Voices from the Dust: Part One

When the Book of Mormon came to light in the early 1800’s, literally from out of the earth, it fulfilled poetic prophecy that it would be a voice from the dust (see Isaiah 29:4) [1]. The Book of Mormon is actually a record of many unique voices crying as one that Jesus is the Christ. As a receptacle of a legion of voices, the Book of Mormon is an intimate book.

Recently I was on a work trip. On one of my calls home, my daughter answered my wife’s cell phone, I quickly greeted her by name. She quizzically replied, “how did you know it was me?” I said simply, “I know your voice.” Our family relationships are personal and intimate. We know each other in ways no one else will know us.

When I say the Book of Mormon is an intimate book, I mean it is intimate like how we are intimate with our families. When you read it, you can clearly see that it is meant to be intimate and personal.

In the opening chapter, Nephi, the first author, in our extent Book of Mormon, tells us his name, what language he is using, how he is writing his record, when his story takes place, and why he is writing. All the major authors and editors are also personal [2]. They are aware of a future audience that in some cases they have seen in vision. They write to you and me. Hearing a personal voice is a unique situation for a reader of an ancient text. It is something that should be appreciated in the Book of Mormon.

Because each of the Book of Mormon authors and editors are so personal, they are easily discernible and individualized. In fact, in certain cases, they are so unique, their singular voices appear to scream out at us from the pages of the Book of Mormon. For example, you can quickly differentiate a new tone when you move from Nephi to his younger brother Jacob [3], who is one of my favorite authors in the Book of Mormon.

John S. Tanner has explained some of the unique qualities of Jacob’s voice. In his recorded speeches, Jacob is “intimate, vivid, vulnerable. He used words about feelings—like anxiety, grieve, and tender—more frequently than any other Book of Mormon writer. For example, half the book’s references to anxiety occur in Jacob, and over two-thirds of the references to grieve and tender (or their derivatives), as well as shame, are Jacob’s. He is the only person to have used delicate, contempt, and lonesome. Likewise, he is the only Book of Mormon author to have employed wound in reference to emotions; and he never used it, as everyone else did to describe a physical injury. Similarly, Jacob used pierce or its variants frequently (four of the ten instances in the Book of Mormon), and he used it exclusively in a spiritual sense.”[4]

Jacob is an emotive wordsmith. Consider “the concrete words in the phrase: ‘Instead of feasting upon the pleasing words of God [they] have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds’” (Jacob 2:9). Or consider, “The sobbing of their hearts ascend up to God…Many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds” (2:35)[5]. Jacob’s singular sayings are so significant they are echoed by later voices of the Book of Mormon[6]. Jacob’s willingness to be vulnerable with his feelings allows us to develop a personal connection with him.

As intimate a speaker as Jacob must have been, he is not the only Book of Mormon author who is personal with the reader. Mormon, who is often the detached editor, also has moments of personal engagement with the reader, where his singular sentimentalities whisper around the ink to us. For example in Mosiah chapter 18, as Mormon describes a critical moment in the history of the Nephite people, he mentions the name Mormon no less than 12 times. Here is verse 30 as an example:

“And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever.” (Mosiah 18:30)

This seemingly excessive repetition of the name Mormon is not an error; it is an individual, personal, and even desperate attempt on Mormon’s part to reach out thousands of years to tell the reader, “I was a real person. This is the origin of my name”. Mormon who knew of the impending destruction of his own people, also knew that his record would be preserved for another people far into the future. In the same way that this sacred place called Mormon could have been so significant that a family would name their son Mormon some 500 years later (Mormon 1:5), so too can the words of the Book of Mormon affect the lives of modern readers with similar poignancy.

Not only is the Book of Mormon intimate in the way it is written, but it is intimate in how it describes Christ and his infinite atonement. In fact, the popular Mormon term “infinite atonement” is first found in the Book of Mormon, coined by the prophet-poet Jacob (2 Nephi 9:7). The Book of Mormon doesn’t just describe Christ to you, you discover Him with the authors. You are there as the first prophets in the Book of Mormon pray to God and are shown Christ and learn of His atonement.

In the opening chapter, you discover Christ with Lehi, the first Book of Mormon prophet, as “the One descending out of the midst of heaven” (1 Nephi 1: 9). Lehi sorrows as he sees in vision the future destruction of Jerusalem, but he also sees the mercy of God, Christ’s atonement. And Lehi’s “soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled” (1 Nephi 1: 15). You are a fly on the wall when Nephi, Lehi’s son, has a vision of Jesus, his birth, his ministry, his suffering, and death (see 1 Nephi 11).

Originally, Christ is referenced only as the Messiah, the anointed one in Hebrew, in the beginning of the Book of Mormon (600 years before Christ). As a reader, you are a covert witness when Jacob discovers another name for the Messiah, because he shares this moment with us. He writes “it must needs be expedient that Christ-for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name-should come among the Jews” (2 Nephi 10: 3). I remember as a youth coming upon this sacred scene for the first time and sharing this moment with Jacob. From this moment onward, the Book of Mormon authors talk of Christ, rejoice in Christ, preach of Christ, prophesy of Christ “that [their] children may know to what source they may look to for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25: 26).

Some of these moments with Christ are so personal, you feel like an intruder of sorts loudly crashing through a jungle of a narrative before coming upon a private scene. Even if we are a “mood apart” from the intimate scenes frequently painted in the Book of Mormon [7], our mood can be linked to the text by an additional personal voice. The spirit’s voice creates the farthest reaching link to the intimacy of Christ’s love portrayed in the Book of Mormon. Despite all the textual evidence that begs the reader to adopt the idea that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, it is the voice of the Spirit that orchestrates the union of the book’s individual voices to testify of its own authenticity in the heart of the reader. It is the spirit’s singularly personal voice that witnesses to each individual of all truth.

Notes:

[1] This phraseology from Isaiah 29:4 is also found in 2 Nephi 26:15; 2 Nephi 27: 13; 2 Nephi 33:10; Mormon 8:26.

[2] There is a lot of literature that talks about the voices of the Book of Mormon, but one of my favorite books about this is Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010).

[3] For an interesting comparison of Nephi and Jacob, see Marilyn Arnold, “Unlocking the Sacred Text”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8.1, 1999, p. 52 or click here.

[4] John S. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1991), p.59 or click here.

[5] Tanner, p. 59.

[6] see John Hilton III, “Jacob’s Textual Legacy”, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, 22. 2 (2013), p. 52-65 or click here.

[7] The phrase “mood apart” is from a Robert Frost poem not surprisingly entitled, “A Mood Apart” in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, Edward Conner Lathem, Ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969), p. 385.

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This is a semi-academic post; it does not document the extent of what is known on this subject nor explicate ideas previously unknown. For the real scholarship work being done on the Book of Mormon, please check out the publications of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship or click here. There are many groups engaged in scholarly research on the Book of Mormon, I am just partial to this group. I also like the Interpreter, click here.

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