Reclaiming Jacob

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Abstract. A chapter of Adam Miller’s Future Mormon concerns Jacob’s encounter with Sherem in Jacob 7. While novel, Miller’s treatment of Jacob and Sherem appears inadequate. He overlooks features of the text that seem to subvert his unconventional conclusions about them. This essay identifies a number of such matters, falling in four major categories, and shares thoughts on the need for perspective when discussing Jacob’s conduct — or the conduct of any prophet, for that matter. It also highlights the jeopardy we face of being the second group to fall for Sherem’s lies.

In Chapter 3 of his Future Mormon, Adam Miller recounts the famous meeting between Jacob and Sherem recorded in Jacob 7.1 His treatment raises several issues. Most importantly, it asks us to rethink our understanding of Jacob and Sherem themselves. I will follow this invitation by first summarizing Miller’s treatment of these two figures and then by discussing what appear to be four primary categories in which errors occur (although there are other difficulties that are more secondary in nature) and that lead to his conclusions about them. I will close with a discussion of the kind of perspective that is required for any evaluation of a prophet’s conduct and with a distinction between a reading of scripture that is “deep” and one that is merely unconventional. Finally, I will have a comment about the risk we face of falling for Sherem’s lies all over again.[Page 108]

Jacob and Sherem

In the course of retelling and analyzing the Jacob/Sherem encounter, Miller shares various conclusions about the two main participants. Sherem, for example, is more sympathetic than we are wont to think. His motivation in challenging Jacob was a concern that Jacob’s doctrine of Christ was “perverting the law of Moses and misleading the people” (27).2 In this regard, we learn that Sherem was no different than Laman and Lemuel — or than the populace of Jerusalem generally — who resisted Lehi because they were merely defending “the received tradition” and “the primacy of the law of Moses” (29). From this point of view “the imposition of any novel dreams, visions, or messianic revelations” was a corruption of God’s law and ought to be contested (29). Sherem is thus eager to meet with Jacob, whom he “has to go looking for,” and his interest in doing so is “apparently sincere” (27).

Jacob, on the other hand, is less admirable than we are typically inclined to think. Given Sherem’s legitimate concerns and his apparent sincerity, “much of Jacob’s treatment of Sherem feels shortsighted and unfair” (28). For example, when Sherem charges Jacob with blasphemy and perversion, “Jacob responds in kind” (27). Indeed, throughout their encounter Jacob appears more interested in “defending a certain kind of Christian doctrine than with enacting a certain kind of Christian behavior” (27). This, we are told, is “tragic.” After all, in the very course of defending the doctrine of Christ, Jacob ironically fails to instantiate a central teaching of that doctrine — namely, that “Christian behavior is more important than any Christian ideas” (27). Thus, although Jacob defends the concept of Christ’s love, “we hardly see him enacting that love” (27); indeed, “it may be true that Jacob never truly sees Sherem” (33).

According to Miller, the failure to enact this love is evident even before Jacob and Sherem meet. After all, Jacob doesn’t seek to meet with Sherem; Sherem “has to go looking for Jacob and, apparently, has a hard time finding him” (27). This leads us to ask: “Where is Jacob? Why is he so hard to find? Why isn’t he actively seeking out Sherem?” (27) Moreover, not only does Jacob invite God “to smite Sherem” (27), but Jacob turns out to be wrong in his prediction about how Sherem would respond to a sign from heaven (27–28, 33). Additionally, Jacob then apparently does nothing in the aftermath to “nourish” Sherem as he lies stricken, nor is he present, apparently, “to hear Sherem’s deathbed [Page 109]confession” (27). Indeed, while Sherem’s deathbed preaching “appears to be massively successful in a way that Jacob’s own preaching was not,” Jacob nevertheless takes the credit for this by attributing the successful outcome to his own prayers (28). Finally, Jacob closes out the account by taking a “parting jab” at Sherem, referring to him, even in the end, as a “wicked man” (28).

Much of Jacob’s treatment is thus “unfair” and, even though Jacob defends the doctrine of Christ, “he doesn’t seem to do it in a very Christ-like way” (28). Thus, one reviewer aptly summarizes Miller’s view of Jacob in this way: “A deeper reading shows Jacob, in spite of being the Lord’s authorized leader and defender of the faith, was wrong in assessing Sherem and probably overly harsh, aloof, and judgmental. His defense of the doctrine of Christ missed the Christlike behavior that is always more important than the theology.”3

Problems in the Retelling

There would appear to be a number of difficulties with Miller’s account of Jacob and Sherem, however. I will draw attention to some of these under the following four topics: Sherem’s “sincerity,” Jacob’s “un-Christlike” behavior, Jacob’s “false prediction” regarding signs, and Miller’s reliance on a strand of psychoanalytic theory in his approach to Jacob and Sherem generally.

Sherem’s “Sincerity”

As mentioned, Miller paints a more sympathetic picture of Sherem than we normally see. Sherem seems to Miller to be sincere. He is someone legitimately concerned with preserving the law of Moses against alien influences. Miller thus seems to join John Welch’s observation that Sherem “may have contested Jacob’s doctrines and interpretations of the law for thoroughly pious reasons.”4

We want to take the most sympathetic view we can of scriptural figures, of course. Hastiness to accuse and condemn is not the disposition [Page 110]we should have toward anyone. Neither, however, should we overlook what the record actually tells us, and there are central elements of the text that work against this sympathetic portrayal of Sherem.

Sherem’s Personal Characteristics

The first of these is the objective Sherem pursued, namely, to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ” (Jacob 7:2). Not only was this Sherem’s goal, but he also “labored diligently” to accomplish it (Jacob 7:3). He also had great success; the record tells us, “he did lead away many hearts” through his efforts (Jacob 7:3).

On one level, of course, it might seem that “overthrowing the doctrine of Christ” is merely a corollary of “defending the law of Moses” and thus that it might not carry the sinister implication we would normally attach to such a description. But this seems less plausible the more we notice other features of the text. For example — and this is the second point — the record clearly displays Sherem’s intellectual dishonesty. He denies, for example, that Jacob can know of the coming of Christ because, he says, it is not possible to “tell of things to come” (Jacob 7:7). But then Sherem contradicts this view and claims to know the future himself; he declares that he knows there is no Christ and that there neither has been a Christ “nor ever will be” (Jacob 7:9). So now he knows what he earlier told Jacob it is impossible to know.5 Sherem denies and asserts the same proposition, according to the rhetorical needs of the moment.

Third, Jacob tells us that Sherem “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” and thus “had much power of speech,” all of which Sherem used to teach things “which were flattering unto the people.” Indeed, because of Sherem’s learning and because of his facility with language, “he could use much flattery” to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ” and “lead away the hearts of the people” (Jacob 7:2–4). It is difficult to see Sherem as sincere when he appears to have relied on cheap toadyism as a primary means for influencing others.

Fourth, Jacob tells us that Sherem’s talent (i.e., his “much power of speech”) was specifically due “to the power of the devil” (Jacob 7:4). From this we learn that Sherem was not alone in his public conduct opposing Jacob but reflected the influence of Satan.[Page 111]

Sherem’s “Tone”

Sherem also exhibits a tone toward Jacob that generally would not be correlated with sincerity or innocence of intent. For example, he addresses Jacob as “Brother Jacob” — and then proceeds to accuse him of leading the people astray, of claiming to know of Christ whom “ye say” will come in many hundred years, and of committing “blasphemy” in what he is teaching (Jacob 7:6–7). “Brother Jacob,” juxtaposed with such harsh accusation, feels like an ironic form of sycophancy: a thin veneer of friendliness covering an underlying hostility. Then, after Jacob testifies of what he knows by the power of the Holy Ghost — namely, of the reality of Christ and of the necessity of his Atonement — Sherem challenges Jacob to perform a miracle “by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13). Again, Sherem seems arrogant and insulting — a conclusion that is supported by what else we know about him: his purpose of overthrowing the doctrine of Christ, his intellectual dishonesty, his crass manipulation of the populace, and his affiliation with Satan.

Defending the Law of Moses
and Similarity to Laman and Lemuel

All these reports make it difficult to imagine that Sherem’s appeal to the law of Moses was sincere and that his defense of it was motivated by piety. It seems more likely that his defense of the Mosaic law was a pretext — a convenient smokescreen he exploited to obscure his actual intent: simply attacking the doctrine of Christ. That Sherem’s defense of the law was insincere in this way is supported by Miller’s comparison of Sherem to Laman and Lemuel. “Sherem,” he tells us, “like Laman, Lemuel, and the people in Jerusalem, is a defender of the received tradition. In particular, Sherem, like Laman and Lemuel, is keen to defend the primacy of the law of Moses against the imposition of any novel dreams, visions, or messianic revelations” (29). This description, of course, presupposes that Laman and Lemuel were not motivated in their conduct primarily by hardheartedness, resentment at the loss of their riches, and anger at Nephi’s leadership role (which are the explanations offered by Nephi — e.g., 1 Nephi 2:11, 18; 2 Nephi 5:1–3). Instead, they were motivated by the understandable desire to safeguard the law of Moses from corrupting influences like dreams and visions and messianic revelations.6

[Page 112]But this point of view faces three fundamental hurdles.

First, since the Lord himself spoke of Laman and Lemuel’s difficulties in terms of “rebellion” (1 Nephi 2:21–23), it seems evident that he did not think Laman and Lemuel were sincere in their attitudes and that they were merely mistaken. Nor did their father. Lehi implored Laman and Lemuel to awake from “the sleep of hell” and to “shake off the awful chains” — chains, he says, that lead to “the eternal gulf of misery and woe” (2 Nephi 1:13). Both of these reports support Nephi’s explanation of Laman and Lemuel. “Hardheartedness,” “rebellion,” “the sleep of hell,” “awful chains,” “gulf of misery and woe” — these are not the expressions one typically uses to address innocent-but-sincere mistakenness. And these are the words of those who knew Laman and Lemuel personally and well — Nephi, Lehi, and the Lord.

Second, although the Book of Mormon recounts on numerous occasions the hatred the Lamanites held for Nephi and his descendants,7 the motivation for this is never associated with a dispute over the law of Moses. On the other hand, we see explicit complaints from Lamanites about Nephi’s “robbery” of the plates of brass at the time he separated from Laman and Lemuel upon arriving in the promised land (Mosiah 10:16; Alma 20:13), as well as his similar “robbery” of family authority that “rightly belonged” to Laman and Lemuel (Alma 54:17). Indeed, this perceived usurpation of authority is one of the reasons Laman and Lemuel sought to kill Nephi (2 Nephi 5:3) and is central to the multiple “wrongs” that descendants of Laman and Lemuel attributed to Nephi’s treatment of his brothers (Mosiah 10: 12–16). Such complaints regarding robbery of the plates and of family authority would explain the generational hatred of the Lamanites for the Nephites and is plausibly the content of the “wicked tradition” that is reported multiple times to have been held by the Lamanites.8 It is clearly evident that Laman and Lemuel passed down the charge that Nephi mistreated them in more than one way, but there is no evidence that they perpetuated a complaint that Nephi and Lehi were disloyal to the law of Moses. Perhaps they did perpetuate [Page 113]that charge, but unlike the complaint regarding Nephi’s treatment, any evidence of it is difficult to find.

Third, if Laman and Lemuel had been motivated by sincerely held religious ideology, and if one part of that ideology had led them to reject the idea of visions, then it is difficult to explain Laman and Lemuel’s reaction once they had a vision of their own (1 Nephi 3:28–31). In the aftermath of that event one would expect them to reject their previous ideology — since their own visionary experience straightforwardly disproved it — and to embrace Lehi and his teachings. We would expect them to continue with the same sincere determination to do right that they they had before, but now with regard to the truth they had learned through their own divine visitation. But of course Laman and Lemuel did nothing like this. Their behavior did not remotely change following their vision. This reality strongly disconfirms the claim that their rebellion was traceable to a concern with doctrine in the first place. Instead, all the evidence points to Nephi’s own explanation, corroborated by both Lehi and the Lord: at heart they were stiffnecked and rebellious.

In trying, then, to support the claim that Sherem was sincere in his assertions about the law, it does not help to compare his motivations with Laman and Lemuel’s. That comparison compromises the claim rather than reinforcing it. If Sherem was truly similar to Laman and Lemuel, as Miller believes, this in itself constitutes additional reason to reject the idea of Sherem’s sincerity.

A look at the text thus presents Sherem as one who was intellectually dishonest and who relied on vulgar manipulation to lead people away from Christ. In addition, Sherem’s very tone suggests his condescension, not his sincerity, including his arrogant demand for a sign. And not only does Jacob state explicitly that Sherem was influenced by Satan, but also we have every reason to believe his appeal to the law of Moses was just another form of intellectual dishonesty; it served as a convenient pretext for his actual intent of attacking the doctrine of Christ.

It is in regard to this man that Miller asks, “Where is Jacob? Why is he so hard to find? Why isn’t he actively seeking out Sherem?” But it doesn’t seem hard to imagine the answer. Jacob has far better things to do. There are people to serve whom he actually can serve. Jacob already knows much about Sherem (Jacob 7:1–4) and presumably he can see, as we all can see, what the probable outcome of any meeting with such a dissembling mountebank will be. Since there are plenty of sincere people to be helped, it would seem a poor use of resources to pass them by in order to meet with someone who is manifestly insincere.[Page 114]

The Possibility of Bias and the Need for a Second Witness

A natural question to raise about all this, of course, is whether or not Jacob has a bias that influences his description of Sherem. If we think (as Miller does) that Jacob is predisposed to condemn Sherem, then his judgments about Sherem can hardly be taken as independent evidence of Sherem’s ignobility. Of course he would charge Sherem with being a liar and an instrument of Satan. Miller does not make this point, but it is a natural objection to the kind of defense of Jacob offered. The defense risks circularity. Thus, if we think Jacob could be biased, it is only sensible to require additional evidence for his descriptions of Sherem; we need a second witness. I will have more to say about distrust of Jacob later, but for now let’s grant the point: we need an additional witness to confirm what Jacob purports about Sherem’s character.

The reality is that we have such a second witness. It is Sherem himself. Once he sees the error of his ways, Sherem states plainly that he “had been deceived by the power of the devil” and that he had even “lied unto God” (Jacob 7:18–19). Because of his lie, Sherem tells us, “I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin,” and again says, “because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful” (Jacob 7:19).

Notice that Sherem does not speak here of his past sincerity. He does not refer to his prior conduct as innocent and well-intentioned. He does not talk of having a sincere but mistaken attitude toward the law of Moses. Instead he speaks plainly of lying unto God, of having been influenced by the devil, and of fearing that he is beyond forgiveness for all that he has done. It is the frank admission of a life of deceit, a confession that in the end amounts to something like, “I talked a pretty convincing talk, but Jacob was right about me.”

In the end Sherem sees himself as Jacob had seen him. Sherem is Jacob’s second witness.

There is a third witness, too, of course. It is the Lord. If we are inclined to discount the testimonies of Jacob and of Sherem, we are still left to explain the Lord’s striking Sherem dead. Surely it tells us a lot (doesn’t it?) that the Lord’s reaction to Sherem was to kill him. This would seem to qualify as a suitable additional witness of what we learn from Jacob and from Sherem himself about Sherem’s character.9

Jacob’s “Un-Christlike” Behavior

[Page 115]As mentioned in the beginning, Miller also sees Jacob differently than we normally see him. He believes Jacob’s treatment of Sherem feels “unfair” and that Jacob doesn’t deal with Sherem “in a very Christ-like way” (28). It is true, of course, that no one is perfect, and this includes prophets. But that does not mean we shouldn’t be careful when considering such evaluations. Just as there are central elements of the text that oppose a sympathetic portrayal of Sherem, there are three central elements of scripture that oppose a critical portrayal of Jacob.

The first of these is Jacob’s report that, before he said a word to Sherem, “behold, the Lord God poured in his Spirit into my soul” (Jacob 7:8). This is significant. Jacob was not acting merely as a man in his encounter with Sherem but was under the direct and powerful influence of the Lord.

Second, if we want to say Jacob’s defense of the doctrine of Christ did not express Christlike behavior, then we are forced to ask questions about the Savior himself. After all, in a single denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus called them “hypocrites” eight times, “fools” twice, “blind” four times, referred to them as “full of hypocrisy and iniquity,” and ended by calling them “serpents,” a “generation of vipers,” and by asking: “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt. 23:13–33). By the definition of “Christlike behavior” assumed by Miller in his discussion of Jacob, Christ himself was not Christlike in this treatment of the scribes and Pharisees. And of course multiple additional examples could be cited — cases in which the Savior himself would fail, in this analysis at least, to qualify as Christlike.

[Page 116]A certain assumption is made in Miller’s judgment about what constitutes Christlike behavior, and there would seem to be every reason to think it is mistaken.

Third, if Jacob was unfair in assessing Sherem, and overly harsh (i.e., unloving and un-Christlike) in his treatment of him, then, again, it is interesting that the Lord himself struck Sherem dead. If it is to be said that Jacob was unduly harsh, then it would seem the same must be said of the Lord. It is the Lord, after all, who determined that Sherem would be lethally smitten, not Jacob (Jacob 7:14). Further, if it is to be said that Jacob “never truly sees Sherem” (33) and that he doesn’t actually address Sherem the person but addresses only an abstraction — “a Christ-denier” (31) — then, in light of the Lord’s actions, it would seem the same must be said of the Lord. Whatever Jacob did, the Lord did the same, and more.

In short, it is difficult to complain about Jacob’s reaction to Sherem when the Lord’s reaction was to kill him.

This point, of course, is relevant to that just made regarding Christlike behavior. After all, since Christ is the God of the Book of Mormon, it was Christ who killed Sherem — and yet, based on Miller’s characterization of Jacob, this would seem to fall in the category of un-Christlike behavior. Again, it would appear that the assumption about what constitutes Christlike conduct must be faulty, since Christ himself fails to satisfy it more than once.

In sum, this is what we learn about Sherem — he is laboring diligently and with flattery to lead people away from Christ; he accuses Jacob of blasphemy; he ridicules Jacob’s prophecies regarding the coming of Christ; he is so intellectually dishonest that he can deny the possibility of anyone’s knowing the future while simultaneously claiming to know it himself; and he demands a sign from Jacob “by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13). None of this is consistent with the picture of Sherem as innocent, sincere, or genuinely concerned with a spiritual defense of the law of Moses.

We learn this about Jacob: he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord in speaking to Sherem; nothing in his conduct can reasonably be considered un-Christlike; Sherem ultimately admitted that Jacob had been right about him; and finally, the Lord evidently saw Sherem the same way Jacob saw him — which is why he killed him.

Jacob’s “False Prediction” Regarding Signs

[Page 117]The treatment of the matter of “signs” seems similarly problematic. Miller reports that Jacob was wrong in his prediction about Sherem’s reaction to a sign. Jacob had said that a sign would not affect Sherem, and yet when Sherem did receive a sign, he acknowledged his deception and the wrongfulness of his conduct. Thus, Jacob was wrong in his prediction (27–28, 33). This failed prediction may seem particularly significant to some: if Jacob was wrong about x regarding Sherem, then he could also have been wrong about a, b, and c (for example, Sherem’s wickedness and deceit).

All this, however, seems to overlook important features of the text and thus to give Jacob too little credit.

First, we don’t actually need additional evidence that Jacob was right about Sherem’s wickedness. As we saw earlier, the Lord and Sherem himself both corroborate Jacob’s judgment. There is no aspect of Jacob’s earlier evaluation of Sherem that is in doubt.

Second, it is at least relevant that Jacob reports being under the influence of the Spirit in his conversation with Sherem. It is possible to ask exactly what this entails about Jacob’s state during the encounter (Does it mean he can’t make a mistake? Does it mean he can make one kind of mistake, but not another? And so forth.), but at a minimum it prohibits casually reaching the conclusion that he was mistaken. The role of the Spirit cannot be overlooked when thinking about the matter, but Miller seems to do so.

Third, it is important to notice the context of the discussion about signs. It is Sherem who raises the issue in the first place, challenging Jacob to perform a miracle “by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13). Note that Jacob reports earlier in his record that his people experienced dramatic miracles. He records that “we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea” (Jacob 4:6). Moreover, in speaking to Sherem, he specifically refers to numerous divine experiences by saying simply: “I have heard and seen” (Jacob 7:12). All this forms the background for Sherem’s demand for a sign: wondrous miracles are known among Jacob’s people and Jacob himself speaks regarding miraculous experiences of “seeing and hearing.” When Sherem insists on a sign, the only reasonable assumption is that he is asking for some wonderful occurrence that fits in this context, something dramatic — perhaps with trees, mountains, or the sea — that he can either hear or see. That is what we all think of as a sign.

[Page 118]It is in this context that Jacob straightforwardly refuses. He won’t deliver a sign. He says: “What am I that I should tempt God to show unto thee a sign in the thing which thou knowest to be true?” He adds that Sherem will deny the sign he is asking for in any case “because thou art of the devil” (Jacob 7:14). Again, Jacob — by his report, acting under the influence of the Spirit — is calling Sherem out as a liar. Sherem is a dissembler (as he later admits), and Jacob refuses to indulge his dishonesty and manipulation by complying with his disingenuous demand for a sign.

But then Jacob changes the subject. He has already said that he won’t supply the miracle Sherem is demanding. But then, as if responding to a prompting, he says “nevertheless, not my will be done.” He then adds that “if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee” (Jacob 7:14). This is the second time Jacob uses the word “sign,” but it is not in response to Sherem’s idea of a sign — the kind of sign in which some miraculous spectacle occurs and which Jacob says will not make a difference. It is in response to the idea of God’s killing Sherem. This, it would seem, makes everything different. After all, when Sherem demands a sign and Jacob refuses to comply, they are both assuming a certain type of miracle. It is against this background that Jacob says Sherem won’t change and admit he’s wrong.

But this background is no longer relevant once the Lord decides to slay Sherem. That decision changes the background. It is an example of what the Lord later explained to Joseph Smith, namely, that signs (such as the miraculous events enjoyed by Jacob and his people) follow those who believe — rather than preceding their belief — and that to those who merit God’s anger, “he showeth no signs, only in wrath unto their condemnation” (D&C 63:9, 11). Here the Lord explicitly distinguishes between the types of signs he gives, and Sherem obviously falls under the second type. We are thus in an altogether different realm of miracle and “sign giving” from what Sherem had assumed and Jacob had rejected. The sign the Lord has in mind is distinctive, and it has a distinctive purpose. Subsequent events, therefore, do not falsify Jacob’s prediction; the Lord’s decision to kill Sherem simply renders Jacob’s prediction moot. It no longer applies because the situation in which Jacob made the prediction no longer exists.

Thus, even though Jacob uses the word “sign” both times, he uses it in two different senses, just as the Lord does. That, it seems, is why he says the second time, “let that be a sign unto thee” (Jacob 7:14). He is expressing exactly the principle the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith. In [Page 119]essence he is saying: “You’re not getting the kind of sign we were talking about. Instead, as a result of his wrath and his condemnation of you, God is going to smite and kill you. But you can count that as a sign since signs matter so much to you.” To all appearances Jacob is completely ironic: using a word of Sherem’s choosing but, because it is a word that has different meanings, he uses it to mean something different from what Sherem means. It is the kind of irony employed more than once by the Savior in his earthly ministry.10

In short, there are important and compelling reasons to reject the conclusion that Jacob was wrong in his prediction. This conclusion overlooks the role of the Spirit in Jacob’s conduct, the shifting context in the discussion about signs, and the distinction the Lord himself draws regarding the signs he delivers. By overlooking such matters, the conclusion gives Jacob too little credit and is, I think, unfair to him.

Reliance on a Strand of Psychoanalytic Theory

A “Brand” of Analysis

[Page 120]The final matter I will mention is Miller’s reliance on psychoanalytic theory for framing and informing his analysis of Jacob and Sherem. I will address this directly in a moment, but I think it helps to appreciate that this approach is a species of a more general intellectual phenomenon — a basic “brand” of analysis. It is the style of picking a cardinal notion of one kind or another (from philosophy or psychology, for example) and then, without demonstrating why that particular concept is correct in the first place, reading the scriptural text through its lens. This a priori reliance on ideas from non-scriptural disciplines can seem appealing, but it is always risky. While the approach can appear promising and innocent enough to begin with — and can seem to produce useful insights — it is all too easy for the purpose of our study to morph unwittingly from examining carefully what the text itself says to subtly imposing our intellectual notion on the text. To the degree this occurs, the imposition inevitably ends up distorting some elements of scripture and overlooking others. This becomes evident when we examine the claims carefully and from a comprehensive point of view: the more we consider all the relevant elements of scripture the less plausible the claims seem. The discoveries we appear to have gained come to appear less and less like genuine insights into the text and more and more like unintentional alterations of the text.

This kind of thing happens when authors seek to impose a pacifist template on scripture, for example. To sustain the standard pacifist view — namely, that “participation in and support for war is always impermissible”11 — too many elements of scripture must be overlooked or distorted; it is a forced fit. That people sometimes persist in their pacifist claims despite the insuperable difficulties demonstrates their dedication to be a priori in nature: it is less derived from scripture than imposed on it.12 The same kind of phenomenon is evident in the attempt to apply René Girard’s sweeping theory of cultural scapegoating to Nephi’s slaying of Laban. The effort is based on a logical error that renders the application vacuous, but some nevertheless prefer this conceptual template as the [Page 121]lens through which to understand Nephi, despite its ultimate futility.13 In a similar vein, not long ago two authors viewed Joseph Smith through a psychoanalytic lens, seeking to explain his life through that conceptual framework.14 Unfortunately, there is too much about the Prophet that must be distorted or overlooked to explain his life in psychoanalytic terms. Moreover, there is too much that is intellectually questionable about psychoanalytic theory itself to justify this as a starting point in the first place.15

A Strand of Psychoanalytic Theory

All this — the adoption of a key concept that supplies the lens through which we view a subject and the unhappy consequences that follow from it — seem to be evident in Miller’s analysis of Jacob and Sherem. An ever-present element in his discussion is his reliance on a particular strand of psychoanalytic theory. Nowhere, however, does Miller seem to argue for the soundness of psychoanalytic theory in general, much less for his favored version of it. We encounter a string of statements explicating the point of view, but we get no arguments for why we should accept them. Since multiple psychological constructs exist that purport to provide a deep explanation of human behavior, one wonders why Miller chooses this one. For that matter, one wonders why he chooses one at all. What reasons can be given for viewing any psychological construct as so near the truth that we are willing to adopt it as our organizing principle for understanding the scriptures? If there are such reasons, Miller does not appear to offer them.

[Page 122]In any event, Miller takes a particular psychoanalytic approach to investigating Jacob and Sherem. If I understand him, we comprehend Jacob if we comprehend the “hole” created in him by the wound in his family — the psychological fissure between Laman and Lemuel and the rest of Lehi’s household. This original wound, or “primal scene,” provides the psychological template for the rest of Jacob’s life. Fundamentally, his subsequent interactions with others are reenactments of the formative conflict with Laman and Lemuel. His relationships with these later figures are manifestations of transference — the psychological conveyance of the dynamics of that early relationship into these later ones. Thus, we understand Jacob when we understand that, in treating Sherem the way he does, Jacob is simply reenacting his conflictual relationship with Laman and Lemuel. That is why Sherem is a mere abstraction to Jacob — why Jacob can’t really “see” him. (It is also why Sherem similarly can’t see Jacob. Whatever its origins, Sherem is merely reenacting a primal scene of his own.) Jacob fails to see Sherem because, psychologically, he is not really dealing with Sherem but rather with the ghosts of his own brothers.

Attempting to Explain Jacob’s “Un-Christlike” Behavior

All this is thought to explain why Jacob treats Sherem in an un-Christlike way: his doing so is the natural outgrowth of the original family wound Jacob has borne throughout his life and that he continues to bear. His mistreatment is a species of psychological reenactment tragically displayed.

The core difficulty with this approach, however (although there are secondary difficulties I will ignore), is that it is intended to explain something that doesn’t exist. It purports to explain why Jacob is so un-Christlike toward Sherem, but once we read the text carefully, we see there is nothing to explain. As already illustrated, Jacob is not un-Christlike toward Sherem. For reasons previously mentioned, Sherem is not an innocent and sympathetic figure whom Jacob mistreats. Sherem is a spiritually dangerous charlatan who ends up confessing his life of deceit and who dies at the hands of the Lord himself. Jacob treats Sherem the way Christ treats the Pharisees.16

[Page 123]But it is not only that this approach ends up explaining something that doesn’t exist — i.e., Jacob’s un-Christlike behavior — it is also that this approach seems to have created the idea of Jacob’s un-Christlike behavior in the first place. The elements of the text outlined earlier seem evident enough, for example. These include all the reasons for understanding Sherem to be wicked and all the reasons for understanding Jacob not to be un-Christlike. But this makes it hard to imagine that such reasons would have been overlooked if they had not been obscured by the very way the text was read — the lens through which it was seen in the first place.

The problem with such distortion is that if our psychological theory creates what we see in Jacob’s behavior in the first place, it is not much of an achievement that it then seems to explain what we see. It is true that the theory tells us how to explain what we see, but only after it has already told us what to see. In cases like this the theory itself is the source of what it is thought to explain and therefore is effectively (and surreptitiously) only explaining itself. Such theoretical circularity might, to some degree, be an unavoidable property of the most sweeping and complex theories, but at least in empirical disciplines these theories are tested against their capacity to predict new observations. That is less the case when the task is merely to analyze a handful of verses in one scriptural account. Here, what circularity exists seems less justifiable and therefore would also seem to be less acceptable from an intellectual perspective.

Attempting to Explain Jacob’s “Newfound Concern and Hope”

A similar difficulty is apparent in the claim with which Miller ends his discussion of Jacob and Sherem: “Then [following the death of Sherem], for the first time in decades, Jacob dares to hope that his brothers [Laman and Lemuel] aren’t lost forever. This is the doctrine of Christ” (33).17 Miller opens this section by saying the ideas in it will be speculative. Nevertheless, he proceeds on the basis that he is reading the text itself straightforwardly and speculating only in his inferences from it. Thus he notes that immediately after recording the episode regarding [Page 124]Sherem, Jacob reports that “many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites” (Jacob 7:24). Miller finds this concern with the Lamanites significant because it seems to be a new concern for Jacob, a concern which Miller sees as tied to a newfound hope that Jacob also has regarding Laman and Lemuel: namely, that they aren’t lost forever. We are told that all of this is true “for the first time in decades” and that all of it is explained by the theory Miller applies to the text: because of Sherem’s role as psychological surrogate for Laman and Lemuel, his confession permits Jacob to see his brothers afresh, giving birth to a newfound hope for them.

But there would seem to be a difficulty with this approach. After all, it is one thing to speculate on one matter or another based on what a text says. That is fair enough and completely legitimate if we take into account all the other statements and episodes in scripture related to it. But it is another matter to speculate on what we have only speculated that the text says, particularly when that speculation seems to be unwitting.

That would seem to be the case here. The text itself never says or even suggests that Jacob’s concern for the Lamanites is new or that he has this hope “for the first time in decades.” Since this is the first time Jacob mentions reclaiming the Lamanites in his brief etchings on the plates, Miller assumes it must be the first time in decades he has even thought about it. But this seems to be a pretty clear non sequitur. Jacob pens only a few thousand words in the Book of Mormon, whereas over the course of his life to this point he has had millions of thoughts — if not billions. Based on the infinitesimal ratio of Jacob’s engravings to Jacob’s thoughts, it is impossible to know what concern/hope Jacob has had “for the first time in decades” — or for that matter, what previous attempts he has made to reclaim the Lamanites. Any assertion of this sort is a huge logical leap without any substantiation in the text.

This means that here, too (just as in the effort to explain Jacob’s un-Christlike behavior), Miller appears to apply his psychoanalytic theory in order to explain something that doesn’t exist. The appeal to a psychological dynamic — one that renders Sherem a role player in the larger subliminal drama unfolding between Jacob and his brothers — is intended to explain why Jacob suddenly develops a new concern for the Lamanites and new hope for Laman and Lemuel in the aftermath of Sherem’s confession. But the text actually reports no such change in Jacob. The only reason Miller has for asserting it would thus seem to be that he is in possession of a theory that invites him to assert it: the idea [Page 125]is not found in the actual record but in the interpolation Miller makes based on the theory he is applying to the record.

This manifests the same kind of circularity we saw in the previous section. The theory seems to provide an explanation for something in the text, but that feature of the text wouldn’t exist if the theory itself hadn’t planted it there through its influence on our reading in the first place. The theory is used to provide insight into something that doesn’t exist without the theory. Thus, again as seen in the previous section, the theory tells us how to explain what we see but only after that very conceptual framework has already told us what to see — which means that what we see actually presupposes the very theory then claimed to provide an independent explanation for it. In a tight logical circle, the theory is effectively doing nothing more than explaining itself — and that’s why it appears to be insightful: it is confirmation bias all the way down.

In the end it seems unlikely that many will find such self-validation in scriptural interpretation to be satisfying.

The examples of Jacob’s purported un-Christlike behavior and of his newfound concern/hope both demonstrate the risks inherent in Miller’s approach. All analyses face the same risks when they begin with some concept from the academic world and then adopt it a priori as the lens through which to read and understand scripture. The lens itself can exercise a distorting influence — for example, by imposing a certain view on our very reading of the text — and thus destine us to conclusions that are mistaken. As we read more carefully, the discoveries we seem to have gained gradually appear less and less like insights, and more and more like oversights and even mistakes.

Additional difficulties could be identified that also manifest this risky approach to interpretation, but those I have mentioned should suffice to give a flavor of the kind of difficulties they would be.

Perspective in Thinking about Jacob

In the final analysis, it would seem that any discussion of Jacob should begin with context — with an appreciation of who this man was. He was a prophet, he saw angels, he saw the Lord, he received revelations, he was filled with the Spirit, the Lord spoke to him audibly, and his words have been canonized as part of God’s beckoning to the world in the latter days.18 He was also someone who could report that “our faith becometh [Page 126]unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea” (Jacob 4:6).

It seems impossible to have perspective on anything Jacob did without having this perspective on who he was. Most people have not been called as prophets, have not seen angels, have not had the Lord appear to them, have not performed miracles with trees and mountains and “the waves of the sea,” and have not had their words canonized as part of God’s word to the world. It would seem that people who have had no such experiences are not well situated to comment on those who have. It can be done to a degree, but it is not easy. Certainly it is folly to do so without careful examination and appreciation of the person being examined and of (1) God’s eternal purposes, (2) his dealings with mortals generally, and (3) the workings of the Spirit. (The most obvious example of this, of course, is found in critics of Joseph Smith. Not understanding who he was, they have no hope of understanding what he did. Yet still they try.) In thinking about what constitutes Christlike behavior, for example — and in evaluating if a prophet meets that standard — a large number of incidents and passages must be considered. A vague sense about the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, would be wholly inadequate. To consider the actions of a prophet in light of the standard of Christ, one must know a lot about the prophet (including his circumstances) and a lot about Christ.

In short, an immense gap typically exists between prophets and the persons who decide to write about them. It is not possible to close that gap completely, but in the case of ancient prophets, at an absolute minimum one must at least try by: (1) first appreciating who the prophet was, (2) paying close attention to what the text itself expresses, and (3) accurately reporting what the text expresses. When we do all these, I think we will find it difficult to report, for example, that Jacob took credit from [Page 127]Sherem and improperly attributed spiritual success to his own prayers rather than to Sherem who is the one who really deserves it. It is hard to comprehend fully the prayers of a man who has seen the Lord, received significant revelations, entertained angels, and experienced miracles regarding trees, mountains, and the sea. Whatever else we do, we cannot afford (can we?) to be casual in dismissing the prayers — and the reports — of a man like that.

This leads me to say: Attempting moral evaluations of prophets’ conduct might not be inherently illegitimate from an academic perspective, but surely the risks are high in doing so. Gaining the appropriate perspective on someone who has qualified to stand in the presence of God would seem to pose inherent and unusually challenging difficulties. How does one who has not qualified to stand in the presence of God take the measure of one who has? It is a cause for marvel, and the Lord seems to me to share this same sense of wonder. Aaron and Miriam once thought to criticize Moses, for example. In response to their censure the Lord simply rehearsed his intimate relationship with that great prophet, and then asked them: “Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:8) Wherefore, indeed.

Deep” Reading of Scripture

Finally, it is a matter of interest that one reviewer refers more than once to Miller’s reading as “deep,”19 and it is possible that others feel the same. But this is a claim to be made with care. An unconventional reading of scripture is not equivalent to a deep reading of scripture. The treatment considered here of Jacob and Sherem is an example. It is not the only one, of course, since unconventional readings are not inherently difficult to create. If someone wants to try, all he or she really has to do is ignore parts of the text.

Some, for instance, have thought that Nephi in later years came to regret his slaying of Laban and to feel remorse for it. Others have come to consider Nephi’s killing to be an act of murder — indeed, as an act that was responsible for centuries of subsequent violence in Nephite society. [Page 128]Although these are atypical readings of the text, the difficulty is that they cannot be sustained at all by the text.20 They are not comprehensive and they are not fair. While unconventional, they would appear to be the opposite of deep.

Such, it seems, is also the case in Miller’s reading of Jacob 7. It is surely unconventional, definitely atypical, but — as I have attempted to demonstrate — it is also seriously defective, and thus it is hard to see how it can possibly qualify as deep.

Conclusion: Falling for Sherem’s Lies, Again

It is true enough that prophets are not perfect and that we should not be dismayed at whatever failings we find in them. We should recognize and embrace this reality when the evidence makes errors of one kind or another obvious. (After all, the failings we might find in them do not remotely compare to the failings we find in ourselves.)

But that is not really the point in the episode between Jacob and Sherem. This is a story in which Jacob’s views and actions are completely supported — both by God and by Sherem. God lethally smites Sherem and before he dies Sherem admits to being a liar and in dread of God’s judgment. Sherem’s initial self-portrayal as a mistreated innocent convinced multitudes that he was earnest and that he was only defending the right way of coming unto God. Only those who were sensitive to the Spirit could see through Sherem and recognize him for the self-serving dissembler he was. It would seem that Jacob tells us this story as a warning — there is much to learn from such high-profile charlatans and their tactics. And yet, 2500 years later — while knowing God’s opinion of Sherem, and even knowing Sherem’s opinion of Sherem — we find ourselves in jeopardy of falling for the same dishonest story.[Page 129]


1. Adam S. Miller, “Reading Signs or Repeating Symptoms: Reading Jacob 7,” Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).

2. Unless otherwise indicated, all in-text citations are to pages in Miller’s book.

3. Jeff Lindsay, “A Brighter Future for Mormon Theology: Adam S. Miller’s Future Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 21 (2016): 121–22.

4. John W. Welch, “The Case of Sherem,” in The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008);

5. It is also interesting to note that Sherem effectively denies the reality of revelation (Jacob 7:5, 12, 13), and yet he asserts that the law of Moses, which is based upon earlier revelation, is “the right way” — an assertion that is an affirmation of revelation.

6. Neal Rappleye suggests this kind of approach to Laman and Lemuel in his “The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 16 (2015): 87–99,

7. See, for example: Jacob 3:7; 7:24; Enos 1:14, 20; Jarom 1:6; Mosiah 10:17; Mosiah 1:14; 28:2; Alma 26:9, 3, 13; and 4 Nephi1:39.

8. See, for example: Mosiah 10:12; Alma 23:3; 60:32; and Helaman 15:4.

9. Stopping at this point in answering the objection will not seem satisfactory to some. After all, we learn of Sherem’s statements and of the Lord’s actions only because Jacob himself tells us of them. But if Jacob’s descriptions of Sherem are in question in the first place, it does not seem sufficient to remove such doubt by simply relying on other things Jacob tells us. That just seems to exacerbate the circularity. However, while this might seem like a reasonable complaint on the surface, it is hard to see how it can be maintained by anyone who explicitly avows the authority of scripture. To recognize such authority regarding the Book of Mormon (for example) is to be bound by that book’s characterization of itself and of the spiritual figures that populate its pages. This means that we care very much what the text says and that it would be self-contradictory to then pick and choose what to accept regardless of what it says. Whatever our outward avowals might be, such an ad hoc approach to interpretation (believing Jacob on this, disbelieving him on that, etc.) would be a tacit disavowal of scriptural authority. By the same logic we could dismiss Mormon, Moroni, Joseph Smith — anyone we wanted. But to do so would simply signal that we actually reject rather than accept the idea of scriptural authority, whatever our particular ad hoc interpretations might be. In discussing Jacob, I, like Miller, am assuming an audience that accepts the canonicity and spiritual authority of the Book of Mormon and other Standard Works. Those who do not are an audience for another occasion.

10. For instance, in speaking to a blind man whom he had healed, the Savior said (in the presence of Pharisees): “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind” (John 9:39). Jesus equivocates on the meaning of the word “see,” sometimes using it one way and sometimes another, all in condemnation of the Pharisees’ spiritual blindness. Hearing his statement to the blind man, the Pharisees ask of Jesus: “Are we blind also?” whereupon the Savior answers: “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:40–41). Here Jesus adds another layer of equivocation, using “not seeing” or “blind” to mean “not accountable” — and since the Pharisees claim to “see,” it follows from their own implied assertion that they are accountable and therefore that their sin “remaineth.” All of this is deftly ironic. Jesus alters the meaning of terms mid-conversation and even mid-sentence, all in order to convey something different from what both he and the Pharisees are saying literally and all in order to condemn the Pharisees. We will think Jesus is contradicting himself if we fail to notice the irony in this — i.e., if we think he is speaking literally in every use of the word “see” or “blindness.” But since we appreciate that he is equivocating in his use of these terms — and equivocating even in the meaning he applies to the Pharisees’ use of their own term — we see that he is not contradicting himself but speaking ironically in order to condemn the Pharisees. He is similarly speaking ironically when he says, “they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12) and “he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John the Baptist]” (Luke 7:28). Taken literally his words mean one thing, but underneath, their meanings are entirely different. In all these cases Jesus is using language ironically in order to condemn those who rejected him.

11. Martin Ceadel, Thinking about Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 5.

12. This matter is treated at length elsewhere. See Duane Boyce, Even unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015).

13. For example, see Eugene England, “Healing and Making Peace, in the Church and the World” and “Why Nephi Killed Laban: Reflections on the Truth of the Book of Mormon,” in Eugene England, Making Peace: Personal Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995) 1–22 and 131–55, respectively. See also Joshua Madson, “A Non-Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in Patrick Q. Mason, J. David Pulsipher, and Richard L. Bushman, eds., War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 13–28. I address the vacuity of the application in Even unto Bloodshed, 142–47.

14. Richard D. Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1999); and Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004).

15. Two reviews challenge these biographies as well as their reliance on psychoanalytic theory (which, of course, has encountered withering criticism down the decades). For the reviews, see Michael D. Jibson, “Korihor Speaks, or the Misinterpretation of Dreams,” FARMS Review of Books 14/1 (2002): 223–60; and Andrew H. Hedges and W. Dawson Hedges, “No, Dan, That’s Still Not History,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005).

16. Of course, if one were totally committed to applying this psychoanalytic approach to all matters spiritual, it would seem one could argue that Christ’s conduct toward the Pharisees was itself a manifestation of the same psychological dynamic. His harsh treatment of them was simply a reenactment of his own formative conflict in the pre-earth life — with a difficult brother of his own — and of the wound this primal scene constituted for him even as he passed from the pre-earth existence to this earthly one. The Pharisees simply bore the brunt of the Savior’s unresolved animosity toward his brother. Scripturally, this is absurd, but it is not hard to imagine someone seriously entertaining the idea.

17. In the same paragraph Miller makes two other claims about what Jacob did “for the first time in decades.” Although my objection applies to all three instances, for brevity’s sake I will address only one.

18. See, for example: 2 Nephi 6–10; 2 Nephi 11:3; Jacob 7:5; and Jacob 1–7. Although the Book of Mormon does not specifically designate Jacob as a “prophet,” this is not sufficient to disqualify him from that designation. Nephi, for example, specifically says that the Nephite records would be kept by prophets (1 Nephi 19:4), a class that obviously includes Jacob. Moreover, Nephi himself is nowhere specifically designated as a prophet, nor are Mormon, Moroni, the brother of Jared, Adam, Enoch, Isaac, or Isaac’s son Jacob. Our view of what constitutes a prophet is not determined by whether or not scripture uses that specific word to identify people; it is determined by how the Lord uses those persons. Did they have spiritual authority over a people, for example? Are they treated as official representatives of God? Are their teachings canonized and considered authoritative? These kinds of questions determine whether we classify individuals as prophets, not whether they are specifically so designated.

19. Jeff Lindsay, “A Brighter Future for Mormon Theology: Adam S. Miller’s Future Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 21 (2016): 120–22. See also Jeff Lindsay, “Review of Adam S. Miller’s Future Mormon,” Mormanity, July 24, 2016.

20. I address such matters at length in Even unto Bloodshed.

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About Duane Boyce

Duane Boyce received his academic training in psychology, philosophy, and the clinical treatment of families. He received a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He was a member of the Moral Studies Group at BYU and served on the faculty there. He is a founding partner of the Arbinger Institute, a worldwide management consulting and educational firm, and is the author or coauthor of five books. He has published academic essays on scriptural topics in BYU Studies, The FARMS Review, Religious Educator, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, and the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture. He is author of the recent book, Even unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Kofford, 2015). Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president.

40 thoughts on “Reclaiming Jacob

  1. This is a very thorough examination, thank you! We were just reading through Jacob 7 recently as a family and I had earlier read a review of Miller’s thoughts. As I went through the text again, it was obvious to me that Miller was way off, but your analysis here dissects it completely.

    Brings to mind Elder Cook’s recent address to beware of the philosophies of men, and of looking beyond the mark.

  2. I don’t know who Adam Miller is, nor for that matter what he wrote in “Future Mormon”, but I can say that I am very impressed with the analytical dissection by Duane Boyce of the misinterpretation by Miller of what he (Miller) felt was this “un-Christlike behavior” manifested by Jacob towards Sherem, and all the other faulty reasoning and justification to support his assertions. Go Duane!

  3. I have generally been concerned by the increasing trend to reinterpret prophetic figures as gray characters (to use a dramatic trope). I feel Joseph Smith’s statement is generally applicable to such approaches: “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charged with doing.”

    I’m sure that Jacob did have character flaws and that he was at times less than perfectly Christ-like, but as Duane has amply demonstrated, the text hardly lends itself to determining what those flaws might have been.

    Moreover, there is a degree of spiritual danger in becoming too intent on exposing the supposed faults and assumed weaknesses of prophets. Some feel that bringing prophets down of their towers and re-envisioning their lives and characters in more human and fallible terms is refreshing. They then can have hope that like the prophet, they too can do great things for the Lord, despite their own personal weaknesses.

    While there may be merit in recognizing that prophetic levels of righteousness and spirituality are within the grasp of every individual, I believe it is generally more helpful to try to rise up to an ideal perception of prophetic righteousness than tear prophets down to our level of mortal weakness.

    If we can’t be sure of prophetic wrongdoing or error (meaning when it is not self-admitted or textually or historically obvious) it is simply better not to disseminate negative reinterpretations. There is certainly some gray area, and some suppositions of error are far more benign than others, but for the most part we should cease to find (or search or assume) fault. Prophetic figures have enough critics as it is, without us nitpicking their lives with psychoanalytical theories that are typically not even suitable for the task.

    Thanks Duane for your insightful analysis. I assume Adam Miller’s initial interpretation was in good faith and that eventually all of our differing opinions will be reconciled in Christ.

  4. Thank you. Very well said. After having thought about this, do you see this becoming a problem? “Insights” discovered through unconventional “deep” readings explained by the same theory that revealed them. Or similar. Any others to mention?

  5. Ryan Dahle’s comment about tearing down the prophets to make them human so that we common peasants feel like we too have hope is interesting.

    That’s what J. Golden Kimball is claimed to have said at one point, or words to that effect: that if he can make it, so can anyone else.

    And honestly, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if his life was that example for all of us. The Lord carefully put some colorful people in the Church; at a time when it wouldn’t be disastrous for many. Can you imagine if J. Golden Kimball or Porter Rockwell, or heck, even Brigham Young were the prophet today, with the news, internet, etc? It would be a disaster. Yet we still need those men when we need them. I am glad the Lord is in charge and not I.

  6. While I agree that Sherem’s sincerity in regards to the law is suspect, he is clearly sincere about his belief that prophecies and teachings about Christ were fictions. In a way, he loosely parallels Paul. The text states the he “labored diligently, and notably, this word pair is used 8 other times in the Book of Mormon text, which all describe sincere Gospel ministering.

    I think this article rightly points out that some of Jacob actions essentially represent God, and that the text portrays God taking Sherem’s life. That being the case, I think it is fair for us to ask if we are comfortable with a God who takes the life of someone who is diligently laboring for what they believe in, considering Sherem, from the information we are given, is only preaching. Becaus we have been on the receiving end of punitive treatment for our beliefs, Mormons, of all people, should think twice when we hear about someone being punished for promoting their beliefs, even if they are contrary to ours.

    This is where the question of Christ-like behavior becomes most pronounced. Do we believe that Christ killed this man? The Christ we learn about in the New Testament condemns institutional wickedness and sins, but doesn’t suggest force as a way of promoting his teachings. Instead, he gives his own life to demonstrate truth.

    • Ben, If you will recall from the article and from the Book of Mormon text itself that Sherem knew the scriptures but yet denied the doctrine of the Christ. Joseph essentially called Sherem a liar when he told Sherem that he demanded a “sign in the thing which thou knowest to be true.” On his deathbed confession he said that he had lied to the Lord “for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him.”

      That is what the text and Sherem himself tells us. He did blame his deception on the devil though.

      Whatever you may believe or wish to believe, I would suspect that God knew Sherem’s heart and motives as to why he (Sherem) was working so diligently.


      • That’s a good point about his deception, saying he believed the scriptures while knowing that they taught of Christ. Whatever his motives were, I think, from our modern perspective (post-globalization), Sherem lying about his belief in the scriptures and preaching towards whatever end he was working towards, which from the text seems to be to preach his disbelief in Christ, doesn’t merit death. While we can’t judge Jacob by modern standards, we can certainly judge the portrayal of God in the text. Sherem’s end is just so Old Testament like, which vengeful God we often chalk up to Israelite propaganda and culture as he doesn’t completely fit our Christian golden rule conception.

          • The text claims it is God, but we have license to question the narrator. I might ask if the events are reported accurately or if they accurately portray God’s role, for example. I never meant to suggest that Jacob was killing anyone. I just meant that Jacob’s report of God killing Sherem creates a portrayal of God we might not be entirely comfortable with.

        • The idea that the Old Testament and New Testament have opposing portrayals of God is in itself an imposition on the text. It’s certainly not LDS doctrine (or the perspective of the Book of Mormon) that one portrayal of God is “Israelite propaganda”, nor does the New Testament or the Book of Mormon fit the very selective image of Christ popular in modern Western culture.

          It’s the Old Testament that first says “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18), and it’s Jesus who talks of people being cast into hell (Matthew 18:8-9 et al), who quotes Micah approvingly as the words of “the Father” that he will “execute vengeance and fury upon” those who will not repent and come to Christ (3 Nephi 21:21), not to mention what Christ promises to do in Revelation and the Doctrine and Covenants.

          If scripture doesn’t fit “our… conception”, and makes us uncomfortable, we should at the least consider that it’s not scripture that is wrong.

          • Some of the Old Testament definitely portrays a God that Mormons don’t believe in. A good example is the book of Joshua’s account of God’s sanctioned extermination of the Canaanites. A lot of Latter Day Saints raise their eyebrows at God’s command to kill men, women and children. As it turns out, historical evidence doesn’t support the account of violent take over, which gives further justification to any who question that callous version of God.

            You say if scripture makes us uncomfortable or doesn’t fit our conception we should “at the least” consider that it isn’t the scripture that’s wrong. I agree, but this is the default mode by which we approach scripture. The typical Latter Day Saint reaction is to make our beliefs and opinions align to scripture. I’m suggesting that we break from the norm by at least considering the possibility that the account of God in Jacob 7 could be flawed.

          • “Some of the Old Testament definitely portrays a God that Mormons don’t believe in.”


            Just because *you* don’t believe that, doesn’t mean you get to speak for what “Mormons” believe categorically”.

            Nephi himself, of course, discusses the invasion of Canaan in 1 Nephi 17.

            You seem to have no other basis for rejecting scriptural authority and the account of Jacob 7 other the fact that you disagree with it. The author’s footnote above is relevant: “In discussing Jacob, I, like Miller, am assuming an audience that accepts the canonicity and spiritual authority of the Book of Mormon and other Standard Works. Those who do not are an audience for another occasion.”

        • I think you are mistaken. God is not, clearly, a wimpy “I love everyone and would never execute judgment on them!” person, despite modern ideas.

          God did send the flood, after all. As for the killing of the Canaanites: 1, we don’t have the full story, and 2, what we do know suggests that there was very good reasons for the extermination. Consider this: at one point, the Canaanites had the truth and the church, we are told. They were very, very clearly apostate by the time Joshua showed up. So God was punishing an apostate group, just as Ammonihah was destroyed, and just like He allowed the Nephites to be destroyed at the end of the Book of Mormon: they had known the truth and rejected it.
          Second, God commanded it because if they were left alone, their perverted worship would destroy the Israelites. Which, in fact, is what happened: the worship of the Jews was corrupted by the Baal worship of the Canaanites.

          God is a God of law and justice. When people reject the opportunity for mercy, there really is nothing left to prevent justice from being executed upon them.

          Consider the line from the Olive Tree parable, where God cut down the fruit that occupied the one piece of land so He could plant a branch there. That fruit or tree that was removed was the Jaredite civilization, and it was removed rather violently. And yet they deserved it. God is just, believe it or not. And sometimes, people and civilizations get what they deserve, instead of getting mercy. We should have no problem with that.

          • I don’t need to appeal to an “I love everyone and would never execute judgment on them!” version of God to justify claiming that God did not order the extermination of all men, women and children in Canaan. If we can’t agree that the God we worship wouldn’t do that, then I don’t think we’ll find enough common ground to have a productive conversation on this topic.

          • Vance’s comments are quite correct. And this is not just a once off. You don’t just have the invasion of Canaan, there’s the Exodus from Egypt, there’s the flood, there’s the Cataclysm preceding Christ’s appearance in the Americas. The Book of Mormon is in perfect accord with the Bible that God has at times orchestrated widespread destruction. And the Doctrine and Covenants states he will do it again (“And the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth” D&C 1:13 et al).

            To argue that God would *never* do such things is draw some a priori idea of what God would or would not do from somewhere, but certainly not the LDS scriptures.

          • I would add that the Book of Moses states that God has, by the power of His word, caused entire worlds to pass away–and I presume that at least some of those worlds were inhabited at the time of their demise.

            While murder is wrong for us, God is in a different boat. He gave us life, and He can remove us from it. Since we are eternal spirits, all God is doing is moving us back to the world of spirits and ending our test–early, as it were. And in judgment, that early ending will no doubt be taken into account. In the case of the Canaanites–or the Nephites at the end of the Book of Mormon– those few, righteous souls who are caught up in the generalized destruction and perish will still be rewarded. The no doubt many righteous saints who perished in Nephite lands at the time of Christ’s crucifixion well be compensated.

            Any conception of God that does not allow for Him to cause widespread destruction; whether by His own hand (via nature, like volcano, flood, disease or the like) or via His own people, such as Joshua that we know of –any such conception does not comport to scripture.

            God, we are told, will destroy the earth with fire in a not too distant time. I imagine many righteous will not survive it, along with a whole heaping helping of wicked people. We long and pray for that day of destruction, do we not? For Christ to come and cleanse the earth? Are we not praying for the Lord to destroy the wickedness? He is not going to come down and appear on Maury Povich and ask people to repent if they can find the time. No, He will come with thunderings, lightnings, great winds, fire, and destruction. The elements will melt with fervent heat… and I’m sure that the resulting lava rock will not be a day at the spa. Indeed, the destruction will be so great that the Lord will lift up the righteous to meet Him, while the world burns below.
            If that is what we are praying for; for the world to end in fire at the hands of the Lord with the concurrent extermination of the wicked on earth… then why is anyone shocked that the Lord would have ordered Joshua to sweep away a very wicked group of people before? Why would the Lord leave them alone is a more pertinent question. He has orchestrated the fall of many civilizations and the deaths of billions when their wickedness grew too great–Aztec, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian, Nazi Germany (a quick demise), the Soviet Union, and, it appears, America is in that same process today, unfortunately.

          • Vance, you stated, “God is a God of law and justice. When people reject the opportunity for mercy, there really is nothing left to prevent justice from being executed upon them.” I wonder how Canaanite innocent mothers and children “rejected the opportunity for mercy”. I’ve found that when I can no longer defend the indefensible I need to change my assumptions.

          • KarlS:

            I know this because of 1 Nephi 17: 33-35, where Nephi explicitly states that the people (the Canaanites) had rejected the word of God and were ripe in iniquity. I presume that includes the women as well as the men. After all, the primary issue that afflicted the Israelites as a consequence of not destroying the Canaanites was sexual sin and worshipping hedonistic, and female, Canaanite gods and goddesses. Presumably the worship of the goddesses was a female thing. In any case, Nephi tells us pretty straightforward that the Canaanites had had an opportunity to repent and had rejected it and were ripe in Iniquity… and thus God executed judgment on them.

            I struggle to see how God could destroy a wicked nation without some innocents necessarily getting caught up in the process, short of sending down an angelic army to do a “Duck duck goose” scenario. Of necessity, the weapons of destruction–be it disease, famine, natural disaster, or war — are not able to be targeted specifically enough to target only the wicked.

            Still, the Lord did command that all the Canaanites be slain. What about the innocent children? I submit that there were very few innocent wives or mothers; the entire nation was ripe with iniquity and they had rejected the Lord. There simply wouldn’t have been many innocent wives around (I actually suspect that like Ammonihah, what innocent women were there had been driven off or eliminated; part of their ripening in iniquity).

            But for the children: Was it not better for them to be slain and go to heaven rather than be raised in an environment certain to cause them to sin? The Lord destroys wicked nations when they become so wicked that the next generation will not get a chance to be good, much like the flood.

            The other option of sparing only the children and taking them into the Israelite home with the intent of converting them/raising them up to the Lord also seems problematic. Outside of very young children, most of them would not warm up to a family that killed their parents. They would have been lost, afraid, probably slaves, and grow up with a towering hatred towards the Israelites. A thorn in the bosom, as it were. And indeed, that is exactly what happened, for the Israelites did not follow God’s commandments, and they were troubled by the Canaanites and apostatized frequently–all through the book of Judges; all through the Kings, until Egypt and the Assyrians and Babylon started messing around.

            They did not do what God commanded, and many, many generations of God’s children suffered because of it. Would not it have been better for them to have fully followed God’s commandment to erase the Canaanites root and branch (as a divine punishment for rejecting the Lord mind you, not some innocent nation that had never heard of the Lord), rather than sentence generations of their descendants to apostasy and sin?

        • My mistake. I just thought most of us would at least agree that God wouldn’t give an extermination order for children, but you have definitely forced me to add a qualifier.

          So, correction to my prior comments: Some Mormons aren’t comfortable with the idea that God would order the killing of all children in a given geographical area.

          As far as Jacob 7 goes, we can certainly agree to disagree.

          • I think this is an important discussion to be had, because one of the most common Atheist attacks on God is the same thing you are using: no “True God” would ever order the death or genocide of an entire group of people. Since the Bible says God did it, there must be no God.

            You say that the Bible is wrong and God didn’t order it (or it was attributed, wrongly, to God). It is a similar argument to the Atheist attack on God, really.

            So I think it’s an important one to discuss. I think an analogy here is appropriate:
            Hiroshima and Nagasaki: good or bad? Would a just, righteous nation have dropped the atomic bomb? Would God, in fact, have dropped the bomb? I submit that He would have. I submit that, in fact, atomic technology was allowed to be developed by the US primarily for that purpose: to drop on the Japanese.

            Those bombs, the ending of the war, and the subsequent occupation of Japan by the US “destroyed” the Japanese. Their militaristic, racist, warmongering culture was destroyed and in a sense, their nation ended. It was rebuilt into a different country. Japan of today is clearly a far, far better place than 1930’s Japan. They would never do the “rape of Nanking” today.

            The atomic bomb was a terrible thing that brought about good. It was an act of mercy, really: it saved Japan from invasion and likely national and ethnic suicide, it saved millions of US, British, Australian lives, and many other good things.

            It’s also led to millions of people who blame the US for nuking “innocents”, and calling the US evil and a monster. Just like the argument against God for the Canaanite attack.
            In particular, your argument about God not removing innocent children in Canaan strikes me as a bit off. This was a time in the world’s history where children died more often than not. Most of the killed children would have died anyway–disease, sacrificed to Molech, etc.
            Further, by dying before the age of accountability, they are guaranteed salvation. If the population must be cleansed, I have less of a problem with the children going to a guaranteed reward than with those who lose any chance for repentance.

            When the Canaanites forfeited their chance to remain on the earth, and justice demanded they be removed; it is not the children we should mourn; for they are guaranteed heaven. It is those who did not repent and were cut down in the depths of evil and are forever lost that we should sorrow for. Yet in the end, they were judged and had reached the end of God’s grace.

            I am sure they were warned, many times. Yet they failed to repent. Nineveh was warned and did repent and were spared. Jerusalem was warned and called to repentance and did not, and the Babylonians came and destroyed Jerusalem and carried them captive. Do we say that was an act of unjust God? When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the people there became cannibals…. was that the act of an unjust God?

            If the Israelites would have followed through and removed all the Canaanites, their history would have been far more peaceful. How many millions of Israelites fell into apostasy due to Canaanite seductive theology and apostasy? How much misery and heartache followed? If they had just cauterized the would completely as God commanded, they would have been far better off.

            Just as the slaying of Laban would appear to be wrong at first glance, God with His greater view and knowledge knew that it was necessary, and a great good, and besides: Laban had forfeited his life via his actions. Nephi was just the agent of the Lord in executing justice. Any injustice inflicted on the Canaanite children would be tacked to their parents case; for it was the parents that ruined it all and required God to remove their civilization. That is the parent’s fault, and that is why any blame for the death of their children is on their heads, not God’s.

          • For all:
            Please be cautious about involving too much of our own assumptions and culture onto the past. God has pretty much told us that we don’t have the tools to judge him–either for right or wrong. We need to understand as best we are able.

            In the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I’m sure that those residents felt quite differently about the moral justification of the bombing that you have suggested. I would be hesitant to suggest that God inherently sides against the Japanese. Similarly, I suppose that those responsible for 9/11 thought that God was on their side–even though we would certainly disagree.

            Perhaps it is best if we do our best to understand and not suggest that we happen to know what God is thinking at any given point in time.

    • I appreciate your comments and the discussion they’ve engendered! I just want to add one thought. We as humans should never kill (I’ll leave aside the rare exceptions) but I don’t think that means we can thus assume that God should never kill, and doubt scriptures that say he does. In fact, almost all the death that occurs in the world is God’s own fault; disease, cancer, aging, car accidents, lightning strikes, food poisoning, heart attacks–they’re all part of his world and he could have intervened to stop any of them. It is unusual for a person’s death to be so clearly attributable to God’s will as it was in Sherem’s case, but really all deaths are God’s will. So, to me, it doesn’t make sense to say that Christ surely wouldn’t kill people; he does it all the time. Death comes for us all and is part of the plan; it’s not our business as mortals to decide who dies when, but surely it is God’s business.
      Again, thanks for your comment, even though I didn’t ultimately agree. It gave me a lot to think about.

  7. Duane Boyce has carefully and fully exposed Adam Milller’s remarkably confused slanted treatment of Sherem provided by Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It is clearly a mistake to think that by borrowing “insights” from mushy contemporary philosophy we can correct and improve on our scriptures by doing theology. It turns out that what MIller lacks in clarity, which seems like something profound and insightful to some, also involves gargled readings of the Book of Mormon by seeking to employ tenuous explanations borrowed by secular sources.

  8. Duane this was a well done rebuttal to a form of poorly conceived commentary. I remember the first time I ran into such high brow analysis was a piece written by Joe Spencer in a blog referenced as Feast Upon the Word at this link . In this piece he attempts to paint Nephi’s slaying of Laban as a manifestation of some latent desire boiling over inside to slay his brothers Laman and Lemuel. In retains a similar feel to the piece of Miller’s of an overt effort to psycho-analyze and undermines the value of the scriptural source. Perhaps someday you may wish to acquaint yourself with what seems one of the earliest forms of a burgeoning effort to remake Book of Mormon prophets into children of a lessor God.

  9. The moment I read Lindsay’s review of the Miller chapter, calling it a deeper reading of the text, I thought such a conclusion wrong. Thanks for taking the time to dissect and expose the fallacy.

  10. I have always been surprised at the person who feels capable of psychoanalyzing someone else who is removed spatially, culturally, and temporally. And with Jacob, such analysis is based on an altogether incomplete record. If a professional would not do such a thing for fear of malpractice, why the literary critic? In the end, it says more about the person who is willing to go down that path than the one being “analyzed.”

  11. Thanks for this. Though I’ve been a fan of Miller’s work in the past, I had lots of problems with many of the essays and conclusions in Future Mormon. This validates a lot of my concerns.

  12. For all the harshness here against Miller’s approach in his essay on Jacob, I don’t think there is a convincing rebuttal to the a key observation in his essay: Jacob told Sherem that a sign would NOT change him and bring him to repentance, but the sign God did give most clearly DID change Sherem. Sherem repented and his witness then brought many souls to Christ.

    Yes, it was a different kind of sign than Sherem wanted, and yes, it was a sign from God given under direction of the Spirit, as the author points out, but it certainly was a sign. For someone who was completely of the devil, utterly insincere, beyond hope of repentance, he responded quite well. Is it unwarranted of Miller to wonder if this was a surprise to Jacob, who then began to more fully see the possibility of change among his enemies, the Lamanites? Whether his analysis is off or not, the tone of his essay is not one of tearing down the prophets but of showing us something more about the doctrine of Christ and how it can help us move past the limitations of the lenses we use to view others. He may be wrong in some of his readings and assumptions, but this essay in particular is not one that should weaken anybody’s faith.

    In the comments above, Miller is condemned for bogus psychoanalysis and tearing down a prophet, when to me it seems he is seeking to understand who the prophet was and what kind of lens he used in viewing others. Every prophet and every writer has a lens. Faithful LDS commentators have taken somewhat related approaches to understand the attitude of Nephite writers toward the Lamanites or to understand the views and actions of other prophets. I think Miller deserves more thoughtful consideration, particularly in the essay on Jacob, though I also disagree with a number of his positions in Future Mormon.

    • I will leave to others the persuasiveness or not of, and the implications surrounding, the “sign” given Sherem by God. And I will accept your suggestion that Miller’s attempted psychoanalysis of Jacob is with good intent (even though it casts Jacob in a less than favorable light). This nevertheless does not ameliorate the monumental problem connected to such an endeavor. Miller thinks he can, centuries later, in a different culture and with an utterly incomplete record (as it regards Jacob’s mental makeup), determine that he can psychoanalyze Jacob and use that as the explanation for Jacob’s behavior, as set forth in Jacob 7. It can’t be done; it is incomplete and in its incompleteness unfair. It is akin to those historians who think they can diagnose Joseph Smith as schizophrenic based upon some journal entries and third person accounts and state that this schizophrenia explains Joseph’s spiritual experiences. I do not need Jacob to be perfect to make sense of the Book of Mormon, and if someone wants to point out things that establish the imperfectness of a prophet, well, so be it. But I do take issues with someone who wants to do it in what I consider to be an unfair and unprofessional way.

  13. Vance, at 9:05am,
    Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough response. You make a good case. However, it hasn’t sufficiently swayed me from my previous feelings. When an uncertain historical record thousands of years old characterizes God in a way that is inconsistent with one’s closely held moral beliefs and rational reasoning, the person can change their entire understanding of God to fit, or question the accuracy of the record, or shelf the issue for another day. I’ve done a mix of the latter two to quell the dissonance. Also, just because Nephi was reiterating something from the Brass Plates that occurred 1500 years earlier and could have been very inaccurate by then (600 BC), doesn’t mean he had any more intel on its accuracy than just to assume it was good.

  14. Brilliant analysis and a true “deep reading” of both the text and Miller’s interpretation. I found this enlightening, an astute dismantling of a potentially harmful reading of Restoration scripture. This is scholarship at its best, used to bring to light assumptions and expose faulty reasoning in the service of truth and faith. Thanks!

  15. I’m surprised no one mentioned the account in Acts 5 -Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Lord and lose their lives. Seems rather “Old testament”. Perhaps, we don’t really understand God. Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. Sherem lied to God. Not a good idea.

    • Not that I’m taking historicity of the the Ananias and Sapphira account for granted, but if I were, there would still be a huge difference between Sherem, Ananias, and Sapphira dropping dead, and God commanding the physical slaughter of a group of human beings, including children, in a take-no-prisoner style extermination. I think it’s fair to raise questions about Sherem, Ananias, Sapphira, and others with deaths attributed to God, but when we start talking about a commanded extermination event, which ended up being a huge point of debate in these comments, the ethical issues raised are just so strong. Why not a miraculous destruction? Why have covenant holding and righteous individuals go kill children?

      • I should clarify that I don’t think a Canaanite extermination necessarily took place. There isn’t evidence to back it up. If there had been, I wouldn’t attribute it to God, nor would I think there would be justification for it, and if you do attribute it to God, then I think my two questions from the comment above need to be addressed.

    • Steve, great point about Ananias and Sapphira. Trying to psychoanalyze Jacob is risky enough, but we truly do not know the Lord’s mind or heart. His ways clearly are not our ways. And it is we who are the fools, not God, any apparent evidence to the contrary.

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