Book Review: 2nd Nephi – a brief theological introduction, by Terryl Givens
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.” Alexander Pope
2nd Nephi, by Terryl Givens, is the second book in a series by the Maxwell Institute on theology in the Book of Mormon (see 1st Nephi by Joseph Spencer, here).
Theology is the study of God. While other religions have a theological base that determines and establishes their doctrines and beliefs, Latter-day Saints have only begun to study or “do” theology in the last few decades. Yes, we are very good at history, “likening” the scriptures to our day, apologetics (defending the gospel), and finding archaeological discoveries that support the Book of Mormon, but we have not spent the time to intensely study the text of the Book of Mormon. As noted in the book series, C.S. Lewis remarked that in studying the gospel, we tend to be “hurried tourists” who only spend a few moments in the entry way. This series is a beginning for the average reader of the Book of Mormon to begin to sober up by drinking deeply.
In its short 93 pages, Givens gives a refreshing and stimulating look at what he sees as the key points taught by Nephi, Lehi and Jacob in 2nd Nephi. The book is divided into four chapters or sections:
1. The New (and Very Old) Covenant
2. They are not Cast Off
3. To the Convincing of Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ
4. More Plain and Precious Things
There are many amazing insights in the book, and I’ll share a couple, knowing I cannot do the book justice.
Givens explains why Nephi divided his works into two books, and why he separated them where he did. In 1st Nephi, Lehi tells us that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed. There is doubt among some of his followers. Laman and Lemuel attempt several times to return to Jerusalem, even though their father has made such an incredible claim. 2nd Nephi begins with Lehi telling his family that he saw Jerusalem destroyed in a vision. Just think of the shock this would be to the whole family!
Palestine had been the Promised Land since the days of Abraham. The Abrahamic Covenant and the land were inseparable. Moses brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and returned them to the land of promise. Under King David, Jerusalem became the capitol of the Promised Land. Solomon built the temple. It was the place with the ark of the covenant, the Presence of God.
Imagine being an astronaut, suggests Givens in a thought experiment, headed to a new colony on Mars. Your history is earth. It is the place of your birth and the place of your ancestors. It is where your loved ones are, whom you communicate with over the expanses of space. After living on Mars for a time, you suddenly get notice that earth is destroyed. There is no return trip, no communication with loved ones. “Planet earth, their home, with teeming cities and myriad peoples, with its cultural monuments and holy places, with its childhood haunts and familiar vistas–is no more.”
Suddenly, we find ourselves in the realm of Laman and Lemuel, knowing the city and life they loved, was no longer there. All of their beliefs and hopes lay in ruins, as the promised land was destroyed. In this scenario, Lehi and Nephi can describe a new Land of Promise, with Lehi’s family as the seven Tribes of Israel. Nephi’s newly constructed temple replaces the once majestic temple of Solomon, which now was rubble. The ancient covenant continued with Lehi’s family.
Givens discusses how the “new and everlasting covenant” is one that has been around not just since Adam, but since the premortal existence. While the rest of the Christian world condemns Adam and Eve for our sinful nature, the Book of Mormon celebrates their choices, which was part of the eternal plan. He explains several traditional Christian doctrines, such as original sin and predestination, which the Book of Mormon proclaims as wrong. It also explains why they are wrong, and why at birth we are closer to a “blank sheet” of paper with agency to choose, rather than depraved and evil with no redeeming qualities nor any ability to choose good for ourselves.
2nd Nephi discusses two of the key concepts that Moroni placed on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon: that the Jews/Israel are not cast off, and that Jesus is the Christ. Givens shares important insights into both of these key issues. In speaking of the atonement and resurrection of Jesus, Givens notes that since “those earliest heavenly councils, the everlasting covenant depended upon and centered around the grace-drenched offer of Jesus Christ to be the Atoning One, our healer and guarantor of life eternal.”
While the Bible discusses the life and mission of Jesus, it does not do so to the level and depth that the Book of Mormon does. As Catholic scholar Stephen Webb* once noted, the Book of Mormon emotes high-Christology throughout the volume. Givens gives several examples in 2nd Nephi regarding the importance Jesus Christ, the atonement and resurrection, really are to Nephi and his contemporaries.
There are so many more gems to be found in this small book. In reading Givens’ 2nd Nephi, I know that the next time I read the Book of Mormon, I will study it with new eyes, a new heart, and a better understanding and appreciation for what Lehi’s family was experiencing, and how the everlasting covenant, through Jesus Christ, is more than just a piece of land in Palestine. With this book and series, we no longer need to sip from the Pierian Spring, dizzy from an occasional spiritual moment. Givens’ 2nd Nephi will help us drink deeply and experience the true spiritual power of the Book of Mormon.
Available at Amazon.com
* My live blog post on a Fireside with Alonzo Gaskill and Stephen Webb
I am constantly having the opportunity to rediscover elements of the Book of Mormon – the curse of being related to intelligent people. I had a conversation with my daughter the other night that opened a whole new vista on the experience of Lehi’s family.
And thanks to individuals such as Brother Givens and Brother Spencer and Brother Bradley, I am gobsmacked to begin seeing how precious the Book of Mormon is, with its constant focus on the salvation Jesus Christ offers all mankind.
In reading Mosiah I was heartened to notice for the first time how carefully King Benjamin describes the reason evil individuals will be tormented in the final judgement. It will not be because God inflicts punishment, but because the evil people, themselves, will “shrink from the presence of the Lord” because they will have had to confront the “view of their own guilt and abominations.” c.f. Mosiah 3:25.
The God constantly described in the Book of Mormon is a God of love and mercy and truth. If we will not cherish that love and cast ourselves on that mercy, then the unmitigated truth will have power to damn us.
To me, the cord was cut when the ship set sail. In theory the party could have returned to Jerusalem by land. They more or less knew the way. I have sometimes wondered why Nephi didn’t say to his rebellious brothers, “Thanks for you work on the ship. We’re leaving now. You can stay here or go back to Jerusalem. That’s what you’ve wanted. It’s that way (pointing west).” I know there were reasons not to have said that, but it would have been tempting to me to say that.
Once the ship had set sail, there was no going back. The way would be too far and virtually impossible for them to retrace.
Leo, that is one way to look at things. However, when we look deeper at the events that Nephi describes, and how he shares them with us, it definitely seems like Lehi’s vision of the destruction of Jerusalem in 2 Nephi seems to be the deciding factor.
For us, with our western traditions and beliefs, it would be easy to kick them out and send them back to Jerusalem. But Nephi and Lehi did not see it the way we do. Laman, Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael, were part of the family. Family did not separate, except under God’s direction.
We may think that when the ship set sail there was no going back. However, if God could help Nephi build a ship, he could also have sent them back. Such a glimmer of hope may have been with Laman and Lemuel up until the news of the destruction.
Again, it is important to drink deeply, so that we can learn what is in Nephi’s mind, and not just what we impute to him through our Western eyes.
GS: As much as we hold Nephi’s account to be correct and in line with what the Lord wanted to be recorded, we still don’t know what was going on in L&L’s minds.
they tried 3 times to kill Nephi. Once coming back to camp with Ishmael and party, once on the ship, and once in the New World. They were intending to be fratricidal killers, and thus were never really “on board” with Lehi and Nephi.
The following were likely factors in _forcing_ L&L to go forward. These are what I use to “fill in the gaps” in the BoM in order to construct my mental movie:
1. loss of the family treasure to Laban. ie, there was now little, or less, to go back to. And it was “Nephi’s fault” in their minds. L&L could have had all that to themselves, had they gone back, and had Nephi not lost it.
2. being prime suspects in Laban’s death. They would have had to go to a sanctuary city, had they gone back. Possibly confirmed by news from Ishmael. “Hey, what are you guys doing here? Everyone’s looking for you.” Again, “Nephi’s fault” for killing Laban.
3. the necessity of the Liahona to miraculously “prove” to the non-believers where to go. Lehi and Nephi did not need the Liahona, as they knew how to receive revelation. The Liahona was entirely for the non-believers of the party to get them in line, and push them towards their goal.
4. The difficulty of the 7 year trip down the Arabian Peninsula. Not just the time, but having to not light fires to attract some kind of danger. We don’t have the full story on that time period. Something about the trip made it non-reversible.
5. L&L were forced to help build the ship. That kind of instant punishment (the “shock”) for disobedience was an illustration of Nephi’s prophetic status, not seen since the major prophets.
6. I think some things were left unsaid about what was used to get L&L onto the ship. That was a huge leap of faith and a no-going-back committment.
7. L&L _still_ rebelled on the ship, and it took the storm to get them to relent. Were they that stupid, or that evil, or what?
8. I think part of their motivation (not justification, but motivation) to kill Nephi (3 times) was Nephi’s execution of Laban. In their mind, Nephi was capable of shedding blood “to get what he wanted.” I think part of their taunts against Nephi could have included: “Are you going to kill us, like you did Laban, if you don’t get what you want?”
Think how terrified L&L would have been without faith in the Lord and in the success of their endeavor. Loss of all worldy possessions, likely chased down for Laban’s death, seven years of hardship in the wilderness, threatened by marauders along the way (the no-fire thing) , “shocked” by Nephi into doing physical labor, nearly shipwrecked at sea. Of course, most of that was their fault. But in their minds, it was Nephi’s fault.
Once in the New World, the “Lamanites” were in place, and it was time to separate the faithful from the wicked, and create the two separate dynasties. The Lord had His purposes, short, intermediate, and long long term for both parties.
Well, at least that’s my “mental movie.”
I don’t think Lehi’s announcement of Jerusalem’s destruction had that much of an effect on Laman and Lemuel. They never bothered to seek out revelation for themselves, so when dad says Jerusalem is now gone, conveniently after they’ve crossed the sea and have no proof beyond his word, it wouldn’t make that much difference to them.
For Nephi and the other faithful members of the family, on the other hand, such an announcement would confirm that Lehi’s decision to take them into the wilderness was correct–and not corroborated by any outside authority until the Nephites contacted the Mulekites a few generations later.
Again, read the book to get a better feel of what the text says from an ancient context. It’s okay to read it through our own world view, but miss out if we only look from a modern perspective.
Don’t be a hurried tourist stopping just a moment in the entry hall. You miss out on so many marvelous possibilities and discoveries.
How much of Given’s book is character study a la Hardy’s Understanding the BoM?
Not much. Most of the book directly deals with the text and what it teaches.
Granted, to Lehi and Nephi the destruction of Jerusalem would have been the ultimate vindication and confirmation the necessity of their departure. They did, however, have reason to believe, reading Isaiah, that Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Laman and Lemuel, as noted above, probably wouldn’t have been impressed or convinced by this latest revelation.
Crossing the waters to a new promised land would have had echoes of Exodus to Lehi and Nephi. Nephi argued with his brothers using the example of Moses.
For many European converts in, say, the 1850’s, crossing to ocean and then the plains and mountains was a one-way trip with little prospect of going back to the old country. True, some went back on missions, but for most, they would never return to England or Denmark, and they knew it. Like Lehi’s party, they were committed to a nearly irreversible course once they boarded their ship. I wonder how many thought about that parallel.
Leo, I once read that a significant portion (25-33% ?) of European saints did return back to their old country. Was that mainly then just the Nauvoo days? Or am I confusing that with something different?
I don’t know about that statistic at least as far as going back to Europe. I think it more likely that dropouts stayed in the American Midwest with its fertile soil and abundant farming opportunities. Unless you were rich, why return to the Old Country when you can have a prosperous farm in Illinois, Iowa, or Nebraska? And if you were rich, why not start a business here in America?
Scandinavia was losing a lot of people to American Midwest in the 1800’s, not the other way round.