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BoM Lesson 4

Posted by Robert C. on January 18, 2008

1 Nephi 12-14: “The Things Which I Saw While I Was Carried Away in the Spirit”

Jim’s old questions and notes for this lesson can be found at: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=302

Feel free to discuss any of Jim’s questions here, or anything else related or somewhat related to this lesson.

I’d like to focus on the concept of covenants esp. as it is used in 1 Ne 13:23:

And he said: Behold [the book] proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it; and he said unto me: The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles. [emphasis mine]

I’ve become very interested in questions of how we should read and interpret scripture, and thus how we should think about what scripture is and what scripture mean. So, I find it very interesting that an angel describes the Bible, or at least what I’m assuming is the Bible, as a book that, emphatically, “contains the covenants of the Lord.” “Prophecies” are also mentioned, but the emphasis seems to be on covenants—the angel (or Nephi) reiterates this covenantal aspect of the Bible just before stating that “they are of great worth unto the Gentiles.”

So what are these covenants and why are they so important?

Interestingly, the plural form of covenants is used frequently in the Mormon scripture, but only 3 times in the New Testament and not at all in the Old Testament (at least not in the KJV, I haven’t checked the Hebrew; see here for a search at lds.org—if you include a search word in quotes, you can search for the exact form of that word). What should we make of this?

Notice, in 1 Ne 13:26 the angel tells Nephi:

And after [these things] go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. [emphasis mine]

What does this mean for “covenants of the Lord” to have been “taken away”? Should we think of the covenants of the Lord as God’s solemn promises made to Israel, and the taking away of these promises means that they were no longer recorded in scripture? Or could it mean that the types of covenants we learn about in the temple were no longer continued? What else could it mean?

I read an early draft of the book that Joe Spencer’s currently working on getting published. In it, he has a very fascinating discussion about a the structure of the small plates and the central role of covenant in that structure. Joe draws on work on Jon Levenson and Margaret Barker who both talk about the ancient (1st) temple tradition in terms of a dialectical theology that can be described in terms of covenant: creation, dissolution, and reinstatement of the covenant. Barker adds a fourth idea to this in her book Temple Theology: An Introduction which she calls wisdom. Joe refers to these four temple themes as Creation, Fall, Atonement, and Veil, and I will do likewise.

Joe argues that the small plates follow this fourfold structure: 1 Nephi 1-18 tells the story of the Nephites coming to a new world and creating a new civilization there; 1 Nephi 19 – 2 Nephi 5 describes “the breaking up of the Lehite people into two warring factions,” a fall from peace and unity; 2 Nephi 6-30, the section that Joe argues is specifically the “more sacred things” that Nephi mentions in 1 Nephi 19:5, includes a prophecy about the reestablishing of the Lehite covenant in the last days (esp. chapters 25-30) and in severalp assages explicitly takes up the theme of Christ’s atonement; 2 Nephi 31-33 talks about baptism as a gate which is similar to the doorway upon which the veil hangs in the temple—and in this light, the “knock” alluded to in 2 Nephi 32:4 also takes on added significance.

Well, I don’t have time to elaborate more on what Joe’s goes into in his book (he significantly elaborates on all of these points, for a good 50 pages of fascinating reading…). My point is that I think there are indeed interesting temple/covenantal themes in Nephi’s writing that this verse (1 Ne 13:23) brings out. And I think this theme of covenant suggests a particularly compelling reason for us to think about the role of covenant in scripture, the Bible as well as distinctly Mormon scripture.

One more thought: I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog my recent fascination with John Milbank’s work and the so-called Radical Orthodoxy movement. One particularly interesting subject he takes up is the differences between contractual exchange, gift exchange, and unilateral giving. Milbank basically argues that a pure, unilateral gift is not really possible to ever give or experience. And, he argues that gift exchange is significantly different than contractual/economic giving. Covenants can be thought in similar terms: are covenants like contracts, or are they like unilateral promises, or are they like the exchange of gifts, where there is a certain expectation of a reciprocation of the gift, but not a particular or immediate expectation of reciprocity? I’m actually inclined to think that the best way to think about covenants is in terms of reciprocal gift exchange, that even the so-called unconditional covenants and promises in scripture actually have strings-attached in the sense that God gives us these gifts with an expectation that we will be grateful and that we will in turn give something back (to God and to others). However, it is also a mistake to think of covenants as mere contracts. Our covenantal relationship with God does not entail being “commanded in all things”; rather, we must do many things of “our own free will” (D&C 58:26-27), not unlike a kind of gift or offering (or sacrifice) that we give to God or on behalf of God to others.

11 Responses to “BoM Lesson 4”

  1. Joe Spencer said

    Though I’ve not read the work of Walter Eichrodt, it is worth mentioning that he understands the central theme of the Old Testament to be covenant, and he wrote a two-volume (three in the original German) theology of the covenant. It is still a standard in Old Testament study, and might be a good source for thinking further about this.

    About the covenant running through Nephi, I’d add to Robert’s summary of my book that 1 Nephi 2:19-24 is perhaps the most important passage for locating the meaning of the Lehitic covenant. There it is given to Nephi (we are never told of the experience Lehi has in receiving it, though he tells us in 2 Nephi 1 that he did), and it is laid out in important detail. I’ve argued in some of our discussions recently for the importance of associating the two trips back to Jerusalem in 1 Nephi 3-4 and 7 to the way this covenant is laid out. I think the two visions of 1 Nephi 8-15 must also be connected carefully to the revelation of the covenant: the first part of 1 Nephi 11 can be read as suggesting that the tree is the covenant, and the fact that the visions of Lehi and Nephi both revolve around two trees would seem to point to the covenantal themes of Ezekiel 37 and Jacob 5.

    Much more can, of course, be said here.

  2. Robert C. said

    Yes, thanks Joe, Eichrodt is definitely an important figure to study regarding covenant (though I haven’t had time to read much of his work!). Here is a decent online source to get a brief overview of his work and the reception of his work—it seems to agree generally with Walter Brueggemann’s assessment in the latter’s Theology of the Old Testament, though I think Brueggemann takes a slightly more positive view, that there is much to gain from a careful study of Eichrodt’s work even though von Rad’s more multivalent approach has proved to be more influential.

    Some other interesting sources I’ve come across:

    * Scott Hahn has a nice overview of current research on “Covenant in the Old and New Testament”—see abstract and link here (I think a subscription or institutional access is required, but I’m happy to email the article to anyone interested: rcouchZZZ@byu.edu, without the ZZZ’s).

    * Michael Horton has 3 recent books (I think he now has a 4th planned or this project, which was originally planned to be only 3 books) on covenant theology from a Reformed perspective ( Covenant and Eschatology; Lord and Servant; Covenant & Salvation: Union with Christ). I’ve read several recommendations of Horton’s work, and he seems to interact with a broad range of scholars, theologians and philosophers (incl. Continental philosophers, Joe), so I’m anxious to find time to read some his work because I think this is strong interest in covenant is something we have in common with Refored/Evangelical thinkers.

    * Also, I forgot to mention in the post work that Joe has done on the wiki regarding the four “having’s” in 1 Nephi 1:1 which prefigure this fourfold structuration of 1st and 2nd Nephi: here is the link.

  3. I actually wrote a short essay on 1 Nephi 12 if anyone is interested. It does have a political slant but I believe the vision in Ch 12 is very intersting as a macro vision of the BoM. I hope this is not a threadjack.

    On the break up that Joe does in his book, I have always felt that there is a break up occurring also because Nephi is specifically forbidden to tell certain things. I would argue that the events immediately following the vision up to where Nephi begins it again are a sort of code, a way of him telling us via metaphor what he could not write more plainly. In particular the wandering and following of a prophet to a holy land.

  4. Robert C. said

    Joshua, thanks for the link to your very interesting article—indeed, I find it very interesting to notice how common this war them is in Nephi’s vision, and how it’s intimately tied to the filthy water of the vision.

    In my 12-13 year old class, we ended up talking a fair bit about 1 Ne 11:35 where it seems the inhabitants of the great and spacious building are linked with the house of Israel who are “gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Interesting to think how starkly this contrasts with the shalom publishing of peace in, say, 1 Ne 13:37 and 1 Ne 14:7 later in Nephi’s vision (and, to link this up with the covenant theme I’ve obsessed with in this post, cf. Isa 28:15, 18; Mal 2:5; Mosiah 18:13; 26:20; etc.).

  5. interesting point, I’ll have to review those scriptures. I wonder how much of what I see in the vision is different from what Nephi may have understood. I wonder if the war theme stuck out as tied to the water in his mind.

  6. Ben McGuire said

    I am working on some notes for my lesson (I was called to teach the class just this last Sunday). And part of them relate to the spacious building that Robert C mentions. Lehi is responding to what he views as apostate Israel in the early parts of 1 Nephi. When he departs three days journey into the wilderness, he is following a pattern set by Moses. Moses goes to Pharaoh and asks permission to take the Israelites out into the wilderness to worship their God in renewing their covenants and relationship with them:

    And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.

    Pharaoh doesn’t want them leaving Egypt so he suggests an alternative:

    And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, “Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land [in Egypt].” And Moses said, “It is not meet so to do; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to the LORD our God: lo, shall we sacrifice the abomination of the Egpytians before their eyes, and will they not stone us?

    After the plagues of Egypt occurred, Moses took the Israelites out into the wilderness three days, and there offered burnt offerings to the Lord. Nephi tells us:

    And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water. And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.

    Lehi is responding to what he views as apostate Israel in Jerusalem. Having abandoned the Lord, having turned from the prophets of God, he refuses to recognize the temple at Jerusalem any longer, and so he leaves, moving into the wilderness (as Moses and Israel did) three days to be outside of the cultic boundaries of Israel (and so outside of the area in which the zealous preistly groups in Jerusalem would have reasons to come after them for performing an abomination).

    The spacious building in Lehi’s dream can easily be read as being the Temple in Jerusalem – set to fall in upon itself, and the symbol (to Lehi) of all that could be viewed as inherently wrong with the public practice of Israelite religion in Jerusalem – particularly in light of the reform theology which I believe that Lehi disagreed with. In making this narrative into a new Exodus, Nephi is almost certainly referring to the Israelites in Jerusalem as the Egyptians …

  7. Joe Spencer said

    Ben, I think this connection between the great and spacious building and the temple is spot on. It seems best to read Lehi’s rather pared down vision of things directly in terms of the immediate conflict in which he is engaged: those relying on the temple (cf. the whole book of Jeremiah!) vs. those willing to flee out into the wilderness to find the tree that grows next to the desert stream. If this can all be connected up with Psalm 1, which has more and more been recognized in recent literature as one of the few places where a radical adherence to the Torah is advocated in a relatively early text, then one might suggest that Lehi sees his small group of people as a small remnant returning to the law and to the testimony, while everyone else falls all over the worship of a building. Very important contextual details, it seems to me.

  8. JWL said

    “Interestingly, the plural form of covenants is used frequently in the Mormon scripture, but only 3 times in the New Testament and not at all in the Old Testament …”

    I agree that covenants are an important element of these chapters. However, although the plural appears only 3 times in the Bible, the singular “covenant” appears 292 times in 272 verses in the KJV, so the concept is hardly absent from the Bible.

  9. I agree that covenant is central to all scripture, however, I believe the BofM does best the teaching of the covenant. In studying the bible it is somewhat difficult to define the “covenant.” Ambiguous. For example, take Noah (Gen 6:18-22). We know there is a covenant but it isn’t clearly defined. I think this is just one example of where plain and precious things were intentionally deleted from the Bible to be a stumbling block to those seeking a relationship with God. The BofM, on the other hand, repeatedly spells out the covenant and gives examples of covenant keeping people and the opposite.

  10. Jim F. said

    I think that Nanette’s original question is very interesting: Why does the Bible generally refer to covenant in the singular, but the Book of Mormon usually uses the plural? The difference is sufficiently striking to suggest that the two peoples may have understood “covenant” differently. For example, is the Bible thinking of the covenant made at Sinai while the Book of Mormon is thinking of the various covenants made and then re-made–with Abraham, Moses, etc.?

    That leads me to another question, though probably not for this lesson: Do we make one covenant with God or several? I could understand my covenant relation to him as one thing that gets reiterated and deepened rather than as a series of things.

  11. Robert C. said

    JWL, thanks for clarifying this—I’d hate for others to think I was suggesting covenant is not an important concept for thinking about the Bible. In fact, I’ve been reading a bit about Covenant Theology by other, mostly Reformed, Christians and it was this background study that made this covenantal description of the Bible jump out at me. In other words, I think this verse makes so-called covenant theology (and Eichrodt’s work as Joe mentioned in comment #1) very relevant to Mormons—if for no other reason than to contrast the understanding we see develop in the Book of Mormon with that found by other scholars in the Bible, and to see where we might be able to learn from others’ study and thought about the Bible, and possibly where the Book of Mormon might suggest alternate ways of reading the Bible.

    Jim, this issue of one covenant that is continually reaffirmed, renewed, or extended vs. new covenants being made interests me very much. I’m currently reading Paul Williamson’s book Abraham, Israel, and the Nations which takes up this question in detail as it pertains to Genesis 15 vs. Genesis 17—an excellent work. Williamson takes a synchronic (i.e., holistic rather than redactional) approach to the Abraham cycle and basically argues for a rather strong distinction between a land and posterity aspect to the covenant vs. an “international blessings” aspect to the covenant which is more emphasized in Genesis 17 than Genesis 15, and it is confirmed in Genesis 22 (and presaged in Genesis 12). My idea—I haven’t read enough of Williamson to know if he takes this up or not—is that it seems there is more of a conditional aspect to the latter, international-blessings aspect of the covenant. So, perhaps Nephi was terming these different aspects different covenants. Or perhaps the multiple covenants are referring to various conditional aspects of the Abrahamic covenant. Or maybe the Abrahamic covenant is simply being viewed by Nephi as a separate covenant than the Noachic covenant. Hmmm….

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