Literacy, Literalism, and the Isaiah Chapters of the Book of Mormon

March 11, 2008 | 19 comments
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One of the distinctive features of the Book of Mormon is its pervasive anxiety about literacy, not only in the narrow sense of the ability to read, but in the wider sense of the role of reading and writing throughout a culture. Nephi opens the first chapter of the first book by informing us that he can read and write, and he describes at length the mechanical details of his writing. One of the first things the Book of Mormon accomplishes in its first three books, however, is to confront and deconstruct the foundational logic of literacy.

One of the earliest and central episodes of 1 Nephi is the return to Jerusalem to retrieve the Brass Plates, which were not just any sacred text, but the complete and unchanging Word of God etched in metal, just as it had once been carved in stone. For Nephi, the Brass Plates do not just contain information; they embody the whole project of storing all conceivable information for later retrieval. To these records he attributes the ability to contain all history, the entirety of religion, knowledge of his past ancestry and future posterity, a guarantee of language and culture, and the origin and ultimate fate of the world. All of this, he presumes, can be encoded as text, preserved indefinitely, and retrieved at will by reading the Brass Plates. For all of Nephi’s contempt of legalistic fixation on the Law, Nephi himself has been trained to read in the same tradition. He can flee Jerusalem, but he can’t escape the assumptions about texts and literacy in his own mind. He even has to return to Jerusalem and retrieve the Brass Plates in order to bring a portable monument of literalism on his journey into the wilderness.

And yet what Nephi discovers is that following the logic of literacy to its ultimate conclusion undermines the very logic on which literacy is founded. Nephi needs the Brass Plates so that his descendants will have the commandments—and the only way Nephi can get the plates is by the cold-blooded murder of a senseless and prostate Laban, a gross violation of one of the most fundamental commandments. Jerusalem, Nephi has warned, is about to fall—and it will fall, at least in part, because Nephi himself has killed one of its military leaders and sown doubt among the leading households about the reliability of their servants. In the name of preserving a textual guide to ethical behavior, Nephi is forced to violate the ethical strictures of the Brass Plates. The slaying of Laban is also an assault on the literalist assumption that scriptural texts contain all the answers to every question; Nephi is justified in his act not by scriptural reasoning from within the text, but by direct and verbal divine command.

Even once Nephi has the Brass Plates, his attempt to read them literally eventually undoes itself when he is confronted with the figurative prophetic language of Isaiah. Nephi’s literate habit is to find his family’s story and his nation’s progress in the text of the Brass Plates, but Isaiah resists this simple decoding. The book of 2 Nephi, which renders the monumentality of the Brass Plates with the authorized and canonical language of the KJV, interrupts Nephi’s reading of Isaiah by introducing as narrator Jacob, an oral preacher who had been born in the wilderness far from the literate institutions of Jerusalem. Nephi recites and records; Jacob innovates and preaches. Literacy is not complete in itself, as literalism would have it, but rather begets orality. What’s striking about 2 Nephi is that Nephi’s reading of Isaiah generates the rest of Nephite history, their rise and downfall, the visit of their Savior, and their ultimate destruction: the essence of the rest of the Book of Mormon is contained within a few chapters of 2 Nephi. Nephi wants to discover the story of his people in the Brass Plates, but what he finds instead is that his reading creates a new story, with a new chosen people awaiting the presence of God in a new promised land. Literalism tells Nephi to look into a text for answers, but what Jacob recognizes, and what puts Jacob in charge of the plates and the recording of Nephi history, is that his prophetic commission is to start telling new stories.

After Nephi had picked up Laban’s sword, he never put it down again. Laban’s sword became the model for other swords by which Nephi armed his people to wage the wars that would eventually consume them. It is therefore fitting that Laban’s sword was buried together with the Golden Plates, the last textual artifact of Nephi and his people, as a warning about the potential costs and consequences of literacy. The Golden Plates were buried with another artifact of Nephite literacy as well, however: the Liahona, which was not a remnant of the reading practices taught in Jerusalem, but rather something discovered in the wilderness. Unlike the Brass Plates, it operated not as a medium for textual storage and retrieval, nor as a passive receiver of textual messages; its operation depended instead on the active participation of the reader’s faith. The only remnant of Nephite literate culture available to us is Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, which we usually think of as something like an enhanced version of the Brass Plates, as a text containing the entirety of what is worth knowing. But I wonder if perhaps we should think of it instead as something more like the Liahona, as a device that provides answers and even direct instruction, but only to the extent that we are actively engaged in the process.

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19 Responses to Literacy, Literalism, and the Isaiah Chapters of the Book of Mormon

  1. Jonathan Green on March 11, 2008 at 4:57 am

    At least, that’s one way a thumbnail sketch of literacy in the first few books of the Book of Mormon might go. It lacks a lot of nuance, and relies too heavily on the polarities of Jacob-Nephi and Laban’s Sword-Liahona, which, like the distinction between orality and literacy, are much more complex than simple dichotomies suggest. (And shouldn’t Lehi play a role somewhere? And the Urim and Thummim? Are the Golden Plates just like the Brass Plates, only more so, or do they point to a resolution of the paradox?)

    Sadly, I don’t think there’s much apologetic potential in a study of literacy in the Book of Mormon. I’m sure there are arguments that 1 and 2 Nephi reflect assumptions about literacy typical of 6th-century B.C. semitic merchants, and the concerns of the early 19th century, and there are undoubtedly arguments for why neither of these would matter. As an approach to something like “The Book of Mormon as Literature,” however, I find it somewhat satisfying.

  2. john f. on March 11, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Wow. Great post. This one gives me a lot to think about — so much so that I won’t even attempt a substantive comment at this point except to say thanks for putting this to writing for me to read.

  3. Dan on March 11, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Nephi is clearly impacted by the writings of Isaiah that I wonder if he had read the writings of Isaiah before he took the brass plates. How learned was Nephi before leaving Jerusalem?

  4. Chris on March 11, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Maybe the Liahona is a device for reading poststructurally.

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 11, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    The extensive commentary that Nephi adds to the Isaiah quotations shows that he is approaching them with inspiration to “liken the scriptures to ourselves”, adapting passages in ways that makes them practically new revelations, new scriptures. This was discussed in a recent article in the FARMS Review. Certainly he was entitled to do that as a prophet who clearly had his own visions during the interval between retrieving the brass plates and finding the Liahona.

    It has been suggested that First Nephi is separate from Second Nephi specifically so that it can form a chiasmus, with the start at the old Promised Land of Jerusalem mirroring the finish in the new Promised Land, and centered around Nephi’s extensive vision of the Tree of Life and then of the future of Christ, his descendants, and the Promised Land. That structure may suggest a relationship between the plates and the Liahona, which were both made of brass/bronze.

    The Urim and Thummim are not seen in the narrative until Mosiah the First has led the remnant of righteous Nephites to Zarahemla. Perhaps they are part of the Jaredite legacy, being among the 16 stones touched by Jehovah.

  6. mlu on March 11, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Thank you.

    I’ve often been struck by the centrality of literacy to the gospel. Most recently I’ve thought about the impact of Christianity on Western Civ through its emphasis on literacy. Puritans grew up believing that a high level of literacy was necessary to live your life and be saved because it was necessary to read the Bible and then use reason to understand the meanings there in order to figure out how one was to think and feel. These people became highly literate and the consequences of that reverberated throughout their culture. Besides developing educational systems to achieve universal literacy, they met and made progress on huge cultural problems. By the time their season passed, the divine right of kings had been superseded by the consent of the governed, to name only one example.

    I sort of put the peak of Western Civ at around 1840, when Emerson gave compelling voice to the notion that we could do without scripture and get what we needed directly from nature. It’s been downhill ever since :)

    Many kids today hear only paltry reasons having to do with money for struggling to be great readers and accomplished writers and we are not only not making much progress on our own generations’ cultural problems, we seem not even to be able to grasp understandings that were already achieved and written down in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

  7. Clark on March 11, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Part of the problem in terms of how Nephi reads is that he doesn’t read literally, as I see it. Rather everything is a symbol which is always a kind of mediation for something else. This isn’t just seen in his and his fathers visions but also his hermeneutic of how he reads Isaiah. It is typological on numerous levels: individuals, national, eschatological, salvic.

    The whole problem, as I see it, is that you are equating literal with legalistic. Wheras I think for Nephi literal is always mediated or symbolic as opposed to the legalistic which is totalizing or dominated. To make your case I think you have to establish that Nephi sees texts not as something to be interrogated or unfold directions but something dominating in the sense of law. But I just don’t see him writing or interpreting in that fashion. Even his texts are written for some unknown purpose to a future not seen. They have that essential openness. The Liahona, for all its appearance of literalness is a text without a present object. It points the way but the end of the way is always out of site. We have a gesture towards an invisible object.

    When this object – the promised land – comes into sight it isn’t the promised land of expectation. Immediately the land of promise is contaminated by the structure of the very land left. Corruption in the form of Laman and Lemuel is brought with them. The wars that beset Israel now beset the Lehites and condition their encounter with the land of promise as an unfulfilled or deferred promise. (Not fulfilled in any sense until 4th Nephi and arguably not even then) What is pointed to by the text in a kind of messianic fashion is always just out of sight and reach.

    This probably is why Jacob, writing later, comes across as filled with such existential angst. We being a lonesome and forelone people. Wanderers in a strange land. They did mourn out all their days.

  8. Nate Oman on March 12, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    This is a great post, although I suspect that in the end I am sympathetic to some of Clark’s criticisms. A while back, I went through 1 Nephi looking at the contrast between how Nephi read the scriptures and how his brothers read the scriptures. Ultimately, I think that they are both reading them “legalistically” in the sense that they are seeking in them authoritative norms of conduct. (For all those who want to no quibble about whether or not this is really a “legal” dispute because it is not associated with things like state enforcement, neutral third party adjudication, and the like, I would point out that folks spend millenia talking about “law” before John Austin created a fetish about enfocement and that the Greek language, for example, doesn’t have a word for “law” in our modern sense — “nomos” standing in for what we would call law, legislation, precedent, custom, and even manners. So take your anachronistic quibbling and shove it in your ear ;->)

    I think, however, that what Nephi and his brothers offer are starkly different ways in which one recovers the normativity of the scriptures. Laman and Lemuel recover the law of the scriptures as a set of requirements that then can be used to justify their righteousness. Nephi recovers the law — i.e. the pattern or “nomos” to be followed — of the scriptures by seeing them as a series of stories that the righteous re-enacted in their lives. This is seen most starkly in how they approach the figure of Moses. For Laman and Lemuel Moses is always the modifier of law as in “Law of Moses.” In contrast, for Nephi Moses is almost always the prophet leading his people through the wilderness to the promised land.

    In short, I think that the contrast between Nephi and Laman and Lemuel in 1 Ne suggests that his orientation toward texts is much more similar to Jacob’s than you suggest here.

  9. Ellis on March 12, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    I like your conclusion a lot. I have to argue with the premise that there is nothing in the writings on the Brass Plates that would justify Nephi’s killing Laban or that his doing so in anyway had any impact whatseover of the fall of Jeusalem. The Lord tells Nephi that he has delivered Laban into his hands. This is not something new. It is part of the OT tradition. The Lord delivered Saul into David’s hands three times. Three times David chose not to kill Saul. The Law of Moses clearly states that if a person lays in wait to kill someone then that is murder, But, if an adversary has tried to kill you, as Laban clearly did, and then the Lord delivers that enemy into your hand you are justified 1. because of self defense 2. because it was not premeditated (Nephi had no idea how he was going to get the plates) and 3. because the Lord delivered Laban into Nephi’s hand. Had Nephi been planning on remeaing in or about Jerusalem he would have been required to flee to some other place for santuary. That is what he did. He fled. The Law of Moses provides cities of santuary for just such instances. The requirement is that when someone kills and is not guilty of murder they must live in a sanctuary city througout the lifetime of the Priest.

    But, I really like your conclusion.

  10. Jonathan Green on March 13, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Thanks for the comments. What Nephi or Jacob do with their texts is going to change a little from verse to verse, so any schematic summary is going to ignore a lot of subtle (and not subtle) differences, and other people will weigh some aspects more heavily than others. (Also, I don’t feel like combing through some 70 chapters verse by verse at the moment.) My post, and the questions and objections related to it, are concerned with something I don’t think has been addressed sufficiently, namely, how did the Nephites read? What did Nephi think he was doing when he read and wrote? What functions are accorded to texts and literacy in the Book of Mormon? There’s a considerable body of recent literature on reading practices at various times and places; is there any parallel for Nephi’s exclusive focus on writing on metal plates? (None that I know of.)

    I do think, though, that Jacob and Nephi offer more interesting figures for contrasting modes of literacy than Nephi and Laman. With Jacob and Nephi, we at least have several chapters to work with. But Laman never gets a chance to speak for himself; in some ways Laman and Lemuel are caricatures, even comic characters, whose ability to read is consciously treated as defective. Also, I suspect that the final analysis of a contrast between Nephi’s and Laman’s reading would come to the unsurprising conclusion of Nephi = good and Laman = double plus ungood.

    As Chris and Clark and my post suggest, Nephite literacy offers plenty of potential for a post-something-or-other reading of the Book of Mormon. Did I mention that, of all things it might be, the Book of Mormon is not a simple book?

  11. Eleanor Jensen on March 14, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    One thing we have to remember in reading the Book of Mormon is that Nephi and the other prophets did know the end. They did see our day and they were guided by the spirit to write those things that would be of great worth to us in this day.

    As far as literacy and the Book of Mormon, I am a teacher and I am very interested in literacy, good teaching, and learning. Last year when I read the Book of Mormon, I had that on my mind a lot. It was amazing to me the list of \’good teaching\’ practices and \’how to learn\’ principles that I found. The spirit directs what we learn from our scripture reading, so it is the spirit we should seek while reading.

  12. Jim Cobabe on March 14, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Jonathan, I am supposing that your consideration of the state of Laban’s inebriated prostate is an unsubtle challenge to those of us who have difficulty seeing beyond literalism.

    Perhaps I am the only one in the audience so petty as to have difficulty overlooking such odd incongruities in the context of higher criticism.

  13. Jonathan Green on March 14, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Jim C., sorry about that misplaced prostate! Thanks for the close reading.

  14. Jack on March 14, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    JG: “The slaying of Laban is also an assault on the literalist assumption that scriptural texts contain all the answers to every question…”

    Yes, so long as we don’t go too far with the idea. I don’t think the scriptures (especially Hebraic) were meant to be read without breathing life into them. They’re really more like the living roots of a plant than the dead foundation stones of a house–though they are both. And so what we see is the BoM prophets continuously reading a “living” narrative from the scriptures–one that springs from the past but lives in the present as it is manifest in their peculiar circumstances.

    And this brings me to Nate’s comment–Dost my reading of your comment deceive me or are suggesting that Nephi favors narrative? Hmm?

    PS. I wouldn’t characterize the slaying of Laban as cold-blooded murder. But that’s a topic for a different post.

  15. Christian on March 15, 2008 at 12:55 am

    “But, if an adversary has tried to kill you, as Laban clearly did, and then the Lord delivers that enemy into your hand you are justified 1. because of self defense”

    No. It would be retaliation. It would only be self defense if slaying Laban would prevent an iminent threat to Nephi’s life.

    “2. because it was not premeditated (Nephi had no idea how he was going to get the plates)”

    Most murder isn’t premeditated, and it’s still murder.

    “3. because the Lord delivered Laban into Nephi’s hand.”

    The Lord delivered Joseph’s brothers into his hand, but that wasn’t an excuse to butcher them all.

    Nephi says that he was following God’s instructions when he killed Laban. Whether that’s true or not is something only God can judge. It’s not a defense that would or should work before any earthly tribunal.

  16. jupiterschild on March 16, 2008 at 12:05 am

    Sadly, I don’t think there’s much apologetic potential in a study of literacy in the Book of Mormon.

    There might be some apologetics to be had in the fact that the Book of Mormon narrative begins in the apex of Judean literacy. (I can’t believe I just broke my own vow not to engage in anything remotely resembling apologetics… But while I’m at it, Exodus 21 prescribes the conditions in which killing is justifiable. Nephi seems to have these in mind when he sets the scene of the slaughter.)

    I liked what you said about Nephi’s reading of Isaiah and its connection to “likening” the scriptures, a verse that is much less innocuous than we have taken it to be, since it asks us, in a way, to divorce scripture from context, as Nephi does with his use of Isaiah to generate thoughts about the Nephite future. Isaiah seems to be for Nephi a catalyst to revelation rather than a text that has encrypted within it information relevant to his people.

  17. Joe Spencer on March 19, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Hmmm. This is a very interesting approach, Jonathan, but it seems to me a bit… how can I say this without offending?… naive.

    For example: \”One of the earliest and central episodes of 1 Nephi is the return to Jerusalem to retrieve the Brass Plates, which were not just any sacred text, but the complete and unchanging Word of God etched in metal, just as it had once been carved in stone. For Nephi, the Brass Plates do not just contain information; they embody the whole project of storing all conceivable information for later retrieval. To these records he attributes the ability to contain all history, the entirety of religion, knowledge of his past ancestry and future posterity, a guarantee of language and culture, and the origin and ultimate fate of the world. All of this, he presumes, can be encoded as text, preserved indefinitely, and retrieved at will by reading the Brass Plates.\”

    This paragraph includes a number of enormous interpretive leaps. Justification of its claims would require an extensive hermeneutic at the level of the text, and a hermeneutic, I should add, that seems to me doomed to failure (or at least quite vulnerable to objections).

    That said, I think you are right to begin to raise questions about how the endurability of the brass plates—as much as the abstracted content of the brass plates—affected Nephi\’s thinking about writing. But I think there is a great deal more to be said by way of laying foundations for such a discussion.

  18. Jonathan Green on March 19, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Joe Spencer, is there some body of literature on historical modes of literacy, or work on literacy in the Book of Mormon, that you see as such a glaring omission from my understanding that it renders my post ridiculous? You are of course correct about the interpretive leaps and vulnerability to objections, which in other venues would be a problem, but in blogging is a feature. Among other things, they provoke readers to make comments. Thank you for yours.

  19. Joe Spencer on March 20, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Touche.