1 Nephi 19 tweet: N makes 2 sets of plates. Prophets testify of Christ + scattering/gathering of Israel. N likens all scriptures to his family.
In my last post, I outlined why 1 Nephi 19 is a significant chapter for understanding the structure of Nephi’s writings. In this post, I’ll share just a few somewhat disjointed thoughts that cropped up as I read this chapter.
Firstly, I want to take on what I think is the widely accepted view of God’s foreknowledge concerning the loss of the 116 pages. In 1 Ne 19:3, Nephi outlines his purposes for making his small plates, which purposes include “other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord.” We typically interpret these verses to mean that the small plates were made with the express purpose of compensating for the loss of the 116 pages. However, that is nowhere explicitly stated in scripture. In fact, Nephi indicates that the primary purpose of the small plates was for the instruction of his people. Neither he, nor Mormon after him, indicate that they knew what the wise purposes of the Lord were. It seems to me that it is actually plausible that the additional wise purposes had nothing to do with the loss of the 116 pages, e.g. perhaps one wise purpose was to shed greater light on the writings of Isaiah. Perhaps it was always the intention to have a translation of the book of Lehi as well as 1 and 2 Nephi, but after having lost the 116 pages the Lord told Joseph that 1 and 2 Nephi alone were sufficient to suit His purposes. For me, the way we typically talk about the Lord’s wise purposes and the loss of the 116 pages raises questions about God’s foreknowledge and man’s pre-destination that paint us into a corner concerning the ‘tightness’ of God’s control over human history that I don’t think we necessarily need to be in. I suppose I’m open to the idea that 2,400 years earlier God knew exactly what choices Joseph Smith and Martin and Lucy Harris would make. I just don’t think the scriptures require us to believe that. Personally, I tend to imagine that history is unfolding with less micro-management from God. And given the unique role that Nephi’s writings on the small plates fulfil in the Book of Mormon (which I’ll consider in more detail when we get to 2 Nephi), I think it does 1 and 2 Nephi a disservice to imagine it as simply a back-up plan. I recognise this goes against the grain of our usual interpretation of the Lord’s “wise purposes”, so let me know your take.
Following his description of the creation of his two sets of plates, Nephi then prophesies concerning Christ and the redemption of Israel. It is this story – a prophetic interpretation of world history – that Nephi is anxious to communicate to the reader. We hear this story over and over again in Nephi’s writings. As Grant Hardy says:
If we include the Isaiah quotations that complement Nephi’s own prophecies, most of the non-narrative portions of First and Second Nephi are devoted to explicating Nephi’s ideas of how the grand sweep of Nephite history fits into the even broader context of God’s providential design for the children of Israel.1
In verse 10 we read the prophecies of three extra-biblical prophets: Zenock, Neum and Zenos. John Sorenson suggests the reason why we don’t see these prophets in the Bible is because they were most likely associated with the Northern Kingdom of Israel whereas the text that lies behind the Bible came out of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In support of the idea that at least Zenock and Zenos were associated with the Northern Kingdom, Sorenson highlights that while Zenos is quoted as saying, “And as for those who are at Jerusalem” (1 Ne 19:13), nowhere else in the extensive quotes from the prophet does he mention Judah or Jerusalem, strongly suggesting that he was not located in the territory of Judah. Additionally, it is implied in 3 Ne 10:16 that Zenos and Zenock were of a Joseph tribe, although nothing is said of location. Finally, a careful reading of the allegory of the olive tree, from Zenos (Jacob 5), as well as Alma 33:3–17 concerning both Zenos and Zenock, further confirms a context of a sinful Israel more reminiscent of the time of Amos (mid-8th century B.C.) than a later sinful Judah.
One final thought on 1 Ne 19; concerning verse 16, in his extensive commentary on the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner said:
Nephi’s understanding of their location certainly stems from two sources. The first, and most obvious, was that they crossed an ocean to arrive at their location. That Nephi would not have known that they were on a continent rather than an island is certainly not surprising given the geographical knowledge of the times, and the little time that Nephi and his people would have had for exploring. A more important reason, however, is that Nephi had a theological reason for associating his people with the isles of the sea.
In his readings of the brass plates Nephi obviously reads Zenos, and finds in Zenos a reference to a gathering from the isles of the sea:
1 Ne 19:16: Yea, then will he remember the isles of the sea; yea, and all the people who are of the house of Israel, will I gather in, saith the Lord, according to the words of the prophet Zenos, from the four quarters of the earth.
When combined with Nephi’s clear perception of his people on the isles of the sea, the connection between Nephi’s concerns for his lost Jerusalem (for example 1 Nephi 19:20) and his desire for a gathering of his people as well as all of Israel becomes obvious. When likening the scriptures to their own needs, the gathering from the isles of the sea strikes a very strong emotional chord in Nephi who so poignantly remembers the separation from Israel. While Nephi clearly makes this connection, it is a connection and a description that fades from the Book of Mormon, and is never used after Nephi ceases to write.2
Next week’s reading: 1 Nephi 19:22 – 1 Nephi 20:22
- Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 62
- Brant Gardner, Book of Mormon Commentary, pp. 184