strtoupper('“A') Covenant with God to Keep His Commandments”

Benjamin orders a census that not only lists the people but records their decision about the covenant. How young are the “little” children? Presumably they are too young to articulate in so many words the content of the covenant, meaning that they cannot be accountable for it; furthermore, they are also already covered by Christ’s atonement (Mosiah 3:16).

But beyond the practical purpose of the census are two unusual implications. First, even though this is a complete census, it contradicts the statement in Mosiah 2:2 that a census was not taken because there were so many people. This difference may simply reflect that both the time and purpose are now different. The census at the beginning of the gathering may have been a typical facet of the recurring ceremony; therefore, its omission would have been noteworthy, needing explanation. When Benjamin enumerates the people, however, its purpose is less that of a census than to record the covenantal declarations. Such declarations, taken person by person, allowed each person to state his or her intention before witnesses, thus physically and individually responding to what had earlier been a communal activity. Furthermore, because their names were listed, all of the power associated with naming was invoked. The name of Yahweh-Messiah had been given to the people; here they reciprocate, and the name of the individual covenanter is given to Yahweh-Messiah (through the king’s messenger).

The second implication of this census is its timing. It would have been a time-consuming activity, even with all of the people in one place. Just as the delivery of Benjamin’s text required literate servants, so would recording the names. It seems unlikely that the Zarahemlaites were universally literate, since almost all ancient societies that kept records had a specialized literate class in both the Old and New World, but particularly the New World. Even if we assume a higher literacy rate than might be expected, the scribes still had to take up scattered stations with writing instruments. If the name-taking had to be completed before the coronation could begin, the next event described in the text, it would have caused a significant delay. It seems reasonable that the original record maker, motivated by the strong connection between bestowing the name on the people and recording the names of the people who made the covenant, simply recorded the two events in sequence but that, because of logistical considerations, the name-recording may have been spread out over the rest of the festival.

Text: Although we have no way of knowing, it seems probable that Mormon recorded the events in the same sequence as his source document. The spiritual significance of recording the names would have been very important to the original historian, but Mormon’s brief summary suggests that he saw it as less significant. Additionally, to this point we see little evidence that Mormon reworks his material extensively. His abridging efforts are mostly narrative ties between quoted speeches. If this perception is accurate, then coming up with a different order from that of the original scribe would have been unusual for him.

Apologetics: If we approach these verses with the hypothesis that Joseph Smith alone was responsible for the text, this disjunction between in-context and later-context importance becomes even more problematic. It is one thing to say that he would not have understood the importance of the name exchange in ancient civilizations but quite another to suppose that he understood it well enough to leave the tracks—then pushed it into the background of the text. Such a technique would have been either surprisingly inconsistent or surprisingly subtle.

Brant Gardner -

Brant Gardner

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3

References