Reading Nephi – 11: Hermeneutic Interlude

068-068-the-liahona-fullThis whole vision, stretching over the next few chapters, is difficult; I’d say downright oblique. It moves in rapid fire with the angel continually saying, “Look!” and Nephi following up with barely a glimpse and only an occasional editorial word before our looking and pondering gets interrupted with another, “Look!” or a “Behold!” It’s hard to string these short literary jolts all together. It’s hard to even see the significance of some of the “look” pericopaes, and even harder to see the logic between them all. Feeling a bit cranky about the whole vision, I wonder if Nephi never got past his juvenile outlook in vs. 17, but was unwilling to admit that, and so he throws everything at us that he can remember (it reminds me of those all-too-common student papers that wander around, consisting mostly of liberal quotations from other texts with the occasional editorial word on these quotations, but ne’eri a coherent framework or guiding thought in the whole thing).

Reading charitably, however, I can’t fault Nephi. He was young; he wasn’t particularly gifted on a literary level; and however dense and awkwardly strung together, I believe there is deep profundity here. This is a passage of scripture to spend generations on.

Overall, I find two interpretive frameworks most useful here:

First, keep in mind that all of this is in response to Nephi’s request to understand the tree from Lehi’s dream. ‘Tree = love of God’ is far too simplistic. The angel could’ve simply given Nephi that trite phrase that we chalk up on our Sunday School boards. Yes, the tree (and the fountain) represent the love of God. But we can’t understand what that means without understanding the rest of the vision—the life of Christ, the overall plan, and just as importantly, the history of our people, their betrayals and infidelity to God, their afflictions and destruction, and ultimately their redemption. The tree is a symbol of the whole process of the divine family and its covenantal relationship in a similar sense, I think, as the Sabbath. The love of God is the love that infuses and facilitates exaltation.

Second, in order to help Nephi along, the angel first asks and then demands that Nephi behold the condescension of God. Once again, I don’t think we can appropriately understand this condescension in terms of a God on one metaphysical plane that descends for love’s sake to another plane. That is, the traditional Christian interpretation (commonly imported into Mormon discourse) of the incarnation seems barred to us—not simply for doctrinal reasons, but because of the way that the revelations are presented in our scripture. Not only do these passages help us better understand what this divine condescension is, but likewise, we are to view and come to understand the different aspects of this epic vision in light of its revealing that condescension.

This obviously doesn’t clear everything up (e.g., while I think we can clearly reject standard takes on the condescension of God, I’m still not sure what this vision ultimately teaches). But these two lenses help me to bring focus to the overall meaning.

5 comments for “Reading Nephi – 11: Hermeneutic Interlude

  1. Clay Cook
    May 8, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Thanks! One of the reasons I find Gospel Doctrine and even stake sponsored Institute Classes so frustrating is that we never seem to have the time or the will to dig deeper into the scriptures. It usually seems extremely glossy and superficial. I am very interested in both of your frameworks particularly the second. Could you provide any resources for further exploration.

  2. Clark Goble
    May 8, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    I think the condescension of God is more significantly than it’s usually given credit here. Part of that is reading it in light of Mosiah 15 where it’s given a near Merkabah twist. Of course the Two Natures in most traditional theology for Jesus have tons of trouble. (Lots of parts seem very unconvincing to me) Here the condescension is completely wrapped up in the eschatological imagery of the tree, fruit and waters. It’s not presented as metaphysical but it’s presented in a combination of future history and eschatology.

    An other thing that’s interesting is verse 6. I’d have to check Skousen, which I don’t have access to right now, to know if that verse got modified. But if it wasn’t then it’s fascinating that it presents the “most high God” and then Nephi is blessed “because thou believes in the Son of the most high God; therefore thou shalt behold the things which thou has desired.” It suggests that knowing about the Son is something key here.

    I’m not sure the “wherefore” in this verse has been discussed before. It seems to read as if it should be “therefore.” “Therefore” refers to what came before and is like “thus” while “wherefore” is more like the word “why.” I confess other than just getting its meaning wrong I’m not sure how to take it. The phrase after the semicolon would seem to be a question if the wherefore is right. Any English majors up on archaic English able to take this one up? (This use is misunderstood in Shakespeare as well – “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” is the classic example for “wherefore.” It’s “why are you Romeo?” not “where are you Romeo?”

    The other thing that’s interesting to me is that the climax of chapter 11 is verse 33. Yet nothing really contextualizes it. Exactly how Jesus is slain for sins isn’t really explained at all. That’s at least as mysterious as Lehi’s imagery Nephi is trying to understand. Is it being presented as a substitutionary atonement? It doesn’t come off that way. I’m almost half tempted to read “slain for the sins of the world” as “slain for of the sins that the world see as sin.” That is less tied to traditional Christian atonement passages but makes more sense with verse 32 where the world judges him. His crucifixion is due to the world judging him and the atonement/condescension is much more the fact Jesus came. This also makes the inversion in the next chapter where the Twelve Judge the world more interesting.

  3. Terry H
    May 9, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Yay. Another one of these . . . .

  4. James Olsen
    May 9, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Yeah, sorry about the hiatus. The semester bowled me under. They’re set to come out regularly now.

  5. James Olsen
    May 9, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Clay, I don’t have a lot of material on this, though it’s a fairly common philosophical assessment of Mormonism’s position. Givens harps (eloquently) a lot on the metaphysical collapsing of God and Human in his writings. I mention it briefly a few times in earlier posts (and can’t remember if I return to it), such as here:

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