Come Follow Me: Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon

 Sundown over Galilee (my pic)

Sundown over Galilee (my pic)

We often assert that the Book of Mormon is historical in nature, and necessarily so, in my view. But we must equally recognize that it’s historical nature certainly does not mean it was written as modern history, with our expectations about what history-writing means.

History to most modern Westerners is what happened in the past, and as a genre of literature it is an account of what happened in the past. We judge written history by how accurately and objectively it recounts past events. In other words, we tend to apply to history the same standards that we apply to journalism….We assume that ancient historians, and the biblical writers in particular, had the same definition of history. This assumption has been and continues to be the source of problems.”- Stephen L. McKenzie, How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature- Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, and What it Means for Today (Oxford, 2005) (This book, btw, is the one that talks about using Galaxy Quest to talk about genre and genre confusion, something I have enthusiastically adopted.)

Ancient writers, even when working in a historical genre, had very different goals and standards.

When we come to these chapters, the data should really make use sit up and pay attention. Look at the time references-

Enos 1:25, 179 years have passed since Lehi left Jerusalem.

Jarom 1:5, 200 years.

Jarom 1:13, 238 years

Omni 1:3, 276 years, 282 years, in the same verse!

Omni 1:5, 320 years

Can you imagine writing a “History of the USA” and skipping from 1730 until today?  It’s unthinkable. What kind of history is this, then? The general answer, again is, not the kind modern readers expect. Modern, western, post-enlightenment expectations and lenses often twist our understanding of scripture.

Do the Book of Mormon writers all write with the same intent and goal? Did they all think they were doing the same thing? Jarom 1:1 says that he is writing for “the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites” whereas Nephi was writing to benefit his people. (And of course, modern readers tend to think that all scriptural authors had us today in mind.) Jarom 1:2 and Omni 1:1 talk about writing on the plates “to preserve their genealogy,” which sounds quite different from what Nephi and Jacob thought they were doing.

John Sorenson has suggested that the Book of Mormon is a lineage history, one mostly concerned with Lehi and his descendants. That makes it a narrow kind of history, one not intending to cover every detail, event, or people they encounter. It’s a highly selective history.

Enos 1:20 contains a very negative description of the Lamanites.

their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us.

We probably shouldn’t read this as an objective, purely factual description. People rarely describe their antagonists or opponents in terms that their opponents would consider fair and accurate, whether that’s the 2020 political race, the ancient Near East, Evangelicals talking about Latter-day Saints (and vice-versa), or the Book of Mormon.

The scripture is clear that the Nephites were prejudiced against the Lamanites (Jacob 3:5; Mosiah 9:1-2; Alma 26:23-25 ). That must have influenced how they perceived their enemies. The Nephite description of the Lamanites falls into a pattern known in the Near East. The Sumerian city dwellers in Mesopotamia of the third millennium B.C. viewed the Amorites, Abraham’s desert-dwelling relatives, as “dark” savages who lived in tents, ate their food raw, left the dead unburied, and cultivated no crops.  Urban Syrians still call the Bedouin nomads “the wild beasts.” The Nephite picture of their relatives, in  and Enos 1:20, sounds so similar to the Near Eastern epithets that this language probably should be considered a literary formula rather than an objective description, labeling applied to any feared, despised, “backward” people.  But all this does not exclude a cultural and biological difference between the two groups. The question is how great the difference was; we may doubt that it was as dramatic as the Nephite recordkeepers made out. -John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 90.

The “cimeter” or scimitar mentioned here, btw, is probably related to Hebrew kidon (“key-doan”), traditionally mistranslated as “spear” or “javelin” e.g. Joshua 8:18. However, HALOT and other recent work term it “scimitar,” a curved or crescent-shaped sword. See also here.

The main narrative of Enos is quite familiar, because it’s really the only thing that happens in the book bearing his name. A young man goes into the forest, his sins are on his mind, and he ends up praying, and having a deeply revelatory experience.

Wait, is that Enos, or Joseph Smith? Some think the Book of Mormon is essentially a fictionalized biography of Joseph Smith’s own experiences, in which case Enos is Joseph Smith. That is not my view, but they are certainly similar. It’s worth asking, how are these experiences or accounts similar? How are they different? What can we learn from them? Discuss 🙂

In the case of the First Vision, Joseph Smith understanding of its significance changed over time. In earlier accounts, he is overwhelmed by its implications for himself and his standing with God, but he came to understand that it was not just or even primarily about him. Nevertheless, the first vision became much less about what it meant for Joseph, and more what it meant for the people and the Church. (See here.)

One thing I take away from both accounts is the spirituality of nature. There’s something about spending time in the trees, rivers, and rocks, under the stars (as both Enos and Joseph did), that tends to put your mind heavenward, and reoriented towards God and the things of eternity.

More recently on the First Vision, see Steven Harper’s books here (Deseret Book) and here (Oxford Press).

 Omni 1:12 Mosiah and people flee into the wilderness. This is the second time a group has fled, the first group being roughly 300 years earlier (Nephi and whoever would follow him) in 2Ne 5:5-7.

Mosiah and company encounter “the people of Zarahemla.” In spite of being refugees, and quite outnumbered, Mosiah’s group somehow becomes dominant, and Mosiah becomes king, which is certainly odd.  How does this happen? Orson Scott Card has a good theory, here. (Scroll down to Speculation on Zarahemla.)

Second, what is a mosiah? John Welch tackles that question here, and I pick up on it a little in my recent BYU Studies article on atonement language.


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7 thoughts on “Come Follow Me: Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon

  1. Think it’s important to distinguish between history and myth for modern readers. For me the BOM makes more sense as literature than it does as history. It opens up interpretation, allows characters to speak from various perspectives and endows story lines with various levels of meaning. Provides a much richer reading than one typically gets through the “history as orthodoxy” approach, IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “History” and “literature” are not mutually exclusive or opposites, unless by “literature” you mean “completely ahistorical.” Ditto with “myth.” Throwing around terms like that without unpacking them isn’t terribly useful. One can very easily recognize or focus on the literary aspects of particular history-writing and one should also recognize that all history writing is in some sense “fictional”; Robert Alter, for example, writes that “history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.” Why? Because “fiction” comes from Latin “fictio” and means “something made or fashioned.”
      … but I don’t think that’s the point you were hoping to make. If you wish readers to “distinguish between them” then you’d better provide definitions, characteristics, of those terms.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree, which is why i brought up the recommendation.

        I don’t think I claimed that myth and modern histories were ever mutually exclusive (although the traditional lds truth-claim theology has leaned heavily in that direction for many years, and provided the basis for a pretty extensive apologetic industry, so it may be good to level set that cultural bias when approaching the concept of “history” in an LDS context), just that its important to acknowledge the different purposes between modern historians/historical bible scholars who try to understand what is likely to have actually happened in the past versus religious/priestly figures who write historical fiction and myth that later becomes scriptural canon to help a tradition give meaning to its current national/religious experience or crisis. Literary works can contain both obviously, but there are differences in how we think about these disciplines, and these differences do impact the type of interpretations we come up with.

        I also think its important to understand these differences so we can more openly assess and interpret the nature of a work of religious historical fiction like the Book of Mormon. I don’t think that is an unreasonable expectation for orthodoxy in the current period and I don’t think it has to necessarily be any less faith promoting than the creation myths in Genesis or the legendary tales of conquest in Joshua or the highly creative license taken in the books of Moses or Abraham. In fact, the way I look at it, knowing the fictional nature of these works adds to their value instead of taking away from it.

        It’s also important to give expression to these different ways of interpretation so that members of the congregation have access to multiple avenues of meaning to draw from in their own personal faith reflection, as well as the ability to add their own civil opinion to debates about where lds theology should head in the future.

        For example, some (like my grandmother) may gain faith from a strictly historical interpretation of the Book of Mormon, seeing Nephi and Lehi as historical figures that actually lived and practiced religion in the western hemisphere. While others (like myself) may gain faith more effectively by seeing their stories as metaphor or symbol instead of an account of past events.

        Each of these perspectives could be mutually exclusive, but they don’t need to be. The important thing is that they can all thrive and be shared openly in an lds sunday school class.


      2. a shorthand metaphor might consideration of the difference between religious or church history vs. religious or church theology. Of course the overlap, but the topics also have separate purposes and objectives in their own right.


  2. From a t-shirt in a Jackson WY tourist trap: “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in a church thinking about mountains.”


  3. For me, the big timeline gap from the book of Jacob to the book of Enos is what stood out to me this time around. I never noticed that there is a 124 year gap between these books. It’s not so much that a chunk of time has gone by, but more that if Enos was Jacob’s son, how can there be such a huge chunk of time that has passed? Is the Enos of the book of Enos a grandchild? Does time matter if the goal of the writing is to bring us closer to Christ?


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