Who Was Sherem?

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About A. Keith Thompson

A. Keith Thompson, LLB (Hons); M Jur; PhD is a professor and the associate dean at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Law, Sydney. He also practices commercial and property law in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. He formerly served 20 years as International Legal Counsel for the Church in the Pacific and Africa Areas and has also served in the Church as bishop, stake president, and mission president. He and his wife, Anita, have eight children and twelve grandchildren.

17 thoughts on “Who Was Sherem?

  1. There are people in Argentina with the last name “Sherem” (Cherem). They seem to be ethnic Jews or other Middle Eastern descent.
    Another name Sharam, is Persian. And another name, Sheram, is Armenian.

  2. I still prefer Kevin Christensen’s Mulekite trader theory better. Your arguments against it have some problems.
    First, Nephi mentions building a temple like Solomon, yet does not explain how 15 small families could have built it without the help of native peoples. Not mentioning such interaction with natives seems to be a standard norm for the Nephite authors. Yet, without others, many statements seem meaningless in the Nephite and Lamanite worlds.
    Second, your note on Sherem believing the “scriptures” and an insistence that scripture must be written down to be considered scripture. Such a reading does not meet with ancient Jewish concept. Oral tradition was just as valid as scripture as was the written word anciently.
    Third, you tend to use concepts known about the Mulekites in King Mosiah’s day. That they had a different language and did not have scripture 4 centuries after Jacob and Sherem’s day, does not mean they didn’t speak Hebrew and have parchments of scripture upon leaving Jerusalem.
    The fact that there was one named Sherem who came into the small community of 15 families, and seems to be unknown to Jacob (Sherem sought to meet with him), does not make sense if he were a Zoramite. Even with ten thousand people in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith was very accessible to most members of the community. Given the Nephites may have been a few hundred, means Sherem and Jacob would have known each other for all of Sherem’s life.
    For me, the Mulekite trader theory fits much better. Early Spanish and other explorers and traders often brought religious clergy with them to convert the peoples they would encounter.

  3. Someone in my Gospel Doctrine class had what I think was an inspired insight, relative to Jacob 2. (It does happen once in a while in GD!) The Nephites were a minority ruling class dominating a Mesoamerican majority. What does this give you? A plantation society, like the stereotype American South. There was the Big House, on top of the hill, and the sharecroppers around the foot of the hill. Similiarly, the “pureblood Nephites” had their official wives and children in the Big House, and their native girlfriends down in the village. This could easily be the context of Jacob’s denunciation of “many wives and concubines,” unofficial relationships not sanctioned by the official families.

  4. Keith,
    Fascinating article. It definitely made me reevaluate some of my previous thinking on this topic. I’m by no means a Book of Mormon scholar by any stretch (I’m an engineer/entrepreneur), but I did have one thought to suggest.
    My only reservation with the theory of Sherem as a Nephite had been the references to him “coming among” the Nephites, and the Jacob 7:6 verbiage that suggests Sherem may have not actually met Jacob before that point. While this is stacking conjecture on top of conjecture, one possible solution is that there may have been more than one Nephite population center by this point. Ie not just the city of Nephi, but also at least one other outlying town or settlement. It’s worth noting that when Zeniff came back, he asked for and got not only the land of Nephi-Lehi, but also the land of Shilom. Not much is said about Shilom, but it theoretically could’ve been another population center that had been allied with Nephi-Lehi before the first exodus to Zarahemla.
    If there were multiple population centers, it’s possible that Zoram’s “tribe” might have mostly relocated to one of these other centers. If you combine this with Sorensen’s theory that there were indigenous people who joined with Nephi (both in his first departure from his brothers, and later at the city of Lehi-Nephi as well), you might actually have decent population groups in both places. And if the Alma 30 Zoramites were actually descendents of Zoram himself, them setting up a separate tribal population center wouldn’t be without precedent.
    With Jacob being old and semi-retired, it wouldn’t be surprising that he hadn’t made it out out of the main city in a while, which could explain some of the language around Sherem being some sort of an outsider while still allowing him to be a Nephite at the same time.
    Sorry if that’s confusing, but hopefully you get my gist. I’m not sure if there would be any way of validating such a theory based on the limited details provided in the text, but it is an intriguing line of thought.
    ~Jon

  5. As you point out, the Book of Mormon refers from time to time to the seven family groups: Nephites, Jacobite, Josesphites, Zoramites, Lamanite, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. It does so both early on (Jacob 1:13) and late (4 Nephi 1:37, Mormon 1:8). It is unclear whether the Zoramites of Alma 30 ff, are, in fact, “Zoramites” in the tribal sense (vs. simply followers of a Zoram[3]) — but we do know that Amalakiah and his brother Ammoron are, in fact Zoramites (Alma 54:32, as noted in the comments above).
    Either way, we see a situation where Zoramites — either a subset thereof or as a tribe — shift their alliances between the Nephite contingent and the Lamanite contingent, the 7th tribe being the balance of power (or, at least, the tipping weight) between the other two groups of three (note that the Zoramites are counted with the Nephites again by the time of Mormon).
    It is, in fact, Amalickiah and Ammoron, both known Zoramites, who mount and prosecute the Lamanite war against the Nephites in Alma, even in the face of Lamanite reluctance, with the goal of governing all seven tribes. I suspect that both Amalickiah and Ammoron anticipated the lovely irony of the pressed servant’s tribe ruling over all the Lehi/Ishmael descendants.
    Those are interesting repercussions from Nephi’s act of mercy 500 years earlier, though given his agonizing over killing bad-guy Laban, Nephi likely would have found it impossible to kill an innocent like Zoram. It also speaks to the narrative complexity and subtlety of the Book of Mormon — which is why I continue to roll my eyes when people claim this is merely the romantic imaginings of a young 18th century farmer with 3 years’ education.

  6. The brass plates were held by Nephi and then by Jacob. One wonders how much access Zoram had to those plates. If Sherem were a son or grandson or great grandson of Zoram, and he learned about the Law of Moses from Zoram or Zoram’s descendants, that would have been as much orally transmitted. Of course, Zoram might be borrowing the plates so he could study them and teach his children. But, given what he would have been teaching, I am not sure if Nephi or Jacob would have tolerated it. Such teaching would have been just as orally taught as it would have happened if Sherem was Mulekite learning about the Law of Moses openly in his community orally, even without scriptures.

  7. Thank you for the reasoned article. We have some isolated references to the Zoramites, but we really don’t know much of their history. We are told that the Zoramites of the Book of Alma “called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram.” (Alma 30:59). There was a concern that these Zoramites would defect to the Lamanites, which they did. Previous to these Zoramites entering into the story, the last we hear of the Zoramites was in Jacob 1. We are left to conjecture whether these Zoramites had really descended from the Zoramites of Jacob 1 or whether this was a new creation, perhaps adapting ideas about the original Zoram and his involuntary journey to the promised land, as part of the justification for separating themselves from the Nephites. If they are the same group, we know nothing of them for 450-500 years. One could ask, “did they accompany Mosiah to Zarahemla (while harboring feelings about Nephi’s oppression over their father Zoram) or had they moved into a separate land earlier and the Nephites after moving to Zarahemla and imposed authority over them? I find it more straight forward to assume that the Zoram of Alma 30 had reinvented an ethnic identity of the Zoramites, but we don’t know.
    Sorenson’s idea of Sherem being a native also intrigued me when I read it. Coming among the Nephites and Sherem having heard that Jacob had been about teaching about a coming Messiah and had sought to meet him both suggest he had not been part of Nephite society.
    I had thought about and rejected the reservations made in the article about Sherem being a Mulekite, which remains my most likely candidate. I did not buy the “Mulekite trader” argument and tying it into the complaints about the Nephite people pursuing riches somewhat earlier in Jacob’s life. If indeed the Nephites and the Mulekites were only a couple of hundred miles apart, one might expect some form of early contact when neither knew who the other was. We never hear about problems moving from Zarahemla to Nephi, but there are problems going from Nephi to Zarahemla. 3 kings led people from Nephi to Zarahemla by about 200 BC, in about 121 BC, and in about 77 BC. The latter two migrations had guides from Zarahemla to lead them there. And an attempt to find Zarahemla before 121 BC had led somewhere else. Given that, it doesn’t surprise me if initial contact came from a visitor from Zarahemla. That visitor could have come for any number of reasons. Maybe he was simply exploring or he could have been banished from his own people, perhaps because they were in apostasy and rejecting his concerns about Law of Moses. We don’t know, but whether or not Sherem was a trader, doesn’t make a statement one way or another about whether he was a Mulekite.
    I can see the argument that Sherem might have been a Zoramite. I don’t think he would have been Zoram’s son. Zoram’s children would have been roughly contemporary with Jacob and Joseph and in a small group they probably would have known each other pretty much all their lives, which seems to contradict the story. But, a grandson or even great grandson of Zoram, coming of age when Jacob was old could make sense.

  8. Excellent, thought-provoking article, Keith. Thanks.
    In note 4, you cite Cleon Skousen to justify the appearance of English “gospel” in a pre-Christian context. Actually though, “gospel” appears in Hebrew and Greek in the OT in Isaiah 40:9, 41:27, 52:7 (ǁMosiah 15:15-18 midrash), and so on, leading Robert W. Fisher to comment that the “central core” of the message of Deutero-Isaiah “is the proclamation of the ultimate good news [Gospel] of exiled Israel’s imminent deliverance and the inauguration of the eschatological reign of God.” That herald of good tidings in Isaiah is called in Hebrew mebaśśer(et), which is the piel participle form of BŚR. The Latin Vulgate and Jerome translated it as evangelizas, while the Targum for 40:9 has Aramaic (d)bsryn “good tidings, gospel.” The mebaśśer or herald receives his call in the Divine Council and is the means whereby YHWH delivers the “good news” and inaugurates the new age.
    Gordon C. Thomasson has suggested that the name Sherem is metonymic and a dysphemism, *śḥerem “He-who-was-smitten; devoted-to-destruction,” employing an Egyptian ś-causative prefix on the Hebrew root ḥrm “ban, taboo, consecrated for destruction,” which with the causative prefix would mean “condemn to death, destroy” (Jacob 7:14 “God shall smite thee”; 15 “the power of God came upon him”). This is not the causative used in Hebrew, but we are assuming that the Book of Mormon was written in both Egyptian language and script. In this case, the Egyptian causative would be prefixed to an important Hebrew religious technical term. Semitic š- and ś-causatives are used also in Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Geˁez, Jibbali, and Minaean.

    • I like your improved citations to the origins of the word ‘gospel’. However, I included the Skousen reference because, though he is not fashionable, there was a time when I was young when he kindled my interest in some books of scripture.

  9. Keith
    Thanks for the interesting article. Two quick points.
    1. Speaking of Zoram, you wrote:
    “Even if he was not a captive, from the moment he realized that Nephi was not Laban, he must have perceived that he was in a catch-22 situation.”
    I agree. Zoram really only had two choices – Go with Nephi and his brothers, or die at their hands. There is no way that Nephi and his brothers were going to let Zoram go back to Jerusalem alive. Nephi alluded to this when he wrote:
    “And it came to pass that I spake with him, that if he would hearken unto my words, as the Lord liveth, and as I live, even so that if he would hearken unto our words, we would spare his life.” (1 Ne 4:32)
    And as Ammoron wrote many years later:
    “I am Ammoron, and a descendant of Zoram, whom your fathers pressed and brought out of Jerusalem.” (Alma 54:23) Zoram truly was pressed.
    Later, when Nephi and his brothers went back to get Ishmael and his family, there is no record of Zoram accompanying them. Too risky I am sure. Zoram, by then, would have had a price on his head as the logical thief and murderer. But, I am sure that he did not stay behind because he was a captive.
    2. In your article you link the Zoram from the early chapters of the Book of Mormon with the Zoramites in Alma 30 and beyond, but other than the name I am not sure why. Mormon wrote:
    “And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, yea, among a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram.” (Alma 30:59)
    Now, this later Zoram may have been a descendant of the first Zoram, but that appears to only be speculative. As far as I know, the only person who ever claims to be a descendant of the first Zoram is Ammoron.

  10. There was clearly a heritage of bitterness among the Zoramites:
    (Alma 54:23) “I am Ammoron, and a descendant of Zoram, whom your fathers pressed and brought out of Jerusalem.”

    • When Lehi gave his last blessings, he says Zoram was a true friend to Nephi. When Nephi gave Zoram an option, Zoram’s heart took courage. A later Nephit commander’s name was Zoram (implying he might have been a descendant) . . . so I think it’s unfair to the first Zoram to say he came unwillingly. As probable keeper of the Brass Plates, and possible scribe to Laban, no reason to assume he subscribed to other than the true intent of the scriptures.
      Zoram seems to have been plenty willing to go with Nephi when he separated from his brothers.
      2 Nephi 1:30
      30 And now, Zoram, I speak unto you: Behold, thou art the servant of Laban; nevertheless, thou hast been brought out of the land of Jerusalem, and I know that thou art a true friend unto my son, Nephi, forever.
      2 Nephi 5:6
      6 Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words.
      1 Nephi 4:35
      35 And it came to pass that Zoram did take courage at the words which I spake.
      Alma 16:5
      5 Therefore, he that had been appointed chief captain over the armies of the Nephites, (and his name was Zoram, and he had two sons, Lehi and Aha)—now Zoram and his two sons, knowing that Alma was high priest over the church, and having heard that he had the spirit of prophecy, therefore they went unto him and desired of him to know whither the Lord would that they should go into the wilderness in search of their brethren, who had been taken captive by the Lamanites.
      Ammaron has to account for his own interpretation of the history of the Lehites. He may not have been the first to see it thus (and quite probably the posterity of Zoram were educated, as he probably was) . . . but I don’t see that this apostacy started with the first Zoram.

  11. You have presented an interesting, though speculative, thesis. I have two thoughts:
    First, if your thesis is correct, you missed the obvious correlation between Sherem and the Zoramites. Sherem charged that Jacob had “convert[ed] the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence. And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy; for no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come” (Jacob 7:7).
    Compare this to the following passage from the prayer from Zoramite worship: “Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ. But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.” (Alma 31:16–17)
    The second point, is that I do not think you have adequately accounted for Sorenson’s reasoning on Jacob 7:6. If there were no others in the land, then in a generation (or at most two) there is no way that the group would have been large enough for Sherem to “have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you” or that he had only “heard . . . that thou goest about much.” Where was Jacob going about? Why did he not have personal knowledge. This implies a much larger group than the families of Lehi and Zoram would account for.
    On the other hand, since Jacob had already bid his reader farewell (Jacob 6:13), and “some years had passed away” after that (Jacob 7:1), the episode with Sherem came toward the end of Jacob’s life. Nephi had already died at an old age before Jacob had started keeping the records (Jacob 1:9). So at least one generation had passed in the promised land, which is enough time for a young lad who was among the others in the land to acquire Nephite language. But the text does not even require that. Sherem “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” (Jacob 7:4) which does not mean that it was the language of Nephi or Jacob; it could also be the language of the indigenous peoples. In that case it is not “unlikely that even the intelligent members of any other preexisting cultural group present in the Promised Land when the Lehites arrived could have become as competent as Sherem was in the Nephite language and religion within one or two generations.”

    • Not sure I missed the Zoramite connection John. John Welch and I discussed that some years ago. He refers to that in his ‘Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon’ book, and I refer to that in this revision of the article.
      On the second point, I subscribe to John Sorenson’s thesis. But I didn’t want to get sidetracked into that discussion (save to acknowledge it) because it has already had lots of separate treatment.

    • Great thoughts all around. While all this is hypothetical, I think that there is a possible middle ground between his and analysis and your points. That this might be an offspring (maybe of a plural marriage) between Zoram (or a relative) and an indigenous wife or maybe that Zoram teachings/views influenced Sherem. He obviously knew this view of the Law of Moses well, so he must of been taught by someone. Just my non-scholarly thoughts 🙂

  12. Well-reasoned article on an interesting subject.
    Your theory that Jacob may have been shielding Sherem’s identity actually ties into an idea that I wrote about some years ago: that Jacob’s temple sermon in Jacob 2-3 may be an indirect rebuke of the new Nephite king, who may have been leading the Nephites in the wrong direction.
    If that were the case, then Jacob may have couched his rebuke as he did to avoid attacking someone who was not only the king but almost certainly a close relative, most likely the son of Nephi or Sam, or possibly Sam himself. Note also that Jacob gives in Chapter 1 his own name, and talks about his brothers Joseph and Nephi and his father Lehi, but never gives the name of the new king, either his birth name or his royal name (“Nephi 2” or something equivalent), but merely calls him “the second king”.
    Consider the following rewrite of Jacob 1:15 if it were indeed the case that Jacob meant his words for the new king:
    …the second king…began to grow hard in [his] heart, and indulge [himself] somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son. Yea, and [he] also began to search much gold and silver, and began to be lifted up somewhat in pride.
    That sounds like a pattern we’re very familiar with in the Book of Mormon, both earlier (among the Jaredites) and later (cf. King Noah), with the king setting a bad example that the people then follow.
    Likewise, Jacob’s themes in his actual sermon carry new weight if they were actually meant for the new king: avoid pride and remember that God “can pierce you, and with one glance of his eye he can smite you to the dust.” (2:15); share your wealth and seek the kingdom of God first (2:17-18); use your position and wealth “for the intent to do good” (2:19); and so on.
    In the case of both Sherem and “the second king”, Jacob may have been treading carefully in both his words and his writings precisely because (as you note) the group was a small one and was already dealing with the Laman/Nephi family split; another split might have jeopardized the existence of the Nephite group.

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