The Book of Mormon opens with something called “The First Book of Nephi.” I sit down to begin reading, and I feel I’m reading Tolkien: I’m wondering when all these names will be explained. People? Places? Creatures? If only Gandolf were here to explain.
Nephi is, obviously enough, the author, and he begins his book by explaining his lineage:
- “born of goodly parents”
- “taught the learning of [his] father”
- lived a life filled with its fair share of trouble but still close to God, and
- “having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God.”
He is something of a Gandolf: keeper of long-lost knowledge.
Nephi goes on to explain that his chronicle, written in “the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,” is true: “I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.” Evidently it has never cross Nephi’s mind that his knowledge could be flawed.
It’s a strange statement, though, because this is supposed to be a book divinely inspired. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to argue that the book is true because it comes from God? I suppose he’s simply stating here that this is firsthand knowledge, but we immediately see it’s not, for he starts talking about his father’s experiences:
For it came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, (my father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days); and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.
Finally, we get a known name: Zedekiah. Zedekiah was the successor to Jehoiachin, and the prophet Jeremiah was his adviser.
2 Kings 24.18 explains, “Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. His mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah; she was from Libnah.”
In Jeremiah we read
He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done. It was because of the LORD’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence. Now Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.
Zedekiah basically stood up to Nebuchadnezzar, who then came down to Jerusalem and destroyed it. With this mention of Zedekiah, we get more than a known name; we get a possible date: between 597 and 586 BCE. This means we get a time frame for the events of the Book of Mormon, a time frame we could use to get archaeological verification.
The first chapter concludes with Lehi, Nephi’s father, getting a visit from God, in the familiar pillar of fire. God warns Lehi what’s coming by giving him a book of prophecy. There is an obvious parallel with Smith here, and if the Book of Mormon is not of divine origin, it’s a smart stroke on Smith’s part to start legitimizing his book within the book itself.
Suddenly, Nephi stops discussing his father’s story:
And now I, Nephi, do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written, for he hath written many things which he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many things which he prophesied and spake unto his children, of which I shall not make a full account.
It seems like more legitimizing: “this is not the first time we’ve seen books that are critical aspects of God’s revelation to humanity simply disappear,” Smith can argue.
The first chapter concludes by explaining that, after God’s revelations, Lehi did what Smith himself would do later: prophecy. And the result was the same:
And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away. But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.
A cliffhanger! Brilliant — I can’t wait to see how Lehi got out of this pickle…