Who’s on First?

So I was reading 2 Nephi 3 in preparation for this Sunday’s GD class, and I realized I kept getting lost. At one point I thought the text said that Joseph Smith was descended from Joseph son of Lehi (which would also make him descended from Lehi himself), until I realized I was confusing Joseph of Egypt as a speaker with Lehi. As I looked over the text, I realized how very confusing it was. There are multiple quotations, some of which are nested, but per KJV usage without quotation marks. It is often difficult to tell what the antecedent to various pronouns is supposed to be. So I copied verses 6-22 and used square bracketed inserts to try to keep track of who was speaking, and braces to try to keep track of who was being referred to. I’m not sure I got it all right;  I found verse 18 particularly vexing. In any event, I think this is a good illustration of the need to read closely, because in my initial quick read I had totally butchered who was referring to what.

[6] [Lehi/] For Joseph truly testified, saying: [/Lehi] [Joseph of Egypt/] A seer {Joseph Smith} shall the Lord my God raise up, who shall be a choice seer unto the fruit of my {Joseph of Egypt’s} loins. [/Joseph of Egypt]
[7] [Lehi/] Yea, Joseph truly said: [/Lehi] [Joseph of Egypt/] Thus saith the Lord unto me [\Joseph of Egypt] [Lord/]: A choice seer {Joseph Smith} will I raise up out of the fruit of thy {Joseph of Egypt’s} loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers.
[8] And I will give unto him a commandment that he shall do none other work, save the work which I shall command him. And I will make him great in mine eyes; for he shall do my work.
[9] And he shall be great like unto Moses, {in the future from Joseph of Egypt’s perspective} whom I have said I would raise up unto you, to deliver my people, O house of Israel.
[10] And Moses will I raise up, {verb future tense} to deliver thy people out of the land of Egypt.
[11] But a seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy {Joseph of Egypt’s} loins; and unto him will I give power to bring forth my word {Book of Mormon} unto the seed of thy loins — and not to the bringing forth my word only, saith the Lord, but to the convincing them of my word, which shall have already gone forth among them {Bible}.
[12] Wherefore, the fruit of thy{Joseph of Egypt’s} loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins {Book of Mormon}, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah {Bible}, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy {Joseph of Egypt’s} loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, [/Lord] [Joseph of Egypt/] saith the Lord. [/Joseph of Egypt]
[13] [Lord/] And out of weakness he {Joseph Smith} shall be made strong, in that day when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel, [/Lord] [Joseph of Egypt/] saith the Lord. [/Joseph of Egypt]
[14] [Lehi/] And thus prophesied Joseph, saying: [/Lehi} [Joseph of Egypt/] Behold, that seer {Joseph Smith} will the Lord bless; and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise, which I have obtained of the Lord, of the fruit of my loins, shall be fulfilled. Behold, I am sure of the fulfilling of this promise;
[15] And his name {IE Joseph Smith’s name} shall be called after me; {Joseph in Egypt} and it shall be after the name of his father. {Joseph Smith, Sr.} And he shall be like unto me {Joseph of Egypt}; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation. [/Joseph of Egypt]
[16] [Lehi/] Yea, thus prophesied Joseph: [/Lehi] [Joseph of Egypt/] I am sure of this thing, even as I am sure of the promise of Moses; {in the future from Joseph of Egypt’s perspective} for the Lord hath said unto me, [/Joseph of Egypt] [Lord/] I will preserve thy seed forever. [/Lord]
[17] [Joseph of Egypt/] And the Lord hath said: [/Joseph of Egypt] [Lord/] I will raise up a Moses {future tense}; and I will give power unto him {Moses, as with all remaining pronouns in this vers} in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing. Yet I will not loose his tongue, that he shall speak much, for I will not make him mighty in speaking. But I will write unto him my law, by the finger of mine own hand; and I will make a spokesman {Aaron} for him. [/Lord]
[18] [Joseph of Egypt/] And the Lord said unto me also: [/Joseph of Egypt] [Lord/] I will raise up unto the fruit of thy {Joseph of Egypt’s} loins; and I will make for him {Still Moses? End of verse suggests now this is Joseph Smith. Or BRM posits Mormon}a spokesman {Still Aaron? End of verse suggests now this is Sidney Rigdon/Oliver Cowdery. Or BRM posits Joseph Smith}. And I, behold, I will give unto him {Moses or Joseph Smith or Mormon} that he {Moses or Joseph Smith or Mormon} shall write the writing of the fruit of thy loins {the Book of Mormon, written by the Nephites}, unto the fruit of thy loins {the Lamanites}; and the spokesman of thy loins {Sidney Rigdon/Oliver Cowdery or per BRM Joseph Smith} shall declare it.
[19] And the words which he shall write shall be the words which are expedient in my wisdom should go forth unto the fruit of thy loins. And it shall be as if the fruit of thy loins had cried unto them from the dust; for I know their faith.
[20] And they shall cry from the dust; yea, even repentance unto their brethren, even after many generations have gone by them. And it shall come to pass that their cry shall go, even according to the simpleness of their words.
[21] Because of their faith their words shall proceed forth out of my mouth unto their brethren who are the fruit of thy loins; and the weakness of their words will I make strong in their faith, unto the remembering of my covenant which I made unto thy fathers. [/Lord]
[22] [Lehi/] And now, behold, my son Joseph , after this manner did my father of old {Joseph of Egypt} prophesy.


  1. This deserves some applause. I think that this may be one of the more difficult chapters of Latter-Day scripture to parse.

  2. that’s a lot of loin fruit

  3. Mike Harris says:

    vs. 17 says, “a Moses”. The definite article “a” is omitted in vss. 9-10. Therefore, I think the Moses in vs. 17 refers to a latter-day deliver which would be Joseph Smith. Moses delivered Israel from physical bondage. Joseph Smith delivered modern Israel from spiritual bondage/apostasy. Also, “a rod” in vs. 17 would refer to the gold plates (1 Ne. 15:24; Rev. 12:5; Rev. 19:15; D&C 19:15, etc.) Rebuttals?

  4. I’ve always read the spokesman in verse 18 as referring to Oliver Cowdery, which I think makes the most sense in light of section 28, which compares Joseph Smith to Moses, compares Oliver Cowdery to Aaron, and calls Oliver Cowdery to preach the gospel to “the Lamanites.”

  5. Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition is fantastic for things like this.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, “a Moses” almost seems like a title rather than a name. It would be odd for Joseph of Egypt to actually know the name, for Moses wouldn’t be born for another 400 years or so. I think you can make the argument that “a Moses refers to Joseph; I prefer to see it as referring in the first instance to the actual Moses and then to Joseph as fulfillling a Moses-like role. But there’s no answer book; you may well be right.

    (We don’t know whether Joseph of Egypt actually used the name Moses, or Lehi supplied it, or Joseph Smith supplied it in translaiton. On the name Moses, see this:)


  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Ardis over at Keepa posted her own parsing of this chapter:


    Please go check it out.

    I’ll post here the same comment I made there:

    Ardis, this is fantastic! I really like the formatting, and I also like that you interpreted every pronoun, whereas I only did the ones at critical junctures.

    So far as I can tell we see it the same way, with one exception: I see v. 17 as referring to Moses and Aaron, with v. 18 transitioning to Joseph and Sidney or whoever as a modern analog to Moses//Aaron. But to me that is a total toss up and one can take it either way.

    I hadn’t noticed your verse 22 conundrum. Interesting point that “after this manner” is ambiguous and could refer either to that which precedes or that which follows. I think it more naturally reads as referring to what precedes, but I also would take v. 24 as referring to Joseph as descended from Joseph in Egypt, not Joseph son of Lehi, just as you have it. If that is inconsistent, so be it.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    (This comment crossposted to the similar discussion going on at Keepa):

    After sleeping on it, I have some more thoughts on this subject:

    1. When in the OP I said I had misread a claim that Joseph Smith would be descended from Joseph son of Lehi, that was actually earlier in the chapter were I had thought Lehi was still speaking but in fact Joseph of Egypt was. That was clearly a mistaken reading on my part. Where this is actually a possible reading in verse 24, I had completely missed it. Which again underscores how difficult this chapter is to parse.

    2. The BRM reading of v. 18 as talking about Mormon as the author of the BoM and Joseph Smith as his spokesman is clearly directed at avoiding the implicaiton of v. 24 that Joseph is descended from Lehi. Since Mormon explicitly was descended from Lehi, if we accept this reading the problem goes away. A nice, creative try, but I don’t accept the BRM reading; it’s just too out of left field in the context of the passage for me.

    3. If one is really concerned about the implication in v. 24 that Joseph Smith was desceended from Lehi, then the suggestion of Ardis that “after this manner” is ambiguous and could introduce a continued prophecy of Joseph of Egypt is to my eye by far the stronger possibility.

    4. Still, to my eye “after this manner” concludes the prophecy of Joseph of Egypt rather than introduceing a continuation of that prophecy. So the problem in v. 24 identifying Joseph Smith as a descendant of Lehi persists.

    5. When I wrote the OP, I had not reviewed JST Genesis 50. That passage provides an important gloss on 2 Nephi 3. In verse 25, Joseph of Egypt in talking about his descendants says that “a branch shall be broken off,” referring to the Lehites. And so metaphorically his descendants are a tree, and the Lehites are a branch broken off of that tree.

    6. Joseph of Egypt states that the choice seer will be among his descendants, but he never identifies the choice seer as among the “branch broken off” descendants, the presumption being that he is of the main tree descendants.

    7. It is Lehi, not Joseph of Egypt, who seems to say that Joseph Smith would be a descendant of his son, Joseph. I’m inclined to read this as simply a mistaken assumption on his part. The choice seer is going to write about his descendants; like Lehi, the choice seer will be a descendant of Joseph of Egypt; since Lehi and his descendants will be a branch broekn off, it seems a logical assumption that the choice seer would be among those descendants. But he wasn’t; he was from the main tree of descent.

    8. I have no problem with there being mistakes in the BoM, a possibility the book itself announces. Reflecting the humanity of mortal mistakes to me is a good thing, not a bad thing.

    9. Alternatively, this could have been a mistake on Joseph’s part in dictating the text. Such a mistake seems forgivable given how convoluted the text of 2 Nephi 3 is. Again, we’re not scriptural inerrantists.

    10. Alternatively, one could take it as a true prophecy. How is this possible? Did Joseph son of Lehi have any descendants? Weren’t the Nephites wiped out? Nominally, but many former Nephites became Lamanites when it became clear that they would otherwise be wiped out. And Joseph Smith being descended from Lehi is not the impossible proposition we would have taken it to be more than a generation ago. Our modern knowledge of population dynamics suggests that if Joseph son of Lehi had descendants that survived to Joseph Smith’s time, then Joseph Smith very well could be descended from Joseph son of Lehi. (A fairly meaningless proposition, because so could you or I, but this statement would have been consistent with the ancient understanding of tribal lineages.)

    11.On a different point, to me JST 50 makes it abundantly clear that in 2 Nephi 3 verse 17 is talking about Moses and Aaron, and verse 18 then transitions to talking about Joseph and his spokesman as a modern analog to Moses//Aaron. JST Genesis 50:29-30 and 34 make this abundantly clear to me.

  9. The clause towards the beginning of verse 18, “I will raise up unto the fruit of thy loins,” seems critically incomplete to me. “Raise up” doesn’t really work as an intransitive verb (though maybe it did back in 1830?), so it strikes me as a scribal/dictation error where we should have another pronoun or name that might have cleared up the verse more. Then again, maybe it just would have been another “him” and we’d be back in the same boat :)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Great observation, Austin.

  11. Royal Skousen wrote about the grammatical incompleteness of 2 Nephi 3:18 several years ago in his “Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon.” No one should be attempting these sorts of close readings without first consulting Skousen’s comprehensive textual criticism, which is readily available. You can see his discussion here:

  12. Not sure I’ve ever disagreed with Grant Hardy before :) — maybe no one should conclude the study of a question like this without consulting Skousen (and I’m off to do that now), but attempting a close study is something everybody should do. Learning how far you can go on your own without having to wait for an expert to ‘splain it to you is enlightening, and the practice will make you more likely to read more critically in the future. Also, you figure out where the ambiguities are, and no doubt will better understand and appreciate and remember how the expert explores and/or resolves them.

    IOW, students shouldn’t be mere sponges for other people’s answers, even the most knowledgeable other people. We ought to be acting, and not only acted upon.

  13. I’m with Ardis on this one. If you’ve tried to sort through the thing on your own, you’ll come to Skousen with a sense of problem points and questions already forming. Then, reading him, you’ll be in a better position to appreciate any new insights, and, because you’ve already started forming critical judgments of your own, you may be able to disagree with him in a principled way from time to time. Then what we have is a critical debate about the text, in which anyone who is willing to play can participate.

  14. All right, I’ll backtrack a bit to concede that it’s sometimes good to struggle with a text on one’s own before seeking expert opinion, just to sharpen your questions and perceptions, but textual criticism is a little different from regular commentaries. Skousen won’t help much in trying to determine who the referents are for all the pronouns in 2 Nephi 3–as Ardis and Kevin have so admirably done–yet it’s good to start one’s interpretive efforts with the most accurate text possible. Otherwise you might be spending time trying to figure out puzzles that come from quirks in the transmission process and aren’t in the text itself. So don’t get too far into interpretation before you turn to Skousen’s work, especially since both his “Earliest Text” and his “Analysis of Textual Variants” are only a couple mouseclicks away for anyone on a computer. “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text”, published by Yale, is accessible online at Book of Mormon Central:

  15. Grant Hardy is definitely right about the importance of starting with the best text.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Grant, great idea. (I’m a fan of Skousen’s work and actually have all the Commentary volumes.) Skousen’s detailed commentaries are fantastic, but only relevant if there happens to be a textual issue at play. It simply didn’t occur to me to check for textual issues that he may have commented on in this section; thanks for the tip.

%d bloggers like this: