Musings on the Making of Mormon's Book: 1 Nephi 9

1 Nephi 9:1

The Book of Mormon writers have a different sensibility to ending chapters than modern readers do. They often finish their chapters in places where we would expect that the major shift in topic or time would introduce something new. This modern sense of where a break should occur has created the break between our chapters 8 and 9. Our current chapters 6-9 constituted an entire chapter in Nephi’s construction.

This becomes particularly interesting at this point because we have such a dramatic shift. It is a shift that pivots on verse 1.  Verse one closes out the previous story of the visions of the tree of life and introduces the topic of “these plates.” In one sentence, Nephi finishes a historical narrative and then shifts to his current time to discuss the process he is involved in as he writes that historical (“more part of the ministry” see 1 Ne. 9:4) narrative.

Nephi inserted the idea of the plates at 1 Ne. 1:17, where I suggested that it represented a shift in source material. Into the connective seam, Nephi briefly visited his present. We also saw an insertion about the small plates in our 1 Ne. 6:1-6. This current insertion may indicate a source shift. When Nephi begins his third chapter, he tells us: “And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry; wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren” (1 Nephi 10:1). That statement seems to mark a shift between telling the essential background story of his father (which creates the circumstances for Nephi’s story) and Nephi’s story proper.

Of course, to this point the story has also been about Nephi. It has perhaps relied on his father’s record for some of the details. When Nephi provides his own experience with the tree of life vision, it is certainly his own record and not his father’s. It would appear that the end of this chapter hinges on that major conceptual shift in Nephi’s story. He no longer consults his father’s record and no longer recounts his story as part of his father’s story. From now on, Nephi relates his father’s story as part of Nephi’s story. The source record has shifted and the narrative focus has shifted.

It is into that seam that again Nephi stops briefly to discuss his current time period. While we can see it happening, there isn’t a modern understanding that would suggest why Nephi thought that this dramatic shift in narrative time and subject was the way to make the transition between source records and narrative emphasis.

1 Nephi 9:2

Nephi self-references. When he writes “as I have spoken concerning these plates,” he is discussing 1 Ne. 6:1-6. Because of the 1879 chapter separations, we don’t easily see that Nephi is creating a bookend effect for this chapter. The chapter begins with a reference to “these plates” and it ends with a reference to “these plates.”

In the introduction this this chapter (1 Ne. 6:1-6) Nephi emphasized only the content of this set of plates upon which he was writing:

3 And it mattereth not to me that I am particular to give a full account of all the things of my father, for they cannot be written upon these plates, for I desire the room that I may write of the things of God.

4 For the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved. (1 Nephi 6:3–4)

As he closes the chapter, he will also emphasize that theme in the next verse. In this section discussing the plates upon which he is writing, Nephi not only reiterates their purpose, but distinguishes them from the other plates where he has already told the history of his people. Nephi lets us know that there is another set. He tells us that “they are called the plates of Nephi.” There is something about that designation that ties a long-term intent to the person who created them for that intent.

The other “plates of Nephi” were those that Mormon abridged. The early part of the Nephite story that Mormon told was lost with the 116 manuscript pages. Nevertheless, we know that the initial book was the book of Lehi, not the book of Nephi. I have suggested that Book of Mormon book names change when there is a change in the dynasty retaining the record, which book is named for the dynastic founder. ((see Brant A. Gardner, “Mormon’s Editorial Method and Meta-Message,” FARMS Review vol. 21, no 1 (2009): 87-90)) Nevertheless, the set of plates on which the books were founded were the “plates of Nephi.”

It would appear that while books were named for the dynasty, the record keeping tradition, the series, if you will, is named for the one who set the series in motion and established the parameters for the type of record to be created in that series. Thus the regnal series was established by Nephi the king and was the “plates of Nephi.”

This set is established by Nephi as well, though in more of a religious/prophetic role. Still, that is the reason that they are also “the plates of Nephi.” It didn’t bother Nephi that there were two sets with the same name because it likely wasn’t considered name but rather a description of the nature of the series. It also didn’t bother Nephi that in this current series he wrote two books, apparently naming each the “book of Nephi” without any distinction between them. The numbers 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi are to help us, in the same way that we have adopted “large plates” and “small plates” as convenient designations to help us separate the two plate traditions that Nephi identified only as “plates of Nephi.” We certainly need ways to distinguish 1 and 2 Nephi and the two different plate traditions, but we should remember that it is we who have so named them and not Nephi.

1 Nephi 9:3

This verse recapitulates the information with which Nephi began his chapter, now found in 1 Ne. 6:2-6.

1 Ne. 9:4

Verse 4 provides the conceptual difference between the two sets of plates of Nephi. The other set, the one that Mormon used in his abridgement, contained “an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people.” Certainly there was more than just wars and contentions else Mormon would have had little to say about them. Mormon only spends time on wars in Alma and Helaman. There are certainly lots of descriptions of wars and contentions in those two books, but they cover a very short period of time. There is enough information in the other books to let us know that there was also a lot of possible war material both earlier and later. Mormon elected not to tell it.

For Nephi’s record, the description that it covered the reign of the kings is the most important part of the description. It is a royal and official record. These kinds of records were certainly a tradition in the Ancient Near East from where Nephi had emigrated. He brings that tradition to his new people. It is not only about the kings, but is a record tradition that follows the king and the ruling dynasties (hence the reason that book names change with a change in dynasty).

1 Ne. 9:5-6

Nephi closes his chapter by indicating that this current set of records has been  made by commandment, a commandment that Nephi doesn’t quite understand. It is a “wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.” Nevertheless, as Nephi writes in obedience, he also attempts to write with value. His first book of Nephi on this set of plates is not tossed off to simply accomplish the command, but is a very carefully crafted text that highlights the spiritual intent while using history to establish that spiritual intent.

Perhaps unintentionally, Nephi alludes to his own words recorded in 1 Ne. 3:7:

7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.

Here he echoes that sentiment: “But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men.” I don’t see this as a textual allusion but rather as a restatement of a principle so ingrained in Nephi’s being that he repeats it afresh.

The chapter closes with the final “and thus it is, Amen.”

 

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