Title: A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1
Editor: Adam Miller
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 140
Reviewed by Douglas F. Christensen for the Association for Mormon Letters
In the introduction of a recent publication from The Mormon Theology Seminar, Adam Miller acknowledges that he has always wanted to build something big, in particular a “collaborative machine that would itself make many, many, many books” (Miller ix). His recent addition to the seminar’s collection, A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1, adds more evidence of his intentions. This relatively thin collection of essays is thick with rebar-enforced readings, interpretations, and intellectual stability. The conceit of these academic musings fits a relatively new order of apologetics that concentrates on the words on the page (of the Book of Mormon, for example), taking for granted where they came from or how they got there. The essays in this collection imagine possibilities outside the text, but the close readings are intent on bringing magnifying glasses and microscopes, in fact, the scholar’s best hermeneutic imaginings to unpack 1 Nephi chapter 1. Many of the authors recognize this chapter of scripture as one that gets read and reread. But to a person, those who mention the reader’s familiarity also point out that there is more work to do, a fact that becomes very clear by the end of the final essay.
The book begins with a list of four questions from the work of the summer seminar in London, 2014. This Summary Report sets the stage for the essays by addressing questions that people can and probably should ask about 1 Nephi chapter 1. They ask questions about context, about Lehi’s understanding of Messiah, about literacy, including Nephi’s “heavy editorial presence” and the status of books relative to revelation (xvii). The last of these summary report questions raises a familiar question about this chapter regarding the mighty power of deliverance and promises of “tender mercies” (xxii). One can keep these preliminary questions in mind while reading the essays because each essay opens them up in deep and creative ways.
Julie Smith educates her readers about the resonance between Lehi’s family circumstances and those of the Old Testament prophetess, Hulda, mentioned in 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34. Smith argues that those of us reading this first chapter of 1st Nephi over and over would be well served by some cross-historical understanding reciprocating between Lehi and Hulda. Not only can Hulda’s story add another feminine voice to the masculine Book of Mormon narrative, but Smith shows how each story’s reliance upon dreams, visions, and texts amplifies when we read one in light of the other. She suggests that both stories underscore the ways that prophets breathe new life into old texts: “when a prophet interprets a text, the prophet has resurrected the text” (15). This becomes especially clear after we see Hulda’s shadow over the first chapter of the Book of Mormon.
Adam Miller wants to know where Lehi is going after realizing (in verse 4) that Jerusalem may be destroyed. Most readers of 1st Nephi chapter 1 focus on Lehi’s bigger plans, to exit Jerusalem with his family. Miller focuses on Lehi’s prayer in verse 5. “Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord . . .” Miller begins with the question: “Where is Lehi going?” He never assumes that we can know very much about where Lehi is going, but he uses this question to align Lehi with other prophets, and especially with a prophetic tradition of going into the desert to be with God. Miller states this very plainly: “My thesis is that Lehi is headed into the desert . . . like the prophets before him and even like Jesus after him” (19).
Like Julie Smith, Miller also sees the book Lehi receives in verse 11 as crucial to his two visions, suggesting that the whole of the second vision “pivots around a book that Lehi is asked to read” (24). He then asks a question I have been asking about this chapter for many years: “Why, when the ‘one’ arrives, does he bring Lehi a book?” (24). Finally, his essay expands upon the way the first chapter of the Book of Mormon sets the reader up to see how the many afflictions in the first verse somehow correlate with the deliverance promised in the last one. Miller uses a readerly scalpel on many of the phrases and words to bring as many mysteries as he can to light, suggesting, in the end, that “[t]o understand the mysteries of God is to understand how it is possible to experience so many afflictions and still be highly favored” (29). Miller’s rendering of Nephi’s desert-prophet-father invites a fresh rereading of 1 Nephi 1, but more importantly, it invites a philosophical and theological adjustment to the effect this chapter can have on our experience with the rest of the book.
George Handley’s work on the theology of 1 Nephi 1 reveals his skill as a professional interpreter of texts. He shows how the Book of Mormon can bring people to Christ even though, not unlike the Bible, the mediations through which it passed were very human mediations. To make his case Handley focuses on what is not there. “The problem of human mediation is,” he writes, not “because human language gives us unmediated access to the lost signifier. Instead it will be by means of missing media, since his hand, his original language, Lehi’s record, and the plates themselves are all absent . . . all language is mediated and it is all missing its original medium” (38).
This premise of acknowledging The Book of Mormon’s mediated realities lays the groundwork for Handley’s claim that Lehi’s spiritual experiences in chapter 1 are themselves consistent with and perpetuate this important character of mediation: “A dream is not a lot to hang one’s hat on, but Lehi’s vision is analogous to the authority of the Book of Mormon itself. A dream is something already heavily mediated in the imagination of the dreamer and his dream is reported to us second or perhaps third hand. Lehi had it, wrote it down, and Nephi is remembering it and reinterpreting it” (39). Handley invites us to accept that the reader of the Book of Mormon must come to terms with the fact and importance of ourselves and others as interpreters of this “miraculously translated book” (41). Roland Barthes wrote that reading is never a passive activity: “The scriptable text liberates writing in that to read it means in effect to rewrite it” (Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Siglo XXI. 1980). The kind of literacy Handley advocates in order to read and appreciate the Book of Mormon, then, is a kind of literacy that not only sees and understands the words on the page, but also uses the words toward an ongoing rebirth of the spiritual self.
Joseph Spencer devotes the early part of his chapter, “Potent Messianism,” to investigate the way Orson Pratt divided up the chapters in 1 Nephi. Spencer zeros in on one of the more complex editing choices, namely coupling verses 18-20 with Chapter One rather than making an “awkward overture to the uninterrupted narrative sequence of what is today chapters 2-5” (53). He is thinking about these divisions in the context of two different reactions to Lehi’s preaching, the stronger reaction being a response to Lehi’s messianic prophecy. Spencer unpacks verses 18-20 carefully by asking readers to consider the way Lehi’s preaching moves from the wickedness and abominations of the people toward his vision of the coming Messiah. This latter part of his vision ultimately incites their fury.
Spencer reminds us that “the Book of Mormon is a deeply Christian book” long before Christianity takes hold. This foreknowledge of the Christianity to come creates a distinctly Christian culture in a pre-Christian world. Sorting out how one should understand this messianism and this particular messiah becomes the focus of Spencer’s careful work. He imagines what messianism looked like for Lehi, comparing everything that we have to go on in the Book of Mormon, to what we know of messianism during the reign of King Zedekiah. Spencer’s use of the term “Potent” in his framework for messianism adheres fittingly to the word “potential” since it is the future impact of a messiah that generates the hope and aspiration of Christianity at its best. Spencer ends with provocative questions about how we might reciprocate Lehi’s zeal with hopes and visions of our own, hopes and visions about the shared promises of the Messiah’s next coming and the inherent risks of making this enthusiasm publicly known.
One of the most rigorous and complex chapters also focuses on the very last verse of 1 Nephi 1. One might assume after David A. Bednar spoke about the tender mercies of the Lord, there was little left to say about this phrase. However, Miranda Wilcox shows readers that any treatment of this phrase only scratches the surface. Not only does she demonstrate the regularity of the phrase in Biblical scripture, she also reviews the words used for tender mercies in Hebrew and later translations of Latin and Greek. Wilcox untangles some of the historically philosophical density regarding how the received notion of “tender mercy” might play out in the context of Stoicism and Greek identity, where our contemporary irenic interpretation of the words might have been viewed differently. She notes how, under Stoicism, pity looked more like a “pathological emotion to be avoided.” In other words, the Greek point of view would line up more appropriately with an ancient Jewish perspective, like an eye for an eye, than with the softer interpretation from the New Testament.
After meticulous attention to the varied renderings of tender mercies, Wilcox concludes that “[t]racing centuries of translations deepens our appreciation of how language mediates the transmission of theological concepts as they are reformed in new linguistic and cultural contexts and offers insight about Nephi’s absent or inaccessible language” (97). There are additional threads to follow in Wilcox’s tapestry, but she brings them together with elegant concentration: “Lehi’s life . . . reveals that articulating praise and lament are theological acts and social gestures that construct a theological world in which humans interact with God individually and communally” (105). Accordingly, the first chapter of the Book of Mormon creates a foundation for seeing human connection to God through a prism of suffering and tender mercies.
Michaël Ulrich compares the visions of Lehi, recorded in 1 Nephi 1, to Lehi’s dream in chapter 8, and to Nephi’s visions about Lehi’s dream, beginning in 1 Nephi 11. Ulrich sees the phenomenon of Lehi’s encounter with heavenly hosts as a conversion story, documenting his spiritual growth because he receives consecutive heavenly visions that move him along a path toward increasing devotion, commitment, and sacrifice (eventually of house and home). Among Ulrich’s great insights, this essay emphasizes the value of the senses involved in Lehi’s visions, particularly sight, sound, and reading–reminding readers of the importance and peculiarity of profound spiritual experience. Of the three in this triad, Ulrich writes that reading ‘’is the most active . . . and requires a high degree of physical and mental involvement: it is necessary to look at the text to follow the lines with the eyes, and to mentally transform the scriptures into words and those combinations of words into meaning” (119).
His highlighting of hearing, seeing, and reading in 1 Nephi 1 suggest the ease with which one can spend an inordinate amount of time in a place and never see some of its finest offerings (the forest for the trees, as it were). The Great and Spacious Building in Lehi’s dream passes for a central metaphor in Ulrich’s analysis because it represents separation and alienation from God, kind of the opposite of revelation as the uncovering of God’s presence. Ulrich compares it to the tower of Babel, “built because people thought they could be like God without needing to rely on God” (122). Ulrich reveals a crucial imperative in Lehi’s life: that paying the right kind of attention holds promises imbued with the weight of eternity.
The segue between Ulrich’s argument and that of Benjamin Peters seems seamless. In fact, as a capstone, or bookend, Peters calls to mind many of the insights already available from the previous essays, with additional, but not necessarily repeated, ideas about the role of reading as a catalyst to revelation. One of the best clues to 1 Nephi 1, and certainly to Peters’s essay, is that revelation functions as an interruption and a surprise. This is not only characteristic for Lehi and Nephi, whose lives are disrupted and whose plans are overturned by revelation, but also for Joseph Smith. Peters shows us how Lehi uproots his family from their comfortable lives because of a vision, but then also “interrupts their migration to send his sons to Jerusalem twice, each time for a different means of sustaining lineages: first scriptures and then spouses” (128).
As one who always admires any interruption by Emmanuel Levinas in LDS exegesis, I was pleased to see Peters leaning on Levinas’ notion of the surprise of the other. Applying Levinas to the extra-textual situation in 1 Nephi 1, Peters writes: “The saying . . . is that which opens oneself to another being in a preoriginal, personal, ecstatic (as in out-of-body, not joyous) experience. The said, on the other hand, closes, contains, concretizes, and publicizes the relationship between that saying and the recipient” (132). Peters sees 1 Nephi 1 itself as an example of the saying and the said because it is, in his estimation, “quite possibly the most overread and underexamined chapter in Latter-Day Saint scripture” (134). Thus, he points out, the revelations on the page stand as that which has been said, while the new interpretations we continue to glean from its pages unearth new opportunities to listen to what the old received ideas can for the first time be saying in these latter days (just as each essay in the book underscores).
Peters calls our attention to the important yet undisturbed textual silences that lie sleeping inside the words already on the page and inside the gaps, questions, and silences that make up the spaces between those words and their meanings. “Revelation cannot be the uncovering of the more original, the more authentic, or the more immediate communion with the mind of God because revelation works by way of interruptions. The text models this. In almost every detail, the text suspends the search for the lost medium and instead asks us to work on the message” (136). This notion of a text that models the importance of its own missing medium, itself a revelatory notion, becomes a fitting way to conclude this collection of essays because the essays do not just open up the reader’s digestion of 1 Nephi chapter 1, but like that opening chapter, they give the reader tools to use throughout the rest of the book.