Questions about 2 Nephi 5:21 and 3rd Nephi 2:14-15

2 Nephi 5:21 and 3rd Nephi 2:14-15

Readers of the Book of Mormon sometimes find passages that can be confusing to the modern mind. Knowing that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document is important in analyzing the text. It is vital that we understand the intent of the author, because there are times when a verse interpreted through the lens of the 21st century reader can be misunderstood. By seeing the world through the eyes of the ancients, we can better understand the meaning of the text.

Brigham Young put it this way:

President Brigham Young

President Brigham Young

“Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households” 1

When we examine verses like 2 Nephi 5:21 and 3 Nephi 2:14-15, at first glance some readers assume that the author of the text is racist. In 2 Nephi 5:21 we read, “…as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” The initial reading of the text may cause some to conclude that the moment Laman, Lemuel, and those that left the Lehite colony had an immediate change of skin color.  I do not believe this. There is convincing textual evidence in the Book of Mormon to support my claim that I will address shortly.

Later in 3rd Nephi 2:14-16 we read that the “Lamanites had united with the Nephites (and) were numbered among the Nephites; and their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites; and their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair and they were numbered among the Nephites…” This indicates to me that the Lamanites, because they aligned themselves with the values of the Nephites, became “one” with this tribe. I do not interpret these verses to show that their pigmentation changed in a day. Reading the text through the eyes of those who wrote it helps us to see that from the ancient perspective, the author was illustrating that the Lamanites became acceptable marriage partners in this portion of Nephite history.

I support the idea that Nephi’s use of “skin of blackness” illustrates that the descendants of Laman and Lemuel’s group became an “outsider” group ineligible for intermarriage with “all those who would go with (Nephi)” (2 Nephi 5:6). The authors of 2nd and 3rd Nephi use this phrase to make the assessment that those with this curse were not allowed to marry those who were of the faithful Nephite group. Brant Gardner has shared the idea that, “Colors have social meanings that are quite separate from describing the eye’s perception of light waves. Humans tend to make binary-opposed sets, of which black and white form a classic set. The two “colors” are considered to be opposites of each other. To each of them a social value is attached, with white representing good and black representing bad (with good/bad being similar binary oppositions). Thus, someone may have a “black heart,” but this description is of a quality, not a pigment.” 2

Armand L. Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology at Washington State University, discusses this very issue:

In modern colloquial English (or American) we sometimes speak of people as having “thick” or “thin” skins, without intending any literal dermatological meaning. Attributions of “white” versus “black” or “dark” skins could be read in a similarly figurative manner, as they might have been by Joseph Smith himself (or by his Nephite authors). The reader therefore need not attribute racist intentions when the Book of Mormon uses such terms as dark or filthy versus white or pure, especially when “racial traits,” such as skin color, are not even explicitly mentioned—which is the case most of the time. 3

The Book of Mormon represents a particular culture with a distinctive worldview. Even though it was written for a future audience, it was written in a time and manner that reflected the social constructions of the authors, not those of modern readers. This referential gulf between intent and interpretation explains our tendency to read “skin of blackness” with modern racial overtones. The ancient world was actually quite prejudiced but did not necessarily base such prejudices upon skin color. Their prejudices ran deeper and broader, as Malina and Neyrey explain: “In their assessment of their fellow human beings, elite ancients utilized a set of fixed categories, each with a limited range of descriptive, distinct features. . . . It is important to note that these categories were regularly presented. Invariably, the usual way of thinking was in terms of A/not-A, either/or, for/against, true/false, in/out, heaven/earth—with no middle term. This so-called principle of excluded middle was the prevailing logic.” 4

We see this in the Biblical text where those who wrote the history of the Israelites referred to those outside of the tribe as “goyim” or “those other people”, which is where we get the Biblical word gentile. Each ancient culture usually saw itself as the center of importance and every other culture as an outside influence. The insiders were the “good guys” and those outside of the group were the “others”. As Malina and Rohrbaugh stated:

Each ancient culture usually saw itself as the center of the universe—the norm, the standard, the “good.” Using the logic of the excluded middle, “others” must be bad. This is the origin of the term “barbarian,” which the Greeks frequently used as a generic term for anyone who was not Greek and who was, therefore, inferior.  Israelites also shared this widespread prejudice against “others,” as Malina and Neyrey point out: “First-century members of the house of Israel felt concerning all other peoples the way the Greeks felt about barbarians.” 5

How the ancients used the term

There is evidence to suggest that Nephi’s use of the term “skin of blackness” had more to do with how he viewed the Lamanites: as those who were outside of the covenant and the protection of the God of Israel, than with skin color. In the words of John Tvedtness:

The Qur’an, a seventh-century Semitic text, also speaks of the day of judgment as “the day when some faces will be white and some faces will be black” (3:106). This could be taken as a reference to purity and righteousness on the one hand and impurity and wickedness on the other, or to salvation and damnation, but certainly not to race, since Islam has always been reasonably color-blind.  Modern Arabic still uses the idiom sawwada wajhuhu to describe the act of discrediting, dishonoring, or disgracing a person, but its literal meaning is “to blacken the face” of someone. 6

Textual evidence

Does the Book of Mormon text contain actual events where differentiating race by skin color becomes significant? In order to remove the possibility that our assumptions are affecting our reading of the text, it is important to find an event in the text of the Book of Mormon where the events in the storyline create circumstances where a difference in pigmentation would be obvious. There is one clear example.

The Nephite Captain Moroni, working to free Nephite prisoners from his enemies, sent wine to the Lamanite guards, hoping to intoxicate them (Alma 55). Because they would not accept such a gift from a Nephite, Moroni finds a Lamanite in his own troops, a former guard of the Lamanite king (Alma 55:5). Accompanied by other Nephites, this soldier takes the wine to the guards, and Moroni’s plan is successful. It is noteworthy that Moroni had to “search” for a Lamanite soldier. Had he been “black” in contrast to the “white” of the Nephites, his identity should have been readily apparent!

Of greater significance, on his mission to trick the Lamanite guards, Nephites accompany him (Alma 55:6-8). The author does not tell us how many Nephites went with this Lamanite to deliver the wine to the guards, but let’s just say that there were five.  If the “white” and “black” with respect to the Nephites and the Lamanites were literal, wouldn’t the Lamanite guards question one “black” Lamanite coming to them accompanied by five “white” Nephites? A difference in the skin color of these men would have immediately caused the guards to apprehend Moroni’s men, and the trick would’ve failed!

Instead we read of the Nephites tricksters making the statement that “we have escaped from the Nephites… behold we have taken of their wine and brought with us” (Alma 55:8). To me this is  clear textual evidence which demonstrates the designations of white and black in the text refer to the description of the Lamanites as outsiders, rather than the literal color of their skin.

Notes

  1. Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, 128.
  2. Brant Gardner, What does the Book of Mormon Mean by “Skin of Blackness”? Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007-2008).
  3. Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage, University of Illinois, 2003, p. 128.
  4. Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality,(Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 1996, p. 102).
  5. Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, p. 106).
  6. John A. Tvedtnes, The Charge of ‘Racism’ in the Book of Mormon Review of The Charge of ‘Racism’ in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. pgs. 183–98).
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About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives: LDSScriptureTeachings.org
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