I’ll confess, I feel a mixture of serious disappointment and jealousy as I’m struck by the utterly exotic nature of this event.
Note not only the coming of the angel, but that the angel does not come to Nephi for specific reasons of instruction or witness—not like the shepherds abiding in their fields or Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness. Here the angel comes to simply ask: “What do you desire?” Now admittedly, this appears to be a sort of test—all right Nephi, let’s see what you ask for, and then we’ll see what you get. And Nephi apparently chooses wisely, which leads to his vision. But God knows I’ll settle even for the test! Perhaps I choose wrongly and all I get is admonishment to repent and search the scriptures (the typical angelic injunction—maybe most folks choose poorly and Nephi really is prodigious). How could I not be infinitely content to be graced even with a mere test such as this? Is it that I fail all the preliminary tests, which block my path to the angelic one?
As noted last time, Nephi’s whole point here is to help recreate for his reader what he takes to be the essential context of having a divine vision like his own. Brother Joseph was driven by similar motivations to try and teach his people how to experience what he had experienced.
So far, here’s what we have:
- Desire to know
- Believe that God is able to make it known (and perhaps that he will make it known)
- Ponder—which seems to be an essential, intellectual element of both seeking and desiring
- Seek more expansively
- And finally (as noted last time), there’s the critical element of repentance.
There it is. Nephi’s recipe.
But despite Nephi’s emphasis on what the petitioner needs to do, there’s no question that ultimately, theophanic revelation is a matter of pure grace. Like his father Lehi, Nephi is merely pondering. It is God that intervenes, ruptures Nephi’s whole world, breaking in out of the heavens. God transports Nephi to a divine mountaintop. And it is the Spirit or the Angel or whatever divinity it is that is there to meet Nephi that first engages him in conversation. Nephi doesn’t even exert the effort to start the conversation. Rather, he is himself plied with questions.
There must be some sort of terrible loneliness involved in being called in this manner. And it’s certainly a calling. Looking at the end of this passage, the Angel (that’s what I’ll call him) is quite clear that this is all meant to function as a sign for Nephi, but not gratuitously. Rather, he’s being commissioned like Isaiah of old to bear witness—which he clearly takes quite seriously.
So there you are, the recipient of revelation in an utterly undeniable and epistemologically exotic fashion, thrown well outside the bounds of normal human experience, and explicitly commissioned to bear witness of the experience—as opposed to say, bury it, which would surely be a tempting thing to do. And if you’re not an absolute narcissist—and I don’t think you can be and have this sort of experience—than you’re going to feel a serious humility, perhaps even embarrassment—the embarrassment of riches. Why you? What makes you so special as to have such an incredible experience? Because unlike many faithful readers of his book today, Nephi was well aware of his fallible mortality.
I think all of this gives prophets—at least prophets like Nephi and Joseph—a deep motivation to bring others into their circle of revelatory experience. And so they default to trying to explain or instruct or lay out steps for how one can mimic their actions and bring about such experiences.
But of course it’s all hogwash. We can’t repeat their actions because we’re not them in their context. And even if we credibly imitate them adjusting for our own context, there still aren’t the external variables of need. Most of all, we can’t constrain God. Or at least, I haven’t been able to. And there’s nothing that Nephi mentions that I haven’t done and redone. There’s been no end to my repenting and pondering and pleading (although I can always doubt the quality of my efforts). What’s more, I’ve had deeply poignant needs of my own. But they aren’t God’s needs. And if angels have been sent to comfort me in my own Gethsemanes, I’ve not been notified.
The heavens remain silent and only my own heart speaks. Though I continue to trust that it speaks with heavens voice. I certainly hear it as such, at least when I feel myself aligned with the divine, and I do my best to listen.
I like how you call attention to the unique form of Nephi’s vision. I have tried to use these four chapters as a template for how to engage students. The vision is structured around the ten questions the Spirit of the Lord asks him, and each new step in the vision rises organically out of Nephi’s answer to the each question. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord came with something specific to teach Nephi, or perhaps Nephi’s answers shaped the direction of the revelation experience. I don’t have evidence, but I am inclined to believe the latter is the case.
Sad to say, I’ve yet to replicate the Spirit of the Lord’s success. But that’s due to my inadequacies as a teacher, not because the method is flawed.
Mirrorrorrim, perhaps it’s not due to your inadequacies as a teacher, but to the inadequacies of your students ;) Not all of us are as brilliant a student as Nephi.
I need to go through the different pericopaes of these four chapters more slowly and analytically at some point. I struggle a bit to capture a unified meaning/linkage between it all.
Thanks, James! But I think the people I teach are closer than Nephi than I am to the Spirit of the Lord. For me it has helped to do the opposite of what you mention: when I ready 1 Nephi 11-14 in a single sitting, it is a lot easier for me to see how it all connects together than when I read it piece by piece. But like you suggest in your next post, to me, the entire vision is all about the Tree of Life. Each question of the Spirit of the Lord and associated answer from Nephi leads to a vision of a different facet of the Tree.
In that sense, it is very similar to Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi 1. After seeing a vision of God’s judgments on Jerusalem, including its destruction and the murder and enslavement of its inhabitants, Lehi’s reaction is to marvel over God’s goodness and mercy to all the world’s people. Just like Lehi, even when Nephi is seeing judgment or destruction, what he is really learning about is still exclusively the love of God. This has often been a very difficult concept for me to accept or understand, but in my opinion at least, that is the unified theme of the entire vision. The details are all just evidence proving the thesis of God’s love.
Because of that, for me, the discussion about the meaning of the condescension of God is inadequate, since it is all about His condescension—Mary, yes, but also his sermons, his miracles, his healings—all of it is a part, and just like the Tree represents the entirety of God’s love, so the virgin Mary also represents God’s condescension in its entirety, because contained within her are the symbols of everything before and after.
At least that’s my opinion.
“And Nephi apparently chooses wisely, which leads to his vision.”
I actually think that Grant Hardy’s interpretation has some merit to it.
“When the Spirit showed Nephi the same tree and asked what he wanted, it would not have been unreasonable to respond, ‘I want to taste the fruit; I want to experience that exceedingly great joy.’ In fact, as readers, we have been set up to expect Nephi to respond in exactly this way. Instead, he asks for knowledge: ‘to know the interpretation thereof.’ The Spirit leaves, an angel takes over, and in the end Nephi is wiser but not happier. For the rest of his life, and through the entirety of his literary labors, Nephi works through the implications of that choice.” (Understanding the Book of Mormon, 86)
The idea that Nephi *should* have asked to partake of the fruit, but does not, and hence is given a lesser guide through the remainder of his vision, is intriguing to me. I’m not convinced that Nephi chose wisely here.
CC, an interesting question to consider, given your observation, is, can you choose your desires? The Spirit of the Lord didn’t just ask Nephi what he wanted—he asked what he desired.
Was Nephi really being given a choice? Can you lie to the Spirit of the Lord about what you want?
I made this realization (of an angel replacing the Spirit) just a few weeks ago. That is an interesting interpretation.
One possibility is that when Nephi saw Jesus and Mary, he had a feeling identical in nature if not in magnitude to the one where Lehi ate the fruit, as they were symbolic synonyms.
In terms of the merits of Nephi’s choice, to me it seems more like a translation/expedited exaltation choice a la John or the three nephites. There is no long-term dichotomy.
CC and Mirror, as we’ve pointed out in other threads (between me and Clark Goble), there’s a phenomenon that has been recently noted by David Melvin about what’s called the “interpreting angel” motif. His thesis has been published by Fortress, but I found the original thesis on line. It basically says that before the Exile, the prophetic visions were simply shown to the prophets. Beginning with Ezekiel and others (including Daniel, Zechariah and Enoch) the visions were shown by a heavenly being and then interpreted. How this applies to Nephi and why is something to ponder, but its pretty obvious that this is a phenomenon which happens in the Book of Mormon. There are passing references to angels “explaining” to later prophets like Benjamin and Alma.
PS Don’t worry Mirror. I’ve been too busy to respond to your last question to me, but I will soon.
I’m not sure I buy Hardy’s interpretation. I’d note that in 1 Ne 9 it’s not clear who Lehi’s tour guide is. With regards to Nephi, I think the reason the Spirit disappears is because it is Christ and Nephi sees his condescension. i.e. the spirit leaves and is born as the child in the vision.
I’m with Clark on this one, at least as far as Hardy’s interpretation.