Parsing Nephi: First Nephi I (1 Nephi 1-5)

Here’s the introduction to this series, and here’s the first entry.

Nephi is now starting his second historical record on plates, the first being his transcription/abridgment of his father’s record along with his own historical additions: the “Book of Lehi”, lost with the first 116 pages of manuscript, along with the first few chapters of Mosiah. He’s trying to set the record straight, as he sees it, because his brothers are determined to kill him and take over (or wipe out) his people.

In doing so, he touches upon almost every major issues between him and his older brothers all within the space of his first chapter.

His own qualifications

First, Nephi establishes his parentage, education, standing before God, and personal witness of the record — in short, his bona fides. In fact, I am struck by the parallels with what Nephi does at the start of his first chapter and what I do as an expert witness in my written reports, laying out my qualifications for being accepted as an expert and for trusting in what I am about to write.

Also, Laman and Lemuel may well be illiterate or, at least, unable to read the language of the brass plates (cf. Mosiah 1:3-4) . Literacy was not common in 600 BC, and while Lehi and Nephi can both read the brass plates, Nephi has to read the brass plates out loud for his brothers. Hence, Nephi touts his education and literacy at the start of his first chapter.

In short, Nephi is saying, “Here’s why you should trust what I have to say over what Laman and Lemuel are saying.”

Lehi’s calling as a true prophet of God

Laman and Lemuel thought their father was a loon: preaching in the streets, dragging his family out into the wilderness, leaving their riches and property behind, putting them through eight years of desert travels and travails, and then doing this trans-oceanic voyage that moved them irrevocably far away from their homeland. They went so far as to suggest killing Lehi (and Nephi) and heading back to Jerusalem at one point, a rather shocking deed in a patriarchal society.

Nephi, by contrast, portrays his father as a true prophet in Mosaic (pillar of fire, exodus into the desert), Enochian (ascension vision with book), and Jeremaic (preaching in the streets of Jerusalem) terms, all in a short space.  The threat of potential martyrdom merely adds to Lehi’s credibility.

Nephi, the believing and obedient son, to receive the primogeniture leadership birthright

Nephi gains his own personal testimony of his father’s calling, and helps Sam to believe as well, even as Laman and Lemuel being their long history of rebellion against Lehi. As a result, God bears witness to Nephi (later confirmed in this same chapter by an angel) that Nephi will receive the rights of patriarchal leadership rather than Laman or Lemuel, his older brothers. However, Nephi does record the accompanying warning that Laman and Lemuel’s seed will “be a scourge unto thy seed” if his seed is not obedient to God, a prophecy that Nephi recounts as beginning to be fulfilled even before he starts this record.

Nephi as the rightful heir of the brass plates and Laban’s sword; the beginning of his prophetic role

Nephi recounts the trek back to Jerusalem for the brass plates at length, showing that he (unlike his brethren) is willing to follow God’s instructions through Lehi (His prophet). He then goes on to show that — after his brothers failed — he was the one who succeeded in gaining both the brass plates and Laban’s sword. Likewise, Nephi is saved by an angel and guided by the Spirit in accomplishing that, demonstrating the start of his own role as a prophet.

Repeated confirmation of Lehi’s status as a prophet (and Nephi’s status as the obedient son and future prophet)

Nephi ends his first chapter by showing that Lehi was truly inspired and acting under God’s direction in sending his sons back for the brass plates, while Laman and Lemuel were wrong for murmuring and rebelling. Even Sariah, who had murmured while her sons were gone, repents and confirms Lehi’s prophetic status. Nephi gives a brief summary of the plates’ contents, indicating all the prophesies, history, and commandments that he (at the time of his writing) now has but his brothers don’t. He then ends his chapter as he began it (post-introduction) — with Lehi prophesying — but with this pointed comment:

And it came to pass that thus far I and my father had kept the commandments wherewith the Lord had commanded us.

So, Nephi is just one chapter into his “reign and ministry” personal history, and he has already touched upon just about every major difference between him and his older brothers, including why he deserves to have the brass plates and Laban’s sword, and why he is his father’s heir, both temporally and spiritually.

It’s important to remember in all this that Nephi has already had visions of the eventual fall and destruction of his own seed, so he is certainly writing this with that in mind. But I think he has a more personal rationale in mind as well (recognizing that the Lord commanded him to do these other plates in the first place).  As I’ll note towards the end of this series, Nephi’s self-justification ultimately turns into self-recrimination, and his history abruptly ends.

Next post: First Nephi II (1 Nephi 6-9).