Hey guys, so—longer episode today on a controversial topic. Here’s the deal: Towards the beginning of the Book of Mormon, two wicked brothers (Laman and Lemuel) and those who follow them are cursed because of their wickedness. In connection with this curse, as per 2 Nephi 5, “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” Now, “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin [racially speaking] is a sign of divine disfavor or curse…”. But, readers both inside and outside the Church still naturally wonder, if this curse is not about race, what is it about? How else can it be explained? Let’s talk about it.
So as a heads up, a lot of the information and analysis we’re going to be looking at today comes from an upcoming BYU Studies article by scholar T. J. Uriona. He was kind enough to share his research with me and has given me permission to share it with you. The official paper should be out by the end of 2023 and will hopefully be followed by at least one more. So keep an eye out for those!
Before we get into this topic, we need to lay some groundwork. Throughout the ancient prophet Nephi’s writings, he frequently directly or indirectly alludes to Old Testament figures, stories, and laws. He talks about Joseph of Egypt. He quotes Isaiah. He refers to Moses and talks a lot about the Law of Moses. For example, in 2 Nephi 5, before describing the curse that comes upon the Lamanites, he says, “We did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses.”
Now, according to the Old Testament, if you kept the law and “hearkened unto the voice of the Lord,” you were blessed. If you didn’t, you were cursed. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 & 30 outline what the blessings are for hearkening and what the curses are for not hearkening.
In 2 Nephi 5, before he tells us how the Lamanites were cursed, he tells us how the Nephites were blessed. As you can see from this table which you can pause and read, many of the blessings he mentions correspond well with the blessings promised in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Nephi seems to be offering his own life up as an example of how the Lord’s promises are fulfilled. And if the Nephites expected to be blessed for hearkening unto the Lord, then it also makes sense that they would expect the Lamanites to be cursed for not hearkening. And there are some noteworthy parallels there as well.
For example, after various curses are listed in Deuteronomy 30, we read, “Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee: And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever.”
Interestingly, the Hebrew word used here for “sign” is translated elsewhere in the Bible as “mark.” The curses would be a mark upon those who failed to hearken and upon their seed. This sounds a lot like the description of the curse we get from Alma 3: “… these are the words which [God] said to Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed … except they repent of their wickedness….”
Now, we’re going to circle back around to these curse chapters in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but you will notice that, at first glance, a “skin of blackness” does not specifically show up as a curse in those chapters. That said, we can turn elsewhere in the Old Testament and the ancient Near East for clues about how this phraseology would have been interpreted in the ancient world.
For example, many scholars believe that these chapters in the Bible about curses were in part patterned after ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties, which is a fancy way of referring to an agreement between a ruler and the people he rules over. And if the people failed to hold up their end of the bargain, they would bring down upon themselves the curses listed in the treaty. In the context of the Bible, the ruler is God, and the “vassal kingdom” is covenant Israel.
But one of the treaties we’re going to look at right now is called the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, which would have been written around 672ish BC, several decades before Lehi’s family left Jerusalem. At that time, Esarhaddon was the king of Assyria, and Judah was a vassal of Assyria. “According to ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal custom … Vassals were given a copy of the text [of the treaty] and required to read its contents to the general populace. They were public documents distributed among the Syro-Palestine vassals and intended for public display and reading.”
The purpose of this treaty was to ensure a smooth transition of power between Esarhaddon and his successor — his son, Ashurbanipal. In the treaty, the consequence for rebellion against Ashurbanipal was a series of various curses. One of the curses in the treaty is this: “May they [the gods] make your skin and the skin of your women, your sons and your daughters — dark. May they be as black as pitch and crude oil.”
Now, as with the Book of Mormon, we need to be careful about reading this text through a modern lens. The reference in this treaty to black or dark skin is not an example of 7th-century BC Assyrians being racist by 21st-century standards. Our usage of the term “black” as a racial reference to skin color did not exist for these ancient peoples. In this case, this was likely just a metaphor or reference to death or destruction. The treaty is saying, “If you rebel against Ashurbanipal, your gods are going to destroy you.”
So we have here an example of a “skin of blackness” curse that would likely have been on public display in Jerusalem at least at some point in the same century as Nephi, and it has nothing to do with race. This seems to be a pretty clear indicator that it’s not altogether weird for a “skin of blackness” curse to show up in the Book of Mormon. It fits comfortably within an ancient Near Eastern context.
And to strengthen this point, I want to take you to a passage in the Old Testament book of Nahum. Nahum was likely written in the 7th century BC, while Judah was still a vassal of Assyria. Nahum prophesies that Assyria is going to fall. And scholars believe that Nahum actually alludes to the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon in his prophecy in a rather sassy way. Referring to Assyria, we read in Nahum 2:10, “She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness.” It’s almost as if Nahum has a copy of this treaty in front of him, and he writes, “No, actually, it’s you, Assyria, that will be destroyed.” Again, this has nothing to do with race.
References to skin being or becoming black show up in several places throughout the Old Testament, but they never have to do with race. Here’s one from Lamentations 4: “Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk….” But in the next verse, we read that now “Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.”
Are these verses describing a change in race from whiter than milk to blacker than a coal (or, in some translations, darker than soot)? No. As Scholar Gideon Kotze wrote, “The expression … does not have to be interpreted literally and may rather be another literary image that associates the [Nazarite] with the realm of the dead.” In essence, they are described as “dead men walking.” It might remind you of the description of the Lamanite curse in 2 Nephi 5:21, “wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” If the sentiment here is similar to that of Lamentations 4, then these color comparisons have nothing to do with race.
But, we haven’t answered all of the questions that need to be answered yet, because the Book of Mormon seems to speak about this curse in physical terms. It was something that the Nephites had to be able to see in order to differentiate between themselves and the Lamanites.
And here’s the deal: While a consensus of Latter-day Saint scholars agree that this curse had nothing to do with race, there is disagreement on what the physical manifestation of the curse was, and several different theories have been put forward that each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
For example, Latter-day Saint scholar Ethan Sproat proposed that the skins mentioned in the Book of Mormon may have been animal skins worn as a kind of priestly temple garment, perhaps comparable to the coats of skins Adam and Eve wore after their expulsion from the garden of Eden. The skins or garments worn by Lamanites indicated that they had been cut off from the temple and, by extension, God. And if you want to dig more into this theory, check out this article.
Latter-day Saint scholar Gerrit Steenblik proposed that instead of looking to contextualize the curse in the Old World, it may be instructive to look at the New World context. He suggests that the mark of black or dark skin had nothing to do with race but rather “an ancient Maya body paint tradition, chiefly for warfare, hunting, and nocturnal raiding.” And for more info on this theory, check out this article.
Similarly, Latter-day Saint scholar Jan Martin proposed that the “skin of blackness was a self-inflicted mark (most likely a tattoo) brought about by Laman and Lemuel’s divinely acknowledged desires to be distinctly autonomous. …” And for more info on this one, check out Jan’s article in this book. Clifford Jones also weighed in on this general idea in this more recent article.
And if you’re interested in a great overview of a variety of these kinds of theories, I’d strongly encourage you to check out this article, which does a great job of summarizing what has been said on this topic over the years. And it strongly and effectively makes the point that whatever the explanation, by and large, the message of the Book of Mormon is one of anti-discrimination and God’s love for all people. But in addition to these theories about the Lamanite curse, there’s another one that T. J. Uriona brought to my attention that I think deserves a closer look. If the blessings mentioned in 2 Nephi 5 correspond to the promised blessings from the Old Testament, then perhaps we should take a closer look at the curses mentioned in these Old Testament chapters. For example, in Deuteronomy 28, we read:
“The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee … [he] shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning …The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.”
As sort of a quick side-note, evidence from the Book of Mormon suggests that the Nephites were well aware of these curses. For example, here’s what Abinadi said to his executioners in Mosiah 17: “…ye shall be afflicted with all manner of diseases because of your iniquities. Yea, and ye shall be smitten on every hand, and shall be driven and scattered to and fro, even as a wild flock is driven by wild and ferocious beasts.” Interestingly, the footnote attached to “diseases” takes you back to none other than Deuteronomy 28.
Anyway, it could be possible that in addition to a metaphorical allusion to death and destruction due to sin or disobedience, the “skin of blackness” also referred to a literal physical condition or disease or a variety of diseases that made you look “deathly,” or may have even involved dark or black skin lesions that physically afflicted the Lamanites. In contrast, “white skin” would not refer to race but to life, health, and righteousness — perhaps comparable to the white Tree of Life from Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi chapter 8.
Interestingly, we even have an example from the Bible that highlights this possible interpretation of a “skin of blackness.” In Job 30:30, Job laments, “My skin grows black and falls from me.” A variety of reputable non-Latter-day Saint Bible commentaries suggest that the black skin here can be understood as a reference to disease, perhaps something like necrosis, boils, or sores, that can leave black scabbing or turn your skin the color black as it kills or infects the tissue.
And this leads us to a discussion about leprosy. Leprosy in the Bible is different from the leprosy we know today as Hansen’s disease. “In ancient times, leprosy was a ‘catchall’ term for any disease that particularly affected the skin.” Scholar Gilbert Lewis wrote, “Various skin conditions might fit some of the Biblical criteria: vitiligo, psoriasis, a fungal infection. The Biblical rules could cover a number of different sores and skin conditions according to current medical classifications.” Things like boils and sores and the “botch of Egypt” as found in the Deuteronomic curses would have been under the umbrella of leprosy.
It’s possible that the Lamanites were plagued by a chronic skin condition or disease that fell (or at least was perceived to fall) under the umbrella of Old Testament leprosy. This theory would fit within the framework of Old Testament blessings and cursings; it would explain how the Nephites were able to physically identify a Lamanite; it would explain how the curse could come upon someone but later be taken away; and it could give the Nephites yet another reason to stay away from the Lamanites — remember that according to the law of Moses, for the protection of the community lepers were considered unclean and had to be separated from those who were clean.
Now, that’s all well and good, but are there any good candidates for what this disease may have actually been among the Lamanites? It’s hard to say, simply because there’s really not a whole lot of information about diseases in ancient America before Europeans arrived. I also don’t want to present this as doctrinal by any means. This is my speculation. But there do seem to be multiple valid suspects. For example, according to the Southern Medical Journal, “The Mayas were probably the first to describe pinta, leishmaniasis, and yellow fever.” Those first two diseases are quite unpleasant skin conditions that may fit the bill. They do cause discoloration of the skin and can last for years, but to be clear, again, the physical manifestation of the curse may have involved literal black lesions, or it may have simply been a diseased and deathly look in general, like what we see in our example from Lamentations chapter 4 where the “blackened visage” is associated with what seem to be symptoms of starvation.
I can’t prove that this is the correct interpretation, but as of right now, this line of thinking is what makes the most sense to me. That said, whatever the “right answer” might be, at the very least, it seems clear from an ancient context that a racial reading is the wrong answer.
Now, there will be some people who will watch this video and still feel that the easiest reading of the text is a racial one. And I agree that from our modern worldview so saturated with racial issues, a racial reading is the easiest reading, but that does not mean it’s the right reading. Sometimes it takes work to put an ancient text into an ancient context. It’s not easy to put your worldview aside and try to read these things through ancient eyes. But oftentimes, that work pays off.
There will be some who also hear this and think we don’t need to put this in an ancient context because Joseph Smith was a fraud, and this black skin curse clearly is a reflection of his 19th-century culture bleeding into the text. I get that perspective, and you’re free to feel that way. Personally, I see some issues with that reasoning and have a harder time jumping to that conclusion.
Joseph Smith consistently taught that the Native Americans of his day were the descendants of the Lamanites from the Book of Mormon. Many critics look at the Book of Mormon as if it’s a made-up origin story for the Native Americans. And yet, in 19th-century culture (Joseph Smith’s culture), they differentiated between Africans or African Americans and Native Americans. Africans were often described as “black,” but Native Americans were not. They were described as “red-skinned” or “copper-skinned.” So, if Joseph were just making up a story to explain how Native Americans got their skin color, he would not have called them black. Just something to think about.
Again, I think the racial reading is strictly a modern one that misses the mark. Now, in this episode, I have not analyzed every Book of Mormon verse having to do with the curse. Feel free to take this information, have at it yourself, and come to your own conclusions. As always, I’ll leave a variety of resources in the YouTube description if you want to dive deeper into this topic. When T. J. Uriona’s BYU Studies article comes out, I will be sure to link it below as well. Check out some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day.
— “The Inclusive, Anti-Discrimination Message of the Book of Mormon,” by David M. Belnap (Interpreter Journal): http://bit.ly/3Ev6Rf9
— “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis,” by Ethan Sproat (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3RYMMDb
— “Demythicizing the Lamanites’ ‘Skin of Blackness’,” by Gerrit M. Steenblik (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3IlT9NR
— “Understanding the Lamanite Mark,” by Clifford P. Jones (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3piMJYT
— “Nahum’s Rhetorical Allusions to Neo-Assyrian Treaty Curses,” by Gordon Johnston in Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (Oct.-Dec. 2001), pgs. 415-436: https://bit.ly/3RH4xXG