It’s time, at long last, to get this discussion started. We’re tackling only the first two-and-a-half verses of text this week, but that will be enough to keep us more than busy, I think. Here is the text we’re dealing with this week, with my own punctuation (note that there are no textual variants to be bothered about in these verses):
 And now, Jacob, I speak unto you. Thou art my firstborn in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness, and, behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow because of the rudeness of thy brethren.  Nevertheless Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God, and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.  Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother Nephi, and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God.
The first two of our four guiding questions seem to be focused heavily on these first verses. If we’re to get a sense of the immediate setting of 2 Nephi 2, or of its reliance on other scriptural texts, it’d be best to look for answers in assessing these first verses of the chapter. Further, if we’re serious about the question of audience, as well as about how the details of Jacob’s life bear on the interpretation of 2 Nephi 2, we’ve got to keep an eye on these first verses. Also interesting to me are some details from these first verses that might help us begin to answer our third question. As I hope to show, there’s a significant question of textual structure in these first verses that should give us serious theological food for thought. Only the fourth question will have to wait for further attention.
What follows, then, comes in three parts. In the first, I’ll say a few things about how these first verses help to situate 2 Nephi 2 within scripture rather generally. In the second, I’ll see if I can’t illuminate something about audience, as well as about the interpretive relevance of Jacob’s past. In the third, finally, I’ll identify an important structure in these first verses and say a bit about what it suggests theologically.
To work, then!
It seems to me that there are two distinct sorts questions to be asked about the scriptural setting of 2 Nephi 2: First, what can be learned from an analysis of the position of 2 Nephi 2 within the larger text of the Book of Mormon? Second, what can be learned by looking at scriptural echoes in and of 2 Nephi 2:1-3a? I’ll take these in turn. Also, I want to be careful not to get carried away here, so I’ll try to be brief.
Nephi’s record, on my interpretation, plays a very determinate role in the larger structure of the Book of Mormon. It introduces a covenantal theology—largely uninterested in questions of soteriology (narrowly defined)—that the Lehites for much of their history seem intentionally (even inspiredly) to have disregarded (thanks to the intervention of a certain Abinadi). It is only in Third Nephi, with the arrival in the New World of the resurrected Christ, that there is a return of sorts to the covenantal interests of Nephi’s record and an abandonment of sorts of the heavy focus on atonement that seems to have driven Lehite theological interests from King Benjamin to Samuel the Lamanite.
But, clean as I want to make this cut between two rival theological interests, it’s messy in certain ways. And one of the more important of those ways is Nephi’s inclusion in his record of a certain thread of soteriological theological speculation. Interestingly, it’s never Nephi who produces that speculation—it’s Lehi in 2 Nephi 2 and Jacob in 2 Nephi 9—but it’s nonetheless he who decided to give it a place in his otherwise entirely covenantal record. It was on this atonement theology, contained in Nephi’s book on covenant theology, that Abinadi seems to have drawn in laying the foundations of the atonement theology that saturates the books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman.
2 Nephi 2 thus, it seems to me, has a kind of unstable position in the Book of Mormon—along with 2 Nephi 9, Jacob’s obviously-2-Nephi-2-inspired sermon. It’s a kind of knot in the otherwise smooth grain of the record Nephi assembled. This is all the more apparent when it’s compared with the chapters immediately surrounding and obviously connected with it. The covenantal focus of 2 Nephi 1, of 2 Nephi 3, is unmistakable. We might well ask why Lehi’s words to Jacob move in this decidedly non-covenantal direction, this more personal-application-of-the-plan-of-salvation sort of direction.
I’m interested in what thoughts others may have on the uneasy place 2 Nephi 2 occupies in the Book of Mormon. For my own part, I’ll be satisfied for the moment just to have articulated its basic outlines—mostly so that I can get on to the next question.
There isn’t too much that needs to be said about echoes of biblical scripture in these first verses. There don’t, in other words, seem to be any deliberate or extended allusions or borrowings. That said, there are a few points that might be mentioned just because they help to shed some light on the text.
In verse 1, again in verse 2, and then later in the chapter in verse 11, Lehi refers to Jacob as his “firstborn” (first as his “firstborn in the days of [his] tribulation in the wilderness” and then more simply as “firstborn in the wilderness”). Although the exact phrases Lehi employs are unique to 2 Nephi 2, they might be seen as drawing on an important Old Testament tradition, where “my firstborn” appears five times and where “firstborn” appears still more often (most frequently in the Pentateuch and the Chronicles). It is, for instance, of some significance that “my firstborn” appears for the first time in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 49:3, where Jacob is giving final blessings to his sons just before death—where, that is, he’s doing exactly what Lehi is doing in 2 Nephi 1-4.
Of course, it’s of some importance that Jacob is not actually Lehi’s firstborn, but only his firstborn in the wilderness. (It’s curious, though, that Lehi doesn’t refer to Laman as his firstborn in 2 Nephi 1, when offering final words of counsel to him. He only calls Laman his firstborn when he’s addressing Laman’s children in 2 Nephi 4.) Nonetheless, there’s something of a precedent for Lehi’s complicated use of “firstborn.” Of the five instances of “my firstborn” in the Old Testament, three are used non-literally. Exodus 4:22 thus speaks of Israel as God’s firstborn, Psalms 89:27 of God making a king into God’s firstborn, and Jeremiah 31:9 of Ephraim being Jehovah’s firstborn. In all this, we don’t exactly have an allusion or even an echo, but we do have a bit of helpful clarification.
Turning to verse 2, we might say something about the idea of afflictions being “consecrated for gain.” Outside of the Book of Mormon, consecration is attached to gain in only one passage, Micah 4:13, and that passage happens to be quoted in 3 Nephi 20:19. I think I’d like to assume some kind of connection between Lehi’s talk of consecration and Micah’s eschatological claim. But I’ll postpone discussion of this until a little later, because I’m going to address this matter of consecration at some length in the next part of my post.
Turning, then, to verse 3, there are a few brief things to say. First a point of difference from other scriptural texts. Lehi speaks early in this verse of Jacob’s soul being blessed. This is curious because, as it turns out, it is only (more or less) in the Book of Mormon that souls are blessed (see Alma 28:8; 38:15; but cf. Psalms 49:18); in the Bible, it is souls that do the blessing (see Genesis 27:4, 19, 25, 31; Psalms 103:1, 2, 22; 104:1, 35). I don’t know what’s to be learned from that point of difference, but it’s interesting—and perhaps fruitful. More obviously in line with Old Testament usage is Lehi’s talk of “dwelling safely.” There is a heavy emphasis on dwelling safely in the Hebrew tradition, always connected—as Lehi’s blessings are—to promises concerning land (see Leviticus 25:18, 19; 26:5; Deuteronomy 12:10; 33:12, 28; 1 Samuel 12:11; 1 Kings 4:25; Psalms 4:8; Proverbs 1:33; Jeremiah 23:6; 32:37; 33:16; Ezekiel 28:26; 34:25, 28; 38:8, 11, 14; 39:26). I think it’s safe to assume that Lehi is following out this tradition, though I don’t know how much light this connection sheds on anything either.
Of more importance, but not without its problems, is the way the Hebrew Bible might help to clarify the meaning of Lehi’s talk of Jacob spending his days in “the service of [his] God.” It’s possible to suggest that this phrase is a kind of abridgement (for a similar abridgement, see Ezra 6:18) of the very frequent Old Testament phrase, “the service of the house of God.” If this connection is of any worth, it would seem that Lehi is promising Jacob a certain role in the temple and the priesthood—a role he did in fact subsequently take up. The problem with such an interpretation, however, is that this phrase appears (with the exception of Numbers 16:9) exclusively in post-exilic texts (see 1 Chronicles 9:13; 23:28; 25:6; 28:20, 21; 29:7; 2 Chronicles 31:21; Ezra 7:19; Nehemiah 10:32). Although the Book of Mormon in English translation has no qualms about drawing anachronistically from King James renderings of texts that would have been written after the Nephites left Jerusalem, it’s difficult to argue that such specifically post-exilic usage can be drawn on in making inferences about the meaning of the phrase in the Book of Mormon.
In short, there seems to be little in these first verses by way of allusion to or quotation of other scripture. There is, however, good reason to look at how these first verses may have influenced subsequent Nephite scripture—or, at least, one major subsequent Nephite figure: King Benjamin.
How is a connection between these first few verses of Lehi’s words and King Benjamin’s four-centuries-later sermon suggested? First, the phrase “the greatness of God” appears in scripture only here in 2 Nephi 2:2 and in Mosiah 4:11. (Speaking more generally, it’s only Jacob in 2 Nephi 9 and Benjamin in Mosiah 4 who ever in scripture associate the word “greatness” with God.) Second and more importantly, the wording of Lehi’s statement, “thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God,” is borrowed heavily by Benjamin in Mosiah 2 (see Mosiah 2:12, 16, 17, 19). There’s good reason to suspect that Benjamin was a close reader of Lehi’s words to Jacob. He alone in subsequent Nephite tradition seems to have drawn on the language of these first verses.
More word needs to be done on what these connections between Lehi and Benjamin might mean (John, I’m looking at you!). For the moment, I think I’d just like to identify the connection and ask others what sense is to be made of it—again, mostly so that I can get on to other tasks I’d like to address in this already-getting-long post.
Complications of Audience
I can only hope I haven’t bored anyone with what I’ve done so far here. It’s all necessary work, however preliminary. But now I want to get on to the kind of work in which I’m much more at home—and which I find much more engaging: theological interpretation. And I’m going to do this sort of work while addressing what at first can only appear to be a merely exegetical concern, namely, the matter of audience.
This will come in two parts. First, I want to say something about the apparently simple distinction between the identified audiences of the two halves of 2 Nephi 2. And then I want to complicate that distinction by providing a bit of analysis of one detail in particular drawn from Jacob’s life: this matter of consecrating afflictions for gain. There are, of course, other details from Jacob’s life that might be relevant, though I’ll deal only with this one. Please feel free—read: obligated!—to say something about other aspects of Jacob’s life that might be important to the interpretation of 2 Nephi 2.
Generally speaking, it seems to be possible to divide 2 Nephi 2 up into two major parts. The first half runs through verse 13, and the second half begins with verse 14. There are several indications that these two “halves” should be regarded as distinct. For instance, note the difference in style of discourse: in the first half Lehi speaks in the philosophical or theological abstract, while in the second half he speaks narratively and concretely. Similarly, note the difference in use of tenses, obviously connected with the difference in styles: in the first half (with the exception of the first few verses, which I’ll try to explain in the third part of this post) Lehi always employs the present indicative, while in the second half he almost universally uses the simple past tense. Perhaps more complicatedly, we might note that verse 13 brings all the themes of the first half of the discourse to a kind of point of absurdity, with the very creation vanishing away, while verse 14 opens the second half of the discourse by reversing that absurdity and marking a kind of new beginning.
More immediately relevant to us, however, is the fact that the two halves of the discourse seem to have distinct audiences. It’s clear from these first verses that Lehi addresses himself directly and, as it were, only to Jacob in the first half. This seems to be confirmed in verse 11, when Lehi interrupts his theological talk with a reiteration of “my firstborn in the wilderness.” It seems clear that right up through verse 13, Jacob is the unique audience Lehi intends to address. But notice that verse 13 opens with an indication of a shift in audience: “my sons.” This is confirmed again in verse 28 with another “my sons,” and then again in verse 30 with yet another “my sons.” It thus appears that the second half of the discourse is addressed not only to Jacob, but to all of Lehi’s sons. The abstract and more obviously theological part of the discourse is something Lehi wants to tell Jacob about specifically—all the talk of how the atonement functions, all the focus on the necessity of preaching, all the complicated business of opposition and its connection with law, etc. The narrative and more obviously didactic part of the discourse, however, is something Lehi wants all of his sons to hear—all the talk of the actual story of Adam and Eve, all the careful distinction-drawing between acting and being acted upon, all the discussion of being free to choose life or death, etc.
(I might note that paying attention to audience perhaps suggests that the two halves divide between verses 12 and 13, rather than between verses 13 and 14. Does the “I speak unto you these things for your profit” in verse 14 refer back to the content at least of verse 13, suggesting that Lehi has already turned from Jacob alone to all of his sons? And does the repeated “ye” of verse 13 perhaps mark that shift? We might do some work on trying to fix exactly when this shift takes place.)
It isn’t hard to see why the didactics of the second half of the discourse might be meant for Jacob’s brothers. They are, after all, the “rude” ones who have made Jacob’s life miserable. And it isn’t hard to see why the theology of the first half of the discourse might be meant for Jacob alone. He is, after all, the one who has to make sense of the redemption of his miserable life. But I wonder if Lehi’s reference to consecration doesn’t complicate things. It would be one thing if Lehi said something like: “Your brothers have been jerks and ruined your life, but I’ll get to them in a moment. In the meanwhile, I want to tell you how the plan of redemption works so that you can find happiness nonetheless.” But Lehi doesn’t say that. He says, rather, something like: “Your brothers have been jerks and ruined your life, but God will use the very ruins of your life—as ruins—to do something remarkable with you. This is all, as it were, a part of the plan.”
That complicates things. Lehi finds himself having to tell one son that all the misery caused by the other sons has been, in a sense, an integral part of God’s purposes, but he has to do so without letting those other sons come to the conclusion that they’ve been merely passive tools in God’s work. The shift in audience, it seems, is necessary. Lehi has to find a way to weave an explanation of redemption for Jacob with a reprimand against continued disobedience to Jacob’s oldest brothers. How’s that to be done?
But if we’re to get very far with this question, I think we need to assess much more carefully the stakes of Lehi’s reference to consecration.
The most straightforward definition of “consecrate” is, as Webster’s 1828 dictionary makes clear, is “to make or declare to be sacred, by certain ceremonies or rites,” thus “to set apart, dedicate, or devote,” etc. A quick glance at the use of “consecrate” in scripture, where it is most often used to refer to the consecration of priests or kings, bears this out. In addition to this more common usage, however, there are references that can’t so easily be made sense of, and it so happens that Lehi’s reference to consecration in 2 Nephi 2:2 is among them. But even before dealing with the less common, I find myself asking whether we’ve really ever thought through the implications of the common usage. What does it mean to “devote” something, to “make or declare” something “to be sacred”?
But isn’t it simple enough? Isn’t it just a matter of making clear that there are two distinct realms—the sacred and the profane—and that consecration is the ritual procedure through which we move an object from the one into the other? Of course, the distinction between the two realms can’t be said to be a real one, because nothing about a consecrated object can be said to be physically different after the act of consecration. We don’t believe, after all, in transubstantiation—that is, in the idea that through the consecration of the host there’s a transformation of the substance of the bread and wine even as the perceivable accidents remain the same. So we’d want, it seems, to say that consecration amounts to a kind of conventional transformation, a shift in how we regard the status of certain objects—regardless of the fact that the laws of the conservation of energy and matter remain in place. Of course, we’ll insist that there’s a little more than mere convention at work here, since consecration is effected through authority, and God Himself guarantees whatever is effected through proper authority. Consecration thus appears, on the usual account, to be a kind of divinely guaranteed convention.
That’s the usual account. I’d like to complicate it.
Only once in the Bible is consecration connected with “gain”: in Micah 4:13 (a passage, incidentally, that’s quoted in 3 Nephi 20:19). It’s interesting that in that text gain is what’s consecrated, whereas here in 2 Nephi 2 something is consecrated for gain, but I’ll leave further puzzling over that distinction for later. Is it significant that an unexpected Hebrew word lies behind consecration in the Micah text? Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, “consecrate” translates one form or another of the root qdsh (to make holy) or a form of the phrase ml’ yd (to fill the hand—a reference to an ordination ritual). In Micah, however, the word translates the Hebrew khrm, the root generally used in connection with the ban on goods acquired in holy war. Consecration there—and we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it’s this use that lies behind all our talk of the law of consecration in our own dispensation—is a matter less of what is sanctified than of what has been sanctioned, less of the awesome than of the awful. There’s an obvious connection between these, as anthropologists have been pointing out for a century (there’s a veritable history of folks grappling with the double status of the holy, one Giorgio Agamben traces in a productive way in The Sacrament of Language, for anyone interested). Whether something is sanctioned or sanctified, it’s in some sense subtracted from the economy of the everyday. And it’s this that should give us to think carefully about what’s at stake in Lehi’s gesture.
Might we think about consecration in terms of a kind of potentialization, a kind of deactualization? What is it we do in consecrating our gain in, say, D&C 42? To a certain extent at least, the key to consecration as we’re to live it is transforming what we possess into what we are stewards over. In Pauline terms, we replace “using up” with “use.” In a world ordered from top to bottom by ownership, consecration amounts to deactualization, to a kind of “putting out of play” through a reorientation of the consecrated to something “invisible,” so to speak, within the world’s economic order. In consecration, we might say, we uncouple something from the ends the idolatrous order of the world assigns to it. We make something endless by unbinding it from the telos that guarantees its (economic) meaning. Thus stripping what we consecrate of its actuality—where actuality is a function of the place something occupies in an economically defined order of things—we return to it its potentiality or potentialities, at once its possibilities and its potency, at once the variety of its possible uses and the power inherent to the thing but sapped in its being harnessed to economic production.
How does any of this clarify Jacob’s situation or Lehi’s words? The Lord will consecrate Jacob’s sufferings. Now we might read that as: The Lord will uncouple Jacob’s sufferings from the ends assigned to them in the economy of Lehi’s family. The sufferings aren’t to be gotten rid of, overturned, or overshadowed by something glorious. Rather, they’re to be used. Jacob, we might say, will have the task of using them. Jacob, we might say, will have to give them up, to relinquish ownership of them in order to be a steward over them. Jacob, we might say, will recognize that they have, as products of sibling rivalry, etc., been sanctioned. He’s not to employ them in constructing any self-identity, nor is he to make them his own by taking over into his own projects the projects inscribed in those sufferings. He’s to experience in those sufferings something endless, something gratuitous, something graceful—the Lord’s own hand.
Or something like that.
This sheds light, I think, on questions of audience. Jacob’s brothers, if they understand this properly, can’t hear in Lehi’s approbation of Jacob’s sufferings a kind of approval of their actions. They’ll still be upbraided. And perhaps they’re already upbraided. Not only have they done wrong in their rudeness, they’ve done wrong themselves by refusing to uncouple the products of their actions from the actions themselves. Wedded as we usually are to thinking that sin always lies in our choice of certain ends over others, there’s a hint here—expounded at length in the Book of Job, of course—that sin lies rather in our choice of ends at all. Redemption, for Jacob, is in part a question of rendering even suffering endless, much more than it’s a question of bringing suffering to an end, however justifiable that end appears economically.
Might this get us started in thinking about opposition later in the sermon?
Structure and Time
Finally, I want to assess the theological importance of a structure I’ve riddled out of the first verses of 2 Nephi 2. It’s not unconnected to what I’ve just had to say about consecration, but I’ll see whether I have much to say about that. At any rate, here’s a structure I see at work in verses 1-4:
[past] thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow . . .
[present] nevertheless, . . . thou knowest the greatness of God
[future] and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain
[future] wherefore thy soul shall be blessed
[future] and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother Nephi
[future] and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God
[present] wherefore I know that thou art redeemed . . .
[past] for thou hast beheld that in the fullness of time he cometh . . .
[past] and thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory
[present] wherefore thou art blessed
[future] even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh
[present] for the spirit is the same
[future] and forever
That there’s so much variation in tenses here is striking because right after the “yesterday, today, and forever” business that clearly marks the culmination of the variations there’s an almost complete disappearance of any variation through the remainder of the first half of the sermon. The rest of the relatively abstract discourse directed solely to Jacob speaks in the abstract present indicative, without any need to turn to past or future: “redemption cometh,” “there is no flesh that can dwell,” “all men come unto God,” “it must needs be that there is an opposition,” “if ye shall say, . . . ye shall also say,” and so on. It’s only here in these first verses that there’s any strong variation in tense, and here it’s quite intense.
Is there a sense or even a structure here? Lehi begins with the past (afflictions, etc.), moves to the present (Jacob’s knowledge of God’s greatness), and then shifts to the future (a set of four consequences bound up with Jacob’s knowledge: consecrated afflictions, a blessed soul, safety in dwelling, and days given to God’s service), from there back to the present (Jacob is redeemed), and again back to the past (Jacob’s has already seen that Christ would come). Here there’s a kind of obvious chiasm: from a past of affliction and sorrow through a present knowledge to a blessed future, then back through a redemption for the present to a knowledge had in the past. This chiasm is followed by two quick past/present/future sequences that are obviously structured intentionally in that way (the first: Jacob beheld glory in the past, and so is blessed in the present, precisely as those who will behold the same glory in the future; the second: yesterday, today, and forever), which are separated by a statement about the absolute sameness (and hence presence) of the Spirit.
All of this, it seems to me, says something about the temporality of Jacob’s relationship to the teachings Lehi will go on to spell out. We’ll be looking at more of verses 3 and 4 next week, of course, so we’ll see better how the last parts of this structure play out, but I think we can already begin to think about the basic stakes of Lehi’s gesture here. There is, in the discourse he’s about to give, a kind of collapse of past and future into an eternal present. It’s as if Lehi wants from the very beginning to problematize any belief that things have ever been different, or that they will ever be different. The principles, in short, are eternal, unchanging. And that’s to be made fully clear. (This is something Nephi takes up elsewhere. Take a look at the last verses of 1 Nephi 10, for instance.)
What might all this imply about the texts we’ll be working on over the next weeks? I’ll leave that an open question for now, as I’ve left other questions open. Now, I’ll leave to you all the task of giving shape to the discussion I’m trying far too hard to start.