Musings on the Making of Mormon's Book: 1 Nephi 5

1 Nephi 5:1

Nephi shifts the scene from outside Jerusalem’s walls to in the wilderness near his father’s tent. There is no chapter break between our 1 Ne. 4:38 and this first verse in chapter 5, so Nephi saw them as not only connected, but probably as an intentional repetition that served to tie the two locations together through the similar phrasing:

1 Ne. 4: 38 And it came to pass that we took the plates of brass and the servant of Laban, and departed into the wilderness, and journeyed unto the tent of our father.


1 Ne. 5:1 And it came to pass that after we had come down into the wilderness unto our father. . .

Nephi then uses a similar parallel phrasing to shift the focus from his father to his mother

1 Ne 5:1 . . . behold, he was filled with joy, and also my mother, Sariah, was exceedingly glad, for she truly had mourned because of us.

The use of the literary technique is interesting, and its replication suggests that this is an intentional device use to make a change. In the first case, it is a change of location and in the second, the change of focus. In the case of Sariah, the dominance of the patriarchal culture would suggest the absolute requirement to return to “the tent of our father” (1 Ne. 4:38). However, Nephi wanted to discuss his mother’s reaction, and therefore had to shift focus from his father to his mother.

Nevertheless, the focus on his mother becomes a foil for patriarchal wisdom in the next verses.

1 Nephi 5:2-8

These verses were either spoken in Nephi’s presence, or were part of Lehi’s record that he finds a way to incorporate in his own text. It seems rather unlikely that this was a conversation in front of her sons. Whatever concerns she previously had were swept away in their arrival. It is therefore more likely that this is information that Lehi had recorded and Nephi enters into his record. It allows him to portray authentic motherly emotions while reiterating and emphasizing Lehi as one called of God. While the effect was to comfort Sariah, its inclusion in Nephi’s text must have been for a different reason. The hint is in the suggestion that Sariah was comforted when Lehi reiterated that they had left Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be destroyed. If Jerusalem were in that much danger, it is difficult to see how emphasizing that danger would comfort Sariah, whose sons were going back to that very place.

Nephi uses this conversation to get the story back on track after the long textual diversion to the story of Laban and the plates. Nephi is now resuming the family history with Lehi at the head of the family rather than the four brothers where Nephi had become the de facto leader.

1 Nephi 5:9

Given the importance of the records, it is equally important that their first order of business was a sacrifice, certainly a thanks offering for they “gave thanks unto the God of Israel.”

1 Nephi 5:10-13

Nephi provides an overview of what was on the plates. By suggesting that his father “did search them from the beginning,” Nephi provides the context for describing what was on them. His description might have been enhanced with Joseph’s understanding as the text was translated. No doubt there was an account of Adam and Eve, but the idea that it “did contain the five books of Moses” would be a modern description rather than a contemporary one. It is possible that it did not contain Deuteronomy, at least in the format we have it. ((Norman K. Gottwald, “Deuteronomy,” in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, edited by Charles M. Laymon (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1971), 102–3, suggests that Deuteronomy was a codification of older writings or oral laws. That might suggest that some similar material was included in the brass plates even if the final form of Deuteronomy was not.)) Deuteronomy is thought to be the text found in the temple during the reign of king Josiah. Of course, it is also possible that a copy had been made and added to the brass plates, particularly as it was apparently being kept somewhat current: “And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (1 Ne. 4:12).

In any case, we should resist the temptation to see the brass plates as similar to what we perceive as an Old Testament. During its time period, it was a collection of different books. It is interesting in that they were kept together, but that single label hides what would have been perceptual differences. The presence of Zenos and Zenock tell us that this is a different set than the one that has become canonized as the Old Testament.

1 Ne. 5:14-17

This short unit records the connection to Joseph of Egypt. It is unlikely that Lehi did not know his tribe, therefore Nephi has dramatized this event to enter it into record. Not only does this provide a tie to Joseph and a lineal right to the brass plates, but it solidifies the connection between Joseph of Egypt, a late son subject to his brothers’ fratricidal intent,  and Nephi who similarly is a later son and subject to his brothers’ fratricidal intent. Significantly, both become rulers.

1 Ne. 5:18-19

Having noted the ties to the past, verses 18-19 tie the brass plates to the future. They will “go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed.” Their importance will be witness by a miracle in that they will not only not perish, but will not “be dimmed any more by time.”

This dual prophecy of the future audience and the miraculous preservations is repeated in Alma 37:4-5:

4 Behold, it has been prophesied by our fathers, that they should be kept and handed down from one generation to another, and be kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon.

5 And now behold, if they are kept they must retain their brightness; yea, and they will retain their brightness; yea, and also shall all the plates which do contain that which is holy writ.

Interestingly in this later case, the miraculous preservation and “brightness” is extended beyond the brass plates to “all the plates which do contain that which is holy writ.” The later reference to the 1 Nephi prophecy is either an internal textual reference, or an independent recording of what became a familiar attribution to the brass plates. I suspect the latter since Mormon tells us that he didn’t even know about the small plates that contain this statement until after he had begun to write his record. If Mormon, as the official record keeper, did not know of them, they were not frequently referenced in any source Mormon had.

1 Ne. 5:20-22

20 And it came to pass that thus far I and my father had kept the commandments wherewith the Lord had commanded us.

21 And we had obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children.

22 Wherefore, it was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us, as we journeyed in the wilderness towards the land of promise.

This is the end of the first chapter of Nephi in the 1830 edition, and evidence suggests that the 1830 chapter divisions were due to some indicator on the plates that Joseph saw and created a new chapter. Thus verses 20-21 close the unit. They conclude the story of obtaining the brass plates as an indication that “I and my father had kept the commandments wherewith the Lord had commanded us” (1 Ne. 5:20). The transition back to the family story comes by saying that “it was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us, as we journeyed in the wilderness towards the land of promise” (1 Ne. 5:22).

The fact that this ends a chapter requires that we spend just a little time wondering why Nephi ends it here. This is particularly true because 1 Ne. 5:16 had indicated that Lehi “did discover the genealogy of his fathers” on the plates. Nevertheless, it is only after closing the chapter and in the beginning of the next that Nephi talks about that genealogy, and does so by saying he won’t record it. Why he says that is part of the analysis for the next chapter.

At this point, the question is why Nephi considered this an ending point. Clearly, this chapter was about the trip to obtain the plates. The family history was an essential precursor to the story. There is no reason to return for the plates if they family does not leave. The plates are not required if there will be no future people. Thus Nephi is telling us that the first literary unit is the story of the brass plates. When that story ends, the chapter ends.

However, it is a trait of Book of Mormon chapters that there will be material at the beginning of a subsequent chapter that our sensibilities might include with the previous. In fact, in some cases, Orson Pratt restructured the chapters so that seemingly out-of-place text is not attached at the end of the chapter. That tells us what we think a chapter should be, but not what the original author or editor intended it to be.

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