Below is the introduction to what will be an ongoing personal chapter-by-chapter commentary on the Book of Mormon, starting with 1st Nephi. My emphasis will be on doctrinal and historical items, with citations provided to other sources and commentaries when used.
The article on 1st Nephi in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism calls it "the doctrinal and historical foundation for all of the Book of Mormon." All abbreviated references in the posts are to 1st Nephi, so 1:4 refers to 1 Nephi 1:4. I will often link scriptural references to the online Book of Mormon at LDS.org, and for convenience I will often quote the verse or verses under discussion (in bold font) as part of each entry.
The views and comments on this site are entirely my own, of course. I am an active Latter-day Saint who went on a mission, was married in the Salt Lake Temple, and serves in various callings in the Church. I encourage readers to be active Latter-day Saints, visitors to give serious consideration to Mormon scripture and doctrine, and LDS doubters and dissenters to work through their questions and issues. Any LDS reader with questions or concerns is invited to email me for a discussion or for more information.
- 1 Ne. 1:4 - in the days of Zedekiah
[I]t came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah ... there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed. (1:4)This verse situates the events of the first few chapters of 1st Nephi in the year 597 BC, just after Zedekiah was placed on the Judean throne as a presumably loyal vassal by Nebuchadnezzar the Great of Babylon, who captured Jerusalem in that year, deposed the rebellious king Jehoiakim, and carried off thousands of upper class Jews: the rich, the educated, the rulers, the priests. It is curious that Laban, in command of troops and serving the king either directly or indirectly; Lehi, obviously rich and well educated; and Ishmael, who is evidently well off, were all still at Jerusalem rather than relocated to Babylon with the rest of Jerusalem's elite. Perhaps Lehi and sons evaded deportation by hiding out at Lehi's country estate (see 3:16).
Given this firm date, the Old Testament books of Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and especially Jeremiah (mentioned by name at 5:13 and 7:14), along with the historical narrative in 2 Kings 22-25, should describe the setting of the first few chapters of 1st Nephi and provide cultural and religious context to the events narrated therein.
- 1 Ne. 1:13 - carried away captive to Babylon
Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father [Lehi] read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon. (1:13)
The "repent or die" theme is entirely consistent with the graphic preaching in Zephaniah and Jeremiah. But by the time Zedekiah was ruling Judah in 597 BC, many thousands of Judeans had already been carried away captive into Babylon (see 2 Kings 24), so the perspective of this verse is odd. You'd think Lehi would say "repent quickly or many more of you will be carried off to Babylon." Later, when Nebuchadnezzar again beseiged Jerusalem and took it in 587 BC, much greater destruction was visited on the city and another large group of Judeans was, in fact, hauled off to Babylon (see 2 Kings 25).
- 1 Ne. 1:19-20 - "the Jews"
[T]he Jews did mock him [Lehi] because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; .... (1:19)
The phrase "the Jews" appears repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, putting them in a rather negative light, much as the term is used repeatedly in the book of John to describe the Jews of Jesus' day. The tone is first struck in 1:19-20, where "the Jews" mock Lehi and attempt to kill him, with the additional suggestion that "the Jews" habitually cast out, stoned, and slayed previous prophets. I know of little support for that claim: Elijah incited the lynching of a bunch of Canaanite prophets, but Elijah wasn't slain; Elisha engineered a coup against the king, but Elisha wasn't slain; the Israelites partied while Moses went up the mountain, but they didn't stone him when he returned. Tradition has it that Isaiah died at the hands of king Manasseh of Judah, but that historical rumor doesn't appear in the scriptural record and, even if true, means that Manasseh killed Isaiah, not that "the Jews" did. Most graphically, in 1 Ne. 10:11 "the Jews" are accused of killing Jesus ("And after they had slain the Messiah, who should come, ..."). That now-discredited charge was used to justify European Antisemitism for centuries.
Interestingly, modern Mormon sentiment is very favorable toward the Jewish people and all things Jewish. It is diametrically opposed to the depiction and tone in the Book of Mormon. That's true from Orson Hyde's mission to Palestine in 1841-42 to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jews right up to today, with the BYU Jerusalem Center, warm relations between LDS and Jewish scholars, etc. When a student at BYU, I even attended a passover celebration hosted there by BYU professor Victor Ludlow (hint: watch out for the very spicy spread on the crackers). So don't draw the wrong conclusion from these or other Book of Mormon passages. What the text says may have little relation to what Mormons today believe and practice.
- 1 Ne. 2:2-4 - Lehi, into the wild
- This passage, an understated description of Lehi leaving his house and possessions to trudge off into the bleak terrain of Arabia with his family and his tent, has always been one of my favorites.
- 1 Ne. 2:9-10 - Lehi, to his sons
[H]e spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!These exhortations once seemed overwrought to me, but now they seem to capture a despairing father trying to inspire his older sons to greatness. Compare this with Lehi's joy in 1 Ne. 3:8 when Nephi later proclaims his willingness to obey Lehi's request to hike back to Jerusalem on a quest for the brass plates of Laban. The interaction between fathers and sons is one of the primary motifs of the Book of Mormon, most notably with Lehi and his sons; Alma the Elder and Younger; Alma the Younger and his own three sons; Mosiah the Younger and his four sons; and Mormon and Moroni. See the FARMS review of Fathers and Sons in the Book of Mormon for more on this theme.
And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord! (2:9-10)
- 1 Ne. 2:13 - misplaced faith in Jerusalem
Neither did they [Laman and Lemuel] believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father (2:13)This fits with the mindset of those who confronted Jeremiah — Judeans who believed that the Davidic covenant promised divine protection for Jerusalem and that the city would not fall. They consequently discounted the dire warnings of Jeremiah and others, which ran contrary to their (evidently flawed) understanding of the Davidic covenant.
I, Nephi, returned from speaking with the Lord ...In the first two chapters we saw God reveal himself to Lehi in various ways. Lehi had a waking vision during prayer (1:6); was overcome with the Spirit and carried away in a vision (1:7-8); and was spoken to in a dream (2:1-2; 3:2). The text in 1 Nephi seems to make no distinction between dreams and visions (8:2: "Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision"). Different, more direct language is used for Nephi's divine communications: "I did cry unto the Lord, and behold he did visit me" (2:16); "And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying" (2:18); and the present verse, where Nephi reports speaking with the Lord (3:1) in terms no different than he reports speaking with Lehi (3:2).
These frequent divine communications drive the whole narrative in the opening chapters of 1 Nephi, in much the same way as occurs in the first two chapters of Matthew, where Joseph receives several communications in dreams, either being "warned in a dream" (Matt. 2:12, 22) or having an angel appear to him in a dream (Matt. 1:20, 2:13, 2:19). The text in Matthew also seems to conflate visions (a waking experience of visual images) with dreams (visual images presented to the mind during sleep). Visions are sometimes described in language suggesting a visitation (a waking experience of viewing and conversing with a visiting being who is physically present). Moreover, D&C 129:1-3 distinguishes between two types of heavenly being who might make such a visitation: angels, "resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bone" and "spirits of just men made perfect" who "are not resurrected" and lack a body of flesh and bone.
- 1 Ne. 3:3 - the plates of brass
My reference materials tell me that the standard form of writing in the ancient world was the scroll: "[T]his word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, ..." (Jer. 36:1-2). The scroll itself was composed of either tanned animal skins (possibly worked to produce parchment) or papyrus, made from the marsh plant Cyperus papyrus.
But here's a direct quote of particular interest: "Other writing materials are mentioned in the Bible or are known from archaeology. Public documents that were to be preserved or displayed might be inscribed on stone (as were the Ten Commandments) or on bronze plates (as was the decree honoring Simon the high priest, 1 Macc. 14:48)." Dix, p. 94. Another Biblical example is the Mesha Stele or Moabite Stone, pictured at the right, discovered in 1868 and erected in the middle of the 9th century BC. Compare this to the stone with engravings on it brought to Mosiah I (Omni 1:20), the plates of brass under discussion here (1 Nephi 3:3), and plates galore throughout the balance of the Book of Mormon.
- 1 Ne. 3:7 - I will go, I will do, the things the Lord commands
I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.These classic words of Nephi made Lehi "exceedingly glad" (3:8) and are memorized through song by every Mormon child in Primary.
- 1 Ne. 3:15 - As the Lord liveth, and as we live ...
- The first instance of an oath, which appears again more prominently at 1 Nephi 4:32-37. Similar language appears in several Old Testament episodes, such as when Elisha swears fealty to Elijah: "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee" (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6).
- 1 Ne. 3:19-20 - preserve language and the words of the prophets
- This passage gives two reasons for undertaking the dangerous quest for the plates of brass. First, "that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers," presumably Hebrew or Aramaic. Second, "that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets." Interesting that no mention is made of Torah, the primary term one generally associates with the Hebrew Bible. But this was too early for a fixed and written Torah, which is best dated to the 5th century BC and Ezra. This is also evident from the narrative of the discovery of the book of the law during the reign of Josiah (Zedekiah's father, after all), the contents of which were so surprising to the king that he tore his robes (2 Kings 22:11), suggesting "the law" was not widely known in Judah at the time. But Jer. 7:9 makes it clear the substance of the Ten Commandments was known at that time and incorporated into the preaching of contemporary prophets.
- 1 Ne. 3:31 - Laman and Lemuel ponder their fate | direct dialogue
And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?This verse presents direct dialogue spoken by Laman and Lemuel (apparently speaking as one, with plural pronouns). There's a rather haunting quality to their words, which present them reflecting on their impending death at the hands of a powerful enemy who knows them and who just tried to kill them when they were guests in his house. That quality is heightened as, in the immediately preceding verses, an angel directed them to return to that very spot. For these four brothers, this is a life or death decision. This is David facing the troglodyte Goliath. This is Wyatt Earp reluctantly riding off to meet Johnny Ringo. This is Gandalf on the bridge at Khazad-dum. This is Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra. This is the end, think Laman and Lemuel, and they are not happy about it.
It is worth noting that the first three chapters are primarily narrative summary with Nephi as narrator (see 1:1 and the frequent indexical "I"). The only direct dialogue verses are 1:13 (Lehi), 1:14 (Lehi), 2:9-10 (Lehi), 3:2-6 (Lehi), 3:7 (Nephi), 3:13 (Laban), 3:15-20 (Nephi), 3:29 (an angel), and here at 3:31 (Laman and Lemuel).
- 1 Ne. 4:1-3 - a motivational speech
- These three verses are a short motivational speech by Nephi citing events in Israelite history, trying to get his brothers to agree to give it one more try with Laban in Jerusalem. Similar speeches recapitulating the salvation history of Israel, some much longer, appear periodically throughout 1 Nephi.
- 1 Ne. 4:3 - wherefore can ye doubt?
Now behold ye know that this is true; and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt? Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.Nephi gives two reasons his brethren should not doubt that the Lord can deliver the desired record into their hands despite Laban's opposition: (1) They just know it; and (2) an angel told them so. The first reason reflects in an odd way the prevalent Mormon view that people just know that the Church is true. The second reason reflects the unusual status of Laman and Lemuel in the narrative, doubtful and rebellious men who nevertheless have conversed with angels.
On the general topic of doubt, compare Alma 56:47-48 (the stripling warriors "had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them"); 3 Nephi 8:4 ("And there began to be great doubtings and disputations among the people, notwithstanding so many signs had been given"); Mormon 9:21("Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him"); and Ether 3:19 ("and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting").
- 1 Ne. 4:6 - led by the Spirit
I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.He didn't have a plan, just faith and courage. This was Nephi's defining moment, when, alone, he "crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban" (4:5).
- 1 Ne. 4:9-17 - Nephi's interior dialogue
- This block of verses reports Nephi's interior dialogue between himself and the Spirit. The Spirit tells Nephi to "kill Laban" (4:10), then, more poetically, "Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands" (4:12). Nephi reports that he was initially loathe to take such action, but on further reflection (v. 14-17) decided that dispatching Laban and obtaining the plates of brass would in fact further God's purposes.
- 1 Ne. 4:18 - the death of Laban
Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.With his own sword, no less. This graphic event, which looks like the murder of a supine and defenseless man, troubles many readers of the Book of Mormon, but this sort of thing is very much in the spirit of the Old Testament. Consider the David and Goliath encounter: "David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith" (1 Sam. 17:51). That's not some thuggish Israelite soldier or the pitiless Joab at work; that's David, who became the hero king of Israel.
Even more graphic is Samuel's execution of Agag, a foreign king captured in battle but spared by Saul, against Samuel's explicit directive otherwise: "Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past. And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal" (1 Sam. 15:32-33). That's Samuel, one of the greatest of Israel's prophets. Prophets were made of pretty stern stuff back then. So was Nephi, it seems.
- 1 Ne. 4:30-37 - a lighter moment: the prudent Zoram joins the expedition
- In an extreme dramatic shift, we move from Laban's execution directly to Zoram's almost comic dilemma. The text highlights the desire of the brothers that Zoram not return and report their shady deed to the Jerusalem authorities. Given earlier events (chapter 3) that story might have seemed credible, but having unwittingly assisted Nephi in obtaining the plates of brass and getting out of town, Zoram was in a very delicate position. If he was not believed, he would be the primary suspect and would likely lose his own life. And perhaps Laban wasn't a really great guy to work for. So after a little reflection, Zoram prudently decided that maybe departing into the wilderness wasn't such a bad idea. Sometimes your whole life can change in one cosmic moment. Carpe diem. Zoram seized his moment.
- 1 Ne. 5:2 - Sariah's complaint
Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.This is presented as direct dialogue from Sariah. Sounds an awful lot like the complaints of Laman and Lemuel (see 2:11). But Sariah came around in 2:8 ("Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness," etc.), whereas Laman and Lemuel never did.
- 1 Ne. 5:4-5 - Lehi's defense
I know that I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.[At right, an artistic rendering of Lehi's vision at 1:6.] As with Sariah's complaint, this response by Lehi, the visionary man, is presented as direct dialogue. There's something wrong with the tense here. The reference to perishing with his brethren (which I take to be a reference to his fellow Jews at Jerusalem) can't be to the first capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC, as Lehi's vision, also referred to in verse 4, came after that event. But if the reference is to Israelite brethren who might perish in the more destructive second capture of Jerusalem in 587 BC, then the sense of the verse as written, which makes it sound like those brethren had already perished, doesn't make sense either.
But behold, I have obtained a land of promise ...
- 1 Ne. 5:9 - sacrifice and burnt offerings
And it came to pass that they did rejoice exceedingly, and did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord; and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel.This would seem to mark Lehi as a religious rebel and heretic -- burnt offerings and the offering of sacrifices were centralized at the Jerusalem temple and prohibited anywhere else, especially after the reforms of Josiah in the last third of the seventh century.
- 1 Ne. 5:11-13 - Lehi peruses the brass plates
And he beheld that they did contain the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents;This passage raises some very interesting issues. First, the term "the five books of Moses" is an anachronism. A Jew like Lehi would call it "torah," not "the five books of Moses." [But see 1 Nephi 4:16: "And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass."] And these writings, to the extent they existed at this time, were on scrolls, not books (which didn't come into general use until the first century). Second, modern scholarship has esablished that torah as a collection of five authoritative scrolls didn't really take shape until it was assembled as a post-exilic body of writings. Ezra is traditionally viewed as the prophet/scribe who was instrumental in that effort, and Ezra worked a hundred years after Zedekiah reigned in Jerusalem.
And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah;
And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah.
The reference to Jeremiah in verse 13 emphasizes the truncated nature of the contents of the brass plates: "many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah." Necessarily, only some of what we now have as the Book of Jeremiah would have been on the brass plates since some of its contents were penned after 597. But Jeremiah underwent considerable revision for centuries afterwards -- the text of Jeremiah in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which dates to the second century BC, omits approximately 12% of the material in our present-day Jeremiah (based on the Masoretic text).
The bottom line is that it is a mistake to think of our present text of the Old Testament as what would have been written on the brass plates. Whatever was written there would have been a much earlier and much shorter version of what Christians now know as the Old Testament.
- 1 Ne. 5:19 - the plates to be preserved
Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time.This is a remarkable passage. It implies that up until this time the brass plates were just natural metal objects with writing, albeit holy writing, apparently subject to change and decay, but that henceforth they would be supernatural objects and would "never perish." There is no hint of what ordinance, event, or process might have produced this change. There's a strange similarity here with the Evangelical view of the Bible as inerrant, which attributes a supernatural status to the words themselves. Here, the supernatural status is attributed to the medium on which the words were written.
- 1 Ne. 5:21 - a shout out for the Old Testament
And we had obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children.Subject to the caveat discussed above under verses 11-13 that the brass plates were an early and much truncated form of the Hebrew Bible compared with out present text, this verse is a ringing affirmation of the Old Testament as "desirable" and "of great worth." So stop complaining about how long Isaiah is (66 chapters) and how obscure some parts of the Pentateuch are. It is desirable and of great worth. Just buy a good reference or two to help you through the tough stuff. And while you are book shopping, buy a version of the Old Testament that puts prose passages in paragraphs and poetry in verse!
- 1 Ne. 6:1 - the Plates of Nephi
And now I, Nephi, do not give the genealogy of my fathers in this part of my record; neither at any time shall I give it after upon these plates which I am writing; for it is given in the record which has been kept by my father; wherefore, I do not write it in this work.At several points in 1 Nephi, explicit discussion of plates upon which the written record is etched or engraved is presented. Here at 6:1, Nephi refers to "these plates," making no distinction between two different sets of plates that he was working with. This distinction (between what present-day Mormons call the Small Plates of Nephi and the Large Plates of Nephi) is made later in chapters 9 and 19. Back at 1:17, Nephi notes that these are "plates which I have made with mine own hands." Also at 1:17, Nephi announces that what he is first writing is "an abridgement of the record of my father," suggesting a third set of plates from which he is drawing some of his material. We might refer to this record kept by Nephi's father Lehi as "the Plates of Lehi" (although it is not explicitly stated that Lehi's record was kept on plates).
In the front matter to the published Book of Mormon there is a one-page outline titled "A brief explanation about the Book of Mormon." That outline identifies four sets of plates referred to in the narrative, not all of which are referred to in the text of the Book of Mormon by the titles given in that outline. Interestingly, what I have called the Plates of Lehi are not referenced in that outline, which names four other sets of plates:
- The Plates of Nephi, including the Small Plates and the Large Plates. The text of 1 Nephi through Omni is drawn from the Small Plates.
- The Plates of Mormon, the source of the text from Mosiah through Moroni, excluding Ether.
- The Plates of Ether, the source behind Moroni's abridgement of the history of Jared, his brother, and their descendants found in Ether.
- The Plates of Brass, containing some writings of the Jews. These are described at 1 Ne. 5:11-13 and are presumably the source for extensive quotations from the Book of Isaiah presented in 1 Nephi 20 and 21, and in 2 Nephi 12 through 24.
- 1 Ne. 6:5 - Nephi's intent
[T]he fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved.This resembles the declaration made in the title page to the Book of Mormon (said to have been part of the ancient record, not a modern addition) that the book is to convince "the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations."
dt>1 Ne. 3:1 - speaking with the Lord in dreams and visions
T. Keith Dix, "Books and Bookmaking in Antiquity," in Oxford Guide to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan, eds. (OUP, 1993).
Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Part 1 (FARMS, 1993).