach, react, and in some cases perpetuate this teaching and tradition?
 I examined this message by President Uchtdorf in an earlier post, Of Prophets, Elephants, Truth and Charity
which had been changed as early as 2005 in second printings of the Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon, as well as implemented on the electronic edition of the Book of Mormon. The 2013 edition will be the first time it is in print under the Church’s official editions of the scriptures.