Spiritual Meaning of the Book of Mormon
Transcript of the September 2003 BMAF Conference held at Thanksgiving Point
Spiritual Meaning of the Book of Mormon
Joseph L. Allen
Nephi says, “For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” The people that he is working with in the New World haven’t lived in Jerusalem. They were already here, so they didn’t know the manner of prophesying among the Jews. He goes on to say, “I have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1-2). Then, in verse 4, he says that the writings of Isaiah are not really hard to understand. They’re plain to all those who are filled with the spirit of prophecy. I will prophecy according to plainness, which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father. Verse 5, “My soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes have beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets.” In fact, he says that there are no other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews. There is the key. Let’s figure out how the Jews taught; let’s study it, then we can understand Isaiah, not only Isaiah, but we can understand all of the Hebrew writing.
What about the Hebrew writing in the Book of Mormon? We can understand them, too. Nephi made it quite easy to understand in the Book of Mormon, but if we understand the manner of prophesying among the Jews, then maybe it gives us a few keys and a few clues. Then, Nephi says, verse 6, “I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews. (See that’s another repetition.) For I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, where I know concerning the regions round about.” Now, what does that have to do with it? That is geography, the regions round about. So, one of the keys to understand Isaiah is to know the regions round about. That includes their culture, their language, where they lived.
I started teaching Seminary in 1960. In those days, Book of Mormon geography became a negative word. In the 1960’s-70’s, if someone were to ask me where the city of Zarahemla is, I would have answered that I don’t know, and I really don’t care, because it isn’t important. That’s a pretty dogmatic statement; and we’d usually follow with, “If the Lord wants us to know, he’ll tell us.” So, we can do anything we want to escape learning or studying.
I’m here to say that I was wrong on both counts: I do care, and it really is important. If we go to Israel and talk about being on the Mount of Olives, or the Sea of Galilee, or vicariously walk through that last week with Christ (We even sing, ‘I Walked today where Jesus Walked.’), or if we go to the Sacred Grove and sing, ‘Oh, How Lovely was the Morning,’ or we can even take a pioneer trek and build some handcarts and vicariously teach our children what it was like as nearly as we can to have that experience to travel through that ordeal and follow the Martin handcart company and see the site there and read their journals, those vicarious experiences help us. The closer we can get to understanding things the better off we are. So the purpose of this presentation today, from my point of view, is to say that geography is extremely important. The reason I’m saying that is not because geography, per se, is important, but it’s because ‘it’s after the manner of the Jews’. I really believe that the reason that Mormon and the other writers put geography into the Book of Mormon is, 1- To leave a trail, so we can read it better; 2- I think it is to emphasize a spiritual message. I could say the same thing about climate or money or Jacob, chapter 5, on the Allegory of the Olive Tree, or the Tree of Life vision: to see the imagery of the Hebrew writers; how they could paint a picture with words. And they do it in beautiful poetry style, so that now you have a picture sitting in front of you. Now, we have to go beyond the picture to get to the spiritual meaning here. So, we have to take it from the physical to the spiritual.
Why did the Savior speak in parables? So that those who had ears could hear, and those that had eyes could see, meaning being able to spiritually understand. We understand things by the Spirit, and that’s what Nephi just said, it’s easy to understand Isaiah if we listen to the Spirit.
Alma chapter 22 is oftentimes called the ‘Geography Chapter’ of the Book of Mormon. I’m not going to put on a paper, today, where these places may have been. I think it’s important to understand the Book of Mormon, but I want to get to the message because we don’t have a lot of time to do it in. Here is the context in which it is given: Aaron, the brother of Ammon, son of Mosiah, who went up to the Land of Nephi to preach the gospel, had the opportunity to teach the old Lamanite king. He presented this all throughout chapter 22. The climax to that is in verse 18. “O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.”
First, the old king is one who didn’t really know that God existed. Now he’s asking, do you exist and do you know who I am? That changed my life. When I realized that I literally had a Father in Heaven, and that he could answer prayers, and that I could talk to him from the depths of my soul, it changed my life. I knew that when I was ever alone, and in whatever circumstance, I could always go to my Father. So, he’s saying, if there is a God (and I believe what Aaron has told me, so there must be a God), will you let me know that? If you exist, tell me. Bear witness to me, would you please. Then he says, here’s what I’ll do – I’ll give away all my sins. This is the same old king, remember, who said to his son, Lamoni, kill that Nephite who is the son of a liar (speaking of Ammon). Now, here he is, having been taught by Aaron, and saying I’ll give away all my sins. In other words, he’s repenting. I’ll stop doing the bad things I’ve doing and start doing good things. So, he changed.
The second thing he wanted to know was if he would live again; if after he died he would live again; the result of the atonement. So, those are two great messages. These are the same two things that we want to know. Now, as we read this part in the Book of Mormon, we can read it over and over again, because we can apply it to ourselves.
Then, we come to a verse that seems almost out of place. Verse 27 – “And it came to pass that he king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the border of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided.” Isn’t that a wonderful verse? Do you have in underlined? This is my most favorite scripture in the entire Book of Mormon. It sounds a lot like geography, right? It is geography. Now my question is, why would we have a deep, spiritual message all the way up to that point, and then all of a sudden start talking about geography? It’s like in college – we just went from the Institute class to the Geography class. Why would Mormon even put it in there?
Let’s check verse 32, this is about in the middle of the eight geography verses that seem out of place. “And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.” How many of you in your memory have consciously read that passage about the day-and-a-half journey? Is it a passage that stands out? I don’t think I’ve taken a tour to Central America where someone hasn’t asked, ‘Where’s that day-and-a-half’s journey. There is something about that particular scripture that jumps out at us. It was only a day-and-a-half journey for a Nephite? Why for a Nephite? Could a Nephite travel faster than a Lamanite? Were they in better shape than the Lamanites? They lived in the same mountains. They were essentially the same people, being descendants of Lehi.
So, it’s a day-and-a-half’s journey from where to where? First, there is a boundary line there, so you’ll have to put the line along a boundary. Something divides Bountiful from Desolation, whether it’s a mountain or a river, or something else. And, it was only a day-and-a-half’s journey from that line to the west sea, right? This distance was on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, and the Land Desolation from the east. If I were doing it, I would take the comma from after ‘Desolation’ and put it in after ‘east’. Who put the punctuation in the Book of Mormon, anyway? The printer, who was a non-Mormon. I think what it is really saying is “the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation from the east.” Or, Desolation’s east boundary to where? The west sea. So, it’s from wherever that boundary line is to where the west sea begins, which is probably the Pacific Ocean, although that’s irrelevant to what we’re discussing here. A day-and-a-half’s journey is (according to a Mayan terminology where a day is about eight miles if you were carrying a burden and walking with some children and a few pigs, in the mountains) about 12 miles – a pretty good trek through those mountains. Those of you who have been to Guatemala know that you’d have a hard time traveling at more than eight miles in a day. So, it’s a day-and-a-half’s journey on that line from the eastern boundary of Desolation to the west sea.
It also mentions some other things in that verse – the west sea, the small neck of land, he land northward, the land southward, Bountiful, and Desolation.
Here is a map that I’ve just been given of Mesoamerica. Here is Guatemala, Guatemala City, México City, and Cancún. We’re going to put the Land of Nephi in the highlands of Guatemala, and the Land of Zarahemla in the lowlands of Guatemala. The narrow strip of wilderness goes here (Cuchamatane Mountains), so that the east sea is the Atlantic Ocean and the west sea is the Pacific. The day-and-a-half’s journey for a Nephite is on the line that divided Bountiful from Desolation to the west sea. So, it’s really just a fortification line there, and it fits geographically, but, again, that’s not the message I’m trying to get across. As I asked before, what’s it doing here in the first place? After the spiritual introduction, we need to start thinking ‘after the manner of the Jews’. Now, in order to really understand this, we probably need to know the geography.
Let’s go back and read verse 31. “And they came from there up into the south wilderness. Thus the land on the northward was called Desolation, and the land on the southward was called Bountiful, it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food.”(Referring again to the map, he points to the area to the west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) The area to the north is to be called the Land Northward, and everything to the south (east on the map) we’ll call the Land Southward. The narrow neck of land is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Even the wild animals had come from the Land Northward into the Land Southward looking for food.
On a recent tour, we were at Palenque and Dick Gordon had bought a little book about the state of Chiapas. (Here is Chiapas on the map, and here, again, is Guatemala, which is about half the size of the state of Utah. Chiapas, México, is a little bit bigger than the country of Guatemala, and used to be part of Guatemala. We are proposing that Chiapas is the Land of Zarahemla and the highlands of Guatemala as the Land of Nephi. Of the 100 million people who live in México, only 3% live in Chiapas.) Dick, how many animals are in Chiapas? Dick Gordon replied, “Over 40% of the wild animals in México are in Chiapas.” The wild boar, the tapir, eight members of the cat family, When the storms come off the Gulf of Mexico, they come right across the Isthmus, hit the mountains then veer to the east and drop their moisture in Chiapas. So, in Chiapas (and Tabasco) where the massive mountains are, it’s always green because of the constant moisture. Yet, to the west of the Isthmus, over by Oaxaca, is some of the driest parts of México.
Did you pick up anything in verses 31 and 32? I want to put ‘a day-and-a-half’s journey’ as the center of a chiasmus. On each side you have such names as Bountiful-Desolation; Land Southward-Land Northward; As you move out from that central point it makes a chiastic structure. So, it’s not only that the geography is in there, it must be important. It tells me that Mormon didn’t just write something in the sand. He carved it out on the plates, and he put a lot of thinking time into it; and he was writing like the Hebrew writers wrote – after the manner of the Jews. But, his purpose is to get across a spiritual message. Would you agree with me on that? If not, what’s it doing in there? The Book of Mormon is sub-titled, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
I’ve heard it proposed, on occasion, don’t read these eight verses because we don’t know where the geography is. And, it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve even said that – but, again, I was wrong. I think that Mormon put it in there to emphasize a spiritual principle. What is the spiritual principle we’ve just been taught in the previous verses? The Plan of Salvation that Aaron taught the old king. He taught about the Creation, the Fall of Adam, and the Atonement of Christ. That’s the way we used to teach investigators back when I was on my mission. Christ overcame the physical death, and, if we repent, he has also overcome our spiritual death, then we’re promised eternal life, the greatest of all gifts. I still remember, I was trying to learn Spanish so I had memorized that entire dialogue in Spanish. So, it was time for me to give the Fifth Discussion, and here was this good, Catholic lady, and she was nervous because she didn’t think she should be reading her Bible, because only the priests could do that. As we went through that, all of a sudden it dawned on me what those words were. That’s a good lesson; that makes a lot of sense to me. I thought about that, still trying in Spanish, and it impressed me so much that I went back to the first and started over again. My companion wondered, but I gave the Fifth Discussion to her the second time because it felt so good to me. Like the old king said, I’ll give away all my sins to know who you are, and that if I can live again.
So, I think these passages in here are from a Hebrew point of view, taking a hammer and nail and pounding forth the Plan of Salvation.
Now, let’s read a couple more verses. Verse 27. These writers were geniuses, the ones from the Hebrew background. I just love Mormon. Here he is giving us a physical lesson but teaching a spiritual message. “regions round about”, oh, I get it – that’s how we understand. “bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west’. We’ve had a couple of other lectures today that refer to the Hebrew background of the Book of Mormon, and this is a typical Hebraism right here – the manner of the Jews. The whole message that I’m trying to get across, is that this is a spiritual text. These eight verses here are really just emphasizing the Plan of Salvation, only using physical terms to do it.
Talking about Hebrew parallels, what parallels do you see in that verse 27 – two things that are either alike or that contrast each other. Like sea east and sea west. (In other verses, land northward and land southward.) Lamanites and Nephites. What divided the Land of Nephi from the Land of Zarahemla? A narrow strip of wilderness, probably a mountain range. Where did it go from where to where? From the east sea to the west sea. The only place in all the Americas where a mountain range goes from the east sea to the west sea is right here in Guatemala.
Back to verse 28. “Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore.” So, there were Lamanites on the left by the west sea, and there were also many Lamanites on the east shore (verse 29), therefore the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites. Now, verse 32 again, the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water. There is not only a narrow strip of wilderness, there is also something else that’s narrow. The small, or narrow, neck of land. So, there is an isthmus and a mountain range that are narrow or small.
Now look at the parallels – sea east-sea west; Nephites-Lamanites; narrow strip of wilderness-narrow neck of land; surrounded by Lamanites-surrounded by water; Bountiful-Desolation. Where would you rather live – in Bountiful or Desolation? Do get a feel of what we might be talking about here then? What we’re trying to determine is why Mormon put geography in the Book of Mormon. It makes it easier for me to read, as I like geography. But, it doesn’t produce a lot of mileage unless it’s going to emphasize the purpose of the Book of Mormon. There are Hebrew writers, and Nephi said I have lived in Jerusalem and the regions round about, therefore, if we understand Book of Mormon geography, we’re going to understand the Book of Mormon better. He’s going to drive home the spiritual message.
Verse 35 is also interesting. “And now I, after having said this, return again to the account of Ammon and Aaron, Omner and Himni, and their brethren.” After having said what? That there is a sea on the east and a sea on the west? There is a narrow strip of wilderness and a narrow neck of land? And there’s a Land Bountiful and a Land Desolation? And there are Nephites and Lamanites? And the Nephites were surrounded by Lamanites? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it good to be surrounded by water? Mainly for safety. In fact, we’re surrounded by water before we’re even born for protection. We’re also protected by water when we partake of a covenant with God by baptism. You make a covenant with me and I’m bound if you do what I say. So, even though we’re surrounded by Lamanites that represent evil in our day, and we sing, “O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell,” we also sing, “We’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell.”
Let’s look at the two groups of people here. One left the Land of Nephi where the Lamanites now had control, and where did they go? North to Zarahemla. Is that good or bad? Who received them with open arms? The king, Mosiah, received them with open arms. So, they left evil for the good. Who receives us with open arms? The Lord, the king of heaven and earth will receive us with open arms. When we say good-bye to Babylon or Lamanites, they are the same thing as far as I’m concerned. You leave evil to go to good, and sometimes it’s a narrow way to go there.
Again, the question, would you rather live in Desolation or Bountiful? Why wouldn’t you want to live in Desolation? It doesn’t rain there, right? Now, let’s put that in spiritual terms. What is Desolation to you? Spiritual death. Isaiah put it this way – the two evil monsters are death and hell. Go back to the old king and giving away his sins. This, to me, is a follow-up in Hebrew style of saying
The conclusion to this is in Alma 34. How far was it from the east boundary line to the west sea? A day-and-a-half. Notice in Alma 34:32: “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” So, in this particular instance, our life is compare to one day. Mormon called it a day-and-a-half. Why? He’s taking something spiritual to teach us a spiritual message. It was a day-and-a-half’s journey from the east. What happens in the east? The sun comes up every morning. In Maya terminology, they color-coded their directions. We orient toward the north; they oriented toward the east. East is where you’re born, and east is red. West is black, like for nightfall. It’s as if we’re born in the morning and we die at night. Is that not a sign in itself of the Atonement of Christ and the Plan of Salvation? He says don’t procrastinate the day of your repentance, because you only have a day-and-a-half.
We know that the Book of Mormon is a spiritual message; and we know it teaches that Jesus is the Christ; and now that we understand that geography is important, why? To teach us a spiritual message. Mormon has taken geography and built a spiritual message around it. It’s more than a parable. A parable is where you can make up a story and give it a spiritual meaning. An allegory can be a true event, such as this one, which is accurate and still gets across a spiritual message. If Mormon could write only one-hundredth part of what he knew or what he had available to him, why did he spend so much time on geography if it wasn’t to help us with a spiritual aspect?
Also, we might want to find out why Mormon put the verses about money in his abridgment. Let’s start thinking like the Hebrews think and the message is driven home. Sometimes the message of the Book of Mormon itself is in the poetic writing of some of the authors.
Remember two things that the old king said – I’ll give away all that I have to know thee, and to know that I’ll live again. When we come to a geographical story in our reading of he Book of Mormon, let’s make sure we don’t stop there, let’s go beneath that and see if we can’t find the message that Mormon was trying to drive home. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.