Reading Nephi – 9

068-068-the-liahona-fullThis 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.

8 comments for “Reading Nephi – 9

  1. Rob Osborn
    December 16, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Chapter 9 is pretty straightforward. Nephi is not lousy. Where does that idea come from?

  2. Clark Goble
    December 16, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I’ll lay good odds there’s less Isaiah commentary in the other plates.

    It’s interesting as the separation becomes significant later on as the Kings and Prophets more or less separate. As you note we tend to read it in terms of the 116 pages but I suspect we’re seeing an early distinction over the issue of politics.

  3. James Olsen
    December 16, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Clark: I think that most of II Nephi is no longer an edited version of the Large Plates. As you note, it’s almost entirely Isaiah & Nephi’s commentary on Isaiah & messianic themes. I also think it shows that this concern for his family/people and their legitimate tie into the covenant of Israel was a matter of growing importance to Nephi in the New World.

  4. Clark Goble
    December 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    Yeah 2 Nephi really seems more like a collection of patriarchal blessings, sermons, and commentary. Although the transition point is much more 1 Nephi 19 rather than 2 Nephi. More like we’d expect. 1 Nephi is as you note a bit more schizophrenic. We have history mixed with a bit of spiritual stuff primarily focused around Nephi’s vision. However once he mentions the plates it really shifts. I almost think 1 Nephi 19 would make a better start for 2 Nephi. 1 Nephi 22 and 2 Nephi 1 blend together. (2 Nephi even starts with “And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren” referring I think to the sermon at the end of 1 Nephi)

    I can’t recall during the translation process what breaks were put in here. I’m at work so I can’t look it up either. But I bet the 1 Nephi / 2 Nephi transition is either problematic or is due to Nephi running out of plates.

  5. Terry H
    December 18, 2015 at 2:01 am

    I also think that the “record of the Kings” is kind of like the Deuteronomist History, which Nephi would have been familiar with, but which was controversial at his time. My feelings are that the Brass Plates didn’t have as much D in them as our current Hebrew Bible. The Book of Mormon is clearly edited by someone who ISN’T a D follower (Mormon). Otherwise, the story of Mosiah 1, Benjamin and Mosiah II would be more like the story of Saul, David, and Solomon (none of whom ended well). Of course, the story of King Noah fills in that theme nicely, but perhaps I’m digressing.

  6. Peter
    December 19, 2015 at 5:11 am

    My thought about the clunky grammar of ‘the more part’ is that it sounds like one of the many places in the Book of Mormon that read like a literal translation from a foreign language where the grammar is not compatible with English, or you have a symbol representing the concept of ‘extra’ or ’emphasis’ but it isn’t easy to be sure which more nuanced English word to go with. Unless Joseph’s grammar was really that bad, which it doesn’t seem to be from other things he wrote at the time and doesn’t match spoken bad grammar anyway, the Book of Mormon often reads like my early attempts at translating French at school and trying to reconstruct sentences originally written with the words in different orders. I am now a teacher and I see things like that every so often written by pupils for whom English is a second language.

    So my conclusion based on experience, but not claiming advanced expertise, is that these odd grammatical structures represent someone in the act of translation looking visually at words and dealing with written foreign text, not how someone who was an articulate and practiced storyteller orally, as Joseph had been since childhood according to the family and as often mentioned by reasonable and hostile sceptics, would speak if he was making it up; and probably not how he would dictate if he was reciting something he had memorised after he and other accomplices had faked the text in advance, even if he was bungling the recital.

  7. Clark Goble
    December 21, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Isn’t Deuteronomist history a bit under dispute at the moment with big battles raging over when even to date the D sources? I thought the movement now was to date it after exile rather than the earlier period. Admittedly my problem with a lot of disputes is that once you work through the actual arguments rather than just look at the consensus the arguments are all pretty weak with a lot of at best circumstantial evidence. i.e. that the details of not only source criticism but other movements are not exactly sound knowledge.

    I do agree that given most treatments of D that the Nephites differ greatly due to having a cultic emphasis on worship within the family and aways from centralized worship in Jerusalem. (The latter often attributed to the P source and seen as part and parcel of the post exilic centralization)

    The other question of course is over sacred texts. We see what sure looks like Merkabah texts not only in Mosiah 15 but also in 1 Nephi 11 and elsewhere. Likewise it seems we have emphasis to at least the second creation account but unless I missed it not to the 1st creation account. (The creation account in Psalms parallels could come from allusions in Isaiah) A lot of interpreters see Genesis 1 coming from Babylon primarily due to parallels with Babylonian ritual and cosmology. Although some of the issues such as naming are in the second creation account too.

  8. Clark Goble
    December 21, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Peter the issue of how an oral text would develop is an interesting one. Also the issue of how “inspired” writing tends to develop. (Putting that in quotes since I’m more thinking to examples Mormons would not consider inspired to parallel a kind of unconscious but uninspired view of Joseph composing the Book of Mormon – if only to see differences) My guess, although I don’t know, is that we’d expect to find differences from either of these in terms of the Book of Mormon text.

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