These chapters are about Samuel the Lamanite posting to his wall (I know, bad joke, but some of us can relate to the stones and arrows). Samuel’s wall top preaching alternates between predictions of destruction, contrasting the Lamanite reaction to the truth, and prophesying concerning the coming of Christ. This lesson and discussion will focus on:
- Samuel and intertextuality (the teachings he refers back to and prophecies he points toward)
- Steadfastness and firmness
- God and destruction
- Freedom of choice
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Prepare yourself for a thought-provoking discussion with Natasha, Amber, and Kenton.
After you listen to the lesson and class discussion, please post your comments and questions here on the blog and continue the conversation!
You can access my Lesson Notes here.
Much thanks to James Estrada of Oak Street Audio for his hard work in postproduction.
I chapter 15 verse 3, Samuel teaches the people that the Lord chastens his people because he loves them. This makes some sense if we keep in mind that God is our father. And what do good parents do when their children misbehave? They discipline them. One can argue that if God wasn’t involved in the whole destruction business, then He doesn’t really love us. But the degree of destruction described the in the scriptures does seem a bit excessive at times. Whether or not God really causes death and destruction to chastises his children, I don’t imagine that He would enjoy it. Exekial 33:11 states that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but they turn back to Him and live.
Is the type of discipline practiced in the church today appropriate? What about the way in which we discipline our own children? Is the God of the scriptures a good model? Is there anything in the scriptures that can teach us useful practices in disciplining our own children?
1) Hel 13:17-36: the Lord’s cursing has serious, devastating economic implications for the society. But more narrowly, are these verses a commentary on the folk legends about buried gold and silver supposedly “all over” the place on the American continents? The buried treasure is cursed and becomes “slippery”, magically disappearing because of the curse on the land. I get the sense that this is perhaps an explanation for Joseph Smith’s utter failure at money-digging, except when it came to finding the plates. That buried treasure is simply so slippery! I suppose these verses can be read metaphorically to suggest that financial ruin is just around the bend for a society that rejects God and the prophets. But it just feels to *real*, to earthy, to palpable to be simply metaphor. It feels folk-magical to me. The slippery, magical aspect of buried treasure might also be a convenient explanation for how golden plates could appear in Spring Hill in upstate New York in 1823-1827 even if Moroni never deposited them in that space (iow they were transferred to the location because the ground in the promised land has these magical powers of making treasure appear and disappear according to God’s will). Thoughts?
2) How many prophets are killed by the Nephites? Helaman 13:24-26 seems to suggest that many prophets have come and been mistreated/killed by the Nephites in the recent past (including Samuel himself). So doesn’t this suggest that the Book of Mormon has a very different idea about what a prophet is and does that contrasts starkly with the LDS doctrine of prophets as the singular head of the Lord’s Church? Yes yes, I know that all the apostles are sustained as “prophets”, but these book of mormon prophets are something else entirely, and perhaps more closely parallel the bands of the prophets in the Old Testament. Why no prophets like that in the modern LDS Church?
3) Helaman 13:37: “surrounded by demons”. Are demons real, or is this just a figure of speech? given the rather folk-magical flavor of the treasures and cursed land of the verses just preceding it, it would make sense that Samuel was referencing what he thought were a real demonic presence or force among the people (demons move in when the Spirit withdraws? c.f. 13:8). Thoughts?
4) So Samuel’s wall speech represents another example of prophetic indictment. This is a rhetorical device used in the Bible wherein the prophet uses legal syntax to “bring charges against” the people of Israel for breaking their covenant with God. So how does Samuel do? Does his indictment operate on the same or similar terms as prophets in the Old Testament? In what ways does Samuel’s indictment differ from those of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habbakuk, Micah, Hosea, and Joel?
5) What is the function of signs and wonders? Do they vindicate the faithful or condemn the apostate? Or both? There seems to be an uneasy relationship with signs in the scriptures. The book of mormon faithful, as we shall see in the next lesson, will be earnestly looking for the sign of the day and night and day without darkness (their lives are at stake, after all). But the signs given by Samuel seem to function more as evidences to further condemn the unrepentant and unfaithful. One more thing about signs: are they almost always constructed by God in ways that would promote belief but not provide incontrovertable evidences (thereby destroying the function of faith as the first step in the path to God)? If so, how could earth-shattering signs like a 36 hours of daylight, or 3 days of darkness not violate God’s prime directive (to use a Star Trek reference about interaction with pre-warp alien civilizations)?
6) Samuel throws in another barb in 14:30-31, saying that if you reject these messages, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. This reminder of our ultimate freedom of will seems to me a dark version of Pascal’s wager, which recognizes free will and argues that the best course of action is to act like God is real so that you’re pleasantly surprised to find out God is after this life. Instead, Samuel is like an insurance salesperson, playing upon fear of negative possible future events to temper current behavior.
7) 14:25: in the midst of the terror of utter darkness, earthquakes, etc., a zombie apocalypse? talk about creepy!
8) 15:3-4: so the Lord loves the Nephites, but has hated the Lamanites. both have done iniquity. Samuel (a lamanite) says that the Lord chastens whom he loves, but that only applies to the Nephites? notice that the Lamanites only are promised that their days will be prolonged for their repentance and righteousness–no special relationship of love despite iniquity like that accorded to the Nephites. What’s with the preferential treatment? It almost seems as if the Lamanites are outside the covenant of the House of Israel, given the way Samuel talks about them. Thoughts?
9) So do the works of prophets like Samuel serve to advance civilization and the likelihood of a society doing that which is good and right in the sight of God, or do they often only re-entrench and re-calcify opposing ideologies, incite violence against friends and family, and make it harder for people to work together for the common good? I see in these and other chapters in Helaman many similarities with contemporary government and civilization in that over the course of time, opposing viewpoints become more extreme, accusatory, and prophetic of doom and gloom in order to try to persuade people to their way of doing things. The Book of Mormon provides us with only one perspective of these stories: that of the so-called “faithful” to the doctrine of Christ as they struggled to make a place for themselves in these ancient civilizations. But as surely as certain Christians today can be total douchebags and filibusterers against progressive change, I’m sure that if the Nephite civilization really existed, there were douchebag Christians back then as well. Are prophets and religious organizations ever guilty of treason, sedition, inciting violence, and/or spreading hate, or iow causing more harm through their good intentions than good?
10) In 16:6, those that reject Samuel accuse him of having a devil, and that the power of the devil is what protects him from harm. Basically, they call Samuel a witch (warlock, I guess, if you want to be technical) and try to start a witch hunt to diminish his disruptive force over people in the community, both physically (lets bind him and away with him!) and politically (by attributing his words to forces commonly held by society as destructive to peace and tranquility). In other words, these people use an ad hominem attack against Samuel in calling him a witch in order to give the rest of the Nephites an opportunity to reject his arguments as unreasonable, dangerous, or otherwise deranged. And yet, Mormon uses the same ad hominem against the Nephites in v. 22-23, where Satan is stirring up and getting hold of hearts, trying to convince the reader that these people’s skepticism about Jesus’ coming was due to a character trait/flaw, and warning us all against having such doubts. Such discourse may simply be evidence of how little true, constructive dialogue was taking place among the Christians and those who disagreed with them *for centuries on end!* But how does one hope to change hearts and minds with persistent attitudes of disdain for those that disagree?
Regarding your first point, here’s a little Michael Quinn:
According to their neighbor and early Mormon convert Orrin Porter Rockwell, Lucy Mack Smith aided her husband and son Joseph in such a treasure-quest. “Not only was there religious excitement, but the phantom treasures of Captain Kidd were sought for far and near.”…Rockwell explained that “his mother and Mrs. Smith used to spend their Saturday evenings together telling their dreams…He often heard his mother and Mrs. Smith comparing notes, and telling how such an one’s dream, and such another’s pointed to the same lucky spot: how the spades often struck the iron sides of the treasure chest, and how it was charmed away, now six inches this side, now four feet deeper, and again completely out of reach.”
The incident in Manchester/Palmyra was not the only occasion that Joseph Jr.
and his followers encountered a moving treasure. Martin Harris said: ”A candid old Presbyterian told me, that on the Susquehanna flats he dug down to an iron chest…[but] it moved away two or three rods into the earth, and they could not get it.” This referred to Josiah Stowell, who was a deacon in the Presbyterian church of Bainbridge and whose house was “two miles below the village, on the Susquehanna.” Aside from Josiah’s statement to Harris about this moving treasure, one of Stowell’s workmen also referred to the same incident during young Smith’s treasure-quest along the Susquehanna River: ”One of the men placed his hand upon the box, but it gradually sunk from his reach.”
In fact, the Book of Mormon described a complaint common to treasure-seekers: ”Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because the curse of the land.” These people “began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land” (Helaman 13:35; Mormon 1:18). This reflected the treasure-digging language of early America, as the book May Martin shows. The 1835 novel described Vermont treasure-diggers who dreamed of “the prospects of another trial for the slippery treasure.” Book of Mormon phrasing was consistent with one scholar’s observation about American folklore of “slipping treasures” that “sink into the earth when something is wrong.”
However, Blake Ostler regarded that usage as irrelevant to the main issues in folk magic and LDS scripture. ”The Book of Mormon is thus concerned with [divine] covenants, not money digging.” His next observation is certainly accurate: ”The Book of Mormon says nothing about the enchantment of spirits, divining rods, magic circles, guardian spirits, sacrifices to appease spirits, or other rituals necessary to obtain hidden treasures – all a necessary part of the magic world view associated with money digging.” Still, the fact remains that translator Joseph Smith used the term and imagery of “slippery” treasures. Those were part of the folk magic culture in which he participated as a young man.
Nevertheless, Ostler’s argument gives opportunity for me to emphasize that this chapter does not make the reductionist argument that Mormon scriptures are occult texts. I regard the Book of Mormon’s references to slippery treasures as an echo of the translator’s social world, not as a key to understanding a very complex historical and religious narrative. I find echoes of folk magic and the occult in all the “Standard Works,” even though these LDS scriptures overwhelmingly emphasize religious history and theology. (D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pg. 62, 196, 197)
Thanks for sharing this quote. I haven’t yet read Quinn’s “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View”, but I’ve been meaning to for some time now. These narratives of slippery treasure are fascinating.
Given that I reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I’m not surprised that a commentary or two about money-digging found its way into the text, as it was a pretty big part of JS’s early life, giving him lots of experience drawing upon the hopes and dreams and fears of the people around him to draw them into his confidence. JS may have been earnest in his search for hidden treasure, but I’m doubtful that he ever found anything other than an awareness of his own magnetic charisma, and his exceptional ability to tell a convincing story.
Kirk Watson says:
Just wanted to share in interesting historical parallel. Not necessarily making an argument for influence here, but a similar incident to Samuel the Lamanite is described in the Journal of George Fox (1621-1691), the founder of the Quakers, where the nomadic prophetic individual delivers the Lord’s message to a hostile audience, is miraculously preserved from the crowd’s missiles, and then the police are called out to nab him (although Fox doesn’t get away like Samuel):
“I had travelled through every county in Wales, preaching the everlasting gospel of Christ…Soon we came to Manchester, and the sessions being there that day many rude people were come out of the country. In the meeting they threw at me coals, clods, stones, and water; yet the Lord’s power bore me up over them that they could not strike me down. At last, when they saw they could not prevail by throwing water, stones, and dirt at me, they went and informed the justices in the sessions, who thereupon sent officers to fetch me before them.
“The officers came in while I was declaring the Word of life to the people, plucked me down, and haled me into their court…”
According to the record, the words of Samuel were not recorded until after his prophecies had already been fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:9-12). Writing a history as opposed to writing a prophecy seems to be susceptible to being interpreted in a way which makes it fit within a certain narrative (i.e. the differing accounts of the first vision which seem to be explainable by the fact that with the passage of time, Joseph was able to observe what his role would become. We constantly reconstruct our past with the additional insight we gain with the passage of time). Perhaps some of these more difficult verses brought up in this podcast/lesson are more easily explained by the idea that whoever recorded Samuel’s words was influenced by having seen the events play out.