Friday, January 23, 2004

I'm very excited about reading the Book of Mormon this year in sunday school. One thing I love about the BofM is the way it sets up certain expectations and then deconstructs them. Racial profiles are the first example to spring to mind; another one is the importance of bloodlines. Nephi reviews the promises and covenants made to Abraham's seed, and writes about how the seed of his father will be righteous again. There is much talk of grafting and olive trees. And yet in 1 Nephi 14 we read:

1 And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks—
2 And harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel . . .

In other words, the gentiles will be numbered as the seed of Lehi and of the house of Israel. This is similar to the situation at the coming of Christ to the Americas in 3 and 4 Nephi, where the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites, and after Christ comes they form a Zion society with no distinctions of heredity at all. When the "ites" divisions arise again it is along the lines of wickedness not genetics. Now we usually read "white northern europeans living in America" for gentiles in these verses of Ch 14, but perhaps we should also read "people of asiatic descent living in the americas beside the descendants of Lehi" in light of the limited geography model. Or better yet, maybe we should recognize that genetic bloodlines are not what the authors have in mind at all, and not try to read our modern understanding of "religion" onto the Nephite records.

In ancient times religion was a function of family, of tribe, or city. Walking up to someone in 600 bc and asking "what religion are you?" would only generate a confused shrug. You were a Jew--part of a family, a political kingdom, a cultic practice all wrapped into one. Now Lehi's family had lost their sense of place, and so naturally emphasize family ties, with the many olive tree allusions. But perhaps we don't need to read into this "genetics" as this reading is continually deconstructed by the narrative itself and verses like the above in 1 Nephi 14.

I also wonder about the use of the word "church" in Nephi's vision, especially relating to the great and abominable church. We have been too quick to assign this status to our Catholic friends. What on earth would "church" have meant to a Nephite? Almost certainly not what it meant to Joseph Smith, if indeed the term had any ancient meaning at all. It appears to boil down to those who support Satan vs the church of the Lamb who accept his atonement and are washed clean (white) in the blood of the Lamb. No relation to certain religious organizations that just didn't exist for the Nephites. (Note how much the "church" organization changes in the BofM, when it exists at all).