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1 Nephi 11
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1 Nephi 11
1 Nephi 11:1
1 For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot.
Nephi ended his last story in 1 Nephi 10:16 by mentioning the tent of his father. In the next verse, he said:
“And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the Messiah who should come—I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost”
His mention of the Son of God triggered an aside. Now Nephi must return, and he wrote: “For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen.” That phrase repeats the idea he expressed just before the aside. It is another case of repetitive resumption (see 1 Nephi 6: 1–6 for an explanation and examples). This is not only a literary technique that demonstrates antiquity, but it is an important marker of how Nephi wrote. By seeing these cases of repetitive resumption, we can examine the text in between the departure and the return to analyze why it appears. In Nephi, we typically see Nephi deviating from a planned text. These borders point to what was planned and underscore the aside.
As Nephi begins his description of his vision it is important to note that it does not come without effort. Nephi begins with having heard something that pricks his heart and mind, and then that becomes the subject of sincere examination. Nephi called it “pondering in mine heart.”
As the vision opens, the Spirit of the Lord takes Nephi to “an exceedingly high mountain.” In the religious geography of the Israelites, mountains were appropriate places to approach the divine. They become symbolic temples, and temporary locations where Yahweh may visit. Thus, Nephi understands that he is being taken to a sacred place where Yahweh will open sacred things to him.
1 Nephi 11:2–6
2 And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?
3 And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.
4 And the Spirit said unto me: Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?
5 And I said: Yea, thou knowest that I believe all the words of my father.
6 And when I had spoken these words, the Spirit cried with a loud voice, saying: Hosanna to the Lord, the most high God; for he is God over all the earth, yea, even above all. And blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God; wherefore, thou shalt behold the things which thou hast desired.
Nephi structures his description in the form of a conversation. Certainly, this represents the exchange in the vision, although the specifics of the conversation might have differed somewhat from what Nephi recorded from memory—perhaps soon after, or even much later, when he wrote this account. Dialogue is an effective way to present information in a logical order and break up the basic narration.
The Spirit asks what Nephi desires. Of course, Yahweh would know the desire. This is not a request for information, but for Nephi to verbalize that desire. The questions do not give the Spirit new information, but perhaps make it more real for Nephi, and certainly more interesting for his readers.
The Spirit notes that Nephi believes in the “Son of the most high God.” This is an interesting picture into an older layer of Israelite religion. In Lehi’s day, there was still an understanding of the council of gods. The head of the gods was the Most High God, and Yahweh was his son. This understanding of two different gods (at least) was not seen as contrary to monotheism, because the concept of monotheism at that time was that there was only one god for Israel, and other nations had other gods, including many gods for one people.
In Hebrew theology, the Most High God remained in the heavens and was more distant. The God of Israel, the one with whom the Covenant had been made, was the son of the Most High God, known by tetragrammation [consisting of four letters in Hebrew].
1 Nephi 11:7
7 And behold this thing shall be given unto thee for a sign, that after thou hast beheld the tree which bore the fruit which thy father tasted, thou shalt also behold a man descending out of heaven, and him shall ye witness; and after ye have witnessed him ye shall bear record that it is the Son of God.
Lehi saw a vision of the tree. Afterward, he taught concerning the atoning Messiah. At the beginning of Nephi’s vision, he is told that he will see what his father saw. Modern readers can easily focus on the explanation of the symbols in the dream and miss the fact that all of what Nephi relates is pertinent to what his father saw. Nephi will clearly supply more information than what his father did, but the two essential parts will be the same. Nephi will see the symbolic vision, and then see the meaning of the tree.
At this point, it is important to lay the foundation for how the Nephites understood God. We do not typically recognize that the Nephite understanding was different from ours. Nephi was literally a child of the Old World. As a Hebrew from those times, he believed in God, and his God was Jehovah, or as scholars translate the name, Yahweh. That will not change. In the last comment we introduced a difference between the Son of God and the Most High God. Those were two figures in Hebrew theology. What is important for modern readers is that we see in the use of the terms Spirit of God, Son of God, and Most High God in Nephi’s writing a familiar triune [consisting of three in one] that we call the Godhead. While Nephi would have understood these separate concepts, they were not necessarily behind his use of the word God.
The Son of the Most High God was Yahweh, and Yahweh was assigned as the God of Israel. Israel had no other God. They covenanted with Yahweh. They prayed to Yahweh. While they had record of the Most High God, they did not deal with the Father God, but with Yahweh.
Latter-day Saints understand that there is a difference between who we were in the pre-mortal life and who we are in mortality. In the premortal life, Yahweh was God of Israel. We understand Yahweh as the premortal Jesus. This is the God who came to earth. When the Spirit tells Nephi that he will “behold a man descending out of heaven. . . and will bear record that it is the Son of God,” Nephi is being told that God himself—Yahweh himself—will descend to become a man, a man we know as Jesus.
The Savior’s Mortal Ministry
1 Nephi 11:8
8 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.
The literary form Nephi will follow will use a repeated form. The Spirit will command that Nephi look. Nephi says he looked. This makes for a quite repetitive series, but it is intentional. It is best read as a conversation, where the command comes, and then Nephi learns as a result of the command.
In the beginning of Nephi’s version of the dream, he looks and sees a tree. He sees a tree “like unto the tree which my father had seen.” Why didn’t he say that it was the same tree? Perhaps it was, but Nephi’s vision is slightly different, because the function of Nephi’s dream is different.
The differences are apparent in the use of the color white as a symbol. When Lehi looked upon the tree, he saw white fruit. The emphasis of his dream was on the fruit and the members of his family (and all of humanity) partaking of that fruit that brought heavenly joy.
Nephi sees a white tree. Nephi’s vision will not focus on the symbolism of the fruit, but on the symbolism of the tree itself. A white tree is unusual, but this is an exceeding whiteness. This is not an earthly tree, but a tree demonstrating a divine presence.
1 Nephi 11:9–13
9 And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.
10 And he said unto me: What desirest thou?
11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.
12 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look! And I looked as if to look upon him, and I saw him not; for he had gone from before my presence.
13 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
Nephi has two guides in his vision, where Lehi had only one. Lehi’s guide, described as a man in a white robe, took him on a journey. That guide is not mentioned after Lehi begins his vision. Nephi has a guide, identified as the Spirit of the Lord. As with Lehi’s initial guide, we hear no more about him when the vision unfolds.
Lehi had traveled through a wilderness, Nephi is taken to a mountain. Lehi’s dream is more about his family, hence the introduction of traveling in darkness through a wilderness would be similar to the experience his family would have traveling in a desert. Nephi is taken to a sacred mountain.
Lehi’s guide is no longer mentioned. Nephi specifically indicates that his initial guide “had gone from before my presence.”
For both, the vision unfolds. However, where Lehi sees the tree immediately, Nephi’s vision will introduce the tree only as an expression of the love of God, which love is demonstrated as the vision opens by showing Nephi familiar locations. In one location, he sees a virgin, who is “fair and white.” The discussion of what fair and white might mean in Nephi and Jacob is the subject of later comments, but it should be noted here that it is unlikely to refer to skin pigment, as there is no reason to see Mary as physically distinguished from other Israelite women.
1 Nephi 11:14–20
14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.
18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
The new guide is an angel from the heavens. Angels speak divine messages to humans, and the presence of the angel sanctifies this important message. The vision had been of a virgin. Now the explanation comes as to why she is important. The message is: “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” In the original manuscript, and in the 1830 edition, she was identified as the mother of God, not the mother of the Son of God. Joseph Smith made that change in the 1837 edition.
The change clarifies meaning for the modern reader but was unnecessary for Nephi. Nephi already believed that God, Yahweh, was the son of the Most High God—or just abbreviated to the Son of God. Thus, for Nephi, the angel was presenting the mother of Yahweh in the flesh. The original reading looks back to Nephi’s understanding. The 1837 clarification looks to the modern readers. The result, in verse 20, is the virgin holding the incarnate Yahweh as a baby in her arms.
1 Nephi 11:21
21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
In the previous verse, Nephi saw a child in the arms of his mother. The angel proclaims his identity. Even though this is the child in mortality, it is the eternal, transcendent titles by which he is identified. One is that he is the “Son of the Eternal Father.” As with the “mother of the Son of God” phrase in verse 18, this is the result of Joseph Smith’s editing in 1837. It originally read “even the Eternal Father.” The reason for the change is the same. The original displayed Nephi’s understanding, and the 1837 change reflects more modern understandings.
The interesting thing is that as soon as the Lamb of God is shown, then the angel asks if Nephi knows the meaning of the tree. The angel apparently expected that the vision of the mortal Messiah would clarify the meaning of the tree. It does, but why?
One of the stories with which Nephi would have been familiar was of the goddess Asherah as a celestial wife of God. The oldest versions of the story had her as the wife of the Most High God, though later she was wife to Yahweh. That relationship creates a very close tie between the woman and the child, and the celestial mother and her divine child.
The connection between Asherah and a tree was an important part of the worship of that goddess, and her counterparts, in the ancient Near East. Thus, seeing a tree associated with the mother of a deity would have been a natural connection for Nephi. By seeing Jesus and his mother, the nature of the tree shifted from one that bore fruit that gave joy to the very person who authored and enabled that joy for God’s children on earth.
1 Nephi 11:22–24
22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.
23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.
24 And after he had said these words, he said unto me: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him.
The translation of the Book of Mormon often tosses in language borrowed from the New Testament. In this case, Nephi answers his guide, saying that “it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad.” This echoes Romans 5:5, which says “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts.” This type of borrowing is literary in the translation and does not imply that the specific words were on Nephi’s plates.
The impact of Nephi’s vision is encapsulated at this point. In verse 21 (discussed in the previous episode), Nephi is shown the tree. Now he is asked if he knows what it means. Nephi replies that he does. His explanation of the tree is important. The first meaning he gives is that it is the love of God. However, the rest of the response defines what the love of God is.
Remember that Nephi said that the love of God “sheddeth itself abroad.” In verse 24 he is shown “the Son of God going forth among the children of men.” Thus, the definition of the love of God is the mission of the Son of God. The love of God is spread abroad as the Son of God goes forth, or abroad, among the children of men.
1 Nephi 11:25–27
25 And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.
26 And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God!
27 And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; and I also beheld the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him; and after he was baptized, I beheld the heavens open, and the Holy Ghost come down out of heaven and abide upon him in the form of a dove.
Nephi continues to have a revelatory experience through the symbols of his father’s dream. Those symbols continue to emphasize the earthly mission of Yahweh. Although modern readers understand that this is Jesus, that isn’t the designation Nephi uses. The importance of this vision for Nephi is that Yahweh has come to earth. Nephi emphasizes his role as the redeemer, something only Yahweh could do.
The angel asks Nephi to behold the condescension of God. The meaning of condescension here is the voluntary descent from a higher rank to interact with those of a lower status. The angel is literally telling Nephi to behold his God, Yahweh, descending to become mortal.
The specifics of the condescension begin with Jesus’s baptism. It is a tight connection to the introduction to this part of the symbolism of the dream. In verse 25, Nephi saw the rod of iron, which led to the fountain of living waters. While the image of living waters is directly associated with Jesus’s atoning mission, that mission is accepted through the waters of baptism. Thus, there is an appropriate echo of the living waters that Nephi saw from his father’s dream and the waters of baptism that demonstrated the atoning mission of the Messiah on earth.
All four of the gospel writers note Jesus’s baptism and the descent of the Holy Ghost as a dove. It is no surprise, therefore, that something that the gospel writers thought so significant is reprised here in language similar to the language they used. It is certainly borrowed from them. Nevertheless, the vision that Nephi saw, and of which he testified, is the same of which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John later testified.
1 Nephi 11:28–31
28 And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them.
29 And I also beheld twelve others following him. And it came to pass that they were carried away in the Spirit from before my face, and I saw them not.
30 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the heavens open again, and I saw angels descending upon the children of men; and they did minister unto them.
31 And he spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits; and the angel spake and showed all these things unto me. And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God; and the devils and the unclean spirits were cast out.
Nephi’s understanding of the vision perhaps imputed an expectation that was never quite met during Jesus’s mortal ministry. Nephi saw Yahweh condescend to come to earth, and of course sees him “in power and great glory.” The crowds who saw and heard him on earth could appreciate his message, but few glimpsed the power and great glory that Nephi knew he embodied.
This section of the vision shows the quick essentials of Jesus’s ministry. As such, it is interesting what is selected to be shown. Nephi sees Jesus, and angels, ministering to the children of men. Specifically, he mentions healing. He doesn’t mention teaching. He doesn’t mention sermons. He mentions healing.
Nephi probably expected that the Israelites would know doctrine. What he saw was compassion, but more importantly, the healing witness that declared that this was a man above men. In that ancient time, this was miraculous healing, and an obvious declaration of the power and great glory that otherwise they could not see.
1 Nephi 11:32–36
32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
33 And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.
34 And after he was slain I saw the multitudes of the earth, that they were gathered together to fight against the apostles of the Lamb; for thus were the twelve called by the angel of the Lord.
35 And the multitude of the earth was gathered together; and I beheld that they were in a large and spacious building, like unto the building which my father saw. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Behold the world and the wisdom thereof; yea, behold the house of Israel hath gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
36 And it came to pass that I saw and bear record, that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Nephi sees more of the Savior’s earthly ministry. In particular, he sees his death at the hands of the people. He is lifted up on a cross. Nephi was probably familiar with some form of crucifixion as he gives only the barest description. Nephi’s brother, Jacob, will later mention picking up one’s cross, which is another clear allusion to New Testament language, but to the procession before the crucifixion, rather than the lifting up on the cross.
It is probable that the language of the cross is part of the translation. Certainly, the idea and imagery of the cross in association with the earthly Messiah fades in the Book of Mormon. It is not a New World image and therefore has no lasting impact, contrary to the critical importance of the image to early Old World Christianity.
The vision of the symbols moves from seeing what would become history to the more symbolic class between the entities that Nephi will label the Church of God and the great and abominable Church of the Devil. The great and spacious building is linked to the great and abominable church that wars against God’s plan. Nephi sees that God will ultimately triumph.
This is not a chapter ending in the 1830 edition.
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