Home > Uncategorized > The Tragic Book of Mormon: Back to the Beginning

The Tragic Book of Mormon: Back to the Beginning

Not quite, but close enough

This continues a short series of posts on the Book of Mormon as tragedy. See here for the first post.

While tragedies are most famous for their endings, their beginnings are just as significant for defining their scope and pathos. Because tragedies bear on the struggle, and even the impossibility, of progress and victory, the beginning of a tragedy usually marks the heights from which a tragic figure will fall (think Othello) or it will circumscribe the future of its hero by prophesying his ultimate downfall (think Oedipus) or both (think Macbeth). Thus tragedies, in their conclusions, often take us back to the beginnings and expose the tragic irony of what might have been. Whereas other literary forms, especially traditional novels, mark the progress and development of a character, tragedies expose the hubris of progress by revolving upon itself. Tragedies are the chutes to the Bildungsroman’s ladder.

So to get a better handle on the tragic ending of the Book of Mormon, it’s important–much like I did in the last post–to take us back to the beginning. And I mean all the way back to the beginning, to 1 Nephi 1, where Lehi has his initial theophany. In it, he sees God being praised by angels, the descent of one whose glory exceeds the sun (presumably Christ), and 12 followers that are usually connected with the 12 apostles. Lehi is given a book by Christ, which he reads and which spurs him to prohesy of Jerusalem’s destruction (see 1 Nephi 1:8-15).

Lehi’s vision and Nephi’s account of it here is mystifying. For one, no interpretation is ever offered; it doesn’t fit into the narrative of Lehi’s exodus (he will receive a different vision about that); and there is no comparable vision in all the BofM (the closest in scripture would be John the Revelator’s). Joe Spencer, in a great series of posts on the Book of Mormon, has helped put the vision in context of Nephi’s retrieval of the brass plates, interpreting the book Lehi receives as that set of scripture. Very plausible–but I want to suggest another meaning, that this vision prefigures the spiritual climax of the Book of Mormon: Christ’s visit to the Nephites. In 3 Nephi 11-28, we have all the same features of Lehi’s vision: the descent of Christ, 12 disciples that are called as special witnesses, angels that come praising God. Christ even brings additional scripture to the Nephites, like the Sermon on the Mount, and chapters from Malachi and Isaiah. Christ’s visit is also closely tied to the Jerusalem that Lehi prophesies about, as they both condemn Jerusalem for its wickedness. Lehi’s vision serves as a marker of the the heights that the people in the Book of Mormon aspire to: a visit from Christ, the establishment of his church, and the reception of his word. From the very first pages, we see the trajectory the narrative will take us, the hope for the type of reconciliation with God that Lehi experiences in his vision.

Of course, no part of the Book of Mormon emphasizes the contrast between the sublimity of visionary experience and the banal frustration of everyday relationships quite like 1 Nephi. Lehi’s (and later Nephi’s) vision is brought back to Earth by the tensions and conflicts between Lehi and his city and even his own sons. In 1 Nephi 2, Nephi creates a stark division between himself, who sought and received God’s presence, and his brothers, who didn’t even know where to begin. If 1 Nephi 1 marks what will be the climax of the Nephite civilization, the rest of 1 Nephi marks the tensions and rivalries that will ultimately lead to its downfall.

That the climax and tragic ending of the Book of Mormon is tied to its beginning in Lehi’s family helps explain some of 4 Nephi, which is perhaps the most perplexing and under-analyzed book in all the Book of Mormon. The Zion society created in the wake of Christ’s visit is glossed over in just a few verses; it is not long before we find the Nephites devolved back into the stock sins of materialism, greed, and inequality. One of the most striking moments in this descent into apostasy is the divisions along familial or racial lines, which we find in v. 37-38:

“Therefore the true believers in Christ, and the true worshipers of Christ, (among whom were the three disciples of Jesus who should tarry) were called Nephites, and Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites. And it came to pass that they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites; and they did not dwindle in unbelief, but they did wilfully rebel against the gospel of Christ.”

The Nephites have not merely divided themselves into the traditional dualism of “Nephites vs. Lamanites,” but have specifically defined themselves according to individual figures from Lehi’s exodus: Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, Zoram, Laman, Lemuel, and Ishmael (poor Sam; always a bridesmaid, never the figurehead of tribal jingoism). Why differentiate themselves so thoroughly? What is the difference between a “Nephite” and a “Josephite,” a “Lamanite” and a “Lemuelite?” Putting aside the impossible question of what these divisions were actually based on, for readers the message is quite clear: the Nephite civilization has left the spiritual ecstasy of Lehi’s vision and have devolved into the same old conflicts that plagued their ancestors. Not only has the Nephites returned to their roots, but they have fallen from the spiritual potential promised in Lehi’s theophany into the violence Lehi’s family originally tried to escape. The tragic ending has come full circle to its origins and has plunged the Nephites even deeper into their own, familiar weaknesses.

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