The Book of Mormon, generally speaking, is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Even beginners can follow the stories, recognize the doctrines, and be touched by the Spirit while reading this marvelous book. Naturally, as one continues to read and study, additional, deeper meanings and doctrines will be discovered.
That being said, there are a few parts of the Book of Mormon that are more difficult to understand—some that may even discourage first-time readers in as they attempt to absorb the meaning of what they are reading. Fortunately, there are relatively few difficult parts… but knowing they are there, and having an explanation can be very helpful.
Here are five things to keep an eye out for as you read the Book of Mormon for the first time:
Some people struggle with the style of language used in Book of Mormon. It was translated by Joseph Smith from an ancient Near Eastern language (a form of Egyptian) into nineteenth-century English that resembles the style of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
The King James style is natural given that the translation occurred in the late 1820’s—a time when the KJV was the most widely read book in American and formed the standard religious language for most English speaking people of that day.
Furthermore, the Book of Mormon shares certain affinities with the KJV: both include works of ancient prophets of Israel as well as accounts of part of the ministry of Jesus Christ, both are translations into English, and both are to become “one” in God’s hand as collections of His word to his Children. (Stubbs & Darrel, 1992).
Nevertheless, this style of English may be particularly challenging for those without a religious background, or even for Christians who are accustomed to reading modern-English versions of the Bible. Here are a few tips to help overcome this challenge:
One major challenge for all readers of the Book of Mormon is what are known as the “Isaiah chapters” found in the first and second books of Nephi.
The first two books of Nephi (1 Nephi and 2 Nephi; the first 117 pages) are written in Nephi’s own hand, and despite the old-style English translation, are fairly straightforward and easy to understand. The first several chapters of 1 Nephi tell the story of Lehi and his family leaving Jerusalem, and the challenges they face in the wilderness, on the ocean, and in the new world. The story is interesting enough—and the doctrine is fascinating enough—to keep readers engaged and moving along.
Then in 1 Nephi, Chapter 20 and 21, Nephi begins to quote Isaiah nearly word for word—and it’s extremely difficult to understand. Then, just as you think he is finished, you discover that nearly half of 2 Nephi is a transcription of chapters of Isaiah from the Bible. In total, 15 of the 33 chapters of 2 Nephi contain Isaiah’s writings, including chapters 7 and 8, and chapters 12 through 24.
While there is little doubt that Nephi copied these writings from the Brass Plates he and his brothers obtained prior to leaving Jerusalem, many people have questioned WHY he chose to include this information. Isaiah’s writings were originally written from about 740 to 700 BC, and contain many complex symbols, metaphors, and “poetic parallelisms.”
Isaiah is difficult for even seasoned scholars of ancient scripture to understand—let alone first time readers of the Book of Mormon!
So… what should you do when you (literally) run into Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?
Right after you finish the Isaiah chapters, you get into the book of Jacob, Nephi’s younger brother. It is a relatively short book (just 7 chapters), and contains some very good counsel, including a sermon on the proper place of riches, and the importance of chastity.
Then, in chapter 5, Jacob quotes another ancient prophet named Zenos, and relates the Allegory of the Olive Tree. This allegory (or metaphor) forms the longest single chapter of the Book of Mormon (77 verses and more than 6 printed pages).
The Allegory itself is written in plain language that is not difficult to understand. Its difficulty comes from identifying literally and figuratively who the actors in the story are, and what the various parts of the allegory symbolize.
In general terms, the allegory illustrates the great love of the Lord for his vineyard and his carefully laid plan to gather in the good fruit.
It is divided into seven scenes, with each one covering a period of time. There are also five locations in the vineyard, corresponding to parts of the world. As you read the allegory, it is important to understand each scene, in order, to follow and understand the unfolding events.
It is beyond the scope of this short article to explain the allegory other than this general outline. Our purpose here it to identify a potentially difficult to understand part of the Book of Mormon, and provide resources for working through or around them.
To that end, here are a couple of excellent resources: The Tame and Wild Olive Trees—An Allegory of Our Savior’s Love and The Allegory of the Olive Tree Study Guide.
After the book of Jacob, time starts to become a bit compressed in the Book of Mormon. The first two books of Nephi last for 117 pages and span about 55 years in time, then Jacob adds just about 18 pages that was written sometime in the next 100 years.
After Jacob follows a series of minor prophets who contributed from as much as 3 pages to as little as a single verse, spanning a timeframe from about 400 BC to about 120 BC. Very little in terms of story, doctrine, or discourse is found in this section, which comprises less than 10 total printed pages. The inclusion of these chapters seems to be designed to allow the reader to see the continuity and the passing of the sacred record from prophet to prophet over time.
The last book in this section is called the Book of Omni, which contains a few words from five different writers. We learn that there were several episodes of serious war between the Nehpites and Lamanites during this time, and that the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed, and the more righteous Nephites were spared by the Lord.
Finally, the Nephite King Mosiah was commanded by the Lord to flee out of their land and depart into the wilderness, where they discovered a land called Zarahemla. There they found another civilization of people who had also been led out of the land of Jerusalem and across the ocean at about the same time as Lehi. These people had not brought any records, and by this time Mosiah found them, nearly 400 years later, they had apostatized from the true gospel, and their language had become corrupted.
King Mosiah and his son Benjamin integrated the Nephite people with the people of Zarahemla, and taught them the gospel and their language. From this point forward in the Book of Mormon, the two groups exist as one, and adopt the name Nephites. For more information about the people of Zarahemla, please read this article, The Mulekites.
Right after the Book of Omni, we suddenly (and unexpectedly) find ourselves reading a short, 2-page chapter known as “The Words of Mormon,” with a footnote showing the time of this writing to be about 385 AD.
In this chapter, Mormon explains who he is (the abridger of the record) and what he has done so far (abridged the record from Nephi down to 120 BC). He explains how he came to possess the records, and previews some events that are about to be happen in upcoming parts of the book. He then proceeds to introduce the next section of the Book of Mormon (The Book of Mosiah), which rejoins the original timeline at 120 BC.
While this short chapter seems to appear out of nowhere, and is apparently out of chronological order, it allows the reader to understand that the Book of Mormon is a collection of records spanning a thousand years that has been abridged by one primary historian, Mormon.