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Jacob 2: Economics, Plural Marriage, and the New World

A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Book of Mormon Lesson 11:
Be Reconciled unto God through the Atonement of Christ (Jacob 1-4)




In Jacob chapters 1-3, Jacob gives his first and only recorded discourse after the death of Nephi. Jacob 1:15-16 lays out the problems that he will address:

15 And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.
16 Yea, and they also began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride.
17 Wherefore I, Jacob, gave unto them these words as I taught them in the temple, having first obtained mine errand from the Lord.

We learn that the Nephites are straying in several important dimensions from their founding charter. First, hardening of the heart. Second, some Nephite men have violated the commandment given to Lehi (presumably recorded in a portion of the brass plates that are not presently available to us) that his descendants should not take additional wives in the promised land. Third, social divisions are arising because some have been more prosperous than other.

In discussing this section of Jacob’s record, I will draw heavily on Brant Gardner’s “Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon Volume 2: Second Nephi through Jacob.” Whenever I reference “Gardner,” it is this book and its author that I am referencing, and much of what I say here without explicit citation will paraphrase Gardner. His books are a seriously useful and informative resource and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Jacob has announced at the end of these few verses that he is giving this discourse in that temple in an official capacity. To modern readers, it may seem strange that pride, gold, and violation of a prohibition against plural marriage should end up in the same talk. That may strike some modern readers as a little bit eclectic, but to an ancient person this would make much better sense. Quoting Gardner [pg. 481],

“It is not by chance that Jacob’s discussion of mutiple wives and his indication that his people ” began to search much gold and silver” come close together. Each statement is a manifestation of increasing wealth and emphasis on the trappings of wealth. Even in societies where it is allowed (or even encouraged), maintaining multiple families requires greater control of substance. Thus, it tends to be practiced by those societies’ wealthier members.

The appearance of the practice among the Nephites at this point, perhaps seventy years after leaving Jerusalem and after sixty years in the New World suggests that the Nephites have not only manged to become wealthy, but also that the supply of marriageable women made more than one wife a social possibility. Once again, both the wealth and the availability of desirable women of the proper age, sufficiently removed from the kin group, provide strong confirmation of native populations with whom the Nephites interacted.”

Taken together the issues Jacob addresses all point collectively in one direction: the Nephites’ problems have to do with the way in which they are interacting with outsiders, and the way this is impacting their relationships within the community and with the Lord. In Jacob 2:12-13, Jacob makes his initial charges against the Nephites who have sinned:

12 And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully.
13 And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.

So the Nephites have found gold and become rich. At least this is what a modern person would think. However, a moments thought reveals that it isn’t that easy. Imagine for a minute that you are stranded on a desert island with you and several hundred of your closest friends trying to survive, and no plans or expectation of ever leaving. Someone finds that on the other side of the island there is a ridiculous quantity of gold. Is this guy now rich? Well, it depends on what people will trade for it and the trade value is usually inversely proportional to how much of it there is. Here, now, is a highly fictionalized account of how the conversation might have gone: “Wait, you’re saying the metal “doth abound most plentifully,” right? So you’re saying you want me to trade my coconut for your yellow rock. How does your rock taste? Wait… … your saying there are a bunch more just like it on the other side of the island? And you want my coconut? I had to climb up in a tree to get this, I’m not giving you my coconut.”

So metal by itself would have been nearly worthless to the Nephites unless they could do something with it. Now we know Nephi did do something with it. He made it into books. We also know he made tools prior to constructing his boat, which means that he had enough capability in refining and metalworking to do those projects, and we can possibly assume that his people also learned these skills from him; it is, after all, a small town. But if the Nephites are isolated, then this just means everyone goes around wearing decorative objects, but these objects don’t become truly valuable because anyone can make them out of the abundant gold, and besides that they were effectively made by the kid down the street. It’s like baseball cards, if everyone has access to the same ones, they are all worthless. However, if the Nephites learned metalworking from Nephi and found an abundant resource of raw material, and they are the only ones in the area that can do metalworking of a certain type, and can sell the newly made fine goods to others outside of their community that do not have these capabilities, then they have the makings of a golden ticket. There is evidence that metalworking was largely unknown in the early Americas, so a Nephite monopoly on the techniques actually makes sense.

A few steps later, we end up with Nephites wearing costly apparel, which is in some ways a smoking gun (or a smoking jacket, perhaps) because this is something we have no record of them making themselves at this period. When Nephi talks about clothes he is either prophesying, documenting a vision, or quoting Isaiah. And note also that Jacob’s concern is not how much gold and silver they have, it is their costly apparel, which is both how one projects wealth in the ancient world and likely not a native Nephite good. Notice the causality in Jacob’s speech “because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel” so the order of causality is “obtained more abundantly” causes “costly apparel” causes “lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads”. It’s the clothes that are the problem here. [John S. Henderson, The World of the Ancient Maya, quoted in Gardner] makes the connection explicit, “Jewelry and other goods made from exotic raw materials indicate increasing prosperity, expanded economic ties to distant regions, and sharper differences in wealth and social status;…”. Gardner adds, “What he adds is the missing piece in Jacob’s discourse: the acquisition of wealth through trade of the “jewelry and other goods made from exotic raw materials.” The wealth occurs not because of the possession of unworked and undervalued ore, but because the ore could be worked into exotic goods that could be exchanged with other communities. While Jacob does not state it, the economic situation he describes cannot be explained without understanding its context of trade with other communities.” Trade is then what is driving the social differences and where the exotic costly apparel is coming from that is driving Nephite vain imaginations of inequality.

Later on in verse 23-24, Jacob reaches his other line of rebuke, “But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.”

Here, actually, is yet another indication of Nephite contact with outsiders. There are plenty of revered characters who practiced run-of-the-mill plural marriage. There is Abraham, the father of all the faithful, and there is Israel, also their ancestor and the namesake of their home nation. Yet they pick David and Solomon instead of their own ancesters. Why? They are descendants of Joseph, and the Davidic kings were not as popular among the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as in the tribe of Judah. David and Solomon end up being more tragic and far less exemplary than one might reasonably desire if you really want to justify a practice unless there was something about what the Nephites are doing that they couldn’t justify by appeal to Abraham and Israel. Given that Jacob mentions this happened during the reign of the second king it could indicate that the king had made a tacit appeal to executive privilege which might also make the royal precedent of David and Solomon more appealing.

What then do we know about David and Solomon’s plural marriages that could explain their appeal as precedent? 1Kings 11:1-3 states, “But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; Of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart.” So the problem with Solomon’s plural marriages was not their number so much as the fact that they introduced apostasy into Israel because he married outside of the covenant.

Gardner makes a strong point here: “So how can Jacob describe as “whoredom” the same relationship in which he calls the participating woman a “wife”? And in what way could David and Solomon be guilty of “whoredom”? They had many wives, but their relationships with these legal partners could not be whoredom. Nor can this condemnation be construed to apply to any non-monogamous relationship since verse 30 indicates that polygyny is sometimes acceptable. I suggest that, even though David and Solomon had legal plural wives, many of these wives taken to cement political alliances were not, according to Israelite law, eligible marriage partners because they were “strange” (i.e., foreign) women.” By this rationale the marriages would not have been valid under Israelite law and David and Solomon would have been guilty of whoredom in their illegal political marriages. Doctrine and Covenants 132 supports this reading when it says of David and Solomon, “David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me.” If these foreign wives were considered ineligible marriage partners under Israelite law then it logically follows that they are within the set which the Lord asserts “they received not of me.”

As it turns out political marriages are often reciprocal, which explains one of the few remaining mysteries in Jacob 2, the Lord’s concerns about the chastity of women. Plural marriages, when authorized are just as much marriages and just as chaste as single ones. However, if the Nephites were giving their daughters in marriage to rulers in neighboring lands in order to cement trade relationships, then those marriage relationships would have also been contrary to the same principles of law that forbade marrying outside of the covenant. To send daughters into such a situation for financial gain fully justifies Jacob’s accusation of whoredom and his express direction that they, “shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.”

Understood in this way, the reasoning for the Lord’s original command to Lehi to forbidding his sons to practice plural marriage in the promised land comes into focus in a new light. The Lehite colony arrived in a continent which was not empty and preserving the purity of the newcomers in the land required that they not adopt marriage patterns that would lead to mixing with and adopting the religious practices of the surrounding people as David and Solomon in fact did to their peril. Some have thought this contradicts Doctrine and Covenants 132 because Jacob 2 forbids plural marriage while Doctrine and Covenants 132 commands it. However, in context Jacob 2 is actually precedent for the initial commandment to practice plural marriage because of the allowance in verse 30 which notes the possibility of the Lord giving authorization and also precedent for the Manifesto in that it establishes that the Lord by priesthood authority can forbid classes of marriage even if these are accepted in the wider culture (which seems to be the case among the Nephites neighbors) and even if the Lord would allow them under other circumstances as Jacob 2:30 and Doctrine and Covenants 132 make clear. Taken together this shows how the Lord acted decisively to protect his people from the threat of apostasy and in particular to protect his daughters from exploitation as pawns in the pursuit of money and power by unprincipled Nephite elites.

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