My good friend David Bokovoy shared some thoughts regarding a few passages in Helaman 15 that I want to share. In verses 1-4 we read that, “the people of Nephi hath he loved, and also he hath chastened them… but my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated because their deeds have been evil continually…”
Many struggle with this idea, that God would hate a specific group of people. Oftentimes modern readers of the scriptures, which are ancient texts, struggle understanding the meaning because we read something ancient through our modern 21st century eyes, assuming things that are not so.
Brigham Young commented on this when he exhorted the Saints: “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” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 128).
The following by Dr. Bokovoy is worth your time as you analyze the meaning of Helaman 15:1-4. I hope you find his comments useful!
Few literary genres from the ancient world stand out so prominently as the Near Eastern vassal treaty. Scholars have shown that these political contracts formed between vassal kings and suzerain provided the conceptual background for the book of Deuteronomy.1 “The assumption is that Israel conceived of its relation to Yahweh as that of subject peoples to a world king and that they expressed this relationship in the concepts and formulas of the suzerainty treaty.”2 In the Near Eastern treaty, vassals were required to love their superiors: “If you do not love the crown prince designate Ashurbanipal,” warns the Assyrian treaty of Esarhaddon, “[then] may Ashur, king of the gods, who determines the fates, decree for you an evil, unpropitious fate.”3 In this ancient context, “loving the king with one’s entire heart signified the severance of all contact with other political powers.”4 Hence, Israel’s command to “love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might,” presented in the book of Deuteronomy, seems to refer to a political commitment rather than an emotional attachment (Deuteronomy 6:5).5
Scholars in recent decades have shown that in the biblical world the word love often represented a covenantal devotion to one’s superior, while its opposite, namely hate, at times signified the status of an individual outside of this affiliation.6 While the connotation of these words for Westerners usually signifies an intense emotional charge, in the ancient Near East, love and hate often carried the aforementioned unique covenantal connotation.7
“All their [the Ephraimites’] wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house” (Hosea 9:15). As demonstrated in this biblical passage, the Ephraimites’ wickedness resulted in their loss of the blessing associated with having the God of Israel serve as their sovereign. The Lord hated the Ephraimites “for the wickedness of their doings” because in the context of ancient Near Eastern treaties these acts were tantamount to a political insurrection. As a result, the Ephraimites were removed from God’s covenantal house or family. “I will love them no more,” declared the Lord: “all their princes are revolters” (Hosea 9:15). Thus, the words love and hate in the biblical world often carried a deliberate connotation of political alliance (or lack thereof).
With this observation in mind, the problematic passage in Helaman 15 where Samuel the Lamanite describes God’s love and hatred seems to convey a specific nuance derived from the world of antiquity. When Samuel presents his inspired message to the people of Nephi, he declares, “They [the Nephites] have been a chosen people of the Lord; yea, the people of Nephi hath he loved” (v. 3). With these words, Samuel attempts to remind the Nephites that they have traditionally served as God’s covenant people. In this relationship, the Lord has acted as the Nephite suzerain from whom the people of Nephi have received reciprocal “love.” In contrast, Samuel presents his own people, the Lamanites, as those whom God “hath hated because their deeds have been evil continually” (v. 4). Significantly, Samuel uses the verb hate in the same context in which it appears in the book of Hosea. God hated the Lamanites in a parallel manner to the way he hated the Ephraimites: their evil acts had placed them outside the boundary of his covenantal relationship.
While some modern readers have expressed concern regarding this apparently harsh statement preserved in the Book of Mormon, Samuel’s message relates perfectly to the context of “love” and “hate” in the ancient sense of alliance.
1. See A. D. H. Mayes, Deuteronomy: New Century Bible Commentary (Eerdmans, 1979), 33; and Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Eisenbrauns, 1992), 60-61.
2. Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Fortress Press, 1985), 205.
3. As cited in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton University Press, 1969), 537, 538.
4. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy, 81.
5. William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963): 77-87.
6. N. Lohfink, “Hate and Love in Osee 9, 15,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963): 417.
7. This would explain why the Lord says that he loves Jacob (Israel) but hates his brother Esau (Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:13).