1 Nephi 1—7
Daniel C. Peterson
Events in the first seven chapters of 1 Nephi take place in and near Jerusalem. Accordingly, they provide a considerable amount of information that can be checked against what we know of the history and culture of that area in the sixth and seventh centuries before Christ. And the Book of Mormon passes the test beautifully. A few examples will have to suffice here:
1 Nephi 1:2 suggests cultural connections between Egypt and Israel in Lehi and Nephi's time, and these connections seem to be consistent with what scholars are learning. Interestingly, the very name "Nephi" turns out to be authentically Egyptian. Thus, Nephi's claim that his father knew Egyptian is borne out by his own name.
Lehi's wife is named "Sariah." That name does not occur in connection with any woman in the Bible. Yet we now know, as Joseph Smith could not have, that it is authentic. Ancient documents available only many decades after the Prophet's death reveal that a Jewish woman who lived at Elephantine in Upper Egypt (near Aswan) during the fifth century B.C. also bore the name. Intriguingly, this Sariah was a member of a Jewish colony that had built a temple in Elephantine—with the written approval of the high priest at Jerusalem. Why is this significant? Critics of the Book of Mormon have often attacked the idea that any believing Jew would have built another temple, away from Jerusalem, as Nephi and his people did. The Elephantine temple is just one instance of several where we now know that believing Jews could and did do precisely that.
Lehi's vision of God "surrounded with numberless concourses of angels" fits perfectly with current academic research on the concept of the "heavenly council." That notion, though it was long unappreciated by scholars, played a significant role in ancient Jewish belief. Hebrew prophets learned the "mysteries" of God and validated their authority by being allowed to see, hear, and even participate in the heavenly council. In fact, 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.
"He saw One descending out the midst of heaven," reports 1 Nephi 1:9 of Lehi's prophetic call. And then, two verses later, we are told that that personage "came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read." This is a clear instance of what modern scholars recognize as the motif of the "heavenly book," which appears across the ancient Near East, in earliest Christianity, in early Arab-Islamic lore, and, significantly, in the Book of Mormon. Reduced to its simplest form, the motif includes the following elements: (1) A divine being gives a book to a mortal. (2) The mortal is commanded to read the book. (3) He is next told to copy the book. (4) Finally, he is commanded to preach the book's message or content to other mortals. Many more details of this motif appear in the Book of Mormon, details that correspond in remarkable ways with narratives and accounts from the ancient world.
The justification given in 1 Nephi 4:13 for the slaying of Laban—"it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief"—now seems to reflect a principle of Jewish law that goes back to Lehi and Nephi's own specific time. The prime biblical example is found in 2 Samuel 20, where King David and his general, Joab, were seeking the life of Sheba. Sheba took refuge in the city of Abel, and Joab, besieging the city, demanded that the city hand him over. Instead, the people of Abel executed Sheba themselves, and Joab withdrew. This episode became an important legal precedent for killing an individual in order to preserve a group. Ancient Jewish documents report that the story of Sheba and Joab was used to justify turning Jehoiakim, king of Judah, over the Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah became king of Judah just a few months later, and 1 Nephi opens in the first year of Zedekiah's reign.
Research on the writing of sacred texts on metal plates now traces the practice to the very time and place from which Lehi's family came. Indeed, specific details, including the placement of the "title page" of such documents, agree with what Joseph Smith tells us about the Book of Mormon plates. Moreover, a very recent discovery has furnished perhaps the oldest known copy of a text from the Old Testament—on silver plates from Jerusalem, dated to 600 B.C.
All of the items listed above have been drawn from the opening pages of just two books, both produced by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University: John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (1992), and John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (1999). Much, much more could be mentioned, and there are many other books and articles discussing the earliest chapters of the Book of Mormon.
What does this mean? Evidence and scholarly analysis strongly suggests that the entire book of 1 Nephi was dictated within the space of a mere week. This implies that 1 Nephi 1—7 was produced in little more than two days. It is highly unlikely that so rich a text, so full of authentically ancient Near Eastern detail—and we've only scratched the surface here—could have been written in so short a time by a semi-literate New York farm boy. Joseph Smith's own explanation of the origins of the Book of Mormon rings far truer. On any account, the Book of Mormon is a miracle.