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- Verse 4:1
Given the language of closure in the last verse of chapter 3, it would appear that some time elapsed between Jacob's inscribing the material making up chapters 1-3 and the material making up chapters 4-6 (chapter 7 seems to have followed after another such interval). At the same time, the language with which this chapter begins would appear to efface that elapsed time, having apparent reference to the discourse of Jacob 2-3. The transition is thus somewhat difficult to work out, especially given the rather complex and ultimately unsure punctuation of this verse.
The question of punctuation here is in fact quite important, since the parsing of the grammar here becomes vital to the foundation of the discourse that opens up at some unspecified point in this chapter. The primary difficulty, of course, is that the verbal "having" ("I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people in word...") seems simply to hang in the air, unreturned-to. In fact, there does not appear to be any particular point at which Jacob returns to this unfinished sentence (at least in the course of chapters 4-6, at the end of which he finishes up his words on these subjects definitively). In short, it seems best to understand this verse as marked by a fundamental disruption, a three-chapter disruption. Such an interpretation, however, takes some issue with the placement of the parentheses as found in the text (written into the text as early as the 1830 edition). But in the end, the parentheses seem rather superfluous and oddly placed: the parenthetical hardly seems parenthetical here, and what is "introduced" within the parentheses continues to be the subject of the discourse for several verses after the closure of the parenthetical material. In short, it seems best simply to ignore the parentheses entirely.
But if it seems best to read this verse as disrupted in its very nature, and if it seems best to read this verse as written at some temporal distance from the content of chapters 1-3, and if it seems best to read Jacob's first words in this chapter as attempting to draw on the weight of the discourse written into chapters 1-3, then the disruption that mars this first verse is of the utmost importance, interpretively: the (written) discourse of chapters 4-6 functions as a kind of after-the-fact disruption of the recalled (spoken) discourse of chapters 1-3. That is, the material about to be presented has a very particular, and certainly a very peculiar, relationship with the chapters that precede it. Without anticipating too much what is to be said in the course of chapters 4-6, at least this much can be said: the written disrupts the spoken, the spiritual disrupts the temporal, or the Heilsgeschichte disrupts the limited concerns of the present.
This disruption is all the more striking because it is a question of a rather theoretical discourse disrupting what begins as a rather temporal, historical, perhaps real discourse ("it came to pass..."). But all of this calls for a closer look at the what disrupts, at the theoretical content of the discourse that takes over here.
- Verse 4:4
After apparently subsuming himself and Nephi under the strange title "their first parents," Jacob begins to lay out the "intentions" he and Nephi (reportedly) share in writing on the small plates ("these things," used in this verse, is almost universally a technical term in the Book of Mormon to refer to the text being written). That the explanation provided in this and the next verse is not to be severed from the first verses of the chapter is clear in that this verse begins with the word "For." Whatever else might be read into this connection, it is clear that verses 4-5 ought to be read with an eye to the structuration implied in father/motherhood (parenthood). It is interesting, in light of this very fact, that Jacob uses the word "intent," which means quite literally "under tension": a fundamental tension underlies the work of Nephi and Jacob, at least according to the latter, which must be understood as a tension between the "fathers" (v. 2) and the "children" (v. 3). This will become especially important in sorting out the implications of the typological language of verse 5.
What this father aims at communicating to his children is, at least in summary, twofold: that the Nephite fathers knew of and had a hope in Christ long before His coming, and that the Old World fathers did much the same. With this introduction of "the holy prophets which were before us," it would appear that Jacob establishes a kind of grandparents-parents-children structure, rather than just a parents-children structure as implied before this. He will go on, in the next verse, to wrap this business up chiastically, but then to reverse it all over again:
- A "we had a hope of his glory"
- B "also all the holy prophets which were before us"
- B "they ... worshiped the Father in his name"
- A "also we worship the Father in his name"
- A "it is sanctified unto us for righteousness"
- B "it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness"
Though these points might be structured in several different ways, at least this first way of structuring them makes it quite clear that they are all profoundly intertwined and that it would only do violence to the structure and meaning of the verse to take them all apart. Of course, each part of this broad structure deserves careful attention.
- Verse 4:5
Because of the profound intertwinedness of verses 4-5, made clear in the structuration laid out above, the basic meaning of Jacob's introduction of Abraham is quite clear: the justification of Abraham's near-murder of Isaac is set in parallel to the sanctification of Nephite obedience to the Law of Moses (and this would seem to be confirmed by the pre-1837 reading of "which was a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son" instead of "which is a similitude..."). Of course what binds up this parallel structure, quite clearly, is the typological reference both the Law and the Moriah experience have to the relation between "God and his Only Begotten Son." But even this apparently simple typology is complicated by the broader structure and intention of the present verses: the relation between God the Father and "his Only Begotten Son" is mentioned only in the context of so much discourse about fathers and sons, about parenthood and childhood. All of this calls for some careful analysis.
Certainly, a major turning point in this development is the sudden introduction, at the beginning of this verse, of "the Father." Though the title appears for the first time in Jacob's book here, it appears a number of times in 1 and 2 Nephi, once (2 Ne 25:16) with the same question of worship in the name of Christ. But the claim Jacob makes is somewhat more complex than anything Nephi had to say about "the Father": Jacob asserts that the prophets of the Old World "worshiped the Father in his [that is, Christ's] name," something that would seem impossible in light of 2 Ne 10:3. In the latter verse, Jacob presents the name "Christ" for the first time to the Nephites, explaining that it had only been revealed to him the night before. It would seem, then, like Jacob's is doing one of two things here: either (1) he is being somewhat loose in his terminology, and the reader is not to understand this verse to suggest that the ancients worshiped specifically in the name of Christ but in the name, say, of the Son, or (2) he is making a claim that goes beyond anything previously spoken or revealed to the Nephites, the claim that the Old World prophets also knew and used in worship the name "Christ."
In the end, the latter of these two options seems to be implied by the overall argument of the verse. If "keep[ing] the law of Moses" is, for the Nephites a kind of worship of the Father in the name of Christ (and this would appear to be the argument), then Abraham was doing something just the same in "offering up his son Isaac." The claim is a strange one: the strength of the parallel would seem to be grounded in a comparison between Abraham as a type of the Father and the patriarchal Jacob/Nephi as a type of the Father. That is, there seems to be some implication at least that the Nephite "fathers" here are cast as the Father in the dramatic embodiment that is the Law of Moses. And hence again the question seems to be one of the parents/children structure already discussed.
One way of making sense of this sudden universalization of worship in the name of Christ specifically is to take as Jacob's source the careful theological undertaking of 2 Ne 31-32, where a broad "doctrine of Christ" is developed as a kind of universal theology, one that has such profound ties to Isa 6 (=2 Ne 16) that it would have taken little effort on Jacob's part to come to the conclusion that Isaiah (as one of "all the holy prophets which were before us") had worshiped the Father in the name of Christ. It is in fact of the utmost importance to draw a connection between Jacob's teachings here and Nephi's broader theological thematic of 2 Ne 31-32, since the precedent may well explicate the basic model Jacob has in mind in calling on the names of "Father" and "Son" (especially since Abinadi, for example, will use these two names in a radically different manner from Nephi). It is, then, with an eye to 2 Nephi 31-32 that any careful interpretation of this verse will have to proceed.
- Verse 4:14: Despised plainness.
This verse suggests a way to resolve an apparent difficulty in Mark 4:12 where Christ seems to say that he speaks in parables so that those not included in his inner circle would not be converted. Here, Jacob seems to be saying that the parables (and the words of Isaiah, cf. Isa 6:9-10) were given because the Jews "despised the words of plainness." That is, rather than causing blindness, the parables (and perhaps the words of Isaiah) were given as a result of the people's blindness.
Here and elsewhere in the small plates, "plainness" is presented as a manifestation of God's grace, that is, God is gracious to give us his mysteries in plainness making it easy for us to understand. Because the Jews despise this gift, God takes it away and gives them what they desire - confusion.
Looking beyond the mark. If the "mark" is meant to represent Christ, then looking beyond Christ could mean a number of things. It could imply that one is looking to be saved by actions, ordinances, or even associations with other people, rather than looking to the atonement of Jesus Christ for salvation. One reason it may be easy to look beyond the mark in this sense is that it is easier to gain an assurance of our salvation through a tangible feeling or action rather than a quiet voice or a small feeling that takes time to understand.
The mark. By being anointed with the sign of a diagonal cross (the Hebrew letter tau) on his forehead, Jewish high priests literally take upon themselves the Name of the Messiah (Christ, or "The Anointed"). see Christiansen's article below for more on this.
The mark. The mark in verse 14 may be the same "mark" mentioned by the contemporary temple priest Ezekiel (Ezek 9:4-6)—an anointing of the forehead with a diagonal cross, the Hebrew letter tau, which was placed upon a high priest in the temple as the sign of God's Name. (See Christiansen's article below for more on this.)
 Points to ponder
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- Verses 4:5: Sanctified unto us for righteousness. Cf. Gen 15:6. Ps 106:31 also uses similar wording to apparently describe a very violent act of Phineas (cf. Num 25:6-8). The near-sacrifice of Isaac is also a (nearly) violent episode. Here, the keeping of the law of Moses is explicitly drawn into comparison with this near-violent act of violence. Why? Is this referring to the violent nature of animal sacrifice? Something else? (Notice the violent episode in 1 Ne 4:13, Nephi slaying Laban, also uses similar wording: "the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.")
- Verses 4:14: Mark. What is the "mark" that the Jews looked beyond?
- Verses 4:14: Words of plainness. What does it mean to despise words of plainness? What are examples of this?
- Verses 4:14: Many things they cannot understand. What does "many things they cannot understand" refer to here? Could this be related to difficult passages in Isaiah (cf. 2 Ne 25:4-7)? details and naunces in the Mosaic law? What else might it refer to?
- Verses 4:14: Looking beyond the mark. What does "looking beyond the mark" mean? How did the Jews, and how do we today, look beyond the mark?
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- Verses 4:7. Anthony D. Perkins, "‘The Great and Wonderful Love’," Ensign, Nov 2006, pp. 76–78. Elder Perkins counsels us to place our burdens on Jesus Christ. "When you feel overwhelmed by expectations and challenges, do not fight the battle alone."
- Verses 4:14: The mark. Christiansen. See a discussion of the mark in Kevin Christiansen's The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament ().
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.