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The words of his preaching unto his brethren. He confoundeth a man who seeketh to overthrow the doctrine of Christ. A few words concerning the history of the people of Nephi.
The book headers in Nephi, and later in Mormon’s edited chapters, suggest that they were written prior to the content of the book. They serve as an outline of the intended content. They do not necessarily represent all of the content. For example, the book header for 2 Nephi spoke only of the historical events. Thart book header has nothing that covers the material from 2 Nephi 6 through 33.
This makes the header for the book of Jacob more interesting. We will see that there is a gap between the content of Jacob’s sermon and his account of the incident with Sherem, yet both of those are included in the book header. This suggests that both were intended to be included, and therefore suggests that the whole of the book of Jacob may have been written after the header, and therefore after the incident with Sherem. That makes the entire book of Jacob a reminiscence, rather than having been written during the events recounted.
Nevertheless, there is also evidence that Jacob wrote in three distinct sections. The first two sections are sermons and would fall under the idea that he wrote what he preached. Perhaps the section on Sherem was appended after the fact.
Jacob Keeps the Record
1 For behold, it came to pass that fifty and five years had passed away from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem; wherefore, Nephi gave me, Jacob, a commandment concerning the small plates, upon which these things are engraven.
2 And he gave me, Jacob, a commandment that I should write upon these plates a few of the things which I considered to be most precious; that I should not touch, save it were lightly, concerning the history of this people which are called the people of Nephi.
3 For he said that the history of his people should be engraven upon his other plates, and that I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed, from generation to generation.
4 And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people.
Fifty-five years after leaving Jerusalem, Nephi gave the small plates to his brother, Jacob. There is no way to know how long before Nephi died that he gave them to Jacob, but we may surmise that Nephi felt that his end was near and that was the impetus to give up the plates.
When Jacob received them, they came with instructions. Nephi had created two sets of plates. The one that dealt with the reigns of the kings stayed with the kings. In this separate set of plates, which was to travel a very different line of transmission, the content was to be different. Nephi declared in 1 Nephi 9:9 that this set of plates was to contain the more part of the ministry. The instructions to Jacob continued the theme that they should only lightly touch history but should rather deal with “preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great.” It was all preaching or all revelation. It was the most important teachings and revelations.
That is the intent of the phrase “engraven the heads of them upon these plates.” In this case, the “heads” indicates the most important aspects. Research into Protestant sermons contemporary with Joseph Smith strongly suggest that the word is related to that sermon tradition where the sections of an extemporaneous sermon were called “heads.”
5 For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people, what things should happen unto them.
6 And we also had many revelations, and the spirit of much prophecy; wherefore, we knew of Christ and his kingdom, which should come.
7 Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest, lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness.
8 Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world; wherefore, I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi.
Nephi told Jacob to record the most important preaching and revelation. Jacob notes that they did receive revelations. For Jacob, the most important revelation was the same as it was for Nephi. They “knew of Christ and his kingdom, which should come.” Jacob does not give any information about how those revelations might have differed from what Nephi had written. It sufficed that they knew of this Messiah who was to come. Phrases discussing what was to come in the Book of Mormon typically point to the mortal mission of the Messiah.
Jacob declares that he taught as did Nephi. The preaching was to bring his people to the understanding of the atoning Messiah. As with Nephi, we may expect that Jacob also taught that the law of Moses was to be lived while understanding the future atonement and its present meaning.
Having stated the commission Nephi gave him concerning the plates, Jacob declares that he did “take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi.”
The Current State of Affairs
9 Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.
10 The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—
11 Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.
12 And it came to pass that Nephi died.
When we see the comment that someone “began to be old” in the Book of Mormon, we are being notified that they are about to die. Thus, in verse 9 Nephi begins to be old, and in verse 12 “it came to pass that Nephi died.”
The rest of the information Jacob gives is part of the command to only touch lightly on history. This is important history, even more important because we have lost the 116 pages that would have given us more of this history. We knew that Nephi was a king, and here Jacob notes that, as is typical, he was followed by kings. Jacob does not say that the next king was Nephi’s son, but that is the logical assumption.
What Jacob does state is that when the next king ascended to the throne, he was called Nephi. What is not clear is whether this is a name change, or whether the designation of Nephi became a term for the king. Julius Caesar was the emperor, and subsequent emperors bore the title Caesar along with their own name.
It is also interesting that Jacob tells us that Nephi “wielded the sword of Laban” in defense of his people. In Words of Mormon 1:3 we will learn that king Benjamin also wielded the sword of Laban in defense of his people. After that time, we see the sword as a sacred relic, but not necessarily as functional in battle. Of course, even in these cases, it may have been more symbolic. With a hilt of pure gold, Laban’s sword was probably more ceremonial than military.
13 Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.
14 But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings.
These two verses are critical for understanding the rest of the Book of Mormon. Jacob begins with two names that will form the essential cultural dichotomy in the Book of Mormon, Lamanites and Nephites. The statement begins by noting that those who are not Lamanites are Nephites. It is a binary division.
Jacob explains that these two collective terms include tribal names. There are Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lemuelites, and so forth, but Lamanite and Nephite are not used in the sense of tribal designations. Specifically, Jacob says “I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites.”
This begins the essential division between “us” and “them” which characterizes so many ancient societies. The division is not tribal and is in no way genetic. It is a political designation, which explains how it is so easy for Book of Mormon peoples to cross the boundaries. Lamanites easily become Nephites by believing as Nephites do, and when Nephites no longer believe as Nephites are supposed to, they become Lamanites. As Jacob says, the difference is whether anyone is friendly or an enemy.
It is also important to remember that it was Nephi who discussed the cursing of the Lamanites and their skin of blackness. For Jacob, that doesn’t enter into his discussion of the difference between Lamanite and Nephite at all—except that the skin of blackness defines the character of the enemy. Most importantly, Jacob never says that skin pigment was a difference. It is only whether one is a friend or an enemy.
15 And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.
16 Yea, and they also began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride.
17 Wherefore I, Jacob, gave unto them these words as I taught them in the temple, having first obtained mine errand from the Lord.
18 For I, Jacob, and my brother Joseph had been consecrated priests and teachers of this people, by the hand of Nephi.
19 And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.
In 2 Nephi 33:2 Nephi said: “there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them.” That is the people that Jacob, as a priest, has inherited. Nephi saw it happening, and Jacob either assigns it to the reign of the second king or suggests that it has intensified. What we see at the end of verse 15 and in verse 16 are the twin evils of “many wives and concubines,” and beginning “to search much gold and silver, manifest in beginning to be lifted up somewhat in pride. These are the themes of the discourse Jacob will include, beginning in the next chapter.
Both Jacob and his brother, Joseph, were consecrated priests and teachers. These titles should be seen as functions, not priesthood designations as we might see them in the modern church. It is within his responsibility as a priest and a teacher that Jacob gave a sermon to the people concerting those two troublesome developments in Nephite society.
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