I feel confident that one of the most misunderstood phrases in scripture is God is the same “Yesterday, Today and Forever.” For many it is a statement that describes the unchanging nature of God. Sometimes it is rhetorical hammer used to convince someone that doctrine doesn’t change, or that change is somehow inherently wrong when it comes to God, even to the point that some claim that we can’t have faith in a God that changes. While I think it is obvious that God changes in relation to His children, it isn’t as obvious what is meant about the phrase.
Fortunately, Nephi’s recounting of his father’s vision of the tree of life and his own journey to receive a revelation from God teach us what I believe to be the primary truth behind the phrase God is the same “Yesterday, Today, and Forever.” We will go into more detail later in the post, but the bottom line is that God is the same when it comes to the pattern His children must follow to receive revelation, particularly the revelation of the Love of God. This is the most precious gift all believers and would-be disciples seek: that God is real and that He loves us.
The chapters we are studying this week are probably the most familiar in all of Latter-day Saint culture because so many people start and restart reading the Book of Mormon, so the stories may be familiar, but I hope we can attempt to think about things from a different point of view through our study this year and find the Savior and revelation from God in more poignant ways.
CHAPTERS FOR STUDY WEEK 2-3 – 1 Nephi 1-10
– Writing and sharing spiritual experiences and our history is the key to our posterity’s faithfulness.
– The Love of God is tied to revelation and there is a pattern for all believers to follow in order to receive the revelation of the Love of God.
– Faith in Jesus Christ.
History and Context:
– Primary Author – Nephi is the primary author for the first part of the year and I think it is important to know and think about a few things regarding his record.
- He wrote the record at least 30 years after the story began, maybe even 40 years. Consider your recollection of events in the past, even with the Holy Ghost to assist, the record is going to be colored through the past decades of experience.
- Nephi was born to a wealthy Israelite home with all the traditions that came from Israelite culture.
- Nephi’s brothers eventually reject him and try to kill him. They also integrate with the native population without the benefit of any records for learning or language. This experience, both the feelings towards his brothers, and the guilt that Nephi feels seems to permeate the pages of his record.
- Nephi’s audience is his posterity and his people. He wants their faith to increase and for them to avoid the fate of his brother’s posterity.
- Nephi was treated like a king, but he seems to have quickly allowed his younger brother Jacob to take the role of leader.
- Nephi tells us that his account is not perfect, and that writing was difficult and so we must understand the nature of is efforts.
– Jerusalem was part of the “Southern Kingdom” of Israel most commonly called Judah. About 100 years early the Assyrians had completely wiped out the Northern Kingdoms, commonly called Israel, and taken them captive and all that was left was the “Jews” as they were known. There would have been a lot of fear among the people especially with many prophets during this time prophesying of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Nephi mentions that Lehi had many contemporary prophets and the list of prophets in and around this time period is impressive (Names with dates they were active as prophets):
- Isaiah 740-701 BC – many of his prophecies had already been written and accepted as prophetic by 600 BC.
- Zephaniah 640-609 BC- counseled Josiah
- Jeremiah 626-580 BC – counseled many kings of Judah including Zedekiah during Nephi’s record. Also prophesied of the destruction of Jersulaem but had influential friends who preserved his life.
- Huldah ~621 BC – was asked by Josiah to confirm writings were scriptural when many lost texts were found by Josiah.
- Nahum 630-612 BC – prophesied destruction of Nineveh.
- Habakkuk 622-605 BC – prophesied in Jerusalem about the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
- Daniel 606-536 BC – prophet who was taken captive with the Jews by the Babylonians.
- Ezekiel 594-574 BC – prophesied of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonians.
- Urijah 609 BC – prophesied of the destruction of Jerusalem, like Jeremiah and Lehi, but was killed by the leaders.
– Brass Plates were likely more like bronze in their metallic composition. For nearly a century, frequent criticisms around the Book of Mormon focused on the idea that ancient people did not write anything on metal plates at the time of Lehi and Nephi. There have since been many archaeological discoveries in the Near East that show it was not uncommon for sacred writings to be engraved on metal, especially when paper and writing materials were hard to come by.
– Laban was likely a descendant of a wealthy family that had been tasked with collecting and keeping records from his family. With the destruction of the Northern Kingdoms there was great fear that records would be lost and there was a strong emphasis toward collecting and keeping records. Because the record Laban kept was of descendants of Manasseh, one of the people destroyed by Assyrians, he would have been even more focused on preserving and collecting records from his family.
– Hebrew Oaths are something most of us from western cultures would not fully grasp. When Zoram makes an oath to Nephi it seems strange that his promise is all the makes Nephi comfortable. However, oaths were the most sacred of actions in ancient Hebrew and Near Eastern cultures. Zoram would have likely chosen death over breaking his oath, in addition those kinds of oaths would have passed through generations even though the person who took the oath may have passed away. This is a unique Near Eastern custom that finds its way into the Book of Mormon and without explanation is fundamental to the story’s narrative.
– The story of Ishmael and marriages is very important in the context of Israelite customs. First, it was part of the Law of Moses for families to only marry other believing Israelites, those who were part of the Abrahamic covenant. Bringing Ishmael on the journey was for that reason. This becomes even more important in the context of the fates of Nephite and Lamanite posterity. Lamanites abandon their faith and their covenants, and their society blends together with native society in the American continent. Meanwhile, Nephite society retains the custom of marrying within the covenant. This shows up as the record Mormon abridges is primarily passed down through that family line and so the perspective is limited to their experiences which would have been isolated from the native population for religious purposes. This is a primary reason the narrative is so narrow in its view of Nephite history.
– The Tree of Life is a powerful symbol in most ancient cultures and even more important in ancient Israel. Lehi’s family would have recognized the Tree and its imagery as very sacred.
– There are many mentions of plates in the Book of Mormon, so to help you keep them separate in your mind here is the brief explanation:
- Brass Plates – Family History, Five Books of Moses, and Prophetic collection of writings taken by Nephi from Laban. Quoted from extensively by later Book of Mormon authors and prophets.
- Small Plates – a smaller collection of writings starting with Lehi down through Nephi’s descendants that contained mostly spiritually important teachings and events. (1Nephi – Omni).
- Large Plates – The larger and more detailed account of Nephite history starting with Lehi down through Mormon.
- Gold Plates – The small plates combined with Mormon and Moroni’s abridgment of the large plates. Delivered to Joseph Smith and produced into the Book of Mormon we have today.
Lehi is a wealthy Israelite and he receives a vision from the Lord to call the people of Jerusalem to repentance. After following the inspiration, the people reject him, and he becomes afraid for his life. The Lord commands him to take his family and flee Jerusalem. His visions do not go over well with his family, with only Nephi, his youngest son, seeming to have confidence in him. Nevertheless, they leave their life behind and flee into the wilderness without knowing what comes next.
Nephi is writing the record over thirty years after the fact and so his portrait of himself is obedient and dutiful, but it still must have been hard for him to leave his life into the wilderness.
Posterity Protection – Religion
Lehi is instructed by the Lord to have his sons return to Jerusalem to gather plates that contain a record of Lehi’s family, the Law of Moses, and teachings of the prophets. After two failed attempts at obtaining the records, and being afraid for their lives, the sons are given command of an angel to complete the mission. Nephi kills Laban, at the behest of the spirit of the Lord, and is able to obtain the plates and a new member of their entourage in Zoram.
It is clear from Nephi’s point of view that the records, which included a means to learn language, and also the teachings of the gospel, were the fundamental difference between how his people turned out and Laman’s. The plates provided a foundation for the gospel, and future revelations, it also provided a way to teach and instruct their posterity in other ways besides religion.
I feel like this is microcosm for the purpose of organized religion. The tenets of the gospel are not complicated, but when removed from some level of organization, sense of history, and meaningful experiences of others those tenets can devolve and degrade over time. This is how apostasy works and it is prevalent through history. Many people who leave the church, especially those who were third or fourth generation members, will likely be able to keep many of their foundational tenets and pass them on to their children. However, as their children mix with other ideas, and the structured nature of religion and the gospel become distant, eventually even those simple and important things of the gospel become lost.
Organized religion will always have flaws as well, since it is difficult to build a human system that works for every human. We are all exceptions and it is a tough thing to make it perfect for everyone, but the ramifications of losing that organized method of teaching and administering the gospel our posterity would suffer even worse. This is powerfully shown through Nephi’s record of his family and his brother’s family experience.
Reunion is True Joy
One of my favorite parts of 1st Nephi is chapter five when we find Sariah completely upset at Lehi for what she feels is the death of her children. Her fear and her shattered hopes are so easy to relate with. Our lives almost never go how we expect, and we are constantly dealing with challenges. Sariah’s challenge is something that would destroy many of us, and yet we learn an important truth in how she was “filled with joy” upon the return of her sons.
The greatest joy we can feel is that of reunion. It is the joy of eternal life, it is the joy of redemption, and that joy is a joy we must seek in our lives. I have always believed that reconciliation with loved ones, friends, enemies, and mostly the Lord is the source of our greatest moments of joy.
Tree of Life Revelation
Lehi, after arranging marriages for his children, has a vision of the Tree of Life. This is the central message of the Book of Mormon. The vision is symbolic and multi-vocal in its symbolism. We will not spend a lot of time on the vision in this post, since next week’s post is Nephi’s version of the same vision and comes with explanations. However, I think it is important to just note how much the experiences of those in Lehi’s vision rings true.
Finding the Love of God requires help, it requires Christ, the gospel, teachings of the Lord, faith, and effort to follow that journey without immediate reward. There is constant opposition in our lives – mocking friends and society, moments of darkness and despair, challenges and distractions, and even after experiencing the love of God there is the loss of that feeling and the same challenges ahead. It is such an accurate depiction of life and it is definitely worth a deeper study, which we will do next week.
How does it affect our reading of the 1 Nephi when we consider Nephi is writing 30-40 years later and with many experiences that may have biased his recollection?
Is it a little easier to think of things from Laman and Lemuel’s point of view when you consider that Laman was the heir of Lehi’s patriarchal leadership and material wealth?
How do we reconcile the killing of Laban? What does this mean about commandments in general? Do you think this experience stayed with Nephi the rest of his life? How would this have affected his relationship with his brothers?
Why is it so important that we keep a record of our own spiritual experiences for our posterity? What can we do to make this a priority in our busy lives?
Key Moment or Scripture: 1 Nephi 8:10-12, 26-28 and 10:17-19
10 And it came to pass that I beheld a atree, whose bfruit was desirable to make one chappy.
11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the afruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the bwhiteness that I had ever seen.
12 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great ajoy; wherefore, I began to be bdesirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was cdesirable above all other fruit.
26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the aother side of the river of water, a great and bspacious building; and it stood as it were in the cair, high above the earth.
27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the aattitude of bmocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
28 And after they had atasted of the fruit they were bashamed, because of those that were cscoffing at them; and they dfell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
17 And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the awords of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a bvision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the cMessiah who should come—I, Nephi, was ddesirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the eHoly Ghost, which is the fgift of God unto gall those who diligently seek him, as well in times of hold as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men.
18 For he is the asame yesterday, today, and forever; and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him.
19 For he that diligently aseeketh shall find; and the bmysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the cHoly Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the dcourse of the Lord is one eternal round.
As mentioned in the opening of this post, I believe that God does not change in His pattern of revealing His love for us. It requires us to repent and come unto Him. This fruit of the Love of God is not the gospel or the church, it is that wonderful revelation that God loves you. The church, the gospel, the word of God are all part of the journey to the fruit.
Coming unto Christ requires us to believe and repenting requires us to admit we need help. These things are always going to be mocked by the society built around us. The focus on “self” and the focus on “scientific knowledge” as the preeminent focuses of our society make it difficult to come unto Christ and to admit we need Christ’s help. However, the pattern is clear in the scriptures, and in my own life. When I exercise my faith and I admit I need help and seek the Lord in my life I eventually, not immediately, find that wonderful fruit again: The Holy Ghost reminding me that God loves me.
Nephi is so much more than the golden child that we get in the stories of the Book of Mormon. He saw so much tragedy in his life. He was forced from his home, was hated by his older siblings, killed someone, was tormented and physically attacked many times, watched his parents die at a young age, and felt responsible for the conflict between his people and his brother’s people. When you read his record with that in mind Nephi becomes so much more believable and sincere. He did see the stark difference in his life and his brother’s lives. His conviction comes from experience and I think it makes it more interesting and meaningful to study it with that in mind.