2 Nephi 27

2016 notes:

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plates back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

2020 edit:

This chapter (as did last chapter) includes a fair amount of Isaiah 29, although quoted without explicit markers (unlike, say 2 Nephi 12-24//Isaiah 2-14), but also significantly interspersed with Nephi’s own commentary and prophecy. Thus so in this case, where the chapter opens with an account of the wickedness of the nations in the last days and the forthcoming judgment to coincide with Christ’s second coming.

The chapter then moves on to talk about a forthcoming book:

And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.

And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.

(2 Nephi 27:6-7)

This book is the records contained on the golden plates, of which an unsealed portion is translated and published as the Book of Mormon, with the rest to appear at some future date (vv. 9-11). Apparently there’s much more in it, for “they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (v. 10).

The chapter then gives an account of some words of the unsealed portion being taken to “the learned”, who is asked to read the words. The learned then requests the book, but when informed that they are sealed will state that they cannot read them (vv. 15-18). In contrast, they will be then delivered to one who is not learned, who shall simply say “I am not learned” (v. 19) and will be told:

Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

(2 Nephi 27:20)

Now on one hand this is seen as a reference to the well-known account of Martin Harris taking some characters to Charles Anthon. As recounted in the Pearl of Great Price:

Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

(Joseph Smith- History 1:63-65)

Charles Anthon here is the learned man, while the unlearned man who does end up reading the words is Joseph Smith.

And yet there is more going on here. This passage is not just about these two men (and the Book of Mormon, and the witnesses). There is a wider theme here distinguishing between the learning of the world, that men have set up in stead of that of God, and the inspiration that comes from God. Thus this chapter has a broader application than this one episode, which is a type of the dilemma we all face in gain a greater understanding, especially of the things of God. Do we rely on our own learning, upon the mortal intellect alone? If so than no matter how learned or knowledgeable we are, we shall find the scriptures and other revelations and sacred matters of God a “sealed book”. Or do we humble acknowledge our deficiencies, in which case we are in a position to be blessed with God’s understanding and inspiration.

This is not to say that knowledge and learning are necessarily bad, far from it: “to be learned is good”, says Jacob, “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). We are supposed to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I am convinced that relying on faith alone risks just as much distortion as relying on study alone would. But, as discussed here and in The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible, Book of Mormon prophets relied upon inspiration and their own revelatory experiences to understand the scriptures they read (the so-called “Hermeneutic of Revelation”), and read them with an eye of faith. They did not seek to understand them purely by their own or any other man’s intellect. One of the great sins of those preaching in the latter days is that they will, relying solely on their learning and their human wisdom, and excluding revelation and faith. Likewise, if we approach the scriptures purely from what might be termed an “academic” viewpoint, they will be sealed to us; we might learn many things about them, but we’ll miss the point (and I’ve see some very learned people do this with my own eyes and ears). “[T]he things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11), and cannot be forced open by human intellect alone.

Such earthly learning in insufficient to understand the things of God. Thus he will perform his “marvelous work” with his own power, in a way that will baffle those accounted wise and learned among men (note the recurrence of the same themes discussed in 2 Nephi 26):

For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.

And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men—

Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

(2 Nephi 27:23-26)

 

Jacob 3

But behold, I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.

O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever.

(Jacob 3:1-2)

This follows up from Jacob 2, where Jacob faced the dilemma that because of the need to condemn particular sins his words could not offer the comfort others needed. What I like about these verses is that, although Jacob himself cannot offer consolation, there are other sources of comfort to be had, particularly though looking to God, prayer and receiving the word of God, which I believe includes both personal revelation and receiving the scriptures (and of course the latter should often include a degree of the former).

There are some topics, of course, that the scriptures don’t appear to address all that explicitly. But as I’ve also mentioned before (in reference to Jacob no less) the scriptures can address issues in far less direct and more subtle ways. The scriptures are the word of God, an inexhaustible well of inspiration, which we are invited to “liken” them unto ourselves and through which we can receive personal guidance and revelation.

Studying the scriptures in such a way is of course a very personal experience: what one sees or needs to see, may not be what other people need to see. Perhaps this is why the scriptures don’t address certain topics explicitly, and another reason why Jacob could point people to the “pleasing word of God” but not offer such comfort personally. Each of us is an individual, with our own issues and challenges, and – while there are fixed eternal truths – for our own different issues we need individual guidance to resolve them. But there is a common path by which we can receive that guidance, that through prayer and contemplation of the word of God we can each receive the individual comfort and counsel we need. But we cannot rely on others to walk that path for us: each of us personally must look towards God, pray to him and receive his “pleasing word”.

2020 edit:

This chapter really concludes Jacob’s sermon to his people. If chapter two was the first half, addressing the two specific areas of concern, in this second half Jacob first turns (as above) to those in his audience who may have been hurt by such sins (and by his necessary words about them), and then switches back to warning against sin and urging repentance and reformation on the part of his wider audience.

Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?

(Jacob 3:7)

I find it interesting that Lamanite family life is so commended here (in contrast to the Nephite situation), and indeed seems always to have been comparatively healthy, when one looks at episodes like the stealing of the daughters of the Lamanites (Mosiah 20), or in the Sons of Mosiah’s mission to the Lamanites, and the role various wives and daughters (generally an unrepresented group in the Book of Mormon) played in that narrative. This rather healthy family life is not without divine reward, too: “because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people” (Jacob 3:6), despite other sins and unbelief which they inherited, so to speak, from their forefathers.

Wherefore, ye shall remember your children, how that ye have grieved their hearts because of the example that ye have set before them; and also, remember that ye may, because of your filthiness, bring your children unto destruction, and their sins be heaped upon your heads at the last day.

Jacob 3:10 here introduces an interesting corollary to this idea. If the Lamanites could end up the way they are because of the decisions of their ancestors, it follows this may not be a one-off: the Nephites, and for that matter any of us, could act in ways that bring disastrous consequences upon following generations, with little choice on their part. And I think one can see this, when one looks at the generational consequences that can accompany things like abuse, addiction, family break-up, or apostasy. It’s this phenomenon that I believe is reflected in scriptural statements such as those in Exodus 20:5 about the “the iniquity of the fathers” being ‘visited’ “upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me”. This doesn’t mean that those successive generations have been abandoned by God or left without hope: after all, neither were (or were to be) later generations of the Lamanites. But it does mean that our actions, including our sins, can have wider consequences than just ourselves and those we directly sin against.

2 Nephi 33

And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.

(2 Nephi 33:10)

This verse always sticks out to me as I consider myself a recipient of this promise. There was a time in my life when, though I knew God existed, I became confused about everything else, and really felt I didn’t know which way was up or which way was down. I continued to read the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, but I did not know they were true. Yet I continued to read them, and many other things, as I really wanted to know one way or the other (after all, I felt my soul was at stake), and if you want to find something out you have to put some effort and research into it. You can’t expect ultimate answers if you can’t be bothered to do more than cursory reading.

In any case the concept of prophets made sense to me; it made sense that if God expected us to do his will, he had to communicate it somehow. Of course, then there’s the question of which prophets. And I remember one night contemplating “well, Islam has Muhammad – maybe Islam has it right”.

It was at that very moment – and I do not know whether I somehow had already known it, but didn’t know I knew it, or if I was taught it in that very moment – that I realised we needed a Messiah to reconcile justice and mercy, and that that Messiah was Jesus Christ. Which narrowed down my options a bit.

What struck me, in years to come and reflecting upon that experience, was that the very terminology in which this insight struck me comes from the Book of Mormon (Alma 42 is a good example). While I did not yet know whether to believe the Book of Mormon, reading it brought me to Christ. And in time – now that I knew Jesus was the Christ – I came to believe and gain a witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Though I did not believe “in these words”, I read them and they taught me of Christ, and then “believ[ing] in Christ [I did] believe in these words”.

2020 edit:

And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.

Verse 1 caught my attention right from the beginning. It’s not the only time this sort of sentiment will appear in the Book of Mormon (Moroni expresses something similar in Ether 12). There’s some subtle differences though: Moroni was comparing his words to those of the brother of Jared, who apparently did manage to capture power in his writing, while Nephi almost takes it as given that speaking (at least of the gospel) is more powerful, because to the role and power of the Holy Ghost. Yet I see no reason why the Holy Ghost cannot do the same for writing, indeed I know he can, since I have felt the Holy Ghost do that as I’ve read inspired writings. Nephi doesn’t quite describe it as a universal law, however, but writes rather of his own experience and his ability to express inspiration in speech and writing. That accords with what Moroni says and my own perception: we have different gifts, and some are particularly gifted in speech, others in writing, and some find it easier to communicate via the spirit in one medium than in the other.

There’s an element of a general writers dilemma here too, however, that applies beyond the writing of inspired works. I have felt frustration myself that some of the things I write simply can’t quite express – and certainly not with the same power or emotion – the things in my head. Sometimes the words just seem dead on the page, compared to the metaphorical vision in my mind. I’m sure I’m not the only writer to face this problem. It’s reassuring in part that despite Nephi and Moroni’s own assessment of their writing skills, their works are some of the writing that I’ve felt have both an emotional and a spiritual impact upon me.

I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.

Verse 6 is an example of this: simple, plain, yet powerful. But when reading it today I was also struck by the power of his statement that Christ “hath redeemed my soul from hell”. For some reason when I talk about wanting to avoid hell in Church settings people tend to laugh. It struck me when reading this today that one shortcoming of the modern heresy that there is no hell is that it robs Christ of the credit for one of the things he saves us from. We talk about salvation, and Christ being our Saviour, and forget these are terms with a reference: to be saved is to be saved from something. There are lots of things that Christ saves us from, different ways in which he is our Saviour, but surely two of the biggest (especially according to passages like 2 Nephi 9) are death and hell. If we deny hell, we deny that Christ can or has saved us from it.

And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.

And it speaketh harshly against sin, according to the plainness of the truth; wherefore, no man will be angry at the words which I have written save he shall be of the spirit of the devil.

I really felt like quoting verses 4 and 5 here, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s a powerful summary not just of the value that Nephi saw in his words, but the value which is in his words. I also see an interesting balance: on one hand the words persuade us to do good and believe in Christ, in a rather gentle description, but on the other they speak harshly against sin. Yet it’s just such a balance that is encapsulated by the character of God himself, as described by Joseph Smith in the oft-selectively quoted description that:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

As to Nephi’s words about the final judgment, thee’s two observations that really come to mind every time I read this passage. One is the way in which his description (and not only his, but Jacob’s, Alma the Younger’s and Mormon’s) captures his own personality:

I have charity for my people, and great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat.

I have charity for the Jew—I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came.

I also have charity for the Gentiles. But behold, for none of these can I hope except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation.

(2 Nephi 33:7-9)

It’s not that he is teaching different doctrine from Jacob, Alma or Mormon. What I find interesting is how their personalities shape their emotional attitude and description of the same truths. Jacob mentally includes himself with the wicked, Mormon is grimly realistic. Nephi however expresses optimism: he has “great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat”, and in verse 12 speaks of praying that “many of us, if not all, may be saved in his kingdom at that great and last day”. But Nephi is also uncompromising about the truth, and so why expressing these hopes he also doesn’t back away from the fact that this salvation is only possible through “the strait path” of the gospel, which must be followed.

The other detail I can’t help but reflect on in this chapter is Nephi’s statement in verse 11:

And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.

Again, Nephi is not the only one to say this: Moroni also speaks of meeting us before the judgment-bar (Moroni 10:27). It causes me to reflect on who else we’ll meet as witnesses at that point, and on whether we’ll end up being witnesses for anyone else.

Finally, there’s Nephi’s very last words in the Book of Mormon, which encapsulate so much of the journey Nephi has been on, and his approach:

For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen.

(2 Nephi 33:15, my emphasis)

We’ve seen throughout 1st Nephi that there is this cycle of commandments being given, and then commandments obeyed, and throughout Nephi has been consistently obedient. But it’s more than just a choice: he must obey.

That’s not to say he was denying he had agency. I remember a similar discussion I had with an acquaintance, in which I expressed that I must do some task, and they were of the opinion that I was somehow failing to appreciate or utilise my agency. But what I was trying to express, however badly, was what I think Nephi expresses here. When you know who God is, and he tells you to do something, then the question goes beyond agency. Sure, you still have it, and mortal weaknesses may cause us to fall short, but at the same time when God says jump the only possible answer is “how high?”. To outright say “no” may be possible, but it feels unthinkable.

And it’s funny: for many years – even when beginning my reading this year – I’ve often said I didn’t think I’d have liked Nephi if I’d known him. There are other personalities in the scriptures that I find myself much more naturally in sympathy with. Yet upon this year’s reading, and especially upon reading, reflecting upon and writing upon this last chapter, I feel a little differently now.

I think at last we understand one another, Frodo Baggins.

2 Nephi 27-28

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plate back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

(2 Nephi 28:4)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the themes of 2 Nephi 25-30 is the way a contrast is built up between human learning and the knowledge from God, and this is an example, where contending priests are condemned for teaching by their learning while denying the Holy Ghost and true inspiration. I find it cautionary: in my approach to the scriptures, and when I discuss them with other people, how often do I rely on what I think I know rather than being open to the spirit to teach me things I don’t?

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

(2 Nephi 28:20)

2 Nephi 28 also spends quite a bit of time talking about the different tactics of the devil, including flattery, complacency and in this case rage. A lot of present political developments are currently predicated on rage, of course, with people being “angry” and demanding that their anger be validated. And I’ve found in turn that there’s a strong temptation to be angry in turn with certain movements. Such unbridled anger, however, is a tool of the devil, and we/I have to be careful not to let him use such tools against 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 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.

The things that are written

I originally wrote much of the below as an article for another site but, as it seems they have decided not to pick it up, I am hereby publishing it anyway. With the passing of Elder Packer, this seems somewhat appropriate considering his love of the written word of God.

At the time I wrote it, there had been a lot of arguments among LDS circles online as to the ‘historicity’ of scripture, meaning the extent to which the events recorded in scripture actually happened. At the time, these had attracted some heated arguments, which is understandable because they end up carrying a lot of implications. Whether certain events happened is of vital importance to our faith. For example, whether the resurrection of Christ happened is not just a historical question of interest only to those who wonder at the disposition of the Saviour’s body, but is an event that has consequences for the future destiny of our bodies and souls. As Paul states, ‘if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then neither does ours.

But as important as these issues are, I noticed that there seemed to have been some other basic issues involved that escaped (and continue to escape) notice. The really big issue is what we mean by the very terms scripture and inspiration. What we mean when we say that certain books are ‘the word of God’ (8th Article of Faith) shapes our whole approach to scripture and how we read it. And this is not an academic question, but one with potentially eternal consequences. Yet some of those debating historicity appear to have used these terms without realising that others held very different, and incompatible, definitions for them. Thus one individual, who argued that the question of historicity could be separated from the spiritual worth of the scriptures, stated:

The historicity of scripture is not a matter of faith. It is an issue of critical analysis and academic inquiry. On the other hand, the inspiration of scripture, meaning its ability to assist readers access divinity, can never be a matter of critical analysis and academic inquiry. Instead, much like beauty, inspiration is found in the eye of the beholder.¹

What should be noticed here is how inspiration has been redefined as a reader-centred activity. The inspiration of a given book is to be weighed by the extent to which the reader is able to find something helpful in it (and ‘access divinity’ is a particularly woolly expression of this). But this is not a universal view. Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Rings have had a powerful effect on my life, and led me to be a better person, but I would not define them as scripture. Nor is it likely that the other participants in these discussions shared this definition of inspiration. The implications of this view follow rapidly: inspiration ‘is found in the eye of the beholder’. The suggestion is that it is what the reader does, and not an objective quality in the book itself, that makes a book scripture.

This view is not new. Liberal Protestant theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith made a similar argument in his book What is Scripture?. Claiming that ‘scripture is a human activity’ (although being careful to clarify that this isn’t a statement about authorship), Smith argues that it is the relationship between a text and a community that makes a text scripture (p.1, 17-21). Thus ‘scriptures are not texts’, because their scriptural status is not dependent upon anything innate to a work, but is rather conferred upon it by the reader treating the text in a certain way. This idea has been very influential in academia, particularly for those who wish to divorce the possible value of a text from the question of its origin.

Yet despite its influence, Smith’s approach and his focus on the reader suffers from a number of drawbacks. He appears to hold that merely because a work is referred to as scripture in an academic sense it must also be scripture in a theological sense, conflating the sociological with the supernatural. He also devalues the content of the text in favour of a vague sense of the ‘holy’ (p.230-235). Overt meanings are ‘superseded’ in favour of something ‘transcendent’ (shades here of ‘accessing divinity’) that Smith believes cannot even be articulated, the feeling of which takes priority over all other forms of engagement with scripture, including actually reading it. Thus, compared to the feelings of the reader or even non-reader, the content is ultimately left rather superfluous, a very unsatisfactory position. And the very idea that it is what the reader does that makes scripture scripture seems ill-fitting with statements from Latter-day scripture that appear to teach the opposite, such as Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 where it is inspiration from the Holy Ghost that makes something scripture, an innate quality that makes something scripture from the start.

LDS proponents of these ideas appear to have appealed to idea of the fallibility of human beings, and the admission in the Book of Mormon that it may contain ‘the mistakes of men’ (Book of Mormon Title page). It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon does not teach that scripture must be completely without any kind of error. But its depiction of the process of receiving and recording scripture goes far beyond this. A closer look is warranted.

The receiving and recording of Scripture in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is particularly vocal about the process of its own creation, far more so than the Bible. We do not know the identity of the author(s) of Joshua to 2 Kings for instance (the putative “Deuteronomistic historian”, first theorized by Martin Noth as the author of the whole unit, remains nameless and conjectural), but we are left in little doubt throughout the Book of Mormon as to who is narrating at nearly every point. Likewise the Book of Mormon also describes the creation of the very medium upon which it is recorded, the chain of transmission for its major sources and the selection of material to be written in it (e.g. 1 Nephi 6, 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Words of Mormon 1:3-7, 3 Nephi 5:8-18 and many more). The Book of Mormon’s self-consciousness about its own composition thus offers valuable insights into the process of scriptural composition.

These details have been neglected in this discussion. While – understandably – some LDS scholars have been keen to apply the possible insights of biblical studies and related fields to the Book of Mormon, insufficient attention has been given to the way in which the Book of Mormon’s claims undermine many of the key assumptions that lie behind these ideas. Now someone could conceivably reject the Book of Mormon’s own account of itself (as those who reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon must), and yet seek to try and retain some measure of ‘spiritual value’ in the work. But in that case they could not claim to accept the Book of Mormon as inspired or as scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon itself uses those terms.

For the Book of Mormon makes very strong claims in these regards. As much as the making of the Book of Mormon, with its named individuals painstakingly placing words on actual metal plates and passing them down hand by hand, is very human, it is also very divine. As just a cursory look reveals, the making of the records is stated to be under divine command (1 Nephi 19:2-3, 3 Nephi 5:14), as is the selection of the contents (W. of M. 1:6-7, 3 Nephi 26:11-12). The preservation of the records is an act of divine power in fulfilment of promises by God (Enos 1:15-16, Mosiah 1:5, Alma 37:4). The authors claim prophetic foresight of their future audience (Mormon 8:34-35), and to have been given and be writing the very ‘words of Christ’, in some cases receiving instruction ‘face to face’ (2 Nephi 33:10, Ether 12:39). Thus the opening words of the Book of Mormon claim that it was ‘written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation’ (Title Page).

Perhaps the most illustrative episode of how the human and divine interact in the composition of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi 23, where the risen Christ inspects the records kept by Nephi. The Saviour spots that a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted and commands its inclusion (v.9-13). What is of interest here is that a human error has occurred – ‘it had not been written’ (v.12) – but the Saviour affirms that he had commanded Samuel to utter his prophecy (v.9), the disciples that it came true (v.10), and under the direction of risen Deity the mistake is corrected (v.13). Thus the very words of Samuel the Lamanite were inspired in that they were directly commanded by God, and – despite the involvement of fallible humans – the record-keeping process is likewise under divine supervision.

In all of this, there is no suggestion that the inspiration of scripture is to be found in what the reader does to it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Book of Mormon is keen to assert that many readers will get it wrong. ‘For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and the soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet’ says Nephi (1 Nephi 19:7), who elsewhere goes on to state that ‘there are many that harden their hearts against the holy spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore they cast many things which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ (2 Nephi 33:2). The worth of scripture is not assessed by the reader, but rather the standing of the reader by their receptiveness to scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Both Nephi and Moroni state that they will stand as witnesses at the final judgment that the Book of Mormon itself is true, regardless of the reader, ‘for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words at the last day’ (2 Nephi 33:11) and ‘ye shall know I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you’ (Moroni 10:27). Inspiration is certainly not in the eye of the beholder, for many beholders will get it wrong, and the Book of Mormon remains scripture whatever its readers make of it.

Nor, for that matter, are inspiration and revelation as shown within the Book of Mormon about something wholly other, ‘transcendent’ or completely beyond nature. Nephi is guided to food (1 Nephi 16:23-30), is directed to ore and given instructions on how to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:8-10) and his family led to an actual place. Alma the Elder is informed of his pursuers (Mosiah 23:24) while his son receives revelation on the location of an army (Alma 43:24). Above all, the risen Christ in 3 Nephi is not some spectre, but has an actual body, and a full crowd ‘did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet’ (3 Nephi 11:15). And these revelations and divine encounters are paradigmatic, ‘for he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as times to come’ (1 Nephi 10:19). Thus revelation in the Book of Mormon has content, beyond the vaguely ‘transcendent’, sometimes involving things in the material world, and while such accounts can have symbolic meanings too (as the Book of Mormon itself applies to the Liahona in Alma 37:43-46) the reality of these revelations is intended to serve both as a demonstration and a model for what should be happening in the lives of its readers.

While the Book of Mormon is more explicit about its own creation than it is about the Bible (and has the advantage of its translation being ‘by the power and gift of God’, Title Page), it does not hesitate to make similar claims about the Bible. Isaiah saw the redeemer (2 Nephi 11:2) and according to the risen Saviour all his words will be fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:3); Malachi was given his words by the Father (3 Nephi 24:1). Like the Book of Mormon itself, Isaiah is seen as writing towards future audiences, for it is particularly in ‘the last days’ that people shall understand his prophecies (2 Nephi 25:7-8, a claim that conflicts with the assumptions about the “intended” or “contemporary” audience). The Book of Mormon aims not to challenge the Bible, but to ‘establish the truth’ of it (1 Nephi 13:39-40); it ‘is written for the intent that ye may believe that’ (Mormon 7:9). The difficulty with the Bible as described in the Book of Mormon is that ‘plain and precious things’ have been removed (1 Nephi 13:28), not that the remainder has been corrupted (attempts to suggest Jacob 4:14 to imply more thoroughgoing changes fail to note that the verse is referring to God’s actions relative to scripture, not man’s). According to the Book of Mormon the Bible is incomplete, but is true and inspired by God in the same sense that it talks about itself. Any approach to the scriptures which preserves the former but marginalises the latter runs into severe difficulties with the Book of Mormon’s own claims, including that the two shall ‘grow together’ (2 Nephi 3:12).

Finally, too much can be made of those passages in the Book of Mormon that make allowance for human weakness. Most couple the admission with warnings to ‘condemn not the things of God’ (Title Page, see also Mormon 8:12, Mormon 8:17 and Mormon 9:31), suggesting that the sight of human involvement should not cloud the view of the divine hand in both the book’s composition and compilation. Certain passages make allowance for error but without requiring it, as Mormon 8:17 does with ‘but behold, we know of no fault’, though other passages do concede ‘imperfections’ (Mormon 8:12). However, when we examine examples where allowance is made for specific sorts of flaws, these flaws have a more limited scope than it seems some have assumed.

Thus although Nephi admits the possibility of error in his selection of the sacred in 1 Nephi 19:6, his warning in verse 7 that men fail to recognise and ‘trample’ the sacred turns this passage more into a warning that readers may fail to acknowledge and obey the voice of God. 3 Nephi 8:2’s dating of the death of Christ appears to acknowledge the possibility of error with its caveat that ‘if there was no mistake made by this man [meaning Nephi son of Nephi] in the reckoning of our time’, but this is a minor matter of chronology, the exact dating of the death and resurrection being minor matters of no consequence compared to its actually occurring. Similarly, Moroni laments that the ‘Gentiles’ will mock ‘the placing of our words’ (Ether 12:23-25) and states that some ‘imperfections’ are due to their choice of language for: ‘if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have no imperfection in our record’ (Mormon 9:32-33). He is thus speaking of syntax and grammar, again comparatively minor matters. There is no suggestion in this that there are any doctrinal errors or mistakes in the Book of Mormon’s teaching. Just because the Book of Mormon does not support inerrancy (the idea that scripture must be without any error, no matter how minor in its grammar or mathematics) does not mean that it automatically provides justification for some theory of errancy where its divine message is inseparably corrupted with the ideas of men. It certainly doesn’t support the idea that the message is so blended that the divine elements can only be sifted out by professional scholars relying on human learning.

In conclusion, the Book of Mormon does not cooperate with Cantwell Smith’s conception of scripture. It makes its demands on the reader (whom, on occasion, it addresses directly) on the basis of the innate qualities it claims for itself, as a work that was written, compiled, transmitted and translated by divine means, regardless of the readers’ reactions. Revelation and inspiration are considered to be objective phenomena that contain content. While the Book of Mormon makes allowance for minor human error it also fiercely maintains the truth and divinity of its message, and its consequent authority over its readers, so much so that it will be an issue at the final judgment.

It is instructive in one passage where Moroni is anxious about his ‘weakness in writing’ how the Lord chooses to respond to his concerns. Amid the Lord’s reassurances, the Lord states that his ‘grace is sufficient for the meek’, meaning not Moroni, for the meek ‘shall take no advantage of your weakness’ (Ether 12:26, my emphasis). Rather, as he goes on to state, for those who recognise their weaknesses and humble themselves and have faith before God, the Lord’s grace will ‘make weak things becomes strong unto them’ (v.27). This has often been read as referring to our personal weaknesses (and surely the principle applies), but the ‘weak’ thing Moroni is asking for reassurance over are not personal faults, but the very book he is writing. It is as we the readers recognise our own weaknesses and humble ourselves that the Book of Mormon becomes strong to us. For as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, ‘out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged’ (3 Nephi 27:25-26). At the end of all days, we are not going to be measuring scripture, but will be measured by it. If we take scripture seriously, as the word of God, we must begin to let scripture judge us.

 


¹ I’ve chosen to omit names, my usual practice for this blog at moments like this, primarily because I’m trying to make this about the ideas rather than something more personal.