In Tents # 4 The S(k)in of Blackness

Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.
–Isaiah 54:2

On one of Bob Newhart’s albums (The Button Down Mind Strikes Back?) Bob has a routine where he’s talking on the phone, repeating back what the person on the other end says. “Oh, Reform Jews aren’t real Jews?”

I thought about this recently when I came across a Salon article called, “Meet the Man Who Changed Glenn Beck’s Life,” which mentioned the Reform Mormon movement.

Reading further I thought, “Reform Mormons aren’t real Mormons,” and looking at The Book of Michael, I kept thinking, “this really doesn’t match up with even the least revelation in The Book of Commandments” (See D&C 67:6-7).

Thus my arrogance gave me an unsettling glimpse of how other Christians view Mormons, how Jews and Samaritans viewed each other, how Nephites viewed Lamanites, and how the Lamanites viewed themselves and the Nephites.

Or maybe it’s not arrogance, but simply the recognition of boundaries, which raises the question of how we treat what is outside the boundary. Isaiah’s image of enlarging the tent is a commandment to bring what is outside the tent in. But how do we treat those who resist being brought in?

I’ve always been deeply intrigued by Nephi’s direct address in II Nephi 29 to those who will reject his words, particularly by the connection he draws between refusing new scriptures and hating the Jews. Nephi has had some fairly harsh things to say about “the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father,” (I Nephi 2:13) whose “works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations” (II Nephi 25:2 ). But in verse 4 he says,

But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them?

and in verse 5 he says,

O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them.

Several years ago I came across a book that reads like a detailed account of how a religion founded by a rabbi came to forget that its founder was a Jew, Willis Barnstone’s translation and commentary The New Covenant, vol 1: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse. Barnstone’s notes give a detailed account of how the tragic struggle between Jews who accepted Yeshua as mashiach, and those who didn’t, and Hellenizing gentiles who thought of Iesous as their Messiah affected the gospel texts. I’ll discuss this struggle in more detail next month, but it occurred to me recently that The Book of Mormon also tells of a struggle between religious communities. I touched on this in #2 “The Primitive Church,” and want to expand on it this month.

We usually think of The Book of Mormon as a political history, an account of a 1,000 years of civil war, with the light-skinned Nephites trying alternately to colonize or convert the dark-skinned Lamanites, or a religious history with political overtones. We get glimpses of Lamanite religion, but the Nephite writers generally present the Lamanites as having no religion, and I suspect our traditional reading of the book as a book about skin color obscures the religious contest even further.

Of course, to claim skin color plays no part no part in The Book of Mormon invites the question, what do we make of II Nephi 5:21?

wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them

I believe this is a figurative use of the human body, much as the figurative use in the sentence, “The Ayatollah Khomeini did cause a price to come upon the head of Salman Rushdie.”

I did a long paper for the recent AML meeting laying out reasons why we should consider the curse in II Nephi 5:21 as a pronouncement of excommunication rather than a change of skin color. Reading the curse as a matter of skin color we may think that our skin color is a matter of blessing or curse, rather than considering what a curse is. Consider the passage, Deuteronomy 23:3-4, I heard in this morning in Lael Woodbury’s resonant voice.

3 An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever: 4 Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee.

To be cursed is to be shut out from the congregation of Israel, shut out from the presence of the Lord. To emphasize this point, it’s useful to know that there are only 11 passages in the Book of Mormon that mention a word we associate with color, like white or black, light or dark applied to people, or to skin. That’s one less passage than in the first edition, where 2 Nephi 30:6 reads:

“And then shall they rejoice: for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people” (117).

In the third editon Joseph Smith changed it to read “a pure and a delightsome people.” Douglas Campbell argues in “White or Pure: Five Vignettes” that this correction is a key to understanding Joseph’s use of the word white. He looks at The Book of Mormon’s 28 occurences of white, whiter and whiteness and shows how in each one the word white refers to purity.

For example, in Mormon 9:6,

“O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day,”

pure, fair, and white are appositives for spotless, and describe the condition of “having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.”

Campbell doesn’t make the changes Joseph made, replacing white with pure, but when I replace white and dark with pure and impure for the passages relating to people and skin an interesting thing happens. (To save space, I won’t quote the whole of each verse, but will give a link.)

and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and pure.
1 Nephi 11:13

I beheld that [the Gentiles] were pure, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
1 Nephi 13:15

after they had dwindled in unbelief they became an impure, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
I Nephi 12:23

wherefore, as they were pure, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of impurity to come upon them.
2 Nephi 5:21

O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be purer than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.
Jacob 3:8

And the skins of the Lamanites were impure, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers,
Alma 3:6

And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became pure like unto the Nephites;
3 Nephi 2:14-15

Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as pure as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the purity thereof did exceed all the purity, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so pure as the purity thereof.
3 Nephi 19:25

and he did smile upon them again; and behold they were pure, even as Jesus.
3 Nephi 19:30

(You could also substitute glory, glorious or brilliance in these last two passages, and the passages clearly aren’t talking about skin color–otherwise why emphasize the whiteness with words like behold and exceed? If these verses were about skin color the logical conclusion would be that normally their skin color was different than Jesus’s skin color.)

for this people shall be scattered, and shall become an impure, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites, and this because of their unbelief and idolatry.
Mormon 5:15

Replace the words we usually associate with skin color with synonyms and the racial content disappears.

Lest this seem trivial, I woke up the morning I delivered this paper thinking, “You can’t do that with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Huckleberry Finn, or Go Tell It on the Mountain, or Notes of a Native Son.” Bowdlerize the racial slurs and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still a book about the will to power of light skinned people and the quest for freedom of dark skinned people. Replace the n-word with a word like slave and Huckleberry Finn is still about race relations and freedom. Replace the same word in Go Tell It on the Mountain with, say, that compound word heard in a lot of rap songs where the first word is one letter before the n-word and the other is 8 before, and James Baldwin is still talking about family willing to insult each other in the vilest terms, and the novel is still about race. Replace the word Negro–which Baldwin uses to denote an American of African descent and slave heritage–with African American and Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time still recount the struggle of a dark-skinned man not to give into hatred for light-skinned people.

But in The Book of Mormon, if you replace 11 words, or rather, a dozen occurrences of two or three words, with close synonyms the racial content disappears. That happens because in the books mentioned above race isn’t embedded in particular terms it’s embedded in the story and the narrative action. So if The Book of Mormon is not about race, what is embedded in the story and narrative action of the book?

The answer could fill volumes, so I’ll simply sum it up as, a tumult of opinions and a war of words which becomes a war of swords. Over and over The Book of Mormon shows us what happens when we insist on defining each other as enemies. The only periods of peace in the book come when people stop defining people as enemies, as when the Lamanites destroy the Gadianton Robbers not through the sword but the Word (see Helaman 6:37).

That’s what’s embedded in The Book of Mormon, the Word and the peace of the Word, and you can see that embedding even if you replace black and white with close synonyms in the one passage where they may refer to skin color, though the passage doesn’t specify skin,

and he denieth none that come unto him, impure and pure, 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

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11 Responses to In Tents # 4 The S(k)in of Blackness

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting. A fascinating textual interpretation of scripture.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Fascinating. The image of “a skin of blackness” being metaphorical for excommunication is a powerful, telling one.

  3. Harlow Clark says:

    Jonathan and Mark, thanks for your comments. I don’t usually try to work out metaphorical interpretations of scripture because metaphor, as a type of metonymy, works by displacement–that is, the metaphorical meaning displaces the literal meaning, insists that the two can’t exist side by side–and I find that in most cases the figurative and literal meanings work together just as the two meanings of a sound work simultaneously to produce a good pun.

    But in the case of II Nephi 5:21 I just don’t see a literal meaning to the words compatible with what other passages tell us about the nature of curses, particularly Alma 3:1-19, where the Amlicites mark themselves with a curse.

    I got some insight into figurative uses of the body when I was teaching in the Church’s Daily Dose program. (You’ll know our students’ first language by one teacher’s reaction when called to the program, “The Daily Two? Two of what?”) It was designed to give people a daily dose of English in short conversational sessions, things like what to say at the doctor’s office. “I have a broken nose, arm, finger, leg, hand, back,” but not, I realized, and cautioned them, heart. “I have a neckache, stomachache, backache,” but not a heartache.

    There’s nothing in our grammar that can signal the shift from a physical to a figurative use of the body, so to argue that something is meant only figuratively you have to look at something besides grammar, like the way a word or concept is used in other passages.

    When I started thinking through my AML paper, I also started thinking through the proper grounds for reinterpreting a passage. For example, does the new interpretation do violence to the passage? In this case, no. The reinterpretation clarifies the passage and maybe gives a clearer sense of why the Nephites treat the Lamanites as they do, particularly the various apostate Nephites who try to stir the Lamanites up against the other Nephites. They don’t consider the Lamanites kindred spirits, they consider them an inferior accursed group to be colonized by the superior non-cursed people.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    I LIKE it.

    I’ve considered the substitution cipher on several of those verses and found (as you have) that the passages make more sense to me, but I never took the rigor to seek them all out and test them as you have. Thank you for the useful and interesting exercise; it’s more than worth some pondering time and focused, questioning (seeking) prayer.

    At the risk of twanging off into speculative theology, the idea of skin used to indicate a film or haze (mist of darkness) enveloping a person and creating a palpable barrier to perception (seeing through a glass, darkly) is a fascinating formulation. As Mormons we refer to a veil that separates us from the divine, so the idea of an additional, self-selected skin or haze not only makes sense, it complements other passages and offers another model for interpretation.

    We discuss drawing nearer to God as thinning the veil, so drawing further away would be to thicken it–perhaps to the point of changing a veil (exterior translucent permeable membrane) into a curtain (exterior semi-translucent semi-permeable membrane), a skin (individually integrated opaque semi-permeable membrane) or even a scale (individually integrated opaque deflective barrier).

    A veil separates populations from each other, but a skin separates an individual not only from other populations, but from other individuals. A veil can be removed without damage, but to remove a skin is to do great violence to the being that wears it (except through the miracle of salvation that changes its nature).

    Any metaphor breaks down with too much probing, but the exercise is still interesting. The idea of the skin of darkness being a specifically opaque (blocks light) barrier taken on at an individual level and integrated into one’s being seems consistent both with foolish traditions of fathers and with the concept of a curse. The soul is not cut off, but it is isolated in a fundamental way.

    A wonderful textual analysis and a useful exercise in interpretation. Thank you very much.

  5. Harlow Clark says:

    Thanks for your perceptive and imaginative comment. I can see some interesting speculative fiction coming from that. And speaking of speculative fiction, have you read Roger Terry’s “Eternal Misfit” in the Fall 2010 (43:3) Dialogue? A remarkable feat portraying the Terrestrial kingdom as a dystopia.

    I particularly like your comment about scales, since II Nephi 30:6 says, of the lifting of the curse, “ their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes.” That was an important passage when I was thinking about my AML paper, partly because it’s obviously a figurative use of the body. It can’t be used literally unless you’re talking about something like cataracts, but even then it’s figurative since cataracts are a film rather than a scale. I didn’t comment on it, though. I’m not sure I knew what to say. But that’s probably what I need to say about the passage: It demonstrates that Nephi used the body figuratively, and that figurative uses of the body are sometimes obvious.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I hope the use of imaginative/scientific terms to explore the idea of skins doesn’t distract from their intended value of exploring the use of “skin” itself as a metaphor rather than literal observation.

      I think it is interesting that those different terms are used—veil, skin, scale—and that they can be interpreted as increasing levels of obfuscation between our own minds and perceptions and those of God. If spiritual death is to be cut off forever from the presence of God, then these little slices of spiritual death (veils, skins, scales) can either be warnings, or inevitable signposts on the journey.

      The use of the body as figurative image rather than literal is fairly consistent throughout the scriptures, especially in the New Testament. Applying both a literal and a figurative filter to the reading should spur additional study in a scripture that is actively packed with metaphorical, figurative, and poetic formulations of critical concepts.

  6. Love this. It certainly wasn’t a wave of political correctness that prompted Joseph Smith to make those corrections, though some would love to view it that way from a century-and-a-half of retrospect. My guess is that whether one writes by imagination or inspiration, a better word is often found in revision. I like to think of the translation of the BoM as an arrival of ideas into a nineteenth century mind with a limited education but a remarkable talent for expression, rather than a verbatim transcription. I would ascribe infallibility only to the ideas themselves, certainly not to the grammar or first-pass word choices.

  7. Th. says:


    Given how different even the first printing was from the original transcription, we kinda have to feel that way.

  8. LauraN says:

    This is off the cuff, since I ran across this while I’m supposed to be doing something else. My Father in law was a geneticist, so I tend to look at it from that point. If it was actually a physical thing caused by melanin producing genes, does it work? Well, at first, maybe. The “curse” seems to have happend rather suddenly. But maybe that was exaggerated a bit. There were clearly other people here when Lehi’s family arrived. This is demonstrated by many discussions of “my language” or “their language” and “some of them are our bretheren.” People choosing to mix with the native population could be introducing genes for darker skin. And there is one point where the text states that anyone who “mingles his seed with the seed of the Lamanites will call the same curse down on his seed.” Well, that works as a physical, genetic trait. But there’s still the problem of it’s very sudden appearance. But then there is also the problem of the curse’s sudden disappearance too. For example, in III Nephi 2:15, many of the Nephites and Lamanites unite to protect themselves against the Gadianto robbers, and “the curse was taken from them and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;”

    Whoa! Something really weird is going on here if people are just randomly changing color. Only a few species have the ability to change color depending on who they’re hanging out with (some fish, chameleons, snow shoe hares.) If this was a physical change caused by intermarrying with the Nephites, it would have taken at least several generations. But it happened that year, and their young men and daughters (who were already born before anything happened) became excedingly fair.

    This is what makes me think that the curse and the darkness are are cultural practices/spiritual qualities/ ways of living rather than specific inheritable traits. So, by a different path, I arrive at the same conclusion.

  9. Harlow, what Jesus says in His second prayer in 3 Nephi 19 supports what you’ve posted. In verse 28, He says: “Father, I thank thee that thou has purified those whom I have chosen… (my emphasis)” in reference to their “whiteness” in verse 25 (which you quoted above with “white” replaced by “pure”).

    Can’t get any better corroboration than that, I think.

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