First, although this lesson terminates in chapter 15, next week’s Lesson 4 doubles back to cover 1Ne 13-14. That’s a bit of an artificial division, breaking up a natural unit, since Nephi’s vision begins in chapter 11. I’ve been a bit slow getting this post up, due to a surprise funeral, followed by a surprise cross-country drive. What writing I did do was all about chapters 13-14, until I discovered and pointed out the lesson backtracking online. Two other teachers said “oops, time to revise this week’s lesson.” So don’t prep your lesson this week on chapters 13-14!
I think there are some really useful things here about the nature of revelation, an important topic I’ve addressed before in different settings (video here, rough text here), and will also spend lengthy time on in my book (I’ve updated that page a bit). We sometimes talk about “Direct Revelation,” as if God speaking directly to someone can sidestep human limitations of understanding, culture, or bias, and therefore represents Ultimate Eternal Truth. However, Nephi’s and Lehi’s visions are about as direct a revelation as you can get, a good case study. How does it work there?
The process of revelation to Nephi involved questions and thought. He has to think and work things out. As Peter Enns has said, “the Spirit leads [us] to truth- he does not simply drop us down in the middle of it.” (p.49 of this volume.) Brant Gardner somewhere points out the following. (It’s in my notes, but I can’t find it in his commentary.)
It is interesting that the didactive method of both of Nephi’s spirit guides was that of asking questions. In at least this one way, the revelation to Nephi required his active participation and working out of understanding. Nephi is also required to participate in the process rather than having the information “poured” into his head. Nephi, even in glorious vision, retains his agency which must be used to form understanding from what he is being shown.”
Elder Holland, along these lines, said in a BYU devotional, that
Usually we think of revelation as information. Just open the books to us, Lord, like: What was the political significance of the Louisiana Purchase or the essence of the second law of thermodynamics?
But revelation is rarely a a divine data dump, a page out of God’s Perfect and Eternal Encyclopedia of Everything, .
Similar to Nephi’s vision , Joseph Smith’s process of revelation with the JST- “The translation was not a simple, mechanical recording of divine dictum, but rather a study-and-thought process accompanied and prompted by revelation from the Lord.”- Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation” Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary, 39. Link (Note that the details of this classic and groundbreaking work have been superseded by newer work on the JST.) See also this article on the JST and passages translated twice.
To pull another quotation from a different kind of authority, Eugene England, an LDS educator and writer, talked about revelation like this, in his wonderful essay “Why the Church is as true as the Gospel.” (Link )
“I know that those who use the cliche about the gospel being more “true” than the Church want the term gospel to mean a perfect system of revealed commandments based in principles that infallibly express the natural laws of the universe. But even revelation is, in fact, merely the best understanding the Lord can give us of those things. And, as God himself has clearly insisted, that understanding is far from perfect. He reminds us, in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known” (D&C1:24-25). This is a remarkably complete and sobering inventory of the problems involved in putting God’s knowledge of the universe into human language and then having it understood. It should make us careful about claiming too much for “the gospel,” which is not the perfect principles or natural laws themselves—or God’s perfect knowledge of those things—but is merely the closest approximation that inspired but limited mortals can receive.Even after a revelation is received and expressed by a prophet, it has to be understood, taught, translated into other languages, and expressed in programs, manuals, sermons, and essays—in a word, interpreted. And that means that at least one more set of limitations of language and world-view enters in. I always find it perplexing when someone asks a teacher or speaker if what she is saying is the pure gospel or merely her own interpretation. Everything anyone says is essentially an interpretation. Even simply reading the scriptures to others involves interpretation, in choosing both what to read in a particular circumstance and how to read it (tone and emphasis). Beyond that point, anything we do becomes less and less “authoritative” as we move into explication and application of the scriptures, that is, as we teach “the gospel.”Yes, I know that the Holy Ghost can give strokes of pure intelligence to the speaker and bear witness of truth to the hearer. I have experienced both of these lovely, reassuring gifts. But such gifts, which guarantee the overall guidance of the Church in the way the Lord intends and provide guidance, often of a remarkably clear nature, to individuals, still do not override individuality and agency. They are not exempt from the limitations of human language and moral perception that the Lord describes in the passage quoted above, and thus they cannot impose universal acceptance and understanding.”
Second, let’s ask some rhetorical questions. Can we misunderstand even direct revelation? Or miss parts? Is revelation always perfectly clear? Nephi says “the water which my father saw was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water.” (1Ne 15:27) So, the leading prophet missed parts of the vision? That is apparently possible. Even in revelation, our minds can be “swallowed up” by other details. David O. McKay tells a true story illustrating this.
One day in Salt Lake City a son kissed his mother good morning, took his dinner bucket, and went to City Creek Canyon where he worked. He was a switchman on the train that was carrying logs out of the canyon. Before noon his body was brought back lifeless. The mother was inconsolable. She could not be reconciled to that tragedy—her boy just in his early twenties so suddenly taken away. The funeral was held, and words of consolation were spoken, but she was not consoled. She couldn’t understand it.
One forenoon, so she says, after her husband had gone to his office to attend to his duties as a member of the Presiding Bishopric, she lay in a relaxed state on the bed, still yearning and praying for some consolation. She said that her son appeared and said, “Mother, you needn’t worry. That was merely an accident. I gave the signal to the engineer to move on, and as the train started, I jumped for the handle of the freight car, and my foot got caught in a sagebrush, and I fell under the wheel. I went to Father soon after that, but he was so busy in the office I couldn’t influence him—I couldn’t make any impression upon him, and I tried again. Today I come to you to give you that comfort and tell you that I am happy.”
Well, you may not believe it. You may think she imagined it, but you can’t make her think so, and you can’t make that boy’s father think it. I cite it today as an instance of the reality of the existence of intelligence and environment to which you and I are “dead,” so to speak, as was this boy’s father.
This story was repeated as a First Presidency Message in The Ensign, April 1988–
A son of Bishop and Sister Wells was killed in a railroad accident on October 15, 1915. He was run over by a freight car. Sister Wells could not be consoled. She received no comfort during the funeral and continued her mourning after her son was laid to rest. Bishop Wells feared for her health, as she was in a state of deep anguish.
One day, soon after the funeral, Sister Wells was lying on her bed in a state of mourning. The son appeared to her and said, “Mother, do not mourn, do not cry. I am all right.” He then related to her how the accident took place. Apparently there had been some question—even suspicion—about the accident because the young man was an experienced railroad man. But he told his mother that it was clearly an accident.
[President Benson adds-] Now note this: He also told her that as soon as he realized that he was in another sphere, he had tried to reach his father but could not. His father was so busy with the details of his office and work that he could not respond to the promptings.
Here, a member of the Presiding Bishopric was unable to perceive a heavenly messenger whom he knew personally, because of his Church work. Like Lehi, his mind was “swallowed up” in other things, even good things!
To sum up- Revelation is real. But revelation, even Direct Revelation™ is also more complicated and fuzzy than many of us realize, because divine revelation comes to and through fallen humans, in our language, in our cultural patterns, as God adapts it to us.
1Ne 10:18 God is the same yesterday today and forever, a quotation or allusion to Heb 13:8 but also Psa 102:27. This does not mean that God never changes his mind, nor that aspects of the gospel never change. Rather, it indicates God’s reliability in his promises. D&C 58:31-33. Num. 23:19.
1Ne 11:1 Mountain as place of revelation.
High mountain is Temple symbolism, Isa. 2:2. Place of revelation, meeting place of heaven and earth. (There’s a whole video on that, with some big non-LDS scholars, and it’s on Youtube as well, complete with trashy comments and anti-mormon “related” links.) Moses at Sinai; Brother of Jared at Mt. Shelem (Eth 3:1); Jesus. Peter, James, & John at Mt. of Transfiguration where the Father appears ( Mat 17:1 a “high mountaint). Moses in MSS 1:1 (“exceedingly high”). Adam and Eve in Garden of Eden, according to Ezekiel 28:13-14.
1Ne 11:8 Nephi sees a tree. Then sees Mary, bearing Jesus. “Now do you understand what the tree means?” asks the angel. There is likely some cultural background here. See Daniel Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah.” There is a longer version of this, and a shorter version, as well as a youtube lecture which I believe covers the same ground. (I haven’t watched it.)
1 Nephi 11:10 Both God and Satan will ask you, What do you want? And they will give it to us. (Alma 29:4) We become what we choose.
1 Nephi 11:18, 21, 32 and 13:40 Joseph Smith made a few changes between the 1830 and 1837 publications, apparently disambiguating some things about the Godhead that modern readers might misunderstand. Namely, he inserted “son of” in several places it appeared to designate Jesus as God or Father, e.g. 1 Ne 11:18
1830- “is the mother of God”
1837- “is the mother of the son of God”
Some have suggested this indicates a changing view of the Godhead by Joseph Smith, and that the earliest view was something called “modalism” (i.e. “one divine personage who manifests himself three different ways”, see below). I have little doubt Joseph Smith’s views were changing as he had more experience and revelation, but the evidence for early LDS or Book of Mormon modalism is pretty thin. He spoke pretty strongly against modalism, which seems to have been how the Trinity was explained to him by others.
If we read Isaiah 9:6 through Christian tradition, then Jesus there is called both son and father. Ancient Israelites, then later Jews and Christians had some problems working out what divinity was, how many gods there were, and how Jesus and the Father were related, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a variety of views in ancient scripture. This fun cartoon uses St. Patrick in Ireland to explain both classical trinitarianism (as they worked it out post-New Testament) and how common Christian metaphors for it are actually expressing hereies, like modalism. Bottom line: this is complicated, and most Mormons don’t really understand what classical Trinitarianism actually is.
For further reading, see David Paulsen’s article about early Mormon modalism, See also my post here, scroll down to the John 10 section. If you really want to dig in, you need to read Blake Ostler‘s works, volumes 1 and 3.
1 Nephi 11:22– Tree is “the love of God.” That of is ambiguous, and corresponds to what’s called “the genitive case” in Greek and Latin. Does “love of God” mean “Godly love” (an adjectival genitive), love for God (objective genitive), or God’s love (subjective genitive)?
1 Nephi 12:9 is there a difference between the 12 apostles and the 12 disciples? What’s an apostle?
As always, you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. Or you can donate directly here.
You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.