Reading Nephi – 1:7-17

068-068-the-liahona-fullJoseph Smith remarked on visions that they are something that overcomes the visionary—that is, they’re physically exhausting. After the famous vision he shared with Sidney Rigdon (D&C 76), Sidney was apparently quite overcome, and Joseph quipped, “He’s not as used to this as I am” (or something to that effect, a la Truman Madsen). Thus it appears to have been the case with Lehi—overcome after his experience in the presence of God (a pillar of fire being a typological Old Testament symbol for the presence of God), he casts himself upon his bed. But God wasn’t yet done with him.

Hardy points out that this appears to be something of a cover-up, that Nephi appears to be intentionally blurring the lines between visions (note that Nephi’s narrative begins with what is clearly denoted as a conscious, daytime vision) and dreams, which Nephi often parenthesizes as a “vision.” Hardy sees Nephi as responding to the criticism lodged by Jeremiah that dreams are the least trustworthy of spiritual experiences. This seems quite plausible, and it does read to me as though Nephi is responding here, taking cues from other discussions, likely criticism of Lehi (perhaps a later Laman-ish/sons-of-Ishmael-ish criticism; or perhaps more likely the criticism of the inhabitants of Jerusalem that might have later been repeated by critics in the family).

In addition, however, Nephi is positively painting a picture of his father as being in constant communion with the heavens. He’s overcome by it. Even when he lies down to rest from it, perhaps to try to digest and understand it, he’s seized by dreams or visions once again. As Joseph once put it, “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink to know how I shall make the saints of God to comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind. (16 April 1843: WR).”

I think it’s easy to read this passage together with the whole exodus as something that happens immediately: Day 1: Vision followed by dream; Day 2: Preach in the market, and almost get killed; Day 3: pack up and leave with family early in the morning; Day 6: send boys back to get the brass plates… At least, that’s the Hollywood sort of way I’ve often pictured it. But that’s clearly not the case. The psalm-like passage Nephi quotes makes this clear. Lehi had time to experience not just the vision and dream recorded here, but many things—he had a “visionary” way of being, as his wife Sariah later accuses him. And he processed these in writing, and praising, and a great deal of speaking and teaching his children. It strikes me as years of ongoing experience prior to the exodus.

But what of this second dream-vision that Nephi details for us? Even granting Lehi’s visionary period as being years—still, there is this foundational, return-home-and-cast-yourself-upon-the-bed dream. I wonder how it struck Lehi at the time. We’re all corrupted now in our interpretations. We can’t help but see it as a New Testament vision. This is clearly Christ and the Twelve Apostles. I can’t imagine it was anything like that for Lehi, however, even granting it as a link to his Messianic prophesying. Is it less anachronistic to think of Lehi seeing Metatron and the Twelve Tribes, a vision of Heavenly descension? I wonder if there’s connection between Lehi’s later willingness to perform the temple rites outside of Jerusalem and this vision. Was Lehi another of those alienated from the temple, being a northerner, a refugee and not a Jew in Jerusalem? Is this a vindication of his belief in the wholeness and equality of Israel, and something that granted him the right to the rites of his ancestors? And I wonder just what the abominations were that made Jerusalem ripe for destruction. Were they particular to that historical context, or general—something we are capable of repeating today?

One final thought: perhaps this is also part of the genesis of the later rift between Nephi and Laman. Noting that the text describes Lehi as a visionary who teaches these things to his children, then perhaps Laman saw himself not only as the rightful heir to leading the family, but also the rightful heir to Lehi’s visionary experiences. According to this narrative, it’s only Nephi who lays hold to this claim, while Laman (again, according to Nephi) laments that no such visions are given to him. Did Laman feel undercut by his younger and quick-to-declare-visions brother?

15 comments for “Reading Nephi – 1:7-17

  1. Few thoughts.

    First does Nephi portray Lehi as in “constant communion” with the heavens? He portrays him has having had a lot of visions and dreams but I don’t get the constant part. I take 16 more as suggesting that the large plates most likely had a lot more Lehi in them while these plates just deal with Nephi. How much of that is what Nephi wrote and how much is an expansion during the translation process to explain to Joseph why this is so different from the missing 116 pages seems unclear.

    I do note that Nephi/Lehi does tend to follow the more apocalyptic literature style of that era.

    Someone in the other thread noted the issue that Zedekiah is himself set up by Babylon as a conquest. Yet we know that merely a few years later Zedekiah rebels leading to the complete destruction. Some people at this point are already in exile. Likewise there are already other prophets including Jeremiah prophesying.

    An interesting question is Lehi reading things in verse 14. What does this mean? Are other prophets words like Jeremiah or perhaps even Ezekiel already being passed around in a written form? Or is this more the apocalyptic reading of texts in heavens?

    Going a tad outside the text the whole interpretation of dreams is quite interesting. Clearly this is an important motif in the Torah as we have it today. We really don’t know what form it was in for Nephi. Even when Nephi quotes the OT I’m always a little wary, due to the translation process, how much of what we had is the text as Nephi had it and how much is a quotation from the KJV to mark the quote but perhaps distorting the original underlying text as the KJV is quoted in its place. (It’s good enough for reading of course, but for close readings there’s that disruption we have to worry about)

    The question of Merkabah literature and Nephi/Lehi is a good one. Most of our apocalyptic texts of this sort date to several centuries [i]after[/i] Nephi. So it’s perhaps a tad dangerous using those to analyze Nephi. Of course we do know that some things are set up as type settings. (Say Joseph’s dream in Genesis where Nephi clearly is alluding to his own life according to the pattern of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers)

    With merkabah property there’s an interesting question of history. Typically it’s dated to 100 BCE or perhaps elements a century or so earlier although there are outliers who dispute that. Merkabah is typically seen as being influenced by apocalyptic visions in Ezekiel or even parts of Isaiah. Yet in the Book of Momron we have very Merkabah like texts. This vision of Lehi in chapter 1 is one but many argue Mosiah 15 is as well. Since Merkabah is inspired by Ezekiel and Ezekiel is a contemporary of Lehi the issue isn’t quite as big a deal as it appears. But the parallels are quite interesting given particularly the parallels of Nephi/Lehi’s vision with 1 Enoch.

    As to Laman, I alluded to this in the other thread a bit. I think Nephi is using the story of Joseph and his brothers as a type setting to set up his relationship with Laman. The question is whether he sees that pattern not just in his later life but also when the events are transpiring. If he does see Laman as akin to the brothers who wished to kill Joseph it might be understandable why Laman is upset.

  2. BTW – related to Merkabah, it’s interesting how the sages linked the early chapters of Genesis to merkabah visions. I’ve often thought on that when reading Lehi’s vision in 1 Ne 1 and then his patriarchal blessing in 2 Ne 2 (often seen as paralleling the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs pseudepigrapha literature) So Haggigah 2:1 for instance says, “it is forbidden to explain the first chapters of Genesis to two persons, but it is only to be explained to one by himself. It is forbidden to explain the Merkabah even to one by himself unless he be a sage and of an original turn of mind.” Interestingly the proscription is tied not just to the early chapters of Genesis or Ezekiel’s vision but also Isaiah 3:2-3 is applied to who can study it.

  3. By “constant” I really mean “ongoing and not rare” — which is also what I think Joseph Smith meant. I really do think the link to Joseph is apt, and makes me think of his listing in D&C 128:20-21, which is always a little jarring since we don’t have much detail on some of those. On the other hand, it could be that the change does not occur between Moroni’s record and Joseph, but between Lehi’s record and Nephi’s. Perhaps Nephi records each actual vision Lehi mentions, but to Nephi, particularly given Lehi’s psalmic writings, this constitutes a much more regular communion and so Nephi’s portrayal’s a bit inflated. To me, the “ongoing and not rare” communications fits better.

    Great question. I always assumed Lehi’s reading here referred to the heavenly literature, but I’m not sure why it would need to be. I really do think that Lehi and Ezekiel were drinking similar water.

    My question with regard to Laman is more about how Laman experienced things at the time — assuming the young Nephi was similar to the one portrayed (quick to tout personal revelation), did Laman experience this as an undermining? Lehi’s authority in the context of an exodus is not merely a matter of his patriarchy, but also his priestly and prophetic authority. Nephi’s claim as the fourth son is weak; but his claim on account of revelation in this dramatic exodus that shook up everything familiar in their lives might well have been seen as a genuine threat.

    Interesting thoughts with regard to Merkabah literature and the quote from Haggigah.

  4. Yes, reading that Haggigah quote (and there are lots of similar ones) I immediately think of Alma 12-13, especially 12:9.

  5. Getting a bit far afield now, but Alma 12-13 has always struck me in this vein — and I can’t help but connect it directly to our own temple rituals.

  6. ^^ Yes. Temple symbolism is what connects the two chapters, which are one in the 1830 (and presumably on the plates). But they were much more immersed in it culturally, so it was one of those things that “goes without saying” and is thus not very explicit.

  7. I seem to recall an argument back in the 90’s that the sons of Moses (D&C 84) constituted a separate priesthood line than the sons of Aaron in the OT, perhaps tied with the school of prophets ala Elijah. Now Lehi’s writing well after Elijah and we know little or nothing about the organization of the prophets then. (I think most scholars assume no organization and that it was purely independent and charismatic but that’s largely of the basis of silence in the evidence) Alma 12-13 makes one wonder if there was more continuity with Elijah and perhaps this hypothetical Sons of Moses organization. If so, there may be more ritual and community to all this in 1 Ne 1 than it appears at first glance.

    But that’s obviously getting a lot of conclusion from an awful little and circumstantial evidence. So I wouldn’t take it too seriously. Yet a long question of the text is how priesthood works with the Nephites given the lack of levites.

  8. Just to add, for those up on the Documentary Hypothesis there’s often viewed a tension over priesthood. The priestly source (P) is taken as pushing that only the Aaronim are legitimate. Many scholars think this was a later development (which might answer the Nephite issue). This gets all caught up with debates over Gershom who is described as a son of Manasseh but also is a priest. (Judges 18:30) Shebuel in 1 Chronicles 24:24 is also son of Gershom and is said to be a son of Moses. There’s then a debate about whether son of Manasseh should actually be son of Moses. This is of interest given the Nephites are seen to be of Manasseh but we also have those interesting texts in Alma 12-13. The fate of the sons of Moses is very controversial since they just disappear in our Old Testament potentially suggesting some politically inspired redacting going on. (Something the Book of Mormon also claims happened) We also know non-Levites like Elijah performed priestly duties.

    While perhaps it’s disrupting the texts too much, the original form of D&C 84 has sons of Moses = high priest and sons of Aaron as priests. That later became a bit more muddled. (See this by W. V. Smith for instance) Comparing and contrasting D&C 84 (especially the original form of the text) to Alma 12-13 is quite interesting though.

    Likewise a lot of the later Jewish talk of Melchizedek is interesting relative to Alma 12-13. (Admittedly most is well into the common era and thus not necessarily indicative of much around 600 BCE)

    Not mentioned in our discussion of chapter 1 either is the strong parallel of Lehi with Moses. “There came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him.” Of course the pillar of fire went before the Israelites while leaving Egypt. It was fire at night and a cloud in the day. In Ezekiel’s vision (1:27) we get the allusion to this as well.

    Finally keeping with Alma 12-13 we shouldn’t forget 11 where what starts all this is Zeezrom’s sophistry on God as father and son and his appearance. (11:35) This hearkens us to Mosiah 15 where we have what very much appears to be a Merkabah text such as those naming Metatron or the lesser YHWH. It’s this context that Alma then mentions the mysteries of God with the explicit mention of ritual (13:8) which (to me at least) suggests Alma 13 should be read in light of Mosiah 15’s quoting and midrasnhic expansion on Isaiah 53. Now Isaiah 53 is one of the controversial quotations since it’s part of deuterio-isaiah but it’s interesting seeing the use. Just as the Son of God comes because he’s made the Father, Mosiah sees this of the prophets as well (Mosiah 15:11-13) “and are not the prophets, every one that has opened his mouth to prophesy…I say unto you that they are his seed.” Interestingly a common Jewish interpretation that gets taken up in the mystic tradition is that this is about Moses. (Or for Isaiah 53:5, Elijah, at least in the Zohar)

    Again using later texts that might be misrepresenting what’s going on around 600 BCE. Still it’s very interesting that we have these texts paralleling merkabah texts (and especially 1 Enoch and 3 Enoch) that pop up here and then Nephi’s later vision. My sense is that all these visions, these parts of deuteroIsaiah, Mosiah 14-15, and Alma 11-13 are tied together.

    Interestingly too while Metatron is usually seen as a raised up Enoch he’s often also associated with Moses. By the Rabbinical era Matatron isn’t see as a lesser YHWH but a greater Moses. In some texts it’s even Enoch as Metatron who gives Moses the Law.

    Finally getting back to deuteroIsaiah, there are allusions to it in Nephi and Lehi’s visions in the wilderness. (Say compare Nephi in 1 Ne 10:8 to Isaiah 40:3 which of course gets taken up by Mark as being about John the Baptist)

    Just raise this because it seems to me the problem of deuteroIsaiah in the Book of Mormon is very much caught up with this prophetic tradition of Ezekiel Lehi is caught up with in 1 Ne 1 and the merkabah tradition.

  9. I really appreciate the principle you bring up here about visions and constant communication with heaven. It would be great if the record of the Book of Mormon could be extensive enough to show us exactly how Lehi lived, day to day, as a “visionary,” and what that entailed specifically. But I agree that what we read in 1 Nephi does give us clues into a lifestyle that both Lehi and Nephi had, of continued communication with God through the spirit (whether that be in visions, dreams, or other methods). The quote you give from Joseph Smith about the “visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind” teaches clearly that constant communion with the heavens is possible, and also very worthy of seeking.

    I am inspired by Nephi’s response to his father’s teachings, which can be found, among other places, in 1 Nephi 2:16:

    “I, Nephi, … having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father.”

    That is what I take away from your thoughts here, and from what Lehi demonstrated and Joseph Smith taught: constant and continued revelation and communication with God through the Spirit is possible, and can become a way of life for those who have a great desire and are willing to ask, seek, and knock with diligence and in faith. And I think the best reason to have this desire and to seek for this way of life is to be more greatly aided in the work of the Lord–building families, serving the Lord, seeking personal progression and sanctification.

    [Wow, I was just going to write a short response here saying thank you for your thoughts, and now it seems to have become a novel.] Thanks for the opportunity to think about this.

  10. Clark. I’ll bide my time for something longer on Alma 12-13. I agree 100% with Ben S in #6. I would recommend a fairly recent book called Melchizedek’s Alternative Priestly Order: A Compositional Analysis of Genesis 14:18-20 and its Echoes Throughout the Tanak (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement). Its published by Eisenbrauns, 2013. Its by Joshua Matthews. Among other things, it argues that Moses got the Melchizedek Priesthood through his father-in-law, Jethro and that Aaron’s priesthood was inferior to that of Melchizedek. Its also really well priced for this kind of a book :).

  11. So, Clark. Here’s another for your Kindle. (I’m pretty sure it is available). I’ll want to discuss it at the appropriate time, but this vision of Lehi does begin the process for its analysis. Its by David Melvin and its called “The Interpreting Angel Motif in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature”. Its from Fortress, 2013 and its part of their Emerging Scholar series. This is one I’ve been working to wrap my head around and feel that more heads are better than one. The theory is that prior to the exile, visions seen by the prophets were shown directly by YHWH. Later, the motif began (beginning with Ezekiel’s vision at the end of the book), through Daniel, etc. to have an angel show the prophet what was happening, then ask him what it meant and then explain it to him (thus the “interpreting angel motif”). It appears to my simple eyes that Lehi here (and in his Tree of Life vision) sees things direct, whereas Nephi in his vision (12-14) is a prime example of the Interpreting Angel. Now, I’m not sure how this fits in with things. This is way too sophisticated a literary motif for the unlearned Joseph to come up with, so I’m not arguing that, . . . but the motif shows AFTER the exile. Thinking out loud, perhaps the Lehi company takes the same traits as those from the exile because their in an exile of their own. . .. When James gets to Nephi’s vision in chapters 12 and 14, I hope to have some better theories (or enjoy your’s, Ben S.’s, and others.

  12. I have read that one although I don’t have my own copy. (Been buying a lot fewer books since I had kids)

  13. I should add that I think it’s complex. I think there’s a case to be made that our contact with God is always mediated so any appearance of God is actually the Son. That pops up somewhat in Merkabah texts with Metatron or others. But of course it’s more complex.

    I should also add that of course the pre vs. post exile isn’t absolute. It’s not like ideas simply disappeared. (Thus the who documentary hypotheses where there are competing interests – especially between J & P) So later texts like 1 & 2 Jeu or the Pistas Sophia have a greater YHWH and lesser YHWH (or Iao) which is pretty similar to some conceptions of Christ. (Again Mosiah 15 is a classic text)

    Regarding Melvin, my brain is a little foggy from allergies but wasn’t his point more about a distinction between visions and more chance based divination: Lots, straws, perhaps even the Urim & Thummim in the popular scholarly view of its OT form. (As opposed to the traditions at say Qumran that saw it having letters signified)

    I need to refresh my memory on the other angel stuff he discussed. I just don’t remember I’m ashamed to say. My memory from the primary texts was that there was a *lot* similar in Nephi’s vision with 1 Enoch and 3 Enoch including some of the geography. (I had a ton of notes on this from college I sadly lost in a basement flood)

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