Lehi’s Knowledge of Scripture
Posted by BrianJ on January 21, 2012
A discussion I had this week tangentially got me thinking about Lehi’s knowledge of scripture. Specifically, how much of a “scriptorian” he was prior to his journey into the wilderness and to the promised land.
I think the standard assumption is that Lehi was a devoted and avid student of scripture—and thus, must also have raised his family in deep study of Torah and passed this knowledge on to them. While I think this is certainly possible, I want to consider evidence that could suggest otherwise. As I do so, I readily recognize that none of this is definitive; i.e., I’m making guesses about what might fit that data, not illustrating what the data proves. For example, some of the points I’ll raise are based on the absence of evidence, which is never a strong argument. Thus, my goal is not to establish that Lehi did not have a deep knowledge of scripture, but rather to show that I can’t tell whether he (and his family) did or did not.
1) Nephi’s Upbringing
Nephi was “born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father”—meaning, that he was born into a wealthy family and got a good education. Well, at least a good secular education. Nephi doesn’t say anything about being “raised up in the Lord” or some other phrase that would highlight religious training. When he specificially mentions Jewish learning, it is the context of language, not scripture: “…the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.”
2) Lehi’s Call
Lehi was not called out of a guild like some other Old Testament prophets (e.g., see 2 Kings 2). Rather, he responded to the warnings from other prophets:
There came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed. Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people. (1 Ne 1:4-5)
This narrative presents Lehi as a sincere and believing man, but not necessarily one who studied scripture. And rather than base his subsequent preaching in Jerusalem on the scriptures, Lehi “testified [of] the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book [from his dream]“ (vs. 19). In other words, Lehi’s prophesying was entirely his own experience.
3) Lehi’s Surprise Lineage
When Lehi studied the Brass Plates, it seems he was surprised to be a descendant of Joseph (1 Ne 5:14). If he had searched the scriptures previously he might have already known this, although it is possible that Brass Plate genealogies were just more detailed than the Torah in the local synagogue. (I mention the synagogue because I assume that Lehi did not have a personal copy).
4) The Need for the Brass Plates
Nephi based the value of the Brass Plates mostly on the fact that they contained the law of Moses, aka the commandments that Nephi’s seed must keep in order to be blessed:
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.” 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. (1 Ne 4:14; see also 5:21)
Of course it makes sense to have a written record of laws, but another option would be for Lehi (and Nephi) to just write it down from memory. No small task, to be sure, depending on the level of detail one wanted (regarding, for example, temple rites). So there’s some question about what commandments a scriptorian wouldn’t remember without consulting a written copy.
5) The Prophet Assumption
There is also the assumption that, as a man called to be a prophet, Lehi must have been well-versed in scripture. Of course, there are plenty of other examples of inadequate, unprepared, even rebellious men called by God to prophesy. Thus, Lehi’s calling tells us virtually nothing about his past.
There may be other “hints” I have not considered, and readers are welcome to add them in the comments. I’d be especially interested in any evidence that shows that Lehi was actually well-versed in scripture before his call.
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