I wonder what we’re getting here in this passage. How much of this is straightforwardly the details of the vision? In particular, is Nephi’s understanding of the vision a part of the vision, in the same way that one comes into a dream already comprehending the background and meaning of the events that one dreams? Or is the interpretation all Nephi? Was he even capable of making the distinction? How much of this is the evolved interpretation of a man who has pondered for decades on the vision’s meaning? Then again, how much of this is from the mind of Joseph Smith for whom no historical events would’ve loomed larger than the American Revolution? One of course need not deny historicity to think that the details of at least the meaning of the vision were something different on the gold plates than as they came out on Oliver’s parchment stack.
The wrath of God stands out to me. What is the wrath of God? Given the context here, and the way that the wrath of God is poured out first on the “seed of [Nephi’s] brethren” and next gets poured out on the “mother Gentiles” who war against the colonists, I’m inclined to interpret the wrath of God as disease—that thing which played an absolutely decisive role in both the war of Native American subjugation and the later war of colonial liberation. It makes sense to think of Nephi understanding mass casualties from disease as the hand of God in the same way that Isaiah and the Jews interpreted Sennacherib’s casualties as the work of a destroying angel. Perhaps more importantly, it lends support to the idea that we’re getting an at least mixed vision here, consisting of dreamt details and Nephi’s interpretation. This is, I think, the way of all vision and prophecy.
Finally, I feel a great deal of sympathy for Nephi—both the young and the old Nephi—the young Nephi who has just been shown a shocking vision of the ultimate genocide of his posterity and the old Nephi who in carving the details of his youthful vision into plates of metal is no doubt struggling with the current existential threats posed to his people in the wake of various violent family squabblings. Consequently, the people who face the wrath of God are not his people but the seed of his brethren, while the “white” and “fair” and “beautiful” gentiles remind Nephi of his own posterity.
I do not know what to make of this latter comparison; what is it exactly about the later gentiles that resonates with Nephi? In addition to its being distasteful, I suspect that something like a comparison of physical appearance is both inaccurate—an ancient Nephi would’ve been significantly darker toned than 16th century Europeans and probably darker toned than 16th century Incas or Powhatans—and irrelevant to Nephi’s worldview; as is evident, Nephi had his own prejudices and problems to overcome, but American style racism doesn’t appear to have been one of them. Technological competence strikes me as another possibility, though I can’t figure out how “white” and “fair” work as descriptors there (unless Joseph’s conceptual filters produced a garbled translation). The most plausible thing I can think of is moral goodness or perhaps organizational acumen; this works well with the lament that is built into Nephi’s comparison. Regardless, it’s jarring and unsettling.
Returning to the main chord vibrating for me in this passage: Nephi is shown this youthful vision of the ultimate failure of his life’s work and ambition, and is then commanded to write it out at a time when shadows of that failure abound. A prophet’s lot—like all of our lots I suppose—is not enviable.