Lehi’s Final Exhortations, cont., 2 Nephi 4 – 5
These chapters are sometimes and wrongly described as historical, and many readers are troubled by the skin of blackness that curses the wicked. The chapters are not historical, and the skin of blackness is a typical characterization of the unrighteous at the time. Events carry an important message that must be understood just like the metaphor describing those who do not follow the Lord.
2 Nephi 4–ch. 5
This is the only part of 2 Nephi that can be described as historical. The history, however, is only the vehicle to show the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise as prophesied by Lehi: the righteous are supported and blessed while the wicked are not.
Lehi had attempted to persuade Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael to follow the gospel, warning them of the curses that would otherwise come upon them.1This effort appears to have occupied Lehi up until the time of his death, but Laman and Lemuel were not affected.
The attitude of Laman and Lemuel was the same after Lehi’s death, but they were held in check until their father died. Then they acted on their belief that Nephi was a usurper who believed in revelatory nonsense. They had been held in check by their father, no doubt, on account of their obeisance to the tradition of primogeniture. Once the patriarch was dead, however, the friction between the eldest and younger brother over the right of leadership turned from abstract to actual. Lehi’s designation of Nephi as the leader and Nephi’s assumption of the leadership role forced the hand of Laman against Nephi if tradition were to be followed and embarrassment and humiliation, from Laman’s viewpoint, avoided.
Nephi’s perspective was affected by the need to follow the teachings of the Lord; hence, his comment that his brothers were very soon angry with him because “of the admonitions of the Lord.”2These admonitions, of course, found their voice through Nephi’s preaching to his older brothers and the sons of Ishmael. Nephi became persona non grata with the resulting conflict and turmoil that led to the resolve kill Nephi.3
A large part of chapter four4has been called The Psalm of Nephi since 1968.5Whether it is worthy of being called a psalm or song is debatable, and whether this typically Hebrew presentation gives insight in Nephi’s mental condition—his soul—is, also, debatable.6
Nephi probably did not suffer from depression, because it would have been inconsistent with his personality type, a risk-taking intellectual, like a war-time general.7Nephi did not write this so-called psalm to record a cathartic experience. He wrote it to convey a carefully crafted message. What he wrote should be studied for what he said, not as an emotional response to his plight.
Another consideration makes more sense of this than the view taken when it is read. Nephi’s so-called psalm can be read as a monologue for a dramatic presentation, an oral presentation. It has the parts typical of dramatic presentations. There is an introduction, rising action, climax or crisis, falling action, and dènoument, the dramatic structure typical then and now. The main or central point of this word-portrait is in the center of the painting, where it ought to be, not at the sides by the frame, i.e., the beginning and end. It is artwork. But one needs to view the whole piece of art to appreciate it, not focusing just on an edge or the middle or something in between. Understanding this monologue involves an hermeneutic circle.8This monologue divides into the natural divisions of dramatic structure, but this structure is balanced, like a chiasmus. The balancing parts add dimension to each other; hence, the characterization of this monologue as an hermeneutic circle. The parts of this monologue—its dramatic structure—can be diagrammed as follows:
The Monologue, 2 Nephi 4:17–35
Segue to Verse 1, Introduction, 4:17a.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth:
Verse 1, 4:17b–19a
Verse 2, 4:19b–23
Verse 3, 4:24–25
Verse 4, 4:26–27
Verse 5, 4:28–29
Verse 6, 4:30–34
Verse 7, 4:35
Comparison of Analogues
Comparing Verse 1 with Verse 7 is elucidating. The typical thought about the language in Verse 1 is that Nephi suffered through a sort of clinical depression. There are two reasons this conclusion is faulty. First, Nephi was human and had human feelings, but he did not have a personality typical of a person who suffers from depression. Second, Nephi wrote things good in the sight of the Lord for the profit of Nephi’s people,9so it makes no sense to conclude that he was relating some personal catharsis; rather, he is telling his people that the fantod of a life without hope of eternal life is inconsistent with happiness that comes from a hope of eternal life, the point made by Verse 7. The difference is in the focus: the bleakness of a life where satisfaction of the flesh is as good as it gets, Verse 1, as opposed to a life full from the hope of eternal life, Verse 7.
Verse 1 describes the sin of sating the flesh rather than filling the soul. It is the sin of living in a state of degradation without the blessings of the gospel or hope realized through the atonement of the Savior.10 The tenor of Verse 1 is the propensity of man without a heavenward view, a man without hope. This, indeed, is the connotation of the word wretched.11 He is using himself as a vehicle to express what his people then and we today need to understand about what besets us if we lose our focus on our eternal goal. He did not write about a personal cathartic experience.12 And what he writes in this chapter, 2 Nephi 4. has an analogue, what he writes in 2 Nephi 5. Chapter four is a philosophical and dramatic treatment of man’s condition. A monologue or dramatic reading for oral presentation. Chapter five is the practical effects of a life with hope. The philosophic nature of Verse 1 is evident when it is parsed.
Verse 1, 2 Nephi 4:17b–19a13
A quick read of Verse 1 without the foregoing stylized format does not help the reader understand the careful distich construction. Each strophe—couplet—is part of a chiasmus. Each couplet addresses the effect of sins and is reminiscent of one of Psalm 32 because it follows the same strophe/antistrophe form used by David when he describes the effects of sin.
Verse 7, 2 Nephi 4:35. Verse 7 has an altogether different tone. Instead of the pointlessness of life and finality of death, Verse 7 expresses what is ineffable, the hope of a believer that make the bumps in the road of life no eternal moment.
The enlightened soul of Verse 7 starkly and skillfully contrasts with the blackness of Verse 1. This contrast is repeated in 2 Nephi 5:21c–22 where Nephi describes those who did not repent as cursed with a skin of blackness so they are loathsome to the righteous,14 so this contrast of blackness and light is a precursor to the same contrast found in chapter five.
Verses 2 and 6. A comparison of Verse 2 and Verse 6, also, adds dimension (enlightenment) to what Nephi wrote. Verse 2 presents an anaphoric series of examples of the Lord’s hand in Nephi’s life, and Verse 6 uses prayer as a vehicle—via anaphora—to underscore Nephi’s recognition of the Lord’s hand in his affairs.
Reformatted, verse 2, 2 Nephi 4:19b–23, is easier to read because the anaphora are easily seen, making the reading and recitation and understanding of this verse simpler:
Verse 6, 2 Nephi 4:30–34 is easier to read, recite, and understand if reformatted:
On either side of the climax of Nephi’s monologue is rejoicing for the Lord. The great witnesses to Nephi of the Lord’s presence and power, Verse 3, and Nephi’s consequent rejoicing and commitment, Verse 5.
Once again, the prose presentation in the Book of Mormon obscures what is clearer when these verses are reformatted. Indeed, reformatting these verses into the couplets they are enables the reader to see things otherwise glossed over. Each line of each couplet says the same thing in a different way.
Verse 3, 2 Nephi 4:24–25
Verse 5. 2 Nephi 4:28–29
2 Nephi 4:26–27: the center of Nephi’s monologue. The center of Nephi’s monologue is verse 4, a complex, conditional or if-then statement. There are two premises or if-statements and four conclusions in the form of rhetorical questions.
As with the other verses in Nephi’s monologue, reformatting adds to understanding and appreciation:
Considering the structure on either side of this central point and the logic of this central point, it is not right to conclude that Nephi was suffering through some sort of emotional crisis like depression when he constructed this monologue. It is too logical, and it was written for Nephi’s people to consider.15One must presume that Nephi was bright enough to understand that he had to appeal to the broad range of personality types among his people, so he is self-effacing through his rhetorical questions rather than expressing his incredulity at the fantods of his people as they are dividing themselves from the Lamanites.
The division between the Lamanites and the Nephites is natural. Nephi and those who followed him had the option of staying where they could submit to the wicked rule of Laman or flee to start their own society. As Nephi records why the Nephites fled, the murmuring of Laman and Lemuel.:
Yea, they did murmur against me, saying: Our younger brother thinks to rule over us; and we have had much trial because of him; wherefore, now let us slay him, that we may not be afflicted more because of his words. For behold, we will not have him to be our ruler; for it belongs unto us, who are the elder brethren, to rule over this people.16
The conflict was over the right of leadership. Laman and his followers were entitled to leadership by right of primogeniture, but Nephi was concerned with the quality of the leadership and correct principles.17This problem was probably perceived by most of the immigrants as a violation of mores rather than a religious issue, so Nephi and his followers were the distinct minority who would be vanquished if they remained among the greater number of opponents to their views. So they fled rather than compromise their principles just like Jacob had to flee from his brother, Esau, to avoid death.
Caution should be exercised when extrapolating the circumstance of the Nephites to the present. The Nephites conflated church and state. Thus, although the battle was what would be deemed today a political one for leadership, it involved, ultimately, a control over the religious beliefs and attitudes of the people, which is prohibited by the United States Constitution. The answer to today’s problems cannot, by analogizing to Nephi’s solution to his political crises, be an attitude of isolationism. In fact, the solution may be, like Nephi attempted to do until his life was threatened, to attempt all that one can do before fleeing. Moreover, the right to affect government and policies is more far-reaching today than it was at the time of Nephi.
This historical background shows what Nephi did to promote the righteousness of his people by providing them with the essentials of righteousness, which included a means of protection, a temple, an industrious attitude and the consecration of Jacob and Joseph as priests to care for their religious needs.
The contrast by Nephi between the Lamanites and the Nephites is consistent throughout the Book of Mormon. Nephi left with his follows and the records, the Liahona, etc., a theft from the perspective of Laman, et al. The Nephites began to prosper under righteous leadership. They did, however, prepare for the defense of themselves by making swords. The Nephites also started to build temples, became great craftsmen, started a religious organization headed by Nephi’s brothers, tilled the ground, etc. Laman and his people, on the other hand, became lazy, idle, “full of Mischief and subtlety,” hunters in the wilderness, and otherwise a source of concern for the Nephites. There are many parallels that can be drawn between this division of the people and other, similar divisions between the righteous and the wicked. e.g., Abraham fleeing Ur, the Israelites fleeing Egypt, Lehi fleeing Jerusalem, the parents of the Savior fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus, the Mormons fleeing persecution, etc.
These chapters give insight into the record keeping that resulted in the Book of Mormon as well. Specifically, we learn that Nephi did not begin to keep his records until sometime between thirty and forty years after the emigration from Jerusalem.18In other words, much of what we have in the Book of Mormon is written well after the fact; it was probably written closer to forty years after the emigration because Lehi died sometime during the latter part of that first thirty years, and it would have taken some time for the Nephites to flee, set up their society and then have the time to write a history.
Nephi differentiated the Lamanites and the Nephites because of their disposition to righteousness. He observes the cursing on the Lamanites. This cursing is better understood if it is parsed and reformatted into its chiastic style: The analogues of the following chiasmus are treated individually.
2 Nephi 5:19–25 Reformatted:
The consequences of this curse are stated in different terms in this chiasmus. Level A–a describes those cut off from the presence of the Lord, people who seek in the wilderness of the world—a figurative expression—for the beasts—another metaphor—that will destroy them. Their idleness, etc., is nothing like industry of the Lord’s people, which Nephi has just described.19
Part A refers to the Lamanites as being cut off from the presence of the Lord, the source of light and enlightenment. Indeed, the Lord says this of the Holy Ghost in our day:
Wherefore, I now send upon you another Comforter, even upon you my friends, that it may abide in your hearts, even the Holy Spirit of promise; which other Comforter is the same that I promised unto my disciples, as is recorded in the testimony of John.
This Comforter is the promise which I give unto you of eternal life, even the glory of the celestial kingdom; Which glory is that of the church of the Firstborn, even of God, the holiest of all, through Jesus Christ his Son— He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand. And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space— The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.20
Being cut off from the light of Christ is the result of not listening according to part A. Part a describes the result, which includes a reference about beasts in the wilderness, “T]hey . . . did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.” This is an amphiboly because of the metaphorical use of wilderness and beasts of prey.21
Level B–b attributes the curse—being cut off from the Lord— to an act by the Lord, but this attribution is merely poetic because the cause of this curse is the wickedness of the people.
Level C–c describes the closed mindedness of the wicked who are so cursed using flint as a simile22 and saying that people who associate with such become like them.
The turning or main point of the chiasmus, level D-d, is the nature of the curse upon the emigrants who will not follow Nephi or the Lord. This turning point23 says:
Part d is not affected by the metaphor used in part D, a skin of blackness,24 because most reading theses sentences do not connect them as the same thought. Moreover, the politically correct climate in the United States may find this description offensive, but the offense is one of perspective only, a perspective hampered because the reader is not familiar with the use of this metaphor in the Old Testament, level d says people who have this skin of blackness will not if they repent.
Blackness is metaphor here, and it is so used in the Old Testament. The tenor of the vehicle is judgment, condemnation, the countenance of the wicked. For example, Job uses a lengthy anaphora to lament the day he was born, in part, “Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it, let a cloud dwell upon it, let the blackness of the day terrify it.”25The Jews understood what Job meant by his characterization of the blackness of the day of his birth, so the Nephites would have understood this allusion to the Job’s story and the other parts of the Old Testament that use this metaphor.
Isaiah uses this metaphor,26 and Nephi’s brother, Jacob, quotes the scripture where Isaiah uses it.27 Jeremiah describes himself as hurt because of the wickedness of Jerusalem, a hurt that makes him black because Jerusalem is not saved.28 Jeremiah laments that he is black because of his people,29 lamenting the blackness of the skin of the people, 30Likewise, Joel describes what will happen to the enemies of Judah when they confront the Lord, “Before their face the people shall be much pained, all faces shall gather blackness.31And Nahum describes the faces of the Philistines when confronted with the Lord’s hosts, “much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness.”32
The term blackness in part D-D does not refer to a color so much as the black countenance—like a nimbus—that can be seen by the perceptive. For example the following pictures are of the same man, an actor, Kit Harrison. Indeed, the chiasmus formatting of this part of 2 Nephi highlights the curse: being cut off from the presence of the Lord.
The Bible uses skin color and companionship with beasts of prey to describe the human condition. The story of Job contains Job’s lament and final defense to the help he receives from his supposed friends,
I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.33
Jeremiah uses skin color and a wild beast when referencing the wickedness of Jerusalem,
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to evil.34
Jeremiah’s lamentation about the wickedness of the people in Jerusalem refer’s to the blackness of the people,
Their visage is blacker than a coal . . . their skin cleaveth to their bones . . . . 35
Jeremiah also describes the blackness of the skin of the people of Jerusalem during its siege.36 Nephi may have known about the writings of teachings of his contemporary, Jeremiah. Nephi this much is virtually irrefragable: Nephi understood the use of the wilderness and its beasts as vehicles for the message of wickedness. He, likewise, knew how blackness was used to characterize how people look when they are sinful.
Although the use of skin color by Nephi is metaphorical, later writers in the Book of Mormon are much more literal about this characterization.37
Against the foregoing historical context of these chapters, the point being made by Nephi is clear. There were many admonitions given to Laman and his people, but they were spurned. Nephi and his people, on the other hand, followed the teachings of the Lord and prospered. Nephi, also, gives insight into the feelings he had, feelings that are no where else recorded so far as Nephi is concerned, and the strength he drew from the gospel.
- Nephi refers to Lehi’s prophecies at 2 Nephi 4:1–12. The pertinent prophecies were recorded by Nephi in 2 Nephi 1.
- 2 Nephi 4:13.
- See 2 Nephi 5:2.
- 2 Nephi 4:17–35.
- This title was popularized in Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), pp. 152–53. But this idea had been around since George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, ed. Philip C. Reynolds, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1955), 1:264–71. This is cited by those who deal with clinical depression, some believing Nephi suffered from depression, citing this verses evidence.
- Steven P. Sondrup, a professor of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University presented a paper at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, in 1979 where he made this observation:
It is, thus, questionable whether the “Psalm of Nephi” gives the reader any reliable information about Nephi’s actions or attitudes. This view is contrary to that represented by Reynolds and Sjodahl and more recently by Steve Gilliland, “‘Awake My Soul!’: Dealing Firmly with Depression,” Ensign 8 (August 1978): 37–41. (See also Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, pp. 74–76.)
Steven P. Sondrup, “The Psalm of Nephi: A Lyric Reading.” BYU Studies, vol. 21:3 (1981) at 370 n. 17.
Many people, though, believe the situation involving the separation of the Nephites and Lamanites would have caused anyone to be depressed, so, they argue, Nephi writes this melancholy lamentation on his circumstance, showing us how Nephi recovered from this description of depression; i.e., (1) notwithstanding his recognition of the goodness of the Lord, he is self-deprecatory, condemning himself because of his own weaknesses of the flesh; (2) he feels, surrounded—almost claustrophobic—alone, and despairing; (3) there are physical manifestations of his sickness, including weight loss, lethargy, quick temper, and general anxiety; finally (4) he is concentrating on the negative, allowing it to overwhelm him. Analysis shows the fallacy of such a conclusion.
- See page 155, supra for a discussion of Nephi’s personality type.
- Hermeneutic circle is “[t]he notion that a reader cannot fully understand any part of a text until the whole is understood, while the whole cannot be understood until all the parts are understood.” William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Printice-Hall, Inc., 1996) s. v. hermeneutic circle.
- 2 Nephi 5:30, 32.
- Paul dealt with this need to focus on a life of hope in his epistle to the Hebrews at Jerusalem. They were worried about worldly derision and fitting into the social environment. The followers of Christ in Jerusalem had lost their focus because of persecutions and worldly concerns. Paul enjoined them to eschew these problems and focus on eternity.
Let us hold fast the profession of our faith [έλπις or hope] without wavering . . . Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is . . . But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions . . . . Cast not away therefore your confidence . . . . For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise ἐπαγγελία or epangelia.
Hebrews 10:21, 25, 32, 35, 36. This quotation is part of a chiasmus that run verse twenty-one through thirty-seven. The turning point of Paul’s chiasmus is the punishment of those who are not faithful. The promise at the end of this quotation refers to the promise made by the Father, a promised He sealed with an oath in His own name, that those who are faithful will inherit all that He has, the meaning associated by the Greek word, which is always this promise of the Father as opposed to the covenant or promise, διαθηκη or diathk, associated with the sacrifice of the Savior.
- Wretched appears only three times in the scriptures. Here, Romans 7:24 and Revelation 3:17. This word is translated from ταλαιπωρος which means something like calloused by weight. The use of the word in Revelation is:
Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
The use of the word in Romans has the same tenor:
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
- Nephi recorded his purpose a 2 Nephi 5:28–32, he wrote “for the profit of [my] people.” He wrote important things for his people, not a catharsis for himself.
- Neither the punctuation nor the versification in the Book of Mormon is from the plates Joseph Smith translated. The punctuation, in particular, can be and often is misleading. So verses compared here should be read without regard to the punctuation, which can change meaning. The stylistic presentation overcomes the punctuation problems, more less, and suggests that other punctuation could be better.
- The metaphorical use of blackness is discussed later.
- 2 Nephi 5:30–32 (engraven things . . . good in my sight, for the profit of thy people.”)
- 2 Nephi 5:3.
- This part of 2 Nephi is the fulfillment of Lehi’s Mt. Gerizim/Mt. Ebal allusion and the allusion the blessing and cursing and blessing of Esau and Jacob, discussed, supra at
- 2 Nephi 5:30 – 34.
- 2 Nephi 5:10–17.
- D&C 88:3–13 (bolding added)(light of Christ, appears in only two other places, Moroni 7:14–19 and Alma 28:14). The scripture to which the Savior refers in the first paragraph of this quote is John 14. “But the comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” John 14:26. The masculine pronoun he is an addition by the King James translators. The Greek word so translated is εκεινος or ekeinos which literally means that one, a neuter form. John 16 talks about the necessity of the Savior departing so the new members of the church at the meridian of time could have the blessing of the Comforter, and, again, a masculine pronouns are used in the King James Version, “if I depart, I will send him unto you.” John 16:7. The word him is translated from αυτον or auton, which is feminine, her.
- A good example of the metaphorical use of beasts is found in Ezekiel 34:25–30 where Ezekiel explains how the Lord’s people in the latter days will no longer be prey to beasts. Enos describes the Lamanites “feeding on beasts of prey . . . . many of the [eating] nothing but raw meant.” Enos 1:20.
- An adamant or type of stone harder than flint is used as a simile for Ezekiel’s strength of will and ability to deal with the ridicule of the Jews in he face of the Jews’ impudent hardheartedness, meaning closed-mindedness, Ezekiel 3:7–9.
- 2 Nephi 5:21c–22.
- The Spanish Book of Mormon does not use the term blackness; rather it uses the term dark, meaning a dark skin.
- Job 3:5. The verse preceding this quote says, “Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.”
- Isaiah 50:3. Isaiah lived in the late 8th and early 7th Centuries bc.
- 2 Nephi 7:3, quoting Isaiah 50.
- Jeremiah 8:21. Jeremiah was a contemporary of Lehi and his family.
- Jeremiah 8:21.
- Lamentations 5:10.
- Joel 2:6 (emphasis added). Joel was a prophet during the eight century bc or so, during a time when the wickedness of the Jews had not been so great that the Lord abandoned them.
- Nahum 2:10c (emphasis added). Nahom probably lived in the 9th Century bc.
- Job 30:29–30.
- Jeremiah 13:23.
- Lamentations 4:8.
- Jeremiah 5:10.
- See Alma 3:6–10 (this reference is by Alma during the Amlicite war about 500 years after the original cursing and clearly makes a dark skin the curse); 3 Nephi 2:15 (this reference, about 600 years after the original cursing, must be metaphorical because the curse was taken from the Lamanites when they converted, so their skin became Nephite white). Perhaps, the Nephi who wrote 3 Nephi 2:15 had a better understanding of the figures of speech and doctrine than is great-great-grandfather, Alma, who wrote Alma 3:6–10. Alma may have been like Brigham Young in his regard for dark-skinned people.