The Gospel According to King Benjamin

January 8, 2014

book-of-mormon-2

This week we’ve jumped into the text of the Book of Mormon proper with Mosiah chapter 1 in the Community of Christ version, which is chapters 1-3 in the LDS version.[1]  Although the dictation process in the initial phase after the loss of the 116 pages was apparently slow and halting, the resulting text was certainly not lacking in ideas and content. Indeed, in this week’s reading we have the first portion of King Benjamin’s sermon — one of the most celebrated components of the Book of Mormon. As a result, this post will run a little longer than my plan for a normal week, but hopefully you’ll find it worthwhile.

As we begin our reading, we find ourselves at the end of the life of King Benjamin. We are told by the narrator that “there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla among all the people which belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days” (Mosiah 1:1 CofC and LDS). As we discussed last week, it’s tempting to speculate that the first part of the Book of Mosiah was lost among the 116 pages (which may well have contained many more lost books than just the lost Book of Lehi). If so, the missing section would presumably have covered a period of warfare prior to this time of peace.

An Introduction to the Text

Although we are picking up mid-story, we are given a bit of an introduction to the overall text in the form of a lesson spoken by King Benjamin to his sons “concerning the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass”:

My son, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God. For it were not possible that our father Lehi could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates… were it not for these things which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God that we might read and understand of his mysteries and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren the Lamanites, which know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct. (Mosiah 1:4-8 CofC/1:3-5 LDS)

This restates the purpose of the text we read in last week’s revelation from the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 2:6a-e CofC/D&C 3:16-20 LDS) in greater detail but with an important difference. In the D&C revelation the “Lamanites” — for which we should read the Native Americans in Joseph Smith’s day[2] — are to be given a written history that will lead them to “believe the Gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ.” In King Benjamin’s teaching, the same dilemma (fro is cited: lacking such a written history, Native Americans refuse to believe “even when they are taught”. But unlike in the D&C where the gospel of Jesus Christ is cited, King Benjamin calls this knowledge the commandments and mysteries of God, (for an important reason we’ll see later in the reading). In King Benjamin’s teaching, the appreciation of the power of text expressed here is something that resonates especially for me.

A Model for Righteous Leadership

King Benjamin next makes a proclamation for all his people to gather to hear a lengthy farewell address, during which he promises he will “give this people a name that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem.” (Mosiah 1:17 CofC/1:11 LDS)[3]

Addressing the gathered multitude, King Benjamin first presents himself as a kind of perfect model of sacred kingship — providing a check list for the righteous exercise of authority, both secular and religious. Since these are a list of his own qualities and acts, he is forced to include a slightly defensive humblebrag: yes, humility should be on the list, so you can be sure “I have not done these things that I might boast…I do not desire to boast…” (Mosiah 1:47-48 CofC/2:15-16 LDS).

As a model leader, King Benjamin has not sought gold, silver, and riches, but he has insisted that his people “keep the commandments of the Lord.” In words that must have been reassuring to readers in the young American republic who had only a few generations previously thrown off the rule of their British monarch King George III, in part, over the issue of taxation, King Benjamin reminds his people he had never caused them to “be laden with taxes” or to bear that “which was grievous to be borne.” (Mosiah 1:43-46 CofC/2:12-14 LDS)

In what I think is a very important message, King Benjamin stresses that his people should not “think that I of myself am more than a mortal man” since “I am like yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities of body and spirit.” (Mosiah 1:40-41 CofC/2:10-11 LDS) Leaders, even kings and prophets, are the same as everyone else.  Indeed, admitting his old age and infirmity, King Benjamin’s address marks his final act as king, since he has decided to retire from his position. (This is an interesting scriptural precedent for leaders retiring from active service to emeritus status, which has been the practice for the prophets and presidents of Community of Christ, but not the LDS Church.)

But the foundation of righteous leadership, in Benjamin’s teaching, is service. In a passage I found lovely, he takes his message of service even further:

Behold, ye have called me your king. And if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then had not ye ought to labor to serve one another? And behold also, if I, who ye call your king — who has spent his days in your service and yet hath been in the service of God — doth merit any thanks from you, O how had you ought to thank your heavenly King! (Mosiah 1:50-51 CofC/2:18-19 LDS)

The Gospel According to King Benjamin

The content of this sermon doesn’t let up. Although we’re skipping a lot — there’s far too much here to cover in one blog post — I want to get to place where King Benjamin fulfills his special promise to reveal a name to his people, which knowledge will make them “distinguished above all people” exiled after the destruction of Jerusalem.

At what is perhaps the core moment of his address, King Benjamin relates a vision of an angel, which I’ll quote here at length:

And he [the angel] said unto me: “Awake and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto thee glad tidings of great joy…

“For behold the time cometh and is not far distant that with power the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay;

“And shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwelleth in the hearts of the children of men.

“And lo, he shall suffer temptations and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

“And he shall be called Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. And lo, he cometh unto his own that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name.

“And even after all this, they shall consider him as a man and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him and shall crucify him. And he shall rise the third day from the dead; and behold, he standeth to judge the world.”

This vision is a brief “gospel” in the sense that it is an account of the life of Jesus with a theological interpretation of its meaning. By way of comparison, the apostle Paul gives an even briefer summary gospel in his first Letter to the Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news (“gospel”) that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NRSV)

When someone produces a summary, it can be interesting to observe which details are left in and which are left out. Paul, perhaps tellingly, omits relating anything about the teachings or acts of Jesus in life, focusing solely on his death and the resurrected Christ.[3]  King Benjamin’s summary, by contrast, includes many of the events of Jesus’ life recorded in the four full-length Biblical gospels, while still leaving out any teachings. (I notice that detail, perhaps, because if I were to undertake my own summary, it would probably focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ teachings.)

As in Paul’s theology, the purpose of Jesus Christ’s ministry in King Benjamin’s gospel is “that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name.” This idea is explored in considerable detail elsewhere throughout King Benjamin’s address (and Paul’s letters). One critical distinction that King Benjamin makes is that although those who have knowledge of Christ must repent and have faith in Christ to be saved (Mosiah 1:108 CofC/3:12 LDS), Christ’s atonement automatically covers those who are ignorant of Christ’s gospel (Mosiah 1:107 CofC/3:11 LDS), including especially those who die in childhood (Mosiah 1:114-15/3:16 LDS), meaning damnation in King Benjamin’s conception is reserved only for those who have heard the gospel and reject it (Mosiah 1:127-29 CofC/3:25-27 LDS).

Finally, I’m struck by the “high Christology” of King Benjamin’s gospel. Since the death of Jesus, Christians have wrestled with his nature and the relationship between the ideas of Jesus, Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and God (explorations known as “Christology”). If there is only one, omnipotent God, who is Jesus? Was he simply a righteous man (a very “low Christology”)? Was he a righteous man who was “adopted” by God to become divine (adoptionism)? Was Jesus divine but subordinate to God the Father (Arianism)?  Was Jesus fully divine at birth and only appeared to be a man (docetism)? After centuries of wrangling, the orthodox position emerged that Jesus was both “fully human” and “fully divine” and that there is “one God in three persons.” This doctrine of the Trinity holds that God the Father and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all one God, but Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father — a very complicated solution that is often described as a “mystery.”

King Benjamin’s calls the pre-existent Christ “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity” and goes on twice to use the formula “Christ the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 1:116,118 CofC/3:17,18 LDS). This strong equation of Christ with the Lord Omnipotent might imply either a Trinitarian outlook, or an even higher Christology — the idea that the pre-existent Christ is God the Father (modalism or Sabellianism). We’ll surely get more hints as we continue.

If you’re reading along and other content-related things popped out at you, please feel free to comment!

 

Next Week:

Next week’s reading is Mosiah 2-5 (CofC), 4-8 (LDS), where we’ll hear part 2 of King Benjamin’s sermon.

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[1] As I noted in the first post outlining the project, the Book of Mormon was only broken up into verses after the schism of 1844.  As a result, the LDS Church and Community of Christ have completely different versification systems.

[2] Because there’s so much content to consider this reading, I want to temporarily side-step a lengthy discussion of race and the Book of Mormon. We will surely have much more to say in future weeks. For now, I’ll say that to my thinking, the Anglo-American worldview of the early 19th century was itself unarguably racist and the Book of Mormon reflects the historical biases of its day, just as Paul’s epistles reflect the biases of the Roman Empire of the 1st century CE. Since we are not reading the Book of Mormon as a history this year, I am not supposing here that the text has anything at all to do with the actual history and pre-history of peoples indigenous to the Western Hemisphere prior to 1492. Instead, I expect the description of Lamanites in the text will tell us about the ideas (and prejudices) of Joseph Smith and other Anglo-Americans in the US of the early 19th century.

[3] According to Biblical stories, the exiles from the fallen kingdoms of Judah and Israel would include those taken to Babylon, those who (like Jeremiah) fled to Egypt, along with the members of the northern kingdom who had previously been removed by the Assyrians.

[4] Paul’s writings pre-date the composition of the four full-length gospels of the Biblical canon, and thus the “summary” in his case would be those details about the life of Jesus that Paul thought were most relevant, based on what Paul might have known from the contemporary oral tradition.

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A Couple Stray Observations:

• Last week in the D&C revelation, we were told “neither doth he [God] vary from that which he hath said” (D&C 2:1c CofC/D&C 3:2 LDS) and in this reading the same teaching is repeated: “he [God] never doth vary from that which he hath said” (Mosiah 1:56 CofC/2:32 LDS).

• In explaining why he needed to rehearse his characteristics as ruler to his people, King Benjamin said “I, at this time, have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless and that your blood should not come upon me when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you” (Mosiah 1:64/2:28 LDS).

This reminded me of the theology of King Henry V’s men in the famous scene in Shakespeare (act iv, scene i). The king, in disguise, talks to common soldiers to get a sense of his army’s mood on the eve of battle and at one point states: “methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.”

To which the first soldier replies: “That’s more than we know.” The second agrees, saying: “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.” And the third further explains: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.”

Henry’s theology is more sophisticated and he disagrees (the text is here), but King Benjamin’s words imply that he may agree with the men.

12 Responses to The Gospel According to King Benjamin

  1. Mike on January 8, 2014 at 1:37 PM

    “it’s tempting to speculate that the first part of the Book of Mosiah was lost among the 116 pages (which may well have contained many more lost books than just the lost Book of Lehi).”

    Correct me if I am wrong but I thought that the Printer’s Manuscript has Mosiah chapter 1 actually as chapter 3, and per Royal Skousen’s research on the PM he is noted as saying that the first 2 chapters were lost with the 116 pages.

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  2. John Hamer on January 8, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    Mike (#1): Oh, very good — thanks for pointing that out. Since we have twelve chapters (averaging about 6 pages each in the 1830 edition, but varying greatly) and are only missing two, the missing part may not have covered Benjamin’s whole career. So there might have been a Book of Benjamin before that. And since Benjamin’s father was also named Mosiah like his son for whom the Book of Mosiah we have is named, it’s possible there was a lost Book of Mosiah that would be 1 Mosiah and this 2 Mosiah.

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  3. Rick Collins on January 8, 2014 at 4:44 PM

    I noticed 1:64 too. It appears that the only consistently advocated idea about war in the Book of Mormon is that it is sinful. Some of its heroes advocate violence used as the lesser of two evils, some of it reject entirely, but it seems that no one presented as righteous truly believes that the use of violence comes without considerable ‘staining’.
    Thanks for the Henry V tie-in. A very helpful comparison.

    Additionally, I found the descriptions of political power and the ideal nature of community interesting.

    Benjamin clearly believes that God installs rulers over people, and that he is one of them. While I reject this idea, it is possibly helpful to perceive his statements as a reflection of the king God would give his assent to. In this kingdom, not only should his relationship to the people be one of humility, but he clearly believes that selfless service is the characteristic of a godly community. Those in power should work with their hands – physically contribute to the life of the community. They should not seek wealth. They should not use their power to take way others’ liberties (1:44), i.e. the agency of each person to use their power for their own service or the service of others is too important for him to interfere with – even while considering it the natural condition of man to be ‘evil’, which, we can assume by his description of virtuous life, is characterised by selfishness, among other things.

    Now, given the aforementioned references to war and violence staining his record as a king, while he expresses the need to humility, he is clearly trying to ensure that he is remembered not for the violence, but for being a faithful, humble king. This could well be seen as a politician trying to establish their legacy, and we should probably take stock of his reminder that he is not perfect. I would expect any legacy statement of a ruler to omit their flaws. However, he himself also says,

    “I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should
    fear me, or that ye should think that I, of myself, am more than a
    mortal man; but I am like as yourselves.” (1:40-41)

    It’s then interesting to consider the way people describe him as an ideal ruler (I remember being given that impression at church). It’s my impression on re-reading that Benjamin is not an ideal ruler (such a human has never existed), but he has a decent idea of what one should look like. Like us, he is aware of the ideals, and has lived a life that struggles to accomplish them.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on January 8, 2014 at 5:17 PM

    I had never considered the similarities between King Benjamin and George Washington before. Truly, we could have easily traded a distant king for a near one if he had been a different sort of leader. Fascinating parallel.

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  5. cubee on January 8, 2014 at 6:25 PM

    I certainly had never read Mosiah 3:11 without my modern Mormon view.

    What struck me while reading was the scripture mastery 3:19, which I finally read carefully while in context. What King Benjamin is saying, to me, is that not only will children automatically be saved and require no baptism, but if we are to be saved we must also be like little children. Maybe this was already apparent to everyone else, but I had never read it that way.

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  6. John Hamer on January 9, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    Great points!

    Rick (#3): I like your point on war. Given how much warfare we’ll be treated to in the narrative, I think we’ll have a lot of opportunity to consider the range and nuance or lack thereof of theology of the Book of Mormon.

    Regarding divine rulership: It’s kind of an interesting mix. Benjamin is the king, but he’s also a religious leader. He has inherited his leadership via lineage from his father and he is passing it on to his son, yet in justifying his rule, he insists “I have been chosen by this people” (Mosiah 1:42 CofC).

    Really that whole verse is like a triple crown of legitimation: “Yet, as I have been chosen by this people, and was consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord to be a ruler…”

    So, somehow there is a popular mandate, lineal inheritance, and divine rite. It reminds me a little of the old RLDS practice of our prophetic monarchy. The prophet-president was called by God, and nevertheless he was chosen to inherit by his father (or brother), and nevertheless the position was technically dependent on the common consent or election of the General Conference of the church, representing the people.

    I agree that the verse you and I both quoted against leader worship (Mosiah 1:40-41 CofC/2:10-11 LDS) is important enough to quote twice.

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  7. John Hamer on January 9, 2014 at 9:06 AM

    hawkgrrrl (#4): Yes, nice parallel. The virtues of republicanism (with a small ‘r’) drew on the values of the old Roman Republic which is why George Washington emulated Cincinnatus — who, according to myth, was a retired leader voted dictator during a crisis, who immediately after solving the crisis, laid down power and returned to his farm work. (“Cincinnati” is named after him and George Washington.) In this line of thinking, leaders are noble when they subordinate their personal interests to the greater good of the commonwealth. Benjamin is presenting himself as a kind of “citizen king” — kind of like Louis Philippe I who became King of France in 1830.

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  8. John Hamer on January 9, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    cubee (#5): Another example that there’s always a danger when we only read the one verse, scripture-chase style. Yes, when you read the whole section, it’s artful the way the two ideas are tied together: the idea that children are blameless and to be blameless all should be childlike.

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  9. Rigel Hawthorne on January 9, 2014 at 4:17 PM

    As I unwrap my mind from a historical correlation– that one abridger of a record selected a speech from a really good leader over the course of hundreds of years– to the idea that there was no abridger and this was revelation given no differently than D&C 2 (that we studied last week) was given, I find myself with some dissonance.

    If it was not an example of one really good leader, I tend to view it as a persuasive method to hold a combined spiritual/political leader faultless to an inhumanly high degree. Here is a king/priest without separation of church and state that delivers a message that talks about how good he has been and wraps that in with a feel good message.

    He is delivering a message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but the people are still practicing the law of Moses. He states he has not suffered them to have a right to adultery–so what was the consequence? Death? Would not the children of parent’s who were punished for having violated the adultery law have some criticisms of the government?

    He says he has labored so they would not be ‘laden’ or, in other words, heavily burdened with taxes, but this does not say they were without taxes. Every politician wants people to believe that taxes were better under their tenure than under the previous politician’s tenure.

    We assume that Mosiah was the oldest, as his name was listed first, but the narrative merely states that he was selecting one of his sons to be his successor. Might there have been camps that were in favor or Helaman, or Heloram that needed to be silenced? What better way than to deliver a great feel good speech. Then he collects names of everyone who has agreed to take the covenant, and nobody abstains. Is that peer pressure? After THAT, then he names Mosiah his successor and there is no rebellion.

    Viewing Benjamin with the historical context, that there was 3 years of peace after he retired and that the fruits of the great rule of Mosiah validated his selection, my mind wraps back around that fact that Benjamin was an example of extraordinary leadership, the likes of which we have no comparison for. He would be up there with Melchizedek or Enoch.

    As a member of a modern body of believers, it makes me wonder if such unified support for such a leader without murmuring could ever be possible.

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  10. Robert L. (Bob) Logan on January 11, 2014 at 8:08 PM

    …basic “talking points” of Mosiah, chpt 1:
    a) Benjamin taught his three sons the keeping of records 1) provides the knowledge of their fathers; 2) fulfills God’s commandment; 3) prevents falling into unbelief and relying on false traditions.

    b) keep the commandments of God so you may prosper

    c) people live in peace because they follow the commandments

    d) Mosiah was appointed to succeed King Benjamin

    e) people gathered at the temple with their families and firstlings of their flocks to 1) offer sacrifice and 2) hear the words of their king

    f) service to man is service to God

    g) salvation only comes through Christ

    h) natural man, since the fall of Adam, is an enemy to God except for the atonement of Christ

    …pondering how the above influenced the early development of the faith movement.

    …can’t help but wonder how these would have related to the Christian “talking points” of the Burnt-Over District in 1820-1830.

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  11. Rick Collins on January 12, 2014 at 5:36 PM

    Bob (#10),
    It’s definitely worth considering how King Benjamin’s speech would have sounded coming from a revival preacher, including the back and forth with the audience. I suspect it would fit rather naturally.

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  12. Rick Collins on January 12, 2014 at 7:14 PM

    John (#6),
    It might be an interesting exercise to explore how Joseph Smith, as a theocratic leader, meets up to the standards set in Benjamin’s speech.

    At first glance…
    -As a presidential candidate, advocated for significant reforms of the criminal justice system away from the use of prisons – seems consistent with Benjamin’s opposition to dungeons. I’m not sure to what degree Nauvoo’s municipal government utilised imprisonment during his time as Mayor, but it seems clear that his experience with imprisonment.

    -Laboured with own hands – it seems Joseph Smith continued to run his store and even financially struggled. However, if memory serves correct, Smith and Rigdon once unsuccessfully argued that some of the church’s ministry should be paid a small sum for their work (not sure where I heard that). With that said, I suspect that the Smith’s would have endured worse material discomfort had he not been in the position of power he was in.

    -Not seeking riches – while Joseph’s lack of wealth could be said to be due to a lack of financial skill, it was also clear that he was willing to give where there was need and advocated for a redistribution of wealth. He also advocated for reducing the pay of political leaders.

    -Claims popular and sacred authority. Claims to lineal authority seems to have been more tenuous. If Benjamin loomed at all in his Nauvoo era thinking it might lend weight to the idea he intended his son to succeed him.

    Overall, it’s not a bad fit. To my thinking, this doesn’t mean Smith was an ideal leader either. The decision to shut down the expositor (to suffer that none commit wickedness? cf 1:46 CofC) and involvement in growing militarisation of the church community were clearly significant flaws in his leadership, perhaps showing that even with Benjamin’s guidance, human imperfections and differences in interpretation can result in poor decisions. (Not saying Smith was a poor leader, just that he made mistakes).

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