Adjusting the Narrative–Part 2c: Jacob’s Priestly Re-Examination of the Lamanite Curse

Adjusting the Narrative is a series exploring close reading of scriptural texts traditionally related to and used as justification of LDS notions of curses on those with dark skin.  In Part 2a, I analyzed the Book of Mormon’s presentation of Nephi’s affirmation that Laman, Lemuel and their posterity up to his generation – collectively The Lamanites – had been cursed by God, and that a visual indicator of that Curse was a Dark Skin. The analysis suggested there are textual grounds for a narrative reading where Nephi does not claim to have explicitly been given the Dark Skin sign from God, but that this was a later assumptive interpretation and expansion by Nephi of the idea that the Lamanites would be ‘made loathsome’ to Nephi and his people. In Part 2b, we noted the Church’s recent doctrinal clarification and disavowal of past theories that “Black Skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse”. We will proceed to re-read the Book of Mormon narrative on this topic with the narrative conceit that King Nephi was incorrect in his affirmation that a specific act of God was the cause of the dark skin of his people’s antagonists, and we will proceed to explore how his Nephite successors dealt with making sense of his declaration in the face of their lived reality..

jacobFollowing the death of Nephi, the continuing of the sacred record is taken over not by his Kingly Heir (who is known only as Second Nephi), but by his younger brother, the Priestly Jacob, whose writings also were included as part of King Nephi’s second ‘book’. Jacob knew in his youth the original generation of what were being called Lamanites. But at this time, removed physically from the Lamanites for nearly a generation, and while still holding firm to the words of his Brother, the Late King, he begins redefining for us who exactly are to be classed as Lamanites:

“Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings.” . Jacob 1:13-14

Lamanite and Nephite are made to be a purely political designation here for the remainder of the scriptural tradition. Those who are loyal or friendly to the Nephite Dynasty are Nephites, and those who are opposed are Lamanites. Lineage is specifically noted to not be an issue from this point on in terms of designation, in at least how Jacob, the priestly record keeper, will be presenting the material. They are not terms of righteousness, or being of favor with God. They are in regards to political affinity.

This is made even clearer with his sermon, in which he declares that in many key aspects, those designated as Lamanites have become, in actuality, more righteous than many Nephites.

“And now behold, my [Nephite] brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto great condemnation; for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have done. Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.” Jacob 2:34-35

Jacob continues, (Jacob 3:3-9) ,

But, wo, wo, unto you that are not pure in heart, that are filthy this day before God; for except ye repent the land is cursed for your sakes;”

– this makes a reference to the Foundational Lehite Promise, that those who are disobedient to the covenant will be ‘cut off’ from the Lord, and the Land of Promise. (see 2 Nephi 1:20). At this point, the Nephite Kingdom and its Temple Priesthood are the vehicles of delivering divine favor. The enemies of the Nephite nation have been as of this point cut off from the Familial Covenant. “and the Lamanites,” Jacob continues, “which are not filthy like unto you, nevertheless they are cursed with a sore cursing, shall scourge you even unto destruction.” – What is this curse of which he speaks?

Being cut off from the presence of the Lord – the Temple, and the Lehite Covenant. It is due to their opposition to those who have been chosen to bear those gifts. But here, Jacob is making clear that the tables can be turned, and the gifts and ecclesiastical benefits can be taken away from the Nephites, and be granted to the Lamanites. It will be a striking reversal.

And the time speedily cometh, that except ye repent they shall possess the land of your inheritance, and the Lord God will lead away the righteous out from among you.”

Now, after laying out the nature of the Curse, and how it can easily be re-applied based on lack of willingness to be loyal to the Divine Covenant, he applies Nephi’s sign or marker of the curse, and curiously both sustains it, and throws its significance into question.

“Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them. And now, this commandment they observe to keep; wherefore, because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people … and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?”

Some observations:

1. Jacob notes that Nephite hatred is based on their perception of Lamanite “filthiness” and additionally “their skins”

2. Jacob re-iterates what he had noted explicitly before – that in reality, the Nephites he was addressing were, in reality, “not filthy” where it mattered concerning Covenant Righteousness.

3. Lamanite unbelief and rejection of the Nephites as the covenantal heirs comes from the division of the previous generation. In ignorance of the Divine Laws (not passed on from the prior generation), they still are naturally obeying them. In full knowledge of the letter of Divine Law, the Nephites disobey them. The Lamanites, who are ignorantly in opposition to the political kingdom of Nephi, which holds the Sacred Oracles, can properly be seen as more righteous than than those who belong to the Authorized Kingdom, but knowingly reject Divine Law.

Jacob then strikingly alters their perception of the Lineal Marker, and applies it, in a bit of argumentum reduction absurdum as a changeable sign, one that, as things were going, would likely be strikingly and symbolically reversed:

“O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.”

This leads into a direct commandment, specifically stated to be the Word of God, not to permit or consider skin color to be a judge of righteousness, nor as a sign of permissible enmity.

“Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins;”

In addition, Lamanite inability by affiliation and ignorance to knowingly obey all aspects of the Divine Covenant, leading them to be ceremonially unclean or ‘filthy’ is also said not to be a viable reason for enmity.

neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness; but ye shall remember your own filthiness, and remember that their filthiness came because of their fathers.”

– The Nephites who find themselves unclean have made a choice not to take advantage of divine cleansing. The Lamanites, without knowledge nor access to the Temple and Covenant have not.

This is a striking evolution of the concept of Nephi’s  Lamanite Curse. In many ways, Jacob is taking Nephi’s narrow interpretation of the initiation of the curse upon the Lamanites, and broadening it based on the initial conditions given by Lehi, and using reason to explain why while separation from divine communion is a curse in and of itself, following the initial generation it is not necessarily reflective of one’s personal righteousness, is not essentially tied to lineage, and can – and should – be reversed, or overturned.

The end of Jacob’s record suggests that an initial burst of Missionary zeal resulted, but was unsuccessful. Apparently a quick turnaround wasn’t immediately convincing to the Lamanites who had for the past generation been subject to acts of hatred and enmity. Consider the Church member who treats poorly someone of another tradition, regularly casting slurs and condescension towards them. Would you blame such a person for not accepting the pure motivations of a next day’s invitation by that person to return to Church?

Retrenchment followed the quick and dirty attempted ‘Rescue’, with perhaps the attitude of, “See, we tried!”

Enos

Jacob’s record is followed by his son Enos, who clearly took his Father’s message to heart. We aren’t told when, but perhaps only after receiving the record, and reading and pondering his father’s message. He famously prays first for his own sins, and has a true divine awakening. This follows with sincere desire and prayer first for his fellow Nephites.

The recorded divine response is interesting – for the Nephites, it is highly conditional, and all placed in their (the Nephites’) own hands.

“I will visit thy brethren according to their diligence in keeping my commandments. I have given unto them this land, and it is a holy land; and I curse it not save it be for the cause of iniquity; wherefore, I will visit thy brethren according as I have said; and their transgressions will I bring down with sorrow upon their own heads.” enos

This is satisfactory to Enos, who then, with strengthened faith, begins praying for the Lamanites. He notes how the recent efforts to bring them back into the covenant fold were in vain. He prays that someway, somehow, even if the Nephites end up being destroyed, that the covenants and messages kept in sacred trust by the Nephites would be able to make their way to the Lamanites “that, perhaps, they might be brought unto salvation”.

And having received that Promise, Enos didn’t stop there, content with a knowledge for some potentially “long promised day”, but he worked with the Nephites, and worked to “seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God.” This was ultimately unsuccessful – the Lamanites were still understandably unreceptive. And it turns out the Nephites themselves still had a way to go, as Enos notes that “there were exceedingly many prophets among us. And the people were a stiffnecked people, hard to understand.”

Enos died with the Nephites still warring with the Lamanites, with prophets still striving, unsuccessfully, to get the Nephites to take advantage of their divine gifts.

NEXT: The theologizing of Mormon the Nephite Chronicler


Comments

Adjusting the Narrative–Part 2c: Jacob’s Priestly Re-Examination of the Lamanite Curse — 3 Comments

  1. Dark skin is not a curse but just a mark that was given to identify them so that their seed wouldn’t mingle with the wicked groups and cause the whole lot to become corrupted. Now of course the Church has come out and said such theories promoted in the past about dark skin and it being a curse. But, this must be taken in context of what the Church is stating. Its in regards to the priesthood in general and those theories used in the past to try to justify their skin color as a sign that God disliked them or were cursed solely off of skin color. Nowhere in the BoM is skin color a criteria for coming to God and partaking of salvation. Once one realizes that truth then the BoM makes sense in teaching us that the dark skin was only used as a mark so that the righteous group wouldn’t mingle their seed with the wicked

  2. When the word skin is used in the scripture, it is not intended to be interpreted litterally.
    The Atonement of Jesus-Christ was performed before the world was, and every child of God is covered by it.
    It looks to me as if when the Savior came here and paid the cost for the Atonement, we (including prophets, leaders etc…) have decided to take over and to decide who should take advantage of it and who should not.
    Using our own interpratation of the mind of God, we explain God’s words in our narrowed and limited understanding and create in the process so many problems with the truth.
    One can easily spot in the scriptures what the Lord says to His Prophets and what the prophet turns around and tell to the people.
    I am not trying to say that what the prophets teach when they interpret the words of God is all wrong. But we shoud remember that the only power that exist that can clearly make a pure, concise and clear interpretation of the word of God is the power of the Holy Ghost, and God has given that power to all of his children who comes to Him volountarily for their salvation.
    So the next time we read the scriptures , forget about any manuals or any interpratation, just get in touch with the Holy Ghost and ask for an understanding.
    Take Moroni’s counsel to the letter and you will know more than you will ever know about the truth.
    Because he said: “And by the power of the Holy Ghost, you may know the truth of all things.”

  3. Rob and Hugues,

    You both illustrate the two extremes faithful members often tend to take.

    Rob’s perspective is certainly the old paradigm (and, as noted in Part 2b, recently somewhat awkwardly re-iterated in the 2013 Book of Mormon seminary manual even though the specific doctrinal point was disavowed within a few months.

    Hughes’ perspective is a thoughtful, and certainly more comfortable and easy to ‘translate’ ideal (which had its best and most detailed champion in Brant Gardner’s Second Witness commentary).

    But as I read the Book of Mormon closely, and also in light of the recent Doctrinal pronouncement that theories that Dark Skin are a sign or mark of divine curses are incorrect, it invites a close and nuanced reading of the Book of Mormon.

    I do believe a close reading makes clear that some of the purported Book of Mormon authors and characters believed in a literal skin-color curse. It is also equally clear that others within the text found the idea incompatible with their experience, and favored a metaphorical approach. Sometimes, we find both.

    I believe this nuanced reading of the text makes the narrative even more alive, and relevant. For those who view the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, one can find similarities in ways that theological assertions were grappled with and questioned within course of the Hebrew Bible by its different authors and redactors. For those who view the text as modern, inspired or not, there is benefit in seeing fascinating narrative subtext worth exploring.

    While I do not argue that this is the only way the text can plausibly be read, I do wish to make the case that it may be the strongest and most viable way to approach the text with today’s paradigm.

    This is my way of taking the text extremely seriously, both as literature, and as scripture.

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