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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As Nephi answers his brother’s question in verses 12-14, I have two thoughts that come to mind. First, I think it’s important to see that Nephi’s whole explanation centers on a new worldview. I suspect that his brothers’ lack of understanding had less to do with their inability to grasp our simplistic Sunday School summary of the allegory of the olive tree, and much more to do with how culturally and theologically “other” this picture was compared to their own understanding. As Wittgenstein said, pictures hold us captive. Note the new and exotic elements of Nephi’s picture, very different than the plausible and solidly traditional picture holding Nephi’s brothers [FN1]:
- That God’s covenant with Israel isn’t geographically bound;
- That the House of Israel can be partitioned and scattered without the dissolution of the covenant;
- That in the wake of that scattering, the House of Israel can apostatize for generations without the dissolution of the covenant;
- That the Gentiles—the non-covenant people—will play a key role in the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel;
- That the Messiah is more than human, yet will be “manifested in body” to humans (note that this continues to be confusing to later generations, including the priests of Noah—and perhaps Abinadi for that matter! I’ll admit it’s confusing for me too; as Latter day Saints we’ve never clearly worked out what this might mean);
- That the gospel of the Messiah will be given not to the covenant people, but again to the non-covenanting Gentiles;
- That even after the Messiah has come and gone, for many generations, this same Messiah (without being present) is still able to bring salvation to those who “come” to him.
To put it mildly, all of this would be quite shocking in a 7th century BC Jewish world—something all too easy for us who were raised on such a narrative to miss.
But note that it gets even worse (i.e., more scandalous). It’s not just that the Gentiles (non-covenanters) will end up playing a positive role in the overall unfolding of God’s deliverance of his covenant people. First, the Jews (the covenanters) will outright reject the covenant and its fulfillment; and the then the Gentiles will be led by God to destroy the Jews, and only after that to preach the gospel covenant to them! Particularly in the context of a worldview that understands God’s function as having delivered Israel from Egypt and delivered them to the promised land and delivered the inhabitants of the promised land into Israel’s hand, and then preserved Israel from numerous external attacks—that is, in an ancient Mesopotamian context of God being tied to the military, political, and economic flourishing of a people—this is incredible. To say the least. Rather than clarify or further contextualize or address this scandalous point, Nephi instead claims that all of this is ultimately the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham! More particularly, these events are somehow the fulfillment of what God meant in declaring that Abraham’s posterity will bless all the earth!
All this helps me to understand what it is that Nephi’s brother’s found so difficult to understand in Lehi’s claims (and probably Nephi’s commentary as well). But it’s also deeply profound. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It strikes me as indeed a blessing to all the earth that Abraham’s posterity is both geopolitically abased and (in some sense of the word) apostate to the covenant, while at the same time having bequeathed to all the earth truth and a covenantal relationship that blesses us all. In fact, it is precisely the taking up of the covenant to restore Israel that is the blessing to the Gentile hosts of the earth. It heals all sides, grafts in all branches, makes the entirety of the orchard fruitful. This is the kind of deeply inclusive form of exclusive covenant that I can give my whole heart to.
Second, I’m struck by the parallel between the narrative drama of chapter 15 and what will later take place with Mormon’s account of Abinadi before Noah and the priests. In both scenarios we see: the rightful rulers and teachers of the people (culturally speaking) react contentiously to the teachings of a recently sent prophet. These rulers and teachers are unable to understand that prophet’s message (on multiple levels). Their challenge to the prophet is articulated (in part) as a matter of disputing the meaning of a passage of scripture or revelation. The prophet can surely see that the whole of the matter of the challenge is not merely the meaning of the given passage, but rather is a matter of an entirely separate orientation toward scripture and revelation. Nevertheless, the prophet patiently (or perhaps “patiently;” Nephi never seems to reveal himself as anything more than “patient”) explains the meaning of the passage in question, contextualizing it within the greater redemptive narrative of the Messiah to come. Ultimately, the rulers/teachers reject and murder the prophet (or attempt to murder him and sew the seeds for the later genocide of the prophet’s people). This rejection and (attempted) murder likewise results in the loss of political power among the ruler/teachers as well as significant suffering among the rest of society.
The confrontation doesn’t come off so well for either party—at least not in the short term. It strikes me as odd at the end of this passage that Nephi claims his brothers were humbled. At the start of the next chapter they don’t sound very humbled—and Nephi accuses them of being the opposite. This is one way that the text manifests Nephi’s work of crafting a narrative years removed from the actual events. What’s given to us as a single conversation in the immediate wake of a vision is more than that—it’s a concise distillation of Nephi’s understanding of (perhaps) years’ worth of interchanges.
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- It’s hard to tell how closely Nephi’s & Lehi’s pictures track one another, since in 10:12-14 we’re already getting Nephi’s summary and interpretation of—together with commentary on—Lehi’s discussion of the allegory of the olive tree.