Source:Rediscovering the Book of Mormon:Ch:6:6:Jacob's biography

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Jacob's biography

Jacob's biography

When Jacob quoted scriptures by Zenos or Isaiah, we can easily sense a close link between the man and his message. He must have felt strongly about these prophets' promises to scattered Israel, for he himself was a displaced person. This close link between Jacob's life and his message also shows up elsewhere. Let me list five facts about Jacob's life and suggest how each might be connected to his themes and style.

(1) Jacob was born "in the days of [Lehi's] tribulation" (2 Nephi 2:1). He was raised on raw meat rather than milk and probably orphaned at a young age. Some people are hardened by hardship, but not Jacob. Lehi promised Jacob that God would "consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain" (2 Nephi 2:2), and Jacob's sensitive style provides evidence that this promise was fulfilled. Long afflictions seem to have softened Jacob's spirit, verifying the famous Book of Mormon teaching about the value of "opposition in all things." Significantly, that teaching occurs as part of Jacob's patriarchal blessing (2 Nephi 2:11). We should remember Jacob when we teach the principle that adversity can have sweet uses. The evidence shows that the boy took Lehi's lesson to heart.

(2) Jacob was a child of a house divided, suffering from abusive brothers. He saw a family feud evolve into a more or less permanent state of war. Think what it meant for Jacob to be Laman and Lemuel's brother. The Lamanites were not distant, faceless, nameless enemies; they were kinsmen—brothers, nephews, and cousins whose names and families he knew. This helps me read with more sympathy Jacob's sad parting observation: "Many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren" (Jacob 7:24).

"Against us, their brethren"—Jacob used the word brethren often in his discourses to the Nephites too. It seems to have been his favorite way of addressing his people: he used it some fifty times, while he almost never addressed his audience directly as "my people," the term Nephi preferred. Jacob's choice of what to call his audience suggests an intimate family relationship with them and also shows his humility. At the same time, it reminds us that Jacob's audience—including those he criticized so severely for whoredoms—were his kinsmen. No wonder Jacob felt anxious and pained. The erring Lamanites and Nephites were his relatives.

(3) Jacob was the younger brother of a prophet-colonizer. Nephi must have cast a large shadow, and Jacob's writing suggests he was very aware of this shadow. The people decided to adopt Nephi's name as a royal title (see Jacob 1:11), but Jacob himself chose to group all righteous family lines (including his own) under the title Nephites (Jacob 1:13-14). This may reveal his respect for his older brother (and perhaps his detachment from governmental matters) and serve to symbolize his humble deference to Nephi. Jacob presented himself as less prominent than his brother, the founder.

In addition, neither Jacob nor his descendants appear to have added new plates to the ones Nephi made. This may simply mean that they lacked the proper materials or skill to fashion plates, though both Jacob and Jarom mention an abundance of gold in the promised land (see Jacob 2:12; Jarom 1:8). More likely, it reveals something about the meaning of the plates in Jacob's and his family's minds: namely, that they saw the plates as primarily Nephi's record, a sacred legacy from an incomparable man and cultural hero, to be added to only sparingly by those who followed. Even Jacob, whose contribution to the small plates is sublime and considerable, still confessed that his "writing has been small" (Jacob 7:27). Evidently, he was comparing his authorship to the extensive writing of his illustrious older brother. All the later authors in Jacob's family seem to have suffered from similar feelings of inferiority.

Jacob also seems to have lived in Nephi's shadow for another reason. His writing is more limited in historical scope than that of his older brother. Of course in touching but lightly on history, he was following Nephi's instruction and example. After the death of Lehi, Nephi too said little more about history. He resolved, rather, to write on the small plates only the things of his soul and charged his brother Jacob to do the same (see 2 Nephi 4:15; Jacob 1:2-4). Jacob obediently confined himself almost wholly to the ministry, recording sermons, discussions of scripture, and one story about a conflict with Sherem. He said nothing about the move to the land of Nephi and little of the colonization. The result is that Jacob comes across more as a priest and less as a colonizer than Nephi.

(4) Jacob was visited by Christ. In this respect, he was not a bit inferior to his brother. Nephi's tribute to Jacob seems to acknowledge this: "Jacob also has seen him [the Christ] as I have seen him" (2 Nephi 11:3; compare 2 Nephi 2:4). Jacob knew the Master; his writing is full of the testimony of Christ. Indeed, he is the first Nephite prophet to whom Christ's name was revealed (see 2 Nephi 10:3). He wrote his record so that his posterity might know "that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming" (Jacob 4:4).

(5) Finally, to end where I began, Jacob was a pilgrim, a wilderness writer. He was twice an outcast—first wandering with his family across the desert and great sea; then fleeing from the first settlements in America even deeper into the wilderness (see 2 Nephi 5:5-6). Like nomadic Abraham, the only security these New World exiles knew lay in their God and his law. Eternity was their covering, rock, and salvation (compare Abraham 2:16). Their experience in the wilderness may help explain why both Nephi and Jacob quoted from the brass plates more than any other Book of Mormon prophet. The brass plates were tangible links to the world they had left behind, as well as a key to the civilization they hoped to build.

How hard forging a new civilization must have seemed to Jacob! He had never even known the old one personally. Nephite survival must have often seemed perilous and precarious to this early pioneer. Despairing would have been easy, especially for a sensitive man like Jacob. He surely realized that time, geographic isolation, and sin could easily destroy the sacred traditions he was trying to teach. Or, if these failed, the Lamanites might succeed, for they were determined, as Jacob wrote, to "destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers" (Enos 1:14). No wonder Jacob's writing refers so often to anxiety.[1]


  1. John S. Tanner, "Jacob and His Descendents as Authors," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, edited by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co.; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), Chapter 6.