Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 15

1 Nephi 15:1-3

1 And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been carried away in the Spirit, and seen all these things, I returned to the tent of my father.

2 And it came to pass that I beheld my brethren, and they were disputing one with another concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them.

3 For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.

Our chapter 15 corresponds directly to the 1830 chapter IV.  It was apparently short enough that Orson Pratt accepted it without modification. It is therefore one of the chapters we can read where our perception of the chapter boundaries fall into the same places as they did for Nephi, their author.

Thematically, chapter 15 continues the explanation of Lehi’s dream and lecture to his family. In content, it fits with the doctrinal exposition that began which Nephi’s recounting of his father’s dream, which was separated from Nephi’s receipt of the same version by a chapter break.

In this case, we have a chapter break that isn’t dictated by theme but by actors. Nephi placed his father’s account in a chapter, and began a new chapter for his own version. In this exposition, the scene and the actors change. Nephi leaves an account where an angel instructs him and moves to an account where he is the authority instructing his brothers. It is unlikely that he, or his early readers (whomever they were) would have missed the socially important fact that in this chapter we have a younger brother instructing his elders. I have suggested elsewhere that his brothers accepted Nephi’s ability to interpret because Nephi had had training a s a scribe and therefore was expected to know such things where his brothers, without that training, would not “Nephi as Scribe.”

Nephi continues to use “tent of my father” as a means of transition. Not only was the “tent of my father” a physical location  that symbolized the family’s location, it was a literary device that Nephi used to make shifts in his narrative. It shows up at the end of  our chapter 9:1 (ending of the 1830 chapter II) and is repeated in the new chapter (1 Ne. 10:16). The next occurrence is in 1 Ne. 15:1 where it helps mark a shift in location and in textual focus.

Nephi sets up this chapter by moving to a location (tent of my father) and finding his brothers. The thematic continuation is signaled by including the brothers “disputing one with another concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them.” Thus Nephi comes back from a dramatic (and ecstatic) even where he had learned the meaning of “the things which my father had spoken unto them” to find his brothers in need of his information. The function of the chapter is to present that information in yet another form.

The importance of this series of events was so significant for Nephi that he gives his readers this information three times. First, he records his father’s experience. Then his own, then he explains it to his brothers. In the explanation to his brothers we find the critical elements that were encoded in the symbolic elements of Lehi’s dream. Nephi will focus on the Messiah’s mission and the way the future of Lehi’s descendants will play out.

1 Ne. 15:4-6

4 And now I, Nephi, was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also, because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men.

5 And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall.

6 And it came to pass that after I had received strength I spake unto my brethren, desiring to know of them the cause of their disputations.

This is an interesting interlude in the development of these chapters. Nephi has been discussing important revelation of the future and will continue with yet another explication. He is writing this at least 30 years after the events. Nevertheless, even as he sets up the situation with his brothers that will allow this continued explication, he adds in a very short piece of history that is easily missed. Nephi’s experience with the angel had drained him spiritually and therefore physically. Although he returns to the tent of his father with knowledge and his brothers are clearly in need of what he knows, he hasn’t the strength to speak to them immediately. That short description tells us that however else Nephi might be manipulating his text for his overall purpose, he is still couching it in history. After that many years, he remembers the extreme fatigue sufficiently to mark it prior to the next doctrinal explanation that will occupy the rest of the chapter.

1 Ne. 15:7-11

7 And they said: Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive tree, and also concerning the Gentiles.

8 And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?

9 And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.

10 Behold, I said unto them: How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts?

11 Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.

The explication will begin with his brother’s questions about the natural branches of the olive tree. Lehi’s presentation of this information came in 1 Ne. 10:11 (perhaps significantly just before 1 Ne. 10:16 which indicates that this happens as his father dwelt in a tent).

Before beginning the explanation, however, Nephi presents an important difference between his brothers’ and his approach to this understanding. He asks if they have inquired of the Lord? That is a reasonable question since Nephi had done just that.

While this is likely a historical event, just as was the fatigue Nephi mentioned, it also has a literary function. Nephi is separating himself from his brethren and underlining his case for assuming the prophesied rule over his brothers. In this case, we contrast the fact the Nephi asked and received an angelic visitor to explain the answers to his questions with his brothers—who not only do not ask but declare “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” Thus Nephi has the Lord’s blessing and his brothers do not.

Nephi then demonstrates his ability to be the spiritual leader of a people by explaining a revelation to his brothers. While they were probably accepting of Nephi as expositor because of his training, Nephi’s use of the event is different. For Nephi’s recounting, it is a demonstration of another way in which his leadership is beginning to be both asserted and supported by divine sanction.

1 Ne. 15:12

12 Behold, I say unto you, that the house of Israel was compared unto an olive tree, by the Spirit of the Lord which was in our father; and behold are we not broken off from the house of Israel, and are we not a branch of the house of Israel?

This is the key for interpretation. The allegory of the olive tree is intended to tell a story directly relevant to Lehi’s family.

1 Ne. 15:13

13 And now, the thing which our father meaneth concerning the grafting in of the natural branches through the fulness of the Gentiles, is, that in the latter days, when our seed shall have dwindled in unbelief, yea, for the space of many years, and many generations after the Messiah shall be manifested in body unto the children of men, then shall the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto the Gentiles, and from the Gentiles unto the remnant of our seed—

Just as the Messiah was the message immediately derived from the vision of the tree, the mission of the Messiah is essential to understanding the prophesied future of the house of Lehi (as part of the house of Israel).

1 Ne. 15:14-19

14 And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord; and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him; wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.

15 And then at that day will they not rejoice and give praise unto their everlasting God, their rock and their salvation? Yea, at that day, will they not receive the strength and nourishment from the true vine? Yea, will they not come unto the true fold of God?

16 Behold, I say unto you, Yea; they shall be remembered again among the house of Israel; they shall be grafted in, being a natural branch of the olive tree, into the true olive tree.

17 And this is what our father meaneth; and he meaneth that it will not come to pass until after they are scattered by the Gentiles; and he meaneth that it shall come by way of the Gentiles, that the Lord may show his power unto the Gentiles, for the very cause that he shall be rejected of the Jews, or of the house of Israel.

18 Wherefore, our father hath not spoken of our seed alone, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.

19 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake much unto them concerning these things; yea, I spake unto them concerning the restoration of the Jews in the latter days.

Lehi and his family are facing a rather obvious separation from the house of Israel. Therefore, the essential message is the reunification with the spiritual blessings that attend the house of Israel.

1 Ne. 15:20

20 And I did rehearse unto them the words of Isaiah, who spake concerning the restoration of the Jews, or of the house of Israel; and after they were restored they should no more be confounded, neither should they be scattered again. And it came to pass that I did speak many words unto my brethren, that they were pacified and did humble themselves before the Lord.

This is the first time in Nephi’s account that he mentions Isaiah. He will certainly lean heavily on Isaiah as he continues to write, but the very first mention perhaps tells us why Isaiah becomes such an important foundational text for Nephi’s ideas and writing. Nephi saw Isaiah as providing information on the very issues facing his family. We see in this discussion of the family being removed from physical Israel and expecting a future reunification, a parallel to Isaiah’s promise of a return to those of the ten tribes separated from physical Israel. Perhaps Nephi also understood that Isaiah’s prophesies would yet come to pass even though a hundred years had already passed without fulfillment. Perhaps that timing also informed Nephi’s faith in the future reunification of his own people, even knowing that it would be a long time before its fulfillment.

1 Ne. 15:21-30

21 And it came to pass that they did speak unto me again, saying: What meaneth this thing which our father saw in a dream? What meaneth the tree which he saw?

22 And I said unto them: It was a representation of the tree of life.

23 And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?

24 And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.

25 Wherefore, I, Nephi, did exhort them to give heed unto the word of the Lord; yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed, that they would give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things.

26 And they said unto me: What meaneth the river of water which our father saw?

27 And I said unto them that the water which my father saw was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water.

28 And I said unto them that it was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God.

29 And I said unto them that it was a representation of that awful hell, which the angel said unto me was prepared for the wicked.

30 And I said unto them that our father also saw that the justice of God did also divide the wicked from the righteous; and the brightness thereof was like unto the brightness of a flaming fire, which ascendeth up unto God forever and ever, and hath no end.

Nephi has already explained these things, so we see them as a summary. It is quite possible that the actual explanation to his brothers was more detailed. However, Nephi understands that this recaps material he has already written. Therefore, he stays true to the historical event without belaboring information he has already given his audience.

1 Ne. 15:31-36

31 And they said unto me: Doth this thing mean the torment of the body in the days of probation, or doth it mean the final state of the soul after the death of the temporal body, or doth it speak of the things which are temporal?

32 And it came to pass that I said unto them that it was a representation of things both temporal and spiritual; for the day should come that they must be judged of their works, yea, even the works which were done by the temporal body in their days of probation.

33 Wherefore, if they should die in their wickedness they must be cast off also, as to the things which are spiritual, which are pertaining to righteousness; wherefore, they must be brought to stand before God, to be judged of their works; and if their works have been filthiness they must needs be filthy; and if they be filthy it must needs be that they cannot dwell in the kingdom of God; if so, the kingdom of God must be filthy also.

34 But behold, I say unto you, the kingdom of God is not filthy, and there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God; wherefore there must needs be a place of filthiness prepared for that which is filthy.

35 And there is a place prepared, yea, even that awful hell of which I have spoken, and the devil is the preparator of it; wherefore the final state of the souls of men is to dwell in the kingdom of God, or to be cast out because of that justice of which I have spoken.

36 Wherefore, the wicked are rejected from the righteous, and also from that tree of life, whose fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits; yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God. And thus I spake unto my brethren. Amen.

The final section is given in a little more detail because it covers information that was not previously explained in depth. Nephi ends this chapter with the final explication, and then the formal amen. That certainly allows for a clean reason to break the chapter. Less clear is that the beginning of the next chapter appears to begin with text that seems to follow this event. The clear chapter break for modern sensibilities comes between 1 Ne. 16:6 and 7 where verse six notes that “all these things were said and done as my father dwelt in a tent in the valley which he called Lemuel.”

I will look at that transition in the discussion of the next chapter.

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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.

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