Getting Ready for Book of Mormon Lessons 2-11: Some Preliminaries on Nephi
Posted by joespencer on December 27, 2011
There are eleven lessons in the manual on the writings of Nephi. Nephi’s writings are so profoundly complex and remarkably rich that I can’t resist putting together an introduction to all eleven lessons. Ten weeks is enough time, of course, only to begin to reflect on Nephi’s record, but I’ll be providing too much information in my lesson notes anyway. This introduction will be, in many ways, crucial to making sense of anything I have to say about Nephi’s record over the course of lessons 2-11.
Fawn Brodie said the following about Joseph Smith: “There are few men … who have written so much and told so little about themselves. To search his six-volume autobiography for the inner springs of his character is to come away baffled. … His story is the antithesis of a confession” (No Man Knows My History, p. vii). Referring to Joseph Smith with these words, I think Brodie was bafflingly wrong, but had she been referring to Nephi, she couldn’t have said something more accurate. Nephi’s record (in two volumes, as it were: First Nephi and Second Nephi) hangs like a veil between us and him, making it very difficult to know what he was like. Only at moments does something of his character seem to shine through his words (I’m thinking, for example, of 2 Nephi 4:15-35); most of the time, a deeply self-conscious spirit seems to have led him to idealize, to simplify, and to prettify his record. As many readers—those perhaps a bit more skeptical in orientation—have noted, Nephi comes off in his record a little too well. He never doubts or hesitates, and his every action exudes righteous zeal.
But perhaps all this is a clue to his personality. Many have taken it as a clue, concluding that Nephi was something of a self-righteous prig, that he, at least to some extent, deserved the treatment he received from his brothers. I wonder, though, if it isn’t a clue in another sense—less an indication that Nephi was someone who can’t be wrong and so can only be regarded as insufferably obnoxious, and more an indication that Nephi was naively baffled at others’ lack of zeal. I think Orson Scott Card in his Homecoming series (a sci-fi series the first four volumes of which are drawn from the story of Nephi in the Book of Mormon) has more or less nailed Nephi’s character: he was someone who just couldn’t see why the will of God didn’t immediately draw uncompromised obedience from others.
The Nephi I find when I read this record is thus neither the straightforwardly exemplary Nephi of primary lessons nor the justifiably annoying Nephi of those willing to give Laman and Lemuel a break. The Nephi I find is one who struggled in the desert, on the ocean, in the New World to make sense of how others related to God—a Nephi who eventually saw that his earliest manifestations of zeal were manifestations of zeal without knowledge that had caused irreparable damage to the relationship he hoped to have with his brothers. Faced rather late in life with the task of putting a record together that he knew would play a role in defining the Nephite community for centuries, he had to decide how to tell the story of the journey to the New World in a way that would promote obedience among a people already prone to wander, maintain the unstable foundations of a political community, and contextualize what Nephi regarded as the most important part of his record: a complex weaving together of the essence of his apocalyptic vision with the writings of Isaiah drawn from the brass plates.
What Nephi put together in the shape of First and Second Nephi is, in my eyes, a masterpiece. Let me see if I can’t justify that both in the course of the remainder of this post and in the course of the posts I have yet to write on both First and Second Nephi.
Structure is of real importance in interpreting scripture. I think that’s especially true of Nephi’s writings. Without providing all the nit-picky details of the argument (I’ve done that elsewhere), let me outline what I take to be the structure of Nephi’s larger record. It breaks down into four parts, clearly identified by Nephi himself:
1. 1 Nephi 1-18, the story of the establishment of the Lehite people in the New World.
2. 1 Nephi 19 – 2 Nephi 5, the story of the breaking up of that people into two rival factions.
3. 2 Nephi 6-30, the sermons, quotations, and prophecies that make up the sacred heart of the record.
4. 2 Nephi 31-33, a concluding word concerning the doctrine of Christ.
There is a story being told here. It isn’t difficult to see this in the first two parts of the record: part one recounts the establishment of the Lehites in the New World, while part two recounts the breaking up of the Lehites into the Nephites and Lamanites. But part three isn’t disconnected from all this. Significantly, one of the two rival factions (the Lamanites, of course) ends up at the conclusion of part two being, in Nephi’s words, “cut off from the presence of the Lord.” Consequently, part three of the record contains a series of prophecies—woven into “likenings” of Isaiah’s writings—that outline the then-future reconciliation of the Lamanites to God. Part three, in other words, is meant to outline how the disaster of part two is to be overcome eventually. Part four is a kind of brief concluding word focused mostly on baptism.
A fourfold structure, following a fourfold pattern: foundation, division, reconciliation, conclusion. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to read this pattern in the following terms: creation, fall, atonement, veil. 1 Nephi 1-18 recounts the creation of a new people in a new world, and the last verses of 1 Nephi 18 confirm this drastically when they make a series of allusions directly to the creation story of Genesis 1 (land emerging out of the sea, planting seeds in the land, discovering animals, and finally turning all those animals over to the “use of man”). 1 Nephi 19 – 2 Nephi 5 then recounts the fall of that new people, resulting in the Lamanites being “cut off from the presence of the Lord,” and the profound focus of 2 Nephi 2 (Lehi’s rightly celebrated sermon on the Fall) confirms this point nicely. 2 Nephi 6-30 then provides an account of at-one-ment, of reconciliation, prophesying of the return of the Lamanites to the favor of the Lord—this theme of atonement being put in the mouths of three messengers on a divine errand, and presented immediately following Nephi’s building (in 2 Nephi 5) of a temple. (I’ll note, though only parenthetically, that in 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Nephi explicitly calls this third part of his record “the more sacred things.”) Finally, 2 Nephi 31-33 speaks at great length of the gate at which one must knock and through which one must enter, of the task of praying before that gate if one desires to pass through it in the right way, of what lies on the other side of that veil (concerning which Nephi says he “cannot say more” because “the Spirit stoppeth [his] utterance”), etc. The pattern, it seems to me, is quite clear.
If it is clear, let me step back from it to say a bit more about what I think Nephi’s doing with it.
Though we tend as readers of the Book of Mormon to regard Nephi as a prophet more or less continually given to revelation, his record actually only presents him as having had one—very major—revelatory experience, namely, that recorded in 1 Nephi 11-14. This apocalyptic vision came to him while he was very young (his family had not yet left their camp in the valley of Lemuel), and he reports no other major revelatory experience granted him during his life. In many ways, it seems that he saw his task in writing his record to be to enshrine his one major vision or revelation in a setting that would help it to be understood. The vision comes to the forefront of Nephi’s record twice. Obviously, it plays a major role in the “creation” portion of the record, where it appears as part of the narrative in 1 Nephi 11-14. There the task is simply one of recording what happened when it happened. And it seems that much of the rest of the narrative of 1 Nephi 1-18 is there in the text just to set up the circumstances—the contextually crucial circumstances—under which the vision was received. Much later in the record, specifically in 2 Nephi 25-30, Nephi’s apocalyptic vision again becomes focal. There Nephi describes it as a kind ready-to-hand “spirit of prophecy” on which he can draw when he assumes the task of “likening” Isaiah to his people. But it shouldn’t be missed that the return of the vision of 1 Nephi 11-14 takes place in the culminating, concluding chapters of the “atonement” portion of Nephi’s record. Those six chapters are, really, the finale of Nephi’s record, and there is where the vision comes out with full force.
But if Nephi’s apocalypse is indeed the focus of his record, why all the extra material? Well, at the very least because it is only one of at least three major foci.
As every frustrated reader of the Book of Mormon knows, Nephi is deeply interested—most would probably say: too interested—in Isaiah. All in all, Nephi’s record takes over from the Book of Isaiah the whole of Isaiah 2-14, Isaiah 29, and Isaiah 48-51, in addition to a few other scattered quotations of or allusions to Isaiah. (Subsequent Book of Mormon figures will bring Isaiah 52-55 into the story as well.) Despite the frustrations of baffled readers, however, these Isaiah quotations are absolutely crucial to Nephi’s purpose. Indeed, it seems clear to me that Nephi’s record has been completely misunderstood if Isaiah has not been grappled with. I can’t even begin to spell out in the space I should limit myself to here what Nephi’s doing with Isaiah (though I can refer to a piece I published a short while ago on the subject), but here are a few signposts at any rate. I believe Nephi takes Isaiah to be the prophet of the covenant, and particularly the prophet who thinks most profoundly about the role that writing plays in the history of the covenant. Nephi quotes Isaiah 2-14, a long stretch of text that centers on Isaiah’s “theology of writing” in Isaiah 6-8 (exposited most helpfully by Gerhard von Rad in the second volume of his Old Testament Theology), and then weaves it together with Isaiah 29—Isaiah’s other exposition of the theology of writing—in the last part of his record. All of this, it seems to me, makes clear that Nephi is interested first and foremost in the way that Isaiah saw written-and-then-sealed texts playing a specific role in reworking the history of the covenant people. (Why Nephi was interested in that specifically I will explain—if it isn’t entirely obvious already—in a moment.) Further, Nephi brings into his record Isaiah 48-51, thus launching a trajectory that will include Isaiah 52-55 and that makes up the veritable backbone of the Book of Mormon. It’s my belief that Nephi brings these chapters from “Second Isaiah” into his record in order to explore even further the implications of Isaiah’s theology of writing. How they do so, though, is something I can’t even begin to exposit here. (I’ll just have to gesture back to the article linked to above, or point to my book that will be coming out in the next weeks, at long last, where I discuss all this at length. I’ll mention here, perhaps tantalizingly, that it is only through close investigation of the respective roles of First and Second Isaiah in Nephi’s record that any sense can be made of the division of Nephi’s record into two books.) At any rate, it is clear that Isaiah is among the foci of Nephi’s record, quite as much a focus as his visionary experience.
What have these first two foci to do with each other? It isn’t, I think, actually terribly difficult to figure that out. It seems clear to me that Nephi’s vision early in his wilderness travels gave him a set of themes to study: first and foremost (1) the role of the covenant in the history of Israel and (2) the role to be played in that covenantal history of a book that would be written, sealed up, and then brought forth. When Nephi began to read Isaiah (note that the first mention of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon comes in Nephi’s explanation of his vision/his father’s dream to his brothers in 1 Nephi 15!), he found that it was the clearest resource for thinking about the stakes of his apocalyptic vision. The larger structure of Nephi’s record, it seems to me, works to introduce Isaiah slowly to its readers, culminating in the massive quotation of Isaiah 2-14 in 2 Nephi 12-24, which paves the way for Nephi’s final exposition of his vision—an exposition that works as a weaving together of Nephi’s vision and the text of Isaiah 29. In his final reflections, Nephi brings the two trajectories of his record together with real force: his visionary experience with its themes and his obsession with Isaiah’s writings and their themes. These two foci give Nephi’s record its power and orientation.
And yet there is at least one other major focus in Nephi’s record, and it deserves mention. At the heart of Nephi’s larger record, I have already suggested, is the “atonement” portion. At the heart of that portion, it is worth saying, is the so-called “Isaiah chapters.” (Though 2 Nephi 25-30 makes up the culminating finale of the record, 2 Nephi 12-24 are clearly the privileged centerpiece of 2 Nephi 6-30: the direct words of Isaiah are sandwiched between sermons from Jacob—2 Nephi 6-10—and Nephi—2 Nephi 25-30—both of which are dedicated to the interpretation of Isaiah’s writings.) At the heart of the so-called “Isaiah chapters” is Isaiah 6 (= 2 Nephi 16), sandwiched between prophecies of destruction (Isaiah 2-5 = 2 Nephi 12-15) and prophecies of restoration (Isaiah 7-14 = 2 Nephi 17-24). And at the heart of Isaiah 6 is an event that seems to be the third focus of Nephi’s record. That is, at the heart of the heart of the heart of the heart of Nephi’s record is an event of real importance: Isaiah’s induction into the heavenly council.
Hopefully, Isaiah 6 is familiar. Isaiah is in the temple when he suddenly has a vision of the Lord on the throne. Shocked and prepared to be obliterated, he is shown mercy when a seraph presses a burning coal to his lips, cleansing his language and allowing him to join the heavenly throngs surrounding God’s throne. This initiation of sorts marks the unmistakable turning point of the Isaiah chapters Nephi quotes at such length (the shift from prophecies of destruction to prophecies of restoration). Still more importantly, though, it is clearly connected with the very beginning and the very ending of Nephi’s record. 1 Nephi 1 tells the story of Lehi’s first visions, in the second of which Lehi sees the heavens open to reveal God sitting on a throne surrounding with angels who, like the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, sing and praise God. Lehi receives no seraph with a burning coal, but he does receive a messenger from the heavenly gathering who brings him, instead, a book and bids him to read it (to give his lips to it?). After reading, Lehi finds himself among the angels in the vision, offering his own words of praise and addressing the throne of God specifically. The connections are crucial, I think. And then, in 2 Nephi 31, Nephi concludes his record with a few words about “the doctrine of Christ,” which I have already here connected with the theme of the veil. Importantly, the passage through the veil in 2 Nephi 31 is described in terms that are clearly meant to echo Lehi’s and Isaiah’s experiences. To be baptized is to receive the following promise, according to Nephi: “then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 31:13). Lehi’s inaugural experience and Isaiah’s focal experience become, through the universalizing gesture of Christ’s baptism (what Nephi describes in 1 Nephi 11 as, interestingly, “the condescension of God”), something absolutely every reader of Nephi’s record can come to experience.
And here we have the third focus of Nephi’s record. Not only does he wish to communicate his apocalyptic vision and what it spells out for the covenant people. And not only does he wish to give that apocalyptic vision to be understood through a careful weaving together of it and the writings of Isaiah. Nephi also wishes to make clear the role of Christ in that history of the covenant, and in particular of the way that Christ makes possible for absolutely everyone—“black and white, bond and free, male and female, . . . Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33)—to come into the presence of God in the company of angels to sing and shout praises to the Holy One of Israel, there to receive as both Lehi and Isaiah did prophetic commissions and divinely bestowed tasks, thence to be sent down a path for which the Holy Ghost is the only source of direction because what has to be done is an irremediably prophetic work. It is not enough just to see the shape of covenantal history. And it is not enough just to see how that covenantal history is rooted in scripture. It is also necessary to set out to announce the truth of that covenantal history, and that can only be done if one has received the fire of the directing Holy Ghost, coupled with a commission from God.
Such, at any rate, is what I find in Nephi’s record. Obviously there are a few details to work out. And I’ve only given the barest bones of a summary here. But I’ve got ten lessons over which to spread my notes on Nephi. Expect more. Expect much more.
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