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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I think we see here an Abrahamic trial. Not wanting to be reductive of the tensions inherent in the story of Abraham’s being commanded to sacrifice Isaac, I think it safe to say that one prominent tension in the Akida was the dissolution of the covenant that God made with Abraham. How is Abraham’s seed to become as numerous as the sands of the seashore, and how is it supposed to serve as the vessel for carrying out God’s covenant, when Abraham is commanded to sacrifice the very son through whom these promises are to be fulfilled? Similarly for Nephi, how is there to be a future grafting back in of the broken off branches of Israel, when the righteous, covenant-bearing branches of Lehi’s family are to be slaughtered and consumed by the wicked part? The dissolution of Abraham’s family was an empirical, bodily reality as he raised the knife to slay Isaac. The dissolution of Nephi’s posterity was visionary—but I can’t imagine that having an extended, open vision interpreted by an angel who explicitly shares the meaning of the vision for you is much more comforting. It seems a clear parallel. And while the loss of the covenant in Isaac was a present, instantaneous sort of thing, Nephi’s open vision makes it as though it has already happened, as though he’s actually experienced it, even though the actual fulfillment is many years down the road. From this point, Nephi lives with this painful paradox.
We might point out that unlike Abraham, Nephi is not being asked to wield the knife. That’s true. Nephi is not going to be responsible for the death of his covenanting posterity. Instead, Nephi is explicitly called and commanded to teach and serve his brothers whom he now knows will ultimately be responsible for wiping out his posterity. And his first opportunity to offer up this sacrifice comes immediately in the wake of his vision. Though different, these two sacrifices strike me as similarly poignant.
Nephi now has to wrestle with the justice of God in the face of the undeniable loss of what he had understood to be the fulfillment of God’s covenant. We’ve already seen throughout these chapters a very un-modern conceptual union of church, family and state. Deep conceptual and practical integration isn’t easily picked apart.
To some degree, this is what we all experience with the death of our covenantal loved ones. Many of us are called to watch our posterity or our spouse snuffed out before our eyes, to see the evaporation of the earthly fulfillment of our own covenants, the dramatic loss of the immanence of the promises made by God to us in our temples. And of course, physical death isn’t the only way in which we can experience this loss. Reinterpreting the meaning of our covenantal promises brings its own, undeniable loss. What do we make of God and what becomes of the motivational element of our covenants when God acts in a way or allows actions that directly contradict our understanding of what it means for those covenants to be viable or fulfilled?
Like Nephi, like Abraham, we too are called to wrestle with the meaning of these things and learn how to reconcile our hearts to the patent injustices of the doings of the God we love.