This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
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I’m always amazed at how multiple readings inevitably brings to light new things that one hasn’t noticed before—and not simply new interpretations or possibilities or meanings, but literally, new facts that are plain on the page but that one has simply missed. All my life I’ve imagined the Book of Lehi—those tragically lost 116 pages—as having been written by Lehi. But the Book of Lehi was engraven on plates. And while Lehi might well have been the original author of much of it, it was Nephi who did the engraving. Lehi’s age and frailty at this point (a storm at sea some time past nearly did him in), together with the inevitable input of editorialship, inevitably implicate Nephi—even if we had those 116 pages, much of it would’ve been the words of Nephi (as he explicitly notes here). [FN 1]
These plates—the plates on which Nephi is currently writing—are for ministry & prophecies; which is certainly the bulk of I & II Nephi. But we’ve just had 18 chapters of primarily (or at least mostly) what today we would call history or the narrative of the exodus. This seems to argue that Nephi saw each of the scant (by his own admission, here) details of the exodus as religiously meaningful. The narrative for Nephi is ministry and prophecy. These are the events where he (and one assumes, his people also) could clearly see the hand of the Lord (or literally, where the voice of the Lord was heard). And it is also the case that the exodus is critical background for understanding all the ministry and prophecies that come thereafter. Nephi’s whole focus is on the scattering and gathering work of a Messiah, and the sacral unfolding of a dispensation that binds a righteous, covenant people to God. He and his people took this quite literally; it made sense of their whole world. It also justified their traumatic split from the Lamanites. One must have the exodus account in there if one is to understand the covenantal work of the Messiah.
All this, as Nephi notes, is for the instruction of his people. This narrative, this understanding, this worldview, this access gate to the divine, instructs and so forms a people—the people of Nephi.
Nephi also gives us a robust clue here as to when he is writing. He mentions the wars and contentions and destructions of his people. He is not writing shortly but some time after the death of Lehi—long enough for there not just to have been a bloody struggle over succession, but the split and the resettlement and reconstitution of the people who followed Nephi, and long enough for that reconstituted people to be involved in a plurality of wars. Nephi is clearly looking back a long ways in his retelling of these events. We err when we read the exodus in the voice of a contemporary narrator.
I also wonder at that triad: wars, contentions, destruction. Wars are straightforward. How about contentions? Are these largely political? Theological? Do these involve culture, perhaps contention over the extent of local acculturation or assimilation? And what about destructions? Perhaps this refers back to wars and contentions. But I suspect Nephi was not merely being redundant. What catastrophes came upon them as they tried to survive and bootstrap a new life in the New World? What diseases or famines or other disasters? What loss of understanding and culture and knowledge? What and how great were the destructions Nephi mentions? Enough for Nephi’s younger brother to declare their existence that of a lonesome and solemn people, cast out, wading through tribulation and living a life of mourning (Jacob 7:26).
Finally, in this passage of meta-scriptural reflection, Nephi is clear-eyed about both the errors in past scriptural records (or the errors of those who’d written scripture) and also the fact that it is nonetheless scripture. There is a tension between these two facts, and few of us are brave enough to hold onto and insist on both facts at the same time—few of us are as brave as Nephi in this regard. He’s also quite candid—preemptively upfront—about the possibility, likelihood even, of his own errors. This is astonishing—for numerous reasons. Nephi was clearly a much more attentive and careful reader of the scriptures than we usually are. He was likewise able to separate their divine function from their practical incarnation. This careful reading and understanding of scripture extends even to his own writing. Nephi does not claim error-free precision; does not claim perfection. He didn’t hold himself to the same standard that we often hold him to, or attribute to him. This reveals I think a kind of laziness to our attributions of scriptural perfection, and perhaps an underlying fear of mortality more generally. May we all be as scripturally perspicacious, as candidly faithful, and as self-aware as Nephi.
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- I am assuming that this is the only record of Lehi, and the content description certainly matches the other hints we get, though it’s possible (if highly improbable) that there was more than one record of Lehi that ended up engraved on plates and passed down to Mormon.