By Sariah S. Wilson
First off, I’m not trying to be controversial. I definitely do not have all the answers (I don’t even have a small portion of them), but I had this conversation with Dr. Joseph L. Allen on the bus ride to the airport that gave me a new perspective on a passage of scripture that I’d always had a hard time wrapping my head around. So I am not trying to offend anyone, I am sharing something I learned, some new ideas that I’d never considered before, and wanted to explore a little further. I'm not a scholar, nor do I claim any academic pretensions of any sort. Please be kind. :)
Culturally and traditionally within our church, there has been a perception that Lamanites = dark, Nephites = white. It is not endemic to North America alone – my experiences in Guatemala showed me that it is a perception held by people there as well.
I’ve always had some issues with the cursing of Laman and Lemuel’s descendants. Because to me, the scriptures show that there weren’t vast physical differences between Lamanites and Nephites.
The best example of this to me is this passage from Alma 55:4-8:4 And now it came to pass that when Moroni had said these words, he caused that a search should be made among his men, that perhaps he might find a man who was a descendant of Laman among them.
5 And it came to pass that they found one, whose name was Laman; and he was one of the servants of the king who was murdered by Amalickiah.
6 Now Moroni caused that Laman and a small number of his men should go forth unto the guards who were over the Nephites.
7 Now the Nephites were guarded in the city of Gid; therefore Moroni appointed Laman and caused that a small number of men should go with him. 8 And when it was evening Laman went to the guards who were over the Nephites, and behold, they saw him coming and they hailed him; but he saith unto them: Fear not; behold, I am a Lamanite. Behold, we have escaped from the Nephites, and they sleep; and behold we have taken of their wine and brought with us.
So Moroni wants to infiltrate the City of Gid. His plan is to drug the Lamanite guards to get inside and rescue the prisoners. He starts a search among his men to see if he can find a descendant of Laman to act as his undercover agent. This is where many readers start glossing over the text. Oh, a descendant of Laman. That’s because Lamanites had dark skin, so he had to find one that looked the part, right?
The problem is, the next two verses refute that position. It goes on to say that Moroni found one. Not two, not three, not twelve, but one Lamanite, a man named Laman (who has a definite grudge since he was framed for murdering his king).
So we have only one Lamanite, and yet Moroni sends “a small number of his men” with Laman. How many the scriptures don’t say. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say six, because war zones and jungles are dangerous places and Laman had an important mission.
We know that Moroni’s men weren’t Lamanites because Moroni’s already found the one Lamanite. They must then be Nephites.
I have a hard time imagining that one supposedly dark-skinned Lamanite and six supposedly light-skinned Nephites show up to the City of Gid and none of the Lamanite guards are remotely suspicious. Had it been solely skin color that was the difference, the jig would have been up pretty fast.
So then you might argue, well, maybe Laman approached the city alone while the guards stayed hidden. Possible. But the problem with that is Laman speaks to the guards in verse 8 in plural. Not “I have escaped” but “we have escaped.” Not “I have taken” but “we have taken.”
He identifies himself because it was the language that exposed the difference between the two cultures. By speaking, Laman eases their minds and tells them he is a Lamanite and since he had lived among that people his whole life, spoke the language fluently. The Nephite guards, wisely enough, stay silent, as speaking would have given away their identities.
I also consider the fact that inhabitants of Jerusalem at 600 B.C. were not Caucasian. It is also worth pointing out that there were no “black”-skinned inhabitants among the people in Central America (they were more stunned by the skin color of the African slaves than they were by the skin of the European Spaniards).
I also think that there were lots and lots and lots of people in Central America already when Nephi and his family showed up. (The numbers in Nephi simply don’t make sense without an already existing population. Add to that that the Lord doesn’t usually send his prophets to places without people to teach, and I think we have a whole lot of civilization already happening before the arrival.) I think both groups intermarried with different tribes, and that there were a wide variety of skin colors and tones.
But Dr. Allen taught me a couple of interesting things. The first is that as Americans we tend to think X equals X. But that among the Hebrews and the Maya, X equals X and Y, and sometimes Z, A, and B too. It is all about duality. He used the story of Ammon as an example. That was something secular which literally happened (as we perceive it and the extent to which we consider the tale), but he said think of the duality of that story. The flocks being encircled and protected. Who else encircles and protects flocks? It’s symbolic of Christ. If all things in the scriptures point to Him (as they repeatedly say) then we need to start looking for the duality of meanings in the scriptures.
First is the word skin. We take it to mean actual skin like we have on our bodies. That is one possibility. I consider that one of the Hebrew words for skin is OR (‘or
spelled ayin vav resh). OR (‘or (aleph vav resh)) is also a Hebrew word for light and according to one site (from the Rashi-is-Simple mailing list) ayin vav resh in the masculine connotes blindness. When the Lord clothed Adam, it was with a coat of skins. Coat also means tunic or garment. So while the Lord may have literally clothed Adam with a physical covering of animal skins, there may be a deeper meaning there. The Lord may have “clothed” Adam in a covering of blindness or in a body of lesser light than one he had previously had. Interesting, huh?
We take the Lamanites. As with Pharaoh of old, they are cursed. Did the Lord curse Pharaoh or did Pharaoh curse himself? Did the Lord curse Laman and Lemuel or did they curse themselves? The answer to me is that Laman and Lemuel cursed themselves with their choices.
So if you have made a decision, made a choice, then you are actively doing something. Laman and Lemuel could have made decisions that explain the curse. A skin of blackness could have very easily been something they clothed themselves in. Black jaguars were not unusual then – game and predators were abundant at the arrival of Lehi’s family. As wearing the skin of jaguar signified your prowess as a hunter (which Laman and Lemuel became extremely adept at while the Nephites became farmers) and as a warrior, it is not implausible to me that this could have happened. Skin painting was also very common. Perhaps they became king over a tribe that painted their skin a dark color.
I also have to take into account that the Lord, at that point, had been left by Laman and Lemuel. They had hardened their hearts “like unto flint.” I find it a little unbelievable that they would have simply woken up one day to find their DNA totally altered. Of course nothing is impossible with the Lord, but He works through natural means. And if He was no longer a presence in Laman and Lemuel’s lives by their choice, why would He have worked something so miraculous that they couldn't have denied?
But to me the most plausible explanation for this phrase (and using that duality that Dr. Allen talked about) is the spiritual one.
When we speak of Christ, how is He described by those who have seen him? They usually use things like exceedingly white, glory and brightness beyond description, etc. It may not be that his robes or face are literally white, but that there is such a dazzling brightness that “white” is the only term people can use to describe it in the English language.
We use words like pure, bright, clean, fair, white when speaking of positive spiritual connections.
What words do we use when we speak of someone’s spirituality who has moved far away from Christ? Dark. Loathsome. Filthy. Black. (Opposition in all things, right? Let’s not forget the significance of that to the Nephite historians.)
This may be a description of their spiritual countenances, of their moving away from the Lord and the truth into unbelief and wicked traditions. Or the OR (in this instance meaning light), the lightness of their previous spirituality, their connection to the Lord, became black.
Whatever mark existed, I don’t believe that Nephites and Lamanites had different skin color. The groups were delineated by their political choices, their language, and their religious beliefs.
Just a possibility to consider.