1 Nephi 1:1-6 — LeGrand Baker — The Three-act Ancient Temple Structure of 1 Nephi 1:1-6

1 Nephi 1:1-6

1. I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
2. Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, that consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
3. And I know that the record that I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.
4. For it came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, (my father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days); and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.
5. Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.
6. And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much.

The first six verses of Nephi’s account can be seen as a review of a three-act Israelite temple drama. Ancient dramas could usually be reduced to three themes or acts, divided into shorter scenes, following the pattern of the cosmic myth. The first act explained why it was necessary for the hero to leave home. In sacral dramas, the first act often took place among the gods in the Council in Heaven, it often told of the appointments and assignments to be fulfilled on the earth, sometimes it reported a rebellion and a war in heaven, and it may have included an account of the creation and the Garden. Nephi seems to sum this up in a very brief rendering of act one. Act two is the hero’s encounter with this mortal world, where he is humiliated and defeated (sometimes, as in the Osiris story, the hero is actually killed), but in the end he triumphs over his enemies. Act three is his triumphant return home to celebrate his victory and claim his throne. Sometimes, as in the “Hymn of the Pearl,” it is a shared throne.

It is also a shared throne in the first chapter of Ephesians. This is a good example, because while the pattern is the same, the focus is different. In the first 14 verses, Paul discusses the ordinances and covenants made in the premortal world. He passes quickly over the problems of this world in the next four verses by uttering a prayer that we will know what is our assignment here, and what blessings our fulfillment of our covenants will bring. Then, he concludes the chapter with the promise that just as God had enabled the Savior to fulfill his covenants, so God will enable us to fulfill ours. That reminder includes the assurance that the Father set the Savior on his throne “at his own right hand in the heavenly places.”

The most beautiful example of the pattern of the sacral myth in the Old Testament is the 23rd Psalm. It is a microcosm of the ancient Israelite temple drama in three acts.{1}

Act One, the Premortal World
.            The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
.            He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
.            He leadeth me beside the still waters.
.            He restoreth my soul:
.            He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Act Two, the Mortal World
.            Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
.            I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
.            Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
.            Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
.            Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
.            Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

Act Three, the Eternal World
.            and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever (Psalm 23:1-6).

That is the most beloved of all the psalms because it resonates with our souls. It does so because it is the eternal autobiography of every man and woman.

Nephi followed that pattern with a great deal of precision. That precision evinces Nephi’s deliberateness, rectitude, and care. One can tell that an author has deliberately followed a prescribed pattern if the pattern he is following is too complex to stumble upon it by accident, and if the complex pattern is followed in sequence and without deviation. Nephi’s first six verses meet that criteria. His subtextual drama begins in the premortal world, and then moves quickly into this one.

Act One
.            I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father;

Act Two
.            Having seen many afflictions in the course of my days,
.            Having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days;
.            Having had a great knowledge of the goodness of God
.            Having had a great knowledge of the mysteries of God,
Therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days

The record is kept sacred by his writing in a dual language using the same words to convey two separate meanings. He tells us it is written in the language of the Egyptians (the world). But it is also written in the learning of the Jews (sacral language) so only those who have the keys to that knowledge can understand its second, sacred meaning.

And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

There are several ways to make a record true with one’s hand, and one usually reads Nephi’s statement to mean that he wrote it himself. But Nephi’s emphasis in not on its production but on its truthfulness. There is one way to use one’s hand to testify about the truthfulness of something. For example, when we are on the witness stand in court we raise our hand. It is in that way that the hand testifies the words are true. It is done by covenant. Verse 2 would be able to stand as absolute evidence in any reasonable court. In it, he asserts the record is true, raises his hand as a covenant that it is true, and testifies that this is not hearsay but first hand knowledge.

Nephi then introduces the idea of kingship:
.            “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah.”

He then introduces the idea of priesthood in the person of Lehi, who is a prophet:
.            “My father, Lehi”

He mentions sacred space, for in ancient Israel, Jerusalem and its Temple are sacred space.
.            “having dwelt in Jerusalem in all his days”

He then calls our attention to the prophets who have made covenants and who are fulfilling those assignments:

.            Prophets prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed

Now there is a prayer.
.            My father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people

Now the Shechinah—the light or veil that separates us from God.{2}
.            And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him

Act Three is very short, just as it is in the 23rd Psalm.
.           He saw and heard much

In those 6 short verses Nephi has mentioned every significant facet of the ancient Israelite temple drama. It is apparent that his intent was not to teach us about that drama but to show us that he knew it. Thereby, he has established, in a brilliantly crafted, encoded colophon, that he knows the mysteries and can be trusted as a prophet.

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FOOTNOTES

{1} For a discussion of the Twenty-Third Psalm see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, First edition, p. 619-40; Second edition, p. 441-57.

{2} The definition of shechinah found in the LDS Bible Dictionary reads as follows:
Schechinah, The Presence. A word used by the later Jews (and borrowed from them by the Christians) to denote the cloud of brightness and glory that marked the presence of the Lord as spoken of in Exodus 3:1-6; 1 Kings 8:10; Isaiah 6:1-3; Matthew 17:5; Acts 7:55. The Prophet Joseph Smith described this phenomenon in connection with his first vision, as a ‘light…above the brightness of the sun,’ and said that he saw two Personages whose “brightness and glory defy all description,” standing “in the light” (JS-H 1:16-18). LDS Bible dictionary, 773.

It is also the light that filled the room when Moroni came to Joseph; the smoke that filled the temple in Isaiah 6; the “pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock” in 1 Nephi 1; the light that made Moses’s bush to appear to be burning; and the cloud through which the brother of Jared spoke to the Savior.

For a discussion of the shechinah as the veils see the sections called, “1 Nephi 11:2-7, One Must Say and Do Truth” and “1 Nephi 11:8-22, The Condescension of God.”
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