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Book of Mormon Lesson #2: “All Things According to His Will,” 1 Nephi 1-7 (Sunday School)

Posted by joespencer on January 1, 2012

My task here is to say something about 1 Nephi 1-7 in a reasonable amount of space. I’ll see what I can do. Much of what I have to say can only be understood in the context I have already worked out at length in a post on Nephi’s record generally. I highly recommend it be read in connection with these notes.

At any rate, to work!

In the original Book of Mormon, the chapter breaks were different. (Our current chapter divisions were the invention of Orson Pratt in the late nineteenth century.) I think it’s of some importance that all of 1 Nephi 1-5 made up the first chapter of the Book of Mormon originally, while all of 1 Nephi 6-9 made up the second chapter. For that reason, I want to think carefully about the consistency and totality of 1 Nephi 1-5 as a whole unit. I won’t reflect in this post on 1 Nephi 6-9 at any length, but I will come back to that point with some details in my post on 1 Nephi 8-11, 15. (To give a sense in advance: I think it’s dangerous to index 1 Nephi 8 to 1 Nephi 11-15 when Nephi himself indexed it, rather, to 1 Nephi 6-7, 9. Nephi seems, in a word, to have wanted to keep 1 Nephi 8—Lehi’s dream—somewhat separate from 1 Nephi 11-15—Nephi’s own “version” of that dream. All this will be important in my next set of notes.)

These chapter divisions are important in another sense as well. It is clear from a series of textual clues that First Nephi divides into two distinct “halves.” The clearest indication is the appearance of the subtitle of First Nephi (“His Reign and Ministry”) in the first verse of 1 Nephi 10: “And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry.” Further clues make clear what drives this division of First Nephi into two parts: 1 Nephi 1-9 (originally, the first two chapters of First Nephi) tells the story of Lehi, while 1 Nephi 10+ tells the story of Nephi. (Note, for instance, the rest of 1 Nephi 10:1, a bit of an apology for bothering to continue to talk about Lehi after making the break: “wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren.” Very important to sorting all this out is 1 Nephi 1:16-17, where Nephi provides his first points of structuration in explicit terms.)

All that clear, then, I want to look first at 1 Nephi 1-5 as a whole, trying to unravel its integrity as a complete narrative. And then I want to make just a few comments on 1 Nephi 6-7, but mostly leaving until my next set of notes to address the importance of 1 Nephi 6-9 as a whole.

1 Nephi 1-5

The first five chapters of the Book of Mormon begin and end with parallel stories. What is now 1 Nephi 1 begins with the story of Lehi’s inaugural visions, at the culmination of which Lehi finds himself with “a book” from heaven that “fill[s him] with the Spirit of the Lord” and thus leads him to “exclaim many things unto the Lord” (1 Nephi 1:11-12, 14). What is now 1 Nephi 5 concludes with the story of the return from Jerusalem of Lehi’s sons, at the culmination of which Lehi finds himself with “the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass” which “fill[s him] with the Spirit” again and thus leads him “to prophesy” with power (1 Nephi 5:10, 17). What was originally the first chapter of First Nephi thus began and ended with Lehi receiving through divine intervention a record that gave him the spirit necessary to prophesy. From this it seems clear that it is best to read 1 Nephi 1-5 as telling the same story twice, the story through which a divine record is “brought down” from an inaccessible beyond to Lehi—first from heaven itself to earth (in 1 Nephi 1), and then from Jerusalem to the wilderness camp at the valley of Lemuel (in 1 Nephi 2-5). I can only believe that all this is intentional. And as if to make the emphasis on records all the clearer to the reader, Nephi prefaces all this with three verses (1 Nephi 1:1-3) explaining his own purposes in writing a record.

I think it would be best to tackle 1 Nephi 1-5 in several parts. I won’t try to comment on absolutely everything in these chapters, for obvious reasons. Consequently, I’ll divide what follows into bits of commentary on what might appear to be isolated passages, though I will try to read them carefully in context. What follows is, of course, only a sketch, but hopefully it’s a decent start to thinking about what’s at stake in the first chapters the reader of the Book of Mormon encounters.

1 Nephi 1:1-3

I mentioned just above that Nephi begins with a kind of introduction about his own purposes in writing his record. I could go on about these first three verses forever, so I’ll try to be brief.

First, I think it’s worth noting that 1 Nephi 1:1-3 is actually Nephi’s second introduction to First Nephi. Immediately preceding it one finds the italicized superscript to First Nephi, which seems straightforwardly to have been written by Nephi himself (it concludes with “or in other words, I Nephi wrote this record”). That first introduction is itself important and immensely instructive, though I won’t say much about it here. Suffice it to say that it gives a summary of the contents of First Nephi that is at several points at odds or in tension with the content of First Nephi as it actually reads. I think those tensions deserve attention, but I won’t take them up here. 1 Nephi 1:1-3 deserves closer exposition for my own purposes.

In the “preliminary” post linked to above, I sorted out what I take to be the fourfold structure of Nephi’s record: creation, fall, atonement, veil. I think it should be noted that the same fourfold structure is to be found in the first verse of Nephi’s record, and I think this is intentional. The verse reads as follows, structured with an eye to the fourfold repetition of the word “having”:

I, Nephi,
having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father,
and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days,
nevertheless having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days,
yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God,
therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

Note the carefully deployed pattern: (1) having been born of goodly parents—creation; (2) having seen many afflictions—fall; (3) having been highly favored of the Lord—atonement; and (4) having had a great knowledge of … the mysteries of God—veil. Coincidence? Not at all. Nephi explains in the last line of the verse: “therefore“—that is, I take it: because of the pattern that has characterized my life—“I make a record of my proceedings in my days.” I don’t think this could be much clearer. From the very first, Nephi is alerting his readers to the fourfold pattern that guides the construction of his record. We should be paying close attention to all this.

There is, apart from questions of structure, a good deal of information in this and the following two verses. Nephi tells us that his family was wealthy enough (“wealthy,” by the way, is what “goodly” means) to provide him with an education—which would obviously have been of some importance for someone setting out to write a record. He tells us a bit—far too elliptically for those who want to know more about the gold plates than about the English text of the Book of Mormon—about the languages he employs. Finally, he bears a strong testimony: “I know that the record which I make to be true, and I make it with mine own hand, and I make it according to my knowledge.” (I should note here that I’m using Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text rather than the current 1981 edition, and I use my own punctuation with the text. If anything looks unfamiliar, that’s why.) From the very beginning, Nephi wants his readers to know how deeply involved he himself was in producing his record, and he wants them to know about his own convictions concerning its truth.

It isn’t uncommon to hear remarks made about how deeply autobiographical the Book of Mormon is—and most especially the writings of Nephi. Nephi himself couldn’t make this clearer. This is his experience, and it is written by his, and according to his knowledge. We should keep all of that quite in mind. This is the story as Nephi himself wants it to be understood.

But let’s get on to the story.

1 Nephi 1:5-15

Here we have the story of Lehi’s first visions. The story, I assume, is familiar enough. There are two visions, a first one in the thick of the banality of everyday life (a pillar of fire comes down onto what otherwise seems to have been an ordinary rock), and a second one in the unearthly world of apocalypse (he is carried away from his bed in his vision to see things apparently invisible in natural circumstances). A good deal has been written on the second of these visions, since the Book of Mormon thus opens with an apocalyptic ascension text, fitting it into a very long and important apocalyptic tradition—about which Joseph Smith presumably would have known little. I think all of that is very interesting and instructive, but I think it’s more important to note the role this vision plays in Nephi’s record. In the “preliminary” post linked to above, I say a little bit about the structural role of Lehi’s apocalypse: it is clearly meant to be connected with Isaiah’s vision from Isaiah 6, found in Nephi’s record in 2 Nephi 16, as well as with Nephi’s concluding discussion of baptism in 2 Nephi 31. I have also already in the present post begun to show how it is the first telling of a story told twice in 1 Nephi 1-5. It is also worth noting that subsequent writers in the Book of Mormon seem to have caught onto its structural and thematic importance in Nephi’s record. Alma the Younger, at least, seems to have been a careful student of 1 Nephi 1, since he weaves the structure of this narrative into his own conversion story when he tells it to his son Helaman (in Alma 36), going so far as to quote Nephi explicitly and directly (compare Alma 36:22 and 1 Nephi 1:8). Alma’s employment of the story is in such a significant setting—and is so complexly set forth (as I argue in the first chapter of my forthcoming book, An Other Testament)—that one might be led to wonder whether the Nephites didn’t generally use this narrative as the script for the ritual passing on of the sacred records and relics of their nation, reenacting Lehi’s reception of the heavenly book. This last point is, obviously, a bit speculative, but it nonetheless makes clear the apparent importance of this story in subsequent Nephite history.

For the moment, though, I want to leave the details of the story to one side so that I can spend a bit more time on the last part of 1 Nephi 1. Suffice it, for the moment, to say that in 1 Nephi 1:5-15, Lehi is called to be a prophet.

1 Nephi 1:18-20a

After a brief aside (in verses 16-17) about the structure of his record (here’s where Nephi let’s us know that First Nephi splits into two halves, the dividing line being drawn between chapters 9 and 10), Nephi lets us know that Lehi went out to “prophesy” after his apocalyptic vision. He then records two distinct reactions on the part of “the Jews” to whom Lehi preached. I think the way Nephi reports these reactions is of some real importance.

Verses 18b-19a: “Behold, he went forth among the people and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard [concerning, presumably, the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon]. And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them, for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations.” At first, Lehi’s preaching has a double message: (1) Jerusalem will fall to Babylon, and (2) it will be because of the “wickedness” and “abominations” of those in the city. And the response of “the Jews” to this first, double message is simply mockery: “the Jews did mock him.” If a prophet comes preaching destruction-as-the-consequence-of-sinfulness, the response is laughter.

But then verses 19b-20a: “And he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world. And when the Jews heard these things, they were angry with him, yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out and stoned and slain. And they also sought his life that they might take it away.” Here in the second moment of his preaching, Lehi again has a double message, but a distinct one: (1) a Messiah will come, and (2) the world will be redeemed. And the response of, again, “the Jews” to this is murderous anger: “they were angry with him, … and they also sought his life.” If a prophet comes preaching world-redemption-through-the-advent-of-the-Messiah, the response is violence.

Why this progression of sorts? When Lehi speaks critically of his hearers and threatens them with calamity, they laugh, but when he speaks of a beautiful redemption and the coming of an anointed king, they try to kill him. I think a good deal of thought ought to be dedicated to this distinct responses to distinct messages. Why are we inclined to mock at the apocalyptic, but to get rid of the messianic? Why does a messenger with a word about messianic redemption strike us as dangerous, while someone who announces catastrophe gets us giggling? I suspect there is much to learn here.

But so far as the story itself is concerned, all this puts Lehi in serious danger, though Nephi lets us know that Lehi’s going to escape.

1 Nephi 2:16-24

I’m jumping here over the dreams and associated events that lead Lehi’s family from danger in Jerusalem to safety in the valley of Lemuel. Much has been said about this part of the narrative, so I think I can leave commentary for the moment to those who have already written much about it—about the immense sacrifice Lehi’s family was prepared to undertake, about Lehi’s connections with the desert if he was ready to depart so quickly into the wild, about the several weeks of travel it would have taken to arrive at the valley of Lemuel, about the obvious echoes of the exodus story in this narrative, about Arabic naming rituals, about Laman and Lemuel’s inaugural murmurings, about the profound significance of Nephi’s short “And my father dwelt in a tent,” etc. I want to move on to Nephi’s first encounters with the Lord beginning in 1 Nephi 2:16.

It should be noted that it is really only with 1 Nephi 2:16 that Nephi really comes into the story for the first time. He’s part of the family, of course, who comes out with Lehi, but he does not become a character in his own in the story until this moment, after Laman and Lemuel have been introduced in terms of their skepticism, and even perhaps their murderous desires. And importantly, Nephi hints that until his first encounter with the Lord, he seems to have been largely in line with his brothers. That first encounter allowed the Lord to “soften [Nephi’s] heart [so] that [he] did not rebel against [Lehi] like [his] brothers.” That, I think, is significant.

Nephi’s “conversion” of sorts in verse 16 is recounted too quickly to get any kind of a sense for what took place: the Lord “did visit” him, whatever that means. But the sparsity of details is parallel to Lehi’s first encounter with the Lord in 1 Nephi 1:5-6, just as the wealth of details in Nephi’s subsequent encounter (in 1 Nephi 2:19-24) will be parallel to Lehi’s second encounter with the Lord (in 1 Nephi 1:8-15). Indeed, the whole of Nephi’s experience is clearly parallel to his father’s, even down to the detail that each does something in between the two visions that helps to lead from the first to the second: Lehi returns home and casts himself on his bed, while Nephi goes to talk to his brothers.

It’s Nephi’s attempt to talk to his brothers that starts all the trouble, of course. They don’t like what he has to say, and he—as any son among sons would do at his age—both genuinely grieves and starts to preen just a bit. We’ll watch this preening develop over the next couple of chapters until Nephi is forced, in my reading, to recognize how much damage he has done by trying to be better than his rebellious brothers.

At any rate, Nephi finds himself praying about his brothers when a second encounter with the Lord takes place. And this one is of the utmost importance for the Book of Mormon as a whole. I’ll quote the whole communication from the Lord and then offer some comments:

Blessed art thou Nephi because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently with lowliness of heart. And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper and shall be led to a land of promise—yea, even a land which I have prepared for you, a land which is choice above all other lands. And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren. For behold, in that day that they shall rebel against me, I will curse them even with a sore curse, and they shall have no power over thy seed except they [thy seed, that is] shall rebel against me also. And if so be that they [again: thy seed] rebel against me, they [Laman and Lemuel’s seed] shall be a scourge unto thy seed to stir them up in the ways of remembrance.

If Nephi wasn’t preening a bit before this, he certainly was afterward. That was a mistake. But let me come back to that issue when I take up chapters 3 and 4. For the moment, I think what’s most important is to deal with the details of what I will call the “Lehitic covenant.” The terms of what is set forth in these verses will be repeated again and again through the Book of Mormon—punctuating the text with real force. This is the covenant that governs the relations between the Nephites and the Lamanites, and between each of these peoples and God. It is the strongest leitmotif in the Book of Mormon.

What’s at work in it? First of all, it introduces what will be the most important theme of the remainder of 1 Nephi 1-5: the commandments of the Lord. Every blessing in the covenant is predicated on that one thing, keeping the commandments of the Lord. Importantly, though, the covenant’s wording itself does not at all clarify exactly what commandments are meant. Nephi will only discover that later. And the rash assumptions he makes about the meaning of “the commandments” is one of the things that will lead him to irreparable trouble with his brothers. Also important, though, is the fact that it is this communication that comes as the first indication of there being more to this story than a temporary retreat from Jerusalem, either while things calm down surrounding Lehi or even while Jerusalem faces destruction from the Babylonians. Nephi is, it seems, the first to learn that there is a land of promise for them (though Lehi will mention a land of promise in 1 Nephi 5—but then he’ll be shown to think that the land of promise is the valley of Lemuel!). And he is also the first to learn that the boys will all be raising families outside of Jerusalem: the second return to Jerusalem for spouses has already got to be in Nephi’s mind at this point.

At any rate, it is crucial to keep this encounter with the Lord clearly in mind when reading what follows in the next few chapters. It is especially important to recognize how deeply focused the experience seems to have left Nephi on the question of the commandments. And this becomes clear in the very next sequence of the narrative.

1 Nephi 3:1-8

We don’t pay near enough attention to the fact that Nephi learns about the task of returning to Jerusalem for the brass plates immediately after his encounter with the Lord: “And it came to pass that I Nephi returned from speaking with the Lord to the tent of my father. And it came to pass that he spake unto me, saying, Behold, I have dreamed a dream” (1 Nephi 3:1-2). Nephi comes back from a remarkable revelatory communication, the focus of which was the commandments, only to find his father saying: “the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 3:2). Nephi couldn’t have missed the importance of Lehi’s using that word. Indeed, as Nephi tells the story, Lehi used one form or another of the word “command”/”commandment” three times in the course of his explanation of the task:

Behold, I have dreamed a dream in the which the Lord hat commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem. For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews, and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass. Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren should go unto the house of Laban and seek the records and bring them down hither into the wilderness. And now behold, thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing I have required of them. But behold, I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord. Therefore go, my son, and thou shalt be favored of the Lord because thou hast not murmured. (1 Nephi 3:2-6)

Don’t miss the triple repetition of the word “command”/”commandment.” This is something Nephi is drawing the strictest attention to. And significantly, in Nephi’s too-celebrated response, he repeats this threefold repetition in a perfect match with his father:

I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them. (1 Nephi 3:7)

The pattern is clear. The emphasis throughout this is on the commandments. The only thing Nephi can hear in his father’s words is “Commandments! Commandments! Commandments!” And, in all his beautiful—but ultimately tragic—youthful zeal (without knowledge), Nephi assumes that he’s now being put to the test. The Lord has told him that everything hinges on obedience to the commandments, and now Nephi sees plainly what the Lord was referring to: this return journey to Jerusalem must be undertaken without murmuring and in full fidelity, and everything will turn out wonderfully. Indeed, he might even get to lord it a bit over his brothers as their ruler and teacher. Things couldn’t be better for Nephi. And he earns the approval of his father: “he was exceeding glad, for he knew that I had been blessed of the Lord” (1 Nephi 3:8).

All this, as I’m already suggesting, will turn out to be tragic. But that’s the next part of the story.

1 Nephi 3:14-21

I think I can assume that we’re all familiar with the basics of the story of the journey to retrieve the brass plates. I’ll just be taking up certain “highlights” of it. And the first I want to take up is Nephi’s speech after the failure of the first attempt to retrieve the plates. The effect of the failure on the group was depressing, naturally: “my brethren were about to return unto my father in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 3:14). Nephi of course responds with a discourse on, as should be expected by this point, keeping the commandments. Here are (most of) his words of persuasion:

We will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us. Wherefore, let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord. Therefore let us go down to the land of our father’s inheritance, for behold, he left gold and silver and all manner of riches, and all this he hath done because of the commandment. For he, knowing that Jerusalem must be destroyed because of the wickedness of the people—for behold, they have rejected the words of the prophets—wherefore, if my father should dwell in the land after that he hath been commanded to flee out of the land, behold, he would also perish. Wherefore it must needs be that he flee out of the land. (1 Nephi 3:15-18)

Note the heavy emphasis on commandments again: four times here, and the word appears in the summary Nephi adds in verse 21: “after this manner of language did I persuade my brethren that they might be faithful in keeping the commandments of God.” The theme, I should think, is becoming unmistakable. The entire emphasis is on commandments, and those commandments are still being defined by Nephi, at this point, as focused on the single commandment to retrieve the plates. Nephi’s zeal continues unabated.

That zeal is marked especially by the first words of Nephi’s speech, words I omitted just above. He launches his speech not simply with the statement that he and his brothers would not leave Jerusalem until the commandments had been kept. He announced that they would not do so, “as the Lord liveth and as we live” (1 Nephi 3:15). This is serious business. Decades ago, Hugh Nibley taught us the seriousness of this oath. Nephi binds his brothers to fulfillment of their task on their lives, but not on their lives only: also on the life of God Himself! To swear on the life of God is especially serious: if they do not fulfill the task, Nephi will have blasphemed, and the Mosaic punishment for blasphemy is, of course, death. Nephi has thus bound his brothers to their task twice on their life: (1) as they live, they will accomplish the task, and the consequence is that if they don’t, their lives are forfeit; (2) as the Lord lives, they will accomplish the task, and the consequence is that if they don’t, they will have blasphemed, and their lives are forfeit. Nephi has raised the stakes of their situation drastically.

But if all this marks Nephi’s zeal again, another element of his little speech marks the fact that his zeal—even as might be taken as exemplary—was nonetheless without knowledge. This element is to be found at the end of his speech, and I omitted it as well immediately above. The last point of persuasion Nephi offers is this:

And behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records that we might preserve unto our children the language of our fathers, and also that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy propehts, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God since the world began, even down unto this present time.

As beautiful as these words might be to us, they are, straightforwardly, wrong. And I think it’s especially important that we note this point, since I suspect that Nephi wants his readers to catch it. The fact is that Nephi’s speech betrays the fact that he has no idea what the significance of the plates is. He knows he wants to have the commandment fulfilled, but he has no idea why. He’s trying to justify the Lord, trying to provide himself with a crux for his zeal. And interesting and uplifting as his reasons might be—all of them might be said to be true in a certain sense—they are not the actual reasons God is interested in the record, as Nephi will learn in chapter 4. I think it’s clear that Nephi at this point is preparing his readers to recognize his own folly, to see how problematic and rash his zeal was.

But all this will become clearer further along.

1 Nephi 3:29-4:4

Again I assume familiarity with the narrative: the second attempt at retrieving the plates fails, and the sons of Lehi find themselves in a cave where Laman and Lemuel are beating their younger brothers “with a rod.” (It’s probably worth mentioning that the beating may not simply be out of anger or frustration, but might be motivated by the oath Nephi had pronounced earlier: if it has become impossible to fulfill the task, then they might see themselves as righteously punishing the oath-maker—either that or killing the witnesses to the oath.) An angel, of course intervenes. I want to focus principally on the aftermath of the angel’s words, but let me begin with a brief comment on those words themselves:

Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold, thou shalt go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. (1 Nephi 3:29)

It’s very worth noticing that this angelic visit is the first thing—according to the narrative—that alerts Laman and Lemuel to the Lehitic covenant that seems to be driving Nephi so relentlessly. Of course, the angel only mentions the fact that Nephi has been chosen over his brothers. They have to be wondering what’s going on there, but it’s certainly enough to stop their violence. The dangerous thing is that this divine confirmation, and in the presence of Laman and Lemuel, is quite likely to have helped Nephi to begin to lord it all the more over his brothers. If he didn’t feel some real pride and vindictiveness in this situation, he was more than human. At any rate, I’ll be showing some evidence later that Nephi took this in something of the wrong way.

Let me also mention that many have found the language of “delivering into one’s hands” here a comfort regarding the ugly violence of Laban’s death. The Law of Moses explains that if someone is “delivered into one’s hands” by the Lord, then murder is not murder—though one can hardly then deny its violence. I think one must keep the legal context clear, but it doesn’t exactly solve the problem of why the Book of Mormon would open with such a violent situation. Suffice it to say that I’m going to be presenting a rather different reading of the Laban situation than the usual one.

Now, the reaction to the angel’s visit:

And after that the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man and he can command fifty. Yea, even he can slay fifty, then why not us?

This is, I think, crucial—and it reveals something about Nephi’s artistry as a narrator. In response to the most divine moment of this narrative thus far, Laman and Lemuel themselves use the word “command,” but they use it in a terribly ironic way, employing it to suggest that the commandments of the Lord can’t be fulfilled because Laban can “command fifty.” This, I can only assume, is entirely deliberate on Nephi’s part. He wants us to be carefully attuned to his brothers’ complete misunderstanding concerning the question of commandments. It’s a beautiful narrative moment.

I assume we’re familiar with Nephi’s response, again urging his brothers to “be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 4:1), since the Lord is mightier than all the earth—and so of Laban and his fifty, or even tens of thousands. He goes on, of course, to suggest they take Moses as their example, etc. What is probably most significant about Nephi’s little speech here, though, is not just his mention of “commandments” again, but the way he anticipates the violent situation to come. Nephi says: “The Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers [at the Red Sea], and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:3). Nephi here portrays himself as anticipating Laban’s end, and not simply as anticipating the retrieval of the plates.

Even as it is first expressed, however, that violence is complicated. Nephi doesn’t here speak, like the angel, of the Lord delivering Laban into their hands, but speaks instead of the Lord delivering them out of Laban’s hands: “The Lord is able to deliver us.” The role of the word “deliver” here is important: Nephi here makes clear that the whole experience with Laban turns on the double meaning of deliverance. Laban’s being delivered into their hands is Lehi’s sons’ being delivered out of the hands of Laban. I don’t want to spend any real time on that theme, but I can recommend a short study of the word “deliver” in the larger story of 1 Nephi 3-4. I want to get on to the sticky business of the actual “encounter” with Laban in the dark of Jerusalem’s streets at night.

1 Nephi 4:10-18

This story is too familiar. It deserves very careful handling. I won’t recount all the concerns that have been expressed over the years. Suffice it to say that there’s a good deal about Laban’s death—“murder,” some have said—that is disturbing. I don’t want to explain away the awfulness of the situation. But I don’t want either to take up the position of the ethical critic. I think both the overly confident spirit of Nephi’s defenders and the overly conscientious spirit of Nephi’s detractors have missed the point of the narrative. My aim is just to get the point of the narrative clear, let the ethical justifiedness or unjustfiedness of Nephi’s actions be what they may. I’ll also, though, suggest that one way—an important way—of making sense of the story as I think Nephi meant it to be read is to see in it an implicit theological critique of ethics as such. We’ll see how much space I can dedicate to all that. (I should mention briefly that I deal with this story both in an article I published in the Fall 2010 issue of Dialogue under the title “Rene Girard and Mormon Scripture: A Response,” and at some length in my shortly forthcoming book, An Other Testament.)

I pick up where Nephi hears the injunction of the Spirit to kill Laban. He is already holding Laban’s sword. The narrative gives no hint as to why Nephi drew it forth except that he was interested in it. Some have suggested that he drew it forth because he was already making plans to kill Laban. Others have suggested that he drew it forth because he had the idea to borrow Laban’s clothes in order to retrieve the plates and escape while Laban was drunk—but had no idea yet to kill him. Others have suggested that he drew it forth simply because he was training to be a metalsmith and he was interested in its workmanship. I have no horse in this race. I’m interested only in the exchange Nephi has with the Spirit.

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban. (1 Nephi 4:10)

First things first: constrained, not commanded. That should strike us crucial at this point in the narrative. There are several ways Nephi’s word choice could be interpreted. He might use the word “constrained” in order to make himself look better: since the injunction came as a constraint, rather than as a commandment, Nephi’s momentary reticence is not to be interpreted as a moment of flagging fidelity. I don’t like that reading much, and for a whole host of reasons I won’t go into. Another interpretation: he uses the word “constrained” because of the importance of the role the word “commandment” is going to play in the remainder of the exchange with the Spirit. I think that may well be the case, though I think there’s more to the story. Yet another interpretation, then: Nephi’s trying to make clear that there was nothing audible, nothing spoken, nothing communicated; rather, he felt an influence leading him to kill Laban. This, I think, is probably spot on. The Spirit of the Lord, throughout the Old Testament, is understood to be a divine force that overpowers one’s abilities and leads one to act. I suspect that this is what Nephi’s trying to describe.

The really remarkable thing, then, is that Nephi can resist the Spirit! That’s unprecedented in the Old Testament. Nephi holds out against the Spirit of the Lord. The result is that Nephi opens a conversation of sorts with the Spirit of the Lord, and that too is unprecedented. (This will be repeated in 1 Nephi 11, where Nephi will be able to converse with the same Spirit as two human beings talk with one another, the Spirit even being in human form.) That constraint turns into conversation is theologically astounding. And we ought to be paying careful attention to what ensues.

But I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. (1 Nephi 4:10)

Here it’s necessary, I think, to see that Nephi’s is—narratively—criticizing himself. Nephi, the paragon of fidelity, here shrinks at the task. He’s been willing to brave desert marauders, to swear the rashest and most serious of oaths, to give up all his family’s wealth, to take a serious beating from his brothers, to compare himself to Moses, to waltz into Laban’s house at night alone—but not this? There’s something wrong about this. Nephi’s zeal has known no limits to this moment. Why does it come up against a limit here—and a relatively weak limit. Capital punishment was anything but foreign to Nephi. Why would he suddenly shrink at this task? Again: there’s something wrong here.

But I don’t think it’s very difficult to see what’s going on. Nephi’s shrinking at the task is itself a manifestation of the wrongness of his relationship to the situation. Now, I know that claim is going to be upsetting to some, but I think it’s clearly at work in the psychology of the situation. Nephi’s unwillingness here shows that something has been amiss in all his zeal, all his obedience, all his fidelity. He’s too emphatic in his denial to himself that he’s ever had murderous desires. It seems to me, in a word, that Nephi’s reticence is the symptom that marks Nephi’s resistance against recognizing that he has had murderous desires all along, particularly toward his brothers. Nephi’s attempt at skirting violence here is an attempt to pretend that there hasn’t been a scapegoating kind of violence at work in his relationship to his brothers. He doesn’t want to believe he’s the sort capable of violence, and so he resists the constraint to be violent here—trying to convince himself that he’s not like that. But his very resistance proves that there’s something violent in his desires already.

What I’ll be arguing from this point on, then, is that this situation can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt on the Lord’s part to disengage Nephi from his problematic relationship to his brothers through the task of dispatching Laban.

And the Spirit saith unto me again: Behold, the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. (1 Nephi 4:11)

The Spirit here echoes the language of the angel at the end of chapter 3. This should call Nephi’s mind back to what the angel was talking about then: the Lehitic covenant. It doesn’t, however, do so. Nephi is too focused on his own struggle to see the outside of the situation. At any rate, I think it’s important that Nephi doesn’t act on this word alone. This isn’t enough to get him to kill Laban. That’s crucial because it shows that it isn’t the technicalities of the Law of Moses that lead Nephi to act. Nephi’s problem isn’t genuinely ethical; it’s must deeper. Indeed, if anything, Nephi’s problem is precisely that he believes he ought to be ethical.

Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life. Yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord. And he also had taken away our property. (1 Nephi 4:11)

Nephi here begins to try to come up with reasons to undertake the act, but none of these is enough either. He’s trying to justify the Lord, but it isn’t working. He tries self defense (“he had sought to take away mine own life”). He tries to make this a question of (his interpretation of) the commandments (“he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord”). He tries to make this a legally justified act (“he also had taken away our property”). But none of this works. Nephi resists still. The Spirit has to talk to him again. This continued reticence is crucial. Some have said that Nephi talks himself into it. I think it’s clear here that that’s not how the story goes. He tries to talk himself into it, but it doesn’t work. He’s still got to sort himself out.

And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Behold, the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief. (1 Nephi 4:12-13)

The Spirit tries again, and this will lead to Nephi’s action, but it isn’t the Spirit’s words that convince Nephi to act. I’ll come to what actually does convince him to act. For the moment, it’s just crucial to note that verse 18 doesn’t immediately follow verse 13, as it seems to for many readers of this text. It isn’t the “scapegoating rationale” of the Spirit’s words—words that are far more complicated than is generally recognized—that leads Nephi to kill Laban. It’s something else, something triggered by the Spirit’s words, but something nonetheless quite distinct from them. We’ll have to see how that works. For the moment, though, let me say something about the Spirit’s words here.

First, of course, the Spirit repeats its earlier words: “the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” That, of course, had not yet had the needed effect. Two additional statements, then. First: “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.” Second: “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” It is the latter that has especially given consternation to readers. The words sound too much like the scapegoating rationale uttered by Caiaphas in John 11:50: “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” I don’t want to offer a systematic analysis of the differences between the two statements (“expedient” versus “better,” “perish” versus “die,” the absence of “for the people” in 1 Nephi 4, the comparative “than” that appears only in 1 Nephi 4, “a nation” verses “the whole nation,” “perish” versus “dwindle and perish in unbelief”—not to mention the distinct settings, persons speaking, figure being referred to, presence versus absence of crisis, etc.); suffice it to say that there is anything but a simple equivalence between the two situations.

But as I’ve said, it isn’t the direct content of the Spirit’s words that gets Nephi to act. Rather, the Spirit’s words—and I assume this was their intended effect—get Nephi thinking about what he should have been thinking about with the repetition (twice now!) of the angel’s words.

And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord, which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise. (1 Nephi 4:14)

Nephi before brought up the commandments, but in an entirely misguided way. Before, he was trying to justify the action by making Laban guilty: he had not kept the commandments like a zealously obedient person should. Now, though, the Spirit’s words call him back to the original setting in which the word concerning the commandments was given: the encounter with the Lord through which Nephi received the Lehitic covenant. And it is reflection on that that will make all the difference.

What’s the connection? Why do the Spirit’s words here focus Nephi on the Lehitic covenant as such? Not, interestingly, by saying anything about the commandments, concerning which Nephi has been entirely blind to this point—taking them to be summed up just in the task of getting the plates. It is rather the Spirit’s mention of “a nation dwindl[ing] and perish[ing] in unbelief” that draws Nephi to the real matter at hand. For the first time, Nephi sees that the “commandments” referred to in the covenant can’t be only the immediately will of the Lord on this singular occasion; they must instead be something much bigger, since the Lehitic covenant was less about Nephi and his brothers than about his seed and his brothers’ seed. This is crucial: to this point, Nephi has sutured the covenant to his own petty sibling rivalries, getting rather pathetic mileage out of his being the good son; now, though, he recognizes that there is something infinitely larger at work this situation, and that he endangered all of that. I suspect that he began at this point to see that his zeal—the problematic nature of which was revealed to him when he shrank from the constraint of the Spirit—has set in motion a now-irreversible rivalry with his brothers. Through this shift in “perspective,” effected by Nephi’s sudden recognition that the “commandments” and the covenant itself are something much bigger than he had thought, Nephi begins to disentangle himself from his rivalrous attachment to his brothers. But the damage is, largely, already done: his brothers will never be reconciled to him, and he’ll be struggling against himself the rest of his life.

What Nephi comes to reject in this singular moment, it seems to me, is ethics itself. It is as if Nephi sees that ethics is—or at least can be—a very convenient tool for shielding the ego, for convincing oneself that one only wants to do the good when one is actually resisting the constraint of the Spirit. Ethics is all too often a dodge, rather than a genuine desire for the other’s good. But I want to get on to Nephi’s train of thought once his attention is shifted to the actual covenant.

Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses save they should have the law. And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass. And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause: that I might obtain the records according to his commandments. (1 Nephi 4:15-17)

Here Nephi recognizes with sudden force what “the commandments” in the covenant are. They aren’t the immediate commandment of the Lord through Lehi; they are the commandments that make up the Law of Moses, as found in the brass plates. Nephi suddenly sees that he has entirely misunderstood the covenant that he has pretended to prize so highly. And, interestingly, it is only now that Nephi can come at last to the most consistently repeated statement of the Spirit (and the words that the angel had stated back in the cave): “I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands.” But now this statement is attached to a “cause,” a purpose.

All this, it seems to me, is quite clear. I want, though, to point out also the interesting way the word “commandments” functions here. The word appears four times in this little scene. The first time, as I’ve already noted, is when Nephi uses the word in trying to convince himself to follow the Spirit—the word’s dead wrong use. The second comes when Nephi’s attention is drawn to the actual words of the covenant. There we see a shift away from the dead wrong use. The third then comes when Nephi fully recognizes what the commandments actually are: the statutes of the Law of Moses. With this third use, we have what seems to be a complete abandonment of the use of “commandments” that would tie the word to Lehi’s “commandment” to return to Jerusalem. But then we have this fourth use, right at the end of verse 17: the “cause” is that Nephi “might obtain the records according to [the Lord’s] commandments”! Here there’s a sudden return to the problematic use of the word “commandments,” right after Nephi has figured out what the covenantal term refers to. But perhaps we should see this last instance as a return the original use in a finally redeemed way, so that the word “commandment” functions in a kind of chiastic way in the encounter with the Spirit: commandments 1 (referring to Lehi’s injunction, but in a problematic way), commandments 2 (referring to the Law of Moses, now in transition), commandments 2′ (referring to the Law of Moses, now fully understanding), commandments 1′ (referring to Lehi’s injunction, but now in the right way).

That “commandments” not only comes up yet again in this exchange with the Spirit after appearing so many times in this record, but that it also forms the structural backbone of the exchange, makes quite clear that the point of this pericope is to trace Nephi’s real conversion, as it were. After his problematic entanglements that have throughout this narrative compromised his election, he finally begins to emerge from them prepared to take up the work in a zeal that shouldn’t cause any trouble. Of course, he’ll never be free of those entanglements now, because he seems to have secured his brothers’ rivalrous hatred forever through his problematic zeal already.

It also needs to be mentioned that it is only here that Nephi sees the real purpose of the plates. There is nothing here about making sure that the prophets’ words are had, that the language of their fathers can be passed down to their children, or anything else that Nephi said in his first speech to his brothers. The focus is entirely on having the Law of Moses ready to hand. Of course, Nephi will discover later how important the prophets—or specifically Isaiah—are to understanding the Law of Moses for the Nephites, but that is still on the horizon at this point. At any rate, Nephi not only recognizes that he has entirely misunderstood the covenantal term “commandments” to this point, but also that he has had no idea whatsoever concerning the importance of the brass plates. A whole host of ironies that have been buried in the narrative to this point are suddenly revealed in this climactic moment of the narrative.

Finally, the encounter ends with Nephi’s new-found realization: “Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit,” etc. (1 Nephi 4:18).

1 Nephi 5:1-9

I think I can assume familiarity with the remainder of 1 Nephi 4. Nephi does the deed, dons Laban’s clothes, retrieves the plates, secures Zoram’s compliance, and returns with his brothers to the valley of Lemuel. I want to turn to the first story in 1 Nephi 5: Sariah’s so-called “complaint.” This is a story that has to be handled with great care, for a whole series of obvious reasons. It is one of few stories that feature women centrally in the Book of Mormon, and it doesn’t seem to feature Sariah at her best. But what should be said about the story?

First, let me refer to Grant Hardy’s wonderful reading of this narrative in Understanding the Book of Mormon. On Hardy’s reading, the story is included in part to distract the reader from what must have been a terribly awkward scene when Nephi and his brothers returned to the valley of Lemuel (“You what?!“). And, significantly, because “Nephi never quotes women,” Hardy says, “he has chosen something particularly effective [to distract his readers]—a woman’s voice in the Book of Mormon is very rare and very engaging” (p. 18). Further, Hardy provides a brief structural reading of the story of Sariah’s complaint:

5:1 – Parents rejoice
5:2-3 – Quotation 1: Sariah “complained … saying, Behold [three times] … and after this manner of language had my mother complained”
5:4-7 – Quotation 2: Lehi’s response, “But behold [three matching items] … after this manner of language did my father, Lehi, comfort my mother, Sariah … and my mother was comforted”
5:8 – Quotation 3: Sariah’s rejoinder, “Now I know … [three items] … and after this manner of language did she speak”
5:9 – Parents rejoice

This is, I think, nice, but it’s possible to see other structures at work here as well. For instance, there is a tight structural parallel between verses 1 and 7:

And it came to pass that after_____________And when
we had came down___________________________we had returned
into the wilderness unto our father,_______to the tent of my father,
behold, he was filled with joy.____________behold, their joy was full,
And also my mother Sariah__________________and my mother
was exceeding glad.________________________was comforted.

This strong parallel curiously separates Sariah’s announcement of conviction (in verse 8) from the exchanges between Sariah and Lehi (in verses 2-6), marking at least an important temporal gap. The parallel also privileges a particular image, namely, being filled with joy, even as it marks a kind of progression toward unity: in verse 1 only “he,” Lehi, “was filled with joy,” Sariah being a kind of tack-on with the word “also”; in verse 7 “their joy was full,” both Sariah’s and Lehi’s, and the tack-on is now a privileging of Sariah’s joy only, since Lehi’s joy receives no special attention. The way that verse 8, Sariah’s announcement of conviction, is thus privileged is striking: Sariah is given to speak on the couple’s behalf. Only her voice is heard in the end—though she interestingly echoes her husband’s words from verses 4-6.

It is this progression, resulting in unity—a unity uniquely represented by Sariah’s actually-quoted words—that I think should be highlighted here. This is less the story of Sariah’s complaint than it is the story of discovered union, and union discovered in such a way as to give a voice to a woman, something so devastatingly uncommon in the Book of Mormon that this deserves particular merit. It is certainly significant that in verse 9, it is not only Lehi, but “they”—Lehi and Saraiah—who “did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings” and “gave thanks unto the God of Israel.”

For my purposes here, I’ll leave the details of the several “speeches” in this passage for another time.

1 Nephi 5:17-22

I leave to others to take up the details of what Lehi found on the brass plates. There’s a great deal to be discovered there, but I want to come at last to Lehi’s prophecies—clear echoes, as I said at the outset, of Lehi’s encounter with the messenger from heaven in 1 Nephi 1:8-15.

I don’t know that anything needs to be said about verse 17, since it’s the obvious parallel to Lehi’s being filled with the Spirit and shouting praises back in 1 Nephi 1, except that this time around Lehi is turned from the direct praise of God to a focus on his children: “And now when my father saw all these things, he was filled with the Spirit and began to prophesy concerning his seed.” This focus is of obvious importance in the larger narrative of 1 Nephi 1-5. The first mention of seed was back in 1 Nephi 2:19-24, where Nephi received the Lehitic covenant, and then it played a crucial role in the scene with Laban, where Nephi realized that the covenant really was a question of his seed and not of his own immediate obedience alone. Now Lehi joins in on this theme—and all of this will become the focus in chapter 7.

Here, then, is what Lehi prophesies:

that these [brass] plates should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people which were of his seed. Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish, neither should they be dimmed any more by time. And he prophesied many things concerning his seed. (1 Nephi 5:18-19)

This brief prophecy is of great interest. Not only does it mark Lehi’s turn toward his seed, it gives us to understand just how central the brass plates will be for Lehi’s seed. Nephi will begin to make good on this prophecy very shortly after all this: by 1 Nephi 15, he’ll be drawing on Isaiah to teach his brothers. But these prophecies seem to suggest that the brass plates are to play a role in the Lehites’ history long after Nephi and his brothers—or even the Nephites—are around. Where are the brass plates now, and what role will they yet play in the history of the Lehites? Lehi forces us to ask these questions, even if we can’t even begin to provide answers.

But I want to focus less on such “mysteries,” and more on the theological interest of this prophecy. Lehi’s prophecy here is the clear parallel, as I’ve said, to his praises in 1 Nephi 1. There, remember, Lehi’s praises are inspired by a Spirit-inducing experience with a book as well, and with a book, specifically, that won’t ever be dimmed by time since it’s (presumably) the very book of life kept in heaven. But there’s a very important difference between the two experiences that I think Nephi intends to highlight: while in Lehi’s praise in 1 Nephi 1 there’s an indication that God’s love is universal, here it is the book itself that becomes universal. In 1 Nephi 1, there’s no indication, in other words, that the book Lehi has access to will be read by others at all, let alone Lehi’s children. The love of God is a kind of singular experience in 1 Nephi 1. Here in 1 Nephi 5, the love of God is not only universal in principal but concretely: the brass plates will circulate universally, and that will open up the possibility of everyone coming unto God in the way Lehi did in 1 Nephi 1.

This, significantly, will become the central theme of Nephi’s closing chapters (2 Nephi 31-32), as I pointed out in the post linked to at the beginning of this post.

One further word here. This pericope ends with another fourfold mention of commandments, closing off the theme that has obsessed Nephi throughout and directly echoing 1 Nephi 4:10-18:

And it came to pass that thus far I and my father had kept the commandments wherewith the Lord had commanded us. And we had obtained the record which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable—yea, even of great work unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children. Wherefore it was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us as we journeyed in the wilderness toward the land of promise. (1 Nephi 5:20-22)

The point here is quite clear: note the progression from “commandments”/”commanded”/”commanded,” in which every reference points to Nephi’s original understanding of “commandments,” to the last “commandments,” which confirms what Nephi has learned in the course of 1 Nephi 3-4, namely, that the “commandments” are those to be preserved for Lehi’s “children.” Nephi here directly corrects 1 Nephi 3:19-20 as well, describing what is “wisdom in the Lord” about having the plates. Every loose thread of 1 Nephi 1-5 is wrapped up here, and what was the first chapter of the original Book of Mormon comes to a close.

1 Nephi 6-7

I want only to make a couple of brief points about these two chapters for the moment. As I’ve already mentioned, it seems best to me to keep them in close contact with chapters 8-9, with which they make up the second chapter of the original Book of Mormon. Like 1 Nephi 1-5, 1 Nephi 6-9 opens and closes with parallel texts, and yet again those parallel texts are focused directly on questions of textuality. While in 1 Nephi 1-5 the emphasis was on Lehi reading, however, in 1 Nephi 6-9 the emphasis is on Nephi writing: in 1 Nephi 6, and then again in 1 Nephi 9, Nephi begins to tell us about what he’s putting together. Each of these two chapters (1 Nephi 6 and 1 Nephi 9) is thus quite short, but deeply informative.

1 Nephi 7 tells the story of the second return to Jerusalem, a much less eventful experience, though it does conclude with the first unfortunate attempt at killing Nephi. But as I say, I’d like to leave discussion of chapters 6-7 mostly for next time so that their connections with 1 Nephi 8 especially can be closely felt.

56 Responses to “Book of Mormon Lesson #2: “All Things According to His Will,” 1 Nephi 1-7 (Sunday School)”

  1. GaryH said

    I agree that Nephi’s zeal may have at first been misdirected, but perhaps not so much MISdirected as incompletely directed. His original reasons for getting the plates were still relevant. And it could equally be said that Lehi also had an incomplete picture of the significance of the plates. 1 Nephi 3:3 “For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.”

    Laman and Lemuel’s vitriol to the younger brothers was not so much a reaction to Nephi’s zeal per se, but more a manifestation of the real issue which was their rebellion against their father. It’s Lehi’s crazy idea to leave Jerusalem, live in a tent, sent them back for an impossible task, and it’s Lehi’s fault they’ve now lost all their stuff. But they are taking it out on Nephi and Sam because they sided with dad, and it’s easier to vent it onto their younger brothers than onto their own father. 1 Nephi 3:28 “And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me, and also with my father.” In fact you could say it’s Laman v Lehi in particular, and Lemuel just goes along with whatever Laman thinks.

  2. joespencer said


    Thanks. For what it’s worth, I’m fine with “incompletely directed.” My point is not to say that Nephi’s “wrong” reasons are bad, but to say that Nephi is, as the narrator of the story, trying to show us that his zeal was zeal without knowledge. Zeal without knowledge is more often incompletely directly than strictly misdirected, but that doesn’t mean that it is without serious consequences—sometimes irreversible consequences. Missouri between 1831 and 1833 comes to mind…. (I should make sure I’m clear there: I don’t mean to suggest that Joseph was zealous without knowledge about Missouri, but that the Saints were—as Joseph often pointed out.)

    As for Laman vs. Lehi, I also don’t disagree with what you’re saying, though I am trying to complicate it in a couple of ways. That is, I think the problem begins as a Laman vs. Lehi sort of issue. But once Nephi becomes a part of the story—his zeal marking his loyalty to Lehi, and not without having made some very human mistakes in calculating what his brothers might do in response—things get far more difficult. So agreed: it’s not Nephi’s zeal per se, since Nephi’s zeal isn’t per se; Nephi’s zeal is tied to Lehi’s prophetic position, and that’s what’s got Laman angry in the first place. But once Nephi complicates the story, Laman ends up redirecting most of his anger and hatred to Nephi….

    • JBL said

      Joe – Just a couple of thoughts: I have to agree with what JMADSON states in his first paragraph: far too much creative reading going on here. I have come to understand over the years that anytime we lack actual knowledge and begin to fill in the blanks with personal interpretation we can only draw upon our own minds and character as the resource for how we would interpret something. In the absence of clear spiritual guidance, clear confirmed scriptural understanding, and or revelation we simply do not know and cannot draw upon anything more than our own or others arm(s) of flesh.

      Second thought: A very spiritually immature image has been presented here of Nephi and his spiritual sense of right and wrong. First off spiritually immature individuals generally do not get to talk to the spirit in this fashion. There are laws of opposition that govern God’s efforts amongst his children. As Brigham Young explains, and I paraphrase, those who have great spiritual experiences (visions etc) are opened to far greater and equal levels of interactions with Satan.

      Spiritually immature people don’t have conversations with the spirit because they would not be sufficiently fortified against the equal and opposite attacks by Satan. Even Joseph Smith, though an immature boy of young age, has been diligently studying the scriptures before God the Father and Christ appear…Certainly enough that he responds perfectly to Satan’s effort to destroy him by “exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy. Nephi is precisely mature enough to handle the onslaught of Satan to destroy him before and after these remarkable spiritual experiences.

      I don’t see the need to interpret Nephi’s hesitancy as anything more than what he expresses when he states that he has never killed before and is uncomfortable with this requirement. As was mentioned the spirit sought to comfort Nephi by the phrase “The Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” Nephi finally responds that he knows the Lord has delivered him into his hands and that seems significant to Nephi as he repeats it in his final acceptance of the spirits effort to convince him of need. Why is this significant?

      Examine Exodus 21:12-14 and it outlines the conditions for taking someones life. V13 is what condemns certain conclusions that have been made so far and it is where Nephi is exonerated for killing Laban.

      Exodus 12:12-14

      12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

      13 And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.

      14 But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.

      If, as has been claimed, Nephi had inklings of murder in his heart that would be the equivalent of being “with guile”(v14). Were this the state of Nephi’s heart the only valid judgment would have been that he was worthy of death. However, if God delivers Laban into his hands and appoints him a “promised land” to flee too, as in the case of Nephi, he is not judged as a murderer. He is required to obey the commandment, as also has been pointed out earlier and fulfill the implications of having someone delivered into his hands. Nephi is not ignorant in this instance and this is not “creative reading” to say so. If anyone considers this properly they will see that it is correct. The spirit has brought to his remembrance a concept of which Nephi is fully aware, just as God promises the spirit will do from time to time in our own lives. This is a very stern presentation of comforting perspective because it is indeed an extremely weighty moment but Nephi intelligently reflects upon the principle and confirms his understanding of what the spirit is telling him. Again the spirit is a comforter and the spirit is trying to comfort Nephi in a very difficult situation and Nephi is comforted by understanding exactly where he is at the moment with a man’s life hanging in the balance.

      • joespencer said

        “I have come to understand over the years that anytime we lack actual knowledge and begin to fill in the blanks with personal interpretation we can only draw upon our own minds and character as the resource for how we would interpret something.”

        For what it’s worth, I think you’ve entirely misrepresented my approach here. I’m not trying to fill in blanks where we lack actual knowledge. I’m ignoring the blanks and looking at what’s actually said in order to ask about its significance. That said, no matter what we’re doing with scripture, we face the very real danger of drawing only on our own minds and character, no?

        “A very spiritually immature image has been presented here of Nephi and his spiritual sense of right and wrong.”

        I wouldn’t say a very spiritually immature image. I’ve suggested that Nephi had something to learn over the course of the experience, not that he was very spiritually immature. And I’ve suggested that Nephi’s story is told in such a way as to help us be a little less immature about what is right and what is wrong. I don’t see the force of your concerns here.

        “Nephi finally responds that he knows the Lord has delivered him into his hands and that seems significant to Nephi as he repeats it in his final acceptance of the spirits effort to convince him of need.”

        I don’t disagree with this, but I think it’s clear that there’s a good deal more to it than that this reason was enough to get him to kill Laban. It certainly didn’t work the first couple of times. It’s only once he’s situated this within a larger context that it has any weight for him.

        “If, as has been claimed, Nephi had inklings of murder in his heart that would be the equivalent of being “with guile”(v14).”

        I don’t see the equivalence here at all, but even if it were equivalent, my reading wouldn’t imply that Nephi was guilty. My argument is that the conversation with the Spirit was meant precisely to help Nephi disentangle himself from any such problematic entanglement. The brilliance of the narrative, I think, is that it ends up with Nephi finally losing all of his guile. The irony I’m trying to uncover is that he refuses because he’s trapped in (relatively minimal) guile, but his eventual obedience is the mark of his learning to overcome that.

        At any rate, I appreciate the engagement, but I’m not finding much of your response convincing….

      • JBL said

        I have gotten up to 30 pages of comparative effort to illustrate and explain the issues I have with some…SOME of this material. However, it is unwieldy to post so much all at once so I am going to break it into pieces. Perhaps there is no more interest but I feel compelled to wrap this up completely before I can Move on.

        I am going to go with just a couple of observations. First we can review our takes on Nephi’s motivations, and then Robertc expressed some further interest on the part where you develop a position on the word shrink and then I am going to identify why your material affects me the way it does and try to illustrate on what principle our differing perspectives are not compatible.

        You indicate that you disagree that you are filling in the blanks with material that is not explicitly discernible from the text so here is an example from my perspective.

        Here is Nephi’s development of his reasoning:

        1 Nephi 4:10

        10…Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I
        shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

        I read this and I think Nephi has created a response that serves the purposes of the Lord in this narrative. He probably genuinely feels exactly what he is saying here. He has never killed a man and he would rather not start now.

        That is the only thing provided in the text relative to his reasoning to not kill Laban. There is no more. There are indications in scripture of what Nephi is thinking and none of the valuable insights he provides can possibly be misconstrued in the way you have. You do not tell me that the spirit has enabled you to know the real thoughts of Nephi and doctrinally speaking we don’t believe in any other way to truly know the thoughts of a man save the spirit reveal them to us. That’s doctrine – review the Alma Zeezrom exchange

        Still somehow you manage to gain some undefined insight into Nephi’s mind and share your perceptions in the following quote from your original:

        “But I don’t think it’s very difficult to see what’s going on.
        Nephi’s shrinking at the task is itself a manifestation of the
        wrongness of his relationship to the situation. Now, I know
        that claim is going to be upsetting to some, but I think it’s
        clearly at work in
        the psychology of the situation. Nephi’s unwillingness here
        shows that something has been amiss in all his zeal, all his
        obedience, all his fidelity. He’s too emphatic in his denial to
        himself that he’s ever had murderous desires. It seems to
        me, in a word, that Nephi’s reticence is the symptom that
        marks Nephi’s resistance against recognizing that he has
        had murderous desires all along, particularly toward his
        brothers. Nephi’s attempt at skirting violence here is an
        attempt to pretend that there hasn’t been a scapegoating
        kind of violence at work in his relationship to his brothers.
        He doesn’t want to believe he’s the sort capable of violence,
        and so he resists the constraint to be violent here—trying to
        convince himself that he’s not like that. But his very
        resistance proves that there’s something violent in his
        desires already.

        You have not indicated that the spirit gave you this insight and yet what is not said or even implied too is “clearly” apparent. Yet you proceed to give us all sorts of “filled blanks.” I don’t see this as meeting the criteria for doctrinal theology as it reads more like “doctrinal psychology.” If you wish to shore this up somewhat you are going to need to find me somewhere in the Book of Mormon where Nephi comments to his murderous thoughts, or where Alma references Nephi’s murderous designs against his brothers or somehow be theologically honest in how you have come to your conclusion using the scriptures or prophetic utterance as your guide. Robert, what I was hoping you would do is help me see your meaning in this quote , “Joe clearly links every bit of speculation he has to scripture, and his readings betray an immense amount of pondering, praying, and thinking” when it is applied to the statement above. Until each or one of you can do that then I am going to stick with the very first feeling that the spirit put in my heart – this is false. Insidiously false…It reminds me of the story that I can only barely recall, (perhaps someone here will recognize it and have the quote) but the essence is about where someone came up to Joseph Smith and explained his thoughts about a principle and Joseph replied that what the man had said sounded very good and that as far as he could tell there was only one problem with it – it was not true.

        It is difficult for me to square the conclusions above with the inspirations of the spirit. It is fine reasoning and suitable for private consideration – but not as consideration for public dispersion. It is perhaps even okay for a few people engaged in mental ramblings as a means to an end. However, as a public dissemination it is unfit. I have observed as several have commented how prescient Joe’s development is without any effort to critically note areas of incongruity. That’s what shocked me to the point of commenting in the first place. I am concerned that some are being lulled by the talent without being properly critical of the conclusions. I was looking for another quote but found this one below and it says the point as well as any.

        Robert Line, an instructor at the Institute of Religion adjacent to
        the University of Utah, has taught seminary and institute. He
        has also been an adjunct faculty in the religion department at
        BYU. “Rather than inventing a doctrine that may or may not be
        true, maybe go with doctrines that are true,” Line says to his
        students. “But let’s not concoct doctrines that try to make us
        feel better when there is no sound basis for them.”(

        To finish, Nephi reviews a couple of points that by virtue of their mention would be adequate to illustrate they were meaningful to Nephi:

        1 Nephi 4:17
        17 And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my
        hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according
        to his commandments.

        Nephi references the statement of delivering into his hands as part of process of persuasion that facilitated determination to obey the commandments.

        Now, let’s illustrate more clearly, I hope, a better resource for Considering Nephi’s process. This is better because the spirit of the conversation and the clues in the verses lead us to this point. I wonder if you only saw one thing in these verses and then discounted what a perfect fit they were. I wonder if you did not forget that it is the spirit responding to Nephi and the Spirit actually does have the capacity to read thoughts …again Alma/Zeezrom… and the Spirit has found the precise manner to comfort Nephi and get him over the hump.

        Exodus 12:12-14

        12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to

        13 And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his
        hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.

        14 But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to
        slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he
        may die.

        I provided an initial reasonable act of interpreting these verses earlier and so will not recreate it here.

        Notice every point of the Exodus scripture is met in the Nephi narrative to the point of the Lord having declared a place for him to flee too. Are you missing the incredible and perfect overlay of this set of verses in relation to the Nephi / Laban scenario? It is genuinely testimony building. You should see something like this and notice how nicely the Lord has abided by the precise strictures and provided for each element to be found in the Nephi narrative and be excited to have connected the dots so completely. Instead the approach is not connecting the dots but becomes filling in the blanks. You generate the quote above and supply all sorts of material that cannot be implied from the text nor any other acceptable source of scriptural commentary and I am positive the spirit gave you no such insight.

        You do mention these Exodus verses but it is very apparent that you have missed the completeness of the overlay as you dismiss them as inadequate evidence of Nephi’s motivations even though it matches what he claims. It seems a more practical and correct process and far less inappropriately speculative to note the conditions and how they perfectly addressed Nephi’s concerns and can be easily evaluated to have done so. If you had recognized all of this, I suspect you would have not found it necessary to create such an elaborate incongruous “new” Nephi.

        Notice how well Exodus addresses all of Nephi concerns. He states he is worried about killing a man. Exodus says it’s wrong and validates Nephi’s hesitancy and it makes sense he should be worried about it. However, Exodus says there is one caveat that makes it right – if the Lord should deliver someone into your hands; not only that but the proof of this delivery is that the Lord will appoint a place to which to flee. What is so amazing this is perfectly inline with some of the insight you provide concerning Nephi’s overwhelming desire to be obedient to the commandments. Nephi has already been appointed somewhere to flee too. He is on his way there even now and is getting the plates as an integral part of that journey. It is marvelous to me, this perfect intertwining of scripture and finally Nephi gives credence to the spirit’s encouragement by mentioning among other things that he knows the spirit has properly addressed his very first concern by pointing out that Laban has been delivered into his hand. My question is why is this insignificant to you? On all points it matches Nephi’s concerns and observations as presented in the record. Why is it easier and and assumed appropriate to you to discount his record or provide another source that leads you to think in this way?

        The comparison of the Exodus material is in agreement with Nephi’s own observations and it preserves the integrity of the scriptural record. This is the point of greatest concern to me, I think you violate the intent of not only these passages but the intent of the scriptures as well. This is a point that I will expand on in the final portion of my responses .

        Bottom line I think that staying with the Exodus material provides a correct interpretation and it is in the form of something that the spirit can actually confirm as true. It is insightful and a message that is suitable to be taught in a Gospel Doctrine class and in fact even as public a forum as this. It also teaches people a tiny bit of how they should be studying scripture by focusing predominately on letting scripture validate scripture.

        Do I care if in the development of your theological wisdom you over speculate – I have no concern whatsoever – I have hundreds of pages of my own speculations that have eventually been proven correct or eventually proven false or are still between these two ultimates. But I don’t put it out there as if it is a brilliant point of truth for public dissemination. You take such a huge risk publishing such contrary material in a forum that some gospel doctrine teacher might frequent and accept as sound interpretation and then actually somehow think it a reasonable point of view to teach in their gospel doctrine class. That is what troubles me.

  3. […] Spencer points out that when Lehi preaches (v18-19) that Jrsm will be destroyed, the response is mocking.  When he […]

  4. Robert C. said

    Joe, thanks for these fantastic notes.

    How would you reply to the following question?

    “Nephi said his writings were plain. You are reading a lot into the text, supposing that Nephi is writing with great subtlety and complexity. Doesn’t that go against the grain of what Nephi himself claims?”

    If nothing else, I hope you’ll discuss this notion of “plainness” in a subsequent post….

  5. joespencer said

    I suppose the simplest response would be to say:

    “Yes, but Nephi makes clear that ‘plainness’ doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘easily understandable,’ since he bluntly states that even when he speaks in plainness, his readers do not understand what he’s up to (see especially 2 Nephi 32). It seems clear that we’ve got to think carefully about what ‘plainness’ means—and I suspect that it has more to do with avoiding metaphor and symbolism than anything else.”

    Is that a start?

  6. NathanG said

    I have felt for some time that Nephi wrote his narrative in part to show his own evolving understanding of how God deals with Nephi and the children of men in general. Most of what we casually celebrate as Nephi’s faithfulness or valiance I suspect he shared as his own mistaken assumptions and how God teaches him the correct way. That being said, I’m fascinated at the conclusions you have arrived at and admit I had to start chuckling everytime you said, “Clearly he is stating” or the many variations you use, because they are anything but clear to me. Thank you for sharing your extensive work, lots of fun stuff to think through.

  7. NathanG said

    It seems that the first attempt to obtain the plates from Laban may work very well with the reading you offer. It seems that by casting lots, they were allowing God to choose whom to retrieve the plates, almost superstitiously. The lot fell to Laman, the eldest, who subsequently failed. Nephi views this as God calling the eldest to keep the commandments, the eldest fails (who should not have failed if he were to truly live up to the role of being the leader), and Nephi’s understanding of the Lehitic covenant moves him to boldly swear an oath binding his life to completion of the task as you have explained.
    Since the second attempt to retrieve the plates was Nephi’s idea, the subsequent failure should have been very humbling. What are your thoughts as to how the first two attempts to get the plates affect Nephi?

    • joespencer said

      This is very nice, Nathan. I’ve never noticed before the you-fail-and-then-I-fail pattern in those first two attempts. I want to think about this more.

    • JBL said

      NathanG – A thought on the casting of lots. You tap gently on a couple of thoughts that are definitely important and your instincts are good here. However, l would like to try to shore up a couple of thoughts. Lots is not a superstitious method for determining God’s intent. Of course it can be if the intent of the heart and faith are not adequate but it was the same technique used to divide the lands of the Children of Israel when they reached the promised land and that was accepted by God. So the question to build upon is Why would God choose Laman?

      This process of retrieving the plates has many important teachings but the one in question is that this is a legitimate rejection and acceptance of Firstborn heirship blessing and duties. It is patterned similar to the Jacob and Esau transfer of firstborn heirship. God chooses Laman as he has the right to firstborn heirship by his chronological position as firstborn. God does not take this standing lightly. It is Laman’s right to claim. However, firstborn is more than a chronological position it also is a position of being or perhaps status. To fulfill the right to heirship one must possess other qualifications.

      God chooses Laman specifically to allow him to prove his claim. Laman goes into Laban and fails to secure the plates. He fails. Technically for the moment, that really is no biggie. However, if you will look at 1 Nephi 3:14 the very last sentence is the biggie. Laman forfeits claim to firstborn priority when he gives up and prepares to return to his father in the wilderness.

      Now Nephi initiates his claim to firstborn heirship and the transfer of that blessing to him when he states that they cannot return until they “have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us.”

      This however is only making a claim on the now abandoned firstborn right – it is not receipt of the right.

      When the sons return the second time and fail again this serves at least two purposes that I can see at the moment. One is that this fulfills what I call a final judgement cycle for Laban. This is a point that has not been developed in this series of comments and I won’t go into it for now but it also fulfills a second requirement which is germane to the transfer of firstborn privilege. By failing Nephi is now provided with the conditions that enable him to distinguish his claim to heirship as unique from Laman’s claim.

      Nephi has failed in this second effort and again that is no biggie. However, what is a biggie is alluded to in verse 29. The Lord has chosen Nephi to be a ruler over his brethern. This was initiated with Nephi’s covenant which bound him to the Lord to succeed in this endeavor in verse 3:15. Now he has not yet technically fulfilled the requirement to obtain the right but the Lord knows an heir when he sees one and Nephi is that heir.

      Nephi fulfills the claim in 4:18 when he is “obedient to the voice of the spirit”, which results in Laban’s absent-mindedness. Now all of the requirements have been met for a legitimate transfer of firstborn heirship from Laman to Nephi. The fact that this was done with Laban’s “own sword” also plays out as the fullfillment of the final judgment event that is also taking place relative to Laban.

  8. robf said

    Where does “preserve unto our children the language of our fathers” come from? A) This seems like an unusual thing for a teenager to think up. B) This also seems to be an unusual thing to think about unless you are in cultural contact with other, more dominant, linguistic populations. Could this be Nephi projecting back from his position 40 years in the future, and might it also be more evidence that the Lehite colony was just a small group of people surrounded by and part of a larger New World society upon arrival?

  9. kirkcaudle said

    This is fantastic Joe, I hope that you can keep it up all year! I have nothing really to add at the moment, but I will continue reading as long as you continue posting.

  10. Clark Goble said

    Joe, weren’t the original paragraph and chapter breaks just as arbitrary as Orson Pratt’s were? I agree that in some places where Pratt broke things was unhelpful. I often wish the Book of Mormon had a careful editing to break out poetry, quotes and paragraphs better the way many new Bible translations/editions do. (I love the way the Jerusalem Bible and NAB put the chapter/verse in the margins rather than in the text itself)

    I’ve long wondered how to deal with Nephi’s brothers. On the one hand its a great demonstration that evidence doesn’t necessarily convince. On the other why do they get so many signs? Why didn’t Lehi let them leave? If God wanted them brought, why was that?

    • Jim F. said

      Clark, I’m not an authority on such matters, but my understanding has been that the best evidence is for the belief that the original chapter breaks were part of the original manuscript.

    • joespencer said

      Jim’s right. Here are Royal Skousen’s summary words in the first volume of the Analysis of Textual Variants:

      It appears that Joseph Smith himself specified the placement of the original chapter breaks. In the translation process, Joseph seems to have seen some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending; perhaps the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph then told the scribe to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later. Scribal evidence from the original and printer’s manuscripts supports this interpretation. Oliver Cowdery’s Chapter is always written rapidly and with the same ink flow as the surrounding text. But his chapter numbers are almost always written with heavier ink flow and more carefully. In many cases, Oliver took time to add serifs to his roman numerals. And in one case, the chapter number was written in blue ink while all the surrounding words (including the word Chapter) were written using the normal black ink. (Skousen, p. 44)

  11. J. Madson said


    while I certainly appreciate what you are trying to do here (understand Nephi’s purpose and intent in writing this as well as his thoughts and motives), it seems you are reading a lot into the text about what Nephi was thinking or going through. I am not saying you are wrong per se but that this creative reading, which I applaud, is far from a certainty. It seems to me that it is a also reading more into the text than perhaps may be there. Like I said before, I am also very suspicious of your use of Girard here although this clarifies for me what your dialogue article didn’t seem to make clear to me. It is Nephi’s conviction that he is good and a commandment keeper that comes into travail with the fact that he does have murderous desires for his brothers and he is trying to hold onto the illusion that he doesn’t want to kill despite his murderous heart. There is certainly some irony if that is the case as Grant Hardy notes, Laman and Lemuel are murderous in their hearts but Nephi has actually killed. Their great sin – rudeness.

    As I’ve said before, I see this event as foundational; even as a foundational murder. This event differentiates forever Nephi form his brothers (see kingship/davidic motifs as Larsen and others have brought out) and the Lehite clan from those in Jerusalem. They can no longer go back (lam an and lemuel included) and they are now a new society stemming from this decisive event (i.e. there is no going back). Furthermore, there is the larger textual question about how to read a narrative. You are reading the narrative to understand Nephi’s purposes and intents and reasons, which we should. There is also another reading or a meta reading. Independent of Nephi’s motifs how does this even fit into the larger narrative of the Book of Mormon. Is there perhaps another message being taught that Nephi is unaware of? Regardless of how Nephi saw this event, what are its fruits? How does this event define and act as a prospective guide for Nephite culture and their interactions with future “Labans”? In other words, does this event psychosocially trap Nephites into patterns of violence and killing of enemies as opposed to seeking out more creative methods and having moral imagination. This event is very much part of the Nephite psyche and how they approach enemies. What a different society they may have had if Nephi had approached the problem like say the brother of Jared? Have the Lord let him write a new set of plates (translate them, channel them, whatever miraculous means he could come up with). Was killing Laban really the only way? Ultimately I am a strong believer that the proof is in the pudding; that if we want to know the ethics (which I see you are arguing against) of an event we must look at its fruits not just in the narrative of Nephi but the grand Nephite narrative. I find it eery that the Book begins with one man claiming that God commanded him to take up the sword and ends with another (mormon 7) stating that we should never take up our swords save God commands. Perhaps Nephi is justified, but there is a strong sense that this event was used and interpreted wrongly for generations. Between these two bookends are bodies reduced to corpses and Mormon almost seems to be saying, look its gotten out of hand. Nephi is not an example in killing enemies; you are only justified if God himself commands.

    • joespencer said

      Hey J,

      Sorry I’m just getting to this. I’ve been without internet access while traveling for the past few days.

      So, first, I don’t at all deny that this is creative reading. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that the reading you offer in your second paragraph is equally creative, though. Every reading worth bothering with (and I think your is as worth bothering with as mine!) is a creative reading, one that notes textual clues and indications and then does theological work on them.

      As for what happens in Nephi’s text regardless of his own intentions—I couldn’t agree more. But I’m not sure why some things that have happened in that vein so far should keep us from counter-reading the text to try to make something else—something non-murderous—happen in the wake of the text.

      • J. Madson said

        I didn’t mean creative in a bad way as mine is certainly in that same vein. So my bad. Having said that, my larger point would be that there are perhaps two seperate and possibly reconcialiatory readings occuring. I can actually accept your reading as consistent with nephi’s understanding and narrative intent while still arguing that in the larger or grand narrative of the book of Mormon that the fruits of having this as a foundational story for nephites (which I think it is for a variety of reasons including the later usage of the sword in both symbol of rule and facsimile for more weapons) leads to false narratives and theology about the other and perpetuates conflict as opposed to resolving it in at one ment. In other words, even if nephi is justified and it is not murder (which I am not entirely convinced) this does not justify the repetition of this event nor it’s logic by subsequent nephites which I believe occurs. It is an isolated and unique event not one for mimesis

      • joespencer said

        I think we’re more or less in agreement. And I’m happy about that. :)

  12. We have a free Book of Mormon Genealogy Chart that can be very helpful to those preparing for and studying this year’s Sunday School lessons. It identifies everybody mentioned in the Book of Mormon, their family relationships, and groups them by the book in which they are first mentioned.

    gary polson

  13. Robert C. said

    Very nice, Gary—thanks!

  14. j wrathall said

    Forgive me, but it seems that the crux of this analysis (which is really quite inspiring, IMO) relies on whether or not Nephi understood the intention of the brass plates as indicated by his speech in 1Ne 3:19-20. I can see why and how Nephi’s obedience vis a vis his brothers’ was zealous without knowledge, but this point of his sermon is where I don’t understand his conversion as you put it. In 19 he clearly understands that the records are for their children, and in 20 he clearly understands that they contain the word of God just as he ‘remembered’ in 1 Ne. 4: 14-16 where he essentially rehearses to himself his own speech. So, at what point does he not understand the intention of the brass plates in 3:19, and subsequently, of what substance is his epiphany if he already knew that purpose? Since he seemed to already know the importance of the bigger picture of the plates, the thunder of his conversion moment in slaying Laban doesn’t otherwise seem so dramatic.

    • robf said

      I’ve suggested (comment 8 above) that 3:19 might be a retrospective insertion after Nephi’s colony has become assimilated or taken rulership over a linguistically distinct pre-existing Native American group after arrival in the promised land. If so, how might that change this line of reasoning?

    • joespencer said

      J Wrathall,

      I think you’ve missed something important in my argument. I don’t mean to suggest that Nephi is suddenly converted in 1 Nephi 4:14-16 to an understanding of the brass plates as containing the word of God. I’m claiming that Nephi suddenly realizes there that the plates contain the specific commandments that had been identified for him in 1 Nephi 20:19-24.

      I suspect you could only have missed this if you read just the comments on the scene with Laban….

      • j wrathall said

        Joespencer, Thanks for that clarification. I see what you are getting at more clearly now (though I don’t think my Sunday School class was as willing to go there).

      • joespencer said

        Glad to hear it, J. And I’ll add that I have no idea whether I would bring any of this up in Sunday School! :)

  15. BrianJ said

    Regarding 1 Ne 1:18-20, Joe asked:

    Why this progression of sorts? When Lehi speaks critically of his hearers and threatens them with calamity, they laugh, but when he speaks of a beautiful redemption and the coming of an anointed king, they try to kill him. I think a good deal of thought ought to be dedicated to this distinct responses to distinct messages. Why are we inclined to mock at the apocalyptic, but to get rid of the messianic? Why does a messenger with a word about messianic redemption strike us as dangerous, while someone who announces catastrophe gets us giggling?

    It is not explicit in the text, so I have to speculate a bit. But let us suppose that Lehi’s understanding of who the Messiah would be was as developed as Nephi’s (and others’ who we read in the BofM). Meaning, that he did not see the Messiah as an ordinary human made triumphant by God’s grace and power unto deliverance—a la King David or Solomon. No, he understood that the Messiah would indeed be God himself made flesh. If that’s what he was preaching then it is no wonder he provoked anger: the thought of God becoming mortal is repugnant to the Jews.

    Now, I’m not quite sure how that squares with the reasons previous prophets were rejected and killed (the scriptures always seem to present that as a very large number, but I can’t really think of that many.) When I think of the murder or attempted murder of other prophets, for example, Isaiah or Elijah, it seems mostly motivated for political reasons.

  16. […] A Tangent From “Jesus Christ, Our Savior” – YW Lesson 2, Manual 1BrianJ on Book of Mormon Lesson #2: “All Things According to His Will,” 1 Nephi 1-7 (Sunday S…BrianJ on Being “A Daughter of God” – YW Lesson 1, Manual 1Karen on […]

  17. NathanG said

    Why Nephi drew Laban’s sword came up in our lesson today. I couldn’t help but think about the shift in Nephi’s focus from the time the angel stopped Laman and Lemuel. The angel instructs them to return and the Lord will deliver Laban into their hands (not deliver the plates into their hands). Nephi then tries to motivate Laman and Lemuel by comparing Laban to Pharoah and the Egyptians, confident that the Lord is able to “destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.” While Nephi may truly not have known what he was about to do, he was thinking of Laban being delivered into his hands. He comes upon his enemy down on the ground. What bettter way to seal the deliverance by disarming him?

    • BrianJ said

      The same thing popped up to me in my study this week. Nephi presents Laban as the Egyptians and, hey, if the Lord could wipe out thousands and thousands of them, then Nephi is justified in killing just one man.

      Also, you quote part of it, but note that Nephi not only talks of deliverance from Laban, but getting rid of Laban entirely:

      Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.

      “What bettter way to seal the deliverance than by disarming him?” Dis-arming and dis-heading him. I believe Nephi that he didn’t know what he would do because he didn’t have any idea what his meeting with Laban would be like. But I have doubts that Nephi had not already imagined or hoped to kill Laban.

      • GaryH said

        It’s likely that Nephi expected the Lord to destroy Laban by some kind of supernatural intervention, just as he did with the Egyptians. I imagine that Nephi had not contemplated having to perform the act himself until confronted with the injunction from the Spirit. It’s an interesting example of faith in action for someone to fulfil God’s promises to them through their own deeds rather than waiting for a stumbling block to just be removed.

      • JBL said

        I am not sure why we need to keep reading subversive mentalities into Nephi’s writings. In the very first chapter V3 he states what I perceive to be a spirit born testimony of the truthful nature of his record “I know that the record which I make is true”.

        If we let the scriptures interpret their own intents we can approach with more sureness and clarity and less speculation. The Slaying with the sword is a distinct act of judgment. Nephi did not make the choice to slay Laban with the Sword – Laban did. Well, The Lord did because of Laban’s own choices. Please consider…

        This scenario reads out much like the Balaam and his ass story. In Numbers 22 Balaam declares that if he had a sword in his hand he would slay his ass for mocking him because it failed to heed his efforts to go forward when the angel blocked his way. In Leviticus 26:25, Exodus 22:24, and Exodus 5:3 we see reference to a particular type or shadow of judgment. The Leviticus verse is perhaps the most straightforward but the essence is that a symbol of the judgment of God is to be slain with a sword.

        Now recall Balaam. He is involved in a major cycle of trying to out-wit the Lord but cannot utter declarations against the children of Israel. So he mocks God once in Numbers 22 when he followed not God’s instructions to him. In this Balaam mocked the Lord, and then Balaam defines when speaking to his ass that to be mocked is an act deserving of death. That Balaam mocks the Lord a second time is referred to by Moses in Numbers 32:15-16. How did Balaam mock the Lord, it takes a bit of work to see but 2 Peter 2:15-16 mentions that Balaam was rebuked…Numbers 31:8 lists the Kings of Midian that were slain and then seemingly almost as an after thought it tosses in this little note that Balaam also, the son of Beor, was slain with the sword

        To summarize. Balaam mocks the Lord once in not following his instructions, and a second time in the matter of Peor. Revelations 2:14 gives us the specifics that are wanting up till now on just what Balaam did at Peor. Essentially he simply educated Balak that he could not utter anything against the Children of Israel but if Balak was to have them eat the meat of idols and send out the girls that Israel would loose the suppor to God if they transgressed by disobedience and fornication. Now knowing that the symbolism of being slain by the sword represents the judgments of God and knowing that Balaam himself has decreed that the only proper punishment for a mocking ass is to be slain by the sword the little tag-on line in Numbers 31:8 ceases to have the nuance of an after-thought and becomes a powerful declaration of final judgement – a judgment that Balaam himself declared was a required response to mockery.

        Now, what does all this have to do with Nephi and Laban – everything! Again I call these types of scenario’s judgement cycles and once we learn to identify them we can see them in several places in scripture and even more important you can see them in your own lives. Again keep in mind there are final judgment cycles and there are acts that can be defined as forging our own sword of Judgement as Laban has done. I have expanded into this great detail for a reason. I am testifying that the scriptures are adequate tools for interpreting themselves and we do not need to make things up to understand the significance of The Laban and Nephi situation.

        If we establish a pattern of second guessing Nephi and his motives and fail to take him at his word that his record is true then there is absolutely no value in the scriptural record as a vehicle to promote faith and understanding of the character and attributes of God. Nephi, Alma, Jacob, Moroni, Moses and dozens of others serve as types of Christ and of the character of the righteous. We are engaged in very insidious behavior to continue to find subversive motivations that do not reflect the character of Christ (when that is the intent) and that are inconsistent with the character of God. When we pick apart Nephi we have actually in a way put God on trial as the author of a record that is designed to educate and convert and build confidence and testimony.

        Now lets take the Laban scenario and I will briefly try to apply the judgment cycle process of an ever consistent and unchanging God in whom we can have perfect faith.

        I mentioned in an earlier post that the “getting the plates” scenario was a transfer of Firstborn privilege scenario. However it is also a perfect final judgment scenario as well. Generally the basic pattern is this: 1.) He that is to be judged, unknowingly declares how he is to be judged. This is in perfect accordance with God’s own mouth that as we judge we shall be judged. 2.) A situation occurs that places the person to be judged in a position to behave after the manner of offense that he himself has declared deserves a particular judgment. 3.) The judgment call is accepted by God and rendered according to the declarations of the individual being judged.

        Time is of the essence so I am going to dispense with the elaborate detailed analysis. How this applies to Laban: 1.) First effort – Laman goes to Laban and requests the plates. Laban gets all excited, declares that Laman is a robber and deserves to die. 2.) Second attempt the brothers gather an incredible amount of wealth and bring it to Laban, who covets the wealth and steals the riches from the sons of Lehi. Thus Laban becomes the robber and he has declared the appropriate sentence for a robber. 3rd effort God accepts Laban’s own judgment and renders it as a final judgment. We know this is final judgment because we have gleaned from the Old Testament the symbolism of slaying with the sword as a means of God rendering final judgment. (unless you live of course in which you can take it as a strongly worded warning: ahh the curse of light mindedness…)

        Now, what for me has become the most important and significant message of the entire Laban, Nephi, get the plates scenario. Laban was slain with his “OWN SWORD”. Laban forged the sword that hung over his head over the period of his entire life. He was a man of wicked works and utterly unrighteous judgments. Inch by inch he forged that sword with his own declarations and intentions and polished it and inlaid it with the jewels of mistaken values. Nephi had no intent to kill any man – he says so and we can believe him but in the moment of Laban’s slaying Nephi has accepted the rights, privileges and burdens of receiving the firstborn heirship and it was in executing the judgment of God against Laban that validated his claim. I am sure that Nephi was not aware of what the specifics of his test would be but just as it is with you and I it seems to always come down to obedience to commandments and the Lord will test and try us fully just as he has done and will continue to do with Nephi – a true type and example of a genuinely righteous person who is a valid example of who we can all benefit by striving to be like, instead of casting him to be like ourselves. I am sure that the Lord would prefer us to see the record he has provided as the iron rod of righteous example he intends it to be – a true tool of clarifying good and evil that forms a critical element of our time on earth.

  18. Robert C. said

    JBL, you bring up some fascinating thoughts and insights. Thank you for sharing these. I’d be interested in reading more of your thoughts on this and other passages, if you can find the time to write them up. We could post them at the wiki or the blog if they get too long for comments (you can email me at rcouchZZZ@gmail.com, without the ZZZ).

    Regarding Nephi’s reason for killing Laban, I think you make some good points about Laban and judgment. I’m not sure, however, that what you are saying is all that incompatible with what at least the main points Joe is making. It’s not hard to see a political (and ethical) intent to this story that plays a role in justifying Nephi’s actions along the line that you are suggesting—but I think Joe’s point is primarily to show that there is also something very interesting going on that seems to play an even more privileged role, as evidenced for example by the key placement and phrasing of 1 Ne 4:14-17.

    The careful, textual attention that Joe is giving to the term “commandments,” and the placement of this verse (4:14), along with the curious “shrunk” language in verse 10, strongly suggests to me that there is important textual merit for the main thrust of Joe’s comments, which it seems you are dismissing simply because you have an alternative reading, and because you think Joe is being overly critical of Nephi. Now, I agree that we probably ought to be cautious in thinking that Nephi’s “surprise” regarding the connection between the brass plates and the commandments should be connected to the subsequent tension between the Nephites and Lamanites—but I don’t see this as a very main point that Joe is making (more of an interesting aside/conjecture that is worth studying and pondering more carefully…).

    Also, on your “inflationary” reading of Nephi’s description of the account as “true,” it would seem that Nephi’s terminology of “shrunk” applied to himself in response to the command to kill Laban, and the kind of self-criticism in Nephi’s Psalm, would not accord with the notion of “true” that you lay out. But I’d be interested in hearing you elaborate on your views regarding all of this, giving more attention and care both to Joe’s writing, inasmuch as you are criticizing his views, and the words of the Book of Mormon itself. You claim to be offering a less speculative reading, but frankly I find your reading of the Book of Mormon and Joe’s writing rather sloppy, and thus more speculative. Perhaps this is just because Joe has elaborated his reading in more depth and articulated his point with more care and nuance, but it doesn’t seem like you are looking at the text as closely as he is, relying instead more on a preconceived idea of what you think the text should be saying. And, since I think you are misreading Joe somewhat—both literally, and in terms of intent—it’s hard not to wonder if you are misreading the Book of Mormon in a similar manner. I say this not to be dismissive of the nice insights you are offering, but to invite you to contribute more, and in a manner that I think will be more productive.

    To be a bit more specific, at the risk of being redundant, what I esp. like about Joe’s suggested (and admittedly speculative, since I think this kind of speculation is requisite when pondering seriously and sincerely…) reading is how it explains several things at once: the significance of 1 Ne 4:14-17, and the significance of the term “commandments” throughout this narrative (esp. in v. 14, along with the significance of the term “remembrance”), and the reason why Nephi “shrunk” when he had previously acted so zealously. Gary’s suggestion regarding the term “shrunk,” that Nephi simply didn’t want to be the actual agent of this violence, sounds very interesting, because it has strong existential/psychological resonance. However, I don’t see this point really being incompatible with, again, at least the main thrust of Joe’s reading—and of course Gary’s suggestion (along with all other suggestions I’ve seen) fails to explain the privileged placement and phrasing of 1 Ne 4:14-17.

    • JBL said

      Robertc, I am going to respond to the bulk of this response in my response to Joe as he seems in agreement with the predominate portions of your inquiry. However, there is one section that I need help with before I can respond to it at all. You state in your original:

      “You claim to be offering a less speculative reading, but frankly I find your reading of the Book of Mormon and Joe’s writing rather sloppy, and thus more speculative. Perhaps this is just because Joe has elaborated his reading in more depth and articulated his point with more care and nuance, but it doesn’t seem like you are looking at the text as closely as he is, relying instead more on a preconceived idea of what you think the text should be saying. And, since I think you are misreading Joe somewhat—both literally, and in terms of intent—it’s hard not to wonder if you are misreading the Book of Mormon in a similar manner. I say this not to be dismissive of the nice insights you are offering, but to invite you to contribute more, and in a manner that I think will be more productive.”

      My confusion is that in my post, I let scripture define scripture as we are counseled to do. I carefully show the scriptural principles that spell out proper interpretation of my conclusions. I provide an analysis that is both insightful and compelling and could be shared in any Gospel doctrine class. Well – maybe be a little careful with Balaam and his talking donkey but all in all it fits completely and perfectly within the gospel framework as we understand it. I fail to see the speculation. Now I do use a method of study that is not common though we are recommended by a couple of GA’s that it is a worthy method and that is I have spent years striving to understand. That is the method of striving to understand the things of the Jews by the standards of scriptural interpretation of the Jews. I have been doing it so long that I have noticed that sometimes I have to go to great lengths to pull traditional thinkers along. Hence the great efforts I made in my post to show the audience how the other scriptural verses enable us to understand the Nephi verses and how the Lord connects principles and theme by common phrasing and extrapolation and many other things not germane to this post. Finally, I seek the guidance of the spirit and pour over every bit of my conclusions seeking a sense of rightness before public dissemination. I will testify, that the material I sent out is some of the most correct understandings of scriptural meaning that I possess.

      The point is that you have all of the information to verify the correctness of my conclusions. You seem to be really asking me if I think what I wrote is true? I’m not able to change my presentation unless it embraces more scriptural research and while I might be able to add to it that way it will only build upon what I have already written and not alter it because I know the source of the message I delivered. Is it true? Well, if that is the question, you don’t need me for that answer. You comment in this I quoted above the following, “And, since I think you are misreading Joe somewhat”. This statement points me in a direction that I will speak to and since you seem to place so much value on the words of his post that I am not reading I can see we have a major issue here. You will note how in almost every instance when Christ was asked by those trying to trick him he ignored their “words” and instead responded to the real intent of their question. I can see that you on the other hand feel that it is the words themselves that are of worth, when I pay much closer attention to the spirit of the words. I read them all but I am trying to sense more how they feel and less about what they say. I realize this forum may not take kindly to such an idea but I assure you that if you were to focus more on the spirits flow through the language you would comprehend greater truths than you now seem to observe. For me this is more easily done with spiritual subjects. About six years ago I sold off the majority of a 3000 book LDS library because this was becoming so well discerned that I realized there were only a very few of the BYU educator types that understood this principle. I only retained my books authored by prophets and apostles and just a very few other authors that could capture the spirit in their writings. You seem to not understand with awareness, but you may know this intuitively just by recognizing the things that have moved your spirit in the past. When it comes to religious and theological doctrinal writings the most important point is not the words and style as much, as does the writing convey the spirit. I mean really, it is theological material. Shouldn’t every theological author be trying to deliver a living message instead of a cold hollow husk of words on a page? This is a point of my critique of the material on this blog. The authors are not in many cases paying enough attention to the spiritual flow in their message as much as the scholarly technique. If it is dead it is dead and there is no reason to spend too much effort trying to find a spiritual message when it is missing the spirit.

      From a theological perspective the pieces have been provided for you to carry your question to the only logical next step. Exercise your gift. Read through all of the posts and monitor the spirit in you. Notice when it pulls away and when it ebbs back. Feel it swell and diminish. There are some very good considerations from a couple of the various authors. Study it out in your mind – do the footwork, taste the doctrine, feel the light and sense the darkness. If this does not clear it up then ask the Lord.

      In my commentary on the Nephi chapters in question, I use his message and do not speculate into areas that are outside of the doctrinal constraints of the gospel and only deal in material that is appropriate for public dissemination. I am not asking you to confirm me – that will get you nowhere but do your homework and make the information yours and just ask if the scriptures used and the conclusions are within the doctrine of the church and correctly considered. Do the same thing with Joe’s material and frankly anybody who tries to present doctrine to you.

      If it still seems to you that my material was speculative, then please show me examples and I can better judge what you see as the weakness of my material and the sloppiness of my Book of Mormon analysis. By the way, I have no problem with speculation. I have hundreds of pages of my personal speculations. Though I have never been able to find it, I have heard it attributed to Joseph Fielding Smith that he stated that speculating was just good clean fun. (Nothing beats a little hearsay to top off a generous dish of speculation, right?) However, I am strongly convinced by the spirit teaching me as I have engaged in speculative conversations that there is a very small venue for them. One on one, or a very few united people in conversation helping each other see the positive and the negative of a train of thought has proven to be acceptable. Much like the temple implies if the feelings of those present in the discussion are not appropriate the spirit does not work as well. Thus far my general conclusions have sustained that proper speculative conversations are not probable in a large group and certainly not in a public forum that random search efforts or other Gospel doctrine teachers might find an unqualified resource for their own teaching efforts. Still I have several things that I have to date never felt comfortable speculating ever with anyone on because they are not appropriate except between me and the spirit as they potentially represent areas of new doctrine.

    • Robert C. said

      JBL, this is helpful to read, in terms of understanding where you are coming from. I’ll have to think more on this before giving you a better response, probably in a separate post.

      For now I’ll say that I think you have a dangerous view regarding what “church doctrine” is—dangerous because, frankly, it is not appropriately humble. The difference in your approach and Joe’s, as I see it, is that Joe is paying very careful attention to the most authoritative writings we have in the church: the scriptures. True, he talks speculatively about various possible meanings, but all interpretation is speculative, including your claim to know what church doctrine is. Joe clearly links every bit of speculation he has to scripture, and his readings betray an immense amount of pondering, praying, and thinking. Your approach, on the other hand, appeals to some vague notion of what church doctrine is, without actually engaging the sources of that doctrine very carefully (i.e., GAs or scripture, but to some vague sense of what is popular in church culture—my own experience is that many popular church beliefs are in fact not true…). At least you have so far not demonstrated the same kind of care that Joe has in working through authoritative sources. Thus, I think there is more speculative leaping in your interpretations than in his (though, again, you have definitely presented some interesting ideas, many of which I think are also true).

      Now, you also appeal to the Spirit. This is a much larger can of worms. Suffice it to say for now that my own experience, in studying and praying about Joe’s posts, has resulted in tremendous spiritual confirmation and insight. Feasting upon the word of God is something I have a very strong testimony of, and my own experience is that by feasting in the manner that Joe does—in a way that engages my whole soul, including my heart, might, strength and mind—has resulted in many of the most spiritually rewarding experiences of my life. Moreover, these experiences are consistently rewarding. Although I grant that a different approach to scripture may work better for you, I hope you do not dismiss the spiritual value of Joe’s posts simply because they may appear more scholarly than spiritual. I used to read more in the manner that I think you are suggesting, but at some point I realized that I was ultimately hoping for a short-cut approach to truth that circumvented the need to really consecrate my mind to the task.

      Also, I would add that I think Joe’s careful textual justification for every bit of speculation he offers makes it possible to broach the kind of topics that you are referring to, which would otherwise seem too speculative. That is, when Joe explicitly appeals to the scriptures—and points specifically to structures, words and meanings in the text—before making his speculative connections, it makes it possible to discuss his ideas in a much less contentious manner than, say, if two people in a class simply disagree about a particular, both claiming to be in accord with the Spirit and with church doctrine. Without carefully pointing to an authoritative source, my experiences is that such disagreements simply breed contention, in a way that Joe’s approach does not (for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear, I would suggest!).

      Again, I hope you are reading this in a spirit of love and concern, as that is how it is intended—and I sincerely hope that you continue to share your very interesting scriptural insights.

    • JBL said

      Robertc this is part two of a much larger post. I have decided to put it here as a response to your mention of the shrinking Nephi and the analysis the Joe presented. As it also is a portion of his material that was so far from the intent of the scriptures that it warrants being addressed as well. I wanted to provide more sourcing material to illustrate why I use the methods I use. I have noted that Hugh Nibley, Bruce R McConkie and Joseph Smith each manifest a better application of the process than I, but few gospel scholars seem to be willing to follow their lead in attempting to use Jewish principles for understanding the scriptures.

      As it overlays the Nephi / Laban exchange nicely it seems a natural effort to explore as a mechanism of illustrating how I think some are able to color so far outside the lines. That being that they have no sense of application of standards that place teh boundaries that keep them within the liines. I have never developed a perspective from Nephi’s use of this term so this provides a hands-on look at what I find to be proper development in scripture interpretation. This is not a point that I have ever noted or made a matter of prayerful study until now. So I thought to give it some consideration and see what would come of it. It has taken me several days to feel my way through this but here is my take on one point of scriptural application to analyzing this thought.

      I start with pondering through known scriptural situations where God has required someone to do a very difficult thing and then they hesitate before completing the task. A few examples that I thought had an element of criteria of shrunk were as follows and I weeded through them trying to find one that was as Nephi appears to be using it.

      I’ve got Jonah, Who doesn’t even start the journey until strongly encouraged. Not the same.

      I’ve got the 12 spies sent to scout out the territory they are to conquer. Ten of them shrink after a fashion and give weak reports and loose the favor of God. Two did not shrink. However, neither of these two samples of addressing the task quite fit the Nephi scenario.

      I’ve got Gideon in the Old Testament who has been called to lead an attacking unit at the Lords request. He requests this funky little dew on the piece of wool experiment to get confirmation. Now this one is actually getting closer but still somewhat different but if I didn’t have anything better I might stop here and try to develop this further. Still, I keep reviewing…

      Hmmm…nobody in Israel to fight Goliath-a bunch of shrinkers, except for a young boy who does not appear to shrink at all – he’s out.

      Still not a good tight fit until I consider a scripture which appears to convey the appearance of shrinking just a bit and it really to me seems the best fit to lay up against the Nephi scenario. Nephi, a sincere committed servant, who desperately desires to be obedient to God’s commandments, is presented with a dilemma that is more than he has adequately considered before this moment. Now, in the example that I find, the “Shrinking” person has known for a while what was coming but even with that he has never undergone what is asked of him and it causes the same sense of discomfort in this individual that I sense in Nephi. Let’s see what you think, here is the verse…

      Luke 22:42

      42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me:
      nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

      Hmmm, pondering upon this I see some technical overlay problems but the core of the experience is a perfect fit. A situation that is at the very edge of that person’s capacity to give has been asked of both Nephi and Jesus Christ. They struggle with what is asked of them. They suffer for it. And even more remarkable they both need some help to get them over the hump that has caused them this moment’s pause to reflect upon what is being asked of them. Consider:

      Luke 22:43

      43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven,
      strengthening him.

      Is this a reasonable comparison? After all Nephi is not being asked to die – he potentially could die as he is a great risk but that is clearly not a focal point of the Nephi / Laban narrative. It could be if we were approaching this from another angle but it doesn’t quite fit for now. Even more interesting, if we look at the Matthew 26 rendition we find that while in the Garden, Christ pleaded to have his requirement removed on three separate instances. You may want to read it and see if you cannot sense the common spirit of each description. Is this shrinking? Hardly the kind of shrinking that would cast dispersions on the character of the Lord and from my viewpoint hardly the type of shrinking that would cast dispersions on Nephi.

      This shrinking in both the Nephi and Christ case is not a fullness of shrinking if you will. Both Nephi and Christ express a withdrawing sense of engagement. It seems to only describe a moment of withdrawal from engaging in what is a very difficult task. It is a process of weighing the extreme difficulty of a near overwhelming task required at the hand of God. Your ambition seems to be to place some element of meaning into hypothetical possibilities of thoughts flowing through Nephi’s mind. That may seem innocent enough but your conclusions go so far outside the realm of the nature of the image of Nephi that the scriptures draw that it alters the significance of the man as a type for Christ. This undermines the effort of the scriptures. Still I will be developing this point of undermining the scriptures in much greater detail towards the end. Consider the final verse that I thought played into this discussion.

      Doctrine and Covenants 19:18

      18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of
      all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and
      to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink
      the bitter cup, and shrink—

      The term shrink as Nephi uses it to describe his hesitancy and hope for an alternative option feels just like the Luke and Mathew portrayal of Christ’s personal battle with pleading 3 times for his father to remove the burden that he has been asked to bear. The nature of these two events seems to be in the same genre of challenge. When we put all of the passages together they are close enough in nature and flow and connected by terminology and similar applications of the terminology to resemble each other *1 (see footnote below.)

      What Nephi proves and we all must understand is that wrestling with the spirit is only a wrestle between the will of man and the difficulty in putting our will aside and subjecting our will to God’s. More than anything this story provides a backdrop for how difficult this task of choosing God’s will is over choosing our own.

      Joe, your piece really is ok up to the point when you begin describing what the points of will are that Nephi is wrestling with. From my perspective, you abandon the spirit of the message which is an all inclusive perspective of a man’s will, any man’s will, all men’s will. However, you drive right by the generalities which can be all inclusive and take a left turn to create specifics. Instead, by excessive focus on Nephi, you change the perspective to one of judging Nephi without knowledge. The scriptural intent of providing a mirror to measure our own selves in and the battle that we all have in subjecting our will to God is deflected into an unreasonable effort of judging Nephi.

      The dialogue only retains its scriptural intent if we can stay focused on the fact that we battle similar demons and to win we must submit to God as Nephi (and Jesus Christ in the discussion he has with the spirit.) is designed to example in this portrayal of events. In the process you disrupt the focus from allowing the scriptures to work on us the reader and become blind to its application to us and divert us to judging Nephi without knowledge. That is why I reject that Nephi is resisting the spirit in the manner that it sounded to me. You may have written material somewhere that makes this more palatable and perhaps my failure to follow this blog will cause me to read more into it than intended. I can’t fully develop why at the moment as I am trying to stay focused on the Nephi scenario. It is already so much material

      Now I left off above stating that I reject that Nephi is resisting the spirit simply because he has stated that he did shrink at the expectations of killing Laban. I can see it in the way of he isn’t just doing what he is told but this isn’t an act of resistance as much as it is an act of wanting to understand the nature of what is going on here. Frankly, he knows the law and if you going around murdering people that’s going to get messy at some point. It appears reasonable conjecture based on the two things the scriptures state that he feels he is stuck in a damned if I do and damned if I don’t situation. He is simply pausing to figure out how not to be damned at all. Based on what is developed in the story line, he has a great desire to obey the commandments of God, of which one is do not kill and now he is told to kill. He is not resisting the spirit as much as he is perplexed. He is pulling back, shrinking from the eagerness of obeying the commandments UNTIL he can understand a way to exit this Kobayashi Maru scenario.

      In addition to Jesus Christ in Gethsemane, another scriptural precedent is revealed information and involves Adam at the moment of the fall. Adam shrinks for a moment as soon as he realizes he has to admit to quite a conundrum. At first he firmly confirms I will keep all of God’s commandments. Then Eve makes her observation and he steps back mentally from his previous statement to consider the fact that he hadn’t thought about Eve’s observation. Do I partake of the fruit or do I bring children into the world. Do I keep all of the commandments of God or choose a commandment of greater implications over one of lesser… In Nephi’s straits the spirit does what the spirit does; it teaches. In the consistent pattern of the spirit, it educates him and he overcomes the real concern he has for his own soul. Shrinking is not resisting. Shrinking is shrinking. Or the process of pulling away from the eagerness of a moment ago. As I have attempted to illustrate with both Christ and Nephi this issue here is not resisting it is submitting; a person submitting their will to God. It is one of several critical gospel principles that define what it takes to achieve a firstborn status in the Kingdom of God. According to Brigham Young, paraphrasing, the Lord has little need for blind obedience*2 . He needs those who manifest a will but are willing to submit their will to the Lord.

      This is a very tedious explanation of how I validate truth and why the conclusions concerning Nephi’s murderous thoughts seem inappropriate for public dissemination and create a sense of darkness in my soul concerning the points made.

      To beat this dead horse one more time, I believe that the rules of scripture evaluation are important to keep our standard or to provide the boundaries of our thoughts. The Christ request scenario where he seeks a way out of his dilemma provides a perfect guardrail around our conclusions as we overlay it on Nephi’s shrinking moment. The two common themes together create a standard of evaluation. By pivoting each of these separate incidences against any further conclusions that are not explicitly stated in the text of the two events I have created a standard that will keep my conclusions within boundaries that help sustain the intent of both events. In other words, whatever I say about one should be applicable to or form a distinction between these two examples. Each one is a pair of eyes observing the same scenario from differing venues. Now, I’m not sure that the last sentence makes any sense without some explanation, so I am going to explain everything in a way that will shed some light on this just in case. This goes back to the concept of understanding the things of the Jews and using that as an aid in understanding scripture.

      I’m not sure of the sense of force that exists in your minds concerning the consistent necessity and the requirement of the second witness. Sense it has been made apparent that some disagree as to what constitutes doctrine this is one point that I will explore to hopefully bring us to agreement. The double witness concept stands pretty well on its own. Joseph Fielding Smith and his explanation of Joseph and Hyrum *3 as dual presidents of the church is one example of just how imperative the application of the concept is. Deuteronomy 17:6 deals with it in terms of murder witnesses, 2 Corinthians 13:1 “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” unites the concept with scriptures; the purpose in both instances is simply the required criteria for establishing truth. All I need from Joe to deal better with his conclusions is the second witness from a reliable source and this is a sound doctrine request even in scriptural exegesis.

      Now, to me here is the test for determining the validity of any conclusions that I might want to read into this scenario from this point forward. Whatever conclusions I reach must be compatible with both samples which I am using as the boundaries of ponderings and conclusions. This is another element of Jewish scripture interpretation.

      Again as stated earlier I have chosen the Christ sample of dealing with his challenge and there are several key points upon which to make that selection. Nephi is a Christ type. Now, maybe I need to provide more resourcing for that observation but I believe everyone is probably familiar with the Christ Type concept in scripture. So I am not going to dig up that information unless there is a question to its validity. Both Christ and Nephi manifest the same desire to be obedient. Both receive some form of comfort from a heavenly source. Both accept the end requirement while clearly manifesting they would choose a different path if it was their choice that took precedence. Both are dealing with salvation; save this act takes place either an entire nation shall perish – Nephi, or an entire world will perish – Christ.

      The distinctions are that Christ must die and Nephi is not required to. That is a fair distinction potentially, however, both have been condemned to die and Nephi has charged into a very dangerous situation without overriding concern for his own life. However, to further the Work of the Lord an actual forfeit of his life would frustrate the ongoing aims of our Father in Heaven. So, as a second witness goes this is the best example, and a good one, I can find in all of scripture. This is a reasonable place to break off this entry…I must be heading out and hope I have not missed proofing this properly but I can catch it later if I have… Thank you

      *1 -Isolating scriptures based on content and common word use is a Jewish Hermeneutics principle: the following 3 can apply in varying degrees to the comparability of Jesus’ request and Nephi’s request.
      http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12936-rules-of-hillel-the-seven – Seven Rules of Hillel
      The Thirty-two Rules of Eliezer B. Jose Ha-Ge-lili

      The Thirty-two Rules of Eliezer B. Jose Ha-Ge-lili

      7. Gezerah shawah: Argument from analagy. Biblical passages containing synonyms or homonyms are subject, however much they differ in other respects, to identical definitions and applications.
      8. Binyan ab mi-katub ehad: Application of a provision found in one passage only to passages which are related to the first in content but do not contain the provision in question.
      The Seven Rules of Hillel
      6. Ka-yoze bo mi-makon aher: Similarity in context to another scriptural passage.

      *2 I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, p. 150).

      *3 … the peculiar condition requiring two witnesses to establish the work, is not required after the work is established. Joseph and Hyrum Smith stand at the head of this dispensation, jointly holding the keys, as the two necessary witnesses fulfilling the law as it is set down by our Lord in his answer to the Jews. Since the gospel will never again be restored there will be no occasion for this condition to arise again. We all look back to the two special witnesses, called to bear witness in full accord with the divine law. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., edited by Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-1956], 1: 222.)

      • Karen said

        JBL – Okay, so what do you mean by “The scriptural intent of providing a mirror to measure our own selves”? Where do you see the scriptures telling us that “providing a mirror” is the intent of scripture? Where in the title page or any of the places where the Book of Mormon where its authors step back from the text do we find out that this is their scriptural intent?

        And even if it were, wouldn’t we need to know what was going on in the scriptures first before we could look in that mirror? Your harsh criticism of someone working carefully through the scriptures is both baffling and offensive.

        If the point of the scriptures is to be a mirror for ourselves, then let us each look at that mirror on our own time. The place here is to look closely at the text so we can have a starting place for interpretation.

        Second, apparently you are quite content and convinced by your unique Jewish-spiritual way of reading scripture. That’s fine, but you can’t come upset if people here don’t use your special method. If you would like others to learn, why not start your own blog instead of expecting others to change based on criticisms of someone’s work? Provide some positive content elsewhere, and begin teaching there, if this is something you indeed feel so strongly about. This doesn’t seem to be an appropriate place to criticize others for not being you.

  19. joespencer said

    I’ll mostly let Robert speak for me here, adding only one point:

    I don’t think I’m trying to read against Nephi. My claim is that this is what Nephi himself wants us to see, namely, that he had something to learn over the course of 1 Nephi 3-4. I don’t mean to suggest that we can see what Nephi couldn’t; I mean to suggest that if we read Nephi’s narrative with an eye to the way he’s constructed it—looking for patterns and developments, etc.—we’ll see that he’s very subtly critiquing himself, suggesting that he began zealously, but without knowledge, and that that had serious and unfortunate effects. Nephi wants us to see that he didn’t begin with full-blown spiritual maturity. He was a kid. But he wants us to see how he came to see the subtle (but important) ways in which he was misguided. If Nephi had wanted us to see him as having understood everything perfectly from the beginning, I think we’d have a very different story.

    In a word, I don’t at all doubt that Nephi’s record is true. Indeed, I think it’s far truer than we tend to believe: Nephi is willing to put his struggles and weaknesses on display. And that’s something that I think Nephi wanted us to see, though we tend all to agree—whether we criticize or laud Nephi—that the Nephi of this story is presented as flawless. I just don’t see that. Nephi’s too honest—his record is too true—for that.

    So, in a word, I think Robert’s right that the solid points JBL makes here aren’t incompatible with what I’ve presented. I’m not trying to argue that Nephi’s an ignoramus who blunders his way through these first chapters. I’m suggesting that Nephi, in brutal—but subtle—honesty, presents himself as having had to learn a few things when he was first confronted with the task of fidelity. That prophets have to learn some things when they’re called shouldn’t surprise anyone….

  20. BrianJ said

    I suppose that too much has already been said in the latest comments, but I’ll risk adding more by responding.

    JBL: I’ll try to be brief. My short answer is: you and I view the scriptures very differently.

    You ask, “I am not sure why we need to keep reading subversive mentalities into Nephi’s writings. In the very first chapter V3 he states what I perceive to be a spirit born testimony of the truthful nature of his record “I know that the record which I make is true”.”

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “subversive,” but I guess it refers to me questioning Nephi’s stated motives or their presentation. Yes, I do question—meaning, doubt—Nephi. I do not believe that his story tells the whole story, I do not believe that he knew the whole story, and I do not believe that he even wanted to tell the whole story. I also do not believe that he explored all the options before him.

    If we let the scriptures interpret their own intents….” I don’t see why we should. I don’t let myself be he sole judge of myself.

    “Nephi did not make the choice to slay Laban with the Sword – Laban did. Well, The Lord did because of Laban’s own choices.” I recognize that the Lord’s and Laban’s choices are important, but they hardly absolve Nephi of his choices. Nephi chose to kill a defenseless (at least at the moment) man. While I might find his thinking at the moment very interesting, we do not have that insight; rather, what we have is Nephi’s justification of the killing four decades later—and I find that thought process far more interesting!

    “If we establish a pattern of second guessing Nephi and his motives and fail to take him at his word that his record is true then there is absolutely no value in the scriptural record as a vehicle to promote faith and understanding of the character and attributes of God.” I entirely disagree.

    “Laban was slain with his “OWN SWORD”. Laban forged the sword that hung over his head over the period of his entire life.” I found this portion of your comment very insightful and something I had not considered previously. Thank you.

    Joe: I have to point out where I believe we disagree. In brief, I think you afford too much introspective insight to the authors of the scriptures.

    “I don’t mean to suggest that we can see what Nephi couldn’t…. Nephi wants us to see that he didn’t begin with full-blown spiritual maturity…. If Nephi had wanted us to see him as having understood everything perfectly from the beginning, I think we’d have a very different story…. And that’s something that I think Nephi wanted us to see, though we tend all to agree—whether we criticize or laud Nephi—that the Nephi of this story is presented as flawless. I just don’t see that. Nephi’s too honest—his record is too true—for that.” My greatest concern is that Nephi wants us to see him as having a perfect understanding now—not from the beginning, but now as he’s writing the record. I question him not only in chapters 3-4 but throughout his entire narrative including the time in which he is writing the narrative. So even as he tries to show his imperfections in Ch 3-4, I think he is imperfectly showing them.

    • joespencer said

      Hey Brian,

      I think I’m happy with your approach, though I’m usually inclined to a little less… skepticism?… maybe just because I feel Nephi in particular gets enough skeptical readers. :)

      Perhaps my methodology can be summarized thus: I want to ask if there’s a way to read Nephi that assumes he’s honest and true in the end, and see what such a reading might produce. I’m not offended, though, to find out that it produces relatively little. :)

  21. […] worth noting that this passage echoes 1 Nephi 4:10-18 in important ways. There, as I remarked a couple of posts ago, Nephi seems to demonstrate the baffling ability to converse with the Spirit, when other Old […]

  22. Robert C. said

    JBL, you’ve posted some very interesting insights and ideas earlier today (in nested comments above). I esp. like the your exploration and discussion of the idea “shrink.” You’ve provided much to ponder—thanks for sharing!

    I am quite surprised by one statement you made. Referring to something Joe said, you wrote (in your reply to comment #2), “I am positive the spirit gave you no such insight.” Prior to this, you refer to what is “suitable for private consideration” but not for “private dispersion.” I have several questions regarding your confidence—and strident tone, as I read you—in denouncing Joe’s interpretation.

    In an effort not to threadjack Joe’s post any further, I will write a new post on this topic. It will probably include “private interpretation” in the title, as I would like to consider 2 Peter 1:20, since I suspect this might be the ultimate source of this distinction you are referring to. I would also like to consider the larger hermeneutic issues you are raising, and how they might bear on the question of avoiding contention (or at least the spirit of contention), so this may turn into a series of posts. Anyway, I’m not sure when I’ll get to this, since I’ve got a pretty busy week, so please be patient—hopefully in the next few days, but it might take a week or more….

    Thanks again for your scriptural insights.

    • Karen said

      I am deeply concerned, JBL, that you seem to see yourself so superior that you can judge that Joe’s work was without the spirit. You say, “I am positive the spirit gave you no such insight.” To me, that seems completely inappropriate. To come to the blog and set yourself up as the obvious judge of the spiritual gifts others have seems to me to be completely out of line. Would you like us to do the same to you? Instead we are trying to kindly listen and engage, but you continue to set yourself up as the judge of us all. This is extremely frustrating to read.

      • JBL said

        I appreciate each and every comment you all have made. As I mentioned I am tearing apart a very large document into pieces to make it possible assimilate the points I am attempting to make.

        You have also been very helpful in that your concerns tend towards the same observations of where and how my effort goes astray. Part three of my effort addresses these concerns and explains the “why” of how I have responded as I have. However, and I beg your indulgence, it leaves the specifics of comparing interpretations and explains how I understand the spirits interaction. Thus I will become guilty of what Robert characterizes as “thread-jacking” to illustrate the why in a fashion that does not stay specifically with the point of the thread of discussion of Nephi 1-7. I have already suggested many insinuations towards the venue without hitting it specifically.

        Robert almost seems to be sensing elements of my points but seems put off by my arrogant tone. Still he is trying to be objective and I appreciate that.

        Karen, I apologize for offending your sensibilities. It is apparent that a pall looms over everything you have read of my material, once again from an arrogant tone that I agree seems very overbearing. I think I may have long exceeded your ability to be patient enough to look around my apparent ineptness in this type of forum. I assure you that if we were all sitting in a room together we would be warmly engaged on some points and laughing like schoolgirls at others benefited by the better interpretive environment that favors dissenting opinions. It is the burden of contrary perspectives to appear to be at battle in a text only forum. Nonetheless, I’m not talented at illustrating without targeting the point of my contrast. Joe has provided the specific points to contrast against. Still I appreciate your willingness to defend your friends and commend you for it.

        Joe, I can’t see that we are getting through his barrier well at all and to a greater degree it is because of my certainty and boldness it making very direct observations which most would say no person can possess the confidence of correctness that would allow them to be so unyielding as I am. My next post will explain the why of my perspectives and if you will just bear with me I will give you something to consider that addresses the foundation of all of this. Please do not take umbrage at this effort. You are a brilliant writer and thinker and at least we will get to the bottom of this thing. I only ask that you take a moment and think it over and ponder the message. Then FEEL the spirit of it and it might make sense. I think you are very confident and sure of your own talents and that sometimes you are not stepping back enough to really see what I am saying so poorly with the tone of my comments.

  23. joespencer said

    Last shot:

    JBL, despite important insights you’re willing to bring to the table (and I thank you, along with Robert, for them), you continue to insist on reading me poorly, not to mention attributing to me perverse motives (in something like the fashion you say I do to Nephi). I’m baffled and, frankly, a bit exasperated, but it’s worth one last time to see if I can’t clarify what’s going on here. After posting this comment, I don’t believe I’ll have anything else to say on this.

    First, it’s a drastic oversimplification of what I’ve written to insinuate that I’m just speculating in a psychological vein about Nephi’s motivations. I’ve offered a close reading of the whole of 1 Nephi 3-4 that works toward a deeply complex passage with a good deal of context. To ignore all of that context is not to read more closely or more literally; it’s to read it less closely and less literally.

    Second, I don’t dismiss the Exodus passage and its power of explanation out of hand. Rather, I point out that—if the text is read carefully—there’s clearly more to the story than just that. I’m happy to agree that the Exodus scripture speaks directly to the situation. Indeed, I wouldn’t at all have been surprised to see it convince Nephi the second it was introduced. But the fact is that it didn’t convince him, and that itself indicates that there was something more to the situation. To ignore the fact that it’s not the Exodus language that convinces Nephi is not to read more closely or more literally; it’s to read it less closely and less literally.

    Third, read quite strictly, Nephi doesn’t tell us what motivations were behind his shrinking. He simply reports what he said in his heart; he doesn’t tell us why he said that. The question I’m asking concerns the latter. I see the content of what he says he said to himself. I’m asking two questions about that: (1) Why would he have said that to himself in such a circumstance—exactly as he says he did? In response to this first question, I bring evidence from the whole of 1 Nephi 3-4 to bear on the text, showing that there’s much more going on than we might see if we limit ourselves to that single verse—and I think that Nephi might himself have wanted us to see that. (2) Why would Nephi tell us that he said this thing to himself in that circumstance? This second question is, confessedly, more speculative, but it’s not misguided. Indeed, there’s nothing terribly wild about asking why an author of the Book of Mormon wrote what he did when and where he did. We’re constantly invited to ask that sort of question by Church leaders, etc. My speculation, offered as a speculation, is that Nephi is trying to tell us something about the development he went through shortly after his first experiences with the Lord. And I ground that speculation in a complex and close reading of a much larger text.

    Fourth, there are good contemporary reasons for us to look for a more complex Nephi than we have tended to see. There are two dominant readings of Nephi at present, both of which are offered in order to buttress self-satisfied ideologies that are at odds with everything I believe we learn in the gospel. The first of these (one might call it the “conservative” reading) takes Nephi to be an unparalleled paragon of righteousness, and Laman and Lemuel to be irreparably bad. There’s a good deal that’s dangerous about that sort of reading—ranging from the real concern that it encourages a kind of perfectionism that scripture and modern prophets have warned against repeatedly to the real concern that it reinforces a kind of arrogant “we’re the righteous unlike them” attitude. The second current interpretation (one might call it the “liberal” reading) takes Laman and Lemuel, unlike Nephi, to be level-headed and relatively normal people, people who aren’t self-righteous and clueless about the difficulties of life—such that we have a good deal to learn from Laman and Lemuel, and really nothing to learn from Nephi. There’s a good deal that’s also dangerous about that reading—ranging from self-excuse from doing the work of the kingdom to yet another “we’re the non-self-righteous unlike them” attitude. The fact that the two interpretations that dominate readings of this story are both clearly rooted in and meant to confirm ideologies that are equally problematic is telling. The situation itself calls us to look for more. I didn’t go looking for another reading, but when I stumbled on one (and the one I’ve presented is only one of several possible alternative readings), I quickly found that it finally allows Nephi’s story to teach us, rather than just to reinforce our already too-dear convictions about our own righteousness.

    Finally, I’ll grant that there’s a kind of danger in talking about this sort of thing publicly, but I think the danger’s not only a good deal less pernicious than you believe it is, but also that it’s well worth the risk. If there really are people who come to read my materials and are simply swept away by them into a real blindness concerning the gospel, then they’re great fools. How anyone could see what I’m doing here as anything other than offering my own thoughts about the text I don’t know. And how anyone could be swept into wickedness by someone suggesting that the text is more complex than any “Nephi is perfectly good” or “Nephi is perfectly bad” approach I don’t know. If there are readers who simply accept what I say about scripture without thinking, they’re not likely to stand up against much of any danger. It seems to me that you both overestimate my work here (ironically!) and underestimate members of the Church more generally.

    All that for what it’s worth. But as I say, I think I’ll be bowing out of this conversation from this point. I’m happy to read counter-readings, but harangues against the very purpose of this blog—which is to provide readings of scripture that might be of interest to those who teach them—are unwelcome enough here that I won’t be paying much attention to further expressed concerns.

    • JBL said

      I could present my material with more congeniality and less targeted commentary but that approach is not working for others. If you reread the commentary you will find a couple who express their sensitivities to the material in question and the liberal tone of the interpretation. They politely disagree. However, it is questionable if within the subtleties of the politeness that anyone was moved to really see the point. The responses to their observations seem to only deal with the words of their message but without a sense of “partaking of the spirit” of their message or mine.

      I am not trying to submit a pleasant alternative point of view, with a few “have you thought of it this way’s” or “what about this” but am instead taking a stronger tact of condemning something that seems very wrong to me. I am not sure I have that right or responsibility but the bottom line is I do care and want to help. Perhaps the only courtesy I ostensibly provide is the hours and hours of effort to illustrate why I disagree and to illustrate that I do take the material seriously enough to put forth this much effort to provide countering content. I really do mean it when I say that there is great talent manifest in the writings I critique. Yet it is not the talent I critique it is the message.

      As to my tone…brutal I agree. Like I said this is not comfortable for me either. That is why I stress I am not judging the person just the product. Pretty stupid on my part to spend hours discussing the sword that hangs over Laban’s head without realizing that I may be engaged in a process of sharpening the blade of the sword of judgment hanging over my own. I have sought diligently to know if that is the nature of my effort. If I felt that it was so, I would stop mid-sentence of the understanding.

      Brutal yes…however, I think we are so conditioned by the social requirements of communication standards of our time that we are quick to judge one who might risk a tack that could offend in the hopes that it might eventually also help. I consider Peter when he gets out of the boat to walk to Christ on the water. When I was more immature in understanding I would feel so excited for Peter that he actually gets a few steps out on the water on his way to Christ. Imagine setting your sandal on a watery surface and it holds and taking a couple more steps and it holds. And then…I stand back a little bit in shock at the contrast of a remarkable miracle and the contrasting statement of the Lord “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst doubt. I want to interrupt (I’m sure you can see the potential that I might) but…but…what about those steps…he was walking on water…isn’t that worth something? Point of fact it is not. Apparently the requirement is faith – not steps. If the faith that places the feet on the stormy waters is inadequate then the ease of calm waters is an insufficient test. But read the verses again and notice how blunt and unyielding and corrective is Christ’s response. Yet, though it is not stated in the rebuke, we can know that it was boldly and candidly stated with the perfect love of the Savior. If Peter (as he does) hears the message he is all the better for it. If not the pattern of the scriptures has many examples of those that turn away in sorrow for the realization that they believe they have adequate riches independent of Christ’s council. I’m not Christ and cannot claim to be entirely free of the imperfections that weaken my effort but it is genuinely my intent to be a positive influence for good.

      Karen provides the spring board from which to introduce this final post of explanation. I’ll work it in here and then rewrite bits and pieces to illustrate where I am addressing questions from your most recent posts. She asks “Okay, so what do you mean by “The scriptural intent of providing a mirror to measure our own selves”? Where do you see the scriptures telling us that “providing a mirror” is the intent of scripture?

      My mirror comment was simply an analogy that if we would spend our time looking into the scriptures and viewing how we stack up against the imagery presented we could determine how well we resemble those of good imagery and if we are resembling less and less the evil imagery. Another aspect of this analogy is that the imagery is constructed to give us that opportunity. The good imagery is formulated to reveal aspects of the Savior’s perfected character and the bad imagery is constructed to reveal carnal man’s Satan inspired imagery. If the verses under consideration create an image in the mirror of Christ we can look into the mirror to see how well we resemble that image. It is not a perfect analogy, but I thought it adequate to indicate that Christ is the image we are to emulate and that in the big scheme of things that is a major part of the intent of scripture – to teach us of Christ. Applying that to the Nephi discussion at hand – the Nephi imagery is not designed to focus us on the carnal aspects of mortal man as in retaliatory thoughts and weakness characterizing the images of shrinking that speak to a man’s mortal weaknesses. Instead it is perfectly built and designed to create a reflection of Nephi as Christ. It’s worth is in that reflection and our self introspection to see where we are in matching the image and willingness to submit our total will to the Lords.

      My point is there actually is a ton of potential conjecture and one can detail and analyze even the placement locations of the periods in the sentences of the verses….IF…we maintain our partnership with God and strive to be true to the image and intent of the scripture as he intends. If we depart from that image, we have exceeded the intent of the verses and we find ourselves trying to “buttress self-satisfied ideologies.” I like your imagery but I must disagree that it fits an adequate description of my interpretation of God’s intent of the Nephi / Laban story. While you are correct , if I was trying to render an, as you state “kind of perfectionism that scripture and modern prophets have warned against repeatedly to the real concern that it reinforces a kind of arrogant…attitude”, if that was what I was doing I could be just as wrong as wrong. However, what you are doing here is exactly as you describe and is what I am speaking too. I feel that you have done to Nephi what has occurred with my efforts. You are allowing my poor, seemingly arrogant mortal weakness to color seeing the real intent of my message, just as you have done to Nephi.

      Is it more arrogant to try to determine God’s intent of scripture and try to stay true to his message and sustain his agenda or to ignore his intent entirely and create an image contrary to the overall theme, which you have noted is clearly to create a Nephi that is a paragon of righteousness. Is it better to substitute a tainted image for something that destroys the Christ image of Nephi for the sake of intellectual gymnastics? It is fabulous that you, again as you state, “ ground that speculation in a complex and close reading of a much larger text.” However, don’t destroy the image and it’s intent and place your message outside of the theme of the passages. Give your complex speculations the same flavor as the original and you do not violate God’s recipe which is designed “expressedly” to work upon the hearts of men.( D & C 19)

      Back to D & C 19 again… I have grounded much of my understanding in the meaning of that text which I have already shared. It would appear that no one has treated that like scripture and read pondered, tested and sought further understanding. If you can read that and my explanation and the spirit tells you that my interpretation of the meaning of those verses is incorrect in that understanding then convince me of that and I will shut my mouth and declare no more. If you can spiritually see what I am saying about D & C 19 and that my understanding agrees with the spirit of truth, then someone has to show me how to maintain support of God’s expressed intent can be accomplished by rewriting a carnal man into the Nephi imagery. It is not that I disagree that Nephi may have thoughts less than noble one hundred percent of the time. However, Nephi is not pointing us to Nephi as He states his intent as I illustrated before by his own words. He wants you to see Jesus Christ in all of his efforts. The verse is pointing to Christ and illustrates this by highlighting Nephi’s willingness to subject his will to God’s and save a nation just as Christ subjects his will to God and saves a world. The imagery is unmistakable. Detail that out and “ground that speculation in a complex and close reading of a much larger text” and I will support and congenially submit and suggest and entertain any and all of your ideas that agree with the spirit of the message. Otherwise you have unknowingly switched teams and are running in the wrong direction no matter how complex your readings. Does that make any sense at all?

      One more point, your thought that you have mentioned several times that it took more than one reference to the “delivered into your hands” phrase to convert Nephi is disingenuous. You claim it is the 3 times that indicates that it is not as compelling as I claim. You perhaps more than anyone else reading has a clear understanding of a key scriptural device that is used throughout scripture of emphasizing critical information in patterns of three’s. It is not for Nephi that this is done. It is for you and I – to catch our attention – to focus the reader along the correct path to clues for how to understand the message. The spirit only says it twice, Nephi’s recitation gives it the third presentation and that is our clue – 3 is for us to know where to go. The fact that you continue to beat that issue when you know better is telling to me that I am not reaching you because of your personal involvement and attachment to your material. I will also boldly state that you have sensed this yourself even as you have presented it as an argument in behalf of your Nephi message. Is it not that the problem is if you acknowledge this well known technique it becomes the dangling thread that unravels your loose interpretation and allows you to leave the path of God’s intent of the verses we have discussed to create your own message.

      Answer this one question? Why have you not noted and permitted this device of 3’s to receive its due focus? When you know it is a road sign in the street of the scriptures that points to the right way to a correct destination of understanding these verses, why do you keep turning left?

      Just to make sure I get your attention, on the only thing that I hope you will respond too, I will repeat it…. Answer this one question? Why have you not noted and permitted this device to receive its due focus?

      I can leave off from being so direct at this point and I have around 3 more pages of some very good material on the flow of scripture and so on. I address several more of Karen’s’ observations and Roberts as well however the point above really feels like the crux of the issue and the spirit says to not lose the point in further effort.

      Robert. To you above all I apologize. You have wanted me to take the sting out of my responses and simply present the material. I realize it is good material and I realize that it retains the capacity to uplift and strengthen testimonies. I realize that it can be shared to the uplifting of any class of Gospel Doctrine students in the church and not betray the gospel message. I recognize the spirit of the material and I give all credit for any discovery and way of seeing scriptures that might be perceived as enlightening to the spirit’s guidance and direction. If you wish and will give me a couple of weeks I can rewrite it all without the sandpaper texture. I may do that anyway for my own scriptural journal. Nonetheless, for what it is worth I don’t feel like that’s what I am here to do. While my approach has been clearly unpopular, that does not make it wrong.

      Joe for some reason this seems predominately for you and I hope it helps. I genuinely believe you are with Peter and have taken a few steps on the water and I am in awe of your gift but I think every now and then you are looking away from Christ as the point of your focus and mistaking your message for his. My concern is that if this tendency continues to expand it can have serious implications.

      In the name of Jesus Christ,


  24. […] Which I Saw While I Was Carried Away in the Spirit,” 1 Nephi 12-14 (Sunday School)JBL on Book of Mormon Lesson #2: “All Things According to His Will,” 1 Nephi 1-7 (Sunday S…d.mor on Does “Iron Rod” = “Scriptures”?Greg on Book of Mormon Lesson […]

  25. […] a corrective: Nephi is more self-critical than we tend to allow. In short, as I tried to show in my post on 1 Nephi 1-5, Nephi’s relationship to himself in writing his history is much more nuanced than we tend to […]

  26. […] the Revelator’s). Joe Spencer, in a great series of posts on the Book of Mormon, has helped put the vision in context of Nephi’s retrieval of the brass plates, interpreting the book Lehi receives as that set of […]

  27. […] angels “in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8). (On this, see my notes on 1 Nephi 1.) Much later in the record—indeed, significantly, at the heart of the “atonement” […]

  28. charcoal drawings of women…

    […]Book of Mormon Lesson #2: “All Things According to His Will,” 1 Nephi 1-7 (Sunday School) « Feast upon the Word Blog[…]…

  29. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post’s to be exactly I’m looking for. Does one offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs? I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome site!

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