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 continue to struggle to allow Nephi’s context to inform my thoughts and interpretation here—not that I struggle to recognize the importance of that context; quite the opposite—recognizing the need for context in order to responsibly interpret the passage, I likewise recognize the impoverished nature of my attempts to work out what precisely that context is. [FN 1] Rather than utilizing the context to puzzle out the meanings in this passage, I rather find myself using this passage to puzzle out the context in a hermeneutical game of chicken or egg origins.
One vital clue is the stringing together of prophets and their prophecies. Any such stringing together is of course likewise an interpretation of prophecies, and given our very vested humanity it is usually also interpolation. How faithful is Nephi in his citations and allusions to Zenos and Zenock and the angel and ‘the prophet’? [FN 2] For millennia now Christians such as Handel have cited Isaiah, mingling quotations with commentary (and good music!) to offer direct and unmistakable prophecies concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Much to our Christian chagrin, however, the Jews have not been persuaded—nor, when one studies these passages in their original context, do the Jews have any rational reason to be so persuaded. Are Nephi’s eclectic combinations here more or less like those of Handel with regard to their original context? Regardless, with regard to the context informing Nephi’s scriptural work here, it’s clear that Nephi sees himself as one among this chain of prophets—not only offering prophecy, but as a prophet prophetically combining and clarifying the meaning of the prophecies of the past.
Another key to context seems to be Nephi’s translator Joseph. According to our record of Joseph’s translation, the small plates of Nephi are the last thing translated. Joseph has already (just a few days prior to this) translated the destruction among the Nephites at Christ’s death and his subsequent appearance at Bountiful. The conspicuous similarity between Nephi’s prophecies here and the recorded events 600 years later in III Nephi are perhaps made sense of in this light.
Finally, having completed his tale of the Lehite exodus and come chronologically to the point of the family rupture, I’ve no doubt that Laman continues to play large in the contextual background. I certainly hope this is the case. Laman obviously “trampled” the things of God. But God is longsuffering and his long game is redemption. The Book of Mormon soon takes up as a constant theme that Laman and his posterity are indeed children of the covenant, and God will gather them home.
Looking closer at this point and going beyond the backdrop of the family drama, this whole passage offers a cosmological contrast in order to craft and highlight a tale of messianic redemption—a beautiful and affirming, universal message; though to get there Nephi (or perhaps the cultural milieu of his translation) forces us to wade through the weeds of a nasty anti-Semitism.
There are two possibilities. To trample under one’s feet might be to literally take no notice—pigs and pearls and all that. This seems an apt description of our own day, living in a culture that may be blasphemous but not so much heretical; more often than intentionally ignoring, society simply fails to notice or if noticing to grasp the significance or salience of the things of God. Rather than profaning the sacred, we more often fail to have any sense of the sacred to begin with. Nephi, however, quickly clarifies. Failing to notice is not the phenomenon Nephi intends to relate. His metaphor is meant instead to pick out the act of “set[ting] at naught”—to hear or receive the call, but then to “judge” it of no worth and ignore it. The upshot is culpability.
Either way the metaphor is problematic, implying as it does either innocence or anti-Semetism. Either the “wicked” tramplers have simply failed to notice the things of God—which implies that they are pigs rather than accountable humans trampling the pearls, innocently ignorant rather than knowingly wicked. Or—the other possibility—the tramplers have, as Nephi notes in verse 9, judged the things of God (and specifically the Messiah) to be a thing of naught—which Nephi then uses as license for his anti-Semitic tirade.
Since Nephi explicitly urges the latter interpretation, I feel a bit stuck; there doesn’t seem any way around reading Nephi as laying the moral cause for centuries of atrocities committed against Jews at the feet of the elites in Jerusalem at 30AD. Such a claim is pure repugnancy—whether Nephi’s or Joseph’s or perhaps (with maximal charity) Joseph’s culture’s.
Despite this, there is a more fruitful way of reading the passage—if I jettison my quest for historical context. Bracketing the problematic nature of the metaphor, the passage is a poignant description of the natural hardships and disasters of mortality—the hate of others and our constant homelessness. Experiencing these hardships does not answer the question of how we digest them. Nephi perhaps urges us to see that these things can either “call” us to God or we can set them as naught—cosmically significant or nihilistic suffering. But ultimately, whatever our choice, whether we trample or keep sacred, we will come to know, and God will gather all of Israel—including the isles of the sea—and all nations will then rejoice. Nephi’s eclectic messianism can be read as prophesying an ethical futurism.
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- I don’t mean to imply that scripture can only be appropriately read in context. Neither extreme strikes me as tenable. Rather, the two ought to go together, informing each other. This is as true of reading Moby Dick as Isaiah—or Zenos-via-Nephi.
- As an aside, I can’t help but wonder who ‘the prophet’ is. Some references could plausibly refer to Zenos, though not all. And it would be odd for Nephi to sometimes be explicit in referencing Zenos and other times not; Nephi’s inconsistency makes thinking of ‘the prophet’ as Zenos an obstacle. Could it be Lehi? Or perhaps an unnamed commentator on or editor of Zenos? Or is this merely Nephi’s code name for himself or his own interpretations? Or am I wrong altogether?