Book of Mormon Lesson #6: “Free to Choose Liberty and Eternal Life,” 2 Nephi 1-2 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on January 26, 2012
At last, a lesson that covers only two chapters, thus allowing me to do some close textual work and theological development! This lesson covers only 2 Nephi 1-2 (and the one after it only 2 Nephi 3-5), so this should be some fun.
The situation, of course, is Lehi’s instruction to his children and others just before his death—all of this apparently happening on the same occasion during which Nephi recounted and commented on Isaiah 48-49 (see 2 Nephi 1:1). Chapter 1 is dedicated principally to Lehi’s words to Laman and Lemuel (together, interestingly), but it contains also Lehi’s words to Zoram. Chapter 2 is entirely dedicated to Lehi’s words to Jacob. Quite nicely, for once, the content of the lesson made up a single chapter (Chapter I) in the original Book of Mormon. I think that works quite nicely.
My plan is to work through 2 Nephi 1 in relative brevity, and then spend the bulk of my time on 2 Nephi 2. Hopefully there’s the same theological interest among others that there is in me. And, as always, I recommend a close reading of my preliminaries post.
2 Nephi 1
I’ll take 2 Nephi 1 in a few pieces, as is my wont.
2 Nephi 1:1-3
The first three verses serve as a kind of introduction to Lehi’s words to Laman and Lemuel. What’s most interesting to me here is that Lehi’s final words to the fledgling colony were delivered on the same occasion as Nephi’s commentary on Isaiah. Take a look at verse 1:
And now it came to pass, after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren [see 1 Nephi 19-22], our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them.
There are several things that are interesting about this point. First, we might well ask why Nephi was the first speaker at this meeting—and why he takes as his topic the writings of Isaiah. What’s the connection between 1 Nephi 20-22 and 2 Nephi 1-4? I haven’t any immediate answers, but I think this is a question well worth thinking about. Second, the fact that 1 Nephi 20-2 Nephi 4 forms a single occasion should strike as interesting, since Nephi breaks it up into two parts by marking a division between First and Second Nephi. Why distribute the two parts of this occasion between the end of one book and the beginning of another? Why, further, does Nephi divide his record into two parts at all? We’ve seen some answers to this question implicit in previous posts, and there are others I’ve struck on that I’ve not mentioned. But can we work out a really convincing explanation for this division, especially when it doesn’t map onto the fourfold division of Nephi’s larger record (worked out in detail in the “preliminaries” post)?
At any rate, Lehi gets talking here. These first three verses trace the contours of the journey: verse 1 deals with getting “out of the land of Jerusalem,” verse 2 with traveling “upon the waters,” and verse 3 with “the land of promise which they had obtained,” etc. With that little trajectory out of the way and presented in the form of third person narrative about Lehi speaking, verse 4 turns to direct quotation.
2 Nephi 1:4-12a
The first part of Lehi’s words to Laman and Lemuel begins with a stark opposition. In a vision, he explains, he has seen “that Jerusalem is destroyed,” and thus knows that “had [they] remained in Jerusalem, [they] should also have perished” (2 Nephi 1:4). On the other hand, he says, “we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands” (2 Nephi 1:5). Jerusalem the destroyed, versus the land obtained by promise. One promised land has been succeeded by another. And, incidentally, that new land is also associated with a covenant: “a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed” (2 Nephi 1:5).
All this gets Lehi prophesying, since the Lord “consecrated this land” not only to the Lehites, but also to “all they which should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord” (2 Nephi 1:5). Lehi’s prophecy focuses on these others: “there shall be none come into this land save they should be brought by the hand of the Lord” (2 Nephi 1:6). That’s quite a prophecy, one that I think we should be very careful in handling. Especially because Lehi goes on to offer these further words:
If it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore they shall never be brought down into captivity. If so, it shall be because of iniquity: for if iniquity shall abound, cursed shall be the land for their sakes. But unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever. (2 Nephi 1:7)
I fear and tremble before prophecies like this, fearing how we might appropriate them, trembling at how we might unrighteously take advantage of them. I think they should be taken with the utmost seriousness, but with great care. We should take a warning from what Lehi says next, namely, that the Lord kept the promised land “from the knowledge of other nations” for a very long time, because otherwise “many nations would overrun this land, that there would be no place for an inheritance,” presumably, for the promised inheritance of Lehi’s seed (2 Nephi 1:8). When the Lord did let other nations know about the promised land, according to Nephi’s vision, it was because He had work to do through a series of deeply unfortunate events—mingled with some beautiful ones—and not because those other nations were particularly good or deserving or righteous. And the warning will sound through the rest of Nephi’s writings, again in the Lord’s words in Third Nephi, and yet again in Moroni’s concluding writings: the Gentiles had better take up the right relationship to the remnant of Israel, or the promised land will have been only a curse to them.
I said “according to Nephi’s vision,” but I might as well have said, according to the next verses of Lehi’s words. Beginning in verse 9 and continuing through the first part of verse 12, Lehi reiterates what Nephi learned in his vision. For a long time, the Lehites “shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves,” and they’ll have promised blessings so long as they keep the commandments (2 Nephi 1:9). But then comes the time of dwindling, and “the judgments of him that is just shall rest upon them” (2 Nephi 1:10). Consequently, “he will bring other nations unto them, and he will give unto them power, and he will take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten. Yea, as one generation passeth to another, there shall be bloodsheds and great visitations among them” (2 Nephi 1:11-12). None of this is good news, and none of it suggests that those brought to the promised land are doing something good, only something Lehi and Nephi understand to be necessary, a first gesture in fulfilling the covenant. As with Nephi’s vision, I think we have to be very careful about all of this, careful not to take Lehi’s words as an occasion to pat the Gentiles on the back for their devastation of the Lehites. The story is a great deal more complex than that.
But let me get on to more comfortable topics.
2 Nephi 1:12b-27
Did I say comfortable? Now Lehi turns his attention more immediately to Laman and Lemuel. Of course, all of what Lehi has already said has clearly been directed to them, and for an obvious reason: they will be the ancestors of those whose story he has just told—they more than Nephi, whose seed will be (largely) destroyed. This seems to explain the “wherefore” that begins the second half of verse 12:
Wherefore, my sons, I would that ye would remember—yea, I would that ye would hearken unto my words.
And now the real sermonizing begins.
Lehi begins with the image of waking up: “O that ye would awake, awake from a deep sleep—yea, even from the sleep of hell” (2 Nephi 1:13). This reference to “deep sleep” is interesting. Is it meant to echo Genesis 2:21, the “deep sleep” put on Adam while Eve was created? Or perhaps Genesis 15:12, the “deep sleep” that fell on Abram when the covenant was first given to him? Or perhaps Isaiah 29:10, the “deep sleep” poured out on those who reject the prophets? Or other passages in the Old Testament? At any rate, Lehi wants his sons to emerge from it. And that he equates with a kind of emancipation: “And shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe” (2 Nephi 1:13). Lehi’s universalizing gesture here is interesting. Laman and Lemuel have fallen into a trap that has been set for all human beings, and their task is to get out of it. This gesture distracts, perhaps, from their own beliefs that Nephi has more to do with their misery than anything else.
Then this: “Awake and arise!” (2 Nephi 1:14). Further echoes of the Eden story? Especially when the whole line is quoted: “Awake and arise from the dust!”? Interestingly, Moroni will use this very same line in the concluding words of the Book of Mormon, but addressing “Jerusalem” in words clearly reminiscent of Isaiah. There are important intertextual resonances running throughout these passages. All this talk of dust is also important in that Lehi is about to connect his plea with his own imminent death: “Awake and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return. A few more days, and I go the way of all the earth” (2 Nephi 1:14). He wants them to come up out of the dust, because he himself is about to return to it. The creation, as it were, of Laman and Lemuel (echoes of Eden, remember) must take place before the uncreation of Lehi. But that uncreation—that imminent death—is swallowed up in Lehi’s next words: “But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell. I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15). That’s quite beautiful, I think.
Lehi’s next words are deeply anxious, warning Laman and Lemuel against bringing “a cursing” on their whole seed, all due to “the hardness of [their] hearts” (2 Nephi 1:16-18). Lehi wishes the opposite on them: that they “might be a choice and a favored people of the Lord” (2 Nephi 1:19). But he offers this wish with a clear word of resignation: “But behold, his will be done, for his ways are righteousness forever” (2 Nephi 1:19).
At this point, Lehi inserts the Lehitic covenant, and it’s quite poignant in this context: “And he hath said that inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land. But inasmuch as ye will not keep his commandments, ye shall be cut off from his presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). It’s interesting finally to have Lehi saying this. To this point, it’s come only from Nephi for us, and it’s been a little different with Nephi. For him, the first half of what’s said here is directed to Nephi’s seed, the second half to Laman’s seed. As Lehi uses it, it becomes a kind of general point for all the Lehites. That’s something worth reflecting on. In subsequent Lehite history, it will be Lehi’s more general application that will hold.
And then Lehi comes back to this business of “aris[ing] from the dust,” again connecting it with his own death: “that I might not be brought down with grief and sorrow to the grave,” instead “leav[ing] this world with gladness because of you” (2 Nephi 1:21). In verse 23, he against tells them to “awake” and again mentions “the chains” that bind them, now speaking of putting on “the armor of righteousness.” His emphasis here is on unity, as he encourages his sons to “be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things” (2 Nephi 1:22). Is that a message to Laman and Lemuel specifically, or to all of his sons more generally? Grant Hardy gives this passage a strong interpretive privilege, taking Lehi’s deepest anxiety to be to keep all his sons reconciled and peacefully inclined toward each other—something Nephi fails to do, and feels guilty about for the remainder of his life. That may be too strong a reading, maybe not. But it’s clear that Lehi’s concern at the end of his life is, precisely, unity.
But it’s really only with verses 24-27 that Nephi becomes the focus of Lehi’s words to Laman and Lemuel. I’ll let them speak for themselves.
2 Nephi 1:28-32
At this point, Lehi changes directions a bit. To this point, one could have seen this sermon simply as an occasion on which Lehi spoke after Nephi, confirming his words and exhorting Laman and Lemuel to reform. From some of the themes, of course, it’s clear that Lehi is near death, but there has been no particularly strong indication that this is a ceremonial or ritual situation. Suddenly, with verse 28, it becomes such. The whole exhortation of the preceding verses is now focused into a blessing:
And now, my son Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam—and also my sons which are the sons of Ishmael—behold, if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi, ye shall not perish. And if ye will hearken unto him, I leave unto you a blessing—yea, even my first blessing. But if ye will not hearken unto him, I take away my first blessing—yea, even my blessing—and it shall rest upon him. (2 Nephi 1:28-29)
With this turn, the focus is clearly ritual or ceremonial, and we realize that Nephi’s sermonizing, as well as Lehi’s exhortation, has been leading up to Lehi’s final blessing. And it’s given to the whole set of Lehi’s sons (and other second generation males—except Zoram), with the notable exceptions of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph—the three youngest, and those who will be religious leaders in the community to come. This is a kind of generalized blessing (note that Sam will receive a separate blessing in chapter 4), rather than a set of individualized blessings. It isn’t clear what sense to make of that, or what sense to make of the exclusion of Nephi entirely, and the distinction given to Jacob and Joseph.
This whole situation needs to be studied a good deal closer.
And then the last couple of verses contain a distinct blessing for Zoram, which I have nothing particular to say about here. I think I’m eager to get on to chapter 2.
2 Nephi 2
I turn, now, to 2 Nephi 2. It’s one of three texts about which I have, at some point or another, sworn I would never say anything in public. I’ve since recanted so far as this text is concerned, since I think I’ve finally begun to get a handle on it. What follows, then, is principally a theological investigation. Hopefully it’s productive. At any rate, it’ll be clear that I have much more to say about chapter 2 than about chapter 1. I’ll proceed, more or less, line by line.
2 Nephi 2:1-4a
Lehi turns to Jacob:
And now, Jacob, I speak unto you. Thou art my first born in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. (2 Nephi 2:1)
This is interesting in a whole series of ways. Nowhere in chapter 1 does Lehi speak of Laman and his firstborn. But he’s happy here to speak of Jacob as his firstborn (albeit “in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness”). It’s as if all that’s happened in chapter 1 has been preliminary to the actual bestowal of a primogeniture blessing—though this has to be distinguished from the “first blessing” of 2 Nephi 1:28, it seems. (And note also that Laman is called the firstborn in 2 Nephi 4, but only in connection with the blessing of his children.) This is a complex gesture, at any rate, and it’s difficult to know how Lehi’s family would have understood it—or how we should understand it. Whatever the relationship between Laman and Jacob (or between Nephi and Jacob for that matter), however, if chapter 2 is taken on its own, we find here a clear indication of a privilege given to Jacob. We should keep our eyes on that.
Immediately, the focus is on this question of tribulation in the wilderness:
And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow because of the rudeness of thy brethren. (2 Nephi 2:1)
It isn’t difficult to identify the afflictions and sorrow referred to—or at least to identify the ones Nephi mentions in his narrative; there were likely more. What’s most worth our attention, though, is the fact that this is Lehi’s beginning place for addressing Jacob. Everything, for Jacob, is oriented by these miserable beginnings (read his last words in Jacob 7, for instance!). But the point will be, quickly, to get beyond these difficulties to what Lehi calls their consecration:
Nevertheless, Jacob, my first born in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God, and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain. (2 Nephi 2:2)
Afflictions, yes, but they can be—and will be—consecrated, and consecrated “for … gain.” This is, I think, a most interesting point, and one that deserves a bit of reflection. What’s involved in this consecrating gesture? I’m inclined, here, to bow to the remarkable research Robert C. has done on consecration and gain, on the economic meaning of consecration in the Holy War tradition of the Old Testament, and the relationship between consecration and the ban. I’ll see, though, if I can’t say something about all this in the meanwhile.
In the most general sense, of course, the word “consecrate” here puts the Latter-day Saint in mind of the law of consecration, where what’s in question is a restructuring of one’s very nature as a human being so that one deploys what’s within one’s control in a non-capitalist or non-propertied fashion. (Under the law of consecration, what one has ceases to be property that is owned, and becomes a stewardship for which one is responsible. I’ve done some work on this here.) If we think of these words to Jacob in that vein, then it would seem that the point is something like the following: Jacob has experienced sufferings, and those sufferings may well feel as if they determine Jacob’s very being, but the Lord—if He is known—would transform all suffering into something over which one is responsible. Even suffering is to be put on the altar, is to be given up to God, but it will immediately be given back so that Jacob can get something done with it or by it. That’s quite a vision.
But then theirs this “for thy gain” business that deserves attention as well. The gesture of consecration here will turn out to produce an excess, something over what was there in the first place. If suffering is transformed from property (my suffering) to stewardship (my responsibility to God), then it seems it can finally become productive. Rather than remaining within the self-undermining logic of selfishness, it opens onto the self-transcending logic of the gift. Suffering, as in the Book of Job, has to come to be seen as a gift, as a manifestation of grace—and if it is so seen, it finally becomes, as it were, a bonus. That is, I think, quite remarkable.
All this, importantly, can only happen, it seems, because Jacob “know[s] the greatness of God,” knows, that is, that God is strong enough or powerful enough to overturn the pattern of diminishing returns that result from the morbid selfishness of the usual (relation assumed toward the) experience of suffering. This is, perhaps, the most crucial element. It’s only in knowing the goodness and power of God that suffering itself can be transformed—not necessarily because (perhaps never because) God intervenes and changes our circumstances out for different ones, but because the sufferer comes to see that suffering itself is the mark of the grace of life. It seems to me that Jacob is here being instructed in the nature of grace, and that’s significant, since it will be Jacob who goes on to spell out the doctrine of grace in the starkest terms later.
Here’s, finally, what Lehi draws as a consequence of all this:
Wherefore thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother Nephi, and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. (2 Nephi 2:3)
Most of this speaks for itself, but I think it worth noting that the phrase “service of God” is, in the Hebrew Bible, a terminus technicus to refer to work in the temple. If Lehi’s borrowing that language, it would seem that Jacob is here being assigned, long in advance, to the role he will later play in the temple as priest. Indeed, one might surmise that the division between kingship (Nephi) and priesthood (Jacob) is already being set up here.
But what’s ultimately behind all this is, again, the Redeemer:
Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer. For thou hast beheld that in the fullness of time, he cometh to bring salvation unto men. And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory. Wherefore, thou art blessed—even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh. (2 Nephi 2:3-4)
Here again the theme is grace. Jacob’s redemption is a question not of his own good works or of his own desires to do good, but “because of the righteousness of [his] Redeemer.” But what’s happening here is a bit complex. Let’s see if we can’t riddle out the logic of this complex passage.
The last line plays into a theme that will become a focus in the Book of Mormon, indeed, a novel Nephite messianic theology: Jacob is blessed “even as they unto whom [Christ] shall minister in the flesh.” The point here, as in subsequent passages with a similar emphasis, is that the Nephites, with their startlingly exact knowledge of the coming events surrounding the life of Christ, experience the redemption as always already having happened. The Messiah’s coming is not a future a event, except nominally, for the Nephites. He is, rather, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and the redemption has always already taken place. It’s perhaps in this sense that the doctrine of grace is set forth in the Book of Mormon: redemption comes before anyone’s even on the earth, and sin is a rebellion against that always-already-delivered redemption—a redemption worked out regardless of anything we do or even could do. Repentance (what Jacob will later call reconciliation) is a question simply of ceasing to refuse that redemption. This Nephite messianism is, it seems to me, the ground of what’s happening in this passage.
Second, then, Jacob has himself already “beheld … his glory.” Does this have reference to an actually visionary experience, so that Jacob has had something like Nephi’s vision? In some ways, it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s the implication, since Nephi was rather forceful both in 1 Nephi 10 and in 1 Nephi 15 in claiming that anyone could have that vision if they would only ask God (using, in the former instance, the very language Lehi will use in the remainder of verse 4). We might find that claim a bit strange—if not dubious—but Nephi makes it, and makes it clearly. Did Jacob then have the same experience? Or is there more to the story here? Perhaps Jacob has only “beheld” in the sense that we talk about “seeing that”? That is, perhaps Jacob has grasped what Nephi and Lehi have talked about in connection with their visions? All this remains undecided, but I think these are questions worth asking.
Third, then, what of this first gesture—this “I know,” etc.? What exactly does Lehi know? Does he know in a general sense that Jacob—like everyone else—has been redeemed in advance, if only he won’t fight against it? Or does he know in a more particular sense that Jacob—because he has beheld the meaning of the Christ’s atoning work—has ceased to rebel against God’s will to save? In the end, I think it’s the latter that’s being expressed here. What sets Jacob apart from the other firstborn in this setting (from Laman, that is) is his refusal to rebel against redemption, and for that very reason the afflictions he’s experienced at the hands of his brothers can be consecrated, turned into something other than “mere” suffering.
But this is just to get started. All of this, to this point, has been focused on Jacob’s perhaps unique experience. Now, though, Lehi wants to universalize and generalize a bit. We’ve just had a rich introduction to the doctrine of grace, but entirely in terms of Jacob’s own experience. Now it’s time to lay out the doctrine of grace—and especially the whole plan of salvation—in the broadest terms. And the sermon that follows in the remainder of the chapter is the first of its kind in the Book of Mormon. It deserves close scrutiny for that reason: it lays the foundation for what will become a grand theological tradition.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that Jacob remains a focus of this sermon in important ways. The themes introduced here may be read as oriented by an eye on the temple—as if all this has to be said to Jacob because he will officiate in the temple. The focus will be the relationship between the law (over which Jacob will, as it were, preside) and the atonement (focused, according to the Mosaic text, in the ritual of the day of atonement, at the heart of which is the temple), and that seems to focus all of this on the kinds of things Jacob will be doing in “the service of God.” Though there’s a gesture toward the universal here, that gesture is offered with an eye to the person who will be attempting to endow others with that universal knowledge. We should keep a close eye on that as well.
2 Nephi 2:4b-7
The more universal part of Lehi’s sermon begins with the following:
For the Spirit is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free. (2 Nephi 2:4)
The first thing to note here, already briefly mentioned, is the connection with 1 Nephi 10, when Nephi explained that he sought what his father had seen, and hoped to receive it through “the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men—for he is the same yesterday and today and forever, and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world … . Wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round” (1 Nephi 10:17-19). Note the echo here not only of “yesterday, today, and forever,” but also of “the way is prepared” (not to mention the “he should manifest himself” business echoing the first part of verse 4 here: “he shall minister in the flesh,” etc.). There is a pretty tight connection here.
There is, nonetheless, a somewhat distinct focus here. Whereas in 1 Nephi 10 the point is to emphasize the universal possibility of having the apocalyptic vision, the point in 2 Nephi 2 is to emphasize the universal plan of salvation—the way that’s open for all, the unmitigated freedom of salvation. What way that’s been prepared? And what does Lehi mean when he says that salvation is free? The rest of the chapter is, of course, what supplies the answers to these questions, but we should never lose sight of this first statement in reading the rest of the chapter. From the beginning, the focus is on this double theme: (1) “the way is prepared from the fall of man”; (2) “salvation is free.” These are the guiding threads of all that follows.
Verse 5, then, begins this way:
And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil, and the law is given unto men.
What’s the relationship between the two parts of this sentence? Is this a simple parallelism, such that to say that “the law is given unto men” is just to say, by way of creative repetition, that “men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil”? Or are we being given two distinct—but related—claims? Can we identify this “sufficient instruction”? Can we identify “the law”?
Given what the rest of the verse has to say, there isn’t one law at work here, but two:
And by the law no flesh is justified, or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut of, and also by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good and become miserable forever.
What’s all this? A statement, it seems, about the stake of the loss of Eden. It will certainly be understood/appropriated in this way in subsequent Nephite theology, and there are several indications that that’s the theme right in this chapter—not only later talk of Adam and Eve, but the immediately preceding reference to the way being prepared “from the fall of man.” What we’re being given here is a theology of what was at stake in the Fall, and that’s how we have to understand this business of instruction and law.
So “the law” divides into “the temporal law” and “the spiritual law,” but what are they? Well, by the former, “they were cut off,” while by the latter, “they perish from that which is good and become miserable forever.” The point? The effect of (transgressing) the temporal law is past, but the effect of (transgressing) the spiritual law is present. From this alone (and it doesn’t help to read later Nephite reflections on this Lehite sermon—see especially the sermons in Ammonihah in Alma 8-15), it seems clear that “the temporal law” is meant to be understood as the word given by God to Adam and Eve in the Garden, the word concerning the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, while “the spiritual law” is meant to be understood as the word given by God to Adam and Eve (via angels) after leaving the Garden, the word that—as Alma will later put it—”they should not do evil, the penalty thereof being a second death” (Alma 12:32).
The larger point of this passage—which begins, remember, with “by the law no flesh is justified”—is that God’s word has twice left human beings in a quandary, first with an inevitable death on the horizon, one that oriented them to wickedness in the first place, and second with a second death beyond the horizon, one that might scare them into being semi-obedient. The law itself, law as such, leads to self-conflict, carnality, death, etc. The law, it seems, culminates only in being “cut off.”
And that law, we’re being told, “is given unto men,” such that they “are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil.” Having transgressed the one law (and so eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of, precisely, good and evil), human beings are, from the beginning, instructed sufficiently in the second law. And here we are, cut off in our carnality, our sensuality, our devilishness. The upshot? We collectively “perish from that which is good and become miserable forever.” A pretty sad state of affairs.
But that’s just the Fall, and we’ve already been told here that there’s a “way” prepared “from the fall.” What is it? Verses 6-7:
Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah, for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law unto all those which have a broken heart and a contrite spirit—and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
This has to be read quite carefully. First, we’re getting a taste here not only of the way prepared from the Fall, but also of that whole “salvation is free” business, since the Messiah is “full of grace and truth,” and redemption comes only through Him. But let’s see if we can’t put a finer point on all this than just that. Redemption comes in and through the Holy Messiah. But how? Because, it seems, “he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law unto all those which have a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” What’s to be said about this? The first thing to be determined, it seems to me, is the meaning of this “ends of the law” business. What are “the ends [purposes] of the law”? And what does it mean for them to be “answer[ed]“?
Here, it seems to me, we should be looking at Webster’s 1828 dictionary. We’re quite familiar with the first definition listed there: “To speak in return to a call or question, or to a speech, declaration or argument of another person … . This may be in agreement and confirmation of what was said, or in opposition to it.” That’s clear enough, but how could it apply here? Well, here are a few of the other definitions, and they seem to me to be more helpful (I’ve chosen out three from among eight, in part because several of those I won’t mention here are included in these ones, and in part because one or two of the others seem too distant for close consideration: (1) “to be equivalent to; to be adequate to, or sufficient to accomplish the object”; (2) “to comply with, fulfill, pay or satisfy; as, he answered my order; to answer a debt”; and (3) “to act in return, or opposition.” There’s much to work with here. Let me take them one by one.
Christ’s sacrifice might, on the first definition, “be adequate” to the law’s ends, aims, or purposes—”sufficient to accomplish [its] object.” That’s a possibility, but it seems a bit unlikely because the law’s “ends” would seem, from verse 5, to be principally a question of cutting off and making miserable. That may be too strong a reading, but there’s little else to work with immediately. There may well be a hint here of adequacy or sufficiency, but it would seem that we want a stronger hint of opposition between law and atonement, no?
On the second definition, then, Christ’s sacrifice would “fulfill, pay or satisfy” the ends of the law—that miserable condition (debt?) that results from the law. Here we seem to be more on the track of something. Certainly talk of a “sacrifice” would seem to point us in the direction of satisfaction. But I’m a little nervous about any strong reading of a debt economy into the atonement, in large part because there’s so little talk in this vein in the scriptures (indeed, I can find none, really), despite all we say in this fashion on our own (in a fashion tailored by Saint Anselm). There may well be the idea of satisfaction at work here, but I’m inclined to keep looking for something more promising.
On the third definition, Christ’s sacrifice work “act in … opposition” to the ends of the law. Well, that’s certainly a strong claim, and it would seem simply to be the sort of thing we were looking for above: strong opposition between law and atonement, the one countervailing or even overcoming the other. But how are we to avoid the temptation just to be selecting out what fits our own preconceptions best? I think there’s strong evidence in verse 10 that this is the meaning. Here’s what it says: “wherefore the ends of the law, which the Holy One hath given unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed—which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed—to answer the ends of the atonement.” There it seems clear that what “answers the ends of the atonement” is, precisely, the punishment that follows from the ends of the law. Verses 7-10 more generally lay out what verse 10 doesn’t hesitate to call an “opposition” (a theme that becomes central in verse 11): the ends of the law and the ends of the atonement are opposed, each answering the other. It seems clear enough to me that “answer” through this passage means “to act in opposition.” I’ll follow that definition in what follows.
Coming back, then, to verse 7, what have we? Something like this: Christ’s self-offering—a sacrifice in a radically distinct way from every preceding sacrifice, where sacrifice is always an other-offering, an offering up of something other than oneself—opposes the ends of the law, but precisely (and only, it seems) for “those which have a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” What’s at work here?
Significantly, we’ll get to hear, along with Lehi’s children, the voice of Christ later announce that, due to His fulfillment of the Law of Moses,
Ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood—yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. (3 Nephi 9:19-20)
This, I think, helps to put a finer point on what’s happening in 2 Nephi 2:4a-7. What Christ’s self-offering calls for is a parallel self-offering. If Christ’s sacrifice is unique in its being a self-offering, its uniqueness is meant to fade when it calls for a response equal to it: every person becomes Christ-like in precisely this sense, that she or he offers her- or himself in response to Christ’s self-offering. It’s precisely thus that “the ends of the law” are “answered. One has to sacrifice all of one’s selfishness, all of one’s desires, all of one’s sins, all of one’s obsessions with approval, all of one’s yearnings and ambitions and expectations. And then one can find that the ends of the law have been countervailed: one has given both temporal death (through resurrection) and spiritual death (through the freedom from sin that is inextricably bound up with resurrection) the slip.
What’s at work here? In a word: grace.
2 Nephi 2:8-10
If the point of the few preceding verses is roughly clear, then it should be no surprise to find Lehi saying immediately after them the following:
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth! (2 Nephi 2:8)
But if that’s not a surprise, there may be a few surprises in what Lehi has to say immediately afterward about what exactly it is that needs to be made known. What we have coming is the Nephite doctrine of grace, and it’s one we pay almost no attention to. I’ll see if I can’t get a few points clear about it.
That they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah—which layeth down his life according to the flesh and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise. (2 Nephi 2:8)
First, it must not be missed that this is uncompromisingly a doctrine of grace: “no flesh … can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah.” His merits, not ours. If that’s clear, then let’s see what’s behind this idea of grace. Note that there is no talk here of what we are wont to call the atonement. Lehi makes reference only to what we call the resurrection: Christ “layeth down his life according to the flesh and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit.” Why? To “bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.” This is entirely about the resurrection. What is the mark of grace, the thing Christ does about which we can do nothing by way of earning, anticipating, causing it? The resurrection! We didn’t ask for that. We can’t earn it. Indeed, we can’t even avoid it! That is grace.
But what of sin and its conquest in the atonement? What of Gethsemane? So far as the Book of Mormon is concerned—and I’ll be hard at work showing this all year—there’s no real difference between resurrection and atonement. Just as Lehi here describes the work of the Messiah as one of conquering death and makes no mention of a separate act of atonement, every subsequent Nephite prophet will focus entirely on resurrection. For the Nephites, the resurrection is the core of the atonement. It’s the resurrection that makes repentance possible. This is to say, of course, that there’s no doctrine of atonement paying for sin in the Book of Mormon. For the Nephites—and so, I should hope, for us—the atonement is a question of death being overcome, and that because death plays a central role in sin.
All this will, I hope, be clearer by the end of this post. For the moment, I want to move on.
Having resurrected, Christ “shall make intercession for all the children of men, and they that believe in him shall be saved” (2 Nephi 2:9). Good, but what does that mean? Verse 10 explains:
And because of the intercession for all, all men cometh unto God. Wherefore, they stand in the presence of him to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him.
This is a consistent Book of Mormon theme: the intercession associated with the resurrection overcomes the distance between human beings and God, restoring people to the presence of God for judgment. The same idea appears in more or less every sermon a Nephite offers regarding the atonement. It will be Jacob, incidentally, in 2 Nephi 9 who offers the longest exposition of this point.
Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed—which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed—to answer the ends of the atonement. (2 Nephi 2:10)
This is, I think it should be clear, a sentence that gets started but is never finished. Why? Because, it seems, Lehi gets sidetracked with this question of opposition, which takes up his attention beginning with the next verse. But it isn’t terribly difficult to see where Lehi was, at least roughly speaking, heading here. The point is to make clear the basic opposition that will orient the judgment: the opposition between two sets of ends, the mutual “answering” of the ends or aims or purposes of the law and of the ends or aims or purposes of the atonement. The law cuts off while the atonement (i.e., the resurrection) brings back; the law leads to death (temporal and spiritual) while the atonement (i.e., the resurrection) restores the possibility of life (temporal and spiritual).
But Lehi, as I say, jumps ship at this point, turning to a more theological point. What’s opposition doing here?
2 Nephi 2:11-13
The opening of verse 11 is among the most quoted from the Book of Mormon:
For it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things.
We’re generally happy to take this point as an indication that things are tough, that we all experience trials, that we can’t simply be happy all the time. I think Lehi’s point is much more complicated than just that. Here’s the next part of what he says:
If not so, my first born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness—neither happiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one. Wherefore if it should be one body, it must needs remain as dead, having no life, neither death, nor corruption, nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught. Wherefore, there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes—and also the power and the mercy and the justice of God. (2 Nephi 2:11-12)
There’s a lot happening here. Let’s see if we can’t make some sense of it. (It’s worth noting that at this point, rather suddenly, Lehi comes back to the fact that he’s addressing Jacob, and that he’s addressing him as his “first born in the wilderness.” This deserves some thought, though I’ll only note the point here. I want to get on to the theological points Lehi’s making.)
The first thing to note is that, despite all we tend to say about this passage, the point here is not to provide a list of oppositions, a list of “all things” in which opposition has to be. Lehi doesn’t say that because “there is an opposition in all things,” we see both righteousness and wickedness, etc. He says rather that without opposition, righteousness and wickedness could not be brought to pass. I hope that point is clear. The apparent oppositions listed in verse 11 are oppositions that can only be brought to pass if there’s already a more fundamental opposition in place before them. There’s something deeper, as it were—a more deeply rooted opposition—that allows other oppositions to be brought about. That “deeper” opposition, it seems, is a kind of condition for the possibility of every other opposition. Lehi will go on—beginning with verse 13, and coming back to it in verse 15—to explain what that root opposition is or was. That we’ll have to grapple with a little further on.
For the moment, then, what remains to be said? Well, something must be said about the way this fundamental opposition, because it allows for the possibility of other oppositions, is connected with “purpose,” with “the end of … creation”—which in turn is related to God’s “wisdom” and “eternal purposes,” as well as to “the power and the mercy and the justice of God.” Again, there’s a lot going on here. Without that core opposition, “all things” would have been “created for a thing of naught.” That’s an interesting phrase. For one, “all things” are reduced to “a thing”—or as Lehi also puts it: “all things must needs be a compound in one.” For two, that one thing, that compound of all things in one, would have been created for “a thing of naught”—a thing, it seems, without significance or meaning, a no-thing, a nothing. In Lehi’s other words, “there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. And purpose, it seems, is the trace, precisely, of God’s wisdom, as also His power, mercy, and justice. Why these last three? Perhaps it isn’t difficult to see why a purposeless creation would be neither merciful nor just, but would it necessarily be powerless? I’ll leave the knot of all these threads an open question. I want to get on to the core opposition itself, which comes in verse 13.
And if ye shall say there is no law … .
Here, I think, is the “opposition” that must be “in all things” and that allows every other opposition to “be brought to pass”: law. But what is law? Well, we’ve already seen that, in Lehi’s discourse, the law in question is double: the temporal law concerning the fruit of the tree first, and then the spiritual law concerning wickedness second. As verse 15 will make clear, the foundational opposition—the law most in question here—is the first of these, though not without a crucial relation to the second. The law, in its core, is simply the No! that sets absolutely everything in motion. The opposition, the core or fundamental opposition, is, it seems, precisely this No!, this act of prohibition. What splits up the compound one, giving the no-thing to become (or to be experienced as) all things, is prohibition. Things themselves are then suspended between the poles of life and death, corruption and incorruption, happiness and misery, sense and insensibility, and people come to be suspended between righteousness and wickedness, happiness and misery, good and bad. (Note that there’s a kind of distinction in verse 11 between these two sets of oppositions, those associated with the experience of life, and those associated with the things making up the world on the other hand.)
All this will, I think, be made clearer still in verse 15, which speaks not only of the “opposition” that had to be put in place specifically “after” the creation, but ties that opposition specifically to the forbiddenness of one thing in relation to another.
But back to verse 13:
And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. And if ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness, there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness, there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not, there is no God. And if there is no God, we are not, neither the earth—for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon. Wherefore, all things must have vanished away.
This is a most philosophically difficult passage, and I want to say only a couple of things about it—or rather, perhaps, just to ask a few questions about it. First, what should made of the existential character of the first couple of sentences? That is, why does Lehi begin this series of sentences with “if ye shall say … ye shall also say” rather than with what he employs in the later sentences (“if there be … there be“)? Why are these first couple of moves (the connection between law and sin, and between sin and righteousness) specifically tied to someone saying something? Second, what of the alternation between relationships of possibilization and relationships of oppositional necessity? That is, why this back and forth between one sort of connection (the first and third sentences mark relationships where one thing makes another possible: without law, sin isn’t possible; without righteousness, happiness isn’t possible) and another (the second and fourth sentences mark relationships where neither makes the other possible per se, but the two are necessary to each other: sin and righteousness come together, like righteousness/happiness and punishment/misery)? Third, what should be made of this remarkably sharp leap from “these things” more generally (law, sin, righteousness, happiness, punishment, misery, etc.) to the very existence of God (“if these things are not, there is no God”!)? That is, how should we think about the clear shift from the alternating series of points of opposition to the sudden question of God’s very existence? Fourth, how should we think about the final move, one we’d naturally be uncomfortable with in some ways today—at least as a philosophical argument? That is, is there or is there not an implicit claim that there is no way of accounting for what exists without God? Fifth, how might we begin to think about the significance of the introduction here of what seems to be a kind of master category of opposition: “to act” versus “to be acted upon”? That is, what privileges are accorded to this particular opposition and why?
All of these questions deserve extended attention, which I can’t give to them here.
A final word, though. It’s well worth noting that the end of verse 13 marks a kind of crucial transition point in Lehi’s sermon. Rather creatively, he has brought Jacob, theologically, to the point of complete collapse. With “all things must have vanished away,” we’re breathtakingly left without anything—the creation itself (and us with it!) swept away into a void. Beginning with the next verse, though, there will be a kind of reversal, and everything will be taken up anew from the very act of creation. All that has been set forth in the first thirteen verses of this chapter will be set forth again, but now in reverse order—working believingly from rather than skeptically toward God’s inaugural act. Also significant about this turning point is that it seems to mark a move away from the particularity of Jacob being the addressee (it’s been “my first born in the wilderness” consistently to this point) to a more general address (beginning with verse 14, it will be “my sons” in the plural).
What comes in the second half of the sermon, then?
2 Nephi 2:14-18
Verse 14 itself reverses the tide of verse 13:
And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning, for there is a God, and he hath created all things—both the heavens and the earth and all things that in them is, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
It’s crucial, I think, to hear an emphasis on the “is” in “there is a God” and on the “hath” in “he hath created all things,” after what’s been said in verse 13. And here we get the heavens and the earth, as well as “all things” (which before were vanishing away)—and all this divisible into “things to act and things to be acted upon.” This last distinction again seems to be important. It will come back into the story toward the end of the chapter, and I’ll see if I can’t begin to make sense of it there.
But if we’ve been given the creation anew, we can expect purpose to come next:
And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man (after that he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field, and the fowls of the air, and, in fine, all things which are created), it must needs be that there was an opposition, even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life, the one being sweet and the other bitter. (2 Nephi 2:15)
Here we come back to purpose, and in particular to the role played in purpose by opposition. More importantly, here we get a full clarification of that core or fundamental opposition that allows for the possibility of all other oppositions. And what is it? The very forbiddenness of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That first, primordial opposition—between the two trees—is created through the No! that was attached to the one tree. That allows for every other opposition, especially because the No! will set desire in motion, and that will lead to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and that will lead to their knowing good and evil, etc.
But according to Lehi, there’s one more crucial element to this story. A simple No!, it would seem, is not enough. Here’s the next verse:
Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he were enticed by the one or the other. (2 Nephi 2:16)
This little verse is crucial, though it complicates the story immensely. From Saint Paul and a whole tradition of thinkers (many of them non-Christian) following him, we have learned that prohibition (No!) sets desire in machinic motion, and so far I’ve (almost) been suggesting that that was enough to tell the story—as if the very mobility of desire were enough to orient every opposition. But Lehi makes clear here that there’s more to the story. Also of importance is this business of an ability to act for oneself. The problem with the sort of desire set in motion by prohibition, as Paul teaches us, is that it’s in some sense autonomous or even irresistible. Desire—concupiscence—drives us mad precisely because it acts upon us, acts in our behalf, takes up its own agency within us. That much seems to be confirmed here by the emphasis on enticement: part of what has to happen, if this No! is to be a No!, is that it has to be bound up with enticement, with real desire. But what has all this to do with agency, with “acting for ourselves”?
Importantly, the first sentence in verse 16 seems to have reference to a particular moment in the Eden story—one that doesn’t appear in the Genesis version but does appear in the Book of Moses version (and I guess we’d have to presume that the one Lehi had either had this detail as well, or that he had gathered the idea from some other source). After the commandment concerning the tree of knowledge is given to Adam, God says this: “nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee” (Moses 3:17). I suspect that something like this is what’s behind the claim that “the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.”
If that’s clear enough, then what’s going on with the second sentence? Why couldn’t “man” (that is, Adam) act for himself without enticement? The point would seem to be that there was a real tension between saying No! and saying that Adam could choose for himself—almost as if those two statements undercut each other, leaving the prohibition without any real bite (pun intended). Prohibition alone might well have been enough to get Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, but when prohibition was coupled with a granted freedom, it lost its concupiscent force. Because part of God’s aim was to give Adam and Eve to act for themselves, it was necessary to grant freedom and so to compromise desire to some extent. But then, genuine agency wasn’t enough unless there was enticement.
Perhaps. I hope it’s clear that I’m struggling through this verse with great difficulty. It isn’t clear to me exactly what’s going on, but I hope I’ve at least identified the important elements. What is clear is that Lehi sees enticement to be a necessary part of the story (hence the next two verses), and that he sees one of God’s ultimate purposes in this whole story to be to remove human beings from the “acted upon” to the “acting” category. I suppose I’ll leave things at that for the moment.
The next two verses provide the necessary source of enticement:
And I, Lehi, according to the things which I have read, must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven. Wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God. And because that he had fallen from heaven and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind. Wherefore, he saith unto Eve—yea, even that old serpent which is the devil, which is the father of all lies—wherefore he saith: Partake of the forbidden fruit, and ye shall not die, but ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil. (2 Nephi 2:17-18)
For the most part, I can leave these verses to speak for themselves: the source of enticement is clear. But let me make just a couple of notes before moving on, since there are some very strange things going on here. First, notice how nervous Lehi is—nervous as a kitten—about what he’s explaining here: “according to the things which I have read,” “must needs suppose,” “according to that which is written,” etc. Lehi seems to feel that he’s getting a bit speculative, or that those listening to his sermon will doubt what he’s saying at this point. This is wild doctrine, it seems. Why? Second, notice that Lehi seems at first to be relatively non-committal about the devil: he’s “a devil,” not the devil. But eventually, we have “that old serpent which is the devil,” indeed, “the father of all lies,” and Lehi seems to be more committed to the idea that there is one chief devil. From both of these points, it almost seems that we are watching the forging of a doctrine here. And that’s worth thinking about.
But I want to get on to the aftermath.
2 Nephi 2:19-25
Verse 19 sees Adam and Eve out of the Garden. Then this:
And they have brought forth children—yea, even the family of all the earth. (2 Nephi 2:20)
Straightforward as that point seems at first, it turns out to be crucial. Why? Well, I’ll come to that. For the moment, verse 21:
And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh. Wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men—for he gave commandment that all men must repent. For he shewed unto all men that they were lost because of the transgression of their parents.
This will become a theological leitmotiv in the Book of Mormon, appearing in most atonement sermons (as before: especially in the Ammonihah speeches of Alma). Its frequency, though, perhaps makes us think we understand it thoroughly when there’s a bit more work to do with it than at first appears. The idea of life as a probationary state, etc., all that’s clear enough. But note that all this works according to a prolonging or a lengthening that is “according to the commandments,” specifically “that all men must repent.” This has reference, ultimately, to the play between the two “laws” talked about in the first part of the chapter (as becomes clear from Alma’s Ammonihah sermon): according to the first law, the consequence of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree is death, but the execution of that sentence is postponed (human beings have their days prolonged) so that a space is opened up within which repentance can take place, and that space is filled with the second law, the spiritual law. Thus, the point here is not just to say that life outside the Garden is a kind of test, but to spell out exactly what’s behind that test. We’re too quick to associate the mention of probation here with the idea from the Book of Abraham that life is a probation to see what we who kept our first estate will do in our second estate. Without denying that idea, I think it’s pretty safe to say that a distinct notion is at work in this discussion of probation.
Markign this especially is the last line of verse 21: God “shewed unto all men that they were lost because of the transgression of their parents.” The breaking of the temporal, first law results in perdition. The introduction of the spiritual law is a way of overcoming that perdition, assisted by the prolongation of a probationary period. The spiritual law is given, along with a space of time in which to determine one’s relation to that spiritual law, and that allows for the possibility of trumping the perdition that results from the transgression of the temporal law. There’s at work here a doctrine—get ready for this!—of original sin. It’s not the doctrine of original sin the way that most Latter-day Saints think of when they criticize the Christian theological tradition, but there’s a doctrine of original sin here nonetheless. The transgression of Adam and Eve leaves everyone lost, according to Lehi. How? Because they are all under the sway of death, and death orients us to ourselves and, so, to sin. The fall gives us all to be carnal, sensual, and devilish—immersed in a world of opposites but always inclined to the wrong pole. The spiritual law is a way of inclining human beings to the other pole, to the good pole.
But here’s the crucial point that will become clear further along: the spiritual law is not enough! Why? The answer develops only over the remainder of the chapter, so keep your eyes open. First, Lehi defends the Lord’s decision to allow for a transgression that would put every human being in such dangerous—indeed, impossible—circumstances. Hence:
And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed, he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state which they were after that they were created. And they must have remained forever and had no end. And they would have had no children. Wherefore, they would have remained in a state of innocence—having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.(2 Nephi 2:22-25)
This is beautiful stuff. It comes all the way back to the necessity of opposition from the first half of Lehi’s sermon and makes clear that, despite the perdition that comes with the Fall, the Fall was a crucial part of the plan. Without it, there was no purpose, end, or aim. Unfortunately, with it, human beings are lost, trapped under a machinic desire driven by one’s orientation to death. (We’ll see in 2 Nephi 9 how Jacob develops this question of death, and it’ll be interesting!) Is there any way to fix all this? I’ve already mentioned the fact that the spiritual law itself is not enough, since we are always inclined to the wrong pole of the basic opposition between good and evil. What could get us out of that trouble? The answer comes in the last part of Lehi’s sermon here, and it’s a bit complex.
2 Nephi 2:26-30
Verses 14-25 leave us with a terrible situation. In His wisdom, God has set human beings up for misery. He wanted them to exist in a world of opposition so that joy was a real possibility, but the only way to do that, it seems, was to have them transgress a (temporal) law in such a way that they became subject to death—subject in such a way that they are always naturally inclined, in that world of opposition, to what makes them completely miserable. A spiritual law was given—all are to repent if a second death is to be avoided—but threats can never be enough to turn people from evil desires to good ones. So human beings are, it seems, left without much of a recourse. Sure, “men are that they might have joy,” but it seems impossible for them to do anything that leads to real joy!
And then this:
And the Messiah cometh in the fullness of time that he might redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall, they have become free forever, knowing good and evil, to act for themselves and not to be acted upon (save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given). (2 Nephi 2:26)
This passage is absolutely crucial. It deserves very close reading and interpretation.
First and most importantly, it’s the Messiah’s work that finally makes possible the “that they might have joy” bit—and that work amounts, note, to redemption from the Fall. That sounds simple enough, but we’ve got to think more carefully about this than we are wont to do. The Messiah’s work, as earlier in this sermon, is entirely bound up with the resurrection. That is, if what has to be done in order to make goodness possible is for people to be redeemed from the Fall, then the key is in overturning death (the consequence of the Fall), and that alone is what seems to make possible the escape from spiritual death—what makes it possible to keep the spiritual law.
Let me see if I can make this point clearer. Lehi has already recognized that perdition is bound up with the transgression of Eden—with the eating of the forbidden fruit. The sentence passed on all human beings as a result of that transgression was death, though its execution was, remember, postponed (the days of mortality were prolonged) so that there would be a space in which repentance and a certain orientation to the spiritual law could be taken up. Somehow, death alone (as our inevitable horizon) is what orients us to sin. There is an inextricable entanglement of sin and death. We sin precisely because we’re going to die. Now, Lehi doesn’t explain why that is. He seems to take that point either as self-evident or unexplainable—who knows which? Whatever Lehi thinks about this, I think it’s quite possible to explain it, though the explanation is deeply philosophical. I’ll leave that philosophical discussion of the relationship between sin and death for another time, since Lehi leaves it out of his sermon. (I’ll come back to it in 2 Nephi 9, since Jacob gives a nice outline of it.) Suffice it to say, for the moment, that all sin is rooted in death—that were it not for death, we wouldn’t sin at all, and that were it not for the resurrection, we’d do nothing but sin.
So, the Messiah’s going to come “in the fullness of time” to accomplish this resurrection. Note the echoes here of verses 3-4, where Lehi said that Jacob had seen precisely this already, the result being that he was already redeemed, “even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh.” That same always-already-accomplished-messianic-redemption seems to be at work in the present passage as well. The Messiah will come in the fullness of times, but “the children of men” are already made free: “because they are redeemed from the fall, they have become free forever,” etc. It’ll be made even clearer in Alma’s Ammonihah sermon that this freedom was granted from the foundation of the world, and that it was announced to Adam and Eve themselves shortly after their expulsion from Eden.
So what about this freedom? The resurrection (redemption from the Fall) renders human beings free. How so? It pulls them out from under the shadow of death. Sin can actually be avoided if the resurrection is a reality. But don’t we remain under the sway of death until the actual resurrection of our bodies? Christ’s redemption doesn’t get rid of death; it conquers it from within, and the result is that we’ll have to die before the resurrection takes place, no? Exactly, but that means precisely that our orientation to the resurrection is and always will be a question of faith. The grace of the resurrection has been granted, and there’s nothing we can do to avoid its actual, physical effect. But we can deny that it will take place all the way up until it happens—and then even resent it afterward. The resurrection renders us free, but only if we believe in it, only if we are faithful to the event of Christ’s resurrection. Freedom is granted, but only in faith, only to the faithful. And faith here is neither a subjective feeling nor a strong conviction—it’s an orientation of life to the event of Christ’s rising from the dead.
Free forever, then. And free after knowing good and evil, at last. The Fall alone can’t be the whole story because, while it leaves human beings with the knowledge of good and evil, it also leaves them without the ability to incline away from the evil and toward the good. It’s only in a faithful orientation to the resurrection—a faithful orientation that breaks with the world delimited by death—that good becomes a possibility. More importantly, it’s only now, after the resurrection becomes not only a reality but a reality to which one can be oriented in faith (it has been announced, preached), that one can “act” and not “be acted upon.” Remember back to verse 16, which gave me a fair bit of trouble. There, whatever else was going on, it was clear that God wanted human beings to be able to act, rather than to be acted upon. The difficulty was that the Fall didn’t actually issue in that ability, thanks to death. It’s only with the resurrection that God’s ultimate purpose in this whole plan becomes a possibility: that one can act (in fidelity to the resurrection), rather than be acted upon (by death).
Of course, then there’s this note that indicates that there is still one way in which one will be acted upon, despite one’s freedom: “the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.” What’s this? It seems clear to me (look at the clear parallel in language between verses 21 and 26) that we’re referring here to the spiritual law, given after the Fall. The only way one can forfeit one’s freedom after death has been conquered is by giving oneself to another death, spiritual death. The resurrection has rendered one free, but one can nonetheless resent the resurrection, rebel against its announcement, and cling to one’s death—and the result is that one will, even in the resurrection, remain oriented to death, but now to a spiritual death (“the punishment of the law”).
That, I think, is what’s going on here. The upshot is then laid out in verse 27:
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh, and all things are given them which is expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death according to the captivity and power of the devil (for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself).
I should think this would be mostly clear on its own at this point. The freedom is clear, and it’s a freedom “according to the flesh,” which will be resurrected. And all expedient things are given—the announcement of the resurrection, I assume. And the result is that we’re free to choose between two options: “liberty” or “captivity,” or more tellingly, “eternal life” or “death.” Those are the options: life or death, the former being free of sin, the other refusing to be free of sin. And each of these choices comes with an association. Life comes “through” the Mediator. Death comes “according to the captivity and power” of the devil. The one (the One) actually provides the means for life, while the other does nothing but share his misery.
If all this is clear, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Lehi again address his sons directly, because he’s now going to make his final invitation:
And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments, and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life according to the will of his Holy Spirit, and not choose eternal death according tot he will of the flesh and the evil which is therein (which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell that he may reign over you in his own kingdom). I have spoken these few words unto you all, my sons, in the last days of my probation. And I have chosen the good part, according to the words of the prophet. And I have none other object save it be the everlasting welfare of your souls. Amen. (2 Nephi 2:28-30)
These verses, I should think, speak more than clearly for themselves. I’ll add only this note: what better illustration of the above doctrines could one have than the phrase “eternal death”?
And here I’ll wrap things up. I can only hope that something of what I’ve put together above makes some sense. I worry that the death/sin entanglement will be a hang-up for some, but the whole Book of Mormon is dedicated to making it clear. It’ll become clearer and clearer as we work through the book.
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