Reading Nephi – 11:26-36

068-068-the-liahona-fullBehold the condescension of God. Earlier, the angel asked Nephi if he understands it, and Nephi admits that he does not. Now the angel tries to show him. But what is it that Nephi sees? First is the mere fact of the Redeemer going forth. I’ve often heard it interpreted that the condescension is actually that of Jesus, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, willing to come down incarnate among mortals and subject himself to their rejection and cruelty. I’ve nothing against this interpretation, though it strikes me as merely a remnant of traditional Christian theology. But here there is the following series of “Looks!” with no other direction, taking us to the end of the chapter. It seems that this whole series of events is the condescension of God. There is a Redeemer sent, a prophet sent to prepare the way, rituals and ordinances given to humans, angels that descend to minister, an atonement performed, twelve apostles to testify and teach the world. That is, there is continual, varied forms of God reaching out to mortals. To me this is the lesson of the Book of Abraham as interpreted by Joseph Smith (e.g., in the King Follett Discourse). God has a singular reaction to the tragedy and suffering inherent in the universe: to condescend toward those lesser intelligences that exist; that is, to love and heal and unite with them, to spend existence in an effort to exalt them; this is the work and the glory of God. Condescension is succoring union.

Vs. 29 is opaque to me. I don’t understand what this means and don’t understand it in the chronology of events being described.

The great and spacious building. The angel says it’s the world and the wisdom of the world. Nephi declares it to be the pride of the world. And it is somehow tied to fighting against the apostles. I’ll take that last bit first. I struggle to understand this as well. I’m not sure what it could mean for all nations to fight against the apostles. As far as I understand it, what the apostles do qua apostles is to testify of Christ. So the world could fight against their testimony. But the world doesn’t much do that, and it brings to mind disturbing scenes from the past with crusaders and infidels, evil pagans and fanatical martyrs. And even if we accept such an interpretation of the declaration—interpreting it in traditional Christian terms as referring to pagan Rome fighting the rising tide of Christianity—the angel says “all nations.” Given the lack of a temporal caveat, it seems we ought to think of all nations—including nations today. This makes understanding even more difficult. The overwhelming force of today’s political culture round here and a significant portion of the world is to remain neutral on questions of religion. Many argue that neutrality actually isn’t neutral, but favors a secularizing of sensibilities. There’s a lot to say for that claim. But it doesn’t seem to me to be a compelling understanding of what it means to “fight”—vehement neutrality, even if it favors secularization, is far too passive. What does it mean for all nations to fight against the testimony of Christ (i.e., the apostles)?

Getting back to the wisdom or pride of the world. Again, the interpretation I’m familiar with is the one that reifies pride—the great human flaw, “enmity” as Elders C.S. Lewis and Benson have interpreted it—and to then say that this building is a symbol of that great vice, which will eventually fall (when the Lord chops down the cedars of Lebanon and casts them into the fire!). Grammatically, however, we can talk about it differently. My children are the pride of my life. This way of looking at it allows us to put both the angel’s and Nephi’s pronouncements together. The building is a symbol of the wisdom of the world (and it’s a good symbol for that—in the ancient world a large and complex building is an absolute wonder and would have indeed been a culmination of its wisdom). And wisdom is the pride of the world. This is the age of the axial sages, this is when philosophy, the love of wisdom, was born. It is indeed our learning and our accomplishments and what we build that we take pride in. In and of themselves there is good reason in this, and it is not a vice. But all of it, all of our wisdom, all of our accomplishment, no matter how great and spacious, eventually will fall. Death and time and entropy cover us all. There is only the testimony of certain witnesses who claim to have seen and known something different: a resurrected, glorified being. A God who’s existence is oriented (or condescends) to the resurrection and glorification of all.

11 comments for “Reading Nephi – 11:26-36

  1. Terry H
    May 12, 2016 at 8:57 am

    “Elders C. S. Lewis and Benson” . . . Good one. Note that the building has no foundation. Of course it falls.

  2. JKC
    May 12, 2016 at 10:10 am

    “I’ve often heard it interpreted that the condescension is actually that of Jesus, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, willing to come down incarnate among mortals and subject himself to their rejection and cruelty, though it strikes me as merely a remnant of traditional Christian theology”

    Whether or not you equate Jesus and Jehovah (we do today, but Brigham Young perhaps most famously, did not), Nephi (and others in the Book of Mormon, perhaps most explicitly Abinadi) is pretty clear that Jesus himself is God. Identifying him as Jehovah is consistent with that, but it is not necessary, because regardless of whether Jesus is Jehovah, he is God in and of himself in the Book of Mormon. So in context it seems to me that Jesus’ incarnation and death are the condescension of God. (There’s the other, more speculative strain that says the condescension of God is the that of the Father himself coming down to physically inseminate Mary, but that doesn’t seem to me to be what Nephi is talking about.) That’s what Nephi sees when the angel says “look”: Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. But the vision doesn’t stop there; it keeps going, and there isn’t a clear division between “behold the condescension of God” and all the scattering and gathering stuff that comes after, so maybe that suggests that while the condescension of God begins with Jesus’ incarnation, it doesn’t end with his death, but continues through his resurrection and with his continued involvement in the scattering and gathering of his followers up through the end of the world. So, while it may be broader than that, I agree with you that the condescension of God is, in this vision, primarily about Jesus being “willing to come down incarnate among mortals.”

    But it doesn’t seem to me that the condescension of God is primarily about the “rejection and cruelty” of the world. Certainly suffering is part of Jesus’ mortal life, but in Nephi’s vision, that suffering appears to be an incident of Jesus’ mortality, or maybe a subsidiary purpose of it, rather than the sole purpose of Jesus’ mortality. The purpose seems to be simply for Jesus to be present with us in our fallen mortality with all its sorrows and all its joys as well, and to offer relief from those sorrows. Put differently, the condescension of God, as I see it, is not about Jesus being rejected and abused, but is rather, about God becoming one with us in fallen mortality so that we may become one with God in redeemed immortality. Maybe this is not too different from your point about condescension as succoring union.

    I guess my point is that I agree with you about the point of condescension being succoring union, but I don’t see that as at all different from the point that the condescension of God is Jesus’ incarnation and death.

    I’m not sure I understand the comment about this being a remnant of traditional Christian theology. Do you mean that Joseph Smith inserted some traditional Christology while he was translating, or that Mormon or some other compiler had some version of traditional Christology that he inserted into Nephi’s record when he compiled it, or that it isn’t in the Book of Mormon at all, and is just something that we are bringing to the text because of our previous exposure to traditional Christology? Personally, I think that concept of the condescension of God is pretty faithful to the text, and I accept Joseph Smith’s claims that the text was ancient, so if the Book of Mormon presents a theology that appears in places to resemble traditional Christologies, to me that’s just a reflection of its primary purpose to serve as an additional witness to Jesus’ divinity, rather than a remnant of some obsolete theology. But maybe I’m misunderstanding.

    The comments about seeing the building in a positive light (the wisdom of the world, though it will fail in the end, and cannot lead to salvation, is not all bad) are very interesting and worthwhile. Thanks for that.

  3. Clark Goble
    May 12, 2016 at 10:45 am

    I’m not sure the interpretation of condescension as God coming among men is really a remnant of traditional Christianity. It’s pretty key for the quasi-merkabah text in Mosiah 15 and arguably is also in D&C 93. Although perhaps those – especially D&C 93:17 – point to something beyond merely being God among the people. Rather it’s that God is among the people by being in them. Something the traditional anthropomorphic gods of the near east simply didn’t do. (And arguably an aspect we tend to discount a lot as we emphasize the more anthropomorphic aspects of God – partially due to Brigham Young but also in large part in opposition because that aspect gets downplayed in most Christianity)

    I like the way you put it of succoring union, although it seems more than that. The way in which Christ and the Father are one and the way we are is one of the most underdeveloped parts of our theology. Some take it very nominalistically as just having common goals and beliefs. Others take it more mystically in an almost platonic way. I do think, despite my qualms with Orson Pratt, that his idea of the spirit as enabling something more to happen is probably the best model.

    The great and spacious building is such a great imagery. (As an aside I kind of laughed when FPR recently suggested Joseph got the idea from the Reynolds Arcade) I confess I’ve always read it as a kind of allusion to the Tower of Babel or even a false temple. I’ve mentioned at various times the many parallels and the Babel one in particular seems pronounced.

    My suspicion, perhaps wrong, is that some of these images likely were common in the pre-exilic period. (I don’t have a lot of evidence to support this – but it’s just a guess that the Babel narrative in Genesis likely is a remnant of earlier periods)

  4. Clark Goble
    May 12, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Just to add, the Tower of Babel parallel to the great and spacious building works in a lot of ways. However the early commentaries starting with Jubilees around 200 BCE tends to emphasize the “storm heaven” interpretation that becomes dominant over time. It’s a pride/punishment model where the pride is human hubris of autonomy before God. In many later accounts, such as Eusibeus, it’s actually giants (perhaps the ones from 1 Enoch?) that build the tower.

    Of course the Book of Mormon later discusses Babel with the Jaredites. It’s worth noting that in most models of the translation of the text, Ether is translated before 1 Nephi. If one buys, as I do, that the translation is making use of Joseph Smith’s experiences, then that might be significant. (Admittedly the visions were almost certainly mentioned in the lost 116 pages too)

    The other reading of Babel, one that’s become more popular of late in scholarship (from my admittedly outsider view) is that the story is about cultural difference and the spread of people after the flood. In this interpretation Genesis 10 and 11 are different accounts of the same events. I’d add this can be reconciled with Ether 1:33-34 by noting the strong paralells between the Jaredites & their language with the Nephites and getting the brass plates. i.e. the typical reading due to the traditional literalist reading of Gen 9 is that God magically changed everyones language. In this case it’s more about losing the scriptures and the traditions of God. That is Ether 1 and 1 Nephi 1-6 share a common type setting. Also note that in this case the tower of Babel and its destruction parallels the Egyptian favoring King of Judah and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Babylon. (It’s probably no accident that this is an inversion of the tower of Babel traditionally tied to Babylon or at least Assyria)

    In this case the people in the tall and spacious building literally are the people associated with Zedikiah and his group making alliances with Egypt and persecuting Jeremiah and the other prophets.

  5. James Olsen
    May 12, 2016 at 11:16 am

    I’m certainly not arguing that the Messiah is anyone but front and center in Nephi’s vision and the angel’s account of the condescension of God. But, as you note, there’s a lot more going on than just that. Rather than displacing Christ, I think the full narrative helps us better understand what it means that Jesus was the Christ (and, by extension, what it means for us to covenant with and enter into the work of salvation with God).

    My comment about the remnants of Christian theology are with regard to how we today read and understand this passage. Again, I find it common for to relate the meaning of the condescension as merely about Jesus — who was pre-birth God — condescending to be born. In the background, I think there’s usually a traditional Christian metaphysics about the wholly other nature of God, and consequently the awe-inspiring mystery of the incarnation. I don’t think that move’s open to us as Mormons (nor would I personally want it to be). My point is simply that I think this passage demands a different and more expansive notion of the condescension.

  6. James Olsen
    May 12, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Interesting stuff Clark, I hadn’t thought much of the various interpretations of Babel’s tower and how that might enrich the reading. And good point about merkabah literature. As noted earlier, I see a number of (pre- I suppose) merkabah-type parallels in I Nephi. In addition to human ascension, there is the God’s condescension.

  7. JKC
    May 12, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    I think I understand you a little better, James. While I agree with you that the idea of God as WHOLLY other, is not really compatible with a lot of Mormon thought, I don’t think that takes away the awe-inspiring nature of the incarnation. I mean, restoration scripture is pretty heavy on emphasizing that Jesus was God before the world was. I think what inspires awe is not just that God became a physical being, as in much of traditional Christianity, with it’s overemphasis on platonic ideas, but that he condescended to become a mortal and fallen physical being. God was capable of creating an immortal physical body to inhabit, as he did with Adam and Eve, but instead, he condescended to become one with us in our lost and fallen mortal state. That’s what inspires awe about the incarnation, I think.

    In any case, I agree with you that Nephi’s vision points to an expansive notion of God’s condescension.

  8. Clark Goble
    May 12, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Yes, over a FPR I mentioned 1 Enoch 86-88. I was more just saying there were more obvious parallels to Lehi’s vision without looking at buildings in Rochester. (I didn’t even mention the obvious Babel parallels – again Lehi’s vision would have been translated not long after Ether) In particular 88:113-114 where they “raised up that tower, which was called a lofty tower. And again they began to place before the tower a table with every impure and unclean kind of bread upon it. Moreover also all the sheep were blind and good not see as were the shepherds likewise.” Admittedly this is most likely about the return from exile and the Samaritans. But in terms of imagery it’s quite interesting. This vision of the beasts is also separate from the more interesting parts of 1 Enoch that bear more directly on Nephi’s vision. However it’s hard not to read these texts and miss the stylistic similarities in imagery even if they differ quite a bit in the details.

    The idea of both human ascension and divine descension is the key imagery I think. I also love how it’s when Christ allows God to descend into him (grace by grace, as D&C 93 adds) that Abinadi sees Christ able to break the bands of death. Mosiah then, doing this exegsis of Isaiah 53, the suffering servant poem. Of course Isaiah 53 is usually dated to post-exile so I suspect what we have is some proto-text in the brass plates that then becomes Isaiah 53 with later modifications in the exile or thereafter. Typically the suffering servant in Jewish exegesis is seen as Israel itself rather than Christ. The suffering is the pain and persecution of the exile. The support for this is that there are four servant poems/songs with the others more obviously being Israel. (i.e. 41:8-9; 44:1; 44:21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3) That said fairly early on Rabbis associate this with the Messiah although there was also a move to differentiate it from Christian use.

    My own sense is that how the Messiah is seen is complex, and that how Nephi reads Isaiah especially in 2 Nephi should be seen through the lens of both his and his father eschatological vision.

  9. May 12, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    It is too bad that we often skip the verses where the intitial question is posed. Maybe there is fear that the discussion will turn immediately to the insemmination of the Mother of Jesus– but there are other questions to ask beyond that. Why is there an immediate jump from The vision of Mary to the vision of the Tree? Certainly there are links with the Divine Feminine and the symbolism of trees. When we gloss over the verses earlier in this chapter out of an attempt at discretion, we may miss the possibilities for interpretations that allow us to see the Divine Feminine in symbols that are familiar to us. We might be able to see the love of the savior in a new context of we see a mother image in the tree as well as our typical interpretation. How many times have we re-treaded the ideas about the great and spacious building? How about asking ourselves about the implications of the fruit as an actual arrival at presence of the Divine Feminine? These verses where the question is first posed are vital to the reading and should not be glossed over.

  10. James Olsen
    May 13, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Provoparisprovo: Dan Peterson’s done a great deal to put this fact into everyone’s mind. It’s quite normal for Sunday School discussions all across the church point to this connection now. Although I mentioned it tangentially earlier in the series, I don’t dwell on it mostly because it didn’t play a big role in my musings this time through Nephi (which is, as I noted in the series opener, all that this is — my musings on my latest time through Nephi), although it has in the past. That said, I’m in full agreement about the possibilities of seeing the Divine Feminine here, and am an advocate of our culturally going beyond Peterson’s historical musings. Thank you for bringing it up.

  11. Clark Goble
    May 13, 2016 at 10:35 am

    The question of what the religion of pre-exilic Jerusalem that was against the Josiah reforms is interesting. At least some suspect the divine feminine was part.

    The other thing often not brought up is the relationship between Lehi/Nephi’s visions and the vision of John in the NT. This is made explicit in Nephi’s vision but it really raises the question of this feminine in both visions. For instance in John you have the woman fleeing into the wilderness (Rev 12) Verse 5 is very similar to the image of Mary in this chapter. While that relationship seems clear, the other imagery of John (largely borrowed from Daniel) is harder to figure out.

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