Book Club: Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM ch 4

Chapter 4 – Lehi as a Representative Man

We now are going to get into the meat of the BoM with its very first prophet.  It is an interesting chapter in that it gives us a glimpse of what Lehi’s former life  may have been all about.

“In the brief compass of Nephi’s account, which is an abridgment of his father’s own journal, whose type it imitates and continues”

By the time Nephi writes his short plates, 20 years have passed.  Lehi likely has been dead many years.  Do the short plates actually show an abridgement of Lehi’s journal?  Or would that likely be found on Nephi’s large plates?  As it is, we do not see much of Lehi beyond his visions and blessings given to his children.

“The opening verse of the Book of Mormon explains the expression “goodly parents” not so much in a moral sense as in a social one”

This is an interesting point to make on a book that focuses primarily on the spiritual.  Are we to presume that Lehi may not always have been a very “active” religious person until his calling?  Often we think of prophets as having been holy and wonderful since their youth (like Samuel the prophet).  Yet, many prophets were called out from normal life and into their mission: Moses, Jacob, Peter, etc.  Isaiah went from being a powerful counselor in the King’s palace to a wild prophet that spent a year running around naked!

Lehi may very well have spent most of his life as a merchant, traveling to many distant places.  Then, in his later years, settled down to enjoy his wealth, was suddenly called to his mission from a burning pillar of fire.  In fact, we see that Lehi’s family is startled by this big change in his demeanor and style, as they begin to call him a visionary man, and perhaps even deranged.

There are some who doubt Lehi was a merchant that traveled everywhere.  After looking at the evidence, I still think Nibley was right on this account.

Nibley compares Lehi to other wise men of the period: Solon, Thales, etc.  Many of these spoke against the excesses of the period.  Each was a prophet to his own people, while traveling extensively.  It sounds like this was the description of the leading man of the period.  Wise counselors that traveled around were the heroes of the period.

Then, Nibley contrasts Lehi with the others.  All of them used philosophy to find reason and joy in life. Perhaps Lehi was like this most of his life.  What was the difference then?  Lehi has a vision of the throne room with God.  He is invited to join the divine council.  They give him the divine book, and as he reads it, he is able to speak with the tongue of the angels in the great council.  Lehi no longer has to look for answers just among men, for God will later reveal to him the Tree of Life and the fruit that brings true joy.

When we consider the names of some of the major Greek philosophical groups, such as Cynics and Stoics, we can plainly see that their methodology and philosophy fell far short of happiness.

The philosophers and religious founders of the era sought answers horizontally.  Once God revealed himself to Lehi, the prophet could find answers vertically  through revelation.  Perhaps when Nephi teaches his people in a way different than that of the Jews, he may have been referring to the difference between horizontal and vertical religion.


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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

7 thoughts on “Book Club: Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM ch 4

  1. A response or two before I offer my own thoughts on the chapter….

    Rameumptom says: “Do the short plates actually show an abridgement of Lehi’s journal? Or would that likely be found on Nephi’s large plates?”

    Well, we know a bit about this from the text. Several details make clear that 1 Nephi 1-9 is Nephi’s abridgement of his father’s “record.” Nephi refers to that record in 1 Nephi 19:1, distinguishing it (“the record of my father”) from “our journeyings in the wilderness” (some kind of itinerary or journal?) and “the prophecies of my father” (a kind of collection?). (With those distinctions in place, what can we say about “the record”?) And Nephi tells that all three of these things (the record, the journeyings, and the prophecies) are to be found—apparently in their entirety—on the large plates, onto which Nephi copied them.

    There’s the beginning place to think about all this.

    Rameumptom asks: “Are we to presume that Lehi may not always have been a very ‘active’ religious person until his calling?”

    I’ll have more to say about Nibley’s claims on this point in my next comment. For the moment, however, I wonder if this is the wrong framing—“active,” “religious,” etc. I could see the word “pious” working, but these other terms seem rather out of place in the ancient world.

    Rameumptom says: “There are some who doubt Lehi was a merchant that traveled everywhere. After looking at the evidence, I still think Nibley was right on this account.”

    I haven’t much evidence in front of me to look at (I’d have to do a great deal more work on the basic climate of the sixth century even to get started, let alone look more closely at the relevant Book of Mormon texts!), but Nibley’s suggestion seems at least plausible to me. At the same time, I’m not sure how much difference it makes whether he had that sort of background if he dropped it all after his call.

    Rameumptom says: “When we consider the names of some of the major Greek philosophical groups, such as Cynics and Stoics, we can plainly see that their methodology and philosophy fell far short of happiness.”

    Well, I’d be a bit more careful there….

    Finally, Rameumptom says: “The philosophers and religious founders of the era sought answers horizontally.”

    That doesn’t seem particularly fair. I suppose I want to ask for more information about “horizontality” here, but it isn’t entirely clear to me either that the non-Israelites sought non-vertical answers or that the Israelites sought non-horizontal ones. Indeed, isn’t part of Nibley’s point that the Israelites sought the same sorts of answers as everyone else (take a look at the wisdom literature! canonized!), but that they were surprised by something unsought when they were called?

  2. Now my own direct responses to Nibley….

    Nibley says, in the middle of his discussion of Solon, that “it was to get [Lehi’s sons] away from such ‘prodigality and luxury’ that the Lord led his family into the wilderness.”

    This is classic Nibley: the real problem in Jerusalem, the real motivation for the Lehite trek to the New World, was the inevitable corruption that comes with wealth. Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem wasn’t, on Nibley’s reading, a departure from unspecified wickedness, but from the sloth and oppression that come with wealth. I like it. Whether or not it’s historically accurate, it’s true….

    Nibley says: “And just as Lehi when ‘… he went forth among the people and began to prophesy, …’ was greteed with mockery that was a prelude of worse things to follow, (1 Ne. 1:18-20), so when Solon went forth to preach the Athenians in the market place at that time, he had to feign insanity so that the people might mock him rathe than put him to death.”

    This is fantastic. A close reading of 1 Nephi 1:18-20 shows that opposition to Lehi came in two distinct stages. First there was mockery, and that in response to Lehi’s claim that the city was wicked and needed to repent. Second, however, there was murderous plotting, and that in response to Lehi’s stakes-raising claim that he knew a Messiah was coming. We don’t pay nearly enough attention to this: What really got people upset—politically worried about what Lehi was doing—was his talk of a Messiah. Nibley’s use of Solon’s essential reversal of this pattern helps to illustrate things: Solon’s political claims led to murderous anger, so he shifted to the absurd and apparently insane so that mere mockery took the place of rage. No one has a problem with threats and calls to repentance; what gets people upset is the claim that there’s a messiah coming.

    Nibley puts Lehi in company not only with folks like Solon and Thales, but also with: “Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tze, Vardhaman Mahavira … , Zarathustra, and Pythagoras.” (Nibley might well have added Ezra….)

    This is significant. Nephi carefully chronicles a remarkable theological innovation, one that—in our “harmonizing” approach to scripture—we entirely miss. The Book of Mormon opens with a kind of vague messianism that rapidly takes on definite shape and then still more definite shape and then almost painful clarity. The Lehites don’t come with a ready-made Messianism; it develops. It’s probably appropriate to see Lehi—and Nephi and Jacob in his wake—as the founder of a genuinely novel religious tradition, the thinker of a new set of doctrines, etc. Nibley, it seems to me, hints in that direction.

    Nibley claims that Lehi was of the same “sober persuasion” of his wisdom-seeking contemporaries, taking “disillusionment and a wise resignation” to be the secret to life: “he found neither happiness nor security in his wealth and success.” But Nibley goes on: “And then something happened that changed everything: he had a revelation, and as a result ‘… his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, yea, which the Lord had shown unto him.’ (1 Ne. 1:15.)”

    This is very nice: Lehi is a convert from wisdom (and that could just as well be Hebrew wisdom—see your books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, for instance—as any other ancient wisdom tradition). I don’t know whether Nibley’s claims about Lehi being a “representative man,” etc., are defensible—indeed, I doubt it, for the most part—but I think this is the real upshot of Nibley’s discussion, and it is, I think, right. Lehi was a convert from wisdom. And to what was he then converted? The Messiah. That’s the starting point of the Book of Mormon, and the thing about which we ought to be thinking from the beginning….

  3. It is amazing to think of the leaders of many major religions living in that period. It is sad that some of the Ancient Greeks were so cynical when it comes to life and joy. The verse that will come later in 2Nephi about man being that he may have joy is such a contrast.

    I can see where people may think goodly applies to more social status and ability to educate and the sentence that follows the first verse of the Book of Mormon does seem to imply that. I had heard it before too. But I like to think that it refers to loving parent who teaches moral and social issues.

  4. Joe, some excellent comments.

    I used the term “active” knowing it is a modern sense term. Ancient Israel was not a church, as we have today. That said, I imagine he was an average Israelite in his time, working and gaining riches and wealth in an effort to find happiness. However, we as “active” Latter-day Saints today must consider the implications for ourselves – just how converted are we? Where is our focus in life?

    Along with this, is horizontal religion: wisdom literature. Whether it is the Wisdom of Solomon, Solon’s writings, etc., it all sought meaning to life. As in Ecclesiastes, the wise teacher often found that “all is vanity”, and that there was only one thing to do:

    “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccl 12:13-14).

    This is a rather cynical view of life one gains from a close observation of life, yet one that we often find from those who seek the answers solely from a horizontal viewpoint. Perhaps Lehi’s view was similar, as he sought happiness through wealth.

    Then, as noted, he has a revelation that changes everything. No longer is he the rich merchant that tries to make Laman and Lemuel happy by spending money on them, allowing them to be part of the “in” crowd in Jerusalem. Perhaps he built his home in Jerusalem for the purpose of his family to have a social life?

    As for the claim of horizontal religion being “unfair”, you’ll note that I only mentioned the Greek philosophers in regard to this. Many of the other wise men of that day claimed to have a spiritual experience. Buddha found Nirvana, some others had other-worldly experiences that guided their search for wisdom and happiness.

    That Israel in 600 BC was leaning heavily on the wisdom literature of the area is true. It would do the same thing in the few centuries before Christ’s birth, bringing forth the Wisdom of Solomon and other such literature.

    Why would God send a vision to Lehi and Jeremiah, but not to Solon, Thales or others? It is an interesting question. Perhaps their traditions and beliefs did not include a revelatory experience, and so they were either not prepared for one, or would not have known what to do with it.

    When Lehi received his first vision, it is possible he had heard Jeremiah preach and share his visions with the people. Such could have had Lehi pondering on spiritual things on the road home, when the vision occurred. I see it possibly similar to Enos pondering on the words of his father, and then receiving his revelation, etc. Was he expecting a vision of the divine council or a mission call as an answer? Probably not.

    As to Greek learning, when Paul preached on Mars Hill, the philosophers scoffed at the idea of the Unknown God revealing himself to mankind. Perhaps such a disbelief isolated them from God and his Presence, keeping the Unknown God unknown to them.

    That many LDS and Christians today spend their lives seeking happiness in material wealth, rather than in apiritual things, suggests we are potentially in a similar position as the Israelites were in Lehi’s time. Nibley definitely thought that our progression in evil aligned with the Book of Helaman, as he noted in 1988. The events in the Book of Helaman, secret combinations, intrigue, seeking for wealth, contention, all fit in with Lehi’s time, as well.

    As to Joe’s last paragraph, I would just add one other thing. Lehi was a convert from wisdom AND riches to a belief in the Messiah.

  5. Just a quick note (sorry so long before getting back to this!):

    My worry about dismissing verticality among the Greeks is rooted in the increasingly widespread recognition that it was an early twentieth-century bias to regard the Greeks as uninterested in the otherworldly, etc. Plato’s mysticism is unmistakable, and more or less all of his predecessors were deeply entrenched in the contemplative and the mystical….

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