This is an extraordinarily odd chapter—and odd in ways that really do support the either prophet or genius narrative of Joseph Smith. Why, if one were simply trying to cover up their mistake in losing 116 pages and the first several hundred years of history, would you stick this chapter in here? You go ahead and finish translating from Mosiah through Moroni. Then, since your narrative is screwed up, you plan out this clever narrative of there being “other” plates—the Small Plates of Nephi—tacked on at the end of the gold plates—you use this ad hoc addition of these other plates to backfill and fix your narrative. But if what you’re really worried about is the scandal of the loss of the 116 pages, why wouldn’t you stick this chapter with it’s explanatory narrative—all about God knowing the reasons for these small plates when Nephi himself doesn’t, but surely there’s some purpose—at the very beginning? Modified slightly, Chapter Nine would work extremely well as a preface. As is, Nephi totally interrupts himself in the middle of his exodus narrative in order to talk about a tangent concerning different plates. He tells us that he is emphasizing “the more part of the ministry” as opposed to political and military events. Again, this is something that would make a nice preface to the whole book. Instead, Nephi’s preface to the whole book (the headnote just prior to chapter one) is a claim that the record is a family drama and the workings of God in that family drama. Rather than serving as a preface, Chapter Nine is thrown into the middle of an entirely separate narrative and conflicts with the books actual preface.
So why does this weird, anomalous chapter irrupt here? Well there’s a fantastic internal consistency and two points I want to make. First, there’s the fact that Nephi is self-conscious about pulling the narrative from the Larger Plates and feels the need to justify these actions and his editorial choices. Why do we need a second set of plates? And if we need a second set of plates, why are we just repeating stuff that’s in the other set of plates as well?
Nephi’s need to justify what’s happening leads to the second point. Nephi honestly doesn’t know why. Typically, Latter-day Saints read this (legitimately) as referring to the great miracle of God’s foresight. God knew the 116 pages would be lost, and had Nephi prepare this record as a replacement in order to keep a coherent narrative. Nephi didn’t know this, but he was obedient to the commandment he received via revelation. As a greater narrative taking in the 19th century translation, this all makes sense. If you read the passage carefully, however, Nephi does have a reason for making this second record—and he lists it, though we usually overlook this reason in our rush to “huzzah” the greater narrative and divine foresight accounting for the loss of the 116 pages. The actual reason Nephi gives, however—and not the mere fact of making another set of plates—is what confuses Nephi. As it should. Just as it would confuse any reader of Nephi’s age. In addition to being distracted by our contemporary narrative, we read over Nephi’s reason because it’s such an obvious reason for us today. The reason is a division between the secular and the spiritual.
God tells Nephi to have a spiritual as well as a secular record (or at least, a record that doesn’t contain the secular elements). But the concept of the secular was totally absent from Nephi’s mind and cultural context. While he can certainly understand God’s command—focus on the ministry, on the prophecies and workings of the spirit, and on the meaning of the Law of Moses—he would not have understood this very modern conceptual division between the temporal and the spiritual. Even here in its “purified,” spiritual form (that is, even here in the Small Plates, which attempted, contra the Large Plates, to focus on “the more part of the ministry”), Nephi’s record drips with the integration of what we today would consider secular and spiritual. Despite his intentions, Nephi’s lousy at making the distinction. But he tries. Importantly, he of course can’t help but suspect that his reader will be just as confused Nephi himself is. So, having gotten underway and then inevitably imagining a confused audience (Nephi, why in the world are you leaving out lots of important detail from the Large Plates?), he feels the need to justify what he’s doing. And he doesn’t do so by parsing and explaining new concepts and their practical worth as a division or editorial criterion in sacred record making. Nephi’s not a philosopher, capable of sophisticated conceptual analysis and coming to grips with the new division. Instead, he just pins it on God and bears testimony that this bizarre thing that he’s doing is at God’s direction.
I suspect Nephi sticks it in here because after the first eight chapters, he feels the weight of the awkwardness quite keenly—especially as he moves to transition from Lehi’s dream to his own vision.
One more quick note: I wonder what “the more part of [the ministry/the reign of kings]” means. The more part could mean “for the most part” (i.e., referring to quantity); but it could also refer to quality. Neither makes a great deal of sense to me. An odd phrase that I don’t understand.