Nephi’s Abdication: Failure and Hope.

When Lehi dies, his dream–the dream of his children living in unity and peace in a promised land that God gave them–essentially dies with him. And it is Nephi, whom Lehi and God had ordained as a ruler and teacher over the family, that bears the weight the death of Lehi’s dream for his family. That weight may explain the rather dramatic shift in Nephi’s record, after Lehi’s death, away from the visionary, faith-filled Nephi of first Nephi, and toward the nearly absent Nephi of most of second Nephi.

In Chapter 4 of second Nephi, after he narrates his father, Lehi’s last blessing on his family and his death, it is at this point that Nephi breaks off the narrative and gives way to poetry, expressing his utter frustration with himself, his “wretched[ness],” his “flesh,” his “iniquities,” the “temptations and the sins which do so easily beset [him]” (2 Nephi 4:17-18). He poetically resolves these feelings into a confession of trust in God’s mercy and then praise for God’s mercy, but I’d be lying if I said this resolution–though it contains some genuinely beautiful, stirring and faith-building lines–didn’t strike me as just the slightest bit strained. But the anguish he expresses–that’s real. Almost as though Nephi is more convinced of his desperate need for mercy than he is of the steadfastness of his faith in God.

Nephi’s feelings of inadequacy are understandable as a reflection on his short-lived and ultimately failed attempt to step into his father’s shoes. Lehi’s dream of a land of promise where his children could live in righteousness failed when he died and his sons gave way to the bickering and strife that Lehi was only barely able to hold back while he lived. Nephi was, Lehi had said, ordained to be a ruler and a teacher over the small colony, but he wasn’t able to bring that ordination into reality for very long. Almost immediately, the family splits. And from then on, the visionary Nephi of first Nephi seems largely absent from most of second Nephi. Don’t get me wrong, Nephi is still a strong temporal leader, but the death of Lehi, and the split between Nephi and his older brothers that it occasions, seems to almost put an end to Nephi’s spiritual leadership of his people.

In chapter five, Nephi describes himself as having been warned by God to leave his brothers, and to take all those who would listen with him (2 Nephi 5:5-9). He then describes how he armed his people, how he taught his people building and skilled crafts, and how he built a temple (2 Nephi 5:11-16). And then he says that the words of God to him, apparently spoken at a much earlier time, had been fulfilled–that Nephi had been the ruler and teacher of his brothers, and that they had been cursed because of their rebellion against him (2 Nephi 5:19). Nephi seems to be consciously writing his story to echo with Lehi’s story–prophesying, having his life threatened, and then obeying the warning voice of God to flee into the wilderness to find a promised land and establish a righteous community.

But then Nephi does something a little surprising. He doesn’t step up to the role of prophet and teacher, at least not permanently. Instead, once he describes himself as having established his colony, he says: “it came to pass that I, Nephi, did consecrate Jacob and Joseph, that they should be priests and teachers over the land of my people” (2 Nephi 5:26).

I find it fascinating that Nephi seemingly abdicates the spiritual leadership of his people and instead gives it to his younger brothers, Jacob and Joseph. It is almost the reverse image of Alma, who later on, when at a crossroads, decides to abdicate his political office and to retain his priestly office, and dedicate himself full-time to preaching the message of repentance and sanctification through faith in Christ (Alma 4:16-20). Why did Nephi become unpriestly?

There might be any number of explanations for Nephi’s abdication. Maybe Nephi felt inadequate because he was still wracked with guilt over the murder of Laban, and doubt, despite his strong profession of faith that the spirit of God “constrained” him to kill Laban, whether he had done the right thing. Or even if he didn’t doubt that he’d done the right thing, he may have doubted whether someone who had shed the blood of an incapacitated man–even justifiably–could stand at the altar of the temple. He may have wondered: am I like Moses, who killed a man but then stood on God’s presence and received the law? Or am I like David, who was anointed of God, but who was not permitted to build the temple because he had been a man of blood? Or am I somewhere between them? Permitted to build the temple, but am I worthy to officiate within its sacred walls?

Or maybe it had nothing to do with Laban. Maybe the anguish of losing his brothers was what broke his confidence in his ability to spiritually lead his people. Though he doesn’t seem to waver in his conviction that his brothers were in the wrong, he may have, in retrospect, seen the ways in which he or Lehi or both pushed them further away and deepened the split that was already growing between them, leading to his ultimate failure as a leader over the family after Lehi’s death. There is, in Nephi’s recounting of the Lord’s words to him that he would be a ruler and a teacher over his brethren, almost an apologetic attempt to reconcile that prophecy with Nephi’s failure to keep his brothers under his leadership. Reinterpreting that prophecy as a merely temporary prophecy may have been Nephi’s way to deal with the failure of a more long-lived fulfillment. And while he could still work to build a land of promise for his own people, his failure to keep his brothers under his leadership was the death of his father’s dream of a land of promise where his children would live united in peace and righteousness. His failure to heal the breach with his brothers may have weighed heavily on him.

But whatever the reason, Nephi seems eager to lay down the burden of the spiritual leadership of his people. He says that God’s words that he would be a ruler and a teacher over his people are fulfilled (2 Nephi 5:19-25) and then almost immediately after saying that, he notes that he ordains Jacob and Joseph to be the priests and teachers (2 Nephi 5:26). It’s almost like Nephi carries the burden of spiritual leadership only long enough to be able to say that the prophecy was fulfilled and then quickly looks for someone more suited to the task.

Nephi found hope for the future in the younger generation. Jacob and Joseph had been too young to have been an active part of the conflict between Nephi and Lehi on the one hand and Laman and Lemuel on the other. They had never seen Jerusalem. They were born and raised entirely within the purity of their father’s separatist dream in the wilderness, and they were untainted by what Nephi and Lehi saw as the decadence, corruption, and wickedness of Jerusalem, by Lehi’s family’s literally bloody struggle to leave it, and by the family strife that followed.

For the rest of his record, Nephi doesn’t seem to assume the spiritual leadership role again. Unlike Jacob, who is depicted preaching and exhorting in the temple, and crying repentance, Nephi relegates himself to quietly writing his prophecies, not for the immediate benefit of his people, but for future generations. And even then, Nephi doesn’t, until the very end of his record, aspire to his own prophecy, preferring instead to copy the words of Isaiah for most of his record.

It is poignant that Nephi, after recording the anguish, the strife, and the ultimate failure of his short-lived spiritual leadership over his father’s family, then notes a contrast with his younger brothers’ leadership: after he consecrated Jacob and Joseph to the priests and teachers of his people, his people “lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi 5:27).

YourMyOnlyHope

There is in these words both a sadness for his own failures and a hope for the future. And perhaps that is all we can do when we finally confront our own failure: to mourn for the failures of our own world, to trust in God as our only hope for mercy, and to look forward with that hope to a better world for our children.

 

Comments

  1. Jack Hughes says:

    Nice treatment, Jared. I recently went to a stake conference adult session where the opening song was “Nephi’s Courage” (“I will go, I will do…”) from the Primary songbook. Setting aside the irony of an audience of mostly older adults being made to sing a corny children’s song in a serious religious setting, I have long disliked that song because it portrays Nephi as a one-dimensional Saturday morning superhero who can do no wrong, rather than the complicated, often troubled man that he was. It makes me wonder if that song’s author, like many lukewarm Latter-day Saints, never made it past 1st Nephi.

  2. Some good analysis, Jared.

  3. Thanks, Jack. “Nephi’s Courage” isn’t my favorite song, but I think that’s a little unfair to the authors of the song.

  4. Thanks, WVS.

  5. Sam Gappmayer says:

    Any thoughts on why Nephi doesn’t record a blessing from Lehi as he does for almost any male present in that part of the narrative?

  6. anitawells says:

    @Sam Gappmayer Grant Hardy theorizes that it’s because Lehi exhorted him to keep the family together and he didn’t want to record that unfulfilled expectation.

  7. Aussie Mormon says:

    Maybe no one wrote it down for him.

  8. Here’s my speculation: right before Nephi says he consecrated his brothers (Jacob and Joseph), he talks about his other brothers (Laman and Lemuel). He explains that and their seed had dark skin. How’s he know that? Well, I’d say that they had already had a few tiffs with the Lamanites between verses 18 and 26. Somebody probably died during those encounters…And I’d guess Nephi was either involved or blames himself.

    And whatever happens to Sam? Does he die in the first encounters with the lamanites?

  9. Larry the Cable-Guy says:

    I think you might be overstating Nephi’s abdication. See the following from Jacob 1:10-11 —

    “The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—
    Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.”

    It was made clear to Nephi way back on the Arabian Peninsula that there would be a significant separation upon the arrival to the promised land, with several centuries of warfare culminating in the Nephite extinction.

    Maybe he was just wrung out. Seems like anybody would be. I like to think he was playing the long game, setting up his brothers and subsequent generations, while also putting together the small plates project that would eventually (millennia later) clean up some of the separation mess that had only just begun.

  10. Good stuff, JKC. The consecration of his brothers as priests is really interesting (including the amount of spaced devoted to their ministry). I like what you are doing here.

  11. Maybe it was just time to start writing on those plates. No easy task.

  12. Sam & anitawells: Good question. The absence of a blessing for Nephi is kind of conspicuous. But it is sort of hinted at in chapter 1, verses 28 and 29, where Lehi essentially says that he is giving the blessing of the firstborn to Nephi. Grant Hardy’s speculation sounds plausible.

  13. Dr Cocoa, I actually think the most plausible reading of the verses about skin color and the curse is that it is a later insertion by some Nephite king or scribe years or centuries later.

  14. Yes, Larry, I agree, as I said in the post, that Nephi remains a strong temporal leader. It’s the spiritual leadership that he passes to his younger brothers.

    You’re right that Nephi had visions that (in retrospect, anyway) predicted that his brother’s descendants would be at war with his own descendants. But I don’t think there’s anything in those visions, at least not as they’re recorded, that would have made it clear to Nephi that the separation would happen so quickly. I think the text suggests he fully expected that the voice of the spirit to him that he would be a ruler and a teacher over his brothers would be fulfilled by a long-term period of unity.

  15. Thanks, J.

  16. Jared,
    How exactly does one go about “inserting” a few passages on plates of gold?

    And why isn’t the most plausible reading the direct one? Nephi has many reasons to dislike his brothers and their offspring…he seems to take a moment to list as many things as he can to justify his animosity.

  17. Dr Cocoa,

    Well, if you assume that the record Mormon had was the exact same record that Nephi himself had written, then yeah, it would be difficult to insert stuff (though not impossible, as we have many examples of interlinear additions in, e.g. medieval manuscripts). But I think it much more like that Mormon was working with a copy 800 years later.

    The reason I think it’s more plausible is that it speaks of the Lamanites as a separate people with a separate culture and identity, and having that happen in Nephi’s lifetime is an awfully short time period for that to develop. That’s the kind of thing that, in my opinion, is more likely to come from a later scribe.

    But I don’t pretend to know all the answers here and you’re certainly free to disagree with me.

  18. This is a great piece. I just finished reading Hardy’s section on Nephi in Understanding the Book of Mormon and I am just struck with how complex and sad Nephi is. Hardy points out that when the Spirit of the Lord asks Nephi what he wants, he chooses knowledge instead of happiness (the interpretation of Lehi’s dream instead of to taste the fruit) and that curses him for his whole life.

    Also, I don’t have it handy, but Salleh and Hemming in The Book of Mormon for the Least of These have some really interesting comments on 2 Nephi 5:26 and Nehi’s establishment of the institutional church in the midst of trauma and the ways that is destructive.

  19. Thanks, Kullervo.

    I still haven’t read Grant Hardy. I probably should. Really interesting perspectives.

  20. I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times and have never had the understanding that Nephi failed. The family staying together was Lehi’s hope not God’s plan. Nephi was directed to take those who believed what he did and flee. It’s kind of hard to stay a cohesive unit, when some members are determined to kill another member they don’t like.

    As for Nephi ordaining Jacob and Joseph as priests and essentially turning over spiritual leadership to them, I think that makes sense. Moving people again to a new area where they had to start over would require a great deal of time and effort in providing the temporal needs of everyone: protection from hunger and thirst, the elements, enemies. I expect Nephi’s primary concerns were ensuring the people were fed, housed, and protected, as they looked to him as a king.

    Do I think Nephi was perfect? Of course not. He was as human as the rest of us, as are all prophets, living and dead, with the exception of Jesus Christ.

  21. I don’t disagree, Tina, that God’s plan seems to have been something different from Lehi’s hope. But I think the Book of Mormon gives us plenty of reason to think that Nephi shared his father’s hope, was devastated by its failure to come to pass, and felt personally responsible to some degree.

    But this isn’t the only way to read 2 Nephi, of course.

  22. Your suggestion that Nephi abdicated the spiritual leadership of his people places way too much speculative weight on the meaning of his ordination of his brothers, and completely ignores the evidence of the last nine chapters of 2 Nephi.

  23. it's a series of tubes says:

    Mark, my thoughts exactly.

  24. Mark, yes, it is speculation. I don’t claim otherwise.

    I acknowledged Nephi’s prophecy at the end of second Nephi in the post. As I said, that prophecy is presented as Nephi’s warning to future generations of his people rather than as contemporaneous teachings. But if you think there’s something there that the reading I’ve suggested here impossible, what is it?

  25. it's a series of tubes says:

    Nice rhetorical trick, Jared. Evidence to the contrary of your speculation must show it “impossible”, eh? Easy to win when you set your opponent’s goalpost ten miles out. How about a more reasonable standard of “unlikely”?

    I’ll play on that field. The record itself, as presented by Jacob, contradicts you repeatedly.

    You say: “[Nephi] doesn’t step up to the role of prophet and teacher, at least not permanently” and “Nephi seemingly abdicates the spiritual leadership of his people”.

    But right at the start of his record, Jacob says, referring to the period after his ordination and before Nephi “began to be old” (a euphemism repeatedly used in the text to refer to a period closely approaching one’s death):
    “we [Jacob and Nephi] also had many revelations, and the spirit of much prophecy” (Jacob 1:6) and “Wherefore we [Jacob and Nephi] labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God” (Jacob 1:7). Additionally, certain wickedness among the people arises only after Nephi’s death (Jacob 1:15-16), implying that the spiritual influence of Nephi’s presence had a least some role in holding it back.

    Is your reading impossible? Nope. In a record as fragmentary as the BoM, I doubt anything could meet that standard. Your reading is pretty unlikely though, given what the supposed spiritual successor, Jacob, saw fit to record about the period in question.

  26. Nephi’s writings also bear out what tubes wrote. Take 2 Nephi 25 as one example,, where Nephi writes:

    v. 2: For I, Nephi, have not taught them [my people] many things concerning the manner of the Jews; . . .

    v. 6: But behold, I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews;

    v. 26: And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, . . .

    v. 27: Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; . . .

    v. 28: And now behold, my people, ye are a stiffnecked people; wherefore, I have spoken plainly unto you, that ye cannot misunderstand. And the words which I have spoken shall stand as a testimony against you;

    In the first two verses I cited, Nephi could have written that Jacob and Joseph have not taught, etc., but he spoke of his own teaching.

    In verse 26, Nephi writes in the present tense of talking, rejoicing, preaching, and prophesying, and then adds that they wrote according to their prophecies. The plain meaning is that his ministry was not limited simply to writing, but that he wrote to make a lasting record of his teachings.

    Again in verse 27 and 28, Nephi “speaks” or “[has] spoken.”

    As the lawyers would say, res ipsa loquitur.

  27. Guys, chill. You both seem to think I’m arguing that my reading is the only way to read this. I’m not.

    I’m also not saying that Nephi had no role at all. Merely that in his record, as he records it, he takes a back seat to Jacob. You’re free to disagree.

  28. And, no, Mark, that’s not what res ipsa loquitur means. And a lawyer that used it that way in a brief would be a bad lawyer.

  29. I appreciate this perspective on Nephi, Jared. It makes me more sympathetic to him than I used to be.

  30. Thanks, Rebecca. As I’ve said before, the shallow reading sees Nephi as a cartoon hero that does no wrong. Reading more closely shows him to be obnoxious. But reading even more closely often shows him to be complex and tragic and revelatory.

  31. it's a series of tubes says:

    You both seem to think I’m arguing that my reading is the only way to read this.

    Jared, I don’t think that’s an accurate representation of what I said. I said your reading is unlikely to be accurate, based on direct statements in the text. And to be fair, the bulk of your thesis is not “is he absent?” but “why is he absent?”; the classic begging the question.

  32. tubes, I apologize if I misunderstood your comment.

    I think you’re missing the point of the post. It’s not that Nephi is absent and why is he? It’s that IF that shift that takes places early in 2 Nephi is the result of Nephi taking a back seat to Jacob when it comes to the public spiritual leadership (which is only one of many possible readings), that makes Nephi a more interesting and sympathetic character and gives us a useful example about the nature of hope in confronting our own inadequacies.

    It’s much less about divining what actually happened and much more about exploring the insights and lessons that this one reading might give us. It’s more literary criticism than historical criticism.

  33. this is enlightening and makes Nephi more “human”- just as recognizing Joseph Smith’s shortcomings endeared me to him (nearly 7 years after joining). And while, yes, it may be speculation and incorrect, I’ll take it and use it to connect to someone long gone!

  34. Jared, this post is really insightful. Thank you for sharing it. I have a similar arc in my own life. (insert disclaimers about how I’m not a prophet) I spent many years being very spiritual and hopeful and doing everything I could to keep certain family relationships from falling apart completely. I had a 2 Nephi 4 moment, with the betrayal and pain becoming overwhelming. Then the relationships fell apart anyway. After that, my spiritual effort declined. Part of it was exhaustion. Some of it was disappointment that I didn’t get the blessing that I had spent my entire life hoping/praying/working for. Some of it was confusion that I was as obedient as I could possibly be, and things still went wrong, so maybe I don’t understand obedience and personal revelation as well as I thought I did. It hurt. I retreated.

    I really like Nephi. I hope, in the afterlife, I get a chance to sit down with him and cry together about how hard we tried and how much it hurt when we failed. He would understand me and the decisions I’ve made, I think, and not many Church members do.

    I like your observation about Nephi. I understand why he stopped trying so hard. You put it so well. Thanks again for writing this.

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