The author of The Book of Mormon did not have room for excess. Both time and resources were limited for his effort of collating a record for a future day. He could not spare room for unnecessary words. As we read it, it does us well to focus on adjectives that Mormon provides so that we can better understand his message.
In Mosiah 9, Zeniff describes a change of heart that he had as he spied among the Lamanites. Sent into their midst to find out how to destroy them, he saw the good in them and no longer wished to see their destruction. When discussing his change of heart with his commander, it led to a battle within the Nephite group – father against father and brother against brother. Why? Why did the Nephites destroy themselves? Look at the description of the commander: blood-thirsty and austere.
Blood-thirsty has an obvious enough meaning: merciless. Austere carries a meaning of stubborn, strict, hostile to new ideas or even to the idea of making connections between ideas for better understanding. Translating “austere” into Hebrew gives חָמוּר. Translating חָמוּר back into English gives “donkey” as the first suggestion. “Severe, stern, grave, strict, drastic, grievous, acid” all follow as suggestions. Do we want to destroy ourselves? If yes, then let us be merciless and so set in our ways that we close off all hope of change in our views.
When we show mercy and entertain the thought that we might just be wrong, we open the doors to salvation as we close the gates of destruction. If that commander had been instead merciful and humble, along with the rest of that Nephite expedition, then they could all have been saved, in mortal respects as well as eternal.
But Zeniff continues, as he is a humble person and realizes his own fault in being over-zealous to work with the Lamanites. He describes himself with a term that indicates, again, a lack of flexibility. Associated words in Hebrew include “rabid, possessive, fanatical, jealous.” While it was better to be merciful than merciless, over-zealous is as bad as austere, in the long run.
In this case, Zeniff failed to remember that while there was good among the Lamanites, they were also in a state of general hostility towards the Nephites, and their leadership was not above setting a trap for Zeniff’s group. That they did does not surprise me, but that Zeniff so quickly goes to cursing the Lamanites with “they are all…” negative stereotypes, well, that caught me off-guard. I expected better of someone who was so ready to see the good in an enemy.
He insults the Lamanites, calling them a “lazy and idolatrous people” who wanted to “glut themselves with the labors of our hands”. Well, Zeniff, truth be told, that’s pretty much how conquest worked in the ancient world. It doesn’t make the Lamanites any better or worse than other nations that conquered and created tributary states for their support.
How could this episode have turned out differently, and better for Zeniff and his followers? If they had not been possessed of the idea of returning to “their” land, none of this would have happened. God had led Mosiah and the righteous people out of that land in order to preserve them. The land was no more for the Nephites: they had lost it through their wickedness, just as they had lost Jerusalem. Their new land was for them, and there was plenty of room there for growth, in peace and in righteousness.
That old land had been surrendered in order to save the righteous that remained among the Nephites. There is no way to reclaim that land rightfully save through peace and mutual agreement. Anything short of that will equate to generations of conflict. the very idea of reclaiming the land through violence or without all parties operating in good faith was at variance with God’s plan to preserve the people. This Zeniff admits as much to as he describes how the wars with the Lamanites led him and his followers to repent – “we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers.” He had been proud, now the wars and their cost in lives was humbling him.
In Mosiah 10, Zeniff continues his record. He attributes a long period of peace to his people’s strength in weapons. So, yes, his people do not have to fight a war for 22 years, but they also have to divert much of their production towards weaponry and fortifications and live in constant apprehension of a day when the Lamanites feel that the odds are back in their favor. This is a watchful, paranoid peace, not a prosperous one.
The Lamanites attack again when a new king ascends to the throne. In order to defend themselves, the Nephites under Zeniff are forced to call into service both the old and young men – pensioners and teenagers, in our understanding. That is the extent of their desperation, they must scrape the bottom of the barrel for any man that can stand and point a spear in the direction of the enemy, no matter how unprepared for war that man might be.
As Zeniff describes the Lamanites on the march against his people, he again resorts to negative stereotypes to describe them. I don’t think that these stereotypes absolve Zeniff of the grave mistake he made in leading his people to return to a land that was no longer theirs. His description of the past sounds like propaganda or reasoning to justify the rightness of the cause to reclaim their old homeland. While I agree with Zeniff’s summary in that, yes, Nephi was more righteous in keeping the commandments of God, I can’t extend the righteousness of Nephi to all of his descendants. Had that been possible, then there would have been no flight from the land of Nephi under Mosiah.
Zeniff ends his days free from Lamanite rulership, but not free from fear. He is more repentant and humble than in his younger days, but still he clings to ideas that are zealous and rigid. His people fought to retain their political independence, but would they have had to fight at all if they had remained among their fellows in the land of refuge that Mosiah had found?
And thus we see the fate of those who are austere and those who are zealous. God’s way is merciful and patient and long-suffering and peaceful.