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The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 5 – As If

Posted by joespencer on September 14, 2013

3 Nephi 11 opens with a voice from heaven interrupting Nephite conversation. Or so we likely summarize the story. There’s a curious detail, however, that we’re too quick to overlook in the account of this event: “And it came to pass that, while they were thus conversing one with another, they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven . . .” (3 Nephi 11:3). What’s to be made of this as if in the middle of this otherwise straightforward description of an event. The next few verses won’t be so skittish about placing things in heaven. Verse 5 will refer to “heaven, from whence the sound came.” And verse 8 will say that “they saw a man descending out of heaven.” In those instances, the “as if” construction doesn’t appear at all. Heaven is heaven, the source of both the Father’s voice and the Son’s person. We might note further that the phrase “as if” appears only twice more in the account of Christ’s visit (3 Nephi 17:5; 19:14), and the similar phrase “as though” never appears at all. Given its infrequency, it’s a bit strange that it appears in this first introduction of the heavenly voice. What’s to be made of this?

First, we might say something about the way the “as if” formula is used in scripture. It turns out that it has three not entirely dissimilar uses, and we’d do well not to conflate them—at least not without care. First, the “as if” formula sometimes marks a text’s metaphorical nature. A good example is 2 Nephi 27:13: “the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.” The point here is pretty clearly to mark the metaphor as a metaphor. Something takes on the guise of something else, and apparently in order to help us as readers to get a clearer sense for things. Second, the “as if” formula marks a certain attitude assumed by a person being talked about. A good example is 1 Nephi 8:25: “after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast they eyes about as if they were ashamed.” The point here is pretty clearly to mark the fact that the people took on a certain orientation to the world. Someone takes up a certain attitude, and it’s apparently surprising or unexpected in a certain way. Third and far less commonly, the “as if” formula marks a certain skepticism. A good example is 2 Nephi 20:15: “Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? . . . As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up!” The point here is pretty clearly to make the sheer unlikeliness of something, the merely imaginary nature of what’s being described. Something is presented as an extremely unlikely possibility, in order to illustrate something.

What unites all three of these rhetorically distinct uses of the phrase is the basic structure introduced by the appearance of “as.” Martin Heidegger, especially early in his career, discussed what he called the “as-structure” of language, the way that language presents what is through a linguistic doubling that makes what is be as something (even if it’s present as what it is—Heidegger’s basic notion of assertoric truth, which he borrowed from Edmund Husserl). What we have in the three sorts of use laid out in the previous paragraph is a series of ways in which language or expression (in the broadest sense) doubles what is with a certain imaginative overlay. The three uses, of course, employ this notion in distinct ways, but the nature of the “as” is sustained throughout: one doubles the way things are with a metaphorical way of understanding the way things are; one doubles the way things are with a certain orientation or attitude that gives the way things are a new directedness; or one doubles the way things are with a merely imaginary possibility meant to be rejected. In my opinion, the really interesting use here is the second one, the assumption of a certain attitude or orientation that not only expressively doubles the way things are, but ultimately introduces change or transformation into the way things are. The second form of “as if” uses the overlay of the “as” to introduce a kind of internal distance into the way things are, such that being can give way to becoming. Change becomes possible as the way things are is set against itself through a certain orientation.

In the end, I don’t think it’ll quite be any of these three uses of “as if” that’s relevant. The one I’ve just highlighted is perhaps the most relevant, but even it doesn’t seem to be quite what’s at work in 3 Nephi 11:3. Why? Because while there’s a certain orientation or attitude assumed (the voice comes as if from heaven), the emphasis in the text seems to be on the fact that the people regarded this “as if” with a bit of skepticism. We’ll have to see what that amounts to in a moment.

Another point that needs attention before an interpretation can be offered, however, is the relationship between this “as if” and a series of “as ifs” that appears in Helaman 5. That might seem an odd point suddenly to introduce, but there’s a tight connection, it turns out. For whatever reason, “as if” appears a dozen times in Helaman 5, in the story concerning the mass Lamanite conversion in the prison where Nephi and Lehi are contained. Nephi and Lehi are “encircled about as if by fire” (5:23), with the Lamanites left standing “as if they were struck dumb with amazement” (5:25), and when Nephi and Lehi try to calm the crowd, an earthquake makes “the walls of the prison . . . shake as if they [are] about to tumble to the earth” (5:27). Darkness then overshadows the whole crowd, and a voice “as if it were above the cloud of darkness” is heard (5:29), a voice “as if it had been a whisper” (5:30) that nonetheless causes another earthquake so that “the walls of the prison” are again “as if it were about to tumble to the earth” (5:31). When the voice sounds a third time, the earth itself shakes “as if it were about to divide asunder” (5:33), and this sets things really in motion. A Nephite dissenter sees Nephi and Lehi “in the attitude as if talking or lifting their voices to some being whom they beheld” (5:36), and he draws everyone’s attention to it—which in turns leads to prayer and conversion, such that all the Lamanites in the prison end up “as if in the midst of a flaming fire” (5:44) and “the Holy Spirit of God” affects them, filling them “as if with fire” (5:45). Finally, they hear the voice once more, again “as if it were a whisper,” announcing peace (5:46), and the people “cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came,” and angels descend to minister to them (5:48). It’s quite a series of “as ifs.” But what’s really striking is how similar the story is in many ways to what takes place in Third Nephi: a voice that speaks three times, and that in connection with earthquakes, the earth (almost) dividing asunder, a blanketing darkness; and then all this culminating in fire coming down and encircling the converts while angels minister. The story of 1 Nephi 8-19 is anticipated quite remarkably in Helaman 5. And Christ Himself, in the form of His voice in the darkness, explicitly makes a connection between the two events in 3 Nephi 9:20.

The relationship more generally between Helaman 5 and 3 Nephi 8-17 is suggestive, but the frequency of “as if” constructions in Helaman 5 is, for present purposes, especially suggestive. How might the “as ifs” of Helaman 5 help to clarify the stakes of the “as if” of 3 Nephi 11:3, one of very few “as ifs” in the story of Christ’s visit?

The voice from heaven comes as if it were what it is—a voice from heaven. And that as if is rather clearly an echo of the many as ifs that structure Helaman 5. What’s to be learned from all this? At the very least, I think the following might be learned. When the voice comes to the people, and they receive it as if from heaven, they look everywhere but to heaven to decide its meaning and importance: “they cast their eyes round about” (verse 3) and not (until later) “towards the sound thereof, . . . steadfastly towards heaven” (verse 5). The point of the “as if,” it seems, is to note that the people assumed at first that they had misunderstood the source of the voice, that they believed the voice was coming to them from somewhere beside heaven. They looked everywhere but upward as they tried to understand it, and they wouldn’t understand it until they finally attuned their bodies to the true source. The point, it seems, is to mark their lack of trust in their own experience (“as if”), even though that experience was exactly true to the way things actually were.

With the “as if,” then, the narrative marks a certain natural skepticism regarding the miraculous, the people looking to the horizontal when the vertical presents itself to them in truth. And that, it seems, is what’s so important about the link between this “as if” and the many “as ifs” that appear in Helaman 5. I’ve already mentioned that Jesus Himself refers to the connection between Helaman 5 and 3 Nephi 8-17. Now note what He says about the events of Helaman 5: “Whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Nephi 9:20). The “as ifs” in Helaman 5 might, in general, mark the same kind of willing distance from direct experience, a certain kind of skepticism that “this sort of thing” could be happening. The point is force us to see how much we resist reality when it presents us with the transcendent. Everything that’s about to happen in Third Nephi simply can’t be happening—or so we feel. So we feel until we finally attune ourselves in a completely different way: ears and eyes and all of us directed to what’s presenting itself to us. And then we find ourselves face to face with the resurrected Christ, who shows Himself to us.

12 Responses to “The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 5 – As If”

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  2. 010306 said

    Fascinating discussion. Thank you.

  3. Steve Warren said

    Perhaps the “as if” refers to the likelihood that the voice didn’t really come from heaven at all but simply came from “above” those who heard it.

    In Joseph Smith History, when Joseph saw the Father and the Son, he says the pillar of light was “exactly over my head,” noting that the personages were “above me in the air” and that the Personages “stood above me in the light.” They weren’t in heaven. They were visiting the earth. After the vision, Joseph finds himself on his back “looking up into heaven.” The “heaven” he is referring to is simply the sky above. (See Moses 1:9)

    • joespencer said

      I assume that “heaven” here just means “up above” or “the sky.” But the people, when they hear the voice, look everywhere but above. I don’t think this point changes anything I’ve said here….

      • Steve Warren said

        I’m glad that you agree that heaven in the context of 3 Nephi 11 merely means “up above,” etc. In your original analysis, you had written: “Heaven is heaven, the source of both the Father’s voice and the Son’s person.” From that, I assumed that you were speaking of the place where God dwells.

        Also, when “they cast their eyes round about,” I wonder if the Nephites perhaps weren’t looking for the source of the sound as much as they were wanting to discern if others were also hearing the voice and, if so, how they were reacting to it.

  4. I too, find this fascinating, and again, great work, Joe. You really have a mind and attention to the finer and curious details, and the ability to really articulate it well. Yourself and perhaps, several others here, I envision being the future professors/scholars running BYU.

    Okay, now, for my simple thoughts.

    Would it not be a strange or peculiar thing, if while we today were gathered conversing and we heard a voice?

    But how befitting, this happened whilst they (vs.1) were gathered together….round about the temple …Bountiful. Mind you, this all happened, while they were conversing about this Jesus Christ”.

    While we may profess to know and even preach, and teach of Jesus Christ, how many of are truly attuned to the nature and things of God, and like them of old, would we look horizontal and not upwards and vertical towards heaven?

    This had caused me a measure discomfort towards mine own self.

    But then, the remembrance of these words of counsel to Cherylem, which I borrowed from Jim Faulconer, which helped turn me around… which Kirk Cauldle attached to his last lesson 18: The Life of Holiness: Romans 1:1 (Pages 21-46) Posted by kirkcaudle on March 6, 2013

    I recognize the terror you see in Paul’s writing. It is the terror of letting go, the terror of metanoia, “repentance.” But contrary to much of the way talk of repentance, it doesn’t just mean “sorrow for sin and ceasing to do this or that thing.” It means changing our very being, conversion from one thing to a new thing. “Coming to one’s senses” might also be a good translation of metanoia, but in this case when we come to our senses we discover that we are someone we’ve never known.

    Because this was posted, I am sure it was and is meant, so that all may profit and benefit thereby. Thanks!

    If the circumstance described in 3 Nephi 11 happened in our day…would we too, look around and depending on that voice we heard, not unlike them of old, (vs.3 & 4) which did “look round about”, for they understood not the voice which they heard; would we too look horizontal and wonder if what we heard was a voice “as if” it came out of heaven?. . .” (3 Nephi 11:3).

    Is there not an echo from Isaiah that rings…almost, “as if” one is speaking from the dead? For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.

    Was there some type of a spiritual washing or cleansing and anointing with spiritual oil needed before the eye could see and the ear could hear before they could understand?

    This all seems to have much, that is symbolic, and all this is “as if” this is a “temple ritualistic event or ceremonial” in the making? [Christ coming]

    Whenever I see or hear three, as in the “third time” they understood, and three personages involved, three is symbolic, and in this case it was in real time happening:

    1) (vs.3 & 4)The voice of the Father’s introduction of the Son, in whom he is well pleased and in whom he had glorified His name.

    2) (Vs.3)The still small voice…Holy Ghost…. it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.

    3) ( vs.6) And behold, the third time they did understand the voice which they heard;

    The voice from heaven comes as if it were what it is—a voice from heaven. And that as if is rather clearly an echo of the many as ifs that structure Helaman 5.

    They were met with the voice of the Father, the Holy Ghost (center, pierced, and burned), a [process going on] and when they finally understood, as if the veil were lifted and saw they, (vs.8) “the Son descending clothed in a white robe”.

    Also, as to the connection posed in Helaman 5… I wonder if it was because Nephi & Lehi were cast into this prison cave, not unlike, we are reminded, of Liberty jail, where our beloved prophet Joseph Smith was incarcerated and where that too became “as if” hallowed ground.

  5. The question I have and still wondering, why was there a meeting at the temple to begin with or how did a meeting of that magnitude just happen spontaneously? Why was this detail edited out? Is it something we are not permitted to know?

    [And it came to pass…in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day the destruction began… 3 Nephi 8:5 also, See Helaman 13:12-13, 9:3]. The people, seeing all the change that had taken place, this had to be monumental and truly a cause for marvel and wonder. There arose a great storm, such as one as never had been known in all the land [believed to be April 6th crucifixion JD: 13:127; 15:257]… the great City of Zarahemla had taken to fire… And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough, many great and notable cities sunk, and all this was as prophesied.

    Some thoughts if likened to New York’s 9/11, is that, a destruction of that degree, nearly one year later [And it came to pass… in the ending of the thirty and fourth year, behold…3 Nephi 11:18], there still had to be some clean up needed and rebuilding and beautifying going on. It was as if they were conversing and waiting for a meeting to start. Was this initially a big town meeting as to what had happened, and how THIS HAPPENED SO SUDDENLY “LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT” and how they could have been so blind and how to prevent this sort of thing?…After all, they were the more righteous part saved (3 Nephi 8:7, 8-10, 17), and obvious to the matter at hand was this one Jesus Christ whom so much had been talked about, at the center of this topic (3 Nephi 11:2)?

    If so, I have another question, you have the prophet Nephi and this great multitude gathering [3 Nephi 11:18] and there doesn’t seem to be anyone presiding? It wasn’t until Christ appeared that He was the one to preside. It doesn’t seem to be a formal meeting or conference of any kind, such as, when in Mosiah 2 there was a proclamation sent throughout the land and a purpose for the meeting and who the speaker was. Also, there was no announcement that a meeting was about to start when they heard an audible voice cut through, and it did pierce them. It happened in the midst of their conversing (3 Nephi 11:3).

    Did Nephi have some foreknowledge of something about to take place at the Bountiful Temple, and Mormon for whatever reason decided not to include it? Was he forbidden to make this thing known unto us? If so, why is that? Or am I missing something here? What was the purpose of this meeting to begin with? We already know the Savior came, descended, in His [white] robes of righteousness. My wife and I discussed this but I am not sure I’m satisfied with our conclusions.

    • joespencer said

      Nice. Some have suggested that there was some sort of ceremonial occasion for the gathering, and that Christ happened to appear at the same time. In that case, presumably Nephi was presiding, after a fashion….

  6. Thanks Joe… The challenge or question I had, was why or what the initial purpose of the gathering that seemed to happen spontaneously.

    I was thinking more that it started out as a town hall meeting or a general conference, but only it ended up becoming a ceremonial occasion, which as we know, became very sacred with respects to what had happened and with the appearance of Christ.

    Also, all this conversing going on seems typical for our day as well, right before one of these kinds of meetings, but not as typical before a temple or sacred ceremonial gathering.

    Thanks Abu, I too saw that earlier in the day and when I went back to it later in the day, I completely neglected to mention 9:1-2 -10:7 or to construct my thoughts on the matter. Anyway, I’m glad, because you did it very well. Thanks for that. I’m continually learning.

    I’m wondering “what if” this is one of those not saying, but showing unto us moments [3 Nephi 11:18]. Mormon neglects to mention anything in 9:1 [maybe in some sort of way he means to encapsulate it with what was said in [3 Ne.10:2] mentions how great there astonishment, it stopped them in their lamenting and howling, for the loss of their kindred dead. They were in shock over what just happened and by the time we get to 11:3 “as if” they had had more time pass and it being a bit more distant from that great and terrible destruction and great loss, it was now different when hearing this voice. How easy for us to not to question the things of God after a destruction and how slow to remember given more time from such destruction.

    I remember after 9/11 and Super Storm Sandy how much more people were attuned to things which were spiritual and as more time passes how quickly we forget. So, in some regard they did not question the initial voice and later after time elapsed they forgot and now questioned it.

    And In some sort of fashion, it almost seems, that he, Mormon, is bringing us there, and now we are looking around for our own answers, and wondering. Then we, like them, but only through the visual, he Mormon, paints for us, see something of what they saw. In essence we are there and he’s not telling, but rather, showing unto us, about something of things of God that we somehow need to get or that are most important.

    Another “what if” Nephi, in 1 Nephi 12 where he recounts his vision of the destruction of his seed and in vs.6 where he saw the heavens open, and the Lamb of God descending out of heaven; and he came down and showed himself unto them and in vs.7 he called the twelve, etc… and we get more glimpses of this, when Samuel the Lamanite prophecies of things that would happen. Okay, now for the “what if” the date stamp where put in the another record [questionable, I know] of when this should all occur, or somehow, Nephi, had known or saw this, and brings them to this place [Bountiful Temple] and on this date. Remember, when Samuel predicted a date and the people where counting down the days and hours, and that it came to pass. But only now we are to believe on their words. Nephi ,nor Mormon make mention of this date stamp, or the reason for the gathering; but Nephi brings us to this place at this time, and here, we all, are wondering and conversing as to why we are all here, and about all the destruction that had taken place, and talking about Christ…when suddenly, behold…he shows unto us. I recognize the facts are few; however, I am trying to reason, as if, I were part of this process and what the possibilities are. Anyway, for whatever it’s worth.

  7. Abu Casey said

    I thought I had made a comment here about the weirdness about the as-if here–specifically that 3 Ne 11 appears to have forgotten that these people had all heard a voice “throughout all the land” (or something similar)–why didn’t these people reference the fact that they had just heard a voice? (Did I not make that comment?). In any event, I’m reading 3 Ne 11 now, and I wanted to add to that. It seems to me that 3 Ne 11 completely neglects this experience. Not only does nobody reference the voice, making their reaction to the new voice odd, they aren’t talking at all about the voice that they heard. They’re talking about how the land has changed and about Jesus Christ and the signs of his death. They aren’t talking about the voice, which seems really odd. Between that and my prior point, it’s like the voice never happened. Further, it’s worth pointing out that neither Mormon (in 3 Ne 10) nor Samuel the Lamanite do not refer to the voice as one of the signs of Christ’s death. It’s like some sort of bonus that pops up in the text then disappears and (appears) not to play a role again, while 3 Ne 11-28 plays a huge role in Nephite history. Of course, if 3 Ne 11-28 happens in your society, it would make sense that the voice might get shunted to the side.

    I almost wonder if there’s something odd going on in the sources that Mormon is working with: this voice thing is a really compelling account, but it doesn’t quite fit nicely with the appearance of Jesus or the signs that Samuel prophesies, but because it’s so compelling, Mormon includes it.

  8. Thank you for that clarification. You’re right, looking at it from that perspective it would not fit in with the scenario comprising such a big part of their historicity. Actually, now reflecting on it some more, my society, probably would nothing but talk about it. It seems many times we cannot stop talking. Your reading is not that of the ordinary, but rather, the extraordinary. And Joe, after rereading your information, I am in more awe and wonder at your breathe and depth of understanding and insight, it’s simply amazing to me. I really enjoyed the marvel and wonder information too, though not sure what more I can add, but, I may try.

    I wonder though, in addition, if there may have been some unavoidable or deliberate omission in the sources that Mormon may have been working with. I must admit, I cannot make too much sense of that either, or anything I’m am going to present, because, as you mentioned, why did he include such a compelling account of this voice in the first place and then not include? Definitely odd.

    I do not believe it is likely, that nobody referenced the voice, or weren’t talking at all about the voice that they had heard. I think everyone would be talking about it, unless, perhaps…
    The Lord forbade him/them to not write for reasons unbeknownst to us, as he has hitherto before done? Is there something else, as you mentioned, going on with the sources he is working with, that maybe the Lord forbade it? What type of odd things going on, did you have in mind with the sources Mormon might be working with? I would be interested in your further thoughts on that.

    Could Mormon have been on the run, whilst abridging this portion of the record, and somehow wrote past it, just here? [maybe you already know, as I do not have the time right now, but if worthwhile, maybe worth looking into it further], Maybe he could not edit or use white out, or had no delete button [that I often, wished, I had used]; but wouldn’t he make mention of it later? Maybe this is another reason, not to condemn them for their many imperfections and weaknesses in their writing.

    Speaking of weaknesses in writing, was it merely for their lack of translatable words only or poor usage, or could there be other interpretations of weakness; such as, could not edit, forgetfulness, did not include voices heard, etc… [Considering Mormon, being a scholar/historian in his own right, and quick to observe since childhood, not probable, but could he have deemed it sufficient, to qualify under there weakness declaration for whatever reason?]. Also, what about this scripture “weakness of their “who exactly is THEIR “words will the Lord make strong with FAITH” in 2 Nephi 3:21? Was it just some select writers or all Nehite record keepers? What part and how much importance, does Nephi mean faith to play in this?

    I need not defend the Book of Mormon, as it renders itself; nor, do I want to go down the path looking for practical manifestations such as the forcible “correction” and accommodation of texts, either through ignoring specific disharmonies or through impatiently imposed interpretation or textual emendation on dogmatic grounds [I believe Jim Faulconer once used this statement], but I am really curious. All I can think about are these texts and the Book of Mormon, which seems to consume my thoughts. I find myself, while driving, thinking about this, and I cannot tell you how many exists, I’ve passed, when I should have turned off. I need to rearrange my reading habits and time to do some more reading at a slower more deliberate pace.

    This has given me cause for serious reflection and deeper exegetical & theological deliberation. I too may head north, as did Mormon, but he, to bury the plates, while I would want to open up the treasures of understanding, not to mention fresh air in regards to such.

    By my next entry I should be able to better distribute.

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