Lehi’s Blessings: The Role of Type Scenes in the Book of Mormon #BOM2016

2 Nephi 1-3

“Typology” is one of those big words whose meaning changes with the needs of whoever is trying to make it mean something. It is a concept that predates the Christian Bible, but that has become extremely important to the creation of a single canon out of two diverse sets of narratives—what Christians today call the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.” Those of the Jewish faith, of course, see things differently.

A type is basically a literary allusion that works in reverse. Authors usually allude to things that have already been written. They can do this by direct reference, or they can take little pieces of an earlier narrative and construct a new story out of it—the way that, say, Pinocchio alludes to the story of Jonah by having its main character swallowed by a whale. Allusions can be extraordinarily complex, but they are pretty easy to understand once you get the hang of them.

Typology, on the other hand, moves from the earlier narrative to the later one–or, at least, interprets an earlier narrative as though it were a reference to a later one. If somebody were to find an early version of the Jonah story that claimed that the great prophet had actually been a puppet, for example, we might assume that the great prophet had masterfully predicted the coming forth of Geppetto’s only son.

To be taken seriously, this kind of typological connection—which Christians have long used to recast Hebrew stories as predictions of Christ—requires an author to know the future (which is not a problem when dealing with prophets such as Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, since this was kind of the point). But type scenes can also occur within the same narrative—such as the betrothal scenes in Genesis 24 and Genesis 29, in which the hero (Isaac/Jacob) encounters his beloved (Rebekah/ Rachel) in front of a well. These scenes connect parts of the same narrative together in ways that can be surprisingly profound without requiring anybody to have magic powers.[1]

Which brings us to the Book of Mormon, which presents itself as the Third Testament of Jesus Christ—one whose narrative spans a history that corresponds to both the Old and the New Testaments. Both kinds of connective typology are present in great abundance in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon connects itself to the Old and New Testaments through a number of clearly allusive narratives—several of which I have already explored here and here. And a number of type scenes (such as the rise and fall of anti-Christ preachers or the migration of favored people to a Promised Land) repeat throughout the narrative in ways that recall the great type scenes of the Hebrew Bible.[2]

The type scene that I would like to talk about now features both kinds of typology and much, much more. I believe that it is one of the most narratively complex passages in the Book of Mormon. I refer to the patriarch Lehi’s final blessings of his children in the first three chapters of 2nd Nephi (Chapters 1-4 in modern editions).

The narrative in these chapters point backwards to Jacob’s blessing of his children in Genesis 48-49. But they also point forward to Alma’s blessings to his sons in Alma 36-42 and to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the 19th century. They therefore connect the Book of Mormon to the Old Testament, while, at the very same time, yoking Nephi’s and Mormon’s portions of the Book of Mormon to each other. And they do all of this in ways that reinforce the importance of the Latter-day Restoration in God’s eternal scheme.

Let’s break this all down.

At the end of Genesis, the Patriarch Jacob, who has been led into a new land by his righteous younger son Joseph, gathers all of his children together for a father’s blessing. In this blessing, he settles the birthright on Joseph through his children Ephraim and Manasseh—the latter of whom was Lehi’s tribal ancestor (Alma 10:3). In Chapter 49, Jacob gives a brief identity marker to all of his sons; when he comes to Joseph, he says, “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22). Latter-day Saints have long taken this verse to prophesy of Lehi’s and his family’s journey across the sea and to the Promised Land.

Thus, this seemingly simple type scene connects the Book of Mormon to the Bible in at least three different ways:

  • It serves as a culmination of the story of Nephi as a type of the story of Joseph in Genesis—a story in which a righteous younger son saves his family by leading them to a place of security, while continually deferring to his father as the rightful spiritual leader of the new society.
  • It emphasizes the similarity of Jacob and Lehi’s role as the progenitors of an entire people (Israel and the Nephites/Lamanites) who will produce an important book of scripture that testifies of Christ.
  • It highlights the fact that a portion of the original narrative (Joseph as a fruitful bough, etc.) can be read typologically as a predictor of the second narrative.

And we can deduce all off this without even reading what Lehi has to say to his sons.

Once we do read the words of Lehi’s blessings, the typology becomes even more complicated—especially when we consider Lehi’s blessings as a type of Alma’s counsel to his sons later in the Book of Mormon. Lehi’s blessings form a typological bridge between Joseph’s brief characterizations of his sons and Alma’s detailed counsel to Helman, Shiblon, and Corianton. Specifically, Lehi uses the blessings to make a number of important theological points:

  • In 2 Ne: 1, Lehi speaks generally to his sons. He praises Nephi and tells Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Zoram (and the sons of Ishmael) that “if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi, he shall not perish.” The clear favor shown the younger son reminds us again that Nephi is an antitype of Joseph, whose brothers were so incensed with Jacob’s favoritism that they sold him as a slave. Very soon in the narrative, Laman and Lemuel will try to do even worse.
  • In 2 Ne. 2, Lehi blesses Jacob and, in the process, lays out the doctrines of opposition in all things, the Fortunate Fall, the Atonement, and free agency—all of which have become extremely important elements of Latter-day Saint doctrine.
  • In 2 Ne 3, Lehi blesses Joseph (who not coincidentally shares a name with the guy who got sold into Egypt), and, in the process, lays out the elaborate remnant theology that animates the entire Book of Mormon. Basically, Lehi tells Joseph that his seed “shall not utterly be destroyed” (66) and that another seer named “Joseph” will arise in the latter days to bring a sacred book to this remnant so that “thy seed shall not be destroyed, for they hearken unto the words of the book” (68).

Once again, a whole lot of typological stuff is going on here. Within the narrative of the Book of Mormon, Lehi is foreshadowing the blessings of counsel that Alma will give his sons, which call the errant Corianton to repentance, expound and clarify key doctrines for the righteous son Helaman, and encourage the righteous-but-lackluster Shiblon (clearly the Sam of the Book of Alma) to keep calm and carry on.

At the same time, Lehi’s blessings to his sons—especially to Joseph—become prophecies of the Restoration. In fact, the text of (what is now) 2 Ne. 3: 4-22 closely mirrors, and is at times identical to Joseph’s prophecy to his brothers in JST Gen. 50: 24-38—thus weaving the Biblical Joseph, the Book of Mormon Joseph, and the Restoration Joseph into a single, intricate typological web of meaning and profound connection.

Let me just conclude by saying that I am not trying to use these passages to prove anything one way or another about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I am not even slightly interested in that debate right now. Rather, I am trying to establish that the Book of Mormon employs sophisticated narrative strategies to connect itself seamlessly to multiple other narratives at the same time. True scripture does this. So does great literature. And it is a credit to the Latter-day Saints, I believe, that the “keystone of our religion” contains recognizable elements of both.

 

[1] For a deep reading of these and other “well scenes,” see Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 47-62.

[2] Two books by Book of Mormon scholars are devoted entirely to understanding the various typological aspects of the Book of Mormon: Mark Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah (Signature Books, 1999); and Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On Typology (Salt Press, 2012; 2nd Edition forthcoming from the Maxwell Institute Press).

Comments

  1. Serious coolness here, Michael.

  2. Michael, your book on Job asserts that 1st Temple Israelite religion did not have a well-developed concept of Satan. I was surprised and even a little bit unsettled by this, as it went against my notions of what they knew. But 2 Ne 2:17 really does read like someone coming to an understanding of the idea of Satan (the fallen angel figure) for the first time, after reading Isaiah 14 for the first time.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff, Michael, as always.

  4. A good way to help wake up a tired brain and spirit.

    I remember talking about this quite a bit in seminary, but I don’t think that it was necessarily material that the teacher was pulling from the church distributed materials

  5. I am really enjoying your posts about the Book of Mormon this year. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for this. Please keep this kind of post coming.