1 Nephi 1:1 — LeGrand Baker — “Therefore I write” — The Chiastic Structure of First Nephi

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1 Nephi 1:1 — LeGrand Baker — “Therefore I write” — The Chiastic Structure of First Nephi

First Nephi has a carefully structured, chiastic, arrangement. Its language is unlike anything else in the Book of Mormon. It is written like a Greek or Norse epic poem. It is a chiasmus, and, like those other ancient epic poems, it follows the model of the cosmic myth. The cosmic myth is always in the pattern of a chaismas. In its simplest form it 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
.          b. He fulfills the task.
.     a. The hero returns home, triumphant.{1}

That is also the outline of the plan of salvation and of the ancient Israelite temple drama.{2} Nephi also uses that pattern when he writes 1 Nephi:

.     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.

The pattern is actually more complex than that and is discussed in the my last chapter about 1 Nephi called, “1 Nephi 22 — LeGrand Baker — Nephi’s Conclusion.”

The ancient pattern after which First Nephi is written is called by modern scholars “the hero cycle” or “the cosmic myth.”{3} It is cosmic because it reflects the pattern of stories recited and written throughout human history. It is a complete worldview. It is called a myth because the principles it teaches are not dependent on the historicity of the story.{4} That is, the story it tells may be historically true, like First Nephi, or it may be fictional, like Star Wars or Hamlet, but the principles it teaches are universally the same.

To say that 1 Nephi is an epic poem means much more than that it is lengthy, involved, and tells about a hero’s journey, as Meyer Abrams explained:

An epic poem is a ceremonial performance, and is narrated in a ceremonial style which is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject and epic architecture.{5}

We have wondered if First Nephi had ever been used that way in a ceremonial performance. Such a thing was not unknown in ancient Israel. Every seventh year, during the pre-exilic Israelite New Year’s Festival, the king and the entire congregation would recite the book of Deuteronomy as a reminder of the Lord’s covenants and of Moses’s instructions to them.{6} Deuteronomy was Moses’s last sermon to the people just before he departed. Such a ceremonial use of First Nephi would have given a sustained religious underpinning for the Nephite split with the Lamanites, and may, in part, account for the repeated admonition to “remember” the covenants made to the fathers.

It may also account for why Mormon searched the royal archives to find the original plates of Nephi, rather than using just a later copy, to attach to the gold plates that Moroni would eventually deliver to the Prophet Joseph (Words of Mormon:1:3-5).

Nephi was probably about 45 when he began writing First Nephi, and it took him ten years to write it.{7} It seems that if Nephi, who obviously had an excellent education, would spend ten years writing a fifty-plus page work in the chiastic style of an epic poem, then every word of Nephi’s original manuscript version must have been what it was intended to be, and that the whole of the version Nephi engraved on the gold plates was carefully polished. We believe that is also true of our English version. That is, we believe the English version is not so much a “translation” as it is an English rendering of the original.{8}

So, admittedly without having any proof of how or where—or even if—it might have been used by the Nephites for ritual purposes, we wonder if Nephi’s poem was used in connection with “a ceremonial performance.” Could it be that the Nephites used First Nephi in the same way the Israelites used Deuteronomy or the Book of Genesis in the portrayal of the covenant renewal drama during their Feast of Tabernacles?

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FOOTNOTES

{1} The ancient Hymn of the Pearl is an excellent example. See LeGrand L. Baker and Stephen D. Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord? The Psalms in Israel’s Temple Worship in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Eborn Books), first hardback edition 2009, p. 97-135; second paperback edition 2010, p. 79-98) The paperback edition is found on this website under “published books.”

{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. The book gives a reconstruction of the Israelite temple drama at the time of Solomon’s Temple. The second half of the book shows that virtually every sermon in the Book of Mormon is based on the Nephite temple experience.

{3} Two classic works on the universality of the hero cycle or cosmic myth are Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: MJF, 1949); and Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time (Boston: Gambit, 1969).

{4} For a discussion of the cosmic myth see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, hardback edition, p. 97-135; paperback edition, p. 79-98)

{5} Meyer Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (Boston, Heinle & Heinle , 1999), 77.

{6} John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 2:206.

{7} Nephi reports that he received instructions to make the small plates 30 years after the family had left Jerusalem. He has completed 1 Nephi after they had been gone 40 years (2 Nephi 5:28-34).

{8} For a discussion of Nephi’s possible personal involvement in the English translation see LeGrand L. Baker, Joseph and Moroni (Salt Lake City, Eborn Books, 2007), 91-98.

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