Jacob, Prophet and Poet

Reading from Jacob in the Book of Mormon tonight, we were struck by this verse, near the end of Jacob’s writings, just before he dies:

And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old; and the record of this people being kept on the other plates of Nephi, wherefore, I conclude this record, declaring that I have written according to the best of my knowledge, by saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.

I don’t know why I never noticed this verse before, but tonight it hit us like a brick, my wife and I in particular. Maybe because we’re finally getting close to the age Jacob might have been when he wrote it, or maybe we just know a little more about what Jacob is talking about now, or maybe we’re just getting sappy, but the epic sadness of it just cried out from the page for the first time. My wife started crying while reading and had to stop.

I don’t imagine there was a lot of time for real reflection in the days of Jacob and his people. I mean, they didn’t study Shakespeare by firelight, they weren’t listening to NPR, and they never pondered the words of Jean Paul Sartre. I imagine they were mostly concerned with basic survival, although they clearly had enough time to mine for gold and silver (which obviously were not used for the basics of survival) and to become puffed up enough in pride and riches that Jacob felt it necessary to admonish them about it.

So there must have been some time when they thought about their lives, and what it all meant, and why they lived differently from the Lamanites. Jacob would not have had personal memories of Jerusalem, but he must have heard about it from his parents and brothers and the other older members of the group (which wouldn’t have numbered more than maybe several hundred people during most of his lifetime), and he must have wondered sometimes whether it was all worthwhile. Maybe it was during one of those times that he wrote the verse above.

There must have been a poetic strain in the genetic makeup of the men of Lehi’s family. Lehi’s dream is a good example of this, as are some of Nephi’s words, including his final testimony of warning from 2 Nephi 33:

13 And now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come.

14 And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the Jews, and also my words, and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall condemn you at the last day.

15 For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen.

That poetic image of the “voice crying from the dust” is a recurring one in the Book of Mormon. Nephi used it repeatedly, and the later prophets must have loved it because it comes back in Mormon, Ether and Moroni. But contrast those final words of Nephi’s with Jacob’s last words:

And I, Jacob, saw that I must soon go down to my grave; wherefore, I said unto my son Enos: Take these plates. And I told him the things which my brother Nephi had commanded me, and he promised obedience unto the commands. And I make an end of my writing upon these plates, which writing has been small; and to the reader I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren, adieu.

What possible word in Hebrew or Egyptian (reformed or otherwise) could Jacob have used here that Joseph Smith would have thought to translate as “adieu” of all things? And what does it say about Jacob that he used such a word? I think it says a lot about Jacob’s poetic nature, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the circumstances he must have been living in. To find the time and inclination to write this way in the short book that was allotted to him is remarkable.

Some other examples of Jacob’s genius of language:

And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds. Jacob 2:35

And now I, Jacob, am led on by the Spirit unto prophesying; for I perceive by the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that by the stumbling of the Jews they will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation.

But behold, according to the scriptures, this stone shall become the great, and the last, and the only sure foundation, upon which the Jews can build.

And now, my beloved, how is it possible that these, after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it, that it may become the head of their corner? Jacob 4: 15-17

Jacob then gives us the extended metaphor of the vinyard with the tame and wild olive trees, and after comparing his people to this vinyard, he gives them this last poetic plea:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts.

Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts; for why will ye die?

For behold, after ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire? Jacob 6: 5-7

The book of Jacob is not long, but I think it’s one of the best and certainly one of the most literary books of scripture. I think that if Jacob had been able to read Shakespeare, he might have found some affinity for these words:

Prospero:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest, Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

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