The Book of Mormon begins,
Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites-Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile-Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation-Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed-To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof-Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile-The interpretation thereof by the gift of God.
An abridgment taken from the Book of Ether also, which is a record of the people of Jared, who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven-Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever-And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations-And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.
TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH, Jun.
First English edition published in 1830
Immediately, we seem to be transported into a fantasy world, as when we read the first pages of Lord of the Rings. Questions abound: Who are these Nephi? What about the Lamanites? Are they more important than the Nephi? It seems logical, since this is both a record of the Lamanites and written to the Lamanites. And Moroni? Was he a Nephi (I’m sure that’s a plural form)? Was he a Lamanite? Neither one nor the other?
This is only the introduction, so it’s too much to ask who all these people are, but that leads to an obvious question: what Holy Book has an introduction?
The Hebrew Bible begins,
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
The Hebrew Bible jumps right into the thick of things, discussing the origins of life without any introduction or preface. It speaks with authority. This is how it was. There’s no justification: “This is the word of God, to those that eventually will become the Hebrews and later the Jews.”
The Koran begins,
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. The Beneficent, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help. Keep us on the right path. The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray.
Where the Hebrew Bible shows, the Koran tells: God is great and all powerful.
Only the New Testament begins similarly:
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias; And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon: And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Both the Book of Mormon and the Christian New Testament begin with a sense of an author trying to legitimize something. The difference is that the New Testament is trying to legitimize Jesus as the Christ, while the Book of Mormon seems to be legitimizing itself more than anything else. Of course in legitimizing Jesus as the Anointed, the Matthew’s gospel is legitimizing itself indirectly.
The Book of Mormon, though, starts off like a mystery, trying to hook us with the first line. Who are these Nephi and Lamanites?
The mystery is compounded when we read of things being sealed and shut up. It has notes of esoteric antiquity, long lost but discovered and delivered unto a thirsting, ignorant world. That, of course, is the whole premise behind the Book of Mormon, but I wasn’t expecting to find it in the opening lines.
Indeed, it all hints at there being so much more behind the veil: this is an abridgement (Why can’t we have the whole thing?) written to the Lamanites (Who could they be?) and sealed up by Moroni (He must be some supernatural being.) that is a gift of God.
It’s a bold way to begin.
We end with the of-God/of-man dichotomy. “If there are any mistakes in the text,” authors are fond of writing in their acknowledgements, “It lies with me, and not all these wonderful people who advised me.” Thus ends the introduction to the Book of Mormon: any mistakes in here are of human origin, not God. For good measure, we have a dash of submit-for-the-sake-of-your-eternal-life tossed in at the end.