Commentary on 1 Nephi 17, pt. 1

January 15, 2009 | 11 comments
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This is the first of a series of posts in which I will be offering some commentary on 1 Nephi 17. Why that particular chapter you ask? The answer is that I believe that chapter 17 is setting forth a method of scriptural interpretation that proved to be very important both for the Book of Mormon and for Mormonism generally. Furthermore, what I find fascinating about the story is that ultimately it is about the legal interpretation of scripture.

In the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, what is today chapter 17 came more or less in the middle of what was chapter 5. This chapter begins immediately after Nephi’s vision of the tree of life and his interpretation of that vision to his brothers. It tells of their travels in the wilderness from the valley of Lemuel to the Land Bountiful, and from there across the sea to the Promised Land. The arc of the original chapter 5 thus tells of the exodus of the Lehites from Jerusalem. Admittedly, the went into the wilderness as early as the original chapter 1, but prior to original chapter 5 the narrative still centers on Jerusalem, with the brothers returning to get the plates of brass and then debating over their significance and the significance of Lehi’s dream. There is thus a real sense in which original chapter 5 is the hear to the exodus narrative in First Nephi, the story of god’s chosen people crossing the wilderness to their promised land.

Chapter 17 begins with the compressed account of 8 years of wandering in the wilderness, the entry into the Land Bountiful, and God’s command to Nephi to build a ship. The story of how the revelation on the ship occurred is important. The text says:

And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord. And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters. And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten that I may make tools to construct the shop after the manner which thou hast shown unto me? And it came to pas that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools. (1 Ne. 17:7-10)

This is the first in a series of implicit and explicit Moses references in the story. Like Moses in Exodus 3, Nephi is called by the Lord up to the top of a mountain where he is given instructions on the leading of God’s people to the promised land. Like Moses, upon hearing God’s command, Nephi is incredulous or at the very least unsure. “Whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten…” As with Moses on Mount Horeb, God answers his servant’s questions/objections, and the servant then sets forth to obey the divine command.

The Moses reference in this passage does at least two things. First, it casts Nephi as God’s prophet and as the leader of his people in their exodus. Second and more subtly, it offer us a model of how we related to the scriptures. There is a sense in which Nephi is offering an exegesis on Exodus 3 in this story, but he does so by offering up his own story as a gloss on the scriptural text. In effect, he says that one understands the story through its recapitulation in one’s own life. The point is important, because upon returning from the mountain and beginning work on the ship, he is confronted by his brothers. They too are reading the story of Moses, but in an entirely different way and for an entirely different purposes.

To be continued…

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11 Responses to Commentary on 1 Nephi 17, pt. 1

  1. Sheldon Gilbert on January 15, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I suppose that Laman and Lemuel lusted for their gold possessions in Jerusalem rather than for the flesh pots of Egypt…

  2. LDS California on January 15, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Have you nocited that we have three instances in the scriptures where the Lord commands the prophet to build a big boat (Nephi, Noah and Jared) and each is given a completely different set of blueprints?

  3. danithew on January 15, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Nate, I’m looking forward to reading what you write.

    Just as you say, it is clear from the way Nephi brings it up so often, that he views the Moses story of the Exodus as foundational to his life.

    Nephi seems to show that he had deeply imbibed the Moses exodus story because he brings it up with his brothers (at the very beginning of their embarkation on their own exodus) – in 1 Nephi Chapter 4 – when he implores Laman and Lemuel to return to Jerusalem for the plates:

    1 And it came to pass that I spake unto my brethren, saying: Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?
    2 Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.
    3 Now behold ye know that this is true; and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt? Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.

    It would seem then, if Nephi isn’t iterpolating the Exodus story into his memory of the conversation he had with his brothers, that he was already channeling the original Moses exodus story at that early a point.

  4. Susan S on January 15, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    To understand the Moses story in the Book of Mormon, you need to start in Mosiah–where Joseph started. So you are Moses identified now too.

  5. Sheldon Gilbert on January 16, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Interesting.

    If Nephi is overlaying the Moses story onto his own experiences, I wonder if Moroni recalled Nephi’s ‘exodus’ story as he prepared the records of the Jaredites for inclusion? Surely, the story of Nephi’s exodus from Jerusalem to the New World must have been as important in Moroni’s faith tradition; as Moses’ exodus from Egypt was to Nephi’s people?

    I don’t know how much of the story we have in Ether is as described by Ether, or how much is just Moroni’s summary of events, but there are definitely strong similarities. Like the Lehites, the Jaredites fled their old home to avoid the the devastation to their old society. The Lord led the Lehites to the land of Bountiful; the people of Jared to the Valley of Nimrod. Both groups seemed comfortable in the land at the water’s edge – Nephi gives a glowing description of Bountiful, and the people of Jared seemed comfortable enough to sit there and wait for 4 years. Eventually, the Lord told both groups that he had not yet led them to their final destination. They were each instructed to build boats to reach their actual promised land.

    Using your own words, “Like [Nephi], [the brother of Jared] is called by the Lord … where he is given instructions on the leading of God’s people to the promised land. Like [Nephi], upon hearing God’s command, [the brother of Jared] is incredulous or at the very least unsure. ‘[O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.' As with [Nephi], God answers his servant’s questions/objections, and the servant then sets forth to obey the divine command.”

  6. Paul S on January 16, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Several scholars have argued that the Exodus was the most important event in Israelite religious history and thus of primary importance to the Nephite prophets and population generally. (see Literature of Belief, Rel. Studies Ctr. 1981). This of course would strengthen Oman’s thesis above. However, this has since been called into question by those Mormon scholars who have begun to closely follow Margaret Barker’s scholarship. Under her current conception, she would argue that the Exodus was of primary importance to the Deutornomist reformers, who were set on changing Israel’s ancient religion (by abandoning the first temple theology and the conception of Yaweh as Elohim’s Son, etc.) and was of little to no importance to the non-reformers. In turn, Mormon scholars who have picked up on her work argue that the Nephites were non-Deutronomists and non-reformers who believed strongly in a Father and a Son, etc. As non-Deutronomists they would not have felt as strongly about the Exodus and Moses following Barker’s thesis. Of course, this could point to an internal debate among the Nephites. Lehi left in the middle of the reformist debate. That debate may have carried on within his family and progenitors.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 16, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    The echoes of Moses are also clear in the begining of Nephi’s major vision. Note that the Land of Midian where Moses was herding sheep when called by God is actually in the same portion of northwest Arabia where Lehi was camped by the Gulf of Aqaba, in “Arabia Felix” where Paul and Elijah each retreated for a time to escape persecutors threatening their lives, just as Moses had done when he fled Egypt. Since Moses went up “into an exceedingly high mountain” when he was drawn away from his sheep, Horeb is a mountain in Midian/Arabia, not in the misnamed Sinai Peninsula. And Nephi goes up into “an exceedingly high mountain” in the same region, if not the same mountain.

  8. It's Not Me on January 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    This is another example of why I’ll likely never contribute anything meaningful to these blogs. I have been reading and re-reading Chapter 17 the past few days (before stumbling onto this), and was excited to see a post on this chapter. Only to find out the analysis is completely different from–and much deeper than—mine.

    I was just pondering how sometimes when the Lord needs to impart some important instruction, he does it in the temple. Here, as with Moses, Nephi didn’t have a temple, so he was called to a high mountain, symbolic, of course, of the temple (or is the temple symbolic of the high mountain?).

    I also pondered why this group didn’t use fire much, and considered the possibility of thieves, robbers, maraudererers(??) that would have been drawn to the group by smoke during the day and the light of fire at night. I then thought about how the Lord tends to use natural means to the extend he can when intervening in our lives.

    I thought I was gaining some insight that perhaps was intended to be gleaned from Chapter 17 and then I come across this.

    I’ll just go crawl back into my cave for now.

  9. Ray on January 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    #7 – It’s Not Me, I dare say your insights would resonate more easily and deeply for many than Nate’s would. Given the “impact” each view would be likely to have, I also dare say yours might be more “valuable” in practical terms.

    Love your insights, Nate. Very well said.

  10. Bookslinger on January 18, 2009 at 3:30 am

    This transfer of leadership from Lehi to Nephi goes unexplained. The obvious (to me) question is: Why didn’t the Lord command Lehi to build the boat, since Lehi was the presiding authority?

    Along those lines, why didn’t leadership pass to Sam, as Sam was older than Nephi? Not much is said of him. He appears to be on Nephi’s side, but he’s never described as defending Nephi against Laman and Lemuel. Poor Sam seems to be damned by faint praise.

    His actions are left completely un-described in the Nephi versus Laman-and-Lemuel dynamic.

    Sheldon: Nephi did two things to destroy Laman and Lemuel’s hopes for ditching the family and going back to their cushy life in Jerusalem. 1) He lost their gold and silver to Laban when trying to buy or bribe the plates away from him. L & L would have had to start from scratch. But more importantly, 2) by killing Laban after the two confrontations, (and due to the item they were seeking turning up missing) Nephi and his brothers were the natural suspects in Laban’s murder. IE, they couldn’t go back now. Laman and Lemuel were screwed. And it was all Nephi’s fault (in their eyes.)

    Not much is given about Ishmael’s motivation to join the group. All that is said is that the boys “did gain favor” with him, spoke “the words of the Lord” to him, and the Lord softened Ishmael’s heart. I don’t know if that means Ishmael received a testimony of the goings-on, or that the boys merely convinced him to skip town too. There’s so much left unsaid.

    On a related point, Nephi did Laban a favor. The manner in which Nephi dispatched Laban was much quicker and much less painful than the tortuous deaths that the Babylonians would later inflect upon the Jews who held political or military leadership positions. A blow that severs or totally disrupts the medula oblongata is the quickest death, and Laban was effectively anesthetized to boot.

    Nate: Nephi describes the recapitulation through his own life as “likening the scriptures unto ourselves.”

  11. Keith S. on January 18, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Love your stuff generally Nate, but this one just doesn’t work for me. I don’t find Nephi’s response to the Lord’s command to build a ship to be either incredulous or unsure. Quite the opposite, I find the response to be one of deep faith and confidence. He doesn’t respond like Moses (or Enoch) with a “why me, I’m just a lad” answer. He doesn’t say anything about his not knowing how to build a ship or otherwise express any doubts about his ability to get the job done. My reading of the nature of his response is “Okay, I’ll need some tools to do this job, can you show me where to get the stuff to make them?” That kind of strong, faithful answer is consistent with his answer to his father’s request that he return to Jerusalem for the brass plates (“I will go and do”) and his response to the challenges he faced during those efforts. I just don’t see this is an allusion to Moses—at least not this part. There may well be other references to Moses or the Exodus.