2 Nephi 5 tweet: L&L plan to kill N. N takes Z + S + J&J + sisters (who knew?) and flees. N-ites prosper & build temple. L-ites cursed. J&J consecrated.

2 Nephi 5:21 reads:

And he had caused the cursing to come upon [the Lamanites], yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

To those with modern sensibilities this verse can be the source of some consternation. The straightforward reading of this verse is an unambiguously racist one, i.e. God changed the colour of Lamanite skin because of their sins as the sign of a curse. However, such a reading contradicts Church doctrine. Whilst recognising this has not always been the case, the Church’s current position states:

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.1

In keeping with this position, the Church has made some changes to some of the headings and footnotes in the latest edition of the Standard Works. The most notable of these is found in the introduction to Official Declaration 2 at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants. But more relevant to this post is a subtle change made to the heading of 2 Nephi 5 (what once read “the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness” now reads “the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed…”) and an additional footnote to 2 Nephi 5:21 (the word “blackness” is now cross-referenced to 2 Ne. 26:33).

In this post I’ll offer two ways that we might read this verse that are in harmony with the position of the Church and don’t necessitate a racist God.

  1. The change in Lamanite skin colour was a result of their inter-marrying with an indigenous people

I think there is a view among some/many members that Lehi’s family essentially colonised an empty continent. However, I think that is likely a false cultural artefact. I don’t believe there is anything in the Book of Mormon text that requires we believe that the land was empty pre Lehi’s arrival. In fact, there are markers in the text that would indicate that there were others already occupying the land. The most comprehensive work on this topic is probably John Sorenson’s article When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?2 Key points from his article include the following:

  • “Nephites” and “Lamanites” are initially defined as political terms, not genetic labels
  • Nephite and Lamanite populations grew far too rapidly than can be explained by normal means
  • The story of Sherem in Jacob 7 indicates that strangers had been incorporated into the Nephite people (I’ll pick this up when we get to Jacob 7)
  • Numerous hints occur in the text pointing to other groups incorporated within the Nephites and Lamanites

Now, some may say these are just the efforts of modern apologists to explain away the fact that DNA evidence doesn’t support the traditional(?) interpretation of Lehi’s family (plus the Mulekites) being the sole ancestors of American Indians. However, even ignoring the fact that Sorenson wrote his article in 1992, as far back as 1929, Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency told Latter-day Saints:

We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two peoples and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent.3

If this reading of the Book of Mormon is correct (i.e. that there were others in the land when Lehi’s family arrived), the change in Lamanite skin colour can be easily explained by their inter-marrying with the indigenous people of the land. If the Nephites took this change in skin colour to indicate a curse from God, that may just be a reflection of their prejudices rather than any sign of God’s disfavour. In fact, as Rodney Turner points out:

While the dark skin was initially designed to insulate Nephi’s followers against the false traditions and godless ways of their Lamanite brethren, in a later turn-about it served to protect the Lamanite people from the fatal sin of their supposedly superior Nephite brethren … In the third century BC, Mosiah I led an exodus of “as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord” (Omni 1:13) from the land of Nephi farther northward to the land of Zarahemla, where they united with the more numerous people of Zarahemla (see Omni 1:12–19; see also Mosiah 25:2). Those who remained “in the land of their first inheritance” (Mosiah 9:1; 10:13) were either destroyed by the Lamanites or assimilated into their culture. Such was the irony of the curse!4   

  1. The skin of blackness was a garment rather than a change in pigmentation

A second, less obvious interpretation of this verse is that the skin of blackness was actually a garment worn by the Lamanites as a symbol of an authority to rule in opposition to Nephi’s claim of authority. As far as I’m aware, the most extensive treatment of this idea is by Ethan Sproat.5 I can’t really do his paper justice in a few lines so I’d recommend you read it. But briefly, he outlines how garments have always served as a marker of God’s authority, from the garment that Adam and Eve were clothed with, to Joseph’s coat of many colours, to the garments that Moses endowed Aaron and his sons with in order to serve in the tabernacle. He points out that 2 Ne 5:21 comes in the context of the building of the Nephite temple and the consecration of Jacob and Joseph as (temple) priests. Sproat then states:

As a people who follow the law of Moses, it would be odd for the Nephites to consecrate priests without similar holy garments. In parallel, the text of 2 Nephi 5 appears to report on the cursed skins (or garments) of his older, rebellious brothers and the holy garments (or coats of skins) bestowed upon his younger, obedient brothers. If references to the black Lamanite skin refer to a type of garment, it is evidently a sort of garment with powerful rhetorical signals for the Nephites. That is to say, when Nephites see Lamanites wearing particular non-Nephite garment-skins, the Nephites can know that such Lamanites are cursed, that they are cut off from the temple (“the presence of the Lord”), that they are not rightful priests, and that they are not rightful kings who can rule and reign in Lehi’s branch of the house of Israel.5

As I say, there is much more to Sproat’s argument than I can cover here, so go read the whole thing. Of course, all of this brings to mind Hugh Nibley’s infamous prayer at a BYU commencement in which he said “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood.” Several years later Nibley would use that line again as an attention grabber in a BYU commencement address.6 He didn’t need to; pretty much the whole talk is dynamite (and allegedly nearly got him fired). It’s beyond the scope of this post, but well worth a read if you get a minute.

Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 6

  1. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng
  2. http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1378&index=2
  3. Ivins, Anthony W., LDS Conference Report, April 1929, p. 15
  4. https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/book-mormon-second-nephi-doctrinal-structure/7-lamanite-mark
  5. http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/jbms/24/JBMS-v24-Sproat.pdf
  6. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/hugh-nibley_leaders-managers/