There are 14 thoughts on “Text as Afterthought: Jana Riess’s Treatment of the Jacob-Sherem Episode”.

  1. While the passive voice “he was nourished” leaves the agent doing the nourishing unspecified, a strong case can be made that God did the nourishing. The text says “the power of the Lord came upon him, insomuch that he fell to the earth. And it came to pass that he was nourished for the space of many days.” In the next verse, he declares that he will die, then, when the people gather, he testifies of Christ. So in context, God’s power comes upon him, he falls to the ground, is nourished, in the wake of the nourishing knows he will die, then testifies of Christ. Since God was the only agent mentioned before the passive and is mentioned immediately before it, it is reasonable to read God at the nourisher. Moreover, this episode fits the Book of Mormon pattern of several later episodes: Alma the Younger, King Lamoni, Lamoni’s wife, Lamoni’s father. All, like Sherem, were wicked. All fell to the earth. All were nourished by the spirit. All came to and testified of Christ. That God nourished Sherem is also supported by the fact that he knows he will die. A sure knowledge on that point is most likely to come from God. Sherem doesn’t receive the assurance of salvation that Alma received, but his testimony of Christ and its effect on the people suggest that he may, indeed, be saved following his experience of being nourished by the Spirit of God. God cares less about what we have been than what, through grace, we have become. Sherem, like Alma and the others, seems to have become a disciple of Christ in the wake of the nourishment he received. The nourishment of grace is the thing most likely to have produced that outcome.

  2. There is a good deal of debate about the origin of SHEREM, though, just on the basis of his focus on the Law of Moses, Keith Thompson’s conclusion that he was Zoramite seems likeliest.* Moreover, as pointed out by John Gee, the parallel of Jacob 7:7 with Alma 31:16-17 is very supportive of this view.**

    His name is a puzzle. There are several attractive possibilities:

    Via the Jaredites, he might have been named Sumerian šerrum “reed-mat” ( giš/šer7-ru-um; giš/šer7-um; giš/šer7-ru = Akkadian šērum).# The reed mat (Maya ben, aaj; Aztec petate, petlatl) is a royal icon meaning “ruler, throne,” in early Mesoamerican usage.## One can almost envision Sherem carrying with him a reed-mat, then rolling it out and sitting on it while pontificating in lordly fashion his Zoramite blasphemies.

    There is also a possibility of a dysphemism such as Mehri šrm, šĕrēm “hare-lipped” (šírém in Jibbali dialects).< That would have been one way to deflate his pretentious claims.

    Gordon Thomasson suggested that the name is a metonym, hypothetical Hebrew *śḥerem “He-who-was-smitten; devoted-to-destruction,” employing a Semito-Egyptian ś-causative prefix on the Semitic root ḥrm “ban, taboo, consecrated for destruction,” which with the Hebrew causative prefix means “condemn to death, destroy” (Jacob 7:14 “God shall smite thee”; 15 “the power of God came upon him”). This would fit the text having been engraven in Egyptian. Cf. also Semitic š- and ś-causatives in Akkadian, Assyrian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic, Geˁez, Jibbali, and Minaean.<<
    * A. Keith Thompson, “Who was Sherem?” Interpreter, 14 (2015):1-15.
    ** JG comment at Thompson, “Who was Sherem?” Interpreter, 14 (2015):1-15.
    # ePSD = University of Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary online at .
    ## B. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers, 186 n112, citing Norman Hammond, “Preclassic Maya Civilization,” in E. Danien and R. Sharer, eds., New Theories of the Ancient Maya (Phila.: Univ. of Penn. Museum, 1992). 139.
    < T. Johnstone, Mehri Lexicon (Routledge, 1987/2006), 396.
    << Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, §275.

  3. I think there’s a sort of mismatch of expectations and attitudes between the way Boyce and Riess approach the scriptures.

    I mean, some of Boyce’s criticisms of Riess are just. Assuming that Sherem was struck dumb or that God nourished Sharem, for example, is certainly sloppy. Some of his criticisms kind of mischaracterize her words. He says that, “although Riess does not believe Sherem is a man of God, she thinks the connection holds because, even if he was not exactly a man of God, he was like these Old Testament figures in his devotion to the law.” What Riess actually writes is, “Sherem is not a man of God, even though the story bears many of the external trappings of other man-of-God tales in which a holy outsider speaks truth to power. But Sherem is not speaking truth…” Like Brant says above, if you want to understand Riess‘ article, read the actual article.

    But I think focusing on these details misses the point. Take Riess and Boyce on how Sherem died. Boyce seems flabbergasted by what he calls “her denial that the Lord killed Sherem.” But Riess most definitely does not deny that the Lord killed Sherem. Instead she points out that “the account’s brevity and its ambiguity are intriguing,” and proceeds to ask hypothetical questions about the cause and meaning of Sherem’s death within the intellectual space opened up by this vagueness. It seems that Boyce approaches the text trying to find out the historical facts of the account, and personally I tend to read the account of Sherem’s death the same way Boyce does. But that isn’t want Riess is trying to do, so it seems strange to criticize her for failing to do something she isn’t even attempting. Riess is trying to discover new meanings and insights by asking hypothetic questions and entertaining tentative possibilities.

    How do I know what Riess is doing? Because Adam Miller, the director of the Mormon Theology Seminar and one of the editors of this work, has explicitly described this process in a very concise essay, “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology.” Reading what he says makes Riess’ work easy to understand:

    “Theology explores the range of meanings that scripture can produce beyond the bounds of its historical, doctrinal, and devotional responses. Theology runs experiments for the sake of mapping a text’s own latent patterns. Its power to illuminate these latent patterns derives from its freedom to pose hypothetical questions: if such and such were the case, then what meaningful pattern would the text produce in response?

    “However, because it is hypothetical, theology is always tentative and nonbinding. Theology, though sensitive to what is normative, never decides doctrine. Though this is a kind of weakness, this weakness is also theology’s unique strength. Because it is hypothetical, theology is free to map whatever charitable patterns the details of the text may prompt it to pursue. The rich theological possibilities of a text are, in principle, limited only by the critically productive questions that we as readers are capable of bringing to bear. If a particular approach does not bear charity, then nothing has been lost. If an approach does reveal patterns of meaning that address the root of human suffering, then its productivity speaks for itself. The key is to pose critical questions that will allow the voice of charity to respond. The patterns that emerge in response to a question may or may not coincide with our understanding of the author’s original intention or with the contours of more familiar readings.”

    Approaching the story of Sherem with Boyce’s goals and methodology renders Riess’ essay almost literally unintelligible, because I think Boyce is focused on “historical, doctrinal, and devotional responses.” But if we understand Riess to be mapping what Miller calls a theological reading, I think it makes a lot of sense. I suspect that Boyce might take issue with Miller’s theological methodology, but then he should criticize it directly. All that this essay shows is that it doesn’t meet the expectations for a historical, doctrinal, or devotional reading, which it already explicitly acknowledges.

    While I personally love the work of Miller, Joseph Spencer, and the rest of their posse, I do think Boyce’s essays could make some valuable counterarguments. But to do that he has to understand the assumptions, concerns, and methodology of those he’s critiquing. Otherwise, I feel like he’ll just keep talking past the community he’s trying to address.

  4. As other of her writings also demonstrate, Riess’s analysis here belies a distinct contamination with presentism. IMO, she wrests the scriptures by filtering them through her lens of contemporary politics & deconstructive social theories.

    She’s absolutely free to do that. I’ve no problem with it. However, it’s a bit disappointing that NAMI has given her their platform to do it.

    • Wonderboy,

      I just went through the article again, specifically looking for anything that smacked of presentism. It isn’t there. This is a very nice contextual reading, although complex. It’s interpretive framework is also biblical example. Since Nephi and Jacob rather explicitly refer to scripture (from the plates of brass), that also seems quite appropriate.

      Whatever one might think of other things she has written, to dismiss this article without actually engaging with it shirks a basic academic responsibility.

      Note her conclusion: “The story of Sherem, in all its complexity, tells the story of at least a temporary refocusing of the Nephites on their religious and spiritual duties.” I suggest that she is quite correct in that conclusion.

      To all, please read the article and engage with it. I will gladly say that I misread it–if anyone could point out where I did.

  5. I am so pleased to find another fine, well-reasoned and thoughtful piece from Duane Boyce. In this instance he has picked apart the logical fallacies of Jana Riess, whose writings (on her blog) I have long found to be as Boyce describes; I can second his thinking.

    Not long ago I commented on Stephen Smoot’s far briefer review of Riess’s same paper: “Jana Riess (“‘There Came a Man’: Sherem, Scapegoating, and the Inversion of Prophetic Tradition”) proposes that Sherem is depicted as a sort of inverse to the biblical trope of the prophetic “man of God” coming into the Israelite religious community to pronounce divine judgement. In this reformulating of the type scene known in the Hebrew Bible . . , Sherem is depicted as a sort of anti-prophet; that is, a “prophet” who breaks with the expected prophetic type and thus clashes with the authority of the narrator, Jacob. Riess argues further that Sherem acts as a sort of scapegoat who must be sacrificed to uphold the order of the community (in this case the fledging Nephite community). “Sherem’s death galvanizes the Nephite people to greater righteousness,” Riess observes. “Although after this chapter Sherem is never mentioned again, his effect on the people is clear: Nephite religion changes after his sacrificial death” (p. 16). This reading demonstrates the sophistication of the Book of Mormon’s narrative, and is thus sure to raise the reader’s appreciation for the literary craft of the text.”

    Such is Smoot’s review–that Riess’s reading raises the appreciation for the literary craft of the text. Seems Smoot was not speaking for too many others there; especially not me and obviously not Boyce. I have found Boyce’s readings to be insightful and reasonable, and of course in accord with my own.

    When I pointed out the glaring weaknesses and falsehoods I saw in Riess’s writings (both from Smoot’s review and my own readings of her blog posts) I was quickly criticized by some of the more liberal-leaning commenters. No problem there, but this current fine critique of Riess’s shoddy surface readings and textual interpretations does give me unlooked for opportunity to feel sweet satisfaction and justification, at least from some corners.

    Even the thought of finding Sherem anything but reprehensible is deeply troubling to me. I well remember all those inspired prophetic talks from President Benson in which he categorically stated, over and over again, that one of the great purposes of the Book of Mormon for our times was so that it could teach us the difference between Christ and anti-Christ–not so that we could accept anti-Christ’s as Savior figures from that very book. I like President Benson’s inspired readings better than Riess’s imaginative conjectures myself; they are actually true.

    Thanks again Duane, I continue to appreciate following your reasoning through the fallacies and arguments of an author who seems unable to comprehend what the Book of Mormon is trying to teach, and instead get it backwards.

    I was also interested to note that just before Pres. Nelson spoke to the NAACP conference in Detroit, that Janna Riess was using her blog, and its much more prominent reprint in the Salt Lake Tribune, to, as publicly and loudly as she could, call for President Nelson to apologize for the Church’s (falsely alleged) “racist” priesthood restriction. What unmitigated gall; to try to use your influence to tell God’s prophet to apologize for Him.

    I really wish NAMI were not publishing this kind of material; it does not justify their existence; rather, it makes a case for their cessation.

    • If “even the thought of finding Sherem anything but reprehensible is deeply troubling,” I would emplore you to actually read the article rather than opine on what it must mean. The “favorable” descriptions of Sherem are part of the text. He is a representative of the law of Moses. That is what he preaches. That is why his appearance becomes and inversion. You are unhappy with a reading that is really quite the reverse of what is in the article.

  6. I am very grateful to know that there are people who can and will write articles like this one. I’m grateful to Interpreter for giving their voices a podium.

    I too am disturbed by the trend to vilify Book of Mormon prophets and victimize their contemporary apostates. Who in their right mind would side with Sherem instead of Jacob? Why side with Laman and Lemuel instead of Nephi?

    Sure, you can imagine that Laman and Lemuel were better than we think, and Nephi was worse than we think, and do it in the name of authenticity. But to do so assumes that Nephi and Jacob aren’t as righteous as they portray themselves in their writings, that our opinion of them is colored by the stories they chose to tell – stories that cast them in a positive light, and their omission of any negative stories. Human nature? Maybe, maybe not. Are there people who have lived or who are now living who wouldn’t edit their life story that way? People who would tells us the whole thing and consider it deceptive not to? I think so.

    Would we consider instead, perhaps, that Nephi and Jacob were more righteous than we know? Perhaps their humility prevented them from disclosing all the episodes that demonstrated this fact. And would you also consider instead, perhaps, that Laman and Lemuel and Sherem were in reality more wicked than we are told?

    • As I noted in my comment, I would suggest you read the original, because the idea that the article vilified Jacob, or sided with Sherem against Jacob is an unfortunate misreading. It doesn’t say that at all. I reviewed the original recently to make sure.

  7. Does the Maxwell Institute not provide peer review of its product? If so they are falling down on the charge give to them.

  8. Duane Boyce suggests in his conclusion that: “A quick first-read must be followed by careful and thoughtful study.” He declares that Riess did not do that. After reading both Riess’s essay and Boyce’s response, I have to suggest that it is Boyce who should have done a more careful reading after the quick glance. It is hard to reconcile much of his criticism with the original article.

    First, Boyce is correct that Riess mixed up some of Korihor’s experience with Sherem. Other papers have looked at the story formulae that might underlie some of this, but it is true. Having been human myself from time to time, I might equally blame her editors for not keeping her from having that minor point in print.

    It seems that the biggest difference between Riess’s reading and Boyce’s is that Riess sees the Book of Mormon as similar to the Bible, in that it was written down and the stories included subject to selection, and perhaps stylistic influences when they were being written. Boyce reads the Book of Mormon as an accurate depiction of events exactly as they happened. Those two approaches may overlap, but they will be entirely distinct. In this case, much of what Boyce dislikes in Riess’s article is a matter of interpretation and Boyce simply assumes that his is correct because it reflects the most straightforward reading of the text—again, in his reading.

    Boyce says of Riess’s discussion of the “Man of God” trope from the Bible which she is using as an interpretive framework:

    “Now, although Riess does not believe Sherem is a man of God, she thinks the connection holds because, even if he was not exactly a man of God, he was like these Old Testament figures in his devotion to the law. Pious and sincere, he was only trying to correct the Nephites’ deviation from the proper worship of Yahweh. She considers him ‘an outsider’ who wants to rescue the Nephites from what he sees as ‘a dangerous theological heresy.’”

    It is fascinating how that paragraph can be simultaneously right and wrong. Parts of that show up in what Riess is doing, but the connotation that Boyce presents makes it seem that something is wrong. The problem is that Sherem is presented as learned. Sherem is presented as knowing the law, and he does make a contrast between the law of Moses and the Nephite expansion of that law with their understanding of the coming Atoning Messiah. So, true, but Boyce’s reading ironically inverts Riess’s point—which is that the Sherem story itself inverts expectations. In other words, It think Boyce has fundamentally misread her argument.

    For example, Boyce says: “But Sherem’s story does not begin with “the very same set-up” at all. We have already seen that Sherem is neither a man of God nor mistaken- but-sincere in his beliefs.” Well, kind of true, but Riess’s point was that the “there came a man” was the same. She then also notes the differences, the inversion of expectations. Again, Boyce manages to invert what she says.

    A full response to Boyce would be longer than his article. However, there is one more that would like to point out. Boyce cannot agree with Riess’s interpretation that Jacob was reflecting tensions in Nephite society. His proof is that Jacob says “as yet, ye have been obedient unto the word of the Lord” (Jacob 2:4). That is a very particular reading of that verse, and one that I suggest reflects a preference for Boyce’s desired meaning. Rather than look at a single prooftext, the conflict is seen in the nature of the sermon itself. It can be traced back in time to when Nephi had Jacob speak on a text from Isaiah. In 2 Nephi 9, when Jacob is using Isaiah as a touchstone in his condemnation of the people, he lists many of the same issues. The difference between the 2 Nephi text and the one in Jacob is that there is no Nephi. Someone new is king, and now there appears to be tension with ruling elite rather than only with the congregation.

    Why, then, would Jacob say that as yet they were obedient? Because they hadn’t yet been destroyed. Ergo, they still had enough who were righteous to forestall that. The promise of the land was that they wouldn’t be destroyed if they were righteous. Jacob doesn’t condemn everyone in Nephite society, only a specific few, and the hints are that they were the more powerful.

    I would encourage anyone reading Boyce’s review who has not read Riess’s original to go to the original rather than rely on this review of it.

  9. Bro Gardner, all thanks for your service. I appreciate your scholarly and faithful contributions.

    As you say, we should read the book. I don’t think I will buy anything the Maxwell Institute puts out. I have been unhappy with many of their youtube offerings. Snarky sometimes, abstruse others. But I did read Reiss’ blog post on the Apostle Paul, and found it full of mind reading, attributing motives, and jumping to conclusions. I do not think I would read anything more by her, thank you very much. Snarky. I am old and life is short, and it isn’t easy to recover from Snark.

    Other than that I have no strong opinions.

    Again, all thanks,

  10. Thank you for the suggestion to read the original article. I have done so in its entirety. I stand by what I wrote in my original comment.

    I’m sorry to disagree with you, because I like you. But two people can have different opinions and still remain friends.

    I’m assuming that you are friends with Sister Riess. I’m sure she is a wonderful person. I would be happy to meet her someday. But even if we were the very best of friends, I can still disagree with her ideas. Being confident in her conclusions, I’m sure she welcomes such critiques. That’s just the rough and tumble of public writing.

    Brother Boyce has accurately quoted and characterized her article. I would also invite everyone to read the original article to see for themselves. It is more than appropriate for the Interpreter to publish Brother Boyce’s review.

    If I were to copy and paste and elaborate all the ways in which the original article vilifies (diminishes) Jacob and victimizes (elevates) Sherem, my comment would run out of available characters. She indeed does so. Even to the point, as Brother Boyce describes, of comparing Sherem’s “sacrifice” to Jesus Christ.

    “In the case of Jesus, death was a vicarious sacrice to save humanity. It paved the way for sinful people to reconcile with God. The Sherem story, however, has much the same function, so the mirrored phrasing of “gave up the ghost” seems more than a literary coincidence. Sherem’s death was not, like Jesus’, able to wipe out all human sin for all time. It was, however, the catalyst for a single group of people to become reconciled to God, if only for a while.”

    “Sherem serves as a suitable scapegoat because he is enough like Jacob, the real focus of the people’s anger, to become an acceptable substitute. Sherem desires to serve as both priest and prophet, Jacob’s twin roles, and he is a deeply religious man.”

    “why do Jacob’s own people, who have been warned repeatedly of their egregious sins over the course of many years, walk away from chapter 7 unscathed while Sherem, who is observant and pious, is dealt a fatal blow after a single episode of outmoded theology? René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat may shed light on this dynamic: Sherem has to die because the people need a scapegoat in order to become united and whole, at least for a time.”

    “In step 2, the scapegoat must be slandered and accused, which Jacob does. He lays out the theological case against Sherem by alleging that Sherem has not understood the scriptures, which point to Christ. Even more signicantly, he actually demonizes Sherem. Jacob makes a strong rhetorical move here, from rst stating that Sherem was acting “under the power of the devil” in Jacob 7:4 to the more ontological accusation, given in his face-to-face debate with Sherem in verse 14, that “thou art of the devil.” Evil has gone in just ten verses from something that Sherem does to something that Sherem is. This, according to Girard, is not uncommon in scapegoating… Note that Sherem never launches the same accusation back at Jacob. Sherem believes Jacob has misunderstood the law and been delinquent in his duties, but Sherem does not go so far as to anathematize his interlocutor.”

    “It is actually unclear from the text just how Sherem dies, or who is responsible for the execution. Has God struck Sherem down directly? Have the people done so, animated by the Spirit and the wrath of God? Or have the people killed Sherem of their own accord? The text does not tell us.”

    “This is part of a larger tendency to conceal collective violence. The ambiguity of Jacob 7 lends itself to this theory of suppression, as does the phrase “gave up the ghost”—especially since that is the expression the KJV uses to describe Jesus’ final moments on the cross.”

    Well, after saying I wouldn’t copy and paste so much, I did. There’s more, but if I go on, it would be just like Brother Boyce’s article. His article basically writes itself.

    So was Sherem an anti-Christ? Or was he a Christ-like sacrificial scapegoat? We as readers have to decide. Sister Riess, Brother Boyce, and everyone else can pour over the same scripture and come to their own conclusions. Brother Boyce doesn’t vilify Sister Riess by stating that he thinks her conclusions are incorrect, and why. Indeed, if he feels the need to defend Jacob and again renounce Sherem, he should. Now we as readers must decide if we agree with the ideas of Sister Riess’s article, Brother Boyce’s article, any other article, or our own thoughts.

  11. I’d like to return to my original comment. I find Sister Riess’s original article fits into a larger trend to make the Book of Mormon prophets seem worse, and their wicked contemporaries seem better. “Opposite Day” was a fun way to tease each other on the playground in grade school, but it’s inappropriate when applied to the Book of Mormon, even if we think it makes it feel more authentic.

    Again, what if it were the other way around? What if the text doesn’t fully disclose that the prophets were more righteous than we think, and people like Sherem were more wicked than we think? I think this thought experiment is worth our contemplation.

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