There are seven tribes of Lehi: The Nephites, the Jacobites, the Josephites, the Zoramites, the Lamanites, the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites. These tribes stem all the way from Lehi, who — acting in the role of Father Jacob — gave seven blessings to his posterity. Jacob writes:
Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings.
In other words, Jacob names them all, and then says, “for the sake of convention, I will refer to these as Nephites, and these others as Lamanites.” This makes a lot of sense for writing on plates. I suspect much of Nephite (and Lamanite) history is simplified for the purpose of engraving on plates. But the scholar Don Bradley makes a good point: Jacob wouldn’t have to explain his convention if this were a common convention among his readers. I suggest that the people didn’t always label themselves this way.
I submit that these were seen as distinct sociopolitical groups. These tribal identities persisted through the end of the book! Even 900 years later, Mormon says:
And it came to pass in this year there began to be a war between the Nephites, who consisted of the Nephites and the Jacobites and the Josephites and the Zoramites; and this war was between the Nephites, and the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites. Now the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites were called Lamanites, and the two parties were Nephites and Lamanites.
So, it makes sense that, when writing this story, to stop thinking about Nephites and Lamanites entirely, except as shorthand when necessary. This is not a tale of two nations. It is a tale of (essentially) seven nations (perhaps eight if we include the Zarahemla natives / Mulekites). And reading the Book of Mormon through this lens is fascinating.
What follows is literary extrapolation. Like I’ve said before, I’m writing a fiction book set in these times which tells these stories, and so this blog series is my attempt to flesh out the geopolitics of the book. When I make assertions here that are unsupported, it’s because I’m reading between the lines and setting forth ideas for the book. I’m not claiming any of this as known fact. If you have better ideas, let me know! (And what I really want is someone who can help me create a map with these tribal lands laid out, Game of Thrones style. That’d be cool.)
The Three Kingdoms of Laman
The Lamanites, the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites represent the three kingdoms of Laman:
- The Kingdom of Laman is centered in the land of Jerusalem.
- The Kingdom of Lemuel is centered in the land of Middoni.
- the Kingdom of Ishmael is centered in the land of Ishmael.
Each kingdom/tribe has its own king, who governs the internal affairs of their people with near-complete autonomy. They are all united under the High King. Whichever kingdom has a claim on the throne of High King sets the tone for the foreign policy of the Three Kingdoms. The kingship for each of the Three Kingdoms is hereditary. But the position of High King is a matter of politics and the relative political and military resources of each of the Three Kingdoms. It is hereditary only as long as the ascendant tribe has the political and military capital to maintain the position.
This is why you have such a variety in Lamanite politics. In my version of the story, kings from the tribe of Laman tend to have an aggressive foreign policy. Kings from the tribe of Ishmael tended to favor economic trade and friendly relations. The kingdoms have their own cultures and predispositions. This also introduces internal intrigue among the Lamanites. The three kingdoms are always vying to put one of their own on the high throne. And so you get assassinations, disputes, and challenges to whoever occupies the high throne.
The Four Tribes of Nephi
The Four Tribes of Nephi are those tribes who are friendly with the birthright tribe of Nephi, who was granted right of possession of the sacred relics (the brass plates, the liahona, the sword). Descendents of Sam are grafted into the birthright tribe, which is their consolation for having no tribe of their own.
The Four Tribes of Nephi They aren’t entirely distinct political entities like the Three Kingdoms, but are instead one group divided into tribal families (like the Kingdom of Israel). They each have their own scribes, their own distinct family trees, and perhaps some of their own customs and traditions, but they still consider themselves one people under the rule of the birthright tribe of Nephie, through the Nephite kings.
When the refugees from the land of Nephi (and the city Nephi-Lehi), led by Mosiah, settled in the land of Zarahemla, they divided the land into four distinct tribal regions. The tribe of Zoram settled in Antionum, for example. I surmise that another tribe claimed the land of Bountiful (either the Jacobites or the Josephites). The tribe of Nephi likely claimed the land of Zarahemla. Each of these tribes paid tribute to the King of the Four Tribes (Mosiah, Benjamin, etc.), offering support for the king’s armies, and so forth.
The natives of Zarahemla — the Mulekites — are a fifth tribe who are loyal to the tribe of Nephi. But because they were not a tribe of Lehi, they are not numbered among the tribes of Nephi. They are a tribe, but not one of The Tribes. They had their own distinct customs and traditions. In my story, they are somewhat slighted by the aristocrat class of the tribe of Nephi living in their city. They become an underclass with a lesser political voice in the affairs of the kingdom.
Major Tribal Defections
The Ishmaelite defection
When Ammon and his brothers “arrived in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, that they separated themselves and departed one from another.” I surmise that they were separating into the Three Kingdoms.
We read, “And Ammon went to the land of Ishmael, the land being called after the sons of Ishmael, who also became Lamanites.” In other words, Ammon went to the Kingdom of Ishmael. “And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishmael.” In other words, Lamoni was the tribal king of Ishmael, and his people were the tribe of Ishmael.
Aaron, meanwhile went to the city of Jerusalem, which is where the Amlicites and the Amulonites had created a church among the Kingdom of Laman. Like I said before, I submit that this is a hub of the tribe of Laman, and that these are Lamanites (properly speaking). We read, “And it came to pass that they saw that the people would harden their hearts, therefore they departed and came over into the land of Middoni.” The land of Middoni, in this view, represents the tribe of Lemuel. That is where Aaron was imprisoned.
So right there you have, essentially, the Three Kingdoms: the land of Jerusalem (Kingdom of Laman), the land of Middoni (Kingdom of Lemuel), and the land Ishmael (Kingdom of Ishmael). During this time, Lamoni’s father (an Ishmaelite) is High King of the Three Kingdoms.
Ammon converts Lamoni and many within the land of Ishmael, and then he and Lamoni go and convince the King of the Lemulites to release Aaron and his friends. Then Aaron teaches the High King, who also converts many of the Ishmaelites in the area. The greater part of the Ishmaelites are converted. But this is a major political issue — the High King now has deep sympathies with the Four Tribes of Nephi.
So the king of the tribe of Laman — who is centered in the land of Jerusalem — issues a challenge, and seeks to ousts the Ishmaelite High King and claim the High Kingship for the tribe of Laman. Long story short, the greater part of tribe of Ishmael becomes a refugee tribe and flees the land entirely. They join up with the Four Tribes of Nephi, who become now the Five Tribes of Nephi. They take upon themselves a new tribal name (the people of Ammon / the Anti-Nephi-Lehis), since the Ishmaelites who remained behind still claimed the name of the tribe of Ishmael. Of course, a new tribe requires new tribal lands, and so the tribes of Nephi offer them the land of Jershon.
This is a major geopolitical realignment — nearly a whole tribe defecting. The Three Kingdoms essentially becoming the Two Kingdoms, since this is devastating for the military and political ascendancy, much less the continuity, of the Kingdom of Ishmael.
The Zoramite defection
But the balance is soon restored. The tribe of Zoram has been growing more and more politically and culturally independent. We often assume that the Zoramites were some eccentric sect named after their leader — but I’m thinking that this was really the Zoramite tribe as a whole, who had claimed the land south of Jershon, the land of Antionum.
Alma heads up a mission for fear “that the Zoramites would enter into a correspondence with the Lamanites, and that it would be the means of great loss on the part of the Nephites.” Because once again, this would be like one of the U.S. states seceding and joining with our major geopolitical adversary — if we had only four states, to begin with. A major loss indeed.
And that is exactly what happened. The Zoramite tribe expel the believers among them, and then open correspondence with the Lamanites. We read that “the Zoramites became Lamanites,” and in the subsequent war, the Lamanite armies congregate and enter Nephite lands through Antionum.
We see here another major tribal realignment. The Five Tribes of Nephi are now Four Tribes, and the Two Kingdoms are now Three Kingdoms, once again. (Four, if you still count the decimated Kingdom of Ishmael.) Basically, the Ishmaelite tribe joined the Four Tribes of Nephi, and the Zoramite tribe joined the Three Kingdoms of Laman. (Remnants of each remain behind, so this is all “roughly speaking.”)
The Zoramites Claim the High Throne
We know that the Zoramites became, essentially, a fourth group in the Three Kingdoms. And we also know that Amalekiah was a Zoramite (his brother Ammoron later claims to be a direct descendent of Zoram), and a high priest among the Nephites after the Zoramite defection. But when Amalekiah leaves the land of Zarahemla and joins with the Lamanites, he likely steps into his place as a leader among the defected Zoramites. From the moment he arrives in Lamanite lands, his role in this story is as de facto chief of the Zoramite tribe.
He incites the High King into waging a war with the Four Tribes of Nephi, “insomuch that the king of the Lamanites sent a proclamation throughout all his land, among all his people, that they should gather themselves together again to go to battle against the Nephites.” But here’s where we see the differences among Three Kingdoms at play: the High King can only wage war with the consent of all the kingdoms. This is because each kingdom has command of their own armies, which operate as separate units.
We read about parts of the High King’s armies who were obedient, and parts that were not. I’m guessing we are seeing the Kingdom of Laman allied with the High King and his war (since they are the ones being taught by the Amulonites and the Amlicities), and the Kingdom of Lemuel is wanting nothing to do with it. The High King has been given a vote of no-confidence by the tribe of Lemuel. We might even wonder if the tribe of Lemuel — centered in Middoni — is still governed by the friend of Lamoni, and Lehonti is the one given command of the armies.
And so the armies of the Kingdom of Lemuel refuse to heed the call to war. And this is where we get the story of how Amelikiah takes command of the armies of the Kingdom of Laman, and then deceives and assassinates Lehonti (the Lemuelite commander of the Lemualite armies). And then Amalekiah, the leader of the tribe of Zoram, and in command of both the armies of the tribe of Laman and the armies of the tribe of Lemuel, arrives at the doorstep of the High King.
Consider how precarious this was for the High King (from the tribe of Laman)! The newly added tribe of Zoram is perfectly poised to take control of the High Throne of the Three Kingdoms. (The tribe of Ishmael isn’t relevant to the politics of the Three Kingdoms at this point, since the greater part of them left, and the remainder was in no position to put up a challenge. So Amalekiah arrived at the throne of the High King while holding all the cards that mattered.)
And so it’s no wonder that, when the High King is assassinated, Amalekiah “was acknowledged king throughout all the land, among all the people of the Lamanites, who were composed of the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites, and all the dissenters of the Nephites [i.e., the Zoramites].”
In short, the politics of these stories can be better understood if we recognize these as the Seven Tribes of Lehi, separated into the Four Tribes of Nephi and the Three Kingdoms of Laman. The geopolitics becomes clear and coherent, if we imagine all of these tribes operating with some political independence (more so with the Lamanites, less so with the Nephites, but all to some degree).
For example, we can better make sense of the politics of both the Lamanites and the Nephites, such as the defection of the tribe of Ishmael and the defection of the tribe of Zoram, the relationship between the tribal kings of the Lamanites and the high king of the Lamanites, and the known regional differences among the Nephites and the Lamanites.
I haven’t yet studied the text to see what light this might shed on the Four Tribes of Nephi in relation to Alma the Younger’s preaching (e.g., the Land of Gideon, the Land of Melek, and the land of Ammonihah). It’s also important to recognize that there were likely geopolitical factions that arose independently of these tribes — and that the Zoramites were unique in that regards.
And it’s also important to remember that this is all speculative, and much if it literary license for the purpose of my fiction project. Let me know if you have any further ideas, based on your own reading of the text! And especially if you have reason to think I’m mistaken in any of these details.