Revisiting Sherem

Many of my choices in books this year have been influenced by a decision to try and catch up on literature about the Book of Mormon.  I feel a bit overwhelmed, to be honest, since there’s a lot out there and I have been more focused on the New Testament in recent years.  I recently finished reading Christ and the Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7, a collection of essays on Jacob 7 that resulted from a two-week gathering of the Mormon Theology Seminar.  There are both a published book version and a free PDF version offered through the Maxwell Institute.  It’s a good read, and I felt like there some interesting takeaways that have changed how I see Sherem (the titular antichrist).

Sherem is an interesting character.  We don’t know where he comes from, but Jacob portrays him as a no-good, trouble-causing vagabond that shows up on the scene and disrupts Jacob’s congregation and people.  Jacob even goes as far as telling Sherem to his face that: “thou art of the devil,” and still refers to him as a “wicked man” after his repentance and death.[1]  Jacob also structures his telling of the story to present Sherem as a sort of anti-prophet, inverting a trope from the Hebrew Bible where “there came a man of God” who delivers a message to someone in authority, often followed by showing a sign that God’s power is behind him.[2]  Instead, Sherem’s coming is noted as “there came a man” (omitting the usual “of God”) who challenges the authorities with a religious message, but then is at the receiving end of the sign from a man of God instead of giving one.  All this puts Sherem in a very negative light.

Yet, for all of the bad press, Sherem’s story resembles that of Paul in the New Testament in some ways.  Like Paul, who “was violently persecuting the church of God” because he was “far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors,”[3] Sherem attempted to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ” because he felt that it led people to “pervert the right way of God, and keep not the law of Moses which is the right way.”[4]  Paul underwent a dramatic conversion experience where “God … was pleased to reveal his Son to me,” during which “he fell to the ground and heard a voice,” and following which “for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”[5]  Likewise, as a result of Jacob’s prayer, “the power of the Lord came upon [Sherem], insomuch that he fell to the earth.  And it came to pass that he was nourished for the space of many days.”  Following this dramatic experience, Sherem had the people of Nephi gathered and “confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels,” admitting that “he had been deceived by the power of the devil” in his previous efforts.[6]  Like Paul, who was a significant factor in the spread of Christianity among the eastern regions of the Roman Empire, Sherem’s preaching proved significant in securing belief in the Doctrine of Christ among the Nephites, since after his deathbed sermon, “the love of God was restored again among the people; and they searched the scriptures.”[7]  Sherem, like Paul, seemed to be a sincere and zealous believer in the religious traditions passed on to him prior to a dramatic conversion to Christianity.  The big difference is that while Paul was able to embrace hope in Christ’s grace and was able to continue to serve the Lord, Sherem fixated on the possibility that he was past redemption and died soon after his encounter with Jacob.

That being said, there are a few reasons for why Sherem may have portrayed so negatively by Jacob.  First, the narrative seems to be a microcosm of the ongoing struggles Jacob had with convincing his people to embrace a Christian perspective.  As he noted: “We labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God” (Jacob 1:7), but found that they “began to grow hard in their hearts” (Jacob 1:15).  The story of Sherem, perhaps, preserves some of that ongoing struggle in a single, pointed narrative (which may explain why Jacob decided to include it after he has already ended his record twice).  Another point that Adam Miller brought up is that Jacob may have seen Sherem as a symbol of his struggles with his older brothers.  Laman and Lemuel are portrayed as being “like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem,” complaining about Lehi “because he was a visionary man” and later stating that they believed that “the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statues and judgements of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses.”[8]  Religious differences may have contributed to split in the family and Jacob’s lament that the Nephites had become “a lonesome and a solemn people … hated of our brethren” (Jacob 7:26).  Thus, as Adam Miller wrote, Jacob “can’t engage with Sherem because, throughout their encounter, he’s too busy shadow-boxing his brothers.”[9]  Whatever case, Jacob may have been hard on Sherem in his record because he was dealing with his own demons throughout the course of their encounter.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Jacob 7:14, 23.

[2] See Jana Riess “‘There Came a Man’: Sherem, Scapegoating, and the Inversion of Prophetic Tradition,” in Christ and the Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7, ed. Adam S. Miller and Joseph M. Spencer (2018), Maxwell Institute Publications, 23, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/mi/23/.  Compare this to the stories introduced in 1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 13:1; 1 Kings 20:28; 2 Kings 1:6; 2 Kings 4:42; and 2 Chronicles 25:7.

[3] Galatians 1:13-14.  All references to the Bible use the New Revised Standard Version.

[4] Jacob 7:2, 7.

[5] Galatians 1:16-17 and Acts 9:4, 9.

[6] Jacob 7:15-17.

[7] Jacob 7:23.

[8] 1 Nephi 2:11, 13; 1 Nephi 17:22.

[9] Adam S. Miller, “Reading Signs of Repeating Symptoms,” in Christ and the Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7, ed. Adam S. Miller and Joseph M. Spencer (2018), Maxwell Institute Publications, 23, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/mi/23/., 24.

12 comments for “Revisiting Sherem

  1. April 14, 2020 at 10:10 am

    In reading Jacob 7 this past year my thought as to where Sherem came from is that he came from the Lamanites. We do portray Laman and Lemuel as wicked people, and I suspect we all assume that once they were no longer with Nephi that they went atheist, and then eventually their decedents went polytheistic. But what if they didn’t? What if Laman and Lemuel kept the Law of Moses as they understood it back in Jerusalem – but without records their decedent’s eventually went polytheistic? This would add to the indignation that they had against Nephi, because Nephi has the religious artifacts from Jerusalem. Items that would help them keep the religion that they’re trying to keep!
    If Sherem was one of Laman or Lemuel’s sons, I suspect that would have been mentioned. But what if we was the son of one of the sons of Ishmael and one of Lehi’s daughters? If Laman or Lemuel were trying to keep Judaism alive, it would make sense for one of their sisters to be raising her kids in a religious household. Then at some point, Sherem builds up the courage to go over to no the good thieving Nephites, who have corrupted the Law of Moses, and try to convert as many as he can back to the Law of Moses, and hopefully pickup some religious artifacts along the way.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    April 14, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    jader3rd, I have had some similar suspicions (and for similar reasons) about Sherem as I’ve pondered on his story lately. Very well said.

    I know that there is some good literature published about the subject (the book I mentioned in the OP suggested at one point that Sherem was possibly a Zoramite without a detailed explanation of why), but I haven’t delved into that yet to see how other people have thought that idea through.

  3. Bryan
    April 14, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    The quest to tear-down the prophets and exalt the wicked continues!

  4. Chad Nielsen
    April 14, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    I apologize if my interest in looking at different angles of viewing the narratives of the Book of Mormon bothers you, Bryan. I’m not sure that saying that prophets might have personal problems that affects how the view events or that they have agendas that make sense from their perspective but might color their telling of narratives necessarily constitutes an effort to “tear-down the prophets,” but I admit that my view might just be an artifact of my own personal problems and perspectives.

  5. Travis
    April 14, 2020 at 6:14 pm

    Chad, thank you for sharing the LDS scholarship and for providing a pdf link. I enjoyed how a couple authors took the risk of using psychological models to describe visionary experience.

    The “language of psychology” (emphasis on Carl Jung & Erich Neumann) provides a future meeting place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to communicate about spiritual experience because we share the same undercurrents of symbol and archetype. Hope to read more!

    This type of scholarship builds bridges.

  6. Paul Salfin
    April 14, 2020 at 8:37 pm

    Not to be disruptive (I’m not trying to deconvert anyone and I’ll just leave this comment and that’s all), but I stopped being a believer 10 years ago. I remember that it was the Sherem story that led me down the rabbit hole of disbelief. The story just didn’t stack up to me. Jacob was born in 592 BC and had a son, Enos, who died in 421 BC (did he have Enos when he was 70-90 years old?). So Sherem comes along, I’m guessing, toward the end of Jacob’s life, so 510-490 BC? Book of Mormon characters don’t seem to live longer than 100 years or any unusually long period of time, so I’m assuming that Jacob died sometime between 80 and 100 years of age. Sherem, I’m assuming, would be anywhere between 25 and 75 years of age upon meeting Jacob. If he is a son or grandson of Laman and his party, then why would verse 4 say that he was “perfect in the language of the people?” Wouldn’t it just be assumed that he knew their language? He couldn’t be a Mulekite. For the Mulekites didn’t take any records with them. He wouldn’t know the scriptures. Also, it stands to reason that he would know the language of Jacob and his gathering of people. If he was an outsider (descendant from a different ethnic group of people not mentioned in the Book of Mormon), then how did he know about the Hebrew scriptures, and why would he care so much about Jacob talking about predicting the coming of Jesus Christ? Also, if Sherem was a son or grandson of Laman and his party, and he knew the scriptures, then how exactly did Laman and his group copy down what was on the brass plates? Did they take them with them? Did they somehow copy these? They taught everyone to read and reprinted books? It just didn’t stack up and caused me to seriously question the plausibility of a historical Book of Mormon.

    Suffice it to say, the Sherem story was the pulling of the thread that unraveled my belief. Just thought I would share. Thanks for listening. Best of luck to all in their journeys.

  7. Ojiisan
    April 15, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    “Jacob also structures his telling of the story to present Sherem as a sort of anti-prophet, inverting a trope from the Hebrew Bible where “there came a man of God” who delivers a message to someone in authority, often followed by showing a sign that God’s power is behind him.[2] Instead, Sherem’s coming is noted as “there came a man” (omitting the usual “of God”) who challenges the authorities with a religious message, but then is at the receiving end of the sign from a man of God instead of giving one. All this puts Sherem in a very negative light.”

    Hard to understand the reasoning behind these statements.

    Sherem was not a man of God. So how does it make sense that Jacob should say that he was a man of God.

    Paul was not considered a man of God until he repented and started to go about doing the things that God wanted him to do.

    As for portraying Sherem negatively, his portrayal would not seem to be inconsistent with how Saul/Paul is portrayed:

    “Saul was there consenting unto his [Stephen’s stoning] death”

    “… he made havoc of the church entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.”

    “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord…”

    That would be a negative portrayal.

    The difference between the portrayal of the two comes only after Saul/Paul’s repenting and engaging in works of God.

    For Sherem nothing of the sort. Merely stated confirmation of the fact that he was not a man of God but rather had been a servant of the devil and was afraid he was heading off to eternal damnation. Hard to make much positive of that although I guess we do get the positive news that he had confessed.

  8. Chad Nielsen
    April 15, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    Ojiisan, I didn’t say that Jacob should say that Sherem was a man of God at that point in the narrative. Quite opposite to that, my point was that Jacob turned a standard narrative where “there came a man of God” introduces the coming of a prophet on its head to drive home the point more intensely that Sherem was not a prophet or a righteous man when he came among the people. Sherem did begin the process of repenting and worked to undo the problems he had caused by his previous zealousness against the Doctrine of Christ when he “confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels” (Jacob 7:17). He even succeeded in bringing peace to the land and restoring correct belief among the people through his confessions. While he was short-lived in doing so (quite literally), that seems to me to be an indication of him trying to repent and engage in works of God. Thus, my conclusion in the OP about Jacob judging Sherem harshly has more to do with his calling Sherem a “wicked man” at the end of the narrative (Jacob 7:23). It’s impossible to tell what would have happened if Sherem had survived longer (whether he would have been wicked or not), but ultimately my point is that he did have similarities to Paul’s life before he converted to Christianity and there are signs that those similarities might have continued if Sherem lived longer.

  9. Ojiisan
    April 15, 2020 at 8:00 pm

    Chad:

    Clearly we have different readings of this part of Jacob.

    Given that a man cannot generally decide when he is going to die (and wondering why he would want to die if he is really afraid he has committed the unpardonable sin) it would seem a more reasonable to conclude that his death was as a result of God smiting him. This makes it difficult to reach the conclusion that “those similarities might have continued if Sherem had lived longer”. One also wonders why, if God thought he was going to be a force for good going forward (as was Paul), God would not have let him live longer to do good works (as he did with Paul).

    It would also seem a stretch to conclude that he “succeeded in bringing peace to the land and restoring correct belief among the people through his confessions”. Based on the entire incident it seems more reasonable to conclude that it was in fact the actions of God in smiting him and forcing him to confess that brought about peace and restored belief.

  10. Chad Nielsen
    April 15, 2020 at 9:58 pm

    Ojiisan:

    You are correct in that we are taking different approaches here in reading the text. I recognize that you are following the traditional reading of the text and what I am discussing is an alternative and speculative reading. To a certain degree, the OP is me musing and exploring the alternative readings suggested in the Christ and the Antichrist text while I digest what was stated in the book.

    To your point, though, Jacob Rennaker did take an approach to address the thoughts you bring up. He proposed that “The conflict between Jacob and Sherem revolves not only around their acceptance of Christ but also around their understanding of time,” with Jacob embracing a “sort of non-linear, atemporal Christian framework” that he refers to as “dream-like.” He goes on to propose that: “Perhaps the ‘power of the Lord’ that ultimately comes upon Sherem at the climax of his conflict with Jacob was one of these non-linear, ‘dream-like’ experiences that allowed Sherem to truly know about Christ.” This experience, Rennaker says, violently breaks “Sherem free from the tyranny of linear time and linear thinking.”

    That experience leads Sherem to experience “a sort of revelatory post-traumatic stress syndrome” and struggle with reconciling his past choices and understanding with his new framework. Hence, “Sherem still sees each of these past actions as being decisive for his relationship to God. He has been exposed to a view of Christ’s infinite atonement, but he can’t yet allow his own finite mistakes to be swallowed up by that infinite love.” As a result, “for someone who had been functioning within a strictly linear and temporal framework, the sudden apprehension of a dream-like, atemporal framework would be maddening … and could easily lead to Sherem’s unnecessarily harsh self-judgement and self-condemnation. In this scenario, God does not ‘strike’ a person dead after they recognize the error of their ways—Sherem’s ‘smiting’ here very well may be reflexive. … The text of Jacob nowhere states that God is directly responsible for Sherem’s death. A self-inflicted descent into madness, on the other hand, would better explain the fact that in verse 15, Sherem does not die immediately, but is ‘nourished for the space of many days’ before he dies. For Sherem, the ‘dream-like’ experience of revelation threatens to become a living nightmare.” (Jacob Rennaker, “Divine Dream Time: The Hope and Hazard of Revelation,” in Christ and the Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7, ed. Adam S. Miller and Joseph M. Spencer (2018), Maxwell Institute Publications, 23, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/mi/23/.)

    So, that’s a bit of what I had in the back of my mind in discussing Sherem’s end.

  11. Ojiisan
    April 17, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to articulate your approach. I have read Rennaker’s article and generally find it and others like it unimpressive. The general pattern is that they start with a conclusion they have decided they want to reach (e.g Sherem really wasn’t such a bad person) and then work backwards to make an argument that supports that conclusion. The reasoning is filled with numerous assumptions, maybes and what ifs that have no basis in anything that is actually written in the text. They also tend to ignore anything in the text that is inconsistent with the conclusion they want to reach. I won’t bore you with a critique of Rennaker’s article because I suspect you are not interested but it follows that same line of reasoning using assumptions and maybes while ignoring what is in the text that is inconsistent with what he wants to conclude.

  12. Chad Nielsen
    April 19, 2020 at 9:13 am

    I can see where you’re coming from, Ojiisan, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Like I said, a part of the reason I wrote this blog post was as a means for me to think things through after reading the book, and discussing it is also important to me as a way to work through my thoughts. As such, I would actually be interested in your critique of Rennaker’s essay, but I also understand that it can be time-intensive to write up a full critique. If you don’t want to take the time to do so, I think I do get the gist of it from your comments thus far.

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