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1 And it came to pass that after king Limhi had made an end of speaking to his people, for he spake many things unto them and only a few of them have I written in this book, he told his people all the things concerning their brethren who were in the land of Zarahemla.
2 And he caused that Ammon should stand up before the multitude, and rehearse unto them all that had happened unto their brethren from the time that Zeniff went up out of the land even until the time that he himself came up out of the land.
3 And he also rehearsed unto them the last words which king Benjamin had taught them, and explained them to the people of king Limhi, so that they might understand all the words which he spake.
4 And it came to pass that after he had done all this, that king Limhi dismissed the multitude, and caused that they should return every one unto his own house.
Mormon has finished quoting Limhi. He now simply narrates the basic information that followed. He lets his readers know that he is making a change by specifically interjecting himself in verse 1: “he spake many things unto them and only a few of them have I written in this book.” The reference for “this book” is the book that Mormon is writing.
The next event is Limhi’s invitation to Ammon to speak. Just as Ammon has come on this mission because people in Zarahemla had wondered what became of the people of Zeniff, the people of Zeniff wondered about what had happened in Zarahemla since they left. One of the important things that Ammon discussed was Benjamin’s “last words.” While Benjamin certainly taught of the coming Messiah, Limhi had already indicated that his people knew to believe in the Messiah, based on Abinadi’s testimony. The importance, therefore, was not to emphasize the atoning Messiah, but rather the new covenant. This was critical because it was assumed that the people of Limhi would accept that covenant when they returned, as it was then the governing covenant in Zarahemla.
When the people were dismissed, Limhi “caused that they should return every one unto his own house.” This is so similar to the ending of Benjamin’s speech that we can be justified in assuming that the reasons were similar. This is not simply a note that they were to go home, but that they were probably socially separated into lineage houses. Those lineages would not have reflected the classic Nephite lineages but would still have been the salient social divisions. Thus, the house was the collective term for the kin group, not the term simply for the individual dwelling place.
Seers, Prophets, and Translation
5 And it came to pass that he caused that the plates which contained the record of his people from the time that they left the land of Zarahemla, should be brought before Ammon, that he might read them.
6 Now, as soon as Ammon had read the record, the king inquired of him to know if he could interpret languages, and Ammon told him that he could not.
Two things are interesting in verse 5’s description of Limhi bringing records to Ammon. The first is that there was a continuous record kept of the people. Mormon will begin quoting from that record in the next chapter. He calls it the record of Zeniff, and he will quote what Zeniff wrote. However, the record clearly continued after Zeniff. Based on the evidence we have from the large plates, the books changed names with changes in dynasties. It is probable that the people of Zeniff continued that tradition. Therefore, the record of Zeniff would have been similar to naming a record the book of Zeniff, and the records of Noah and Limhi would have been on that same record.
The second interesting aspect is that Limhi expects that Ammon could read. It may be that Ammon had some royal or otherwise high-class blood. Literacy was rare in the ancient world and would have been confined to the higher classes.
The ability of Ammon to read leads directly to the question in the next verse. This question about whether Ammon could interpret languages will be the first time Mormon tells the story of Ether’s plates. Mormon will repeat aspects of the story about the plates twice in coming chapters. It was important to Mormon’s underlying thesis for the eventual destruction of the Nephite people, a thesis that will be explored later as more information is accumulated.
7 And the king said unto him: Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage.
8 And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel.
Limhi tells an important story. Because of the burdens placed on his people, he sent forty-three men in an attempt to find the land of Zarahemla and to beg their assistance. They wander in the wilderness and find, not Zarahemla, but a land with many waters, covered with the bones of men and beasts and ruins of buildings. One of the important factors in this discovery is not mentioned in this description. This is a land northward. Although the text doesn’t mention it here, it is implied because Zarahemla is also northward of the land of Nephi, and they were attempting to find Zarahemla.
The inability to find Zarahemla is curious. While there might have been some issue in arriving at the appropriate pass through the mountains, the instructions should have been simple. Zarahemla lay along the Sidon, and the Sidon had its headwaters in the higher elevation (typically mountains) to the south of Zarahemla. There must have been either some alive who had made the journey, or it was in the stories or their fathers. The instructions must have been to go to the mountains, find the river and follow it to Zarahemla. They must have done so, yet they missed Zarahemla. How could that happen?
If we accept a Mesoamerican setting, there are two rivers which begin not too far distant from each other in the Cuchumatanes mountains. The difficult part of the journey appears to have been between the headwaters of the river and the land of Zarahemla. Even Ammon’s party had wandered for a while, which had to be after they left the river.
The best explanation for Limhi’s party is that they wandered to the mountains, found the headwaters of a river and followed it. It was the wrong river. At the end of the river, they found the remains of a civilization. Following the second river would have led them to lands northward that had once been Jaredite lands.
9 And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.
10 And behold, also, they have brought breastplates, which are large, and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound.
11 And again, they have brought swords, the hilts thereof have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust; and there is no one in the land that is able to interpret the language or the engravings that are on the plates. Therefore I said unto thee: Canst thou translate?
Verse 9 begins: “for a testimony that the things that they had said are true. . .” There follows a listing of artifacts that they found and brought back as that witness of the land that they found. While bringing back breastplates and swords might have been scavenged from a living people, the presence of plates with engravings would have signaled a dead people. The reason is that a living people would have considered them sacred and protected them with their lives. Such was the power of documents that they became one of the sacred symbols of the Nephites, being passed from ruler to ruler. The same could have been expected of these plates.
The import of these finds is that there is not only tangible evidence of this lost people, but there is a record, and the assumption that the record might tell something about that people. Therefore, there is interest in reading it. Thus, Limhi asks: “Canst thou translate?” Clearly, no one in Limhi’s city could do that.
12 And I say unto thee again: Knowest thou of any one that can translate? For I am desirous that these records should be translated into our language; for, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of a remnant of the people who have been destroyed, from whence these records came; or, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed; and I am desirous to know the cause of their destruction.
13 Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.
Perhaps Ammon provided some response indicating that Ammon himself could not translate. Therefore, the question becomes whether Ammon knew of anyone who could. The answer is important. Not only does Ammon answer that the Nephite king could translate, but he does so without knowing anything about the language encoded in the engravings. The question might have been implicitly about this particular set of plates, but the answer included any ancient language encoded as a script.
The means by which the Nephite king could translate is that he possessed “wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date, and it is a gift from God.” The first question we should ask is how Ammon would know that. The answer is Mosiah1 (Benjamin’s father) had already used those interpreters to read a large stone the people of Zarahemla brought to him not long after the Nephites arrived in Zarahemla (see Omni 1:20–22). Although it isn’t discussed at this point, it is important to note that Mosiah1’s translation of the stone also told of a people who had been destroyed and whose bones lay in the lands northward. Although that information comes from Omni’s record, which Mormon did not use as he wrote his book, it is probably an event that Mormon would have told precisely because it spoke of a destroyed people in the lands northward.
One who used interpreters was called a seer, clearly because the user saw something when they were being used. It was a term with which the Book of Mormon’s 19th Century audience was familiar. The question many have asked about the interpreters that Mosiah1 used is where they came from.” The question is typically asked because there is an assumption that there was only a single set of interpreters. There is no reason to make that assumption. Mesoamerican shamans, even to this day, use items, sometimes stones, as a means of seeing what otherwise could not be seen. The importance that will be emphasized concerns the seer, not the specific mechanism the seer uses. Joseph Smith used various seer stones in addition to the interpreters that were buried with the plates. There is no need to suppose any reason that the ancient Nephites could not have had their own stones without waiting upon Jaredite stones.
14 And behold, the king of the people who are in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and who has this high gift from God.
15 And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.
16 And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.
17 But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.
18 Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.
Ammon continues to explain what a seer is. He declares that a seer is greater than a prophet. How could that be? Ammon explains that both prophets and seers have the ability to reveal things. The concept of revealing things is to bring to light that which is otherwise hidden. Both prophets and seers are able to reveal things hidden to most humankind. The difference is that a seer can see the past, as well as things to come. In this case, the seer can see the past in written language that necessarily encodes the past, since whatever is recorded becomes the past as soon as it is read, and certainly before it is read.
Thus, the seer can not only display Yahweh’s future plans, but can see into the past to reveal both events and the meaning of texts. Why is the past important? Both in Israel and in Mesoamerican society, time was considered to be cyclical rather than an unbending straight line. Thus, the past instructed the future, as the cyclical nature of humanity would bring those same conditions to new people. That past would provide the solutions to apply to past problems, or at least show the solutions that would not work. Thus, the seer saw a wider range of important details that could help a current population.
19 And now, when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words the king rejoiced exceedingly, and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates, and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men.
20 O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!
21 Yea, they are as a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd, and scattereth, and are driven, and are devoured by the beasts of the forest.
Ammon ends his discussion of how the Nephite king could translate the plates. Limhi declares that he has found the way to understand the mystery of this destroyed people, which is precisely the reason he had hoped to gain a translation. The final verse of this chapter says of humankind: “they are as a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd, and scattereth, and are driven, and are devoured by the beasts of the forest.” Without knowing the contents of the record, Limhi does know that they are about a destroyed people. He appears to expect that the lessons of the past will help his people avoid future mistakes. They have made their own, and they hope for salvation in the marvelous works of the Lord.
It might be noted that there is a consistent reference to the king of the Nephites without specifying which king might be involved. There will come a verse where there is some confusion over the particular king, and the discussion will be revisited at that time. At this point, it is best to refer to the position, rather than the specific person.
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