Category Archives: Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 22:7: “a mighty nation” = the Spanish Empire?


Listening to the Book of Mormon on my iPhone while driving the other day, the following passage came up:

And it meaneth that the time cometh that after all the house of Israel have been scattered and confounded, that the Lord God will raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles, yea, even upon the face of this land; and by them shall our seed be scattered. (1 Nephi 22:7)

Now, here in the States, we Mormons hear “a mighty nation among the Gentiles” and start chanting “USA! USA!” But I don’t think Nephi is referring to the US at all. I think in this particular passage he is referring instead to the Spanish Empire. Here’s why:

  • The US really didn’t become a “mighty nation” until the late 19th or early 20th Century. Spain, on the other hand, established a global empire pretty much coinciding with the discovery (by Spain) of North and South America at the end of the 15th Century, and it remained a mighty nation well into the 19th Century.
  • Spain conquered and claimed half of North America, all of Central America, and most of South America, in the process killing, enslaving, and scattering many of the native American inhabitants. The US, at the time of publication of the Book of Mormon, occupied less than half of its current extent and really hadn’t done much “scattering” of native Americans compared to what Spain had done for the previous 240 years.
  • For that matter, much of the “scattering” of native Americans that happened in the eastern half of the United States happened under British rule (see “British Territory” on the map above), before the US was founded.
  • And, somewhat redundantly, the US never occupied Mesoamerica, which is where Book of Mormon events most likely occurred.

I’m certain this isn’t a novel thought, and I suspect that Latter-day Saints in Latin America have always assumed that 1 Nephi 22:7 referred to Spain; it would be obvious to them. Some might point to the phrase “raise up…upon the face of this land” as meaning the mighty nation has to originate in the Americas, but I don’t know that this carries a lot of weight. What made the Spanish Empire mighty was not the resources within the borders of Spain over in Europe, it was the tremendous wealth and resources that Spain extracted from the Americas. After all, if you saw the map below (Spanish Empire in 1800) without knowing any historical geography, would you assume that the Empire in red sprang from the small red area near the middle of the map, as opposed to the massive red areas near the left side of the map? Food for thought.


Shades of Zarahemla

Over the past several years, I have been struck by something each time I read King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah 2-6 to the combined Mulekites[1] and Nephites. Benjamin begins his speech with a long list of negatives, that is, things that he has not done during his reign as king. These include (Mosiah 2:10-16):

  • causing the people to fear him
  • presenting himself as “more than a mortal man”
  • seeking gold, silver, or “any manner of riches” from the people
  • confining them in dungeons
  • allowing them to make slaves of one another
  • allowing them to murder, plunder, steal, and commit adultery
  • levying taxes upon them
  • boasting of his own accomplishments
  • accusing the people of their own alleged failings.

Let’s look at the context of these comments. Benjamin’s father, Mosiah1, led the Nephites who would follow him out of the land of Nephi and ultimately into the land of Zarahemla, which was already occupied by the Mulekites and ruled over by a man named Zarahemla. There were only about half as many Nephites as there were Mulekites, and the two groups did not share a common language, yet Mosiah1 was made ruler over the combined people, and we hear no more about Zarahemla (though one of his descendants, Ammon, leads the group that goes to the land of Lehi-Nephi to see what happened to Zeniff’s party).

I have come to wonder if Benjamin, in preparing to extend his family’s dynasty by proclaiming his son Mosiah2 as the third successive Nephite king over the combined factions (in which the Nephites were still a minority), was drawing a contrast between how he (and presumably his father) had ruled vs. how the Mulekite kings (or, at least, Zarahemla) had ruled. After all, if neither Benjamin nor Mosiah1 had done any of these things — the rule of these two kings covering a period of what appears to be at least a few decades — why would Benjamin have felt compelled to start off his address with these reminders? So I think that Benjamin was reminding the combined people, and the Mulekites in particular, how much better things were under the Nephite kings than their previous ruler(s).

One could reasonably argue that Benjamin was instead drawing a contrast between himself and whomever was ruling over the Nephites in the land of (Lehi-)Nephi up until the time when Mosiah1 led a faction of the Nephites away from there over to Zarahemla, and that could well be true. But that comparison would have no real meaning for the Mulekites, who made up roughly 2/3rds of the population, while the Nephite portion of the population were all individuals (or descendants thereof) who had chosen to follow Mosiah1 away from those rulers.

Instead, I believe that the contrast — if that was in fact what Benjamin was doing — was with the prior Mulekite regime. In other words, I think the list above was a not-so-subtle reminder from Benjamin of how things had been for the Mulekites prior to Mosiah1‘s arrival and how they might be again if Mosiah2‘s coronation is not accepted.

If this does reflect how things were under Mulekite rule, it helps explain why the Mulekites, or a sufficiently large segment thereof, were willing to have Mosiah1 — accompanied by a smaller group of foreign people speaking a foreign tongue and practicing a foreign religion — show up and rule over them, without any apparent military conquest.

It also explains, or at least provides context for, the subsequent problems and wars over the next 160 years. Most of those problems/wars are caused by “Nephite dissenters” (many of whom I suspect are Mulekites) who work and fight constantly to (re)establish an authoritarian and self-indulgent kingship, in contrast to the Christ-like reign of the Mosiah1 lineage, followed by the reign of the judges. In other words, Benjamin may well have been warning the people, Mulekites and Nephites combined, against the temptation of such a regime. And it will be his successor, Mosiah2, who will abolish the Nephite kingship entirely, in part I believe in reaction to Alma and Limhi leading their respective groups into Zarahemla and telling the tale of King Noah — but likely also due to the “king men” faction present in the Mulekite/Nephite population.

[1] The term “Mulekites,” of course, never appears in the Book of Mormon text itself, but it is useful shorthand for “the people living in Zarahemla (and relevant outlying regions) at the time Mosiah and his Nephite followers happened upon them .”

Royal Skousen lectures on the Book of Mormon [UPDATED]

UPDATE [2/13]: I received word from Dr. Skousen tonight that attendance at the lectures may be quite high due to large numbers of BYU students attending. He strongly recommends that you arrive no later than 6:30 pm. Frankly, I’d recommend 6 pm and bring a good book (or an iPad).


Yes, yes, I know, I haven’t posted much here in ages. I burned out a bit on blogging last year, but I may be starting up again.

In the meantime, Royal Skousen — and if you don’t know who he is, you should — is giving a series of lectures on the Book of Mormon, based on his work of over two decades in creating a critical text for the Book of Mormon. The lectures are on the topic “25 Years of Research: What We Have Learned about the Book of Mormon Text”, and here’s the schedule (covering three successive Tuesday evenings):

  • February 26: The Original and Printer’s Manuscripts
  • March 5: The Printed Editions
  • March 12: The Nature of the Original Text

All three lectures are being held at the Gordon B. Hinckley Center on the campus of Brigham Young University; they are free and open to the public. I actually hope to make the first lecture myself, since business will have me in Utah that week. As someone who has read most of what Skousen has published to date on the Book of Mormon critical text project, I highly recommend these lectures.  ..bruce..


The Book of Mormon and elections: a brief observation

First, let’s start by acknowledging that the ‘reign of the judges’ described in the Book of Mormon bears almost no resemblance to a constitutional democracy or republic. There is no separation of powers, the office of chief judge (or governor, as it is sometimes called) is most often passed from father to son, the office of chief judge does not require periodic re-election and changes only when the chief judge dies or resigns, and so on. The “voice of the people” only appears to come into play in certain circumstances:

  • choosing lower or lesser judges (cf. Mosiah 29:39; note that this process is only mentioned once, at the initial selection of lesser judges);
  • when there are multiple replacement candidates for the dead/retiring chief judge (cf. Helaman 1:1-5)
  • the occasional national referendum, such as whether to change the form of government back to a monarchy (cf. Alma 2:7), or deciding whether and where to allow the people of Ammon (Anti-Nephi-Lehis) to settle in Nephite territory (cf. Alma 27:21-22).
  • ratification of the chief captain over the Nephite armies (see Alma 46:34) and granting him broad powers (cf. Alma 51:15-16).

Nothing terribly new here; this has all been discussed many times by better scholars. But here’s my point: how often in all this — or, for that matter, through the entire Book of Mormon history — does God intervene to ensure that a particular leader is chosen?

Answer: never.

To be a touch more accurate, there are a few instances when God chooses a leader — Lehi, Nephi, Mosiah1 — but those are in critical (and rare) circumstances where people must choose to follow that leader physically out of the current civilization and into wilderness. There are no cases where God Himself takes a hand in changing who ends up being the leader in a ‘voice of the people’ setting, or even in a monarchy; remember that Mosiah2 dissolved the monarchy precisely because of the risk of ending up with a ‘wicked king’, as happened with Zeniff’s son and successor, Noah (cf. Mosiah 29:16-25).

One of the dominant themes of the Book of Mormon is agency and its consequences, and that is applied to government as well, whether it be monarchy or judgeship. We are accountable for the government (and leaders) we choose and the results thereof; we cannot attribute the outcome to the Lord, only to ourselves.

Something to remember, whatever the results of tomorrow’s election here in the United States.  ..bruce..




Sun Tzu and the Book of Mormon

Nope, not talking about looking for application of Sun Tzu’s military maxims in the Book of Mormon — though that would be an interesting post as a follow-up to my one about Alexander the Great, and I may well write it. Instead, I’m talking about translation.

I am currently working on a revised and update version of a book I wrote nearly 20 years ago, The Art of ‘Ware (AoW). This is a reinterpretation of Sun Tzu’s classic work, The Art of War (Suntzu pingfa), as applied to developing and marketing technology. While I did study Mandarin some in college, my Chinese skills are very weak and minor at best, so I wrote my book by reading several different English translations, gaining the general idea that was being put forth, then coming up with how that applied to IT development and marketing.

Since I wrote the first edition, a new set of Suntzu pingfa translations have come out based a manuscript discovered in 1972 in Linyi, China, that predates known manuscripts by nearly a thousand years (think of it as the Dead Sea Scrolls equivalent of Suntzu pingfa). So in preparing my new edition, I am working with several newer English translations all based on the Linyi text. I have a spreadsheet that I’m creating with a separate worksheet for each of the 13 chapters. In the far left column is a bare bones “literal” transcription of the actual Chinese (a bit like a Greek or Hebrew interlinear translation), then successive columns contain the formal translations from six different sources (five individual authors and one “group” translation).

Chinese is a terse, logographic language that relies heavily upon context and very little upon inflection, conjugation and punctuation. What has been striking (though not surprising) is how differently each of the authors can translate the same Chinese text. Some translators try to keep their translations brief and in the same thought and even word order (when possible) as the Chinese text, while others feel free to rearrange the order of thoughts and elements to encompass the overall concepts. Often, the translators do not agree as to where a given thought ends and the next one starts, since there is little in the way of ‘punctuation’ in the Chinese text itself to guide them. And in some cases, they come up with exactly opposite meanings. Thus, in chapter 5 of Suntzu pingfa, we have the maxim “Disorder birth to rule”. While most of the translators render this as “Disorder is born from order”, one translator reverses that, rendering it as “Chaos gives birth to control.”

Nothing new, exciting, or original here, except that while working on my spreadsheet this afternoon, I started thinking of the on-going debate about “tight” vs. “loose” translation of the Book of Mormon. The “reformed Egyptian” (as Moroni called it) used on the golden plates was apparently terse; it is unclear whether it was alphabetic, syllabic, and/or logographic; and it certainly seemed to lack punctuation.

So, the underlying question is: how many different (valid) ways could there have been of translating the urtext on the plates — not just in particular word choices, but in order and connection of thoughts? By all historical accounts, Joseph was clearly receiving the translation by inspiration — leaving aside the fact that he didn’t read the Nephites’ language, his translation appears to have been entirely via the interpreters and the seer stone.

I don’t think this advances anything about the loose vs. tight debate, but it does help to keep in mind how many possible valid translations of the plates — differing not just in vocabulary and language but in actual thoughts — there could have been. Ambiguity and subtlety is a feature of many if not most languages.  ..bruce..

Parsing Nephi: First Nephi VI (1 Nephi 19:22 – 21:26) and VII (1 Nephi 22)

This is one of a series of posts examining apparent chapter divisions within the original Book of Mormon manuscript as they apply to Nephi’s writing — here is the introduction and here is the previous post. (The entire list can be found here.)

Longer Book of Mormon quotes here, as for the entire series, are taken from The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Royal Skousen, ed.), though links will be to the modern version.

Chapters VI and VII: Nephi Explains It All

Chapter V in Nephi’s first book on the small plates ends with the successful arrival of Lehi’s party in the promised land, Nephi’s commandment from the Lord to make the first (large) set of plates, and Nephi’s admonition “unto all the house of Israel, if it should so be that they should obtain these [plates].”

That would seem to be a good place to end the first book and start the second one — new land, new book — but Nephi adds two more chapters, bringing the total up to seven, a doubly-significant number: not just because of the perfection and completeness of the number “7” in Jewish symbolism, but because (and possibly for the same symbolic reason) Lehi’s descendants will be divided into seven tribes throughout the history of the Book of Mormon.

That the division into seven chapters may have been deliberate is strengthened by the fact that these two chapters could just have easily been one. In them, Nephi reads a portion of Isaiah (chapters 48 and 49) to his brothers, then expounds upon these chapters to his brothers. But before he does that, he gives an introduction that contains what is likely the second-most quoted statement by Nephi (after 1 Nephi 3:7):

Now it came to pass that I Nephi did teach my brethren these things.
And it came to pass that I did read many things to them
which were engraven upon the plates of brass,
that they might know concerning the doings of the Lord
in other lands among people of old.
And I did read many things unto them which were in the books of Moses.
But that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer,
wherefore I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah;
for I did liken all scriptures unto us,
that it might be for our profit and learning.

With that, Nephi then copies the indicated passage of Isaiah onto the plates, then writes down his own exposition (to his brothers) of that passage onto the plates as well; his closing remarks include the following:

Wherefore, my brethren, I would that ye should consider
that the things which have been written upon the plates of brass are true,
and they testify that a man must be obedient to the commandments of God.
Wherefore ye need not suppose that I and my father are the only ones
which have testified and also taught them.
Wherefore if ye shall be obedient to the commandments and endure to the end,
ye shall be saved at the last day.
And thus it is.

Nephi introduces for the first time (in the record we have, at least) the phrase “endure to the end”, a phrase that appears repeatedly throughout the Book of Mormon (Moroni2 quotes it near the end of his own book, a thousand years later), and which Latter-day Saints have adopted as the “fifth” principle and ordinance of the Gospel (cf. here).

Here, though, there is a personal poignancy to its use. Nephi is writing upon these plates after he and those who followed him are forced to flee into the wilderness yet again, not just dividing Lehi’s family but dealing with the threat of having his older brothers “come upon us and destroy us“.

S. Kent Brown, specifically addressing the issue of Nephi including two chapters of Isaiah within First Nephi[1], feels that — beyond Nephi’s attempt to show fulfillment of prophecy — it also was of emotional comfort to Nephi in the light of just how difficult the journey to the promised land was, the sense of being vastly removed from all they knew and loved back at Jerusalem, and the irreparable damage done to Lehi’s family structure.

With these two chapters, Nephi finishes his first book on the small plates, tracing his history — in parallel to his father Lehi’s — from Jerusalem to the shores of the promised land. He likewise traces his own personal arc from the youngest brother (at the time) to a true prophet and potential leader over this group of exiles. But he knows things are going to take a turn for the worse — he is writing all this after the flight from Laman and Lemuel — and he saves that for his next book.

Next post: Second Nephi, title and introduction.   ..bruce..

[1] “What is Isaiah Doing in First Nephi? Or, How Did Lehi’s Family Fare so Far From Home”, Chapter 2, From Jerusalem to Zarahemla, S. Kent Brown, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, 1998.


Original Book of Mormon manuscript chapter divisions vs. the King James Bible

[Update at end of post][Plus additional notes made re: Second Nephi V and Mosiah VII and VIII]

While working on the “Parsing Nephi” series, which is an analysis of the chapter structure of the original Book of Mormon manuscripts (scribal and printer), based on Royal Skousen’s work on the Book of Mormon critical text, I was struck by the organization of extended or parallel quotations from the Old and New Testament within the Book of Mormon text.

Nephi quotes two chapters of Isaiah in First Nephi. In Second Nephi, Jacob quotes two chapters of Isaiah (with the first two verses from a third), after which Nephi quotes thirteen more chapters of Isaiah, then later gives an interpretive reading of yet another one. Similarly, when the Savior appears to the Nephites after His resurrection, He gives a sermon that closely parallels the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7, then later quotes one chapter out of Isaiah and two chapters out of Malachi.

Critics (and even some supporters) of the Book of Mormon often claim that Joseph Smith simply copied (or read out loud to his scribes) chapters from the King James Version into the Book of Mormon manuscript. However, there is no historical or physical manuscript evidence of that happening (all credible historical evidence is, in fact, to the contrary); beyond that, there are meaningful textual variants from the KJV[1] in most of the chapters quoted.

(As a side note, critics also like to characterize this inclusion as “wholesale copying” of “large sections of the Bible”. In truth, it’s only 25 chapters out of nearly 1,200 chapters in the Bible, and 20 of those chapters are from a single book: Isaiah.)

In the modern (1879 and later) LDS editions of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon chapter divisions always correspond on a one-to-one basis to the King James Version chapter divisions (with the exception of tacking Isaiah 52:1-2 onto the end of Isaiah 51). This admittedly does lend itself to the appearance of direct copying.

However, in the original and printer manuscripts (and the first edition) of the Book of Mormon, it is never the case that any single chapter from the KJV corresponds to a single chapter within the Book of Mormon. Thus we have:

  • First Nephi VI: Introductory text, followed by Isaiah 48 & 49
  • Second Nephi V: The first part of Jacob’s sermon (which includes a cite from Isaiah 49:23), followed by Isaiah 49:24 through 52:2 (note that this does not even  follow the KJV chapter divisions)
  • Second Nephi VIII: Nephi’s wrap-up of Jacob’s sermon, followed by Isaiah 2 through 5
  • Second Nephi IX: Isaiah 6 through 12
  • Second Nephi X: Isaiah 13 and 14
  • Second Nephi XI: Nephi’s prophecies of the gathering of Israel at the last days, followed by an interpretive reading of Isaiah 29
  • Second Nephi XII: More of Nephi’s prophecies of the last days, with a repeated quotation of Isaiah 11:4-9
  • Mosiah VII: King Noah begins his reign; Abinidi preaches before King Noah and his priests — the priests ask a question about Isaiah 52:7-10;  Abinidi, in turns, asks them about the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; also see Deuteronomy 5:6-14).
  • Mosiah VIII: Abinidi continues to preach before King Noah and his priests — after stating how the Law of Moses is a type and shadow of the Messiah, he quotes Isaiah 53, then expounds on the Messiah at length
  • Third Nephi V: The Savior appears to the people at Bountiful and begins — after a series of interactions with the people — the Sermon at the Temple, corresponding to Matthew 5 through 6:24
  • Third Nephi VI: The Sermon at the Temple continues, corresponding to Matthew 6:25 through Matthew 7
  • Third Nephi X: The Savior talks about His efforts to establish His Gospel among the Gentiles at the last day; He quotes Isaiah 54; and then He chides the people for the things they have failed to record in their own scriptures.
  • Third Nephi XI: A brief introductory verse (3 Nephi 23:14); Malachi 3 and 4 (with more introductory text appended to the start of Malachi 3); and a follow-up description of the Savior expounding the scriptures (3 Nephi 26:1-5).

In sum, the chapter divisions within the original Book of Mormon manuscripts and the 1830 edition provide no support for simple dictation from the King James Version and, if anything, argue against it.

UPDATE [same day]: I couldn’t believe that I was the first person to make this observation, so I dropped a note to Royal Skousen, asking for prior references. He graciously replied and pointed me to his own article, “Textual Variants in the Isaiah Quotations in the Book of Mormon”, found on pages 369-390 of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon (Perry & Welch, eds., FARMS, 1998).  Specifically, his “Third Finding” on pages 378-379 is that “The original Book of Mormon chapter divisions of the Isaiah quotations follow a larger thematic grouping, not the interruptive chapter system found in the King James Bible.” He makes the same general observations and has a table that corresponds to the bullet list above for First and Second Nephi.

[1] “Isaiah in the Bible and the Book of Mormon”, John A. Tvedtnes, FARMS Review: Volume – 16, Issue – 2 (2004), Pages: 161-72.

Parsing Nephi: First Nephi V (1 Nephi 16 – 19:21)

This is one of a series of posts examining apparent chapter divisions within the original Book of Mormon manuscript as they apply to Nephi’s writing — here is the introduction and here is the previous post. (The entire list can be found here.)

Longer Book of Mormon quotes here, as for the entire series, are taken from The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Royal Skousen, ed.), though links will be to the modern version.

As mentioned previously, Nephi makes a couple of references about these (small) plates discussing his “reign and ministry”. Last week, we saw what appeared to be the start of Nephi’s ministry; this week, we’ll see the start of Nephi’s reign, though perhaps a more modest “reign” than we might imagine. I’ll note here that while Nephi says he is writing about his “reign”, he seem very uncomfortable with the title of “king” (cf. 2 Nephi 5:18), probably because of his readings in the brass plates (cf. 1 Samuel 8:4-9).

Chapter V: The 2nd Exodus, with Nephi As Moses

First Nephi IV was a relatively short chapter, both in length and in chronology, most of which was about Nephi acting as a prophet and spiritual leader to his brothers, largely in the space of two conversations. By contrast, First Nephi V is quite a long chapter. It covers nearly eight years of time and most of their journey, from the time that Lehi’s party leaves their first camp in the valley of Lemuel until they arrive in the Americas. It comprises a series of set pieces underscoring Nephi’s growing leadership of this group, as his brothers rebel and even his father falters, both spiritually and physically.

More than anything else, Chapter V is about Nephi  setting forth parallels with the story of Moses leading Israel across water and through wilderness to the promised land, with Nephi largely in the role of Moses. This is, of course, a long-established observation about Nephi’s writings, and one that has been covered repeatedly by better and more knowledgeable scholars than I. What is interesting, though, is to see how much of this is packed into a single chapter, namely this one.

One of the earliest and best articles on the parallels between Nephi’s account and the Exodus led by Moses out of Egypt is “Nephi and the Exodus” by Terrence L. Szink, printed in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Sorenson & Thorne (eds.), Deseret Book/FARMS, 1991, pp. 38-51). After noting Nephi’s frequent overt references to Moses and the Exodus, Szink draws the following parallels in Nephi’s own account — all of which, by the way, appear in Chapter V (the titles are Szink’s):

  • “The Voice of Murmuring in the Wildnerness”: not just the act of murmuring itself, but also that a specific instance was tied to lack of food, which was subsequently provided with divine help.
  • “Reasonable Fears and Foolish Desires”: the respective wandering groups fearing death in the wilderness and wishing to return to their prior lives — even though it meant slavery in Egypt and death or captivity back in Jerusalem.
  • “The Liahona and the Serpent”: in both cases, a bronze object that yielded miraculous results, yet that at times was ignored “because of the simpleness of the way” of using it.
  • “Lead, Kindly Light”: the stricture that the Lord would lead them through the wilderness; in Nephi’s case, with the Lord explicitly saying, “I will also be your light in the wilderness and will prepare the way before you.”
  • “High on a Mountaintop”: Moses ascending Sinai, and Nephi ascending the mountain at Bountiful, both times to receive divine instructions on leading their respective parties, and in particular detailed instructions on constructing a physical object (the ship and the Tabernacle) that would be essential to the group’s on-going progress.
  • “Nephi’s Powerful Sermon”: both Nephi and Moses coming down from the mountaintop encounter with God with great power, such that the members of their respective parties feared to approach them.
  • “Two Parties, Too Wild”: the celebrations and orgies surrounding the golden calf, and the dancing and singing “with much rudeness” on board the ship, with the threat of divine destruction and death following each.

Finally, here are a few additional thoughts of my own.

Appearance of a Divine Artifact Containing Commandments from God

The brass ball, or compass, is the third of three tangible objects (the others being Laban’s sword and the brass plates) that will be a source of contention between the Nephites and Lamanites and that likely will lead to the Lamanite traditions of the Nephites being robbers (cf. Alma 20:13). Unlike the first two, however, it was not taken from Jerusalem but miraculously appears outside Lehi’s tent and marks the start of the rest of the journey. Indeed, it appears that it was essential for that journey and may well have come in answer to Lehi’s prayer as to where to go next.

While Tzink rightly compares the brass ball to the brazen serpent, I think there is also a valid comparison to be made between the ball and the stone tablets containing the Decalogue. Both have miraculous writing direct from God, though that on the ball changes “from time to time” (1 Nephi 16:29). And in both cases, the artifact travels with the party and remains as a memorial of the time in the wilderness.

Over the course of Chapter V, three usages of the ball document an apparent transfer of authority from Lehi to Nephi:

  • At first, Lehi (by implication) is using it to find “whither we should go in the wilderness.”
  • When the food crisis hits, and even Lehi murmurs, Nephi asks his father to seek guidance from the Lord; part of that comes via the ball, and Nephi follows those directions to find food.
  • On the ocean voyage, when Nephi is bound, the compass “did cease to work”; Lehi, by implication, is unable to make it work, though it sounds as though Lehi may have been incapacitated by a combination of old age and seasickness. It is only after Nephi is freed that the compass once again works.

The big difference, of course, is that the ball — unlike the stone tablets containing the Decalogue — is not gained by ascent to a mountain where God’s presence resides; instead, it appears outside Lehi’s tent one morning. However, that in itself is still miraculous, since the ball was “of curious workmanship” and “of fine brass”, and yet there were no facilities for making such a device there in the wilderness; note that when Nephi breaks his steel bow, he is forced to craft a new one from wood. It is not until Lehi’s party reaches Bountiful several years later that Nephi is able to find and refine some iron ore for tools.

Prolonged Wandering in the Wilderness

One of the most pointed asides in all of scripture is found at the start of Deuteronomy (emphasis mine):

(There are eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea.)

And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spake unto the children of Israel, according unto all that the Lord had given him in commandment unto them

The point being, of course, that it took the Israelites 40 years to cover a distance that could be traveled in a few weeks. In much the same way, Nephi follows the story of rebellion and threatened patricide — even though followed by divine intervention and repentance — with a terse account of long and difficult wanderings in the wilderness:

And it came to pass that we did again take our journey [from Nahom] in the wilderness.
And we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth.
And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness,
and our women bare children in the wilderness.
And so great was the blessing of the Lord upon us
that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness,
our women did give plenty of suck for the children and were strong,
yea, even like unto the men.
And they began to bear their journeyings without murmuring.

And we did sojourn for the space of many years,
yea, even eight years in the wilderness.

Just as Deuteronomy notes that it’s only an eleven-day journey from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea, an examination of a map shows that the distance from the apparent location of Nahom to any of the proposed locations for Bountiful is on the order of 700 miles (with the total trip from Jerusalem to Bountiful being on the order of 2000 miles). Even at a modest 8 to 10 miles/day, that’s only about three months’ worth of travel to cover 700 miles, yet it took Lehi and his party something approaching eight (8) years to make it to Bountiful (Nephi’s comment above leaves it unclear as to whether the “eight years” is the time from leaving Jerusalem, from leaving the valley of Lemuel, or from leaving Nahom).

Nephi documents one case in this chapter when, while crossing the “great waters”, the ball stops working due to Laman and Lemuel’s rebellion. But there were apparently other times during the entire journey when the ball stopped working; as Alma2 says to his son Helaman1:

Nevertheless, because those miracles were worked by small means
— nevertheless it did shew unto them marvelous works —
they were slothful and forgat to exercise their faith and diligence.
And then those marvelous works ceased,
and they did not progress in their journey.
Therefore they tarried in the wilderness,
or did not travel a direct course,
and were afflicted with hunger and thirst because of their transgression.

It could be that Alma2 is referring to the “broken bow” incident that Nephi chronicles in this chapter, but he seems to be describing something more significant than that. My suspicion is that the (lost) book of Lehi contained a lot more details about the journey to Bountiful, particularly from Nahom to Bountiful. As noted above, Nephi covers that part of the trip in just a few lines.

S. Kent Brown makes a credible argument that Lehi and his party may have passed much of that time in servitude to a local tribe somewhere in that wilderness in exchange for food and/or protection.[1] If that is the case, then Nephi may have avoided discussing that directly, since it would undermine the Exodus parallels to have Lehi’s party going into slavery (as it were) rather than escaping from it.

Arrival in the Promised Land After Crossing Water, with Promised Blessings and Cursings

While Tzink notes the parallels between Moses parting the Red/Reed Sea and Nephi leading his family over the intervening ocean via ship, I believe there is another parallel as well, namely that of the children of Israel crossing the Jordan River into the promised land. In both cases, the Lord promises blessings to those who keep His commandments and cursings to the point of destruction for those who do not.

Nephi concludes this chapter by recounting the making of the ‘large’ plates, as well as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Messiah — the same future “prophet” that Moses spoke of. He ends with his own testimony of the scriptures, including those which he himself has now written:

And I Nephi have written these things unto my people
that perhaps I might persuade them
that they would remember the Lord their Redeemer.
Wherefore I speak unto all the house of Israel,
if it so be that they should obtain these things.
For behold, I have workings in the spirit which doth weary me,
even that all my joints are weak,
for they which are at Jerusalem.
For had not the Lord been merciful
to shew unto me concerning them
even as he had prophets of old —
for he surely did shew unto prophets of old all things concerning them.
And also he did shew unto many concerning us;
wherefore it must needs bet hat we know concerning them,
for they are written upon the plates of brass.

Next post: Nephi starts quoting Isaiah.

[1] “Sojourn, Dwell, and Stay: Terms of Servitude”, Chapter 4 in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla, S. Kent Brown (Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1998).

Musings on the Book of Mormon

Since the Book of Mormon is the topic of study this year, I thought I would list here Book of Mormon-related posts I’ve made over the past four+ years, in hopes that some find them useful in studies or teaching. Some of these posts — specifically, the “Parsing Nephi” and “Book of Mormon REPO Atlas” — represent works in progress (though in the latter case, something I haven’t worked on for a few years; got to get back to that).

I will add links as I continue to write Book of Mormon-related posts and have created a separate page for this as well. I also reserve the right to go back and edit the posts, both for grammatical reasons and to reflect subsequent thoughts I might have on the subject. Comments, as always, are welcome. ..bruce..



1st Nephi & 2nd Nephi

The “Parsing Nephi” series (still in progress):

Other posts


Enos/Jarom/Omni/Words of Mormon




[none so far]

3 Nephi

4 Nephi




[none so far]