Just three years before the coming of Christ to the American continent, secret combinations that opposed faithful prophets proclaiming repentance destroyed the stable Nephite government. Social chaos quickly followed as the society divided into numerous clans and tribes (3 Nephi 7). Only six years earlier the people had enjoyed great peace and prosperity on account of their repentance and righteousness. But now only darkness and the most dismal of times awaited them. Why would a blessed and prosperous people choose this destructive path?
Mormon, the great prophet-historian, insightfully explained the whole situation using symbolic terminology: “And thus six years had not passed away since the more part of the people had turned from their righteousness, like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow to her wallowing in the mire” (3 Nephi 7:8). This is not a pleasant scene to paint upon the mind. Yet Mormon wastes no time describing the people’s iniquity, nor does he make apologies for so doing. Mormon’s use of this symbolism may derive from ancient Israelite society. For example, in Israel a sow (hog) was an unclean animal. Therefore, anyone who ate a sow became defiled, according to the Mosaic Law (Deut. 14:3-8). Sows were not typically well regarded. Similarly, as is the case today in many societies, in ancient Israel calling someone a dog was an insult of the basest sort (1 Sam. 17:43; 2 Sam 16:9). By comparison to unclean or base animals, Mormon is labeling the Nephite society as intrinsically unclean and base.
The Book of Mormon employs terms sometimes infrequently found in common speech, such as mire and wallowing, therefore brief definitions are due. Mire is deep mud that thwarts one’s progress and wallowing is heavy or clumsy movement often associated with a sow rolling its body in the mire. A sow may “wallow in the mire” after being washed clean becoming just as dirty as if the cleansing never took place (2 Peter 2:22). These ideas evoke images of uncleanliness, filth, and repugnance. Not only has Mormon labeled the Nephite society as defiled (unclean), he also has made an observation about their natural tendency to turn to filthy things after having repented and been washed clean by the atonement.
Returning to the dog imagery, Mormon has placed one of his more powerful observations into a simple six-word phrase. Consider for a moment why a dog would ever have need to vomit in the first place. Vomiting is a natural biological defense system or process of protection that the body endures when something harmful or disagreeable has been consumed. The dog likely ate because it was hungry, but he chose poorly, consuming a harmful substance. Even after his body properly reacted to save him by ejecting the harmful substance, the dog was not satisfied and desired something more revolting than his first meal—the harmful substance mixed with his vomit.
The Nephite society, like the dog, had “hunger pangs” and sought to fill them with the fruits of iniquity. These fruits are entirely unsatisfying leaving one longing for fulfillment. The Nephites reaped the consequences of their folly by spewing out the wickedness they consumed. The Nephites then turned to even grosser iniquities mixed with the first because their appetite for wickedness could never be satiated. Thus they fell headfirst into a dizzying downward spiral of self-destruction “Like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow to her wallowing in the mire.” With this vivid metaphor Mormon succinctly captures in parallelistic form the cyclical pattern of wickedness and apostasy that the Nephite repeated through their history.