This post is a summary of the article “Lehi’s Dream, Nephi’s Blueprint: How Nephi Uses the Vision of the Tree of Life as an Outline for 1 and 2 Nephi” by Noel Reynolds in Volume 52 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Reynolds argues that Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life and Lehi’s initial theophanies in 1 Nephi 1 may be one and the same, and that this vision serves as a carefully structured outline for the spiritual content of the Small Plates, which is itself organized chiastically, highlighting the importance of the plan of salvation, God’s covenantal promises to his people, and individual adherence to the gospel of Christ.
In this article, Noel B. Reynolds completes a set of articles concerned with deeper rhetorical and doctrinal structure of the Small Plates, which Reynolds believes is understood best as a single, carefully-crafted scriptural text. He here argues that much of the content of the Small Plates expands on content that Lehi and Nephi report in their visions of the Tree of Life, with the themes reported in 1 Nephi 10 as a 17-part blueprint for the spiritual content of the Small Plates. This content, echoed throughout the rest of the book, is focused on the salvific role of Christ and his gospel, prophecies about the future of Nephi’s people, and the importance of the Book of Mormon. (See the appendix at the end of Reynolds’ paper for a more complete exploration of these 17 topics).
Reynolds also argues that the vision of the Tree of Life reported by Lehi in 1 Nephi 8 may have been received at the same time as his two-part theophany in 1 Nephi 1 and that this more expansive vision is the same one received by Nephi in 1 Nephi 11-14. Reynolds organizes this vision according to a tripartite set of timeframes, verbalizations, and visualizations: (1) an eternal timeframe visualized by the throne of God and verbalized by the plan of salvation, (2) a covenantal timeframe visualized by the allegory of the Olive Tree and verbalized by Abrahamic and other covenants, and (3) an individual timeframe visualized by the vision of the Tree of Life and verbalized by the gospel of Christ.
Following comments on the Book of Mormon’s more traditional indicators of structure (i.e., superscriptions, prefaces, and chapter breaks; he views these as not original to either Joseph Smith or the book’s ancient authors, speculating that they are sourced from the book’s unknown translator, which he identifies with the Early Modern English of southern England), and a brief explanation of Hebrew rhetoric, Reynolds outlines his argument on the timing of Lehi’s visions. It mainly relies on shared language in the details of Lehi’s vision as recorded in 1 Nephi 1:8-13, 19 (e.g., opening of the heavens, seeing one descending, twelve others following, Christ’s baptism), and Nephi’s description of his own vision, which includes and expands on all of those same elements. He also works to address concerns about one passage which appears to suggest that the vision was received later in the Valley of Lemuel, suggesting that the passage may be grammatically vague, though he remains open to the idea that Nephi simply viewed both visions, regardless of when they occurred. Reynolds is aware that a great deal hinges on his interpretation of 1 Nephi 10:2-14 as a summary of Lehi’s more expansive visionary experiences, rather than a general list of topics that he discussed with his family. To help address this, he cites—with the help of Gardner—the striking similarity between the topics in that passage and the elements that Nephi would later report in his own vision, as well as how the passage parallels the list of elements in Nephi’s description of Lehi’s theophany in 1 Nephi 1.
Reynolds notes several passages that strengthen his view of a carefully organized Small Plates, and which contain phrases that hew closely to how they were used anciently. These include “goodness of god”—which Matthew Bowen has identified as an inclusio encompassing 1 and 2 Nephi, and that is used both biblically and by Nephi in reference to the dependability of God’s covenant promises—and “mysteries of God”, which was linked in the Old Testament specifically to prophetic theophany. Reynolds also speculates that Lehi’s theological discussion in 2 Nephi 2 (which is generally assumed to be anachronistic by critics) may have been based on the material that he read from the book shown to him during his vision, rather than his reading of the Brass Plates. Referencing arguments he had previously made about the rhetorical structure of the Small Plates, Reynolds point out how a proposed chiastic arrangement of 1 Nephi hinges on Nephi’s summary of the vision of the Tree of Life, as well as how his proposed chiastic structure of 2 Nephi highlights several key themes related to the plan of salvation and the gospel of Christ.
Reynolds points specifically to 2 Nephi 31 as an example of how Nephi’s writing calls the reader back to the vision of the Tree of Life. Representing the climax of the Small Plates, Nephi uses elements of that vision to highlight the importance of the gospel or doctrine of Christ (apparently taught to him jointly by both the Father and the Son), including shared references to Christ as the “Lamb of God” that are unique to Nephi’s vision and to 2 Nephi 31-33.
Taken together with his previous articles, Reynolds has put together an impressive effort. That 1 and 2 Nephi can be fruitfully engaged to produce these kinds of structures and insights is a testament to the quality of the text, to Nephi’s skill as an author, and to Reynolds own lifelong dedication to the study of the Book of Mormon.
One of the things I took away was something pretty tangential to Reynolds’s larger argument, but I think it’s instructive nonetheless. As indicated above, Reynolds doesn’t seem to find rhetorical meaning in the Book of Mormon’s original chapter breaks. Someone like Joseph M. Spencer, on the other hand, seems to find at least some rhetorical utility in those original chapter breaks. It’s obviously not the kind of question that is faith-breaking either way, but what are lay readers such as us to do when faced with that kind of academic disagreement? Not much—and that’s the point. We can feel more persuaded by one side or another, but odds are we can simply be comfortable not knowing the answer—of just living with the tension that differing analyses produces.
I think that kind of comfort can be healthy when it comes to some of the larger questions of the Book of Mormon. It can be tempting to pitch our tent on one side of the scholarly debate, to actively fight for that side, to make it part of who we are. That’s probably a risky thing to do, since we’ll probably never have firm answers to many of those questions or, worse still, the state of the evidence could turn on a dime, leaving part of who we are on a now unsupportable shelf. This is especially true when the book has so much more to offer than data points in an obscure academic debate. Reynolds has done a great job of providing some structure around that higher-value material—doctrines and covenantal promises that, if lived, can give you tools to improve your life, rather than merely a cause to fight for.