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Interpreting Interpreter
Naming the Good

This post is a summary of the article ““Our Great God Has in Goodness Sent These”: Notes on the Goodness of God, the Didactic Good of Nephi’s Small Plates, and Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s Renaming” by Matthew L. Bowen and Pedro A. Olavarria in Volume 61 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Bowen and Olavarria suggest that Anti-Nephi-Lehi alludes strongly to Nephi in Alma 24, not just with his own name, but with references to goodness and other concepts that Nephi uses to bookend his record in the small plates—goodness which represents the doctrine of Christ.


The Summary

In this article, Matthew L. Bowen and Pedro A. Olavarria provide another deep exploration of how the concepts of good and goodness are leveraged and used as allusions within the Book of Mormon (see here for Bowen’s most recent one essay on the topic, as well as here for the first such entry in Interpreter). The focus in the present effort is on the words of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, the brother of Lamoni, which they suggest allude to the words of Nephi on the small plates and that take as their theme the goodness of Christ and his doctrine. They start by providing an etymological exploration of the words that comprise Anti-Nephi-Lehi:

  • Anti-. The word is potentially a prefix meaning “one of”, indicating “those of” or “descendants of”, based on the Egyptian nty. They also present the less likely “(the God)”, based on the Egyptian ‘
  • Nephi. The word likely means “good”, “goodly”, “fair” as derived from Egyptian, a meaning which likely shaped how the Nephites perceived themselves.
  • Lehi. The word could mean “belonging to the Living One”, based on the Hebrew lahay. It may also mean “vitality/vigor”, based on the semitic root *lḥḥ as another alternative to the straightforward Hebrew meaning of “jawbone” from the Hebrew lĕḥî.

The authors then review how the themes of “good” and “goodness” are used by Nephi and others in the Book of Mormon (e.g., Jacob; Zeniff) to describe the words of Christ and the gospel they contain. It’s the explicit function of Nephi’s small plates to persuade people to partake of that goodness, as manifest via revelation and theophany, with God’s goodness exhibiting the power to transform us from the darkness of unbelief to the light of faith.

The people of Lamoni and Anti-Nephi-Lehi experienced such transformation firsthand, and they too spoke of God’s goodness in ways that drew on the name (and meaning) of Nephi, and alluded to Nephi’s writings. The compound name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi is clearly meant to honor Nephi and Lehi (perhaps applied to Lamoni’s brother as a throne name), and they seem to characterize the Nephite missionaries as angels who helped save them from destruction. This may support a proposed meaning of Anti-Nephi-Lehi as “descendants of Lehi who are good”. The allusion-based connections made between the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi and Nephi’s descriptions of his own people (e.g., that both began to be industrious, further strengthen the idea that the former are purposefully casting themselves in light of the latter, as does the ire they draw from rebellious former Nephites.

As Bowen and Olavarria conclude:

‘We come to know of “the goodness of God”—that God is indeed “good”—as we experience him and his grace firsthand… Anti-Nephi-Lehi, the brother of Lamoni and the heir of the king of all the Lamanites, recognized that “God ha[d] in his goodness sent these our brethren” as angels in every meaningful sense (Alma 24:7; 27:4). His symbolic name, like the name Nephi itself, appears to have been a testimony of that “goodness”… “Partak[ing] of the goodness of God” requires that we in turn become “good” through the atonement of Jesus Christ and become the angels that others need.’


The Reflection

As I read this paper, my thoughts turned to the evidentiary nature of allusion. For instance, we can take for granted that Anti-Nephi-Lehi is alluding to and borrowing from Nephi, since Nephi wrote his words hundreds of years before the material contained in Alma was written. But critics could argue that because the book of Alma was translated before 2 Nephi, the direction of allusion (via the mind of Joseph) could be running the other way. Since the words themselves don’t come with timestamps and in-text citations, it’s not immediately obvious which words must have come first. But I wonder if the context of the allusion makes one direction more likely than another. If I say the words “shake it off” in this blog post, it’s not just the timing of the post that suggests that I’m the one alluding to Taylor Swift, rather than her alluding to me. It makes more sense for me to allude to and refer to a near-universal cultural touchpoint than for Taylor to refer to an obscure post on a niche religious topic.

So too might it make more sense for Anti-Nephi-Lehi to be alluding to Nephi, given the status of his words as a core scriptural text for the Nephite people, than for Joseph Smith’s alleged words in 2 Nephi to be alluding to a relatively obscure speech from a relatively minor character translated hundreds of pages earlier. I’m not likely the first to think these thoughts, but the sheer depth of the book’s intertextual connections suggests that this kind of analysis could be done at scale, and help inform the two competing hypotheses of the book’s production. Are 1 and 2 Nephi consistently using language previously employed earlier in the book? Or, as Bowen and others argue so comprehensively, is there evidence that later Book of Mormon figures are being influenced by Nephi’s prophetic words over the course of hundreds of years? Hopefully further light and truth can be applied to find the answer.

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