Chapter 13, Churches in the Wilderness.
You can read this chapter here: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=60&chapid=593
In this chapter, Nibley notes that the Nephites brought a microcosm of their Israelite ancestry, culture and religion with them into the New World, where it became a minority culture within a larger one. He isn’t clear, in my view, on whether he sees this as a dominantly Lamanite culture, or an ancient American culture, where Lamanites and Nephites are both a minority.
Nibley notes the importance of the records for the Nephites. The records are what help them to retain their unique culture while among others and their cultures. This is an important point, which Joseph Smith may not have been aware of – had he been trying to produce a fake book. We now know that with written records, language and culture tend to change slower than for those groups without. Even the BoM shows this in light of the Mulekites, who because they had no records, ended up with a corrupted language, religion and culture, none of which maintained any similarity with ancient Israelite customs.
“The purpose of the plates, as [Nephi] saw it, was to preserve the cultural heritage of the past for generations to come, and especially to retain intact the unbroken religious tradition of God’s people back to the very beginning.”
Nibley notes that this is the foundation for the obsessive record keeping among the Nephites. One could say it is also the foundation for the modern LDS obsession with record keeping,as well. From journals to genealogy, LDS are very particular about the records we keep. Perhaps it is this level of record keeping that has kept our culture and belief system changing much slower than the rest of the world.
“The nation founded by Nephi was strictly a religious society….”
He notes that Nephi accepted being the ruler and teacher of his people, but refused to be a king. His brothers, Jacob and Joseph, were teachers and priests. In regards to Jacob’s teachings, Nibley notes:
“For him as for Nephi there are just two sides to this question. He gruops all factions and complexions of people into two arbitrary categories. After naming seven different groups, he adds, “But I shall call the Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites” (Jacob 1:14)”
.Nibley suggests that these include the 7 factions (Lamanites, Lemuelites, Ishmaelites, Zoramites, Nephites, Jacobites, and Josephites) are the only ones involved here. However, we should consider that Jacob may also be including other peoples as well, some who are friendly to the Nephites, and others who wish to destroy them. In such a way, we could also divide those native Americans that preceded the Nephites to the land.
Nibley discusses Abinadi and Alma, noting that Abinadi read the commandments to the people of King Noah. Nibley brings up the classic fight between the Law of Moses being
“a type and a preparation for the Messiah and greater things to come versus the law of Moses as an end in itself and a full justification of the status quo. That was the argument with which the Book of Mormon began, and it has never ceased to be the main issue between the two great traditions of Israel.”
This is correct, to a point. In his book “An Other Testament”, Joe Spencer seems to take this concept one step further. He notes that the people of Noah believed they were the promised people. Noah’s priests quoted Isaiah 52:7, asking Abinadi how he interpreted it.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” (Isa 52:7).
For Noah’s people, they saw the promised land as the original land of Nephi, which King Mosiah I fled generations before. Zeniff restored the promise of the people (as a covenant community) living in the promised land, and so the prophecy was fulfilled, according to their reading. For Abinadi, the quote had a very different meaning. It was not fulfilled by Zeniff leading the people back to the promised land, but by prophets of all ages prophesying of Jesus Christ. Spencer goes into deeper detail than this, and shows how Abinadi (and later Alma) changed the covenant from how Nephi understood it, and it was not restored until Jesus returned. You can get a copy of his book at saltpress.org. Highly recommended.
Nibley then returns to one thing he is very insistent on:
“The nature of the place (waters of Mormon) seems clear: it is in wild, open, desert country – not a jungle – an oasis where some small trees grew around a spring.”
In light of Abinadi quoting Isaiah 52, I still disagree with the desert motif versus wilderness description. Isaiah speaks of mountains and the people being blessed in this issue. I would agree that the waters of Mormon probably were not in jungle area. However, in the mountainous regions of Central America, one can find places that would fit this. During times of drought, wild beasts would infest the area, but the area would be more arid than the lower jungle areas. Still, think more on the lines of the Rocky Mountain weather, rather than the deserts of Arizona, when we think of the area in Central America.
When Nibley speaks about “A Picture of Alma’s Church in the Wilderness” he takes some liberty with his evidence. While he begins his discussion of Alma actually in the wilderness with the people, he then uses quotes from the book of Alma, which are regarding his son’s efforts in the population areas of Zarahemla and elsewhere, and not around the waters of Mormon or elsewhere in the wilderness. I think this is one area in which we do need to not always take Nibley at face value, as he sometimes reaches outside of his discussion and brings in evidence that fits elsewhere in the narrative.
Nibley notes again that the righteous are almost always the minority in the story line. History is usually written by the victors, so we are very fortunate to have the writings of those who lost the final battle. Nibley states that the Nephites had “churches of anticipation”, which is the only thing that kept them struggling to survive from one generation to the next. Prophets and priests continually taught the people repentance and belief on the coming Savior.
I’ll end with Nibley’s final and excellent comment:
“The whole scheme of things as to doctrine, organization, and tradition is fully and carefully set forth in the Book of Mormon, always with the clear understanding that what is done is but a continuation of what was done of old…”