After a soft opening, however, Sherem attacks by accusing Jacob of violating the “law of Moses which is the right way” and substituting for it “the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence [the Messiah].” The “correct” interpretation of the law of Moses has lain behind several of Israel’s religious divisions. Lawrence Schiffman describes the conditions in Israel after the Maccabeean revolt (166–165 B.C.): “Competing sects each sought adherents among the people. Although all were Jewish and regarded the Torah as the ultimate source of Jewish law, each had a different approach or interpretation of Jewish law and considered other groups’ approaches illegitimate.”
Schiffman discusses these competing sects: the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While these divisions occurred long after Jacob’s time, it is instructive that the law was of such central importance that its interpretation could generate significant discussion and debate, even schism. The concept of the law’s sanctity and the importance of interpreting it correctly fits the point at issue between Jacob and Sherem.
Why does Sherem select this point on which to debate Jacob? First, because it is significant. Because of the law’s primacy, any significant deviance would constitute apostasy, on the basis of which Sherem could accuse Jacob of being a false leader. In fact, he does so. One of the strengths of Sherem’s position is that, from one perspective, it is true. Nephi had begun to teach baptism as a sign of the Messiah’s atonement. Baptism (as Nephi taught it) is not a Mosaic practice, but an additional rite that Nephi added. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 31:5.)
Even though Nephi enjoined the people to keep the law of Moses, it was a law modified with a belief in the Atoning Messiah:
And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments. (2 Ne. 25:24–25)
Jacob continued Nephi’s teachings. Thus, Sherem’s accusations have a basis in fact. Jacob—and Nephi—have clearly added a requirement to the law inscribed on the brass plates (baptism). These additional teachings that made the Nephites “alive in Christ because of our faith,” were those Sherem could attack as additions to the written text. Sherem is making the same mistake as many modern religionists who will cling to the written text and deny the living process of revelation to God’s servants.
Rhetoric: Sherem next builds another common base, the law of Moses. Sherem accepts it and, indeed, confirms it. He then positions himself as a defender of the law and Jacob as its detractor, a blasphemer. Of course rejecting the law of Moses might be considered blasphemy. Sherem’s evidence for this blasphemy is that Jacob teaches of a being in the far future, the Atoning Messiah.
While Jacob certainly gives us a condensed version of Sherem’s argument, it is sufficient to allow a reconstruction of it. First, it assumes that the Nephites generally accept the law of Moses. This assumption is a safe one. The law of Moses governed their foundational religious beliefs and rituals. After years of living the law, Nephi, and later Jacob, add information for their people. As prophets who had learned of the Messiah and his mission, they were anxious to introduce the same understanding into the worship of their people. One of the first additions was the rite of baptism, introduced by Nephi near the end of his life (2 Ne. 31:4–21). In my examination of that sermon, it is apparent that this was not only a new commandment for the Nephites, but one for which the law of Moses had not prepared them, for they ask Nephi what they should do (2 Ne. 32:1).
Probably neither Nephi nor Jacob saw the conflict that the people saw (or that Sherem encouraged them to see). Nephi taught them to continue obeying the law of Moses, but he attempted to add to that ritual law the observance of the gospel (including baptism). During Christ’s earthly mission, he resolved this problem by declaring the law of Moses fulfilled. Nephi has no such solution, only the conflict. Sherem plays directly upon that conflict and accuses Jacob of blasphemy in attempting to diminish the law. Sherem has thus positioned himself as the defender of the true faith while accusing Jacob of heresy for introducing new teachings that are hard to fully incorporate in a single religious devotion. As an argument, it is brilliantly conceived. It should have worked, and perhaps would have, except that Jacob could argue from his personal experience with Yahweh.
History: Sherem levels accusations against Jacob that were provisions in preexilic law. These were the accusations of causing public apostasy, blasphemy, and false prophecy. “Thus Sherem’s allegations were not merely vague rhetorical criticisms,” notes John W. Welch; “they were well-formulated accusations, logically derived from specific provisions of the ancient law. Sherem’s words put Jacob’s life in jeopardy. If allowed to stand, these accusations would have justified Jacob’s execution.” Assuming that Sherem was the “hired gun” for the powerful Nephites, the result of this confrontation might have done more than discredit Jacob. It could have legally put him to death.