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Decmeber 31, 2009
In The Village
Give it a close reading before speculating
by Orson Scott Card

The seminary teacher was taking her students through the war with the Amlicites. The Nephite army under Chief Judge Alma had been caught in the midst of crossing a river -- usually a military disaster -- but they were strengthened by the Lord.

"And it came to pass that Alma fought with Amlici with the sword, face to face; and they did contend mightily, one with another" (Al. 2:29).

One of the students said, half in jest, "Watch out for the sword of Laban!"

But was it a joke? Nephi had led his people in war, wielding the sword of Laban (Jacob 1:10); centuries later, King Benjamin still had the sword and used it in battle (W of M 1:13).

When Benjamin passed the kingship to his son Mosiah, the sword of Laban was one of the artifacts that came with the king's authority -- along with the Liahona, the brass plates, and the plates of Nephi (Mosiah 1:16).

So when Mosiah abolished the hereditary office of king and replaced it with elected judges, he might well have passed all those symbols of royal authority to Alma as the first chief judge.

But the scripture doesn't actually say so. Therefore it is only speculation that Alma had the sword.

Besides, since the scripture specified that Benjamin used that particular sword in battle, and the same author was writing about the battle with the Amlicites, one might also suppose that if Alma was also using Laban's sword, the scripture would have said so.

Isn't it also possible that Mosiah, wishing to abolish the office of king, might have hidden away -- or returned to the Lord for safekeeping -- those symbols of power?

Would it have conveyed the right message for the chief judge to use the ancient sword that had always been held in the king's hand during battle? That might have provoked people to think of the judge as king; or to wish for a king to wield the kingly sword; or to expect the judge to pass the sword -- and the judgeship -- to a son.

What matters is that the teacher led her seminary students through a close reading of the scriptures in order to answer the question.

What they found was not the answer, but two possible answers (either Alma fought with that sword or he used another), along with further points of speculation (either Alma had the sword of Laban or Mosiah had withheld it; Mosiah might also have hidden the sword or given it to the Lord; if it was hidden, Alma might have known the hiding place or he might not).

We do know that centuries later, when Ammoron chose Mormon as his successor as keeper of the records of the Nephite people, Ammoron did not bring all the plates to Mormon -- he instead told the young man where they were hidden (at the hill Shim, in the land of Antum; Morm. 1:3).

Could it be that the sacred records had been hidden in that place since the time of Mosiah? Could the Liahona, the sword of Laban, and the Urim and Thummim have been hidden there also?

These are all fascinating questions -- to which we do not have the answers. They don't even come up in a cursory reading. It was because the class had already been noticing the path of the sword of Laban through Nephite history that it occurred to one student that perhaps Alma was using the sword of Laban.

The idea of sword had been made particularly vivid because the teacher had earlier brought a real two-edged battle sword into class for the students to heft. Having held something of the right weight and size, they had a much clearer idea of what Nephi and, later, Benjamin had fought with -- a far cry from the foil, epee, and rapier of fencing.

The important lessons from this digression into swordography were:

1. There is a clear line between what the scriptures actually say and speculation about things that the scriptures do not say.

2. Speculation only has value when your guesses are kept in line with what the scriptures attest.

3. When you are reading a history that tells a continuous story, you can find connections across time.

The seminary teacher gave, by way of warning, another lesson:

4. No matter how often you repeat it, no matter how pleasing it is, no matter how much it seems to explain, and no matter how many people pass it on, speculation remains speculation.

It is pleasing to think that Mormon emphasizes the name of the place where Alma baptized converts because he was named for it (Mosiah 18:5, 7-8, 16, 30); and perhaps he stressed it as a name because the word may have had a meaning associated with wild beasts (Mosiah 18:4).

It is pleasing to think that Mormon named his son Moroni for the great captain of the book of Alma -- though he might just as well have named his son for a favorite uncle, who merely happened to have the same name as the great captain.

As a student of literature, I have learned that the best approach to understanding a literary work is never to bring a theory to it and bend the text so it proves the theory, but rather to do a close reading of the text to find what it actually says in reference to a particular question or theme, and always let the text define the boundaries of legitimate interpretation.

When I was invited to write a new script for the Hill Cumorah Pageant (back in the late 1980s), my assignment was specific: I wasn't to base the script on previous scripts, I was to start over by going back to the Book of Mormon and letting the book itself guide me in finding which stories to tell and which messages to convey.

I had read the Book of Mormon many times by then, and many of those times had been close readings -- for instance, when I was writing plays based on particular stories, or when I used the Book of Mormon as the plot outline for a series of science fiction novels (starting with Memory of Earth).

This assignment gave me a new basis for quite a different close reading. Now I was trying to find Mormon's intended meaning (which required a rhetorical analysis of the difference between narrative and interpretation in the text). When Mormon told a story, what conclusions did he draw from it?

When I was writing my Women of Genesis novels, I gave the pertinent scriptures a close reading, with plot and character in mind. When Rebekah is brought from Haran to Abraham's dwelling in order to marry Isaac, Genesis says that her "nurse" came with her, along with "damsels" who were certainly servants (Gen. 24:59).

In a casual reading, the unnamed nurse is hardly likely to make much of an impression. But when you're reading specifically to find and track the movements of all the characters, she leaps out -- because she shows up again, eleven chapters later:

"But Deborah Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Beth-el under an oak: and the name of it was called Allon-bachuth" (Gen. 35:8).

These are the only two mentions of this woman. In between, we never hear of her at all.

To me, this is a clear indication that this portion of Genesis is an authentic history rather than an invented or poeticized myth.

Neither the mythmaker nor the poet could have resisted making something of Deborah. Certainly I did not resist the temptation in my fictional treatment of her!

But if you're telling a family story passed down for generations, the name of this Deborah is recorded because Rebekah (and perhaps everyone else!) loved her. It mattered to them that she came, and it mattered when she died, and the place was recorded as if she were a treasured part of the family (as she may well have been).

Her name is not mentioned elsewhere because she did not do anything extraordinary enough to be recorded. Yet between the original writing or reciting of this story, nobody embellished her into importance, or diminished her to disappearance.

In my fictionalization of the story, I explained her importance to the family and somewhat changed her role -- that's poetic license. But when we read scripture closely, we keep that line bright and clear, and never confuse what is attested by the text with what we invent to explain or embellish it.

This year, as we read the Old Testament, there are commentaries aplenty, from both Mormon and non-Mormon sources. However, apart from the books of Moses and Abraham, there are no other authoritative sources.

The traditions of the rabbis, the opinions of scholars, archaeologists, linguists, and historians; even the marginal writings of Joseph Smith (which he never published despite having many opportunities); all are on the other side of the line.

Let us not succumb to the temptation to leap beyond the text without first giving it a close reading. Let's build the house before we start hanging curtains and paintings.


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