BoM Gospel Doctrine Lesson 6: 2 Nephi 1-2

A post up before Saturday night! Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles…

Today we enter into 2 Nephi, which immediately raises the question, why is there a second Nephi? What’s the motivation for the break in 1 and 2 Nephi? In the divided books of the Old Testament, it was largely due to practical concerns; When translated into Greek, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were each too long to fit on one scroll, and split into two, hence 1 and 2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings.

Brant Gardner points out in his commentary (Amazon link) that “The division between 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi is unique in the entire Book of Mormon because it is the only beginning of a new book that does not correspond to a change of author/record keeper.” Unlike the Old Testament books, there doesn’t seem to be a physical reason for it. We must look for thematic reasons, and Gardner explores several. See also Frederick W. Axelgard, “1 and 2 Nephi: An Inspiring Whole,” BYU Studies 26:4 (Fall 1986), 53–65.

One of the best ways to get a grasp on a section (whether a book, a chapter, whatever) is to outline it. James Faulconer’s book Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (Amazon link) has a section on outlining, and I’ve given  my students an outlining assignment before. Outlining forces you to look at the context-on-the-page, what comes before and after, and how it fits together. Below is my high-level (minimal detail) outline of 2 Nephi.

  • 1-4: Lehi’s patriarchal blessing upon his children:
    • 1) Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Sons of Ishmael, Zoram.
    • 2) Jacob (connections to Jacob’s teaching in chapter 9)
    • 3) Joseph
    • 4) Sons of Laman and Lemuel; Sam to be numbered with Nephi (Never hear about Sam again after he flees with Nephi in chapter 5, except for Alm 3:6); Lehi dies, Nephi mourns.
  • 5: Nephi flees, builds temple, ordains Jacob and Joseph; Time passes. Lamanites cursed.
  • 6-10: Jacob’s temple discourse, quotes and speaks on Isaiah at Nephi’s request.
  • 11: Nephi comments on Jacob’s teachings.
  • 12-24: Nephi quotes Isaiah 2-14
  • 25-33: Nephi’s discourse interpreting Isaiah, and his prophecies.

This section, chapters 1-2, constitutes an Old Testament-style patriarchal blessing. The model for these is Genesis 49:1, wherein Jacob who is “about to die” (Genesis 48:21) calls his sons together to tell them of their potential in the days to come. The rest of Genesis 49 poetically addresses each son/tribe in turn.

Here, Lehi calls his sons together to hear “the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs [they would] soon [lie] down in the cold and silent grave,”(2Ne 1:14), “the words of [their] dying father” (2Ne 3:25 cf. 1:21, 4:5), and addresses them in turn.

I want to focus the rest here on a larger pattern, the rarely understood background to Lehi’s discourse, in order to explain one characteristic of these chapters that is not well understood. The detail is curses and cursing, the larger pattern is an ancient covenant pattern. I do not suggest that anyone is making a covenant in these chapters. Rather, Lehi is echoing that pattern to remind them of it. What covenant is this? The Torah of Moses, particularly in Deuteronomy, which is structured entirely like a covenant. (See my post here for a fuller explanation.)  Deuteronomy was particularly and newly emphasized in Lehi’s day, so it’s little surprise to see it echoed so much in the Book of Mormon.

The main points of the covenant pattern from Deuteronomy that I’m looking at are

  1. the historical prologue (constituting a reminder of the things God/the sovereign has done for the people, the events leading to the treaty/covenant)
    • 2Ne 1:1-4 Lehi “spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem…. the mercies of God in sparing their lives, that they were not swallowed up in the sea…. the land of promise, which they had obtained– how merciful the Lord had been in warning us that we should flee out of the land of Jerusalem. For, behold, said he, I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem is destroyed; and had we remained in Jerusalem we should also have perished.” Note how many times the Book of Mormon enjoins its peoples to remember (nearly 50x in 1-2 Nephi). It’s often a covenant term, as remembering what has been done for you leads to different choices.
    • In Deuteronomy, this runs from chapters 1-5ish, but can be abbreviated and summarized with “I am the LORD your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut 5:6)
  2. blessings for keeping the covenant
    • In the Bible, see especially Deut 28:1-14 which lists blessings, many of them having to do with “the land” God gives them. Read them. “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God: 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” That last is a military promise.
    • Lehi summarizes with the very Deuteronomistic phrase of 2 Nephi 1:20 ” [God] hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” i.e. fertile crops, animals, families, peace or victory in war, just as Deuteronomy says.
  3. cursings for breaking the covenant
    • This is where LDS have no clue. We know all about blessings, but cursings are just the opposite part of the contract. Buy a house, and it specifies what you have to do to keep the house, the positive outcome. But it also specifies what happens if you fail to meet those terms, the negative outcome or curse. Lehi refers to cursing in 2Ne 1:7 (“cursed shall be the land”), 18 (“a cursing should come upon you for the space of many generations; and ye are visited by sword, and by famine”), 22, then 4:6, 34.
    • Again in Deuteronomy, see Deut 28:15-68 (read those too). Many of the cursings parallel and undo their counterpart blessings, but the cursings also go beyond the blessings. It is not at all unusual in an ancient Near Eastern covenant/treaty to have the curses run longer than the blessings. The stick here is larger than the carrot, as the cursings conclude (Deut 28:68) with “The LORD will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” This literally undoes everything. Deliverance from Egypt formed the basis for the covenant at Sinai; if you’re going to reject the covenant completely, then it’s back to Egypt.

These are summarized with Deut 30:15-20. (Again, note the life/death, blessing/cursing, and connection to “the land”)

15 ¶ See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

and Deut 11:26-28

 26 ¶ See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today;28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today

So when Lehi warns Laman and Lemuel of cursing if they violate God’s commandments, he’s not doing anything new. Cursing was an inherent part of ancient Near Eastern life and covenants, so he’s reminding them of the covenant they are already under as Israelites. (Indeed, in theory, they pledged their very lives to keep this covenant, see my post here.) Note that there is nothing in these chapters about “skin” or “blackness.” That will come later.

I wrote up a post on this a few years ago, but mostly just copied the Biblical text with minimal commentary, if you need to read it.

Tidbits

  • 2 Nephi 1:14- Does Lehi quote Shakespeare?
    • No, but Joseph Smith might be. Remember that the Book of Mormon is a translation. None of the English words existed in Lehi’s day. Moreover, the idea expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet is found in the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern sources. See my old Powerpoint, as well as Book of Mormon Central.
  • 2 Nephi 1:14, 21, 23. “Arise from dust.” Who lies in the dust? Dead people. See Job 21:25-26 and Job 20:11.
  • 2 Nephi 2:7- “Broken heart and contrite spirit” This is an Old Testament phrase, found in Psalm 51:16-17. It’s not a new thing that replaces animal sacrifice later on, as some have interpreted 3 Nephi 9:20- “And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost…” Rather, animal sacrifice under the Torah of Moses is supposed to be emblematic of this internal commitment, this broken heart and contrite spirit. Post-resurrection, Jesus simply does away with the animal aspect.  See here for Book of Mormon Central on this, and more broadly, me on Psalm 51 and its traditional connection to David and Bathsheba.
  • 2Ne 2:11 and opposition in all things. Lehi spends much of chapter 2 interpreting his edition of the early Genesis chapters. This phrase he puts forward, the idea of separation/distinction, is built right in to Genesis 1, where creation means separating out and defining, naming. In other words, I don’t think “opposition in all things” means necessarily what we make of it. Or at least, there’s more to it, and Lehi is still interpreting the early chapters of Genesis. See my post here.

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