MIPodcast #98—Briefly First Nephi, with Joseph M. Spencer
“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents...”
So begins the first book in the Book of Mormon. First Nephi. And this is the first episode in a special series of interviews with authors of the Maxwell Institute’s forthcoming “Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon. Twelve different authors tackle twelve different parts of the book, and Joseph M. Spencer of Brigham Young University was given the task of approaching First Nephi.
Learn more about the Brief Theological Introductions series at mi.byu.edu/brief.
Joseph M. Spencer is an assistant professor in the department of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. He’s written a number of books on the Book of Mormon such as An Other Testament: On Typology, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope, and his latest book, First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.
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JOSEPH M. SPENCER: Keep talking? Check, check. Testing, testing. Check, check, check.
BLAIR HODGES: Okay, good. Alright, now say “It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
SPENCER: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
HODGES: Very good. Alright. I might use that. [laughing]
That’s Joseph M. Spencer, and I’m Blair Hodges. This episode kicks off a series of twelve shows about the Book of Mormon. We’re doing a deep dive into the keystone scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute here at Brigham Young University is right in the middle of preparing a series of books called brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon—twelve different authors tackle twelve different parts of the book.
Joseph M. Spencer was given the task of First Nephi. The first book in the Book of Mormon. So get ready to meet the Book of Mormon again for the first time. Brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at email@example.com. If you’re interested in learning more about the new book series, check out mi.byu.edu/brief.
HODGES: Joseph M. Spencer, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
SPENCER: Thanks. Glad to be here.
HODGES: It’s good to be with you. I’ve known you for a long time, so it’s fun to sit down with a friend and talk about a project they’ve been working on in a little bit more of a buttoned down setting. I’m sure we’re going to be very professional and very boring.
SPENCER: Yes, we’ll try. [laughing]
HODGES: But we’re talking about your new book, a brief theological introduction to First Nephi. This book is the first in a series of twelve volumes that the Maxwell Institute is doing. These books are taking fresh looks at the central scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brief theological introductions. Now “theology” is a word, I think Joe, that Latter-day Saints don’t typically use very often.
SPENCER: That’s right.
HODGES: So, let’s start with that word. Why theological introductions?
SPENCER: Yeah, I think with the word—at least what I would want to try to capture, and I think what the whole series captures in a sense—is that there’s a difference between theology and other kinds of readings. Two extremes; we might talk about a certain kind of historical reading that’s going to say, “So what does this text mean in its original historical context? Can we pile up data and decide what that means?” And then we’ve got a kind of monolithic, “Here’s the meaning of the text,” scholarly reconstruction. At another extreme, something like a devotional reading where I might just take a verse at a time and I want to reflect on what that means for me in my life, and so on.
Theology is somewhere between the two, right? It pays attention to the life of devotion and asks about the rich religious meaning of the text, but it’s also a scholarly endeavor and wants to make sure it draws on the best historical research and the best scholarly work on a text, but then ask “Can we draw from the text possible meanings that help us shape religious life?” But it’s not a private social endeavor. So, I think it’s stuck somewhere between these two and tries to capture the best of both, and then do something of its own as well.
HODGES: I’m thinking of someone like Hugh Nibley, who used to talk about differences between theology and revelation. This was kind of a big point for him. How do you address that issue?
SPENCER: Yeah. There are various ways people have talked about theology. One of those is something like “systematic theology,” where we’re taking all the doctrines, so to speak, that there are and then systematizing them, creating a hierarchy, and unpacking every one of them in a kind of hyper rationalistic way. That, I think, is what people like Hugh Nibley were reacting against. There’s a certain kind of, “Well, reason is going to explain everything” right? We can sort of, from point A to point Z, we can lay out the whole meaning of this in this rational system.
And that, I think, really is a problem. The very idea of ongoing revelation makes that a difficult idea. This whole thing could change, right? So, I think that’s why, as Latter-day Saints, we have had certain negative reactions to the word theology, but theology is a really broad field and there are lots of approaches. And the kinds of approaches I think people will find in the series—and certainly in my own volume—is very different from that kind of approach.
HODGES: Do you think there’s a tradition of Latter-day Saint thought which these books fit into? Even though the word “theology” itself isn’t used, what’s the genealogy of this kind of work?
SPENCER: Yes, I think one of the best examples is Hugh Nibley himself. He was a very creative reader. He didn’t just slavishly read the text, tell us what is has to say historically, and then say, “Good, now the church is going to fall in line with that.” But he also didn’t have a strictly devotional angle. He was trying to see what possibilities there were in a text. What it could do, how it might mean. So actually Hugh Nibley, I think, is a good example of the kind of reading we’re thinking of.
But others as well. I think Elder Maxwell was a very good example of someone who could probe a text and see it’s possibilities and unpack ways we might read it that will inform us in new ways and speak to our immediate concerns.
HODGES: Okay, so in a set of books about each book in the Book of Mormon, I think you as an author face a unique challenge that some of the authors don’t face. I think every book brings its own challenges, but with yours, 1 Nephi is kind of like the Book of Mormon’s introduction. So you’re introducing readers to an introduction. [laughs]
As you observe in your introduction, “If Latter-day Saints know anything in the Book of Mormon well, it’s 1 Nephi.” You said this familiarity can be a blessing and a curse for someone like you.
SPENCER: Yeah, absolutely. I think the difficulty is, every January people make goals. They’re going to read the Book of Mormon through. They stop somewhere in 2 Nephi with Isaiah or whatever, right? So 1 Nephi is the book we’ve read the most. We know these stories. We’ve heard these stories.
But that familiarity means that, because we’ve read it a lot, we feel like we know this book. And if at some point in our lives we decide, “You know what? I really want to get serious about the Book of Mormon,” we’re bored in 1 Nephi. We feel like we know it, so we tend to move on to other parts of the book to really dig. And 1 Nephi gets short shrift. So I think it’s a challenge. The challenge I have writing the book is to try to take something people feel they know really well and try to show them they actually have missed a great deal.
HODGES: You say, too, that 1 Nephi has shaped Latter-day devotion. And it has shaped Latter-day Saint thinking. Those are two different categories. Talk about those.
SPENCER: So, it’s certainly shaped devotion. You can buy keychains with iron rods. It’s shaped our everyday way of talking about our own Lamans and Lemuels who are going astray, or whatever. It’s shaped our devotional lives—
HODGES: —The Tree of Life.
SPENCER: —The Tree of Life. These are things that are very present in the devotional life.
But it’s also shaped our thinking. There’s probably more scholarly literature written on 1 Nephi than anything else in the Book of Mormon. We’ve tried to track Nephi’s pathway through Arabia. We’ve tried to find all kinds of ancient Near Eastern connections running all through 1 Nephi. We’ve done a lot, trying to think about Isaiah—
HODGES: Well it gives us a set geography there, with Jerusalem.
SPENCER: Exactly. We know where to go, right? Exactly. As well as the vision, the dream, there’s a lot there that has grabbed our attention intellectually. And so there’s a lot of work.
HODGES: There’s intrigue. It’s this really interesting immediate family story, too.
SPENCER: Exactly. It grabs a hold of us existentially and says this is your story. This is live. This is real. So, we’ve thought about this a lot.
HODGES: Did you have to go through drafts in terms of figuring out how to parse the book up? Or did it come pretty easily?
SPENCER: I’ve worked on 1 Nephi for a long time for various projects. So, it wasn’t too difficult. I did go through a few drafts of decoding how to divide it up, but there were some obvious things I definitely wanted to cover and I just had to figure out how to organize that.
HODGES: I also saw—because I get to see behind the scenes on these kinds of books, working here at the Maxwell Institute—one of the things that the editors of the series are trying to do is make these books really accessible. So, talk about the challenge of that.
SPENCER: Well I’m really glad—my last book before this one, I’m really glad I had that experience, where I wrote a book as a series of lectures like I would give in my classroom, and that did a lot for calming me down. That sound right? I’m a theologian and philosopher by training, so I tend to write ten thousand feet up, and not in the good way “big picture,” but ten thousand feet up in the sense that I’m in the clouds, right?
HODGES: Big words and very complicated sentence structure.
SPENCER: And I want to drag people into contemporary French philosophy to think about whatever, right? So, I’m glad to have written this other book which helped me think, “How do I do this on my feet?” Because then I talk like a human being. That did help me writing this book. But still it was a lot of work. I went through numerous drafts. I would write something and then have to go, “Okay, now what words here don’t people like to use? [laughs] How many words are people going to have to pull out their phone and look up and Google?” And try to make it as accessible as possible.
HODGES: So what you ended up doing was dividing your brief theological introduction into two parts. I’m going to give people a sense of how the book is set up and then we can dive into specifics.
So part one is a close investigation into what the book actually says. You’re doing a close reading. You’re looking at what it actually says. You’re looking at the questions that it is asking of its readers. We, a lot of times, think about the questions we bring to scripture. You turn that on its head: What is scripture asking of us? What is it expecting of us? That’s part one.
Then in part two, you focus on the questions that readers today often bring to the book. What kind of concerns people have, and you have lots experience with students and working with them. So that’s kind of the duel structure of your book. What is the book saying and asking of us and then what are we bringing back to the book and asking of it?
So, in part one, let’s dig into that a little bit. You’re going to closely read the text looking for patterns, underscoring the authors intention, what Nephi was trying to tell us. But I have a question about that. As readers, is it really possible to fully escape ourselves when we approach a text like this?
SPENCER: [laughing] No. I mean never, right? Never fully possible. We can never fully escape our own questions, our own demands. But the longer we stick with the text, and the more we read it earnestly and honestly and let it press back against us, we can work against our own demands, our own interests, our own investment.
But also, there’s a strategy—and I use this in the book, I’ve used it in a lot of places—that I think particularly helps us get out of our own heads with scripture, and that is looking at structure. Inasmuch as we can unpack the structure of a text—and of course we can impose structures on the text, but inasmuch as we can start to see a structure there that is clearly the authors intent and organizes the material, we can start to see what the author is up to and what their intentions and purposes are, regardless of what we were hoping to get out of it.
HODGES: Now when you’re looking for that structure you say Nephi is relating history. So, he’s telling a historical account of something that happened. Retrospectively. He’s looking back on his life. It’s important to remember that; he’s not telling this in real time. So, if you look at his structure, you say can kind of dig out his theological intention.
SPENCER: Yeah. The idea there is that there are places where he explicitly tells us structural details of the text, and those are really crucial. But there are other places where, once you look at original chapter breaks and these kinds of things, and you start to see there is clearly pattern and structure here. Once you look at those you can say, “Why is it organized the way it is?”
That’s something I might do if I’m trying to understand an event. I’m going to some community event on a Saturday and they’ve got a number of speakers and various panels or something like that. If I ask, well who’s the keynote speaker and what panels are organized at what time? I start to understand what the community event is really about, what its intentions are, what it’s purposes are—unless someone is really poor at organizing it [laughs] right?
So, if I look at structure it really does seem to tell me what I’m supposed to be getting out of it, and I think you can do that with Nephi.
HODGES: Yeah as I’m reading along here—and I’ve read some of your earlier stuff, so I had encountered some of your ideas before, but the way that they’re structured in this book, the way that you’re presenting it in this book, is especially clear.
What is the general scope of the story you found in 1 Nephi? What structure did you find?
SPENCER: So, the larger scale structure is relatively simple. Nephi clearly and explicitly divides 1 Nephi into two halves. One half where he’s telling his father’s story, an abridgment of the record of his father. And then a second half where he’s telling his own story, what he calls his own proceedings. His own reign and ministry. So that’s the biggest macro structure. Lehi’s story. Nephi’s story.
But then once you see those two halves, and especially if you start looking at original chapter breaks, you can ask, “Alright, so what is Nephi getting from Lehi’s story? How is that supposed to inform his own ministry?” And then I think it becomes really clear. The original chapters in the Book of Mormon—this is before Orson Pratt shortens them in the 1870’s—in the original chapters there are only two original chapters in the story of Lehi as Nephi tells it. So, you ask, “What are each of these two stories about?” One is clearly how we got the brass plates, and the other one is clearly how we got this dream of the tree of life.
This seems to be what Nephi’s whole story is about, then. There are two prophetic sources: this old-world ancient record, especially formed around Isaiah for him, and then there’s this new living form of prophecy that’s being born with his father. And he wants to think about these two sources and these end up at the core of the whole second half when he’s doing his own ministry.
HODGES: I have to say, I’ve read the Book of Mormon countless times, but it wasn’t until I saw you ask the question, “What are these original chapters trying to do?” that I recognized what actually kind of becomes obvious at that point.
SPENCER: [laughs] Right? Once you see it you’re like “Oh, that’s there. That’s a thing.” And I think that’s a real power in structure. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, if it’s a good reading of the text. And it really does organize it, gives you kind of a way to read and a road map, right?
HODGES: The funny thing to me is the chapter divisions. They make chapters a lot shorter. Orson Pratt did these in 1879, and they make the book quicker to get through. It feels like you can get to the next chapter, you can get to the next chapter, but as you said it can also obscure. It seems like there’s benefits and drawbacks to the new chapter structure.
SPENCER: I think that’s exactly right. It’s worth saying, I think Orson Pratt was wise in a certain way. [laughs] I’ll tell my students, when you’re doing your six a.m. family scripture study be really glad Orson Pratt did this, because you’d have these very long mornings. But he was wise. He was careful. He was trying to do a good job. Sometimes he is clearly carving the text at its joints in certain places, but also there are places where it does make it difficult to see what the original intent of the authors is.
HODGES: So, the beginning then kind of talks about the provenance, the origin of the sources Nephi is going to be drawing on. There’s the brass plates, which he is going to be drawing on for Isaiah, and then there’s his father’s visions, which he then goes and experiences and asks for revelation about as well.
One of the most famous passages in 1 Nephi, I think, happens when Nephi says he is going to liken to scripture to his own people. And Isaiah is the particular scripture that he seems to use the most. How does your approach differ from typical Latter-day Saint readings of that instruction to “liken” scripture?
SPENCER: So we’ve often read this verse—it may be one of the most famous verses in 1 Nephi—and we’ve often read it to mean “I’ve got to apply this to my everyday life.” So I’ve got to find scriptures that somehow speak to where I’m at, what I’m worried about, what I’m praying for. I think that’s beautiful. I don’t mean to criticize that, but I don’t think that’s what Nephi actually has in mind.
If you look at that verse in it’s context, actually what’s interesting is that verse opens an original chapter. Chapter nineteen is actually spanning two original chapters. So the middle of what is now chapter nineteen you get the beginning of a new chapter, and that’s how it opens with this question of likening. And you get two or three verses there at the end of chapter nineteen that talk about likening.
He first says, “We were likening this to us.” I think that plural us is important. It’s not likening it to himself, but it’s likening it to a whole people. But then he immediately goes on and says, “Okay. Now I’m going to read Isaiah”—he says this to his brothers—and he says, “So here’s what I want you to do. Isaiah was speaking to all of Israel. You’re a branch of Israel. This can be likened to you.” And of course, what he has just done in his record is laid out this vision of what’s going to happen to that branch of Israel.
All of that to say, then, I think what Nephi means by “likening” is pretty straight forward in the text. It means take Isaiah, find the patterns for how God is working with Israel. Now take a branch of Israel and those same patterns are holding for that branch. They’re like each other. Likening.
HODGES: I think that speaks to why you call 1 Nephi “the best handbook to reading 2 Nephi.” There’s a lot of books you can buy on how to read 2 Nephi, how to read the Isaiah passages and stuff. Your argument is that 1 Nephi may be the best handbook to reading 2 Nephi.
SPENCER: Turns out, right? [laughter]
I think this is a key. If we read 1 Nephi carefully and Nephi has taught us how to liken—that is, he’s taught us “here are the main themes I see in Isaiah” and here’s how you can extract the patterns from Isaiah and see those as running in parallel to the history of Lehi’s children running right into the last days.
Then when you read 2 Nephi and it’s just loaded with Isaiah; you can do the same thing. You can go “Oh, here where Isaiah is talking about a remnant, where he’s talking about a sealed book. I see what Nephi sees here.” He’s seeing things that he can extract and say, “That’s exactly what God’s going to do with my brother’s children, with my own children in future times. We’re going to write a book. It’s going to be sealed. There’s going to be a remnant. They’re going to be redeemed.”
Isaiah’s laying out the pattern, but if we don’t see what 1 Nephi is telling us, we get to 2 Nephi like where are we at? What are we looking at? It seems like I am supposed to know a whole lot about Assyria or something. [laughs]
HODGES: Do you think if Nephi and Isaiah got to sit down together back then that Isaiah would have recognized all of Nephi’s readings, or do you think the way that Nephi interpreted Isaiah may have even been surprising to Isaiah.
SPENCER: I suspect Isaiah would have been surprised. I think he would have liked Nephi, and thought “Oh, this is really clever!”
Part of the reason I say that is that it’s clear within in the book of Isaiah that Isaiah is himself a receiver of traditions and a reinterpreter of traditions. The prophet Amos is this really remarkable thinker of this idea of a remnant. And Isaiah just a few years later is clearly taking these ideas over and recontextualizing and rethinking them and saying how might this mean now. I think he would have seen in Nephi a kindred spirit.
HODGES: That’s Joseph Spencer. He’s an assistant professor in the department of Ancient Scripture here at Brigham Young University. He’s also editor of the Maxwell Institute’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. He’s written a number of books on the Book of Mormon, including An Other Testament, which the Maxwell Institute republished just a few years ago. But today we’re talking about his latest book 1 Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.
Okay, let’s turn to chapter two here. You’re method of close reading sometimes shines new light on long familiar texts. For example, in chapter two you start with Lehi’s dream of the tree and then Nephi’s vision. For as long as I can remember I’ve read these as Lehi’s basic description of a vision and then Nephi’s interpretive description of the same thing. But you’re seeing something happening on a deeper level here.
SPENCER: That’s right. I think Lehi’s dream, read carefully, is already Nephi’s vision. The thing to note here is we often read Lehi’s dream and see it as one total picture. You’ve got a rod, you’ve got a path, you’ve got a tree, you’ve got a building, you’ve got a river, and everyone in life has to struggle their way there.
But I think we’ll be surprised if we read it carefully to note that as soon as Lehi sees the tree, he just walks to it. There’s no path, there’s no rod, there’s no building, there’s no river, he just walks and eats. Then he sees his family and he calls them and they just walk and eat, or in Laman and Lemuel’s case don’t. But there’s no complexity. It’s only once Laman and Lemuel don’t come and eat that suddenly the vision gets complicated, and now there’s multitudes and paths and rods and all this kind of thing.
I think the implication is pretty clear. As soon as Laman and Lemuel don’t eat, Lehi sees lots of people struggling to get to the tree. The implication it seems to me is clear: these are Laman and Lemuels children. These are the Lamanites, over years and years, some of them coming later say in the Book of Alma or the Book of Helaman, coming to the tree. And then of course in the last days, struggling their way toward the tree thanks to a rod, this word of God, the Book of Mormon. It’s going to be sealed up and come forth. And there’s going to be this great and spacious building or something like a great and abominable church from Nephi’s vision that is going to be a challenge and a difficulty.
So I think all of the elements of Nephi’s vision are there. They’re just sort of hyper-compact. Presented as symbols, but I think it’s the same story.
HODGES: You also say Lehi’s got this more individual focus where he is looking at the family and then Nephi is going to have a more corporate, broader focus.
SPENCER: Yeah that’s right. I think Lehi’s intense focus is on his family. And it starts to broaden, at the end of the vision, to these multitudes that I think are whole peoples. But Nephi is focused there right from the beginning.
HODGES: Then Nephi is going to speak about “plain and precious things” that would be lost. Does your book shed any light on those things?
SPENCER: Yeah, I hope so. [laughs]
I think it’s clear from a number of clues—I wish I actually had more space in the book to talk about this. But I think a number of clues come together to make clear that the plain and precious things for Nephi is Abrahamic covenantal stuff. The covenants given to Israel and how that’s unfolding in history. He calls, I think very clearly in 1 Nephi 19, he tells you what to expect in 2 Nephi. What he tells you to expect is the “plain and precious.” Of course, what we get in 2 Nephi is Isaiah, Abrahamic covenant, history of Israel, redemption of Israel.
He also tells us in 1 Nephi 13 that 3 Nephi—the visit of Christ—will restore many plain and precious things. And of course, 3 Nephi is all Isaiah, Abrahamic covenant, redemption of Israel. This is what Christ talks about when he visits.
So I think this is the core of the plain and the precious things. It’s Israel’s covenant and what that means in all of history.
HODGES: Have you read Terryl Givens’s? His book in the series is 2 Nephi. He’s following yours. He also said 2 Nephi is the most important book.
SPENCER: Of course. [laughter]
HODGES: But have you looked at his manuscript—
SPENCER: Yeah, I have.
HODGES: —because they have some really insightful intersections, even though you didn’t plan that out to begin with.
SPENCER: Right, we didn’t! In fact, we wondered if we should and we didn’t, and it worked out nicely.
I think part of what Terryl is arguing in his volume is that 2 Nephi is all about the covenant and that this is what’s driving the Book of Mormon. In a lot of ways, it’s what makes the Book of Mormon unique on the nineteenth-century scene. This book is emerging and published and its shock value lies in the fact that it wants to say, “Hey all of Christianity, this Abrahamic covenant thing is something you’ve all forgotten, displaced, symbolized away, rather than recognizing that we’ve got to gather Israel.”
HODGES: How did that fit into other covenantal theologies? You know the Puritans had a covenantal theology and things like that. Do you see distinctions there? Because I think some converts were looking for Israel and that appealed to them when they heard it here.
SPENCER: That’s right. It’s a complicated history, as everything always is, right? Which you have in, say, Puritan theology is a notion of covenant, where they are in some sense the embodiment of Israel. Israel is a type or symbol of the Christian gathering or something like this. But most of the post-Calvinist theology is not looking strongly at a notion of, “we’ve got to go find literal, physical Israel and gather them.”
There are those who certainly did see things that way and there was a lot of speculation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century about the identity of Native Americans. Are they Israel? And so on. But if you look at those sources, one thing that is very unique about the Book of Mormon is that those other sources that identity Native Americans with lost tribes of Israel, they say they’ve got to be gathered and taken to Jerusalem, the land of their inheritance, whereas the Book of Mormon says, “No, not at all. This is their land of inheritance.”
HODGES: Yeah, their home. They should be here.
SPENCER: This is their land.
HODGES: So, in the next chapter you’re looking at some of the interesting ways 1 Nephi speaks about Jesus. There are different titles there, and they’re used in different ways according to your close reading. You’re seeing how many titles for Jesus are used? Are they used in particular ways or are they just used willy-nilly? There’s the Lamb of God, the Messiah, and so on.
What did you find with these titles?
SPENCER: I think the most interesting finding here is that the Lamb of God is really quite unique. We’re so used to it, maybe in part because we read Nephi. But we tend to think of this as a ready obvious title for Jesus. But if you go digging through the scriptures, Lamb of God only shows up in very specific places. And in the Book of Mormon, apart from I think two references, it’s all Nephi’s vision. That’s it. It’s there in Nephi’s vision and it’s in a few references later back to his vision by him, but otherwise this is not a standard Book of Mormon title for Jesus, which I think should make us raise questions. What’s going on in this vision? Where’s this title coming from? What does it really mean? This is maybe the most interesting finding is that title is doing something on its own.
There are other things that are striking, though. Lehi consistently refers to Christ as the Messiah. Very Jewish, right? Old Testament-y way of conceiving of Christ. He does not use terms like “Jesus Christ.” Certainly, that name doesn’t seem to have been revealed to Him. He’s not using “the Lamb of God” and so on. He’s got a very Old Testament conception and Nephi is the one who is unpacking a new revelation about what this figure means.
HODGES: And then there’s also this phrase “the Eternal Father,” which has been updated to be “the Son of the Eternal Father.”
SPENCER: Yeah, running through Nephi and the rest of the Book of the Mormon Christ is often referred to as the Father in various ways. Sometimes the Eternal Father, sometimes the Everlasting Father, and other terms as well, and there seems to have been some concern about this in Nephi’s vision especially. So that in 1837 Joseph edits the text, or someone does. We know it’s Joseph on certain occasions because his handwriting is in the manuscript, but not in all of them. He changes the Everlasting Father or the Eternal Father, to the Everlasting Son of the Father.
HODGES: The Son of the Everlasting Father, something, yeah.
SPENCER: So, we get these slight changes. I think for purposes of clarification more than anything, especially because as Joseph works his way through the rest of the text for the 1837 edition, he doesn’t change other references to Christ as the Father. So, it’s a little peculiar that just these few verses in 1 Nephi he seems concerned about making sure this is clear that Christ is the Son of the Father.
HODGES: So, the broad view, then, of part one is Nephi is trying to create a record that encompasses his people and eventually all the peoples of the world. That there would come this Messiah that would unite all these people under a particular covenant. That’s really driving what his text is getting at. That’s what the Book of Mormon is presenting to its readers. Your part one covers that.
But in part two, the second part of your book focuses on some of the issues that Latter-day Saints have wondered about in 1 Nephi. One of the biggest one deals with history. People asking, “Did this actually happen?” How do you handle the question of historicity?
SPENCER: Well let me say first, just back up one step to say part of the reason I wanted to divide the book in these two halves is because I think there are two ways theology unfolds. One is just to track the theology the text itself is getting at. But of course, theology also includes—we’ve got theological questions of our own. This is one of the reasons it’s worth, then, saying, “I don’t want to just say what Nephi himself has to say. We’ve got questions that need answers.” This is one of them, right? Questions of historicity and then the other kinds of questions I deal with in the second half.
How do I deal with historicity here? I think it’s important to recognize that historical questions about the Book of Mormon matter, right? The claims that we as Latter-day Saints make about the book are essential. However, I want to be very careful about how I say this, but at the same time, they’re not the most important question about the Book of Mormon. If we could show that the Book of Mormon was an ancient document and it has nothing to say to my life, I’m not sure what it would matter. It’s got to be true and true. It’s got to be rooted in fact and it’s got to do something for me as a person living a life of faith in Christ.
So part of what I try to point out early in the second half of this brief theological introduction is that we have questions, we have tended especially in the past to have questions about whether this Nephi character was a real person. But the questions that keep us up at night tend to be, “can we trust Nephi as a prophet? Given his historical existence, given we’re settled on those questions, how much can I trust his prophetic vision, this prophetic understanding? How should I shape my life by this person?”
HODGES: I remember encountering your point where you say fewer Latter-day Saints that you know and you encounter here in your classes at Brigham Young University and perhaps in your ward, fewer of them are wringing their hands about did this historically happen? More people are wondering not whether it is true historically, but whether it is true to God. Whether it has a message from God to us. Are its stories and teachings something that ring true to us, that call us to a more ethical or moral life, that call us to Christ. For a lot of twenty-first century readers things can get difficult early on in the text, as you acknowledge, with the death of Laban. Is this something that your students have paused at reading?
SPENCER: Yeah, I’ll ask my students, “Just by show of hands how many of you have been disturbed by this text?” And most of them are willing to say, “Yeah I’ve had—
HODGES: A prophet chopping someone’s head off.
SPENCER: “—this worries me. How do I make sense of this text?” Yeah. This worries people. It’s worth saying, if you look at original chapters, this is chapter one. We encounter it now as chapter four, but this is the very opening chapter of the Book of Mormon.
HODGES: How does the text depict that story? What does your reading do to draw out some points from it?
SPENCER: Yeah, so I mean my chapter tries to cover a lot of ground, because this is one of the things we’ve actually collectively written the most about. A lot of opinions, a lot of ways of trying to make sense of this text, so I have to survey a lot in the chapter.
But my own take on this is maybe a bit unique compared to the things that have been said. I think it’s very important that Nephi has this encounter with the Lord in 1 Nephi chapter 2 and he’s given two covenants of sorts right from the get-go in his first encounter with God. One of them says “Inasmuch as ye,”plural, “keep my commandments, you’ll prosper, you’ll be led to a land of promise”—This is a very familiar promise from the Book of Mormon. The other one is singular: “Inasmuch as thou,” individual, singular Nephi, “Inasmuch as thou keepest my commandments, then you’re going to be made a ruler and a teacher over your brothers.”
There then follows the story of getting the brass plates. And the very first words to Nephi from his father to send them back is, “I’ve been commanded. I’ve received this commandment.” Nephi seems to hear this loud and clear—“Ah, commandments! This is what I just heard about and now I know what I’ve got to do! I’ve got a direction, anxiety gone!” Right? But the second thing Lehi says to him is, “Your brothers are complaining.” And the way Nephi tells the story, the two covenants he’s been given—one about all of them collectively keeping commandments together and one about him individually keeping commandments—it seems that this report of his brother’s murmuring narrows Nephi in on just the second. And the idea that they’ve got to work together as a people to keep commandments seems to fall to the background while Nephi focuses on, “If I can keep these commandments, I’m going to be a ruler and teacher.” And he becomes sort of self-arrogating.
And then this sort of explains the story that follows. Nephi finds himself, over the course of this attempt to recover the brass plates, slowly alienating his brothers. And then he finds himself standing over a drunken man constrained by the Spirit to do something he doesn’t want to do. And here he has to come face to face with what it really means to keep a commandment. And ironically learns in the moment that he’s misunderstood. He’s privileged the wrong covenant.
As the Spirit speaks to him—We tend to emphasize, “Oh well, the Spirit says it’s okay to kill one guy if a lot of people are going to benefit.” But that’s not what Nephi says about that exchange. He says the Spirit tells him, “It’s better that one man should perish, et cetera,” and he says, “When the Spirit said those words, my mind went back and I heard again in my mind the words of this first covenant—‘Inasmuch as ye…’” And I think what the Spirit’s words do to Nephi is not say, “It’s okay to kill a guy as long enough people are benefiting.” Nephi hears, “Holy heaven, I’ve privileged myself here, I thought this was about my righteousness, I’ve misconstrued this whole thing.” And then something else becomes possible. The formation of a community with his brothers.
HODGES: And as you went through this story, what other possible solutions have you seen Latter-day Saints offer? Because there’s a variety of views on how to explain it. You give your own. How do you situate it with other takes?
SPENCER: Yeah. So, the best known is the “legal justification,” right? Is it legal for Nephi to have done this? And under the Law of Moses the answer is simply, yeah, basically, right? There’s very good, clear indications in the text that this is supposed to be legal under the Law of Moses.
HODGES: John Welch has done work on this.
SPENCER: John Welch especially, Fred Essing, a couple of others. And it’s a helpful explanation in certain regards but, for me at least, just because something’s legal does not make me feel okay with it, right? [laughs] There are lots of legal things I’m not happy about, right? So, a legal justification is helpful, but I don’t think it gets us all the way.
You also get theological justifications that will make a move like, this is an Abrahamic test, right? Here’s Nephi being given a kind of paradoxical commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” but here, I want you to kill, and can Nephi follow a God that seems paradoxical, and so on.
I think that’s beautiful, but it also leaves me a bit cold.
HODGES: Because anything could be commanded at that?
SPENCER: Exactly, right? How do you judge that? There’s a part of it that I think is very philosophically and theological compelling in the abstract. But concretely, boy this makes me nervous, right?
And then there are also a number of literary explanations, right? People attending to the way the story is told and showing that there are subtle things going on and so on. And those are interesting. But most of them don’t try to solve the problem ethically, so to speak.
There’s also, it’s worth mentioning, there are readings of course that just throw Nephi under the bus, right? That say, “Nephi’s wrong. He did this wrong.” The fact that he takes Laban’s clothes and puts them on his body shows that he’s becoming the bad guy in this act of violence, and so on. So Josh Madsen, for example, has given that reading.
So I think there’s a wide variety of ways of approaching this available to us. What I’m trying to show is there’s at least some aspect of the story that’s missed.
HODGES: That’s Joseph M. Spencer. We’re talking to him today about the book First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.
Your next chapter focuses on Nephi’s family dynamic, his character compared to that of Laman and Lemuel, his brothers. And Nephi seems like such a fantastic hero when you just give it a quick reading, and his brothers sort of come off as these pathetic—either pathetic grumblers or even murderous villains at some points. So, what do your students wonder about this dynamic?
SPENCER: Yeah, I mean my first couple of years teaching I had an assignment where students would write about something they learned this time through—something that they assumed about the text that, this time through, everything seemed new. And I’d say fully half of them wrote about Laman and Lemuel.
SPENCER: Most of them re-reading it found themselves sympathetic to Laman and Lemuel and worried about Nephi being unfair to his brothers. Which kind of shocked me, right? [laughs] That this many of them were kind of like, “Woah, wait up. I’ve always assumed they’re the bad guys!” And I think a careful reading really does show that this is a much more nuanced thing. But yeah, in the twenty-first century especially I think more and more people read this and just go, “So Nephi is that guy.” Right? [laughs]
HODGES: He kind of seems like self-righteous or something?
SPENCER: Annoying, self-righteous. The guy who just can’t understand that this is complicated. And it can feel that way, I think, reading Nephi. Part of what I’m trying to do in my chapter there is to say, not only that I think that’s right in a certain degree, right? That Laman and Lemuel are much more sympathetic characters than we’ve often given them credit for. But I’m also trying to show that I think Nephi wants us to see them as more sympathetic characters than we’ve often assumed.
HODGES: What’s an example of clue that leads you to that conclusion?
SPENCER: Well, I try to show it from two angles, right? I want to show one, that Nephi’s actually more self-critical than we recognize. And then I also want to show that he’s more affirming of Laman and Lemuel.
So, with the latter, I think the best example is actually the way the book ends. We tend to read the whole story of Nephi and Laman and Lemuel and so on with 2 Nephi chapter 5 in mind. The split, the attempted murder, and now they’re going to divide into peoples. Finally, Nephi’s rid of these people! That’s where we tend to see the story ending cause that’s the end of the narrative in 2 Nephi.
However, Nephi divides the books by ending 1 Nephi with chapter 22, which means 1 Nephi really ends with Laman and Lemuel reading Isaiah and reflecting on their future redemption! And I think Nephi organizes his book this way for a reason. This is the Laman and Lemuel of 1 Nephi. It’s not the murderous people that are going to run off and cause problems for the rest of history. It’s this people who will be redeemed because of what’s been prophesied.
HODGES: And although he doesn’t really give narrative examples of this, you also point to what’s been called “Nephi’s psalm” where he’s lamenting, and he seems to indicate there that he’s not been the best brother in every way, too. He’s talking about his anger and things like that.
SPENCER: Exactly. And I think there’s really nice little examples, moments in the text where Nephi shows his own fallibility, right? He shows that he has often overstepped.
My favorite example is in 1 Nephi chapter 7—remember they’re going back to get Ishmael’s family and on the way back there’s this rebellion in the desert, and Nephi’s brothers tie him up and leave him to be devoured by wild beasts. As he prays, he says—and especially if you follow the original wording in the manuscript, he says—he prays, “According to my faith which is in me…” [Laughs] which is already kind of interesting, right? “According to my faith which is in me, wilt thou give me strength that I may burst these bands?” And he seems to imagine this kind of extravagant event, right? “I’m going to just [explosion sound],” right? “And everyone’s going to see my power!” And it says, “And the Lord did loose the bands from off my arms.” [laughs] So, God’s response to Nephi’s prayers say, “Cute. Nice. I’m glad you want this to be a big spectacular event. There. We’re taken care of. Now get back to work.”
And I think Nephi, by telling the story, is showing us, “I was a kind with a lot of sort of romantic, fanciful notions. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
HODGES: Yeah, and he’s writing it, again, looking back—
SPENCER: Yeah, thirty years, right?
HODGES: Yeah. So your next chapter, chapter six, focuses on the place of women in the text. How do your students tend to approach this as they’re reading the Book of Mormon?
SPENCER: I mean, this is a question all of my students have, and it feels like every semester more. And every semester after we’ve worked through the question of women in the Book of Mormon, I’ll have students come up and just say, “I can read the Book of Mormon again. I could not find myself in this text and this has made it possible.”
So this is a very live question right now. How on earth do we make sense of gender in the text of the Book of Mormon?
HODGES: Can I have you read a paragraph from your book, actually?
HODGES: I have it right here. You lay it out really well.
SPENCER: Yeah, so this is from my own chapter.
“Readers find few women in the Book of Mormon and fewer with names. When women do appear, they’re generally nameless and faceless, grouped with the children in the background while men stand at center stage. An alarming number of the stories involving women feature violence, whether attempted or actually accomplished. Consequently, the Book of Mormon feels less and less readable in the twenty-first century. That is, in a culture of progressive emancipation for women. Despite the book’s inclusion of some stories of promise for its female characters—for example, Abish—some lament that they have to suppress or ignore an implicit message regarding gender to find value in scripture. And there’s reason to think that the problem begins already with 1 Nephi.”
HODGES: Thanks. So let’s proceed down that a little bit. How does your book tackle that problem?
SPENCER: Yeah, so unfortunately for my purposes there, I have to really just focus on 1 Nephi. I think there’s a lot to say about the Book of Mormon as a whole. But what I try to show is that the problem we find throughout the Book of Mormon has its seeds in 1 Nephi. That we watch the story in 1 Nephi carefully and see how a first generation with at least relative gender equality—something like relative gender equality—
HODGES: Compared to the rest of the text—
SPENCER: —compared to the rest of text, gives way to a culture that will then become oppressive in a really obvious way for women.
HODGES: For example, you compare Sariah, the mother of Nephi and the rest of them, and the matriarch of this family, you compare here with Ishmael’s daughters who aren’t named at all. What are some examples of what that comparison suggests?
SPENCER: Yeah, the key here I think is to look at two stories that Nephi tells in a way that I think is supposed to draw our attention to the similarities.
We get the story of Sariah complaining against Lehi in 1 Nephi chapter 5. We get the story of the daughters of Ishmael complaining against Lehi, same thing, in 1 Nephi chapter 17. And if you lay the stories side by side, they follow a very similar pattern, and there are even some repetition of phrases and such that suggests Nephi’s trying to connect these. But when you look at the similarities, then also differences pop out.
In the story about Sariah and Lehi, there’s a confrontation male-female, at the end of it, there’s a kind of reconciliation. Sariah has her say and she’s the one with the last voice. She gets to say, “Now I know of a surety that God is in this. He’s protected my sons,” and so on. And then they, together, go and offer sacrifice.
In the later story, next generation, the daughters of Ishmael raise these complaints and before they can actually have a genuine confrontation, male-female let’s have this out, males speak up and usurp their concerns. We get Laman and Lemuel taking over the voices of the daughters of Ishmael, saying, “See, Nephi’s a problem,” and it becomes instead, male-male rivalry and women retreating to the background.
HODGES: And then they don’t get a say at the end like Sariah?
SPENCER: At all. In fact, instead, we get Nephi echoing Sariah’s testimony, so that Nephi now takes the voice of the women.
HODGES: So, in the sense of “likening scripture” in terms of sort of applying it to our current situation, the way that I think most Latter-day Saints think about likening, one thing that your book suggests—or at least this is kind of my reading of it, I don’t know that this is explicit—is that readers can actually see, perhaps, ways that Lehi and Nephi were leaving women out, which resulted in problems, which resulted in complaints that were kind of legitimate complaints.
We don’t see a point where anyone pulls Sariah aside and says, “Hey, here’s the situation, what do you think about this?” Or, “I had a vision about this and what are your thoughts?” We don’t see those things happening. And you have to wonder, as a contemporary reader, if the women had been involved, if the plans would have shaken out differently, if the complaining wouldn’t have happened because they would’ve been part of the decision making process from the beginning, and those type of things.
So, the Book of Mormon in that way can sort of give an example of, or prompt us to think about, better ways—prompt readers to think about better ways that women’s voices can be included in the community.
SPENCER: Yeah. Well, and I think the overarching message of the Book of Mormon regarding gender, ironically—and it takes some time to spell it out in detail—is that one of the reasons the Nephites are destroyed is because of what’s happening with women. Deidre Green in her volume in this same series spells this out in some detail—
HODGES: She’s doing the Book of Jacob.
SPENCER: —The book of Jacob. Because Jacob explicitly says, “Lehi received commandments regarding the relationship between men and women, and that’s not happening among the Nephites, and for this reason you will be destroyed. But it is happening rightly among the Lamanites, and for this reason they will be preserved.”
And as you run through the rest of the Book of Mormon, we see story after story after story of women in Nephite contexts being oppressed and violently treated and so on and so forth, and the glimpses we get of Lamanite society, we have figures like Abish or the Lamanite queen who clearly actually has political power, right? And so on—the mothers of the Stripling Warriors, and in every glimpse we have of Lamanite society, we have a sense that there’s at least relative gender equality going on, and these are the ones who are preserved at the end of the book.
If we liken that, I think the message is “Hey Israel in the last days, get gender equality right, or destruction looms.”
HODGES: So Joe, you’ve written several books already about the Book of Mormon. You’ve done projects on Nephi, you edit the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, you’ve read so many things about this scripture. But as you’re working on this project in particular, this brief theological introduction to 1 Nephi, was there anything new to you? Was there anything that changed in how you viewed Nephi?
SPENCER: Yeah, no question. I mean, I have worked on a lot, and so a lot of what I was doing in this book is synthesizing past insights and trying to repackage it for a better, wider audience, right? But yeah, there were things I saw for the first time as I was working on it, and unfortunately something things that I’ve seen since [laughs] that I wish I could put in the book! That’s alright.
HODGES: That’s how it always goes.
SPENCER: Right? So, I’ll mention two that were particularly new to me.
So, one was one I mentioned earlier. And that is that 1 Nephi ends with Laman and Lemuel reading Isaiah. That had never hit me before that it may be important that that’s the sort of end, the telos of the book. Everything is leading to this moment when Laman and Lemuel are contemplating the future for their children. That, I think, is really quite beautiful.
HODGES: Like Nephi retains a hope for them in some regard.
SPENCER: Exactly. Yeah, the book ends on a note of hope. 2 Nephi is going to complicate that, but 1 Nephi ends on a note of hope. And that had never struck me as powerfully as it did here.
The other one though—and I’ve thought about it quite a bit more since I’ve written the book—but I had never really glommed on before to the fact that at the very beginning of Nephi’s vision, when the Spirit is still there before the angel comes and takes his place, the Spirit tells him to watch for a very specific moment. “I want you to watch for this figure descending from heaven and that’s who you’re going to testify is the Son of God.”
And I’d never, one, really just thought about why that might be important, but two especially, I had not reflected before on the fact that this means we’re being given a kind of guide to reading that vision. We tend to read that first chapter of the vision—1 Nephi 11—as kind of the core. “Here, we’re laying the incredible Christian foundation,” he seems the Lamb of God and his life and his death. But he never sees in chapter 11 a figure descending from heaven. Nephi is pointed past the life of Christ to Christ visiting His own people.
And that—I had never seen that before, and it’s given me a way of reading Nephi’s vision very differently. Rather than it starting at this sort of highest level and then kind of, “Oh and also there’s Nephite history,” the focus is Nephite history from the beginning and the visit of the Lamb of God there. And part of what that means is that chapter 11 is introducing us to the figure who will come the Nephites and Lamanites. And that’s actually, I think, it’s got more to teach me still, things I’ve learned since.
It’s striking that then as the vision continues in chapters 13 and 14 and we’re getting the Gentiles and we’re getting the redemption of Lamanites in the last days and what this all looks like, the solution to all the problems—the Gentile church and all this stuff—the solution is, the Lamb of God says to Nephi, “I will come and visit your children.” So he points Nephi back to that same chapter 12 and that moment that he’d anticipated. He says, “that’s where I’m going to give you the plain and precious. They’ll be written and sealed up and can come forth in the last days.”
So that moment is the key moment of the whole vision and I had not seen that before working on this book.
HODGES: So you’ve spent a lot of time with Nephi. How would you describe your relationship with this prophet?
SPENCER: [Laughs] I mean, maybe somewhat vulgarly I often call him my “homeboy” with my students because I really feel like I spend a lot of time with Nephi, I’ve got a sense for him.
I’d say this, though. I feel like I get Nephi. That he’s a well-meaning kid that we too easily in the twenty-first century sort of dismiss as arrogant and self-righteous. I think he’s sort of cluelessly self-righteous, right? He’s not intentionally self-righteous, he’s not arrogant. He’s so earnest that he doesn’t realize how he comes off.
I actually think the best portrayal we’ve ever had of Nephi is Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novels. [laughs] He has a five-volume science fiction series called Homecoming, and the first four volumes are the story of Nephi, he’s adapted it in this science fiction world. And his portrayal of the Nephi character who’s name is Nafai—he’s not hiding what he’s doing [laughs]—is really quite beautiful. I think he gets Nephi right. Nephi is not nasty or dismissive. He’s just so intensely focused that he doesn’t realize that he can alienate others. And I think that’s what I’ve come to see in Nephi is he’s a beautiful soul that can be hard to get to know.
HODGES: He’s got this task-fixation and he’s gonna carry through with it.
SPENCER: Yeah, and so he gets a lot done! Also, he can be hard to work with. [laughter]
HODGES: That’s Joseph M. Spencer. He’s an assistant professor in the department of Ancient Scripture here at Brigham Young University and he edits the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. He’s also written a number of books on the Book of Mormon including An Other Testament and his latest book is part of the brief theological introduction series to the Book of Mormon that the Maxwell Institute is publishing, it’s called First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction. And if everything goes according to plan, this should be available at least in Utah bookstores right before Christmas.
HODGES: And available online shortly after that. And it also should be available in eBook form to everybody before Christmas as well.
HODGES: Alright, thanks Joe. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about this book with us.
SPENCER: Yeah, thanks Blair.
HODGES: That begins to cover First Nephi. There’s plenty more to talk about in that book. But we’re going to move to the next one with Terryl Givens. He’s the author of the Brief Theological Introduction to Second Nephi, next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Before we go I also want to check out the review of the month here from “jmgillins”:
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Coming up next, Terryl Givens on Second Nephi.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)