Hey guys, so the author of the first two books of the Book of Mormon was a prophet named Nephi. He tells us about some of the challenges his family faced as they journeyed from Jerusalem, across the ocean, to their promised land. But while Nephi’s ultimate purpose in his writing is to bring souls to believe in Jesus Christ, there’s something else going on here as well.
Nephi is writing in retrospect. By the time he writes this stuff down, they’ve already reached the promised land, and there’s already been a schism among the people. Those who believed in the revelations of God left, heading into the wilderness with Nephi. Everyone else stayed with his brothers, Laman and Lemuel. Nephi then had an important issue to grapple with, because traditionally, it would have been Nephi’s oldest brother, Laman, who should have taken over leading the people after their father, Lehi, died. So Nephi faces the challenge of justifying and legitimizing his right to rule. This would be an issue between the Lamanite and Nephite civilizations for generations to come, and Nephi knew it would be. In this video, we’re just going to dip our toes into how Nephi addresses this issue in 1st and 2nd Nephi.
So how does Nephi justify his kingship? Well, he makes the case in his writings that despite the fact that Laman and Lemuel were the older brothers, God had chosen Nephi to rule. And what God says trumps tradition. From the get-go, Nephi makes it clear that Laman and Lemuel are disobedient and don’t believe in the revelations of God. Nephi, on the other hand, is obedient and faithful (good qualities for a king). In chapter 2 the Lord promises him: “inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.”
In the next chapter, Nephi and his brothers are commanded by God through Lehi to go back to Jerusalem to get the brass plates from Laban. When the other brothers complain, the young Nephi takes the lead. Ironically, Laman, the eldest, makes the first attempt to obtain the plates. He fails. After a failed second attempt, Laman and Lemuel get angry at Nephi and are beating him with a rod when an angel appears and repeats to them directly the Lord’s promise to Nephi: “Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? … And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur…”.
Nephi also bolsters his case in less obvious ways, for example, by paralleling himself and his circumstances to specific Old Testament prophets. For example, in a third attempt to get the plates, Nephi enters Jerusalem alone where he stumbles upon an unconscious Laban, and the Spirit tells Nephi, “Behold, the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” Notice how similar this story is to the story of the young David of the Old Testament. After his older brothers are too afraid to confront Goliath, David says, “This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee … that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” After Goliath falls, David takes Goliath’s sword and removes his head. Like many swords throughout history, the sword of Goliath becomes a symbol of kingship and authority. It ends up in the tabernacle next to other holy relics. Likewise, Nephi takes Laban’s sword, removes his head, and that sword is passed down through generations of Nephite kings as a symbol of kingship and divine authority.
There are also subtle parallels to Joseph of Egypt. Nephi gives us a quick summary of Joseph’s story and tells us 3 times that Lehi’s family descends from Joseph. Like Joseph, Nephi was a younger sibling favored by his father and God, and his brothers resented and tried to kill him for it. Like Joseph, Nephi receives a revelation that God had chosen him to rule over his brothers. Like Joseph’s brothers, Nephi’s brothers eventually bow to him. Like Joseph’s father, Jacob, Nephi’s father, Lehi, blesses his children before he dies. “Both of these patriarchs rebuked their older sons for faithlessness and promised the birthright to the younger sons…”.
Lehi admonishes them, “Rebel no more against your brother … behold, ye have accused him that he sought power and authority over you … but he hath sought the glory of God, and your own eternal welfare … And it must needs be that the power of God must be with him, even unto his commanding you that ye must obey.”
These similarities wouldn’t have been lost on the Nephites, just as they’re not lost on us. Nephi is intentionally making a point. He’s saying, “I am like David. I am like Joseph.” He’s trying to not only justify his right to rule, but by extension, he’s establishing a tradition that future Nephite leaders could rely on for legitimacy. It’s no wonder that the Lamanites later “swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers.” They thought it was all a lie. They believed in the tradition of Laman and Lemuel, “Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren … they said that [Nephi] had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands…”.
Later in the Book of Mormon a Nephite traitor named Ammoron who believed the Lamanite version of history (when it benefited him), said, “your fathers did wrong their brethren, insomuch that they did rob them of their right to the government when it rightly belonged unto them.”
It’s a fascinating subject that keeps showing up throughout the Book of Mormon. But, why am I telling you this? Why is this important? Well, I think it’s a great example of the richness that the Book of Mormon has to offer. It’s just the gift that keeps on giving. I hope this information deepens your appreciation for the Book of Mormon and enhances your study. It is an intricate and complex text. There is just layer after layer after layer. If you want to believe that Joseph Smith just made all of this stuff up, that’s your call. But from what I’m seeing, this looks to me like something written by real ancient authors, who had an intimate understanding of the scriptures, who faced real problems, and who wrote very carefully and intentionally to address those problems in profound ways. If you want to learn more, check out the resources in the YouTube description — especially the work of Noel Reynolds, which I used a lot for this episode — and have a great day!
- “The Political Dimension in Nephi’s Small Plates,” by Noel Reynolds (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/37Kxj3w
- “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” by Brett L. Holbrook (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/37MNywT
- “Why Did Nephi Write His Small Plates?” by Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/37MNjlk
- “Nephi’s Political Testament,” by Noel Reynolds: https://bit.ly/3m8a5MZ (Also published in “Rediscovering the Book of Mormon,” edited by John Sorenson and Melvin Thorne, pg. 220).
- Read the Book of Mormon here (downloadable PDF): https://bit.ly/3CUh2HA