Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi

Please see the earlier posts for a description of what on earth I’m talking about, and specific criticisms of the argument that Laman and Lemuel were ‘Deuteronomists’, the hypothetical movement behind the reforms of King Josiah and which were inextricably involved in the composition and/or redaction of both Deuteronomy and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ (Joshua-1 Kings). Said ‘Deuteronomists’ also being – according to those who’ve advanced the theory – persecutors of such prophets as Jeremiah and Lehi.

In this section, I really wanted to address, albeit briefly, comments that Neal Rappleye made about the use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi. As Rappleye admits, ‘one such potential counter-argument to the thesis I have sketched above is the positive use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi themselves’.

Deuteronomy and Nephi

Unfortunately, while Rappleye goes on to state that he ‘will attempt to deal with one significant example of this’, he really doesn’t. Indeed, he doesn’t really provide a good description of the supposed example (an apparent connection between Lehi’s dying words in 2 Nephi 1-4 to the final address of Moses in Deuteronomy). He contents himself by quoting Reynolds claim that he has identified such parallels, but then moves swiftly to trying to explain it away.

There are problems with his explanation however. He begins by trying to make the claim that Lehi was not completely opposed to the reforms, and that opposing the ideology of the ‘Deuteronomists’ does not mean the same thing as opposing the book of Deuteronomy, or even Josiah. It is gratifying that Rappleye seems reluctant to throw Deuteronomy or Josiah under the bus. Unfortunately, as discussed in the last post, the supposed ideology of the hypothetical ‘Deuteronomists’ is in fact a work of reconstruction from Deuteronomy and the DH, and so their ‘ideology’ as far as is thought is inextricably connected to those books. And that reconstruction is based on the idea that those books are in fact the works of the ‘Deuteronomists’. Rappleye does not appear to share this view, apparently feeling that Deuteronomy precedes the reforms, but then the need for the existence of a school of ‘Deuteronomists’ becomes distinctly less pressing. It is likewise unclear how – if he was implementing their ideas – Josiah is likewise not to be implicated in the ideology of a group charged with suppressing vital parts of the Gospel (visions and messianic ideas) and which is charged with persecuting prophets to do it. When the most that Rappleye can allow is that Lehi saw the putative composers of the DH (as Rappleye recognises), a significant chunk of the Old Testament, as no more inspired than modern LDS may see the Protestant reformers, how can that not ultimately lead to said books, as well as potentially Deuteronomy itself (one of the books most quoted by the Saviour), being regarded as somehow less than scriptural? Unrepentant prophet-killers are not usually regarded as reliable composers or editors of scripture.

And, as much as Rappleye appears determined to avoid making that mistake, it does seem to colour his ideas of why Lehi and Nephi might make use of Deuteronomy, which appear to be nothing more in his eyes than attempts to appeal to Laman and Lemuel. Allusions to Moses are because ‘Lehi knew that Laman and Lemuel held Moses in high regard, and thus sought to use him as an archetype for his own calling.’ Stating that Lehi and Nephi were ‘certainly […] not anti-Moses’ hardly seems sufficient to capture their own attitude to someone who they considered a Prophet of God. It is Nephi, after all, who keeps mentioning Moses, not Laman and Lemuel.

As I mentioned when last discussing this topic several years ago, it is important to recognise that Nephi accepts the book of Deuteronomy as authoritative scripture. Nephi describes the plates of brass as containing ‘the five books of Moses’ (1 Nephi 5:11, my emphasis). He patterns his whole narrative according to that of the Exodus (and since Laman and Lemuel were never readers of the small plates, it wasn’t to impress them). The prominent and oft quoted refrain in the Book of Mormon that ‘inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper’ (1 Nephi 2:20) and its converse is certainly in keeping with Deuteronomistic themes. Finally Nephi explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy: In 1 Nephi 22:20 quoting Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and 2 Nephi 11:3 quoting Deuteronomy 19:15. In the former case he’s even quoting Deuteronomy for messianic purposes, one of the very ideas supposedly suppressed by the Deuteronomists (at least as asserted by Christensen). 1 and 2 Nephi do not justify any attitude that regards Deuteronomy as less than the word of God, something in keeping with the Book of Mormon’s whole approach to the Bible in which it aims to support and confirm it (e.g. in Mormon 7:9, and discussed somewhat more here). The Book of Mormon holds that the Bible is true, and contains the revelations of God. An approach that ultimately entails regarding large portions of the Bible with suspicion is not only inconsistent with what the Book of Mormon teaches about the Bible, it is also unsustainable. And yet it seems few who have played with these ideas have confronted these important consequences: that of losing scripture, a process that can rapidly deprive one of other scripture too (2 Nephi 28:29-30). If such ideas are wrong – and I believe they are and that I’ve shown significant problems with them – they can also carry a heavy price.

A final note

This last item does not perhaps contain the same importance as some of the other items I’ve addressed in the last couple of posts. The implications of believing that some of the practices suppressed by Josiah (and condemned by Jeremiah) were correct, or in regarding Deuteronomy or any of the books from Joshua to 2 Kings as having come from dubious hands, seem to me to be the most significant and problematic consequences for anyone embracing the proposed paradigm in full. But while this last point is not quite as vital, it is perhaps illustrative of some of the pitfalls in reading the Book of Mormon that this approach entails.

Right at the end of his article, Neal Rappleye suggests that, although Laman and Lemuel were wrong and Lehi and Nephi were true prophets, that ‘the contrast between Lehi and Nephi on one hand, and Laman and Lemuel on the other, no longer stands as the stark and obvious difference between good and evil’. ‘Instead’, he argues ‘it represents two competing religious ideologies’. This he feels ‘isn’t too different from our own world today’, and help us to understand how Laman and Lemuel could feel ‘that the indignation they directed at their father and brother was justified’.

People can indeed be sincerely wrong about a number of things (though sincerity, in and of itself, does not necessarily insulate one from the consequences), and its important to be able to recognise that. Yet this reading seems to so badly understate what happened with Laman and Lemuel. It’s not just that, as covered last post, they likely weren’t ‘Deuteronomists’ or particular pious (Nephi after all says they were ‘slow to remember the Lord’. 1 Nephi 17:45). But we’re talking about people who actually saw an angel (1 Nephi 3:29-30), and who heard the voice of the Lord (1 Nephi 16:39), who could not hear the ‘still small voice’ because they were ‘past feeling’, and so had God speak to them ‘like unto the voice of thunder’, and who still hardened their hearts (1 Nephi 17:45-46). It is likely that for a while there was a tension within them – for a while they do repent from time to time, after all – but they ultimately chose to become hardened. And the same can happen to us, no matter what spiritual experiences we’ve had or what things we’ve been through, if we harden our hearts. While there is a danger in being a sincere but deluded fanatic (Romans 10:2), it strikes me that Laman and Lemuel speak to a more basic problem we mortals face, that does ultimately mean a ‘stark’ choice between ‘good and evil’, the good and evil tugging at all our hearts. We should not underestimate our capacity for baseness should we succumb, nor the capacity for such mundane things as a desire for comfort, or murmuring, or jealously to drag us down. But at the same time – like Lehi and Nephi – if we humble ourselves, remember the Lord our God and keep his commandments we can be blessed more than we imagine and be blessed to be more than we imagine. And perhaps some of the best counsel on how to do that is to be found in the book of Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
(Deuteronomy 6:4–8)

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