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Sherem Comes Among the People
1 And now it came to pass after some years had passed away, there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem.
2 And it came to pass that he began to preach among the people, and to declare unto them that there should be no Christ. And he preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and this he did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ.
The previous chapter ended with a very final note. However, the final note was to a public audience. This chapter is written for posterity. It contrasts in form with the two copied sermons that were the first two entries in Jacob’s book. It isn’t clear when Jacob wrote this, only that the incident occurred some years after the end of the last sermon.
This chapter deals with Jacob’s interaction with Sherem. The implication of “there came a man among the people of Nephi” is that Sherem was not part of the city of Nephi. Not only does the language imply that he was from another city, but other clues that come later will reinforce that conclusion.
Sherem comes with a specific mission. He has come to preach. Specifically, he has come to preach that there should be no Christ. Jacob’s conclusion to the previously recorded sermon which included the allegory of the olive tree ended with the importance of believing in the coming atoning mission of the Messiah. Sherem is preaching very specifically against that very teaching. Sherem will not be declaring that the law of Moses should not be lived, but only that the Nephite emphasis on the atoning Messiah is not part of the law of Moses and therefore should be abandoned. It is an attempt to remove the teaching of Nephi and Jacob and return to perhaps a version of the law that Laman and Lemuel might have approved.
There is no indication that Sherem had any connection to Laman and Lemuel, but he does know the law of Moses, and he appears to follow it in the way that those in Jerusalem had lived it. Those in Jerusalem rejected Lehi’s teaching of a coming atoning Messiah, and Laman and Lemuel’s desires were to return both physically and symbolically to Jerusalem. It is an interesting speculation to see Sherem as coming from a people who had learned and lived the law of Moses as Laman and Lemuel might have taught it.
3 And he labored diligently that he might lead away the hearts of the people, insomuch that he did lead away many hearts; and he knowing that I, Jacob, had faith in Christ who should come, he sought much opportunity that he might come unto me.
4 And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.
These two verses set up the conflict. First, while Sherem does preach to the people, he makes a particular target of Jacob. He knows that Jacob “had faith in Christ who should come” and therefore sought him out. As noted with the earlier verses, the issue is faith in Christ for a people who follow the law of Moses. That will be the most important issue.
The idea that Sherem is an outsider is highlighted by the idea that “he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people.” There are two ways to understand that phrase. One is that he came from the outside and the Nephite language was a second language for him. In the Mesoamerican setting, this would be quite possible. The second reading is that Sherem was simply fluent and proficient in the language. Perhaps that idea is strengthened by the fact that he could use “much flattery, and much power of speech”—although that would be possible if he were truly fluent in his second language.
Most importantly, however, Jacob notes that Sherem has to seek him out. Sherem knows about Jacob, but does not appear to know who he is, or where he lives. In a smaller city, where Jacob had been a principal priest and teacher, it would be surprising that a long-time resident would not have known Jacob and where to find him.
5 And he had hope to shake me from the faith, notwithstanding the many revelations and the many things which I had seen concerning these things; for I truly had seen angels, and they had ministered unto me. And also, I had heard the voice of the Lord speaking unto me in very word, from time to time; wherefore, I could not be shaken.
Jacob informs his readers that Sherem’s intention was directed at Jacob’s faith in the coming atoning Messiah. Perhaps Sherem did not understand what lay behind Jacob’s faith. Jacob’s foundation was particularly strong, for he had seen angels and they had ministered to him. He had heard the voice of Yahweh speaking to him. His spiritual experiences were sufficient foundation that his faith could not be moved.
Most of Jacob’s readers do not have that quantity of quality experiences upon which to build our faith, but we typically have at least one. To have our faith shaken, that experience must also be shaken. So many are able to do so. As humans we are excellent at rationalizing, and it is possible for us, unlike Jacob, to reexamine our spiritual experience (or experiences), and find reasons why it should not be a building block of our faith.
Although we may never have the number or type of experiences that Jacob had, we do need to revisit our foundational experiences with the spirit, to keep them alive in us. We need to be able to call upon them to remind ourselves to have patience in learning and in understanding. We may have Sherems come to us, and we may not be as unshakeable as Jacob. We can, however, withstand through our own experience—as long as we keep it alive and do not hedge it around with excuses and rationalizations.
Sherem Confronts Jacob
6 And it came to pass that he came unto me, and on this wise did he speak unto me, saying: Brother Jacob, I have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you; for I have heard and also know that thou goest about much, preaching that which ye call the gospel, or the doctrine of Christ.
7 And ye have led away much of this people that they pervert the right way of God, and keep not the law of Moses which is the right way; and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence. And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy; for no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come. And after this manner did Sherem contend against me.
Jacob places this experience in dialog. It is part of the stylistic inheritance from the Old World that important lessons are couched in dialog. The interchange allows the principles to be taught in a more gradual and interesting way, as opposed to straight exposition.
Sherem gets right to the point. Jacob has taught the doctrine of Christ, and Sherem declares that this is a perversion. In particular, he contrasts the doctrine of Christ with the law of Moses, which he declares “is the right way.” The issue is the problem that the doctrine of Christ is wholly reliant upon an atoning Messiah who will not come for over half a millennium.
Sherem denies that any being so far distant could be important now, and that Jacob could not know that his coming would be important because “no man knowest of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come.” While this appears to be a condemnation of prophecy, it should not be read so broadly. The Old Testament supported prophets, and as one who declared that the law of Moses was the right way, Sherem would have to accept prophets, including the principle of prophecy. It is not any prophecy, but rather this particular one.
In the Book of Mormon, the atoning Messiah is often referred to as one who would come, or even that which is to come. All that Sherem says, and does, declares that his particular issue is the teaching of the atoning Messiah and not prophecy in general.
8 But behold, the Lord God poured in his Spirit into my soul, insomuch that I did confound him in all his words.
9 And I said unto him: Deniest thou the Christ who shall come? And he said: If there should be a Christ, I would not deny him; but I know that there is no Christ, neither has been, nor ever will be.
10 And I said unto him: Believest thou the scriptures? And he said, Yea.
11 And I said unto him: Then ye do not understand them; for they truly testify of Christ. Behold, I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.
12 And this is not all—it has been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen; and it also has been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost.
If we did not yet know that this was written after the fact, it is clear from Jacob’s statement in verse 8. Jacob declares that he confounded Sherem. Then he relates the exchange that demonstrates how he did it. The exchange is related in terms of a dialog.
Sherem wanted to preach against the coming atoning Messiah, so Jacob begins with that topic. Jacob asks if Sherem denies the Messiah who is to come. Sherem’s response is that he cannot deny something that does not exist. The basic argument is that this Messiah does not exist in the present and did not exist in the past. Neither of those are points that Sherem can argue. Sherem does leave the door open, however, because he also says that he does not believe that there will ever be such a Messiah.
Jacob cannot turn to history, but he can turn to prophets and prophecy. They are found in the scriptures, so Jacob makes certain that Sherem indicates that he believes in the scriptures. Sherem says yes, and Jacob tells him that he must, therefore, not understand them as they speak of this coming Messiah, and Jacob himself is a prophetic witness. Again, this is not any Messiah, but the atoning Messiah, as Jacob makes clear in verse 12.
Thus, Jacob has declared, but only asserted, that the scriptures point to the atoning Messiah. That might be a difficult thing to prove as Nephi apparently believed that much of the teaching about that coming atoning Messiah had been removed, or left out of, the scriptures.
God Smites Sherem
13 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much.
14 And I said unto him: What am I that I should tempt God to show unto thee a sign in the thing which thou knowest to be true? Yet thou wilt deny it, because thou art of the devil. Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine.
15 And it came to pass that when I, Jacob, had spoken these words, the power of the Lord came upon him, insomuch that he fell to the earth. And it came to pass that he was nourished for the space of many days.
The problem with arguments based on scriptures between two people who both believe in the scriptures, but read them differently, is that it will be difficult for either to be convincing. This is a common problem in many modern discussions of the meanings of scriptures. Different people read them differently, and sometimes, even without a faith tradition, we have brothers or sisters who might read them differently.
Sherem perhaps understood that he would not be able to confound Jacob through words, so he attempted to have Jacob fail at what might be seen as a reasonable request. Sherem suggests that, if Jacob believes that this is the message of the old prophets, and that he is claiming place among them, that he should simply show a sign, and then all would believe.
Jacob removes himself from the suggestion of power and declares that Yahweh himself will provide that sign. It would be that coming Messiah himself, who would show a sign upon the person of Sherem, the unbeliever. Yahweh does something to Sherem whereby Sherem becomes so weak that he cannot even feed himself. Others are required to feed him for several days.
16 And it came to pass that he said unto the people: Gather together on the morrow, for I shall die; wherefore, I desire to speak unto the people before I shall die.
17 And it came to pass that on the morrow the multitude were gathered together; and he spake plainly unto them and denied the things which he had taught them, and confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels.
18 And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment.
19 And he said: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.
20 And it came to pass that when he had said these words he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost.
Sherem realizes that he is about to die and asks that the people be gathered. He had preached publicly, therefore he had to make amends publicly. He had asked for a sign and that sign had been given. He was soon to face the being whom he had denied, and now knew that that being had power. Therefore, he atones for his own actions by affirming the coming atoning Messiah whom he had previously denied.
Sherem also realized that since Yahweh had stricken him nigh to death that his soul was also in danger. Thus, he worries about hell and punishment, and is concerned that he would not be forgiven. Modern Latter-day Saint teachings speak of an unpardonable sin, but even with his denial, Sherem does not meet the modern definition of the term. For Sherem, it is simply wondering if he could be pardoned. Since he had not learned about the atonement, and had actively denied it, he would not have understood the expanse of God’s mercy.
21 And when the multitude had witnessed that he spake these things as he was about to give up the ghost, they were astonished exceedingly; insomuch that the power of God came down upon them, and they were overcome that they fell to the earth.
22 Now, this thing was pleasing unto me, Jacob, for I had requested it of my Father who was in heaven; for he had heard my cry and answered my prayer.
23 And it came to pass that peace and the love of God was restored again among the people; and they searched the scriptures, and hearkened no more to the words of this wicked man.
Sherem provided dramatic evidence of Yahweh’s power, and Yahweh’s approval of Jacob and Jacob’s teachings. The people also fall to the earth. In this case, it is probably not weakness, but a sign of respect where they prostrated themselves before God, accepting him anew as their God.
There is an important subtext to what Jacob reports. In verse 23, note that he says that “peace and the love of God was restored again among the people.” In Jacob’s first recorded sermon he indicated that the Nephites were straying from the path. In the second, he ended with the burning of the wicked, with the implication that the Nephites were approaching that end. Here, the powerful example Yahweh made of Sherem leads the Nephites to a repentance they apparently had not been willing to entertain previously. The incident with Sherem had exactly the opposite effect on what Sherem had intended.
24 And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually.
25 Wherefore, the people of Nephi did fortify against them with their arms, and with all their might, trusting in the God and rock of their salvation; wherefore, they became as yet, conquerors of their enemies.
Jacob does not explain why the Nephite repentance led them to seek a similar repentance among the Lamanites. If Sherem had truly come from a Lamanite community, that provides the explanation for his understanding of the scriptures, the reason he was so against the atoning Messiah, and thus turning to the Lamanites as a result. If Sherem came from the Lamanites and he had repented, then thinking the Lamanites might repent would have been reasonable.
Nevertheless, the hatred was too strong, and the relationship with the Lamanites was not one of peace, but rather of war. Neither Nephi nor Jacob spends any time discussing wars in their small plate record. We must assume that they were chronicled on the large plates and neither Nephi nor Jacob saw reason to record them on the small plates that had a different purpose.
Jacob notes that they fortified themselves against the Lamanites and “became as yet, conquerors of their enemies.” That might suggest Nephite wars of conquest but is more likely a translation term that simply indicated that they had defeated the Lamanites in battle. Subsequent writers will note that they did often defeat, or conquer, their enemies, but it is never said that they acquired territory through that method, which is the typical understanding of the word conquer.
Plates Passed to Enos
26 And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old; and the record of this people being kept on the other plates of Nephi, wherefore, I conclude this record, declaring that I have written according to the best of my knowledge, by saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.
27 And I, Jacob, saw that I must soon go down to my grave; wherefore, I said unto my son Enos: Take these plates. And I told him the things which my brother Nephi had commanded me, and he promised obedience unto the commands. And I make an end of my writing upon these plates, which writing has been small; and to the reader I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren, adieu.
Once again, we see the phrase “began to be old,” which occurs in descriptions of leaders who are about to die. Jacob finds that he is about to die, and, therefore, concludes his record. He knows that he will write no more.
It is a sad farewell. He was of a family forcibly driven from Jerusalem, and then across an ocean to a new world. He was a leader in a community which had been taught true principles but had often not been able to keep them. They were involved in wars and contentions. Jacob’s melancholy conclusion is that “we did mourn out our days.” Jacob may have been a righteous man, but he suffered the knowledge that he had not been able to lead his people to the righteous path as he fervently desired.
Jacob ends with the word recorded as adieu. For some reason, much has been made of that word. It was a normal part of English speech after the Norman domination where French was the official language of the court in England. It is no more surprising to see adieu than it would be to see good-bye. Both are words that are part of the translation. Neither is original to the Nephite language. We don’t know what word Jacob wrote, only that it was translated as the fully understandable adieu.
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