Book review: "First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction" by Joseph Spencer

Joseph Spencer has really outdone himself with this first in the Brief Theological Introductions series from The Maxwell Institute. He has re-awakened a depth and newness to the study of First Nephi that I didn’t think I could find again. You can almost be guaranteed to be challenged to read the Book of Mormon again at least 3 times a year from various sources– your Institute class, your bishop, you Sunday School teacher, a general conference talk. That inevitably makes First Nephi the first box to be checked to getting it done. The stories are so familiar in themselves, what more is there to try to dig out?

Spencer uses a quote from Maxwell to motivate his search for something deeper that we’re missing on our superficial passes through First Nephi: “like hurried tourists [we] scarcely venture beyond the entry hall [of the Book of Mormon]”. Spencer argues that part of the reason we miss the theological complexity of First Nephi is because we’ve conceptualized it as a diary or travelogue: “1 Nephi isn’t meant to be primarily a collection of illustrative stories, vignettes modelling faith amid adversity. We’re free to read it that way, and maybe we’re right to see what we can learn by reading it that way. But Nephi asks us to read his work primarily in a different way. The stories provide context, while we’re meant to look for the book’s prophetic message. And it’s clear already from this sketch that the prophetic message especially concerns the destiny of Lehi’s children.”

Oof, that one hit me really hard. You know all those chapters from Isaiah quotes? And all those parts that don’t seem to be directly related to your life, with easy “applications”? Yeah, that was the most important part. These are parts that we should be engaging with more, trying to piece together why they are so important. Spencer comments directly on this favorite scripture mastery of Latter-Day Saint seminary students (1 Nephi 19:23), challenging traditional interpretations:

Today we generally assume that Nephi here recommends reading scripture with an eye to everyday application. But in context, the text means that Nephi worked to draw out a comparison (likeness) between prophecies he found in Isaiah regarding Jewish history and prophecies he himself set forth regarding the history of Lehi’s children.

Nephi’s scope is much bigger than we usually realize. While we’re trying to pull out a lesson on patience or humility, Nephi is interpreting the historic and prophetic role of the house of Israel in God’s plan. That scope is perhaps a bit large for us today too; what would Music and the Spoken Word be without the short comforting and inspirational message from Lloyd Newell? This isn’t to disparage the need for these spiritual traits. By no means, they are vital. But the context matters, and Nephi spends a lot of space in his book dedicated to helping us see it.

Because of mine iniquities

The other major theme that I picked up in Spencer’s introduction was a sense of the human-ness of Nephi. I grew up viewing Nephi in only one lens: the perfect version portrayed in the Living Scriptures videos. In that version from my childhood, Nephi was obviously the good guy. How could Laman and Lemuel be so wicked? Righteousness was the obvious and natural choice.
But even before I encountered The Book of Laman by Mette Harrison or the essay I, Nephi by Claudia Bushman, I became somewhat disillusioned with Nephi. I remember the first time I had an investigator on my mission get to 1 Nephi 3-4, and be totally at a loss when they find the protagonist, Nephi, killing a man. And he’s justifying it with “God told me so!” Would Mormons today use that same logic if God or their prophet told them to? I had never thought about it that way, and now that you say it, wait… what do I actually think about this? There were other moments too. I remember a general authority coming to our mission asking whether we wanted to be Nephis or Lamans and Lemuels. He pointed out that there might be some Lamans and Lemuels among us right now. And that didn’t sit well with me; are we using the story of Laman and Lemuel to divide the sheep and the goats?

Spencer dedicates the second half of his book to wrestling with some of these difficult questions about Nephi: was Nephi justified in killing Laban? Was he too hard on his brothers? And why does he leave out the women from his narrative? Spencer doesn’t try to absolve Nephi of any wrong-doing; to the contrary, he tries to show us that Nephi is indeed human. When he prays to God that my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities, he isn’t doing it hypocritically. I really like this line from the end of the book:

In the end, I suspect the definition of a prophet includes embodying paradox. The prophets are enmeshed in human affairs, as much a part of the human predicament as anyone else, but they’re somehow able to see problems to which we all contribute. They represent a site of dynamic struggle from within and yet against unrighteousness, not a static position of exception outside it.

Spencer has given me a chance to be reconciled to Nephi, and for that I am grateful.

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