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Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11

Posted by joespencer on September 14, 2012

2 Nephi 2 is notoriously difficult. Whether it’s a matter of determining exactly where the introduction ends and the sermon itself begins, of determining exactly what Lehi means when he speaks of “the law,” of sorting out the idea of “answering the ends of the law” (or “the ends of the atonement”), of deciding what the (un)grammatical status of verse 10, of sorting out exactly what Lehi means when he talks about opposition, of reflecting on the difference between acting and being acted upon, of deciding what scriptural tradition lies behind Lehi’s words about a fallen angel, of determining the meaning of Lehi’s claim that Adam and Eve would have had no children without the Fall, or of drawing the appropriate conclusions from what is said about freedom, this chapter is incredibly difficult. For the purposes of this series of posts, I don’t need to decide on most of these questions—thank heaven!—but it is nonetheless necessary to determine the position of 2 Nephi 2:11 (the text of which I fixed in my last post) within the larger chapter or perhaps within the first several chapters of Second Nephi. It’s that task that I’m tackling in this post.

First, then, a few words at the most global level. It’s important to recognize that Nephi’s larger record (First and Second Nephi combined) is intentionally structured as a four-part text: the story of the foundation of the Lehites in the New World (1 Nephi 1-18) is followed by a sequence of sermons given just before and in connection with the separation of the Lehites into two rival tribes (1 Nephi 19 — 2 Nephi 5); the consequent situation is then remedied by the presentation of what Nephi calls “the more sacred things,” twenty-five chapters of prophecies that outline the eventual reconciliation of the Lehites in the last days (2 Nephi 6-30); the whole thing is followed by a brief epilogue of sorts (2 Nephi 31-33). 2 Nephi 2, naturally, falls within the second of these larger structural divisions. It is one of several sermons-of-sorts given by both Nephi and Lehi on the occasion, more or less, of Lehi’s death (see 1 Nephi 19:8 — 2 Nephi 4:12).

There is, importantly, a certain sense in which 2 Nephi 2 is the most privileged of these several sermons-of-sorts. The focus of the stretch from 1 Nephi 19 to 2 Nephi 5 is on the process through which the Nephites separated themselves out from the Lamanites and the latter were “cut off from the presence of the Lord.” The language here is, I think, unmistakable: it is the language of the Fall. In a very important sense, 1 Nephi 19 — 2 Nephi 5 is meant to recall the fall of the Lehites (just as 1 Nephi 1-18 is meant to recount their creation and 2 Nephi 6-30 is meant to recount their eventual reconciliation or at-one-ment). Of the several sermons-of-sorts given in the course of 1 Nephi 19 — 2 Nephi 5, only one is explicitly focused on the meaning of the Fall (here, of course, of Adam and Eve), and it is 2 Nephi 2. It’s thus, it seems to me, that there’s a kind of particular privilege given to Lehi’s words to Jacob.

What, then, might be said about the basic structure of 2 Nephi 2? And what might be said about where verse 11 fits in that structure?

Speaking at the most general level, Lehi’s words in 2 Nephi 2 divide into two halves—the first part stretching from verse 1 to verse 13, the second part stretching from verse 14 to verse 30. What signals this basic division? At the very least, it is signaled by a shift in addressee(s). In verses 1-13, Lehi directs his words solely to Jacob, his “first born in the wilderness.” This addressee is identified right in the first verse, as also again in verse 11. But in verse 14, rather suddenly, Lehi begins to address himself to all his sons: “And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things . . . .” That this broadened audience remains his focus through to the end is clear from verse 30: “I have spoken these few words unto you all, my sons . . . .” There thus seems to be a pretty clear division between a first half of the sermon directed just to Jacob and a second half directed more generally to all of Lehi’s sons.

This basic division is confirmed by two other important points.

First, careful attention should be paid to verb tenses throughout the sermon. The first several verses of the chapter work through a series of constantly shifting verb tenses, culminating in a claim, however, that “the Spirit is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” From that point, crucially, there is a startling constancy of verb tense right through the end of verse 13: all but two (clearly motivated) verbs between verse 4 and verse 13 are in the present tense. (This is clearly deliberate. Verse 4 sets up the present-tense focus of the first half of the sermon by noting that Jacob is “blessed even as they unto whom [Christ would] minister in the flesh.” The point of the first half of Lehi’s sermon is in part to obliterate the differences among present, past, and future in order to isolate the eternally valid nature of the atonement.) But this constancy of present-tense constructions through the end of verse 13 is disrupted clearly beginning in verse 14. With the shift in audience, abstract theological analysis is replaced by concrete story-telling, and the tenses become narratively complex. This shift in verb tenses just as clearly marks the two halves of 2 Nephi 2.

Second, and already intimated just above, there are two distinct genres in the two halves of the sermon. As just noted, the first half of the sermon is set forth in theological terms, while the second half of the sermon is primarily cast as narrative. What is most interesting about this difference, though, is the way the two intersect at the end of verse 13 and the beginning of verse 14. In the verses leading up to the end of the first half of the sermon, Lehi works through a kind of reductio ad absurdum argument—that is, an argument beginning from a hypothetical conjecture that he wishes to prove false and culminating in a completely nonsensical conclusion, all meant to show that the initial conjecture has to be rejected. The absurdity reached is to be found at the end of verse 13, and it is a complete vanishing away of all things, an absence of anything to act or be acted upon, and even the non-existence of God. Verse 14, however, turns from theological abstractions to narrative, and it begins by starting from the very beginning of creation—asserting, against the absurdities of verse 13, that there is a God and that He created all things, and so on. The narrative is launched precisely at the moment that the absurdity has been reached. And it is right at that moment of transition that Lehi broadens his audience from Jacob alone to all his sons.

It thus seems clear that 2 Nephi 2 comes in two broad parts—the first half working out the basic logic of the atonement in abstract theological terms and culminating in a reductio ad absurdum argument that leaves the creation in ruins, and the second half recreating the world from those ruins in a narrative fashion and thus working from the creation through the events of the fall and toward the atonement. 2 Nephi 2:11, the focus of this series, is to be found at a crucial juncture in the first half of the sermon.

What might be said, more narrowly, about the structure of the first half of the sermon? For my purposes here, I’d like to bracket the first verses, those more explicitly focused on the particulars of Jacob’s life. All that’s important in those verses for my purposes is the shift Lehi makes from a kind of play of past, present, and future to the “even as” that transforms everything into a kind of eternally present or atemporal set of truths. The task, then, is to sort out the basic flow of verses 4-13, within which verse 11 appears. And it seems to me that the basic flow can be outlined as follows:

* Verse 4 – “even as” marks the shift to the atemporal
* Verse 5 – the law is introduced, along with its negative consequences
* Verses 6-10 – the atonement is introduced, along with its various effects (with a kind of kerygmatic half-aside in verse 8a)
* Verses 11-12 – an aside on opposition is inserted
* Verse 13 – the question of opposition is brought to bear on the law (from verse 5), producing the reductio

The basic idea, here, is relatively clear. Once the temporal has been foregone for the atemporal (verse 4), an essential tension is introduced between the law with its consequences (verse 5) and the atonement with its effects (verses 7-9). The weave of the law and the atonement produces the essential opposition that structures the final judgment (verses 10), and that calls for a careful analysis of opposition as such (verses 11-12). The upshot of all this, it then becomes clear, is the necessary place of the law in the plan, which is asserted through the reductio that concludes the first half (verse 13). That, it seems, is the basic structure of the first half of Lehi’s sermon in 2 Nephi 2.

How does all this bear on the interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:11? In at least the following way: 2 Nephi 2:11 cannot be cleanly extrapolated from its immediate context, at least from verses 10 and 12-13 (as well, if verse 13 is to make complete sense, verse 5—and verse 7 is rather important for making sense of verse 5, frankly). It must, it seems, be recognized that there is a fair bit of interpretive violence done to 2 Nephi 2:11 if it is simply lifted from its immediate context and interpreted as if it were a theological atom.

So what needs to be said about 2 Nephi 2:11 in terms of its context that can then be taken up in subsequent posts in this series?

Verse 11 grows out of verse 10. Verse 10 is focused on a particular opposition, namely, that between “the punishment which is affixed” to the law and “the happiness which is affixed” to redemption. The immediate context in which Lehi begins to wax philosophically eloquent about opposition more generally is a discussion of the essential opposition which is introduced through the institution of (divine) law. It is that—as verse 13 and its reductio argument make fully clear—that needs to be explained and defended. (Indeed, it is that that the narrative of the second half of 2 Nephi 2 will recount.) This is something that verse 12, immediately following and unmistakably intertwined with verse 11, states overtly, with its claim that every lack of opposition would render God’s creation purposeless, destroying God’s wisdom, power, mercy, and justice!

The place of verse 11 within verses 10-13 is thus clear, I take it. What, though, of verses 5 and 7, which I inserted above only parenthetically? Well, it should be understood that verses 10-13 are meant in a certain sense to explain the complex affirmation of law that is to be found in those verses. Verse 5 asserts straightforwardly that there is law, and that it has averse effects—“no flesh is justified,” and “men are cut off.” This clearly negative assessment of the law might lead one to think that the purpose of the atonement, introduced in verse 6, is to undo the law, freeing God’s children from it so that they can be fully free. But verse 7 complicates that picture by claiming that Christ “offereth himself a sacrifice for sin to answer the ends of the law.” This is a massively complex verse, theologically speaking, but I think it’s ultimately teaching something like this: Christ vicariously suffers the punishment affixed to the law, not to appease some kind of abstract, eternal justice, but in order to give the law a real force (this, I take it, is in part what is meant by “to answer the ends of the law,” etc.); God wants the law to be in force, for all the reasons outlined in verses 10-13.

Of course, this is to overlook the details of the atonement, but they are not what immediately concern me. There’s a crucial story to be told there too, obviously. The point, for the moment, is just to see how 2 Nephi 2:11 is contextualized by Lehi’s intense desire to justify God’s introduction of the law in the first place as well as His subsequent affirmation of the law through Christ’s sacrifice. As I turn, in subsequent posts, to the actual interpretation of verse 11, this backdrop should never be forgotten, whether or not I draw on its details.

My next post, however, will turn from the larger structure of 2 Nephi 2 to the more detailed and crucial structure of verse 11 alone.

8 Responses to “Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11”

  1. […] « RS/MP Lesson 17: “ The Strengthening Power of Faith” (George Albert Smith Manual) Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11 […]

  2. […] comments Opposition, 1 – Fixing the Text of 2 Nephi 2:11 « Feast upon the Word Blog on Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11 « Feast upon the Word Blog on Opposition, 1 […]

  3. Robert C. said

    Great stuff, Joe. I’m very anxious to see where all of this takes you.

  4. SteveP said

    Joe, I’m really excited to see this. I draw heavily on this verse for an upcoming presentation (SMPT), so don’t delay too long!

    • joespencer said

      Heavens, Steve! I can’t finish the whole series that quickly! But I’d love to see your paper (since we’re concurrent, I won’t be able to hear it at the conference). I’ll be dedicating a whole post in this series to papers on 2 Nephi 2:11 at SMPT!

  5. […] a failure…but when?JKC on The Nephites were a failure…but when?joespencer on Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11SteveP on Opposition, 2 – Contextualizing 2 Nephi 2:11Lance Marco Stephensonra on RS/MP […]

  6. rameumptom said

    Great stuff, Joe (as always).
    As an aside, I’ve pondered why Lehi calls Jacob his “first-born son in the wilderness” when Laman was the first born, and Nephi received the right of spiritual first born for his obedience.
    “First-born” denotes a double portion, which perhaps Lehi brings out in 2 Ne 2. Lehi is connecting Jacob with the First Born. This could mean Adam as first born in the flesh, and/or Jesus Christ as First Born Son of God. Lehi then discusses both Adam and Jesus, opposition and that the Fall and the Atonement are the double portion given to mankind.
    Given that Lehi compares his son Joseph to both Joseph of old and Joseph Smith, this double portion seems to make sense to me.

  7. […] get on, now, to bringing out a few structural issues with the text—something I promised to do quite a while ago now. Some preliminary work has already been done in this regard as we’ve considered the […]

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