LDS Podcast: The Legacy of Mormon and MoroniEpisode 21
Changing Paradigms and the Book of Mormon
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Moroni: A Lonely Wanderer?
Was the Prophet Moroni "alone" when he wrote his "sad tale of destruction"?
Welcome back to ForeverLDS. This is Chris Heimerdinger. Once again this week I have the privilege of talking about The Book of Mormon. As is no surprise to those who have read my novels in the "Tennis Shoes Adventure Series", or who've seen the movie Passage to Zarahemla, The Book of Mormon is one of my perennially favorite topics. I come at it, I think, a bit differently than others conducting a Book of Mormon lecture or LDS podcast. Part storyteller, part researcher, part insatiable daydreamer—that's me. My brain sometimes just sees things differently. Some think that's a good thing, others find it sort of obnoxious. Been that way all my life. I don't have the vaguest idea where some ideas originate or how to stop them from coming. To harness them I write novels–or do podcasts. If you like the things we discuss, tell a friend about ForeverLDS. Help stoke the conversation.
Last week we discussed Changing Paradigms and the Book of Mormon, or in other words, how certain common perceptions about this sacred volume have evolved since its publication in 1830. I gave as my considered opinion that this was not a bad thing. I think it's a very good thing. One of the possible paradigm shifts I hope to at least start discussing today may be my own unique proposal. I don't know that for sure. Maybe I'm NOT the first to think of it. I've outlined the details now to several respected LDS scholars and researchers who both confirmed it was something they'd never heard before—and I think they kinda liked it. It certainly wasn't implausible. Others may find flaws in my logic. That's fine. In fact, I hope some will look into it more closely and let me know. If there's some point I've skipped over or haven't considered, perhaps your insight will pull us right back to the original paradigm.
What I find so extraordinary about The Book of Mormon is that it's complexity allows us to ponder its verses on many levels. An 8-year-old will read it with all the innocence that an 8-year-old brings and often he or she will receive a kind of enlightenment many adults never receive. An investigator or a new convert can read it for the first time and experience a deluge of nascent faith, a burning testimony of its truthfulness. A seasoned member can read it for the 20th time and discover fresh meanings and insights that never struck them before. I'm confident this would happen on the 100th reading. To read and ponder holy scripture is to commune with the Holy Spirit, where all intelligence and wisdom resides.
I believe the answer to every riddle in life can be found in its verses: How to be a better parent or spouse, how to overcome very personal and particular trials and temptations, how to draw closer to the Savior in every imaginable way. Also, embedded in its pages, are the secrets of what the scriptures call humanity's "differences of administration" and "diversities of operations" (D&C 46:15-16). In case you haven't heard those terms before, Doctrine and Covenants Section 46 defines them as gifts of the Spirit, right up there with the gifts of prophecy and healing. Differences of administration and diversities of operations—What exactly are those gifts? How are they defined? To me it's clear. These are the gifts directly associated with leadership, the ability to organize people, to motivate, to inspire, to comprehend what makes society tick, what causes empires to rise and nations to fall, the vast and incalculable complexities of the human condition. That's "differences of administration" and "diversities of operations".
The Book of Mormon abounds with such insights—if you're looking for them. Those who contributed to and brought forth this volume of scripture were real people, flesh-and-blood personalities. Unquestionably inspired and directed by God, but 3-dimensional individuals with emotions and struggles, passions and flaws. Understanding more about them helps us better understand ourselves and, in so many instances, urges us become more like them. To draw upon heavenly powers like them. And to endure to the end the way that they did.
The ancient cultures from which The Book of Mormon sprang certainly had different values and norms than our modern American culture. Acknowledging this doesn't diminish the miracle of the record's existence. Quite the opposite. We can examine its pages, search for clues, unravel its mysteries. Question, explore, speculate, discuss, and even draw plausible conclusions. Just make certain to leave any final conclusions to God, or to His authorized representatives on earth.
A great challenge for Latter-day Saints of this generation—Not just this generation, but it sometimes seems more pronounced in this generation—is the ability to separate divine pronouncement from human opinion. This is the realization that it's okay if a general authority, or even a Church President, expresses a point of view that later turns out to be mistaken. Joseph Smith wrote in his journal, "A Prophet is not always a Prophet' only when he is acting as such." Some Latter-day Saints really have a hard time with this concept. It's actually a topic for an entirely separate podcast. Suffice it to say that fallibility in an authorized servant of God is not only permissible, it should be expected. The trouble comes with those who treat that concept too lightly or too heavy-handedly. I've spoken with so many individuals who have had day-to-day associations with modern prophets and apostles. The descriptions they give are, more often than not, that these men are utterly human, with flaws and challenges, opinions and miscalculations. At the same time, when required to act in the holy office for which they are called, the accompaniment of that divine mantle is apparent and often, for the observer, overwhelming.
Which brings us to our discussion of one of the most important figures in The Book of Mormon. The Prophet Moroni. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints many things come to mind when we think of Moroni. We envision the white-robed heavenly messenger who in 1823 visited the 18-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr. 3 times in one night and again the following day. We envision the angel who delivered the plates to the Prophet Joseph and personally displayed its golden leafs to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. We imagine the warrior, the son of the Prophet Mormon, who fought alongside his father on that terrible day in 385 A.D. when his nation was destroyed. And we think of the lonely wanderer who for 37 years after the battle at Cumorah protected the holy record, transported it across a war-torn landscape, struggling to survive, perpetually hiding from those who would take away his life, and finally, in 421 A.D., depositing the gold plates in a repository of the Hill Cumorah, along with the Urim and Thummin, the breastplate, and the Sword of Laban.
It's that last image that I think deserves a bit more scrutiny: That image of a lonely wanderer. Now, understand, I believe Moroni, the son of Mormon, is one of the most incredible souls who ever lived. One of the most faithful, the most loyal, and one of the most courageous. I'd put him among the top 5 or 10 people I'd like to meet—whose highlight reel in the next life I'd most like to watch. That is, if I haven't watched it already, in the pre-Earth life, before I was born. Many of us may have already been witnesses to the most important events in the history of the world. We just don't remember them. But we will.
My point is, I don't want to seem disrespectful of the Prophet Moroni in any way. I hope my proposals actually do more to exalt him and emphasize his accomplishments. However, what I present is likely a different paradigm than most Latter-day Saints have considered. But it makes sense. More sense, I think, than existing paradigms.
As I said in the last podcast, new paradigms can be jarring at first. I hope as I unfold these perspectives it actually makes Moroni more real and approachable and understandable. But to do that I have to make Moroni into something that for many faithful members of the Church he has never been—a down-to-earth human being. Still a larger-than-life prophet of God, but also a man who mirrors his culture and his times.
What's so cool is that all of these perspectives are clearly demonstrated in the pages of The Book of Mormon. It's all there, manifest in the details, and in the all-too human choices and literary devices of Moroni, and also other contributors to the volume.
Maybe as a writer or storyteller I recognize such devices more readily. I'm not sure. I've obviously made a career out of attempting to flesh out figures from The Book of Mormon, The Bible, and other ancient resources. As my readers know I've often composed important plot points based on just a few verses, or even a phrase in a verse, relying upon my heart, my instincts, and my imagination. Don't misunderstand. Anything I write in these novels will never be more than speculation—at least in this life. Educated speculations, perhaps. Maybe at times enlightened speculations. But don't take that characterization too seriously. I'm far too imperfect and limited in my talents to believe I've ever enjoyed unhindered access to some fountain of inspiration. I have no idea what Teancum looked like or even if he had a family. Or, as it suggests in Book 1: Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, if the death of a son prompted Teancum to attempt his utterly reckless and impetuous assassination of King Amalikicah, sneaking into the Lamanite camp in the dead of night accompanied by a single servant. It makes sense to me that something prompted Teancum's exploit on that particular night as opposed to other nights, but to think he was compelled by grief? Speculation. It's just as reasonable to think he was compelled by intelligence reports that revealed the exact location of Amalikiah's tent within the city walls where the Lamanites were camped. It's also possible that Teancum, the Nephite military commander of that region, was just a reckless and impetuous guy, haphazardly risking his life and the well-being of his army by embarking on a foolhardy operation. Okay, so he succeeded—the first time. The whole thing STILL seems unbelievably reckless.
In the next life I've sometimes imagined that Teancum might punch my lights out (actually, I don't think you're allowed to punch someone's lights out in heaven, but that he might really ream on me—) because of how I described him and the events surrounding him. With so many details in my novels I'm just guessing. If I was ever worthy enough, fortunate enough, to receive inspiration, I think it would be in terms of more general concepts. The bigger picture. Differences in administration and diversities of operations. Listen, I'm uncomfortable talking about inspiration as it relates to my novels in any way. They're just stories—written with the intent to help people relate to the scriptures and—hopefully—read them. I do believe imagination is a form of inspiration, but I've seen it used for good and for evil, so I don't yet know how to classify it.
However—I love that word "however"—my perspectives on Moroni are not necessarily related to any details I might use in a story. I might use some of it in my current novel, Thorns of Glory, but only a portion. The general picture I believe genuinely represents a paradigm shift. The first part of that is that Moroni, not unlike other prophets in The Book of Mormon, and especially not unlike other ancient Old World historians like Josephus, Herodotus, and Livy, were influenced by the times in which they lived. Despite their brilliance and best intentions, they were not immune from occasionally incorporating a literary device known as hyperbole. Okay, for those who cringe at a word like hyperbole in association with a Book of Mormon prophet, let's just call it deliberate simplification for the sake of helping the reader better grasp the overall picture of what's happening by avoiding complex descriptions or details that might muddy the waters or blunt the point they are trying to make. In the case of Moroni he undoubtedly judged additional details as unnecessary and insignificant. Most of those details were insignificant, but what I find fascinating is that glaring hints of The Book of Mormon's greater complexity abound and, for me, offer a deeper intellectual testimony of the volume's authenticity. Intellectual testimony is by far inferior to a spiritual testimony, but it's still cool. And maybe it's unnecessary to parse the spiritual from the intellectual. Ultimately they will go hand-in-hand.
As an example of deliberate simplification, before I get to Moroni, let's start with Jacob, the brother of Nephi. In his case he fully admits in his writings that he's simplifying things. Jacob 1:13-14 offers a perfect example:
13. Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.
14. 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.
There you go. Deliberate simplification, the motive being to help readers avoid becoming bogged down the weeds trying to understand all the complex tribal identifications intertwined in their culture. (Also see 4 Nephi 1:36-38) His older brother, Nephi, commanded Jacob to simplify things in the small plates—to focus on spiritual matters and only touch lightly historical matters (Jacob 1:2), because Nephite history would be more thoroughly covered in his other plates—the LARGER plates— that would be passed down from generation to generation, which history, by the way, we don't have any part of until we get to the reign of King Benjamin 500 years later. That's 500 years of scant or missing details, because much of this era of Nephite history was lost when the first 116 translated pages were lost. I think I've pined enough on that point. Thank goodness Nephi did not heed the same advice he gave to his brother, Jacob, and that he at least gave us some history in 1st and 2nd Nephi. Otherwise, readers of The Book of Mormon would be totally lost.
Another example of hyperbole, or deliberate simplification, by a direct contributor to the Book of Mormon, is the Prophet Ether. Consider Ether's description of the Jaredite nation destroying itself down to the very last man—King Coriantumr. The Book of Mormon reads, "And it came to pass that they had all fallen by the sword, save it were Coriantumr and Shiz" (Ether 15:29).
Then of course Coriantumr slays Shiz, leaving only himself, and the Prophet Ether, who completed the Jaredite record. Even to the present day many Latter-day Saints interpret the word "destruction" very literally and have internalized the image of every Jaredite man, woman, and child being slain. And why not? The Book of Mormon repeatedly refers to the Jaredites as a people and civilization that were utterly destroyed. That's how Moroni described them in Ether Chapter 1, verses 1 and 5. He used this concept to emphasize the Lord's proclamation that only the righteous can possess this land, while the wicked will consistently be destroyed (see Ether 8:22, 9:20). Well, we know that's something of a hyperbole because we have wicked people in this land even today, and some of them are seeming to thrive. Even in Book of Mormon times there were wicked people who seemed to thrive. Sure, at certain junctures the wicked received their comeuppance. But such instances are clear and noted. The ultimate destruction of the wicked is also prophesied for the earth in general, particularly when the Savior returns. It would be interesting to conduct or view an in-depth study of how or if this principle of destruction more particularly applies to the Promised Land as declared by Moroni and other Book of Mormon prophets. My instincts are that it does, but I'd love to read a more detailed analysis. Okay. Boy, I digress a lot, don't I?
The most important verses referencing the Jaredite destruction are from Moroni's abridgment of the 24 plates found by an expedition sent northward by a Nephite King named Limhi, then passed down from generation to generation until they came into the hands of Ammaron, and then Mormon, and finally Moroni. The object of this expedition sent by Limhi was to find the city of Zarahemla. Limhi's expedition failed, apparently bypassing Zarahemla in the wilderness. Instead the explorers found a battleground with many cankering skeletons and weapons—and the 24 gold plates, which Moroni later abridged. In Ether Chapter 13, verses 20 and 21, Moroni's abridgment of the Jaredite record reads:
"And in the second year the word of the Lord came to Ether, that he should go and prophesy unto Coriantumr that, if he would repent, and all his household, the Lord would give unto him his kingdom and spare the people—
21 "Otherwise they should be destroyed, and all his household save it were himself. And he should only live to see the fulfilling of the prophecies which had been spoken concerning another people receiving the land for their inheritance; and Coriantumr should receive a burial by them; and every soul should be destroyed save it were Coriantumr."
Those verses seem pretty straightforward. Every soul should be destroyed save Coriantumr. The only thing which blurs a cut-and-dried interpretation of total Jaredite annihilation down to the last person is the phrase, repeated twice, "and all his household." This single verse may indicate that Ether was prophesying that not every single Jaredite would perish, but every relative and associate of King Coriantumr.
In other words, Dr. Nibley believed the word "destroy" conveyed a disorganization and scattering. Not that it foretold the death of every last man, woman, and child. This seems reasonable considering that Moroni mentioned two distinct ideas at the beginning of verse 22 "Otherwise they should be destroyed, and all his household save it were himself." The idea of "they" and "his household" comes off as redundant unless the first half references a political and social destruction and the second half references the literal death of every member of Coriantumr's household. Why bother to single out anybody's household if every single person was destined to die anyway if Coriantumr refused to repent?
Nevertheless, the principal reason for not interpreting the verses in a way that demands the death of every last man, woman, and child is—wait for it—common sense. "Now, wait a minute," some might say. "Whose common sense are we talking about here?"
The obvious answer would be mine—my common sense. But apparently also the common sense of just about every scholar who has ever studied the issue. As I've said, virtually all ancient historians, from Thucydides to Julius Caesar, especially in their description of warfare, were notorious for hyperbole, exaggerating details for the purpose of padding the numbers, pushing a certain agenda that extolled themselves and/or pleased their patrons. The other reasons for using hyperbole would be to offer educated estimates or just make complicated events easier to understand. In Ether and Moroni's case, since I believe both were men of great integrity, I'll go with the final two. As I've said, one man's hyperbole is another man's simplification. The ultimate goal is to help the reader follow the narrative and better grasp the author's overarching point. In Ether's case, should we presume he watched the entire battle taking place on the Hill Ramah from a safe, but acceptable distance that allowed him to personally witness the moment when Coriantumr slew Shiz? His description is rather detailed, so maybe that's exactly what happened. However, history tells us that such things generally aren't so simple. How safe would it have been for Ether to emerge from his hiding place in the cavity of a rock every day to accurately document Jaredite battle statistics? If I learned that Ether had acolytes or followers, perhaps people with no Jaredite heritage whatsoever, or if I learned that he was given descriptions by a wounded soldier or even a local peasant who claimed total neutrality and played no part of the Jaredite conflict, this wouldn't bother me. It might actually paint a more reliable picture, and it would be in total keeping with the way events in history were recorded.
Some good evidence of the fact that not everyone of Jaredite descent was slain is a continuation of a Jaredite name tradition among the Nephites and the people of Zarahemla, who we often refer to as Mulekites since they claimed to be descendants of a son of King Zedekiah named Mulek, who crossed the ocean in an entirely separate expedition from the family of Lehi or Jared. The linguistic similarities of many Jaredite names with Nephite names after the days of King Benjamin are obvious, though they certainly could have taken root in Nephite or Mulekite culture much earlier. We don't have all that many names from the time period prior to when King Moisah arrived in Zarahemla.
Coriantumr is a prime example of Jaredite name that found its way into Nephite usage. It's the name of the last Jaredite king, and also the name of a Nephite dissenter who lived in about 50 B.C. Morianton is another name that appears in the Jaredite record and in the Nephite record after the time of King Benjamin. Other Nephite names with linguistic Jaredite origins include Korihor, Gadianton, Kishkumen and Nehor. Coincidentally, every name I've mentioned so far belonged to bad guys. A number of scholars have suggested that the Nephite's political takeover in Zarahemla after they arrived in the middle of the 2nd century B.C. was resented in some circles by the locals—a resentment that festered over time. We can imagine some of them watching as their leader, Zarahemla, gushed over the brass plates carried forth from the land of Nephi by King Mosiah, restoring their history and heritage and purifying their language and thinking, "What is this guy doing? Is Zarahemla nuts? He not only gave the Nephites religious authority over us, he handed them the government!" Those who most resented this cultural and political takeover may have later been called Kingmen in The Book of Mormon, or those who rebelled and tried to reinstate a king to undermine the representative Nephite government instituted by King Mosiah II. The kings they wanted to install may have been people of Mulekite descent or even a mixed Mulekite and Jaredite bloodline, but the man who abridged this portion of the record—Mormon—wasn't sure how to explain all of that without such details watering down his spiritual message, so for the most part he left it out.
One notable exception among the Nephites to the idea that all those with a Jaredite name were bad guys is Moroni. Moron was the name of the Jaredite capital. If we assume that putting an "i" at the end of a name is comparable to other Semitic languages, the name Moroni would simply mean, "from Moron" or "pertaining to Moron." Whether we're actually pronouncing the name correctly by employing an English or Anglicized idiom, or whether the name ought to be pronounced "Moro-ní" (emphasis on the last syllable) according to Mesoamerican language patterns, can be discussed in another podcast.
The point is that any interpretation that doesn't have the Jaredites dying to the last person and leaving behind an empty land with rotting corpses represents a paradigm shift, a new way for modern Church members to think about that subject.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most enduring images of Moroni that we have in our Church is of a prophet wandering alone and friendless across the land for 37 years, or from A.D. 385 until A.D. 421, when he finally deposited the gold plates in the earth. Moroni actually describes his circumstances in about 401 A.D. He writes:
"1. Behold I, Moroni, do finish the record of my father, Mormon. Behold, I have but few things to write, which things I have been commanded by my father.
2 And now it came to pass that after the great and tremendous battle at Cumorah, behold, the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed.
3 And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. But behold, they are gone, and I fulfil the commandment of my father. And whether they will slay me, I know not.
4 Therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not.
5 Behold, my father hath made this record, and he hath written the intent thereof. And behold, I would write it also if I had room upon the plates, but I have not; and ore I have none, for I am alone. My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go; and how long the Lord will suffer that I may live I know not.
6 Behold, four hundred years have passed away since the coming of our Lord and Savior.
7 And behold, the Lamanites have hunted my people, the Nephites, down from city to city and from place to place, even until they are no more; and great has been their fall; yea, great and marvelous is the destruction of my people, the Nephites.
That's depressing stuff. The raw emotion in these verses represents one of the saddest moments in The Book of Mormon, perhaps in all of scripture. For that reason many Latter-day Saints may cringe at the idea of disturbing that image. It almost seems disrespectful. I'm sensitive to that. I don't want to mollify the impact of those verses in any way. Moroni's emotions are real. His pain is visceral. But it's important to note, those verses only represent a snapshot in time. It represents Moroni's life as it was, as he felt it, in 401 A.D. I don't question the accuracy of those verses. Moroni had no reason to exaggerate or express anything that wasn't accurate. That is, from his own standpoint. From his point of view as he perceived it while etching those words on the plates. Just because Moroni felt so downcast that he wrote the words, "and wither I go, it mattereth not" at that particular place and time, it doesn't mean that he felt that way or remained in that downcast state for the next 20 years. It doesn't even necessarily mean that when Moroni writes the word "alone" that he had absolutely no companions. Some may think I'm just parsing words, but after I explain it, I think the situation will make much more sense and seem far more illuminating.
Unfortunately, I'm gonna have to get into that in the next podcast. Yup, I think I've rambled on enough and it's time to bring this podcast to a close. I know. Such a cruel thing to do. Not unlike those aggravating Tennis Shoes books that always leave the reader on a cliffhanger. You'd think the author would have learned by now! Sincerely, I apologize for the cliffhanger. This topic simply demanded a lot more time and detail than I first anticipated. Hey, we haven't even gotten to the good stuff! Don't worry. We will. And to those who may have enjoyed these podcasts in the past, and maybe even missed them during the months I was silent, isn't it nice to know that the first draft of the next podcast is ready to go? That means I can feel confident saying that that the next podcast is soon forthcoming.
Besides, some listeners might want a chance to ponder and digest some of these ideas, in case they strike you as new or as things you've never heard before. I say again, you're welcome to reject everything I've presented. Feel free to post questions on ForeverLDS or express opposing points of view. Not so much on the validity of The Book of Mormon. Those are boring to me. I suppose I'd address some of those too if they came up. But frankly I'm more interested in hearing from those who want to defend old paradigms, or suggest entirely new ones. I'll say again, one of the spectacular things about The Book of Mormon is that as it approaches the dawn of its third century of existence, the text remains vibrant, timeless, and continues to generate rich and intelligent discussion. Even after so many decades of research by a host of devoted scholars, the volume remains fertile ground for new insights and fresh observations. Which is exactly what we should expect from an authentic document!
Thanks for listening. Until next time, stay close to the Lord. If you don't feel as close to the Lord today as you did yesterday, who moved? Keep reading, keep pondering, and keep praying, is my solemn advice. This is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS.
(To contact Chris Heimerdinger: 801-870-2070)