This is the first of a series of posts in which I will be offering some commentary on 1 Nephi 17. Why that particular chapter you ask? The answer is that I believe that chapter 17 is setting forth a method of scriptural interpretation that proved to be very important both for the Book of Mormon and for Mormonism generally. Furthermore, what I find fascinating about the story is that ultimately it is about the legal interpretation of scripture.
In the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, what is today chapter 17 came more or less in the middle of what was chapter 5. This chapter begins immediately after Nephi’s vision of the tree of life and his interpretation of that vision to his brothers. It tells of their travels in the wilderness from the valley of Lemuel to the Land Bountiful, and from there across the sea to the Promised Land. The arc of the original chapter 5 thus tells of the exodus of the Lehites from Jerusalem. Admittedly, the went into the wilderness as early as the original chapter 1, but prior to original chapter 5 the narrative still centers on Jerusalem, with the brothers returning to get the plates of brass and then debating over their significance and the significance of Lehi’s dream. There is thus a real sense in which original chapter 5 is the hear to the exodus narrative in First Nephi, the story of god’s chosen people crossing the wilderness to their promised land.
Chapter 17 begins with the compressed account of 8 years of wandering in the wilderness, the entry into the Land Bountiful, and God’s command to Nephi to build a ship. The story of how the revelation on the ship occurred is important. The text says:
And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord. And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters. And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten that I may make tools to construct the shop after the manner which thou hast shown unto me? And it came to pas that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools. (1 Ne. 17:7-10)
This is the first in a series of implicit and explicit Moses references in the story. Like Moses in Exodus 3, Nephi is called by the Lord up to the top of a mountain where he is given instructions on the leading of God’s people to the promised land. Like Moses, upon hearing God’s command, Nephi is incredulous or at the very least unsure. “Whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten…” As with Moses on Mount Horeb, God answers his servant’s questions/objections, and the servant then sets forth to obey the divine command.
The Moses reference in this passage does at least two things. First, it casts Nephi as God’s prophet and as the leader of his people in their exodus. Second and more subtly, it offer us a model of how we related to the scriptures. There is a sense in which Nephi is offering an exegesis on Exodus 3 in this story, but he does so by offering up his own story as a gloss on the scriptural text. In effect, he says that one understands the story through its recapitulation in one’s own life. The point is important, because upon returning from the mountain and beginning work on the ship, he is confronted by his brothers. They too are reading the story of Moses, but in an entirely different way and for an entirely different purposes.
To be continued…