Book of Mormon Lesson #4: “The Things Which I Saw While I Was Carried Away in the Spirit,” 1 Nephi 12-14 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on January 14, 2012
As I noted in my previous post, this third lesson on Nephi’s writings is meant to focus only on 1 Nephi 12-14, while the preceding lesson focuses on 1 Nephi 11 and 1 Nephi 15 (in connection with 1 Nephi 8). In order to follow as closely as possible what Nephi himself seems to be doing with his own chapter breaks and the like, I focused in my notes on lesson 2 on the whole of 1 Nephi 6-10, and I’ll take as my focus here the whole of 1 Nephi 11-15. I think it’ll become clear why it’s important to do that.
I have, nonetheless, thus split 1 Nephi 10 off from 1 Nephi 11-14, which is illegitimate in my eyes. The whole of 1 Nephi 10-14 is a single chapter in the original Book of Mormon (and thus according to Nephi’s own chapter breaks). And we should note the fact that 1 Nephi 11:1 opens with “For,” clearly indicating that the experience Nephi recounts here has to be understood in connection with what he’s just been saying in the final, transitional verses of 1 Nephi 10. I thus refer you back to what I had to say about 1 Nephi 10 in my last post. But here I’ll get to work on Nephi’s vision itself, as well as—more briefly—on Nephi’s exchange with his brothers subsequent to his visionary experience.
And, as before, I’ll note from the beginning that much of what I’ll be saying here presupposes familiarity with my preliminaries post from a couple weeks ago. It’s of particular importance to be familiar with what I said in that post concerning the structural importance of this vision in Nephi’s larger record. It plays, as I showed there, a vital role that I won’t be able to detail again here.
Okay, to work!
1 Nephi 11-12
I’ll take 1 Nephi 11-12 together, since they deal with what might be called the pre-European phase of Nephi’s vision, while 1 Nephi 13-14 deal with the European (and post-European?) phase(s) of the vision. At any rate, I think there’s a nice break between chapters 12 and 13, and I’ll take advantage of that to break this post into a few parts.
1 Nephi 11:1-12
Really, I want to make only two brief notes in connection with the opening verses of Nephi’s vision—one on verse 7, and one on verse 11.
Verse 7 is curious. Just after Nephi is promised that he’ll see what his father had seen, the Spirit tells him:
And behold, this thing shall be given unto thee for a sign, that after thou hast beheld the tree which bare the fruit of which thy father tasted, thou shalt also behold a man descending out of heaven, and him shall ye witness. And after that he shall have witnessed him, ye shall bear record that it is the Son of God.
Why all this? Why, that is, does Nephi need “a sign”? What does this “sign” do in relation to the tree? Confirm it? Explain it? Contextualize it? Interpret it? It’s entirely unclear to me what’s at work in this gesture. Further, to what in Nephi’s subsequent vision does this refer? The remainder of chapter 11 deals with the ministry of Jesus Christ in the Old World, but it doesn’t seem likely that the “sign” in question refers to anything in that chapter, since Nephi never witnesses there an actual descent. It would thus seem that the “sign” referred to comes only in chapter 12, when Nephi witnesses Christ’s visit to the New World. Why would that be the “sign”? And does that tell us anything about what this passage means by “sign”?
I’ll leave those questions unanswered and open for the moment and turn to verse 11. I don’t want to engage in what has been a mild controversy over who it is that’s appearing to Nephi here (the Holy Ghost or the pre-mortal Christ), but I think it’s worth noting that this passage echoes 1 Nephi 4:10-18 in important ways. There, as I remarked a couple of posts ago, Nephi seems to demonstrate the baffling ability to converse with the Spirit, when other Old Testament figures are simply commandeered by it. Nephi’s relationship to the Spirit is quite arresting, and it shouldn’t be passed over quickly.
Of course, Nephi’s conversation with the Spirit here ends rather quickly, and Nephi finds himself speaking with an angel for the duration of the vision.
1 Nephi 11:12-23
Interestingly, the first glimpses of the vision actually take place between the disappearance of the Spirit and the appearance of the angel. And what Nephi sees in that shortest stretch of the visionary experience is a kind of panorama of the land of Israel—first Jerusalem, then “other cities,” and finally “the city of Nazareth,” in which he sees “a virgin, and she was exceeding fair and white” (1 Nephi 11:13). Before Nephi has an interpreter, in other words, he sees a kind of slow zoom-in on the stage and the first, main character of the drama.
It’s worth noting that Nephi’s recognition of “the city of Nazareth” is baffling. Not only is Nazareth a good distance from his home town of Jerusalem, but there’s strong evidence that Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Nephi. There’s something anachronistic about this situation. But that, interestingly, will characterize Nephi’s vision through and through. This apocalyptic experience of Nephi’s will launch what will become the core Nephite prophetic tradition, one in which anticipation of future (specifically Christic) events is crystal clear. That clarity of anticipatory vision marks a definitive break with the prophetic experience of Old World prophecy, interestingly. The Nephites, beginning with this scene right here, have a very different sort of prophetic experience than their Israelite forebears.
When verse 14 opens with “I saw the heavens open, and an angel came down,” a reader of the Bible naturally anticipates that Nephi is witnessing the appearance of Gabriel to the virgin in Nazareth, but then comes the “and stood before me” that concludes that “an angel came down.” The descent or appearance of an angel to Nephi replaces, as it were, the appearance of the angel to Mary in Nephi’s vision. He doesn’t see the annunciation, instead seeing only that she is “carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time” (1 Nephi 11:19). (One might well ask whether this “carried away in the Spirit” business explains why the Spirit had to leave Nephi and be replaced by an angel. Did the Spirit have to go get ready for his big scene?)
Of course, before Nephi actually sees the virgin carried away in the Spirit, he has his first exchange with the angelic guide that has now appeared. It centers, in verse 16, on the angel’s question: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” A rather uncontested tradition has interpreted the implicit answer to the implicit question within this question—namely, what is the condescension of God?—to be immediately answerable with reference to the incarnation, since the setting is Nephi’s first glimpse of the virgin, and because the angel immediately responds to Nephi’s confession of ignorance by saying that “the virgin which thou seest is the mother of God after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18).
I don’t want to contest that tradition too strongly, but I think it’s incomplete. In other words, I think it’s right that what the angel understands by “the condescension of God” begins with the incarnation—as is, I think, clearer in the earliest text of the Book of Mormon, which I’m using here: the virgin is “the mother of God” (rather than “the mother of the Son of God,” as it appears now)—but I think there’s more to the story. This will become clear when the angel in verse 26 will explicitly point out “the condescension of God” by gesturing toward a subsequent scene from the life of Jesus. God’s condescension is thus at least double, and I think that will prove to be of some importance. Or perhaps God’s condescension is actually marked only in the later event, though the incarnation is what makes that possible. I’ll return to this question when I comment on verse 26. For the moment, it’s worth just noting the issue.
In verses 19-23, Nephi witnesses his own story of Christmas, as it were, and it is a story all its own. It’s as simple as a virgin in Nazareth being carried away in the Spirit in then bearing a child in her arms. There’s no drama surrounding Joseph, no difficulties in Bethlehem—whether regarding the possibility of finding a place to have the baby or regarding the threat to power posed by the birth of the Messiah—no glorious revelations to shepherds or magi. The whole thing is as straightforward as can be. And the message, for Nephi, is simply that the tree of Lehi’s vision embodies “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22).
So let me move on to the next sequence of the vision.
1 Nephi 11:24-29
As in the Gospels, the story leaps from Jesus’ birth to his ministry, with “the Son of God” now “a going forth among the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:24). When Nephi sees that “man fall down at his [the Son’s] feet and worship him,” he somehow grasps that “the rod of iron which my father had seen was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters to the tree of life” (1 Nephi 11:25). Why is it here that Nephi sees this? Is there something about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry (Nephi has not yet witnessed Christ’s baptism) and its accompaniment by people recognizing His divinity that gives him to see the meaning of the iron rod? Is the indication supposed to be that those who worship Christ are those who have been acquainted enough with prophetic scripture to know who He is? Or does “the word of God” mean something more general here? I have no answers to these questions, but I think they’re quite important. We are very quick, as a people, to take Nephi’s association of the iron rod with God’s word without investigating what Nephi seems to have learned when he made that association.
But let me get on to the baptismal scene, since I’m convinced that it’s among the most important in this vision. Here’s the passage:
And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of which my father had spoken. And I also beheld the prophet which should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him. And after that he was baptized, I beheld the heavens open, and the Holy Ghost came down out of heaven and abode upon him in the form of a dove. (1 Nephi 11:26-27)
So much happens in these two verses that I find it difficult to keep up.
First, here the angel begins with “Look and behold the condescension of God!” That ought to draw our most careful attention. The condescension of God can’t be limited to the incarnation. It’s so clear here that it has something also to do with the baptism of Christ. That’s of consummate importance. I mentioned in my notes (in my last post) on 1 Nephi 10 that Lehi, as much as Nephi, privileges the baptism of Christ as being of real importance. And Nephi not only privileges it here, but comes back to it, of all things, when he opens his Christological concluding chapters (in 2 Nephi 31-32). For Nephi, there is something particularly crucial, theologically speaking, about this scene. There is something about Jesus’ submission to something He technically didn’t need—God gets baptized!—that is most at the heart of divine condescension. Here it’s only indicated. Nephi will draw his theological conclusions only much later—in 2 Nephi 31-32, as I say.
Now, as if that weren’t enough, a good deal more happens in verses 26-27. Rather suddenly, Jesus becomes “the Redeemer of the world,” and Nephi draws here on the language he attributes to Lehi in 1 Nephi 10 (as he indicates here as well: “the Redeemer of the world, of which my father had spoken”). What’s at work in this sudden shift from “Son of God” to “Redeemer of the world”? Is there something visually distinct at this moment in the vision, or is Nephi introducing the new term for his own theological ends? Is the point to make all the starker the gesture of condescension? It would certainly be one thing for the Son of God to be baptized, but another for the Redeemer of the world to submit to baptism.
Moreover, Nephi introduces yet another name for Christ a moment later. He is now also “the Lamb of God.” That this term appears at all in the Book of Mormon is significant, since it’s use in the Bible is limited to (1) the several baptismal sequences in the gospels and (2) the Book of Revelation. Here in the Book of Mormon, it’s significantly introduced in the context of Jesus’ baptism, and that as seen in a vision that has obvious and important connections with the Book of Revelation (connections I’ll be dealing with further along). Interestingly, the term will disappear after the vision and appear only a couple of times in the remainder of the Book of Mormon, always in contexts that are quite theologically rich.
Still more, the mention of “the Holy Ghost” is interesting because it’s the first time that is mentioned. (Before this, there has been a lot of talk of “the Spirit,” but never of “the Holy Ghost.” There will be a lot of talk of the Holy Ghost from this point on in the Book of Mormon, but always in complex contexts and according to specifiable patterns.
All of this marks these two verses (26-27) as particularly concentrated. Here we have the condescension of God clarified (it’s more than a question of the incarnation, since it’s on display in Jesus’ baptism), the re-introduction of the Redeemer of the world (from Lehi’s summarized sermon), the opening up of this vision’s focus on the Lamb of God (the first of many, many connections with the Book of Revelation), and the first appearance in the Book of Mormon of the Holy Ghost (thus complicating all talk of “the Spirit”). Though verses 26-27—and particularly verse 27—can be isolated from larger contexts in a way that it looks rather conventional, a close investigation of what’s going on in this passage reveals that it’s a theological crux for the Book of Mormon.
And now a word or two about verses 28-29. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot to say here for my purposes, but I do want to mention a clear echo of 1 Nephi 1 here, an echo that might complicate things. It comes in verse 29: “And I also beheld twelve others following him [the Lamb of God]. And it came to pass that they were carried away in the Spirit from before my face, that I saw them not.” The echo of 1 Nephi 1? Take a look at what Lehi saw in 1 Nephi 1:10-11: “And [Lehi] also saw twelve others following, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament. And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth. And the first came and stood before my father … .” The echo is, I think, clear. Lehi saw One, followed by twelve, but while the One came to speak with him, the twelve went their ways. Nephi in turn saw One—Christ—whose twelve followers were carried away from Nephi’s vision.
Why is this echo significant? In my last post, it might be remembered, I discussed a whole series of similar echoes between 1 Nephi 8 and 1 Nephi 1, subtly suggesting that there are deep connections between Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi 8 and his inaugural visions in 1 Nephi 1—perhaps that his dream was a kind of repetition or even imagistic reworking of his earlier visionary experiences. Now that Nephi is having his own “version” of Lehi’s dream, he’s also experiencing echoes of Lehi’s earlier experiences. Though we are generally quick to identify 1 Nephi 11-14 with 1 Nephi 8, we should probably recognize that Nephi’s experience may have as much to do with 1 Nephi 1 as it does with Lehi’s dream. Nephi sees a good deal that Lehi didn’t, much that he seems only to have prophesied about in connection with his dream. It doesn’t seem unlikely that that extra material was drawn principally from Lehi’s inaugural visions, visions in which he “saw and heard” much that we don’t know about (1 Nephi 1:6), and read in a heavenly book a good deal more that we don’t know about. Is Nephi getting the movie version of what Lehi was only able to read in book form?
But I’m going to move along now.
1 Nephi 11:34-36
I’m skipping over verses 30-33, since I’m not seeing anything there that I want to dwell on. They principally summarize Jesus’ earthly ministry and subsequent death. But verses 34-36, the conclusion to the Old World sequence of the pre-European part of Nephi’s vision, is curious in several rather important ways.
Verse 33 reports Jesus’ death, and then verse 34 moves on to talk about the subsequent events in Jerusalem. So what? There’s no mention of either the atonement or the resurrection here! I haven’t yet mentioned the strange fact that Nephi is almost singularly uninterested in what theologians call soteriological questions—that is, questions of (individual) salvation. Nephi provides no sermons on atonement theology (though he does give us a discourse by his father on the subject, as well as a sermon by his brother Jacob on the subject). As will become clearer and clearer as we go through this vision, Nephi’s interests are principally covenantal, and he’s happy to leave to others the work of sorting out Christ’s specific role in salvation. As if to stage that fact most radically, when Nephi has the chance to see Jesus’ ministry, he either doesn’t see or entirely fails to mention the Christic triumph over death. Jesus’ death is more an indication of Israelite apostasy for Nephi than it is an element in the drama of the atonement. (I should mention that Nephi does know about the resurrection, since it’s mentioned elsewhere in his writings.) That’s simply astounding, but remarkably telling.
Verse 35 introduces the image of the great and spacious building from Lehi’s dream. Here it’s the gathering place of “the multitude of the earth” that was gathered together either as or in connection with the gathering “house of Israel,” the house of Israel gathering specifically “to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” The building is thus something like a place for the gathering of those who are bound by their antipathy to what is gathering together in the wake of Christ’s intervention—and then the building falls and is destroyed (in verse 36).
All of this will open very quickly onto the European story, but at this point the vision shifts to the New World to provide the parallel story of the Lehites. We’ll get to Europe only in chapter 13.
1 Nephi 12:1-6
I don’t actually have a whole lot to say about the first part of chapter 12. Most of it serves as a very brief summary of the first six centuries or so of Lehite history—from the generation of “multitudes of people” (verse 1) through “wars and rumors of wars and great slaughters with the sword” (verse 2) to the destructions and subsequent vapor of darkness that happen at the time of Christ’s death (though there’s no such explanation in Nephi’s summary).
The really crucial moment in these first six verses is the culmination of the recorded events in verse 6: “And I saw the heavens open and the Lamb of God descending out of heaven. And he came down and he shewed himself unto them.” Here the reader of the Book of Mormon gets a taste in advance of Third Nephi. But there’s a good deal more than just that going on. For one, it’s interesting that Nephi describes the figure coming to the New World as “the Lamb of God,” thus connecting the visitor up with the baptized figure of chapter 11. Further, it’s only here that he’s described as “descending out of heaven” in this vision, harking back to the Spirit’s indication that Nephi would be given a sign in connection with his witness of what his father had seen. It’s only here that Jesus descends, since He’s incarnated in chapter 11 (Old World).
Further, this descent out of heaven marks the second clear echo of 1 Nephi 1. Interestingly, we’ve already seen twelve followers who were carried away elsewhere. But it’s only here that we see the One descending out of the midst of heaven. That’s peculiar, and it’s complicated by the fact that another set of twelve followers will be introduced in the very next verse. These ones, though, won’t be carried away from Nephi’s presence. There are, then, clear echoes of 1 Nephi 1 in this vision, but echoes that are bouncing off of oddly angled walls, so that they mingle in a kind of confusion. Let me see if I can’t do something about that confusion—namely, deepening it—by turning to the New World twelve.
1 Nephi 12:7-10
Let me quote this passage in its entirety:
And I also saw and bare record that the Holy Ghost fell upon twelve others, and they were ordained of God and chosen. And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the twelve disciples of the Lamb, which are chosen to minister unto thy seed. And he saith unto me: Thou rememberest the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Behold, they are they which shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Wherefore, the twelve ministers of thy seed shall be judged of them, for ye are of the house of Israel. And these twelve ministers which thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And behold, they are righteous forever, for because of their faith in the Lamb of God, their garments are made white in his blood.
What’s to made of all this?
Latter-day Saints, who tend to be not only happy with but excited by hierarchical structures, are generally happy just to lay out the details here: one apostle as judge for each Israelite tribe, twelve disciples within one tribe as sub-judges under their apostle-judge, etc. But I think it’s really important to ask just why all this business is included here at all. Why should we care—why should Nephi care—who gets assigned as judge to what part of the world? And what would sub-judges do anyway? What’s supposed to be important here? This is, I think, an excessively strange passage, and I think we need at least to begin to figure out what to do with it.
But frankly, I haven’t the slightest idea where to begin. I’m going to leave these questions hanging, then, and hope that others have some way of cracking this theological nut.
1 Nephi 12:14-18
Skipping over verses 11-13 (which summarize the contents of Fourth Nephi), let’s come to the beginnings of the Nephites’ end. The way these verses do what they do is, I think, important. Here are verses 14-17:
And the angel said unto me: Behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren. And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the people of my seed gathered together in multitudes against the seed of my brethren. And they were gathered together to battle. And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw—yea, even the river of which he spake—and the depths thereof are the depths of hell. And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.
This is striking, and I don’t hear us in our discussions of this passage catching the significance of this passage. What is the fountain of filthy water in Nephi’s visionary experience? In a word: war. The depths of war—of the spirit that incites to war—are the depths of hell. And what arises out of the river that flows out of that fountain—these “mists of darkness”—is temptation. War—its pursuit, promotion, use, etc.—is what gives rise to the most debilitating temptations. I think there’s a too-clear message here: We should have nothing to do with war at all.
The angel adds a word about the building as well, which thus appears twice in Nephi’s vision. This, I think, is interesting. It appears at the end of the Old World sequence of the pre-European part of Nephi’s vision. And it appears again at the end of the New World sequence—in each case marking the point of complete collapse. This time, though, because the angel adds a word of interpretation, the building has a more determinate content. It’s “the vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men” (1 Nephi 12:18), a gathering of those who are divided by “the sword of the justice of the Eternal God and Jesus Christ” (1 Nephi 12:18 also). This time, there is no talk of the building collapsing. Instead Nephi watches the final battles of the Lehites.
And then, as the scene shifts back to the Old World, to pick up with the beginnings of the European story, the remaining Lehites slide into unbelief to dwindle.
1 Nephi 13-14
So much, for the moment, for the pre-European story. Nephi’s vision has so far given us two worlds, the Old World and the New World, separated by a good deal of space. The European story will bridge that space and bring the Old and New Worlds into complex contact and conflict. It starts from the Old World, and it occupies the remainder of the vision.
1 Nephi 13:1-10
The first sequence of chapters 13-14 (1) introduces Europe (13:1-3), (2) connects it with the Old World (13:4-9), and (3) connects it with the New World (13:10+). I want to begin with a few words about these first several gestures. First, the introduction of Europe:
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld many nations and kingdoms. And the angel saith unto me: What beholdest thou? And I said: I behold many nations and kingdoms. And he saith unto me: These are the nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles. (1 Nephi 13:1-3)
From all that follows, it’s quite clear that these “nations and kingdoms,” the “nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles,” are, collectively, Europe. (It’s important, I think, to keep this in mind whenever Nephi speaks of Gentiles after this. He seems to mean by the term simply “Europeans” or “those of European descent.” Whatever Israelite lineage those of European descent might turn out to have, as indicated by patriarchal blessings, etc., it’s clear that Nephi understands them all to be Gentiles.) If that’s clear, then Nephi goes on to provide what seems to be Europe’s anchor as he understands it, and it connects Europe to the Old World:
And it came to pass that I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church. And the angel said unto me: Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God—yea, and tortureth them, and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity. (1 Nephi 13:4-5)
I really don’t want to get bogged down in arguments about the identity of the church Nephi sees, so I’m simply going to ignore that question in its entirety (at least for the moment). Even to begin to address it requires a careful study of the use of the word “church” in the Book of Mormon, as well as an investigation into the fact that “church” never appears in anything like this sense in the Book of Revelation. Whatever Nephi’s vision was doing at this point, it was moving in a surprising direction that can only be grappled with through painstaking work. And I think the same needs to be said—in advance, I guess—about much of the rest of what Nephi sees. Verse 12 seems to identify Columbus as clearly as verses 4-5 identify the Catholic Church; and verse 13 seems identify the pilgrims just as clearly; and so on. But I think caution is best employed in making sense of this early sequence of the vision. I don’t actually doubt—at least very strongly—that the Catholic Church is intended, that Columbus is clearly the “man among the Gentiles,” that the pilgrims are the “other Gentiles,” and so on. My point is to say that the vision complicates every one-to-one reading in a number of ways, such that any straightforward reading of the vision in terms of a simplistic history learned in elementary school misses much of the richness of what Nephi describes. For my purposes, then, I’ll be talking simply about “the church,” “the man,” “the other Gentiles,” and the like throughout my discussion.
Coming, then, back to the actual passage just quoted, I think it’s interesting that Nephi never sees the acts of violence and oppression mentioned here. The angel says something about them, but Nephi goes on to see a rather different feature of the church in the next part of his vision. He hears, at this point, a good deal more than he sees. And I think that’s of real importance. The entanglement between Nephi and the angel begins precisely at this point to become quite complex, and we’d do well to keep a close eye on it. So here’s what Nephi actually sees of the church:
And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church, and I saw the devil, that he was the founder of it. And I also saw gold and silver, and silks and scarlets, and fine-twined linen and all manner of precious clothing, and I saw many harlots. (1 Nephi 13:6-7)
Nephi doesn’t see the direct oppression that, according to the angel, the church levels against the Saints. Rather, he sees its wealth and associated vices—the usual Nephite troubles: money and sex (see Jacob 1-3!). The angel offers an interesting explanation of what Nephi actually sees, and perhaps thus says something about how what Nephi sees is tied to what he doesn’t see:
And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold, the gold and the silver, and the silks and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen and the precious clothing, and the harlots are the desires of this great and abominable church. And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God and bring them down into captivity. (1 Nephi 13:8-9)
One way of understanding the angel’s words here is to see him explaining that what Nephi sees are the motivations for what the church does that Nephi doesn’t actually see. It’s after all “for the praise of the world” that the church in question destroys the Saints, etc. Their oppression of the Saints may be a matter less of direct antipathy than of concern to be rid of an obstacle to satisfaction of their desires.
It’s worth noting that Nephi’s vision here finally begins to come into seriously close contact with the Book of Revelation. Take a look, for instance, at Revelation 18:12-14, where it is said that “gold, and silver, … and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet” are “the fruits” that “Babylon” (a.k.a. Rome) “lusted after.” Or Revelation 17:5, where “Babylon” has as one of its names “the mother of harlots.” It’s hard to miss, I think, that the church Nephi sees is meant to be equivalent to “Babylon” as seen by John. At any rate, from here we’ll have to keep a close eye on Revelation.
Verse 10, finally, turns attention from the entanglement between Europe (the church) and the Old World (the Saints) to the entanglement between Europe (now just the Gentiles) and the New World (the Lamanites):
And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters, and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
The barrier between Europe and the New World is identified, and now it’s to be overcome. The Gentiles, having (through their church) obliterated the Old World, now set their sights on fresh victims, as it were.
1 Nephi 13:11-20a
Verses 12-19 report a rather long visionary sequence without any interruption from or commentary by the angel. Nephi simply sees a whole lot. (It will be followed, interestingly, by a long—seventeen-verse—intervention by the angel.) The lack of divine commentary on what Nephi witnesses in verses 12-19 is fascinating. These verses describe all of the events that lead from a Europe that knows nothing of the New World all the way to the complete establishment of a Gentile-dominated New World. It thus recounts the events that have become perhaps a bit too dear to many readers of the Book of Mormon: events that are taken to be Columbus’s discovery, the pilgrims’ migration, the conquest of the natives, the war of independence, etc. As I mentioned before, I’m going to leave straightforward one-to-one identifications of these events out of my account. It’s important not to close up the interpretive possibilities of Nephi’s words too quickly (might the war or wars of independence referred to be wars waged as much by other New World nations as by the colonies that would become the United States of America?). Still more importantly, I think, is the fact that the lack of angelic commentary here means that, for the most part, we’re left without a clear indication of what God thinks about all these events we are so wont to cherish. We have, for the most part, a simple report of their having happened.
For the most part, I say. I think it’s crucial to note that this sequence follows after verse 11, a short word from the angel that is clearly meant to introduce this series of events. It’s all the angel will say about the establishment of a Gentile-dominated New World:
And it came to pass that the angel saith unto me: Behold, the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren. (1 Nephi 13:11)
What we’re seeing in the events of verses 12-19 is not, according to the angel, a series of glorious events that lead to freedom, etc., but a series of largely disturbing events that realize the wrath of God against the Lamanites.
Now, I want to tread very carefully here. First, we need to be careful with the phrase, “the wrath of God.” It’s too easy to see this as divine retribution, deserved punishment, or some such thing. It seems to me that things must be more complex than just that. The Lamanites facing the wrath of God are centuries away from the destruction of the Nephites. They live only what they inherit, guiltless because they are without a messenger of the gospel. If there is a sense of deserved punishment, it can only be at the level of a people abstracted from time, from immediate temporal or historical setting. The children, here, are being punished for their parents’ sins. That’s something that scripture consistently denies. The wrath of God, then, seems best interpreted not as God’s righteous anger, but as a rather unfortunate descriptive that indicates serious destruction (cf. its usage in the Book of Revelation). The point is not that God is out to get the Lamanites; the point is that the Lamanites will face serious, horrifying destruction.
Of course, one might object that the Gentiles will be described, soon enough, as having “the Spirit of the Lord” on them precisely at the moment that they bear “the wrath of God” in scattering and smiting the Lamanites (see verses 14-15). That’s true. I nonetheless think it’s too strong a reading just to say “Lamanites bad and deserving of decimation; Gentiles good and divinely guided.” Indeed, soon enough it will be clear that all these events, horrific as they are, are meant to produce a (Lamanite) remnant of Israel, and that according to the strictest remnant theology of the Old Testament. I’ll have more to say about this further along. For the moment, I hope it’s just clear how deeply covenantal the focus is already at this point. The emphasis in these verses is, from the angel’s perspective, not on the goodness of the Gentiles, but the unfortunate situation for what’s left of New World Israel. The Gentiles, already, are ancillary rather than focal. What’s crucial here is the covenant people, and it’s they who are facing the wrath of God. That the Gentiles are just the (ignorant) manifestation of that wrath is hardly a glorious matter.
So, first contact:
And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, which were separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters. And I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man, and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, which were in the promised land. (1 Nephi 13:12)
Here Nephi specifically sees the Spirit of God getting involved. But it’s not exactly inspiration that’s described—at least not inspiration in the sense that we usually understand it. The Spirit “came down and wrought upon the man.” This is a phrase (“the Spirit wrought”) that Nephi consistently uses in connection with those who know nothing of God. (See, for instance, 1 Nephi 17:52, where the phrase is used to speak about Laman and Lemuel when they are shaken by the power of God in Nephi. Or see 1 Nephi 19:12, where the phrase is used to speak about the “kings of the isles of the sea” concluding, at the death of Christ, that “the God of nature suffers.”) The Gentile in question is not presented here as deeply in touch with the things of God, a kind of prophet, but as someone who has absolutely no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing.
The description of the man’s journey is pretty nondescript. He just goes out on the waters, and goes to “the seed of [Nephi's] brethren.” He’s just presented as the first of many. So the next verse introduces the many:
And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles, and they went forth out of captivity upon the many waters. (1 Nephi 13:13)
Even more nondescript here. The same “Spirit of God,” the same “wrought upon” business, and the same going out “upon the many waters.” Only one extra element is added here: “out of captivity.” That’s of real significance, especially since they go to the New World as the bearers of “the wrath of God.” Out of captivity, but hardly into an innocent utopia. Rather: out of captivity, and into a situation where they can take captive. At any rate, this soon leads to a large New World contingency of Gentiles, at which point “the wrath of God” begins to make itself fully manifest and the devastation of the Lamanites is undertaken:
And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise. And I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren. And they were scattered before the Gentiles, and they were smitten. And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, that they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance. (1 Nephi 13:14-15)
As always in these verses, I think we should be careful with the wording. “They did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance” sounds positive, but I think we should note that it isn’t necessarily so. What we’re looking at is, in some sense, an occupation—one that Nephi seems to see God behind in some way or another, but not necessarily positive or productive, and certainly not merciful or peaceful. At any rate, it’s probably significant that it’s only in the next verse that we find this:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles which had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord, and the power of the Lord was with them. (1 Nephi 13:16)
What’s the implication of this being mentioned only now. Are we to see that whatever divine intentions were behind the events in the preceding verses, it’s only now that the Gentiles in this story become something more than passive instruments in a divinely orchestrated work? Only here do they humble themselves and actual gain “the power of the Lord.” And perhaps it’s only here that we can begin to feel somewhat positively about what they’re doing. It’s deeply sad that the Gentiles described only humble themselves after decimating the Lamanites, but at least they finally do so then.
And then the culminating event, once humility actually characterizes the Gentiles in this story:
And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them. And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle. And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles which had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations. And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that they did prosper in the land. (1 Nephi 13:17-20a)
Independence in a pretty strong sense is the final result.
But then the next verse makes clear that all this is just the setting of a stage. If the angel says nothing about all these events, it seems to be because he has his sights set on what comes only after all this. These historical events—many of them terribly violent, etc.—are, from the angel’s perspective, so much prologue, so much narrative that links up Europe with the New World in a way that will allow for the really important stuff to happen.
1 Nephi 13:20b-29
What follows Nephi’s long stretch of uninterrupted vision is a still longer stretch of angelic interruption (running all the way through verse 37). But what sets that angelic sermon of sorts off is the last element Nephi sees before the angel begins speaking, to be found in verse 20. And it’s this element of the vision that seems to be the central figure on the stage that has been set in the preceding verses or through the preceding events:
And I beheld a book and it was carried forth among them.
It’s that book that gets the angel excited. After all we’ve seen already concerning books—the book brought to Lehi from heaven in 1 Nephi 1, the book brought to Lehi, through the harrowing experience of 1 Nephi 2-4, in 1 Nephi 5, etc.—this should be catching our attention.
The angel begins to intervene:
And the angel saith unto me: Knowest thou the meaning of the book? And I saith: I know not. And he saith: Behold, it proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it. And he saith unto me: The book which thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contain the covenants of the Lord which he hath made unto the house of Israel. And it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets. And it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many. Nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord which he hath made unto the house of Israel. Wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles. (1 Nephi 13:21-23)
It isn’t at all difficult to see that the book in question is the Bible. But note that description given by the angel: it’s a book about covenants. The angel begins with that point (“the covenants of the Lord which he hath made unto the house of Israel”) and, after brief mention of the prophets and the connection with the brass plates, he ends with that point again (“the covenants of the Lord which he hath made unto the house of Israel”), and he even seems to claim that it’s precisely the covenantal focus of the volume that endears it to the Gentiles (“wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles”). This book is a book about the covenants.
That’s crucial, it seems to me. We’ve already begun to see, based on close attention to verse 11, that the whole series of events Nephi sees that might be associated with the founding of the United States, beginning from Columbus and ending with the “prosperity” that follows the Revolution, are taken by the angel to be principally a manifestation of God’s relationship to the Lamanites, to the covenant people in the New World. The events that bring the Gentiles from Europe to the New World, after the complex entanglement between Europe and the Old World, are principally aimed at bringing among the covenant people a book about the covenant. This emphasis must not be missed.
And then comes to sad news:
And the angel of the Lord said unto me: Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew. And when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew, it contained the fullness of the gospel of the Lamb, of whom the twelve apostles bare record … . And after that they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles—behold, after this thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is the most abominable of all other churches. For behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many part which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. … And after that these plain and precious things were taken away, it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles. And after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles—yea, even across the many waters, which thou hast seen, with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity—and thou seest, because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, … an exceeding great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them. (1 Nephi 13:24-29)
The sad news is that the journey from Old World, through Europe, to the New World has transformed the book in question in important ways. There are two things specifically that the angel mentions, one that we tend not to notice. The first is that it loses “plain and precious things,” a most ambiguous point. Second, though, and this one is clearer, though we tend to skip over it: “many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.” What had begun as the book of the covenant has become a book missing crucial covenants, as well, it seems, as clear indications as to its purpose. (I don’t want to get into arguments about what the plain and precious things are, but I’ll add in parentheses that I suspect it was a question less of actual material being changed or removed than of a cultural and interpretative shift that made it difficult to grapple with the text as it was meant to be grappled with.) I think we’re to lay heaviest emphasis on the fact that covenants have gone missing, and I have little doubt that whatever the plain and precious things that were lost were, the result of their loss is principally, for the angel, the inability on the part of the Gentiles to see the full import of the covenant.
At any rate, the rest of this story is going to be about the covenant.
1 Nephi 13:30-37
The angel continues his interjection through the next eight verses, but now turning from sad news to redemptive promise. The problems associated with the one book—the loss of a focus on covenant—will be overturned by the emergence of another book.
First, though, the angel recounts the crucial promise of the Lord to Nephi that the Lamanites won’t be completely destroyed: “thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which is among thy brethren. Neither will he suffer that the Gentiles shall destroy the seed of thy brethren” (1 Nephi 13:30-31). Importantly, the promise extends also to the Gentiles: “Neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that state of awful wickedness,” etc. (1 Nephi 13:32).
Also before turning directly to the other book, the angel introduces what will become one of the most central and important themes in the Book of Mormon: the remnant. Right at the end of verse 33, the angel mentions the word “remnant” for the first time, but it’s in verse 34 that he begins to explain it. Interestingly, both verse 33 and verse 34 also mark a striking change in the angel’s communication. Before this point, Nephi and the angel have been the only two speakers, and each has spoken only in his own name. Now, though, and precisely in introducing the theme of the remnant, the angel begins to speak in another’s name, introducing his statements with “saith the Lamb of God.”
This shift is most interesting and important, I think. For one, after all we’ve already said about the significance of any appearance in this text of talk of the Lamb of God, especially when that’s coupled with the recognition that it’s only in theologically significant places that any talk of the Lamb of God appears, we should be keen to see how important it really is to have the actual words of the Lamb here. And then it’s all the more significant that the very first thing the Lamb’s words do is introduce the theme of the remnant, which will become Nephi’s obsession, only to disappear a few years later from Nephite consciousness, but eventually to return with a bang when it’s reintroduced to Lehi’s children by none other than Jesus Christ Himself in Third Nephi. We should be keeping a close eye on all this.
At any rate, here’s verse 34, where the theme of the remnant is introduced in a bit more general a way:
Behold, saith the Lamb of God, after that I have visited the remnant of the house of Israel—and this remnant of which I speak is the seed of thy father—wherefore, after that I have visited them in judgment, and smitten them by the hand of the Gentiles, and after that the Gentiles do stumble exceedingly, because of the most plain and precious parts of the gospel fo the Lamb, which hath been kept back by that abominable church, which is the mother of harlots, saith the Lamb—wherefore, I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, saith the Lamb, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them in mine own power much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious, saith the Lamb.
We find out in the next verse that the means for bringing forth “much of [the Lamb's] gospel” will be this other book to which I’ve referred. But I want to contextualize that move by dwelling a bit more on the significance of this incipient remnant theology.
Some time ago, I did a long series of posts here at Feast on the theme of the remnant in scripture. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That crucial theme, worked out over the whole book, is introduced right here, and it’s unquestionably crucial that it’s introduced in the context of talking about the coming forth of a book from obscurity. The remnant theme as it’s developed in the Old Testament especially (and even more especially in the writings of Isaiah) is a question of (1) a prophecy being given to the covenant people that rejects the message, (2) that prophecy being written in a text that is then sealed up for a later time, (3) a decimating destruction that leaves behind only a remnant of the covenant people, (4) the reception by that remnant of the sealed text that allows them to construct the covenant people anew, and (5) the universalization of that covenant through this whole series of events. All this fits quite perfectly into the context of Nephi’s vision. He’s seen the decimation of the covenant people (the Lamanites specifically), so that what’s been left behind is finally being called not “the seed of thy brethren,” etc., but “the remnant of the house of Israel.” Further, he’s now seeing the possibility of that remnant being graced with a sealed record from an earlier era, a record that will open up the possibility of constructing the covenant people anew. And, still further, he’s also seeing that the Gentiles will themselves be involved in the emergence of the text that could bind them into the covenant and allow for a deeper universalization of the covenant that had before been limited in scope.
None of this should be missed.
Now the passage in which this other book is finally introduced:
For behold, saith the Lamb, I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious. And after that thy seed shall be destroyed and dwindle in unbelief, and also the seed of thy brethren, behold, these things shall be hid up to come forth unto the Gentiles by the gift and power of the Lamb. And in them shall be written my gospel, saith the Lamb, and my rock and my salvation. (1 Nephi 13:35-36)
There’s the promise of the book.
Interestingly, Nephi doesn’t seem to learn for quite some time—and only after he’s nearly finished writing his record—that he himself is writing what will become the first part of this prophesied book. I’ll be noting details concerning this point as I continue to work through these posts on Nephi’s writings. For now suffice it to say that he seemed to have taken “they shall write” to mean that it would only be after him that the book would be produced. And he seems at first to have taken his own task in writing the small plates to be to make sure that his people after him knew their prophetically anticipated task of producing that book. It’s only in the last chapters of Second Nephi that Nephi seems to have grasped that he was writing the first part of that book, and that his own words would appear in it.
The angel concludes his long aside with a beautiful passage—drawing from Isaiah, interestingly—that glories in that day to come:
And blessed are they which shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of teh Holy Ghost! And if they endure unto the end, they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb! Yea, whoso shall publish peace, that shall publish tidings of great joy—how beautiful upon the mountains shall they be! (1 Nephi 13:37)
I hope we’re among those the angel is talking about.
1 Nephi 13:38-14:4
Nephi now gets in two verses of vision before the angel takes control again (and continues for thirteen verses). And he sees exactly what the angel has prepared him to see:
And it came to pass that I beheld the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the book of the Lamb of God which had proceeded forth from the mouth of the Jew. And I beheld that it came forth from the Gentiles unto the remnant of the seed of my brethren. And after it had come forth unto them, I beheld other books which came forth by the power of the Lamb from the Gentiles unto them, unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren—and also to the Jews, which were scattered upon all the face of the earth—that the records of the prophets and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are true. (1 Nephi 13:38-39)
There are several things not to miss here. Note first that Nephi now begins to speak of the Lamanites as “the remnant of the seed of my brethren,” rather than simply as “the seed of my brethren.” Note further that now the Bible as seen in vision becomes “the book of the Lamb of God.” And note that the Gentiles play the role specifically here of transferring records to the remnant of Israel—first the Bible itself, and then “other books,” obviously including the Book of Mormon, but perhaps (because it’s in the plural) including other books (one plays with the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, naturally, but we’ll see reason much later in Nephi’s writings to suspect that he had something else in mind). And note, still further, that the consequence of all this is to get three distinct groups (I’m thinking here of what I wrote about the title page of the Book of Mormon in my first set of lesson notes) to take up a certain relationship to, of all things, the Bible. The remnant is to learn certain things; the Jews and the Gentiles have got to be convinced of other things; but all three groups are to learn all of this by taking up a specifically believing relationship to the Bible. Specifically, it seems, they’ve all got to learn “that the records of the prophets [OT] and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb [NT] are true.” All this is just to focus them on the Bible, but in a specific way.
I don’t think we should be surprised if the new emphasis is on the covenant.
At any rate, the angel begins to explain in verse 40:
And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which is of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them … . Wherefore they both shall be established in one, for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth. (1 Nephi 13:40-41)
This passage deserves much more attention than we tend to give it. It provides us with a kind of double relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible: the former garners all its authority from the latter and even reroutes all of its authority back into it while nonetheless crucially supplementing it. The Book of Mormon is thus a supplement in the deepest (Derridean) sense—it takes up an auxiliary position in order to mark the sufficiency of the non-auxiliary, but it does it in a way that actually compromises the sufficiency of the supposedly sufficient. The Book of Mormon thus marks in a single gesture both the sufficiency and the insufficiency of the Bible—rendering it a constitutively problematic text, with undecidable boundaries and an untraceable genealogy.
All that said, it’s worth asking exactly what is meant by “establish the truth of.” It’s perhaps too easy to take this to mean something like “bear witness concerning,” but I wonder if it shouldn’t be read somewhat differently. Might it be better to read the phrase as referring to the truth proper to—rather than the truth simply about—the Bible? That is, might it be better to assume that the Book of Mormon is meant to make clear (“plain and precious”) what the Bible is really after, to identify or to name what the whole of the biblical text circles around without ever quite being able to name? If that’s the case, then I think the best way to make sense of all of this is to take the Book of Mormon’s task to be to establish the covenantal focus of the Bible, to make clear that its beating heart is the covenant—and the role of the remnant in the covenant.
At any rate, that seems to be the effect:
And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles. … And it shall come to pass that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day, … and if it so be that they harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel. (1 Nephi 13:42-4:2)
For the Gentiles who see what’s at stake in the entanglement of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, there is passage into the covenant, adoption into Israel. And it’s specifically this that finally leads the great and abominable church to its ruin:
And that great pit which hath been digged for them by that great and abominable church, which was founded by the devil and his children, … shall be filled by those who digged it, unto their utter destruction, saith the Lamb of God. (1 Nephi 14:3)
It’s a nice ending to the European story.
But it’s not the end of the covenantal story that only becomes possible at that moment. But the angel doesn’t let Nephi turn too quickly to the covenantal story. Rather, we have an insertion of thirteen verses reporting both angelic words and visionary sights, which together tell the culmination of the European story all over. Only then—at the very end of verse 17—does the covenantal story really begin. And we’ll get quite a surprise there.
A few words, first, then, concerning verses 5-17 of chapter 14.
1 Nephi 14:5-17a
As the angel tells again—and Nephi finally actually sees in vision—the last moments of the European story, we see that it’s principally a story about the absolutization of a crucial dichotomy:
For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men, a word which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or on the other, either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds, unto their being brought down into captivity, and also unto destruction both temporally and spiritually, according to the captivity of the devil of which I have spoken. (1 Nephi 14:7)
This announcement sets off the last stretch of Nephi’s vision as reported. Nephi sees this “one the one hand” and “on the other” dichotomy translated into “two churches,” one “the church of the Lamb of God,” the other “the church of the devil.” This is a curious development, I think. It’s only at this point that there is any talk of a good church—before this, all talk of churches has been talk of the great and abominable. There seems here to develop, then, a collapse of distinction between “church” and “Israel,” which is worth paying attention to. Also, the fact that there are now “save it be” two churches indicates that there have been many churches during the heyday of the great and abominable. (This point, incidentally, is the really crucial one that makes clear that the great and abominable is irreducible to any particular organization—the Catholic Church, for instance.) Also striking at this point is the fact that the dichotomy introduced is a question of two images of women. On the one hand is “the mother of abominations,” “the whore of all the earth,” while the other—the church of the Lamb—is everything that has followed from the “virgin” of chapter 11. The virgin isn’t reintroduced here, and that’s a bit peculiar, since the Book of Revelation introduces the Lamb’s church as, precisely, a woman.
But all this is just leading up to the culminating moment. The great and abominable “gather[s] together in multitudes upon the face of all the earth, among all the nations of the Gentiles, to fight against the Lamb of God” (1 Nephi 14:13), but “the saints of the church of the Lamb”—equivalent, importantly, to “the covenant people of the Lord”—end up with “the power of the Lamb of God” and “the power of God in great glory” (1 Nephi 14:14). Interestingly, though, there’s no culminating battle. Rather, the wrath of God is poured out on the great and abominable, and wars ensue, but there is no talk of the Saints fighting against enemies. There are, here, echoes rather of the Old Testament holy war tradition, in which God’s profound influence simply sends the “bad guys” into a panic, such that they end up killing each other in a kind of divinely imposed frenzy. The righteous seem simply to slip out of the difficulties.
I pray that’s a correct interpretation.
But finally we come to the end of verse 17, and the European story is over.
1 Nephi 14:17b-30
In the thick of so much climax, we get this: “then at that day the work of the Father shall commence in preparing the way for the fulfilling of his covenants, which he hath made to his people which are of the house of Israel” (1 Nephi 14:17). The European story ends with self-destruction among those in the great and abominable church, and the covenantal story finally really begins right then. Here, rather suddenly, all talk of “the Lamb of God” disappears to be replaced by talk of “the Father.” (This same switch will be found in the sermons of Christ in Third Nephi, interestingly.) With the sudden appearance in the story of the Father, and with His purposes concerning the complete fulfillment of the covenant, the story is cut off. Every reader of these chapters if familiar with this sudden ending. Nephi suddenly sees John, the Revelator, and he’s instructed not to tell us anything else of what he saw, leaving us to riddle out the Book of Revelation. It’s a devastatingly disappointing ending.
But we’re not left entirely out to dry. Nephi will be coming back to all of this in Second Nephi, giving us some further hints. And then Third Nephi will give us a series of sermons by Christ Himself that come back to the story again, giving us details Nephi wasn’t allowed to give. And then the Book of Ether will make some very direct promises to, specifically, the Gentiles about how they can come to know what’s at stake in the Book of Revelation. We ought to be paying attention to all this.
For the moment, though, I want to turn from Nephi’s vision to its immediate sequel: Nephi’s conversation with Laman and Lemuel (and Sam?) immediately after his vision.
1 Nephi 15
All of 1 Nephi 10-14, remember, is a single chapter in the original version of the Book of Mormon. 1 Nephi 15, interestingly, is already a chapter of its own in the original. (The chapter breaks, for a moment, match up perfectly.) But what needs to be said about this chapter? It’s usually taken, as is the whole of Nephi’s vision, as a kind of set of clarifications of the symbols and meaning of Lehi’s dream. I think there’s much more here to catch our attention than just that—besides the fact that we should be reading Nephi’s comments on the meaning of Lehi’s dream in terms of his interpretation, not in terms of some absolute meaning. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the whole point of 1 Nephi 15, especially when coupled with 1 Nephi 8-14 more generally, is to say that all interpretation is to be undertaken by seeking to have the same vision oneself. Interpretation comes quite naturally if you’ve been there, and Nephi’s entirely convinced (remember those last verses of chapter 10 as much as the first verses of chapter 15) that anyone can have this vision.
But let me turn to chapter 15 itself.
1 Nephi 15 comes, I think, in three straightforwardly distinct parts:
<blockquoteVerses 1-11 — An introduction of sorts, through which Nephi reintroduces his conviction that anyone can have this vision
Verses 12-20 — A first exchange between Nephi and his brothers, focused on Lehi's sermon in 1 Nephi 10
Verses 21-36 — A second exchange between Nephi and his brothers, focused on Lehi's dream in 1 Nephi 8
I think it’s important to distinguish these several parts of the chapter from each other. Each serves a rather different purpose.
1 Nephi 15:1-11
I’ve already made, albeit briefly, what I think is the most important point of verses 1-11. When Nephi comes back from his visionary experience to see his brothers “disputing one with another concerning the things which [their] father had spoken” (1 Nephi 15:2), he’s overcome by their failure to recognize that there’s a very obvious source they could go to for understanding. Though Nephi is ready to concede that Lehi had taught “many great things” that were “hard to be understood,” they were only such “save a man should inquire of the Lord,” and he bluntly states that his brothers “did not look unto the Lord as they had ought” (1 Nephi 15:3). This becomes all the blunter when he actually begins to speak with his brothers: “we cannot understand,” they say; “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” he asks; “We have not, for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us,” they respond; “Do ye not remember the thing which the Lord hath said? If ye will not harden your hearts and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you,” he finally responds, doubtlessly with a bit of exasperation (1 Nephi 15:7-11).
Importantly, though, these two criticisms of his brothers—one before they begin talking, and one in their conversation—are separated by a brief spell when Nephi finds that he has to rest. Here’s the passage:
And now I, Nephi, was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also because of the things which I had seen and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men. And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall. And it came to pass that after I had received strength, I spake unto my brethren. (1 Nephi 15:4-6)
Nephi doesn’t seem to become physically exhausted here until he sees his brothers disputing, but it seems that that scene is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and Nephi collapses. Is it really just a question of them disputing, or is it something more? Is it just the sight of contention after having witnessed horrific wars? Is it that Nephi feels deeply tortured feelings concerning the worth of seeing what he’s seen—perhaps wishing, just a bit, that he could have the fun of disputing warmly about Lehi’s teachings instead of carrying the burden of real knowledge? Or what?
But let’s get on to what Nephi has to say about Lehi’s teachings.
1 Nephi 15:12-20
As I already mentioned, the first part of the conversation Nephi has with his brothers is about what Lehi teaches in chapter 10. (The second part will be about the dream of chapter 8.) This is already clear in verse 7, since the point of disputation is the theme of “the natural branches of the olive tree,” etc. (see 1 Nephi 10:12).
Here’s what Nephi has to say about the olive tree:
Behold, I say unto you that the house of Israel was compared unto an olive tree by the Spirit of the Lord which was in our father. And behold, are we not broken off from the house of Israel? And are we not a branch of the house of Israel? And now, the thing which our father meaneth concerning the grafting in of the natural branches through the fullness of the Gentiles is that, in the latter days, when our seed shall have dwindled in unbelief—yea, for the space of many years, and many generations after that the Messiah hath manifested himself in body unto the children of men—then shall the fullness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto the Gentiles, and from the Gentiles unto the remnant of our seed. And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord. And then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him. Wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer, and the very point of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved. (1 Nephi 15:12-14)
Nephi has more to say, but I’ll come to that. A few points here should certain be mentioned.
First, why does Nephi make this a question of “the Spirit of the Lord which was in [Lehi]” when it’s pretty likely that Lehi was drawing on the brass plates (i.e., on the Zenos text that Jacob will quote at length in Jacob 5)? Is it just that Nephi’s not yet acquainted as he could be with the brass plates? But that seems unlikely, given what he’ll go on to say in verses 19-20 (see below). Is it that Nephi’s reference to the Spirit is not a question of identifying sources, but of indicating the style of interpretation? Is the point here, in other words, not to get Laman and Lemuel to see where Lehi’s getting his information, but to get them to see how he can work a scriptural text up in likening it to themselves? Nephi’s focus here, at any rate, is on how they as a family are a branch broken from the olive tree.
Second, Nephi seems rather bluntly to be spelling out the future for his brothers. Lehi seems to have spoken in rather broad and essentially vague terms about the future, burying most of what he anticipates in images and the like, but Nephi comes right out and speaks of the Lehites dwindling in unbelief, and that “many generations after that the Messiah has manifested himself,” etc. This has got to come as a bit of a shock. Why does Nephi think he state all of this so baldly? Can it have made any sense to his brothers?
Third, and here’s the really crucial point: this is all about the covenant. Coming back from his visionary experience, it’s the covenant first and foremost that occupies Nephi’s attention. The events in question concern the day when “the remnant” will know “that they are the covenant people of the Lord.” That’s simply crucial. It’s that process of coming to know anew that they are part of the covenant that Nephi goes on to describe in verse 16 as “be[ing] numbered again among the house of Israel,” as “be[ing] grafted in—being a natural branch of the olive tree—into the true olive tree.”
But Nephi has more to say than just this, since his brothers originally asked not only about “the olive tree,” but “also concerning the Gentiles.” So Nephi goes on:
And he meaneth that it will not come to pass until after that they are scattered by the Gentiles. And he meaneth that it shall come by way of the Gentiles, that the Lord may shew his power unto the Gentiles, for the very cause that he shall be rejected of the Jews, or of the house of Israel. (1 Nephi 15:17)
All of this follows closely what Nephi has seen in vision. But note that even here it’s only a question of the covenant for Nephi: “Wherefore, our father hath not spoken of our seed along, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days—which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (1 Nephi 15:18). All this, I think, couldn’t be clearer. What Nephi takes from his visionary experience is a focus on the covenant.
And now the crucial interlude that concludes this first half:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake much unto them concerning these things. Yea, I spake unto them concerning the restoration of the Jews in the latter days. And I did rehearse unto them the words of Isaiah, which spake concerning the restoration of the Jews or of the house of Israel. And after that they were restored, they should be no more confounded, neither should they be scattered again. And it came to pass that I did speak so many words unto my brethren that they were pacified and did humble themselves before the Lord. (1 Nephi 15:19-20)
What’s so crucial here? Isaiah! Though, as I’ve pointed out before, Isaiah has been quoted or alluded to before, he’s never been mentioned by name. But still more importantly, Nephi gives us a major clue here. When does Isaiah become relevant? When we’re speaking about the covenant. Latter-day Saints have a very strong tendency to read Isaiah messianically, as if Isaiah’s entire message were an attempt to spell out—darkly—the events surrounding either the First or the Second Coming. Frankly, I think that’s entirely misguided, and I think Nephi’s convinced of the same. For Nephi Isaiah becomes relevant precisely at the moment when one is trying to make sense of the history of the covenant. We’ll see the real force of all this when Isaiah becomes not just a mentioned figure, but a direct source for teaching later in Nephi’s writings. For now, it’s enough just to see that Isaiah is a covenantal prophet for Nephi, and not a messianic one. (And don’t go citing 1 Nephi 19:23 with its mention of “the Lord their Redeemer” to me. That phrase itself doesn’t necessary say anything about the Messiah, but instead about the Redeemer, the One who brings covenantal Israel out of captivity and into the fulfillment of the promises. I’ll get to that in a later post.)
But now Nephi’s brothers have questions about 1 Nephi 8.
1 Nephi 15:21-36
Now Laman and Lemuel begin to ask a series of questions, and not just about Lehi’s teachings in general. Their first question, though, is still quite general: “What meaneth the things which our father saw in a dream?” But they follow it immediately with a more specific question: “What meaneth the tree which he saw?” (1 Nephi 15:21).
Here it’s worth pausing to note something that we failed to mention back in the discussion of 1 Nephi 8 and 1 Nephi 10, something that becomes more obvious here when Lehi’s two discourses are brought into closer proximity: both Lehi’s dream and Lehi’s subsequent sermon focus on a tree, but a different tree in each case. In the dream, it’s a tree that bears this delicious fruit, etc.; in the sermon, it’s the olive tree that embodies all of Israel. There’s reason to reflect on this pairing of trees (echoes of the Garden of Eden? echoes of Ezekiel’s two etzim, two “sticks”—but more literally, two “trees” or two “woods”? echoes of other texts or traditions?), but I’ll only mention this theme here.
Nephi’s answer is too short: “It was a representation of the tree of life” (1 Nephi 15:22). The tree of life? We’re quick to affirm this as well, but what exactly does Nephi mean? The tree of life from Eden? The tree of life in the broader mythic/cultic sense? The tree of life in some other sense? Why is this such a straightforward answer?
Next Nephi’s brothers ask about the rod, and Nephi says “that it was the word of God, and that whoso would hearken unto the word of God and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish, neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction” (1 Nephi 15:24). Interestingly, Nephi takes this little answer as an occasion for a sermon he doesn’t record: “Wherefore, I, Nephi, did exhort them to give heed unto the word of teh Lord. Yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed, that they would give heed unto the word of God, and remember to keep his commandments always in all things” (1 Nephi 15:25). I wish we knew a bit more of what he (claims to have) said at that point. Especially because the image of the rod is rather rich. In a previous post, I noted the important distinction between the path and the rod—did Nephi draw on that here? But perhaps more importantly, since Nephi has just be drawing on Isaiah, does he make reference to the “rod” of Isaiah 11, a rod that grows out of a tree coming back to life? Might Nephi have done a bit of creative midrash?
But the conversation moves on quickly. The next question concerns “the river of water” (1 Nephi 15:26). Nephi’s answer is that it “was filthiness,” though Lehi didn’t see that (1 Nephi 15:27). That answer has to have given Nephi’s brothers a bit of pause. Nephi’s clearly indicating here that he knows more than Lehi. This isn’t just interpretation, but correction. There’s no specific indication here that Nephi told his brothers that he’d seen a vision—of course, he may have done so, but Nephi doesn’t tell us that—and so this has to come as something of a shock, when Nephi pretends to know more about the scene Lehi witnessed than Lehi himself did. At any rate, Nephi goes on to call the river “an awful gulf” separating “the wicked from the tree of life and also from the saints of God” (1 Nephi 15:28), and thus to conclude that “it was a representation of that awful hell,” etc. (1 Nephi 15:29), such that “the justice of God” ultimately “divide[s] the wicked from the righteous, etc. (1 Nephi 15:30).
But now things get interesting, because Laman and Lemuel stop asking about images, and begin to ask about real meaning: “Does this thing mean the torment of the body in the days of probation, or doth it mean the final state of the soul after the death of the temporal body, or doth it speak of things which are temporal?” (1 Nephi 15:31). Nephi’s answer is important: “it was a representation of things both temporal and spiritual,” since the judgment is a question of one’s works “done by the temporal body,” but the punishment deal with “things which are spiritual” (1 Nephi 15:32-33). Nephi curiously redirects the force of his brothers’ question here. They’re obviously just asking whether the justice of God Nephi’s talking about is something merely temporal—that is, referring to something like the destruction of Jerusalem—or whether it’s really something metaphysical—a question of hell, eternal torment, etc. Nephi’s answer plays with their distinction, since his answer really just says that it’s a metaphysical or a spiritual thing he’s talking about, though what determines its application is temporal action. I doubt Laman and Lemuel didn’t understand that; they just wanted to know whether the judgment in question was spiritual or know.
But this misdirection of sorts on the part of Nephi is theologically interesting. Nephi wants to say that we’re missing the point if we’re just asking whether judgment comes before (in!) death or after it (in a heaven/hell dichotomy). Indeed, he might be taken to be indicating that there’s something symptomatic about the very question. Don’t we hope that all punishment is extra-worldly so that we can dismiss it? Or don’t we hope that all punishment is this-worldly so that we can laugh at those who give warning. But if the very distinction is theologically problematic, ultimately symptomatic, then our fantasies crumble.
But I’ve written far too much in this post to start down a long theological road. I’ll let these musings serve as an introduction to thinking theologically about the last exchange between Nephi and his brothers, which comes finally back to the tree of life itself in verse 36.
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