1 Nephi 15 tweet: N grieves because of what he has seen. N teaches Lh’s seed will receive gospel from Gentiles in latter days. He interprets the ToL vision.
1 Nephi 14 is the conclusion of the original Book of Mormon chapter III (i.e. 1 Nephi 10–14). 1 Nephi 15 is a standalone chapter in the original Book of Mormon (i.e. 1 Nephi 15 corresponds with the original chapter IV). In this chapter we see Nephi return from his metaphorical mountain and he is brought back to earth quickly as he finds his brothers disputing with each other about what their father taught. As an aside, I wonder if this is meant to echo what must have been Moses’ sense of alienation from his people after he returned from the consuming fire of Mount Sinai to find them worshipping a golden calf.
Having said that, perhaps we should credit his brothers that they were at least taking seriously their father’s teaching. They didn’t understand what he said, but they cared enough to at least be disputing about it.
If we read the first few verses too quickly we might think Nephi responds immediately to the brothers’ disputations. But in fact, he first needs to rest. Verses 4–5 describe what must have been Nephi’s tremendous grief – he considered his afflictions were great above all. It is only after he has had time to rest – to recover from his grief – that he then speaks to his brothers. As mentioned previously, consider again that Nephi has just seen in vision the entire destruction of his posterity. Grant Hardy makes a fascinating observation about the difference between Lehi’s and Nephi’s visionary experience (the quote is long but it’s worth including all of it):
Prophetic knowledge can offer hope for eventual justification, but it can be a tremendous burden as well. After his vision of the Tree of Life, Nephi reports that when he returned to camp he found his brothers arguing about the meaning of their father’s dream:
And now I, Nephi, was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also, because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men. And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall. (1 Ne 15:4–5)
What he had learned by revelation – specifically, about the future fate of his and his brothers’ descendants – was difficult to bear… Recall that Lehi had described this tree as one “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy,” and he had continued by saying, “I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet above all that I ever before tasted…and as I partook of the fruit thereof, it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy” (1 Ne 8:10–12). When the Spirit showed Nephi the same tree and asked what he wanted, it would not have been unreasonable to respond, I want to taste the fruit; I want to experience that exceedingly great joy. In fact, as readers, we have been set up to expect Nephi to respond in exactly this way (see 1 Ne 8:13–16). Instead, he asks for knowledge: “to know the interpretation thereof” (1 Ne 11:11). The Spirit leaves, an angel takes over, and in the end Nephi is wiser but not happier. For the rest of his life, and through the entirety of his literary labors, Nephi works through the implications of that choice.1
Wiser but not happier. Do you think that is a burden that all prophets carry to some degree? Does Hardy’s reading increase your appreciation for what Nephi did after what in many ways must have been a traumatic visionary experience? Does it help us better understand what Nephi meant in 1 Nephi 1:1?
In the first half of the chapter (v1–20), Nephi interprets his father’s teachings re. the house of Israel comparison with an olive tree (see 1 Ne 10). This interaction appears to be born of frustration (see verse 10). Yet despite Nephi’s own grief and frustrations and his harsh words to his brothers, “they were pacified and did humble themselves before the Lord.” Elsewhere when Nephi chastens his brothers they respond with violence, but here they are pacified and humble themselves. Why do you they respond differently in this instance?
Their humility marks a change in mood in the chapter. Whereas in v7 and 9 the brothers defiantly say they do not understand and so Nephi gives them an interpretation of the olive tree almost unbidden, in the second half of the chapter (v21–36), in the spirit of humility they ask Nephi questions about the meaning of the symbols in Lehi’s vision, which Nephi answers.
Of course, there’s lots we could pick out of Nephi’s interpretation, but in the interest of word count I’ll consider one verse. Verse 24 reads:
And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.
In an earlier post I noted that one of the differences between the group who partake of the fruit of the tree but then fall away and the group who partake and remain is that those who remained steadfast held fast to the rod, rather than clung to it (compare 1 Ne 8:24 and 30). Here Nephi seems to emphasise that difference. Only those who hold fast to the word will not perish and be able to resist the temptations and fiery darts of the adversary. I explained what I think the difference between clinging and holding fast is here. But to the principle of holding fast, Nephi adds the word ‘hearken’. To hear-ken is to hear and know (ken). It is not just enough to hear the word, we must apply ourselves to knowing and understanding it. In a few chapters time I’ll make the argument that Laman and Lemuel were observant Jews and that their rebellion was a function of not understanding the word rather than overt disobedience. Hence Nephi adds to his interpretation of the rod of iron a strong exhortation that his brothers heed the word of God.
To close out the commentary on the two great visionary experiences of the Book of Mormon before we return to the story of the journey in 1 Ne 16, here are a couple of final observations and a question about some of the differences between Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision:
- Lehi was in an interactive dream, while Nephi was an observer
- Lehi describes the dream as all about his family; Nephi’s is about the broad scope of sacred history
- We might liken Lehi’s interpretation of the symbols as a family drama and Nephi’s as history to the creation account as presented in the temple, which could also be interpreted as both a family drama and as a historical sweep
- What do we make of the fact that Nephi wanted to see what his father saw, but actually ends up seeing (and interpreting) something quite different?
Next week’s reading: 1 Nephi 16
- Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, p.85–86