Summary Report

Question 1: What political and religious contexts are relevant to understanding 1 Nephi 1? Who are the “many prophets” referenced in verse 4? For Lehi, what might a contemporary understanding of “a messiah” have looked like?

The political context of 1 Nephi 1 is complex and, for Judah, precarious. Assyrian domination of the region was coming to an end as Babylonian strength increased. The Assyrian decline led to unrest as Babylon and Egypt fought for control of Judah. Jerusalem eventually fell to the Babylonians (see 2 Kings 24–25). This resulted in the installation of Zedekiah as something of a Babylonian puppet king in 597 BCE (see 1 Nephi 1:4).

The reforms of King Josiah (see 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34) in 622 BCE provide the most important religious context for 1 Nephi 1. Josiah’s efforts to refurbish the temple led to the discovery of a lost scroll that apparently contained something akin to the book of Deuteronomy. The prophetess Huldah proclaimed the word of the Lord in relation to this lost text, and in response, Josiah purged the temple of idols and reinstituted the celebration of Passover. These dramatic reformations, taking place in Lehi’s own lifetime, would have profoundly shaped Lehi’s own religious experience.

Adding to this context, 1 Nephi 1:4 refers to “many prophets.”1 The group who lived during the time might include some of the prophets whose names are known from the Hebrew Bible, including Zepha­ niah (see Zephaniah 1:1), Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 1:1), Huldah (see 2 Kings 22:14), Nahum (see Nahum 1:1), Daniel (see Daniel 1:6), Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 1:3), and Urijah (Jeremiah 26:20). Of course, this verse could also include others who go unmentioned. Clearly, the definition of prophet in these verses differs from the modern Latter­day Saint understanding, which permits but one prophet, or president, at a time. Having multiple prophets in this context indicates that they filled a different role—one that, rather than being executive, centered on their call to preach and write.

Similarly, the use of the term messiah in 1 Nephi 1 may depart in some ways from modern expectations. The word messiah first occurs in the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 1:19, where Lehi preaches about “the coming of a Messiah.” Though modern readers are accustomed to think almost exclusively about Jesus Christ as the Messiah, here the indefinite article speaks of a messiah and not of the Messiah. The use of an indefinite article at this early point in the narrative raises questions about how much Lehi then understood about who or what the Messiah would be.

Our English word messiah comes from the Hebrew māšîah. , meaning “anointed one.” It shares the same basic meaning as the Greek term Christ. A messiah is a person who has been called of God to perform a particular task or mission. In these general terms, the Bible refers to a number of individuals beside Jesus Christ as messiahs. For example, Cyrus, king of Persia, is called “[my] anointed” by the Lord in Isaiah 45:1, and the kings of Israel—including Saul (1 Samuel 24:6) and David (2 Samuel 22:51)—are called “anointed.” While some references to messiah in the Old Testament seem to refer directly to Jesus Christ, it is difficult to determine how clearly people at the time understood the specifics of Christ’s mission.

What might Lehi have understood by the term messiah at the time he received the visions recounted by Nephi in 1 Nephi 1? Passages of Hebrew scripture, like 1 Samuel 2:10, emphasize a messiah as one full of power and might: “And he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.” It could be that Lehi first understood the promise of a messiah in this more general and political way. Lehi’s visions and preaching, as Nephi recounts them, are tightly focused on the destruction of Jerusalem, the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylon, and the possibility of their collective redemption from captivity.

Regardless, Nephi’s editorial choice to retain what was likely his father’s own use of the indefinite article with respect to the “coming of a Messiah” is intriguing. This choice indicates that a careful, diachronic examination of the Nephite understanding of Christ’s person and mission—in both Nephi’s record and the Book of Mormon as a whole—could yield rich returns.

Question 2: What does Nephi’s heavy editorial presence in 1 Nephi 1 say about the nature of his project? How does this presence shape our understanding of who Nephi is? What anxieties might this heavy editorial presence disclose?

When compared with the opening words of the Bible, the opening words of the Book of Mormon betray an explicit obsession with authorship. In Genesis, the narrative lacks self­reference, and it never announces a specific plan for the story it intends to tell. Nephi, on the other hand, consistently interrupts his narrative with notes about his own peculiar circumstances, his inspired intentions for the record, his hopes for his readers, and his worries about whether he can fulfill his authorial responsibilities. The result is an unusual text for scripture. As readers, we not only know who the author of the text is, we hear him speak in personal terms and directly address the reader with a second­person “you”—though it is not clear at the outset of the record who that “you” is (see 1 Nephi 1:20).

In 1 Nephi 1, Nephi often shifts from narrative report to editorial address. He tells us who he and his family are (v. 1). He tells us about his education, including his language and culture (vv. 1–2). He tells us of his difficulties, but also of the divine favor he has experienced (v. 1). He insists that he is the one who personally made this record (vv. 1, 3, 16–18). He reports on his intention to abridge his father’s writings and provides a basic outline of the whole of his first book (vv. 16–17). He tells his readers in advance what he hopes to show them (vv. 1, 20) and emphasizes what he wants them to know (v. 18). And he testifies that what he means to show his readers is based on firsthand experience (v. 3). That Nephi insists on saying so much about himself and his intentions is, in some ways, as instructive as what Nephi actually says in his editorial asides.

Nephi is deeply concerned with his work as an author and acutely anxious about its being received in the right way. Presumably some of Nephi’s anxiety derives from his knowledge of the prophetic tradition (he knows the writings of Isaiah and, probably, Jeremiah). Nephi seems anxious to put himself into relation with and yet keep a certain distance from that tradition. In Isaiah and Jeremiah, the writings of the prophets begin with a clear formula: “The word of the Lord unto. . .” But Nephi avoids this standard formula. Betraying his concern about the relationship between his book and theirs and wanting to convince us that he is no prophetic usurper, Nephi begins instead with “I, Nephi…” It is possible to read Nephi’s work as originally being written for his children and only later becoming a book of prophecy. In the first place, then, 1 Nephi 1 is originally more a record for the Lamanites and Nephites than it is for us.

However we read the first chapter’s opening, the shift at its conclusion—from a kind of family history to a testimony of the Messiah— retroactively changes the book’s beginning. Even if Nephi sets out to write family history, the entire book ends up becoming a testimony of a messiah­to­come. With this retroaction, what has been Nephi’s anxiety about his own reputation and extended family is transformed into anxiety about his standing as a prophet and about the souls of his readers.

It becomes the anxiety proper to a prophet trying to fulfill his commission, not just the anxiety of a grandfather hoping to help children and great­grandchildren.

Nephi’s original anxiety, though, is not out of place. As a refugee and immigrant to an unfamiliar world, Nephi is reasonably concerned about his identity and how to pass on that sense of identity to his children. Even living in Jerusalem, he was out of place: a northern tribesman living in the area of the southern tribes. In the New World, he has been separated even from that immigrant identity.

Finally, it is important to remember that 1 Nephi 1 is not the beginning Mormon intended for the Book of Mormon. It became the beginning only because Mormon’s chosen beginning (Lehi’s “116 pages”) was lost. That bit of reshuffling forcefully reminds us that there is, inevitably, a human element at work in scripture. This same reminder echoes in Nephi’s own opening words: “I, Nephi.” The Book of Mormon—as we have it—thus opens with its human dimension doubly emphasized.

Question 3: Why, in his account of his father’s visions, does Nephi repeatedly defer and displace crucial information about his father’s call and the content

of his father’s revelations? What might this tendency toward deferral and displacement say, in general, about the role of written texts in revelation? What might it say, in particular, about the role of the Book of Mormon?

First Nephi 1 raises difficult questions about why crucial information is often deferred or displaced in our inspired records, and it raises these questions on a number of levels. Nephi’s explicit announcement that his record will select, omit, and abridge prompts a consideration of the general role of selection and omission in revelation, and more, it prompts a reconsideration of the role played by the missing plates from which Joseph Smith initially translated the text of the Book of Mormon.

Nephi admits up front that he will not be telling us everything: “And now I Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written” (1 Nephi 1:16). Further, he explains that his purposeful selections are guided by his desire to summarize “the things of God. For the fullness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham” (1 Nephi 6:3–4). Thus, we are told that his selections and omissions have something to do with his broader pur­ pose in writing a sacred history that will have a powerful effect on his readers. Are redaction and abridgment necessary to this effect? Would omitted details have been merely extraneous? Or were they left aside reluctantly because of the burden involved in engraving the plates?

A close look at the first chapter showcases this problem. Without access to the lost book of Lehi or the original plates, it is impossible to determine with precision the meaning of Nephi’s selections and redactions. For example, given what Nephi does tell us, we are left to wonder where Lehi is going in such a hurry as he prays on behalf of his people (1 Nephi 1:5). Having heard the prophets cry repentance, is he going to repent? If so, where? Why are we told so little about what he “saw and heard” in his first vision (v. 6)? And why, when Lehi does have a chance to converse with the “one” who descends from heaven, does the “one” give Lehi a book to read instead of speaking to him directly (vv. 9–11)? Nephi’s accounts of these visions suggest much in what they do not tell. They suggest that, like Lehi, we cannot bypass our responsibility to read, interpret, and wrestle with the word of the Lord in order to gain access to his presence, even were he to be present in person. In this sense, the absence of the golden plates suggests that, similarly, we will not prove the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness by reconstructing its context or demonstrating that it can be plausibly incorporated into the sweep of secular history. The reader must confront the text itself and respond to its demands. The presence of the plates, like the presence of the Lord himself to Lehi, would not absolve our responsibility to read, interpret, and wrestle with what is written—and the absence of both the plates and the physical presence of the Lord redoubles that responsibility.

Of course, once we become aware of omissions in the text, we begin to notice them everywhere. For example, Lehi’s second vision (see vv. 8–15) specifies that he saw the “one” descend from heaven and that “twelve others” followed, but these figures are never identified. Is the “one” Jesus, and are the “twelve” his original apostles? Or, as might be more appropriate to Lehi’s time and place, is the “one” that same God whom Lehi sees sitting on his throne, and are the “twelve” representative of the twelve tribes? Does Nephi not know who they are? Or if he does, why does he not tell us? Is Lehi’s vision proleptically Christian or thoroughly Jewish?

Or we might take an even starker example. Nephi’s account of his father’s second vision stretches in some detail over the span of eight verses. We are told later on, as Lehi is preaching, that the things Lehi reads in the book in his vision “manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah and also the redemption of the world” (v. 19), but Nephi’s detailed account of the vision itself never mentions a messiah at any point. Why displace this information from the vision itself? Why defer its inclusion until his summary of Lehi’s preaching? Why mention it only in passing and after the fact? Similarly, why omit from his version of his father’s visions any account of his father receiving a formal call as a prophet bearing the word of the Lord? Again, we are told after the fact and in passing in 1 Nephi 2:1 that Lehi was officially commissioned like Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:8–9)—but why displace this information from his account of the vision itself? Nephi appears to have purposefully omitted from his initial account of his father’s visions what we might consider its two most important elements: God’s promise of a messiah and Lehi’s explicit commission as a prophet.

These questions need further consideration, but ultimately they suggest that selection, omission, deferral, and displacement are at the heart of scripture. Scripture is impossible without them. Revelation proceeds not just by way of addition but also by way of subtraction. In order to be revealed, something must be foregrounded. But in order to be foregrounded, that same thing must be selected and separated. And thisprocessofselectionandabridgmentisalso,necessarily,aprocess that involves omission and deferral. In order to give with one hand, God must take with the other. In order to show us one thing (for example, the Book of Mormon), God must displace another (for example, the golden plates). Nephi’s omissions highlight our responsibility as readers to read carefully—and to do so with awareness of our limitations and of the text’s freedom to displace our desires and expectations.

Question 4: What does it mean to be made “mighty, even unto the power of deliverance,” and how is the character of this deliverance clarified by the promise of “tender mercies” (1 Nephi 1:20)? What relationship does such deliverance have to the ongoing experience of loss and affliction (see v. 1)?

Nephi interrupts his narrative of Lehi’s prophetic career in Jerusalem at a critical moment. He interrupts his account of an audience angry enough to want Lehi dead to restate and clarify the aims of his theological project. Nephi’s direct, second­person address is arresting: “But behold, I Nephi will shew unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord is over all them whom he hath chosen because of their faith to make them mighty, even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). While Nephi explains his approach, we wait in suspense: will Lehi be “cast out and stoned and slain” by the Jews in Jerusalem as the “prophets of old” (v. 20)? The incongruity between Nephi’s confidence and Lehi’s plight propels us to interpretative work. When Nephi resumes the narrative, Lehi receives another vision in which God commands him to “depart into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:2). Obeying this commandment averts Lehi’s premature death, yet the cost is that Lehi must leave his home, land, and inheritance. Deliverance comes at a high price. And rather than involving a mighty display of power, deliverance involves Lehi sneaking quietly out of town. What is Nephi claiming here about God’s “power of deliverance”?

One way of answering these questions is to consider the meaning and function of the Lord’s “tender mercies” in this deliverance. The phrase tender mercies is not unique to the Book of Mormon. The phrase appears ten times in the psalms of the King James Bible (1611). It entered English scriptural idiom through Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible in 1535. The English reformers employed the phrase ten-der mercies to render the Hebrew word rah. ămîm, an intensive, plural nominal form of the verb rāh. am meaning “to love, have compassion.” The root of the various forms and cognates of rh. m refers to an intense, visceral love, the love that a mother has for a child of her womb and, by extension, the love that God feels for his creation, particularly for those in covenantal relation with him. The completely dependent nature of the baby activates the mother’s tender care, protective compassion, and perpetual mercy—characteristics of God’s nature as revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful [rah. ûm] and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [h. esed] and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The theology of grace in the Hebrew Bible is rooted in God’s self­description and is articulated in Israel’s praises and prayers, especially in the psalms. Israel learns through repeated suffering, captivity, and disobedience that “knowledge of God’s character and the mysterious way of God’s providence wins out over political expediency.”2 Although divine compassion prevails over divine judg­ ment and transforms Israel’s external circumstances, “the ultimate expression of divine compassion is the mending” of their internal dispositions.3 In verse 20, Nephi evokes this theology of grace and offers to teach us about this divine mystery: the role of suffering affliction and exercising faith in becoming favored or chosen of God, a paradox that he introduces at the beginning of his record in verse 1.

In the first verse of 1 Nephi 1, Nephi claims to have been given “a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God.” This knowledge is closely tied to his experience of “many afflictions.” The structure of this verse is complex but instructive. The structure depends on the repetition of two key words: therefore and having. The word therefore is repeated twice and divides the verse into two parallel sec­ tions: (1) “having been born . . . therefore I was taught,” and (2) “having seen many afflictions . . . therefore I make a record.” This is straightforward, but Nephi also feels moved to clarify his experience of afflictions with the addition of two qualifications: “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days, yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God . . .” His experience of affliction, although taxing, was conditioned by his simultaneous experience of God’s favor. Though he was afflicted, nevertheless he was “highly favored.”

The “mysteries of God” revealed to Nephi center on his “nevertheless.” How is it possible to both suffer afflictions and be highly favored of the Lord? Nephi’s “nevertheless” names in a single word the kind of mighty deliverance the Lord promises to send and the form that his tender mercies will take. God’s mercy and deliverance will arrive in conjunction with the experiences of loss and affliction rather than as any simple freedom from these experiences. God’s mercy is tender because it is both sensitive to our needs and vulnerable to life’s losses and bruises. Rather than eliminating our troubles, God’s power works with and through them to make sure that, whatever we suffer, his saving favor will have “never been less” as a result.

 


NOTES

1. Throughout this volume, we have used Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) for our base text, providing a note wherever we have used another edition

2. Michael P. Knowles, ThUnfolding Mystery othe DivinName: T hGod oSinain Our Midst (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 68.

3. Knowles, UnfoldinMysterof the Divine Name, 70.