If we accept, at least for the moment, that 1 Nephi has a textual history, that it drew on older sources or underwent expansion at various times, then we might wonder what could be considered the oldest layer of the text. If we could peel pack the layers of commentary, and smooth over the disruptions caused by the insertion of sermons and editorial interludes, we would be left primarily with the story of the rivalry between Nephi and his brothers.
But within the Nephi novel, we might detect isolated chunks that preserve a still older layer of material. From the beginning of 1 Nephi until Nephi’s first editorial interlude in chapter 6, we find three direct quotations involving Lehi that are arguably poetic, and which make reference to the particularity of Lehi’s words. With some little imagination we might see in them survivals of an older source that the editor of 1 Nephi quoted rather than summarized.
The first consists of two grouped citations in 1 Ne. 1: 13-16, where Lehi pronounces woes upon Jerusalem and praises God. Lehi reads a book in a vision,
13 And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.
14 And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!
15 And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, yea, which the Lord had shown unto him.
16 And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written, for he hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I shall not make a full account.
Kent Brown notes that this passage, among several others, explicitly mentions the summarizing and re-use of older material. (His essay is particularly concerned with the doctrinal significance of Nephi’s redaction of Lehi’s record, while my ambitions are limited to the textual, and I prefer to maintain the distinctions between characters, narrators, authorial figures, and authors.) I think we’re justified in regarding the quoted lines from Lehi as poetic, but the more important point here is that the text emphasizes that there is something unusual about Lehi’s language in these quotations.
The next of Lehi’s songs are his paired exhortations to Laman and Lemuel in 1 Ne. 2: 9-10:
6 And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water.
7 And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.
8 And it came to pass that he called the name of the river, Laman, and it emptied into the Red Sea; and the valley was in the borders near the mouth thereof.
9 And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!
10 And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!
In this case, the parallelism of the two lines, and the use of simile, makes the quotation even more clearly poetic. Noteworthy also is the apparent ritual context—Lehi builds an altar, praises God, and then addresses his eldest sons.
The third of Lehi’s songs is part of a sequence of three poetic units consisting of Sariah’s lament, Lehi’s response, and Sariah’s song of thanksgiving in 1 Ne. 5: 1-9, which is brought about by the failure of their sons to return from Jerusalem:
1 And it came to pass that after we had come down into the wilderness unto our father, behold, he was filled with joy, and also my mother, Sariah, was exceedingly glad, for she truly had mourned because of us.
2 For she had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.
3 And after this manner of language had my mother complained against my father.
4 And it had come to pass that my father spake unto her, saying: I know that I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.
5 But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness.
6 And after this manner of language did my father, Lehi, comfort my mother, Sariah, concerning us, while we journeyed in the wilderness up to the land of Jerusalem, to obtain the record of the Jews.
7 And when we had returned to the tent of my father, behold their joy was full, and my mother was comforted.
8 And she spake, saying: Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them. And after this manner of language did she speak.
9 And it came to pass that they did rejoice exceedingly, and did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord; and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel.
After each direct quotation, the editor of 1 Nephi remarks on the peculiarity of Lehi’s and Sariah’s language, while the whole exchange concludes with another reference to ritual context. I’d like to understand “after this manner of language” as an acknowledgment that the cited text is noticeably archaic, which would certainly not be unprecedented for poetic elements preserved within a prose text.
For our understanding of these passages, much depends on how one reads the quotation of Lehi in 1 Ne. 3: 1-6. The language in that passage strikes me as prosaic and the text does not remark about any peculiarity of Lehi’s language, while the focus on obtaining written records seems more to reflect Nephi’s concerns about plates and sources, and the passage sets up Nephi’s first outburst of song in 1 Ne. 3: 7. I would exclude it from the citations of older material, but final proof will be difficult to come by.
If we piece together the three fragments of Lehi’s songs, we obtain a story that is familiar in some ways, while in others it is strikingly different. As in the familiar version of 1 Nephi, the prophet Lehi and his family have left a doomed Jerusalem, while his sons have been sent back on a mission to the house of Laban. Lehi’s songs mention only Laman and Lemuel, however. They are silent concerning Nephi, let alone the rivalry between Nephi and his brothers that dominates the narrative of 1 Nephi. The songs of Lehi seem strikingly “Lehite” rather than “Nephite” in their concern for all Lehi’s sons, rather than for Nephi’s pre-eminence.
I’d like to think that we’re peering back into the prehistory of the Book of Mormon and catching glimpses of a text—a verse epic would be dandy, although I’d be satisfied with a ritual drama—that reflects a time before the Lehite descendants were sundered by tribal rivalries. Unfortunately, without additional evidence, we can’t be sure that we’re not just seeing patterns in the static.