This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
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More contrasts between Nephi and his brothers—although this passage strikes me as less political (i.e., less the older Nephi offering a story of good brothers vs. bad brothers in order to craft a political narrative) and more intimate and personal—although obviously it still fits the bill for the political narrative. Of course we can’t know for sure how the young Nephi felt as these events unfolded, but my heart is wrenched seeing the older, embittered Nephi, the Nephi who has already begun to experience the fulfillment of the visions he’s seen of the family split, the wars, the great loss—the Nephi who is clearly feeling that his loss and burden are “great above all.” From that older vantage, looking back to these events, they must indeed have seemed pregnant with infuriatingly avoidable tragedy and sadness.
I note the conspicuous, reverse-parallel bookends of Nephi’s grand vision:
- in the wake of hearing Lehi relate his own vision, Nephi desires to “see and hear and know of these things” himself (10:17), and so he goes to inquire of God; this leads directly to Nephi being granted his vision;
- immediately thereafter the narrative offers us Nephi’s brothers contending over the meaning of Lehi’s vision, and declaring boldly that prayer is vain since God doesn’t make such things known to them.
Before the vision begins, Nephi dwells on the needed aspect of faith, emphasizing a divine and unchanging, ageless pattern for petitioning the heavens to receive greater light and knowledge. After the vision Nephi recreates his conversation with his brothers in such a way that they explicitly articulate the opposite: “No, we have not gone and asked of God, we have not followed the prophetic pattern, because we don’t believe it will work for us.”
It also strikes me as significant that despite Nephi’s paradigmatically faithful and divinely rewarded approach, he is not able to avoid contention; he cannot fail to engage and take part in the hermeneutic battle concerning the meaning of our lives and the meaning of the words of the prophets. The knowledge and spiritual strength we receive from heaven doesn’t give us a pass on the difficult and unavoidable slogging through the epistemic trenches of mortality together with our brothers and sisters. As my mom often told me growing up—“Nephi was a prophet, but he sure didn’t know very well how to deal with his brothers. You can’t act like that.” I hope I can learn from both the explicit and the implicit lessons Nephi teaches here.
I wonder what exactly the brothers were fighting over. They say they can’t understand the bits about the natural branches of the olive tree and the Gentiles. What didn’t they understand? Did they just not have an interpretation of the allegory? I doubt it. It strikes me as far more likely that they simply couldn’t square Lehi’s claims with their own understanding. Theologically, how did all this scattering and grafting in and God working with the Gentiles square with Israelite elitism? Or perhaps it was more practical: what does this mean for us? What does this mean concerning our leaving Jerusalem? Are we going back soon? Or perhaps they felt that the more conspicuous interpretations of Lehi didn’t square well with their leaving permanently? Unfortunately for my curiosity, Nephi doesn’t give us much to go on—we don’t even know if what Nephi goes on to share concerning the topic was actually an answer to the brother’s inquiry, or if it was written more for the edification of later generations of Nephites (my guess is the latter).
On a related note, what is it that Nephi thinks is “hard to understand” without inquiring of God? Is it that the vision and allegories Lehi offered his sons were conceptually or theologically esoteric and thus needed divine revelation to make them comprehensible? Or was it the case that it was hard to implement or really put your trust in them without inquiring of and receiving confirmation from God? The latter seems the more pertinent, timeless question. Following prophets is demanding, difficult business. One needs celestial affirmation to do it well.
(Bonus Question: where is the prophetic passage quoted by Nephi in vs. 11 found? It doesn’t sound like he’s quoting Lehi, but I’m not aware of a biblical passage (Old or even New Testament) that works—though this claim becomes an important theme throughout the Book of Mormon and the Restoration.)