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1 Nephi 15
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1 Nephi 15
Nephi Returns to the Camp
1 Nephi 15:1
1 And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been carried away in the Spirit, and seen all these things, I returned to the tent of my father.
The previous chapter ended with Nephi’s testimony, punctuated with amen. In both Nephi’s and Mormon’s writings, when the word amen appears as a testament to something that has been written, or quoted, it ends a chapter. There are a couple of exceptions where an amen does not end a chapter, but, in most of the exceptions, the amen is simply recorded as the end of a prayer, and not as a separate testimony.
This literary technique begins with Nephi, but is consistent throughout what we know of Nephite writings, since Mormon uses that same technique almost a thousand years later. What is most interesting is that the testificatory amen closes a chapter even when the story is not finished. This will create the condition where the end of the story is appended to the beginning of the next chapter, rather than stay in the same chapter as the rest of the story, which is how a modern writer would do it.
In the first verse of our Chapter 15, we see the result of closing the previous chapter with amen. That forced the end of the chapter, but Nephi wanted to signal that that part of the story had also ended. Thus, he notes that after the vision, he returned to the tent of his father. Nephi continues to use the tent of his father as a marker for the change of stories. This has happened within chapters up to this point, but it occurs at this point as well. In this case, we have just this sentence before picking up the new story. Nephi, as a writer, closed the previous chapter with the testificatory amen, but closes that story with returning to the tent of his father.
1 Nephi 15:2–6
2 And it came to pass that I beheld my brethren, and they were disputing one with another concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them.
3 For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.
4 And now I, Nephi, was grieved because of the hardness of their hearts, and also, because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men.
5 And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall.
6 And it came to pass that after I had received strength I spake unto my brethren, desiring to know of them the cause of their disputations.
One of the important functions of 1 Nephi is to show how the promise that Nephi would be a leader and a teacher over his brothers would play out. This is important because it is contrary to expectations, as the eldest child traditionally fills that role. However, the Bible has a number of such stories, which carry the subtext that Yahweh is behind these events precisely because they are an alteration of the expected order.
As Nephi begins this part of his story, he has just finished his vision of what his father saw. His brothers not only did not have such an experience, but Nephi finds them disputing what their father had said prior to the time that Nephi entered his vision. This return to the time right after his father’s explanation of the Savior emphasizes the contrast between his brothers and himself. They are still stuck in the past questions while Nephi has just come from a transcendent experience of which they not only did not take part, but of which they are totally ignorant.
Nephi’s vision of the future now sees this conflict with his brothers in its prophetic perspective. They dispute now because of the hardness of their hearts, and Nephi has seen that their hardness of hearts will continue and will define the relationship between their descendants and Nephi’s descendants.
1 Nephi 15:7–11
7 And they said: Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive tree, and also concerning the Gentiles.
8 And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?
9 And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.
10 Behold, I said unto them: How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts?
11 Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.
Nephi begins to present himself as a teacher by discovering what the question is that the brothers were disputing. The brothers do not understand the allegory of the olive tree. When Nephi wrote of this episode he simply said: “Yea, even my father spake much concerning the Gentiles, and also concerning the house of Israel, that they should be compared like unto an olive tree, whose branches should be broken off and should be scattered upon all the face of the earth” (1 Nephi 10:12). Although his father “spake much,” Nephi does not write what he said.
Whatever his father taught, the brothers did not understand it. As noted in this commentary on that verse, Lehi had clearly read Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree that Jacob will later enter onto the small plates. Given the way Lehi described his dream, he was undoubtedly comfortable with symbolism. Perhaps he related the allegory without explaining it. Whatever that occasion, Nephi suggests that his brothers did not understand. Nephi, the teacher, will instruct them.
The first part of the instruction is that one must be prepared. Not hardening hearts and asking in faith are important preliminaries to understanding the things of God.
1 Nephi 15:12–16
12 Behold, I say unto you, that the house of Israel was compared unto an olive tree, by the Spirit of the Lord which was in our father; and behold are we not broken off from the house of Israel, and are we not a branch of the house of Israel?
13 And now, the thing which our father meaneth concerning the grafting in of the natural branches through the fulness of the Gentiles, is, that in the latter days, when our seed shall have dwindled in unbelief, yea, for the space of many years, and many generations after the Messiah shall be manifested in body unto the children of men, then shall the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto the Gentiles, and from the Gentiles unto the remnant of our seed—
14 And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord; and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him; wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.
15 And then at that day will they not rejoice and give praise unto their everlasting God, their rock and their salvation? Yea, at that day, will they not receive the strength and nourishment from the true vine? Yea, will they not come unto the true fold of God?
16 Behold, I say unto you, Yea; they shall be remembered again among the house of Israel; they shall be grafted in, being a natural branch of the olive tree, into the true olive tree.
Although the question is about the allegory of the olive tree, Nephi has just seen a vision of how that allegory plays out. Thus, even though the vision did not show the allegory, Nephi can understand it because he has seen the future history behind it.
The beginning of the allegory is the separation of the branches, and Nephi declares that Lehi’s family is a branch broken off. Just as Nephi’s vision also saw the role of the Gentiles, the allegory speaks of them. Therefore, the Gentiles will also become inheritors of God’s promises. They are not of the original tree, but will be grafted in.
The point of the allegory is to see that the seed of Lehi and the wild branch of the Gentiles all become inheritors of the covenants of the house of Israel. They will all come to the true fold of God.
1 Nephi 15:17-18
17 And this is what our father meaneth; and he meaneth that it will not come to pass until after they are scattered by the Gentiles; and he meaneth that it shall come by way of the Gentiles, that the Lord may show his power unto the Gentiles, for the very cause that he shall be rejected of the Jews, or of the house of Israel.
18 Wherefore, our father hath not spoken of our seed alone, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.
The allegory of the olive tree is complicated because it tells a very long story. Yahweh has a work to do, and similar to the long earthly times required to nurture trees, nurturing the house of Israel will take a long time. Assuming that Lehi saw much of what Nephi did, and that Nephi recorded only the vision of the fruit of the tree of life, it is possible that Laman and Lemuel assumed that everything that their father had seen would be as relevant to their lives as the vision of them declining to partake of the fruit.
Therefore, it is probable that one of the questions they had was how the allegory was going to affect them personally. In the previous episode we examined the way the allegory fit into the future, and here Nephi clarifies that it is a distant future. Lehi’s family felt that they stood near the beginning of the allegory where the branches were separated. They looked forward to a reunification with the root of the tree (made clear in Jacob’s retelling of the allegory). That reunification will come, but it comes after the Gentiles have been adopted into Israel.
However, even though the final episodes still remain in our future, there were aspects of the allegory which were relevant to their lives, just as we can find ourselves in it. For them, it would become increasingly important to understand that the Gentiles were important, and that they would come under the covenant with Abraham. By the time Nephi wrote this, he was in a New World full of Gentiles—meaning those who were not born into the house of Israel. The survival of Lehi’s seed in the New World would depend upon the Gentiles they found there. Knowing that those Gentiles could also fall under God’s covenant made them part of God’s people and not irredeemably foreign.
1 Nephi 15:19–20
19 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake much unto them concerning these things; yea, I spake unto them concerning the restoration of the Jews in the latter days.
20 And I did rehearse unto them the words of Isaiah, who spake concerning the restoration of the Jews, or of the house of Israel; and after they were restored they should no more be confounded, neither should they be scattered again. And it came to pass that I did speak many words unto my brethren, that they were pacified and did humble themselves before the Lord.
Even though Nephi’s dream showed a distant future, it is probable that Nephi did not fully understand the true length of the time involved. Nephi speaks to what must have been one of his brothers’ concerns: When would they be gathered again? They knew they were being scattered. Laman and Lemuel were obviously anxious to return to Jerusalem. They likely saw the promise of the gathering as a time when they, or perhaps their close descendants, might return to the Jerusalem that they hadn’t wanted to leave.
Nephi might have felt some of that longing, as he and Jacob both teach of the gathering. The theme of the gathering disappears in later writers who had not known the Old World. It is probable that for those who knew only the New World, there was no longing for a reunification with a people they had never known and could only see as foreign.
1 Nephi 15:21–25
21 And it came to pass that they did speak unto me again, saying: What meaneth this thing which our father saw in a dream? What meaneth the tree which he saw?
22 And I said unto them: It was a representation of the tree of life.
23 And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?
24 And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.
25 Wherefore, I, Nephi, did exhort them to give heed unto the word of the Lord; yea, I did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed, that they would give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things.
The book of First Nephi is a well-crafted piece of writing. Nephi carefully selected the stories he told, as well as which ones he left out. Thus, this discussion of his father’s dream is included for a reason greater than the simple question of whether it happened. Many things happened that Nephi didn’t report. Why include this information?
There are two reasons. The first is that this gives Nephi an opportunity to show how he was a teacher over his brethren. That is the fulfillment of prophecy, and a subtheme of the whole book of First Nephi.
The second is that Nephi’s audience was a people who had not grown up in the Old World and did not understand the stories and ways of telling stories from the Old World. It would have been a very unusual inhabitant of Judah in the days of Lehi who would not immediately recognize the tree as a representative of the tree of life. It is probable that Laman and Lemuel also knew it. It is unlikely, however, that Nephi’s readers would have had the immediate recognition that the Old World immigrants would have had. Thus, Nephi needs to clarify for his readers the images that might have been readily interpreted by Lehi’s family.
1 Nephi 15:26–29
26 And they said unto me: What meaneth the river of water which our father saw?
27 And I said unto them that the water which my father saw was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water.
28 And I said unto them that it was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God.
29 And I said unto them that it was a representation of that awful hell, which the angel said unto me was prepared for the wicked.
Lehi’s vision, as Nephi reported it, didn’t emphasize the river as a dividing line. For Nephi, however, it had been part of his vision that showed it to be more than a line, but an awful gulf. Nephi even notes that his father didn’t notice the filthiness of the water because he was so focused on other aspects of the vision.
The nature of allegories and visions is that they can have different interpretations. Nephi sees a different vision than his father did, not because there are two truths, but because there are two different beings, with different life experiences, seeing the same vision. The symbols can contain multiple messages, and some will see one meaning in the symbol and another person a different one.
As Nephi teaches his brothers, he teaches them according to his own vision, not his father’s. The questions Laman and Lemuel ask are ostensibly about Lehi’s dream, but all of them function in the way Nephi tells the story to emphasize Nephi’s growing position in the family. He teaches his brothers, when they should have taught him. Nephi teaches his vision rather than Lehi’s, because Nephi will increasingly be the conduit through whom Yahweh guides the family.
1 Nephi 15:30–36
30 And I said unto them that our father also saw that the justice of God did also divide the wicked from the righteous; and the brightness thereof was like unto the brightness of a flaming fire, which ascendeth up unto God forever and ever, and hath no end.
31 And they said unto me: Doth this thing mean the torment of the body in the days of probation, or doth it mean the final state of the soul after the death of the temporal body, or doth it speak of the things which are temporal?
32 And it came to pass that I said unto them that it was a representation of things both temporal and spiritual; for the day should come that they must be judged of their works, yea, even the works which were done by the temporal body in their days of probation.
33 Wherefore, if they should die in their wickedness they must be cast off also, as to the things which are spiritual, which are pertaining to righteousness; wherefore, they must be brought to stand before God, to be judged of their works; and if their works have been filthiness they must needs be filthy; and if they be filthy it must needs be that they cannot dwell in the kingdom of God; if so, the kingdom of God must be filthy also.
34 But behold, I say unto you, the kingdom of God is not filthy, and there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God; wherefore there must needs be a place of filthiness prepared for that which is filthy.
35 And there is a place prepared, yea, even that awful hell of which I have spoken, and the devil is the preparator of it; wherefore the final state of the souls of men is to dwell in the kingdom of God, or to be cast out because of that justice of which I have spoken.
36 Wherefore, the wicked are rejected from the righteous, and also from that tree of life, whose fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits; yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God. And thus I spake unto my brethren. Amen.
Nephi’s message in his book is that even though he is the younger brother, Yahweh chose him to be a ruler and a teacher over his brothers. Had his brothers been righteous, this would not have happened. Thus it is altogether fitting that Nephi end the discussion of the dream by discussing the fate of the wicked. While this is a general description, Nephi obliquely places Laman and Lemuel among those wicked who will be cast off. Lehi saw that Laman and Lemuel would not partake of the fruit of the tree of life, and Nephi ends his discussion by pointing out that wickedness will keep them separated from the fruit of the tree of life.
The presence of the testificatory amen closes this chapter and marks the end of a chapter in the 1830 edition.
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