I freely admit that I’m one of the less experienced members of the panel, but I really am enjoying it and hope that my section will be able to spark the same fun discussion as the previous ones even if my initial reading isn’t as impressive. Also, since we’ve established the context of Nephi’s writings, most of what I want to point out will be more topic oriented than context. (I’m admitting to doing more hermeneutics than exegesis.)
I’ll reproduce the text below for convenience first then put my comments below. The two subjects I want to start with are the Gentiles and the covenant.
Part 1: the Gentile (in contrast the the Nephites from the previous verses)
19. And it shall come to pass, that those who have dwindled in unbelief shall be smitten by the hand of the Gentiles.
The Gentiles are mentioned in verse 19 as those who smite the lehite descendants dwindling in unbelief.
20. And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches
The gentiles are then described in their own state as one of apostasy. I find this a pretty clear example of the statement in Mormon 4:5 that it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished. I also find interesting the phrase “the Gentiles are lifted up” because it seems to me that almost anytime someone or something that is “lifted up” in a way that is not linked to the cross, it is a sign of apostasy. You either have to be lifted up through Christ, or your lifting up will fall mightily. Since they are lifted up in the “pride of their eyes” we have a return to the idea of sight and that pride occludes their sight from seeing what is real.
Next we have the stumbling block taken from Isa 8:14-15. In Isaiah, the stumbling block is pretty clearly the Lord of Hosts; “Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself. . .and he shall be a sanctuary; but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” But Nephi seems to be setting up a more complex causal relationship. The pride causes the stumbling on the stumbling block which in turn causes the many churches. This means that pride is the ultimate cause of the stumbling and the stumbling blocks. The stumbling block is the Lord of hosts, or in Nephi’s discussion more correctly the people’s relationship with the Lord of Hosts. In a relationship with the Lord of hosts, he will either be your greatest stepping stone (lifting you up) or your greatest stumbling block (keeping you down).
20 (cont). nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning
I think that here we start to build upon the contrast of God and the righteous people vs. Satan and the unrighteous. Those who are prideful put down the things they ought to be preaching up (power and miracles of God) and preach up the things that they ought to put down (their own wisdom and learning). Soapbox alert: I think it’s interesting here that their wisdom and learning in itself is not the problem, but that they preach up their wisdom and learning. When members sometimes complain about the “philosophies of men” or “intellectualism” or “feminism” etc., I wonder how they expect anyone to learn anything without starting from the learning of men. We don’t have another avenue to understand scripture. Everything starts with the learning of men, including language. I couldn’t even read the scriptures without the assumptions and wisdom and learning of my language. Like most things in the gospel, it’s about priorities and balance rather than exclusion or ignoring. Cain’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t love God, just that he loved something else more. End soapbox. I also think that the contrast here with their preaching is significant. They are allowed to talk at this point, but they don’t get the final word. (Pun intended)
20 (cont) that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor. 21. And there are many churches built up which cause envyings, and strifes, and malice.
That the motivation for building up churches and preaching is gain tells us what those who are prideful love most (even if they still love God). Grinding the face of the poor is another Isaiah phrase from 3:15 which is talking about how those within the church are destroying it. Parry (43) suggests that this phrase may refer to taxes exacted from the poor. This reading would coincide well with the idea of gain and that the gentiles in apostasy care more about material goods than about God. This emphasis on materiality, I think is important because we will soon get a discussion of the materials (texts and other things) that are valuable material things as a contrast. There might be something significant in the tri-part problems caused by the churches, envyings, strifes, and malice but I don’t know what it is other than a tricolon for emphasis.
Part 2: Characteristics of the devil and his combinations
22. And there are also secret combination, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the foundation of all these things; yea the foundation of murder, and works of darkness;.
Verse 22 starts a more explicit contrast between the devil and God. The idea of secret combinations seems to permeate the BoM as anyone organized who opposes the church even if the varying groups are vastly different. (I like Brant Gardner’s discussion of the Gadianton robbers and how Mormon interprets and uses them. But that’s a little off topic.) It seems that the idea is “if you’re not for me you’re against me.” Gardner thinks that the secret combinations and many churches of these verses are the same as the great and abominable church of the first vision. I don’t think that works because these seem to be too different groups causeing too different problems and types of apostasy. The many churches seem to be the vain and misguided doings of men while the secret combinations are orchestrated by the devil. This doesn’t mean that the devil isn’t aware or welcoming of the churches, but that he doesn’t directly control them like he does the secret combinations. Here and in other places I see a distinction between the things of men that lead men away and the things of the devil that lead them away.
22 (cont) yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever
The use of the word cord here is interesting because in most places in the BoM the devil binds with chains (ex 2 Ne 1:13, 28:19, Alma 5:7, 12:6, 13:30). The reason for using cord here may be to allude to Isaiah 5:18 “Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity and sin as it were with a cart rope.” The wording correlates but the image here seems to be of a person who is pulling his own sins which weigh down upon him. This is a similar image to Prov. 5:22 “his own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sins.” (Both use the same word for cord–ch,b,l). For Nephi the image is of the devil dragging souls down to hell. Part of the reason for the cord instead of chain may be so that Nephi can show how a flaxen, ie soft and wimpy cord, can become a strong cord. The idea that the devil lulls people into security and leads them carefully down to hell.
23. For behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness. 24. He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world;
This starts the second part of the contrast by shifting from the characteristics of the devid to the characteristics of God.
Part 3: God and his covenants
24 (cont) for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.
Warning this is an eisegesis section: For me this has a striking resemblance to John 3:16 with one interesting difference. From the point of view of the Nephites (or any OT people) Jesus is God. For John in the NT Jesus is the Son of God. Although often Jesus is described as the son of God (as in the original vision), I believe that several of those “son of” were added a little later. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) We are so used to thinking of Jesus as the Son of God that we forget what a shock it must have been for God to be a Son. As one friend put it, “The scandal of the NT is not that God had a son, but that God has a Father.” Another interesting point here is that God “draws” men to him. This is in contrast to the devil who binds with strong cords. However, the action here seem to be very similar. It reminds me of two other places in John where Christ draws men to him. John 6:44 and 12:32. I point this out not because I think Nephi himself has any sort of connection to John (thought I suppose they did have some of the same revelations), but because the word seems strange to me here and it seemed strange to me there too. The word in Greek (in both references) is elpis and it means draw or drag. It is quite a strong word and has the image of pulling someone. I find this interesting because that is what the devil is describes as doing with his cords. This suggests to me that part of the problem with apostasy is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the good from the evil because the actions often look the same. The secret combinations can look a whole lot like sacred ordinances and the cord of the devil can bind just like the covenant does. Satan can make himself look a lot like the Savior. Even how he “commandeth none not to partake” sounds a little like the alternate plan expecially is he’s drawing or dragging people to him. For Nephi, the difference between what Satan does and what God does is that God always acts “for the benefit of the world.” Satan can’t say that.
25. Behold, doth he cry unto any saying, depart from me? Behold I say unto you, Nay, but he saith, come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey without money and without price.
This emphasis on the inclusiveness of the gospel is interesting for Nephi coming from an Old Testament background. I’m sure we’ll have more discussion on it in the next few verses, but I think that it’s striking how emphatic Nephi is about it. I think that he needs to be this emphatic specifically because of his OT heritage. As far as I know the phrase “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth” does not appear anywhere else in scripture and certainly not in the OT. Perhaps we’re missing this reference. Perhaps Nephi is paraphrasing other texts or his own visions. Whatever the source, this is a very bold statement. I like Brant Gardner’s discussion of why this is even a topic for Nephi. I think it’s a general consensus (as always correct me if I’m wrong) that the Lehites had contact with native peoples and perhaps extensive contact with them. This might explain a lot of problems in the BoM such as how the Lamanites multiply so fast (they are conquering other peoples), why polygamy is a problem (they are marrying to create political alliances), why we keep having other religions pop up, why the Nephites start caring about material goods (the social status compares to other groups) etc. It might also explain why Nephi is so interested in how universal the gospel is. Gardner suggests that Nephi is dealing with the same problem that Paul deals with. There are non-lineage people converting to the church. The Nephites are converting other peoples and having a hard time understanding how that works. Nephi is trying to teach his people that converts aren’t second-class citizens.
I also find this comparison interesting because while Paul living after Christ responds by throwing out the Law of Moses, Nephi responds by emphasizing it. I’ve wondered why so many times we’re told that the Nephites keep the Law of Moses. That should be an assumption, unless keeping the law was the sign of being part of the covenant community. They also make a point of saying that the Law is dead, but they still keep it. I think this also points to the law as a sign of the covenant rather than the covenant itself.
This brings up another question of why baptism isn’t really mentioned before Alma the Elder. It’s not clear to me that the Nephites practiced baptism for enterance into the kingdom. The times that baptism is mentioned in 1st and 2nd Nephi (1 ne 10:9-10, 20:1, 2 ne 9:23, 31:4-12) mostly refer to the baptism of Christ. 2 ne 9:23 is the one that most clearly refers to members needing to be baptized for entrance into the kingdom, but even then I’m not convinced that baptism is a ordinance for entrance into the kingdom. It seems more like the mickvah baths of purification practiced by the Jews. Either Nephi is leaving out the means of entering the covenant, or baptism is not the symbol of that entrance that we see it today. I’m not saying that they didn’t baptize or that it isn’t important, just that it doesn’t seem to be entrance into the kingdom. It seems to me that the Nephites assumed they were “born in the covenant.” This means that the question of converts becomes all the more troublesome. How do you extend the covenant to someone not born into it? They keep the law of Moses which includes baptism or a purifying bath but isn’t the same symbol as it becomes after Christ in the NT or after Alma in the BoM. This is an idea I’ve wondered about greatly but haven’t tried to articulate before so it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be and I’m looking forward to comments on it.
Finally, the phrase “buy milk and honey without money and without price” seems to be a conflation of Ex 3:8 the land flowing with milk and honey and Isa 55:1 buy wine and milk without money and without price. Combining these two elements I think gives a very nice image of the land of promise and the covenant. I think this is another example of Nephi taking scriptural phrases and reworking them to mean something new.