Category Archives: LDS History

More lessons from Judaism: Orthodox Jews confront Torah inerrancy

Again from the Tablet comes this article about how some Orthodox Jews are trying to deal with historical and compositional questions about the Torah (the five books of Moses):

“Virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical,” declares a manifesto posted in July on “Given the data to which modern historians have access,” the essay explains, “it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift, and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.” Not only did the events in the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah never transpire, readers are informed, but “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.”

Such sweeping sentiments might be expected from an academic scholar, or perhaps a critic of fundamentalist religion. But the author of this manifesto is an Orthodox rabbi named Zev Farber. The essay, and much of the work of, is an attempt by dissident Orthodox rabbis and professors to reconcile the findings of modern biblical scholarship with traditional Jewish belief.

This project is not new, but it has bedeviled American Jewry in different ways. Within liberal denominations, while some intellectuals and theologians have grappled with the questions posed by the field of biblical criticism—which sees the Torah as a man-made, composite work produced over time, rather than simply revealed to Moses by God at Sinai—the results have rarely filtered down to synagogue congregants and day-school pupils. Within Orthodoxy, meanwhile, the findings of academia have often met with outright rejection.

One of the greatest gifts that Joseph Smith gave the nascent Church was to reject the inerrancy of the Bible, not just in the Articles of Faith but in other comments he made through his lifetime. In some ways, the Church slipped back from that during the 20th century, due largely to the prolific, unofficial, and often unauthorized writings of Elders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie (not to mention W. Cleon Skousen), which promoted a very strict, literal (young earth/creationist) reading of the Old Testament (vs. Elders B. H. Roberts [see prior link] and James E. Talmage) and had a tremendous impact on the general Church membership, particularly through official teaching materials for Sunday School, Seminary, and Institute.

Now, unlike the Orthodox Jewish rabbi cited above, I actually believe a lot of the Old Testament, including the books of Moses, is historical, or at least is rooted in historical events that have gone through millennia of transmission. But I think that in our efforts to hold onto that which is valid and important, we end up accepting a lot that is not valid or that misrepresents the time frame and circumstances of the events.

The quality and openness of the work coming out of the Joseph Smith Papers project, as well as the New Testament Commentary project at BYU (and the many excellent New Testament publications of scholarship that preceded it), show the Church’s commitment to faithful and defensible scholarship. One hopes that at a future date, a similar effort will be made in Old Testament scholarship as well, with the results reflected in Church manuals.




In case anyone mentions “the Book of Mormon” and “Smithsonian” in the same breath…

…please sent them over to this post at Keepapitchinin by Ardis “Ace” Parshall, Mormon Detective:

News of the impending publication reached Salt Lake City early in November, 1936. Alarmed, Heber J. Grant “immediately sent [Kelly] a cablegram” – not a slow-boat letter, but a lightning-fast cablegram! – “not to print that letter as we have reason to believe that statements made therein are not authentic.”

“We hope that the cablegram arrived in time to prevent your publishing the article,” President Grant wrote in a follow-up letter.

At last! One wise head, at least, was not mesmerized by the sensation. “We have reason to believe that statements made therein are not authentic.” (You think?) I do not find an article after a cursory search of Der Stern, but without a more careful search I cannot yet be certain whether the cablegram arrived in time.

This particular chain was not the story’s sole transmission route, of course. When each link in this chain proved so willing – eager, even – to share the story, there can be no doubt that each person in the chain shared the story with multiple others, not just those traced here. Some of those others must have shared it with still more contacts, who shares it with yet more … The fabulous rumor escaped into the wild, where it has spread like a malignant virus from missionary to missionary, seminary teacher to seminary teacher, one credulous soul to another, discovered anew by each generation, to the embarrassment of the Church and the annoyance of the Smithsonian Institution.

This is not true! Do not teach it!

Go read the whole thing.  And remember: it is not true that the Smithsonian Institution ever used the Book of Mormon for archaeological purposes. Don’t teach it.  ..bruce w..

Some perspective on the “Mormon Moment” from early Christian history

I recently bought Pocket History of the Church by D. Jeffrey Bingham, a brief summary of the history of the Christian church, starting after the death of the Apostles. While reading it this afternoon, I ran across the following passage, which made me quietly chuckle. If you substitute “Modern Christianity” and/or “Modern Secularism” for “Romans” and “Mormons” for “Christians”, there are some remarkable parallels:

Roman religion also was intimately related to the past. Greco-Roman society held that the rites of the ancients were more harmonious with the gods than the newer rites. That is, the past was closer to the ancient gods. For Roman society, only one ancient religious doctrine existed, and it was expressed and maintained in a variety of traditional forms by various nations. Abandonment of these variant but traditional forms and customs was wicked. Novelty in religions, they thought, was irreligious. Therefore, because Christians were seen as antisocial and “new”, they were viewed as a danger to Rome. The gods were unhappy and had to be pacified.

When Christians worshiped only one God, their polytheistic Roman neighbors viewed them as atheistic. When Christians gathered in worship, separate from Roman life, they were seen as destructive to the social structure of the empire. In their refusal to confess the emperor’s deity they were viewed as wicked. Their refusal to engage in civic religion led the Christian apologist Tertullian to write that the Romans considered Christians “public enemies” and “enemies of Rome.”

But the Romans did not end their criticism of Christianity with reference to what they viewed as irreligion. They also criticized Christianity for being irrational. Christians seemed to receive their teachings by faith rather than by rational examination of the evidence or critical thinking. According to the Christian theologian Origen, one Roman, Celsus, wrote that some Christians said, “Do not ask questions, only believe.”

Also, the Romans interpreted some Christian practices as deplorable, because of what seemed to be a secretiveness, a ridiculous perspective of life, death and future judgment, an arrogant haughtiness towards Roman religion and a lifestyle of perversity. Minucius Felix, a Latin Christian apologist of the third century, recorded some early Roman understandings of Christian rites and beliefs. Many unbelievers thought that Christians were “a people skulking and shunning the light, silent in public but garrulous in corners. They despise the [Roman] temples as dead houses, they reject the gods, they laugh at sacred things. . . . They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters.”

The belief that Christians were clandestine in their gatherings because of their shameful “incest” (because they married those they called “brother” and “sister”) was common, as was the charge that they were cannibalistic (they ate the body of Christ and drank his blood). Because of the secret nature of their rites, and also because some groups claiming association with Christianity were reported to have engaged in acts of perversity, the rumors grew to absurd proportions. Christians were even accused of eating infants. The Christian apologist Athenagoras was accurate when he said, “Three charges are brought against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [cannibalistic banquets] and Oedipean intercourse [incestuous unions].”

As strange as it may sound to modern Christian ears, the Romans were appalled at the supposed wickedness, social rebellion, irrationality and impiety of the Christians. The “popular and uncritical” rumor about the Christians, to use the language of Athenagoras, set the tone for how the Romans responded. Of course, we ought not to think that early Christianity was perfect or without blame. Many Christians did not balance their faith in the one true God through Jesus Christ with a biblical call to morality and state loyalty. In addition, some non-Christians who associated with believers were said to have practiced their Roman religion in feasts that did involve promiscuous rites. On the whole, though, the charges of rampant perversity in Christ’s body within the Roman Empire were false. (pp. 31-33)

Sounds kind of familiar, huh?  ..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).

Parsing Nephi: First Nephi IV (1 Nephi 15)

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

Book of Mormon quotes here, as for the entire series, is taken from The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Royal Skousen, ed.).

This is the first (though far from the last) time that Orson Pratt’s chapter division matches that found in the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon (and, as explained in the first post, apparent chapter divisions indicated as Joseph dictated the contents of the Book of Mormon). This is also quite a bit shorter than Nephi’s first three chapters, which suggest that there may be thematic reasons this chapter stands alone.

Nephi Starts His Ministry

Nephi has at the start of his first three chapters referred either explicitly or implicitly to his “ministry”. His own subtitle for this book, found in the introduction just before Chapter I, is “His reign and ministry”. At the start of Chapter II (1 Nephi 6), Nephi states that “the fullness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob and be saved.” And at the start of Chapter III (1 Nephi 10), he writes “And now I Nephi proceed to give an account on these plates of my proceedings and my reign and ministry” — but then goes own largely to describe his father’s prophesies of the Messiah and his own ascension vision.

With that vision, Nephi now appears confident in instructing his brothers in a prophetic manner — not just bearing testimony or asking why they don’t listen to Lehi, but offering his own prophetic interpretations and directions. In fact, that’s what the entire chapter is about: Nephi explaining not just Lehi’s vision and prophecies, but his own vision and prophecies as well, as well as his interpretations of the scriptures. He is ministering in a prophetic fashion to his brothers, and they (by his account) accept that prophetic ministry, however briefly. As Nephi notes near the start of this chapter:

And it came to pass that I beheld my brethren,
and they were disputing one with another
concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them.
For he truly spake many great things unto them
which was hard to be understood
save a man should inquire of the Lord.
And they being hard in their hearts,
therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they had ought.

Nephi steps in, asks what they are arguing about, asks if they have “inquired of the Lord”, rebukes them for “the hardness of [their] hearts”, and then proceeds to explain Lehi’s vision and prophecies to them. He notes that he has success where his father did not:

And it came to pass that I did speak so many words unto my brethren
that they were pacified and did humble themselves before the Lord.

He also urges them to personal obedience and righteousness:

Wherefore I Nephi did exhort them to give heed unto the word of the Lord.
Yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul
and with all the faculty which I possessed
that they would give heed to the word of God
and remember to keep his commandments always in all things.

Now his brothers start asking more questions, not just interpreting Lehi’s vision but expounding on details that Lehi missed:

And they said unto me:
What meaneth the river of water which our father saw?
And I said unto them that the water which my father saw was filthiness.
And so much was his mind swallowed up in other things
that he beheld not the filthiness of the water.

This continues on for a while; then Nephi wraps up with a Q&A session that presages Alma2‘s discourse to his son Corianton about the afterlife, judgment, and eternity, tying at the end of the chapter the whole discussion back to his and his father’s visions:

Wherefore the wicked are separated from the righteous
and also from that tree of life
whose fruit is most precious and most desirable of all other fruits;
yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God.

And thus I spake unto my brethren.

Through these first four chapters of the Book of Nephi, Nephi has been tracing his own arc. He starts as the youngest (and therefore least important) of four sons, one who cries unto the Lord to have his own heart softened so that he does not “rebel against” his father Lehi. He now stands as a prophet who has great visions and who — with temporary success — calls his older brothers to repentance and from whom his brothers seek spiritual and scriptural explanations. Keep in mind that Nephi is writing all this some 30+ years later, after arriving in the promised land, and after the great family split — that is, Nephi and those who would follow them fleeing for their lives from Laman and Lemuel. He writes these chapters, I believe, to bear testimony to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel as to how things really were.

Next post: First Nephi V (1 Nephi 16 – 19:21).


Parsing Nephi: First Nephi III (1 Nephi 10-14)

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

I’ll now talk about the third chapter of the first “Book of Nephi” from the original Book of Mormon manuscript.

Lehi’s Prophecy

In Chapter III of First Nephi, Nephi gives us his third introduction in as many chapters, and again finds himself taking a detour from covering his “reign and ministry” to cover something more important (all quotes are from Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text):

And now I Nephi proceed to give an account upon these plates
of my proceedings and my reign and ministry.
Wherefore to proceed with mine account,
I must speak somewhat of the things of my father and also my brethren.

Nephi covers exactly two things in Chapter III. The first is his father Lehi’s prophecy of a future Messiah and the forerunner Prophet who should go before Him. This is a more detailed followup to Lehi’s prophecies in the streets of Jerusalem:

And he testified that the things which he saw and heard,
and also the things which he read in the book [in his vision],
manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah
and also the redemption of the world. (First Nephi I; 1 Nephi 1:19)

But here in Chapter III, Lehi is giving the same prophecies and warnings, in apparently greater detail, to Nephi’s brothers, as a follow-up to his concerns about Laman and Lemuel as a result of his dream. He ties it into the scattering of Israel and then ties that into their own flight from Jerusalem and towards “the land of promise.” The account is brief –less that two pages in the Skousen edition — and Nephi defers the rest of the details to his “other book”.

Nephi’s Ascension Vision

The rest of Chapter III — roughly 14 pages in Skousen — is devoted to Nephi’s ascension vision, which blends together elements of both Lehi’s dream and Lehi’s prophecies, but covers much more than Nephi has reported from his father. Nephi was frank about what he wanted:

And it came to pass that after I Nephi having heard all the words of my father…
…that I Nephi was desirous also
that I might see and hear and know of these things by the power of the Holy Ghost…

He then digresses momentarily to issue a short but stern “blessing/warning” sermon, promising that God will answer those who “diligently seek” but will “cast off forever” those who are “found unclean before the judgment seat of God.” He then adds, for the first time, his own prophetic imprimatur:

And the Holy Ghost giveth authority
that I should speak these things and deny them not.

The modern edition of the Book of Mormon places this statement at the end of 1 Nephi 10, wrapping up his sermonette, but I think Nephi meant it as much for all that would follow in the rest of Chapter III: his ascension vision:

And the Holy Ghost giveth authority
that I should speak these things and deny them not.
For it came to pass that after I had desired
to know the things that my father had seen,
and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me,
wherefore as I sat pondering in mine heart,
I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord,
yea, into an exceeding high mountain,
a mountain which I never had before seen
and upon which I never had before sat my foot.

Nephi then records an expansive and detailed vision of future (to Nephi) history, all centered around the coming of Jesus Christ and the restoration of His gospel in the last days. Much has been written about this vision, and a discussion of it doesn’t really fit within the premise of these posts except to note this: Nephi is serving notice, both to his own posterity and that of his brothers, that he was by that point every bit as much a prophet and seer as his father Lehi. He closes up his chapter with that testimony:

And behold, I Nephi am forbidden
that I should write the remainder of the things which I saw.
Wherefore the things which I have written sufficeth me,
and I have not written but a small part of the things which I saw.
And I bear record that I saw the things which my father saw,
and the angel of the Lord did make them known unto me.
And now I make an end of speaking concerning the things
which I saw while I was carried away in the spirit.
And if all the things which I saw are not written,
the things which I have written are true.
And thus it is.

The first chapter set forth Nephi being dutiful and obedient. The second chapter set forth Nephi being believing and on the right path (as per Lehi’s dream). This third chapter establishes Nephi as a prophet in his own right. The next chapter shows the start of Nephi’s ministry.

Next post: First Nephi IV (1 Nephi 15).

Parsing Nephi: First Nephi II (1 Nephi 6-9)

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

Nephi has written the first chapter of his “reign and ministry” record on what we refer to as “the small plates”. As noted, Nephi touches on almost every major point of contention between him and his brothers: primogeniture leadership, the brass plates, the sword of Laban, divine calling, being led by God out of Jerusalem, and so on.

Nephi’s second chapter (which maps to 1 Nephi 6-9 in modern editions) is shorter and covers just three major themes:

  • how Nephi’s reign-and-ministry record (the small plates) fits in with all the other plates (the brass plates and Nephi’s other plates)
  • the second trip back to Jerusalem for Ishmael and his family
  • Lehi’s vision of the tree of life

Let’s look at each of these.

Nephi’s second set of plates

Chapter II starts and ends with this topic, in which Nephi further clarifies what will and will not be on his reign-and-ministry (“small”) plates.

  • His father’s genealogy (descending from Joseph), which is on the brass plates, will not be on these plates (but will be on the other plates).
  • His father’s full record will be on the other (“large”) plates, but not on these.
  • His goal for the small plates is to “write of the things of God. For the fullness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob and be saved.”
  • These small plates “are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people.”
  • “These plates are for the more part of the ministry, and the other plates are for the more part of the reign of the kings and the wars and contentions of my people.”
  • Finally, “the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I knoweth not.”

Remember that Nephi is working on these plates some 30 to 40 years after he and his family left Jerusalem. He’s already fled “with those who would follow me” and set up a city and culture center distinct from that of Laman and Lemuel. As a literate student of the (then-extant) Hebrew scriptures, Nephi is familiar with the contents of the brass plates, which he describes at the end of First Nephi I as containing (among other things):

a record of the Jews from the beginning,
even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah,

and also the prophecies of the holy prophets from the beginning,
even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah,
and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah.

Nephi most likely sees his large and small plates as a direct and unbroken continuation of these two portions of the brass plates (history and prophecy, respectively), since he starts his small plates (and likely his large plates as well) “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah.” In other words, he sees himself as a prophet/king with the responsibility for keeping the scriptures going forward. As such, he would therefore have the divine claim to the brass plates, as opposed to having stolen them from his older brothers (as the Lamanites would later claim).

Return for Ishmael’s Family

The second major topic for First Nephi II is the return trip to Jerusalem for Ishmael’s family. There are numerous parallels with the earlier trip to get the brass plates:

  • It is done by divine commandment via Lehi for the salvation of his seed.
  • Laman and Lemuel rebel (along with two of Ishmael’s sons).
  • Nephi rebukes his brothers for their lack of faith and obedience.
  • Laman and Lemuel threaten Nephi’s life.
  • Nephi is saved via apparent divine intervention (though Nephi’s bonds are merely “loosed” instead of Nephi being able to “burst” them).
  • Laman, Lemuel repent and ask Nephi’s forgiveness.
  • They all journey to Lehi’s camp, where thanks are given to God, along with sacrifices and burnt offerings (possibly for forgiveness of Laman and Lemuel’s sins, as per S. Kent Brown).

Nephi’s account in Chapter I of the first trip back to Jerusalem, among other things, legitimized his claim to both Laban’s sword and the brass plates. This account shows the divine commandment that brought Ishmael’s family out of Jerusalem and to the Americas. This was likely a sore point with Ishmael’s sons, who pretty much threw in their lot with Laman and Lemuel. Again, Nephi is most probably trying preemptively to set the record straight as to how Ishmael’s family ended up in the Americas.

The Tree of Life Vision

The third major topic for First Nephi II is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. Unlike Nephi’s own vision (found in First Nephi III), which is focused on the coming of a Messiah, Lehi’s vision (as recounted by Nephi) is focused almost entirely on his family and emphasizes once again the differences between Laman and Lemuel and the rest of Nephi’s family (including Nephi). As Lehi puts it:

And behold, because of the thing which I have seen,
I have reason to rejoice in the Lord because of Nephi and also of Sam.
For I have reason to suppose
that they and also many of their seed will be saved.
But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you.

The rest of Lehi’s account of his vision pretty much focuses on individual choice, including falling away even after partaking of the fruit of the tree of life. And he ties it twice more to Laman and Lemuel:

And it came to pass that I was desirous
that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also.
Wherefore I cast mine eyes toward the head of the river
that perhaps I might see them.
And it came to pass that I saw them,
but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit.
. . .
Thus is the words of my father,
for as many as heeded them had fallen away.
And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, saith my father.

Nephi then says that Lehi “exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel . . . lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord.” So, once again, Nephi shows why he is the favored one, the one to inherit Lehi’s authority and his prophetic mantle, while Laman and Lemuel have been rejected of the Lord.

So far, in his first two chapters, Nephi has been setting forth his version of events surrounding Lehi’s and Ishmael’s families coming out of Jerusalem into the wilderness. At the same time, he has been demonstrating repeatedly God’s (and Lehi’s) acceptance of him and rejection of Laman and Lemuel, as well as Nephi’s legitimate claims to the brass plates and Laban’s sword. The next two chapters will focus largely on prophecy and revelation rather than history — but that won’t let Laman and Lemuel off the hook.

Next post: First Nephi III (1 Nephi 10-14)

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).