Abstract: The phrase goodness of God does occur occasionally in the Hebrew Bible but has not been considered by Old Testament scholars to be an independent principle in Israelite theology. Rather, it has been interpreted as just another way of talking about God’s acts of hesed, or loving kindness for his covenant people and is usually interpreted in the context of the covenants Israel received through Abraham and Moses. The Book of Mormon clearly echoes that Old Testament pattern but also presents two additional conceptual frameworks that are explained in terms of the goodness of God. It advances an explicit divine plan of redemption or salvation that existed before Abraham — even before the creation of the earth — which had as its purpose making eternal life possible for God’s human children universally — not just the descendants of Abraham. And it also teaches the gospel or doctrine of Christ that provides the path individuals must walk to take full advantage of that plan — as they become good like God and qualify to enter his presence and receive eternal life. Nephite usage radically expands the Old Testament concept by portraying this mortal probation as each person’s God-given opportunity to become good like God. The goodness of God is frequently invoked by the Nephite prophets as a basic theological concept which can explain why God advanced his plan of salvation for men before the world was and why he is completely reliable in blessing and protecting those who have entered the covenant path by embracing his gospel and striving to endure to the end. The Nephites also used the phrase in the Old Testament pattern to explain the acts of God in delivering, blessing, and preserving his covenant people. Furthermore, some usages seem to invoke all three of these contexts simultaneously, demonstrating the comfortable integration of each of these perspectives in Nephite theological understanding.
[Page 132]Readers of the Book of Mormon do not have to wait long to be introduced to the goodness of God as a foundational concept. In the second sentence of the book, Nephi refers to his “great knowledge of the goodness … of God” as a reason for writing it.1 In a 2016 article,2 Matthew L. Bowen shared his discovery that Nephi had demarcated his writings in the small plates as a single rhetorical unit with an inclusio by referring to the goodness of God at the beginning and again at the end.3 Nephi invokes different versions of the same phrase another six times in his writings. Benjamin uses it five times in his final sermon, and it occurs another twelve times in the writings of Jacob, Alma, Helaman, and Mormon.
As will be discussed below some Old Testament scholars have identified the goodness of God as one dimension of his hesed, the covenant love he displays to the Israelites when delivering them from their enemies and blessing them in their times of need. The phrase has received limited focused attention from Old Testament theologians and none I have been able to find from Book of Mormon scholars. This paper will show that Book of Mormon prophets used the phrase in the same Old Testament way as an explanation for the blessings given to his covenant [Page 133]people but also in other ways as an explanation for his plan of salvation, the creation of the earth, the atonement performed by Jesus Christ, and the provision of a way (the gospel) for all men and women to become good like him and return to his presence.
Whatever the level of their understanding may have been previously, it is very clear that the great visions given to Lehi and Nephi in First Nephi taught them things about God that they had not known. As Lehi exclaims, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty. Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power and goodness and mercy is over all the inhabitants of the Earth” (1 Nephi 1:14).4 Those visions had expanded their perspectives to see that the Lord loves all people equally and that Christ was coming to conquer both sin and death and to reveal his gospel through which all his creations might come unto him, becoming good themselves in the process, that they might receive eternal life.5
The Goodness of God
in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon
Like Nephi’s writings in the small plates, the Book of Mormon itself also concludes with a focus on the goodness of God. At some point in the final decline of the Nephite nation, Mormon wrote to his son Moroni expressing his continual prayer “unto God the Father … that he through his infinite goodness and his grace” would “keep [Moroni] through the endurance of faith on his name to the end” (Moroni 8:3). Moroni introduces his final statement by saying he will “write somewhat as seemeth me good” (Moroni 10:1). He will go on to use good six more times in his summary, but even more helpfully, he includes a number of new phrases which make what seems good to him even more specific and instructive for future followers of Christ.
He first identifies all good things as being “just and true,” which means “nothing that is good denieth the Christ” (Moroni 10:6). This leads to a discussion of spiritual gifts and Moroni’s exhortation to his readers to “remember that every good gift cometh of Christ” [Page 134](Moroni 10:18) — inasmuch as “all these gifts comes by the Spirit of Christ” (Moroni 10:17). Without these gifts, “there shall be none that doeth good,” “for if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God” (Moroni 10:25).
Moroni concludes by specifying four ways that the process of coming unto Christ by enduring to the end by laying “hold upon every good gift” enables his followers to become good.6 For if they will (1) “deny [themselves] of all ungodliness,” they will by his grace (2) become “perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32–33). That perfection is further defined as (3) being “sanctified in Christ … unto the remission of [their] sins, that [they] become (4) holy, without spot” (Moroni 10:33).
The same shift from the initial focus on the goodness of God to the potential goodness of men is foreshadowed by Nephi in his opening chapter when he announces as his thesis that he will show his readers “that the tender mercies of the Lord is over all them whom he hath chosen because of their faith to make them mighty, even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). This thesis is supported throughout Nephi’s first book in the traditional Israelite way by reporting six accounts of God’s powerful intervention to save the covenant faithful from threatened destruction.7 His second book makes it clear that he is ultimately referring to the deliverance of all men and women from death and the covenant faithful (those who become good) from sin and the captivity of the devil.
This opening chapter provides even more clues about this theme, which will in turn guide the reader through the entire book. The story of the opening chapter focuses on Lehi, who had been deeply troubled by the prophecies of some contemporaries who were warning the people that Jerusalem and its inhabitants would soon be destroyed and taken captive because of their wickedness. After he cried to the Lord “with all his heart, in behalf of his people,” he was subsequently shown a theophany of “God sitting upon his throne” and was given to know that the calamitous prophecies he had heard would in fact be fulfilled. Lehi’s startling and even joyful response to this negative news shows [Page 135]that he had also been given the big picture on God’s relationship to his human creations and now understood these pending destructions in terms of God’s “goodness and mercy,” as he exclaimed:
Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty. Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power and goodness and mercy is over all the inhabitants of the earth. And because thou art merciful, thou will not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish. (1 Nephi 1:5–14)
In this paper, I will also explore the possibility that power, goodness, and mercy are used here to describe eternal attributes of God, which in turn explain his decision to create this earth and its human population and to prepare a plan of salvation. That plan includes the atonement of Jesus Christ and his gospel as the way by which men and women can, with the benefit of his covenantal mercy, receive a forgiveness of their sins, come unto him, and attain goodness as well. In so doing, they may be delivered from the devil’s captivity and dwell in the presence of God eternally.
The Goodness of God in the Old Testament
While both mercy and goodness do have principal equivalent terms in the Hebrew Bible (rahamim, tub), both have also been used as translations for the more complex and theologically prominent Hebrew term hesed.8 For example, mercy is the most frequently used translation for hesed in the King James Version of the Old Testament. And most linguistic studies of God’s goodness (tub) in the Hebrew Bible have concluded that it is just one of the many dimensions of Yahweh’s hesed as demonstrated in his care for his covenant people as he blesses them with peace, land, or delivers them from their enemies: “For the Lord is good (tub), for his steadfast love (hesed) endures for ever” (Jeremiah 33:11, RSV).9 As Stachowiak points out, “all the biblical texts refer to God’s goodness, [Page 136]either directly or by implication.” But that goodness is focused on the people of the covenant: “Yahweh is the good, kind and benign one who shows his favour and benevolence to his people and does this by virtue of their election and of the covenant”10 (emphasis added).
While “the idea of essential goodness underlies” all the different shades of meaning of good in the Old Testament, “the Hebrew word hesed expresses goodness in a more concrete form, in the sense of divine favour and God’s loyal readiness to give help, particularly in connection with the covenant made on Mount Sinai.”11 The Psalms contain numerous passages praising the goodness of God, the proofs of which are the various examples of his fulfilling his responsibilities to bless and deliver his covenant people as part of his hesed. Only occasionally do these express a more universal view — as in Psalm 100:1–5, where “all the earth is called upon to praise God for his goodness.”12
God’s Hesed for His Covenant People
Scholarly opinion about the necessity of a prior relationship of obligation for hesed to be in effect between men and God or just between men has been mixed. When Nelson Glueck wrote his seminal work on hesed, he argued that the Lord’s hesed was always grounded in a pre-existing covenant or other relationship of obligation.13 It could not be equated to God’s goodness generally or with spontaneous acts of kindness or friendship that were not so grounded:
God’s goodness, which is mentioned in these passages in connection with His hesed, in no way influences the established meaning of hesed and does not lead to a meaning of hesed as favor, as one might expect. For the pious, it was an act of Yahweh’s grace that he had entered into a covenant [Page 137]with them and showed them hesed in accordance with his promise. His hesed-deeds were miracles to them.14 While the hesed relationship between Yahweh and his people was regarded as having originated through his goodness, hesed itself remained the mutual relationship of rights and duties which Yahweh had obligated himself to show.15 In this sense only is hesed to be understood … . The reason for Yahweh’s … demonstrating all his power for the sake of his people throughout the course of history, must not be sought in his favor, grace, or goodness … . He stood by the people of his covenant, faithfully executing the hesed to which they were entitled by virtue of that relationship … . Hesed is best translated in these stereotyped passages as “covenantal loyalty”16 or “faithful assistance.”17
Glueck here makes it clear that even though God’s goodness can be seen as manifest in particular acts of hesed, he believes the Israelites understood the origins of their covenant with the Lord as a product of his pre-existing goodness, a distinction that has not been generally acknowledged in the literature. As he clarifies further, relating to God’s goodness and grace:
[H]esed is not identical with God’s favor. However, since the relationship between God and His people was established by the grace of its election, hesed is based upon the grace of God … . It could be held that the origin of the God-people (man) relationship stems from God’s favor; and that the structuring of these relationships emanates from His ethical will … .18
Eichrodt interpreted the earlier prophets differently. Rather than seeing their use of hesed transforming into an ethical doctrine, he saw it as “a unique exaltation of the God with whom nothing on earth can be compared,” and in this way providing “an expression adequate both to the all-surpassing greatness and to the goodness of God.”19
[Page 138]In her first monograph on hesed, Katherine Sakenfeld supported the claims of scholars who did not find biblical usage of the term that restrictive, pointing to evidence from the Peshitta. “The Peshitta normally uses twybt’ (‘goodness, kindness; a favor or benefit’) as the translational equivalent of hesed.”20 However, Emanuel Tov has since demonstrated that the translational evidence for this less restrictive interpretation is late, dating to the Common Era.21 And in his exhaustive application of modern linguistic methodologies to this question, Gordon Clark came down solidly in support of Glueck’s older view:
The methodology adopted in the present study has shown that a deep, enduring, personal commitment to each other is an essential feature of situations in which one human party extends חםד [hesed] to another. This is a mutual, bilateral commitment, unlike the unilateral commitment proposed by … Sakenfeld.22
Glueck was thus vindicated in his general conclusion that
[t]he hesed of God, while it is not to be identified with his grace, is still based upon the latter, insofar as the relationship between God and people, structured by Him as a covenantal relationship, was effected by electing Israel through an act of grace.23
The seminal texts in Exodus 33:19 and 34:4–7, when read together, also seem to identify God’s goodness (tub) with elements of his hesed:
And he [the Lord] said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you … The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (emeth), keeping steadfast love (hesed) for thousands” (RSV).24
[Page 139]Dictionary treatments and linguistic studies of hesed and tob (to be or do good) and its derivatives tend to be consistent with one another in this approach. But they sometimes articulate some uneasiness about passages where tub would seem to signal that the goodness of the Lord may predate the establishment of his covenants with Israel. While these passages do undergird God’s hesed toward his covenant people, they may also apply universally to his attitudes toward all mankind.25 Glueck saw a similar universal ethic implicit in some of the minor prophets and wisdom literature.26 As will be shown below, that distinction appears to be more pronounced and intentional in numerous Book of Mormon passages.
My Work and My Glory
Three decades ago in a festschrift honoring Hugh W. Nibley, I argued that there is strong and extensive evidence that the version of Genesis available to the Nephite prophets in the plates of brass must have been practically identical to the revised early chapters attached to Genesis in the Joseph Smith Translation.27 One key passage in establishing that connection is Moses 1:39: “For this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”28 This straightforward statement of God’s boundless good intentions toward his human children has no parallel in the Old Testament, but does inform the teachings of the Nephite prophets repeatedly. The language describing the possibilities of eternal life for men begins in 2 Nephi 2, the chapter that reminds us most strongly of the Moses texts, and is echoed thirty times by Nephi and [Page 140]every major writer of the book.29 The companion concept of immortality or immortal glory shows up three times in Moses, twice in conjunction with eternal life (Moses 1:39; 6:59, 61).30
Modern scholars do find a few possible allusions in the Old Testament to Yahweh’s concern for the immortality or even eternal life of all people, but these are not even noticed by most readers.31 But the Lord’s eternal focus on these possibilities for all mankind as articulated repeatedly in the Nephite teachings testifies to his goodness preexisting his covenant with Abraham or others, and therefore preexisting his covenant hesed.
Book of Mormon Expansions of the Old Testament Discourse about the Goodness of God
What may have been implicit only in the Hebrew Bible as a background for the covenant God gave to Abraham is made explicit and prominent in the discourse of the Nephite prophets. While the Nephites use God’s goodness to explain the faithfulness, justice, mercy, and deliverances of God in his dealings with his covenant people, the Israelites, they also invoke their visionary understanding of that goodness to explain God’s love and salvation proffered to all mankind. The visions given to Lehi, Nephi, and possibly others expanded their grasp of God’s goodness in two directions. They were given firstly an understanding of “the great plans of the eternal God,” which preceded Abraham and even the existence of the earth and provided salvation for all peoples in all times and all places: “salvation through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world for all mankind which ever was, ever since the fall of Adam, or which is or which ever shall be, even unto the end of the world” (Mosiah 4:7). They refer explicitly to “the plan of salvation/ redemption” by one or another of its labels thirty times and implicitly much more.32 Secondly, they also marveled at “the great goodness of our God” who had prepared a way — the gospel of Jesus Christ — by which every man or woman as an individual could repent [Page 141]and qualify to return to his divine presence.33 These two key theological concepts were revealed to Lehi and Nephi in their first visions, dramatically expanding their traditional Israelite understanding of the ways in which God relates to humankind.
In a separate paper I have shown how the earliest visions given to Lehi and Nephi that launched the Nephite dispensation educated them in these two additional time frames and perspectives, equipping them with vastly expanded understandings of the goodness of God and its importance for all humankind.34 They were introduced into the divine council and its eternal perspective which allowed them to grasp God’s plan of redemption that was established before the creation of this world. And they were taught the gospel of Jesus Christ and the way it provides whereby individuals can become the Lord’s children by covenant and walk the straight and narrow path that will lead them back to him — making them good in the process. Finally, they saw Israel’s covenant with the Lord as a way of showing all the world how the Lord could establish a covenant relationship with people who would obey him and how he would discipline and bless them through cycles of obedience and rebellion. By teaching all three of these basic conceptions of God’s relationships to humankind, the Nephite prophets clearly demonstrated their reliance on the goodness of God as a foundational theological concept.
The three time-frames featured in these visions include eternity, the history of humans on this earth, and the lifetimes of individuals. The visions given to Lehi and Nephi also provided a visualization for each of these. Eternity was assumed in the openings of heaven and the induction of new prophets into the divine council where God sits enthroned. God’s relationship with the peoples of the earth in history and prophecy provides a salvation history that promises the possibility of covenant relationships between God and peoples of the earth, whether organized as tribes or churches. And the final reality that salvation does require making and keeping a prescribed covenant with the Lord by every individual who will be saved demonstrates how both larger time frames focus on the lives lived by individuals.
Depending on the time-frame perspective assumed in any scriptural passage, readers would be led to think in terms of the appropriate verbalization, whether it be the plan of salvation, the Abrahamic [Page 142]covenant, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. And Lehi’s great vision provided a visualization to illustrate each of those verbalizations: the divine council, the allegory of the olive tree, and the image of the straight and narrow path leading to the tree of life.35 These relationships can be illustrated conveniently in the following table.
|1.||Eternity||Divine council||Plan of salvation|
|2.||Salvation history||Olive tree allegory||Abrahamic covenant|
|3.||Individual lifetimes||Tree of life vision||Gospel of Jesus Christ|
The Nephite prophets clearly believed the Lord had blessed Abraham and his descendants with a covenant relationship that would tie them to him with the expectations of hesed being shown on all sides. They were able to accommodate that vision to their revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the plan of redemption, which would be extended not only to the descendants of Abraham, but also to all men and women throughout the earth as the means by which they could escape the captivity of the devil and receive eternal life.
Latter-day Saint literature tends to feature a multiplicity of strategies for explaining the differences and the connections between the gospel, the plan of salvation, and the Abrahamic covenant. Lehi’s vision would appear to resolve that confusion by assigning each of these to its own time frame — all of which are both real and essential aspects of the relationship between God and his human creations. The eternal perspective of the plan of salvation provides the background or context that gives meaning to the Abrahamic covenant and to the gospel. While the Abrahamic covenant makes clear that God’s covenant people have responsibilities for the material welfare and spiritual support of one another, the gospel also makes clear that salvation finally depends on each individual’s level of commitment to the Lord and determination to endure to the end in keeping a covenant made personally. But there is no conceptual conflict or dissonance between the three concepts. Rather they are fully integrated with one another, and the focus of any discourse is determined by the time frame that provides its context. This would explain why the Nephite prophets could shift so easily and [Page 143]even seamlessly between teaching and prophesying about the gospel, the Abrahamic covenant, and the plan of salvation.36
In so doing, they expanded the explanatory power of the Old Testament concept of the goodness of God far beyond what is explicit anywhere in the text of the Hebrew Bible. For the Nephites, the goodness of God provides the explanatory background for their very existence, for the existence of the earth and its peoples, for the nature of the probationary state in which men find themselves, and for the efforts of the Lord and his servants to bring all men and women to repentance that they might become holy like him and return to his presence. As Moroni was taught by Jesus Christ directly:
|A||But he that believeth these things which I have spoken,|
|B||him will I visit with the manifestations of my Spirit.|
|C||And he shall know and bear record;|
|B*||for because of my Spirit|
|A*||he shall know that these things are true,|
|A||for it persuadeth men to do good.|
|B||And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me,|
|B*||for good cometh of none save it be of me.|
|A*||I am the same that leadeth men to all good. (Ether 4:11–12)|
By contrast, the Old Testament is usually understood to tell the story of Abraham and his descendants, to whom God gave a covenant that if they would obey him in all things, he would prosper and protect them, delivering them from their enemies and even provoking them to repentance when they strayed.37 While it is sometimes interpreted to promise salvation universally, that is not explicit or self-evident in the text itself. The Nephites saw themselves as descendants and beneficiaries of the Abrahamic covenant, but with this major interpretive expansion derived from their founding visions in which they had learned of the [Page 144]coming of Jesus Christ and his teachings as explained above.38 They recognized that the salvation history based in the Abrahamic covenant (1) was itself based in God’s universal plan of salvation for all men, and (2) that it would have effect in the lives of individuals only as they embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Nephi bluntly stated:
For behold, I say unto you:
|A||As many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord;|
|B||and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off.|
|A||For the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent|
|Ballast||and believe in his Son, which is the Holy One of Israel.39|
Nephite Understandings of Hesed and the Goodness of God
The second half of this paper reviews the Book of Mormon passages in which the goodness of God occurs considering the discussion to this point.
The Goodness of God Experienced by Covenant Keepers
Eight of the twenty-five references to the goodness of God in the Book of Mormon can readily be understood as explanations for the blessings God gives to his covenant people when they are obedient — with the Nephite clarification that the covenant at issue is the gospel covenant they have made as individuals to repent and endure to the end in obedience to Jesus Christ. Benjamin refers directly to that covenant when he reminds his hearers that they “have known of his goodness and tasted of his love” when they received a remission of their sins, “which causeth such exceeding great joy in [their] souls” (Mosiah 4:11).
The same understanding is evoked when Mormon speaks of tasting and knowing “of the goodness of Jesus” (Mormon 1:15) in his youth and when he prays that “through his infinite goodness and grace” the Lord “will keep [his son Moroni] through the endurance of faith on his name to the end” (Moroni 8:3).40 Mormon sounds just like an Old Testament [Page 145]prophet when he comments as editor: “We can see that the Lord in his great infinite goodness doth bless and prosper those who put their trust in him” (Helaman 12:1). In similar Old Testament style, three additional passages link the goodness of God to his deliverance of his faithful people from captivity or from destruction in perilous conflicts: “When they thought of the immediate goodness of God and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and gave thanks to God” (Mosiah 25:10. Cf. Alma 57:25 and 36).
God’s Pre-Covenant Goodness
The other references to the goodness of God either explicitly or implicitly appeal to the broader perspective given to Lehi and Nephi in their early visions rather than to the Old Testament perspective as defined by the Abrahamic covenant. Lehi had responded to those first visions by declaring his new universalistic understanding that “thy power and goodness and mercy is over all the inhabitants of the earth,” all of whom are promised that if they will come unto him (through his covenants), “they shall not perish” (1 Nephi 1:14). Lehi later cites “the creation of the earth” twice as context for his understanding of God’s “infinite goodness” in bringing his people “into this precious land of promise” (2 Nephi 1:10). Nephi refers to that same expanded vision when he praises “the great goodness of the Lord in shewing me his great and marvelous works” (2 Nephi 4:17). Jacob is in the middle of his explanation of the universal plan of salvation when he exclaims, “O how great the goodness of our God who prepareth a way for our escape” (2 Nephi 9:10).41
Benjamin also saw God’s salvation applying to all “the children of men” because of “the atonement which hath been prepared from the foundation of the world” (Mosiah 4:6).42
|[Page 146]I say unto you that|
|if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God|
|and his matchless power|
|and his wisdom|
|and his patience|
|and his long-suffering towards the children of men,|
|a||and also the atonement which hath been prepared from the foundation of the world,|
|b||that thereby salvation might come to him|
|c||that should put his trust in the Lord|
|d||and should be diligent in keeping his commandments|
|c*||and continue in the faith, even unto the end of his life —I mean the life of the mortal body—|
|I say that|
|b*||this is the man that receiveth salvation|
|a*||through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world|
|i||for all mankind which ever was, ever since the fall of Adam,|
|ii||or which is|
|ii*||or which ever shall be,|
|i*||even unto the end of the world.|
|a||And this is the means whereby salvation cometh.|
|b||And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of;|
|b*||neither is there any conditions whereby man can be saved|
|a*||except the conditions which I have told you. (Mosiah 4:6–8)|
Benjamin is clearly saying that the atonement was prepared from the beginning as the means by which salvation could be made available “for all mankind,” from Adam to the end of the world. The plan of salvation preceded the creation and the covenant of Abraham.
It may be that when the Nephite prophets describe the goodness of God as “great” or “infinite” they are often referring to its pre-covenantal reality. Benjamin refers directly to “the infinite goodness of God” as made manifest in the Nephite visions and “their great views of that which is to come” (Mosiah 5:3) — without any trace of a reference to the Abrahamic [Page 147]covenant. Alma explained the plan of redemption to the apostate people of Ammonihah “according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). In the course of their 25 references to the goodness of God, the Nephite writers refer four times to his goodness as “infinite,” which also seems to signal their broader perspective.43 In the same sense, it is called “great” three times. It is also described as “supreme” and “exceeding,” which would seem to have the same expansive implications as “infinite.”
The Invitation to Experience the Goodness of God Personally
Less explicit, but more likely based in the expanded vision of Lehi and Nephi than in the traditional perspective are prophetic appeals to recognize God’s goodness in its fullness as motivation to enter into or return to his covenant. Both Lehi and Nephi appear to be referring to those visions as the source of their “knowledge of the goodness … of God” (1 Nephi 1:1, 1:14, and 5:4). In his final address to his people, Benjamin urges them to “remember and always retain in remembrance the greatness of God and your own nothingness and his goodness and long-suffering [hesed?] towards you unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility” (Mosiah 4:11. Cf. v. 5). After Alma was converted in a visionary experience in which he saw the same heavenly things Lehi had been shown centuries previously (cf. 1 Nephi 1:8 and Alma 36:22) , his father assembled the priests to hear Alma’s words “that the eyes of the people might be opened, to see and know of the goodness and glory of God” (Mosiah 27:22).44
Drawing on the great vision of the tree of life where Lehi and Nephi had been shown how the Lord’s straight and narrow path leads people to the opportunity “to partake of the fruit” of the tree of life which is “most sweet above all,”45 Nephi uniquely characterizes the process of accepting [Page 148]and following the gospel of Jesus Christ as “partaking of the goodness of God.” In preparation for his foundational presentation of the doctrine or gospel of Christ, Nephi asks rhetorically: “Hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness?” He then answers his own question by assuring his readers that the Lord “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness” (2 Nephi 26:28, 31).
For he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness. And he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen. And all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)
After presenting the gospel as taught to him by the Father and the Son in vision,46 he looks to his readers in the distant future and warns those who will not accept his message and “partake of the goodness of God,” that “these words shall condemn you at the last day” (2 Nephi 33:14). His brother Jacob then takes up the pen and begins his brief record by linking Nephi’s phrase to the gospel of Christ explicitly: “Wherefore we labored diligently among our people that we might persuade them to come unto Christ and partake of the goodness of God” (Jacob 1:7).
Alma later invokes the same image and connects it to the same gospel message: “Come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life” (Alma 5:62. Cf. verses 34–35). Expanding the same image for his wayward son Corianton, Alma tells him, “I would that ye should come unto Christ, which is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation and the power of his redemption; whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely” (Alma 42:27).47
Closely related to the metaphor of “partaking,” Nephi and Lehi also spoke of knowing the goodness of God (1 Nephi 1:1 and 5:4), and later prophets fashioned their own variations on this phrasing, including Mormon who spoke of his own experience at age fifteen when he “was visited of the Lord and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus” (Mormon 1:15). Here Mormon may be echoing his own record of Benjamin who used the verbs of tasting, remembering, and knowing.48
[Page 149]And again I say unto you … that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceeding great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember and always retain in remembrance the greatness of God and your own nothingness and his goodness and long-suffering towards you unworthy creatures. (Mosiah 5:11)
One reference speaks of the goodness of God as being “immediate” (Mosiah 25:10). As the Oxford English Dictionary warns us, we should not assume that this reference is to time.49 Recognizing that the modern Book of Mormon translation appears to have significant Early Modern English influence, we could understand immediate to mean “unmediated.”50 Recipients experience and feel God’s goodness directly and without secondary intervention. This passage refers to the experience in which Alma’s people were miraculously delivered in one day from the Lamanites. Others speak of knowing, partaking of, or tasting his goodness as they experience the remission of sins. In these 25 mentions of God’s goodness, we can recognize that it is frequently characterized as personally relevant to each person — that every human being is invited to partake of his goodness by repenting and taking up the covenant path the gospel describes for them as individuals, receiving the Holy Ghost in their lives.
[Page 150]The Power and Goodness and Mercy of God
Goodness is not the only eternal attribute of God that the Nephite prophets invoked to explain his plan of salvation. Nephi also referred to the Lord’s knowledge and power: “But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning. Wherefore he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men. For behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words” (1 Nephi 9:6). In the very earliest mention of the goodness of God chronologically, Lehi also cites his power and mercy. While mercy is one of the English terms translators invoke most frequently for hesed, it also is the standard translation for rahamim for which it seems most adequate.51 In either case, God’s mercy is connected to his covenantal hesed. But the divine power that Lehi refers to is clearly needed in this and other passages to explain God’s ability to make and execute his plan of salvation including the creation of the world and the defeat of death and the devil through his resurrection. The divine mercy of God enables him to forgive sins before bringing his repentant children to a final judgment with its consequent rewards of eternal life or eternal punishment.
Benjamin later echoed this same connection, citing the “wisdom and power and justice and mercy of him who created all things in heaven and in earth, who is God above all” (Mosiah 5:15). And God also wields his power throughout salvation history to bring new peoples such as the Gentiles into covenant relationships with him. Nephi was shown in vision how the future Gentile nations would be “delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations” and “lifted up by the power of God above all other nations upon the face of the land” (1 Nephi 13:19, 30). His divine purpose would be to “bring forth unto them in mine own power much of my gospel” (1 Nephi 13:34). Those who would choose to receive that gospel and “seek to bring forth my Zion at that day,” would be blessed with “the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost. And if they [Page 151]endure unto the end, they shall be lifted up at the last day and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb” (1 Nephi 13:37).
However, the vast majority of over 300 mentions of the power of God in the Book of Mormon occur in texts describing how God can bless, protect, or deliver his covenant people after they have received the gospel. God’s dependable hesed is clearly a function of both his goodness, his mercy, his knowledge, and his power. Nephi’s thesis as quoted above states this clearly: “But behold, I Nephi will shew unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord is over all them whom he hath chosen because of their faith to make them mighty, even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20b). While most of the references to the power of God do refer to his deliverance of his people from captivity and other major dangers, many others are explicitly spiritual and refer to their being rescued from the powers of the devil. In his closing sentences, Moroni makes explicit this principal blessing that comes through the power of God:
And if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in no wise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father, unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32–33)
Knowledge of the Goodness of God
It should also be noted that eight of the twenty-five references to the goodness of God reviewed above explicitly mention it as something that is “known” or “remembered.”52 These recognitions of God’s infinite power and goodness motivated people repeatedly to praise God and to enter into the covenant relationship proffered by his gospel. Those who chose to do so and obeyed his commandments as they walked day by day up that covenant path could testify that they were blessed, protected, and guided from all evil by his power which was often described as “the power of the Holy Ghost.”53 In every case, as Nephi explains, it is “coming [Page 152]to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer” which is an essential first step.54
Nephi makes this point emphatically by using some form of know or knowledge six times in the same summary statement to Laman and Lemuel — in the exchange that occurred immediately after Nephi’s reception of the great vision:
|A||And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel and that they are the covenant people of the Lord.|
|B||And then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers|
|C||and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him.|
|B*||Wherefore they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine,|
|A*||that they may know how to come unto him and be saved. (1 Nephi 15:14)|
Nephi’s explanation to his brothers starts off with two elements that refer to the understanding of the Abrahamic covenant (A and B), which they already recognize, before linking and transitioning to and focusing on (C) the prophesied “gospel of their Redeemer” and (B*) “the very points of his doctrine” that will become the means by which (A*) all future peoples “may know how to come unto him and be saved” — the message that they will repeatedly reject.
The Goodness — and the Depravity — of the People
The Book of Mormon also repeatedly emphasizes the high contrast between the goodness of God and the potential goodness of men on the one hand and the wickedness of so many men on the other. Mormon’s selections of stories from Nephite history feature this theme throughout. And then Moroni emphasizes this contrast dramatically in his penultimate chapter by inserting an epistle from his father in which the unimaginable depravity of the Nephites is described.
[Page 153]O the depravity of my people! They are without order and without mercy. … And they have become strong in their perversion. And they are alike brutal, sparing none, neither old nor young. And they delight in every thing save that which is good. And the sufferings of our women and our children upon all the face of this land doth exceed every thing. Yea, tongue cannot tell, neither can it be written. (Moroni 9:18–19)
This potential for evil was also shared by all men. Abinadi taught the Nephites that the devil had beguiled their “first parents” which was
the cause of all mankind’s becoming carnal, sensual, devilish, knowing evil from good, subjecting themselves to the devil. … But remember that he that persists in his own carnal nature and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, he remaineth in his fallen state, and the devil hath all power over him. Therefore he is … an enemy to God. (Mosiah 16:2–5)
And as Alma explained to his son Corianton:
And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice, yea, the justice of God which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.
And now the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made. Therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect just God and a merciful God also. (Alma 42:14–15)
God’s great plan was grounded in his ability and desire to overcome all evil through his mercy, power, knowledge, and goodness.
Possible Nephite Hendiadyses
Employing the Goodness of God
One side note that should be included in this paper is the possible occurrence of the rhetorical figure of hendiadys in connection with the goodness of God. Hebrew writers often conjoined two nouns in the same grammatical form to convey a more complex meaning, rather than their two separate meanings. This phenomenon has been richly documented in the Book of Mormon and may explain some of the interesting usages [Page 154]of the goodness of God in this text.55 Nephi leads with a reference to “the goodness and the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 1:1). Given that he uses “mysteries of God” to refer to those truths which are only known by revelation, is he suggesting that the goodness of God is only to be known through that means? Benjamin twice links the goodness of God with his long-suffering (Mosiah 4:6, 11). One of these occurrences includes a linkage to God’s wisdom and to his patience. The suggestion here could be that God’s goodness is not just a moral stance or achievement, but that it is also structured by his knowledge and understanding of how human things work and the need to be patient and long-suffering with his children as they proceed through this mortal probation and up the covenant path as they return to him, one day at a time. Single occurrences of God’s “goodness and glory” (Mosiah 27:22) and “goodness and grace” (Moroni 8:3) would seem to invite a similar analysis. But when God’s power is linked three times to his goodness, both nouns seem to carry their own meaning independently, without adjustment. For example, when the narrator tells us that “they thought of the immediate goodness of God and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites” (Mosiah 25:10),56 we think of power and goodness as two separate attributes that function in concert, but that are not merged into something more complex.
In all their teachings, the Nephite prophets recognized the human potential for both goodness and evil. Because of his infinite goodness, God prepared a plan of salvation, including the atonement of Jesus Christ, so that in this state of probation, all humankind could choose the covenant path of his gospel by repenting and coming to him. And this path will prepare them as they follow him and endure to the end to become good like him that they might enter into his presence and into eternal life. Or they could choose to follow their own desires and be led captive by the devil, who desires “that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27).
In Nephite discourse, the goodness of God was a phrase that was used in two different ways — to explain God’s provision for the possibility of [Page 155]eternal life for all men and women and to explain his miraculous support and deliverances, day by day, for those who are enduring to the end on the covenant path. While traces of that first way have been noticed by some Bible scholars, the general pattern of scholarly interpretation of the Old Testament has been to identify the goodness of God as one part of the covenantal hesed that he shows to his people as he protects, delivers, and reclaims them through their cycles of obedience and disobedience. The Book of Mormon sometimes echoes that usage, but then goes on to portray the goodness of God as the divine feature he desires all his human children to emulate and to incorporate into their souls. The very purpose of this mortal probation that he has provided to his children is to give them the opportunity to choose the goodness of God for themselves, that they may become good and qualify to be in his presence eternally. Further, from the Book of Mormon’s opening page, the Nephite prophets make it clear that this is God’s purpose for all his human children and not for the descendants of Abraham alone.
[Author’s Note: I am grateful to Carlisle G. Packard for insights he shared in a private conversation that first inspired me to take this topic on as a research project.]