Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Nephi and the Jews?

Posted by robf on April 3, 2007

I’m one of those Book of Mormon readers who has a hard time getting past 1 Nephi. Not because I run out of steam there, but because the last few years I’ve found so much to think about there that I just seem to keep turning back there again and again. For the last few months, I’ve had a hard time getting past 1 Nephi 5.

This morning I had a lot of thoughts about Lehi and Nephi’s family and their relationship to the Jews at Jerusalem. Nephi repeatedly talks about “the Jews” and I think most of the time I haven’t really thought about what this might mean. But today, it really struck me how much Nephi seems to be trying to differentiate himself from “the Jews.” I don’t see Nephi as considering himself a Jew.

In 1 Nephi 5:14 we read that Lehi and Nephi are of the Tribe of Joseph–not the Tribe of Judah. So while Lehi “dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days,” did he perhaps see himself as an outsider? When Lehi goes forth and prays “with all his heart, in behalf of his people” who is he praying for? The Jews at Jerusalem, or perhaps his fellow members of the Tribe of Joseph? What was the relationship between the Jews and other Israelite tribes at 600 B.C.?

When Nephi is commanded to go back to Jerusalem and get the “record of the Jews” what did that mean? Why did Laban, another kinsman of the Tribe of Joseph, have what could only have been a very valuable set of Jewish scriptures? Was Lehi more interested in the “record of the Jews” or in the “lineage of his fathers” which were also on the plates? And why was the record of that lineage on the same plates as the “record of the Jews”? And why did Laban and his fathers maintain the “record of the Jews”?

Lots of questions I’m just starting to ponder. At any rate, while Lehi and Nephi lived in Jerusalem, and have been educated in the “learning of the Jews,” Nephi takes pains to emphasize that his family are not Jews. Even before they leave Jerusalem, they appear to be outsiders. What does that mean for our understanding of how we should read the Book of Mormon, and how does Nephi’s position effect the book’s purpose to convince the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God?

16 Responses to “Nephi and the Jews?”

  1. danithew said

    I think Nephi might be referring specifically to the people who were at Jerusalem as “the Jews” and he is angry at them, I believe, for at least two reasons:

    1) They are wicked (and so Jerusalem is going to be destroyed)
    2) They were plotting to kill Lehi (Nephi’s father).

  2. Ben said

    Nephi had also had 30 years to think about it. Given his antipathy regarding the actions of those who lived at Jerusalem, I don’t think it’s surprising to see himself distancing himself from them. The question, still a difficult one today, is what defines “Jew”? Nephi seems to have a fairly narrow geographical definition.

  3. robf said

    Thanks Ben, I think that gets to what I’m wondering. What were the actual ethnic identities at the time, and are there differences reflected there in the Book of Mormon that we might not have considered much before?

  4. nhilton said

    Just as today “Jew” is an ethnic term AND a denominational term, not necessarily one and the same with every individual. Nephi, living in Jerusalem, was obviously a denominational Jew in the sense that he & his family believed in & worshiped Yahweh or Jehovah, the God of the Jews. Since the majority of the Jews never returned to Jerusalem after the Diaspora Nephi’s comments about the Jews, including his prayers for them, were probably focused on those Jews who did return, but didn’t escape the fate of Jerusalem.

    However, I think Nephi DID consider himself a Jew in the large sense of the word, denominationally & ethnically. He clearly kept in remembrance all that had happened to his “Jewish” forefathers, lumping all Israelite tribes together. I think for him to have divorced himself from the root of his lineage, separating himself into the tribe of Joseph idependant of Joseph’s siblings & Nephi’s great+ uncles, would have been similar to separating into “ites” of any kind that we see happen post-promised-land in the Book of Mormon. It would have been history repeating itself. I think Nephi was too wise and farsighted to fall into this trap.

    As I read this blog, often participants use the words LDS & Mormons in contextual ways intended to distiguish and separate themselves from THOSE LDS/Mormons (usually in terms of religious philosophy, teaching, & studying modes), even tho the writer is ALSO LDS. Perhaps this is what Nephi was doing.

  5. Robert C. said

    Great questions. Here is a subpage of Matthew’s at the wiki which lists a few key verses regarding Nephi’s use of the term Jew. I’m inclined to think of the Jews as they that live in Jerusalem. Notice that D&C 19:27 and 2 Ne 30:4 talk about the Nephites and Lamanites as a remnant and the descendants of the Jews—this makes me think the term is more cultural and geographical than blood-focused.

  6. BrianJ said

    Great question! And I love how you frame your focus on the first part of Nephi.

    The verse that stands out to me is 2 Nephi 33:8:

    I have charity for the Jew—-I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came.

    That really sounds like Nephi is using the term as a geographic marker: he came from the Jews, but his people are not Jews because they live elsewhere. And he seems to be writing to people who would not be familiar with the term. It’s still not clear to me, however, whether he considered himself a Jew.

  7. nhilton said

    I read the above verse to mean Nephi has undergone an evolution of thought. I don’t think “Jew” is a geographical identifier contextually HERE, but a way to distinguish ideology. As prophet he has seen the grand sweeping vision privy to many dispensational prophets and he’s aware of his past, present & future in terms of Jewishness. I love his expression of charity, or pure love of Christ, that he is expressing for these “still Jewish” peoples and all that term means in suffering, being the “chosen” people, etc. He is very much Jewish, but much, much more by the time he is recording his message.

  8. danithew said

    There’s another way to look at this – if Nephi did not identify specifically with “the Jews” (as he says) or with the inhabitants of Jerusalem or with the tribe of Judah – however you want to put it … he still certainly identified with the house of Israel.

    One of the huge markers of this is the degree to which Nephi placed importance on the Exodus and the accomplishments of Moses. When Nephi rebukes his brothers, he seems to often refer to the time period in which Moses brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. This is obviously a very big deal to him and he doesn’t forget it, ever. He seems pained to remind his brothers, Laman and Lemuel, of the miracles the Lord wrought to bring Moses and the people of Israel out of Egypt and wants them to liken this to their own situation.

    It’s nice to ponder this during Passover, which to this day is still a very important period of holy days for the Jewish people.

  9. Sterling said

    I have wondered about these questions also. Here are some more questions that may answer your questions.

    1 Ne. 1:1
    Why does Nephi not provide at least a brief listing of his ancestors? Is it possible Nephi grew up without a specific knowledge of who his ancestors were? Did Nephi have to wait until he had delivered the brass plates to his father to “discover the genealogy of his fathers” (1 Ne 5:15)? If so, how did this affect Nephi’s identity and sense of heritage? Even though he identified with the Jews (see 2 Ne 25:6 and 2 Ne 33:8) and Israel (see 1 Ne 13:34 and 1 Ne 15:12), did Nephi tend to only trace his lineage back to this father?

    1 Ne. 1:2
    Jews and Egyptians. What is Nephi’s concept of these two groups at the time he writes this verse? Has Nephi already had the visions of 1 Ne. 13-15 by the time he puts these thoughts to paper? If so, how does his discussion of Jews in those chapters influence what he is saying here? Or is it possible that Nephi held those later understandings of Jews in abeyance while he wrote this verse, in an attempt to recreate the understanding of Jews he started out with?

    1 Ne. 1:4
    Who exactly was Nephi referring to when he used the phrase “the people”? What does this say about his conceptualization of his own identity and the identities of everyone else in Jerusalem? Did every single inhabitant of Jerusalem have great need to repent? Was the city completely wicked? Was there no one left who followed the law of Moses? How sincere and thorough was the religious reform that happened forty years earlier if everyone was now wicked? Were there any exceptions to this apparently uniform wickedness? If Ishmael’s family and Laban’s servant Zoram can be considered at least partial exceptions to Nephi’s characterization, does that mean there were other, scattered inhabitants of Jerusalem who were at least somewhat righteous? What evidence do we have that some of the people in Jerusalem actually repented? Should we assume that the only people in Jersualem who repented are the ones who joined Lehi in his exodus to the promised land?

  10. BrianJ said

    Sterling: interesting point about Nephi’s geneology. I have wondered about that before: Why does Lehi apparently not know his lineage until after he reads through the brass plates? In light of Nephi’s Jewishness (or not), perhaps Lehi was not identified as a Jew even though he lived in Israel. Perhaps he was viewed as a mixed-breed (e.g. Samaritan). That would certainly aggravate those in Jerusalem when Lehi told them to repent.

  11. nhilton said

    #8 danithew, per your Passover reference, I attended a Messianic Jewish Passover Seder last night. I couldn’t help but consider this post and how Nephi would have related to these “Jews.” These Jews distinguish themselves as believers in Jesus as the Messiah who has atoned for the world. They, however, were very much Jewish–not what you immediately think of as a Jew. They believed their Jewish brothers & sisters to be unenlightened and are working for such. Perhaps this is a model for Nephi as a Jew. In fact, in reading Mosiah 2 yesterday, I wondered if this were a Passover the Nephites were celebrating as they (v.3-4) “…took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses;…”

  12. I’d like to think about this more carefully before I offer anything like a response. But great questions here, Rob. Long live the focus on Nephi!

  13. Actually, let me weigh in a little earlier than I thought I would.

    It is certainly interesting that the word “Jew” finds its earliest appearances (historico-critically) in Jeremiah, a prophet both mentioned by Nephi and apparently somehow connected with Lehi. The word is, in Jeremiah, always a translation of yhwdy: “Judahite,” that is, someone from the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

    This may be at work in Nephi as well, since Nephi speaks qualifiedly of the “Jews who were at Jerusalem” (in 1 Nephi 2:13), apparently distinguishing these Jews from other Jews (Laman and Lemuel are compared to those Jews specifically, apparently as opposed to the Jews more broadly). This focus on the wickedness of those in the city reflects Nephi’s interest in Isaiah: the Jews in Jerusalem (the wealthy, the political, the proud) are the problem, while the rest of the Jews are “just fine.”

    Twice in 1 Nephi 15, Nephi writes “of the Jews, or of the house of Israel” (verses 17 and 20). This seems to confirm that the “Jews” are those who live throughout Judea, and not just those in Jerusalem. It seems a stretch to me to suggest that these two phrases would push the reference to include the Northern Kingdom: I would imagine that for Nephi the Northern Kingdom, split up among the nations, had simply become so many gentiles. In other words, “the house of Israel” here has reference to those who remain gathered, not to the those who, historically, descended from Israel.

    But all of this is merely lexical. Rob raises some very interesting questions here. Given the recent interpretation of Lehi’s “land of inheritance” (that it would have been in the reconquered land of Mannaseh, up north), it might well be that Lehi was praying on behalf of the Josephites who were trapped in the middle of Judean concerns. The almost inordinate focus on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon is perhaps suggestive here: Isaiah, who prophesied the fall of the Northern Kingdom, seems to have been appropriated by the Northerners who escaped the conquest by fleeing into Judea, so radically, in fact, that Isaiah’s distaste for the urban world of Jerusalem seems fundamentally to have become a part of lingering Northern religion. In a sense, it is this “lingering Northern religion” that is at the heart of Margaret Barker’s work: what religion did Isaiah maintain that was held onto by those who were uncomfortable with the centralization of the cult in wicked Jerusalem? In a word, might Lehi have been praying for those who would maintain the de-centralized Israelite religion, the one represented by throne-theophanies and such as appear in the very first chapter of 1 Nephi?

    This whole theme seems to play an important role in the Nephite prophecies of the rejection of Christ. It is because of “priestcrafts”–false religion–that Jesus will be killed by the Jews at Jerusalem (a theme Jacob especially takes up, both in 2 Nephi 6-10 and his own book of Jacob). Once the pure leave Jerusalem (might this be taken as an echo of the Sodom & Gomorrah story? Isaiah calls Jerusalem the sister of Sodom & Gomorrah in one of the chapters Nephi writes into his book…), the city is left to the destroyer. (This is opening up for me a whole series of interesting connections: Revelation gives us the two prophets who will come into the wicked city, not unlike the two angels who come into Sodom in Gen 19; both sets of two are assaulted but “rise again” as they lay the city waste; this theme of two dying in the wicked city appears uniquely in Nephi’s quotation of Isaiah: 2 Nephi 8:20. What might be at work in all of this?)

    And none of this is even getting, yet, to the question of the brass plates. Is it a document brought from Israel during the Assyrian conquest? Who is Laban, after all? And why would a record from the Northern Kingdom have a history of the Jews in it? What is at work here?

    Rob, thanks again. I’ll keep thinking and try to post more of my thoughts tomorrow.

  14. Robert C. said

    Joe, this is a truly fascinating and inspirational flurry of thoughts you’ve shared, thanks.

  15. robf said

    Joe, thanks for helping me explore this more. Lots to think about.

  16. robf said

    For those who haven’t seen it, see Jeffrey Chadwick’s “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (pp. 81-130).

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