The Missing Medium:
Rereading Revelation as Interruption in 1 Nephi 1

What is revelation? How does one receive it? If revelation can be understood as a divine process for disclosing or manifesting what was previously hidden or unknown, then in what way can we modern readers receive the text of the Book of Mormon—but not the golden plates that revealed them? How, if at all, are we to read this book in light of the fact that the Book of Mormon is a message missing its original medium? This essay seeks in the text of 1 Nephi 1 a fresh reframing and rethinking of these questions. It advances the thesis that we should understand revelation itself as a form of interruption. The essay’s argument has three parts: a reading of the text, a comment on two forms of revelation (the saying and the said), and a few concluding speculations.1

Text

Let us begin with a puzzle. What do the following events have in common:

  • the coming Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem
  • the dislocation of Lehi’s vision from outside of Jerusalem to his home
  • Nephi’s remarkable textual self­consciousness as an author
  • Lehi’s visionary encounter with the “one” who gives him a book
  • the originally intended order of the books in the Book of Mormon
  • Martin Harris’s loss of the book of Lehi
  • Joseph Smith’s translation of the plates by looking away from them

The answer, as is probably already obvious, is that in each example revelation appears in the form of an interruption—that is, revelation appears as a divine indirection that disrupts our lives and compels us to take another hard look. The following section chronicles these and other textual moments of interest in 1 Nephi 1 that prompt the reader to do exactly that.

The Book of Mormon begins as remarkably as any work of modern scripture—namely, the first four verses arrest modern readers’ sensibilities with the specificity of claims to authorship, chronology, location, and purpose. A fair portion of ancient scripture—such as Genesis and the Gospels, save Luke—employs an omniscient third­person narrator that strands at sea any historical­critical scholarly search for an anchor as fast as that provided by 1 Nephi 1:1–4. Millennia intervene between modern readers and the original texts. The Book of Mormon, appearing in a surge of revelatory translation, disrupts that tradition from its first note—and that note is a veritable power chord of clarity.

First Nephi 1 bursts forth declaring its first­person author—“I Nephi” (v. 1)—who adds five distinct claims about his authorship in the heading and first three verses: (1) The heading finishes with the third­person claim that “this is according to the hand of Nephi,” which suddenly shifts without comment into (2) a direct, first­person claim to authorship: “I Nephi wrote this record” (heading). (3) Verse 1 concludes with another potent first­person claim: “Therefore I make a record,” which refers to Nephi having inscribed the plates by hand as well as his having quite possibly fashioned them metallurgically. Then verse 3 doubles Nephi’s claim of the records he makes “to be true,” according to the earliest translated text, by underscoring both the ontological and epistemological processes of making a record: (4) “I make it with mine own hand,” and (5) “I make it according to my knowledge.”

These five claims amount to a surprisingly self­conscious initial defense of Nephi’s relationship to the plates; indeed, it is not until 1 Nephi 9:3 that the reader encounters a more conventional justification of scripture, when Nephi claims, “I have received a commandment of the Lord that I should make these [small] plates.” It seems that Nephi, writing as king of his people, clearly understands his role as self­conscious author from the outset but comes to understand his role as revelator only with time (and I know of no work that clarifies how much time that may have been, although it is likely not much).

In 1 Nephi 1:4, Nephi further anchors his narrative in startlingly specific coordinates of person, place, and time—namely, “Lehi,” who is “in Jerusalem” during “the first year of the reign of Zedekiah.” This verse situates the narrative in relation to two themes coursing throughout Nephi’s life and work: the problem of sustaining political kingship in a particular space paired with the problem of sustaining family lineage over time. In particular, verse 4 introduces the parallel between Zedekiah’s reign over Judah and King Nephi’s reign in the New World, as well as the chronicle stretching from Lehi’s Jerusalem to Nephi’s failure to hold together his divided family. In order to mark the intersection of these two potent political­theological coordinates, Nephi introduces his father by force of a jarring parenthetical interruption in the syntax of verse 4: “In the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah (my father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all of his days).”2

The book of 1 Nephi arrives in our hands as an already­interrupted book in several other ways. Neither Nephi nor Joseph Smith intended for 1 Nephi to be the first book in the Book of Mormon. Rather, both assumed that the book of Lehi, wherein “[Lehi] hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams” (1 Nephi 1:16), would come first. However, because Martin Harris lost the 116­page translation of the book of Lehi in 1828, the beginning is missing.3 Even before it can say anything, the modern text of 1 Nephi 1 finds itself out of joint, now launching the very narrative—Lehi’s story—its author meant only to continue.

Joseph Smith’s translation of 1 Nephi 1 also outlines an interrupted process; namely, the loss of the book of Lehi appears to have delayed Joseph Smith from translating 1 and 2 Nephi until after he had successfully translated from Mosiah to Mormon (Joseph translated the Words of Mormon last). Whatever the reader’s preferred explanation for the prominence of 1 Nephi 1 (for example, divine foreknowledge is plausibly hinted at in 1 Nephi 9:5: “The Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not”), we may observe that to assume it was foreknown that the book of Lehi would go missing is also to diagnose the profound self­consciousness the record brings to itself as a translated record in particular and as a record of any shape or form.

The story of Lehi speaking the words of a book received from a heavenly messenger foreshadows the revelatory process by which Joseph Smith would translate the plates he received from the earth under angelic guidance. The interrupted quality of Lehi’s first vision resembles Joseph Smith’s visionary translation of the plates: both angelic messengers give young founding prophets books to read, and only after some expectant waiting period (the “one” in 1 Nephi 1:9 stands mute before Lehi for an unspecified period, and Joseph waits from 1823 to 1827 before receiving the plates). For all who struggle to read the Book of Mormon, it is suggestive that the book itself, both in the text and as a translation, begins with a story about readers caught off guard.

It is also curious that, with the exceptions of the grounding points of the rock under the pillar of fire and his bed, Lehi’s first vision refuses to stay still: the man initially is moved by “many prophets” (1 Nephi 1:4) to leave the temple in Jerusalem to pray, repent, and offer up a burnt sacrifice on a stone altar “in behalf of his people” (v. 5). There he experiences a vision, wherein he is visited by “a pillar of fire” that “dwelt upon a rock before him” (v. 6), suggesting both an amplified sacrificial altar as well as the sentinel of clouds and fire by which the Lord led Moses and the children of Israel out of ancient Egypt. Lehi, overwhelmed by whatever it is that he “saw and heard” (v. 6), then dislocates his vision by returning to his house at Jerusalem, where he casts himself upon his bed, “overcome with the Spirit,” and is then “carried away in a vision” (see vv. 7–8). Lehi’s first vision thus appears as a single experience broken across two sites: first, his vision of the pillar of fire was presumably outside the city, and second, his throne theophany was presumably on his bed. The divided first vision leads to the eventual consequence of disrupting and then rending his family as they depart into the wilderness and sail to the New World, but not until Lehi himself interrupts their migration to send his sons to Jerusalem twice, each time for a different means of sustaining lineages: first scriptures and then spouses. In Nephi’s retrospective retelling of his divided family, Laman and Lemuel do not complain about the return trip for spouses, although they do complain about Nephi’s preoccupation with scripture.

The earliest incident in 1 Nephi 1, Lehi’s first vision, is remarkable for the sort of swell of senses that redirects both Lehi and the reader away from the source of an ecstatic vision and toward vocalizing or saying of a “book” (1 Nephi 1:11). Lehi begins by ostensibly leaving Jerusalem’s borders where, kneeling before the pillar of fire, he “saw and heard much” (v. 6), but without beholding or listening to anything Nephi saw fit to report. Next, exhausted in his bed, Lehi is “overcome” and begins experiencing a vision literally—that is, visually—as he first “saw the heavens open” (v. 8) and then faces the blindingly bright “luster” of the “one” (v. 9); the visual overstimulation of the vision is owed not only to the light being brighter than the sun but also to its possible timing at night, when Lehi, in bed, would have witnessed the nocturnal pillar of fire that appeared by night to Moses in Egypt. So bright is the light that Lehi appears not to have a full command of his other senses: Nephi reports that Lehi only “thought” (v. 8) he saw God sitting on the throne. Lehi also appears to see without hearing “numberless concourses of angels,” who were only “in the attitude” (v. 8), or the visible posture, of praising and singing. It is only after the “one” stands before him, saying nothing at all, that it becomes plausible that Lehi may not be able to hear anything.

Perhaps unable to hear, Lehi is invited to read instead. “Overcome,” Lehi has an expectation of conversation that is broken by the “one” handing him a book. The “one” redirects this mute “visionary man,” as Lehi later calls himself (1 Nephi 5:4), to a book that Lehi, as a learned Jew, can read out loud. Receiving a book in vision redirects Lehi’s attention away from what I will call in a moment the saying of conversation and toward the reading of the said record. As was common for his time and place, Lehi probably did not subvocalize or read silently. To read a text was to vocalize, or to convert symbols that can be seen on the space of a page into sounds with a voice, a process that takes time. Only in the cognitively demanding act of reading do sight, audition, and vocalization combine in the culminating moment in which Nephi reports that Lehi “read[s], saying . . .” His utterance “woe woe unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations” (1 Nephi 1:13) gives his own voice, breath, or spirit to the Hebrew consonants or Egyptian hieroglyphs that likely populate the page. (Though, if Joseph Smith is taken as precedent, perhaps Lehi was translating from a language he could not himself have read.) Only by the disciplined act of sounding out his reading of the book is Lehi not “overcome” with the Spirit as before but, instead, is “filled with the Spirit of the Lord” (v. 12). Once well received, the Spirit empowers him not only to see but to hear, and thus to speak and write; that is, not only to receive but to speak revelation as well. His first vision is not a conversation, however. There is no give and take. Lehi talks to—not with—the “one” by praising him (see v. 14).

The sensory shift in Lehi’s vision may be compared to that of the prophet in Isaiah 6: in Isaiah, only by touching to his lips the hot coal given to him can the prophet not only “hear” but “understand,” not only “see” but “perceive,” and “understand with [his] heart and convert, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9–10). Only by receiving a book can Lehi shift from hearing to understanding, seeing to perceiving, beholding the “one” to uttering to others a message of destruction. In particular, only after reading and seeing can Lehi vocally “exclaim” unto the Lord (see 1 Nephi 1:14). And only by vocalizing the word does Lehi manage to snap out of ecstatic rapture and into action. If one grants, as some rabbis claim, that the hot coal in Isaiah 6:6–7 is a metaphor for scripture, what begins as a vision ends, for both Isaiah and Lehi, with a purification of the physical body by way of a revelatory text.

Many questions remain about the sensory denouement of Lehi’s vision. Was Lehi’s utterance a quotation, a translation, or a gloss of the book he read? What book was Lehi given: a Deuteronomic book of law by which he could infer Jerusalem’s sin, a Book of the Living registering their actual sins, an account of the future destruction of Jerusalem, or perhaps even a record of the “many things” (1 Nephi 1:13) Lehi would later transcribe into his own book? The text cannot answer these questions, for Nephi interrupts in verse 16 to report that, since his own record is limited, he must abridge his father’s account. Stirred by the prophets, Lehi seeks and finds his own revelation,

but rather than conversing with the “one,” he disciplines his own overwhelmed senses into the vocal­literate register of the ancient literate scholar, whose importance Nephi showcases in verse 2 as “the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” Lehi’s first vision may model the kind of revelatory reading by which Joseph Smith would translate the Book of Mormon, receiving revelation from a book that has left, for us, no material trace, but whose presence was enough to prompt the “seer” to speak what he read. In other words, Lehi’s vision offers a case study in learning how to receive revelation by indirection. Lehi’s experience suggests how we might all understand that reading a book given to us from heaven is a revelatory act—revelation that may at first exhaust our senses before pointing us in new and surprising directions. As Lehi’s vision shows, revelation does not turn our attention only to what God and his prophets may yet say; rather, God stands before us waiting patiently for us to read what has already been said. Revelation arrives in ways we may not be ready to receive or perceive. Perhaps to receive revelation is also to speak it; that is, perhaps by interpreting what he read, Lehi began his own process of revelation by interruption.

By interruption I mean any form of divine indirection that disrupts an ongoing message and at once interjects another message in its place. Revelation, like interruption, disrupts our old habits and at once interjects new meaning into our lives. If, in fact, revelation is to have meaning, it must disrupt our lives, unbinding the past and opening new possibilities. First Nephi 1 suggests that revelation also often comes by way of interruption: not only the message but the media that reveal messages do so by means and to effects few can anticipate. For Lehi and for us, revelation suspends our sense of the everyday and in the process reanimates what once appeared ordinary. In structure, historical context, storyline, translation process, and syntax, revelation by interruption is frequent in 1 Nephi 1. Inspiration by indirection is a consistent theme.

Analysis

This section complicates the thesis outlined above by observing that at least two interpenetrating categories of interruption take place in 1 Nephi 1: the revelatory experience of the saying and the record keeping of the said. Both forms of revelation—what may in the future be said and what has already been said to be revelation—are modeled in the interrupted text, context, structure, and style of 1 Nephi 1. I am borrowing and adapting the terms the saying and the said from the work of Emmanuel Levinas—among the great twentieth­century philosophers, ethicists, and Talmudic commentators—as well as the media philosopher and Levinas interpreter Amit Pinchevski.4 I understand the revelatory experience of the saying to be a prerational, mystical act of receiving insight, such as an ecstatic vision. And I understand the revealed artifact or rational record based on this saying, such as a book of law, to be the said. This distinction is somewhat akin to that of the Dionysian and Apollonian in Western thought and literature. The saying, in my reworking of Levinas’s terminology, is that which opens oneself to another being in a preoriginal, personal, ecstatic (as in out­of­body, not joyous) experience. The said, on the other hand, closes, contains, concretizes, and publicizes the relationship between that saying and the recipient. Thinkers from Moses to Plato to Spinoza to Derrida have dwelled on the complicated role of the prophet in oral and literate cultures as the mouthpiece and the scribe of the Lord. By contrast, the moral teachers from Socrates to Jesus to Confucius, all literate, left the writing of their teachings to their students. Suffice it to observe here that the sayings of the Spirit scramble and open the senses in the theophanies of Moses and Lehi, while the said revelation of stone tablets and brass plates fixes and regulates the traditions that follow those same prophets.

At first glance, 1 Nephi 1 balances both forms of revelation. The saying appears in the form of Lehi’s first vision as an ecstatic and overwhelming event in need of interpretation (Nephi offers only that he “saw and heard much”), while the said appears in Nephi’s record and today in the text of the Book of Mormon itself as a planned, abridged, and already­extant interpretation of the plates. The whole chapter is framed by Nephi’s deep anxiety about record keeping, about preserving the said, writings so important the Spirit constrains him as a young man in the Old World to kill for them (4:5–19) and, as a mature king in the New World, to live for them.

These distinct senses of revelation also interpenetrate one another. For Nephi, the golden plates are not just the static, fixed said. For him, the embodied experience of having personally inscribed and possibly fashioned the plates is no less a part of the revelatory process. The experience of revelatory writing renders the plates true for Nephi. In other words, in verses 1–3, Nephi is literally saying the said. His self­consciousness as an author becomes a plain witness of his own firsthand experience of the act of making records. Now consider the content of Nephi’s first record: Lehi’s overwhelming encounter with the pillar of fire and his sublime and terrible discovery of the city’s coming destruction. This revelation is no simple, ecstatic receiving of the saying—new heavenly content—for it culminates and in fact cannot be received until Lehi too can be caught saying the said, this time by reading a book out loud. As verse 12 pithily puts the peak moment: “He read, saying . . .” This is not just the son writing what his father said; rather, Nephi writes his record (the said) about revelations (the sayings) the father read in other records (another said). Reading and writing and speaking and saying are bound up in one another. In these few verses, Nephi cannot say all that has been said (he abridges his father’s record) because he personally says the said by inscribing and fashioning the plates firsthand. Similarly, Lehi cannot hear the “one” speaking to him until he too says the said by reading out loud a record received in vision.

This is the key theme: revelation comes by the various combinations of the saying and the said. By speaking out loud the records until we can speak for ourselves and by experiencing the writing of records firsthand, by reading ecstatically and by speaking forth records, our own lives can be interrupted by revelations. To capture this dual nature of the saying/said revelation, Lehi and Nephi offer in 1 Nephi 1 a new image that is a companion to the hot coal of the prophet in Isaiah 6, the burning bush of Moses in Exodus, and other images for deep texts as fires in Jewish thought—namely, Lehi’s “pillar of fire,” whose dynamic flame of inspiration dances upon the rock of recorded revelation.

Conclusion

The reading and analysis offered thus far have speculated about how we might understand revelation as interruption. As outlined in this reading of 1 Nephi 1, the call to receive revelation by and as interruption is no lesser standard. It is, if anything, a more challenging mode of revelation. After all, no one likes to be interrupted, except by the answers we already seek. And revelation, if it is to change us, must continually interrupt our lives. To expect otherwise is folly. Yet real comfort awaits in the sustainable scramble that is a revelation­lit life. As John attributes the words to Christ, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7). Our missing media give us cause to celebrate the stubbornly good news that is contemporary revelation: we do not and cannot possess all that has been said, and because of that fact there remains much left to do and say. To that end, three thoughts follow: a note on reading, a note on revelation, and a note on the missing golden plates.

First, the text of 1 Nephi 1 reveals what was too obvious to notice: 1 Nephi 1 is quite possibly the most overread and underexamined chapter in Latter­day Saint scripture. I am not alone among the modern readers of the Book of Mormon who have overlooked the lesson of revelatory interruption in it: after hearing about the two­week seminar behind this volume, a friend joked that she had spent far longer reading and rereading 1 Nephi 1, and in her estimation, to less effect. Between the children, the calendars, and the callings that fill our lives, we return to the book again and again like Lehi at first “hearing and seeing much” without having much to say for it, wondering when we will experience the record anew. Sometimes the best we can get is a pale imitation of revelation by interruption—namely, opening to a page at random and pointing.

But revelation by the pillar of fire promises more. For Lehi, Nephi, and the modern reader alike, the experience of revelatory reading begins with the repentant recognition that the revelation we seek is not absent, carried away to some distant, more glorious, and more real realm, but that it awaits us, hidden in plain view in front of us. It awaits our saying of the said, in the interpretive labor and adventure that is reading first what a text has actually said and then for what it is saying to us here and now.

We may reenvision our own New World heroes in this light: Nephi may be less a muscle­bound paladin hero than he is a displaced Jew­ ish scholar preoccupied with sealing his broken family with a record. He offers a learned bridge to a literary tradition, practicing not faith in written words but the written words of his faith. Nephi may be a fertile “foreign founder,” in Bonnie Honig’s phrase, in terms of his literary heirs—the end of the transmission of his family lineage and the launching of a tradition of New World reading and writing of records, one the modern readership of the Book of Mormon would do well to consider inheriting and likening to ourselves.5

Second, 1 Nephi 1 compels us to rethink the nature of revelation. Understood as interruption, the revelation of saying must always unfold before us (it can only be contemporary), while the records of what has been said provide bedrock upon which the stakes of Zion may be built. The mutual interruption of the said and the saying takes us in revelatory directions that we by definition cannot expect—especially when that direction is to not move at all. A spiritually alert life may rest on the learned capacity to find a gap—and there are many—and then to learn from it. The text’s abundant silences, lapses, and unanswered queries are not the bugs but the features of the human condition that open us for revelation.

If Lehi must look away from the “one” before he can read the heavenly book; if Nephi had to self­consciously abridge his record of his father; if Lehi can forget both scriptures and spouses on his way into the desert; and if Joseph had to look away from the golden plates before he could speak forth the words of the Book of Mormon, then we too need not fret when we sometimes receive unexpected messages by way of unanticipated media. It is folly to imagine, as I note below, that we can discover the golden plates as ancient historians and archaeologists might hope—not because it could not happen, but because it would not be revelation if it did. So too are our expectations dashed ever revealingly, if we will but look, against the interruptions of daily life. When we expect to find an answer in the scriptures, revelation may await us in prayer. When we expect the answer to come in prayer, it may await in the spark of a text. Perhaps no truth can be received and confirmed at once; the completion of revelation—because both the said and the saying overwhelm the present moment—is ever postponed.

This is not only a feature of divine revelation but is also a fixture of our lot as limited, learning, mortal revelators. To say, with a nod to Malachi 3:10, that the heavens have more revelation in store for us than we are prepared to receive is not only to genuflect to the superabundance of heavenly wisdom but is also to recognize our finite capacity to register, process, receive, store, retrieve, and act on revelation by interruption. This is not to place blame for our mortal toils on the imperfect language, texts, and media that stand between mortals and the divine. It is, instead, to celebrate the good news that there will always be more to receive and to say.

Finally, a note on the missing medium of the golden plates. The media theorist and wordsmith Marshall McLuhan once memorably advised that before visiting Russia, the first thing a foreigner should know is that there are no phonebooks in Moscow. His immediate point was that a visitor should have social networks in place before arriving in Russia because Russia works by way of its interpersonal networks. But his larger point was, as it is here, that sometimes it is the missing medium that tells us the most. The same can be said of the missing medium behind the Book of Mormon. It is self­evident that the golden plates are not present and cannot be examined. The thing that matters most about these absent plates, however, is not the instinct that shipwrecks scholars in pursuit of the artifactual origins of the Book of Mormon. The absent plates cannot be what matters most because, by divine indirection, we have no material medium, no golden plates to behold, and no original record to scrutinize.

Moreover, if we insist on examining the Book of Mormon only as a means for indexing truth claims that are external to the book, we risk repeating the very mistaken model of revelation that the Book of Mormon compels us to discard. Revelation cannot be the uncovering of the more original, the more authentic, or the more immediate communion with the mind of God because revelation works by way of interruptions. The text models this. In almost every detail, the text suspends the search for the lost medium and instead asks us to work on the message. Now, I am not suggesting we should wholly ignore the fact that the Book of Mormon is missing its source text. Rather, we need to acknowl­ edge that the missing medium is the necessary port from which to embark on a journey sure to proceed by way of revelatory interruptions. As outlined above, 1 Nephi 1 models how modern readers might respond to the fact that the message is missing its original medium. Like Lehi standing mute before his open vision, like Nephi seeking to extend his heritage with a record, and like Joseph translating plates by peering into a hat, perhaps we too begin to “receive” the message of the Book of Mormon only after first looking away from the medium. The missing medium may lure some readers to search for its imprint or counterproof in Mesoamerican archaeology or ancient history, but once we understand revelation as interruption, we cannot miss the presence of the far greater, if sometimes unbearably mundane, medium that ever interrupts our search for the missing medium: the text of the book itself. It is in working patiently through the specifics of the text that we uncover what was always the already­available revelation, a translated text awaiting the redeeming labor of reading.

 


NOTES

1. I wish to thank James Faulconer, George Handley, Brian Hauglid, John Durham Peters, Amit Pinchevski, Shirley Ricks, Julie M. Smith, Joseph Spencer, Michaël Ulrich, Miranda Wilcox, and others for their comments and conversations.

2. Here and occasionally elsewhere I have used my own punctuation in place of that found in Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

3. If organized chronologically, the Book of Mormon would feature the book of Ether first, might then reference the record of the Mulekites, and only then begin the Lehite and Nephite prophetic traditions.

4. In particular, see Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (Boston: Kluwer, 1981), and especially Amit Pinchevski, By Way of Interruption: Levinas and the Ethics of Communication (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Press, 2005), as well as his recent “Levinas as a Media Theorist: Toward an Ethics of Mediation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 47/1 (2014): 48–72.

5. Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).