“I’m mad at Jacob,” I snarl to my husband.
“Jacob who?” he asks.
“Jacob in the Book of Mormon!”
He backs away slowly, as if from a dangerous, wounded animal.
Despite the lack of invitation, I spew on: “So Jacob 2? The big ‘no polygamy for you!’ smackdown? He spends eleven verses–eleven verses!–going on and on about how he hates having to give this talk–all about the delicate sensibilities of the women. What–he thinks they are a bunch of over-corseted Victorians who are going to faint if he talks about S-E-X in front of them? Lemme tell you, there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t want the prophet to flay her husband if he were engaged in some extracurriculars! When he finally got around to giving the dang talk, the women were probably cheering so loudly that the men didn’t hear the end of the chapter. And so I’m mad at Jacob for completely misunderstanding the desires of the female half of his audience.”
Adequately vented, I go to sleep.
The next day, I read Jacob 2 again, with a fixed determination to find more evidence of Jacob’s ignorance.
I get stuck on Jacob 2:4: “For behold, as yet, ye have been obedient unto the word of the Lord, which I have given unto you.”
Huh. Apparently the men are not physically violating their marriage covenants yet. Must think more about this.
The next day I read Jacob again. This time I notice Jacob 1:15: “And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.”
I notice that what they were doing at this point was not having many wives, but desiring many wives.
The next day, I poke around in the General Conference Scripture Citation Index and find this from Elder Oaks:
“The main focus of Jacob’s great sermon was not with evil acts completed, but with evil acts contemplated.”
So now I’m thinking that Jacob’s eleven verses of please-don’t-make-me-say-this isn’t what I thought it was. Most/all of the women do not know what their husbands are planning, and most/all of the husbands haven’t actually done anything yet. But Jacob knows. And when he gives this talk (to what is, remember, a fairly small community only one generation removed from Lehi’s small family), the proverbial excrement is going to hit the fan. Jacob doesn’t think that talking about polygamy-already-practiced will break the women’s hearts; he thinks that letting the women know what their husbands are planning to do will break their hearts. I think he is right.
This is not the most profound realization in the history of scripture interpretation. It isn’t the specifics of this incident that I want to talk about. It’s the process. I never would have figured this out save two things: (1) repeated rereadings of the text, which I’ve written about before and (2) being a difficult reader. Whenever I do “how to study the scriptures” firesides or talks, I suggest that, for at least one of your multiple passes through a given text, you read like the 14-year-old sitting in the back of the room with his cap on backwards and his arms crossed over his chest. Read like you are a cynic, read like you doubt everything, read like you aren’t gonna believe anything unless someone proves it to you, read with all of your completely unacceptable questions voiced.
If I’d gone all Molly Mormon on this passage (“Why, Jacob was a Prophet, so if he said it, it must be <hushed whisper> holy and right.”), I never would have figured out what was going on. I had to allow my initial misunderstanding and grump to fester. Not untreated festering, mind you–I treated it with multiple encounters with the text. But I didn’t ignore it or deny it or pretend like I understood something that I didn’t. And because I was mad, I was hunting. And because I was hunting, I found the resolution for my grump, and now understand the text much better, I think. Now I am fascinated by Jacob’s extreme level of [appropriate] concern for the [actual] sensibilities of his female readers (especially given the fact that the OT green-lights polygamy). But that’s a topic for another post.