Michael Austin on the Book of Mormon

A fascinating read that was recently published is Michael Austin’s The Testimony of Two Nations. I’ve already done a review of the book, but wanted to highlight a recent interview that Michael Austin did at the Latter-day history blog From the Desk that shared some interesting insights from the book. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.

Michael Austin’s work goes a long way to show how the Book of Mormon interacts with the Bible, subtly shifting our understanding of the Old and New Testaments along the way. One outstanding example that he shared in the interview was about how Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life interacts with the story of Adam and Eve:

Both the story of Adam and Eve and the vision of the Tree of Life are stories about people finding a tree and eating a fruit, and the later story inverts the narrative of the former. In Genesis, Adam and Eve start off in Paradise and then eat the fruit, and are cast out into the lone and dreary world. Lehi begins in the dark and dreary wilderness, eats the fruit, and ends up in Paradise.

In Genesis, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the fruit. In the Book of Mormon, the people in the Great and Spacious Building tempt people not to eat the fruit.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve feel shame because they disobeyed God and ate the fruit. Shame acts as a conduit to repentance. In the Book of Mormon, people feel shame because the people in the Great and Spacious Building make fun of them for eating the fruit. Shame acts as a conduit to sin.

Lehi’s vision reverses almost everything important about the Garden of Eden narrative.

Not coincidentally, this reversal corresponds exactly to the way that the Book of Mormon’s theology reverses the traditional Christian understanding of the Fall.

Since Augustine, most Christians have seen the Fall as a great tragedy—something that could have been avoided if Adam and Eve had been more obedient and something that has made the human condition worse than it would have been if our first parents had obeyed God and stayed in the Garden.

The Book of Mormon, however, presents the Fall as a positive thing. Before they fell, Adam and Eve could not have children, and their eating the fruit made humanity and human progression possible. The Book of Mormon does theologically what Lehi’s vision does typologically: it reinterprets the moral logic of the Fall.

This reversal of the traditional western understanding of the Fall in a subtle and clever way that is reflected in the propositional theology shared by Lehi.

Another insight from Michael Austin’s reading of the Book of Mormon that reflects an interesting broader trend in Book of Mormon scholarship is investigation into the narratives of the Mulekites and how they relate to the Nephites. (This is also something that comes up in Grant Hardy’s Annotated Book of Mormon, for example.)

The Nephites did their best to portray the Zarahemlans as a people who happily assimilated with the Nephites and to present all subsequent conflicts as civil wars with dissident Nephites. But there is reason to believe that the major dissident movements in Alma and Helaman are wrapped up in an indigenous Zarahemlan identity that did not officially exist.

We see this almost as soon as the Zarahemla narrative begins. When King Benjamin calls his people together, he instructs his son (the second Mosiah), to make a proclamation to “the people of Zarahemla, and the people of Mosiah” (Mosiah 1:10). There is nothing particularly violent in this request, but it does show us that, two generations after they officially became one people, the Nephites and the Zarahemlans maintained separate identities that were recognized by the state.

In the opening chapter of Alma, the people of Zarahemla have been divided into two religious groups: those who follow the new Church that Alma brought from the Land of Nephi, and those who follow the religion of Nehor. There is some evidence that the Nehorites came from the traditional Zarahemlan segment of the population who resented the sudden prominence of a new and distinctly Nephite Church.

It is at least an assumption worth testing. And if we assume that Nehor was a religious leader among the traditional Zarahemlans, then the whole book of Alma starts to look very different.

When Nehor is accused of killing Gideon, a religious hero from the Land of Nephi, the tensions between the two factions create a political crisis for Alma. And when he solves this crisis by convicting and executing Nehor he sets in motion events that lead to a destructive war with Amlici, who is described as “after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword, who was executed according to the law” (Alma 2:1).

Nearly every dissenting Nephite in the Book of Alma is described as either a Nehorite, a Zarahemlan, or both. And in the Book of Helaman, Coriantumr—the general who leads the Lamanites against the Nephites—is described as “a descendant of Zarahemla; and . . . a dissenter from among the Nephites” (Helaman 1:15). This description is telling, as it both asserts and erases Zarahemlan identity from the picture by identifying Coriantumr as a descendent of the last Zarahemlan king while simultaneously labeling him a dissenting Nephite.

All of this is consistent with the kind of enforced assimilation that conquerors often impose on the people they conquer. The Nephite recordkeepers try very hard to convince us that the Zarahemlans voluntarily gave up their language, religion, and culture when the superior Nephites came along and showed them the errors of their ways. But the text itself pushes back hard against that pretense and shows us that the Zarahemlans maintained a distinct identity for at least five generations after the official merger and that this repressed identity often returned in very unpleasant ways.

There might be more colonialism going on in the interactions between Nephites and Mulekites than is openly acknowledged in the Book of Mormon.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the interview here, but for more on how the Book of Mormon reinterprets the Bible, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Michael Austin.

2 comments for “Michael Austin on the Book of Mormon

  1. I’m not sure that “colonialism” is the right way to frame the joining of the Nephites and the Mulekites. It could be that, though there may have been a fair amount of mingling with indigenous peoples on the part of both groups, they each retained they’re basic identity as Jews. And as such, the people of Mulek would have ceded their governance to those who had a legitimate claim to the priesthood–the Nephites.

    There is evidence that the Nephites tried to set up their own Israel-like society–with 7 tribes that tied back to Lehi as their common father who, like Abraham, was the recipient of specific covenants having to do with his posterity. And if such were the case–that might explain why the Nephites seemed to almost waltz into Zarahemla and take up the reins of government without any resistance. The people of Mulek seemed to have had enough of an understanding of their covenant identity–at least among a sufficient number of them–to allow those reins to be passed over to the Nephites without it causing immediate political upheaval.

    And so, while the Nephites’ rise to governance in Zarahemla may seem to bear some of the earmarks of colonialism–the fact that those factions that wanted to return to the old ways were a minority seems to indicate (to me) that most of the people of Mulek were in favor of retaining their covenant identity–albeit the modified version of Israel established by Lehi.

  2. If you definite brilliant as something that no one has thought of before but is completely obvious once someone does, that observation about the Lehi’s vision and the garden story is absolutely brilliant.

    I wonder if Mosiah and the Nephites arrived late in one of the Mulekite civil wars (Omni 1:17) and making a neutral party king was the only way to resolve it. There are precedents in history. At any rate, the House of David wasn’t willing to give up trying for the throne for long, even if they had to official identify as Nephites to do it (Mosiah 25:13). I have to wonder if Amlici was among those who insisted that if the children of Amulon could declare themselves to be Children of Nephi then they could too.

    Benjamin offered the Mulekites a new name and identity that would have put them on the same level as the Nephites: Children of Christ. Sadly, both the Nephites and the Mulekites seem to have kept their old names instead. I wonder if a different focus would have made a difference in Mulekite behavior. That goes for the Nephites as well, especially if it’s true that the name Nephi comes from the Egyptian word for “fair or goodly” and thus “Nephite” meant “fair ones” (Mormon 6:17). Knowing the Nephites, a lot of the time that must have included an implicit “fair ones, as opposed to those loathsome Lamanites” and losing that identity might have helped them lose their famous pride.

    When a prophet asks you to use a new name, don’t take it lightly.

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