The Covenant of the Promised Land:
Territorial Symbolism in the Book of Mormon

The Covenant of the Promised Land: Territorial Symbolism in the Book of Mormon

Steven L. Olsen

In the Book of Mormon, the four most frequently used nouns
by far are people,
which appears 1,774 times, God (1,681 times), Lord (1,578 times), and land(s) (1,360 times).1 While frequency per se is not a sure indicator of literary significance, it is
symptomatic of it. Robert Alter, for example, has demonstrated the interpretive
value of Leitwörter—frequently
used words and phrases that identify main themes—in the narrative
portions of the Hebrew Bible.2 By examining the frequency, placement, and contexts of the term land(s) in the Book of Mormon, I hope to illuminate how the authors intended this
sacred text to be read and understood. Thus this study concerns the intentional
crafting of the historical narrative in light of its literary symbolism rather
than its cultural geography.

That the Book of Mormon is more concerned with spiritual
than temporal realities is supported by statements of its principal authors.
For example, Nephi states repeatedly that he records nothing on plates except
that which is sacred, focused on Christ, pleasing unto God, and of eternal
worth.3 Likewise, in his preface to the surviving abridgment of the Nephite records,
Mormon observes that after he had completed a substantial portion of his
abridgment (i.e., of the sacred records of the spiritual leaders of the
Nephites from father Lehi to King Benjamin), he “searched among the
records which had been delivered into [his] hands, and [he] found these plates
[i.e., Nephi’s small plates], which contained this small account of the
prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of
the words of Nephi” (Words of Mormon 1:3). He specifically states that the
contents of this record pleased him “because of the prophecies of the
coming of Christ” (v. 4), as well as other prophecies. Of these things he
testifies, “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” (v. 4). In a wonderfully succinct
purpose statement, Mormon then outlines the framework for his remaining

1. Interpretive focus: “I chose these things [i.e., the
prophecies and revelations of Nephi’s record], to finish my record [i.e., the

2. Primary source material: “[The] remainder of my record I

3. Editorial strategy: “I cannot write the hundredth part

4. Structure of the finished product: “I shall take these
[small] plates, which contain these prophesyings and revelations, and put them

5. Overall intended effect: “They are choice unto me; and I

6. Principal motivation: “Thus it whispereth me, according
to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. . . . My prayer to
God is . . . that [my people] may once again come to the knowledge of God, yea,

Thus in order to make eternal sense of the historical
records of his people, Mormon adopts the interpretive focus of Nephi’s small
plates and relies on the influence of the “Spirit of the Lord.” I
have illustrated elsewhere Mormon’s use of Nephi’s verbatim account to abridge
the vast records of his people.4 I pursue a similar thesis here:

1. Nephi defines a concept of “land” that focuses his

2. Mormon abridges the Nephite records consistent with Nephi’s

‘Land’ in Nephi’s Small Plates Record

The first uses of land in Nephi’s account
establish the initial spatial context of the story: the “land of Jerusalem”
is Lehi’s immediate spiritual concern in that his revelation of Jerusalem’s
impending destruction motivates his prophetic ministry (1 Nephi headnote).5 A key event early in his record provides Nephi the opportunity to introduce a
central focus of his narrative (1 Nephi 2:16–20). Nephi
had prayed for a divine witness that his father’s dire prophecies concerning
Jerusalem were indeed from God. In response, God softened Nephi’s heart so he
could believe his father’s words. He also blessed Nephi, promising him that he
and his family would be led to a land “choice above all other lands,”
a land “prepared” by the Lord where they would “prosper”
(v. 20). Nephi’s prayer is his first recorded action in the narrative, and God’s
response is Nephi’s first recorded spiritual experience. In his seminal work on
the Pentateuch, Robert Alter shows how first actions and first speeches of
major biblical characters often reveal their personality and define their
principal roles in the story.6 Applying this literary convention to the Book of Mormon, we infer that Nephi’s
account will detail his being divinely blessed in terms of a “land of

As the narrative unfolds, we find that Nephi’s record is
largely devoted to his family’s obtaining, occupying, and prospering in the
promised land. Acquiring the brass plates, recruiting Ishmael’s family, and
outfitting the group with tents, seeds, and other provisions are vital to the
success of this endeavor.7 The perilous journey through the wilderness and over the “great waters”
is replete with miracles, spiritual experiences, and divine guidance (1 Nephi

The Lord tells Nephi that after he obtains the promised land
he will know that it is only by divine assistance that the journey succeeds,
implying that arrival in the promised land is partial fulfillment of God’s
initial promise (1 Nephi 17:12–14). Thus it is fitting that God commands
Nephi to begin the first record of his ministry only after the group has
arrived in the promised land, and it is also fitting that the historical
portion of Nephi’s record, which includes the commandment to begin a second account
of his ministry, ends with the establishment of the society that enables his
followers to prosper in accordance with the divine promise (1 Nephi
19:1–6; 2 Nephi 5). Reinforcing this interpretive emphasis is Nephi’s
repetition of the phrases “land of promise” and “promised land”
twenty-seven times throughout his small plates record.8

In addition to being a primary emphasis in Nephi’s
historical narrative, the promised land is also a focal point in the prophecies
that he includes in his record. While he does not include all of his father’s
prophecies, he acknowledges that Lehi had prophesied that his family “should
be led with one accord into the land of promise” as part of the general
scattering of Israel throughout the earth (1 Nephi 10:13–15). Similarly,
Nephi devotes one-fourth of his own prophetic vision to the future history of
the Nephites and Lamanites in the promised land. Specifically, this part of
Nephi’s vision foretells four large-scale historical events: “wars and
contentions” prior to Christ’s coming, Christ’s ministry among the
survivors of these destructions, four generations of righteousness following Christ’s
ministry, and the eventual annihilation of his people (1 Nephi 12). Nephi also
includes in his record an extended discourse of his brother Jacob, who cites
many prophecies of Isaiah. Jacob mentions three grand purposes for doing so.
The concept of “land” features prominently in two of the three:

And now, my beloved brethren, I have read these things that
ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with
all the house of Israel—that he has spoken unto the Jews, by the mouth of
his holy prophets, even from the beginning down, from generation to generation,
until the time comes that they shall be restored to the true church and
fold of God; when they shall be gathered home to the lands of their
, and shall be established in all their lands of promise.
–2, emphasis added)

Prophecies from Nephi’s record concerning the land of
promise in the last days occasionally refer to that land as “Zion,”
identifying the establishment of Zion as preparatory to the millennial “kingdom
of the Lamb,” a Nephite metaphor of salvation (1 Nephi 13:37). Finally, at
the end of his writing, Nephi reprises the major prophetic themes that have
occupied his ministry, including that of the promised land. Through Nephi, God
states, “And it shall come to pass that my people, which are of the house
of Israel, shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions; and my
word shall also be gathered in one. And I will show unto them that fight
against my word and against my people, who are of the house of Israel, that I
am God, and that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed
forever” (2 Nephi 29:14).

In short, the prophecies
included in Nephi’s record place Lehi’s family squarely within the prophetic
tradition of the house of Israel. They identify Lehi’s descendants as among
those who would be scattered throughout the world and divinely led to an
alternative land of promise. The possession of a promised land also links Lehi’s
family to Abraham, to whom God had promised a choice land as a

•   sign of an

•   symbol of an

•   metaphor of salvation.

The formal terms of the covenant of the promised land in
Nephi’s writings further explicate these three spiritual roles. The covenant
itself is often repeated in Nephi’s record: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my
[God’s] commandments, ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not
keep my commandments, ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi

In its formal expression, the covenant consists of two
clauses of two phrases each. The first phrase in each clause, called the antecedent,
identifies the essential condition of keeping the covenant, that is, obedience
to God’s commandments. The second phrase in each clause, called the consequent,
predicts the contrasting results, that is, blessings for obedience (prospering
in the land) and curses for disobedience (being cut off from God’s

Dissecting the structural logic of this covenant, we find
that the two antecedents exist in direct opposition to each other, while the
two consequents exist in an interpretive progression. That is, the consequent
of the second clause (“cut off from God’s presence”) helps to define
by negation the first clause (“prosper”) by introducing a new but
related term. In short, the covenant of the promised land defines the concept
of “land” as the temporal symbol of the presence of God among his
people and “prosper” as a temporal representation of God’s quality of
life. In essence, the covenant promises that those who obey God’s commandments
will realize in mortality an approximation of God’s life in heaven and will
eventually attain the literal presence of God and enjoy the full measure of
eternal life. By contrast, those who turn from the covenant will be cut off
from God’s presence and forfeit his heavenly protection. That is, they will
live on earth as other, noncovenant groups, and in the next life they will be
eternally separated from God. Occupying the promised land is the first step in
the Nephites’ fulfilling the terms of this divine covenant.

Formal logic also reveals additional insight about the
antecedents of the two phrases as conditions or qualifications of the promised
blessings. That the two antecedents are in direct contrast to each other means
that they serve as necessary, not sufficient, conditions of the consequences.
That is, while obedience to God’s commandments is necessary to receive the
promised blessings, it is not by itself sufficient to guarantee receipt of
those blessings. While obedience is certainly necessary to receive the
blessings of a covenant, other conditions are equally essential, for example, a
righteous desire to serve God, a willingness to endure in faith to the end, a
commitment to follow additional promptings of the Holy Ghost, and so on. In addition,
some earthly circumstances—debilitating accidents and diseases, the evil
consequences of others’ actions, and the circumstances of life beyond one’s
control, to name a few—may limit the degree to which a person might
prosper in mortality, in spite of his or her complete obedience to God’s
commandments. Thus the structure of the covenant of the promised land helps us
understand the nature of its promised blessings and the conditions whereby the
blessings are promised.

The covenant’s explicit blessing, “prosper in the land,”
pervades Nephi’s record.10 Consistent with Nephi’s general literary practice of following his father’s
lead, Nephi has Lehi initially define the concept of prospering in his final
blessing of his posterity (2 Nephi 1:9, 20, 31) and then expands and refines
the concept as he concludes the narrative portion of his record with the
account of his establishing a separate ideal society in the land of Nephi (2
Nephi 5). Here he lists nine defining characteristics of their society and
twice associates these characteristics with prospering. They include obeying
God’s law, practicing domesticated economies, preserving sacred records and
objects, bearing and raising children, securing adequate defense,
constructively using natural materials, worshipping at temples, being
industrious, and providing for righteous leadership (vv. 10–18).

Immediately following this listing, Nephi twice states that
the “words of the Lord had been fulfilled,” restating the covenants
from Nephi’s first recorded encounter with God (2 Nephi 5:19–20; compare
1 Nephi 2:20–24). He next defines the Lamanites in contrasting terms so
that they become the antithesis of the Nephites: “cut off” from the
presence of the Lord and culturally, spiritually, and politically inferior.
Nephi concludes with a summary of the objective of this covenant-focused
lifestyle: “we lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi

Subsequent writers in the
small plates expanded Nephi’s concept of prospering in describing the Nephites
for the next few hundred years:

The people of Nephi had waxed strong in the land. They observed
to keep the law of Moses and the sabbath day holy unto the Lord. And they
profaned not; neither did they blaspheme. And the laws of the land were
exceedingly strict. . . . And we multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the
face of the land, and became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in
precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in
machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner
of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war. And thus being
prepared to meet the Lamanites, they did not prosper against us. But the word
of the Lord was verified, which he spake unto our fathers, saying that:
Inasmuch as ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land. (Jarom
–9; see vv. 10–12; Enos 1:15–16, 21; Omni 1:5–7)

In summary, Nephi crafts his record in covenant-based terms
using “land” as the symbol of a covenant by which God promises to
protect, sustain, bless, and eventually save his righteous children. Nephi and
subsequent writers in the small plates integrate covenant ideology into every
aspect of their records: historical narrative, scripture citation, social
commentary, doctrinal exhortation, and prophecy. The covenant of the promised
land does not consume all of Nephi’s literary attention, but it is pervasive
enough to be considered a major focus of his writings. The next section of this
paper illustrates the extent to which Mormon incorporates Nephi’s concept of “land”
into his abridgment of the Nephite records.

‘Land’ in Mormon’s Abridgment

From a covenant-based perspective, the geographical details
of Mormon’s abridgment situate the narrative within God’s promises of salvation
as given to Abraham and as renewed through Lehi and Nephi. Thus the territorial
environment also plays a major spiritual role in Mormon’s record.

Mormon’s abridgment identifies dozens of distinct lands,
which were generally named for the leader of the initial settlement group (Alma
8:7).11 Although each contributes to the narrative in its own way, major lands often
existed in paired contrast. At the most general level of Nephite territorial
consciousness, the “land of Jerusalem” (“Holy Land”) was
contrasted with the “isles of the sea,” or with the remainder of the
earth’s landmass.12 The Nephites considered one of the “isles of the sea” to be the “promised
land,” the place to which God had led them. Most generally, the promised
land was divided between the “land northward” and “land
southward,” also called Mulek and Lehi, respectively (Helaman 6:10). The
major divisions of the land southward were the “land of Nephi” and
the “land of Zarahemla.” In addition, the most northern portion of
the land southward, called Bountiful, was adjacent to Desolation, the most
southern portion of the land northward (3 Nephi 3:23).13

While other named lands are part of the land southward,
Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful provide the primary geographical focus for the
millennium-long narrative of Nephite occupation of the promised land. Those
three lands relate to one another chronologically from first to last and
geographically from south to north. The land of Zarahemla is north of the land
of Nephi and is occupied after continued settlement in Nephi becomes untenable
(Omni 1:12–15). Similarly, the land of Bountiful is north of the land of
Zarahemla and becomes the focus of Nephite civilization after Zarahemla is destroyed
in the catastrophes prior to Christ’s ministry (3 Nephi 8:8, 24). Even though
Zarahemla is rebuilt during the two centuries of righteousness following Christ’s
ministry (4 Nephi 1:7–8), Bountiful remains a principal focus of the
narrative until the Nephites are driven into the land northward by the
Lamanites, who are intent on their destruction.

It is in the land northward that the Nephites, like the
Jaredites before them, are annihilated as a people. Even though the land
northward had been occupied for some time by the Nephites, Mormon includes the
names of only one of its constituent lands and few of its cities, besides the
land and city of Desolation (Mormon 4:14, 19–20; 5:3; 6:2–6). The
virtual elimination from his record of geographical details from the land
northward seems to imply that Mormon does not consider it as important a
settlement area for the purposes of his abridgment as the land southward.

Names given to a land are generally bestowed upon its major
settlement, called a city. For example, the city Nephi is the major settlement
in the land of Nephi, the city Bountiful is the main settlement in the land of
Bountiful, and so on. A city in the Book of Mormon is the primary unit of
territorial identity and control. While towns and villages are also places
where Nephites and Lamanites lived, Mormon includes the names of no towns and
only one village in his entire abridgment, and none of these lesser settlements
is detailed in any way (Alma 21:11). That towns and villages are hardly
mentioned, only once named, and not described at all suggests that they serve the
story merely as de facto places of residence, not as places of great cultural
and religious significance.

By contrast, the way that cities are described in the
narrative reveals their ultimate character. On the one hand, geographic and
demographic size, even in relative terms, is hardly ever a descriptor of
cities and their surrounding lands. Furthermore, the narrative hardly mentions
markets, government buildings, or central squares as urban places of
significance (Helaman 7:10). City walls occasionally figure into the story as
boundaries and fortifications,14 and prisons are mentioned primarily when God’s servants must be miraculously
released from captivity due to the society’s moral decline.15 Houses and
homes are frequently mentioned, but only as places of residence, not as
distinguishing features of the urban environment.16 None of
these features, then, can be said to distinguish or define the essence of a
city in the Book of Mormon, because they are neither the focus of detailed
description nor the locus of essential social action.

On the other hand, the narrative regularly associates cities
with temples, synagogues, and sanctuaries. These religious structures serve as
the primary locus of religious reform, community renewal, leadership
succession, and spiritual conversion. Temples are the only civic structure
specifically mentioned in Nephi’s description of the ideal society (2 Nephi
5:16). They are also the venue for the major discourses of Jacob and Benjamin,
the latter serving also as a ritual of community renewal and of kingly
succession (Jacob 1:17; Mosiah 2:1–7).17 Christ
appears to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful, where he also administers
his gospel, performs miracles, organizes his church, and rehearses the covenant
history of the world (3 Nephi 11–22). While not frequent, the mention of
temples is so central to the story that they must be recognized as the Nephites’
most important civic structures. Synagogues and sanctuaries complement temples
to define an urban landscape focused on religious functions. Although temples,
sanctuaries, and synagogues are often included in complementary lists of
religious edifices, temples seem primarily to serve periodic ritual functions
for the entire community, while synagogues and sanctuaries are used for more
frequent acts of private devotion and congregational worship (Alma 15; 16:13;
21–23; 26:29; 32; Helaman 3:9, 14).

The complementary nature
of lands, cities, temples, synagogues, and sanctuaries suggests that the
territorial environment in the Book of Mormon is given meaning not by
statistical, material, and secular criteria, but by spiritual considerations.
Indeed, equating cities with places of worship implies that cities and their
associated lands are identified in the Book of Mormon primarily as ceremonial
centers.18 Even when cities are the prime locus of military conflict, social disintegration,
and physical devastation, Mormon places these catastrophes in a spiritual
context, not a scientific, secular, political, or humanistic one.19 In sum, while the concept of “land” has political, economic,
demographic, and social connotations among the Nephites, it is more generally
associated in the Book of Mormon with moral and spiritual significance. Whether
it involves the Jews, Mulekites, Jaredites, Nephites, or Lamanites, “land”
is considered the proper place of human habitation and the locus of their
identity as God’s covenant people.

In this sense, “land”
contrasts with “wilderness.” While the Book of Mormon usually
distinguishes individual lands by names and relative locations, it includes the
names of only two areas of wilderness (Alma 2:37; Ether 14:3–4). While
the word land appears frequently in the plural, wilderness never does. Furthermore, wilderness areas are
generally described as being “dark and dreary,” associated with
trials and afflictions, inhabited by “wild and ravenous beasts,” and
characterized by human wandering and death.20 Rather than
being equivalent to a desert (an environmental wasteland),21 wilderness connotes
territory that is not properly settled—that is, not distinguished by and
ordered for intentional, traditional, and meaningful occupation by a covenant people.
In short, in the Book of Mormon the concept of “wilderness” seems to
be the antithesis of “land,” the former being undifferentiated,
disordered, savage, and residual space that is not suitable for proper
habitation within the covenant-based society of the Nephites.

Nearly half of the fifty
instances of the term prosper(ed) in Mormon’s abridgment occur in the phrase “prosper(ed)
in the land,” suggesting that (1) “land” is the locus of “prospering”
and (2) “covenant” is the meaningful context of both. Supporting this
notion is the fact that this phrase and the formal terms of the covenant occur
at crucial junctures in Mormon’s abridgment, such as times of moral renewal,
social crisis, and transfer of power.22

While not all the contents of
Mormon’s abridgment can be explained in terms of Nephi’s concept of prospering,
the nine characteristics of prospering pervade the abridgment so thoroughly as
to suggest that the correspondence between the two accounts is intentional and
foundational. Indeed, the covenant of the promised land as introduced in Nephi’s
account operates as a basic principle for selecting and organizing the material
for Mormon’s abridgment. The nine characteristics serve as a measure of the
strength of the Nephites’ covenant relationship with God and help define their
moral distinction from the Lamanites.23 A further
connection between the concept of prospering and the abridgment appears in
Mormon’s truncated description of the utopia following Christ’s ministry among
the Nephites. The table below shows the degree of correspondence between the
distinctive features of this ideal society (4 Nephi 1:1–23) and the
characteristics of prospering recorded by Nephi (2 Nephi 5:10–18). As
will be noted, Mormon was not slavish to the precise wording of the latter;
nevertheless, the degree of correspondence is noteworthy. To reinforce this
connection, Mormon specifically mentions prospering three times in his brief
exposition of the ideal society (4 Nephi 1:7, 18, 23).24

Features of Utopia (4 Nephi)
  Prospering (2
Nephi 5)


the penitent are baptized and given the Holy Ghost (v. 1)


obedience to God’s law (v. 10)

there are no contentions (vv. 2, 13, 15, 18)


obedience to God’s law (v. 10)

the people have all things in common (v. 3)


sharing wealth (v. 11)

peace prevails in the land (v. 4)


adequate defense (v. 14)

miracles wrought in the name of Jesus (vv. 5, 13)


obedience to God’s law (v. 10)

cities are rebuilt (vv. 7–8)


build cities and temple (vv. 15–16)

people multiply quickly (v. 10)


bear and raise children (v. 13)

marriages are performed (v. 11)


bear and raise children (v. 13)

people observe the commandments of God (v. 12)


obedience to God’s law (v. 10)

cannot be a happier people (v. 16)


people live “after the manner of happiness” (v. 27)

a record is kept (vv. 20–21)


sacred records and objects preserved (v. 12)

addition to pervading Mormon’s abridgment through the concept of prospering,
the covenant of the promised land is also abundantly manifest in the prophetic
tradition of the Nephites. Nephi’s prophecies that Mormon is able to witness in
his historical abridgment as coming to their literal and complete
fulfillment—”wars and contentions,” Christ’s ministry,
righteous utopia, and the Nephites’ final destruction—conform precisely
to the covenant of the promised land.25

Prophecies from Mormon’s abridgment that go beyond the
narrative’s historical frame extend the relevance of the covenant to the end of
earth’s temporal existence. The most explicit
summary of these prophecies is uttered by Christ toward the end of his
three-day ministry to the Nephites (3 Nephi 20–21). That these prophecies
are expressed in the context of eternal covenants is evident in his use of the
term covenant(ed) twenty-one times in this brief discourse. The covenant of the promised land is
featured prominently in these prophe­cies. Christ reiterates a familiar
theme in Nephite prophecy: the gathering of Israel in the last days. The
gathering is to occur in two senses: spiritually by means of conversion to the
gospel of Jesus Christ and literally by means of gathering to the lands of
inheritance. The literal gathering of Israel will focus on two centers:
Jerusalem in the Holy Land and the New Jerusalem (or Zion) in the promised
land. In the promised land, the remnant of Israel will join with Gentiles, who
have been gathered in the spiritual sense, to build up the New Jerusalem and
establish Zion. Then, says Christ, “shall the power of heaven come down
among them; and I also will be in their midst” (3 Nephi 21:25). By
contrast, those who reject the gospel of Christ, whether of Israel or the
Gentiles, will be “cut off” and their cities destroyed. Christ
repeats seven times the phrase “cut off” in relation to the wicked as
the consequence of their breaking this covenant. From this perspective, the
millennial kingdom of God will be an urbanized society whose citizens are bound
together by covenant and who enjoy the blessings of eternal life in his literal


This study has shown that
the concept of “land” is central to an understanding of the Book of
Mormon as a sacred, covenant-based record. Indeed, the Nephite story as crafted
by Nephi and Mormon is more about sacred space than sacred time. Its authors are
more attentive to spatial than temporal contexts in fulfilling the book’s
spiritual purposes.

In the Book of Mormon, land is sacred space, being
defined and regulated by covenant. Each dimension of the territorial
environment—lands, cities, places of worship, human migrations, warfare,
natural disasters, social welfare, cultural identity, and so on—finds
meaning in terms of the covenant of the promised land. Lands are identified and
distinguished by their proper settlement and ordering by a covenant people.
Cities are the prime locus of territorial control and meaningful social action
and are distinguished primarily by their sacred places of worship. Cities are
also the primary focus of wars, social disintegration, and natural disasters,
which occur largely when the Nephites break the divine covenant that otherwise
affords them prosperity. Prospering is a comprehensive concept of social well-­being,
as defined by the covenant of the promised land. Mass migrations from one land
to another are motivated primarily by spiritual criteria. The symbolism of the
territorial environment also helps to define the Nephites’ prophetic
traditions. Ultimately, land in the Book of Mormon is the symbol of a covenant
relationship with God: a sign of his protective presence and promise of his
saving grace.

From this perspective, Moroni’s abridgment of the Jaredite
record serves as another witness to the significance of the covenant of the
promised land. Moroni emphasizes the promised land as the destination of this
band of exiles from the “great tower” (e.g., Ether 2; 6). As prior
occupants of the promised land, the Jaredites live for more than twenty-seven
generations in terms similar to those of the Nephites. Obedience to God’s
commandments produces prosperity, and wickedness results in the disintegration
and eventually the total annihilation of their civilization. Since Moroni
abridges the plates of Ether at the direction of his father, one can imagine
that he does so according to Mormon’s covenant-based orientation.

In the end, the promised land in the Book of Mormon is best
understood as more than a specific location where ancient civilizations lived
and died. Although the Jaredites, Mulekites, Lamanites, and Nephites occupied
actual physical locations, the meaning of “promised land” is not
exhausted by what geographers call “geometric space,” or empirically
specified and fixed locations on the earth’s surface. Rather, the Book of
Mormon equates the promised land with the places where sacred covenants govern
human relations and where the blessings of the gospel are realized by
covenant-based communities. In short, the Book of Mormon equates “promised
lands” as the places where the plan of salvation is manifest in the lives
of a covenant people. This sense of “promised land” is consistent
with what geographers call “existential space,” that is, locations
whose significance is defined primarily by experiential, not empirical and
scientific, criteria.26 For this reason the effective center of Nephite civilization could shift
successively from Jerusalem to “the land of our first inheritance” to
the lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful without causing a spiritual
catastrophe among the Nephites. In short, Book of Mormon authors identify their
lands as “promised” on condition of the spiritual lives of the
residents. When the people’s lives and relationships exemplify covenant
characteristics (those circumscribed by the general concept of “prospering”),
the land is considered “promised” (a source of eternal blessing).
When covenant conditions do not prevail among the people, the inevitable curses
of the covenant characterize their communities and the associated landscape.27

This study claims that the Book of Mormon was consciously
crafted by ancient prophets in a manner consistent with explicit directions
they had received from God. Nephi’s first recorded spiritual experience focused
his attention on a covenant-based relationship with God defined in part by the
symbolism of land. Nephi’s later visions, revelations, and experiences are best
understood within that covenant framework, which was the foundation of the divinely
directed record of his ministry.28 Nephi’s covenant-based record integrates God and man, heaven and earth, and
eternity and time into a compelling drama of salvation, of which his record is
a small but essential part. Mormon understood the eternal relevance of Nephi’s
record in interpreting the vast archive of the Nephites, and he fashioned his
abridgment accordingly. The result is one of the few books to which God himself
could witness, “It is true” (Doctrine and Covenants 17:6).


paper is an expanded version of the one given at the 2010 Laura F. Willes
Center Symposium, held at Brigham Young University on 17 September 2010. This
symposium, the theme of which was “Symbolism in the Scriptures,” was
sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.

1. R. Gary Shapiro, comp., An
Exhaustive Concordance of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl
of Great Price
(Salt Lake City: Hawkes, 1977), s.v. “land(s),”
“people,” “God,” “Lord.”

2. Robert Alter, The Art of
Biblical Narrative
(New York: Basic Books, 1981), 88–113.

3. 1 Nephi 6:3–6;
19:6–7; 2 Nephi 5:32; 25:7–8, 26.

4. Steven L. Olsen, “Prophecy
and History: Structuring the Abridgment of the Nephite Records,” Journal of
Book of Mormon Studies
15/1 (2006): 18–29.

5. This context is also vital
for the rest of the story because of its correspondence with the traditional
Jewish concepts of the territorial environment: “The Land of Israel is
situated in the center of the world, and Jerusalem in the center of the Land of
Israel, and the Holy Temple in the center of Jerusalem.” Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim 10, cited in Towards the
Eternal Center: Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple
, catalog of an
exhibition at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1996,
p. 6.

6. 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. 15, 207 n. 6, 222 n. 7), and
Alter, The
David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel
York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 47n (v. 5), 105n (v. 26).

7. 1 Nephi 4:14; 7:13–15;
8:1; 16:11–12.

8. Shapiro, Exhaustive
, s.v. “land.”

9. Compare 1 Nephi
4:14–15; 2 Nephi 1:9. This wording
is repeated in whole or in part to justify Nephi’s slaying of Laban and to
focus Lehi’s final blessing of his posterity, two pivotal events in Nephi’s
record. The phrase “cut off” has strong covenant connotations,
associated with the covenant’s curse. Its use in the Book of Mormon is
consistent with the covenant of the promised land and appears frequently
throughout the Book of Mormon in covenant-related contexts. See Shapiro, Exhaustive
, s.v. “cut.”

10. See Steven L. Olsen, “Prospering
in the Land of Promise,” FARMS Review 22/1 (2010):
229–45, for a more detailed treatment of the concept of prospering as it
is introduced in Nephi’s record and as it pervades Mormon’s abridgment. The
main points of this study are summarized here.

11. Mormon uses land(s) 1,024 times in his abridgment (Mosiah 1 to Mormon 7).

12. The term Jerusalem appears liberally throughout the Book of Mormon and is treated with a great
deal of ambivalence in the narrative, that is, as the traditional holy place of
the house of Israel and as the wicked place that was destroyed by invading Babylonians
at the time of Lehi’s exile. By contrast, the phrase “isles of the sea”
appears only in Nephi’s writings (1 Nephi 19:10, 12, 16; 21:1, 8; 22:4; 2 Nephi
8:5; 10:8, 20–21; 29:7). A corresponding ambivalence accompanies this
phrase and its equivalents. On the one hand, “isles of the sea” are
estranged from the holy city of Jerusalem, but the particular “isle”
that the Nephites occupy was specially prepared for them by God as an
alternative “promised land.”

13. Bountiful and Desolation are
likely exceptions to the general naming pattern of Nephite lands and cities.

14. For example, 1 Nephi
4:4–5, 24–27; Mosiah 9:8; Alma 53:4–5; 62:21–26;
Helaman 16:2–7.

15. For example, Alma 8:31;
9:32–33; 14:17–29; 20:2–30 passim; 21:13–15; Helaman
5:21–31; 9:9–14; 10:15–16.

16. For example, 1 Nephi 1:7;
3:11; Mosiah 8:4; Alma 8:1, 20–21; 10:7–10; 19:17–20;
30:56–58; 31:23; 43:45; 58:31; 3 Nephi 19:1.

17. See Hugh Nibley, An Approach
to the Book of Mormon
, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976),

18. Numa Denis Fustel de
Coulanges, The
Ancient City
, trans. Willard Small (1864; repr., New York: Doubleday
Anchor, n.d.), and Paul Wheatley, The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A
Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City
(Chicago: Aldine, 1971), argue that the world’s earliest cities grew out of
ceremonial centers. Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of
Urban Form in Rome, Italy, and the Ancient World
(Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1976), describes the ritual founding and design of
ancient cities that imbued them with metaphysical and cosmogonic significance.
Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, trans.
Rodney Needham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), and Mircea Eliade, The
Myth of the Eternal Return: or, Cosmos and History
, trans. Willard
R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), describe the
symbolic significance of the territorial order in many ancient civilizations.
Steven L. Olsen, “Cosmic Urban Symbolism in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 23/1 (Winter 1983): 79–92, draws explicit parallels between the
territorial environment of these ancient civilizations and that of the Book of

19. The Nephites wage war with
the Lamanites “in memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our
peace, our wives, and our children” (Alma 46:12; see chaps. 43–62).
All of these motivations are extensions of the concept of “prospering.”
Similarly, Helaman 12 is Mormon’s extended lament on the persistent depravity
of man as manifest in Helaman 1 through 3 Nephi 7. Likewise, the heavenly voice
that addresses the survivors of the widespread devastation immediately
preceding Christ’s appearance names the wickedness of those cities as the sole
cause of their destruction (3 Nephi 9).

20. For example, 1 Nephi 5:2;
8:4; 16:20, 35; 2 Nephi 1:24; 4:20; 5:24; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 7:4; 9:2–4; Alma
2:37–38; 16:10; 22:31. See also Shapiro, Exhaustive Concordance,
s.v. “lands” and “wilderness”; and Nibley, An Approach
to the Book of Mormon
, 106–14.

21. Desert does not
appear in the Book of Mormon text outside of the Isaiah passages; see 2 Nephi
8:3; 23:21.

22. For example, Mosiah 1:7, 17;
2:22, 31; Alma 9:13; 36:1, 30; 37:13; 38:1; 48:15, 25.

23. Olsen, “Prospering in
the Land of Promise,” summarizes the pervasiveness of Nephi’s
characteristics of prospering in Mormon’s abridgment and illustrates how the
covenant of the promised land informs such extended editorial asides as Mormon’s
lament on the depravity of mankind in Helaman 12. While relevant to the present
study, this more detailed analysis is not replicated here.

24. I am grateful to Kevin
Neilson for this insight.

25. See Olsen, “Prophecy and
History,” for an exposition of the relevance of Nephi’s prophecies in 1
Nephi 12 to the overall structure of Mormon’s abridgment.

26. For example, “This
central axis of the universe, of the kingdom, the city, or the temple could be
moved to a more propitious site or duplicated whenever circumstances rendered
this desirable, for it was an attribute of existential rather than of
geometrical space.” Wheatley, Pivot of the Four Quarters,

27. For this reason, the land of
Nephi lost its prior status as “promised” once it had been profaned
by the general wickedness of the Nephites during the reign of King Mosiah I
(Omni 1:12–13). Thus the subsequent effort of Zeniff and his followers to
reclaim the land of Nephi was considered “over-zealous” and foolhardy
and eventually led to disaster (see Mosiah 9–22).

28. Steven L. Olsen, “The
Centrality of Nephi’s Vision,” Religious Educator 11/2 (2010):