1 Nephi 15 – 1 Nephi 16:6
Most overlook the importance of 1 Nephi 15: it addresses a particular aspect of being spiritual. Nephi thought the teachings in this chapter were so important that he put them in their own chapter, what was chapter IV in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon and is now chapter fifteen. Nephi says he included in these particular plates only those things pleasing to God, so it cannot be thought that his chapter IV is merely a transition or background. Moreover, he wrote what would be profitable for his people. His people, in other words, were to learn something from what he wrote. It was more than the murmuring nature of Laman and Lemuel.
1 Nephi 15–1 Nephi 16:6
Chapter IV in the original edition of the Book of Mormon is the same as 1Nephi 15. However, Nephi’s explanations of his visions and teachings to his older brothers continue through verse six of what is now 1 Nephi 16, so both the present-day and original chapter division are, perhaps wrong stylistically. Moreover, the most general and somewhat forced chiastic format of 1 Nephi requires a division at 1 Nephi 16:6. In addition, the subject matter of the first six verses of chapter sixteen is the same as chapter fifteen, so these six verses are considered together with chapter fifteen in this exegesis.
Nephi taught his older brothers and answers their questions like his father had taught and exhorted them. The overview of Nephi’s two books, https://studyitout.com/overview-of-first-and-second-nephi/ , suggests that the things recorded in 1 Nephi are intended as a primer for learning what spiritual experiences are so that the witnesses of the Savior contained in 2 Nephi can be appreciated from the spiritual perspective as taught in Nephi’s first book. In other words, the things Nephi taught and explained to his older brothers are a demonstration of what it is to be spiritual. It is the explanation of things understood by one to those who do not understand. It is making things clear to the mind of another in aid of progress as one strives to return to the Father. This idea is enhanced by a comparison of the teachings both Lehi and Nephi gave to the vision of the tree of life, but it must be remembered the thing to be learned is not the explanations given, which can be better understood by reading the Old Testament, Isaiah in particular. Therefore, the following comparison is shown is for demonstration, not explanation.
The foregoing explanations were given by Nephi after his vision of the tree of life, a vision that included the vision of the world, when he returned to the tent of his father and found his brothers disputing the meaning of the vision and teachings of their father. The disputations of his brothers caused Nephi to be grieved, which means he was vexed in his mind.1So Nephi used his mind to teach them the foregoing. Both the vexation he felt because of his brothers’ closed mindedness and his explanations are the essence of spiritual experience. The spiritual experience is because of the way Nephi reacted to the blighted perspective—the non-spiritual perspective—of his brothers. The vaccine for this blight, the fix for this spiritual infirmity was the teaching done by Nephi. The application of this idea of blight and cure to experiences encountered today, as then, is, as then, applicable today. The cure for spiritual weakness is explanation (education) and exhortation (encouragement).
Modern-day application of this cure for spiritual weakness is not stated so directly as Nephi’s record. Instead, there are continual exhortations for members of the Church to read the scriptures and study out the word of God. This study and pondering and thinking and realization is not equated with what Nephi’s demonstration in chapter fifteen shows: a mechanism for spiritual strengthening. Why there are meetings with sermons. Why sermons should be explanatory and enlightening.
Rather than understanding the purpose of this material in Nephi’s first book as a demonstration of spiritual strengthening, most read Nephi’s recitation of these facts as an indication of the Laman and Lemuel’s waywardness. It is not the waywardness of the older brothers that is at pay here. It is what Nephi does in this situation and, by extrapolation, what those in similar circumstances should do. To do this, of course, requires the same effort that Nephi expended. Finding for oneself so that others can be benefitted. The leaders of people in need of spiritual strengthening should be those strengthened already by their own efforts and education.
Part of that education for those who would be like Nephi, of course, involves understanding Nephi’s interpretation of the symbols in the tree-of-life dream. The foregoing comparisons of Lehi’s and Nephi’s teachings are naturally abbreviated, leaving the reader to further expand on the meaning, as Nephi did with his father’s explanations. What Nephi has recorded about the meaning of the tree of life in his work should be regard as a summary of his teachings to his brothers, just an outline. There can be no doubt Nephi expounded the scriptures to the understanding of his brothers and the others traveling in the wilderness, “I did rehearse unto them the words of Isaiah. . . .”2
Nephi’s citation to Isaiah’s writings underscores the importance of Isaiah to Nephi’s vision about and explanation of the tree of life. This dream was not drawn on a tabula rasa. Knowing Isaiah’s writings as he knew them, Nephi knew and understood the entire message of the vision before he had it. It was Nephi’s explanation of Isaiah that pacified Laman and Lemuel.3Two conclusions may be drawn. First, Laman and Lemuel regarded Isaiah as a prophet. But, second, they had not taken the time to read and understand what Isaiah wrote. It was only after Nephi laid it out for them that they were pacified.
The modern-day reader should not be content with Nephi’s explanations because they are too abbreviated in Nephi’s record. It behooves the modern-day reader, therefore, to read Isaiah so the full import of Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions can be understood.
The specific explanations given by Nephi are clearly so abbreviated that Nephi uses allusions in his explanations for the benefit of the reader without quoting what it was he actually said. For example, Nephi probably explained the tree of life metaphor in considerable detail, but the need for such detail in this record is obviated by the previous explanations given by Nephi. Nephi may be using words of art in this record that were not used in his explanations to his brothers. At the same time, though, it is clear that the tree of life metaphor was commonly understood in the land of Jerusalem since its roots are in Moses’ works. Ezekiel uses the metaphor in exile after the Diaspora. This metaphor is repeated in John’s record. Laman and Lemuel certainly had enough background in the history and teachings of their people to have heard about the tree of life, although they may not have fully appreciated the tenor of the metaphor in the same way people today often use metaphors without really understanding the meaning.
The meaning to be gathered from the tree-of-life vision is deeper than most ordinarily think. But a little contemplation about the tenor of this metaphor allows the reader to think of it in some literal way, like the Primary picture; an allegorical way, like thinking of it like the extended hand in the Dura-Europas fresco; drawing from it homiletic or moral teachings; and viewing it from a literary or anagogic perspective. These last two levels are illustrated by an email from a member of the Church who attended a class on the Book of Mormon the author held for interested members before the class was disbanded by a leader who did not understand the nature of the spirit as this explanation and discussion of the meaning of scriptures. This class member was provoked to parse through the traditional levels of interpretation involving the tree of life and concluded:
Your question about the meaning of the word “rod” triggers a couple of thoughts. [Your initial position is that a rod in the BofM vision is NOT a rail or banister…to be clung to and advanced on hand over hand, I.e., a horizontal rod.]
A rod is also a unit of measurement, isn’t it? Like a cubit [distance between a person’s elbow and fingertip. Problem with that – to me — is that different size people have different sized cubits.]
So maybe a rod in scriptural context is a way to objectively measure one’s behavior.
There is also scripture that indicates God’s mouth is a rod for smiting. DC19:15 and 2Ne21:4.
And there’s the hymn…the iron rod is the word of God.
There seems to be something oral or sonic about rods in this context.
They are not banisters or rails or objects at all…or even staffs, but rather definitions, standards, and/or measurements….implicitly God’s way of measuring us against his words….which come out of his mouth, right?4
There are some glimpses into Nephi’s personality. Nephi says he “was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts,” verse four; heart is the metaphor for the mind. Nephi was “overcome because of my afflictions [which were] great above all,” verse five. Verse six says Nephi had to gather up his strength to figure out what it was that was causing them confusion, their disputations.
The final words of this chapter are perfunctory. Nephi recounts his teachings and says, “And thus I spake unto my brethren. Amen.” The effects of Nephi’s teachings are contained in the next chapter, verses one through six. Nephi’s teachings cut his brethren to the quick as they were harsh, but Nephi was not sympathetic; rather, he exhorted them to repent and keep the commandments. For a while, they humbled themselves, so Nephi had great hopes for them, but his hope, analytical all the while, was vain.
Nephi’s analytical hope is typified by the first six verses of chapter sixteen. These verses constitute the beginning of what was chapter V in the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon, and may reflect some time between Nephi’s conclusion of chapter IV and writing again, starting with chapter V. In other words, these six verses seem to indicate Nephi getting himself back up to speed after being away from his writing—engraving—for a while. But these verses are related to what he wrote in chapter IV; hence, they are included in this part of this exegesis.
The first six verses of chapter sixteen reflect Nephi’s analytical, unsympathetic, matter-of-fact view of life. But these verses allude to the fact that Nephi’s discussions with his brothers involved much more than what is reflected in today’s chapter fifteen because the hard things Nephi told his brothers are not recorded in chapter fifteen, “Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.”5Bear what? Nephi’s declamation that they would be judged for their actions, “[T]he righteous have I justified . . . [who] shall be lifted up at the last day, [so] the guilty taketh the truth to be hard.”6Nephi told Laman and Lemuel they would be judged for their murmuring, “[I]f ye were righteous and were will to hearken to the truth, and give heed unto it . . . then ye would not murmur because of the truth.”7Notably, Nephi’s exhortations to his brothers included more than intellectual assent to the truth, they had to “walk uprightly before the Lord.”8
- The definition of grieved is “afflicted especially with grief: vexed in mind.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. grieved, (accessed January 27, 2020, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com.) Considering Nephi’s personality, it is a stretch to say he was suffering any emotional distress because of his brothers’ disbelief. But he was certainly vexed—mental suffering—by it.
- 1 Nephi 15:20.
- Email to author, March 24, 2019.
- 1 Nephi 16:1.
- 1 Nephi 16:2.
- 1 Nephi 16:3.