Nephi’s Strategy

June 24, 2014 | 6 comments
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Consider the structure of 1 Nephi 1:

 

A1. I make a record of my proceedings in my days. (1:1)

A2. Yea, I make a record in the language of my father,

which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. (1:2)

A3. And I know that the record which I make is true; (1:3)

A4. and I make it with mine own hand; (1:3)

A5. and I make it according to my knowledge. (1:3)

 

Lehi’s theophany (1:4-15)

 

B5. And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written,

for he hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, (1:16)

B4. of which I shall not make a full account. (1:16)

B3. But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. (1:17)

B2. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father,

upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father (1:17)

B1. then will I make an account of mine own life. (1:17)

 

Nephi has carefully structured his account of Lehi’s vision by surrounding it with ten instances (five before and five after) of the phrase “I make.” (This repetition is even more pronounced given that Nephi only uses the phrase a dozen times in the rest of his writings.)

Note that the “I make” phrases form a chiasmus surrounding Lehi’s prophetic commissioning. The A1 and B1 lines are paralleled through their references to “my days” and “my own life” and thus reveal an emphasis on Nephi’s own story–he might be telling of his father’s commissioning, but he is bracketing it with references to his own life. Lehi’s ministry is important because of the impact that it had on Nephi’s life. The A2 and B2 lines both contain the phrase “of my father” and therefore point to Nephi’s debt to his father, for both language and records. Again, we see that Lehi is not important in his own right but because of the impact that he has on Nephi. Interestingly, both of these lines contain asides that address the seemingly mundane matters of language and the source of the plates. But to Nephi, these are anything but pedestrian concerns; rather, they witness to the obsession with texts, records, and writing that permeates this chapter. Their location in the chiasmus suggests that the spirit of Nephi’s story (mentioned in the A1 and B1 lines) cannot be extricated from its flesh of language and plates.

A3 and B3—the central lines in each section—focus the reader on the central point: Nephi asserts the truthfulness of his record, the record of his own days. This is the heart of the matter. The A4 and the B4 lines reveal a contrast: when Nephi writes of his own life, he is making the record with his own hand (A4), but when he writes of his father’s life, he does not make a complete record (B4). Thus we are introduced to a distinction that hints at the importance of first-person witness. Similarly, the A5 and B5 lines continue this idea, as Nephi claims that his record is made according to his own knowledge (A5), but the record of Lehi’s is not complete (B5). Lehi’s record reflects Lehi’s—not Nephi’s—own knowledge, and so of course Nephi’s account of it will of necessity be incomplete. The “nots” in the B4 (“I shall not make”) and B5 lines (“I, Nephi, do not make”) disrupt the pattern that Nephi established in the A lines and so call our attention to the fact that Nephi will not be providing a full account of his father’s experiences. He cannot; it is not his own experience.

Taken as a whole, the litany of references to “I make” embeds Lehi’s vision in a very precise narrative context: it is material that Nephi deploys for his own ends, material that is included because of the impact that it had on Nephi’s life, not his father’s. Nephi is also very careful to draw a distinction between records where he is the primary source—material that he will relate in full, and to which he can assent to its truthfulness—versus material that he abridges and that draws from experiences not his own.

It is most surprising that Nephi does not class his father’s records as beyond reproach, but rather carefully delineates a difference between them and his own. The privileging of first-person knowledge begins here but it casts a long shadow over Nephi’s entire story, from his mother’s unwillingness to assume the safety of her sons until she knows for herself to Nephi’s desire to have his own vision and not rely on his father’s witness. Nephi extends this desire for first-person knowledge to his audience as well, as he does something most unusual in sacred writ: he speaks directly to the audience (“I would that ye should know” and “I, Nephi, will show unto you”) in order to encourage the audience to develop their own first-person knowledge. Throughout, Nephi evinces a profound privileging of first-hand information. It is quite a trick to do so while writing what must, of necessity, be read by your audience as second-hand information, but Nephi’s close attention to detail in structuring the account of his father’s vision helps the reader develop credence in Nephi as an editor who carefully distinguishes the trustworthiness of his sources, even when it is his own father.

 

 

 

 

 

6 Responses to Nephi’s Strategy

  1. Ardis on June 24, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Another one of those insights that has been right under my nose the whole time, and I never saw it. Thanks, Julie.

  2. Frank McIntyre on June 24, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    Interesting. Thanks, Julie. I think Nephi 1 is a pretty carefully constructed chapter and this certainly reinforces that.

  3. Jax on June 24, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    I’ve thought about this chapter alot and how his phrases show what he does and doesn’t know. But this is laid out MUCH better than my chaotic thinking pattern. Thanks!!

  4. EmilyK on June 25, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Fascinating. Thank you!

  5. Miranda Wilcox on June 25, 2014 at 9:44 am

    This is great Julie!

  6. Martin on June 25, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Nice observation. Thank you

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