Reading Nephi – 1:18-20

068-068-the-liahona-fullTwo contrasts strike me in verse 18: a contrast between the way that Nephi uses the word ‘marvelous’ and a contrast between the visions and prophesying he attributes to Lehi here, and what we just got in verse 14. To begin with a word on the latter, I’m heartened that Lehi’s prophesying included beautiful, affirming, psalms; I trust his public messages did too, even if Nephi didn’t note this fact.

I never hear the word ‘marvelous’ used to neutrally reference a marvel. It’s always used as a synonym to ‘wonderful.’ Marvels and wonders only receive a positive valence today; but Nephi’s clearly not using it that way. Which hints at something else buried here that is easy for us to miss today: it was indeed a marvel, something that defied common reason and common sense of the day, that Jerusalem, the holy city, the Lord’s city, the house of the artifacts of Moses and Aaron and the seat of God’s presence on earth, would be destroyed and God’s people carried off. It wasn’t given to Lehi as an incredible possibility; it was given as fact (or at least given as a strong “likely” from an ultimate authority). This indeed must’ve been something to marvel at.

This contrast between Lehi’s “marvelous” visions and how they would’ve sounded to a public that didn’t acknowledge their divine source helps to make sense of the public reaction. Noting that there was not then a distinction between the theological and the political, we can nevertheless see important political and theological differences between Lehi’s Messiah and whatever messianism might’ve existed at the time. Jerusalem isn’t ignorant of the threat they face. They’ve watched everyone else around them be crushed—including other villages around Jerusalem. A Messiah is a Son of David, a king, someone to shore up Israel’s failing political fortunes, a figure to unite and rally the people, a figure to establish Israel as a flourishing nation. But Lehi’s narrative of a Messiah is that of a figure to come after destruction. And here we begin to see anachronism creep in—or at least, I can’t see how to get out of my New Testament corrupted head and figure out how else it might’ve seemed to them. This strikes me as post-Babylonian exile Messianism, a deutoro-Isaiah message about God’s being faithful even after he’s obviously been unfaithful (on account of our own wickedness). The anachronism makes sense, however, since Lehi was having to wrestle—I’m assuming over the course of years—with a pre-knowledge of what the Jewish exiles would later wrestle with after the fact: Jerusalem’s destruction. Here then, is a scenario that makes sense of Lehi’s following the same pattern of thought as the later prophets and religious thinkers.

Finally, I see in verse twenty not just Elder Bednar’s now famous exhortation to remember the tender mercies of the Lord, but an exhortation to remember to whom and how those tender mercies are extended. I too can’t help but interpret a key hymn that speaks to my soul at a poignant moment as grace, as a tender mercy, and I cherish our contemporary, Bednarian interpretation of the phrase. But here it’s something different. Tender mercies are for the meritocratically chosen (on account of faith). Or perhaps we could read it not meritocratically but matter-of-factly: those who have faith live such that they experience tender mercies. But just what are these mercies? Power. That which makes us mighty even unto deliverance. It is God’s infusing Moses with the power to part the Red Sea or Nephi with the power to slay Laban and get the plates. Grace is (as Elder Bednar elsewhere notes) an empowering. God seeks not just our salvation but our exaltation, God seeks to place us in contexts as Abraham and Joseph Smith declare, where our intelligence might increase. This isn’t the Protestant notion of empowerment—that while we remain weak, we nonetheless are connected to a divine power source. Rather, our own personal power is itself increased through God’s tender mercies, so that we can ourselves work for deliverance.

4 comments for “Reading Nephi – 1:18-20

  1. This strikes me as post-Babylonian exile Messianism, a deutoro-Isaiah message about God’s being faithful even after he’s obviously been unfaithful (on account of our own wickedness).

    I’m not sure I’d say that’s God being unfaithful but Israel. Lehi and Nephi get at the underlying idea of God with the idea of a true arm and a false arm. God’s arm is the true one and if we trust on it then it is reliable whereas it is the arm of flesh that is unreliable. This makes sense even in the Palestinian context given that Lehi is warning Zedekiah and the people to not trust in an alliance against Babylon. However the imagery then continues and gets put in lots of interesting new contexts.

    While the problem of deuteron-isaiah remains, I’m not sure the messiah sections are a problem. I do know that the mainstream scholarly view is that the very idea of a messiah doesn’t really evolve until the Book of Daniel develops. However most scholars are fine with Isaiah 32:1-8 being pre-exilic but that has a messianic tone to it. The big question then becomes whether messianism is tied to restoring from exile or can it apply to an ideal king? While 2 Nephi has quotations from the problematic portions of Isaiah, I’m not sure these portions are necessarily problematic and seem in keeping with Isaiah 7 – 11.

  2. I should note that some scholars think there is post-exilic redactions and edits made to Isaiah 7 – 11, such as 11:1-9. That’s not really my point though. Just the issue of ideal king vs. gatherer.

    My thought is the best solution to deuteroIsaiah is just to postulate it was passing around in a preliminary form and that the final post exilic form developed later. Nephi has the prototype form but when Joseph translates he largely follows the KJV which has the more messianic exile form. That’s pure rank speculation of course.

  3. I’ve also spoken to scholars who postulate that shorter, deutero-Isaiah poetry was circulating pre-exile, but not added to Isaiah until later.

  4. It seems a reasonable assumption especially given the quasi-messianic passages in the parts everyone agrees was pre-exilic. The idea they were editing rather than composed post-exile seems pretty reasonable to me. I recognize it won’t satisfy those who use source criticism to critique the Book of Mormon. My experience there is a certain absolutism not applied to their own favorite texts. Others might disagree though. (I also don’t think they think through the implications of a loose translation relative to KJV sections quoted as translation of somewhat different underlying text)

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