This post is a summary of the article “Rethinking the Encounter between Jacob and Sherem” by Loren Blake Spendlove in Volume 54 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Spendlove provides a grab-bag of insights into the story of Jacob and Sherem, based on a reframing of common assumptions about language that Jacob employs within that story. These lead him to conclude that Sherem was native to the Nephite community, that he’d had repeated previous conversations with Jacob, and that Jacob’s narrative was carefully crafted, making use of potential parallelism and Hebrew wordplay (e.g., kachash, meaning to deceive or deny; yadah and yada, meaning to know and to confess, respectively).
In this article, Loren Spendlove examines the story of Jacob and Sherem, providing insights gleaned from a study of biblical, Hebraic, and nineteenth-century language. His primary (and most controversial) argument is that the phrase “there came a man”, usually used to imply that Sherem was a stranger in Jacob’s community, instead reflects an apparent messenger motif, with Jacob framing Sherem as a false messenger, and that motif elsewhere applied to individuals who likely lived in the communities they “came” to. Spendlove also argues that the indication that Sherem “sought much opportunity” to speak with Jacob may also have been misunderstood. Rather than indicating that Sherem had tried and failed to speak with Jacob, Spendlove furnishes numerous linguistic examples that imply the opposite—that Sherem had likely succeeded in speaking with Jacob on multiple occasions. Spendlove also presents a number of proposals for paralleism and wordplay based on potential Hebraic structure and language.
Though a straightforward interpretation of the phrase “there came a man” does imply a new entrant into the community, Spendlove shows how this may not be the case. He identifies a three-part structure, which he terms a “messenger motif,” that frames the phrase. The structure involves (1) the passage of time, (2) the phrase “there came” which then identifies a person, and (3) detailing a spoken message that the person then delivers. Spendlove identifies six other cases of this structure within the Book of Mormon, most involving “many prophets” coming to preach to the people. In none of those cases are prophets implied as coming from other communities, instead likely arising from within the communities themselves. Linking Sherem to this structure may have been Jacob’s attempt to portray him as a false messenger, with the rest of the story appearing to confirm such.
Spendlove similarly provides a fresh perspective on the phrase “sought much opportunity”. His review of nineteenth-century instances of that phrase turns up multiple cases where “sought opportunity” is better interpreted as something like “took advantage of every opportunity.” Applying that apparently common meaning would imply that Jacob and Sherem’s conversation was only the latest of a series of previous encounters where Sherem had attempted to usurp Jacob’s authority. This argument helps to clarify the sometimes uncharitable assumption that Jacob had been standing idle while Sherem led his flock astray.
The bulk of the paper is devoted to a rapid-fire series of additional insights collected by Spendlove (see his able summary in the paper’s Conclusion), wherein he argues the following:
- That Sherem’s challenge regarding “the right way” (I.e., the Law of Moses), is implicitly answered by Nephi in 2 Nephi 25:8-9, with the true “right way” being belief in Christ.
- That Jacob’s use of the word “confound”, recalls Lehi’s confounding of Laman and Lemuel, as both cases refer to that confusion occurring while being filled with the Spirit. It may also allude to the confusion that occurred at the Tower of Babel.
- That the Hebrew word kachash (to deceive, deny, pretend obedience, or act falsely) may form repetitive wordplay throughout the Sherem narrative, highlighting the apparently false contrition that Sherem shows prior to his death.
- That the Hebrew words yada (to learn, know or understand) and yadah (to confess) are employed to help contrast Sherem’s secular and legal knowledge and his lack of knowledge regarding (and eventual disingenuous confession of) Christ and his teachings.
- That Sherem’s demand for a sign aligns with the idea that Sherem was a Deuteronomist, revering Moses and the signs given by God, but that his desire for signs and denial of Christ are what ultimately condemned him, following a pattern detailed by Ezekiel.
- That Jacob used parallelism in various places throughout Jacob 7 to emphasize Sherem’s wickedness, the repudiation of Sherem’s teachings, and the role of God in carrying out judgment against Sherem.
Spendlove does a good job here highlighting the limitations of language and how our modern vernacular has the potential to get in the way of an accurate understanding of scripture. Both “there came a man” and “sought opportunity” seem perfectly innocuous and straightforward, and few have likely ever thought to question their usual interpretation. The latter case in particular shows the value of considering the linguistic frames that are much more relevant to the Book of Mormon text: (1) the ancient Hebrew and Egyptian of its authors, (2) the nineteenth century English of its original readers, and (3) the apparent Early Modern English of its translation. It makes me wonder how many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century examples of “sought opportunity” we could turn up if we tried, and how their meanings align with what Spendlove has gathered. My guess is “a lot” and “closely,” respectively.
Though I think I still prefer the idea of Sherem as a wayward Mulekite (which I think provides a handy explanation for his ardent Deuteronomistic bent), I appreciate the reminder that, no matter how firm one’s opinion, there’s almost always a viable alternative. Such alternatives may align in varying degrees with the evidence, and command varying degrees of consensus. But when those alternatives arise we should seek, at the very least, to understand why people hold that view and give fair hearing to the arguments that support it. Spendlove’s points on Sherem’s origin are valid, to be sure, and they’ve helped me better understand a position that differs from my own.
Sherem is a mystery. I liked the article’s speculation or observation that Nephi’s focus on the Right Way is sort of a counter to Sherem’s doctrine.
If that is so: Did Nephi know Sherem? I think it seems likely that he did.
I’ve always thought that the story of Sherem was sort of an afterthought, if you will, to the Book of Jacob. Jacob wrote his introduction, his speech condemning pride and riches and polygamy, then he did his discussion of Zenos and the Olive tree, finishing it off in Chapter 6. Then, years later, Sherem shows up and Jacob decides to add more to his book, after he was done.
But then I realized that the book heading of Jacob, which is original text, also mentions Sherem. Now, either Jacob added that later or Sherem was part of the plan for the book all along. Given the difficulty of writing on plates, and how little room there was, I don’t see Jacob leaving room in his heading to go back later and add on the “He confoundeth a man” bit.
So I think he always meant to include Sherem. And that makes sense: if Sherem had been around for some time, even before Nephi passed away, then Nephi could have made a preemptive strike. And Sherem’s influence may well have been what led the 2nd king astray to begin with. In this reading, Jacob would likely have been battling Sherem much of his adult life until God settled it.
None of that settles where Sherem came from, though.
What if he was one of the sons of Ishmael? Or a child of one of them? Got sideways with Laman and Lemuel so fled with Nephi but never gave up his Deuteronimist ways? Under this scenario, Jacob versus Sherem likely would have occurred relatively early on, as Jacob is clearly younger. But if one of the sons of Ismael outlived Nephi by a decade or so… and being one of the “original” from Jerusalem natives, he would have had a powerful story. After all, Jacob never knew Jerusalem, so he would have been at a disadvantage.
Or Sherem could have been a son of Ishmael born in the wildnerness before his father died, too, thus making him the “equal” of Jacob, so to speak.
Total speculation. Or maybe he was someone the Lehite party picked up along the way that never made it into Nephi’s story. But being someone originally from the Old World might solve some questions.
Sorenson’s geography has distorted much Book of Mormon reasoning. My long-time research leads me to believe that the Nephite saga ranged from Costa Rica to Cumorah in New York. Accordingly, In Jacob’s day they would have been in Guatemala and the Miulekites would have been in Louisiana, on the Mississippi.
Thanks Theodore. That’s interesting, I’ve never encountered that specific geography. What is it that you find compelling about it?
Three main points:
1. According to US Geological Survey, Cost Rica is the only place on the west coast of the Americas where gold, silver and coper are found within a 30-mile radius of a coastal point. (See 1 Nephi 18:25)
2. Two of the Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, testified that Moroni told Joseph Smith that the hill in Palmyra was called “Cumorah” by the ancients. ( see: Autobiography of P.P. Pratt p 56-61; Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration,” p. 233; Deseret Evening News 16 November 1878)
3. The Sidon flows from North to South and there is only one river on the North American Continent that meets the criteria. (see: https://interpreterfoundation.org/blog-north-american-book-of-mormon-geography-the-river-sidon/ )
I researched Book of Mormon geography for three years and wrote an unpublished thesis on it in 2008.
Sherem being a “wayward Mulekite”is highly improbable as we read in Omni 1:14-17 that King Mosiah “discovered” the Mulekites about 300 years later. in fact the word “discovered”is used four time in these four verses regarding them. If very vocal Sherem had been a Mulekite he certainly would have told the Nephites about himself to bolster his arguments.
Thanks for the comment Theodore. Those are points against the Mulekite theory, for sure. I’m not sure they’re completely dispositive, though. Assuming something close to the Sorenson model, the two groups would’ve been close enough to have shared contact, and though that contact would’ve been surprising to both, I’m not sure it would’ve necessarily made it into Jacob’s record (he would have had reason to downplay any authority Sherem might have possessed). And if that contact was limited and was effectively paused over several hundred years, it’s not inconceivable that Sherem’s origins were forgotten.
We even have a ready example in the form of Coriantumr. If not for the stone that Mosiah interpreted, it appears that this contact and his Jaredite origins would’ve (and had) been forgotten completely among the people of Zarahemla.
Regardless, I think the Deuteronomistic perspective of Sherem does require some explaining. I find it implausible that someone native to Nephi and Jacob’s community, where they and Lehi would’ve exercised a great deal of control over local religious interpretations, would’ve developed that perspective from whole cloth.
I see a few options for that:
1. Someone in Lehi’s party (perhaps Zoram) retained Deuteronomistic beliefs and was careful to transmit those to the next generation (perhaps unlikely given that Zoram was probably a Josephite too).
2. A wayward Mulekite, whose Judaic party would’ve probably included elites schooled in Deuteronomistic teaching.
3. A wayward Lamanite, who, given Laman and Lamuel’s perspective, could’ve retained theological opposition to Nephi and Jacob. This is still early on enough that the two communities could’ve intermingled somewhat despite their ongoing wars.
I’m not married to any of those three, but I see the latter two as a better explanation for Deuteronomistic teaching, and I suppose I prefer the Mulekite idea because it fits well with a Sorenson-informed world where two geographically close groups would’ve had a chance to naturally intermingle.
I prefer your 2nd scenario. My sense is that Laman and Lemuel had thrown off the Law of Moses completely by the time they settled their own community. And if that’s correct then it would be unlikely that anyone from their community would defend the Law.
I think the Mulekite connection is the best fit. The Book of Mormon says that they brought no records with them and therefore lost their foundational religious beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that a tradition based in the Law would not have persisted for at least a short time. And Sherem’s appearance in the Land of Nephi is soon enough after the arrival of both groups to the Promised Land that it (the tradition) would still have been a major defining factor in Mulekite culture.
The one element that casts some doubt (in my mind) on Sherem being a Mulekite is his understanding of the unpardonable sin. I don’t know that he could’ve gotten that understanding from the Law alone.
Your suggestion that someone among the initial Nephite arrivals (such as Zoram) might have held Deuteronomistic views seems quite likely. Since it was standard practice in biblical Hebrew to convert names of apostates into dysphemisms or negative metonyms, a theophorous name like Zoram (Hebrew צורם ṣûrām “Their-Rock (God),” Deut 32:30-31) was likely to be altered.
Gordon Thomasson suggested long ago that the name Sherem was just such a name, consisting of the Egyptian causative prefix ś- attached to the Hebrew word 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 may have been the opening salvo in repeated apostasies, including a later Zoram (Alma 30:59 – 31:3), and finally the Zoramite community itself in Alma 31. After all, John Gee commented in this journal that Jacob 7:7 parallels Alma 31:16-17 (both denying that Christ should come) as evidence of a common origin.
Thanks Robert. This is an excellent point.