These are the most familiar chapters to any Mormon, and I’ve literally spent weeks on them in Institute, going slowly. I’d wager many of us could recite 1 Nephi 1:1 from memory, and a good number of us in our mission language; not from trying to memorize it, just from having read it so much. Familiarity does not necessarily mean understanding, though. The following questions appear unrelated, but are clues to what’s going in in the initial chapters and indeed, all of 1-2 Nephi.
When we hear Nephi’s voice here, should it be the voice of a young man? And why does Nephi multiple times remind us of who is younger and who is older throughout the narrative? (1Ne 2:5, 3:28-9, 7:8, 16:37, 17:55) Is it so hard to keep the characters straight?
I think many of us read as if this is Nephi’s as-it-happens journal, with no overarching rhyme or reason to the events included.
The reality is quite different. From the moment Nephi starts writing, he has at least one distinct purpose in mind. One might jump to the conclusion that he is writing with his latter-day readers in mind, thanks to the theme that “the Book of Mormon was written for our day.” But rather, the Book of Mormon was edited for our day by Mormon and Moroni, 1000 years after the events of 1 Nephi. By contrast, Nephi does not know why he has been commanded to write (1Ne 9:5), and wrote for his own people.
Among other passages, “the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord. (1Ne 19:3); “I, Nephi, have written these things unto my people, that perhaps I might persuade them that they would remember the Lord their Redeemer. “(1Ne 19:18) He does seem to consider who else might read it (2 Nephi 33:13: “my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust”), but his focus, his general audience, is his people, his contemporaries.
To unravel Nephi’s mind and purpose, first let’s look at setting. When is Nephi writing “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents”? He tells us in 2 Nephi 5:28-30 that “thirty years had passed away from the time we left Jerusalem.… And it came to pass that the Lord God said unto me: Make other plates [than the Large Plates he’d been writing]; and… engraven many things upon them which are good in my sight, for the profit of thy people.”
So 30 years after they’ve left Jerusalem, God tells Nephi to start over and write things for his people. That means that when Nephi begins 1 Nephi, i.e. the Small Plates, he’s probably approaching or in his 50s, assuming late teens or early 20s when they left Jerusalem. They “tarried in the wilderness” for 8 years (1 Ne 17:4, why so?), and Lehi died shortly after they arrived in the Americas. The group divided due to conflict shortly thereafter, so 30 years after leaving Jerusalem minus 8 years in the wilderness and travel time means… at the time Nephi starts 1Ne 1:1, his group has been separated from the Laman/Lemuel group for twenty years. It is not a friendly separation. There are armed conflicts, apparently after combining with others in the land. No love lost between Nephi’s group and Laman/Lemuel’s group.
Now, change perspectives. What do Laman and Lemuel teach their descendants about Nephi and leaving Jerusalem? If the later tradition is accurately related, it went like this (from Mosiah 10:12ff)-
“the tradition of their fathers [was] this– Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea; 13 And again, that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance, after they had crossed the sea… 14 And his brethren were wroth with [Nephi] because they understood not the dealings of the Lord; they were also wroth with him upon the waters because they hardened their hearts against the Lord. 15 And again, they were wroth with him when they had arrived in the promised land, because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands; and they sought to kill him. 16 And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them.17 And thus they have taught their children that they should hate them, and that they should murder them, and that they should rob and plunder them, and do all they could to destroy them; therefore they have an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi.”
The tradition, then, is that from the beginning, Nephi did Laman and Lemuel wrong. He made them leave, and treated them badly. They should have been in charge, not him. They should have had the records, not him.
Nephi, knowing their traditions and writing for his people, crafts 1 Nephi as a religious and political apology, an argument that the Lamanite tradition is wrong, and a defense of his leadership. This drives his choice of what events to include and how to tell them;
The senior son, on the death of the father, would lead the clan. By contrasting his behavior with theirs, he makes an implicit argument that they were not fit to lead the clan after Lehi’s death. By reminding us that he was the younger brother, and they were older, he calls attention to the expectation of leadership on them which they failed… but he stepped up. (He may also be drawing on the tradition in Genesis of a younger son repeatedly surpassing the elder- Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all his brothers, Ephraim over Manassah.) So what Nephi has in mind during the whole writing is, how do I convince people that our version of the past is correct?
This theory about an important driving theme of the Small Plates finds support in how crucial they are in missionary use. The “traditions of the fathers” were a major stumbling block to missionary work.
“The Lamanites [knew nothing] nothing concerning [gospel] things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct.” (Mos 1:5) “It is because of the traditions of their fathers that caused them to remain in their state of ignorance; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them and prolong their existence in the land. And at some period of time they will be brought to believe in his word, and to know of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers;” (Alm 9:16-17)
The Small Plates, then, are put to that use in missionary work to convince the Lamanites of the “wicked traditions” of their fathers about being wronged by Nephi so many times. Once that cultural stumbling block is gone, conversion to the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ happens fairly quickly. (Thought question: What are some major traditions or cultural problems that impede conversion to the gospel today? Nate Oman looks at one here.)
And it came to pass that the Lord began to bless them, insomuch that they brought many to the knowledge of the truth; yea, they did convince many of their sins, and of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct. (Alm 21:17 BOM)
it came to pass that whosoever would not believe in the tradition of the Lamanites, but believed those records which were brought out of the land of Jerusalem, and also in the tradition of their [Nephite] fathers, which were correct, who believed in the commandments of God and kept them, were called the Nephites, or the people of Nephi, from that time forth (Alm 3:11 BOM)
Thirty years after leaving Jerusalem, at God’s command, Nephi begins to write 1 Nephi as a defense of his leadership, as an account (from his perspective) of what happened in Jerusalem, in the wilderness, on the boat, and after the arrival. In doing so, he demonstrates why Laman was unfit for clan or spiritual leadership, and why Nephi was, in his place. This disputed message becomes key in convincing Lamanates later on to abandon their traditions of being wronged so many times, and once they do so, they convert and become strong in the gospel. It’s also probably why Nephi comes off as such a one-sided character (though there are hints he had struggles, e.g. 1Ne 2:16 and 2Ne 4:17-19.)
Reading for the above theory:
- Noel Reynolds “Nephi’s Political Testament” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 220-230 LINK
- John Welch, “Why Nephi Wrote the Small Plates: Serving Practical Needs” LINK
- Richard L. Bushman. “The Lamanite View of Book of Mormon History” By Study and Also By Faith, Vol 2:52-73. LINK
- Why does Nephi include the story of him cutting off Laban’s head? Because it makes him like the great King David, cutting off Goliath’s head. Literary connections between the two stories. Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Case of Literary Allusion” JBMS LINK
- Historical background to the chapters. Because there’s a lot going on here. LINK
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