I’ve written a fair amount already on my rereading the Book of Mormon project, where I’m entertaining the idea of what a modern language edition of the book (or at least the Book of Mosiah) might look like. In my work thus far, I’ve been proceeding under the assumption that this is an inherently liberal project: In both the LDS and RLDS traditions, there has been considerable resistance to large-scale changes to the English language text of the Book of Mormon, largely because the English text is held to be translated through divine power and therefore unassailable.
Furthermore, I’ve drawn attention in the past to the ways that the question of modernizing the text calls into question these fundamentalist assumptions. For example, I wrote a few months ago about the question of whether references to biblical language in the Book of Mormon could be “updated” to a different translation than the KJV. In short, there are cases in which this raises questions about the Greek roots at the heart of some of that biblical language, which complicates the question of Joseph Smith’s translation of the book and his use of King James Version language.
Recently, though, I’ve stumbled on a passage where I think modernizing the text would be appealing and useful to those with more conservative approaches to the Book of Mormon, and I want to walk through my thinking as a sort of conservative case for a modern language edition of this text. The passage in question is found in Mosiah 1:24-26 (LDS 1:16-17). It’s focused on the Liahona—which, I have learned, is a Book of Mormon word pronounced differently in the LDS and Community of Christ traditions!—and here’s how Royal Skousen writes it:
the ball or director which led our fathers through the wilderness,
which was prepared by the hand of the Lord
that thereby they might be led, every one,
according to the heed and diligence which they gave unto him.
Therefore as they were unfaithful,
they did not prosper nor progress in their journey,
but were driven back and incurred the displeasure of God upon them;
and therefore they were smitten with famine and sore afflictions,
to stir them up in remembrance of their duty
There are two excerpts from this passage that appear to tell the Liahona story differently than it is told in 1 Nephi. First, my inclination is to read the phrase “as they were unfaithful” as synonymous with “because they were unfaithful.” In the 1 Nephi telling of the Liahona story, it’s true that there are times when Lehi’s family are unfaithful, leading to them being “driven back,” but Mormon’s language here seems to overstate the case. They obviously weren’t unfaithful enough to be driven back far enough to fail in their journey! Second, the phrase “smitten with famine” strikes me as curious. While the lack of food is a recurring concern in the 1 Nephi Liahona story, it is never the result of “famine” as I’m accustomed to thinking about it. It isn’t that agricultural efforts have failed or that God has smitten crops—it’s that they’re traveling through a desert or that they’ve lost their bows and can’t hunt any more. Is that famine?
My first instinct when wrestling with these odd (to me) choices of language was to assume that they drew attention to more issues with the Book of Mormon text. It’s well documented that there are inconsistencies between the later Mosiah-Moroni portion of the Book of Mormon and the earlier 1 Nephi-Words of Mormon portion. The standard scholarly/critical approach sees these as inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s recollection of the narrative he’s dictating into the text. When the “116 pages” of the Book of Mormon were lost, it’s generally held that Smith finished dictating Mosiah through Mormon before looping back chronologically to provide a replacement text for the beginning of the narrative. From this perspective, any inconsistencies are the result of Smith’s faulty memory in the intervening months. For more on this topic, I recommend a Dialogue article by Roesler (2019), who documents some of these inconsistencies and contrasts different responses to it—including an interesting one of her own that I need to spend more time with.
At any rate, while I think there are multiple compelling responses to these inconsistencies, I think it’s important for readers of the Book of Mormon to acknowledge them rather than dismissing them or explaining them away. The Liahona story is well known among Book of Mormon readers (at least in LDS circles), so it was interesting to me that Mormon’s account of it in Mosiah 1 would seemingly differ in small-but-important ways from the 1 Nephi account. I fully expected these differences to be further challenges for conservative approaches to the Book of Mormon text, and started writing up some footnotes to call attention to them.
While doing this, though, I decided to look around in some dictionaries to see if this was a question of differing word usage rather than a true inconsistency. Checking a few different sources, I noted that a dated/archaic use of the word “famine” is as a reference to starvation or extreme hunger, no matter what the source. This understanding of the word is perfectly consistent with the 1 Nephi account of the Liahona story. Likewise, careful reading of the dictionary emphasized that while “as” can be synonymous with “because,” another attested meaning of it is more synonymous with “when,” and “when they were unfauthful” fits the 1 Nephi account a lot better than “because they were unfaithful.”
A modern language edition of the Book of Mormon would be justified in rendering these phrases “because they were unfaithful” and “they were smitten with starvation and sore afflictions.” I’m less convinced now than I was a few days ago that these are actual inconsistencies—it’s entirely possible that my 21st century reads these words differently than a 19th century translator (or author) would. From a conservative perspective on the Book of Mormon, the value of making these changes is pretty obvious—updating both excerpts to modern language avoids the appearance of inconsistency, which could raise complicated questions about the nature of the book or the translation process. That seems like an all-around win: Easier to read, and fewer awkward questions in Sunday School.
Now that I’ve made a case for how modernizing the Book of Mormon text could be appealing to a more conservative reader of the text, I want to add a couple of caveats here. First, just because these seeming inconsistencies may not actually be inconsistencies doesn’t mean that there aren’t other awkward questions for Book of Mormon readers to navigate. Second, I am in no way advocating for a modernization project that uses changes to the language as an apologetic excuse for irresponsibly papering over those awkward questions. Here, I think it’s entirely defensible to modernize in a way that emphasizes consistency between two versions of the Liahona story; however, that’s a function of the specifics of the case, rather than the merits of an apologetic mission.
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