In chapter 12 Nephi observes the downfall of “multitudes of people” and cities (v. 1-4) in war and slaughter over hundreds of years prior to Christ’s American advent; he then witnesses the violent upheavals of nature in America, concurrent to the Savior’s death in Jerusalem, that decimate cities and lay waste to the structures and even increasingly corrupt and degenerative societal structures that fomented within these ‘modern’ or ‘avant-garde’ locations, fulfilled in 3 Nephi 8-10. Hundreds of years of society and technology wiped away in hours. Suddenly, to the Nephites, all had become vain (Ecclesiastes 1:2), at least to those left alive.
Nephi says as much when he states that “the large and spacious building…is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men” (12:18). We all know to be vain means to be excessively proud of one’s achievements, attributing success to only oneself and equating one’s identity with past successes, and is ultimately foolish because you value image over substance, ultimately satisfying only finite desires that come and go and that do not reciprocate the time and effort put into achieving that coveted status or position of prominence. As any political headlines establish (perhaps Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, thousands of others), reputation can be obliterated in an instant. Even worse, others make a living off such obscene lifestyles (Miley Cyrus…? and fill in the blank____). But that’s on the large scale.
Everyday interactions with intimates and strangers involve us saving face (or promoting face) to some degree in favor of who we truly want to portray, at the expense of acting in all genuine, honest, intent at understanding and taking in who we’re talking to, sitting next to, ordering lunch from, etc. I’m not saying dispense with politeness or generous acts of unexpected kindness, but as hard as it is, we can better learn to recognize what attributes and practices the great and spacious building contains, permits, and accepts, instead of choosing to increasingly render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. As citizens of the Kingdom of God on earth first before the nation we live in, our code of conduct is to mirror the Prince of Peace’s eternal first and second commandments and not to be confined to the ebb and flow of secular solutions and salutations. Such fleeting and egotistically inflationary traits are unable to produce a single man for all seasons, as was Thomas More, whose staunch Catholicism emboldened him to not condone King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1538 to marry Anne Boleyn. A decision and faithful position that cost him his life.
This happily brings me to briefly mention the Christmas season (in which we celebrate the Savior’s ultimate sacrifice of his life and its unmatched eternal reason for so doing), which while able to instill the Spirit of love and charity characteristic of Christ and his genuine disciples, seems at times to degenerate into gift-giving of man-made ‘treasures’ – the one we all recognize as the latest version of the tablet or iphone, causing us to keep up with the Joneses. Not bad, inherently, such loving acts can ring hollow when compared to the enduring peace offered by Christ through His Gospel and companionship of the Holy Ghost. Honestly, I enjoy giving gifts that do help live life with more enjoyment as anyone else – books, movies, clothing, games, specially engraved jewelry, tickets to sporting and cultural events, chocolate chip brownies, etc. But isn’t it powerful to consider that even the prophetic word engraved on brass scripture or on clay plates and tablets isn’t enough for salvation, though it guides us there, but is to be written “with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3) and commandments written “upon the table of thine heart” (Prov. 3:3). Sounds like Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni know what they’re talking about when each of their books ends with a focus on praying to Heavenly Father for spiritual confirmation that their words were written by the Spirit.
Furthermore, back to the topic of vanity, the Lord told Samuel that he chose Jesse’s youngest son David, an unimposing, rough and untutored sheepherder, after Jesse had sent seven of his eldest sons before Samuel to be chosen as Israel’s king. And in the process of finding the new king, the LORD revealed to Samuel (or reminded him because he too was chosen at a young age) that He does not judge a man as man does, by physical prowess and stamina or by intelligence and wisdom, because he “looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Hence, the young and socially unencumbered boy became king, much as young Samuel was chosen by the Lord to be the standing prophet in Israel (1 Sam. 3). David used his royal position to commit murder in cold blood over an already grievous sin which he’d already justified because he wanted to satisfy it.
Vanity is an outgrowth of pride – believing we’re doing the ‘right’ thing because we say so and have reasons that sound good to us. The angel tells Nephi that such pride causes one to fall into the river of filthy water (v. 16) leading one to a hellish state of existence unable to partake even of the world’s pride upon the high ledge above, let alone the most desirable fruit of the tree of life on the other side. What occurs prior to that sad state? Wandering off and getting lost in the dark mists which are the devil’s temptations that both blind eyes (how man looks at people naturally) and harden hearts (how the Lord observes people). Both manners of observing and judging mortal reality and eternal truth are damaged, corrupted (thankfully, not to the unrepentant). Nephi states that his descendants’ pride and Satan’s temptations make them vulnerable and weakened to the point that the Lamanites overpower them (v. 19).
These half-century bouts of war and contention sandwich the Savior’s glorious mortal Ministry and the bestowal of the Holy Ghost to both the Twelve Apostles and the twelve disciples in America, who function similarly as witnesses to His resurrection and divinity. It is to the glorious fruits of their faithful and divinely inspired efforts that we look in hope to the next chapter, showing us what merciful truths emanate from the Savior of the world and his faithful disciples, showing not all is vanity, but some is holy.
This chapter is drenched in direct doctrinal discourse…
Nephi narrates (and is teaching the reader, explicitly pointing out an important principle of revelation) some important comments into the final verses of last chapter, namely that God doesn’t change the way he communicates to mankind (he answers sincere individuals with honest desires to hear and follow answers) and that the individual who seeks after God diligently will know the perplexing, mysterious things about God, which are beautifully simple doctrines (which Nephi later tells us he loves – 2 Nephi 25:4).
By the Spirit’s inspiration, climbing away into a high mountain nearby, in Ch. 11 (first in the series of Nephi’s sweeping visions of future history that covers the length of five chapters – 11-15), Nephi recounts his grand vision of prophesied events central to mankind’s redemption (i.e. – the Messiah’s mortal ministry and miracles, his persecution and afflictions, culminating in his crucifixion and Resurrection) which he chooses to include perhaps as evidence of receiving answers he’d prayed for, so that he could witness not only to what his father saw but to the reality that any individual can be given answers to prayers by the power of the Holy Ghost.
This chapter reemphasizes the utter importance of preserving sacred history and covenants, as they hinge upon and relate to the coming of the Messiah, David Seely (2004), professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, states: “the most important thing to be remembered in the pages of the Book of Mormon is the coming and mission of the Messiah. For those who lived before his time, Lehi and Nephi provided visions of the future. Nephi identified prophecies about his death and resurrection from the brass plates (1 Nephi 22:20–21; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15–18) and added to them his own prophecies (1 Nephi 11; 2 Nephi 31)”.
Added to this event, or what begins it, is the Spirit of the Lord that asks him “what desirest thou?” (vv. 2, 10). And what does Nephi answer with? His first answer is to see what his father saw and second to know what the figures in his father’s dream mean, or to know their interpretation (vv. 3, 11). But if you notice, the Spirit of the Lord asks him if he not only desires, but believes what his father said he had seen and heard in his visions (vv. 4, 5). Nephi says, yes I do believe, and then I can perhaps picture him responding in awe at what he is seeing and questioningly adds “thou knowest that I believe all the words of my father” (v. 5). How do you interpret that phrase, thou knowest?
Is he simply acknowledging the omniscience of the Spirit that has “carried [him] away” to experience this sacred event? Or might this be more of a formal practice, common to receiving visions of this kind from a guiding Spirit, verifying that yes inquiring Nephi not only desires but believes? It must be for Nephi’s benefit (but exactly why…?) to ask such a question when Nephi, and surely the Spirit of the Lord, knows Nephi has believed him, for he’d followed commands to leave Jerusalem, the numerous attempts to obtain the plates, and to continue heeding Lehi’s prophetic commands and counsel into the wilderness away from modern civilization. In a way, they experienced these together, the Spirit calls and Nephi hears and heeds.
So, maybe Nephi lacks doubt enough to say abruptly, can you really doubt I believe my father? After all my family and I have been through? I’ve considered all of these and feel fairly confident that he says this for a whole other reason: simply because he’d heard the voice of the Lord on numerous occasions, and was quite accustomed to its firm whisperings, voice, and thoughts – and he knew the Spirit wouldn’t forget that they’d worked together in accomplishing the Lord’s previous commands.
Nephi’s proximity to the Spirit of the Lord and Holy Ghost was becoming more ‘natural’ to him, and the Spirit gave him a lot in this vision (which comprises chapters 11-14) as a result, I mean a lot. Any imagined intimations of incredulity on Nephi’s part, that I might’ve entertained, in response to such an initially needless question, immediately dissolve once I realize how matter-of-fact-ly he responds. It’s as if he says to an old familiar friend, “come on, quit the formalities, we know each other”. Kind of. Nephi’s loyalty reminds me of an analogous sheep who hears his Shepherd’s voice because he knows him, he’s heard “the name by which [he] is called” (Alma 5:38) and unlike his brothers Laman and Lemuel, hearkened and “according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart” (Alma 5:12). Theoretically, Nephi might’ve become hardhearted had he chosen not to pray and thus remain ignorant like his brothers.
Also, intriguingly, Nephi is learning firsthand here what he later writes about as the last words of his second book, a record surely influenced by his cumulative knowledge, his spiritual GPA (Gospel Practice Average – nice acronym?) that with unwavering boldness and utter certainty he could state that “the Holy Ghost will show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32: 5). Elsewhere, the Lord stated of the Spirit: “he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). So, it’s a tad ironic that the Spirit of the Lord is literally pointing to images in his dream and saying “Behold!” or “Look!” several times in this chapter and the succeeding portions in the following chapters, telling Nephi what all these things mean and how to act in his own life. That is certainly not always the case and I understand there are differences between the two terms used to describe the inspirational Spirit. More likely the promptings and voices contained in the previous chapters indicate the Spirit’s subtle communications as more common to every individual though only the faith of the individual precludes or permits the amount of knowledge revealed at any given time.
In summarily viewing the major events in the mortal Messiah’s life 600 years prior to their occurrence, the Four Gospels are validated and verified as true records transcribed by revelation and the same Spirit of the Lord. But just as importantly for those of us seeking to refine our sense of the Spirit’s promptings to us, Nephi was given this knowledge within the cultural context, or better yet, within the domestic or familial context surrounding him, with references to the “great and spacious building” and the “rod of iron” and “tree of life” which his father had seen. In what places and times have we heard and felt the Spirit’s promptings? For Nephi, now add a mountain top to the long list of places where Nephi received inspiration and revelation from the Spirit of the Lord (which includes in Jerusalem, the desert, on the streets looking for Laban, amidst contentious brothers, etc.) and we get a picture of the man who will go wherever the Lord wants him to go.
Lastly, Nephi is a shining example of a righteous man who had spiritual knowledge “grant[ed] unto [him] according to [his] desire” (Alma 29:4). We know everyone on earth receives according to their desires. That’s a useful answer when responding to the famous question: why does God let bad things happen to good people? In this world we live according to our desires, the Book of Mormon containing numerous instances of positive consequences (and many more tending toward the negative, after all the book begins with a city’s destruction and ends with two civilizations’ collapses) of believing in and acting on righteous, sincere desires and spiritual promptings that come our way. So, as Elder Holland spoke so movingly about last April, “Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe”.
Holland, J. (2013): http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/lord-i-believe?lang=eng
Preface (that’s ominous!) – I try to keep these to 800 words, but the content is too rich not to discuss in detail!
Nephi records on the small plates that Lehi prophesies that a ‘Messiah’ and ‘Redeemer of the world’ would emerge by the hand of God from among the Jews…600 years to be precise. Sometimes I really enjoy word-play and verse 4 of chapter 10 provides a playground for doing so. It wasn’t translated as emerge, although by my interpreting the act of the “Lord God raising up a prophet from among the Jews” as ‘emerging’, it becomes less clear how it could be interpreted.
One possible meaning refers to the parenting process: that is that the Redeemer of the world, as the Christ child, is raised as a parent raises children, teaching them, protecting them, feeding them as they grow and gain intelligence, knowledge and experience. That view certainly corroborates with the idea that “the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him” and, when 12yrs old, he “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” and not exemplified least because of the intentional occasions the Savior took to be “in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions”, being, as he directly and comfortingly put it to his worried mother, Mary, “about my father’s business” (Luke 2:40-52). He is, it seems evident, in Heavenly Father’s tutelage, or at least is heavily being actively influenced and directed by God. Moses’s prophecy that the LORD “will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren” (Deut. 18; 15, 18), is similar Old Testament phrasing in which the verb ‘raise’ is used twice to describe the future event. Without having thought about it, this single verse validates the Book of Mormon’s Old Testament-times historicity.
Not to be forgotten, within the Book of Mormon as a whole, raise is used at least 21 times in the Book of Mormon. Here are its categorical references: Messiah x2, a mountain x1, ‘seed’ or families x2, to judgment x2, Moses x3, righteous/mighty nation or branch of Israel x4, from the dead x6, and lastly to eternal life x1. Arise and rise, in various tenses and contexts, also occur frequently and are used in similar categories. Just in terms of the word ‘raise’, we find it refers to many distinct people (Moses, Messiah, families) and broader concepts (nations, from death, to eternal life, to judgment). It seems to be a verb that is synonymous with establish, to sustain, to cause to grow and to do so successfully.
However the next possible interpretation is supported by the phrase “and after they had slain the Messiah, who should come, and after he had been slain, he should rise from the dead” (v. 11). So, if we’re investigating any immediate verses that might indicate what Nephi means by ‘raising’ or ‘rising’, this is perhaps a next best guess.
The next three possible interpretations lie in the references to his baptism by immersion at the hands of John the Baptist (vv. 9,10) at the moment he’s being raised out of the water of the River Jordan and his being raised up on the Cross, or raised from the Dead, or resurrected. Is there any sure way to know if any of these are meant to be the ‘one’ true interpretation? In this chapter Nephi states Christ “should rise from the dead” (v. 11). That is a singular moment, with a short and rather immediate time-frame. He’s risen up on the cross, as Moses’s staff typified and foreshadowed. However, if we look at these references, it seems probable that Nephi means to say that Heavenly Father would establish, over the process of time, as in a person’s lifetime, a prophet, or the Messiah among the Jews.
Some of you reading this might’ve thought from the beginning that such a search is meaningless, or choose to say with certainty that that verse means only one thing (it means only ____). You might say it’s indisputable enough to not warrant this simple analysis. Perhaps, but I’d like to give the Spirit plenty of reasons to dictate truth to me if I’ve done the work to earn it. We talk of magnifying callings, why not magnify the scriptures, or our studying efforts? Whatever the interpretation, it’s evident that this is done by the will of the Father, the emphasis being that He organized this raising, the Son increasingly learning this eternal truth, and that this effort is the central means in his “work and his glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
I admire Nephi’s trust, his faith in following the desires he has to pray to Heavenly Father and know for himself “by the power of the Holy Ghost” (10:17) if these visions his father has are true. Nephi includes this while abridging the larger record, for future generations. And Mormon chose Nephi’s words after having seen our day. So, when was the last time we prayed to know the truth contained in The Book of Mormon, or from our leaders’ General Conference addresses? or to know that the Hastening the Work of Salvation broadcast and revelations are true and from Heavenly Father? I’m not perfect at doing so because I also have had a growing gift of faith to believe and already recognize them as true because I feel the Spirit as they speak, the words Apostles and the Prophet speak from the conference center pulpit.
But, I’m thinking out loud, perhaps that this logic is tinged with a slight sense of some intermittent complacency and smacks of becoming “past feeling” in its own right (in other words, giving to the tendency to rely more heavily on past experiences instead of appropriately seeking further light and knowledge when current questions arise – Laman and Lemuel syndrome)? That view doesn’t devalue the righteous act of remembering (which the Book of Mormon advocates) past revelations of eternal truths to one’s spirit, or espouse disregarding past revelatory moments as inconsequential or irrelevant enough to be of no use in determing how to approach Heavenly Father in sincere prayer or act when tempted, as if to rely too much on having at all moments to be told what to do and think. Because I know from experience and scripture that Heavenly Father honors agency. No, I think that view (of feeling the Spirit during talks and addresses) ultimately advocates diligent supplication with diligent obedience, diligent prayer with diligent service, scripture study, repentance, etc. Why? Because recognizing the truth (ability to heed the Holy Ghost) in those moments is a product those diligent actions create. And I can do much better at that because I know the moments I haven’t felt the Spirit are quite numerous too.
Prophets and Apostles, like Lehi, help us as a Church collectively, when inspired by the Spirit, and as separate individuals, in our very personal efforts to follow the Master, to emulate Him and keep His commandments. Since the Lord is The Master, then aren’t we by logical extension, the apprentices? This form of one-on-one training isn’t perhaps so prevalent in modern times – trainings can be done online or in school and college classes, even vocational education is often conducted in classes with multiple students involved. Learning has become democratic, with its benefits. And yet we’ve all personally covenanted with Him, and have and hold the scriptures in our hands and own our personal copy of the Standard Works, and we learn collectively in Sunday School, it is ultimately our own responsibility to absorb the book’s messages and pay attention to the Spirit’s witness of its verity.
Furthermore, as Nephi’s words demonstrate, the Holy Ghost (whom the Lord called the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, John 15:26/16:13-14) will ultimately guide each of us to “see, hear, and know of these things” for ourselves if “we but diligently seek him” (v. 17), as Nephi’s example demonstrates here. It seems clear that if we are to benefit from Heavenly Father’s work and plan for our happiness here and in eternity, that we better continually desire sincerely to know the Lord in scripture and seek His Spirit more often and regularly than we now do.
As members of the Lord’s Church and kingdom, we’ve been given the Gift of the Holy Ghost, “given to all those who diligently seek him” (1 Ne. 10:17) to be refined and cultivated as we pay attention to its influence. I write this, hoping that we all cultivate this gift with more diligence this week and become more disciplined to acting on the Spirit’s gentle nudges, in our emulation of the Master – a state of devotion always in need of tending to and purposefully seeking to grow – that each of us might “see, hear, and know” for ourselves that He lives and guides His Church today.
Who doesn’t like an ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka’ moment, when the veil of ignorance is pulled back and true reality sets in. It’s really a liberating feeling. What do I mean? I’ll introduce the topic by posing a question with a multiple choice answer list of choices: When did Nephi write 1 and 2 Nephi?
A. All during his journey, travelogue/diary style, aka as it happens
B. On the borders of the Red Sea where his family camped for eight years
C. On the long sea voyage to the Promised Land (what else do you do if you’re not on a Carnival or Disney cruise and navigating ocean tempests?)
D. Once they’d landed and established themselves in the New World
E. In solemn retrospect and divine command, after having lived and reigned as a King to his people in the Promised Land (New world in America)
The answer is: most likely E! Which means roughly thrity to forty years after having left Jerusalem (2 Nephi 5: 28-34).
I’d been reading and studying the Book of Mormon under a certain implicit assumption, some of my interpretations had begged the question. In other words I had asked you and me to assume together that Nephi had written his books (the large and small plates) during his journeyings, as a diligent recorder would. What was I thinking? He barely had time to do anything but hunt and literally protect his family from not only his brothers but from the elements of nature surrounding them from the moment they departed Jerusalem and sailed across vast oceans.
So 1 Nephi 6 and 9 are his insertion from a later date, a narrative device to indicate his intentions in skimming over the genealogical and historical records that were in his father’s record. Chapter 9, and a couple like it, 19:1-5 and 2 Nephi 5:30, further differentiate the ‘other’, large plates from the smaller, ‘these’ plates. The large historical plates seem to contain an ongoing account of some kind perhaps, or otherwise official record. But as to the date?
So, Nephi’s two books are argued to have been “written after the death of Lehi, after the separation of Nephi from his brothers Laman and Lemuel, after the small Nephite party knew of the life-threatening animosity of the Lamanites against them, after Nephi knew that he would eventually accept the role of king, and after the temple of Nephi had been constructed” (Welch) because he states “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” (1 Nephi 9:4). Welch means to wonder ‘how likely is it at this point in time in the Arabian wilderness that Nephi expected there to be kings and wars and a people named after him?’ The Lord did tell him he’d rule over his brethren (2:22) for sure, but it seems hard to imagine he talks of kings and rulers and his people while they’re still a band of two families and Zoram roaming around the desert. The contention between his brothers is bitter and brutal, without a doubt, but not war-like enough to suggest these larger cultural terms and phrases (wars, people, kings) from the pen of Nephi, when those categories didn’t even exist until thirty to forty years into their journey (5:28, 34). He’s first called a king in 2 Nephi 6:2.
Welch continues: “These overt disclosures invite us to ask how the timing of Nephi’s writing influenced the final form of the first parts of the Book of Mormon. How happy biblical scholars would be to know the time and place when the book of Exodus or the Gospel of Matthew took their final forms, for then they could probe the nature of those texts more certainly. In the case of Nephi’s writings, because we know when, where, and why he wrote what he did, we can confidently turn our attention to pursue intriguing interpretive questions and to extract meaning from the lessons he left behind”. Those interpretations are certainly in the domain of our personal reading and diligent study we each must bring to the practice of likening them unto ourselves.
As an experiment, a little over five years ago, I thought I’d liken the simpler pattern of small sacred scriptures and keep a larger separate history of my life in another journal. Wanting to imitate it literally, I got a smallish journal and even wrote “The Small Plates” on the title page. I’ve got 118 pages of spiritual experiences, amounting to my tender mercies the Lord sent my way. It may not be what the Lord had in mind for Nephi, but something great has happened in my life. It starts while I was single of about a year following my mission and up to 24 Oct. of this year. And I’m telling you now, I have had 10 x more spiritual experiences than what I’ve recorded. I’ve recorded what have mostly been the more powerful promptings and impressions with some subtle ones thrown in that I took the time to record.
As I review those entries, I can humorously see not only my ignorance of but, more seriously, also my growing understanding about the Spirit’s manner of influence in my life, how the Spirit speaks to me. Nephi’s records are laced with this principle but his last two chapters especially are also focused on the Holy Ghost and how to judge the truth that is in his words. Moroni does the same thing in chapter 10:3-5 of his book. Mormon finishes his record (Mormon 7) by trying to persuade readers to realize the Book of Mormon was written to buoy up the Bible because it too would be attacked in the latter days for its historicity and validity as a genuine document testifying of the literal Christ.
Most of us may not be commanded to record sacred events for other generations in the future to read, but is it any wonder that the modern prophets and apostles have stressed record-keeping, from Joseph Smith to Thomas S. Monson? Their potential to transmit faith is immense. What findings and implications have each of us discovered once realizing the overall arc of the Book of Mormon’s narrative form (according to three major narrators – Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni, who review their life’s events in relation to the Lord’s interventions?).
Welch, J.W. (1999). Why Nephi Wrote the Small Plates: Serving Practical Needs. FARMS Update in Insights (April), 2.
My classes overwhelmed and delayed me, sorry for the two week delay!
We commonly know 1 Nephi 8 as the Tree of Life chapter in which the famous ‘rod of iron’ is first introduced to us. Perhaps no other metaphor or image in the Book of Mormon has been recreated and reinterpreted in art as much as that of the Rod of Iron. As for chapter 8, as I read Lehi’s vision at first, I wanted to include Nephi’s expansion of this vision found in chapter 11 and the interpretations the angel he sees provides him. But I won’t be roped in to anticipating that future chapter! There’s plenty to say when it comes up later in October. For now, it’s sufficient to not all of the family’s current relations and dynamics are mirrored in this vision.
So for example, if we recall, over the last seven chapters, Nephi has obeyed Lehi’s inspired commands, and not without question. He prayed for himself, that he might know independent of his father and his brothers that the Lord had actually prophesied for their benefit, and for the city of Jerusalem. In chapter 8, we get a framed narrative: Nephi is retelling (in writing) Lehi’s journey-vision after he’d told it orally to all of his family, with particularly ominous admonitions for Laman and Lemuel.
Lehi’s initial reference to his two rebellious and stubborn sons as they relate to the dream seems particularly incensed with tender emotions, for he appears to fleetingly entertain the thought of explaining himself right then and there, but then declines to do so, turning instead to mentioning his perception of a “dark and dreary wilderness” (v. 4) and apparently chooses to take the clear, longer, version of the dream, which in his mind would probably lay out choices and consequences clearly. But was he upset, visibly to his family? Did he contain his emotions if he had any? I’d say yes, because after his recitation of the dream-vision, he “exhorts them with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words” (v. 37).
Back to the beginning, in verses two and three he says he’d seen a vision and was happy for Nephi and Sam, saying he has plenty of reason to thank the Lord and reasonably believe that they and their descendants would be saved. Then he turns to L&L, and says he fears “exceedingly” because of them (their thinking, what did this visionary father of ours see anyways? Just lay it on us, come on Dad.) I wondered here, how would Ishmael’s family react, and Zoram too, to this spiritual event?
In any case, Lehi finds himself bidden by a man in white (presumably an angel of sorts but not definitively so) to follow him, soon leading to “a dark and dreary waste” (v. 7) in which he traveled for many hours (v.8). Interestingly enough, it opens like the great, three-part 13th century epic, The Divine Comedy, by Dante Aleghieri, whose protagonist, Dante the Pilgrim, finds himself: “Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/for I had wandered off from the straight path/How hard it is to tell what it was like,/this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn…/a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer./How I entered there I cannot truly say/I had become so sleepy at the moment/when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth;/but when I found myself at the foot of a hill,/at the edge of the wood’s beginning, down in the valley,/where I first felt my heart plunged deep in fear,/I raised my head and saw the hilltop shawled/in morning rays of light sent from the planet that leads men straight ahead on every road” (Canto I, 1-18).
In Dante’s medieval/Renaissance cultural context, the heavens were composed of 7 levels with 7 corresponding planets – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. So, it seems Dante sees the Sun. For it, more than Venus or Mercury which are always near the Sun (dawn or dusk) due to their close proximity to it, would lead men “ahead on every road”, ya know, shine light on every road because the Sun can illuminate magnitudes more than a planet’s reflective light can.
Dante’s material concerned the matter of Rome and sought to mediate the rivaling ideas of Imperial and Apostolic Rome during the political infighting of his day in Florence, Italy – and so chose Virgil, the famed Latin poet who authored the classical epic, the Aeneid. We should realize that Virgil appears to Dante the Pilgrim in the midst of encountering the three sins of lust, pride, and avarice in their symbolic forms as a leopard, lion, and she-wolf while he’s trapped in the dark wood, unable to exit the dark place without external help. Does Lehi here encounter his own frailty, weaknesses, and even sin represented by the darkness he’s lost within?
The difference being that Virgil represents “Reason or Human Wisdom…the means through which man may come to an understanding of the nature of sin” which Dante will understand on his journey through Hell (Inferno) and while there “will see the penance imposed on repentant sinners” (Musa, 75). But, Lehi sees a divine being, an angel. And the light that illuminates the dark and dreary waste is none other than the Tree of Life, the same found in the Garden of Eden, which as we find out later from Nephi represents the love of God. Both of these differences (the spectre of a deceased mortal poet v. an angel and a planet v. the Tree of Life) illustrate the source of these visions or stories – Human Reason as much as it can be inspired on one hand and pure Revelation straight from heaven.
The Dream-Vision Contents
So while Dante implores Virgil to help him escape the three sins and dark forest, Lehi in his faith then prays that the Lord, not a revered poet, would have mercy on him and he sees a large and spacious field. Interesting answer to a prayer, hunh? And presumably the tree he sees next is in this field, a tree whose fruit “was desirable to make one happy…was most sweet, above all that [he] ever before tasted…was white to exceed all the whiteness that [he] had ever seen…filled [his] soul with exceedingly great joy…that it was desirable above all other fruit” (vv. 10-12). Desiring that his family also eat of the fruit (how often do we value a thing or idea enough to tell others about them? What are they?), he looks around him, aware again of his surroundings, and sees a river of water running past the tree he stood by. He followed it’s stretch until he spotted Sariah, Sam, and Nephi at the head of the river, seemingly confused, appearing to be lost.
Lehi loudly calls out to them to come unto him and eat the fruit that he ate. They located him and ate the fruit. Then Lehi searched for L&L towards the river’s head, saw them, but they ignored him, refusing to come to him and eat the fruit (vv. 15-18). Only now did Lehi see the ‘rod of iron’ and the ‘strait and narrow path’ beside it leading from the river’s fountain to the Tree. That leaves us to question whether Lehi or Nephi, Sam, and Sariah needed the rod of iron. Of course they did, because of what we later find out it represents (Ch. 11). However, one scholar (Swift, 2005) chalks up the omission to the very nature of the dream-vision elements forming in his mind at random sequence, like any common dream.
Then, he saw “numberless concourses of people” seeking for the path and finding it. But the mist of darkness materialized, darkening the way and helping the people to wander off the path, becoming lost (v. 21-23). Others held the rod of iron firmly, forging their way through the misty umbrage until they arrived at the Tree and ate the glowing fruit like Lehi. They were ashamed of having eaten the fruit. Lehi, curious as to why, turned and saw opposite him on the other side of the river, massive crowds of people of all ages finely dressed “mocking and pointing their fingers” toward Lehi and the people who’d eaten the fruit after their precarious journey. Well, these ones succumbed to their taunts and arguments and philosophies and wealthy appearance, to their mortal power, and “fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (v. 28).
Now, Nephi states Lehi saw much more, but to be make a long story short, more people fought the mist and ‘held fast’ to the iron rod and fell down at the foot of the Tree. I imagine they heard the mockers all the way, but exhausted themselves, making that unbelievably sweet fruit, truly sweet in contrast to all that vitriolic bitterness and dark mists. However, others made their way toward the massive building, many unable to cross the river, drowning within it, and others were straight lost, “wandering on strange roads” (32), out of his view. L&L, heeding the deliriously prideful scoffers, refused to make the journey up to the Tree, let alone eat the fruit. This is probably where Lehi began to fear for them, seeing the consequences of so many perilous paths laid bare before his eyes. However, it’s important to note that L&L did not cross the river to the Great and Spacious building. This mirrors their choices in reality – they did, reluctantly, follow Lehi and Nephi into the wilderness. They won’t say they follow the Lord, but they did leave Jerusalem, however much they desire that enticing ‘building’ full of Jewish mockers.
Speaking of the ‘kaleidoscopic structure’ of Lehi’s dream, that disjointed dreamy quality in which elements don’t overlap (he sees whole groups of people, then moves on to another group – his vision moves from location to location), one scholar notes “It should be remembered, though, that visionary literature is “heavily symbolic but rarely pictorial.” The symbols are meant to convey images of meaning, not necessarily pictures” (Swift). Our attempts to picture where exactly the river bends and how big the building is and its proximity to the river are somewhat futile; however, preferably “we can imagine what we need to imagine, but if we try to be too precise we lose the sweeping grandeur of the vision and are caught up in details that cannot be worked out” (Swift). I agree with that. Some of the large amount of Lehi’s Dream artwork I prefer might illustrate this point: WARNING! there are spoilers ahead! Lehi did not interpret the imagery (in Ch. 8) he saw to the doctrinal interpretations we commonly, and correctly, associate them with, because Nephi hadn’t ascended into a nearby mountain to pray to know what his father had seen. Lehi had summarily recounted his miraculous dream to his family members, prophesied some things, and then urged them, mostly L&L, to keep the commandments.
But, for those of you who can’t resist more discussion, this piece is by an artist named Nick Stephens.
To me, the many white, transparent windows seem to represent the ‘great and spacious building’ suspended in the air, foundationless; the dark field stands for the ‘dark and dreary wilderness’ or the ‘large and spacious field’ he spies from his vantage point; also the yellow-gold wheat field feels inviting and to me implies growth and labor to till the soil, sow the seeds, and nurture until the crop sprouts and blooms to be harvested, and therefore offer life and sustenance. Now even though the Tree of Life represented by this branch is suspended in mid-air, it should not be equated with the rigid array of transparent windows. For, while the golden field represents sustenance and life, it is like unto manna, only temporary, mortal, of this world. Like the improbability and otherworldliness of an angelic visitor, who in scripture is often suspended above the ground, this Tree descends to the world offering fruit above all that can be tasted here. Its roots are unseen, for the moment, as roots usually behave, but these are heavenly roots, located where “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt”. The repetitive, interlacing white lines form a beautiful image that extends beyond the frame, in my imagination. Their large sweeping reach call for that motion or extension in my mind quite naturally. And they reach higher, inexorably so, than the building does, with no end in sight, stretching forever expectedly. What do they emanate from and what kind of fruit is offered?
Latter-day Saints will readily recognize the stark red geometric shapes that literally encompass and contain the Tree. We’ll jump a couple chapters, even though I’m getting ahead of myself, because we have to for this to make interpretive sense: Nephi is told the Tree represents the Love of God (Ch. 11). Being literally a square and a circle, one drawn with a square and one drawn with a compass, we inevitably suppose this suggests that the Love of God is accessed or attained or reached by being exactly obedient and faithful to God’s commands, which are contained in His simple Gospel. By virtue of receiving the commandments alone into our lives we will have received the Grace of Christ.
Happiness, according to Lehi, is not attainable by riches, position, and prideful paths: it is reached by heeding the Lord’s simple commands, sowing the seeds of eternal life, as Nephi is has been learning this whole time. All of our myopic impulsive-natural man-appetites are to be circumscribed or pursued within the covenant limits that the Lord has set in His covenants. To step out of bounds, well, we see Israel’s demise and the correlation to breaking covenants that Jeremiah laments. As for the red color that draws the eye to it: it might be a subtle choice to highlight what Nephi later learns – that “because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood” (1 Ne. 12:10-11). Keeping covenants allows the righteous to gain the Redeemer’s Atonement-produced mercy and grace, cleanse them, and free and liberate them as Lehi states (2 Ne. 2:27) from Death and Hell and the Devil, and thereby make them happy now (experience His pure love) and grant them eternal life – the very fruit of the Tree of Life. Or…it’ s just a pretty red. But I tend to think otherwise…
Dante admirably invokes Virgil, or Reason, using the beautiful rhythm of the Italian verse form of terza rima, (although Musa uses a rhymeless iambic pentameter or blank verse in translation) to transcend the mundane speech rhythms we use, to invoke the transcendent. However, the divinely and humbly written Book of Mormon shows the reader that, as Elder Holland writes, from “the very outset of the Book of Mormon, in its first fully developed allegory, Christ is portrayed as the source of eternal life and joy, the living evidence of divine love, and the means whereby God will fulfill his covenant with the house of Israel and indeed the entire family of man, returning them to all their eternal promises.”
Amen to that.
PS – In what ways can we compare and contrast the Tree of Life in Lehi’s vision with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden? According to what we read from Lehi’s perpective, in what ways do they function in parallel fashion (what does it offer the beholder or is supposed to do for the person that beholds or partakes of the fruit?) I also wondered, did the Adamic account in Genesis perhaps inspire Lehi, after he’d presumably read it in chapter 5? We could safely assume so, but neither he nor Nephi actually reference it as having inspired them. There’s no nod back to it in Ch. 8. Although Lehi does teach his family of the effects of Adam and Eve’s choices in the Garden of Eden in 2 Nephi 2-3, before he passes away.
Holland, J.R. (1997). Christ and the New Covenant. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
Musa, M. (2003). The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: The Inferno. New York, New York: Penguin Books.
Swift, Charles. (2005). Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life: Understanding the Dream as Visionary Literature. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 14 (2), (pp. 52–63, 74–75). Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute.
Chapter 7 involves Lehi’s further revelation from the Lord to return once again ( a fourth time) to Jerusalem in order to persuade another family to journey into the wilderness with them. This was done so that “his sons should take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise” (1 Nephi 7:1). I imagine Laman and Lemuel selfishly complaining, “Dad, can you please get any and all further revelations for things we need back in Jerusalem, because we risk being caught each time we go anywhere near that city. You know, complete all of them in one trip!” Understanding the Lord’s way is not their chosen forté.
Ishmael’s family is approached as the candidates for journeying with them, and Nephi reports quick success, for they “did gain favor in the sight of Ishmael…insomuch that the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with [them] down into the wilderness to the tent of our father” (vv. 4-5). What did they tell him? I suppose, which is all we can do here, that granted the visionary and prophetic effect the spiritual contents of the brass plates had on Lehi and Nephi, it had something to do with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as the destruction of Jerusalem (Joseph Smith declared elsewhere that Ishmael was of Ephraimite lineage, so the Book of Mormon was written by both tribes as Lehi’s sons married Ishmael’s daughters, hence fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy mentioned last week in ch. 37 (Ludlow, 199)). Despite the spiritual persuasion, the majority of the caravan (led by Laman and Lemuel) soon speaks out against Nephi, Sam, Ishmael and his wife and three of his daughters, and the idea of the trip in general (vv.6-7). Nephi can’t believe that his brothers are not only not believing, but now souring the attitude and intentions of the whole group with wanting to return to Jerusalem.
He asks them how it’s at all possible that they don’t listen to the word of the Lord as revealed through Lehi and the Spirit; and that he, their younger brother, should have to be an example (vv. 8-9) to them in obeying the Lord’s commands (traditionally, the eldest inherits the father’s possessions, or the birthright, as illustrated by Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Ephraim and Manessah inheriting birthrights because the eldest abdicates the birthright by disobedience). Actually, that seems to be why Nephi is chosen of the Lord in place of his brothers, he prayed and humbled himself to know for himself that the Lord had spoken to his father. He then asks three questions centered on the word forgotten, neither of these instances cited in the Topical Guide or the Index. How could they forget they’d seen an angel, forget the Lord spared their lives from Laban and also gotten the records, and forget the “the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercize faith in him?” (vv.10-12). Then he says, so, let’s be faithful!
He continues by saying, look guys, the Spirit isn’t inspiring the people of Jerusalem anymore, they’ve thrown Jeremiah in prison, killed other prophets, and tried to kill our own father. They’ve got hard hearts and blind minds, and I guess so do you if you really value their lifestyle more than the inspired one we will live out here. There’s a promised land waiting for us, and you want to live in a city incurring God’s judgment and becoming easy prey to foreign empires? Go back if you want to , but remember you’ll die right along with them. Being enraged, his brothers tied him up and left him for the beasts. They didn’t have the guts to kill him themselves.
Here again, Nephi remembers the Lord, unlike his myopic brothers who forget (is it the curse of the namesake, manasseh flaring up here?) continually: “O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound” (v.17). Nephi believes not in himself, but utterly in the Lord. Power accompanies him because he believes in the Lord, something true, beyond the finiteness of their human minds and mortality of their bodies which would die in a couple days if not sustained by food of course. As a human being, he’s limited in being able to sustain himself and effect change in the environment around him. But the Lord, the creator of Heaven and earth, and his body and mind by extension of the human procreative powers and having been created in God’s image, convinced him he should utterly trust the Lord to help him obey His own commandments. Nephi doesn’t reiterate that famous statement of his (1 Nephi 3:7) here, that he learned by spiritual experience to believe the Lord provides a way to obey, but it would fit perfectly.
Angry that he broke free and called them out for rebelling against the Lord’s commands, they rush at him once more but are denied the chance of harming him because Ishmael’s wife, daughter, and one son successfully defused the tension, softening Laman and Lemuel’s hearts (v. 19-20). This to the point of sorrowing and bowing down before him not in the attitude of submission, says one scholar, but “as an act of apology…for the wrong they had done” (Nibley). Even though they are older brothers to Nephi, it seems hard to believe that prostrating oneself before someone is anything less than submission. On the other hand, they deferred to three of Ishmael’s family members as they plead for the stop to the contention, and not to Nephi, so maybe Nibley correctly interprets this event. They asked Nephi to forgive them, and he did not only “frankly forgive them all that they had done” but “[he] did exhort them that they would pray unto the Lord their God for forgiveness” (vv.20-21). Pray they did and then go to their father’s tent they also did.
Deferring to Ishmael’s daughter highlights a common cultural occurrence, apparently: “this is a thing that no Arab under any circumstance can resist. If a mother or daughter from another tribe pleads, you are under obligation – even if it is your worst enemy” (Nibley). Recall a few centuries earlier when Abigail, the wife of the man (Nabal) who rebuffed David’s plea for food, water, and sheep to support his small military band, interceded by pleading that David and his armed men forgive Nabal’s denial of assistance to them (1 Samuel 25). David, on the warpath, accepted her offer, as much as did Laman and Lemuel (although the circumstances and offended parties differ markedly).
So, we see Nephi, heeding the Spirit and the Lord before he heeds anyone else. And Ishmael’s family sees this, not only Nephi’s family, and steps in to help out.
That is strength…and faith; faith enough to live confidently as God commands and to know of the ‘mysteries’ of God, as he stated in chapter 1:1, that bring joy to Lehi and himself. They prayed, with plenty of ignorance and faith, to know what to do in their troubled times. And here, we have Nephi praying unto the Lord for help with his stubborn and prideful, not to mention dangerous, elder brothers. In the midst of their repentance and appropriate sacrificial offerings offered on safe return to Lehi’s tent, another ‘mystery’ unfolded to Lehi’s view.
PS – As an aside to the first seven chapters of 1 Nephi, which opened with Lehi’s vision of a heavenly council, “the Hebrew term for the council and the Hebrew word for “mystery” are the same—unmistakably indicating that, in the ancient concept, the divine mysteries were the confidential matters of the heavenly council, disclosed only to a few” (Peterson). Lehi, Nephi, and perhaps Jeremiah, were some of the few granted access to such heavenly revelations at the time, their faith not excluded form the revelatory process. It also reminds me of Abraham’s righteous desires (Abraham 1:2-5) despite his wicked father.
Ludlow, D. (1979). A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.
Nibley, H. Teachings of the Book of Mormon. Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute.
Peterson, D. 1 Nephi 1-7. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute.