Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 11

1 Nephi 11:1

1 For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot.

The current chapter break serves to separate Lehi’s dream from Nephi’s experience with the same dream. That division obscures the fact that Nephi intended the two to be parallel. Nevertheless, Nephi did create a break between the actual vision in chapter 9 and his own version of the vision.

Nephi begins this chapter with is his father’s explication of that vision which is a discourse on the earthly mission of the Messiah. At the end of that message he indicates that he is moving to his own record. That record begins (as his father’s had ended) with a vision of the tree.

The first possibility is that this chapter division creates a thematic antithetic parallel. Nephi enjoys parallels both structural and literary, so this is a distinct possibility.

A second possibility is that Nephi is an early example of something we see frequently as Mormon is writing. Mormon is compiling information from his sources and appears to copy sermons verbatim (as far as we can tell) from the source material. That interaction with the source creates a mental division in Mormon’s editing, so that he sees important boundaries between the inserted sermon and his own interpretive material. Thus Mormon frequently ends a chapter with a sermon, or begins a chapter with a sermon. When this happens, there is often some explanatory material that follows or precedes the chapter that is attached to either the following chapter, if a chapter ended with a sermon—or the end of preceding chapter if the sermon begins a chapter. This is sufficiently different from expectations that Orson Pratt restricted our current chapters to meet more modern sensibilities.

It is possible that Nephi was the first to use this method. He ends a chapter with a text copied from his father’s record, and begins the next with his recounting of what Lehi said. This replicates the quotation/explanation chapter division we see later in Mormon. Since there is only this one instance of a source document in all of the small plates, it is interesting to note, but inconclusive.

1 Nephi 11:2-5

2 And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?

3 And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.

4 And the Spirit said unto me: Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?

5 And I said: Yea, thou knowest that I believe all the words of my father.

These verses form an independent emphasis on the same principle that we see in Alma 32:27:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32:27)

The Spirit asks Nephi what he desires, and then moves from the desire to what Nephi believes.

Nephi desires to see. He already believes the words. This is a request to have a spiritual experience that will move Nephi into a tighter parallel to his father. The last vision recorded for Lehi becomes the initial vision recorded for Nephi. It not only parallels with his father, it provides the structural pivot that shifts from Lehi as the Old World Prophet to Nephi as the New World prophet (though this preparatory vision occurs in the Old World).

Knowing that the English we read is the result of translation and knowing that the word ‘believe’ is used in English Bible translations for a the verbal form of the noun ‘faith,’ we can understand that when Nephi says he believes in the words of his father that he is declaring faith in them. In an Old Testament context, the New Testament’s ‘faith’ would be loyalty. Nephi owes such loyalty to his father, and he gives it. Nevertheless, Nephi wants more. Therefore the faith/loyalty upon his father’s words become a desire to see and experience the vision for himself.

1 Nephi 11:6-7

6 And when I had spoken these words, the Spirit cried with a loud voice, saying: Hosanna to the Lord, the most high God; for he is God over all the earth, yea, even above all. And blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God; wherefore, thou shalt behold the things which thou hast desired.

7 And behold this thing shall be given unto thee for a sign, that after thou hast beheld the tree which bore the fruit which thy father tasted, thou shalt also behold a man descending out of heaven, and him shall ye witness; and after ye have witnessed him ye shall bear record that it is the Son of God.

The Spirit emphasizes the important part of Lehi’s vision. It was a declaration of the mortal mission of the Messiah. When Nephi said that he believed his father’s words, it is this particular topic to which he refers. The entire discussion of Nephi’s experience with the vision of this tree of life is interwoven with references to the mission of  messiah.

1 Nephi 11:8-9

8 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.

9 And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.

Nephi has to translate a visual experience into a written one. Whether or not this conversation occurred in the vision, it is a useful technique to transform the experience into a written form. Nephi can both describe the vision and his own discoveries as the vision progressed.

It is possible that this is a literary technique that allows the reader to experience the comprehension that Nephi understood at the same time as he saw. This would suggest that the vision not only included the panorama of the symbolic scene, but also a simultaneous understanding of the meanings behind the symbolism. By creating a dialogue with his divine guide, Nephi can explicate meanings as well as describe the elements of the vision. The dialogue assures that the reader understand that the understanding of the meaning was part of the vision and not something that Nephi worked out later.

1 Nephi 11: 10-12

10 And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.

12 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look! And I looked as if to look upon him, and I saw him not; for he had gone from before my presence.

In verse 14 Nephi will tell us that his guide through the vision will be an angel. Thus there are two divine beings involved in this vision. The first is the Spirit and the second is the angel. There must be some reason other than verisimilitude that has Nephi make sure that we understand the two messengers.

I suggest that Nephi intends to identify the Spirit as Yahweh (prior to his birth, therefore in his spirit form).

First, Nephi begins this explanation of the vision by indicating that he desired to see, and believed: “that the Lord was able to make them known unto me.” (1 Nephi 11:1). Immediately in the text it is the Spirit who provides the experience. To understand what Nephi is telling us we should understand that he considered Yahweh to be his God. (The clear distinctions that we modern Saints make between the Father and Son were not the way he understood God. My arguments for Nephi theological understanding may be seen here.)

This explains the reason for verse 11. It is a discussion of the nature of God. In this case, Yahweh in an unsubstanced corporeal form.

Nephi creates an interesting depth of meaning in the single word “Look” (in verse 12). In the mouth of Yahweh it becomes a word of command that has the power to summon the vision. It parallels the word of power as used in the creation story of Genesis. It becomes a double entendre for the command to see the vision and Nephi’s immediate reaction, which was to look at the Spirit. After having described the Spirit as very human in form, Nephi looks and he is gone. Nephi intends that we understand that this vanishing underscores the divinity. Although the Spirit appeared as a man, he clearly was more than that.

The final hint that we should understand that the Spirit was Yahweh is that Yahweh leaves just as the story of his mortal mission begins. Symbolically, Yahweh moves from introducing the story of the mortal Messiah to becoming the actor in the vision.

1 Nephi 11:13-14

13 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.

14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?

Given the command to look, Nephi had first looked and described the Spirit (and as I contend, identified his interlocutor as Yahweh). With that experience ended, Nephi next looks to the vision itself.

Another heavenly guide arrives to provide Nephi with a foil for the description and explication of the vision. While Nephi is nominally seeing what is father saw, he is seeing not just what Nephi recorded of his father’s symbolic vision, but the meaning of the vision. Thus where Lehi’s vision was couched in his family’s salvation, Nephi’s vision is couched in the context of humankind’s salvation. Lehi’s vision did not explicitly begin with Mary.

Note that Mary is “exceedingly fair and white.” The use of fair and white in the Book of Mormon is not intended to be physically descriptive but rather spiritually descriptive. It is a quality not a color.

1 Nephi 11:15-18

15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.

16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?

17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

Joseph’s translation replicates our New Testament expectation that Mary was a virgin. It is possible that the vision only showed the original references behind this English translation, which was a young woman. Her sexual status may have been assumed, but certainly could not have been visual.

Webster’s 1828 dictionary provides the meaning of condescend that informs this verse: “To descend from the privileges of superior rank or dignity, to do some act to an inferior, which strict justice or the ordinary rules of civility do not require. Hence, to submit or yield, as to an inferior, implying an occasional relinquishment of distinction.” (Noah Webster (2009-03-25). American Dictionary of the English Language – 1828 Noah Webster Dictionary (Kindle Locations 18653-18655). Noah Webster. Kindle Edition)/

Nephi begins by seeing a young woman. This scene then becomes an explanation of the condescension of Yahweh, a shift from a heavenly deity to an earthly child. It is not only a shift in location, but one of status and honor. Yahweh literally descends “from the privileges of superior rank or dignity, to do some act to an inferior, which strict justice or the ordinary rules of civility do not require.”

That is the reason that the exchange about the condescension of God leads immediately to “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God.” It is even more powerful in the 1830 edition where verse 18 says “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God.” Retranslating, it would have meant “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of Yahweh.” This is the direct connection to Nephi’s experience with Yahweh who first commanded that Nephi look, and is now presented as a son in Nazareth.

1 Nephi 11:19-21

19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!

20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.

21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

The vision clearly moves from the declaration that the virgin was the mother of God to the visual reality of Yahweh as a mortal baby in his mother’s arms. There is no possible mistake as the heavenly guide declares the divine being who is now this baby.

Immediately upon seeing Yahweh as a baby, the guide asks about the tree. The question about the condescension of Yahweh led to a vision and understanding of how far Yahweh’s condescension extended. This question moves the understanding of the person of a mortalized Yahweh to the mission the mortal Yahweh is to perform.

1 Nephi 11:22-24

22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.

23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.

24 And after he had said these words, he said unto me: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him.

Nephi gives his understanding of the tree. He understands that the tree (and particularly the fruit) are symbols for Yahweh’s love (the “most desirable above all things” is the phrase that refers to the fruit as Lehi had described it).

The heavenly guide has Nephi look again, and this time there is greater depth of understanding of Yahweh’s love. Yahweh is among his people, and many recognize him.

1 Nephi 11:25

25 And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.

The symbols of the dream are not intermingled with prophetic vision of Yahweh’s mortal mission. In this case, the rod of iron is contextualized into the Messiah’s mission and understood as the word of God. In this case, it is the recorded teachings and not the word of power.  The waters and the tree are both representing Yahweh’s love. This would be a direct reference to symbolism that Nephi would expect for the Tree of Life. At this point, the specifics of this vision are mixed with meanings that Nephi would have understood from his cultural background outside of the vision.

1 Nephi 11:26-28

26 And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God!

27 And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; and I also beheld the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him; and after he was baptized, I beheld the heavens open, and the Holy Ghost come down out of heaven and abide upon him in the form of a dove.

28 And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them.

The first time Nephi was to behold the condescension of God it was to see Yahweh descend from glory to mortality. Now Nephi is to see the condescension of God in the specifics of Yahweh’s mortal ministry.  Nephi understands that the purpose of the mortal mission is that Yahweh become “the Redeemer of the world.” Redemption is linked to baptism as the Redeemer is baptized.

Although some in the mortal sphere recognize their Redeemer, “they cast him out from among them.” This is the phrase that most poignantly defines the extent of Yahweh’s condescension.

1 Nephi 11:29-30

29 And I also beheld twelve others following him. And it came to pass that they were carried away in the Spirit from before my face, and I saw them not.

30 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the heavens open again, and I saw angels descending upon the children of men; and they did minister unto them.

These two verses probably require some more work to understand how they fit into the vision at this particular point. Clearly the twelve are the apostles, though Nephi would have seen them as representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel (the obviously symbolic reason for that number).  It is possible that the juxtaposition of the twelve who were carried away with the angels who descend is intended to be a foreshadowing of the future experience. The twelve will reappear in the explicit vision, so this would foreshadow much later events.

1 Nephi 11:31

31 And he spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits; and the angel spake and showed all these things unto me. And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God; and the devils and the unclean spirits were cast out.

These verses serve to confirm that this really is Yahweh in the Messianic role. The prophecies of the Messiah were for healing and this mortal Yahweh heals. Thus more than just a vision of future history, this is a confirmation of who this person really is.

1 Nephi 11: 32-33

32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

33 And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.

The ultimate condescension is that the mortal Yahweh should not only not be recognized, but should be put to ignominious death.

1 Nephi 11:34-36

34 And after he was slain I saw the multitudes of the earth, that they were gathered together to fight against the apostles of the Lamb; for thus were the twelve called by the angel of the Lord.

35 And the multitude of the earth was gathered together; and I beheld that they were in a large and spacious building, like unto the building which my father saw. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Behold the world and the wisdom thereof; yea, behold the house of Israel hath gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

36 And it came to pass that I saw and bear record, that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

The aftermath of the Messiah’s death is a war for humankind’s soul. The twelve return as representatives and continuations of the Messiah’s mission. The dichotomy between salvation and damnation is expressed as a war. The ultimate victory, the ultimate redemption, is described and assured.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 11

  1. “Joseph’s translation replicates our New Testament expectation that Mary was a virgin. It is possible that the vision only showed the original references behind this English translation, which was a young woman.”

    In line with 1 Nephi 11:13-18 (esp. “mother of [the son of] god”), Isaiah makes a rather bold prediction at 7:14 (ǁ2 Nephi 17:14): that “a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” which is quoted at Matthew 1:23 and – where it is interpreted to refer to Mary the Mother of Jesus, a virgin (who is here the recipient of an angelic dream-vision), i.e., she who will give birth to the Son of God (a phrase well-known at Qumran). There is of course plenty of controversy here as to the intended meaning of Hebrew ʿalma, a word translated by the learned Septuaginta (the 3rd century B.C. Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt) into Greek as parthenos, “virgin.” Many modern scholars maintain that the Hebrew word means simply “young woman,” rather than a virgin. However, the post-Christian Jewish understanding was that the intent had been “virgin,” and that a new version of the Septuagint was needed. Thus, in AST they changed parthenos to neanis “young-woman” to cover the problem of Jewish-Christian claims (Barker, Temple Mysticism, 27, citing Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 71).
    The early Jewish understanding is certainly superior here, and the parallel use of betula and ʿalma in Ugaritic references to ʿAnat may indicate an ancient equation of the two words as a standard parallel word-pair. Moreover, an Ugaritic text (“The Betrothal of Moon and Nikkal-Ib”) has the same line or type scene paralleling Isaiah 7:14 in Ugaritic, hl ǵlmt tld b[n . . .] “Behold, the ʿalmat shall give birth to a chi[ld]”(CAT 1.24, line 7, in Simon Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry [1997], 216; cf. Legend of Kirta, tablet 1, column VI, lines 31-35).
    Cf. also the ʽalmâ Rebekah (Gen 24:43) termed a bětûlâ “virgin whom no man has known” (Gen 24:16), and Deut 22:28, where LXX uses parthenon to translate Heb bětûlâ “virgin.”

  2. In verse 29 the identities of the Apostles are not given to him. He “saw them not.” Later on he sees other messengers/disciples, and these are apparently not obscured from him. Their true identities as disciples/apostles of Jesus Christ are known to Nephi.

    The only explanation I can infer is that the first group – whose identities were not disclosed – is somehow related to the only explanation given by the angel: it has something to do with the fact that they will judge all Israel (12:9), whilst the apostles whose true character/identity IS given to Nephi are the judges who “shall judge thy seed.” (vs.9-10)

    Why? I have some theories, but none has settled in yet as the leader. I’d welcome any new thoughts. Suffice it to say, the temple parallels here are sustained yet subtle.

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