Social/Political: Jacob tells us that Nephi anointed a man to be king to reign “according to the reigns of the kings.” There is a world of information we an extract from this simple statement.
The transfer of rulership in the Nephite community is established by Nephi himself during his reign. It is not left to chance, but is established and ordained. It need not have been so. Nephi could have relied upon some other mechanism to transfer power, such as a vote, or an assumption of leadership. The formal transferal of power virtually assumes a situation where there could be sufficient pretenders to power to be disruptive to the community. The historical process of a king personally endorsing (here anointing) a successor prevents internal feuding. For our purpose of understanding the social organization of the Nephites, it tells us that there is sufficient wealth and power that the position is desirable (we don’t hand pick successors to jobs nobody wants in the first place) and that there is a sufficient population that divisions might reasonably take place.
This fits very will with the suggested population of around 300 households, understanding that there were viable divisions of groupings at 50 households or less.
The second point to note is that Nephi presents his next ruler by anointing him. This process suggests that the ruler is created in the context of Jewish tradition. Rulers might be crowned, they may be invested, or any other type of verb might describe the process. By describing it as an anointing are placed inn the context of Old World Jewish kingship rather than any idea the New World might have about kings. This is appropriate given the Old World heritage of the ruling clan, the Nephites. Even though any of the “others” who had joined the Nephites would have had a perhaps different mode of creating a king, their acceptance of Nephi as their ruler presupposes their acceptance of the new way of creating transference of power.
Lastly, we note that the person who is created as king is first, not named, and second, not Jacob. Ludlow notes that there is disagreement about who might have been the king, whether, Jacob or a son of Nephi (Ludlow, Daniel H. A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book, 1976, p. 156). The text provides the clue that can resolve this issue.
We might suspect Jacob as the next ruler simply because of his importance to the community. However, Jacob also tells us very specifically how the new king is chosen. The new king is selected “according to the reign of kings.” Knowing that we have an Old World model at work tells us that the new king would be Nephi’s eldest son. Old World lineage models would have selected for the brother of the king only in the absence of a son. While a son of Nephi is not specifically mentioned, there is no reason in the text to believe that he did not have one. Since Jacob doesn’t tell us his name, he may presume that it is rather to be understood, and that there is no controversy. Thus with this verse we have the creation of a lineage based rulership that follows Nephi’s direct line. We may expect that the physical symbols of rulership (which we will meet later with Mosiah as the sword of Laban, the Liahona, and the brass plates; Mosiah 1:16) and the large plates would follow this line.
Jacob is Nephi’s brother, and as a prophet in his own right has the qualifications to fulfill Nephi’s intent for the small plates. Nephi has created two transmission lines for his records; the official “history” on what we call the large plates of Nephi, and this secondary “sacred history” through his brother and his brother’s descendants.
As population increased, and time went on, this parallel line to the kingly succession might have had a claim to the throne. This appears to have been avoided either naturally or through an unknown means which continued to remove Jacob’s descendants from prominent positions. As we move to the end of the small plates, even the position of main religious leader no longer belongs to Jacob’s lineage. The peripheral nature of the lineage of Jacob tells us even more of the reason that those descendants didn’t have the political or economic clout to obtain the materials to continue the small plates.
Translations: In addition to this occurrence, the phrase “began to be old” occurs six more times in the Book of Mormon, and not in any other volume of scripture. In each case, the phrase is used in a context that suggests that the person who “began to be old” is near death:
Jacob 7:26 And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old; and the record of this people being kept on the other plates of Nephi, wherefore, I conclude this record, declaring that I have written according to the best of my knowledge, by saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.
Enos 1:25 And it came to pass that I began to be old, and an hundred and seventy and nine years had passed away from the time that our father Lehi left Jerusalem.
Omni 1:25 And it came to pass that I began to be old; and, having no seed, and knowing king Benjamin to be a just man before the Lord, wherefore, I shall deliver up these plates unto him, exhorting all men to come unto God, the Holy One of Israel, and believe in prophesying, and in revelations, and in the ministering of angels, and in the gift of speaking with tongues, and in the gift of interpreting languages, and in all things which are good; for there is nothing which is good save it comes from the Lord; and that which is evil cometh from the devil.
Morm. 6:6 And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.
Ether 6:19 And the brother of Jared began to be old, and saw that he must soon go down to the grave; wherefore he said unto Jared: Let us gather together our people that we may number them, that we may know of them what they will desire of us before we go down to our graves.
In each of the above, the person who begins to be old appears to be on his deathbed. The single exception to this trend might be:
Ether 9:14 And it came to pass that Omer began to be old; nevertheless, in his old age he begat Emer; and he anointed Emer to be king to reign in his stead.
Certainly Omer is not on his deathbed if he begets Emer, and is able to anoint Emer to reign after him. Even in this case, however, we are dealing with the final acts of a man who is about to leave this earth. While it appears that the begetting of Emer follows the “began to be old,” this is not necessarily so. Omer does beget Emer when is “in his old age” but the very specific mention of that may be to distinguish the begetting from the official “end of life” events associated with “began to be old.”
It appears that a possible “translation” for began to be old might be “on his deathbed” - with specific reference to one who is setting final affairs in order.