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 work: 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 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 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.

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’.

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.

1 Nephi 10

And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the Messiah who should come—I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men.

For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him.

For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.

Therefore remember, O man, for all thy doings thou shalt be brought into judgment.

1 Nephi 10:17-20

As my thoughts touch on these verses, I wonder if this is simultaneously one of the greatest blessings and greatest responsibilities of the gospel. God, the omnipotent creator of the universe, who gives life and light to all things, is willing to reveal himself to us. And while he may speak especially to chosen prophets and so on, he is willing to reveal himself by means of the Holy Ghost to “all those who diligently seek him”, no matter when or where they live. Each of us, however lowly, may be brought into supernatural communication with our creator.

At the same time, because that opportunity is available, we are accountable for whether we seek it or not. If we truly seek it ‘diligently’ (and from scripture and experience, I believe that must be a full-hearted and not a superficial effort – see James 1:6-7 and the conditions in Moroni 10:3-5), we will in time have that blessing. But if we choose not to seek it, or to seek it with sufficient diligence and faithfulness, we shall ‘be brought into judgment’.

1 Nephi 7

Several parts of this chapter caught my attention today, setting aside the amusing fact that Laman and Lemuel seemed to have far fewer problems with this trip back to Jerusalem, or more seriously the considerable faith Ishmael must have had to believe these ragamuffins from the desert and to take his entire family out into the wilderness with them.

Anyhoo, two bits in particular:

Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.

1 Nephi 7:12

I feel there’s so much in just this short verse – not just the Lord’s capacity to do anything for us (though ‘according to his will’), but the crucial connection that we somehow seem to miss despite the obvious connection of the words between having faith and being faithful. We show and exercise our faith in God by being loyal to him.

But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.

And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.

1 Nephi 7:17-18

Deliverance can be a funny thing. Sometimes we try to save ourselves by our own efforts, and that often fails. Sometimes God gives us the power to do things beyond our own capacity, and we then do them, much as Nephi prays for here when he asks for the strength to burst his bonds. But in this case, God didn’t actually give him what he asked for: he went one better and freed Nephi by loosing the bands himself. Sometimes God has a better deliverance for us, and sometimes He will simply deliver us by His own power.

1 Nephi 6

Wherefore, the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God and unto those who are not of the world.

1 Nephi 6:5

I think it can be easy when writing anything to want people to read and to like your work, and very easy to think you are writing in vain if people don’t like it. While I am not sure one should aim to be disliked (that’s just another version of catering to the world’s tastes, after all), I think Nephi’s statement here points out that in writing – or in anything, particularly the use of our talents – it is the approval of God that we should most seek, and that is often at odds with worldly popularity and acclaim.

1 Nephi 4

Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

1 Nephi 4:13

There’s lots that could be said about this chapter and Nephi’s killing of Laban. As Elder Holland has pointed out, the fact that this is so near the beginning of the Book of Mormon (as opposed to sandwiched somewhere between 2 Nephi’s Isaiah quotations) suggests that we’re meant to confront this issue early on. It should definitely shape how we read 1 Nephi 3:7 which Elder Holland suggests we sometimes recite all too “casually”.

But I find my mind caught on 1 Nephi 4:13, part of the Spirit’s explanation to Nephi. Because these words are very reminiscent of words found elsewhere:

And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,

Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.

John 11:49-50

While this is by no means an exact quotation, it’s close both in wording (“one man”, “perish”, “nation”) and similar in concept. Which may be a wee bit troubling when we know it’s Caiaphas saying this, about Jesus.

Some people might make a historical issue about this, but as we shall see in 1 Nephi 10 Lehi’s going to openly and explicitly quote someone hundreds of years in the future, God and the Spirit not being bound by such petty things as time. The who and about whom might be more troubling to us. Certainly Caiaphas’ example shows we should be extremely careful about such reasoning. But I do not think this close parallel is portraying Laban as Christ (considering the Book of Mormon’s high Christology – including its aim to convince not just that “Jesus is the Christ” but also that he is “the Eternal God”), or Nephi as Caiaphas.

However, when it comes to Caiaphas, what John says next is very interesting:

And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;

And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.

John 11:51-52

John doesn’t treat Caiaphas words as invalid or merely his own words – John actually treats it as an actual and true prophecy. But while Caiaphas, by virtue of his office, could be the receptacle for such a prophecy, he also could not understand or intend their true meaning (presumably in part due to his wickedness, in contrast to the likes of John and Nephi), and so he conspired against the Christ. The words were true – it is Caiaphas’ intent and actions that are a different matter: “for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7).

1 Nephi 3

And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.

And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.

But Laman fled out of his presence, and told the things which Laban had done, unto us. And we began to be exceedingly sorrowful, and my brethren were about to return unto my father in the wilderness.

1 Nephi 3:11-14 (my emphasis)

Casting lots is portrayed as an acceptable way of determining decision and even ascertaining the divine will in the scriptures (perhaps most notably in determining Judas replacement in Acts 1:26, but it can be found from the Old Testament to the Doctrine and Covenants). So we might find it surprising here, but it isn’t really.

What it got me think of, however, is that while from our perspective it certainly seems no coincidence that the lot fell upon Laman, and that Laman’s failure (and Nephi’s with the loss of their property in vv.22-26) are but the prelude to what happens in chapter four, from their perspective it may have been very disheartening. They’d made the attempt, and perhaps felt they’d secured divine guidance on the matter (and we’d probably concur), so why on earth had they failed? How could it have gone wrong? Thus all of them – including Nephi – “began to be exceedingly sorrowful”. It was difficult to see from their perspective that they might well have been rightly guided, but that this earlier failure might fit into God’s plan.