A New (and Everlasting) Covenant – Reading Nephi – 15:12-20

This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.

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As Nephi answers his brother’s question in verses 12-14, I have two thoughts that come to mind. First, I think it’s important to see that Nephi’s whole explanation centers on a new worldview. I suspect that his brothers’ lack of understanding had less to do with their inability to grasp our simplistic Sunday School summary of the allegory of the olive tree, and much more to do with how culturally and theologically “other” this picture was compared to their own understanding. As Wittgenstein said, pictures hold us captive. Note the new and exotic elements of Nephi’s picture, very different than the plausible and solidly traditional picture holding Nephi’s brothers [FN1]:

  • That God’s covenant with Israel isn’t geographically bound;
  • That the House of Israel can be partitioned and scattered without the dissolution of the covenant;
  • That in the wake of that scattering, the House of Israel can apostatize for generations without the dissolution of the covenant;
  • That the Gentiles—the non-covenant people—will play a key role in the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel;
  • That the Messiah is more than human, yet will be “manifested in body” to humans (note that this continues to be confusing to later generations, including the priests of Noah—and perhaps Abinadi for that matter! I’ll admit it’s confusing for me too; as Latter day Saints we’ve never clearly worked out what this might mean);
  • That the gospel of the Messiah will be given not to the covenant people, but again to the non-covenanting Gentiles;
  • That even after the Messiah has come and gone, for many generations, this same Messiah (without being present) is still able to bring salvation to those who “come” to him.

To put it mildly, all of this would be quite shocking in a 7th century BC Jewish world—something all too easy for us who were raised on such a narrative to miss.

But note that it gets even worse (i.e., more scandalous). It’s not just that the Gentiles (non-covenanters) will end up playing a positive role in the overall unfolding of God’s deliverance of his covenant people. First, the Jews (the covenanters) will outright reject the covenant and its fulfillment; and the then the Gentiles will be led by God to destroy the Jews, and only after that to preach the gospel covenant to them! Particularly in the context of a worldview that understands God’s function as having delivered Israel from Egypt and delivered them to the promised land and delivered the inhabitants of the promised land into Israel’s hand, and then preserved Israel from numerous external attacks—that is, in an ancient Mesopotamian context of God being tied to the military, political, and economic flourishing of a people—this is incredible. To say the least. Rather than clarify or further contextualize or address this scandalous point, Nephi instead claims that all of this is ultimately the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham! More particularly, these events are somehow the fulfillment of what God meant in declaring that Abraham’s posterity will bless all the earth!

All this helps me to understand what it is that Nephi’s brother’s found so difficult to understand in Lehi’s claims (and probably Nephi’s commentary as well). But it’s also deeply profound. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It strikes me as indeed a blessing to all the earth that Abraham’s posterity is both geopolitically abased and (in some sense of the word) apostate to the covenant, while at the same time having bequeathed to all the earth truth and a covenantal relationship that blesses us all. In fact, it is precisely the taking up of the covenant to restore Israel that is the blessing to the Gentile hosts of the earth. It heals all sides, grafts in all branches, makes the entirety of the orchard fruitful. This is the kind of deeply inclusive form of exclusive covenant that I can give my whole heart to.

Second, I’m struck by the parallel between the narrative drama of chapter 15 and what will later take place with Mormon’s account of Abinadi before Noah and the priests. In both scenarios we see: the rightful rulers and teachers of the people (culturally speaking) react contentiously to the teachings of a recently sent prophet. These rulers and teachers are unable to understand that prophet’s message (on multiple levels). Their challenge to the prophet is articulated (in part) as a matter of disputing the meaning of a passage of scripture or revelation. The prophet can surely see that the whole of the matter of the challenge is not merely the meaning of the given passage, but rather is a matter of an entirely separate orientation toward scripture and revelation. Nevertheless, the prophet patiently (or perhaps “patiently;” Nephi never seems to reveal himself as anything more than “patient”) explains the meaning of the passage in question, contextualizing it within the greater redemptive narrative of the Messiah to come. Ultimately, the rulers/teachers reject and murder the prophet (or attempt to murder him and sew the seeds for the later genocide of the prophet’s people). This rejection and (attempted) murder likewise results in the loss of political power among the ruler/teachers as well as significant suffering among the rest of society.

The confrontation doesn’t come off so well for either party—at least not in the short term. It strikes me as odd at the end of this passage that Nephi claims his brothers were humbled. At the start of the next chapter they don’t sound very humbled—and Nephi accuses them of being the opposite. This is one way that the text manifests Nephi’s work of crafting a narrative years removed from the actual events. What’s given to us as a single conversation in the immediate wake of a vision is more than that—it’s a concise distillation of Nephi’s understanding of (perhaps) years’ worth of interchanges.

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  1. It’s hard to tell how closely Nephi’s & Lehi’s pictures track one another, since in 10:12-14 we’re already getting Nephi’s summary and interpretation of—together with commentary on—Lehi’s discussion of the allegory of the olive tree.

7 comments for “A New (and Everlasting) Covenant – Reading Nephi – 15:12-20

  1. Suppose, just for a moment, that an understanding (and worship) of Jesus Christ had existed once upon a time in the kingdom of Israel (the “tree of life” inscribed with reference to Asherah, his mother Mary). There arose a king like unto Noah (Hezekiah) who used the mechanism of the state to enforce a theology of strict monotheism, so that one could not worship God AND his Christ without being idolatrous, a capital crime.

    Later, scribes in the kingdom of Judah would take advantage of the chaos due to Israel bringing Babylon upon Israel to shape a new narrative, obscuring the worship of the Christ, altough unable to obscure the patterns of Christ. Those patterns would be picked up by later believers in the Christ aming the gentiles, who would help spread worship of the Christ, though not the true understanding of the Crist.

    A branch of the actual kingdom of Israel would have gotten out, and among themselves preserved the true words of the Israelite prophets about the Christ, as well as recorded their own worship of the Christ, including a visit from the Christ himself. This collection of records would be entrusted to a upper-New York state farmboy in the 1800s. By the power of God, this farm boy would restore that knowledge of the Christ that had been lost from Israel, and despite the afforts of men and devils, Israel would once again have an opportunity to know and exercise fairh in the Christ.

    All of this is just my own opinion, take it as you will.

  2. acw: Halvorsen’s article is a good beginning, but for an in-depth look at covenants (with a lot of even more detailed source material) I recommend Scott W. Hahn’s Kinship by Covenant, a 2009 volume in the Anchor-Yale Bible Reference Library. It is as close as any book by a non-LDS person to the LDS doctrine of covenants. (Sorry, Clark Goble, but its NOT available in Kindle–and it is worth adding to your shelves).

    James: I’ve been too busy to contribute like I did earlier, but I have not stopped following your excellent beginnings to the discussion.

  3. I’m not sure it’s shocking for a 7th century Jew. But it’s certainly at odds with the centralization of the cult with Josiah and others. The problem with the shocking bit is that it honestly seems like Lehi is at best ambivalent with these trends. He’s offering sacrifice on mountains and much more.

    The Messiah bit is tricky since we just don’t know the history of the parts of deutero-isaiah and other later bits of Isaiah (possibly Isaiah 13 & 14). In particular the suffering servant passages are key. We know Nephi has these although it’s not clear their nature. Would Laman and Lemuel recognize them as legitimate for instance? It’s not at all clear if they are from a contemporary prophet of Lehi and Jeremiah.

    Part of the problem is that it’s just not clear what a 7th century view could entail within the mainstream let alone more heterodox people. (Which Lehi certainly comes off as) The 7th century clearly involves fairly substantial reformations to Judaism. They break more and more with a broad similarity to Canaanite religion. This tension between the Deuteronomist centralization and what I’d term a more Canaanite-like religion seem honestly to be a constant tension in the Book of Mormon from the narrative of Nehor up through Abinadi and the priests of Noah. And not always in a constant way (probably due to influence from indigenous religion – since we’re typically talking centuries after Nephi and Jacob).

    I do find it interesting that Nephi really doesn’t try to convince Laman and Lemuel on their own terms. He certainly doesn’t follow the commitment pattern. (Don’t know if they still teach that in the MTC)

    The covenants are interesting, especially since arguably there with Nephi (and later with Abinadi) we see a positive engagement with Deuteronomy. (Particularly chapter 29) So maybe my quip about the commitment pattern is unfair.

    Terry H, Ahhh! But alas, right now as I slowly move books back out of storage as our basement gets back to normal after a flood I still don’t have all my books. If I can’t yet fit in my Anchor Bible Dictionary I’m afraid other books are not apt to get purchased.

  4. I appreciate all these comments–they give me a lot to think about.

    As is being brought up, a whole lot turns on how heterogenous Jerusalem was at the time–something to which we simply don’t have access. We know there were factions. Taking Lehi as a heterodox Moshevite, however, doesn’t mean Laman and Lemuel were nuanced in there views. Commonly kids push back on the heterodoxy of their parents (analogous to 2nd generation immigrants refusing to speak their parents native language). If L&L swallowed the reformed Israelite religion of their day, they might well have done so unreflectively. Outside of Jerusalem, cut off from their society, might well have been the first time they ever thought seriously about these covenants and their father’s (and Nephi’s) interpretation.

  5. That’s good point James about being careful about assuming too much about Laman and Lemuel. Further their prime concern comes off as political, not religious beyond a skepticism towards their father. (Which makes 1 Nephi 3 all the more interesting as I’d love to know how Laman and Lemuel interpret the angelic visitation – they begin murmuring as soon as the angel leaves which makes me wonder if the angel might reflect the more ambiguous source word which can just mean “messenger”)

  6. Clark, Laman and Lemual do indeed see an angel. Their murmuring is not in dispute of the holy angel but in response to lacking faith what the angel told them. Nephi reminds his brothers twice after that about the angel. Its quite typical for wicked or worldly people to very quickly forget the miraculous events that happen to them. Its as if they see the moment as truly miraculous and then 10 minutes later they forget it as if it was nothing. Thats wickedness though- they want to spend as little time as possible in the light and quockly gravitate back into the darkness forgetting the very hand of Providence that carries them.

    The tale is a masterpiece picture of reality. Nephi captures it perfectly and is conveyed by the spirit into our hearts how true that concept is about how fast one can go from a miraculous event to complaining again if they desire wickedness in their hearts. I have seen it in my own family where once we had a spiritual manifestation and then literally within minutes its as if we completely forgot and were bickering again. The Book of Mormon is quite replete with this cycle over and over again. It truly tells how things really are in our natures- how quick we are to forget God.

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