Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 13

1 Nephi 13:1-3

1 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld many nations and kingdoms.

2 And the angel said unto me: What beholdest thou? And I said: I behold many nations and kingdoms.

3 And he said unto me: These are the nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles.

While seeing things in a vision makes an impression, it may not always be the best way to receive information. In this case, the vision showed something, but to make sense of it required and explanation. It is very likely that Nephi’s description of the dialogue with the angel is an accurate description of what occurred during the vision. Nephi would be shown something, and then it had to be explained to him.

In some cases, however, the explanation may also have influenced Nephi’s understanding of the vision. In this case, Nephi says that he sees “many nations and kingdoms.” How might he have been shown that? What visual clues would have allowed him to see the differences essential to dividing a people into different nations. What constituted the difference between a nation and a kingdom? It is likely that there was little that easily made that visual distinction, but that the dialogue method of writing down the vision required something that he could describe.

1 Nephi 13:4-5

4 And it came to pass that I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church.

5 And the angel said unto me: Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.

The problem of visual description is highlighted in these two verses. Nephi sees “the formation of a great church.” While modern readers easily understand some visuals that might have been given to Nephi, none of what we know to be a church would have made any sense to him. Nephi had no experience with churches as we known them. In fact, in this case, Nephi’s intent that is translated as church is to the more universal meaning rather than a building and congregation. It is unclear what Nephi saw, and perhaps was unclear to him given his background in a religion whose sacred practices were mostly separated from the general public. The explanation would have informed his understanding, and that is what he wrote—using the dialogue as a framework for communicating the information from the vision.

1 Nephi 13:6-9

6 And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it.

7 And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots.

8 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots, are the desires of this great and abominable church.

9 And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God, and bring them down into captivity.

These verses evoke an almost immediate anti-Catholic understanding, given the association of the Catholic church with gold, silver, and scarlet. It is the description of the harlots that highlight the problems of understanding the visual information. Nephi had the metallurgical background to easily see and recognize gold and silver, and we presume he could see colors and the manner of clothing. It is less clear what a harlot must have looked like. Although it is possible that there was some dress code that visually defined a harlot in Nephi’s background, it is much less certain that there would have been a universal one. It is also difficult to pack harlots into the collection of anti-Catholic assumptions about the other symbols in this passage.

Remembering that while this is a vision it is also a symbolic vision, the description of the formation of two “churches” harkens to the great and spacious building he saw in the dream. The critical aspects of this “church” of the devil is its opposition to the “church” of the Savior. That is the function of the great and spacious building. In the context of the explanation of the vision, this is part of the description that follows the image of the large and spacious building in 1 Ne. 12:17-18.

Remembering that this is still a single chapter in Nephi’s literary effort, we should look at his structure to understand how Nephi understood these passages. He has been describing an interaction with the angel where a symbolic element of the dream is presented then explained. The last element of the dream prior to this long explanation is the large and spacious building. To further understand the context. In 1 Ne. 12:12-15 he describes the end of his people. Then we have a description of the problem caused by the large and spacious building:

15 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the people of my seed gathered together in multitudes against the seed of my brethren; and they were gathered together to battle.

16 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.

17 And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.

18 And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever.

19 And while the angel spake these words, I beheld and saw that the seed of my brethren did contend against my seed, according to the word of the angel; and because of the pride of my seed, and the temptations of the devil, I beheld that the seed of my brethren did overpower the people of my seed. (1 Nephi 12:15–19)

These verses show the structural context. The Nephites are destroyed, and their spiritual destruction comes because of “the mists of darkness [and] the temptations of the devil” (1 Ne. 12:17). Those temptations are clarified as the image of the large and spacious building. It is after that description that we get a further definition of the large and spacious building—now defined as a “church.” Again, we have no idea what word Nephi would have used here. The word “church” in the translation is technically an anachronism, but it is also an unfortunate translation in that it leads us to an incorrect understanding of what Nephi is describing.

What Nephi has done is apply the large and spacious building to the destruction of his people, and then universalized it beyond his own people to the whole world. It is in that context that we see the large and spacious building and the great and abominable church as functionally the same, with one specifically related to Nephi’s people and the second to the entire world. Nephi sees their effect as the same. His people were destroyed, and the effect of the great and abominable church is “And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God, and bring them down into captivity” (1 Ne. 13:9). The specific inclusion “for the praise of the world” clearly ties the function of the great and abominable church to the function of the large and spacious building.

1 Nephi 13:10-13

10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.

11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.

12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.

13 And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.

This may have been the first time that Nephi clearly understood that his family would travel to a land across waters. This vision comes early in their journey, so it is a prophetic description that would be new to Nephi. Nevertheless, it isn’t written that way because it is being written after at least 30 years in the New World. This understanding would have had a much greater impact at the time of the original vision that we see in Nephi’s late recording of it. This should remind us that we are not getting a transcript of the vision, but Nephi’s literary recounting of it with the accumulated understanding of hindsight.

When  Nephi writes this account, he is concerned with the separation of his people from the House of Israel. That separation and the promise of a reunification are a theme in his writings and sermons (and one that fades after Nephi). Nevertheless, with this description of the Spirit guiding Old World people to this New World, Nephi is setting the literary tension for that promised unification. It doesn’t happen that smoothly.

1 Nephi 13:14-15

14 And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.

15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.

“White, and exceedingly fair and beautiful” is a literary phrase that in later translation is simply shortened to “white and delightsome.” Both have the precise meaning, and I suggest that both have to do with a spiritual description rather than a physical one. See Brant A. Gardner Second Witness, 2:108-22. A shorter version is “If Lamanites were Black, Why Didn’t Anyone Notice?” http://www.fairblog.org/2012/05/21/if-lamanites-were-black-why-didnt-anyone-notice/.

The reason for mentioning this has nothing to do with what the Gentiles looked like. It has to do with the way that Nephi’s descendants will eventually be reunited with Israel. This will be through the gospel and not a physical reunification. Therefore, it must be noted that these Gentiles have the gospel with them. That point is underscored in the next verse.

1 Nephi 13: 16-20

16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.

17 And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.

18 And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.

19 And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.

20 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that they did prosper in the land; and I beheld a book, and it was carried forth among them.

Although we read this for an understanding of the timing of these events, Nephi cared about them for the reason behind the events. Regardless of the events among Gentiles, what Nephi cares about is “I beheld a book, and it was carried forth among them.”

1 Nephi 13:21-23

21 And the angel said unto me: Knowest thou the meaning of the book?

22 And I said unto him: I know not.

23 And he said: Behold it proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it; and he said unto me: The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles.

The book is the important part of the coming of the Gentiles. The angel explains that it contains the record of the Jews and the covenants of the Lord. Therefore, it has the truths that Nephi has in the brass plates (and perhaps by the time Nephi writes this down, he understand that his own record has similarities as well).

It is interesting that he comments on the size of the book. First, the very fact that the word used is “book” is anachronistic for Nephi’s time. Our concept of the book did not exist. Assuming that Nephi saw a Bible, he would not have known what it was without explanation. His reference to the contents for the brass plates tells us how he understood what the book was about. His comment about the size tells us that he had a visual impression and compared the “book” to what he know of the brass plates. They were necessarily larger and heavier. Nephi understood that as “more.” He would have no concept of paper. There were likely a lot more pages in the book he saw that there were plates, but he had no real idea of how to make the comparison except on size.

1 Nephi 13:24-27

24 And the angel of the Lord said unto me: Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God.

25 Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.

26 And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.

27 And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.

This section of the vision would have been impossible to see. This is necessarily description so that Nephi might understand events. The function of this description is to set the stage for the need of the Nephite record to come forth. This message will be the hope in Nephi that contrasts to the despair of seeing his people’s destruction. Even though there is sadness at their fate, there is an important function in that their record will combine with the “book” to restore important information that has been lost.

Of course, the first thing that Nephi must understand is that, of course, the scriptures as they were revealed had no fault. They had the fullness, and the records to come after the time of the Messiah’s mortal ministry would have the fullness. That the original communication from God to humankind is correct is a foundational principle.

However, humankind also is involved in the transmission of the text. The large and spacious building (here described as the great and abominable church) is set against the ways of God and influences the transmission of the pureness.

As a continuation of the understanding that the great and abominable church is simply a different symbol parallel to the great and spacious building, note that the result if the efforts of the “church” is to “blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men” (1 Ne. 13:27). Note the effect of the great and spacious building is also “blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men” (1 Ne. 12:17 – though it is specifically the mists of darkness, but this description leads directly to the description of the large and spacious building).

1 Nephi 13:28-33

28 Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.

29 And after these plain and precious things were taken away it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, thou seest—because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God—because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.

30 Nevertheless, thou beholdest that the Gentiles who have gone forth out of captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations, upon the face of the land which is choice above all other lands, which is the land that the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father that his seed should have for the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which are among thy brethren.

31 Neither will he suffer that the Gentiles shall destroy the seed of thy brethren.

32 Neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of blindness, which thou beholdest they are in, because of the plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, whose formation thou hast seen.

33 Wherefore saith the Lamb of God: I will be merciful unto the Gentiles, unto the visiting of the remnant of the house of Israel in great judgment.

The vision continues to explain the message of hope, even amidst the problems that will come with messy human history. Although the book is less than perfect, it will be valuable. Even through the Gentiles will be destructive, they will not destroy all of the seed of Israel in the New World. From Nephi’s perspective, this is the more important part of the message. Where modern readers read to see ourselves in this prophetic history, that wasn’t what Nephi cared about. What he cared about was the endgame, the restoration of his people to the promises of Israel.

1 Nephi 13:34-36

34 And it came to pass that the angel of the Lord spake unto me, saying: Behold, saith the Lamb of God, after I have visited the remnant of the house of Israel—and this remnant of whom I speak is the seed of thy father—wherefore, after I have visited them in judgment, and smitten them by the hand of the Gentiles, and after the Gentiles do stumble exceedingly, because of the most plain and precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, which is the mother of harlots, saith the Lamb—I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious, saith the Lamb.

35 For, behold, saith the Lamb: I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious; and after thy seed shall be destroyed, and dwindle in unbelief, and also the seed of thy brethren, behold, these things shall be hid up, to come forth unto the Gentiles, by the gift and power of the Lamb.

36 And in them shall be written my gospel, saith the Lamb, and my rock and my salvation.

It is here that Nephi is told that through his efforts and those of his descendants, ultimate salvation will come. After all of the pains of destruction and being lost to darkness, there will yet be an important mission for his people, one that will have a restorative effect even for the gospel coming from the Old World. This is the message that Nephi needed. There would be sadness, but there was purpose in it and ultimate redemption.

1 Nephi 13:37-40

37 And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb; and whoso shall publish peace, yea, tidings of great joy, how beautiful upon the mountains shall they be.

38 And it came to pass that I beheld the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the book of the Lamb of God, which had proceeded forth from the mouth of the Jew, that it came forth from the Gentiles unto the remnant of the seed of my brethren.

39 And after it had come forth unto them I beheld other books, which came forth by the power of the Lamb, from the Gentiles unto them, unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the Jews who were scattered upon all the face of the earth, that the records of the prophets and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are true.

40 And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.

Nephi receives the information on the importance of the records coming forth in the latter day. They would “establish the truth of the first.”

1  Nephi 13:41-42

41 And they must come according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the Lamb; and the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed, as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.

42 And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles; and after he has manifested himself unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles, then he shall manifest himself unto the Gentiles and also unto the Jews, and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

It is important to remember that while this ends a chapter in our current Book of Mormon, it was part of a single chapter in Nephi’s construction. Thus the next chapter is a continuation of this description of future salvation and should be seen as part of the same explanation. Nephi will continue to see the way the world’s spiritual history will play out. It is a picture of God’s plan in all of its complexity.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 13

  1. Re “. . . Nephi, none of what we know to be a church would have made any sense to him. Nephi had no experience with churches as we known them.”

    The KJV New Testament word “church” is always a translation of Greek ekklesia. Yet, perhaps because the there was no Correlation Dept then, the KJV Old Testament never uses the English word “church,” but it does translate Greek Septuagint ekklesia as “assembly” (Deut 9:10, 10:4, 18:16 Hebrew qahal), “congregation” (Deut 23:2-3, Ezra 10:8, 2 Chron 6:3 qahal), and “company” (1 Sam 19:20 qehilla). The older Hebrew term was ʻeda “congregation” (Ex 12:3,19,47 = Syriac ʻedta “church”), which was also heavily used at Qumran, and which comes from a Semitic root meaning “covenant, treaty,” suggesting a “covenant people.” Also indicative of both Jewish and Christian congregations was LXX and NT Greek synagoge “congregation, assembly” (James 2:2, Matt 4:23, Rev 3:9), but which translated OT Hebrew ʻeda (Ex 12:3 kol qehal ʻadat yisraʼel “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel”; Ps 74:8).

    Nephi had Hebrew terms available to him which could be translated by Joseph as “church,” and that even included the “church of the Devil” (1 Ne13:6, 14:3,10 = Psalm 26:5 “congregation of evil doers”), regardless of which equivalent Egyptian terms were engraved on the Small Plates or on the Brass Plates.

  2. Brant,

    I agree with your reasoning that equates the large and spacious building with the great and abominable church. Robert’s suggestion of the words “congregation” and “assembly” fit well. These words describe a group of worshipers, only these are idol worshippers, worshiping wealth and sex. These worshipers would be the majority of modern civilization.

    I disagree with your attempt to change Nephi’s racial profiling from literal to symbolic, including your referenced article.

    1 Nephi 13:15

    “And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.”

    In the above context, “white and exceedingly fair” cannot be symbols for total righteousness because Nephi’s people were far from righteous “before they were slain.” That is why they were slain. The Gentiles upon this land were also far from righteous in their destruction of the Native Americans. However, I understand the need to try and change what Nephi meant. The Gentiles of North America were mostly from northern Europe and were white skinned with fair hair and eyes, but the Gentiles that migrated to Mesoamerica were mostly from Spain and had darker skins, hair and eyes. Nephi’s literal meaning messes up the Limited Mesoamerica paradigm.

    • Theodore: My suggestion of white and delightsome has nothing to do with the makeup of the Spaniards (and you would be incorrect to assume that they were any darker that the English). It comes from an analysis of the way those phrases are used in the text. The consistency requires that they retain meanings rather than sometimes refer to pigmentation and other times not. They simply don’t refer to pigmentation.

      As for Nephi’s “before,” I doubt he was speaking of immediately before. This is a generic description of his people, and he assumes the best until the end.

  3. I’ve often wondered if Lehi’s dream had some political or social element similar to the dualistic prophesies of Isaiah. Isaiah’s words were directed at the kingdoms of his own day as well as having additional messianic prophesies.

    It is tempting to see the great and spacious building as the temple in Jerusalem after the reforms of king Josiah. The menorah (which was the tree of life) was removed from the temple (see Barker’s discussion on p. 526-7 in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem) and true worship had to be found away from the temple complex, perhaps in one of the shrines that Josiah sought to destroy.

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