The Fate of Nephi, the Son of Helaman
Third Nephi begins with an interesting statement about Nephi the son of Helaman. Mormon wrote that he "departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth" (3 Ne. 1:3) and that he "did not return to the land of Zarahemla, and could nowhere be found in all the land" (3 Ne. 2:9). This is reminiscent of a similar passage about Nephi's great-grandfather Alma the younger: "He departed out of the land of Zarahemla . . . and it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of." (Alma 45:18.)2 In Alma's day the church members speculated that he might have been "taken up" by the Lord as was Moses. Although there is no similar declaration in the Book of Mormon about Nephi the son of Helaman, he was certainly a candidate for translation considering the type of life he led and the power of God with which he was endowed.3 Whatever his fate, he entrusted the records and the responsibilities that accompanied them to his son and namesake.
The First Christmas in the New World
In the Old World the events surrounding the birth of Christ were taking place. These would be recorded by the writers of the Gospels and come to be known as the Christmas story. This story has become, along with the accounts of Christ's death and resurrection, one of the best-known episodes in his life. No less dramatic were the happenings on the American continents.4
Several years had passed since Samuel the Lamanite had stood upon the walls of Zarahemla and foretold what would happen as the birth of the Savior drew near. Ironically, while the prophecies were "fulfilled more fully" the people began to doubt them even more. (3 Ne. 1:4-6.) Finally, in a way reminiscent of evil Haman's actions in the book of Esther, the wicked set a day for the death of the believers if the sign accompanying the birth of Jesus (a day, a night, and a day that should appear as one day) were not fulfilled. Nephi, sorrowed by the wickedness of the people, went before the Lord in behalf of his band of believers. We are told he prayed all day. As the evening approached, he heard the voice of the Lord: "Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets." (3 Ne. 1:13.)
The mood here is similar to that of the angelic proclamation of "good tidings of great joy" to the shepherds in Judea, and rightly so, for those Nephites who had believed in the words of the prophets would be spared. That night the sign was given, and there was astonishment throughout all the land. The unbelievers saw that their plan to destroy the people of God had failed; now realizing that all which the prophets had said was true and seeing their own murderous nature, they began to fear. When the sun rose in the morning, Satan began trying to deceive the people, but so overwhelming was the power of this sign that for the time being "the more part of the people did believe, and were converted unto the Lord." (3 Ne. 1:22.) Though the conversion may have been genuine at that time, it did not last long. The passing of only three years found most of the people "hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and [they] began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen." (3 Ne. 2:1.)
This slide toward general apostasy had been seen in a small group who believed that since Christ had been born it was no longer necessary to obey the law of Moses. They were most likely a sincere group of believers who had simply misunderstood the scriptures, for they "soon became converted, and were convinced of the error which they were in . . . and did confess their faults." (3 Ne. 1:25.) The law of Moses was indeed fulfilled in Christ, but not until after his death and resurrection.5 When the resurrected Christ later appeared to the Nephites, he told them: "One jot nor one tittle hath not passed away from the law, but in me it hath all been fulfilled." (3 Ne. 12:18.) The old law would be fulfilled only when the higher law of the gospel was given in its place. (3 Ne. 12:19.)
During the first two years after the manifestation of the sign, many Nephites and Lamanites dissented and went into the wilderness to join the Gadianton robbers. These robbers hid in the mountains in caves and secret places; they were responsible for much violence among the Nephites.
The number of people who disbelieved the signs and the coming of Christ increased to such an extent that dissenters seemingly no longer felt the need to flee to the Gadianton robbers but remained with the Nephites and Lamanites. On the surface it is difficult to see how the people could fall so quickly after being converted.6 As mentioned above, this conversion was the result of an outward sign and required no work on the part of the people. They had seen the sign but, for the most part, they did not sustain their faith. Thus Satan was able to blind their minds and harden their hearts until they "began to wax strong in wickedness and abominations." (3 Ne. 2:3.) It should also be recalled that before the sign of the night without darkness they had doubted the other signs even as they had begun to multiply. It is ironic, however, that although they did not believe the sign, "the Nephites began to reckon their time from this period when the sign was given, or from the coming of Christ." (3 Ne. 2:8.) They had previously marked time from when Lehi and his family had left Jerusalem and later from the start of the reign of the judges.7 This is perhaps analogous to the situation in the western world where time is also calculated from the birth of Christ and yet a great number of people do not believe in Jesus as the Son of God.
The Gadianton Threat
No doubt strengthened by the number of dissenters that had joined them and encouraged by the weakening of society that usually attends any apostasy, the Gadianton robbers grew ever bolder.8 They now began attacking entire cities successfully. To defend themselves against this threat, the converted Lamanites joined with the Nephites and were "numbered among" them. (3 Ne. 2:15- 16.) This new combined army was able to achieve some success over the robbers, but this was short lived because of the general wickedness of the Nephitesfor where there is corruption there is also weakness. The Lord's promise to Nephi about his descendants seems to apply in this case: "If it so be that they [the Nephites] rebel against me, they [the Lamanites, or in this case the Gadianton robbers] shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in the ways of remembrance." (1 Ne. 2:24.)
The Nephite society was on the brink of annihilation, or as Mormon put it, "the sword of destruction did hang over them." (3 Ne. 2:19.)
At this point in the record, Mormon inserted a most unusual documenta letter written by Giddianhi, the leader of the Gadianton robbers, to Lachoneus, the governor of the Nephites. This text is interesting because it is one of the few places in the Book of Mormon that provides a glimpse of the so- called "traditions of the fathers" that characterized the groups that opposed the Nephite nation. Another example of the presentation of the alternative tradition is the letter of Ammoron, a Lamanite king, to captain Moroni, written forty-seven years earlier and recorded in Alma 54. A comparison between the two is informative. In both letters there is a request for the surrender of the Nephites (Alma 54:18; 3 Ne. 3:6-7), although in the case of Giddianhi, it is more an invitation to Lachoneus to turn the people over to him and join with him in oppressing them. Both opponents claim that they have been wronged and that they have been unjustly deprived of their "rights of government." (Alma 54:17-18; 3 Ne. 3:10.) Both letters contain a rejection of God (Alma 54:21-22; 3 Ne. 3:2); and finally, both threaten destruction (Alma 54:20; 3 Ne. 3:3- 4).
The differences in the letters demonstrate that in the case of the Gadianton robbers, the Nephites were confronted with an enemy much more sophisticated and dangerous than any previous. Giddianhi's letter mentions oaths and describes his organization as a "secret society" whose works are of "ancient date." (3 Ne. 3:9.) Ancient indeed! Mormon explained that although the Gadianton robbers did not obtain their secret oaths from the twenty-four gold plates of the Jaredites, which had been discovered by an expedition sent by Limhi, they were the same oaths that secret societies have used since the foundation of the earth, for "they were put into the heart of Gadianton by that same being who did entice our first parents to partake of the forbidden fruit." (Hel. 6:26.) The oaths and plans that served as the foundation for this society were hidden up whenever the group was in danger of extinction due to the righteousness of the Nephite nation. (Hel. 11:25.) When the wickedness again allowed the robbers to operate effectively, the old plans and oaths were sought out and the Gadianton robbers returned. (Hel. 11:26.) The oaths were the glue that held the evil society together, the penalty for betrayal being death. This generated a devotion to corruption not found among any previous enemy of the Nephites. An example of this commitment is the fact that even after they were defeated by the Nephites and given a chance at freedom if they would promise to cease murdering, there were some who remained loyal to the Gadianton cause. (3 Ne. 5:5.)
Another difference in the letters is the sophisticated tone of Giddianhi's message. He continually complimented Lachoneus, referring to him as "most noble," praised his "firmness" and his "noble spirit in the field of battle." He claimed to be motivated by a feeling for the welfare of the Nephite leader. All this was intended to entice Lachoneus into selling his people out and joining with the robbers, and it is in striking contrast to the direct boldness of Ammoron's letter. Giddianhi was a "smooth operator," a man who, although apparently well educated, was entirely without conscience and not to be trusted under any circumstance.
A final difference is in the titles of the two leaders. Ammoron was the "king" of the Lamanites, while Giddianhi was the "governor of the secret society of Gadianton." We can in no way be sure that the term "governor" designated in this case an elected official of a democratic society. Yet it does serve to remind us that the Gadianton robbers began as a quasi-political organization (Hel. 2:1-5), and in the mind of its leader still was one. He claimed he was merely trying to recoup the rights of his people.
After examining Giddianhi's letter, it is clear why the Gadianton organization was so dangerous and, in fact, according to Mormon, ultimately "did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi." (Hel. 2:13.) They were a sophisticated and murderous group who were after both political and economic power.9 It is not difficult to see parallels to the Gadianton robbers in our day. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the rich and powerful drug trafficking organizations that threaten to destroy our society. They use many of the same tactics and have the same goals as the Gadianton robbers.10
As captain Moroni had done before him, Lachoneus showed true courage in his response to Giddianhi's letter. Realizing that his people were in grave danger, he sent a proclamation to all the people and told them to build strong fortifications and gather themselves together with all their animals and provisions. Furthermore, he understood that military preparations were not enough, warning his people: "As the Lord liveth, except ye repent of all your iniquities, and cry unto the Lord, ye will in nowise be delivered out of the hands of those Gadianton robbers." (3 Ne. 3:15.)
As part of the preparations, a "great prophet" who "had the spirit of revelation" named Gidgiddoni was appointed chief captain over the Nephite armies. (3 Ne. 3:19.)11 Although the people had faith in Gidgiddoni as a prophet, they misunderstood his role in leading them. They assumed he could lead them in a successful offensive battle against the Gadianton robbers; however, he explained that the Lord would not help them launch a first-strike attack against their enemies but would only help them defend themselves.12
By the end of the seventeenth year (from the time of the sign of the birth of Christ), the defensive preparations were near completion. Not only had the people gathered themselves together, but perhaps more importantly "they did repent of all their sins; and they did put up their prayers unto the Lord their God, that he would deliver them in the time that their enemies should come down against them to battle." (3 Ne. 3:25.)
Almost a year passed before the armies of robbers descended from the mountains to attack the Nephites and dispossess them of their lands and property. They must have been greatly surprised to find that the Nephites had assembled in a strong defensive position and that the land had been stripped of everything. The weakness of the Gadianton robbers was now exposed: "There was no way that they could subsist save it were to plunder and rob and murder." (3 Ne. 4:5.) They were literally a parasite whose host was no longer providing food.
Giddianhi decided to attack the Nephites despite their great numbers and strong position. The description Mormon gave of the robbers as they approached is unusually detailed and graphic: "They were girded about after the manner of robbers; and they had a lamb-skin about their loins, and they were dyed in blood, and their heads were shorn, and they had headplates upon them; and great and terrible was the appearance of the armies of Giddianhi, because of their armor, and because of their being dyed in blood." (3 Ne. 4:7.)
As this army of robbers advanced, the Nephites fell to the earth in prayer, which caused the robbers to assume incorrectly that they had fallen because of fear. What followed was a horrific battle in which more life was lost than at any time since Lehi had left Jerusalem. (3 Ne. 4:11.) The robbers were beaten and Giddianhi was killed.
At least two and a half years passed before the robbers, led by a man named Zemnarihah, appeared again. This time instead of a direct attack, they tried to lay siege, but the Nephites had stored enough food to last seven years (3 Ne. 4:4) while the robbers had to rely on game hunted in the wilderness. Soon the robbers were "about to perish with hunger" and were losing large numbers of men to the Nephites who were "continually marching out by day and by night, and falling upon their armies." (3 Ne. 4:20-21.)
Zemnarihah saw that continuing the siege was useless and decided to withdraw and take his people north. Gidgiddoni knew of the robber's plan and did not want them to escape, perhaps fearing that they would only wait until they had regained strength and return. He also knew of their weakness because of lack of food and sent his troops out at night to cut off all ways of retreat and surround the robbers. Seeing their predicament, many of the robbers surrendered; those who did not were killed by the Nephites. The fate of the leader Zemnarihah is interesting: "Their leader, Zemnarihah, was taken and hanged upon a tree, yea, even upon the top thereof until he was dead. And when they had hanged him until he was dead they did fell the tree to the earth, and did cry with a loud voice, saying: May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth." (3 Ne. 4:28-29.)
This ritual is similar in underlying thought to Egyptian oaths called execration texts. In such texts, the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom ritually cursed their enemies by writing their names on bowls or figures of clay and then smashing them. As they broke the bowls or figures they believed they were destroying the power of those whose names were inscribed thereon. The following is an example of a text written on such a bowl: "All men, all people, all folk, all males, all eunuchs, all women, and all officials, who may rebel, who may plot, who may fight, who may talk of fighting, or who may talk of rebelling, and every rebel who talks of rebellingin this entire land."13
Note that there is a subtle difference in the two ritualsthe Egyptians directly cursed the enemy, while in the Book of Mormon the people asked that they might be strengthened through their righteousness in order that they may destroy the enemy.
The victory over the Gadianton robbers was celebrated joyously. The people praised God for their deliverance, for they realized that he had been the one who had saved them: "'Their hearts were swollen with joy, unto the gushing out of many tears, because of the great goodness of God in delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; and they knew it was because of their repentance and their humility that they had been delivered from an everlasting destruction." (3 Ne. 4:33.)
This passage contains the principle Lachoneus was trying to teach his people and the message Mormon wanted to convey to us when he wrote this section of the Book of Mormon: The only way to combat the kind of wickedness the Gadianton robbers represented is with the strength obtained through personal and collective righteousness. To overcome the evil power of secret oaths we must make sacred covenants with God and abide by them. For example, above I mentioned my belief that traffickers in illegal drugs represent a modern-day example of the Gadianton robbers. The demand for these drugs must be cut off just as the Nephites cut off the food supply of the army of the robbers. This can be done through obedience to the word of God.
The triumph over the robbers was complete; not one escaped. All who were not killed were cast into prison, where the word of God was taught to them. Some converted and covenanted to cease murdering; however, as noted above, some chose to remain loyal to the Gadianton philosophy. These were punished according to the law.
Significantly, Mormon wrote that at this time "there was not a living soul among all the people of the Nephites who did doubt in the least the words of all the holy prophets who had spoken; for they knew that it must needs be that they must be fulfilled." (3 Ne. 5:1.)
This statement implied that any dissenters subsequent to this period would be in willful rebellion against God. The people of the Nephite nation remained together for another three years after the victory over the Gadianton robbers. Apparently they lived off the provisions they had stored.14 This small period of time must have been a golden era, for the people had forsaken their sins and "did serve God with all diligence day and night." (3 Ne. 5:3.)
Mormon and His Book
At this point Mormon interrupted the narrative and inserted an explanation about the sources he was working with and a testimony of his work. These few verses are fascinating because in them Mormon stepped back from his role as editor and discussed that role with the reader. Evidently the three years following the defeat of the Gadianton robbers was a period of great literary activity. With no wars to fight and a large supply of food, the people had time to write about the experiences through which they had just passed. Perhaps these experiences, which Mormon described as "great and marvelous" (3 Ne. 5:8), included the "many signs which had been given" (3 Ne. 5:2) both preceding the birth of Christ (3 Ne. 1:4) and since that time. At any rate, Mormon wrote that his book does not contain "even a hundredth part" of all that happened. He did indicate that "there are records which do contain all the proceedings of this people." (3 Ne. 5:8-9.) He also mentioned a "shorter but true account" written by Nephi. Mormon was here referring to Nephi the son of Nephi, since at this point his remarks seem to be confined to the twenty-five years following the manifestation of the sign of the birth of Christ. This "shorter but true account" given by Nephi the son of Nephi was recorded on the large plates of Nephi and served as the basis for the Book of Mormon's version of what happened during the twenty-five years. (3 Ne. 5:9-11.)
The discussion about his sources led Mormon to testify about his record; this testimony can be best understood when compared to Nephi's statement at the beginning of the small plates. The two have many points in common: the writer or editor (a) declared that he made the plates with his own hand (1 Ne. 1:3; 3 Ne. 5:11), (b) gave a short autobiographical statement (1 Ne. 1:1; 3 Ne. 5:12- 13), (c) briefly stated the source of his informationNephi wrote "I make it according to my knowledge" (1 Ne. 1:3), while Mormon wrote: "Therefore I do make my record from the accounts which have been given by those who were before me, until the commencement of my day; and then I do make a record of the things which I have seen with mine own eyes" (3 Ne. 5:16-17), (d) testified of his recordNephi wrote, "I know that the record which I make is true" (1 Ne. 1:3); Mormon testified in almost the same language "I know the record which I make to be a just and a true record" (3 Ne. 5:18), and (e) mentioned his language (1 Ne. 1:2; 3 Ne. 5:18).15 So many similarities cannot be attributed to mere chance; I believe that these two prophets employed what was a specific Nephite formula for giving testimony. It is difficult to say whether the formula was a literary device or had formed part of the Nephite legal system.
It is interesting that this was the first time in the Book of Mormon, as Mormon compiled it, that he identified himself by name, for though his name appears in the Words of Mormon, that book was written on the small plates of Nephi.16 One might have expected Mormon to introduce himself and testify at the beginning of the record, as did Nephi in the small plates of Nephi; perhaps such an introduction and testimony were found in the first part of the book of Lehi, which constituted the 116 pages of manuscript lost by Martin Harris.
Mormon finished his small personal insertion into the text with a short prophecy regarding Israel. He began by declaring that he was a "pure descendant of Lehi" (3 Ne. 5:20), implying that careful genealogy was kept among the Nephites. Third Nephi 5:21 is a statement of what the Lord had done for Israel in the past. This verse is a wonderful example of parallelism, a poetic device used often in the Old Testament.17 The following arrangement illustrates the poetic structure:
Surely he hath blessed the house of Jacob
and hath been merciful unto the seed of Joseph.
Notice how each unit in the first half of the verse is balanced by a similar unit in the second half. The opening statement is followed by an elaboration and the prophecy concerning each group. The seed of Joseph, a subgroup of the house of Jacob, will again be brought "to the knowledge of the Lord their God." (3 Ne. 5:23.) This must have been especially meaningful for Mormon because the seed of Joseph included the descendants of Lehi. The last three verses of 3 Nephi 5 pertain to the house of Jacob as a whole. Its members will again be made aware of the covenant they have made and will come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. Then they shall be "gathered in from the four quarters of the earth unto their own lands." (3 Ne. 5:26.)
These five chapters demonstrate how splendidly complex the Book of Mormon is. They contain history, prophecy, poetry, drama, and a touch of mystery (what happened to Nephi?). More importantly, their editor, Mormon, constructed them as he did the Book of Mormon as a whole, so that they teach us valuable lessons. We can learn about the significance of the Spirit's help in gaining a strong testimony, the dangers of evil organizations, and, most importantly, the power of righteousness over evil.
- Terrence L. Szink is a doctoral student in ancient Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
- Nephi and Alma in fact led very similar lives. Among other things both were judges (Nephi-Helaman 3:37;Alma HD->- Mosiah 29:42-44), both gave up their judgeship to devote more time to service in the church (Nephi-Helaman 5:1- 4;Alma HD->- Alma 4:20), both were thrown into prison because of their preachings but were miraculously delivered (Nephi-Helaman 5:21-44;Alma HD->- Alma 14:22-28), both were granted great power (Nephi-Helaman 10:5-10;Alma HD->- Alma 8:31), and, finally, weary with the wickedness of their people, both wished for something different than the circumstances in which they found themselves: Nephi wanted to live in the days when Lehi and his family left Jerusalem (Helaman 7:7), and Alma wanted to speak with the voice of an angel (Alma 29:1-3).
- Other Book of Mormon commentators have also suggested that Nephi may have been translated. See Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., compiled by Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-56), 2:107, 110; Sidney B. Sperry, The Book of Mormon Testifies, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), p. 285; Brian Best, ''Nephi, Lehi, and Samuel the Lamanite,'' Ensign (December 1977), p. 51. Daniel Ludlow notes the similarities between Nephi and Alma but does not speculate regarding the fate of Nephi. (A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976], pp. 252-53.)
- Sidney Sperry included verses 4-21 of the first chapter of 3 Nephi in what he entitled ''the American Gospel,'' maintaining that it serves as a prologue to Christ's teachings in the Nephite record in the same way the story of the birth of the Savior is an introduction to the New Testament Gospels. (The Book of Mormon Testifies, p. 286.)
- See Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, pp. 253-54.
- See Sperry, The Book of Mormon Testifies, p. 286.
- For an interesting discussion of the Nephite reckoning of time see John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, and Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), pp. 270-76.
- Hugh Nibley has written insightfully on the problem of the Gadianton robbers. For an interesting evaluation of this society see "The Way of the Wicked," An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1978), pp. 317-36; "Good People and Bad People," Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967), pp. 373- 409.
- Sorenson sees control of trade as both a primary motive and fundamental tactic of the Gadianton robbers; An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, pp. 300-309.
- Recent articles in Time (March 14, 1988) document the seriousness of the problems caused by drug traffickers. According to the article, among other things "70% of all local crimes (in Detroit) are drug related" (p. 21), and 67% of a rising number of murders in Washington, D.C., are due to local drug wars (p. 22). According to Ed Koch, mayor of New York, "the political aim of the drug traffickers is to make addicts of all of us." (P. 20.) Attorney General Edwin Meese said about the efforts by some countries in helping the U.S. stop the supply of drugs, "They are less than fully successful because of intimidation, bribery and corruption." (P. 18.) And finally, Sterling Johnson, a special narcotics prosecutor in New York City, suggests, "Every American better just pray each night that we don't lose [the war on drugs]." (P. 20.)
- See J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962), p. 75, for a discussion of Old Testament prophets involved in military activities.
- See Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, pp. 254-56, for an explanation of the Lord's counsel regarding the waging of offensive war.
- John A. Wilson, "Egyptian Rituals and Incantations," in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 329.
- Not only had the provisions lasted seven years (year 18 to year 25) just as Mormon had said (3 Ne. 4:4), but there were some left over (3 Ne. 6:2).
- D. Kelly Ogden has also noted some of these characteristics in "Answering the Lord's Call," Studies in Scripture, Vol. 7: 1 Nephi to Alma 29, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1987), pp. 17-18.
- See Sperry, The Book of Mormon Testifies, pp. 166-67; Victor L. Ludlow, "Scribes and Scriptures," Studies in Scripture, Vol. 7: 1 Nephi to Alma 29, p. 202.
- For a brief examination of parallelism in the Bible see N. K. Gottwald, "Parallelism," Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), pp. 830-34.
Kent P. Jackson, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 8: Alma 30 to Moroni, 125- 136.