Chapter 1 * 2 Nephi 1:1-9 — A Land of Promise

Discovering the religion of the ancient Israelites before the Babylonian captivity is not as simple as it appears on the surface, and, surprisingly, the Bible is not as good a source as one might think. Even though much of the Old Testament tells about the time before the exile, a good part of it was written or edited after the exile, so those parts reflect the religion of the period in which it was written rather than the religion of the period it tells about. From the actual pre-exilic period we have the five books of Moses (now heavily edited), and Isaiah, some minor prophets, the Psalms, and Job, but that is about all. Most scholars believe that the historical portions of the Bible (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, etc.) were either written or severely edited after the Babylonian captivity. Consequently, they tell the post-exilic official version of their pre-exilic history and religion, but they are not a contemporary record, and that “official version” reflects much of the apostasy which had already occurred. Niels Peter Lemche explains:

In the Old Testament a number of texts—to a large degree to be found in the book of Psalms, but also elsewhere—seemingly testify to religious beliefs which are obviously not in accordance with the official version of the religion as given by the historical literature…The most important evidence of this state of religious affairs may be Deut. xxxii 8-9, in the LXX version, according to which Yahweh seems not to be identified with El Elyon but is considered a son of this mighty creator of the world. Other important testimonies are Ps. lxxxii and Ps. lxxxix 6-9, in that both testify to the belief in a divine pantheon in Israel, although Yahweh is obviously considered to be the king of the assembly of the gods…It now looks as if the description of the Israelite religion in the formative period of the nation as a religion which contained a strictly monotheistic faith has to be surrendered in favor of another picture of the religious development…Still, we are sorely without knowledge as to the content of their religion, and no source available can prove that the religion of the early Israelites was ever a monotheistic one, whether Yahwistic or no…I would say: so much for the presumed original Israelite monotheism! {1}
This argument, that the historical books of the Old Testament were written after the Babylonian captivity and reflect the religion of the post-exilic rather than the pre-exilic Jews, has important implications for any study of the Book of Mormon. Lehi left Jerusalem a few years before the Babylonian captivity. Therefore, the religion of the Nephites should reflect the belief in a pantheon of Elohim, Jehovah, and the Council in Heaven, and that Jehovah is the Son of God as was taught in the religion of the pre-exilic Jews. But it must not reflect the idea that Jehovah is alone in the godhead, which was the idea adopted by the post-exilic Jews. If that test were used to determine whether the Book of Mormon is an accurate reflection of the pre-exilic Israelite religion, the Book of Mormon passes with flying colors.

The point is this: Lehi’s colony left Jerusalem before the Babylonian captivity and took with them the religion of their contemporary Jews. That leaves the Book of Mormon as our very best possible source for knowing the theology of the pre-exilic Israelite religion.

In the first volume of this series, co-author Stephen D. Ricks presents a powerful argument that the strongest evidence of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is its obvious roots in pre-exilic ancient Near Eastern religion and culture.

1 And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them, how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem.
2 And he spake unto them concerning their rebellions upon the waters, and the mercies of God in sparing their lives, that they were not swallowed up in the sea.
3 And he also spake unto them concerning the land of promise, which they had obtained—how merciful the Lord had been in warning us that we should flee out of the land of Jerusalem.
4 For, behold, said he, I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem is destroyed; and had we remained in Jerusalem we should also have perished.
5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.
6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.
7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.
8 And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.
9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever (2 Nephi 1:1-9).

Nephi chose to begin his second book, not with the account of their arriving at the promised land, but with Lehi’s prophecy about the sacredness of the land.

5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord (2 Nephi 1:5).

In the beginning when the Lord and his heavenly council created this earth they were in sacred time where they could understand our linear time from beginning to end. The geographical pattern of this world was not happenstance, but shows a careful design that would achieve maximum advantage for the people who were to live here. We can see that now as we look back over the millennia and watch civilizations develop.

Three ancient cultures dominated early western civilization. All three were protected by their geographical surroundings: Israel, Greece, and Rome.

The Dead Sea protected Israel like an eastern fortress. The two great cultural centers of the ancient near east, Mesopotamia and Egypt, were separated by an allmost impassible desert but connected by a trade rout that passed along the eastern sure of the Mediterranean. The Holy Land was in the mountains along that trade rout where Israel would be relatively secure for almost a thousand years from the time of Moses to Zedekiah. During that time they established themselves as a unique culture with a special religion. Then, still in relative isolation they continued to survive under the military umbrellas of Persia, Greece, and then Rome, when Christianity was born and took root.

Both Greece and Rome were built of a peninsula where they were protected on three sides by the sea. After their fall, the greatest ideas of the Jewish-Christian, Greek, and Roman cultures merged and grew in northern Europe but flowered in England. England is an island, close enough to the mainland to absorb its cultural advantage but encircled by a fortress ocean whose battlements were challenged but not breached. England became mistress of the sea and spread her own unique principles of common law, participatory government, and the King James Bible over much of the world.

All of this, plus freedom of speech, commerce, and religion came to America where they blossomed. America is also an island protected by large expanses of water. In that environment the gospel was restored then, under persecution the Saints left and came to a different kind of island. Utah where the Saints settled was not surrounded by water but was isolated by mountains on the east and desert on the west. There the Saints were given 50 years while they secured their own identifiable subculture before they were absorbed as a state in the United States.

Human history is the story of how we have interacted with each other on playing board that defines, limits or expands our options. The Lord uses geography, climate change, weather, and perfect timing to fulfill the covenants he made with those premortal people who would come to mortality at the right time, in the right place, in the right circumstances so they could fulfill their covenants also. The fulfillment of one of those covenants preserved the Nephites from overwhelming external influences for a thousand years, just as Lehi said it would.

8 And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance (2 Nephi 1:8).

Lehi’s vision of the sacred security of this promised land was fulfilled and is yet to be fulfilled. That is our blessing, our warning, and perhaps our curse.
————————————-

Nephi 1=1-9—The Chiastic Pattern of Lehi’s Teachings

Nephi begins 2 Nephi in mid-story if not sentence. That suggests that Nephi is not all that concerned with how his story flows. The books of Nephi, like the rest of the Book of Mormon, are not a history in the usual sense. They use the chronology of historical events as the wagon to carry its cargo of sermons and stories that illustrate their messages. First and Second Nephi are Nephi’s testimony just as the rest of the Book of Mormon is is Mormon’s testimony. The golden thread that ties both together is the ancient Israelite temple drama that flows like an encoded undercurrent throughout the whole of the entire book.
Nephi begins Second Nephi by quoting his father who was reminding his children of the overarching importance of the ancient Israelite New Year Festival temple drama:

10 But behold, when the time cometh that they shall dwindle in unbelief, after they have received so great blessings from the hand of the Lord—
having a knowledge of the creation of the earth,
and [of the creation of] all men,
knowing the great and marvelous works of the Lord
from the creation of the world;
having power given them to do all things by faith;
having all the commandments from the beginning, and
having been brought by his infinite goodness
into this precious land of promise

This encoded pattern of thought is found from the beginning to the end of the Book of Mormon. It can be understood as a witness that assures us that Nephi, Lehi, and others are true prophets because they knew “the mysteries of God.” The pattern is recognizable as the basic chiasmus model of the cosmic myth. It has the same skeletal structure of the Israelite temple drama, the plan of salvation, the Savior’s (and everyone else’s) autobiography. In its simplest form the pattern looks like this:

A. The hero is required to leave home.
B. He is given a seemingly impossible task.
C. He receives the necessary tools to begin.
D. He confronts overwhelming odds.
c. He receives additional tools and information.
b. He fulfills the task.
a. The hero returns home, triumphant. {2}

When the pattern is found in the Book of Mormon it rarely includes all of its parts, but, as in verse 10, there are enough of those parts in the correct sequential order that it is recognizable. Nephi began his first book by using that pattern in the first few verses, then he used it as the outline for all of First Nephi: {3}

A. Nephi and his family must leave home.
B. They are given a seemingly impossible task.
C. They receive the brass plates and Ishmael’s family.
D. Rebellion and starvation in the wilderness.
c. The Liahona leads to a mountain top for sustenance.
b. They travel to Bountiful to complete their task.
a. They arrive at the promised land, their new home.

Now he uses that same theme to introduce us to Second Nephi. The theme and the pattern are here but the details are a covenant the Lord made with Lehi and his family so the particulars do not conform to story told in the Israelite temple drama.

A. The hero is required to leave home.
1 And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them, how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem.
2 And he spake unto them concerning their rebellions upon the waters, and the mercies of God in sparing their lives, that they were not swallowed up in the sea (2 Nephi 1:1-2).

Waters are often used as a symbol of chaos from which came cosmos or creation. In Egyptian mythology both birth and death are symbolized by a boat that crosses the water.

3 And he also spake unto them concerning the land of promise, which they had obtained how merciful the Lord had been in warning us that we should flee out of the land of Jerusalem.
4 For, behold, said he, I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem is destroyed; and had we remained in Jerusalem we should also have perished (2 Nephi 1:3-4).

In Nephi’s temple drama sequence such a statement may suggest the destruction to those who refused to come to the earth.

B. He is given a seemingly impossible task.
5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions…

C. He receives the necessary tools to begin.
we have obtained a land of promise a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord (2 Nephi 1:5).

In the covenant of Abraham it is also called a “promised land,” and refers not only to a geographical area, but also to the covenant (as expressed in the Beatitudes and D&C 88:17) that the meek shall inherit the celestial earth.

D. He confronts overwhelming odds.
6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land

c. He receives additional tools and information.
save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord (2 Nephi 1:6).

b. He fulfills the task.
7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring.

If I read this correctly, the land spoken of is Zion. Zion is the pure in heart (D&C 97:21). The pure in heart are those who see God (3 Nephi 12:8) —it is all the same idea and always in the same neat package.

a. The hero returns home, triumphant.
And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them, wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.

8 And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.
9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them (2 Nephi 1:7-9).

———-
FOOTNOTES
{1} Niels Peter Lemche, “The Development of the Israelite Religion in the Light of Recent Studies on the Early History of Israel,” in Congress Volume, Leuven, 1989 (Louvain, Belgium, E.J. Brill, for the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament, 1991), 109, 112-113, 115.

H. H. Rowley, The Old Testament and Modern Study, A Generation of Discovery and Research (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951), contains several essays on the history of academic discussions about the authorship and historicity of the books of the Old Testament. The three which are of most immediate interest to our studies are: N. H. Snaith, “The Historical Books,” p. 84-114; Aubrey R. Johnson, “The Psalms,” p. 162-209; and G. W. Anderson, “Hebrew Religion,” p. 283-310.)

{2} The pattern of the Israelite and Nephite temple dramas is the theme that runs throughout our book, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord.

{3}LeGrand L. Baker and Stephen D. Ricks, First Nephi, An Ancient Near Eastern Setting for the Book of Mormon. See my chapters that deal with the first 7 verses of 1 Nephi chapter 1.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

This entry was posted in 2 Nephi. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply