Wednesday, October 15, 2014


“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
--Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

Part 2 of my textual analysis of the Book of Mormon:

I am still deciding how in-depth I want to make my analysis of the Book of Mormon. On the one hand there is so much stuff to comment on, but on the other hand the book is quite long and commenting on every thing will take a very, very long time. Not to mention it would be quite the endeavor to read. I still want to cover the basic story, though, so I think I will lump the chapters together in order to consolidate the volume without skipping parts.

So, let's continue with Nephi's story in the Book of Mormon with 1 Nephi 2-4: the story of Laban and the brass plates.

Chapter 2: Chasing a dream.

This part of the story starts with another dream or "vision" of Nephi's father, Lehi, in which god tells Lehi that he has done well to warn the people of Jerusalem of their impending takeover by the Babylonians (score 1 for retro-fitting prophecy), and because of this the wicked people of the city want to kill him. This is clearly feeding into the whole persecution complex that so many believers hold (persecution implies that Satan is trying to thwart your efforts because you are helping god; this means you need to double down and persevere so that god can reward you in heaven for being such a good little helper). And again, Nephi takes his father at his word. Accepting second-hand revelation without question seems to a theme in this book. Almost an expectation.

Furthermore, god warns Lehi to take his family to the wilderness to save his life from the mob, and because god is going to destroy Jerusalem very soon (approx. 13 years in the future...). Keep in mind this is all done because Lehi believes for some unexplained reason that god talks to him in his sleep. It should be noted that Joseph Smith's own father also claimed to receive revelation from god through dreams, including dreams featured in the Book of Mormon itself. But we will get to that in future chapters. This is only one of several parallels between Joseph's life and the characters and stories in the Book of Mormon.

One might ask, what did Lehi's children, other than Nephi, think of all this? Were they all so easily taken in by their father's dreams? We are not told what any of the female members of the family thought of these events, and frankly this isn't surprising given what we know about ancient Judaism and Mormonism concerning the roles of women in the church and society. But we do get quite a bit of info on Lehi's other sons: Laman, Lemuel, and Sam (all of whom are older than Nephi, which seems to draw another parallel to Joseph Smith's life since he also had older brothers and was called to be a prophet much like Nephi, and whose older brothers--especially Hyrum Smith--became subservient to Joseph within Mormon-dom.). 

Much like Joseph's older brother Hyrum, Nephi's older brother Sam sides with him. But Nephi's other two older brothers are not convinced that their father really is inspired to take them to the desert to save their lives: 

"...for behold [Laman and Lemuel] did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart."

As expected, the doubters in the story are portrayed negatively, presumably to discourage readers from doing the same. Keep in mind that up to this point no one has offered a single way for anyone to verify Lehi's claims. All we have are the good, obedient brothers who accept everything without question and the naughty, doubting brothers--who still did as their father asked, mind you--who think their father simply has a vivid imagination. 

In verse 16 Nephi finally tries to verify his father's claims, however he does so through prayer. This is very common within Mormonism. If you have a question about something--especially something spiritual in nature--ask god in prayer and he will give you the answer through your "feelings and thoughts". In other words, if you think a thing is good and you have a good feeling about it, that is the same thing as god telling you it is good. Sounds like a reliable, error-proof method of verification to me.

And wouldn't you know it, god did tell Nephi that Lehi was truly inspired, just like Nephi had suspected all along. Later, Nephi relays this message from god to his brother Sam who also takes it at face value. Shocking. But alas, Laman and Lemuel do not simply believe Nephi (and why should they?), which is one of the reasons god chooses Nephi to be the ruler of the people once they get to the promised land (aka America) rather than his older brothers. 

Chapter 3: Brass tacks

This chapter gets a little more exciting as Lehi sends his 4 sons back to Jerusalem to attain the "brass plates" which apparently contain the Old Testament up to this point in time (approx 600 BC). This is important to Lehi because it contains his genealogy and the law of Moses which will be the governing law in the promised land. Keep in mind while reading this part of the story that god is supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing and is thus capable of doing whatever he wants, and that the following is the best scenario he could come up with.

The 4 brothers decide through casting lots that Laman should be the one to go up to Laban, the high-ranking official who owns the brass plates, and ask him to give the plates to them. Seriously. Naturally, Laban declines the request and accuses Laman of being a robber. 

Discouraged, the brothers try a new plan: they gather all of Lehi's old possessions (i.e. gold) which they could not take with them when they left the city and use them to buy the plates. But this didn't work either as Laban had his guards chase them down to steal their stuff. 

The brothers take sides and quarrel over what to do next. The ever-doubting Laman and Lemuel want to go back to their father empty-handed, while Nephi and Sam want to keep trying. Go figure. Laman and Lemuel become angry (as doubters so often do) and begin beating Nephi and Sam with a rod. Ordinarily such abusive behavior would not warrant deliverance of the victims by god, but since they were on god's errand he decided to intervene by sending an angel to stop the beating and to chastise the older two brothers for doubting and rebelling against Nephi. Finally, Laman and Lemuel have a fairly valid reason to believe all this stuff is actually divinely mandated. But even so, they start to "murmur" shortly after the angel leaves. This is often used by Mormons as an example of why it is futile to ask god for a sign--it won't stick. It does seem strange to me that they would really argue the point that subtle "feelings and thoughts" affirming a given thing which a person wanted to believe in the first place is more compelling than a sign from god like an appearing angel. Perhaps this speaks more to the generally drab appearance of angels than it does to the alleged fading spiritual impact of such an occurrence... 

Chapter 4: License to kill.

Lacking a concrete plan, the resolutely faithful Nephi goes back to the city. As he reaffirms repeatedly in these first few chapters that god will not, as they say, give him more than he can handle. This is an assertion often made about god's character by believers, but given how many people have died victims of nature or other people, this hardly seems supported by the evidence. Still, Nephi embarks cheerfully on a path which will lead him to what I consider to be one of the most immoral stories in scripture: divinely-mandated murder. 

Guided by the spirit of god, Nephi wanders around a bit until he comes across a drunken man. And wouldn't you know it, it's Laban! Here he is, drunk to a stupor and without any of his 50 guards. What luck? Nephi then hears a voice in his head, which he identifies as the spirit of god for reasons that go unexplained, which tells him to kill Laban. 

Nephi wrestles with the voice inside his head, that is, until the voice inside his head says to him: "Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands." 

Nephi adds further justification: "Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property." 

The voice inside Nephi's head continues: "Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." 

It is tempting for me to address why each of these reasons offered to be justification for killing a man, however much of a douche-canoe he may have been, are not very compelling reasons--especially when he is passed out drunk on a side walk. I will gladly grant that all of these reasons may be sufficient to warrant murder. However, I am compelled to point out, yet again, that this all comes from a voice inside Nephi's head which he believes to be the spirit of god!!! 

After chopping off Laban's head with the man's own "steel" sword (sure it was...), Nephi puts on Laban's clothes which miraculously fit Nephi's "large stature", and which should be soaked through with Laban's blood. He continues in search of the brass plates and comes across Laban's servant, Zoram, who is fool by the get-up and leads Nephi straight to the plates. Zoram even opens the locked door for Nephi. 

Having possessed the plates (finally), Nephi returns to his brothers outside the city... with Zoram... Naturally, since the costume worked so swimmingly on Laban's servant, it also tricks his brothers who promptly begin to run for their lives. Nephi unveils himself to get them to stop running away, and in turn, scares the bejesus out of Zoram, who starts running back to the city. Remember, Nephi is "large in stature", so he easily tackles and pins down Zoram and gives him the following offer (not to be refused): 

"And it came to pass that I spake with him, that if he would hearken unto my words, as the Lord liveth, and as I live, even so that if he would hearken unto our words, we would spare his life. And I spake unto him, even with an oath, that he need not fear; that he should be a free man like unto us if he would go down in the wilderness with us." [emphasis added]

In other words: "Come and be a willing hostage, or we will kill you." It is not specified here, but such a threat may well have come from the same voice inside Nephi's head which convinced him that god wanted him to kill a man just before. And without much thought (or choice) Zoram goes with them back to Lehi with the brass plates. 

Moral of the story: If you believe god talks to you with a voice inside your head, and that voice tells you to do something which ordinarily you would consider immoral, just remember that anything god tells you to do is by definition moral and you should do it--even if it means killing someone. 

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