Nephi’s Abrahamic Trial – Reading Nephi – 15:1-11 part II

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.

6 comments for “Nephi’s Abrahamic Trial – Reading Nephi – 15:1-11 part II

  1. Clark
    September 11, 2017 at 10:53 am

    BTW – did you mean verses 12-36 in your title?

    When I read these passages what strikes me more now than it did in the past is things like verse 13. “… remnant of our seed…” While that might just be a general phrase to imply he’s talking of Lehi’s descendants, it’s interesting that it can also be read as implying Nephi understood some of his descendants would survive the destructions at the the time of Moroni. Or at minimum at this time he doesn’t distinguish between his seed and Laman’s. You see this even in 2 Nephi 26:15 as well. “After my seed and the seed of my brethren shall have dwindled in unbelief, and shall have been smitten by the Gentiles…”

    Something to keep in mind for those who assume the Nephites were utterly destroyed to a person.

    It’s also worth noting that when Nephi starts quoting and expanding on Isaiah later in 1 Nephi much of what he is focused on are those passages related to his comments in this chapter.

    Regarding your main point about an Abrahamic test, I’m not sure it works. First off I don’t see Nephi struggling about going to the new world, the way Abraham struggled with his command. Secondly many of Nephi’s writings are more about restoration.

  2. Rob Osborn
    September 11, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    I agree with Clark. I see Nephi as seeing the righteous covenant part of his people as being destroyed but that his and his brothers seed continue but becoming all a dark and loathsome people who are discovered by the early European explorers and then being smitten by the Gentiles, driven from place to place and then at some time after that being restored to the truth.

    I think the hard part for Nephi is that their seed utterly turn away from God.

  3. Kurt
    September 11, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    I used to think something along the same lines until one day I realized I wasn’t thinking far enough into Nephi’s vision. He certainly has a lot weighing him down – to say the least. But much of his vision isn’t written and includes his posterity in what is still the future to us. There is bound to be great enjoyment associated with that portion of his posterity who remains true and faithful to the very end. Though even with this he is still greatly weighed down afterward.

  4. James Olsen
    September 12, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Knowing your posterity’s going to get wiped out is hard, it’s true. The variable relevant to thinking of this as an Abrahamic trial (which I may not have been clear on above) is God’s commanding Nephi to do something (lead his family to a new “promised land”) in order to fulfill his covenant with God that (to all appearances) will directly lead to the dissolution of the covenant as Nephi understands it (the genocide of his posterity). The fact that he’s immediately thereafter thrown into having to teach his brothers is an added twist of the knife.

  5. Rob Osborn
    September 12, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Its not his brothers posterity wiping out his posterity that bothers him but rather that all of their seed- both his and his brothers seed dwindling in disbelief leading to destruction that bothers him.

  6. Kurt
    September 12, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    James, I seemed to get something new out of your comment. That is some sore irony that I hadn’t considered before. Thanks for the insight!

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