Deuteronomy again…

The interpreter has published yet another article which bases its arguments on the supposed Deuteronomists and their supposed apostasies. In one respect I give this paper credit: it acknowledges that the very scholarly opinion that argues for the existence of said Deuteronomists also depicts them as the authors of that book (as that opinion has to, as the portrayed content of the Deueronomists views is entirely reconstructed from their supposed works). Unfortunately the author seems to embrace that to the very extent that I’ve previously warned of, speaking of the “Deuteronomists’ mists of monist darkness”, as this being “the Greater Apostasy that served as the essential foundation for the later Great Apostasy”, that the rejection of Christ “would have pleased Josiah” (any comments on how strongly I word this should note the severity of the judgment this paper flings at those safely dead), and in a reply to a comment characterises the book of Deuteronomy as inaugurating a tradition that will reject Christ, and which provided the basis for Laman, Lemuel and Sherem to oppose and seek to kill the prophets.

One would hardly believe, from this argument, that Deuteronomy was the biblical book Jesus quoted more than any other than the Psalms (including in a rebuttal against the devil himself (Deuteronomy 6:13, 16, 8:3 in Matthew 4:4, 7, 10 & Luke 4:4, 8, 12). Nor that Nephi would quote Deuteronomy as scripture.

I object strongly to these arguments, as I’ve done before. I object to what appears to be significant mischaracterisation and distortion of the teachings of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history. I object what appears to be extremely esoteric and unfounded readings of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob, particularly when they make the rather astounding claim that such esoteric readings are restoring “plainness” in contrast to those “looking beyond the mark” (I would suggest this is in danger of being opposite the truth). I object to the characterisation of those who engaged in idolatrous worship as somehow defending the “plainness” of gospel, as in footnote 42, which approvingly cites Margaret Barker who quotes Jeremiah 44:15-19 as an example of those who claim that not worshipping the “queen of heaven” lead to the fall of Jerusalem. The author (and Christensen, who made the same argument) fails to note that these people are rebuked by no less than Jeremiah “because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which ye have committed”, namely their idolatry (see vv. 3, 5, 8, 23 and 25, including specifically for burning incense and making offerings “to the queen of heaven”); to follow the author’s argument, Jeremiah is now taking the “greater apostasy”‘s part (and since Lehi and Nephi accept Jeremiah as a prophet, this perspective collapses under its own contradictions).

Moreover, I object to the way this argument keeps building upon the assumptions made in prior papers and treating said assumptions as proved fact, while flat out ignoring any critiques; what in fact provoked me to try to comment on the piece was the statement that “That the Deuteronomist reform is the Greater Apostasy is an overdetermined fact”, when the very existence of the Deuteronomists is conjectural, let alone the misreading that places them in charge in post-Josiah Jerusalem. I objected to Rappleye’s earlier argument because he took claims by Christensen as absolute: this people now it turn take’s Rappleye’s claims as similarly proven fact. I’ve written a number of posts making critiques of both Christensen and Rappleye’s arguments, but these papers never at any time pause to respond to these issues, or even suggest that they’ve read any counterarguments (I’m a fairly obscure figure, but I’m not the only one to criticise this approach). I’ve even responded to the woeful reading of Jeremiah 44 multiple times, and yet it keeps being raised as evidence in a way that suggests not only have they not read any critique against their use , but they haven’t read the rest of Jeremiah 44 either. Lest you think I’m being harsh, think of the number of figures the Bible depicts as being inspired that these arguments insist are apostate, prophet-murdering, Christ deniers.

Furthermore, it seems quite apparent that at least some of the motivation behind these arguments on the part of some is an effort to justify worship of “Mother in Heaven”. Hence the author’s claim that:

Even “Latter-day Saints are still too reliant upon the assumptions, the implications, and especially the language that generations of well- intentioned but misguided theologians and Reformers alike introduced into the domain of religious thought.”93 It thus remains an open question whether members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ are culturally prepared to fully emerge from the mists of darkness, ignore the inevitable mocking that would ensue from various great and spacious buildings, and more openly and consistently speak of their Mother in Heaven as Lehi and Nephi seem to have done.

Set aside the fact that Lehi and Nephi do not “openly and consistently speak” of any Mother in Heaven, though they can hardly have done so when any mention can only “revealed” when decoded via the sort of esoteric readings engaged in here. More is the fact that the arguments are raised to push a change in worship, a practice those arguing for appear themselves to align with those Jeremiah and other prophets condemned as idolaters, and indeed what appears to be in contravention not only of ancient, but also modern scripture:

And [God] gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship.

(Doctrine & Covenants 20:19).

Do “the mists of darkness” permeate the Doctrine and Covenants now too? And who does the author depict as the “great and spacious buildings” that would object, when the world at large would applaud such a move? I imagine those in favour of these arguments would object to any denigration of their faithfulness, yet they impugn ancient inspired figures, describe a book that Jesus himself used as scripture as part of the satanically inspired mists of darkness (and thus logically should be rejected!), and implicitly suggest that those who oppose their argument are aligned with the “great and spacious building” that is “the pride of the world”, all in an attempt to push a change to worship that they favour.

In all in all it is rather dispiriting that this approach seems so favoured by the journal that aims to be faithful and to defend Church teachings. They rightly push back against those who criticise and try to de-canonise the Book of Mormon in an attempt to change the teachings of the Church, but this approach does the same thing to other parts of scripture, and does so with assumption piled on assumption and esoteric readings that go far beyond the “plainness” it purports to support. It’s not even coherent: any attempt to throw Deuteronomy under the bus is liable to take the Book of Mormon with it.

For reference’s sake, these are my previous criticisms of the modern day anti-Deuteronomists.

“Defending Deuteronomy” – My criticism of an article by Kevin Christensen

“Revisiting Deuteronomy #1” – Part 1 of my critique of Rappleye’s article, focusing particularly on uncritical use of secondary sources.

“Revisiting Deuteronomy #2: Laman and Lemuel as supposed Deuteronomists” – Part 2, criticising the argument that Laman and Lemuel were Deuteronomists.

“Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi” – Part 3, addressing the use of Deuteronomy by Lehi and Nephi.

I attempted to comment on the article itself (well, in response to one of the author’s replies), but it may have been eaten by the Interpreter’s auto-moderation (Edit: it did get through), so I reproduce it here, though it does overlap with some of what I have said above:

Comment:

That the Deuteronomist reform is the Greater Apostasy is an overdetermined fact.

I don’t know if it’s possible to object to this statement any more strongly. Previous papers along these lines appear to rest upon a whole set of assumptions, which in turn seem to rest on what I regard as rather fallacious interpretations of the so-called Deuteronomists and Josiah’s reforms. Later papers then seem to take these assumptions as proven. There’s seems to have been little attempt to engage or even argue against criticisms of this theory, for all of its significant implications.

Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob all condemn the views of the Jews then living in Jerusalem. The city is on the verge of total destruction, a pretty good sign that it has taken a wrong turn with Josiah’s reform.

Except that, according to both Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah (and Ezekiel), the reforms of Josiah didn’t stick. Indeed, a great error of the people following was their worship of idols, including Asherah (for instance, Jeremiah 17:2). This is just an exhibit of the problem: this approach seems to gloss over the entire Josiah/post-Josiah situation, and assume the whole era is an exhibit of the reforms, when the texts read quite differently.

Each man is given a book, Josiah receiving from Shaphan the scribe a book many scholars think was written by Hilkiah the High Priest, a book that centralizes power in the hands of king and high priest, a book that comes from man and that will be interpreted by scribes in the rabbinic religion that this reform inaugurates, a religious tradition that will reject Christ, God with God, when he comes to them 600 years later.

“[M]any scholars” also think that book is Deuteronomy, a book that Nephi will explicitly quote (and indeed, quote a Messianic prophecy from). In fairness to you, it appears you appreciate this.

Was Deuteronomy canonized incorrectly? Deuteronomy contains much truth. Hilkiah is probably not its only author if its author at all… We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated/transmitted correctly. Deuteronomy like other parts of the Bible would seem to contain a mixture of much true and some false doctrine.

On one hand I commend the embrace of the implications of this argument (Christensen and Rappleye appear to have resisted this, at least in part because they did not realise that the “Deuteronomists” were conceived as the very authors of the work). On the other, this illustrates precisely the outcome that I said would be the conclusion of this approach.

Yet Nephi accepts the book of Deuteronomy as authoritative scripture. He quotes from it, he describes the plates of brass as containing the *five* books of Moses, and furthermore the vision he describes of the loss of plain and precious things from the Bible in 1 Nephi 13 does not fit what is proposed here: Nephi is told that “many plain and precious things [are] taken away from the book” (1 Nephi 13:28) – not that false teachings would be substituted in – and that these writings “go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God” (1 Nephi 13:25): that is this process post-dates Nephi and the transmission of these writings (which include both OT and NT material) to the Gentiles.

But in chapter 13, it also provides mandates Laman, Lemuel, and Sherem—Deuteronomists all–follow as they oppose and seek to kill the prophets who preach the Gospel of Christ.

This is precisely issue I’m talking about: previous arguments become assumptions and then become “overdetermined fact[s]”. Rappleye argued that Laman and Lemuel were Deuteronomists, as you indicate in your main article, to which you clearly agree. But here it’s quite clear you regard it as almost incontrovertible. Yet Rappleye hardly proved his case (I argue against it in the 2nd part of a 3 part blog article here [the links above] ).

I expressed myself in quite strong terms here (although I believe still civilly), but I believe these are serious issues with huge implications. This article refers to “the Deuteronomists’ mists of monist darkness”, implicitly characterising the teachings of the book – a book that *the Saviour* quoted often as scripture – as part of the “temptations of the devil” said mists are interpreted as in 1 Nephi 12:17. Such an argument is already using severe terms for someone. Moreover, it seems to garb its argument as a restoration of “plainness”, when it is reading Lehi, Nephi and Jacob in a frankly esoteric way.

Edit & follow-up comment:

To his credit, the author of the article (Val Larsen) responded in the comments section of the above article; I invite anyone interested to read and consider his reply.

As I see it, there are in a sense several further issues:

1) Any data that contradicts the anti-Deuteronomistic perspective – such as accounts of Manasseh’s idolatries and those of Josiah’s successors, or the condemnation Jeremiah issued of worship of the “Queen of Heaven” (and the other idols associated with her, it shouldn’t be forgotten), or for that matter when Isaiah condemns earlier idol worship amongst the Israelites, and so on – tends to be explained as the results of the Deuteronomists tampering with scripture, altering things to justify their position. The author takes that approach in his reply. The problem with this approach is that it essentially “rigs” the argument in advance: any evidence in the Old Testament against their argument gets dismissed as tampering, anything that might be read as supportive gets accepted. The criteria for what has and what has not been tampered with becomes the degree to which a given passage suits the preexisting idea, allowing proponents to pick and choose evidence, and deny possible criteria for falsification. There’s obvious problems with this approach, not least the which is that it risks being incoherent: the argument that said “Deuteronomists” even existed rests, after all, on a reading of the very same documents.

2) Said “tampering” also relies upon generalities, especially since there is, it appears to me, still a desire to have one’s cake and eat it, to not completely ditch Deuteronomy, the DH, Jeremiah and the rest of the Old Testament. As long as it’s kept to vague generalities, such a position may be plausible. It seems less so when one becomes specific: just considering Jeremiah 44 alone, for instance, what must be taken out in order to make it read as an endorsement of “Queen of Heaven” worship. Most of the chapter must apparently be culled or dismissed as spurious, but then what does the remainder even say: those trying to justify themselves to Jeremiah are left speaking in a vacuum.

3) There’s little sense here that the Old Testament can even serve as a “standard work” here, when large parts are to be freely dismissed when they contradict a preexisting idea. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Book of Mormon not only claims to be true itself, but depicts one of its key aims as supporting the truth of the biblical writings (see 1 Nephi 13:40, Mormon 7:9, and compare with the similar statement in the Doctrine and Covenants in D&C 20:11). Furthermore, this issue gets to the heart of how we define scripture. Scripture can’t simply be writings we think are partly, or even mostly, or even completely true (this is not an argument about inerrancy): there’s plenty of writings I consider to be true but not scripture. I’ve written about this topic before, and to summarise from that post and particularly how the Book of Mormon describes scripture, scriptural status describes something about the innate qualities of the work, including that it is true, but also that it is objectively inspired (i.e. not just inspirational or true, but the result in some way of communication from God), and I’d add authoritative (i.e. that it is not just private revelation, but intended to be binding upon its audience). There is little sense, in the anti-Deuteronomistic arguments, of how this status could be regarded as being true of much of the Old Testament (especially since – and it should not be forgotten – that the biblical scholars who proposed the existence of the Deuteronomists did so to propose the authors of Deuteronomy).

4) One issue that seems to slip through the net is the depiction of the ideology of the Deuteronomists (and implicitly that of Deuteronomy & the Deuteronomistic history, since said ideology is a reconstruction from those writings). I recognise that Larsen and Rappleye rely to a fair degree of the depiction that Christensen derives from Barker. But I do not think Christensen or Barker’s depictions are accurate or fair. I also think there are problems with Barker’s research: her depiction relies upon writings that post-date the period by centuries, in some cases by over a millennium. For that matter, it’s also worth pointing out that the religious situation before Josiah’s reforms was not static or stable. Indeed, the OT depiction is that of cycles of idolatry and apostasy, the sort of depiction that should be familiar to readers of the Book of Mormon.

5) Again to his credit, Val Larsen admits that he takes another guiding principle as normative, namely what he terms “Joseph’s mature theology”, especially as it pertains to the idea of a heavenly mother. But there’s problems with such an approach: the content of Joseph Smith’s “mature theology” is debated, constructed and reconstructed as it is from sometimes differing accounts of sermons, private addresses and so on (not all of which are consistent). The extent to which these should be given priority over actual revelation and scripture is questionable, particularly when it’s not always clear what was meant (it’s certainly not the Church’s approach to doctrine today). Much is inferred from other teachings, or based on second-hand sources from followers. This is particularly true when it comes to the matter of a “heavenly mother”, where there’s little direct record of Joseph teaching explicitly about the subject, and even the second-hand mentions are little more than brief references. This certainly suggests it wasn’t the overarching priority of the restoration. Furthermore, this “mature theology” is also tied up with the issue of polygamy, with at least some of Joseph’s followers (such as Parley P. Pratt) taking this idea of “heavenly mother” in directions that modern advocates presumably do not want to follow.

Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.

The Complexity of the Book of Mormon

During the most recent General Conference, Elder Ted R. Callister (General Sunday School President) spoke about the Book of Mormon, and particularly about its complexity as evidence for its inspiration. All too often, however, I see assertions of the opposite, that almost anyone with some basic familiarity with the Bible or an open copy of the King James version could write it. I came across many such claims during the writing of my thesis, and just the other week found a similar statement in a “Concise Oxford Dictionary of Religions” I came across in a charity shop (namely that the book’s authenticity was doubted because of its “reminisces of the King James version”; I didn’t check at the time, but would be intrigued to know if the contributors had felt the need to make similar statements in regards to other faiths).

These statements typically take the form of sweeping generalizations, with little evidence because few of those making such comments seem to have taken the trouble to examine the book itself closely. In contrast, one very clear finding throughout my thesis was just how exceptionally complex the Book of Mormon’s use of biblical material actually was, far more complex than I’d suggest most actual readers pick up. Furthermore, again and again I found evidence that the authors of the Book of Mormon would have needed to be far more familiar with biblical material than the critics claimed. One example from Chapter 3:

Nephi then proceeds to place a condition upon the fulfilment of this covenant:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

At first glance this appears to be a simple assertion, a claim that this ‘marvelous work’ is to be accomplished by a display of divine power. However, what this misses is that the two halves of this verse are not connected simply by assertion, but by a chain of associated passages:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

Yea, and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord, saith the prophet; every nation, kindred, tongue and people shall be blessed.

(1 Nephi 19:17)

The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

(Isaiah 52:10; bold, italicised, and underlined text marks linked passages.)

Thus the reference to the blessing of ‘all the kindreds of the earth’ not only refers to the just quoted covenant with Abraham, but also alludes to the second half of 1 Nephi 19:17, attributed as a quotation of the non-biblical prophet Zenos. In turn, the first clause of 1 Nephi 19:17, ‘and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord’, corresponds to the second part of Isaiah 52:10 (not quoted here, but quoted four times – twice explicitly – elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 12:24, Mosiah 15:31, 3 Nephi 16:20 and 20:35). Finally, returning to 1 Nephi 22:10, we find the first half of Isaiah 52:10 supplying the final phrase of the verse.[1] This is extremely unlikely to be coincidental; instead it appears that the various stages by which the author linked these phrases together in 1 Nephi 22:10 have been left out, leaving only the conclusion.

[1]     Grant Hardy appears to have noticed the same connection, see Hardy, Reader’s Edition, p. 58, footnotes f and g.

As I then point out a little further down:

As noted in chapter two, one particular suggestion has been offered to explain this connection: that Joseph Smith had access to a King James Bible in front of him to assist him. While such suggestions face difficulties from eyewitness statements to the dictation process, this idea has been advanced by both critics and believers in different forms.[1] Thus Wesley Walters, holding that Joseph Smith was the actual author, argues that Joseph Smith must have had ‘his KJV Bible open in front of him’, the only alternative being memorization.[2] Sidney Sperry, on the other hand, while regarding Joseph Smith as a translator, has also argued for the possibility that a Bible was used for help in translating when Joseph Smith came across passages that were recognisably from the Bible and when the KJV was considered adequate.[3]

Yet the above example, and others like it, of the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible present such suggestions with substantial logical problems. While the idea of working directly from an ‘open’ Bible might suffice for explicit quotations, it is a less adequate explanation for the situation above in which phrases are interwoven into the text and associated by an unwritten chain in which the intervening steps are omitted.[4] Any author would need substantially more familiarity than Wesley Walters’ scenario appears to grant (that is ‘enough to scatter biblical phrases freely’).[5] Likewise any translator attempting to use the KJV as a mundane aid to fill the gaps of any translation would need extensive biblical awareness simply to find the chain of relevant texts. There are historical reasons such scriptural fluency on the part of Joseph Smith has not been assumed.[6] A range of historical and theological possibilities could be suggested that do not require Joseph Smith to have this biblical familiarity; the book itself claims to be interpreted ‘by the gift of God’ (title page). What is clear, however, is that an open Bible alone is insufficient to explain the evident familiarity with the biblical text and the close connection the Book of Mormon has with the KJV.

[1]     All eyewitness statements to the dictation process deny the presence of other texts. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 132; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 70; Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, pp. 30–32.

[2]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 36.

[3]     Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 135; Sperry, ‘The text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon’, pp. 80–81.

[4]     Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 67–68.

[5]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 13.

[6]     For instance, Emma Smith’s report that at one point during the dictation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith expressed concern as to whether Jerusalem had walls. John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, ‘Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith’, Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. by Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 210; See also Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 13.

Obviously, like Elder Callister, I’d attribute this complexity and familiarity with the biblical text not to Joseph Smith, or any other 19th century figure, but to far older figures and ultimately divine inspiration. However, what is clear are that repeated claims that the Book of Mormon simply copies the Bible, and that anyone with an open Bible could have written it, are simply not true.


More examples of this complexity, and much else, can be found in my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, which is available as a free PDF from this site, or may be obtained in paperback or in kindle format (including from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here).

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

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

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

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

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 10-11

The first Monday omnibus edition!:

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.

As for 2 Nephi 11:

And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him.

And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words.

(2 Nephi 11:2-3)

I’m not entirely sure why these verses have hung on me today. There’s lots that can be found in them, of course, such as this concept of Nephi, Isaiah and Jacob acting as three witnesses of Christ. Likewise in the concept that God will both send more witnesses and vindicate his words. But what I think most sticks out to me at this time is the power of scripture, to both convince and act as evidence for other of God’s words. It’s very easy when writing about scripture to hung up on one’s own words, but really it’s the scripture itself that has the most power.

2 Nephi 4

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

(2 Nephi 4:15)

I don’t think any commentary is necessary on this verse.

I can’t say I like the title “the Psalm of Nephi” that some people have given the latter part of this chapter (though I can’t think of any rational objections). But the chapter itself contains many passages in which my soul “delighteth” or that my heart “pondereth”:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

(2 Nephi 4:17-19)

O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

(2 Nephi 4:26-30)

2020 Edit:

This chapter covers the last of Lehi’s address to his household (principally a blessing upon the children of Laman and Lemuel that – if they and their descendants are led astray by Laman and Lemuel’s rebellions – they will in the end be blessed. There’s also this interesting blessing to Sam in verse 11:

And after he had made an end of speaking unto them, he spake unto Sam, saying: Blessed art thou, and thy seed; for thou shalt inherit the land like unto thy brother Nephi. And thy seed shall be numbered with his seed; and thou shalt be even like unto thy brother, and thy seed like unto his seed; and thou shalt be blessed in all thy days.

Now the statement that Sam’s “seed shall be numbered with [Nephi’s] seed” could simply be referring to their being counted part of the wider “Nephites”, according to the later ideological definition that Jacob appears to introduce for the first time in Jacob 1:14. But I’ve seen some people suggest this might be more specific than that, and I think they may have a point. One peculiarity is that when the different groups based on the brothers are enumerated, there’s a whole bunch: Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites and Ishmaelites. That’s the list as in Jacob 1:13, and in 4 Nephi 1:36-37 and in Mormon 1:8 too, so it’s consistent over the whole history. Notice what’s missing: there’s no “Samites”, a rather startling but consistent omission.

Now there has been some speculation that Nephi himself did not have any sons. I’ll get into that a bit when discussing 2 Nephi 5, but he never refers to or addresses any sons, and he passes the small plates onto his brother Jacob, while for a political successor “he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings”, who subsequently are “called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth”, the wording of which doesn’t seem to suggest kinship (Jacob 1:9, 11). He does appear, however, to have descendants (Mormon 1:4-5).

This has led some to suggest that perhaps Nephi’s children were all daughters, so that Nephi had no son to act as a political or religious successor. A suggestion I’ve seen that pulls on all the above then suggests that perhaps these daughters then intermarried with Sam’s sons. In which case Nephi’s and Sam’s descendants literally became one group and were counted as such, but said group appear to have adopted Nephi’s name, thus explaining the absence of any “Samites”.

There’s a brief passage that recounts Lehi’s death, and the beginnings of what will prove to be the final rift between the brothers, before we turn to the oft-labelled “Psalm of Nephi”. As I mention above, I don’t particularly like that title, although I’m not certain why and can certainly see some commonalities between it and many of the passages in the book of Psalms. It’s an interesting passage because Nephi appears to let the overall impression of his stoic optimism and unflagging obedience waver somewhat: he expresses guilt and sorrow over his sins (vv. 17-19), and refers to feelings of anger because of his enemies [enemy singular in verse 27, plural in verse 29). Nevertheless he recounts how God has supported, led, and protected him, and blessed him with angelic ministration and visions (vv. 20-25), and thus expresses resolution to “no longer droop in sin”, to not give way to temptations nor give place for anger nor to “slacken my strength because of my afflictions” (vv. 26-30). The passage then ends with his appeal to God to redeem him, to deliver him from his enemies and from sin and so on, and expresses his trust in God (vv. 31-35). He appears to be concerned with the individual struggle against weakness and sin we all face, but also with some rather specific enemies (I think undoubtedly his brothers, in view of 2 Nephi 5:1: “I, Nephi, did cry much unto the Lord my God, because of the anger of my brethren”).

One verse leading up to this “Psalm” which I quote above gets my attention again:

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

Some of these elements will be familiar in any discussion about how we can better appreciate and understand the message of the scriptures: delighting in them, and pondering them and so forth. But there’s also the emphasis he puts not just on reading them but also on writing them, which I guess isn’t something that always comes up in these discussions. Perhaps recording the scriptures in which we delight or take particular interest or ponder over should be a key part of our own practice. To some degree, it’s this sort of example that’s prompted this very exercise on my blog.

2 Nephi 1

And ye have murmured because he hath been plain unto you. Ye say that he hath used sharpness; ye say that he hath been angry with you; but behold, his sharpness was the sharpness of the power of the word of God, which was in him; and that which ye call anger was the truth, according to that which is in God, which he could not restrain, manifesting boldly concerning your iniquities.

And it must needs be that the power of God must be with him, even unto his commanding you that ye must obey. But behold, it was not he, but it was the Spirit of the Lord which was in him, which opened his mouth to utterance that he could not shut it.

2 Nephi 1:26-27

It’s interesting that Laman and Lemuel had apparently been claiming that Nephi had been angry with them; for those keeping count, 1 Nephi records Laman and Lemuel getting angry with Nephi some 7 times (and doubtless there were more instances than recorded) and while Nephi later does allude to feeling some similar feelings in reverse (2 Nephi 4:27), he’s not the one making semi-regular murder attempts. Projection is a very real thing, in many areas (as a rather bizarre online conversation recently demonstrated to me).

We can, of course, be both Laman and Nephi. Sometimes we have to receive the word of God in sharpness and correction, to which we should respond not with anger but with a penitent heart. And then sometimes we’re called upon by the spirit to say something, in which case we’d better be sure we’re listening to the spirit and not any anger or pride of our own.

2020 Edit:

It’s not entirely clear why 1 Nephi ends and 2 Nephi begins at this point, as verse 1 here implies that Lehi’s address here follows Nephi’s conversation with his brothers:

And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them, how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem.

In fact it’s not clear why there’s a 1st book and a 2nd book of Nephi at all, although they do differ in degree in their contents: the 1st book contains the narrative of their journey to the promised land, with all that happens along the way, while the 2nd book has very little narrative, consisting mostly of Lehi’s last address here, Jacob’s sermon in 2 Nephi 6-10, the quotation of Isaiah 2-14 in 2 Nephi 12-24, and then Nephi directly addressing the reader in speaking of the last days and the restoration of Israel, quoting Isaiah (again), and then speaking of the gospel of Christ. So perhaps the division is partly on those grounds, but then it might be seen as funny that the break seems to take place partway through the same scene. But on the other hand, perhaps it is the fact that this is Lehi’s last address that is the significant marker; the book of Mosiah likewise begins with a last address by the previous reader (King Benjamin in Mosiah 2-5), so this wouldn’t be the only example of that.

This chapter includes Lehi’s address to Nephi’s brothers (including Sam & the sons of Ishmael, v. 28), as well as a portion for Zoram in vv. 30-32. Chapter 2 is directed towards Jacob, and chapter 3 towards Joseph, and then in chapter 4 he addresses his grandchildren by Laman & Lemuel, and then the sons of Ishmael again and “all his household”, and some last words for Sam (v. 11). Just thinking about this, it’s interesting we don’t have anything that Lehi directly addressed to Nephi. Did he not say anything to him? Or did he, and Nephi has chosen not to relay it to us? It’s a point to ponder (although there’s no way to answer it at present).

Most of the comments towards the brothers, of course, are an exhortation to change their ways and a warning if they do not change. My attention was drawn, however, to the first topic he apparently raised with them (from verse 1 again): “how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem”. This isn’t really the first or only time this sort of topic is brought up in the Book of Mormon: in 1 Nephi 1 we saw Nephi’s acknowledgement of what God had done for him, and exhortations towards gratitude and our indebtedness to God are common in the rest of the book (Mosiah 2 being a good example). But I found that interesting to see that be the first thing Lehi turned to in addressing his wayward sons, suggesting that a recognition of what God has done for us is a vital early step in keeping ourselves on the straight and narrow.

And while I can’t think of much to comment on it, the centre of Lehi’s address is worth quoting for its rhetorical strength, a last appeal in the face of the one certain event we face in this life, but one which perhaps helps us to realise and awaken to those things which are truly important (2 Nephi 1:13-15):

O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.

Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.

But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.

 

1 Nephi 17

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

1 Nephi 17:31

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis 45:5, 7

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

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

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

Edit 2020:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Nephi 11

And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?

And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.

1 Nephi 11:2-3

And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.

1 Nephi 11:10-11

The beginning of Nephi’s vision again has lots that could be said about it – including possibly a rather singular episode where the Holy Ghost personally turns up (the Book of Mormon usage of Spirit of the Lord – and Nephi’s reaction for that matter – suggest this may be the Holy Ghost as opposed to the pre-incarnate Christ as in Ether 3). Yet one striking question I feel is one asked by the Spirit twice of Nephi: ‘what desirest thou?’

It is Nephi’s answers to these questions that dictate the course of his vision. So much seems to hinge on what we really want, and how badly we want it. It seems to my mind a key component of receiving a testimony or revelation, which in my experience (personal and observed) does not appear to come in response to idle curiosity. We’re told that ultimately God gives us ‘according to [our] desire[s]’ (Alma 29:4), for good and for bad (‘unto salvation or unto destruction’). And so much of our course in life appears to be governed by our desires, and the extent to which we’ve been able to refine and purify them.

2020 Edit:

I could say this about virtually every chapter, but if one were seeking to pick out everything of significance, one might never actually finish. What we pick out on any given read through seems to depend almost as much on where we are rather than simply what the text says, even setting aside the way the Holy Ghost can use the text to communicate things beyond the text. Confining myself to just a couple of items, however:

Firstly, I think it significant that as part of his vision, Nephi is caught away “into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot” (v. 1). Putting aside the general association of mountains with visionary experiences & temple imagery (think Moses, the Mount of Transfiguration, the Brother of Jared etc), it’s that point about how this was a mountain that Nephi had never seen before and never set foot upon before that catches my eye. This vision, after all, seems to come as a new “peak” (pun half-intended?) to Nephi’s spiritual life, an experience which in it’s spiritual and emotional intensity dwarfs any he has had before, a spiritual “high” (I believe it’s no coincidence we use these sorts of phrases) that he hasn’t had before now.

Secondly, there’s the question posed by “the Spirit of the Lord”. It’s unclear who is meant precisely by this: if it were the Lord himself in his pre-incarnate state, as with the Brother of Jared, presumably he’d be referred to a bit differently than simply as “the Spirit”, as in vv. 2, 4, 6, 8 & 9, and it’d seem strange for “the Spirit” to voice verse 6 as his does. Which might suggest this is an exceptionally rare *visual* appearance by the Holy Ghost, which would be rather singular, although possible. I think most readers (including the likes of Talmage and George Q. Cannon) have gone with the second option, which I also lean towards, but there’s room for interpretation.

In any case, however, I find the question posed in verse 4 interesting: “Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?” It’s interesting on one hand that such questions, whether involving heavenly messengers or deity himself, often seem to involve such questions, even though presumably the answers are already known. There seems to be some power in openly confessing belief in such things. The second is that on many occasions, and especially here, that belief or faith serves as a gateway for greater knowledge. I think it’s customary for us to often think of faith and knowledge to be antithetical to some degree, but when one looks at this experience and ones like it, faith seems to serve more as the gateway to knowledge, one which must be tested or confessed to be unlocked.

Thirdly, during his vision of the ministry of the Saviour, Nephi notes in verse 32:

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying (bold is my emphasis):

Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

This tallies with a line in 2 Nephi 9:5, where Jacob teaches that (again my emphasis):

Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.

It seems here to suggest that there is an aspect to the atonement of Christ we have yet to fully grasp or appreciate, that one of the axes upon which it works is that Christ voluntarily submitted himself to human authority, “to become subject unto man in the flesh” and be “judged of the world”, and that was in order “that all men might become subject to him”. There seems to be a connection, that because Christ yielded to our authority, we become answerable to his, and because Christ submitted to the world’s judgment, we in turn become rightly subject to his.