A Book Worth Reading (Again)
Hearing Nephi's Prophetic Voice
Nephi’s writings pay good dividends to those who invest in reading them closely. And this isn’t just because he’s a prophet, nor just because his writings are scripture. It’s because he’s a careful writer with a strong sense of purpose.
Nephi has a message he’s working hard to get across to his readers. It’s a message we’re liable to miss if we aren’t willing to do the work necessary to figure out how his language puts together his inspired ideas. He tells us he spent at least a decade working on the two short books that open the Book of Mormon, and he didn’t write a word of them before he’d had a few decades to think about the events recounted in them (see 2 Nephi 5:28–34). What if we were to give as much time and as many tries to understanding Nephi’s record as he gave to creating it in the first place?
I’ve tried. And I think I’ve figured out a few things. They’re worth sharing in the hopes of inspiring others to keep working at getting to know the inner workings of Nephi’s mind, so that the wearying “workings in the Spirit” that he experienced don’t pass us by (see 1 Nephi 19:20).
Let’s start with something decently well known. Nephi produced, he tells us, two distinct records. His so-called “large plates” we don’t have access to, but his “small plates” lie before us in the Book of Mormon. He made these, he tells us, “for the special purpose that there should be an account engraven of the ministry of [his] people” (1 Nephi 9:3). That seems simple enough, but it’s something readers seldom take seriously enough. He presents in his two books, I argue, a systematic exposition of his ministry.
Let’s consider, for a moment, just the First Book of Nephi.
Early on, Nephi explicitly divides his first book into two parts. First, he declares, he’ll provide readers with “an abridgment of the record of [his] father,” Lehi. Then there’s to follow “an account of [his own] proceedings” (1 Nephi 1:17). Note that he later signals to his reader when the one part is giving way to the other, marking the transition with an appropriate announcement: “And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings” (1 Nephi 10:1).
First an abridgment of Lehi’s record, apparently by way of preparation. And then, building on that foundation, an account of Nephi’s preacherly labors, of what he calls his “reign and ministry” (1 Nephi 10:1).
That the two parts of Nephi’s first book tightly correlate with one another becomes clear when one considers the original chapters. Modern Book of Mormon chapters date from the 1870s, but the earlier chapter divisions, dictated by Joseph Smith as part of the volume’s translation, are often helpful for understanding the book. This is especially true when it comes to First Nephi.
Originally, the abridgment of Lehi’s record (the early part of First Nephi) consisted of just two chapters, each centered on the reception of a specific prophetic source. The original Chapter I recounts the adventurous retrieval of the brass plates—Nephi’s source for his beloved Isaiah. The original Chapter II contains the account of Lehi’s famous dream of a life-giving tree. The plates and the dream, two things that might form the basis for a lifelong ministry.
What Nephi calls the account of his own proceedings (that second part of First Nephi) was originally organized into five chapters. Two of these—the original Chapters III and VI—contain expansions of the same two prophetic sources retrieved or received in Lehi’s abridged record. Two others—the original Chapters IV and VII—find Nephi explaining those two expanded sources to his questioning brothers. And one original chapter, Chapter V, tells the story of how the family finds its way across sands and sea to the promised land.
That might seem at first like a jumble of details, but they’re easily drawn together into a table of contents for First Nephi:
The First Book of Nephi
Part 1, Lehi’s Record in Abridgment—Two Prophetic Sources
Chapter I (1 Nephi 1–5)—Retrieving the Brass Plates
Chapter II (1 Nephi 6–9)—Receiving the Dream of the Tree
Part 2, Nephi’s Reign and Ministry—Two Sources Expanded and Explained
Chapter III (1 Nephi 10–14)—Expanding the Dream of the Tree
Chapter IV (1 Nephi 15)—Explaining the Dream to Laman and Lemuel
Chapter V (1 Nephi 16:1–19:21)—Travels to the Promised Land
Chapter VI (1 Nephi 19:22–21:26)—Quoting from the Brass Plates
Chapter VII (1 Nephi 22)—Explaining the Plates’ Prophecies to Laman and Lemuel
Nephi, it seems, isn’t fooling around when he speaks of this book as being about his ministry. The basic structure suggests that it is prophecy much more than story that interests him—and so, that ought to interest us. We tend to treat Nephi’s writing as didactic, as primarily aimed at providing examples of faith and obedience. The structure of this first of Nephi’s two books might suggest that he’d scratch his head just a little at our usual ways of reading. Indeed, he might wonder especially at how prone we are to think that he’s portraying his brothers as bad guys. “Did you read the prophecies I organized everything around?” he might ask. “I explicitly wrote that they’re about hope for Laman and Lemuel—for the full and final redemption of their children. I knew from the beginning that my own people wouldn’t make it to the last days!”
It's true. Even the basic organization of First Nephi suggests this. Although Nephi copies the stories of his brothers’ early rebellions into his abridgment, he structurally subordinates their failings (and his!) to the remarkable news that the family was repeatedly graced with prophetic words, both written and spoken. And in his account of his own proceedings, Nephi groups all the further conflicts within the family into just one (original) chapter and then sandwiches that between—and thus subordinates it to—long and detailed explanations of how God would faithfully redeem the wayward.
This is the sort of thing we’re likely to miss if we read too quickly—which is something we’re far too accustomed to doing with First Nephi. (After all, it’s the book we’re sure we know best in the Book of Mormon!) There’s a prophetic voice in Nephi’s record we’re mostly missing, but even a little time and effort is sure to let it be heard.
Joseph Spencer is a philosopher and an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
Artwork by Brian Kershisnik.
This essay appears in Theological Insights from the Book of Mormon, a Wayfare series that pairs the 2024 Come, Follow Me curriculum with authors of the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series. The book on which this introduction builds is one of several works by Joseph Spencer on the Book of the Mormon and can be purchased here.