Book of Mormon Lesson #2: “All Things According to His Will,” 1 Nephi 1-7 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on January 1, 2012
My task here is to say something about 1 Nephi 1-7 in a reasonable amount of space. I’ll see what I can do. Much of what I have to say can only be understood in the context I have already worked out at length in a post on Nephi’s record generally. I highly recommend it be read in connection with these notes.
At any rate, to work!
In the original Book of Mormon, the chapter breaks were different. (Our current chapter divisions were the invention of Orson Pratt in the late nineteenth century.) I think it’s of some importance that all of 1 Nephi 1-5 made up the first chapter of the Book of Mormon originally, while all of 1 Nephi 6-9 made up the second chapter. For that reason, I want to think carefully about the consistency and totality of 1 Nephi 1-5 as a whole unit. I won’t reflect in this post on 1 Nephi 6-9 at any length, but I will come back to that point with some details in my post on 1 Nephi 8-11, 15. (To give a sense in advance: I think it’s dangerous to index 1 Nephi 8 to 1 Nephi 11-15 when Nephi himself indexed it, rather, to 1 Nephi 6-7, 9. Nephi seems, in a word, to have wanted to keep 1 Nephi 8—Lehi’s dream—somewhat separate from 1 Nephi 11-15—Nephi’s own “version” of that dream. All this will be important in my next set of notes.)
These chapter divisions are important in another sense as well. It is clear from a series of textual clues that First Nephi divides into two distinct “halves.” The clearest indication is the appearance of the subtitle of First Nephi (“His Reign and Ministry”) in the first verse of 1 Nephi 10: “And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry.” Further clues make clear what drives this division of First Nephi into two parts: 1 Nephi 1-9 (originally, the first two chapters of First Nephi) tells the story of Lehi, while 1 Nephi 10+ tells the story of Nephi. (Note, for instance, the rest of 1 Nephi 10:1, a bit of an apology for bothering to continue to talk about Lehi after making the break: “wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren.” Very important to sorting all this out is 1 Nephi 1:16-17, where Nephi provides his first points of structuration in explicit terms.)
All that clear, then, I want to look first at 1 Nephi 1-5 as a whole, trying to unravel its integrity as a complete narrative. And then I want to make just a few comments on 1 Nephi 6-7, but mostly leaving until my next set of notes to address the importance of 1 Nephi 6-9 as a whole.
1 Nephi 1-5
The first five chapters of the Book of Mormon begin and end with parallel stories. What is now 1 Nephi 1 begins with the story of Lehi’s inaugural visions, at the culmination of which Lehi finds himself with “a book” from heaven that “fill[s him] with the Spirit of the Lord” and thus leads him to “exclaim many things unto the Lord” (1 Nephi 1:11-12, 14). What is now 1 Nephi 5 concludes with the story of the return from Jerusalem of Lehi’s sons, at the culmination of which Lehi finds himself with “the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass” which “fill[s him] with the Spirit” again and thus leads him “to prophesy” with power (1 Nephi 5:10, 17). What was originally the first chapter of First Nephi thus began and ended with Lehi receiving through divine intervention a record that gave him the spirit necessary to prophesy. From this it seems clear that it is best to read 1 Nephi 1-5 as telling the same story twice, the story through which a divine record is “brought down” from an inaccessible beyond to Lehi—first from heaven itself to earth (in 1 Nephi 1), and then from Jerusalem to the wilderness camp at the valley of Lemuel (in 1 Nephi 2-5). I can only believe that all this is intentional. And as if to make the emphasis on records all the clearer to the reader, Nephi prefaces all this with three verses (1 Nephi 1:1-3) explaining his own purposes in writing a record.
I think it would be best to tackle 1 Nephi 1-5 in several parts. I won’t try to comment on absolutely everything in these chapters, for obvious reasons. Consequently, I’ll divide what follows into bits of commentary on what might appear to be isolated passages, though I will try to read them carefully in context. What follows is, of course, only a sketch, but hopefully it’s a decent start to thinking about what’s at stake in the first chapters the reader of the Book of Mormon encounters.
1 Nephi 1:1-3
I mentioned just above that Nephi begins with a kind of introduction about his own purposes in writing his record. I could go on about these first three verses forever, so I’ll try to be brief.
First, I think it’s worth noting that 1 Nephi 1:1-3 is actually Nephi’s second introduction to First Nephi. Immediately preceding it one finds the italicized superscript to First Nephi, which seems straightforwardly to have been written by Nephi himself (it concludes with “or in other words, I Nephi wrote this record”). That first introduction is itself important and immensely instructive, though I won’t say much about it here. Suffice it to say that it gives a summary of the contents of First Nephi that is at several points at odds or in tension with the content of First Nephi as it actually reads. I think those tensions deserve attention, but I won’t take them up here. 1 Nephi 1:1-3 deserves closer exposition for my own purposes.
In the “preliminary” post linked to above, I sorted out what I take to be the fourfold structure of Nephi’s record: creation, fall, atonement, veil. I think it should be noted that the same fourfold structure is to be found in the first verse of Nephi’s record, and I think this is intentional. The verse reads as follows, structured with an eye to the fourfold repetition of the word “having”:
having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father,
and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days,
nevertheless having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days,
yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God,
therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
Note the carefully deployed pattern: (1) having been born of goodly parents—creation; (2) having seen many afflictions—fall; (3) having been highly favored of the Lord—atonement; and (4) having had a great knowledge of … the mysteries of God—veil. Coincidence? Not at all. Nephi explains in the last line of the verse: “therefore“—that is, I take it: because of the pattern that has characterized my life—”I make a record of my proceedings in my days.” I don’t think this could be much clearer. From the very first, Nephi is alerting his readers to the fourfold pattern that guides the construction of his record. We should be paying close attention to all this.
There is, apart from questions of structure, a good deal of information in this and the following two verses. Nephi tells us that his family was wealthy enough (“wealthy,” by the way, is what “goodly” means) to provide him with an education—which would obviously have been of some importance for someone setting out to write a record. He tells us a bit—far too elliptically for those who want to know more about the gold plates than about the English text of the Book of Mormon—about the languages he employs. Finally, he bears a strong testimony: “I know that the record which I make to be true, and I make it with mine own hand, and I make it according to my knowledge.” (I should note here that I’m using Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text rather than the current 1981 edition, and I use my own punctuation with the text. If anything looks unfamiliar, that’s why.) From the very beginning, Nephi wants his readers to know how deeply involved he himself was in producing his record, and he wants them to know about his own convictions concerning its truth.
It isn’t uncommon to hear remarks made about how deeply autobiographical the Book of Mormon is—and most especially the writings of Nephi. Nephi himself couldn’t make this clearer. This is his experience, and it is written by his, and according to his knowledge. We should keep all of that quite in mind. This is the story as Nephi himself wants it to be understood.
But let’s get on to the story.
1 Nephi 1:5-15
Here we have the story of Lehi’s first visions. The story, I assume, is familiar enough. There are two visions, a first one in the thick of the banality of everyday life (a pillar of fire comes down onto what otherwise seems to have been an ordinary rock), and a second one in the unearthly world of apocalypse (he is carried away from his bed in his vision to see things apparently invisible in natural circumstances). A good deal has been written on the second of these visions, since the Book of Mormon thus opens with an apocalyptic ascension text, fitting it into a very long and important apocalyptic tradition—about which Joseph Smith presumably would have known little. I think all of that is very interesting and instructive, but I think it’s more important to note the role this vision plays in Nephi’s record. In the “preliminary” post linked to above, I say a little bit about the structural role of Lehi’s apocalypse: it is clearly meant to be connected with Isaiah’s vision from Isaiah 6, found in Nephi’s record in 2 Nephi 16, as well as with Nephi’s concluding discussion of baptism in 2 Nephi 31. I have also already in the present post begun to show how it is the first telling of a story told twice in 1 Nephi 1-5. It is also worth noting that subsequent writers in the Book of Mormon seem to have caught onto its structural and thematic importance in Nephi’s record. Alma the Younger, at least, seems to have been a careful student of 1 Nephi 1, since he weaves the structure of this narrative into his own conversion story when he tells it to his son Helaman (in Alma 36), going so far as to quote Nephi explicitly and directly (compare Alma 36:22 and 1 Nephi 1:8). Alma’s employment of the story is in such a significant setting—and is so complexly set forth (as I argue in the first chapter of my forthcoming book, An Other Testament)—that one might be led to wonder whether the Nephites didn’t generally use this narrative as the script for the ritual passing on of the sacred records and relics of their nation, reenacting Lehi’s reception of the heavenly book. This last point is, obviously, a bit speculative, but it nonetheless makes clear the apparent importance of this story in subsequent Nephite history.
For the moment, though, I want to leave the details of the story to one side so that I can spend a bit more time on the last part of 1 Nephi 1. Suffice it, for the moment, to say that in 1 Nephi 1:5-15, Lehi is called to be a prophet.
1 Nephi 1:18-20a
After a brief aside (in verses 16-17) about the structure of his record (here’s where Nephi let’s us know that First Nephi splits into two halves, the dividing line being drawn between chapters 9 and 10), Nephi lets us know that Lehi went out to “prophesy” after his apocalyptic vision. He then records two distinct reactions on the part of “the Jews” to whom Lehi preached. I think the way Nephi reports these reactions is of some real importance.
Verses 18b-19a: “Behold, he went forth among the people and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard [concerning, presumably, the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon]. And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them, for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations.” At first, Lehi’s preaching has a double message: (1) Jerusalem will fall to Babylon, and (2) it will be because of the “wickedness” and “abominations” of those in the city. And the response of “the Jews” to this first, double message is simply mockery: “the Jews did mock him.” If a prophet comes preaching destruction-as-the-consequence-of-sinfulness, the response is laughter.
But then verses 19b-20a: “And he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world. And when the Jews heard these things, they were angry with him, yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out and stoned and slain. And they also sought his life that they might take it away.” Here in the second moment of his preaching, Lehi again has a double message, but a distinct one: (1) a Messiah will come, and (2) the world will be redeemed. And the response of, again, “the Jews” to this is murderous anger: “they were angry with him, … and they also sought his life.” If a prophet comes preaching world-redemption-through-the-advent-of-the-Messiah, the response is violence.
Why this progression of sorts? When Lehi speaks critically of his hearers and threatens them with calamity, they laugh, but when he speaks of a beautiful redemption and the coming of an anointed king, they try to kill him. I think a good deal of thought ought to be dedicated to this distinct responses to distinct messages. Why are we inclined to mock at the apocalyptic, but to get rid of the messianic? Why does a messenger with a word about messianic redemption strike us as dangerous, while someone who announces catastrophe gets us giggling? I suspect there is much to learn here.
But so far as the story itself is concerned, all this puts Lehi in serious danger, though Nephi lets us know that Lehi’s going to escape.
1 Nephi 2:16-24
I’m jumping here over the dreams and associated events that lead Lehi’s family from danger in Jerusalem to safety in the valley of Lemuel. Much has been said about this part of the narrative, so I think I can leave commentary for the moment to those who have already written much about it—about the immense sacrifice Lehi’s family was prepared to undertake, about Lehi’s connections with the desert if he was ready to depart so quickly into the wild, about the several weeks of travel it would have taken to arrive at the valley of Lemuel, about the obvious echoes of the exodus story in this narrative, about Arabic naming rituals, about Laman and Lemuel’s inaugural murmurings, about the profound significance of Nephi’s short “And my father dwelt in a tent,” etc. I want to move on to Nephi’s first encounters with the Lord beginning in 1 Nephi 2:16.
It should be noted that it is really only with 1 Nephi 2:16 that Nephi really comes into the story for the first time. He’s part of the family, of course, who comes out with Lehi, but he does not become a character in his own in the story until this moment, after Laman and Lemuel have been introduced in terms of their skepticism, and even perhaps their murderous desires. And importantly, Nephi hints that until his first encounter with the Lord, he seems to have been largely in line with his brothers. That first encounter allowed the Lord to “soften [Nephi's] heart [so] that [he] did not rebel against [Lehi] like [his] brothers.” That, I think, is significant.
Nephi’s “conversion” of sorts in verse 16 is recounted too quickly to get any kind of a sense for what took place: the Lord “did visit” him, whatever that means. But the sparsity of details is parallel to Lehi’s first encounter with the Lord in 1 Nephi 1:5-6, just as the wealth of details in Nephi’s subsequent encounter (in 1 Nephi 2:19-24) will be parallel to Lehi’s second encounter with the Lord (in 1 Nephi 1:8-15). Indeed, the whole of Nephi’s experience is clearly parallel to his father’s, even down to the detail that each does something in between the two visions that helps to lead from the first to the second: Lehi returns home and casts himself on his bed, while Nephi goes to talk to his brothers.
It’s Nephi’s attempt to talk to his brothers that starts all the trouble, of course. They don’t like what he has to say, and he—as any son among sons would do at his age—both genuinely grieves and starts to preen just a bit. We’ll watch this preening develop over the next couple of chapters until Nephi is forced, in my reading, to recognize how much damage he has done by trying to be better than his rebellious brothers.
At any rate, Nephi finds himself praying about his brothers when a second encounter with the Lord takes place. And this one is of the utmost importance for the Book of Mormon as a whole. I’ll quote the whole communication from the Lord and then offer some comments:
Blessed art thou Nephi because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently with lowliness of heart. And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper and shall be led to a land of promise—yea, even a land which I have prepared for you, a land which is choice above all other lands. And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren. For behold, in that day that they shall rebel against me, I will curse them even with a sore curse, and they shall have no power over thy seed except they [thy seed, that is] shall rebel against me also. And if so be that they [again: thy seed] rebel against me, they [Laman and Lemuel's seed] shall be a scourge unto thy seed to stir them up in the ways of remembrance.
If Nephi wasn’t preening a bit before this, he certainly was afterward. That was a mistake. But let me come back to that issue when I take up chapters 3 and 4. For the moment, I think what’s most important is to deal with the details of what I will call the “Lehitic covenant.” The terms of what is set forth in these verses will be repeated again and again through the Book of Mormon—punctuating the text with real force. This is the covenant that governs the relations between the Nephites and the Lamanites, and between each of these peoples and God. It is the strongest leitmotif in the Book of Mormon.
What’s at work in it? First of all, it introduces what will be the most important theme of the remainder of 1 Nephi 1-5: the commandments of the Lord. Every blessing in the covenant is predicated on that one thing, keeping the commandments of the Lord. Importantly, though, the covenant’s wording itself does not at all clarify exactly what commandments are meant. Nephi will only discover that later. And the rash assumptions he makes about the meaning of “the commandments” is one of the things that will lead him to irreparable trouble with his brothers. Also important, though, is the fact that it is this communication that comes as the first indication of there being more to this story than a temporary retreat from Jerusalem, either while things calm down surrounding Lehi or even while Jerusalem faces destruction from the Babylonians. Nephi is, it seems, the first to learn that there is a land of promise for them (though Lehi will mention a land of promise in 1 Nephi 5—but then he’ll be shown to think that the land of promise is the valley of Lemuel!). And he is also the first to learn that the boys will all be raising families outside of Jerusalem: the second return to Jerusalem for spouses has already got to be in Nephi’s mind at this point.
At any rate, it is crucial to keep this encounter with the Lord clearly in mind when reading what follows in the next few chapters. It is especially important to recognize how deeply focused the experience seems to have left Nephi on the question of the commandments. And this becomes clear in the very next sequence of the narrative.
1 Nephi 3:1-8
We don’t pay near enough attention to the fact that Nephi learns about the task of returning to Jerusalem for the brass plates immediately after his encounter with the Lord: “And it came to pass that I Nephi returned from speaking with the Lord to the tent of my father. And it came to pass that he spake unto me, saying, Behold, I have dreamed a dream” (1 Nephi 3:1-2). Nephi comes back from a remarkable revelatory communication, the focus of which was the commandments, only to find his father saying: “the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 3:2). Nephi couldn’t have missed the importance of Lehi’s using that word. Indeed, as Nephi tells the story, Lehi used one form or another of the word “command”/”commandment” three times in the course of his explanation of the task:
Behold, I have dreamed a dream in the which the Lord hat commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem. For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews, and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass. Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren should go unto the house of Laban and seek the records and bring them down hither into the wilderness. And now behold, thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing I have required of them. But behold, I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord. Therefore go, my son, and thou shalt be favored of the Lord because thou hast not murmured. (1 Nephi 3:2-6)
Don’t miss the triple repetition of the word “command”/”commandment.” This is something Nephi is drawing the strictest attention to. And significantly, in Nephi’s too-celebrated response, he repeats this threefold repetition in a perfect match with his father:
I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them. (1 Nephi 3:7)
The pattern is clear. The emphasis throughout this is on the commandments. The only thing Nephi can hear in his father’s words is “Commandments! Commandments! Commandments!” And, in all his beautiful—but ultimately tragic—youthful zeal (without knowledge), Nephi assumes that he’s now being put to the test. The Lord has told him that everything hinges on obedience to the commandments, and now Nephi sees plainly what the Lord was referring to: this return journey to Jerusalem must be undertaken without murmuring and in full fidelity, and everything will turn out wonderfully. Indeed, he might even get to lord it a bit over his brothers as their ruler and teacher. Things couldn’t be better for Nephi. And he earns the approval of his father: “he was exceeding glad, for he knew that I had been blessed of the Lord” (1 Nephi 3:8).
All this, as I’m already suggesting, will turn out to be tragic. But that’s the next part of the story.
1 Nephi 3:14-21
I think I can assume that we’re all familiar with the basics of the story of the journey to retrieve the brass plates. I’ll just be taking up certain “highlights” of it. And the first I want to take up is Nephi’s speech after the failure of the first attempt to retrieve the plates. The effect of the failure on the group was depressing, naturally: “my brethren were about to return unto my father in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 3:14). Nephi of course responds with a discourse on, as should be expected by this point, keeping the commandments. Here are (most of) his words of persuasion:
We will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us. Wherefore, let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord. Therefore let us go down to the land of our father’s inheritance, for behold, he left gold and silver and all manner of riches, and all this he hath done because of the commandment. For he, knowing that Jerusalem must be destroyed because of the wickedness of the people—for behold, they have rejected the words of the prophets—wherefore, if my father should dwell in the land after that he hath been commanded to flee out of the land, behold, he would also perish. Wherefore it must needs be that he flee out of the land. (1 Nephi 3:15-18)
Note the heavy emphasis on commandments again: four times here, and the word appears in the summary Nephi adds in verse 21: “after this manner of language did I persuade my brethren that they might be faithful in keeping the commandments of God.” The theme, I should think, is becoming unmistakable. The entire emphasis is on commandments, and those commandments are still being defined by Nephi, at this point, as focused on the single commandment to retrieve the plates. Nephi’s zeal continues unabated.
That zeal is marked especially by the first words of Nephi’s speech, words I omitted just above. He launches his speech not simply with the statement that he and his brothers would not leave Jerusalem until the commandments had been kept. He announced that they would not do so, “as the Lord liveth and as we live” (1 Nephi 3:15). This is serious business. Decades ago, Hugh Nibley taught us the seriousness of this oath. Nephi binds his brothers to fulfillment of their task on their lives, but not on their lives only: also on the life of God Himself! To swear on the life of God is especially serious: if they do not fulfill the task, Nephi will have blasphemed, and the Mosaic punishment for blasphemy is, of course, death. Nephi has thus bound his brothers to their task twice on their life: (1) as they live, they will accomplish the task, and the consequence is that if they don’t, their lives are forfeit; (2) as the Lord lives, they will accomplish the task, and the consequence is that if they don’t, they will have blasphemed, and their lives are forfeit. Nephi has raised the stakes of their situation drastically.
But if all this marks Nephi’s zeal again, another element of his little speech marks the fact that his zeal—even as might be taken as exemplary—was nonetheless without knowledge. This element is to be found at the end of his speech, and I omitted it as well immediately above. The last point of persuasion Nephi offers is this:
And behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records that we might preserve unto our children the language of our fathers, and also that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy propehts, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God since the world began, even down unto this present time.
As beautiful as these words might be to us, they are, straightforwardly, wrong. And I think it’s especially important that we note this point, since I suspect that Nephi wants his readers to catch it. The fact is that Nephi’s speech betrays the fact that he has no idea what the significance of the plates is. He knows he wants to have the commandment fulfilled, but he has no idea why. He’s trying to justify the Lord, trying to provide himself with a crux for his zeal. And interesting and uplifting as his reasons might be—all of them might be said to be true in a certain sense—they are not the actual reasons God is interested in the record, as Nephi will learn in chapter 4. I think it’s clear that Nephi at this point is preparing his readers to recognize his own folly, to see how problematic and rash his zeal was.
But all this will become clearer further along.
1 Nephi 3:29-4:4
Again I assume familiarity with the narrative: the second attempt at retrieving the plates fails, and the sons of Lehi find themselves in a cave where Laman and Lemuel are beating their younger brothers “with a rod.” (It’s probably worth mentioning that the beating may not simply be out of anger or frustration, but might be motivated by the oath Nephi had pronounced earlier: if it has become impossible to fulfill the task, then they might see themselves as righteously punishing the oath-maker—either that or killing the witnesses to the oath.) An angel, of course intervenes. I want to focus principally on the aftermath of the angel’s words, but let me begin with a brief comment on those words themselves:
Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold, thou shalt go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. (1 Nephi 3:29)
It’s very worth noticing that this angelic visit is the first thing—according to the narrative—that alerts Laman and Lemuel to the Lehitic covenant that seems to be driving Nephi so relentlessly. Of course, the angel only mentions the fact that Nephi has been chosen over his brothers. They have to be wondering what’s going on there, but it’s certainly enough to stop their violence. The dangerous thing is that this divine confirmation, and in the presence of Laman and Lemuel, is quite likely to have helped Nephi to begin to lord it all the more over his brothers. If he didn’t feel some real pride and vindictiveness in this situation, he was more than human. At any rate, I’ll be showing some evidence later that Nephi took this in something of the wrong way.
Let me also mention that many have found the language of “delivering into one’s hands” here a comfort regarding the ugly violence of Laban’s death. The Law of Moses explains that if someone is “delivered into one’s hands” by the Lord, then murder is not murder—though one can hardly then deny its violence. I think one must keep the legal context clear, but it doesn’t exactly solve the problem of why the Book of Mormon would open with such a violent situation. Suffice it to say that I’m going to be presenting a rather different reading of the Laban situation than the usual one.
Now, the reaction to the angel’s visit:
And after that the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man and he can command fifty. Yea, even he can slay fifty, then why not us?
This is, I think, crucial—and it reveals something about Nephi’s artistry as a narrator. In response to the most divine moment of this narrative thus far, Laman and Lemuel themselves use the word “command,” but they use it in a terribly ironic way, employing it to suggest that the commandments of the Lord can’t be fulfilled because Laban can “command fifty.” This, I can only assume, is entirely deliberate on Nephi’s part. He wants us to be carefully attuned to his brothers’ complete misunderstanding concerning the question of commandments. It’s a beautiful narrative moment.
I assume we’re familiar with Nephi’s response, again urging his brothers to “be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 4:1), since the Lord is mightier than all the earth—and so of Laban and his fifty, or even tens of thousands. He goes on, of course, to suggest they take Moses as their example, etc. What is probably most significant about Nephi’s little speech here, though, is not just his mention of “commandments” again, but the way he anticipates the violent situation to come. Nephi says: “The Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers [at the Red Sea], and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:3). Nephi here portrays himself as anticipating Laban’s end, and not simply as anticipating the retrieval of the plates.
Even as it is first expressed, however, that violence is complicated. Nephi doesn’t here speak, like the angel, of the Lord delivering Laban into their hands, but speaks instead of the Lord delivering them out of Laban’s hands: “The Lord is able to deliver us.” The role of the word “deliver” here is important: Nephi here makes clear that the whole experience with Laban turns on the double meaning of deliverance. Laban’s being delivered into their hands is Lehi’s sons’ being delivered out of the hands of Laban. I don’t want to spend any real time on that theme, but I can recommend a short study of the word “deliver” in the larger story of 1 Nephi 3-4. I want to get on to the sticky business of the actual “encounter” with Laban in the dark of Jerusalem’s streets at night.
1 Nephi 4:10-18
This story is too familiar. It deserves very careful handling. I won’t recount all the concerns that have been expressed over the years. Suffice it to say that there’s a good deal about Laban’s death—”murder,” some have said—that is disturbing. I don’t want to explain away the awfulness of the situation. But I don’t want either to take up the position of the ethical critic. I think both the overly confident spirit of Nephi’s defenders and the overly conscientious spirit of Nephi’s detractors have missed the point of the narrative. My aim is just to get the point of the narrative clear, let the ethical justifiedness or unjustfiedness of Nephi’s actions be what they may. I’ll also, though, suggest that one way—an important way—of making sense of the story as I think Nephi meant it to be read is to see in it an implicit theological critique of ethics as such. We’ll see how much space I can dedicate to all that. (I should mention briefly that I deal with this story both in an article I published in the Fall 2010 issue of Dialogue under the title “Rene Girard and Mormon Scripture: A Response,” and at some length in my shortly forthcoming book, An Other Testament.)
I pick up where Nephi hears the injunction of the Spirit to kill Laban. He is already holding Laban’s sword. The narrative gives no hint as to why Nephi drew it forth except that he was interested in it. Some have suggested that he drew it forth because he was already making plans to kill Laban. Others have suggested that he drew it forth because he had the idea to borrow Laban’s clothes in order to retrieve the plates and escape while Laban was drunk—but had no idea yet to kill him. Others have suggested that he drew it forth simply because he was training to be a metalsmith and he was interested in its workmanship. I have no horse in this race. I’m interested only in the exchange Nephi has with the Spirit.
And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban. (1 Nephi 4:10)
First things first: constrained, not commanded. That should strike us crucial at this point in the narrative. There are several ways Nephi’s word choice could be interpreted. He might use the word “constrained” in order to make himself look better: since the injunction came as a constraint, rather than as a commandment, Nephi’s momentary reticence is not to be interpreted as a moment of flagging fidelity. I don’t like that reading much, and for a whole host of reasons I won’t go into. Another interpretation: he uses the word “constrained” because of the importance of the role the word “commandment” is going to play in the remainder of the exchange with the Spirit. I think that may well be the case, though I think there’s more to the story. Yet another interpretation, then: Nephi’s trying to make clear that there was nothing audible, nothing spoken, nothing communicated; rather, he felt an influence leading him to kill Laban. This, I think, is probably spot on. The Spirit of the Lord, throughout the Old Testament, is understood to be a divine force that overpowers one’s abilities and leads one to act. I suspect that this is what Nephi’s trying to describe.
The really remarkable thing, then, is that Nephi can resist the Spirit! That’s unprecedented in the Old Testament. Nephi holds out against the Spirit of the Lord. The result is that Nephi opens a conversation of sorts with the Spirit of the Lord, and that too is unprecedented. (This will be repeated in 1 Nephi 11, where Nephi will be able to converse with the same Spirit as two human beings talk with one another, the Spirit even being in human form.) That constraint turns into conversation is theologically astounding. And we ought to be paying careful attention to what ensues.
But I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. (1 Nephi 4:10)
Here it’s necessary, I think, to see that Nephi’s is—narratively—criticizing himself. Nephi, the paragon of fidelity, here shrinks at the task. He’s been willing to brave desert marauders, to swear the rashest and most serious of oaths, to give up all his family’s wealth, to take a serious beating from his brothers, to compare himself to Moses, to waltz into Laban’s house at night alone—but not this? There’s something wrong about this. Nephi’s zeal has known no limits to this moment. Why does it come up against a limit here—and a relatively weak limit. Capital punishment was anything but foreign to Nephi. Why would he suddenly shrink at this task? Again: there’s something wrong here.
But I don’t think it’s very difficult to see what’s going on. Nephi’s shrinking at the task is itself a manifestation of the wrongness of his relationship to the situation. Now, I know that claim is going to be upsetting to some, but I think it’s clearly at work in the psychology of the situation. Nephi’s unwillingness here shows that something has been amiss in all his zeal, all his obedience, all his fidelity. He’s too emphatic in his denial to himself that he’s ever had murderous desires. It seems to me, in a word, that Nephi’s reticence is the symptom that marks Nephi’s resistance against recognizing that he has had murderous desires all along, particularly toward his brothers. Nephi’s attempt at skirting violence here is an attempt to pretend that there hasn’t been a scapegoating kind of violence at work in his relationship to his brothers. He doesn’t want to believe he’s the sort capable of violence, and so he resists the constraint to be violent here—trying to convince himself that he’s not like that. But his very resistance proves that there’s something violent in his desires already.
What I’ll be arguing from this point on, then, is that this situation can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt on the Lord’s part to disengage Nephi from his problematic relationship to his brothers through the task of dispatching Laban.
And the Spirit saith unto me again: Behold, the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. (1 Nephi 4:11)
The Spirit here echoes the language of the angel at the end of chapter 3. This should call Nephi’s mind back to what the angel was talking about then: the Lehitic covenant. It doesn’t, however, do so. Nephi is too focused on his own struggle to see the outside of the situation. At any rate, I think it’s important that Nephi doesn’t act on this word alone. This isn’t enough to get him to kill Laban. That’s crucial because it shows that it isn’t the technicalities of the Law of Moses that lead Nephi to act. Nephi’s problem isn’t genuinely ethical; it’s must deeper. Indeed, if anything, Nephi’s problem is precisely that he believes he ought to be ethical.
Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life. Yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord. And he also had taken away our property. (1 Nephi 4:11)
Nephi here begins to try to come up with reasons to undertake the act, but none of these is enough either. He’s trying to justify the Lord, but it isn’t working. He tries self defense (“he had sought to take away mine own life”). He tries to make this a question of (his interpretation of) the commandments (“he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord”). He tries to make this a legally justified act (“he also had taken away our property”). But none of this works. Nephi resists still. The Spirit has to talk to him again. This continued reticence is crucial. Some have said that Nephi talks himself into it. I think it’s clear here that that’s not how the story goes. He tries to talk himself into it, but it doesn’t work. He’s still got to sort himself out.
And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Behold, the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief. (1 Nephi 4:12-13)
The Spirit tries again, and this will lead to Nephi’s action, but it isn’t the Spirit’s words that convince Nephi to act. I’ll come to what actually does convince him to act. For the moment, it’s just crucial to note that verse 18 doesn’t immediately follow verse 13, as it seems to for many readers of this text. It isn’t the “scapegoating rationale” of the Spirit’s words—words that are far more complicated than is generally recognized—that leads Nephi to kill Laban. It’s something else, something triggered by the Spirit’s words, but something nonetheless quite distinct from them. We’ll have to see how that works. For the moment, though, let me say something about the Spirit’s words here.
First, of course, the Spirit repeats its earlier words: “the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” That, of course, had not yet had the needed effect. Two additional statements, then. First: “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.” Second: “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” It is the latter that has especially given consternation to readers. The words sound too much like the scapegoating rationale uttered by Caiaphas in John 11:50: “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” I don’t want to offer a systematic analysis of the differences between the two statements (“expedient” versus “better,” “perish” versus “die,” the absence of “for the people” in 1 Nephi 4, the comparative “than” that appears only in 1 Nephi 4, “a nation” verses “the whole nation,” “perish” versus “dwindle and perish in unbelief”—not to mention the distinct settings, persons speaking, figure being referred to, presence versus absence of crisis, etc.); suffice it to say that there is anything but a simple equivalence between the two situations.
But as I’ve said, it isn’t the direct content of the Spirit’s words that gets Nephi to act. Rather, the Spirit’s words—and I assume this was their intended effect—get Nephi thinking about what he should have been thinking about with the repetition (twice now!) of the angel’s words.
And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord, which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise. (1 Nephi 4:14)
Nephi before brought up the commandments, but in an entirely misguided way. Before, he was trying to justify the action by making Laban guilty: he had not kept the commandments like a zealously obedient person should. Now, though, the Spirit’s words call him back to the original setting in which the word concerning the commandments was given: the encounter with the Lord through which Nephi received the Lehitic covenant. And it is reflection on that that will make all the difference.
What’s the connection? Why do the Spirit’s words here focus Nephi on the Lehitic covenant as such? Not, interestingly, by saying anything about the commandments, concerning which Nephi has been entirely blind to this point—taking them to be summed up just in the task of getting the plates. It is rather the Spirit’s mention of “a nation dwindl[ing] and perish[ing] in unbelief” that draws Nephi to the real matter at hand. For the first time, Nephi sees that the “commandments” referred to in the covenant can’t be only the immediately will of the Lord on this singular occasion; they must instead be something much bigger, since the Lehitic covenant was less about Nephi and his brothers than about his seed and his brothers’ seed. This is crucial: to this point, Nephi has sutured the covenant to his own petty sibling rivalries, getting rather pathetic mileage out of his being the good son; now, though, he recognizes that there is something infinitely larger at work this situation, and that he endangered all of that. I suspect that he began at this point to see that his zeal—the problematic nature of which was revealed to him when he shrank from the constraint of the Spirit—has set in motion a now-irreversible rivalry with his brothers. Through this shift in “perspective,” effected by Nephi’s sudden recognition that the “commandments” and the covenant itself are something much bigger than he had thought, Nephi begins to disentangle himself from his rivalrous attachment to his brothers. But the damage is, largely, already done: his brothers will never be reconciled to him, and he’ll be struggling against himself the rest of his life.
What Nephi comes to reject in this singular moment, it seems to me, is ethics itself. It is as if Nephi sees that ethics is—or at least can be—a very convenient tool for shielding the ego, for convincing oneself that one only wants to do the good when one is actually resisting the constraint of the Spirit. Ethics is all too often a dodge, rather than a genuine desire for the other’s good. But I want to get on to Nephi’s train of thought once his attention is shifted to the actual covenant.
Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses save they should have the law. And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass. And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause: that I might obtain the records according to his commandments. (1 Nephi 4:15-17)
Here Nephi recognizes with sudden force what “the commandments” in the covenant are. They aren’t the immediate commandment of the Lord through Lehi; they are the commandments that make up the Law of Moses, as found in the brass plates. Nephi suddenly sees that he has entirely misunderstood the covenant that he has pretended to prize so highly. And, interestingly, it is only now that Nephi can come at last to the most consistently repeated statement of the Spirit (and the words that the angel had stated back in the cave): “I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands.” But now this statement is attached to a “cause,” a purpose.
All this, it seems to me, is quite clear. I want, though, to point out also the interesting way the word “commandments” functions here. The word appears four times in this little scene. The first time, as I’ve already noted, is when Nephi uses the word in trying to convince himself to follow the Spirit—the word’s dead wrong use. The second comes when Nephi’s attention is drawn to the actual words of the covenant. There we see a shift away from the dead wrong use. The third then comes when Nephi fully recognizes what the commandments actually are: the statutes of the Law of Moses. With this third use, we have what seems to be a complete abandonment of the use of “commandments” that would tie the word to Lehi’s “commandment” to return to Jerusalem. But then we have this fourth use, right at the end of verse 17: the “cause” is that Nephi “might obtain the records according to [the Lord's] commandments”! Here there’s a sudden return to the problematic use of the word “commandments,” right after Nephi has figured out what the covenantal term refers to. But perhaps we should see this last instance as a return the original use in a finally redeemed way, so that the word “commandment” functions in a kind of chiastic way in the encounter with the Spirit: commandments 1 (referring to Lehi’s injunction, but in a problematic way), commandments 2 (referring to the Law of Moses, now in transition), commandments 2′ (referring to the Law of Moses, now fully understanding), commandments 1′ (referring to Lehi’s injunction, but now in the right way).
That “commandments” not only comes up yet again in this exchange with the Spirit after appearing so many times in this record, but that it also forms the structural backbone of the exchange, makes quite clear that the point of this pericope is to trace Nephi’s real conversion, as it were. After his problematic entanglements that have throughout this narrative compromised his election, he finally begins to emerge from them prepared to take up the work in a zeal that shouldn’t cause any trouble. Of course, he’ll never be free of those entanglements now, because he seems to have secured his brothers’ rivalrous hatred forever through his problematic zeal already.
It also needs to be mentioned that it is only here that Nephi sees the real purpose of the plates. There is nothing here about making sure that the prophets’ words are had, that the language of their fathers can be passed down to their children, or anything else that Nephi said in his first speech to his brothers. The focus is entirely on having the Law of Moses ready to hand. Of course, Nephi will discover later how important the prophets—or specifically Isaiah—are to understanding the Law of Moses for the Nephites, but that is still on the horizon at this point. At any rate, Nephi not only recognizes that he has entirely misunderstood the covenantal term “commandments” to this point, but also that he has had no idea whatsoever concerning the importance of the brass plates. A whole host of ironies that have been buried in the narrative to this point are suddenly revealed in this climactic moment of the narrative.
Finally, the encounter ends with Nephi’s new-found realization: “Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit,” etc. (1 Nephi 4:18).
1 Nephi 5:1-9
I think I can assume familiarity with the remainder of 1 Nephi 4. Nephi does the deed, dons Laban’s clothes, retrieves the plates, secures Zoram’s compliance, and returns with his brothers to the valley of Lemuel. I want to turn to the first story in 1 Nephi 5: Sariah’s so-called “complaint.” This is a story that has to be handled with great care, for a whole series of obvious reasons. It is one of few stories that feature women centrally in the Book of Mormon, and it doesn’t seem to feature Sariah at her best. But what should be said about the story?
First, let me refer to Grant Hardy’s wonderful reading of this narrative in Understanding the Book of Mormon. On Hardy’s reading, the story is included in part to distract the reader from what must have been a terribly awkward scene when Nephi and his brothers returned to the valley of Lemuel (“You what?!“). And, significantly, because “Nephi never quotes women,” Hardy says, “he has chosen something particularly effective [to distract his readers]—a woman’s voice in the Book of Mormon is very rare and very engaging” (p. 18). Further, Hardy provides a brief structural reading of the story of Sariah’s complaint:
5:1 – Parents rejoice
5:2-3 – Quotation 1: Sariah “complained … saying, Behold [three times] … and after this manner of language had my mother complained”
5:4-7 – Quotation 2: Lehi’s response, “But behold [three matching items] … after this manner of language did my father, Lehi, comfort my mother, Sariah … and my mother was comforted”
5:8 – Quotation 3: Sariah’s rejoinder, “Now I know … [three items] … and after this manner of language did she speak”
5:9 – Parents rejoice
This is, I think, nice, but it’s possible to see other structures at work here as well. For instance, there is a tight structural parallel between verses 1 and 7:
And it came to pass that after_____________And when
we had came down___________________________we had returned
into the wilderness unto our father,_______to the tent of my father,
behold, he was filled with joy.____________behold, their joy was full,
And also my mother Sariah__________________and my mother
was exceeding glad.________________________was comforted.
This strong parallel curiously separates Sariah’s announcement of conviction (in verse 8) from the exchanges between Sariah and Lehi (in verses 2-6), marking at least an important temporal gap. The parallel also privileges a particular image, namely, being filled with joy, even as it marks a kind of progression toward unity: in verse 1 only “he,” Lehi, “was filled with joy,” Sariah being a kind of tack-on with the word “also”; in verse 7 “their joy was full,” both Sariah’s and Lehi’s, and the tack-on is now a privileging of Sariah’s joy only, since Lehi’s joy receives no special attention. The way that verse 8, Sariah’s announcement of conviction, is thus privileged is striking: Sariah is given to speak on the couple’s behalf. Only her voice is heard in the end—though she interestingly echoes her husband’s words from verses 4-6.
It is this progression, resulting in unity—a unity uniquely represented by Sariah’s actually-quoted words—that I think should be highlighted here. This is less the story of Sariah’s complaint than it is the story of discovered union, and union discovered in such a way as to give a voice to a woman, something so devastatingly uncommon in the Book of Mormon that this deserves particular merit. It is certainly significant that in verse 9, it is not only Lehi, but “they”—Lehi and Saraiah—who “did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings” and “gave thanks unto the God of Israel.”
For my purposes here, I’ll leave the details of the several “speeches” in this passage for another time.
1 Nephi 5:17-22
I leave to others to take up the details of what Lehi found on the brass plates. There’s a great deal to be discovered there, but I want to come at last to Lehi’s prophecies—clear echoes, as I said at the outset, of Lehi’s encounter with the messenger from heaven in 1 Nephi 1:8-15.
I don’t know that anything needs to be said about verse 17, since it’s the obvious parallel to Lehi’s being filled with the Spirit and shouting praises back in 1 Nephi 1, except that this time around Lehi is turned from the direct praise of God to a focus on his children: “And now when my father saw all these things, he was filled with the Spirit and began to prophesy concerning his seed.” This focus is of obvious importance in the larger narrative of 1 Nephi 1-5. The first mention of seed was back in 1 Nephi 2:19-24, where Nephi received the Lehitic covenant, and then it played a crucial role in the scene with Laban, where Nephi realized that the covenant really was a question of his seed and not of his own immediate obedience alone. Now Lehi joins in on this theme—and all of this will become the focus in chapter 7.
Here, then, is what Lehi prophesies:
that these [brass] plates should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people which were of his seed. Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish, neither should they be dimmed any more by time. And he prophesied many things concerning his seed. (1 Nephi 5:18-19)
This brief prophecy is of great interest. Not only does it mark Lehi’s turn toward his seed, it gives us to understand just how central the brass plates will be for Lehi’s seed. Nephi will begin to make good on this prophecy very shortly after all this: by 1 Nephi 15, he’ll be drawing on Isaiah to teach his brothers. But these prophecies seem to suggest that the brass plates are to play a role in the Lehites’ history long after Nephi and his brothers—or even the Nephites—are around. Where are the brass plates now, and what role will they yet play in the history of the Lehites? Lehi forces us to ask these questions, even if we can’t even begin to provide answers.
But I want to focus less on such “mysteries,” and more on the theological interest of this prophecy. Lehi’s prophecy here is the clear parallel, as I’ve said, to his praises in 1 Nephi 1. There, remember, Lehi’s praises are inspired by a Spirit-inducing experience with a book as well, and with a book, specifically, that won’t ever be dimmed by time since it’s (presumably) the very book of life kept in heaven. But there’s a very important difference between the two experiences that I think Nephi intends to highlight: while in Lehi’s praise in 1 Nephi 1 there’s an indication that God’s love is universal, here it is the book itself that becomes universal. In 1 Nephi 1, there’s no indication, in other words, that the book Lehi has access to will be read by others at all, let alone Lehi’s children. The love of God is a kind of singular experience in 1 Nephi 1. Here in 1 Nephi 5, the love of God is not only universal in principal but concretely: the brass plates will circulate universally, and that will open up the possibility of everyone coming unto God in the way Lehi did in 1 Nephi 1.
This, significantly, will become the central theme of Nephi’s closing chapters (2 Nephi 31-32), as I pointed out in the post linked to at the beginning of this post.
One further word here. This pericope ends with another fourfold mention of commandments, closing off the theme that has obsessed Nephi throughout and directly echoing 1 Nephi 4:10-18:
And it came to pass that thus far I and my father had kept the commandments wherewith the Lord had commanded us. And we had obtained the record which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable—yea, even of great work unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children. Wherefore it was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us as we journeyed in the wilderness toward the land of promise. (1 Nephi 5:20-22)
The point here is quite clear: note the progression from “commandments”/”commanded”/”commanded,” in which every reference points to Nephi’s original understanding of “commandments,” to the last “commandments,” which confirms what Nephi has learned in the course of 1 Nephi 3-4, namely, that the “commandments” are those to be preserved for Lehi’s “children.” Nephi here directly corrects 1 Nephi 3:19-20 as well, describing what is “wisdom in the Lord” about having the plates. Every loose thread of 1 Nephi 1-5 is wrapped up here, and what was the first chapter of the original Book of Mormon comes to a close.
1 Nephi 6-7
I want only to make a couple of brief points about these two chapters for the moment. As I’ve already mentioned, it seems best to me to keep them in close contact with chapters 8-9, with which they make up the second chapter of the original Book of Mormon. Like 1 Nephi 1-5, 1 Nephi 6-9 opens and closes with parallel texts, and yet again those parallel texts are focused directly on questions of textuality. While in 1 Nephi 1-5 the emphasis was on Lehi reading, however, in 1 Nephi 6-9 the emphasis is on Nephi writing: in 1 Nephi 6, and then again in 1 Nephi 9, Nephi begins to tell us about what he’s putting together. Each of these two chapters (1 Nephi 6 and 1 Nephi 9) is thus quite short, but deeply informative.
1 Nephi 7 tells the story of the second return to Jerusalem, a much less eventful experience, though it does conclude with the first unfortunate attempt at killing Nephi. But as I say, I’d like to leave discussion of chapters 6-7 mostly for next time so that their connections with 1 Nephi 8 especially can be closely felt.
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