Making Peace: Personal Essays
Why Nephi Killed Laban: Reflections On The Truth Of The Book Of Mormon
There is a glass-walled classroom that extends behind the BYU Study Abroad Center in Baden, near Vienna, Austria. On a windy spring afternoon in 1985 Charlotte and I, with a few students, sat in that room, watching apple blossoms and forsythia toss and lean over the fence from a neighbor’s yard. Still weary after a late arrival by train, we were helping to provide an audience for a missionary “concert” we had just heard about at lunch. A few members from the local branch of the church were able to get transportation, and there were some investigators and the mission president and some elders. We weren’t expecting much.
Elder Kevin Kenner, tall, a bit awkward in his double-breasted grey pinstripe suit, announced that Cynthia Lang, a recent convert, would play Mozart’s “Violin Sonata.” He unbuttoned his coat, sat down on the piano bench, and placed his large hands on the center’s brightly-polished black Yamaha. Cynthia, with a serious, generous face and strong body that moved with her bowing, began to develop Mozart’s strange, delightful patterns with that rare skill that convinces you the instrument is under full control. We realized we were in for an unusual hour and began to forget the apple blossoms. Elder Kenner next played a Gershwin piece, then announced that Lun Liang, a young man investigating Mormonism, would perform on a Chinese violin. We lost all sense of duty, even of self, in the presence of continual grace—from Kreisler to Rachmaninoff back to the Chinese violin and on to more Kreisler and some Chopin for encores.
[p.132]How strange the connection of these three superficially very different people—a young missionary from San Diego, a woman of Eastern Europe’s great tradition studying with Professor Ernst Kuchel, and a shy Asian playing his delicate, two-stringed instrument with its drum-like box. Though they divided the world in thirds by their geographical and cultural differences, they became absolutely united in this human obsession, raptly making and raptly listening to organized, patterned sounds.
Five days before that concert we had felt and witnessed a similar and equally strong human obsession as we listened raptly to Malcolm Miller “read” the windows at Chartres cathedral. For thirty years he has been learning to read the “book,” actually the library, that the miraculous preservation of a large proportion of the stained glass of one—and only one—of the medieval cathedrals has made available to a nearly uncomprehending modern world. His one-hour lecture could only open the first few pages of the first book there at Chartres, but what a fascinating, strange, but satisfying vision began to appear. He read the third window from the right along the north wall of the transept—the story of Joseph seen in terms of his being a type, a pattern for the future Christ. He read the three great western windows, recently cleaned, whose brilliant clarity suggests how the whole cathedral looked inside when it was young, and how it could again look if funds for cleaning the other 170 windows could be found. The central window on the west gives the greatest story in human history: God becomes like us to save us. On the right is the pattern of preparation for that event, Christ’s descent through the loins of Jesse, and on the left are the details of Christ’s life and death after the incarnation.
We then went to the nave to read the great rose windows. The north one depicts part of the pattern of Old Testament preparations; the south one is focussed on Mary, continuing the story of patterns in Christ’s life that corresponds to the typological preparations. Everywhere I saw an obsession with order, pattern, types, and parallels, prophecies and fulfillments in literal but meaningfully similar structures: the “soldiers” who went before Christ—the Old Testament prophets who foretold him—marshalled on the north; Christ and his “soldiers” that followed him, the martyrs and confessors, along the [p.133]south; the four major prophets of the Old Testament with the New Testament evangelists literally on their shoulders; the Garden of Eden as Old Salem, “lost Peace,” to be completed in the New Jerusalem; and, giving a shock of recognition to Book of Mormon students, a deep green cross based on the medieval legend that the tree Christ was hung upon was made from Eden’s Tree of Life.
The Book of Mormon? Yes, because that most typologically structured book—the only one that uses biblical patterns with intensity and consistency and ultimate significance—has as its central pattern what Bruce Jorgensen has called “The Dark Way to the Tree,” an archetypal journey to a tree which is multiple in form. With that image the Book of Mormon unites, to create greater understanding and power, four patterns of the human pilgrimage: (1) Adam and Eve as Everyman and Everywoman, who find their dark but necessary way to the tree of life through partaking of the tree of knowledge; (2) Jesus Christ, who provides the essential means for all from Adam and Eve onward to make that dark journey personally to the tree where death on a cross makes possible eternal life; (3) Lehi’s dream, a personal drama of searching through darkness for the fruit of a tree that represents God’s love (1 Ne. 8 and 11); and (4) Alma’s explication, uniquely appropriate for modern, science-oriented skeptics, of the central crux of the pilgrimage—how to know the truth and act upon it—best symbolized as planting a seed, growing a tree, and partaking of the fruit (Alma 32:28-43). Lehi’s dream, which begins the Book of Mormon narrative, becomes the type for all its main stories. As Jorgensen has shown, the conversions of Enos and Alma the Younger are told in ways that highlight similarities to the dream pilgrimage, and even the overall structure of the book appears to be shaped as a version of such a journey for humankind. This typological structuring invites all to participate in the journey of salvation, even as God leads the whole earth through such an epic in order to make our own journeys possible.1
Patterns, and the process of patterning, are clearly central to both the Bible and Book of Mormon. They seem to be central to basic human interests and needs. But mere pattern is not enough. We seem to yearn not only for pattern but for meaningful, saving patterns, ones that [p.134]involve what Lehi called “things to act”—living agents, mortals and gods. Patterns obsess us because they emphasize what is most fundamental in the universe, what is repeated, necessary, irresistible, final. But there is one particularly deep-set pattern, the source and goal of all our searching for order, what Northrop Frye in his book of the same title calls “The Great Code.” It is the great scriptural pattern which, beyond what the universe is and has been, also images for us what life can be at its most satisfying, fulfilling, and enduring. That is the pattern Frye finds unique to the Bible. He traces the way patterns ultimately shape our mythology, our metaphoric patterns, and our rhetoric itself—in a word, all our literature, not just what directly alludes to the Bible. I believe Frye’s most important claims for the Bible can also be demonstrated for the Book of Mormon.
Actually, the Book of Mormon seems to me even more amenable than the Bible to Frye’s analysis. It is mainly the product of a single mind, that of Mormon, and the resulting unity is remarkably similar to patterns only now being explicated in the Bible by critics such as Frye. Mormon, and other Book of Mormon writers, understood Christ’s role in human history, perhaps more so than biblical writers and are thus more responsive to typological patterns. I believe that, given adequate attention by sympathetic critics, the Book of Mormon will provide an even deeper, more intellectually consistent and powerful, witness than the Bible for the Logos—both for Jesus Christ as our divine and only Savior and also for the Word, for language imbued with divine power.
Frye has long been intrigued by the Bible’s unusual potential for “polysemous” interpretation—that is, for being understood and having enormous influence not only at the literal, historical level but even more so at various metaphorical levels. He has examined particularly the typological level, which connects events and people throughout history in a cohesive pattern of images and imitations of the process of salvation through Christ. He has pointed to the success of medieval and subsequent commentators with the “moral” and “anagogical” levels of interpretation (at the moral level each passage is understood as teaching us, in addition to the literal story, how to imitate Christ’s life in the practical world, at the anagogical level how to see our lives in the context of life in eternity with him).
[p.135]Frye finally concluded, and set out in The Great Code to demonstrate, that “polysemous meaning is a feature of all deeply serious writing, and the Bible is the model for serious writing.”2 He argues that the influence of biblical language is so powerful on all other uses of language that it alone has guaranteed the possibility of retaining polysemous meaning in modern culture despite powerful influences to the contrary.
Such claims, of course, imply a particular history of language. Frye makes a crucial distinction, not provided in the single English word “language,” between sound patterns that make up a language, which of course cannot be adequately translated, and the essential sense or force of dramatic patterns, which can. This latter is the French langage, as opposed to langue. Langage is “a sequence of modes of more or less translatable structures in words, cutting across the variety of langues employed, affected and conditioned but not wholly determined by them.”3 This is a valuable distinction; it turns us from exclusive attention to the formal elements of literature (such as sound patterns, multiple meanings, prose rhythms, concision, texture, and puns) that have preoccupied much literary criticism in this century. Such preoccupation has diverted us from other, perhaps weightier, patterns of stories and repeated events that reveal the nature of sin and salvation. In the process we have been kept from full appreciation of the literary merit of the Bible. With few exceptions, such as Steven Walker’s defense of the quality of language in the Book of Mormon,4 it has been criticized as dull, flat, even awkward, while the extraordinary beauty of its concepts has been neglected (for example, the philosophical sophistication of 2 Nephi 2 and Alma 32, the full and moving understanding of the Atonement in Mosiah 3-5 and Alma 7, 34, and 42). We have focused on langue (which might have been beautiful in the original but—except for chiasmus, which we are learning to appreciate more fully—is largely untranslatable), and we have negelected langage, the meanings that survive translation, such as the typologies of the tree of life.
According to Frye, the Bible is unique in its consistent power to preserve and to re-create in each new reader the reality of metaphorical language and typological patterns because of the force with which it [p.136]brings those two elements of langage through the translations and into the modern world. It does this because, surprisingly, myth and metaphor provide the answer to the question: What is the “literal” meaning of the Bible? Frye also argues that the Bible invokes “a historical presence `behind’ [its language], as [French literary critic Jacques] Derrida would say, and that the background presence gradually shifts to a foreground, the re-creation of that reality in the reader’s mind.”5 That historical reality is, of course, the typological keystone—Christ’s involvement with the world, and it is a reality that I think Frye senses, though he never quite admits, is uniquely saving.
Frye is essentially right about the nature and importance of the Bible’s contribution. He is certainly wrong in his defense of its uniqueness.6 There is one other book that preserves the full power of metaphorical language, typological structure, and Christ-centered moral and eschatological meaning for our secular, literalistic world. There is a second witness to Christ not only as the Savior of each individual and all the world but also to him as the Logos, the Word. It witnesses that Christ is the one who used language, both as God and as a man, in ways that provide the most important clues to our nature and potential as his children, and it reminds us that we are inheritors of that same crucial gift of language.
Bruce Jorgensen has already cut a deep swath into the rich harvest of typological interpretation awaiting us in the Book of Mormon. In “The Dark Way to the Tree,” he has demonstrated the book’s potential with definitive examples and a persuasive overall typological reading and at the same time has developed a theory of the value of such a reading. The following passages give an example, summarize the theory, and suggest the quality of the Book of Mormon as a typological work to stand with the Bible:
Having eaten the fruit and rejoiced, Lehi immediately “began to be desirous that [his] family should partake of it also” (1 Nephi 8:12); similarly, the forgiven Enos immediately “began to feel a desire for the welfare of [his estranged] brethren, the Lamanites” (Enos 1:9-11). As later with the two Almas, the converted man is moved centrifugally outward from private partaking of grace to communal sharing—from conversion to covenant or, if you will, from the sacrament of baptism to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. What drives the larger and more inclusive narrative of the Book of Mormon is a hunger for sanctified community. …
For [the Book of Mormon prophets], typing or figuring or likening, guided by revelation, is simply the one way to make sense of the universe, time, and all the dimensions of individual and communal human experience. [Their work] may suggest a theology of the Word, which in turn might suggest a philosophy of history and of language.
History may well be … a sequence without story. Yet to write history is to compose it …, to figure it, to order it by concept and metaphor. The minds that made the Book of Mormon clearly believed that this was not only possible but essential, even crucial, if humanity was to continue. Further, those minds believed that the master-figures [in the typology] were both immanent and transcendent: that God could and would reveal them to human minds, and that once received, [they] would be seen (and could be used) to order all experience … . Likening, then, … might be seen as the root-act of language itself, logically prior to the utterance of any word even if temporally simultaneous with it … . The dynamics of the Word in the Book of Mormon entail a view of language deeply at variance with the post-modernist view that we dwell amid infinitely self-referential and nontranscendent signs …. The Book of Mormon seems … to say that signs point beyond themselves not finally to other signs but ultimately toward God. Our trouble … is to read them.7
Besides Jorgensen, R. Dilworth Rust and George Tate8 have made important contributions to typological analysis of the Book of Mormon. Stephen Sondrup and Noel Reynolds9 have built on John Welch’s discovery of Hebraic poetic patterns, particularly chiasmus, in the Book of Mormon.10 What is needed is for one of these perceptive analysts to explore the relation between poetic chiasmus and typology.11 Chiasmus is the small-scale use of repetition, with inversion, of words, concepts, and other language units, focused on a central turning point (such as abc-cba); typology is a large-scale repetition of events, persons, images, etc., all focused on the central event of Christ’s mortal life. Both of [p.138]these formal devices seem to be natural expressions of a way of thinking and experiencing life that we need to understand and recover in order to approach the formal beauty and powerful message of scripture and understand and experience how the beauty and message are integrated.
I am convinced that a typological understanding of the Book of Mormon can help us to understand the Bible itself in new ways. Such reflection can help us see, better than we do now, I believe, that both books provide, in their unique langage, the most powerful way to do the most important thing words can do—which is, in the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob’s words, to “persuade all men not to rebel against God, … but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world” (Jacob 1:8). That possibility for language—to access the meaning and the experience of Christ’s atoning sacrifice—brings us directly to René Girard.
While Frye’s work on the Bible has provided us with new insights to help us appreciate the formal elements of the Book of Mormon, Girard, another ground-breaking and influential contemporary literary critic, has developed theoretical tools by which we can explore the powerful content of the Book of Mormon, content which is comparable to that of the Bible. Girard’s work in anthropology led him to see similarities between various mythologies and the Bible that have led modern scholars and many others into a dogmatic religious relativism—but also helped him see crucial differences that powerfully “make manifest the uniqueness and truthfulness of biblical perspective.”12
In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and in Violence and the Sacred, Girard presented convincing evidence from a variety of disciplines that human conflict derives from desire which is imitative; that is, we desire what others desire.13 Competing desires focused on the same objects inevitably lead to envy, rivalry, blaming others and making them scapegoats even as we imitate them, as well as to various forms of cruelty and violence. Girard has demonstrated with numerous examples that societies develop a remarkably universal mechanism to survive this process, without which antagonisms spread like a plague as people naturally respond to disappointment by hurting others and to opposition to their [p.139]desires with revenge. Groups of people, sensing the threat of expanding imitative violence, collectively choose scapegoats to blame rather than acknowledging that their own imitative desires and revenge spirit are the true sources of the plague. Masking the scapegoating process in ritual and rationalization, even using religious and literary forms to authenticate this mechanism, people justify their violence against the scapegoats.
In Girard’s most recent book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World,14 he argues that one effective alternative to the plague of spiritual destruction is to face and overcome imitative desire. Girard claims that the ideas and power necessary to do that are found uniquely in the central Judeo-Christian theology and ethics recorded in the Bible and epitomized and given ultimate, divine sanction and victory in the life and death of Christ. He reads Hebrew history and scriptures as a progressive effort to reveal the root of violence and to renounce scapegoating by taking the side of the victim. He finds in Christ’s persistent identification of the violence mechanism and his refusal to participate in it, the superhuman victory over violence that potentially redeems all humans and all human history.
Christ’s answer is to renounce false desire and to eliminate the category of enemy—thus removing rivalry, blame, jealousy, revenge, and scapegoating. For Girard, the Bible is our greatest and truest book because it refuses to participate in the illusory suppression of evil through scapegoating. Instead, it reveals the innocence of the victims and offers examples, notably in the stories of Joseph in Egypt and Christ, of how to stop the cycle of self-perpetuating violence permanently by refusing to participate in it. The Bible, particularly in the Gospels, offers forgiveness and love—in imitation of Christ and empowered by Christ’s pure love expressed in the atonement—as the only solution to hatred, scapegoating, and violence and thus the only source of ultimate human salvation.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates the power of Girard’s ideas to stimulate new thinking about myths, classical literature, and the scriptures. For instance, a Girardian reading of Oedipus Rex offers the view that the Theban community conspires, and gets Oedipus to submit, in a kind of ritual sacrifice when he in fact had not been guilty [p.140]of parricide.15
Gordon Thomasson builds on Girard’s insights in reading the Genesis account of Joseph and his brothers, detailing the processes of mimetic violence and scapegoating there. He relates that story to the version recalled in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 3) and to the striking parallel between the stories of Joseph and those of Nephi and his brothers. Thomasson traces the ways commentaries on the Joseph story from ancient rabbinic to post-Holocaust times display “an amazing willingness to explain away or modify crucial details” so that Joseph “becomes less admirable, less of a threat to our own consciences, and consequently a more justifiable victim.” In particular, many commentaries “neuter the Joseph story as it might apply to us, and undermine the significance of his refusing to retaliate against his truly guilty brothers.”16
In Mormon commentary (including, I regret, some of my own teaching), there has been a similar tendency to see Nephi, like Joseph, as a favored son who somewhat insensitively and self-righteously intrudes on his brothers’ feelings. I have often heard people say of Nephi, as they do of Joseph, “With a younger brother like that, no wonder the older ones got mad.” We thus unwittingly conspire in the victimization and cloud the ethical issues of violence versus self-sacrificing reconciliation. Girard’s perspective can help us appreciate Nephi’s efforts to stay out of the cycle of rivalry, reciprocal violence, and self-justification. But Girard can also perhaps help us penetrate one of the most troubling cruxes in Nephi’s account, his killing of Laban.
Thomasson reminds us of the interesting parallels between events in 1 Nephi and details of the scapegoat tradition from Leviticus 16. Girard claims that the Leviticus account is a product of the violence mechanism operating in Hebrew society, as well as a description of religious ritual. Part of the Hebrew tradition was the choosing of two scapegoats by lot—one to be sent away and one to be killed. In the Book of Mormon Lehi and his family are scapegoats for Jerusalem’s troubles. Rather than face those troubles, the community focuses its growing anger on Lehi, “even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain” (1 Ne. 1:20). They thus force Lehi to take his family and flee for their lives. When Lehi’s sons return for [p.141]the brass plates, the oldest, chosen by lot to approach the plates’ keeper, Laban, is scapegoated by Laban in classic Girardian terms (that is, accused of a crime, robbery, to justify Laban in his envious desire to obtain their treasure) and is cast out and nearly killed. But then Laban himself is made into a second scapegoat, and the punishment of death he had decreed for Laman is meted to him by Nephi.
The problem with this interesting parallel to Leviticus lies in the justification offered for killing Laban, “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Ne. 4:13). This is a classic statement of the scapegoat rationale, and Girard claims that such a rationale is the foundation of human violence and is absolutely repudiated by Christ—a repudiation Girard argues is evidence that the Gospels are inspired.17 But Nephi tells us that the rationale has here been expressed by the Spirit of the Lord! Furthermore, he claims that Spirit also makes the ethically troubling claim that God not only uses his divine ends to justify violence by himself but also as the rationale for a demand that one of his children, Nephi, should also use such violent means: “The Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes” (v. 13).
Girard goes to great lengths to show that the Old Testament passages seeming to implicate God in violence are records of people gradually working their way beyond an understanding of God that all other cultures retained. Though “in the Old Testament we never arrive at a conception of the deity that is entirely foreign to violence,” in the later prophetic books, Girard notes, God is “increasingly divested of the violence characteristic of primitive deities.”18 Girard’s analysis is persuasive, focused on a close look at the “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah, where humans wrongly ascribe responsibility for violence to God (Isa. 53:4). Girard also points out explicit rejections of violence, even God’s “righteous” vengeance, that emerge in the Old Testament: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). This rejection of hatred becomes completely clear in the Gospels, where Christ rejects all notion of justified violence: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love [p.142]your enemies, … and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good” (Matt. 5:43-45).
Girard does not ignore the few passages in the New Testament that seem to contradict this demand by Christ, such as the cleansing of the temple and Christ’s claim that he came not to send peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). As with similarly troubling passages in the Old Testament, he deals with each in detail, persuasively showing some to be descriptive of the culture rather than prescriptive of what Jesus intends and some to be interpretations we impose from our own still violence-prone culture. In a few cases Girard claims a passage or its translation is simply inconsistent with Christ’s overwhelmingly central and oft-repeated nonviolence and thus probably a later interpolation.
It is important to recognize that Nephi, probably recounting the killing of Laban many years after it happened, quotes God’s spirit in almost exactly the same words as the Jewish priest Caiaphas in an ends-justifies-means argument to the Sanhedrin in order to condemn Christ: “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50). John, the recording evangelist, shows the dramatic shift from the Old Testament to the Gospel perspective when he writes that Caiaphas thus accurately, though unknowingly, “prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation” and also for all “the children of God” (vv. 51-52)—thus not be sacrificed or scapegoated in the usual manner. This raises the interesting but rather troubling image of Laban as a type for Christ, since the deaths of both figures bring salvation to all nations: Laban’s death made possible the obtaining of the brass plates, the literal “word” that brought salvation to the Nephites and a redemptive second witness of Christ to all the world, and Christ’s death fulfilled his mission as Logos, the “Word” that saves all peoples, including the Jews.
But even more troubling is the evidence, not only from the Bible but from the Book of Mormon itself, that Nephi’s account directly contradicts the full revelation of God’s nature as the One revealed in Christ who utterly rejects violence—and who demands that we do the same. Fred Essig and Dan Fuller have written an exhaustive but incon-[p.143]clusive study of the legal status, in the religious and moral code of the Israelites, of Nephi’s rationalization for killing the unconscious, drunk Laban with his own sword. They remind us, “Few passages of the Book of Mormon have inspired more criticism … . Many point to this episode as evidence against the Book of Mormon being an inspired document.”19
Though Essig and Fuller wish to counter such criticism and offer several reasons for exonerating Nephi, they finally admit, “Until we more thoroughly understand the role of Deity in the daily affairs of ancient Israel and how that role was perceived by the Israelites, we may neither condemn nor extol the acts of Nephi.”20 It is difficult to wait for such understanding (which at any rate may be completely beyond scholarship), when this passage is used by critics to dismiss the Book of Mormon. Some Mormons themselves continue to use the passage to justify troubling, violent rhetoric and even violent action—by assuming that the Spirit indeed teaches that the end justifies the means. (The fundamentalist Lafferty brothers, for example, used the passage in court to defend their “inspired” slaying of their sister-in-law and her baby in American Fork, Utah, in 1984.) For those of us troubled by such rhetoric and actions, no other passage has seemed more contradictory to New Testament and other Book of Mormon teachings about the impartiality and absolute goodness of the Lord—and about the central role pacificism plays in Christ’s mission.
This is not the place for a full analysis of the Laban story, but I offer some questions and reflections, based on Girard’s insights, to illustrate how his work can help us approach the Book of Mormon: First, is it possible that Nephi’s decision—or at least his rationalization—was simply wrong and that he had deluded himself about God’s approval? This very young man, already a victim of life-threatening jealousy, knew of Laban’s murderous intent for him and his brothers. When he found Laban temporarily vulnerable but still a threat to himself and his goals, which he believed were divinely inspired, he may have very naturally been tempted to take revenge. Years of reflection before he actually wrote the account may have gradually convinced him that the Lord directed him to kill Laban to obtain the plates and thus make possible [p.144]the preservation of his people, which he had indeed subsequently witnessed. The text lends some support to this possibility: Nephi is still, thirty years later, troubled by the experience and its moral meaning. His account contains a remarkable combination of unsparing completeness and honesty with what seems like rationalization, even obsessive focusing on unnecessary but psychologically revealing details (see 1 Ne. 4, esp. v. 9, where Nephi notices the sword before anything else and examines its hilt and blade in detail, and v. 18, where, after lengthy rationalization, he confesses, in what seem to be unneeded specifics, “[I] took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword”). It seems, as one might expect of a highly religious and moral young man, that he had frequently reflected on his killing of Laban and with some ambivalence.
There are other indications that throughout his life Nephi continued to be deeply troubled by something that may have consisted of—or included—this killing of Laban: In his remarkable psalm of self-reflection, in 2 Nephi 4:27, Nephi asks, “Why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” There is no explicit evidence that he was angry with his brothers or even the Lamanites as a whole. Was he angry enough with Laban to kill him and then feel continuing remorse, which led to eventual self-justification?
On the other hand, Nephi’s psalm speaks of his enemies “quaking” (2 Ne. 4:22), which seems to refer to his brothers in 1 Nephi 17. In addition, the very details Nephi includes in his account of Laban, though to us they seem strangely irrelevant—that he entered the city not knowing where he would go and that the Lord delivered Laban into his hand—are details that would establish under Mosaic law that the killing was not premeditated and thus not murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:22).
Any reading that sees Nephi as making a mistake certainly challenges conventional thinking. We want to believe that a prophet of God, even before he is called, should be above such self-delusion and that scripture should tell us only what is best to do rather than merely describing what was actually done. We do this despite the book’s own [p.145]warning on its title page that “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.” Whatever the case, even an interpretation such as I have postulated, one that finds a fault in Nephi or a mistake in his account, actually increases my own conviction of the account’s psychological richness and sophistication, particularly given Girard’s insights. It is hard to imagine Joseph Smith concocting such an account. Even a reading that blames Nephi provides interesting and unusual evidence that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, an account of real experiences by a real person from the Israelite world.
However, there is another possible reading of this event, the one I believe is best. Though it avoids the problems I have reviewed, it raises what I find to be even more profoundly troubling questions, questions that Girard has also been troubled by in his work on the Bible and has clearly not yet resolved. What if God truly did command Nephi to slay Laban, but not for the very questionable reasons most often offered by Latter-day Saints—reasons that God himself has denied often in other scriptures? What if it was a test, like the command to Abraham to kill Isaac? What if it was designed to push Nephi to the limits of the human dilemma of obedience versus integrity and to teach him and all readers of the Book of Mormon something very troubling but still very true about the universe and the natural requirements of a saving relationship with God? What if it is to show that genuine faith ultimately requires us to go beyond what is rationally moral, even as it has been defined by God—but only when God himself requires it directly of us? And what if each reader is intentionally left to solve the dilemma on their own through a vicarious experience with the text?
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in an address to the student body in 1989 when he was president of BYU, suggested that the Laban account is given prominently and in such personal detail at the beginning of the Book of Mormon in order to force readers to deal with it and to focus “on the absolutely fundamental gospel issue of obedience and submission to the communicated will of the Lord. If Nephi cannot yield to this terribly painful command, if he cannot bring himself to obey, then it is entirely probable that he can never succeed or survive in the tasks that lie just ahead.”21 I think Elder Holland is right, but most of us [p.146]need a little more help with why God would ask us to turn directly against our greatest values, the very commands God has given us. The paradox is that Nephi is asked by God to violate Christ’s demand that we reject all violence, even against those who “deserve” it, and that we never again try to justify our violence by blaming God (“If ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same … . But love ye your enemies, and do good, … and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil” [Luke 6:33, 35]).
Girard recognizes, with seeming anguish, that much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, describes a natural order in which God seems to compromise to bring about ultimate change. Perhaps we can come to Girard’s aid a bit here. Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible and the clear statement in Doctrine and Covenants 1:24 that God’s revelations are given to prophets “in their weakness, after the manner of their language,” indicate that scripture is at least partly limited to the perspectives of the writers, not simply expressive of God’s perspective. It is natural that those writers, though prophets, would be limited in their perceptions of reciprocal violence and scapegoating in ways Girard documents as occurring in all cultures and literature. They could also be inspired to describe, accurately and fully, real human dilemmas of the kind Nephi experienced in ways that open up, with rich and educational moral complexity, the full challenge of human violence.
Girardian analysis of Shakespeare shows the dramatist pushing the scapegoat mechanism to tragic extremes—not because he accepts it, but in order to reveal it more fully and make us abhor it.22 Thus Shakespeare becomes a kind of therapist, creating fictive dramas that imitate and reveal mechanisms we otherwise try to hide. Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate how such insight must sometimes be achieved through dramatic shock, as when heroic characters such as Prospero and Cordelia tell obvious half-truths to bring about healing. Could it be that God, having similarly to deal with human limitations, could create a dramatic action for Nephi as both a test and a therapy that reveals to him in extremis—and also to us—that anyone can become a scapegoater capable of imitative violence? Or could it be that, as Elder Holland and others have suggested, God was both teaching and helping Nephi to [p.147]develop obedience—while perhaps also teaching Nephi (and us) the costs and limits of such obedience?
Like Adam and Eve, Nephi had to choose which of God’s commands to violate, either of which would exact a toll of anguish. His psalm of repentance and harrowing, complex memory of the event years later demonstrate this. The experience, of course, profoundly changed him and indeed prepared him for future tasks and further learning. Soon afterwards he was blessed to be the first among the Nephites to receive a full vision of the life and mission of the still far-future Christ and to understand Christ’s atonement, symbolized in the tree of Lehi’s dream (“It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” [1 Ne. 11:22]). Based on that understanding, he later states unequivocally the true nature of God as revealed in Christ, who was the absolute opponent of all imitative desire, all violence, all scapegoating, in a way that seems to contradict directly his own earlier report of what an angel had told him about God:
The Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder; that they should not lie; … that they should not envy; that they should not have malice; that they should not contend one with another; … and that they should do none of these things; for whoso doeth them shall perish. For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men … and all are alike unto God (2 Ne. 26:32-33).
While in London years ago, just before the trip to Chartres, I saw, at the National Theatre, a version (based on the York cycle) of the medieval “Mystery Plays.” These are the cycles of connected dramatic stories, generally taken from the Bible, once performed all over Europe annually at the feast of Corpus Christi (the medieval Catholic celebration, each June, of Christ’s atonement), each segment performed by one of the town’s guilds of workers. Much like the great cathedral windows, the plays taught the scriptural story of salvation to a mainly illiterate populace. In addition, much like the Mormon temple drama, the plays served remarkably well to involve actors and audience in reconfirming their own literal place in the ongoing divine drama, in patterns of grace that would save each of them, as well as Adam and Eve; Noah [p.148]and his wife; Mary and Joseph; and Peter, James, and John.
The somewhat modernized script enacted by sympathetic and skilled actors in the National Theatre production engaged the contemporary, secular audience to a surprising degree. One of the most powerful scenes was the sacrifice of Isaac, prolonged by an imagined dialogue between the son on the altar and his father holding a knife, that stretched our pain at this potential violence by God upon his own children and upon his own teachings against violence—and heightened our relief at God’s intervention. The medieval authors, in their genius, cut immediately from this scene to the annunciation of the birth of the Savior.
The significance of this connection is intensified by Abraham’s anomalous plea to the yet unborn Jesus, as he sees Isaac’s increasing anguish and knows he must act: “Jesu, on me thou have pity/ That I have most in mind.” This anguish is echoed in God’s words to Abraham, after intervening, that make the connection to Christ explicit: “Like thine Isaac, my loved lad/ Shall do full heartily his Father’s will,/ But not be spared strokes sore and sad,/ But done to death upon a hill.”23
In the London production the effect was heightened even more when a group of actors representing the butchers’ guild, traditionally assigned (with macabre appropriateness) to play the sacrifice of Isaac, came forward. After a complex, ritual dance of controlled violence at the completion of the sacrifice, they ended by interweaving their long sword-like butcher knives into a Star of David and carried it up to the balcony where it became the star of annunciation of Christ’s birth.
The typology is certainly clear and has been recognized by many (see Jacob 4:5, where Abraham and Isaac are called a “similitude” of God and Christ), but the connections between God’s apparent endorsement of violence and the violent victimization of his own son, which saves us, have not been very adequately explored. I think the Book of Mormon can help here, mainly because it provides the basis for an understanding of the Atonement that can complement but also go beyond Girard’s fruitful ideas.
The Book of Mormon suggests connections between such things [p.149]as Nephi’s killing of Laban and his remarkable visions soon after of Christ and the “condescension” of God (literally, the one who does not look down in judgment upon us from a physical and moral distance but who “descends with” us into mortal pain and suffering and sickness [1 Ne. 11:26]). Subsequent Book of Mormon scriptures explore the idea that God accomplishes the Atonement by transcending the paradox of justice and mercy, and in doing so these scriptures use the same image of condescension: He is the “Lord Omnipotent” who gives us the law and will ultimately judge us, but he is also the suffering servant who will “come down from heaven … and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5) and thus learn how to save us by literally taking upon himself our “pains and … sicknesses” and “infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy” (Alma 7:11-12).
The Book of Mormon is consistent, I believe, with Girard’s helpful focus on the Atonement as achieved through love rather than through traditional sacrifice, through reconciliation rather than through payment. The Book of Mormon makes clear that Christ’s atonement was centered in the Garden of Gethsemane, not on the cross. As King Benjamin teaches and as Doctrine and Covenants 19 powerfully reconfirms in Christ’s own words, it was in the garden, when Christ momentarily shrank from what he knew was necessary and then fully joined all humankind as he experienced the most terrible sense of alienation and pain we can know—descended below all and the worst of our experience in order to raise us to accept our acceptance by him. It was there that “blood [came] from every pore, so great [was] his anguish for … his people” (Mosiah 3:7; see also D&C 19:18).
Perhaps most startling is the unique Book of Mormon witness that many people, such as King Benjamin’s audience, who lived 125 years before Christ, were able to experience the Atonement fully and be completely changed into new creatures long before the atonement actually occurred in history. This fact shows that, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, the Atonement was not a sacrificial event that changed people only from that moment on, but an expression of unconditional love from God that freed all people throughout history to repent and become like God simply by knowing about it, by hearing the prophetic witness, whether expressed before Christ lived or after.
[p.150]In addition, the Book of Mormon gives perhaps the most direct affirmation in scripture of Girard’s claim that Christ’s atonement put an end to all claims for the legitimacy of sacrifice and scapegoating (indeed of any kind of violence):
[The Atonement will not be] a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice …. [But] then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled … . And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance (Alma 34:10, 13, 15, my emphasis).
Besides confirming some of Girard’s insights, the Book of Mormon illustrates the proper role of justice, of punishment, even of God’s own participation in processes that involve or threaten violence. Amulek’s discourse on the Atonement in Alma 34 and Alma’s in Alma 42 make much clearer than anything available to Girard in the Bible the crucial part justice plays in God’s plan for our redemption.
The Bible’s well-known accounts of what seem like divinely directed or justified violence may result from imperfect attempts to express that principle of God’s justice. The Book of Mormon more clearly shows why God must use justice to establish conscience in us before his forgiving love, which ends the cycle of violence, can effectively operate. For instance, Alma teaches his son Corianton that God affixed laws and punishments, “which brought remorse of conscience unto man”; if he had not done so, “men would not be afraid to sin … [and] the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:18, 20, 22). Alma also teaches Corianton that such a condition has the inevitable result of placing man “in the grasp of justice.” It is therefore necessary, to counter that result, that “God himself [atone] for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (vv. 14-15).
A major problem for many of Girard’s readers is his explanation of [p.151]how original violence lies at the foundation of society and religion and then how that original violence is continually obscured over time, even in God-directed biblical cultures. The Book of Mormon may be able to help us understand how the constraints of human nature and agency require God, in working out a possible plan of salvation for us, to cooperate in—or at least allow—that natural obscuring process. Perhaps it is only in such a way, in which the processes of quid-pro-quo justice and thus imitative violence work with full force for a while, that our consciences can be adequately formed by justice. Then, as the Book of Mormon uniquely explains, such demands of justice in our own minds can be appeased by our knowing certainly, through prophetic witness, the plan of God’s mercy (Alma 42:15). Thus our consciences, which remain too self-critical to accept Christ’s forgiveness and acceptance of us, can be overpowered by the bowels of his mercy (Alma 34:15). Our difficulty with apparently contradictory scriptures may be a matter of understanding how God’s justice and his mercy work together to bring us to self-knowledge and guilt, but also to self-acceptance and repentance.
In addition to all this, the Book of Mormon provides an example of a group actually practicing Girard’s implied unique solution to imitative violence, with precisely the results he predicts. A group of people converted to the Christian gospel in 80 B.C. makes a covenant with God “that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives” (Alma 24:18). In keeping with that covenant, they ritually bury their weapons. When attacked by vengeful enemies, they respond with astonishing courage in a way directly contrary to the universal tendency to reciprocal violence that Girard has described: They “would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but … would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword” (v. 23). When their enemies see this, the reverse pattern, what Girard calls the “benign reciprocity of love,” takes over: “There were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen,” and they too “threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again” (vv. 24-25). Speaking from the perspective of four hun-[p.152]dred years of Nephite history, Mormon draws a pointed lesson: “And now behold I say unto you, has there been so great love in all the land? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, there has not” (v. 19; 26:32- 33).
It would be hard to imagine a better complement to Girard’s analysis of the Joseph and Judah story. When Joseph threatens to keep his brother Benjamin in Egypt as a suspected thief, Judah, archetypal head of the Jews, offers—in an exact reversal of his previous treatment of Joseph—to take Benjamin’s place. Joseph is moved to tears and reconciliation with his brothers. As Girard writes, “This dedication of Judah stands in symmetrical opposition to the original deed of collective violence which it cancels out and reveals.”24
The central question still remains how to cope with the imitative desire that leads to envy and rivalry and sets in motion all the problems that produce violence and our consciences’ demands for reciprocal justice. For Christians, including Girard, the question is how Christ’s atonement makes it possible for us to stop the cycle even before it starts—or at least to make repentance and forgiveness possible so it can end.
In the Book of Mormon King Benjamin teaches how this redemptive process can be initiated and then maintained. First, he proclaims the essential and primary reality of the Atonement, by which Christ extends unconditional love to us, even in our sins. Consistent with Amulek and Alma, he teaches that Christ’s love can move us to overcome demands within ourselves, placed there by our God-given consciences, to punish ourselves and others. This breaking of the bands of justice, he claims, enables us to accept Christ’s mercy and forgiveness and to become new creatures. Intensely moved by learning of Christ’s love, the group of Nephites taught by King Benjamin loses all “disposition to do evil” (Mosiah 5:2). King Benjamin also reveals that the only way to maintain this change of heart is to seek “a remission of your sins from day to day” (4:26). The key is humility, the abdication of imitative desire through recognizing that we are “all beggars” (v. 19). Just as God does not reject us, does not refuse to love us or to extend his healing grace and continual blessings because we sin, we must not reject those who beg help from us though they do not “deserve” it. We must never judge their desires or condition; we must never think that “the [p.153]man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore … his punishments are just” (v. 17). If we do so we have “great cause to repent,” and if we fail to repent we have “no interest in the kingdom of God” (v. 18). Instead, we must constantly recognize our weakness and dependence on God, judging no one but engaging constantly in specific acts of sacrificial love: “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants” (v. 26).
The point is this: After receiving grace, we must extend grace to others. If we judge others, we unconsciously judge ourselves and thus reject the mercy that can change us. We must constantly give mercy in order to accept it. We cannot exact revenge, even in the name of perfect justice, without taking vengeance upon ourselves, the sinners we inwardly know most certainly deserve it.25
These two passages from the Book of Mormon, the account of the people of Ammon and King Benjamin’s address, provide a basis for meeting one of the main criticisms made of Girard’s work. Even those who find that his hypotheses fit the available facts better than any others are troubled that despite the claim that his work can help us cope with violence in our lives and in relations between nations, neither he nor his disciples have offered concrete, practical steps toward that goal.26 Active, self-sacrificing love, even of our enemies, and nonjudgmental, merciful feeding of the hungry are seldom recommended and even less seldom practiced in our world. The Book of Mormon provides powerful evidence, in theory and example, that they could work—and in fact are essential for our salvation.27
What do these reflections on recent literary criticism and Nephi’s killing of Laban suggest about the Book of Mormon? That no one has mastered or explained or exhausted it. It not only stands up to the most sophisticated modern thought about literature; it also challenges our most sophisticated ethical, theological, and political concepts. I am encouraged by my study so far to find that what Frye and Girard claim for the Bible can also be claimed, point by point and often more clearly and usefully, for the Book of Mormon. But more important, their insights deepen my understanding and appreciation of a book I already believe is both as historically true and as spiritually valuable as the Bi-[p.154]ble. As I approach difficult parts of the book, such as the Laban story, with these new tools, I find the book responding with truth and richness.
Girard focuses on content, Frye on form. Girard reminds us of the central ethic at the heart of the Logos, mercy transcending justice. Frye reminds us of the best way to get to that heart: pattern transcending reason. The Book of Mormon, if we will work—and open ourselves—to find it so, is a restored second witness to both the ethic and the pattern, to Christ as Redeemer and to Christ as the Logos.
8. Richard D. Rust, “All Things Which have Been Given of God … Are the Typifying of Him: Typology in the Book of Mormon,” 233-44, and George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” 245-62, both in Lambert, ed., Literature of Belief. More recently, Avraham Gileadi and Alan Goff have built on this work with detailed book-length studies of passages and themes, including explicit connections to biblical typology: Avraham Gileadi, The Last Days: Types and Shadows from the Bible and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), and Alan Goff “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Revisionism and Positivism, and the Bible and the Book of Mormon,” M. A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1989.
9. Stephen Sondrup, “The Psalm of Nephi: A Lyric Reading,” Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Summer 1981): 357-72, and Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephi’s Outline,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft and BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 53-74.
11. An initial step has been taken by John W. Wellch in his “Chiasmus in Biblical Law: An Approach to the Structure of Legal Texts in the Hebrew Bible,” Jewish Law Association Studies 4 (Boston Conference volume, 1990), connecting the balancing features of chiasmus with the reciprocal and proportional typologies of talionic justice.
16. Gordon Thomasson, “Madness, Differentiation, and Sacrifice, or Reconciliation: Humanity’s Options as Seen in 2 Maccabees and Genesis,” unpublished paper presented 15 November 1984 at the Eighth Annual BYU College of Humanities Symposium, “Myth, Literature, and the Bible,” 17; copy in my possession.
26. For additional exploration of this idea, see my “Fasting and Food, Not Weapons: A Mormon Response to Conflict,” Brigham Young University Studies 25 (Winter 1985): 141-55; reprinted in The Quality of Mercy (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1992), 117-38.