Review: Joseph Spencer Theological Introduction to 1st Nephi

Last month the Neal A. Maxwell Institute started publishing a series of brief Theological Introductions to segments of the Book of Mormon, each written by a different author. To date, the introductions to 1st Nephi and 2nd Nephi are available. Unfortunately, publishing these in February and March almost guarantees that most folks won’t care until January 2024.

However for those of us who can never get enough about the Book of Mormon, these little volumes promise to open our eyes to treasures we’d never noticed before.

Professor Spencer’s theological introduction to 1st Nephi has much to offer any reader. Given the dependence of subsequent Book of Mormon writers on the theology and culture associated with Nephi, this volume is definitely worth picking up both in its own right and to inform our Book of Mormon studies for the rest of 2020.

One challenge, however, is that those of us who can never get enough about the Book of Mormon may already have more information than the average Book of Mormon reader these volumes appear to target. Even so, I think almost all readers will find numerous insights that expand their horizons.

Joseph Spencer is editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and co-editor of the book series Introductions to Mormon Thought. He is a philosopher and an assistant professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University.

Joseph Spencer’s treatment of 1st Nephi is divided into two parts:

  • The theological project (what was Nephi trying to do in this book, writing decades after his father’s death)
    • Structure (looking at Nephi’s chapter divisions and what we learn)
    • Importance of saving the Remnant of Israel
    • Who was the God of Israel portrayed in 1st Nephi?
  • Analysis regarding theological issues readers have with 1 Nephi
    • Why does Nephi kill Laban?
    • Why isn’t Nephi nicer to his older brothers?
    • Where are the women?

In the Conclusion, Spencer tells us he is not a historian. Still, he hopes his analysis will add something of “importance to our picture of Nephi…. Nephi has made me feel God’s love for his children in ways I couldn’t have experienced without him…. I long for God in part because of how Nephi has taught me to see him.”

I appreciated Professor Spencer’s coverage of Nephi’s theological project in creating 1st Nephi. It appears Nephi wrote this record decades after Levi’s death, so he had extensive time to reflect on what had happened and how to both validate God’s promise to save all Levi’s family while simultaneously validating his right to reign and minister.

Apparently other scholars have commented on Nephi’s original chapter divisions, noting the chiastic structure. But Professor Spencer’s slim volume is more accessible, hyper-focused as it is on the history presented in 1 Nephi.

Professor Spencer wrings much welcome insight from his analysis of the structure and textual content of 1 Nephi. It was striking, for example, to realize how much Nephi’s dream of the tree of life focused on the Lamb of God, a particular term for the Anointed One (or Messsiah) Israel looked for, strengthening the linkage between Christ’s salvific role and the paschal lambs whose blood was placed on the lintels of Hebrew homes during the original Passover.

Curiously, though, Professor Spencer fails to drive this parallelism home, instead telling us scholars have proposed various meanings for the term, Lamb of God.

I could only wish that Professor Spencer showed some awareness of Don Bradley’s scholarship into likely contents of the lost manuscript. If Lehi left Jerusalem at the beginning of passover and Nephi’s final interaction with Laban occurred the night of the final passover feast, much of the discussion of the Lamb of God could have been even more clear.

Another precious insight is the manuscript indication that Nephi had learned the name of the Lamb of God from the angel, during the vision of the tree of life. Joseph Smith would redact this, since it seemed to conflict with Jacob’s new-won awareness of the Messiah’s name, as recorded in 2 Nephi 10:3. This reflection on the manuscript translation emphasizes the reality that each of us may find Christ for ourselves, without reference to what those around us may or may not know.

A question Professor Spencer leaves largely unanswered is the reason Nephi ended his first volume after 1 Nephi 22. One rationale I have heard is that 2 Nephi was a Book of prophesy, commencing with the prophecies of Lehi. But Professor Spencer provides a supporting reason: 1 Nephi 22 ends with Nephi’s pleadings with is older brothers, saying “the things which have been written upon the plates of brass are true; and they testify that a man must be obedient to the commandments of God.”

This is the last time Nephi was in productive conversation with these brothers he loved so much.

The second part of the book focuses on three questions Professor Spencer hears most often from those questioning the contents of the Book of Mormon, even accepting it as a correct scriptural history. While Professor Spencer’s writings here are valuable, I do wish he could have added more historical background.

The rest of this review will seem harsh. It is not so much that I criticize Professor Spencer, who is doing his best as a non-historian to respond to heart-felt questions he fields from those less familiar with history than he. Rather, I am frustrated that ignorance of history is so rife as to occasion discussion of these questions.

For those lacking historical insight, Professor Spencer’s treatment of these question may well help you gain valuable insight, as he is meeting you where you are.

The remainder of my “review” is not so much a critique of Professor Spencer as it is an implicit critique of the thousands and millions of individuals who raise these critiques in Sunday Schools and on internet sites throughout the world. Oh ye, who would strain at gnats (Nephi’s supposed imperfections) while swallowing camels (overlooking or rejecting the sweetness of the gospel Nephi preaches)!

In the discussion of Laban’s death, Professor Spencer asserts that people suggest there were many other ways this conflict could have ended, without the necessity of Laban being killed. I was frustrated by two omissions here – first, the identity of Laban (a key or even *the* key Jewish military commander, able to command 50 and, at need, command 10,000), and second, the importance in Israel of its warrior defenders (Joshua, David). From Bradley’s book, it appears a legendary sword had been created by Joseph of Egypt, foreseeing Joshua and possibly also Nephi. Even if we ignore the possibility that Laban’s sword reportedly had august provenance, another key comes from the linguistic similarity between Nephi’s act in beheading Laban and David’s act in beheading Goliath. Bradley tells us the sword David used to kill Goliath was revered and kept in the Holy of Holies, suggesting a vastly different cultural regard for certain lethal acts than the sensibilities of modern peoples frequenting Book of Mormon classes. Even so, I felt that Professor Spencer’s analysis of Laban’s death and Nephi’s account thereof is quite valuable. In some ways, it may be more powerful because it doesn’t justify Laban’s death as necessary and resonant with cultural icons.

In the discussion of Laman and Lemuel, Professor Spencer teases out subtleties that we often overlook in our hasty reading. That said, I felt Professor Spencer gives Laman and Lemuel too much credit for never actually killing Nephi in their various violent attacks. I have been battered as a child and as a wife (during my first marriage). When the fists are raining down on you and you are being thrown about and locked in place, it isn’t clear that the abuser is necessarily intending to stop. Sure Laman and Lemuel had many moments of obedience – so did those who pummeled me with various implements, including fists.[ref]I was semi-delighted to learn that X-rays show evidence that someone fractured my eye socket, as this means there is more than my fallible memory to attest to the violence to which I was subjected back in the day.[/ref] Still, Professor Spencer points out evidence that Nephi regretted the manner in which he interacted with his brothers, most notably the fact that he portrays himself as obnoxious even though by the time of the writing, Laman and Lemuel had actually attempted to murder him and had commenced what would become centuries of war campaigns against Nephi’s people.

Unfortunately, I felt Professor Spencer’s weakest chapter was the one dealing with the relative lack of female voices in the Book of Mormon. He contrasts the interaction between Sariah and Lehi, mourning the likely death of their sons at the hands of Laban, with the reaction when the daughters of Ishmael mourn their father’s death. In my opinion, the conclusions Professor Spencer draws are unwarranted, particularly given that he states them as absolutes rather than subjunctive possibilities. In his focus on these parallel stories, each positioned centrally in the narratives relating to Lehi (1 Nephi 1-9) and Nephi (1 Nephi 10-22), Professor Spencer neglects the story of how a daughter of Ishmael and her mother and brother are able to get Nephi released (1 Nephi 7:19). Me and mine find this story compelling. The daughter of Ishmael is mentioned first and seems someone Laman was willing to heed. It seems doubtful Laman would be willing to heed the daughter of Ishmael that was likely to become Nephi’s wife. Professor Spencer also ignores the fact that there is significant Nephite history that is no longer extant. Therefore he asserts centuries of Nephite oppression of women solely based on the difference between these two stories of female mourning.

Professor Spencer makes much of the pronouns Sariah uses and Sariah’s faithful rejoicing when her sons return. By contrast, the daughters of Ishmael mourn their father’s death, but their anguish is co-opted by Laman and his sympathizers, silencing the women and supposedly denying them the chance for self-actualized reconciliation with God. However Sariah was one individual and her mourning turned out to be premature. Ishmael’s daughters were many and their individual resolutions would have been varied. Authors and other storytellers are instructed early on to limit the focus on secondary characters. Unfortunately, Nephi and others knew their record would go to those who didn’t know the different daughters and their respective wonts. Even among Nephi’s own descendants, the daughters of Ishmael who became part of the Lamanite tribes would be persons of little to no interest to readers. Therefore I see Nephi doing what any good storyteller would do – obfuscating the drama regarding numerous secondary characters to keep his core narrative concise. The drama regarding the children of Ishmael ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were. At least the daughters’ grief was mentioned. One imagines the sons also mourned the death of their father. But the grief of Ishmael’s son’s didn’t drive Laman. It was the grief of the daughters, almost certainly the grief of the daughter Laman had married.

This discussion of women would also have benefited greatly from an understanding of women’s social position in ancient Israel. True, women didn’t control property, per se. But property was transferred solely based on willingness of male kin to care for the widow of the former owner. This cultural reality drives the drama in the story of Tamar and the drama in the biblical Book of Ruth. This cultural reality remained a staple of Christian life, informing numerous royal murders in and around Britain until Margaret of Scotland pressed for the inheritance law to be ended.[ref]See Turgot, Life of St. Margaret Queen of Scotland, Chapter II, Section 21, online 3/23/2020 at I posit that Margaret feared her husband would be murdered by those wishing to advance her step-son to the throne. This is informed by the story that King Malcolm III (Margaret’s husband) confronted a would-be assassin, convincing the man to swear fealty instead of commit regicide. Margaret’s logic ended up changing laws outside of Scotland. By the time of her descendant, King Henry VIII, a papal dispensation was required for Henry to marry his brother’s widow.[/ref] This cultural reality takes the Queen of the Lamanites from the paragon of egalitarian rule that Professor Spencer sees and transforms her into yet another widow[ref]I assert the story of the Queen of the Lamanites as one of the proofs Joseph Smith could not have produced the Book of Mormon from his imagination, as her tale so embodies cultural practices that had been eradicated by the time Joseph Smith lived. Her tale is obviously an example of levitate property transfer, yet we are ignorant of history and fail to recognize what we are reading.[/ref] whose subsequent husband(s) receive the properties/kingdoms previously controlled by her deceased spouse(s).[ref]One wonders whether Tubaloth was the only son borne to the Queen of the Lamanites, as the purpose of levirate marriage was to produce a son to carry on the name of the deceased husband.[/ref]

Despite my dissatisfaction with elements of the final three chapters, Professor Spencer was able to effectively articulate why people harbor these questions. Inasmuch as people do harbor these questions and lack historical understanding, Professor Spencer is able to provide philosophical discussions and textual analysis that ease us into understanding and compassion.

Summary Professor Spencer’s theological introduction to 1st Nephi has much to offer any reader. Given the dependence of subsequent Book of Mormon writers on the theology and culture associated with Nephi, this volume is definitely worth picking up both in its own right and to inform our Book of Mormon studies for the rest of 2020.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

5 thoughts on “Review: Joseph Spencer Theological Introduction to 1st Nephi

  1. In discussing this with my husband, I pointed out that many stories of biblical women appear to have been included because the women were ancestors of King David, or in other ways related to the story of David (e.g., Bathsheba). When we eliminate stories of these ancestors (Tamar, Ruth) and other Queens (Esther), the biblical landscape of women is much more sparse.

    Eve and the women associated with the patriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah) were mothers of vast peoples (much as Sariah would be in Nephi’s eyes). They are identified by name because nations cared. Their daughters are not mentioned unless the daughter was involved in nation-level events (e.g., Dinah). Similar to Eastern cultures, it was the mother of nations married to the patriarch who is given pride of placement (i.e., we hear of Ishmael’s wife, but she is not named in the extant record).

    In the lost manuscript we lost the accounts that would have told us of royal dynasties. This is where the women would most likely have been mentioned. So now we all have yet another reason to be angry at the thief who stole the manuscript (per Bradley, it seems unlikely Mrs. Harris was that thief).

  2. Hi Hunter,

    Professor Spencer does much good in his book. The explanation of the structure of Nephi’s original story is very valuable.

    A challenge is that I personally have little sympathy for the three questions. I see what the death of Laban has to do with theology. I’m a bit less clear what the fraternal interactions have to do with theology. I have absolutely no clue what the woman thing has to do with theology.

    Professor Spencer gives himself a bye for not being a historian. Since most reading the Book of Mormon similarly lack training in history, this makes Professor Spencer’s book a great place to start.

    But there is history. And it has bearing on the theology and questions Professor Spencer addresses. How else am I to articulate the importance of that history except by means of written review?

  3. Do a review! Yes, provide critiques! By all means. We need reviews by smart and well-read folks like you.

    But . . . have your conclusions match the substance of the review. (For example, go back and look at your “summary” section, and then compare it to the substance of each of your review’s paragraphs. There’s a large disconnect.) Otherwise, the effect is a disingenuous tone.

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