When it comes to scripture study, I’m a New Testament gal. I love the focus on the Savior and the prominence of women. The Old Testament is fun and frightening, part divine drama, part bad soap opera. The Doctrine & Covenants…let’s just agree to disagree. But I’ve always had a mixed relationship with the Book of Mormon. When I have read it in earnest, I honestly feel closer to God. But there are so many things that can get in the way. The violence. The benevolent patriarchy. The egos of some of the prophets (cough cough Nephi cough cough). The racism. The prosperity gospel. Because of these things, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Book of Mormon For the Least of These, where authors Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming take a social justice exegesis to 1 Nephi-Words of Mormon (two more volumes to follow). It does not disappoint.
When one hears a word like “exegesis,” it’s natural to wonder if the text will only be accessible to people who use words like theophany, eschatology, and well, exegesis (which means “critical interpretation”—I looked it up). I consider myself smart but have walked away from a few scriptural companions because they were just too esoteric. But let me say that I teach Primary to the ten-year-olds and have incorporate ideas and even read bits to them. The Salleh and Hemming as authors, and guides really, have artfully taken complicated ideas and insights and found ways to make them accessible and relatable. And they likewise take what seem to be simple passages and reveal the many layers of possible meaning. Like mentioning how if Nephi says his heart was softened, it means at some point his heart was hardened. Not something I would associate with Nephi. Also the complicated nature of seeing yourself as “chosen.”
The hardest part about reading this book is to not devour it in one sitting but to stretch it out and pace it with reading the Book of Mormon. Each section is so insightful, it brings freshness to my scripture study that I haven’t had in years. And instead of dreading sections that are problematic for me, I find myself eager to see what new perspective I will get from Salleh and Hemming. Case in point, the killing of Laban. Our guides ask us to consider several things. Fist they point out that “commandments are not always coherent—they are sometimes in tension, forcing us to navigate the best path in our own circumstances and with the guidance of the Spirit,” and prophets are often “told to do something that breaks one commandment in order to obey another.” (11-12) Second, our guides ask us to look at what Nephi has been experiencing preceding the event: violence and threats of violence, at the hands of the people in Jerusalem before they left, and almost unending physical and emotional abuse from his brothers. How has that violence impacted how he sees the choices available to him? As readers we are urged “not to judge Nephi’s choice, but rather to empathize with his suffering and consider how we can use God’s voice to navigate the challenging choices we make in our own lives.” (12) And in the next section they continue to ask questions about when is violence justified by exploring Nephi’s abduction and threatening of Zoram’s life, an incident most often treated as an aside, but has generational consequences. Salleh and Hemming are masters of zooming in on a moment, and then panning out and showing the spiritual and historic repercussions.
One of their stated goals is to answer the question, “Who is present but unheard?” It’s wonderful to get insights into the few women mentioned. In Nephi 17:2 Nephi says the “women were strong like unto the men.” And then our guides point out that the women were menstruating, birthing, nursing, carrying children in and on themselves, etc while also wildernessing, therefore they rightly conclude, “If the women are doing the work of men and the work of women, then they are actually stronger than the men.” (36) This is a powerful an accurate conclusion.
Finally, while the cover of the Book of Mormon clearly states, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, it does not always feel Christ centered. But this companion illuminates the Savior’s role throughout the Book of Mormon. As one reader put it, “What I realized on the first Sunday of this year, was that the Book of Mormon, while full of great messages and gospel teachings, does not (and really cannot) follow the life of Christ. It saddened me. And then came The Book of Mormon for the Least of These. I ordered four more copies last night to share with my daughters and a friend. Thank you, thank you for helping me see the Book of Mormon from a fresh, deeper perspective. My excitement and enthusiasm for scripture study has been resurrected!!” (Shauna Faulk via the Exponent II Facebook group)
As I have been on social media since this book came out just last week, it has been so exciting to see that I am not alone in my desire to devour this text. Clearly there is a hunger among us to better understand this body of scripture that is at the center of our religion. The Book of Mormon For the Least of These does not tell us what to think or attempt to reinvent the Book of Mormon; instead it asks us to look closer, to try on different lenses and not be afraid to ask hard questions as we parse what is divine and what is culture. Simply put, this book is a perfectly timed gift.
Salleh, Fatimah, and Margaret Olsen Hemming. The Book of Mormon For the Least of These. BCC Press, 2020.