Engraving a Record, Engraving a People – Reading Nephi – 19:1-6

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 Nephi 19:1-6

I’m always amazed at how multiple readings inevitably brings to light new things that one hasn’t noticed before—and not simply new interpretations or possibilities or meanings, but literally, new facts that are plain on the page but that one has simply missed. All my life I’ve imagined the Book of Lehi—those tragically lost 116 pages—as having been written by Lehi. But the Book of Lehi was engraven on plates. And while Lehi might well have been the original author of much of it, it was Nephi who did the engraving. Lehi’s age and frailty at this point (a storm at sea some time past nearly did him in), together with the inevitable input of editorialship, inevitably implicate Nephi—even if we had those 116 pages, much of it would’ve been the words of Nephi (as he explicitly notes here). [FN 1]

These plates—the plates on which Nephi is currently writing—are for ministry & prophecies; which is certainly the bulk of I & II Nephi. But we’ve just had 18 chapters of primarily (or at least mostly) what today we would call history or the narrative of the exodus. This seems to argue that Nephi saw each of the scant (by his own admission, here) details of the exodus as religiously meaningful. The narrative for Nephi is ministry and prophecy. These are the events where he (and one assumes, his people also) could clearly see the hand of the Lord (or literally, where the voice of the Lord was heard). And it is also the case that the exodus is critical background for understanding all the ministry and prophecies that come thereafter. Nephi’s whole focus is on the scattering and gathering work of a Messiah, and the sacral unfolding of a dispensation that binds a righteous, covenant people to God. He and his people took this quite literally; it made sense of their whole world. It also justified their traumatic split from the Lamanites. One must have the exodus account in there if one is to understand the covenantal work of the Messiah.

All this, as Nephi notes, is for the instruction of his people. This narrative, this understanding, this worldview, this access gate to the divine, instructs and so forms a people—the people of Nephi.

Nephi also gives us a robust clue here as to when he is writing. He mentions the wars and contentions and destructions of his people. He is not writing shortly but some time after the death of Lehi—long enough for there not just to have been a bloody struggle over succession, but the split and the resettlement and reconstitution of the people who followed Nephi, and long enough for that reconstituted people to be involved in a plurality of wars. Nephi is clearly looking back a long ways in his retelling of these events. We err when we read the exodus in the voice of a contemporary narrator.

I also wonder at that triad: wars, contentions, destruction. Wars are straightforward. How about contentions? Are these largely political? Theological? Do these involve culture, perhaps contention over the extent of local acculturation or assimilation? And what about destructions? Perhaps this refers back to wars and contentions. But I suspect Nephi was not merely being redundant. What catastrophes came upon them as they tried to survive and bootstrap a new life in the New World? What diseases or famines or other disasters? What loss of understanding and culture and knowledge? What and how great were the destructions Nephi mentions? Enough for Nephi’s younger brother to declare their existence that of a lonesome and solemn people, cast out, wading through tribulation and living a life of mourning (Jacob 7:26).

Finally, in this passage of meta-scriptural reflection, Nephi is clear-eyed about both the errors in past scriptural records (or the errors of those who’d written scripture) and also the fact that it is nonetheless scripture. There is a tension between these two facts, and few of us are brave enough to hold onto and insist on both facts at the same time—few of us are as brave as Nephi in this regard. He’s also quite candid—preemptively upfront—about the possibility, likelihood even, of his own errors. This is astonishing—for numerous reasons. Nephi was clearly a much more attentive and careful reader of the scriptures than we usually are. He was likewise able to separate their divine function from their practical incarnation. This careful reading and understanding of scripture extends even to his own writing. Nephi does not claim error-free precision; does not claim perfection. He didn’t hold himself to the same standard that we often hold him to, or attribute to him. This reveals I think a kind of laziness to our attributions of scriptural perfection, and perhaps an underlying fear of mortality more generally. May we all be as scripturally perspicacious, as candidly faithful, and as self-aware as Nephi.

 

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  1. I am assuming that this is the only record of Lehi, and the content description certainly matches the other hints we get, though it’s possible (if highly improbable) that there was more than one record of Lehi that ended up engraved on plates and passed down to Mormon.

7 comments for “Engraving a Record, Engraving a People – Reading Nephi – 19:1-6

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    May 1, 2018 at 10:35 am

    James Olsen, with this OP I feel you and I have come to an appropriate understanding of Nephi and his composite narrative.

  2. Rob Osborn
    May 1, 2018 at 1:19 pm

    One thing I have always felt when I read the Book of Mormon is that Nephi is giving as factual an account as possible. Nothing hidden, nothing imbelished, just what he saw and understood. His faith was incredible, his constant searching for God was evident. As he recalls the accounts of his past and writes the record I feel both his pain and joy in his words.

  3. Clark Goble
    May 1, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    To me I think the distinction give between the small plates and large plates suggests these were intended to be much more archetypal. There are the obvious affinities to the Exodus pattern we’ve mentioned. There’s the setting up the dualistic nation divide between the Lamanites and Nephites which dominates the history (for better and worse) for the next thousand years. There’s the idea of how to accept the demands of God. There’s the detailed prophecy and symbolism of Lehi’s and Nephi’s dream, which I bet got far less attention on the other plates. Finally there’s the extended quotations of Isaiah which clearly are meant to apply to the Nephites is a kind of cosmological sense but also to individual and community salvation.

  4. Jerry Schmidt
    May 1, 2018 at 9:03 pm

    I have experienced a phenomenon in commenting in online venues: i will be one of the first to comment, sometimes to flippantly predict the direction the conversation will take, and as the conversation continues over time, I observe it taking the direction I predicted. But, and I have a big but, I have to admit later I helped influence the pattern of the conversation with my prediction.

    I think this is the essence of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (Heisenberg the German physicist and not the “Breaking Bad” protagonist): attempts to predict an outcome may influence toward said outcome.

    I’m no Heisenberg, but rightly or wrongly I think this applies at least to Nephi’s published narrative. Clark Goble, I believe you at least implied this in prior conversations with Nephi’s use of typology.

    While I was perfectly willing to assume non-conscious use on Nephi’s part, I now realize that was oversimple; whether his repeating of typology was deliberate, unintentional, or a combination of both, it did have an influence on the eventual outcome of the history of clan Lehi in North America.

    Laman was cast as an antagonist, but, let’s face it, he embraced that role. Nephi was not perfect in his leadership of clan Lehi during the exodus, but he was effective enough, and as James Olsen has pointed out, the mature narrator realizes that while clan Lehi arrived where God had motivated them, the exodus was far from ideal, and Nephi himself necessarily inflenced the eventual family antagonism that followed.

    However, Nephi owns his part, as far as I’m concerned, and Laman and Lemuel never really owned their negative contributions, insisting instead on perpetuating a myth across succeeding generations that Nephi robbed them of rulership, and making the Nephites effectively scapegoats for trials faced by Lamanites.

    Without this narrative from Nephi, it would be easy to dismiss the blood feud between the two family lines as just that, like the American Hatfields and McCoys, or the way Americans dismiss the conflict between “Protestants” and “Catholics” in Ireland as an extreme religious difference, instead of a multi-faceted historical and political conflict.

  5. Clark Goble
    May 1, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    The thing about archetypes is that they often explain rather well the essence of our experiences. They keep coming up which gives them a truth of a sort. So by saying the small plates are more archetypal I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing. Indeed that would be in keeping with the culture Nephi came out of where the repetitive would be the most true.

  6. James Olsen
    May 2, 2018 at 7:11 am

    I appreciate all these thoughts. This is definitely a passage that demands careful reflection.

    Clark, I don’t think I’ve ever considered the clue that the names small vs. large plates might be into their meaning. I wonder if small couldn’t be more like “reduced and concentrated” or “refined.” Without reflecting I assumed it referred to size of some kind. Maybe it even had a double meaning.

    Jerry, thank you for pointing out the multi-directionality if archetypes—affecting past, present, and future. And this same phenomenon that you mention in commenting shows up quite clearly in fast and testimony meetings.

    Anonymous, it’s always interesting to explore the various concepts and experiences of truth and how they impact both scripture and our reading of it.

  7. Clark Goble
    May 4, 2018 at 11:14 am

    I didn’t mean so much that “small” verses “large” gave us much information, beyond one simply being shorter. I was more thinking about what Nephi and Jacob said about what was selected to be put upon them. Jacob 1 in particular. 1 Nephi has so much history at the beginning that I think we neglect that primarily they are a collection of prophesies and midrashes & peshers on the classic prophets of the brass plates. That is they are primarily prophetic, not historical.

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