2 Nephi 10

So it turns out that 4 years ago I wrote an amalgamated post for 2 Nephi 10 & 11. But both are pretty substantive chapters though, worthy of their own posts. So let it be written, so let it be done.

This is the conclusion of Jacob’s sermon, although notably after everyone adjourned for the night at the end of 2 Nephi 9, so this is following day. This is a rather crucial fact because in the intervening time period Jacob has had another angelic visitation, who at the very least disclosed that the Messiah’s name shall be “Christ” (v. 3). Which is interesting, because while Christ is now thought of as a name, that’s not it’s origin: it’s the Greek term for “anointed”, as Messiah is in Hebrew. It is in effect a title, but then so are all the names of deity to one degree or another (something that may trip up modern Western readers, who may get confused when name-titles like “God”, “Lord”, “Father” and even the likes of “Jehovah” get applied in scripture at various times to both Heavenly Father and to Christ). We tend to think of names as individualised labels, but the names of deity express an attribute of Him, and since the Father and Son share in that perfect almost all such name-titles that can be applied to one can, in another context, be with perfect justice applied to another. Names have power.

This last portion of the sermon sees Jacob revisit the topic of the scattering and then the regathering of Israel, and Gentile involvement in that. Four years ago, when reading this, I also wrote the following:

For behold, the promises which we have obtained are promises unto us according to the flesh; wherefore, as it has been shown unto me that many of our children shall perish in the flesh because of unbelief, nevertheless, God will be merciful unto many; and our children shall be restored, that they may come to that which will give them the true knowledge of their Redeemer.

(2 Nephi 10:2)

For I will fulfil my promises which I have made unto the children of men, that I will do unto them while they are in the flesh—

(2 Nephi 10:17)

Jacob is obviously talking here of a rather specific set of promises (namely about the restoration of Israel in “the lands of their inheritance”), but I was impressed by these verses as I read them. While many of the promises we have been given apply to the eternities, God can and sometimes does give us promises that apply to this life. It is perhaps heartening to read – with those promises in mind – that God will fulfil such promises while we “are in the flesh”, even if we must be patient for the time being.

Back to 2020: There’s a particular line in verse 3 that’s been on my mind, because – were it not for all else the Book of Mormon says (such as its denunciations of Gentile mistreatment of Jews in 2 Nephi 29 and elsewhere) – it would sound pretty antisemitic. From verse 3 (my emphasis):

Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him—for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.

It should probably be first be pointed out that such terms being applied to those involved in crucifying Christ does not imply anything for their descendants (as much antisemitism in historical Christianity has held). Righteousness and wickedness are not genetic. Secondly, it also quite obviously does not apply to many Jewish individuals who lived at the time of Christ. Does it apply to the apostles? To the likes of Mary Magdalene? Even to the likes of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. I cannot believe that! I don’t think such terms even apply to the likes of the young rich man. I certainly don’t think that many of the early saints (many of whom were Jews), who endured much persecution for the gospel’s sake, could possibly count as “among those who are the more wicked part of the world” (and indeed the wording of clause suggests a subset).

But there’s that line about “and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God”, which I think may be misunderstood at times. Does this mean that no one else would crucify Christ? I don’t believe that’s the case. After all, the actual act was carried out by Roman centurions anyway. Would the likes of the Assyrians, Aztecs or Nazis restrain themselves at the height of their wickedness? I doubt it.

However, I think much of the significance of this statement comes from “their” God. The Roman Centurions actually performed the task, but unlike those members of the Sanhedrin and others who plotted Christ’s death, they didn’t proclaim their loyalty to the God of Israel while trying to kill him. I believe verse 4 indicates along these lines too:

For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God.

I also find this line interesting:

But great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea; wherefore as it says isles, there must needs be more than this, and they are inhabited also by our brethren.

(2 Nephi 10:21)

While Jacob – and the other Book of Mormon prophets – speak most prominently about prophecies concerning the New World, and sometimes about the original land of Israel, they often point to wider fulfilment. Isaiah in particular seems applicable to multiple fulfilment of prophecy. Similarly, the allegory of the Olive Tree of Zenos – quoted by Jacob in Jacob 5 – speaks of other branches of Israel elsewhere, who were also scattered but also subject to the same promises of restoration. Jacob points out the same here: many of the prophecies he and Nephi have been referring to (including Zenos in 1 Nephi 19:16 and Isaiah in 1 Nephi 21:8//Isaiah 49:8) use the phrase “isles of the sea”, plural. As Jacob points out, that indicates many such prophecies apply not just to the New World, but to other isles also. Dare I suggest some candidates?

This chapter isn’t just focused on this overall picture of the restoration of Israel, and Jacob recaps topics of individual salvation he’s spoken about in 2 Nephi 9 and which his father taught him in 2 Nephi 2. It’s worth pointing that out, and thinking about it: God works on both a grand scale, concerning whole peoples, and on an individual, personal scale. No matter is too small for him to be concerned about, and indeed the grand scale stuff is there to serve the needs of his plan as it concerns saving individuals: the ultimate aims of the war between good and evil, after all, concern the fate of each individual soul.

Thus Jacob ends his sermon with the following statements, which recall in so many ways Lehi’s teachings to Jacob in 2 Nephi 2, on agency, grace and the great choice we all face:

Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.

(2 Nephi 10:23-24)

2 Nephi 3

A couple of items for this chapter:

And now I speak unto you, Joseph, my last-born. Thou wast born in the wilderness of mine afflictions; yea, in the days of my greatest sorrow did thy mother bear thee.

2 Nephi 3:1

I’m impressed by Lehi’s statement that Joseph was born during “the days of my greatest sorrow”. Because when was that? At which point in the journey? Is he referring to a specific episode, or the wilderness as a whole (he doesn’t say it to Jacob). It doesn’t say, and it may even refer to an incident that isn’t recorded. Lehi clearly considered that the lowest point in his life, and we don’t from the record even know what he was referring to. As painful as it undoubtedly was for him, the record the Lord has preserved for us doesn’t define Lehi by it. At the same time, how many other people do we come into contact with who are shaped by episodes we are entirely unaware of?

Because otherwise I’m in danger of talking about nothing but affliction, I quote this verse too:

Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.

2 Nephi 3:12

This verse could practically be a mission statement: of this blog, of anything that I might hope to achieve with my thesis, with other stuff (those missionaries I commit to read the Old Testament). Because I love the Book of Mormon. I also love the Bible. I firmly believe that both are the greatest possible aid (save the Spirit) to understanding the other, and one can only obtain their full benefits by reading both. It will only be as we – individuals, church members, whoever – read, believe and apply both together that we will secure the blessings promised here.

Finally:

And out of weakness he shall be made strong, in that day when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel, saith the Lord.

2 Nephi 3:13

This is a theme found throughout scripture (I’m thinking of Ether 12:23-27 and 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 in particular): that God can make use of weakness, will use us despite (and sometimes even because) of our weakness, and that His grace is sufficient for us. One can often despair because of one’s failings. God’s grace, however, is sufficient for all and “is made perfect in weakness”.

2020 Edit:

Moving from teaching Jacob about Christ and the choices we face, above all between good and evil, Lehi turns in this chapter to sharing a prophecy from Joseph in Egypt (of coat fame) with his own son Joseph. This appears to concern the restoration of Israel, particularly how a branch of Joseph’s own descendants, though “broken off”, will be remembered and restored (v. 5), via means of a seer who shall bring God’s word to them, bringing together the words written by both the descendants of Joseph and those of Judah (vv. 6-12). This seer, who will work “in that day when my work shall commence among all people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel” (v. 13), will also be named Joseph, as will his father (v. 15). Thus the best fit for this seer is Joseph Smith, while the writings of Joseph’s descendants he shall write shall be the Book of Mormon itself, which shall “cry from the dust”.

It is interesting that in terms of restoring Israel, while translating and publishing the Book of Mormon is not the only activity attributed to Joseph Smith, it is depicted as being perhaps the most important. I’m interested is to why that is: does that refer to the role the Book of Mormon has already played (in terms of initiating the restoration of the gospel) and continues to play (in introducing people to that gospel), or does it also refer (as I suspect) to future events and future influence that we can scarce dream of at this time? As we’ll see in other chapters, the Book of Mormon is regarded as both as a sign that God is about to fulfil his covenant with the house of Israel, and is one of the major tools he will employ in restoring Israel, something which is certainly only begun as yet.

That this prophecy is found here, but not in the Bible as we have it is of little surprise to me: it should be recognised that the Bible and “the plates of brass” are really overlapping collections, and there is some material found in one but not the other. For instance, I think the fact that Micah is only quoted by the risen Christ suggests that that book was not on the brass plates (which might suggest other speculative possibilities), while the plates of brass did apparently contain the writings of the non-biblical prophets Zenos, Zenock and Neum. There are several reasons for why these collections would not be identical, but one significant reason would be there different origin: the Bible, while it includes writings from the northern kingdom of Israel, and contains narratives about them, is fundamentally a record from the southern kingdom of Judah, collected and collated by their hands. The plates of brass, by contrast, are a record that has been kept and preserved by descendants of Joseph (i.e. northerners, perhaps until as late as the Assyrian conquest of 721 BC) as an ancestral record, complete with genealogy (1 Nephi 5:14-16). While it obviously includes some southern prophets like Isaiah and apparently “many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” (1 Nephi 5:13), it should be noted that both of these prophets operated in the period after the Assyrian conquest (Isaiah’s career began before it, but continued throughout the period and through the failed Assyrian conquest of Jerusalem, in which Isaiah played a pivotal role and prophesied of Jerusalam’s deliverance; perhaps it would be natural for those who may have fled from Assyria’s conquest of the north to be especially interested in such a figure).

Similarly, from 3 Nephi 10:16, we learn that Zenos and Zenock are actually ancestors of the Book of Mormon peoples (and presumably descendants of Joseph themselves). It thus seems natural that they would be included in the records preserved by such descendants (indeed, they may have been keepers of that record themselves, in which case their words in the brass plates could have been their actual writings, not simply a record of them!). And likewise, it would be little surprising that direct descendants of Joseph would seek to preserve Joseph’s own prophecies, and contain a fuller account of them than those records preserved by Judah, especially when – as in this case – they concern the destiny of those very same descendants.

There is one verse in this chapter that I find poses an interesting puzzle. After quoting Joseph in Egypt, Lehi addresses his son Joseph directly, and states in verses 23-24:

Wherefore, because of this covenant thou art blessed; for thy seed shall not be destroyed, for they shall hearken unto the words of the book.

And there shall rise up one mighty among them, who shall do much good, both in word and in deed, being an instrument in the hands of God, with exceeding faith, to work mighty wonders, and do that thing which is great in the sight of God, unto the bringing to pass much restoration unto the house of Israel, and unto the seed of thy brethren.

Now the uncontroversial part is that Lehi is stating – presumably by prophetic inspiration of his own – that some of Joseph’s (son of Lehi) own descendants will part of that remnant that Joseph (in Egypt – there’s a lot of Josephs in this chapter!) prophesied should be preserved, and receive the teachings of the Book of Mormon. The puzzling part comes with verse 24: “there shall rise up one mighty among them…”. Based on the preceding chapter, one might think this to be a description of Joseph (Smith), but while claimed to be a descendant of Joseph (in Egypt), he wasn’t a descendant of Joseph (son of Lehi – see what I mean!), unless he had some native American ancestry I’m unaware of. There are several possibilities I see here: a) “among them” could simply refer to working among Joseph’s (son of Lehi) descendants, with no imputation of common ancestry, and so can refer to Joseph (Smith) or b) this is a referring to another figure, who will be an actual descendant of Joseph (son of Lehi), who will also be involved in the work of restoring Israel.

1 Nephi 8

So much could obviously be discussed about Lehi’s vision of the tree of life (and Nephi’s vision that follows it), that it’s difficult to know what to single out. The very phenomenon of prophetic dreams is an interesting one; the Lord has most certainly used them as a means of revelation, as to Lehi here (and in 1 Nephi 2:1), or to Joseph, Pharaoh or even to Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible. For some people that seems to be the principle means by which they get such revelation. Most of my dreams are from a more mundane source.

One part does stick out:

And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.

And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.

And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.

And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.

1 Nephi 8:25-28

These people had clung to the rod of iron, made their way to the tree, and tasted of the tree of life and its goodness. But they still fell away, because of shame at the mocking of those in the great and spacious building.

Mockery is in great fashion at present, including in both political and religious discussions. It’s certainly a very effective rhetorical tool. But it is not one that establishes truth. You don’t need truth to win an argument with mockery. You just need enough people to jeer with you, and the targets to feel ashamed. And shame can drive people away from things they know to be good.

There’s not much that can stop the mockery of the great and spacious building: that’s left to the Lord’s timing. But in the meantime, I guess we’re in the situation Nephi describes a little later, when others (and the ‘we’ and ‘me’ suggests it includes Nephi) had made their way to the tree of life. Nephi states that others who had entered the building ‘did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not’ (1 Nephi 8:33). We too have to somehow not pay attention to such mocking voices, especially when they’re trying to make us ashamed of something that we know to be good and true. We need to be true to God and our better selves, and to ignore the heckling crowd.

2020 Edit:

Two things really stood out to me during this read through. The first is the dream thing that I mentioned in passing above. Lehi received this vision as a dream, and that’s not the first time: he also received revelation via dreams in 1 Nephi 2:1 and 1 Nephi 3:2. Indeed, even his second recorded revelatory experience in 1 Nephi 1:7-15 occurred while he was prostrate on his bed, even if it doesn’t mention that he was sleeping. Perhaps, like positioning an aerial, he received the spirit best while in a horizontal position?

More seriously, dreams were clearly a major avenue of revelation for Lehi. So it’s interesting they’re not for Nephi, even when (as will happen in 1 Nephi 11-14) said revelation is about Lehi’s dream and covers much the same content. Perhaps that’s because of a different focus: Grant Hardy, in his Understanding the Book of Mormon, suggests that Lehi and Nephi looked for somewhat different things in their visions, with Nephi explicitly asking for an interpretation of the tree of life. Perhaps their revelations were received differently because what they wanted from the content was different? But Lehi in general seems to have a general propensity for dreams, while Nephi does not. And these are far from the only scriptural examples: Joseph (of coat fame) is particularly known for visionary dreams and the interpretation of dreams, while yet other biblical prophets do not seem to have received these much at all. In short, revelations do not appear to be homogeneous experiences. We can receive them in different ways at different times in our life, and it appears that we may have particular propensities for receiving revelation in certain ways that are different from person to person, perhaps influence by our gifts and personality. God’s revelation is not monolithic or monotonous, but manifests in different ways but which all witness to the same harmonious truths, as if each revelation were a different instrument in an orchestra, producing different sounds but producing one performance.

The other thing that caught my eye today were all the groups of people, and I’m not sure why I’ve never broken it down like this before. As far as I can make out, there are a bunch of overlapping groups (overlapping because some move from one spot to another). Aside from Lehi himself, there are:

  1. Those who refuse to even begin making their way to the tree: Laman and Lemuel fall into this category (vv. 17-18).
  2. Those that begin their journey on the straight and narrow path, but who get lost due to the mists of darkness (vv. 22-23).
  3. Those who get to the tree and taste of the fruit, but who then, in response to mockery from those in the Great and Spacious building, become ashamed and fall away (vv. 24-25, 28).
  4. Those in the great and spacious building itself, who are apparently well dressed and spend their days scoffing at those eating from the tree (vv. 26-27, 33)
  5. Those who make it to the tree, taste of the fruit and do leave as they do not pay heed to those in the great and spacious building: this includes Nephi and presumably the rest of Lehi’s family (vv. 14-16, 30, 33-34).
  6. Those that seek out the great and spacious building (v. 31), some of whom make it and join that crowd (v. 33), but others of whom appear to get lost along the way or drown in the fountain (v. 32).

It’s interesting to think about these different groups and what and who they represent. With any use of such imagery in the scriptures, it rarely seems the case that there is only one fixed meaning: often, like prophecy, imagery can mean several different things at the same time, with multiple legitimate and correct interpretations. But thinking about these groups, I think several general applications suggest themselves: there are those who refuse to even begin along the straight* and narrow path of the gospel, and then there are those who do, but get lost along the way. There are those who experience the joy of the gospel and who have tasted of the spirit, but who then stray. There are those who look for what the world offers symbolised by the great and spacious building and its fine clothing, and some indeed get to enjoy such things (if temporarily and in this life only). But then there are others who seek out this world and don’t even get that, who find that such a path brings disaster even sooner. And then there are those who a) choose to look to the right destination, namely the eternal life found in the gospel, b) who manage to stay on the straight and narrow path, and then c) endure to the end, ignoring influences that might lead them to abandon the treasure they have found.

 

* The present LDS edition reads “strait and narrow path” in 1 Nephi 8:20, but the 1830 and other early editions have “straight and narrow path”, and Royal Skousen concurs this is likely the proper reading (and so is the reading of his Earliest Text). Which makes sense, since “strait and narrow” means “narrow and narrow”, which isn’t impossible reading (since it may be for emphasis), but would be redundant.

1 Nephi 5

But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness.

1 Nephi 5:5

Lehi’s use of the past tense (“I have obtained”) catches my eye here. While some have pointed to this as the result of translation, I think it refers to Lehi’s confidence in God’s promise; he is so confident he speaks as if he has already been given it when he has barely left Jerusalem. I honestly wish for that level of confidence (though sometimes the question is to whether God has extended any particular promise).

That these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed.
Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time. And he prophesied many things concerning his seed.

1 Nephi 5:18-19

Nephi’s description of the Brass Plates’ contents is interesting on a number of details (its inclusion of five books of Moses before the Captivity contradicts certain composition theories held widely in Biblical studies; its history as a record held by descendants of Joseph may account for its inclusion of prophecies by Joseph of Egypt and others such as Zenos and Zenoch on the same family line). However, these verses are particularly striking as Lehi prophesies that the plates of brass will go among all nations (including his descendents) and be preserved. Does this refer to the actual collection in the Brass plates, or does it refer to the Bible and Old Testament whose contents are very similar?

2020 Edit:

Reading today, what stood out most what Lehi’s reaction to Sariah. Out of mourning, she begins complaining, and the word “complained” is repeated twice, serving much like “murmured” does for Laman and Lemuel. She also accuses Lehi, “telling him that he was a visionary man”, much as Laman and Lemuel had done earlier. What I find interesting is how Lehi responds at that point:

I know that I am a visionary man, for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known of the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.

But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness.

Lehi begins by completely accepting the charge: yes, he is a visionary man! And then of course he builds upon that to elaborate as to what he as been told in an attempt to comfort his wife. But he starts by saying “it’s a fair cop, yes I am!”. And that allows him to switch to bearing his own testimony, which is more powerful than arguing over details (and indeed, ignoring that what she and Laman and Lemuel meant by “visionary man” – namely that he was doolally – was something quite different from how he took it!).

I find that interesting because we can sometimes have all sorts of things said about our beliefs. Now sometimes they’re completely inaccurate, and so some correction is necessary. But other times people might just put them in very unflattering and distorted terms. And the impulse at that point can be to try to put things in their proper context, but that’s not always an effective answer, and may appear to be an attempt at equivocation rather than concern for accuracy. I saw an example of this while serving as a missionary, in which I had got surrounded by a crowd on the high street who were flinging all sorts of accusations about the Church. I was attempting to answer, but in my concern to put things in a proper context wasn’t doing so very effectively. My companion, who’d seen the crowd, turned up and someone levelled a question at him (“do you believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers!?”*), and his answer has always struck me in it’s simplicity and effectiveness:

“Yep!”

There’s no hint of equivocation to such an answer. It breaks past that mode of accusation & rebuttal, in which one party is expecting rebuttals so automatically, they’ve stopped listening to them.  And it is at that point, while the audience is perhaps a little surprised, that one could then move to expand upon that, as Lehi does here.

* Their implication, it should be noted, was that we believe that the two are therefore equals, and that Christ is not divine. Obviously we don’t, but like Lehi, my companion wisely ignored whatever they meant to imply.

1 Nephi 2

And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.

1 Nephi 2:7

Lehi had to flee into the wilderness because the people were trying to kill him, he had to leave behind all his property and riches, and we subsequently learn that his family did not believe him (and seem to have been most unconcerned about any death threats). Yet the first thing Lehi does when he reaches a stopping point is to build an altar, make an offering and give thanks to the Lord!

He’s a better man than I am!

2020 Edit:

Several things stood out to me today.

Firstly, there’s Lehi’s dream in verses 1-2. This is the third visionary experience of Lehi’s we have record of (after the two in 1 Nephi 1), although obviously there may be more. This is the one that kicks off the account of the Book of Mormon as we have it, however, since it’s the one that commands Lehi to take his family and flee into the wilderness (more on that in a bit).

One thing that struck me when reading it, however, was how much clearer it was that Lehi’s first two, the first of which we really only have Lehi’s reaction (1 Nephi 1:6), and the second couched very much in apocalyptic terms (in the original, not popular sense). This may be an artefact of how they are recorded, but then that too would be a deliberate choice. I wonder if one implication is that, since Lehi was obedient to what God had commanded him to do earlier (as he is particularly commended for in 1 Nephi 2:1), that further instructions came with increased clarity. In the same way, as we learn to follow the promptings of the spirit and revelation, it becomes easier to hear the spirit and understand what we are to do. That’s one suggestion.

Turning now to the journey into the wilderness. This is a motif, of course, that occurs throughout scripture, especially in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon: Abraham was commanded to leave his home and kindred and promised a land of promise; Jacob fled the home of his father-in-law to return to said land; Moses leads the people of Israel across the wilderness in the exodus; in the Book of Mormon not only do Lehi and his family embark on this trek, but many groups of their descendants will likewise have to flee into the wilderness; and it turns out that long before them the Jaredites had to do the same thing. It is a recurring pattern, one that has also recurred in more recent eras, and may well do so again.

One reason for that, I believe, is the important symbolic meaning attached to these journeys, as both Alma the younger and the author of Hebrews point out. As Alma states, speaking of Lehi’s journey, in Alma 37:45:

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

And in Hebrews 11:13-16, speaking of the patriarchs:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.

And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

These recurrent treks in the wilderness, leaving behind previous comforts and braving the trials of the journey for a new land of promise, are a type of our journey through mortality, seeking the “better country”, the “far better land of promise”, that is our hopefully heavenly destination, one that we too might not always see clearly.

Why did these thoughts pop up while reading this today? Well not just because this is the beginning of Lehi’s journey, but also because of what he did (1 Nephi 2:4):

And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.

This again is a recurrent part of the pattern, but I think a vital one. Such treasures are of course little use on such a journey: facing the trials of a genuine wilderness, the accoutrements of civilisation shed their apparent value. Perhaps that’s one reason why the people of God have to recurrently make such trips literally. But we too, travelling through mortal life, must also learn to leave such things behind: not just material treasures (though often them), but also all the other things that the world would teach us are utterly necessary but which are ultimately transitory: titles, position, careers, awards, degrees and much else. These may be useful for a season, but we cannot take them with us, and we need to be prepared to give them up, lest we end up like Laman and Lemuel whose opposition to their father was rooted in the fact that he had lead them “to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things” (1 Nephi 2:11). We must, as the book of Hebrews states, hold the attitude that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth”, because as C.S. Lewis pointed out in the Screwtape Letters, it is when we feel we are finding our place in the world that it is finding its place in us.

Speaking of the Exodus, one thing to note as we read through 1st Nephi is how closely tied the account is to the Exodus narrative. There’s several deliberate allusions and references, of course (most especially in 1 Nephi 17), but one detail I first noted when I wrote an undergraduate essay on the topic (while in Jerusalem) can be seen in this chapter, which is the detail that Laman and Lemuel “murmur” against their father (v. 11). The word choice is interesting, because one can find that “murmur” and its derivatives (“murmuring” and so on) are used 22 times in the Exodus narrative in the KJV, and only 18 times in the entire rest of the Bible. The same pattern occurs with 1 Nephi, which uses “murmur” and so on 19 times, compared to only 14 times for the entire rest of the Book of Mormon. The word choice is deliberate.

As a final item, it’s also worth noting in verse 20 onward is the first appearance of the oft-quoted promise to Nephi’s descendants in the Book of Mormon: “And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper…”. Of course, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the Lord’s notion of prosperity may not be the same as the world’s and – per C.S. Lewis – worldly prosperity was often highly spiritually dangerous for the Nephites.

1 Nephi 1

My attention today fell on the following verses:

And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.

And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!

1 Nephi 1:13-14

As I was reading this, it again seemed a bit of a strange dichotomy. Much of what Lehi reads in his vision is about the judgments coming upon Jerusalem and the forthcoming activity. And Lehi’s response is to rejoice (explicitly so in v.15), and among other things single out God’s mercy (twice in fact, particularly with the mention that he ‘wil[l] not suffer those who come unto [him] that they shall perish’). This seems at first glance a little odd.

Now it’s possible this reaction is to the other stuff he read that isn’t mentioned (the ‘great and marvelous things’), and we know from verse 19 that one of the things he read about is ‘the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world’. But verse 18 also emphasises that the principle subject of the ‘many marvelous things’ shown to Lehi ‘concern[ed] the destruction of Jerusalem’.

I think it’s possible there’s something else also going on here. Lehi’s original encounter with ‘a pillar of fire’ occurred because he was praying ‘in behalf of his people’ (vv.5-6). Now it’s easy to assume that ‘his people’ meant the people at Jerusalem, but I think its possible that this may be a more specific reference. Verse 4 recounts ‘many prophets’ coming to tell the people of Jerusalem, to ‘repent, or the great city of Jerusalem must be destroyed’. And we know, both from the Book of Mormon and the Bible, how such prophets such as Lehi and Jeremiah were received. Jeremiah 26:20-23 is particularly illustrative, where another prophet by the name of Urijah fled to Egypt for safety, but King Jehoiakim (Zedekiah’s brother and predecessor) sent agents after him to retrieve him, and once he was retrieved the king had Urijah killed.

Could Lehi have perhaps been praying on behalf of these prophets and those (like Lehi) who believed on them? If so, it’d make Lehi’s reaction to the forthcoming destruction – seeing it as a form of deliverance for those who were seeking to ‘come unto [him]’ (1 Nephi 1:14) – make much more sense, particularly as it’d be a direct answer to his actual question. Nor would this be the last time in the Book of Mormon that divine judgment on some be seen as providing deliverance for others, with perhaps the clearest association of these two concepts being seen in 1 Nephi 22:16-17 (and perhaps, thinking about it, it is no coincidence that concept comes up in the last chapter of this book if it’s also here in the first chapter).

Minor Notes:

The 2013 edition has changed the type-face, so that the introduction to the book of Nephi is in un-italicized text indicating it’s part of the sacred text, while chapter headings are not. It’s interesting that Nephi feels the need to spoil much of the ‘plot’ of 1 Nephi in advance, further indicating that telling a story is not his primary aim. It is interesting that Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life and Nephi’s own vision, with associated discussions, are not mentioned when they occupy a considerable portion in the centre of the book.

2020 Edit:

Several  things caught my eye while reading today, a couple of which it turns out I hadn’t already commented on above!

A brief thing to note is Nephi’s use of the word abridgment and abridged in verse 17:

But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life.

Mormon famously talks of having abridged the previous records in making most of the book, and I think a lot of people assume from that that his role was more that of an editor, snipping bits out to shorten it, but otherwise leaving the words of Alma, Helaman etc untouched. Which isn’t the case, since careful reading shows that it’s Mormon narrating through most of Words of Mormon to Mormon 7, and he’s usually pretty careful when he introduces a quotation from someone else (like Alma or Helaman). I think this example by Nephi, however, shows what the Book of Mormon means by using this word: it’s quite clear that this passage is in Nephi’s words – he’s writing it – but he’s telling a shortened account of his father’s visions (and may be using his own father’s writings described in verse 16 – which we sadly don’t have a full record of – as a source for said dreams and visions).

The other thing that really popped out at me, and which has done before, comes in verse 1, possibly the most-read verse of the Book of Mormon:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

The line that has caught my eye on more than one occasion is the line about “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days”.

I think this is striking for the balance it strikes between acknowledging trial and suffering on one part, but also confessing the Lord’s hand and his help and aid on the other. I think it’s important to realise we can acknowledge both at the same time. It sometimes seems that some feel that in order to maintain a positive perspective, one must deny when one is suffering, or feeling sad or unhappy, or so forth. The gospel can bring us peace, yes, but “not as the world giveth” (John 14:27). We are not promised permanent happiness, in the sense of an absence of any negative emotions, in this life, no matter how diligently we live the gospel: Christ himself experienced upset, grief, and deep distress (see John 11:35, Luke 19:41, Mark 14:33 and Luke 12:50), while a prophet like Jacob writes of “mourn[ing] out our days” (Jacob 7:26). “Men are, that they might have joy”, but one only learns to experience joy by also learning to experience misery (2 Nephi 2:25, 23). Now it is right to count our blessings, to look for the positive, and not to dwell or trap ourselves in negative emotions and experiences. But we don’t need to deny that we are or have experienced those things in order to do so. As I’ve written before, to deny that we’re going through bad times or feeling bad things when we are strikes me as less than honest. Which is counter-productive, because as Elder Cook has pointed out (quoting Arthur Brooks): “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are’”? Acknowledgement of our afflictions can co-exist with gratitude for divine assistance.

But I also think the dichotomy that Nephi points too goes beyond acknowledging both experiences, but also points to a relationship between those two things. As I’ve indicated in several places before, several years ago I went through a prolonged period of trial and extremely negative feelings. Yet, it’s worth point out that it was during the midst of those trials that I was blessed with some of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. These came as oases in the wilderness, brief moments which when they came blotted out how I was feeling and all I was going through, and which – even if only for a brief moment – filled my soul with peace and joy. Those moments passed, but holding onto those experiences gave me strength to endure when life as it was resumed. I believe that not only were those experiences “previews”, so to speak, of the joy we can and will experience permanently in the eternities, but also came not despite, but because of the trials I was going through. And I believe Nephi is pointing to the same truth: the favour of God came not just as a way of navigating the afflictions he was experiencing, but because of those very afflictions, that the Lord can “consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:2).

Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi

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

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

Deuteronomy and Nephi

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

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

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

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

A final note

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

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

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

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

Revisiting Deuteronomy #2: Laman and Lemuel as supposed ‘Deuteronomists’

Having addressed some overall problems with Neal Rappleye’s article, I find there are also issues with Rappleye’s specific claims in regards to Laman and Lemuel. I address his claims as follows:

Claim 1) Laman and Lemuel and their murmuring was motivated by Lehi’s sacrifice

Rappleye suggests that Laman and Lemuel’s murmuring, which commences in 1 Nephi 2:11-12, was ‘evoked, or at least contributed to’, by a ‘perceived violation of Deuteronomic law’ – namely that Lehi’s sacrifices in 1 Nephi 2:7 violated the centralisation of sacrifice in one place as outlined by Deuteronomy 12. A problem with this argument is that their objections are outlined in 1 Nephi 2:11-12, and sacrifice is not given a place. Rather their big complaint is that they have been led out in the wilderness away from their possessions ‘to die in the wilderness’, because their father is ‘a visionary man’, meaning that they saw him as following ‘the foolish imaginations of his heart’.

Claim 2) Their opposition to ‘a visionary man’ was grounded in Deuteronomistic opposition to visions

Rappleye notes that:

According to Kevin Christensen, the Deuteronomist ideology rejected visions as a means of knowing the Lord’s will, and not only did Lehi receive visions, but some of the content of his visions specifically reflected old beliefs the Deuteronomists were trying to eradicate.

Unfortunately, as an example of some of the issues discussed above, Rappleye just assumes that Christensen is correct about this point. He then argues that:

Both John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper have noted that “visionary man” is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew הזח [sic] (ôzeh). Roper adds that the pejorative usage of “visionary man” by Laman and Lemuel was more than mere ridicule or name-calling — it was actually the strong accusation that he was a false prophet. Deuteronomists would have regarded a prophet like Lehi — who claimed to have seen the divine council and received the mysteries (see 1 Nephi 1:8–14) — as a false prophet. Thus Laman and Lemuel calling their father a “visionary man” would be a direct result of their acceptance of the Deuteronomistic interpretation of what a proper prophet should be. They were declaring that their father, by definition of seeing visions, should not be accepted as a true prophet.

There are severe problems with this argument.

First it should really be noted that in a sense the ‘Deuteronomists’ are imaginary. There is no record of them in the biblical writings. Rather scholars have suggested that Josiah’s reforms were motivated and carried out by a group that they called ‘Deuteronomists’, so-called because it is supposed that the ‘book of the law’ discovered not only was the book of Deuteronomy, but that it was largely written at that time. This is usually attributed to the work of a school rather than a single individual (one might cynically think because scholars seem to imagine the past filled with people much like themselves), hence ‘Deuteronomists’. This school and the book of Deuteronomy are likewise argued to have influenced the aforementioned ‘Deuteronomistic history’, which at the very least is held to have been significantly influenced by if not also part of this reforming programme.

This is an important point, because any views attributed to these ‘Deuteronomists’ is – and has to be due to lack of any other evidence – a reconstruction based on the principle concerns of the book of Deuteronomy and the books of the DH. Any discussion of what the ‘Deuteronomists’ did or did not think then cannot be separated from those books themselves, despite Rappleye’s apparent efforts.

Now the Book of Deuteronomy itself does warn against Prophets or dreamers of dreams who urge the worshipping of other Gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), but it also clearly makes room for true prophets (Deuteronomy 18:15), nor does there seem sufficient evidence that visions per se made one a false prophet.

However, the specific claim that חֹזֵה (spelled incorrectly though transliterated correctly as ôzeh in the article – I suspect the spelling got accidentally inverted when published on the Interpreter website) is to always be taken as a pejorative charge referring to a false prophet seems difficult to square with use of the term in the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ itself. Thus in 1 Samuel 3:1, we find the statement that ‘the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision’, the word used for ‘vision’ here (חָזֹון) being based on the same root as חֹזֵה. As for the term חֹזֵה itself, it finds use in 2 Samuel 24:11, where we learn that ‘the word of the Lord came unto the prophet Gad, David’s seer (חֹזֵה)’. Here it is clearly not being used in any pejorative sense, and certainly not in the meaning of a false prophet. Whatever Laman and Lemuel meant by ‘a visionary man’ (and the example mentioned above seems to smack more of scepticism than pious indignation), it doesn’t seem to match that of the writer(s) of the DH.

Claim 3) Their belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem derived from the ‘Deuteronomists’

In all fairness, there does indeed appear to be a strong link between Laman and Lemuel and Jerusalem. They indeed do not believe Jerusalem can be destroyed (1 Nephi 2:13), assert the righteousness of the people there (1 Nephi 17:22) and are compared to the people there by Nephi (1 Nephi 17:44). My own research into 1 Nephi 20//Isaiah 48 has been likewise suggestive of this link (see v.2, where the textual differences in the Book of Mormon version have those who ‘call themselves of the holy city, but they do not stay themselves on the God of Israel’). And likewise it seems many in Jerusalem believed it was inviolable, so much so that Jeremiah had to contend with false prophets promising deliverance (Jeremiah 28).

The mistake is to attribute this to the ‘Deuteronomists’ or to Josiah’s reforms. A prominent theme both of Deuteronomy and the DH are the blessings and cursings attached to covenantal obedience, including foreshadowing the scattering of Israel (Deuteronomy 28). And if the ‘book of the law’ was indeed Deuteronomy, Josiah’s reaction to rend his clothes is consistent with a message that promises rather the opposite of inviolability (2 Kings 22:11). Claims that ‘in the Deuteronomist history, Josiah “is depicted as a second David” and “touted as the ideal Davidic king”’ fail to spot the rather obvious point that, in the very same ‘Deuteronomistic history’, Josiah’s reward is to be spared seeing the inevitable destruction that is to come upon Jerusalem by dying first (2 Kings 22:16-20, 23:26-27).

Thus neither Deuteronomy nor the DH teach the inviolability of Jerusalem, nor does Josiah react as one who does either. Regrettably what seems to be the case is that Rappleye (and Christensen, as I covered before), simply conflate Josiah’s reign and its reform movement with Josiah’s successors. This is despite the fact that – unlike Josiah – nearly every one of Josiah’s successors including Zedekiah is mentioned as doing ‘evil in the sight of the Lord’ (2 Kings 23:32, 24:9, 24:19 – again in a record supposed to have been composed by the ‘Deuteronomists’). There is no reason to suppose any supporters of Josiah’s reforms were in power or the ‘gatekeepers of Jewish orthodoxy’ as is assumed.

Claim 4) Their attempts to murder Nephi were motivated by the law

With the points addressed above, the idea that Laman and Lemuel’s attempts at murdering their brother were motivated by the belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem and death sentence to false prophets seem to fall short. Lest it need to be addressed, however, 1 Nephi 16:37-38 explains their motivation for at least one attempt, and while they claim Nephi has deceived them by his “cunning arts”, their primary concern is not to strike him down out of some outraged piety but out of the the belief that he will usurp power over them.

Claim 5) Nephi’s allusions to Joseph reflect on the Deuteronomistic antagonism towards wisdom traditions, of which Joseph is supposedly an example.

I believe it to be entirely likely that their are allusions to the story of Joseph in 1 Nephi. The suggestion that the ‘Deuteronomists’ felt some special aversion to him and to ‘wisdom traditions’ is simply asserted by reference to Christensen, without reproducing Christensen’s arguments. I have already briefly addressed some of Christensen’s arguments on this topic, and found these arguments severely flawed.

Claim 6) Laman and Lemuel are ‘Deuteronomists’ because of their ‘veneration’ of the law

Rappleye then makes the startling claim that Laman and Lemuel are to be seen as ‘Deuteronomists’ because of their ‘veneration’ of the law. He makes this claim based on their statement in 1 Nephi 17:22:

And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.

This however is questionable.

Firstly it should be noted that a key objection of theirs is ‘our father hath judged them’, a complaint that should sound rather familiar in the modern age. Whether Laman and Lemuel’s assessment as to righteousness is to be taken as entirely accurate or disinterested, and whether they are really reliable on the question of the law of Moses should be questioned, but particularly so for the fact that they do not rebut their father’s charges against the people of Jerusalem, but complain that he levelled any at all.

Lehi’s charges, for that matter, are rather serious, ‘for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations’ (1 Nephi 1:19). Nor does the Lord’s statement to Jeremiah that the people ‘have forsaken my law which I have set before them’ (Jeremiah 9:13) suggest the people were venerating or obeying the law of Moses. And repeatedly throughout Jeremiah we find specific instances of wickedness and idolatry, including precisely of the sort condemned in Deuteronomy (e.g. Jeremiah 7:17-31, Jeremiah 19:1-5, see Deuteronomy 12:31). The idea that that the people were still swept up in Josiah’s reforms and full of enthusiasm for the law as outlined in Deuteronomy is flatly contradicted by Jeremiah, which records the persistence of idolatry and other violations of that law. This appears to have been ignored because of the conflation of Josiah’s reforms with the reign of his successors; Jeremiah indicates that the reforms didn’t take and were rejected by the people and the wicked kings that followed Josiah, but the proffered paradigm must insist in the face of evidence that somehow the reformers were still in charge, and all the idolatry recorded by Jeremiah (and Ezekiel) had actually been successfully repressed.

Moreover the Book of Mormon itself provides us with scenarios where people claim some sort of adherence to the law, even while violating it. Abinadi was faced with priests who claimed to teach the law of Moses (Mosiah 12:28), but forcibly points out their failure to teach and keep the ten commandments (Mosiah 12:37, 13:25-26). He furthermore appears to distinguish between these ‘commandments’ (12:33, 13:11) and what he terms a  ‘law of performances and ordinances’ intended to keep people ‘in remembrance of God and their duty towards him’ (Mosiah 13:30) that is a type of things to come. Likewise Jeremiah appears to indicate that the people of Jerusalem placed a lot of confidence in their offerings and sacrifices, but had failed to obey the Lord (Jeremiah 7.21-24). This idea, that compunction in ritual sacrifice and ceremonial law could excuse failure to keep the more basic commandments, may well be on the minds of Laman and Lemuel. It is certainly not, however, to be found in Deuteronomy or the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, for indeed as the latter states: ‘Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’ (1 Samuel 15:22).

Assessment of claims

Thus on inspection, each of Rappleye’s points appear lacking. The text of the Book of Mormon does not appear to offer particular support to his claims. Nor, for that matter, does the biblical text support many of the claims made for the supposed ‘Deuteronomists’. The likely beliefs of the reform movement seem misrepresented, as does the situation following the death of Josiah. The latter in particular carries significant implications. Thus, according to the Barker/Christensen paradigm, Josiah’s reforms suppressed idolatry, including offerings to the Queen of Heaven which are supposed to be a genuine (and thus true) part of this ‘Temple theology’. Yet Jeremiah records that idolatry persisted, and has the Lord stating that such idolatry, including offerings to the Queen of Heaven, are part of the very reason for the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 7:19-20, Jeremiah 44:2-9). Arguments that Josiah’s suppression of such offerings in the Temple were purging something genuine risk siding with those men and women who rejected Jeremiah’s words, and argued that they should keep worshipping the Queen of Heaven (Jeremiah 44:15-19), an argument the Lord was not impressed with:

…Hear the word of the Lord, all Judah that are in the land of Egypt:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, saying; Ye and your wives have both spoken with your mouths, and fulfilled with your hand, saying, We will surely perform our vows that we have vowed, to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her: ye will surely accomplish your vows, and surely perform your vows.
Therefore hear ye the word of the Lord, all Judah that dwell in the land of Egypt; Behold, I have sworn by my great name, saith the Lord, that my name shall no more be named in the mouth of any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt, saying, The Lord God liveth.
Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good: and all the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine, until there be an end of them.
(Jeremiah 44:24–27)

Revisiting Deuteronomy #1

There are two subjects that have tended to animate me on this blog. The first is the scriptures: particularly on the ways that Latter-day Saints should approach them. The second is that ideas have consequences, often important ones, and that it is vital to understand the important consequences of ideas and not be distracted by those details that are merely interesting.

This is why, from time to time, I turn my attention to approaches to the scriptures (among Latter-day Saint scholars and members) that seem inconsistent with what the scriptures, and particularly the Book of Mormon, actually teach. An example of this would be the neglect of the Old Testament, something that, as I have shown, sits at odds with the Saviour himself and ancient Prophets say we should be doing, and that deprives us knowledge not only of what that scripture has to teach us, but of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon also. It’s also why I feel the “so what?” question is so vital, both in our study of the scriptures – asking ourselves what we should do in response to what we have just read – and in asking what what accepting certain ideas may inevitably entail.

This is perhaps a necessary prelude as I revisit a topic I covered a few years ago, in response to an article just published on the Interpreter website. Neal Rappleye has just published an article reading Laman and Lemuel as ‘Deuteronomists’, which – as some will remember if I have any readers with long memories – draws upon the argument I addressed here. This was the argument (begun by Margaret Barker, and elaborated on by people such as Kevin Christensen) that Josiah’s reform really represented the suppression of an earlier – and true – ‘temple theology’, suppressing worship of a female consort to the Lord, concepts of visions and revelations and messianic ideas. It further postulates that Lehi, Nephi and prophets such as Jeremiah were, at least in part, in opposition to such reforms and were even persecuted by the architects of said reform, the ‘Deuteronomists’, so named as they are held by biblical studies to have had a hand in composing the book of Deuteronomy (usually identified as ‘the book of the law’ found in the Temple in 2 Kings 22:8-10) and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, namely the books from Joshua to 2 Kings. In doing so, they altered things that passed through their hands to suppress older ideas and bolster their own.

I find severe problems with such ideas, and said so when I last addressed the topic. I believe the historical reconstruction is false, founded as it is on a highly speculative method involving sources in some cases dating over a millennia later (such as the Babylonian Talmud). I believe (and my earlier post aims to show) that it mischaracterises Josiah’s reform movement, as well as the teachings of Deuteronomy. As I likewise aimed to show, I believe it is also inconsistent with what we learn from such sources as Jeremiah, who is misread into supporting practices both he and Josiah opposed. And I believe it is inconsistent with the use in the Book of Mormon of Deuteronomy in particular, as well as (as I briefly address here and here) what the Book of Mormon actually claims happened to the Bible.

However, I also object to what appear to be the inevitable implications of these ideas, and am to some degree astounded that the proponents of such ideas appear to have given so little thought to these implications. That the ‘Queen of Heaven’ was worshipped by ancient Israelites is well known: it’s outright stated in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:17-20), and archaeology appears to confirm this. But the implication of ideas such as those such as Christensen is that such practices were true and valid, despite Lord’s condemnation in Jeremiah (Christensen, as I point out, misreads Jeremiah and fails to recognise this), something that – if true – would have significant implications for LDS practices today, and if false significant consequences for the soul of someone trying to following the idea all the way through. Likewise the apparent attributing of the book of Deuteronomy and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ to a group associated by Christensen with killing prophets, inevitably impugns the scriptural status of books quoted by the Saviour himself.

It’s against this backdrop that I turn to Rappleye’s work, of which I can’t help but be inevitably critical. However, trying to focus primarily on his argument, rather than the background he has assumed, I find the article has several key weaknesses. I outline some general problems with the article below, and then will address problems in his specific arguments in two following posts.

Uncritical use of secondary sources

One rather serious issue with Rappleye’s work – particularly in view of the problems with the whole paradigm at hand – is that Rappleye quite frequently appears to use the mere invocation of secondary sources as proof of the point he is trying to make. Part of this is unavoidable, as the basis of his article is that he is attempting to use ‘the social context surrounding the Deuteronomistic reforms, as reconstructed by Margaret Barker’. However, there is little indication that he recognises that Barker’s ideas are hardly uncontested. The closest (aside from a reference that some scholars regard it ‘as idiosyncratic’) is the following:

The many scholarly attempts at reconstructing the full nature and extent of these reforms often differ in details. Barker laments, “We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No original versions of the actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval that was not forgotten.”

The problem can be seen in the way he passes over the issues over the nature of the reform, to accepting Barker’s rather more specific claims of uncertainty of what Josiah purged and why, implicitly accepting a Barker model of suppressed texts. The problem is clear: were someone to state that it is was unclear who David Richards had attacked, and why, the natural assumption would be that I had attacked somebody. The idea that key texts were purged may well be attractive to Latter-day Saints, but it should be noted, as I have mentioned before, that the Book of Mormon does not have the removal of any plain and precious things from biblical writings until after the scriptures have passed into the hands of the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13:25-28).

When it comes to some of the details, however, of the supposed ‘Deuteronomists’, Rappleye’s tendency to cite other scholars as if that were a conclusive argument is particularly glaring, particularly where it is based on apparent suppositions. Thus Lehi ‘may not have been in complete agreement with Josiah’s reforms’, something which is readily taken as granted based on Brent Gardner’s speculation. Very rapidly in the next paragraph we find that Lehi’s persecutors ‘were likely supporters of the reform’, and that ‘the gate-keepers of Jewish “orthodoxy” just prior to the exile were the Deuteronomists’. Much of this is not argued or demonstrated – rather Rappleye often simply references or quotes Gardner, Christensen, Barker and few others, as if they had conclusively demonstrated their cases. This would be a problem anyway, but it’s particularly a problem here because they have not. And not only is this a far too uncritical a use of these secondary sources, but it leads to supposition being built on supposition. The argument rapidly resembles an intellectual house of cards. I’m not opposed to speculation per se, so long as it is clearly labelled as such when resting on such slender threads. But this heaping of speculation upon speculation seems unwise when the conclusions reached appear to carry such significant consequences.