Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 10

The 1830 chapter III included our chapters 10-14

1 Nephi 10:1

1 And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry; wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren.

Nephi’s division between his chapters II and III marks the end of his use of his father’s record and the beginning of a text totally reliant upon Nephi’s memory of the events. Nephi had introduced his father’s record in 1 Nephi 1:16-17:

And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written, for he hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I shall not make a full account.

But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life.

When Nephi introduced his father’s record, he promised that after he had finished with it, he would continue with “an account of mine own life.” From this point on, there is no reference to his father’s record, even though Nephi continues to reference his father. As he notes, “to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father.” Even when consulting Lehi’s record, Nephi gave us a synopsis rather than a quotation from that record. The difference from this point on is that Nephi relies upon his own memory rather than his father’s written memory of the events. It is not clear whether Nephi had written a record contemporary with his father’s. If he did, there is no internal evidence in what we have of his writings that he consulted either that possible early record, or even the more certain record that he had already written on the large plates. It appears that he believed his memory sufficient to the purpose of his text.

It is interesting that there are only two occurrences of “an account. . . of my proceedings.” We have the first in 1 Ne. 1:17 when Nephi notes that while he is using his father’s record, his purpose is to write of his own proceedings. The second comes in 1 Ne. 10:1 when Nephi has ceased to use his father’s record entirely, and from this point the text will be entirely “an account upon these plates of my proceedings.” The addition of the phrase “upon these plates” is a reference to the just-finished discussion of the small plates. Whether Nephi intended the phrase to be bookends to his father’s record or not, the phrase serves that literary function. Even with a shift in source material, the intent of the record remains the same.

Another interesting parallel occurs in this verse. Nephi indicates that he will discuss “my reign and ministry.” This echoes the subtitle of the book of 1 Nephi. Written under the title is “His reign and ministry.” Thus this new beginning with a new source (Nephi’s memory) is to describe Nephi’s reign and ministry as indicated in the subtitle of the book itself.

What is interesting is that the only other times we see a close relationship between his reign and ministry is when Nephi separates them to indicate that this record is not about his reign:

Upon the other plates should be engraven an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people; wherefore 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)

When Nephi separated the two concepts, he indicated that the division in the records were what they dealt with for “the more part.” Thus he understood that the large plates were never exclusively about politics and the small plates were never exclusively about religion. The two were interwoven, and the small plate record necessarily covered some of the information about his reign. Given that one of the themes that Nephi creates in these small plates is the scriptural/spiritual justification for his reign, we are required to understand that Nephi never saw the division between the two records as one of complete separation of content.

1 Nephi 10:2

2 For behold, it came to pass after my father had made an end of speaking the words of his dream, and also of exhorting them to all diligence, he spake unto them concerning the Jews—

Nephi had indicated that in order to discuss his own proceedings, he still had to discuss his father. That allowed him to explain why, immediately after declaring a shift from his father’s record to his own, that he begins with his father. In this case, his father’s words were the impetus to Nephi’s own experience with his father’s vision.

1 Nephi 10:3

3 That after they should be destroyed, even that great city Jerusalem, and many be carried away captive into Babylon, according to the own due time of the Lord, they should return again, yea, even be brought back out of captivity; and after they should be brought back out of captivity they should possess again the land of their inheritance.

Doubtless the family was aware of many who had already been carried away captive to Babylon when Babylon first conquered Jerusalem. Lehi prophecies destruction again, and includes perhaps an even larger captive population. The focus of this prophecy is not the destruction, however, but the return. Although Lehi’s prophecy concerns the Old World, it is possible that he also intended it for a promise to them of a type of return. Certainly, Nephi would later understand it in this way. Nephi emphasizes a theme of return in his ministry, a promise to his current people far separated from the main body of the children of Israel that they would yet be united in the promises to all of Abraham’s seed.

1 Nephi 10:4

4 Yea, even six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world.

In the context of Nephi’s structure for this chapter, this prophecy of the coming of the Messiah is an essential precursor to Nephi’s experience with the dream. That experience will become his own personal witness of the coming of the Messiah. Hence, his father’s discourse after his own dream spoke of the Messiah as an apparent natural topic stemming from the dream, and in Nephi’s own experience, the Messiah also becomes the natural extension of and overriding meaning of the dream.

The six hundred year prophecy is important in Nephite history, and a careful counting of the years from their departure to the birth of the Messiah confirms that six hundred years precisely. It was not an estimate. However, correlating that six hundred year prophecy to known history is virtually impossible. My purpose in these musings is to get inside the head of Nephi the writer, and not to create a full commentary on the text. Others, including myself, have addressed this. My personal opinion is that Lehi’s family likely used a lunar calendar rather than a solar calendar, and that slight difference in the number of days assigned to a “year” quite nicely correlates with six hundred of those years.

1 Nephi 10:5-11

5 And he also spake concerning the prophets, how great a number had testified of these things, concerning this Messiah, of whom he had spoken, or this Redeemer of the world.

6 Wherefore, all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer.

7 And he spake also concerning a prophet who should come before the Messiah, to prepare the way of the Lord—

8 Yea, even he should go forth and cry in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; for there standeth one among you whom ye know not; and he is mightier than I, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. And much spake my father concerning this thing.

9 And my father said he should baptize in Bethabara, beyond Jordan; and he also said he should baptize with water; even that he should baptize the Messiah with water.

10 And after he had baptized the Messiah with water, he should behold and bear record that he had baptized the Lamb of God, who should take away the sins of the world.

11 And it came to pass after my father had spoken these words he spake unto my brethren concerning the gospel which should be preached among the Jews, and also concerning the dwindling of the Jews in unbelief. And after they had slain the Messiah, who should come, and after he had been slain he should rise from the dead, and should make himself manifest, by the Holy Ghost, unto the Gentiles.

Lehi clearly had a very explicit vision of the Messiah’s life. Perhaps Nephi was not aware when this prophecy was given, but the predicted movement of the Word of God from the children of Israel to the Gentiles would be an important model for Nephi’s community. That community is most plausibly created by merging a smaller number of the children of Israel into a larger community of Gentiles. Nephi will later instruct his brother, Jacob, to preach a sermon to the people concerning the salvation of the children of Israel by the Gentiles. Nephi’s understanding of the what their relationship to the Gentiles would be perhaps began with his father’s declarations before they embarked.

1 Nephi 10:12-13

12 Yea, even my father spake much concerning the Gentiles, and also concerning the house of Israel, that they should be compared like unto an olive tree, whose branches should be broken off and should be scattered upon all the face of the earth.

13 Wherefore, he said it must needs be that we should be led with one accord into the land of promise, unto the fulfilling of the word of the Lord, that we should be scattered upon all the face of the earth.

Lehi is aware of the olive tree allegory that Jacob will later present in a very full form. He references it so briefly that his family must also have been aware of it at this time. Lehi is able to speak of the metaphor of the scattered branches without having to explain the context. It is sufficiently unremarkable to Nephi that he does not explain it.

Lehi declares that his family is part of the fulfillment of the prophetic allegory. They are a scattered branch and they are traveling under divine guidance and mission.

1 Nephi 10:14

14 And after the house of Israel should be scattered they should be gathered together again; or, in fine, after the Gentiles had received the fulness of the Gospel, the natural branches of the olive tree, or the remnants of the house of Israel, should be grafted in, or come to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer.

Nephi’s recounting of his father’s discourse begins and ends with a scattered Israel that would be gathered again. He also highlights the favorable position of the Gentiles as those would be grafted in. Writing so long after the events, it is tempting to see Nephi selecting this portion of his father’s discourse because it resonated so strongly with his current situation.

1 Nephi 10:15-16

15 And after this manner of language did my father prophesy and speak unto my brethren, and also many more things which I do not write in this book; for I have written as many of them as were expedient for me in mine other book.

16 And all these things, of which I have spoken, were done as my father dwelt in a tent, in the valley of Lemuel.

Nephi concludes speaking of his father’s discourse. He lets us know that there was more that his father had said that he isn’t including. It is, after all, Nephi’s story. Nephi indicates that this is an internal conclusion by using the “dwelt in a tent” phrase that he has used to mark literary units. (See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness, 1:96 for a discussion of the use of the phrase as a literary marker.)

1 Nephi 19:17

17 And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the Messiah who should come—I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men.

Nephi explicitly links his father’s dream and words to his desire that he too “might see, and hear, and know of these things.” This confirms the reason for the inclusion of Lehi’s words, and the reason that Nephi chose to include a more detailed version of Lehi’s dream of the Tree than he did of any other vision that his father had received. (See 1 Nephi 1:6-13 for the thinner details of what must have been a very impressive vision of the heavens.)

1 Nephi 19:18-22

18 For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him.

19 For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.

20 Therefore remember, O man, for all thy doings thou shalt be brought into judgment.

21 Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God; wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.

22 And the Holy Ghost giveth authority that I should speak these things, and deny them not.

When Nephi is writing, it is going on forty years after this experience. In the ensuing time, Nephi now has his own testimony and witness of the Messiah and his mission. This exhortation comes from Nephi the prophet and should be seen as a current introjection into the historical recitation.

 

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

5 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 10

  1. “…correlating that six hundred year prophecy to known history is virtually impossible.” * * * “My personal opinion is that Lehi’s family likely used a lunar calendar rather than a solar calendar, and that slight difference in the number of days assigned to a ‘year’ quite nicely correlates with six hundred of those years.”

    The trouble with that, Brant, is that the lunar calendar only works if we falsify the III Ne superscription claim that Lehi left Jerusalem in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, which we can tie to his exact accession year via contemporary cuneiform tablets prepared by Nebuchadrezzar’s scribes (which are fixed astronomically), placing it in early 597 B.C. Most NT scholars place Jesus’ birth in 5 – 6 B.C., if we are to take the traditions about Herod the Great seriously. Correlating Book of Mormon chronology with secular history is far from impossible. Think of the Nephite Sitz im Leben.

    Based on your very reasonable claim that Nephi is writing 40 years after arriving in the New World, John L. Sorenson’s original suggestion that the Nephites had begun using the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar makes sense — since only a 600-year sequence of 360-day years fits the prophecy (I Ne 1:4, 10:4, Hela 14:2, III Ne 1:1, 2:8).

    Moreover, another chronological terminus is Jesus’ death in his 34th year and 4th day (III Ne 8:5), which we already know was at a Spring Passover. In 34 years, the Long Count calendar loses 6 months, which is just the right fit for Jesus’ birth in the Fall, most likely at Rosh HaShanah (New Year). Turns out that the Christian Xmas liturgy was taken directly from the Jewish Synagogue liturgy for the New Year, High Holy Days, Day of Atonement, etc., i.e., the liturgy was moved by the fourth century from the Fall to Winter solstice in order to accommodate and supersede pagan solar festivals.

    That, together with John Clark’s note on the full baktun from Jesus’ birth to the end at Cumorah, is one more strong reason to suggest a Nephite Long Count calendar.
    Lord Yax Kuk Mo’, for example, apparently came from central Mexico to Copán, Honduras, with his retinue, took over, and began to rule at the beginning of baktun 9 (8 Ahau 13 Ceh, 9.0.0.0.0 = 11 Dec 435 A.D.), and his dynasty continued to rule Copán until the end of baktun 9, four hundred Long Count years later, i.e., the dynasty ruled for one baktun (Schele & Freidel 1990:311-313).

    • I think that is a very reasonable probability. The shorter lunar year is close enough to the 360 day year that I can easily see the Nephite culture merging concepts and using the one that is local. The only possible question is the difference between the lunar and the tun years and the plausible dating of Christ’s birth. The reason for at least thinking about the issue is that if we assume the 600 year prophecy was given exactly as and when Nephi recorded it, then it couldn’t represent tun years as they were still in the Old World. I can more easily see Nephi repeating what his father said that doing mathematical recalculations to shift from what is father said from the old calendar to the new. It may be that the original prophecy was not as specific as it turned out to be after arriving in the New World.

  2. I imagine that the Nephites continued to use the lunar calendar with intercalated months (as in the Old World) for quite some time after arrival in the New World. However, given the fact that (1) the Mesoamerican calendar system was by far the most exact and sophisticated (baroque?) in the world at that time, and (2) given the strong indications that 360-day years were also known and used in the ancient Near East (the Egyptian temple year, for example), and (3) given the overwhelming obsession with time in Mesoamerica, the Nephites may just have adopted the entire system.

    At the same time, I wouldn’t want to suggest that a prophecy was reformulated in order to fit the Long Count, but rather that the prophecy as given was already based on 360-day years (whether the Nephites realized it or not until well into their history). I think that we need to take seriously time-bound prophecies, such as Jeremiah’s very accurate prophecy that the Jews would return to Jerusalem in 70 years (Jer 29:10).
    More generally, Micah 5:2-4 is interpreted in Matthew 2:6 and John 7:40-43 to be a prediction of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem as King of Judah – and that over 700 years before the fact!!
    “Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand” (Alma 39:17).

    • I agree that the best solution is that the one who gave Lehi is the one who knew which version of a “year” would be used to fulfill the prophecy. There is nothing difficult in that, believing as we do in the ability of that same divine being to provide accurate prophecy in the first place.

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