Prospering in the Land of Promise
Prospering in the Land of Promise
Steven L. Olsen
In his remarkable textual study of the Pentateuch, the
eminent biblical scholar Robert Alter identifies a key literary convention for
the narrative portions of this sacred Judeo-Christian scripture: “It is a
general principle of biblical narrative that a character’s first recorded
speech has particular defining force as characterization.” 1 Alter, Meir Sternberg, and Erich Auerbach also make comparable observations
about the first recorded actions of biblical characters.2 While this literary
convention is not a universal feature of the Hebrew Bible, biblical writers
frequently employed it to place empirical events in an interpretive context
that appropriately focuses the attention of the serious reader. Certainly
modern readers stand to gain much insight into biblical narratives from a
careful study of this literary convention.3
Since the Book of Mormon comes from a biblical culture, this
convention might be of comparable value in understanding the ancient Nephite
text. For example, the first reported actions of both Lehi and Nephi involve
prayer.4 Even though the precise words of their respective prayers are not included in
the narrative, the account implies that through their prayers these holy men received
from God sufficient knowledge and direction to begin the ministries that would
define the central focus of the sacred history that follows.
What about the entrance of God
into the narrative? What are his first quoted words, and how do they contribute
to the meaning of the text? Although the beginning of Nephi’s record reports
several spiritual experiences, the text does not include any of God’s actual
words until the second chapter of 1 Nephi. When God does speak, he promises
divine blessings, first to Lehi and second to Nephi (1 Nephi 2:1, 19),
signaling that the sacred narrative will emphasize how God blesses the
spiritual dynasty founded by this father-son prophet duo.
As full of promise as these initial statements are, they do
not specify how God intends to bless Lehi and his posterity. However,
immediately after promising to bless Nephi, God himself reveals his strategy
for doing so.
And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall
prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have
prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands. And
inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from
the presence of the Lord. And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou
shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren. For behold, in that day
that they shall rebel against me, I will curse them even with a sore curse, and
they shall have no power over thy seed except they shall rebel against me also.
And if it so be that they rebel against me, they shall be a scourge unto thy
seed, to stir them up in the ways of remembrance. (1 Nephi 2:20–24)
From this passage we see that the Lord promises to bless
Nephi by means of covenants that establish an eternal relationship between God
and his chosen people. The central themes of these covenants—prospering
in a land of promise and ruling in righteousness over its
inhabitants—become two of the dominant themes of Nephi’s sacred record.5
The first of these covenants could be called the covenant of
the promised land. The formal expression of this covenant finds repeated
expression throughout the Book of Mormon: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my
commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my
commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.”6 Its structure
is a classic binary contrast: blessings for the faithful and curses for the
rebellious.7 In this case, the contrast turns on two terms: prosper and land.
The formal terms of the covenant imply that prospering is the proximate
blessing for those who obey God’s commandments and that the promised land is
the earthly equivalent of the heavenly presence of God. The covenant also implies
that the faithful will eventually enjoy eternal life in the literal presence of
In exploring the concept of prospering in the Book of
Mormon, I will make two central points: (1) Nephi initially defines and illustrates
the concept of prospering in his small plates record, and (2) Mormon uses Nephi’s
concept of prospering to abridge the large plates.
‘Prospering’ Defined by Nephi
Consistent with his explicit declaration “My soul
delighteth in plainness” (2 Nephi 25:4; compare 33:6), Nephi introduces
the concept of prospering in clear, explicit terms. For example, in the course
of Lehi’s final blessing to his righteous posterity, in which he twice repeats
the formal terms of the covenant of the promised land (2 Nephi 1:9, 20), Lehi
partially defines prospering: “They shall prosper upon the face of
this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess
this land unto themselves. . . . And there shall be none to molest them, nor to
take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever”
(2 Nephi 1:9; see v. 31). According to Lehi, protection, peace, persistence,
and safety are the hallmarks of those who keep God’s covenants in the promised
At the conclusion of the historical portion of his account, Nephi
enlarges upon the concept of prospering by defining the qualities of his newly
founded society in the land of Nephi. He lists nine characteristics that
distinguish his followers from those of his wicked brothers, from whom Nephi’s
people had recently separated (see 2 Nephi 5:1–18). Twice Nephi
associates these qualities with prospering (“we did prosper exceedingly,”
v. 11; “we began to prosper exceedingly,” v. 13).
1. Obeying God’s
law. “And we did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the
commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses” (v.
domesticated economies. “And . . . we did sow seed, and we did reap again
in abundance. And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every
kind” (v. 11).
sacred records. “And I, Nephi, had also brought the records which were
engraven upon the plates of brass; and also the ball, or compass, which was
prepared . . . by the hand of the Lord” (v. 12).
4. Bearing and
raising children. “And it came to pass that we began . . . to multiply in
the land” (v. 13).
adequate defense. “And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after
the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now
called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us” (v. 14).
using natural materials. “And I did teach my people to build buildings,
and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass,
and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in
great abundance” (v. 15).
7. Worshipping at
temples. “And I, Nephi, did build a temple . . . after the manner of the
temple of Solomon ” (v. 16).
industriousness. “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did cause my people
to be industrious, and to labor with their hands” (v. 17).
9. Providing for righteous leadership. “And
it came to pass that they would that I should be their king. But I, Nephi, was
desirous that they should have no king; nevertheless, I did for them according
to that which was in my power” (v. 18).
To further align these
characteristics with the covenant of the promised land, Nephi immediately
declares that the initial promises of the Lord “had been fulfilled”
(2 Nephi 5:19–20; compare 1 Nephi 2:20–24). The fulfillment of the
prior promises occur in both covenantal senses: blessing Nephi and his
followers for their obedience and cutting the wicked off from God’s presence.
As a result, the Lamanites become the antithesis of the Nephites, being
characterized as rebellious, loathsome, idle, nomadic, mischievous, and
aggressive.8 Nephi concludes his historical account of the establishment of this ideal,
covenant-based society with the general declaration of its ultimate objective: “And
it came to pass that we lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi
‘Prospering’ in Mormon’s Abridgment
Following Nephi’s lead, Mormon
features the covenant of the promised land in his abridgment. He does this
through the frequent repetition of the term land(s) and by giving prominence
to Nephi’s nine characteristics of prospering.9 As will be
seen, for Mormon some characteristics of prospering play a more central role
than others, and not all are required for the Nephites to be considered in
compliance with the covenant. Mormon’s abridgment is more complex and
sophisticated than what a formulaic application of the characteristics might
imply. Nevertheless, Nephi’s characteristics of prospering permeate Mormon’s
abridgment in both positive and negative senses. They serve as a measure of the
strength of the Nephites’ covenant relationship with God and their moral
distinction from the Lamanites. The rest of this study summarizes Mormon’s use
of Nephi’s concept of prospering to abridge the Nephite records.
1. Obeying God’s law—keeping the
commandments. The quality of personal and group righteousness, as
defined by obedience to the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ, is the focal
point of virtually every major discourse in the abridgment, including those of
King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma the Elder, Alma the Younger, Amulek, Samuel the
Lamanite, and Christ.10 The principle of obedience to divine commandments also provides a consistent
explanation for the success or failure of Nephite military, political, and
social initiatives, and it is regularly the focus of Mormon’s extended
editorials.11 Righteousness is also a key condition for the fulfillment of prophecies, the
realization of gospel blessings, and the reception of spiritual experiences
throughout Nephite history. Clearly, this characteristic of prosperity is
interwoven throughout Mormon’s abridgment and serves as a standard by which
Mormon measures the faithfulness of the Nephites in keeping the covenant of the
2. Practicing domesticated economies. Agriculture and animal husbandry play an important role in Mormon’s abridgment
of the Nephite records, in both positive and negative terms. On the positive
side, abundance of grain and of “flocks and herds” is often mentioned
as a consequence of increased or renewed righteousness.12 During times
of war and oppression, the material resources of the Nephites are often
destroyed or wasted.13 By contrast, the Lamanites are described as living by nondomesticated
practices, for example, by nomadic wandering and hunting “wild beasts”
in the wilderness.14
In the Book of Mormon, material
wealth is frequently, but not universally, connected with prospering.
Consistent with the covenant of the promised land, when wealth is a means to
aid the poor, free the oppressed, comfort the disadvantaged, or strengthen the
church—it is a prime virtue.15 However, as a means of oppression, a source of social stratification, a symptom
of pride and materialism, or an end in itself, wealth is a great evil.16 As a prime example of the corrupting potential of wealth, “priestcraft”—that
is, religious activities for the purpose of “getting gain”—is a
particularly reprehensible evil among the Nephites.17
3. Preserving sacred records. The
need to preserve sacred records, as well as sacred objects such as the Liahona
and the sword of Laban, receives specific mention throughout the abridgment,
especially on auspicious occasions such as the transfer of authority from one
Nephite leader to another.18 Sacred records figure prominently when significant segments of the Nephite
society are reunited and upon the resolution of political, military, or moral
crises.19 The sacredness of records and the necessity of their preservation are the
subject of numerous editorials.20 On one occasion Mormon identifies belief in the sacredness of the records as a
defining feature of Nephite identity, and on another occasion he records that
the wicked people of Ammonihah destroyed the “records which contained the
holy scriptures” as part of a genocidal program (Alma 3:11–12;
During his three-day ministry to
the Nephites, the resurrected Christ makes sure that the Nephites’ scriptural
record is accurate and complete by adding information that had been
inadvertently omitted by prior record keepers and by “expound[ing] all the
scriptures unto them which they had received” (3 Nephi 23:6–14).
Christ also clarifies the scope and purpose of the Nephites’ sacred writing:
Write the things which ye have seen and heard, save it be
those which are forbidden. Write the works of this people, which shall be, even
as hath been written, of that which hath been. For behold, out of the books
which have been written, and which shall be written, shall this people be
judged, for by them shall their works be known unto men. (3 Nephi
4. Bearing and raising children. The importance of bearing and raising children in righteousness finds
expression, on the one hand, in terms of demographic increase and geographic
spread and, on the other, in the care with which families and children are
protected and nurtured by the entire community.21 By contrast,
the loss of children through evil practices and the treachery of their
abandonment are considered to be serious breaches of the moral order.22 The necessity of becoming pure like a child is also mentioned in major Nephite
5. Securing adequate defense. Nephites readily defend their lands, cities, “flocks and herds,”
homes and families, manner of worship, liberties, and all other blessings of
prospering in the promised land. Their doing so is both a moral right and a
covenantal obligation. Nephites regularly risk the loss of individual life in
order to ensure the continuity of the covenant community (e.g., Alma
43–62). Covenants also play a specific role in rallying the Nephites to
defend themselves at crucial times in their history (e.g., Alma 43–45)
and in assuring that the vanquished aggressors preserve the newfound peace at
the end of the conflict (Alma 44:15; 50:36).
Two great threats to Nephite
society that periodically require an armed response include internal
dissension, as manifest by such groups as the Zoramites and the “king-men,”
and external invasion, as undertaken by the Lamanites. Nephite-Lamanite
conflicts are of three general types, each of which is anticipated and
interpreted by the covenant of the promised land. When the Lamanites invade
during times of Nephite righteousness, the Nephites always prevail, usually
with few Nephite and many Lamanite casualties. This outcome is a general
reminder that the covenant identifies the Nephites as the “rulers and
teachers” of the Lamanites (1 Nephi 2:22–23). By contrast, when the
Nephites are weakened by wickedness, Lamanites often succeed in their
aggression, usually with heavy losses on both sides. Lamanite military success
in these cases has the effect of “scourging” the Nephites into
remembrance of their covenant duties.24 Finally,
when the Nephites turn altogether from the covenants by which they have been
protected for a millennium in the promised land, they become the aggressors, “delight
in bloodshed,” and sorrow for the loss of their kinsmen but not for their
own abundant sins. In this condition of abject wickedness, they are swept off
the promised land and are altogether destroyed by the Lamanites (Mormon
It is often the case that Nephite
dissenters or their descendants incite the Lamanites to wage war on their
former “brethren.” Most of the warfare in the century and a half
before Christ’s appearance in the promised land results from unresolved
factional conflicts within Nephite society that are escalated by personal
ambition to civil strife and sedition. The dissensions of the Amlicites,
Zoramites, people of Ammonihah, and king-men follow this model. In an ironic
fulfillment of the covenant of the promised land, it is usually Nephite
dissenters who eventually become the leaders of the Lamanite armies, often by
treachery, in order to foment their hatred of the Nephites.25
The Gadianton robbers are a
particularly heinous example of dissension. They erode Nephite society from
within and without and are motivated primarily by the evil objectives of Satan,
not simply the personal ambitions of conquest, greed, and revenge. The contrast
between following unrighteous personal ambitions and consciously embracing
satanic objectives seems to distinguish “priestcrafts” in the Book of
Mormon from “secret combinations.” The latter organize themselves
according to the “secret oaths and covenants” of Satan and “spread
the works of darkness and abominations over all the face of the land” in
order to bring “the people down to an entire destruction, and to an
everlasting hell” (Helaman 6:25–30). Because of their categorical
opposition to the covenant of the promised land, Mormon credits the “band
of Gadianton” with “the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction
of the people of Nephi” (Helaman 2:13).
6. Constructively using natural materials. The constructive use of natural materials is the characteristic of prospering
least developed in Mormon’s abridgment. A possible reason why Mormon minimizes
this quality of prospering is that it is not as distinctive a characteristic of
covenantal prosperity as many of the others. Fine workmanship serves
materialistic and other evil ends as often as it serves righteous intentions
(e.g., Mosiah 11:8–13; Alma 4:6). Nevertheless, this characteristic is
featured in the narrative as righteous Nephites spread their habitations, after
the Lamanites and Nephites establish a temporary peace, as the Nephites develop
their extended spiritual utopia following Christ’s ministry, and as the
Jaredites realize the benefits of their righteousness.26
7. Worshipping at temples. While
the specific mention of temples in Mormon’s abridgment is not frequent, their
general significance in Nephite society is considerable. Two of the spiritual
high points of Mormon’s abridgment—King Benjamin’s sermon and Christ’s
ministry—take place initially or completely at temples (Mosiah
2:1–7; 3 Nephi 11:1). In a millennial vein, Christ prophesies, quoting
Malachi, that in the last days and as the “messenger of the covenant”
he will “suddenly come to his temple” (3 Nephi 24:1). Temples also
seem to distinguish the central cities of the Nephites, are an object of the
building activity in times of prosperity (e.g., Helaman 3:9–14), and,
along with synagogues and sanctuaries, are the centers of Nephite worship
(e.g., Alma 16:13).
8. Requiring industriousness. The
importance of being industrious is emphasized in sermons and prophecies;
typifies the lifestyles of righteous priests, generals, commoners, and converts
alike; and is regularly contrasted with the indolence of the Lamanites and
Nephite dissenters.27 The Book of Mormon even classifies the progress of the gospel ministry and the
plan of salvation as “work” or “labor.”28 However,
like the characteristic of the constructive use of natural resources,
industriousness, improperly applied, can lead to pride (Alma 4:6) and economic
stratification (3 Nephi 6:10–14), which undermine the equality and unity
of the covenant community and prepare the society for moral collapse.
9. Providing for righteous leadership. The prime quality
of leadership in the Book of Mormon is righteousness. While not all leaders are
considered prophets, all are expected to keep God’s commandments, exercise
righteous judgment, have compassion for those whom they govern, act in the best
long-term interest of the society, uphold the law, act with justice and equity,
and receive and follow divine inspiration, whether directly through the Holy
Ghost or indirectly through living prophets.
Whether it pertains to society,
church, government, military, or home, the value of righteous leadership in the
narrative cannot be overstated. King Benjamin stresses it in his valedictory
sermon (Mosiah 2). Concerned about the wickedness of members in the newly
founded church, Alma resigns his position as chief judge to concentrate on his
duties as chief priest (Alma 4:15–20). Lamanite kings who are converted
to the gospel of Jesus Christ risk position, power, and their very lives to act
in a manner consistent with their spiritual conversion (Alma 24).
While it is not the case that the
moral tenor of society in the Book of Mormon automatically reflects that of the
leaders, it is particularly true that Nephite society cannot escape the
negative consequences of evil or ineffective leadership. Because of the impact
of one evil despot (King Noah), the Nephites redefine their polity, adopting
judgeship to replace kingship, which had served the society well for several
hundred years (Mosiah 23, 29). General Moroni threatens chief judge Pahoran
with overthrow because Moroni perceives him to be weak and indifferent to the
society’s fundamental needs. Then, when Moroni understands the true condition
of Nephite political instability, he restores order to the government before
successfully defeating the invading Lamanites (Alma 60–62). The
successive assassination of judges at the time of Helaman signals a systemic
eroding of Nephite society from within (Helaman 1–4). In stark contrast
to the general righteousness of Nephite leaders, Mormon’s abridgment also
includes examples of evil, treacherous, uncaring, and ambitious leaders.29
A striking example of how Mormon
integrates the complementary characteristics of prospering into his abridgment
involves his extended editorial lament on the natural depravity of mankind
(Helaman 12), which is inserted between his accounts of the largely frustrated
ministries of Nephi, the son of Helaman (Helaman 5–11), and of Samuel the
Lamanite (Helaman 13–15). In this brief but poignant commentary, Mormon
identifies the conditions of prosperity—material abundance, wealth,
adequate defense, peace, safety, welfare, happiness—that the Nephites
have taken for granted or perverted, thus placing them in a position of
spiritual and temporal jeopardy (Helaman 12:1–3). That Mormon mentions “prospering”
three times in the enumeration of this list suggests that he intends his
commentary to be understood in terms of the covenant of the promised land.
Interestingly, Mormon omits from his list the characteristics of prospering
that are more difficult to pervert—obedience to God’s commandments,
preservation of sacred records, temple worship, and righteous leadership.
Mormon then identifies various antitheses of prosperity—foolishness,
vanity, evil, iniquity, boastfulness, slothfulness, pride, disobedience,
ingratitude, and rebelliousness—that characterize those who have broken
the covenant (vv. 4–5). The point here is that prosperity in the Book of
Mormon is a unified concept, not a collection of disparate qualities. Mormon
testifies that those who feel that they can selectively emphasize certain
qualities and ignore others are not keeping the spirit of the covenant and
cannot qualify for its blessings.
Continuing his extended
commentary on the consequences of disobedience, Mormon next uses the terms of
the covenant of the promised land in an unfavorable comparison between “children
of men” and “dust of the earth” (Helaman 12:7–19). In this
comparison, Mormon asserts that ‘dust’ (i.e., the most insignificant component
of ‘land’) is more worthy of God’s blessings than ‘man’ because ‘dust’ is more
obedient to God’s commandments. Interestingly, the various ways by which Mormon
illustrates the obedience of earth to the commands of God (e.g., earthquakes,
convulsions, tsunamis, and landslides) foreshadow the ways that Nephite lands of
promise are destroyed by God prior to Christ’s appearance, in fulfillment of
prophecy and in accordance with the curse for disobedience connected with the
covenant of the promised land (compare 1 Nephi 12:1–5 and 3 Nephi
8–9). Finally, Mormon identifies a special power of the earth—to
hide the treasure of evil men—as the antithesis of prosperity, which
promises material sufficiency to the obedient.30 As a dire
warning to those who persist in their rebellion against God, Mormon twice
invokes the ultimate curse of the covenant—namely, that the disobedient
will be cast out of God’s presence (Helaman 12:21, 25). He also promises that
the penitent and obedient will be saved through God’s grace (vv. 22–24).
While Mormon’s abridgment of the
large plates is not consumed by an attention to the Nephites’ prospering in the
land of promise, the foregoing summary has shown that prospering is a major
theme in his historical narrative. Using frequent repetition of the covenant
concept and pervasive use of its particular characteristics, Mormon crafts a
sacred narrative that is consistent with the covenants by which God established
a relationship with Nephi and distinguished his followers in the promised land.
The resulting text illustrates a detailed understanding of the Nephite
covenants of salvation and the commitment on the part of its writers to
interpret Nephite history accordingly.
Even though Nephi’s
aforementioned characteristics of prospering are individual commandments in
their own right, obedience to the letter of the law does not, of itself,
satisfy the terms of the covenant. The covenant of the promised land requires a
level of spiritual commitment beyond merely keeping records, building temples,
amassing wealth, and preparing a defense. Numerous examples from Nephite
history document the negative consequences of satisfying only the outward
requirements. To qualify Nephites for covenant blessings, their records had to
be sacred, their wealth used for righteous purposes, their temples devoted to
worshipping God, and their military directed to defend covenant-based
institutions and relationships.
A further implication of Nephi’s
and Mormon’s treatment of this covenant is that the unit of prosperity is the
community as a whole more than its individual members. The narrative indicates
that even during times of righteousness individual Nephites suffered from
poverty, illness, untimely death, physical handicaps, and other ills of
mortality. Faithfulness does not necessarily prevent all individual
misfortunes. Required by the covenant to be conscious of and committed to the
welfare of the entire community, individual citizens, in turn, benefit in large
measure from the virtues and blessings realized by the community as a whole. By
the same token, the wicked portions of Nephite society do not necessarily
render the entire society susceptible to the covenant’s curse, particularly if
concerted efforts are made by the rest of the community and its leaders to stem
the spread of evil. Unfortunately, when the Nephite society as a whole turns
from the covenant, the few righteous who remain also suffer collaterally from
its curse (e.g., Mormon 8).
This study reveals a degree of
conscious intentionality on the part of the principal authors of the Book of
Mormon. Given the detailed and systematic correspondence between their
respective accounts, Nephi and Mormon seem to be aware of and committed to
achieving the Lord’s objectives for their writing because of their rigorous use
of all the historical sources, interpretive skills, spiritual gifts, and
literary conventions at their disposal. This clear direction and these
committed resources do not make easier the daunting task of writing the
enduring record of their civilization. They do, however, make it possible.
The perspective that Mormon’s
abridgment amplifies and fulfills prescriptions of Nephi’s sacred record is
consistent with Mormon’s explicit statement of editorial intent. In his
extended introduction to the abridgment, Mormon reviews how he has decided to
append the small plates of Nephi in their entirety to his abridgment of the
large plates, even though he has just completed an abridgment from the large
plates that covered the same time period. Reminding future readers of the
special contents of Nephi’s small plates, Mormon explains,
And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because
of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of
them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been
prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as
go beyond this day must surely come to pass—wherefore, I chose these
things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall
take from the [large] plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of
the things of my people. But behold, I shall take these plates, which contain
these prophesyings and revelations, and put them with the remainder of my
record, for they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my
brethren. (Words of Mormon 1:4–6)
suggests that the sacred contents of Nephi’s small plates serve Mormon as an
interpretive framework by which he abridges the voluminous records of the
Nephites. The present study illustrates one of many possible connections
between Nephi’s verbatim account and Mormon’s abridgment.31
The concept of prospering, as
developed within the context of the covenant of the promised land, is one key
to understanding the Book of Mormon narrative as crafted by its major writers.
This perspective suggests that the more empirical contents of the text are as
essential to its overall meaning as are its more patently spiritual contents.
Seen in this light, no secular or purely descriptive contents exist in the
narrative, only those “which are pleasing unto God” (1 Nephi 6:5).
Finally, this study demonstrates one way that a sacred
history may be distinguished from that which has primarily mundane or merely
scholarly value. The sacredness of the Book of Mormon narrative derives not only
from the spiritual value of particular contents, but also, and perhaps more
importantly, from the conscious crafting of these contents into a coherent
narrative, in accordance with a divinely revealed perspective. That is, a
sacred history like the Book of Mormon can be seen as a narrative whose
structure is defined by divine covenants and whose contents amplify the eternal
purposes of those covenants.
The point of view of the present
study is that the concept of prospering is revealed by God to the founding
prophet of a righteous civilization in the context of a divine covenant that
defines the special identity of his people and ensures, in a qualified manner,
their longevity and eventual salvation. Nephi, in turn, uses the covenant to
make sense of his own ministry and of the society that he has founded.
Following Nephi’s lead, Mormon crafts the sacred history of his people
consistent with this divine focus.
1. Robert Alter, The Five
Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W.
Norton, 2004), 158 n. 1, also 77 n. 2, 160 n. 16, 207 n. 6, 222 n. 7; and
Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 47 n. 1, 105 n. 2.
2. Meir Sternberg, The Poetics
of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), e.g., 321–41. See also
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,
trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968),
3–23; and Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New
York: Basic Books, 1981), 114–30.
3. For example, the first quoted
speeches of Sarah and Rachel involve their respective childlessness, a central
theme of both their lives (Genesis 16:2; 30:1–2); the young Joseph’s
first words in Genesis focus on the prophetic quality of his dreams, a key to
his saving not only his own life but also the Abrahamic lineage and the lives
of many Egyptians (Genesis 37:5–11; 41:1–45); and Ruth’s first
explicit speech act sets in motion a series of events that culminates in her
becoming the maternal ancestor of King David (Ruth 1:14–16;
4:13–22); the first specific recorded actions of the patriarch Abraham
reveal his abiding desire to do God’s will, the central quality of his life
(Genesis 12:1–9); Rebekah’s first recorded actions and sayings fulfill
the fervent prayer of Abraham’s servant in anticipation of her critical role of
preserving Abraham’s patriarchal lineage (Genesis 24:12–28); and the
first explicit actions of Moses in the biblical narrative liberate from
oppression two of his kinsmen, prefiguring his more expansive biblical role
with the house of Israel (Exodus 2:11–13).
4. Lehi prays on behalf of the
people of Jerusalem, and Nephi pleads for God to soften his heart so that he
can accept the inspired direction of his father (1 Nephi 1:5; 2:16).
5. Alter, Art of
Biblical Narrative, 92–95, discusses the interpretive value of
terms and themes that are frequently repeated in the biblical narrative. It is
instructive in this regard that land(s) is repeated 164 times and people an additional 183 times in the books of 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi, making them among
the most frequently repeated nouns in Nephi’s record.
6. 2 Nephi 1:20; 4:4; see Jarom
1:9–10; Mosiah 1:7, 17; 2:22; Alma 36:1, 30; 38:1; 48:15, 25; Helaman
4:13–15; 12:1–2; 4 Nephi 1:7–11. In addition, paraphrases of
the covenant of the promised land abound in the text.
7. Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant:
The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press,
8. Each of these qualities
directly contrasts with those listed above as being indicative of Nephi’s
people prospering after their separation from the Lamanites. Compare 2 Nephi
5:19–26 with 2 Nephi 5:10–18 and 1 Nephi 2:20–24.
9. Mormon uses land(s) 1,024 times in his abridgment (Mosiah 1 to Mormon 7).
10. Mosiah 2–4;
12–16; 18; Alma 5, 9–13, 32–34; 38–42; Helaman
13–15; 3 Nephi 11–18.
11. E.g., Mosiah 11; 19–21;
Alma 4:3; 59:12; Helaman 4:12–13; 12.
12. E.g., Mosiah 21:16; Alma
1:29; 4:4–6; 62:29; Helaman 6:12; 3 Nephi 3:22; 6:1–2.
13. E.g., Mosiah 7:22; Alma
14. E.g., Enos 1:20; Alma 22:28;
31:3; 3 Nephi 4:2, 18–20.
15. E.g., Mosiah 4:24–26;
Alma 1:24, 27; 4:13; 35:9; 4 Nephi 1:3.
16. E.g., Alma 1:16;
4:6–12; 17:14; Helaman 4:12; 6:12–17, 39; 3 Nephi 6:12–15;
17. E.g., 2 Nephi 26:29; Alma
1:12–16; 11:3–20; 30:35; Helaman 7:21; 4 Nephi 1:26; Mormon
18. E.g., Mosiah 1:3–16;
22:14; Alma 37; Helaman 3:13–15; 3 Nephi 1:1–2; Mormon 1:1–4.
19. E.g., Mosiah 8:5–19;
22:13–14; 28:10–20; Alma 63:1, 12–13; Helaman 3:13–16;
3 Nephi 2:8–9; 5:18–19.
20. E.g., 1 Nephi 6; 9; 19; Words
of Mormon; 3 Nephi 26:6–8.
21. E.g., Mosiah 2:5; 9:9; 23:20;
Alma 43:9, 45; Helaman 6:12; 11:20–21; 3 Nephi 17; 18:21; 19:1; 22:13; 4
22. E.g., Mosiah 19:11–24;
26:1–4; Alma 2:25; 3:1–2; 14:8; 3 Nephi 1:29–30; Mormon
4:14–21; Ether 14–15.
23. E.g., Mosiah 3:18–21; 3
Nephi 17; Moroni 8.
24. 1 Nephi 2:24; compare Alma
4:3; 59:12; 60:15–17; Helaman 4:12–13.
25. E.g., Alma 43:4–7;
46–48; 52; Helaman 1:14–34.
26. Helaman 3:6–9;
6:11–13; 4 Nephi 1:7–9; Ether 10:22–28.
27. E.g., Mosiah 2:12–18;
9:11–12; 10:5; 11:1–6; 18:24–26; 27:5; Alma 1:3, 26;
17:14–15; 24:18; 47:36; 48:12; 62:29; Ether 10:22.
28. E.g., 1 Nephi 14:7; 2 Nephi
3:7–8; 27:20–34; 28:5–6; Alma 17:16; 26:3, 8; 28:14;
30:33–34; 42:13; 3 Nephi 21:7–9, 26–28; Moroni 9:6.
29. E.g., King Noah (Mosiah 11),
Nehor (Alma 1), Amilici (Alma 2), Korihor (Alma 30), Zerahemnah (Alma
43–44), and Amalickiah (Alma 46–49).
30. Helaman 12:18–19. In
addressing the covenant of the promised land in his discourse to rebellious
Nephites, Samuel the Lamanite mentions this power of the earth to “hide”
material treasures from wicked humans (Helaman 13:18–21).
31. Steven L. Olsen, “Prophecy
and History: Structuring the Abridgment of the Nephite Records,” Journal of
Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006): 18–29, argues this thesis
by comparing homologous structures of prophecy and narrative in the Book of