Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 19:1-21

Chapter 19 is not a separate chapter in the 1830 edition. However, in the 1830 edition, the chapter V in which it is included ends where we have verse 21. Because that was an original chapter break, I am looking at chapter 19 only up to verse 21 to have the opportunity of looking at why Nephi would make the decision to break the chapter at that point.

1 Ne. 18:25 And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.

1 Ne. 19:1 And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father; and also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them.

I have added the last verse of our chapter 18 to the beginning of 19 to restore the sense in which Nephi intended us to see those two ideas. Nephi brought his narrative to the New World and gave an almost formulaic account of their arrival. They came, the found what they needed to survive, and they found “all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.” Finding the gold, silver and copper should not be of the same survival importance of finding animals “for the use of men.” Nevertheless, it does fit into the context of exploring their new land and finding things that would be important to them.

The importance of the ores is directly related to the next topic that Nephi introduces, “And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore.” They find ore and the Lord commands Nephi to make plates of ore. I believe that the gold and silver became foundations for an economic industry that allowed later Nephite society (as opposed to complete absorption into the existing population), there is a possible reason that copper is also mentioned.

There is a Central American alloy called tumbaga that consists of gold and copper. When treated with an acid, it has a gold color. Tumbaga is also lighter than pure gold and would better fit the weight described for the plates delivered to Joseph Smith. Tumbaga is a general term for an indeterminate percentage mix of the alloy, and some items produced with the lost wax technique also include silver in the allow, retaining the golden color. Of course, there is still the issue that such metal working is unattested that early in Mesoamerica, but that isn’t my focus here and I have discussed that issue elsewhere.

For understanding Nephi’s writing, we find a quick reference to looking for useful things, ending with finding the very useful things that will move him to his next topic, the creation of the plates on which he is writing.

At this point Nephi discusses the record we know as the small plates of Nephi. He first mentioned them in 1 Ne. 1:17 when he simply suggests that he will be making an “abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands.”

The next reference is in 1 Ne. 9, which has a discussion of the plates that has already provided much of the information that Nephi will include here. The insertion of chapter 9 came as Nephi transitioned from his father’s record to his own. This comes more in historical time. It is chapter 9 that is the anomaly and probably occurred because Nephi was at a transition where he was thinking of records as he was making a shift. Moving from the physical record his father had kept, he was to begin his own story on a physical record that he had made and kept. Perhaps that was the trigger that led him to spend the time at that point on something that was out of historical order.

2 And I knew not at the time when I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates; wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first plates.

In chapter 9 he had informed his readers that he had created other plates that contained more information (1 Ne. 9:2, 5). He repeats the two important points of this set of plates. Nephi created other plates and did not know at that time that that he should make another set. Therefore, this set is not as complete as the other record (this verse and 1 Ne. 9:2). The essential information is that both sets of plates were “commanded of the Lord.”

3 And after I had made these plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates; and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord.

This verse parallels the information in 1 Ne. 9:3, 5).  Nephi knew two things about this second set, apart from the fact that the Lord had commanded him to make them. The first was the nature of the content, which was to differ from the other set, and the second was that there was some “wise purpose,” a phrase repeated in both places. The repetition of that phrase at least suggests that it was a quotation from the communication he received.

4 Wherefore, I, Nephi, did make a record upon the other plates, which gives an account, or which gives a greater account of the wars and contentions and destructions of my people. And this have I done, and commanded my people what they should do after I was gone; and that these plates should be handed down from one generation to another, or from one prophet to another, until further commandments of the Lord.

Nephi describes the original plates of Nephi, which were to become the official royal record of his people. That was the tradition that continued throughout Nephite history and eventually became the source material that Mormon used to create the Book of Mormon. The information in verse 4 was also recounted in 1 Ne. 9:2, 4.

5 And an account of my making these plates shall be given hereafter; and then, behold, I proceed according to that which I have spoken; and this I do that the more sacred things may be kept for the knowledge of my people.

After using the creation of the plates as an interlude between his father’s record and beginning to write his own history, Nephi uses the making of the plates as part of the ending of his first book. Interestingly, he promises that he will speak of them again later! He did not consider either the 1 Ne. 9 discussion or this discussion to actually speak of the creation of the plates.

That information does not come until 2 Ne. 5: 29-33. In that final account, Nephi finally places their creation in the proper timeframe. Nevertheless, the time is virtually the only change in the information. He notes that these plates were the second set (just has he had twice before) and that God told him to “engraven many things upon them which are good in my sight, of the profit of thy people” (2 Ne. 5:30).

Nothing he actually wrote was new information. What was new was the context, which finally discussed making the plates at the more appropriate part of his historical timeline.

6 Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself.

At the end of a very long discussion of his and his family’s history, Nephi declares that he has only written what was sacred. He did not intend this set of plates to be historical. In 1 Ne. 9:4 he contrasted the two purposes for the different records: “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.”

Unfortunately for we modern readers, Nephi never explained the nature of that division more than this statement. What we have is what he wrote that he obviously thought fulfilled that mandate. For a record that was to be more ministry and less history, 1 Nephi appears to be mostly history. That should warn us as readers that 1 Nephi is a history in service of ministry. It is a crafted document meant to teach, not record raw fact.

7 For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.

8 And behold he cometh, according to the words of the angel, in six hundred years from the time my father left Jerusalem.

The transition from verse 6 to 7 occurs as Nephi considers his own inadequacies as a human commanded to write a record for the divine. That leads to his statement in 7 that while the world may not understand men, they also did not understand their God. The mention of God allows him to repeat his father’s prophecy that God would come to earth in six hundred years from the time his father left Jerusalem.

9 And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.

Placing God in the time and place of men, God will be treated as other men and judged “to be a thing of naught.” This may be an oblique comparison of the treatment his father received in Jerusalem with that which will be accorded the Savior after his birth, which Nephi had seen in vision.

10 And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel.

In keeping with Nephi’s editorial habit, when he references the brass plates in support of his arguments, he does not quote, but references. He will quote from the brass plates, but when he does he will typically provide entire sections rather than just the proof text verses. The difference appears to be when the scriptures are supporting his discussion or when they are the foundation upon which he bases his discussion. In the first case Nephi references; in the second, he quotes.

11 For thus spake the prophet: The Lord God surely shall visit all the house of Israel at that day, some with his voice, because of their righteousness, unto their great joy and salvation, and others with the thunderings and the lightnings of his power, by tempest, by fire, and by smoke, and vapor of darkness, and by the opening of the earth, and by mountains which shall be carried up.

Zenos appears to be the prophet Nephi is referencing, and these events are to describe the conditions when Christ dies. Some of them were attested in the Old World, but this is a much more accurate prophecy of the events in the New World. Perhaps the Lord understood that Zenos would only be preserved for the New World and allowed his prophecy to apply to the right event in Israel’s future, but provide specifics that would resonate even more with the people of the New World.

12 And all these things must surely come, saith the prophet Zenos. And the rocks of the earth must rend; and because of the groanings of the earth, many of the kings of the isles of the sea shall be wrought upon by the Spirit of God, to exclaim: The God of nature suffers.

It is important to remember that these verses require the equation of Jehovah with Jesus. For Nephi, it was literally God who came to earth and who was death would be marked with such groanings of the earth that everyone would understand that literally “the God of nature suffers.”

13 And as for those who are at Jerusalem, saith the prophet, they shall be scourged by all people, because they crucify the God of Israel, and turn their hearts aside, rejecting signs and wonders, and the power and glory of the God of Israel.

14 And because they turn their hearts aside, saith the prophet, and have despised the Holy One of Israel, they shall wander in the flesh, and perish, and become a hiss and a byword, and be hated among all nations.

From the time that Nephi started this idea in verse 9, he has been relying upon his vision of these events which we have recorded in 1 Ne. 11:24-34.

15 Nevertheless, when that day cometh, saith the prophet, that they no more turn aside their hearts against the Holy One of Israel, then will he remember the covenants which he made to their fathers.

16 Yea, then will he remember the isles of the sea; yea, and all the people who are of the house of Israel, will I gather in, saith the Lord, according to the words of the prophet Zenos, from the four quarters of the earth.

17 Yea, and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord, saith the prophet; every nation, kindred, tongue and people shall be blessed.

After Nephi recounted his vision of the death of Jehovah in 1 Ne. 11, his next theme in the vision was the gathering of the peoples, back to Israel:  “yea, behold the house of Israel hath gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (1 Nephi 11:35). Parallel to that sequence, Nephi here begins to speak of the gathering.

Nephi’s vision was such an important event in his life that it organizes other aspects of his writing. We see it here and will see that his reading of Isaiah in 2 Nephi recounts that vision using Isaiah as the interpretive base, but still organized and infused with the understanding from his seminal vision.

18 And I, Nephi, have written these things unto my people, that perhaps I might persuade them that they would remember the Lord their Redeemer.

19 Wherefore, I speak unto all the house of Israel, if it so be that they should obtain these things.

20 For behold, I have workings in the spirit, which doth weary me even that all my joints are weak, for those who are at Jerusalem; for had not the Lord been merciful, to show unto me concerning them, even as he had prophets of old, I should have perished also.

21 And he surely did show unto the prophets of old all things concerning them; and also he did show unto many concerning us; wherefore, it must needs be that we know concerning them for they are written upon the plates of brass.

The end of Nephi’s chapter summarized the reason for the record he is making. Even though there has been much history, it is a spiritual record and records the mercies of God to Nephi’s family and people.

[end of Chapter V in 1830, but not the end of Chapter 19 in current editions]

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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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