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.