Link: “On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi”

One significant thing I cover in my thesis (now submitted, and hopefully en route to my viva) is that quite a few scholars get the tone of the Book of Mormon wrong: there’s a tendency in some quarters to treat it as if it is engaging in some gentle academic discussion, which understates the ultimate authority it claims and the forcefulness with which it states its demands for its readers to change their lives and repent.

One facet of this is touched upon by this interesting article by Noel B. Reynolds, which has just been posted on The Interpreter. Reynolds is responding, amongst other things, to certain claims made by Joseph Spencer in his An Other Testament: On typology (a work, I confess, I’m not a fan of), particularly the division Spencer suggests in Nephi’s writings. One compelling point Reynolds raises in his article is proposed claims result in the characterisation of Nephi as an esoteric writer, something which fits uneasily with Nephi’s own explicit enthusiasm for ‘plainness’.

The article is available via On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi: A Critique of Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On typology | The Interpreter Foundation

1 Nephi 22

For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.

Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire.

Behold, my brethren, I say unto you, that these things must shortly come; yea, even blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke must come; and it must needs be upon the face of this earth; and it cometh unto men according to the flesh if it so be that they will harden their hearts against the Holy One of Israel.

For behold, the righteous shall not perish; for the time surely must come that all they who fight against Zion shall be cut off.

1 Nephi 22:16-19

I sometimes joke that one of the biggest things I’ve learned from my thesis is that one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon is “judgment is coming”. Except it’s not a joke, not really: judgment is coming. God will hold us all accountable, and for our civilisation – unless it repents – that accountability is coming quicker than people think.

However – as I mentioned with 1 Nephi 1 – God’s acts of judgment in the Book of Mormon are often deliverance for others. Much of 1 Nephi 22, and many other parts of the Book of Mormon, are about how the Lord will remember his covenant with scattered Israel. Here it is made clear that the Lord will protect and deliver the righteous: that protection, however, will come in the form of divine judgment upon the wicked. Mercy and justice, judgment and deliverance are mirror images of each other, two sides of the same coin of divine providence.

2020 Edit:

I’m picking out things that stuck out to me this time round, but it several cases they are things I’ve noticed before, and in some cases written at length on (from a more academic perspective) along with other stuff in chapter 3 of the much aforementioned book. This is Nephi’s “commentary” on the quoted material of 1 Nephi 21-22//Isaiah 48-49. I use “commentary” loosely, since it’s not a systematic commentary by any means, but rather (in response to questions by his brothers) Nephi expands upon some of its meaning in a passage that also draws upon a range of other scriptural references (Isaiah, Deuteronomy, something akin of Malachi, Psalms & so on) and his own visionary experiences, all interwoven together.

A question faced early on is a question that may seem outwardly familiar (v. 1):

And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had read these things which were engraven upon the plates of brass, my brethren came unto me and said unto me: What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?

A number of readers have seen this question, dividing between things “according to the spirit” and others to “the flesh”, as addressing the perceived divide between literal & allegorical interpretation of scripture, one which was an issue in Joseph Smith’s day, although that’s principally because it’s been a live issue since the early years of the Christian era and before (e.g. Philo of Alexandria, Origen and so on). Of course, it can be a mistake to see a hard divide between these in the first place: with typology, things can be both literal and allegorical. But it’s also not quite the issue that is faced here. Consider verse 6:

Nevertheless, after they shall be nursed by the Gentiles, and the Lord has lifted up his hand upon the Gentiles and set them up for a standard, and their children have been carried in their arms, and their daughters have been carried upon their shoulders, behold these things of which are spoken are temporal; for thus are the covenants of the Lord with our fathers; and it meaneth us in the days to come, and also all our brethren who are of the house of Israel.

As I point out on pp. 139-140 of tBoM&irwtB (I really need a better acronym), Nephi interprets the imagery of the children (interesting enough this should be sons, as it is in 1 Nephi21:22/Isaiah 49:22, but this would be an easy mistake to make if one were working in any Semitic languages) and daughters being carried in the Gentiles arms and shoulders as temporal events (as opposed to spiritual), but said arms and shoulders are not literal, they are metaphorical. The two divisions do not exactly tally up.

It’s also worth noting that Nephi resists such a sharp divide in the first place in his initial response (vv. 2-3):

And I, Nephi, said unto them: Behold they were manifest unto the prophet by the voice of the Spirit; for by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets, which shall come upon the children of men according to the flesh.

Wherefore, the things of which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual; for it appears that the house of Israel, sooner or later, will be scattered upon all the face of the earth, and also among all nations.

Thus he emphasises that the prophecies were made manifest by the Spirit, but concern events that happen “according to the flesh“. Then Nephi goes further, stating that the things he read are about things “both temporal and spiritual” (and indeed, both at the same time, I’d say).

However, the fact that such details were manifest to the prophets in the first place by the Spirit also implies that interpretation should come from the same source, and here I think it’s important to recognise the significance of Nephi using his visions alongside wider scripture to interpret. Because academia likes big words I referred to that as a Hermeneutic of Revelation. The principal however is quite simple: understanding revelation requires revelation. The implication is that we too likewise need to be able to access the same resource when we study scripture, to gain understanding through the Spirit.

Nephi of course addresses the big topic of the past several chapters, namely the redemption and gathering of Israel, and conversely the judgment and destruction that come upon those that have oppressed them. It’s worth noting here that the designation “a mighty nation among the Gentiles” (v. 8), which seems a clear reference to the United States (and about which I’ve seen some more patriotic readers wave metaphorical flags) is not a compliment. It is the designation used when it talks about the scattering of the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples: “and by them shall our seed be scattered”. This is after quoting Isaiah, speaking of how Israel will be redeemed, and that “the prey be taken from the mighty” and “the captives of the mighty shall be taken away” (1 Nephi 21:24-25//Isaiah 49:24-25, my emphasis). Unlike many 19th century American perspectives (which saw the colonists and the US as the new Israel), this passage paints them instead in the role of the new Assyrians and Babylonians, historic oppressors and scatterers of Israel. Hope for the Gentiles rests in the same place as it does for Israel, in the “marvelous work” that God will begin amongst the Gentiles, which will be of “worth” to them, providing they repent (vv. 8-9; Jesus speaks even more explicitly about this subject, including some pretty dire things for the Gentile nations, in 3 Nephi 16, 20-21).

Tying up with what I wrote in the original post, my eye was caught once more on verse 16:

For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.

This is a very… blunt verse. It perhaps caught my attention because of several recent conversations I’ve been part of, in which people expressed the opinion (and believing said opinions were substantiated by several currently popular LDS academics), that the idea of God’s wrath was some sort of mistaken idea we’ve inherited from Protestantism, that God doesn’t have wrath or anger, but solely expresses an accepting love. In short, sentiments I’ve already taken some issue with here, here and here. In short, I believe the essence of the problem is one of over-correction (a frequent problem for us mortals): some depictions of deity have indeed focused overmuch on God’s wrath and justice and hatred of sin, and not enough on his love and mercy and forgiveness. Such depictions were very influential (especially around the 17th century). But in many cases we’ve moved to the opposite extreme, to denying the existence of God’s wrath.

This verse addresses that twofold. On one hand it is one (though one of many) verses that speak of the topic in Restoration scripture, for those inclined to (unjustly) view the Bible with suspicion in this regard. But also it gets to one of the core parts of the issue: God will express his wrath “for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous“. A God without wrath is one that would accept the righteous being destroyed at the hands of the wicked, indeed in some conceptions not even expressing disapproval for doing so. A God who cares is a God who grieves, a God who demands better of us, and a God that is angry at atrocity. A God without wrath is a God without love, for those who need deliverance from oppression.

1 Nephi 21

Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.

And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.

1 Nephi 21:4-5

Thinking about the actual lives of many of the prophets, it would have been easy for many of them to feel a sense of failure. Israel was still worshipping idols when Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha. Mormon and Moroni saw the destruction of their entire people, while the fruit of their labours would not be read for another 14 centuries, while Isaiah himself died during the reign of King Manasseh, who led Judah further into idolatry than any before him and who – according to tradition – had Isaiah sawn in half (which is referred to in Hebrews 11:37).

Failures… from a mortal perspective that cannot see any further than the metaphorical end of our nose. From an eternal perspective, we have the transmission of sealing powers, the writing and preservation of sacred scripture and visions of the eternities that have and will benefit countless in future generations. So it is with us. It’s very easy – I tangle with this feeling quite a lot – to look upon some facet of life or some task and think we have failed. But we do not know all things; we don’t know what might happen in the next year, let alone in generations to come. I guess what we/I need to do is to “work with my God”, leave our judgment with him, exercise some predictive humility and trust in his strength.

2020 Edit:

Onto the second half of this quotation, in which the focus is the restoration of Israel, and the Lord’s servants (of whom Christ is the ultimate fulfilment, but these verses can apply in part to the likes of Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith and others as well) by whom the Lord will accomplish this task. This is despite, as mentioned above, the fact that many of these figures might be perceived to be, and may have felt themselves to be, failures in this task in the eyes of contemporary witnesses. Once again, Christ is perhaps the preeminent example of how God gains victory through apparent defeat, where Christ’s condemnation and death on the cross (perceived as a shameful death) was actually the most comprehensive victory of all time, over the previously unassailable foes of sin and death.

It’s quite common within the Church, I feel, to see the Book of Mormon as a necessary stepping stone to the restoration of the Gospel, and to believe that it predicts and talks about that restoration. And it is and it does. But it is worth paying attention to the fact that the Book of Mormon’s focus is on a wider concept, that when the text speaks of a restoration it is often not just talking about the restoration of the Gospel, but the restoration of the House of Israel, of which the restoration of the Gospel is in itself but a part and necessary step. The events the Book of Mormon prophesies of go beyond what occurred in the 1820s-1840s, and extend beyond the bounds of the organised Church itself, and many of the biggest events it speaks of are yet to come (and I’m not talking about the Second Coming; the Book of Mormon’s focus is on the period before that). We may have the chance to see and participate in some of the most pivotal events in human history.

And yet, like all scripture and yet more so, Isaiah’s words do not just speak of one thing at one time. The words of reassurance in the his chapter to scattered Israel, that God has indeed not forgotten them, can apply not just to a collective but to each of us, no matter how we have stumbled (1 Nephi 21:14-16):

But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.

For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.

Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.

It is for each of our sakes that Christ bears the marks that are on the palms of his hands. For each of us he bore unimaginable pain, and for each of us he died. No matter what we have done, or how far we may have wondered, he has not and will not forget us.

 

1 Nephi 20

Behold, I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them. I did show them suddenly.

And I did it because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;

And I have even from the beginning declared to thee; before it came to pass I showed them thee; and I showed them for fear lest thou shouldst say—Mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, and my molten image hath commanded them.

Thou hast seen and heard all this; and will ye not declare them? And that I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them.

They are created now, and not from the beginning, even before the day when thou heardest them not they were declared unto thee, lest thou shouldst say—Behold I knew them.

Yea, and thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from that time thine ear was not opened; for I knew that thou wouldst deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb

1 Nephi 20:3-8

Inspiration and revelation can be an astounding and life-changing experience. Yet it is not without its frustrations: while sometimes it is both clear and clearly inspired, at others it can be hard to know what the spirit is saying and hard to discern between true inspiration and ones own thoughts and feelings. On one hand, one wants to respond to true inspiration with faith; believing it and obeying it. On the other hand, there is the desire and duty to avoid being deceived. Sometimes this can feel like a real dilemma.

Yet this passage so strongly speaks about God and His revelations: that he has revealed things, but we’re often too stubborn to hear or understand them. And most intriguingly, he declares that he reveals things in part because of our stubbornness and rebelliousness.

I really hope I don’t fall into that category. But then I’m sure we all do, at least some of the time.

2020:

When I wrote the above, I was still a year away from completing my book with its case study on these chapters, the first of the lengthy Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon. Now that’s several years ago, and it’s always a funny experience to go back over chapters that I spent so much time on (and again, that exhaustive look at 1 Nephi 20 can be found elsewhere). To repeat a few general but important points, however, when looking at the Isaiah chapters (and the other lengthy, chapter-length, quotations, such as the 10 Commandments in Mosiah 12-13, Matthew 5-7//3 Nephi 12-15 and Malachi 3-4//3 Nephi 24-25), it’s worth asking why they are there. The authors of the Book of Mormon knew its readers would have the Bible (indeed one purpose of the Book of Mormon is so that people would believe in the truth of the Bible, Mormon 7:9). Critics have suggested padding, but even if you were to remove all such lengthy quotations from the Book of Mormon, it would still be longer than the New Testament. So why spend so much time quoting material its readers already have?

One thing that should be recognised when material is quoted at length is that the imputation of authority is reversed. If I happen to quote a line of Winston Churchill to make a point, I’m hoping to draw upon his wit and wisdom to make a point. Likewise when someone quotes a verse or two of the Bible, they’re hoping to use the authority of that scripture to support a point (and this happens in the Book of Mormon too). But when one quotes a passage at great length, as is done here (and – as Grant Hardy noted – especially when it’s given in the mouth of the Saviour as in 3 Nephi), that effect is reversed: instead that biblical passage is given additional emphasis. It is as if the Book of Mormon is singling out particular passages of the Bible that we should pay attention to.

In some cases the biblical passages are quoted with sizeable differences, of course (though there’s lengthy passages that aren’t). Some have sought to see this as some sort of restoration of original text, but this has to be set against the fact that the Book of Mormon sometimes quotes the same biblical passage very differently (compare, for example, the quotation of Isaiah 49:24-26 by Nephi in 1 Nephi 21:24-26 and by Jacob in 2 Nephi 6:16-18). Why could they do this? Because they were prophets, and thus by inspiration could supply new wording to communicate God’s word (keep this point in mind for a moment). While some have suggested the variations tally with things like the Dead Sea Scrolls this is in fact not the case: the Great Isaiah Scroll (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) is in fact pretty consistent with the standard Hebrew Masoretic text. The most significant textual differences – the whole additional clauses and so on – do not reflect known ancient variants. What many of them do tally with, however, are two of the major themes of the Book of Mormon announced on the title page, namely prophecy & revelation and the restoration of the house of Israel (again, for more of this see chapter 3 of the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible – I really need some acronym – as well as the included appendix which has a textual comparison of all the explicit biblical quotations with the KJV text).

In addition to reinforcing this overall message, however, these chapters often also play into the context of what’s going on in the given part of the Book of Mormon too. This chapter is a good example of that: it is in part a warning to Israel that despite God’s revelations to them they have been stubborn and rebellious (and indeed, some of his revelation has been because they have been stubborn and rebellious). Nevertheless he will be merciful to them: he will defer his anger (v. 9), and refine them in the furnace of affliction (v. 10), and so Israel is to flee from Babylon as part of its redemption (v.20), but with the warning that no one will be delivered if they persist in wickedness (v. 22). This of course also connects with what Nephi has been teaching in 1 Nephi 19, about how Israel will reject the Messiah and be scattered, but will be redeemed.

However, significant parts also connect with Laman and Lemuel specifically: “they call themselves of the holy city, but they not stay themselves upon the God of Israel”. We’ve seen how the brothers cannot believe that Jerusalem would be destroyed (1 Nephi 2:13), and have claimed that the people of Jerusalem were righteous (1 Nephi 17:22). We’ve likewise seen them be stubborn and rebellious in the face of revelation, have rejected the Lord’s prophetic servants, have indeed been led through deserts (v. 21), but risk persisting in their wickedness.

Scripture is often like this, multilayered with simultaneous levels of meaning. And indeed there is one more important layer, made ever more evident by a change that Joseph Smith made. To quote verse 1:

Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.

The text in bold – “or our of the waters of baptism” – was not in the 1830 edition, nor on the manuscripts, it was added by Joseph Smith in the 1840 edition. How? On the same basis that Nephi and Jacob could likewise alter the wording as needed. Why? To emphasise another layer: that this warning is not just to Israel as a whole, nor to Laman and Lemuel specifically, but also to us, baptized members of the Church in the latter days. We too can be stubborn and rebellious. We too may not heed the instruction to flee Babylon, a warning that has been very much re-issued in latter day revelation (see D&C 1:16, 35:11, 64:24, and 133:5 & 7). We too may be outwardly conforming to the requirements of the Gospel, including baptism, but “swear not in truth nor in righteousness”. In which case neither our membership of the Church nor any outward obedience will save us, for “there is no peace … unto the wicked” (v. 22). And so we can read ourselves in here too, and liken them unto us, because Isaiah wrote for us too.

1 Nephi 19

For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.

1 Nephi 19:7

I’m not entirely sure why this verse stuck out to me today. I think there’s a lot it can be applied to. So much of our receptiveness to the gospel seems to come down to what we really want: what we “esteem to be of great worth”. And people vary so much in this respect, so that what one person values beyond price is regarded and treated as trash by another. Yet there is also an eternal hierarchy of values, so that while worldly and temporary things may be held to be most precious by some, they are still merely temporary and ephemeral. Likewise some may disregard eternal things – even God himself – that means nothing for their true eternal worth and value. It is incumbent upon us, then, to try and align our vision correct and not be distracted by other people’s valuations, so we can perceive what is truly valuable and what is not.

2020 Edit:

To some degree I find it hard to know what to write about the next few chapters, since I’ve written quite a bit about them already. The third chapter of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible is in fact based on a case study of 1 Nephi 20-22, including the latter parts of 1 Nephi 19. Yet I do believe that the scriptures are an inexhaustible well, that there is always more to learn, especially when our reading is guided by the Holy Ghost. So I can’t really let the >20,000 words I’ve already written be an excuse.

Connected with this, however, it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the places in the Book of Mormon where the divisions of old, pre-1879, chapters do not coincide with those of the current chapters. As originally published (and indeed perhaps written, since the divisions are reflected on the manuscripts), the Book of Mormon had much longer chapters (it also lacked versification completely), and then in 1879 Orson Pratt introduced new chapters and a system of versification which allows easy reference. As an unintended side-effect, however, this can break the text different and certainly breaks it more often. Which we means we sometimes read passages that are connected in a rather disconnected fashion, as if we insisted on only watching portions of conference talks rather than watching a talk as a whole. An example would be Alma 32-34, which is really one sermon taught by Alma and Amulek, but which we often read as disconnected chapters, with the risk that we can pick up a lot of what is being said, but miss the overall point and argument of the sermon.

Here, however, the opposite occurs. Most of 1 Nephi 19 in the pre-1879 chapters is part of chapter V (which covers 1 Nephi 16-19:21), and so Nephi’s account of making his first places, his discussion of what he included and how people treat the sacred, and then his prophecy of how people will do the same to the God of Israel himself, his rejection by the house of Israel, but then the ultimate restoration of Israel is included in the same chapter as the last past of their journey in the wilderness, Nephi’s sermon on the exodus, and the building and travelling upon a ship. But there’s a break between verses 21 and 22, so that verse 22 – in which Nephi explains he taught about Christ & the restoration of Israel to his brothers, and read the scriptures and particularly Isaiah to them for that purpose – is the beginning of chapter VI, which includes the quotation of Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 20-21, and then the commentary Nephi gives in 1 Nephi 22. It’s a possibly significant organisation of the text we’re liable to miss in modern editions. And that can matter, because how a text is organised – how it breaks, what it ends passages on, what begins passages – can serve to emphasise particular messages.

Aside from that matter of top-level organisation, there was one thing that caught my eye again when reading this passage, which is this in some respects rather puzzling statement by Nephi in verse 20:

For behold, I have workings in the spirit, which doth weary me even that all my joints are weak, for those who are at Jerusalem; for had not the Lord been merciful, to show unto me concerning them, even as he had prophets of old, I should have perished also.

Nephi here states that if God had not been merciful enough to show him “concerning Jerusalem”, then he would have “perished also”. And yet the reason the family left Jerusalem, and thus are in a position to dodge the incipient Babylonian conquest, is because Lehi was shown about the destruction of Jerusalem, and was commanded by God to take his family away because the people were also seeking Lehi’s life. So what does Nephi mean when he talks about what God showed him?

I suspect here that there is a connection to what Nephi recounts in 1 Nephi 2:16, following their departure from Jerusalem:

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.

Nephi here explains that – because of his desire to know of the mysteries of God (and presumably above all else about this visions of his father that have led them out into the desert) – he prayed and received a response, in which God softened his heart and he believed the words of his father, and so did not rebel like his brothers did. The implication is that had he not had this experience, he may well have rebelled like his brothers. Hence the importance of Nephi too being shown concerning the people of Jerusalem.

However, in what sense does he mean perished, since they’d already left Jerusalem? I see several possibilities. One is that Laman and Lemuel several times expressed the intent to return to Jerusalem, and on occasion (1 Nephi 7 perhaps being the best example), the only person who stood in their way and urged otherwise was Nephi. Had he been likewise minded, they might have actually returned to enjoy the delights of Nebuchadnezzar’s seige.

It’s also possible, considering the peril of their journey and the way they needed God’s help (and the fact that he often worked through Nephi), that Nephi also sees it as possible that said perishing would have happened somewhere along the way. And yet I think there’s also another potential meaning: perish can be a somewhat ambiguous term, perhaps purposefully. Another possibility might be that – like Laman and Lemuel – he would have eventually made the trip, but perished spiritually.

These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and it may well be (in fact I think it’s quite likely) that Nephi doesn’t know how or when or in what sense he would have perished, but simply knows that if he hadn’t been blessed with the personal revelation he received, that in some way he would have. And that’s all he really needed to know to appreciate the blessing he received, and the importance of the revelation he was given. But, like much of this trek, I can see how this applies to us too. It is not enough for prophets and leaders alone to receive revelation for us to be able to follow the revelations given to others. Like Nephi, in order for us to make the trek successfully – in order to not perish – we need some level of personal knowledge, some level of personal inspiration. That may well vary from person to person according to our spiritual gifts, but all of us need some contact with the divine, even if it be as simply as a softening of the heart. As Heber C. Kimball taught:

Remember these sayings, for many of you will live to see them fulfilled. The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?

1 Nephi 18

And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.

And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.

1 Nephi 18:1-3

Just reading this today, I was struck by the fact that the Lord revealed to Nephi “from time to time” how to build a boat after he had begun making it. I’m no expert on making boats, but usually I imagine it’s wise to have both blueprints and construction techniques sorted before one begins construction. Not so in this case: The Lord showed Nephi how to do things a bit at a time, not all at once, and after Nephi had begun construction. The thought gave added emphasis to the statement that “neither did I build the ship after the manner of men”: perhaps one difference was the fact that Nephi begun it, not really knowing what the final result was going to be or how to actually get there.

Again this reminds me of the hymn Lead Kindly Light and the line “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me”. Just as Nephi was asked to, we’re often asked to begin stuff we have no idea how to finish either, and with little idea of the final result. But God’s not going to give us the final blueprint in one go. Rather we too will have to “pray oft” so we can be shown “from time to time” how to do the next step, trusting that He has the final blueprint sorted.

2020 Edit:

Much of this chapter, of course, is occupied by the account of the party’s voyage by sea, and in particular the point at which Laman, Lemuel and Company forget God  are are “lifted up unto exceeding rudeness” (v.9). Nephi rebukes them, and in response they tie him up, ignoring the entreaties of their father (and in doing so bringing him and Sariah close to death’s door through grief), Nephi’s wife, and Nephi’s children (vv. 10-11, 17-19). The only thing, we’re told, that “could soften their hearts” was the “power of God”, displayed through the Liahona ceasing to work and a storm that drives them back for four days and threatens to sink the ship (vv. 12-15, 20). Only after they repent and release Nephi, and he prays, does that threat ebb and they resume their journey (vv. 21-22).

What catches my eye, however, is that the description of the first leg of the journey also has them “driven”, except rather than backwards it is “forth before the wind to the promised land” (vv. 8-9). So they are “driven” forwards and then backwards. Driven has the connotation of force, particularly in the Book of Mormon where, out of the 109 times (including “drove” etc) it’s used, most seem to be in reference to the action of armies scattering people (the other incidences include things like Lehi being driven from Jerusalem, and animals being driven before predators and twice by herdsman; interestingly the word is used much more often in the Book of Mormon than it is in the other Standard Works). That force is obvious with the storm that drove them back, but it seems to me to imply that God’s power was likewise deployed (if in a less threatening fashion) to push them there too. In which case they had no way of controlling how fast they were progressing towards the promised land. What the people on the ship had control of was the direction they steered in (implied by the fact that they needed the Liahona to know where to steer, vv. 12-13), and their conduct along the way. And when their conduct failed to measure up they also lost the ability to steer.

It strikes me that this too is a type of our own journey through this life. We often have less control than we’d like over things that may speed us towards the next trials, blessings or responsibilities God has in store for us. We may progress swiftly at some times, and far slower than we’d like at others. Many events are in God’s timing. But what we do have control of is our own conduct, and the ability – so long as we’re trying to do what’s right – to receive God’s guidance and steer a course accordingly. And if we do so then, in God’s own due time, we will reach a far better land of promise.

1 Nephi 17

And it came to pass that according to his word he did destroy them; and according to his word he did lead them; and according to his word he did do all things for them; and there was not any thing done save it were by his word.

1 Nephi 17:31

Nephi’s speaking here of the children of Israel in the wilderness, and how as they followed God or rebelled against him they were led or punished accordingly. But, particularly as I was reading it today, the line ‘there was not any thing done save it were by his word’ seemed to have broader import. Lots of stuff happens to us – some stuff happens to me – that we/I would rather not. Sometimes those things get in the way of our righteous efforts. Now on occasion it may indeed be the case that – like the children in Israel – we’re meeting the consequence of our misdeeds. But there are also plenty of scriptural examples of trials and difficulties hindering or afflicting the faithful. And God either permits these to happen, or in some cases ordains them for reasons that – at least at the time – we are unable to perceive.

Just thinking about this now, I’m reminded of the example of Joseph in Egypt. It would have been very understandable for him to be frustrated and even angry at what happened to him; indeed I’m sure there times he probably was. It would have been easy to feel that one was almost being punished for doing the right thing: check his brothers are well for his father, and get sold into slavery by his brothers; serve faithfully as a slave, get falsely accused and thrown into jail for years; correctly interpret the dream of Pharaoh’s chief butler, get forgotten about and left in jail for even more years. Every righteous effort appears rewarded with failure. It certainly be understandable if he held a grudge against his brothers.

Yet – and this is admittedly after the great turn around in his fortunes, although it’d also have been easy to let years of slavery and prison hold their mark – when he reveals himself to his brothers his perspective is quite different:

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

… And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

Genesis 45:5, 7

While Joseph’s  brothers did sell him into slavery, Joseph ultimately attributes this to God. But he does not blame God, rather his acknowledges divine foresight and providence, that all this misfortune he has experienced ultimately has placed him in a position to save his family and indeed and entire nation. God’s ways are indeed higher than ours, and Joseph sees divine providence even in the ills he experienced at the hands of others.

It’s quite possible we may not quite get that perspective in this life, and may only see how the various events and circumstances fit together at that point when all things are revealed. But I think it’s important to hope for that. I myself have been experiencing quite a bit of frustration in areas of my life where it feels like the Lord would have me progress, and yet it often feels like one step forward and two (or many) back; that my righteous efforts are being rewarded with failure. But it’s important to acknowledge in all these things that God has his own purpose in these events, and that nothing happens without his foreknowledge and without his permission, and in many cases because he expressly wills it. And God can turn misfortune and even evil events to good purposes.

All that matters on our part is that we too seek to do all that we do ‘by his word’.

Edit 2020:

I think 1 Nephi 17 is one of my favourite chapters. Not the favourite chapter, but its up there. There’s just so much to it. The bulk of it is Nephi’s whole recap of the Exodus story, which isn’t just telling that story, but is also the culmination of 1 Nephi’s references and allusions to the Exodus account as a whole. I commented briefly upon that connection when writing about 1 Nephi 2, and its something that’s often been on my mind as I read this book since I wrote an essay on the relationship between the two as an undergraduate while studying in Israel. Both are accounts of a group of people, led through the wilderness and delivered from their enemies by divine power (Pharoah/Laban – 1 Nephi 4:2-3 makes the connection explicitly). These people travel to a new land of promise, but often struggle in their journey due to “murmuring” and rebelliousness on the part of the travellers. Despite this, the Lord provides food for them and points out the direction they should go, and is their “light in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:13). Both journeys likewise involve crossing a body of water (well two in the case of the Exodus, and one really big one in 1 Nephi), again with divine aid.

By recapping the story here, Nephi makes all these connections explicit, particularly placing his brothers – who again reject their father’s revelations as “foolish imaginations of his heart” (v. 20) – in the same position as those who “reviled against Moses and against the true and living God” (v. 30). Against Laman & Lemuel’s claims that the people of Jerusalem were a righteous people (v. 22), Nephi builds on the conquest of Canaan, pointing out that God in truth does not play favourites: “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favoured of God”. The Canaanites had “rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity, and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them” (v. 35). But by becoming wicked in turn, and rejecting the word of God by seeking to kill the prophets (such as Lehi), the people of Jerusalem have become just like them, and will likewise be destroyed, and because Laman and Lemuel have likewise “sought to take his life” Nephi declares: “ye are murderers in your hearts and ye are like unto them” (vv. 43-44).

It’s a brilliant sermon, as it builds to Nephi’s denunciation of Laman and Lemuel’s hardheartedness (v. 45):

Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder.

That very last episode we just saw in 1 Nephi 16:38-39; Nephi is not just recapping the Exodus, but their own journey too, with its displays of divine power and aid and their rebelliousness. And after the brothers turn once more to murderous anger, which is quelled once more by a further display of God’s power, Nephi affirms once more that – contrary to their earlier claims – he can indeed build a ship, with a verse that is on one hand so simple in wording, and yet seems to me to have powerful import for us too (v. 51):

And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?

A ship – or whatever we’ve been asked to do – seem so paltry compared to that which God has already done, and which we may have already witnessed.

A couple of other points that stick out: I find it interesting that Nephi notes he’d been at Bountiful “for the space of many days” before he received further instruction. This suggests to me that likewise in our own journeys that there may be periods of pause, and comparative peace which the Lord allows us, particularly after periods of intense trial. However, such times our not our final destination, and we must press on. Likewise it’s interesting that the first command Nephi received in this chapter was simply the direction to go up the mountain, and it was up there he was commanded to build a ship; similarly divine instruction to us may sometimes simply be a small thing which directs us to a better position for us to receive further revelation.

On a final note, there’s the brothers’ complaint that Lehi had “judged” the people of Jerusalem, which couldn’t help but remind me of our own society, in which “judging” is likewise held in negative regard. It is true, of course, that the Saviour commanded us to “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1), but it strikes me that there’s a difference between that and “don’t judge me!”. The first prompts us to humility, to remember our own sins and accountability before God rather than go round condemning everyone else. The latter sentiment, however, is prideful, an arrogant resentment that one might ever be disapproved of or held to account, including by God. It should be remembered that Christ not only also taught “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24, because as I’ve noted before some judgment is unavoidable, like who you let look after your children), but the former restriction doesn’t apply to God, to whom we will very much be accountable. The resentful mode expressed by Laman and Lemuel also tends to break down under its own weight, as one is left holding that it is wrong to judge people, except for being “judgmental”. At which point things start looking quite silly.

1 Nephi 16

And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren.

Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and after he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger.

And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish.

1 Nephi 16:37-39

It’s funny Laman takes umbrage that Nephi has said that angels have ministered to him: after all, an angel appeared to Laman and Lemuel too. While undoubtedly he rationalises this away as “cunning arts”, his recollection of that incident, and so much else of what has happened, appears damaged.

The same seems very often true for our own spiritual experiences. They can be extremely vivid and concrete when we’re having them, but our memories are imperfect and slippery things, and can make real things seem unreal from a distance. I’m sure the adversary plays on that too, as does the course we choose to take (as in Laman’s case). In part I think this is why we’re encouraged to write them down, as when we turn and reread them it can sharpen our recollection, and I likewise think it is no accident that both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon frequently exhort us to remember.

Thankfully the Lord is merciful, and even when we forget he aims to help us to remember. The problem Laman and Lemuel had is that they kept choosing to forget such experiences.

Minor Note:

Incidentally, on steel bows (which to modern ears sounds quite strange),  I found one article here talking about historical steel bows in India here, and an article about a rather interesting working example in North America with a puzzling past here.

2020 Edit:

Several items stood out today, the first of which being the repetition of a pattern I think once can see all through 1 Nephi:

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.

And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord which had been given unto him. And also, I, Nephi, had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly.

And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.

(1 Nephi 16:7-9)

Here we see the completion of one commandment (with Nephi & his brothers marrying the daughters of Ishmael), the text signposting that this and other commandments had been completed, and then the very next step mentioned is the issuing of the next commandment along.

This is a pattern I’ve seen before (and I’m certain I’m not the only one), but upon reading this today I also couldn’t help but notice how verse 10 plays into that:

And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.

Notice that the Liahona, which was to direct them on where to go, was only received the following morning, after Lehi had received the command to go. God could have told him where to go the previous night, but he didn’t. Instead there was a gap between being told to go, and finding out where to go. It made me wonder if the pattern really sort of goes like this:

  1. Fulfil the given commandment.
  2. Get given the new commandment.
  3. Then – after that – get directions on how to fulfil the commandment.

I think this may be part of the general pattern in 1 Nephi too. Looking ahead to what I’d written before about 1 Nephi 18, I’d noted that Nephi wasn’t given all the instructions to the ship in one go, but was given it in stages. I’d connected this – and also mentally connected the pattern of a) fulfil commandment b) get next commandment – to the principle perhaps best encapsulated by the hymn Lead Kindly Light, in which God does not tell us the end from the beginning but generally only guides us in what we should be doing right now. This is a principle I have tried to learn, albeit one I find quite frustrating (because a big part of me does want to know the end from the beginning, dagnabbit!). But I hadn’t seen all this as part of one overall pattern, in which God directs us to do something, and only later – perhaps after we’ve expressed willingness, and perhaps after we’ve felt some confusion as to how to actually accomplish a thing – then directs us on how to actually do it. Now I think I see it, however, I think I also see in in things like the episode with the brass plates, or for that matter the Brother of Jared’s sea crossing too. In other words, we should expect to be given commandments we have no idea on how to fulfil, and perhaps patiently trust that if we have no way of working it out ourselves that further directions will be coming, but perhaps our willingness needs to be tested first.

The second item is an episode that I believe I remember other people commenting on, but which caught my attention this time. Nephi breaks his bow (v. 18), while the bows of the others have lost their springs (v. 21), and so the party face starvation. This provokes the expected murmuring, but not just from the usual parties, but even Lehi (v. 20), so that Nephi has to speak and urge correction not just from his brothers, but from his father too (vv. 22, 24).

Nephi then makes a bow, and then asks his father for directions (v. 23), and it’s via Lehi and then the Liahona that the needed guidance towards food is received (vv. 25-31). I’ve read or heard comments (I can’t recall the sources, as it was a long while ago), suggesting that it was from this point that Nephi really begins to lead the family (a view I don’t think is completely accurate). I’ve read/heard (same deal) others that point out how Nephi is careful to recognise and acknowledge Lehi’s leadership despite Lehi’s own failings in this instance. Something which I think augments the second point of view is the fact that the revelation does come via Lehi. Yet I don’t think this is just a matter of being respectful (though it is). It’s also because Lehi, as the one inspired to lead them and the patriarch of at least one of the families involved, is the one who has the right and responsibility to seek revelation for the party as a whole. This clearly doesn’t apply to all revelatory guidance; the Lord contacts Nephi directly when it comes to building a ship, but notice again that it is Lehi who received revelation for the party as a whole to board and travel in the ships (1 Nephi 18:5). Lehi was the proper conduit for such revelation, and despite his less than perfect conduct on this occasion, Nephi still respected that and him, and sustained him by giving him the opportunity to serve in that role.

1 Nephi 15

And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?

And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.

Wherefore, I, Nephi, did exhort them to give heed unto the word of the Lord; yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed, that they would give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things.

1 Nephi 15:23-25

I don’t know much that can be added in commentary to this promise: that those who ‘hearken unto the word of God’ and ‘hold fast to it’ will not perish nor be overpowered by the adversary. The question is surely how might one better ‘hearken’ to the word of God and what does it mean in practice to ‘hold fast to it’? Certainly a crucial component seems to be that one should not just read/listen to the word – one must obey it.

Minor note:

Wherefore, our father hath not spoken of our seed alone, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.

1 Nephi 15:18

This covenant with Abraham (Genesis 22:18, Acts 3:25) is actually the most frequently quoted biblical passage amongst the explicit quotations of the Book of Mormon (explicit quotations referring to those that are identified as quotations of another source). As also seen on the title page, the forthcoming restoration of Israel is one of the central themes of the Book of Mormon

2020 Edit:

While reading on this occasion, what actually leapt out at me was one of the first few verses, verse 3:

For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.

This obviously applies to Lehi’s dream, and one can easily see how it can apply to the word of God generally, so that truly understanding scripture requires us to ask of God and seek revelation for ourselves. That’s not just a concept that is taught in scripture here and elsewhere (for instance, 1 Corinthians 2:10-16), but one can see in the interpretation of scripture as supplied by the likes of Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi and so on. However, when reading this today I was struck by the thought that this has wider application still: how many things happen in our lives and the lives of those around us that are “hard to be understood”? How many times do we end up baffled by circumstances, that may feel undeserved or unfair or which are simply confusing? Is our first instinct in those circumstances to look towards the Lord, and seek his guidance?

We don’t, of course, always get the answers we seek immediately; I think again of the Harold B. Lee quote I thought of when reading 1 Nephi 9. Sometimes we might ask, but then must exercise patience to await answers or clarification in the Lord’s own due time. And yet I do feel upon reading this that we do need to cultivate that instinct, so that when faced with confusing circumstances our very first thought and look is towards the Lord, and – whether immediately or in his own due time – that will be the only way we can obtain some of the answers we seek.

1 Nephi 14

And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks

1 Nephi 14:1

In the context of Nephi’s vision, this is particularly talking of the stumbling of the Gentiles due to the loss of the ‘plain and precious things’, and the potential rectifying of that if they repent when God begins his ‘great and a marvelous work’. But reading it today it also feels like there is a general principle here (also elaborated on in Ether 12). We all have ‘stumbling blocks’: our weaknesses, mortal imperfections, frailties of the flesh and things we’re just not good at. And those can be frustrating, particularly when they appear to hinder us from achieving what we want, or even from doing what God wants us to do. But such stumbling blocks can and will be taken away, if we ‘hearken unto the Lamb of God’, through a manifestation of His words, His power and His acts.

For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or on the other—either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds unto their being brought down into captivity, and also into destruction, both temporally and spiritually, according to the captivity of the devil, of which I have spoken.

1 Nephi 14:7

Ultimately – and particularly in the present age – we are faced with two choices only. The Lamb of God’s ‘marvelous work’ will serve to sort us one way or the other. We should not be surprised if opposition to that which is good increases at the present time, even as the kingdom of God itself grows. There will be a growing divide, a sifting, and so we shouldn’t expect everyone to be convinced towards righteousness. What counts is which direction we go.

2020 Edit:

A lot of this chapter is about judgment: judgment upon the gentiles if they don’t repent, judgment upon the great and abominable church and the devil and his angels. This is of course a recurrent theme in the Book of Mormon, but particularly in the way we see it described here:

And [if the Gentiles] harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel; and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever; they shall be no more brought down into captivity; and the house of Israel shall no more be confounded.

And that great pit, which hath been digged for them by that great and abominable church, which was founded by the devil and his children, that he might lead away the souls of men down to hell—yea, that great pit which hath been digged for the destruction of men shall be filled by those who digged it, unto their utter destruction, saith the Lamb of God; not the destruction of the soul, save it be the casting of it into that hell which hath no end.

For behold, this is according to the captivity of the devil, and also according to the justice of God, upon all those who will work wickedness and abomination before him.

(1 Nephi 14:2-4)

If the Gentiles repent, then they shall be delivered, and the perils otherwise prepared for them by the devil and his servants will instead fall upon those that prepared it.

Likewise in verse 17:

And when the day cometh that the wrath of God is poured out upon the mother of harlots, which is the great and abominable church of all the earth, whose founder is the devil, then, at that day, the work of the Father shall commence, in preparing the way for the fulfilling of his covenants, which he hath made to his people who are of the house of Israel.

Here, the coming judgment against the great and abominable church directly coincides with God’s fulfilment of the covenants he’s made to the house of Israel. Again, as I’ve also described in relation to 1 Nephi 1 and 1 Nephi 22, there is a coupling here between judgment and deliverance.

Judgment can often seem like a scary thing, and to some degree it should. But God’s judgments upon some can be means of deliverance to others. And whether we are finally delivered or not is ultimately a matter of our choosing, whether we too hearken to the Lamb of God, and harden not our hearts against him.