Unlocking the Sacred Text
by Marilyn Arnold
It was not until I began to read sacred texts with the skills I had acquired in studying non-sacred texts that the eyes of my understanding truly began to open. Most assuredly, my training in literary analysis has enhanced my reading of scripture and my testimony of its divine origin.
Of the many hundreds of texts I have read, none has touched me more profoundly than the Book of Mormon. The near-perfect blend of poetry and truth is, in my view, simply unequaled.
For too many years my reading was sporadic and merely dutiful. But three things transformed the book for me. The first transforming event was my decision to read the Book of Mormon in earnest, investing the same concentrated energy that I would accord a complex and masterful literary text.
The second transforming event was the decisive entrance of the Spirit into my study of the book, and hence into my life, with unprecedented intensity and constancy.
The third transforming event was the prayerful desire to experience the great change of heart described by King Benjamin and Alma, to be more than an "active Mormon," to be spiritually born as a child of Christ.
These three events, in concert, permanently transformed my inner life. At the time this change was occurring, my friends may have recognized the same lengthy frame and the same silly grin they had always known, but I knew I was not the person they had charitably tolerated all those years. It was as if I harbored a sweet secret that I was too shy to talk about. I now wanted desperately to live more purely, to correct my innumerable character flaws, to abandon my sins.
Since that time, I have undertaken a yet more concentrated study of the Book of Mormon, and with each reading it almost magically expands to meet my increased ability to comprehend it.
In my experience, the first few pages of a book are critical; if a book is deceitful, its opening pages will betray it. I challenge anyone to apply that test to the Book of Mormon. Can an honest reader of the following lines doubt that Nephi is who he says he is and that he writes what he knows to be absolute truth?
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, . . . and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. . . . And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge. (1 Nephi 1:1, 3)Nephi's forthrightness is apparent in every line. He opens by naming himself, paying homage to his parents and his God, and bearing testimony about his record. Thus, we learn immediately that the narrative voice belongs to someone who is candid, respectful, dutiful, and grateful, someone who is likely to cut a very straight course. No hedging, no circumventing, no embroidering the truth. In fact, the very structure of verse three projects Nephi's sincerity through the use of three sturdy parallel clauses, all beginning with the words "And I" followed by a single syllable verb: "And I know," "and I make," "and I make."
Nephi's prompt self-introduction takes on added significance, too, as we come to realize that throughout the Book of Mormon the Lord and his servants almost invariably announce who they are, while Satan and his servants rarely do. The honest have nothing to hide; the devious have everything to hide. By immediately announcing his identity and fealty, therefore, Nephi serves reliable notice that he is who he says he is and that he intends to prepare a true record.
My preference in approaching a text is to appraise its value by examining the internal evidence the text itself presents.
Perhaps I can illustrate briefly how my academic preparation translates into "seeing." Obviously, readers of the Book of Mormon readily perceive the opposition between Nephi and his brothers Laman and Lemuel because the narrative openly and repeatedly alludes to it.
But many readers might overlook the conflict's deeper significance. I see in this wrenching polarization a striking proof of Lehi's powerful discourse on the necessity of opposition in all things.
Furthermore, readers might not notice the aptness in the positioning of Lehi's discourse; it is delivered in the patriarchal blessing pronounced upon Jacob, a younger son who has painfully witnessed firsthand the opposition between Nephi and his older brothers.
Indeed, Jacob's whole existence has been marked by opposition; I think Lehi wants him to understand that, despite its pain, opposition makes possible the exercise of agency and is therefore a vital aspect of the plan of salvation.
As if echoing itself, but in much subtler tones, the text also reveals a contrast (though not a conflict) between Nephi and Jacob, thereby creating a kind of benign subtext on the theme of opposition.
Although Jacob is gifted in language and solid in his testimony, to me he seems unusually tender, even a bit fragile, in his emotional makeup. Clearly, Jacob is no Nephi, nor need he be, but in a written text, as in life, he can serve as a complementary foil to his physically and spiritually imposing brother.
Just who is this Jacob? One of the consummate pleasures of studying literature is the discovery of character. Whereas in real life, the essential person, the inner self, is carefully hidden from public gaze, in literature the very soul of a character can be opened, exposing a multitude of buried thoughts and anxieties.
Jacob is a case in point. We often rush past Jacob because his hour on the stage is short and because Nephi quite naturally overshadows his more reticent younger brother. But under scrutiny the text actually reveals more than a little about Jacob.
Although Nephi's narrative is many times the length of Jacob's, we seldom see Nephi's inner self, the individual behind the courageous and faithful son, the undaunted prophet and the mighty leader. As narrator, he selects what will be told, and he chooses not to include his own sermons to his people or much personal musing.
A notable exception, of course, is the "psalm" that comprises verses 16-35 of 2 Nephi 4. But even then, Nephi formalizes the expression and distances himself from self-revelation by employing the overtly personal, but rhetorically impersonal, frame of the psalm.
Conversely, the textual imprints of Jacob's character, and their replication in the hidden chambers of our own souls, are readily descried by the alert eye.
Any consideration of Jacob must take into account the matter of Nephi's influence. In literary studies, giants like Shakespeare can be seen as massive watersheds of influence, changing what successive writers do ever afterward.
1 Nephi is just this sort of irrepressible human locomotive, and Jacob is sure to measure himself against Nephi and his achievement. Jacob himself is dutiful and conscientious in the extreme, but to what extent is that aspect of his character attributable to the presence and the enduring expectations of Nephi?
Furthermore, does Nephi's death leave Jacob feeling abandoned and inadequate to the task ahead? More pronounced still is the distinct strain of melancholy that stamps Jacob's character, but it probably derives from another source. Consider this: Jacob was born in the wilderness and transported as a youngster on a long and arduous sea voyage, a voyage filled with terrifying cosmic and family tumult and ending in a strange, seemingly uninhabited land. And unlike his older brothers, who at least had roots and memory in civilized society, Jacob lived under the menace of bitter conflict and imminent annihilation most of his life.
The text does not make an issue of Jacob's suffering, but it provides enough indicators to offer a window into his character. For instance, Lehi shows his awareness of Jacob's situation and nature when he begins Jacob's patriarchal blessing with these words: "And now, Jacob, . . . Thou art my first-born in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren" (2 Nephi 2:1).
Earlier, at sea, when Laman's and Lemuel's brutality toward Nephi heaps agony on the heads of Lehi and Sariah, the record notes that "Jacob and Joseph also, being young, having need of much nourishment, were grieved because of the afflictions of their mother" (1 Nephi 18:19).
It appears from the text, too, that conflict and grief have engendered in Jacob an intense empathy toward the suffering of others. Jacob's compassion is particularly evident in an emotional sermon he delivers after Nephi's death, a sermon quite different in tone and content from the earlier one recorded by Nephi (see 2 Nephi 6-10).
In the later sermon, although painfully reluctant to harrow the already injured feelings of the women and children in the congregation, Jacob chastises the Nephite men for marital infidelity. Their wives and children, and others too, he declares, have come to hear the word of God, but will instead "have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds" (Jacob 2:9). Jacob reiterates his concern in verse 35 of chapter 2, where he speaks of the "sobbings" of the broken hearts of the Nephite women and children over their husbands' and fathers' iniquities. Indeed, he says, "many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds."
The sensitivity and compassion I see in Jacob seem almost to spring from the melancholy begotten by exile and isolation. In public, and prior to Nephi's death, Jacob tries to put a positive cast on his people's circumstances, but his statement nonetheless reveals a deep-seated sense of their exile: "Let us . . . not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off; nevertheless, we have been driven out of the land of our inheritance; but we have been led to a better land, for the Lord has made the sea our path, and we are upon an isle of the sea" (2 Nephi 10:20). In private, speaking not to his people but to future generations, an older Jacob does not mask his feelings:
The time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days. (Jacob 7:26)To skim that passage and miss its tone of heartbreak, its revelation of Jacob's character and his perception of his circumstances, is to miss a rich opportunity for human understanding. Most certainly, Jacob, like Nephi, paid dearly for his faith. The text also affirms that he was beloved of the Lord, for even when Nephi was alive, Jacob was visited by Christ and by angels. Moreover, Jacob was first among the Nephites to learn—from an angel—that the name of the Holy One of Israel would be Christ (see 2 Nephi 10:3). And anyone uninitiated to Jacob's rhetorical gifts need only study in detail the sermon fragment that Nephi elects to copy into his own chronicle.
My point is simply this: The Book of Mormon is an inspired text whose possibilities could not be exhausted in a lifetime of study, much less a lifetime of pulling isolated passages for Sunday lessons and talks.
Home / For Latter-day Saints