Skipping over 2 Nephi, probably the most useless book in the Book of Mormon, I’ll resume with the minor books of the so-called small plates of Nephi: Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni. For those interested, 2 Nephi isn’t worth covering because half of the book is text copied nearly word for word from Isaiah, with some occasional changes. Two facts are evident at this point in Joseph Smith’s creative process: First, he had mentally moved on from his project of “translating” the gold plates and had already started his next project of re-writing the King James Bible, which he would commence after writing these last few books. 2 Nephi’s Isaiah is a precursory exercise, identifiable by Smith’s obvious obsession of removing all the italicized words from the KJV text, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness. An in-depth study of his process isn’t really very interesting or reader-friendly, however, and would be more suitable if this blog ever gets up to what’s known as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible. The second and more obvious fact is that Joseph Smith is just filling space at this point. Apparently, even in this supposedly abridged version he felt he had to cover a certain number of pages to make up the lost material.
With the original manuscript conveniently lost, we can only speculate why Smith decided at this moment that he had rambled on enough to resume the narrative. Whatever the reason, he abruptly abandons the character Nephi and for these next few transitionary books, pretends to pass the plates down from father to son. I call these transitionary books, because during this period Joseph Smith is decidedly trying to connect this re-told beginning with the rest of the book he had already written after Mosiah. This transition is far from smooth, making the grafting point one of the most confusing sections of the whole book, as we’ll see later.
The books get progressively smaller, and by the time we get to Omni the plates are supposed to have passed through five different authors in one book. This suggests that Joseph Smith was aware that he had rambled a little too long in Nephi’s voice, and if he was going to bridge a gap of hundreds of years then Nephi’s descendants could not be so long-winded. He lets the character Jacob ramble on a little, interestingly making the Book of Mormon the only sacred text in the world to explicitly condemn polygamy (Jacob 2:27), and giving an early glimpse into Smith’s own psychological preoccupation with plural marriage. Enos and Jarom aren’t given nearly as much space, but Smith still had not learned to economize words, these still read like the same ramblings only shorter.
Finally, we get to Omni, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the Book of Mormon. As Jerald and Sandra Tanner have pointed out, this is the very moment that Joseph Smith safely passes the black hole made by the 116 lost pages. In this book, the plates pass from Omni, a self-confessed “wicked man”, to son Amaron, to son Chemish, and Abinadom. These writers tell us practically nothing, and only seem to etch a paragraph or two on their death bed. My theory of the Book of Mormon as a parallel Bible suggests that Joseph Smith has arrived at the book of Judges in his Bible reading and is influenced by accounts of the lesser judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. Interestingly, the passages here seem to be considered Mormon scripture solely because they were written on the same plates as the others, as Chemish even suggests that divine revelation has ceased altogether at this point (Omni 1:11) .
Finally, we get to Amaleki, the point where the “small” plates crash awkwardly into the (as of yet) incomplete book of Mosiah and the finished book of Ether. Here it helps to have read the rest of the Book of Mormon first, but even then it can be difficult to understand, especially if one tries to abide by the Mormon interpretation. The Nephites venture out to the land of Zarahemla, populated by another group of Jews who crossed to the Americas during the reign of Zedekiah. Not only this, the people of Zarahemla had been in contact with Coriantumr, the last survivor of the Jaredites, and had the plates of the book of Ether. What Joseph Smith attempts to do here is rather brilliant, by tying together his post-Tower of Babel Jaredites to the Nephites in a form of foreshadowing; his actual execution, however, is lacking and raises a lot of questions.
First, this Amaleki serves a king named Mosiah, the father of king Benjamin. In the next book, however, we’re introduced to king Benjamin, who has a son named Mosiah, who in turn sends a man named Amaleki to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:6). The LDS explanation, unsupported by the text, is to refer to these duplicates as Amaleki I and II, and Mosiah I and II. While this certainly helps the narrative flow, I think the more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith intended these characters to be the same person, but his memory had faded in the re-write process. The book of Mosiah is the actual point where the lost pages cut off, but where exactly is unknown; nevertheless, it had been almost a year since Smith had worked on Mosiah until the time he wrote Omni. Furthermore, we also know that Mosiah received substantial editing by Joseph Smith before the printers manuscript was delivered, but even then, Smith had failed to catch errors in the first edition, as he continues to refer to King Benjamin (Mosiah 21:28, 1830 edition) well after his death. I suspect he originally intended Mosiah to be the father of Benjamin, but by the time he came back around he accidentally reintroduced them in reverse order and killed off Benjamin prematurely. Although the narrative makes less sense that way, I think it seems much more likely to conclude that these were supposed to be the same people in different tellings of the story. The Mormon interpretation, after all, presupposes that this is a story that’s supposed to make sense to anybody other than Joseph Smith.
Omni ends with Amaleki wasting precious space to tell the reader that the “plates are full”, which would have been obvious to the reader had there actually been any real plates. Time and time again, purported authors describe parameters about the plates that are not only unnecessary to anybody who would have actually handled them, but rather tedious to chisel into metal. For unknown reasons, Smith seems to have paced himself to fill up a precise amount of pages and once that is accomplished he brings it to an abrupt end. Mormons struggle just to derive a coherent narrative from this transition, yet without the LDS church’s guidance I think most Mormons would be at a loss to make sense of these different characters.