Adjusting the Narrative: Part 2a–Nephi and the Skin of Blackness

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 IntroductionPart 1a – The Scriptural Curse and Seed of CainPart 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.

dark_skinned_lamanites

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 LordAnd 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.”

Again:

  1. No Nephites, including Nephi, claim to be eyewitnesses to the initiation of the curse and associated marking that would make them ‘not enticing’.
  2. 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.” [1]

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 [2] 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.

lamanites

NEXT: Part 2b – How do later Book of Mormon prophets approach, react, and in some cases perpetuate this teaching and tradition?

[1] I examined this message by President Uchtdorf in an earlier post, Of Prophets, Elephants, Truth and Charity

[2]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.


Comments

Adjusting the Narrative: Part 2a–Nephi and the Skin of Blackness — 33 Comments

  1. Interesting…

    The language of Nephi’s reference to the “curse of God” in 2 Nephi 5 is in the future tense, about 559 BC. The mention of the curse is once again found in Alma 3:6-10, accounting the story of the Amicite wars, about 86 BC, some 500 years after Nephi’s writing. We really find no direct eyewitness account.

  2. OK, I’d really like to view this as merely Nephi’s mistake, but there’s one huge problem with laying this on Nephi:

    3 Nephi 2:14-15 -

    “And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;
    And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites.”

    That’s not Nephi talking – that’s Mormon, the compiler of the record. This also causes problems for the narrative of Book of Mormon scholars who’ve suggested that by the time of King Benjamin, there was no real difference in skin color between Nephites and Lamanites due to natural genetic intermixture with the native population. If everyone’s skin was more or less the same by the time of King Benjamin, why are we talking about people becoming white skinned again around 10 AD?

    In my mind, if you want to view the Book of Mormon as inspired of God, yet still view the teaching that skin color is NOT a sign of cursing or unrighteousness, you have to lay the blame somewhere and you get three candidates:

    1. Nephi – as you’ve mentioned
    2. Mormon himself – perhaps he was just writing his own conjecture into the narrative for continuity
    3. Joseph Smith – perhaps at some point during the translation process, Joseph Smith simply filled in the blanks and added 3 Nephi 2:15

    Or it might be a combination of the above. But I don’t think you can lay this all at Nephi’s door.

  3. Seth – this is a key reason why this is only part 2a :)

    But your notes are very astute. I agree there are three key bottlenecks: Nephi, Mormon, and Joseph Smith. My next part will be specifically exploring the transmission of the idea from Nephi through Mormon.

  4. “This also causes problems for the narrative of Book of Mormon scholars who’ve suggested that by the time of King Benjamin, there was no real difference in skin color between Nephites and Lamanites due to natural genetic intermixture with the native population. If everyone’s skin was more or less the same by the time of King Benjamin, why are we talking about people becoming white skinned again around 10 AD?”

    There doesn’t have to be a difference in skin colour, nor were people ignorant of the sun’s effects. Taking into consideration the metaphorical aspect of black, a dialogue between a Lamanite and a somewhat tactless Nephite might be imagined somewhat like the following.
    N: -For rebellion, God cursed you with a skin of darkness, so all would know upon sight how wicked your dealings are.
    L: -But your skin is no lighter than mine!
    N: -Mine is because of honest toil under the blistering sun.

  5. David–

    This is a very interesting reading, and a thoughtful one. I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues too.

    What I think you uncover here is something essential–the Book of Mormon authors never claim to be writing infallible or omniscient history. The possibility that Nephi could have gotten it wrong also highlights the fact that latter-day readers could get the text wrong, too (or more aptly read their own biases into it, just like, say the racialized readings of the curses of Cain and Ham in Genesis that come to be dominant in the Age of Exploration).

  6. A couple of thoughts:

    1. The quote from President Uchtdorf is awesome! Thanks for sharing. Average LDS tend to get defensive about the suggestion that the Nephites might have had prejudices against the Lamanites that lead to some inaccuracy in what they say about them. It is nice to have someone from the highest levels of Church government expressing that idea.

    2. I agree that the skin color issue in the Book of Mormon needs a nuanced approach that takes things as having some mix of literal and metaphorical interpretation. The approach you suggest is interesting, to be sure, but I see one potential problem. As per Brant Gardner, the Lehites would have encountered “others” the moment they landed, and many have interpreted Nephi’s statement that he took his various family members plus “all those who would go with me” (2 Nephi 5:6) to be an indication that others had joined themselves with Nephi’s group. The point I am trying to make is simply that if Nephi had already had some interaction with the others, why would he later mistake some of them as his brothers people? Also, wouldn’t he already be aware of their darker skin?

    If you have any thoughts on that, I’d be glad to hear them.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    Nealqr:

    On your point #2, I take into consideration something I found interesting from Sorenson’s ‘Ancient American Settings’, p 90: “The skin shades of surviving peoples in [Sorenson's posited] Book of Mormon lands include a substantial range, from dark brown to virtual white.” – When taken into consideration a combination of geography (Nephi’s declaration came after he moved geographically, and encountering other tribes of differing pigmentation being a possibility) and actions/countenance/clothing/behavior, I see very plausible a mingling of the attributes into a single assumption.

    I find Allen’s observation above very helpful for later generations, and, as I will discuss in the next post, even within a generation of Nephi, we can see the assumptions were being somewhat questioned, expanded, and reworked.

  8. David T:

    That seems reasonable. I look forward to your next installment in this series.

  9. So in order to make one of the race problems of Mormonism vanish, you propose a reading that is only marginally supported by the narrative, and which make god and his prophets incompetents.

    Got it, but not buying it.

  10. Incompetent in using some supernatural process to translate from reformed Egyptian to English, producing the “most correct” of all books without transmiting errors. Said errors requiring the creative interpretation in a nuanced manner in order to try to make the elephant of racism go away.

    Incompetent in not revealing to the prophet the error for a more definitive correction, and allowing the racism that can be minimized by a more nuanced reading. Perpetuating the error for at least 146 years where in a gc of the church Spencer W. Kimball talks about how the navajo children are becoming more white and delightsome.

    Incompetent in allowing for the inclusion of a trope, the idea that being cursed with a dark and loathsome skin for unrighteousness, while a common popular meme in the days of the book’s author, now requires a more nuances reading placing the error upon one of the book’s reported characters, instead of applying Occam’s Razor and looking for the more obvious answers.

  11. Too many people nick themselves shaving with Occam’s Razor.
    One might also call God incompetent for allowing people to go 2000 years before letting them know about the Enuma Elish and Hammurabi.
    At any rate, what is wrong with a nuanced reading? Human beings are rarely simple, so why would the texts they write be any different?

  12. Luis, your comment is an utter mess.

    First off – the words “most correct” do not mean “without error.” Basic reading comprehension failure there on your part. Mormon himself admits the existence of errors in the Book of Mormon. It’s right there in the text. Nowhere did Joseph Smith, Mormon, or any LDS prophet claim the book was perfect and without flaw.

    So strike one for you there.

    Your second criticism isn’t even a criticism of Joseph Smith, but rather an accusation that God is incompetent for not stamping out racist interpretation in the early Mormon church.

    And it’s an utterly worthless answer to my question because my question remains – “incompetent at what?”

    Your gratuitous and unneeded remark about Kimball seems to indicate that your weren’t even interested in responding to me anyway, but were just looking for an excuse to vent your spleen in writing.

    Your last paragraph is an incoherent mess. Who are you even talking about?

    Joseph Smith? Mormon? Nephi? God? Who?

    Take a few deep breaths, turn off your distracting angry thoughts, and try composing that comment again. And this time try actually responding to me rather than having your own personal therapy session.

  13. Luis,

    Short of wiping away or granting justified divine approval for racism, this reading acknowledges its pervasive presence, takes culture into consideration, and presents a didactic narrative for both understanding modern incorrect prophetic assumptions without needing to disregard their entire mission, divine callings, and general righteous examples.

    It also presents and promotes (and illustrates) a paradigm of progressive revelation that has a direct modern counterpart.

    In doing so, it enhances the ability to acknowledge and condemn racism, as well as presenting disavowals of past incorrect beliefs and philosophies as a fulfillment of a Book of Mormon ‘type’. More broadly, it promotes an open discussion of the difference between what God has declared, and what we assume he has declared simply because a belief has been traditionally affirmed. It is directly complimentary to several of the past messages of President Uchtdorf, and I noted in the previous post linked in the footnotes.

    Such a reading, for me, increases the power of the book, and additionally empowers the institutional Church in impressive ways for addressing several difficulties in the past. I plan to elaborate on these thoughts in further posts in this series.

    I do believe a major key is in using the entire Book of Mormon narrative as a key to determining the book’s ultimate message and positions – not simply individual periscopes and perspectives.

  14. David,
    Your argument also presupposes that the bom is actually from god, and all of the machinations and revelations since its publication are something beyond the reactions of leaders to social pressures, in the baliwick/mess that their predecessors left them.

  15. As noted earlier, whatever more nuanced reading one may try to spin as pr damage control in regards to the nature of the original curse of dark skin, the nuance is lost in one fell swoop when the antipode is found:

    14 And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites;

    15 And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;

    16 And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year.

    This event seem adequately witnessed contextually.

    Portraying the curse as anything other than the punishment of god upon the unrighteous, seems more a stretch than a nuance. As the original event is unwitnessed, your other band of sojorners is also pure conjecture and runs contrary to; the bom narrative on the “state” of the land inherited by the Nephites and 140 or so years of teaching from the prophets.

    That a more nuanced conjecture is needed for damage control, witnesses the incompetence inherent in the process.

  16. Luis, part of this series of explorations is to express how the LDS community could beneficially adjust its traditional narrative reading of scripture to make sense of modern developments and acknowledgements, especially such as those expressed in the new header for Declaration 2. Please see the introduction to this series (linked above before the post proper) for the purposes presented.

    This is specifically presented as a proposition for an optional course that could be taken for the community of believers to move forward, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

  17. See I knew I lacked sophistication.

    To paraphrase: let’s pretend there was another band of dark skinned inhabitants with whom the lamanites mingled instead of magic god zapping them. Let’s pretend the magic zapping from dark and loathesome to white never happened. Let’s ignore all of the inconvenient past pronouncements from the prophets in the light of further revelation, and throw what was previously portrayed as eternal down the memory hole.

    Am I becoming more nuanced?

  18. Let’s please keep it civil, folks. On both sides.

    Luis, the current position of the Church presents the narrative of the Nephites and Lamanites as taking place ‘among the ancestors’ of American Natives, and that the record is of a ministry to some of the “inhabitants” of the area. The idea of there being other tribes besides the group of lineal Nephites and Lamanites within the narrative (and even having interbred and mingled with them), while not popular or generally considered in the earliest days of the Church, has not been a particularly novel one for decades at the least.

  19. So…. When the angel Moroni descended from heaven and told Joseph that the “Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham”, he got it wrong lacking our moderen understanding of “among”?

  20. As I have said several times in the course of this series, and in the comments, this is not intended to be any sort of proof, or even a definitive reading of the text. It’s not even a claim or defense of the Book’s historicity.It is presented as an optional narrative approach to take into consideration developments in institutional and communal perspective. The purpose is to discern ways in which the community can use elements present in its sacred texts as a tool to move forward, rather than for them to be used as a hindrance.

    As much as many (inside and out of the Church) would like a single massive jump in leadership and communal belief to a declaration of complete ahistoricity of scriptures, and to just shrug aside difficult implications, it’s simply not going to happen. Complaining how backwards one believes the Church is and mocking members isn’t going to do it either – in many cases, it results in retrenchment.

    While some do have a cause to simply mock or shatter a great number of Church members,others, both in and out, have a greater desire for behavior and attitudes to be adjusted without needlessly shattering the institution or communal strengths, benefits, and accomplished good.

    There is a strong scriptural tradition (even internally within canonical collections, like the Hebrew Bible -and even the New Testament!) for reinterpreting and correcting past meanings of texts in light of new understanding. This has been done both by re-writing the texts, or simply by giving them new significance.

    For me, there is something powerful in adding to a canonical record new information which requires a re-reading of the old – both a re-reading of assumed history, and a re-reading of events attributed in the past to Deity.

    I am a huge fan of key aspects of Rene Girard’s approaches, such as the suggestion that the scapegoating and murder of Jesus revealed much about the interpretive error of past prophetic and scriptural figures – that it is not God who forces violence upon man, it is man who forces violence upon a saddened God.

    It is a powerful approach that has some very interesting usefulness when applied to aspects of modern scripture. Dialogue featured a couple of great papers positing applying Girard’s principles to the Book of Mormon, and explicitly looking at the case of Nephi’s slaying of Laban.

  21. In retrospect, viewing the nature of the original theorem….. I am going to ask the moderation team if I can use this forum to post my opus magnum.

    A postulation that through a more nuanced (if by nuanced one means fluffing out “vagueness” in the original text with speculation) reading of the book of Mormon one can see that the “Liahona” was of curious workmanship. Now, it is common knowledge that most mythological mecho-magical constructs are built by either: elves, gnomes, or dwarves.

    Such a fine example of belomancy with not only directional abilities, but some type of lcd or other display for written instructions could only have been produced by elves, with their superior kanck for fine and detailed workmanship. Indicating that the Liahona is in fact the work of elves. Specifically the “Keebler Elves” branch of the elven family (a conclusion reached after an exhaustive study regarding the Semitic roots of the word keebler).

    It was constructed in their tree workshop (known specifically as “The Hollow Tree Factory.”) then entrusted to Proto Moroni, who leaving his premortal realm, left it in the door step of father Lehi’s tent.

    As this postulate is of the same caliber as the “third party tribe of dark skin” idea (both being equally unprovable speculation), do you think I will be allowed to pontificate through this venue?

    Oh and please, call me Lou.

    PS for Seth.
    In noting incompetency I was not saying god is incompetent in all of his purposes, merely in the methodology he employs to transmit his teaching/will to his prophets. Necromancy, belomancy, scrying, and divination seem fraught with imprecision and shortcomings. What will he try next haruspicy? Perhaps he should try a digital medium, perhaps e-mail…..?

  22. Are elves and more fantastical than Lamanites and Nephites? All are creatures of literature whose existences has of yet to be proven. There are probably more believers in faerie in the world though than in BOM populations

  23. “Are elves and more fantastical than Lamanites and Nephites?”

    That is hardly relevant. We aren’t playing a game of who is more fantastical and less believable. The issue is that Lamanites and Nephites are significant groups in LDS scripture which helps fashion the modern identity of believers who grapple with and relate their lives to the prism found in the text.

    ” There are probably more believers in faerie in the world though than in BOM populations, so do your statistics actually mean anything?”

    He is talking about and addressing this to a discrete group. His statistics are meaningful in that context.

  24. M. Keith Chen, an economist at Yale University, recently authored a paper entitled “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets” for the April 2013 issue of the American Economic Review. He found that those who speak languages that associate the future and the present tend to save more (thus retiring with more saved up), smoke less, etc. Why? In English, I would say it rained yesterday, it is raining now, and it will rain tomorrow. In Chinese, I’d say that it rain yesterday, it rain today, and it rain tomorrow. English grammatically breaks up the time periods, whereas Chinese (and other languages–English is the only Germanic language that breaks it up this way) do not. Similarly, in English, I can introduce you to my “uncle.” In Mandarin, I’d have to tell you whether it is an uncle on my mother’s/father’s side, by marriage/birth, and older/younger if on my father’s side.

    What does this research by a Yale economist have to do with anything? It should demonstrate how different languages and cultures affect behavior and worldviews. It may have less to do with the incompetence of prophets and translators and more to do with languages, cultures, and history being so damn complex. Being nuanced is often the most you can do.

  25. At the request of participants who wished aspects of their own participation removed, and after careful consideration, I have pruned some of the posts (including my own) that I judged were the most tangential, inflammatory, or mutually unproductive. I have tried to make sure to leave key on-topic criticism, points, and responses intact. I take full and complete responsibility.

  26. English tenses can be frustrating at times (though I am told that French and Finnish take the cake), but oh, that magnificient future perfect!

    At any rate, point well taken. In Russian I always have to qualify that I am talking about my very own brother, from the same parents, and not a cousin. The words “brother” and “sister” can mean any cousin.

  27. All those ancient rock art paintings showing black-skinned people, white-skinned people and tan-skinned people makes me think that the description of the Lamanites as having black skin was literal.

  28. I apologize for the delay. I fully intend to continue this, but my draft has gone untouched due to, well, distraction and life events. I will return to it shortly, though. Thank you for the interest!

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