Lehi/Nephi. Orality, literacy, prophecy

lhsmIf we think of orality and literacy not as a binary opposition but as encompassing a broad spectrum of attitudes toward and uses of the spoken and written word, then we might find that Lehi and Nephi stand on opposite sides of a fundamental shift. Lehi and Nephi are both literate in the sense that they can decipher written texts, but father and son make fundamentally different uses of those texts, which affects how each of them prophesy. Although oversimplifying a great deal, one might say that prophecy for Lehi is divinely inspired speaking, while for Nephi it is divinely inspired reading.

In the Book of Mormon, Lehi interacts with three books, two of which are seen in visions. In his first vision, Lehi is given a book and asked to read it. In response, he does not scan the text and extract information. Instead, his reading involves oral vocalization in a state of spiritual illumination: “As he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord. And he read, saying…” (1 Nephi 1:12-13) The next book Lehi encounters, the brass plates retrieved from Laban in Jerusalem, is quite tangible, but Lehi’s reading practices again reflect an archaic approach to the written word. Today we are accustomed to quickly find our way through scripture with the aid of its divisions into books, chapters, and verses, which vary little between different versions, translations, or editions. But not Lehi: he doesn’t know what he should expect to find on the plates, and so he starts reading them “from the beginning” (1 Nephi 5:10) The contents, moreover, are both a new discovery for Lehi, and something with which he is already familiar, because writing is for Lehi an extension of his memory. This is also how King Benjamin later describes the plates: “For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things…except it were for the help of these plates” (Mosiah 1:4). When Lehi reads the brass plates, he is reminded of things he has already read or heard. The one exception is his discovery of an extensive genealogy, the kind of information that might traditionally be transmitted orally rather than in writing in any case.

For all their tangibility, Lehi treats the brass plates as miraculous, and they inspire him to prophesy. Written records, like dreams, visions, the working of the Spirit, and the word of the Lord, all serve as inspiration for Lehi’s prophecies (1 Nephi 1:18; 8: 36; 2 Nephi 1:6). Lehi’s prophesying does not involve simply repeating the word of the Lord, but  instead comprises speech that has been inspired by an encounter with the divine, sometimes through reading. Even outside of visions and revelations, Lehi’s reading is more concerned with inspiration and imagination than with information: Lehi says that he, “according to the things which I have read, must needs suppose…” (2 Nephi 2:17). In his final discourse, Lehi appears to repeat the writings of Joseph, but it is a vision found nowhere in the biblical text. Joseph’s vision predicts the emergence of a miraculous book, and the coming forth of a great prophet who will have a spokesman to write for him (2 Nephi 3:18). Lehi’s mode of prophecy is summed up by Nephi as “see, and hear, and speak” (1 Nephi 9:1). Writing is left to someone else.

While Nephi certainly values his father’s prophecies, he has far more sophisticated tools for textual work. He abridges texts, including Lehi’s record (1 Nephi 1:17). He compares and collates texts (1 Nephi 19:2-3). When Nephi preaches, he recites and then comments on lengthy passages of scripture (1 Nephi 19:10; 1 Nephi 20-21), and draws out comparisons between scriptural texts and his present situation (1 Nephi 19:23). Nephi, like Lehi, searches the brass plates, but discovers there something that Lehi hadn’t mentioned: commandments, concrete expressions of legal and ethical principles (1 Nephi 5:21). It is Nephi’s intent that future prophets should follow his example by possessing written records (1 Nephi 19:4).

While Lehi calls himself a visionary man (1 Nephi 5:4), Laman and Lemuel use the term as an accusation against Nephi (1 Nephi 17:20). Despite Nephi’s efforts towards a rational prophecy based on reading and textual interpretation, it is only through adopting his father’s power in the spoken word that Nephi is able to command his brothers’ aid in building a ship and staying course on it to complete their journey to the Promised Land. A similar tension concerning literacy and prophecy can be seen in the Liahona, the divine compass which at first is described as having spindles that point towards the direction that Lehi’s family should journey (1 Nephi 16:9-10), and later described as transmitting texts (1 Nephi 16:26).

In the study of orality and literacy, Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders locate a similar transition between orality and literacy in the context of Greek prophecy in the early to mid-first millennium BC. In their analysis, the two figures who mark the transition are the oracle and the sibyl:

The transformations brought about by Greek literacy are well symbolized by the appearance of Sybil, who replaces her older sister, the Pythia, as the model of the prophetess…. She spells out the future. For the Sybil first writes her oracle on leaves, then later on tablets. She brings stone slabs to King Tarquinas, who reigned over the Campagne, south of Rome—over Etruscan towns through which the Romans got their alphabet. No one need strain anymore to hear the ominous murmurings of the Delphic Pythia. The menacing future can now be read (ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, 13).

As much as I enjoy apologetic red meat, Lehi and Nephi’s contrasting approaches to orality and literacy do not necessarily reflect an ancient origin. More recent centuries have had their own tensions over the written and spoken word that could also be reflected in the Book of Mormon’s first two prophets. In whatever context one chooses to read the Book of Mormon, however, awareness of differing approaches towards orality and literacy makes possible a more complete understanding of the text.

16 comments for “Lehi/Nephi. Orality, literacy, prophecy

  1. February 19, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    I see what you’re getting at. It does seem like Nephi is obsessed with writing, which adds some credence to the speculation that he may have somehow had some scribal training.

  2. Steve Smith
    February 19, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    If Lehi’s prophecy is divinely inspired speaking (and not reading), how do account for the lost 116 pages that were supposedly the book of Lehi?

  3. Jonathan Green
    February 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Steve, since Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader’s son, how is it possible that Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas?

    Your question and my question both suffer from the same defect: there’s no simple causal relationship between a text’s acts of representation and the physical medium that bears the text or the historical circumstances in which that physical medium exists. We have two observations, one about the text (Lehi treats prophecy as inspired speaking), and one about the translation of the text as a historical event (116 lost pages). Since there is no contradiction in those two observations, particularly since they refer to two widely separated spheres of existence, there’s nothing to account for.

  4. Brian
    February 19, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Steve asks an excellent question. The analysis of the OP only has available to it the writings of Nephi, severely constraining judgments about the validity of the claims.

  5. Steve Smith
    February 19, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    Jonathan, I’m not sure I follow your point. For if you treat the Book of Mormon as a work of fiction, then what we know about the characters comes solely from the author and can only be found within the text itself. In such a case I would agree with your point that Lehi “left the writing to someone else.” But if you treat the BOM as a historical account of people that really existed (which you appear to be doing), then external sources become relevant in informing oneself about the characters. And the existence of 116 pages, which Joseph Smith claimed to be the Book of Lehi, would appear to refute your original point that Lehi wasn’t a writer.

  6. February 19, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    In terms of apologetics I find this quote much more interesting: “And he read, saying…” since silent reading is a relatively recent phenomenon. I never picked up on the fact that Lehi is clearly reading aloud there, as was the typical practice of his time and all of the Book of Mormon times, though by the time of Joseph Smith silent reading was much more common. Now I’m going to have to look for clues to reading out loud next time I go through the Book of Mormon.

  7. Jonathan Green
    February 20, 2013 at 2:00 am

    Steve, I think you’re mistaken on four counts. Maybe more.

    First, “Book of Lehi” could mean “book that Lehi wrote,” or “book of things that Lehi said” or “book that was important to Lehi” or “book about things that Lehi did” and several other things. The existence of a “Book of Lehi” tells us nothing about Lehi’s literacy.

    Second, and to address Brian’s objection, there’s no reason to assume that a “Book of Lehi” would depict Lehi and Nephi any differently than 1 and 2 Nephi do. “Another text might have said something different, if it existed,” is not a counter-argument. We have to do the best we can with the available evidence.

    Third, my claim is that 1 and 2 Nephi depict Lehi and Nephi as having different attitudes towards and making different uses of the spoken and written word. I’m not saying that Lehi was illiterate, because the text represents him very clearly as being able to read and write. That does not mean, however, that he reads and writes in the same way as his son.

    Fourth, the framework of “either fiction or history” is not at all what this post is about, because, among other reasons, it’s a simplistic and reductive framework that prevents us from saying interesting things and forces us to say stupid things. What I’m trying to do is treat the Book of Mormon as a text that deserves to be taken seriously and read carefully while reducing assumptions about it to a minimum. The question of fictionality or historicity is entirely irrelevant to the obligation to read the text closely, as perspective and representation are found in texts of all kinds. Whatever we think of the Book of Mormon, we still have to ask ourselves how it depicts Nephi and Lehi.

  8. February 20, 2013 at 8:02 am

    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.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that both had visions, both spoke their own prophecies and both wrote what they saw or prophesied down, except when they were forbidden from doing so, and both launched prophecies after reading prophetic writings. The words of Lehi that we have are just an abridgment done by Nephi. What did Nephi leave out? For starters, the text Lehi was quoting from. And so we read, “I have spoken these few words unto you all, my sons, in the last days of my probation; and I have chosen the good part, according to the words of the prophet,” and are left to wonder what prophet Lehi was referring to. I am failing to see these men as having contrasting approaches to orality and literacy.

  9. Steve Smith
    February 20, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Jonathan, as for points one, two, and three, fair enough. What’s in those 116 pages is all a matter of speculation, so we’re really just splitting hairs at this point. But that’s not the root of my objection. Point four is what is frustrating me with the OP; it’s like your trying to stake out a middle ground for the BOM, as if historicity is irrelevant. While you claim to want to keep assumptions about the BOM minimal, you’re whole analysis is already based on the huge assumption that the BOM is ancient, even if you don’t want to fully admit it. I would go as far as saying that the question of fictionality/historicity is really the only relevant question worth asking about the BOM, and that you can’t really analyze the text without taking one side or the other on the question of authorship, even if it is implicit.

  10. February 20, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Steve – why is it not possible to let the words of the Book of Mormon stand for themselves? There is plenty of history in fiction and fiction in history. As a medievalist, I am familiar with this.

  11. Brian
    February 20, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Jonathan, I think you just made my point for me. One data point (the writings of Nephi) does not a useful sample size make. Thus, though your thesis is interesting, it’s interesting in the same way speculating about the physical make-up of extra-terrestrial aliens is interesting – we have to assume that what we see is average and so Vulcans are no more or less plausible than that rock creature that tried to eat Kirk.

  12. Jonathan Green
    February 20, 2013 at 11:44 am

    ANM, I actually started reading the Book of Mormon this time looking for something else, but kept stumbling over references to literacy and orality. I suspect you’ll find some interesting things.

    LDSA, it’s not enough to say that both Lehi and Nephi read, write,and prophesy, so therefore there’s no difference between them. What I’m interested in here are their reading practices, so if you want to dispute my claim that Lehi and Nephi approach the written word differently, you’ll have to dig deeper and look at how each of them makes use of texts. We have a reasonable amount of evidence to work with: at least the first 26 chapters of the Book of Mormon, and three scenes of Lehi dealing with books. While it’s perhaps not enough evidence to make other explanations entirely unthinkable, it’s a bit much to simply dismiss something as a mere historical accident if we’re observing consistent patterns of difference.

    Also, the appeal to some other text doesn’t get us very far, because even if a Book of Lehi existed, and even if it offered a radically different view of Lehi and Nephi’s reading practices, we’d still be left with the question of why 1 and 2 Nephi seem to represent Lehi and Nephi in the way they do.

    Steve: I wouldn’t say I’m attempting to find a middle ground, but rather a common ground. Whether you think of the Book of Mormon as a historical record or a modern fiction, you still have to read the text carefully in order to understand what it says.

    On what basis do you say that I’m assuming an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon? For this post, I’m specifically avoiding that assumption, so show me a sentence where I assume ancientness. It’s certainly interesting to compare reading as represented in the Book of Mormon with pre-modern reading practices, but I indicate in the last paragraph that there are ways besides an ancient origin to account for them. Lehi’s reading seems archaic, perhaps because it’s pre-modern, or perhaps because it’s unsophisticated. Pointing out deviations from modern educated practice is not the same as assuming an ancient origin.

    Also, I don’t think the difference between fictionality and historicity does as much work as as you think it does. Certainly it’s not nothing, but if you decide that the Book of Mormon is a historical document, you’re still left with the questions of its subjectivity and reliability. To what degree is its account of history distorted by the perspective of its writers? Is its description of its own creation trustworthy? Or, if you decide the Book of Mormon is fiction, was the author Joseph Smith, or someone else? Was that other person a contemporary of Joseph Smith, or a predecessor? If a predecessor, how long before Joseph Smith did he or she live? There’s a lot of space between “Joseph made it all up” and “it all happened just like Arnold Friberg painted it,” and I don’t think limiting ourselves to those two choices is very useful.

  13. February 20, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    I appreciate that you don’t suggest that either approach was spiritually superior. Both of these men were able to experience communion with God and led equally righteous lives. I see a similar contrast between Moroni and the Brother of Jared. God is quick to correct Moroni’s belief that his poor writing skills will hinder the Lord’s work.

    I love that the text of the Book of Mormon captures not only the personality and style variability of the different authors/prophets, but also their differing perspectives of spiritual truths. When faced with contradictory ideas, I think we too often get stuck in the dilemma of “which is right and which is wrong.” Sometimes that may be relevant. But so often people are describing the same spiritual truth, just using a different language or perspective. I find it much more helpful to ask what do the differences between these views reveal about the truth?

    Anyway, thanks for the enlightening perspective of orality and literacy. As fodder for further discussion, do you think that the differences you identify were largely static, or did Nephi’s (and Lehi’s) approach to prophecy develop over time?

  14. Steve Smith
    February 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    Nancy, the Book of Mormon is unique in the sense that it is the only religious text, that I know of, that was claimed to have been unearthed and translated through the seer stones, but for which the original text is missing. When you read medieval texts, you can more or less situate the text within a historical time and place. So even if the text is fictional, or even if it is intended to be non-fictional but the author embellishes or makes up information in the text, we can still provide the text with some outside context. But the Book of Mormon is written in such a way where it just can’t stand alone as a piece of literature because the book itself as well as the religious organization that sponsors it urges the reader to accept a given historical context; i.e. it gives exact years relative to Jesus Christ as to when it was written. Also when one reads the Book of Mormon based on the assumption that it was a 19th century text vs. and ancient text, its meaning becomes completely different; and this difference between the meanings that one would derive from these two lenses is much greater than the range of meanings that may result from different scholarly paradigms imposed on a medieval text.

    Jonathan, it seems like you’re trying to do what Terryl Givens and Grant Hardy have been trying to do. And its not a single line, but the overall tone of your piece that suggests that you at least want there to be space to believe that there are some ancient elements in the book. It’s a worthy effort, but I think that by and large those who read the Book of Mormon are by virtue of the text itself, and by virtue of the fact that Mormonism’s main legitimacy claim lies in the Book of Mormon’s ancientness, are going to feel strongly urged to make a decision as to its origins. All the way from Nephi’s claiming that he knows his own record to be true (1 Nephi 1: 3) to Mormon’s condemnation of those who reject the book’s truthfulness (Mormon 7: 9), the text continually insists that readers accept its ancient origin. And while I think that it is a commendable effort to try to find a common ground, the whole Book of Mormon-as-literature thing appears to work only if we ignore lots of parts of the Book of Mormon.

    Yes you’re right that the precise authorship of the BOM is still somewhat mysterious even if we accept it as an entirely 19th century text. But my point is that the BOM is either ancient or not at all. Even if only one line of the BOM were ancient and the rest is made-up by Joseph Smith, then it must be accepted by implication that divine revelation did come into play so as to produce that one line.

  15. February 20, 2013 at 9:50 pm


    I actually think that in order to truly appreciate the value of The Book of Mormon the reader has to grapple with its claims to ancient origin.

    However, I also endorse Elder Oaks teaching that when combined with the Holy Ghost, the scriptures become a personal Urim and Thumim to each reader. For this purpose tools such as, delving into ancient context, studying patterns, dissecting sentences, examining alternate definitions, reading phrases in context, pulling phrases out of context, and numerous others, including reading the text as a fictional account all seem to have the potential of opening up personalized insights regarding spiritual truth.

    Those tools are not used for determining doctrine. However, any approach to the scripture which leads to personal revelation seems to be of value. I greatly appreciate the Lehi/Nephi contrast, not because it causes me to change my beliefs about either man (both of whom I generally accept to be real people), but because when I consider the possibility that two similar prophets would approach scripture in very different ways, the truth of that possibility resonates with me spiritually.

  16. Jonathan Green
    February 21, 2013 at 12:35 am

    Steve, actually, the post above and a lot of my thought experiments about reading the Book of Mormon are the product of treating the Book of Mormon much like a medieval text. You might be surprised how drastically different interpretations of a medieval text vary. We might have a physical artifact – a manuscript – that we can situate in a specific time and place, but that may or may not tell us anything about a text’s origin. In medieval studies, it’s not unusual to be confronted with texts where we don’t take their accounts of their own creation at face value, or texts that situate themselves with respect to historical events in ways that must be met with a good amount of skepticism, or texts whose original context is still controversial or entirely unknown. One is still interested in discovering that context, but one doesn’t have to wait until that (likely insolvable) problem is solved before looking at the text.

    It’s entirely understandable for people to want to determine the Book of Mormon’s veracity, but that’s not the only to read a book, even one that proclaims its own truthfulness. No one gets stuck trying to figure out if the vision of the afterlife in the Visio Tnugdali is accurate before trying to analyzing the text, for example.

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