Review: 1st Nephi: a brief theological introduction

Joseph Spencer, 1st Nephi: a brief theological introduction (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2020)

If you’re anything like me, you can relate the story of 1st Nephi in your sleep. Lehi, a goodly parent, has a dream that warns him to leave Jerusalem with his family. They go into the wilderness, at times grudgingly, at times not. His four sons return to Jerusalem twice, first to retrieve a record and next to retrieve a family. There are conflicts and blessings in the wilderness, they arrive at the sea, they build a boat, and they end up in a promised land. Lehi, in effect, leads an exodus of two families from the once-promised land into a new promised land.

And not infrequently, that’s the level at which we engage with the Book of Mormon. We take Nephi’s authorial voice as authoritative and objectively true. We find lessons in is obedience and his brothers’, well, grudging obedience. And we plow through the text again, annually or every four years, or when we remember.

In his brief theological introduction to 1st Nephi, Joseph Spencer doesn’t argue against reading the plot of 1st Nephi, and gleaning didactic lessons from it. It’s what we do, and there’s doubtless value in it.

But he argues—convincingly—that if our engagement with the text stays solely plot-focused, we’re missing important depths of the Book of Mormon. We’re giving up theological lessons that we could enjoy.

A quick confession: I finished reading the book probably 12 weeks ago, just before Chicago and Illinois went on lockdown. I should have reviewed it in early March, when it was sharper in my mind. But with the adjustments of working from and staying at home, I just couldn’t do it. That’s on me, though, not on the book. If you don’t read any more of this review, let me emphasize that you should read this book. It does important things with 1st Nephi, adding depth and color to the theology of the Lehites. And no matter that we’re several books past 1st Nephi in Sunday School. (FWIW, we were several books past 1st Nephi when I first got and read the book.)

1st Nephi is the foundational text of the Lehite civilization, and understanding what Nephi is trying to do theologically helps us understand what Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni are trying to tell us.

Spencer’s book is divided into two parts. First, he breaks down Nephi’s theological project. He closely reads not only the words of the text, but the structure, and finds the the book enters into a conversation with itself. Our current chapter divisions and versification tend to obscure that conversation, but Spencer points out how and where it happens, and what that conversation lets us know.

And then, fascinatingly, he goes on to address questions that the text leaves us with. He looks at when Nephi kills Laban. He looks at the roles of Laman and Lemuel. And he looks at the lack of women in the Book of Mormon, a lack that begins quite explicitly with Nephi. Spencer doesn’t try to provide easy answers to these questions. But he does take these questions seriously. (I’ll note that I don’t always agree with his solutions—particularly, I remember being unconvinced by his addressing why women are so absent from the Book of Mormon. At this point, I don’t remember precisely what my issues were. I do, however, remember that his analysis was interesting and telling. While I may not have completely agreed with his conclusion, he was raising critical questions, and doing careful theology.

A couple more things. First, the book is beautiful. It has occasional woodcuttings that represent a welcome addition to the pantheon of Mormon art. The text is in two colors: black for the main text and orange for headers and footnotes. (I’m clearly getting old—I found it hard to read some of the footnotes in the fluorescent lighting of the airports in which I read several chapters. But it’s still pretty.)

And Spencer’s writing style is engaging, conversational without being too informal. Readers don’t need a background in theology to understand what he’s saying. And there’s no need to be a scriptorian[fn1] to find the book useful. If this is representative of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction series, Latter-day Saints’ understanding of and appreciation for our unique book of scripture will be well-served.

In short, buy this book and read it. It’s a powerful addition to the resources we have for understanding the Book of Mormon. It will challenge and enlighten and uplift.


[fn1] “Scriptorian” being a tongue-in-cheek reference to prefatory remarks I often hear as someone prepares to comment in Sunday School.

Comments

  1. Good review and I felt much the same way. I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions on women, Laban, etc but I thought it was a thought-provoking analysis. A good companion to “Understanding the Book of Mormon”.

  2. Kristine says:

    “If this is representative of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction series, Latter-day Saints’ understanding of and appreciation for our unique book of scripture will be well-served.”

    I have read several of the forthcoming volumes and can happily attest that they will not disappoint!

  3. Kristine says:

    Also, if you haven’t, you should be listening to the MI Podcast interviews with the authors. This week’s with Kylie Turley is great: https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-turley/?about=true

    Others are https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-faulconer/, https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-harris/, https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-green/, and https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-givens/

  4. Thanks, Kristine; I’m sincerely excited!

  5. If “1st Nephi” sets the bar, then readers will be well served by the entire series. I thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Spencer’s analysis and found it to be fresh, made me think harder about and drew me deeper into 1st Nephi. I am nearly finished with Terryl Givens’ 2nd Nephi treatment and finding it also to be engaging. As you mention Sam, the books have a nice feel. At $10/book, it should remove cost as a barrier to own–and the content is worth much, much more in every way. I am excited for the release of Jacob by Deidre Nicole Green.

  6. The Brian Kershisnik woodcuts (“Book of Mormon Suite”) were printed in a limited run of 35, a few of which are still available at New Vision Art. They are gorgeous.

  7. Kristine, I have enjoyed listening to all the links in your comment. Are there more? Will they be doing the entire Book of Mormon? Thanks!

  8. Adele: A full list of podcast interviews about the series, and the Book of Mormon more generally, is available here: https://mi.byu.edu/mipodcast-book-of-mormon/.

    Yes, the Maxwell Institute is publishing books and podcast interviews for every book in the Book of Mormon (except Words of Mormon, technically.)

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