Abstract: The Book of Mormon is a literate product of a literate culture. It references written texts. Nevertheless, behind the obvious literacy, there are clues to a primary orality in Nephite culture. The instances of text creation and most instances of reading texts suggest that documents were written by and for an elite class who were able to read and write. Even among the elite, reading and writing are best seen as a secondary method of communication to be called upon to archive information, to communicate with future readers (who would have been assumed to be elite and therefore able to read), and to communicate when direct oral communication was not possible (letters and the case of Korihor). As we approach the text, we may gain new insights into the art with which it was constructed by examining it as the literate result of a primarily oral culture. Continue reading
1 And it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth. And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness.
2 And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.
3 And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness.
4 And we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness.
Remembering that these verses follow immediately upon the end of the Nahom story, we must understand that Nephi saw these incidents in the same literary context as that story. Although the modern chapter break is reasonable because it marks a different set of incidents, Nephi saw it as part of the theme of his chapter. Continue reading
1 I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and 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, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
2 Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
3 And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge. (1 Nephi 1:1–3)
Verses 1-3 are a complete literary unit and should be read together. They form a colophon, or an indication of the author of the piece. Verse 2 has had no reasonable explanation. Nephi says that he makes a record in the language of his father, but then defines that “language” in a way that leaves modern readers without a clear understanding. There are two disparate elements to the clarification, “learning of the Jews” and “language of the Egyptians.” If Nephi intended to say that he wrote in Egyptian, he could have skipped the rest of the message. Continue reading
1 And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of speaking to my brethren, behold they said unto me: Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.
2 And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.
3 And now my brethren, if ye were righteous and were willing to hearken to the truth, and give heed unto it, that ye might walk uprightly before God, then ye would not murmur because of the truth, and say: Thou speakest hard things against us.
4 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did exhort my brethren, with all diligence, to keep the commandments of the Lord.
5 And it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord; insomuch that I had joy and great hopes of them, that they would walk in the paths of righteousness.
6 Now, all these things were said and done as my father dwelt in a tent in the valley which he called Lemuel.
As in other locations, Nephi uses the statement about his father dwelling in a tent to create a turning point in his narrative. In this case, it is the final conclusion to Nephi’s explication to his brothers that ended in Chapter 15. Thus we have an interesting dual ending. Nephi creates a chapter break and then continues with some of the previous story, after which he gives his internal dividing statement. Then we begin a new topic.
In modern sensibilities, verses 1-6 might be better seen as the conclusion to chapter 15 and 1 Ne. 16:7 should have been the beginning of the new chapter. But Nephi didn’t do that. That requires that we examine his chapter break to attempt to understand why he saw a chapter break where we might not.
In one sense, it is a pattern that is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon. I examined the chapter breaks while working on Second Witness and found multiple factors that explained why chapters changed (see Gardner Second Witness, 4: 97-98). At that time I didn’t distinguish between Nephi’s chapters and the later chapters that came from Mormon’s editing. When I did look at Mormon’s editing I found that there was one type of chapter break that marked a shift in the sources, from quoted to Mormon’s own text. In many of those cases, material that appeared to be part of the story that led to the quotation was placed at the beginning of the next chapter to create a division between the quoted and abridged material (see Gardner, “Mormon’s Editorial Method and Metamessage,” ).
In this case, Nephi isn’t shifting from a quoted source to his own synopsis as Mormon later would, but there is a division that separated scriptural/spiritual explication from history. The previous chapter ended with the explication of the information in and meaning of the vision of the Tree of Life (both Lehi’s and Nephi’s). The return to the more historical narrative of what happened after that is placed in the new chapter. Perhaps this is also the principle underscoring Mormon’s chapters—not so much the shift in source but the shift in explication versus history, as the quoted sermons are given precisely for their spiritual content.
7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.
8 And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord which had been given unto him. And also, I, Nephi, had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly.
Nephi moves the narrative along with “and it came to pass,” which occurs as a marker of historical narrative (also discussed in Gardner “Mormon’s Editorial Method”). The history is really quite important for the future of the company as it generates the families that will provide the future children who will inherit the new land of promise. Nephi mentions it quickly. It was certainly a much more important event than his description suggests.
His conclusion to the multiple marriages is simply that “thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments Yahweh had been given unto him.” The big commandments were to get the brass plates and to return for Ishmael’s family. Lehi did not perform either task, but he did see that they were completed. Nephi’s conclusion here emphasizes that this retelling of accounts is intended to place his family (and himself) inside of God’s plans and show that they faithfully fulfilled all commandments.
9 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.
As Nephi concludes one set of historical actions by stating that his father had fulfilled Yahweh’s commandments, be begins the next by indicating that there is yet another commandment to fulfill. The previous commands were the reason for staying in this place. Now that they have been fulfilled, it is time to move toward the larger plan to travel to the new land of promise.
10 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.
11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.
12 And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman.
Verses 10-12 deal with the process of leaving a place where they had stayed for a time and beginning the journeyings in earnest. Although modern readers spend time with what we know is the Liahona, at this point it is simply part of the preparations to leave, getting little more textual attention that gathering provisions. Both were important for the journey and Nephi is quite matter-of-fact about both aspects of their preparation. We may certainly imagine that there was much astonishment at finding the Liahona, but none of that is portrayed. At this point, the Liahona simply appears as a compass. Even the faith-based workings receive no mention at this point in Nephi’s narrative. Apparently, Nephi will give us more information about the Liahona only when it plays a particular role in the development of the type of story Nephi is crafting.
13 And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer.
The journey narrative will now be punctuated by undescribed travel (indicated only by the days on the road) and then events that take place at a location. In this case, they arrive at a camp, and perhaps significantly give it a name. It is unknown why this particular stopping location receives a name but others do not. They do not appear to spend much time at this location. While Nephi is setting up the next major story, which is the loss of the bows, it does not occur at Shazer but only after they left that area and traveled for many days (v. 15).
14 And it came to pass that we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families; and after we had slain food for our families we did return again to our families in the wilderness, to the place of Shazer. And we did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea.
15 And it came to pass that we did travel for the space of many days, slaying food by the way, with our bows and our arrows and our stones and our slings.
16 And we did follow the directions of the ball, which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness.
17 And after we had traveled for the space of many days, we did pitch our tents for the space of a time, that we might again rest ourselves and obtain food for our families.
Nephi sets up the next story as a contrast to the previous experience. They have been successfully finding food for the family up to this encampment. They leave Shazer to hunt and return with success. They travel in fertile parts, indicating that there was available food. The ball shows them where they should go so that food will be available.
It is only after setting up the understanding that the failure that is coming is directly related to their ability to provide the food, not Yahweh’s ability to provide it.
18 And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food.
19 And it came to pass that we did return without food to our families, and being much fatigued, because of their journeying, they did suffer much for the want of food.
20 And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael did begin to murmur exceedingly, because of their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness; and also my father began to murmur against the Lord his God; yea, and they were all exceedingly sorrowful, even that they did murmur against the Lord.
21 Now it came to pass that I, Nephi, having been afflicted with my brethren because of the loss of my bow, and their bows having lost their springs, it began to be exceedingly difficult, yea, insomuch that we could obtain no food.
22 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did speak much unto my brethren, because they had hardened their hearts again, even unto complaining against the Lord their God.
23 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow; wherefore, I did arm myself with a bow and an arrow, with a sling and with stones. And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food?
Nephi begins his story of the incident of the bows. The story is much more descriptive than the terse accounts of travel, but it still provides only the barest of essential information about the incident. Nephi doesn’t tell us how he managed to break a steel bow. He begins the story with the loss of his bow, but perhaps only as he is telling it does he realize that the loss of a single bow wasn’t the issue. Therefore, he adds in that his brothers’ bows had “lost their springs.” That suggests that this is, as most are, a story about Nephi more than a story about the family. The incident is included because it is part of Nephi’s developing argument for his right to rule. The outcome of the story moves Nephi into more prominence in the family. As he began to write, he begins with the important parts of his story, but only as he was telling it did he add that the real problem was created because his brothers’ bows had lost their springs.
Nephi doesn’t not tell us why he has a steel bow and his brothers do not. We don’t even hear about bows until this point. The story isn’t about bows, but about family dynamics and their relationship with the Yahweh. The loss of the bows means the loss of food and that was critical. That crisis caused murmuring in the family, both from the expected response from Laman and Lemuel and the perhaps unexpected response from Lehi. Nephi shows himself recognizing proper authority by asking his father for the direction to food rather than attempting to find it himself.
24 And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord, for they had humbled themselves because of my words; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul.
25 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came unto my father; and he was truly chastened because of his murmuring against the Lord, insomuch that he was brought down into the depths of sorrow.
26 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.
27 And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were written upon the ball, he did fear and tremble exceedingly, and also my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and our wives.
28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.
29 And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.
30 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball.
31 And it came to pass that I did slay wild beasts, insomuch that I did obtain food for our families.
32 And it came to pass that I did return to our tents, bearing the beasts which I had slain; and now when they beheld that I had obtained food, how great was their joy! And it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord, and did give thanks unto him.
The first half of the story sets up the problem and the second half resolves it. In the resolution we have Nephi following his father, but the story is still pretty clearly about Nephi. In the context of Nephi’s intent to show why he is the rightful leader of his people, the significance of verse 29 changes. Nephi didn’t give any indication of how the Liahona worked when he mentioned its arrival. Now, he sees that it operates according to faith and uses the spindles as the reason he mentions that Yahweh can use small things to bring about great things. I suspect that this is a not so subtle reference to Nephi’s position as a younger son who will rise to leadership.
33 And it came to pass that we did again take our journey, traveling nearly the same course as in the beginning; and after we had traveled for the space of many days we did pitch our tents again, that we might tarry for the space of a time.
As previously, the traveling is a thin narrative between events.
34 And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.
35 And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger.
36 And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me; and they were desirous to return again to Jerusalem.
37 And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren.
38 Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and after he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger.
39 And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish.
Although a current chapter ends here, Nephi did not create a chapter break at this point. Nephi’s chapter will continue with another indication of travel and then another incident of murmuring. The repetition of the theme of murmuring suggests that the inclusion of the incident at Nahom is written to begin to develop of the pattern that generates both the real familiar tensions but more specifically the way in which the ethnogenetically required ancient enemies are generated. Nephi’s text does not treat Laman and Lemuel sympathetically and in fact highlights their worst features. While there is certainly history behind this division, it is also part of the model that the creation of a new people should have.
In this case, we have Laman and Lemuel murmuring and inciting problems in the family. They show their murderous side (including fratricide and patricide, see verse 38). It is significant for the development of Nephi’s theme that verse 38 complains that “[Nephi] as thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us.” That is precisely the point. In that, Laman and Lemuel were not mistaken. Putting it in the text reminds Nephi’s readers of what the real issue is, that Nephi should be kind.
William G. Dever correctly posits that “in history-writing of any kind, the choice of method is fundamental, because to a large degree it determines the outcome of the inquiry. Where you arrive depends not only upon where you think you are going, but also upon how you decide to get there.” In his own work, he has suggested a methodology that he has termed “convergence.” That is, “it is possible to learn about the past, not simply by amassing more bits and pieces of disjointed ‘evidence,’ but rather by coordinating the pieces of evidence and situating them within a context relating knowledge to a deliberate quest.” It is a process where multiple data converge into a cohesive understanding relating to a particular time and place. Continue reading