1 Nephi 14 tweet:
Gentiles to be counted w/ Israel. 2 churches only: of the Lamb (few); of the devil (many). N sees John. John writes about end times.

In this post I want to do something a bit different to what I’ve done in previous posts. As I try to limit the length of posts to ~1000 words, it’s hard to cover any one verse or idea in too much detail. But the concept of race or lineage is such a feature of Nephi’s vision (e.g. the house of Israel, Gentiles, Nephites, Lamanites, the remnant) and in fact the whole of the Book of Mormon (again, see the purposes of the Book of Mormon as outlined on the title page; additionally the lineage division of Nephite/Lamanite is pervasive), that I think it’s worth spending some time considering this one topic.

In verse 2, the angel tells Nephi that if the Gentiles hearken unto the Lamb and harden not their hearts then they will be numbered among the seed of Lehi and among the house of Israel. This raises a question about how literally we should think about the concept of race or lineage as it appears in the scriptures. To try and answer this question I’d like to take another deviation from the norm for these posts and bring modern science to bear on the answer.

The elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953 is arguably the most important scientific breakthrough of the last 100 years. It has opened up new worlds of research and discovery. For example, DNA means that we know things about our ancestors and the shared ancestry of the human race that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. Today, geneticists, professional genealogists, anthropologists, etc. postulate that the most recent common ancestor of all living persons today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago.1,2 And, that not long before that, the majority of people living on the planet were the direct ancestors of everyone alive today. We all have 2 parents and 4 grandparents and 8 great-grandparents. But by the time we have gone back just 40 generations (~1000 years) we have potentially over a trillion ancestors. Now this isn’t actually possible and is explained by the fact that many of our ancestors will be duplications. But the further back you go in generations the more and more our individual family trees coalesce. The geneticist Aravinda Chakravarti said, “we are all multiracial, related to each other only to a greater or lesser extent.”3

What does that mean? Basically, if Abraham lived ~3500 years ago he is most likely the ancestor of everyone alive today.

How does this affect concepts of lineage as taught in the Church? We’ll all have heard ideas such as ‘literal descendants of Israel vs. adopted descendants of Israel’. And here in Nephi’s vision we have an angel talking about a division between Gentiles and the house of Israel in the latter days. My point is, modern science doesn’t back up the concept of ‘literal’ vs. ‘adopted’. Science would suggest that if anyone alive today is a descendant of Israel, then everyone is. Therefore, I think we should interpret Nephi’s vision of Gentiles and the house of Israel (and in fact all scriptural concepts of lineage) in spiritual terms rather than literally. Personally, I think biological lineage is somewhat irrelevant. Jesus Himself warned the Jews:

“And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9).

I say somewhat irrelevant because we do place great emphasis on drawing up a family tree. But that is all with the intention of sealing our ancestors to us. But we are sealed to them for time and all eternity by priesthood power. Priesthood sealings transcend and trump biology. The point of the power of the priesthood is that it binds us together in ways and to degrees for which biology is simply not adequate. Being the seed of Ephraim or of Israel or of Abraham or of Adam is meaningless in biological or genealogical terms; the power of the priesthood to bind us together as families and across generations, through time and eternity gives it a meaning and significance that genes could never impart.

I’ll most likely revisit these ideas about race/lineage as they crop up throughout the Book of Mormon, but right now I have just enough space to cover off one more idea as we come to the close of Nephi’s vision.

At the close of the vision – or rather the close of what Nephi writes – Nephi is visited by a man “dressed in a white robe”. This contrasts with Lehi’s experience in that he was visited by a man “dressed in a white robe” at the beginning of his vision (see 1 Ne 8:5). In an earlier post, I wondered if that man might have been some adversarial messenger. But now I wonder if it’s not the same messenger who comes to Nephi at the close of his vision, i.e. the apostle John. (Incidentally, the phrase “dressed in a white robe” occurs only in these two instances in the Book of Mormon.)

The angel informs Nephi that it is John who will in essence write the remainder of his vision (v21–22). In fact, Nephi is instructed not to write the end of his vision because that is to what John was ordained (v25). Therefore, to get the full picture of what Nephi saw we really need to read the Book of Revelation. In that way, Nephi’s own vision and writings complement that which “proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew”. In a feedback loop that I don’t think he would have appreciated himself, Nephi’s own writings help fulfil his own vision.

One final thought on this connection between Nephi and John is that as mentioned previously, in the Book of Mormon the Lamb as a title for Christ is used almost exclusively by Nephi and in particular in his vision recorded in 1 Ne 11–14. In the Bible, the Lamb as a title is used almost exclusively by John (see John 1 and throughout the Book of Revelation). It seems the Lamb as a title should draw our minds to the visions of the end of times of these two great prophets, one in the Old World and one in the New.

And with that Nephi concludes his great eschatological vision.

Next week’s reading: 1 Nephi 15

  1. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200205/olson
  2. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v431/n7008/full/nature02842.html
  3. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v457/n7228/full/457380a.html