My last post was—my apologies anew!—too long, too philosophical, and too speculative, all at once. Let me see if I can’t be a bit more down to earth—and a bit briefer!—this time around. I’ll just offer a kind of brief (and rather rambly) interpretation of the passage. At any rate, here’s the text:
Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught. Wherefore, there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes—and also the power and the mercy and the justice of God. And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. And if ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness, there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness, nor happiness, there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not, there is no God. And if there is no God, we are not, neither the earth—for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act, nor to be acted upon. Wherefore, all things must have vanished away.
Let me begin with a number of textual issues, all of which I’ll try to handle quickly. I’ll present these as a series of questions and (possible) answers.
To what does “it” refer in the first sentence of verse 12?
The best reading, I think, would be that “it” here in verse 12 refers back to the “compound in one” that characterizes “all things” (sentence three of verse 11), but in its negated form as “one body” (sentences four of verse 11). What must needs have been created for a thing of naught? All things, if they were “one body” rather than “a compound in one.”
What on earth does “a thing of naught” mean?
The phrase comes from the King James rendering of the Hebrew prophets: Isaiah 29:21; 41:12; Jeremiah 14:14; Amos 6:13. Curiously, every instance of this phrase in the KJV translates an entirely distinct word or phrase in the Hebrew! Isaiah 29: tohu; Isaiah 41: esef; Jeremiah 14: elol or elil (there’s a variants); Amos 6: lo dabar. What we have here is an English flattening of a variegated Hebrew landscape, employing an apparently common phrase at the time (see the OED entry for the pronoun “nought,” definition 3b: “thing of nought: a mere nothing; a person or thing of no worth or value”). If any one of these sources most likely lies behind Nephi’s usage (but Lehi’s?), it’s Isaiah 29, which is quoted in both 2 Nephi 27:32 and 2 Nephi 28:16. That may be significant, actually, since the Hebrew of Isaiah 29 is tohu, the word used to describe the formless matter in Genesis 1:2 over which God breathed in order to create the world. To say that, had “all things” remained “one body,” it was have been “created for tohu” might be to say that, had “all things” remained “one body,” it would have been created without creation, it would have been created formless.
What’s with the redundant phrase “purpose in the end”?
This is a strange phrase, but I find myself wondering whether it should be altered through a couple of commas: “there would have been no purpose, in the end, of its creation.” This phrase, it appears, was in use long before the translation of the Book of Mormon (see the OED entry for “end,” definition 16c).
What is “this thing” that “must needs destroy” God’s wisdom, etc.?
There are several possible referents here: (1) “all things” considered as “one body”; (2) the “thing of naught”; (3) the lack of a “purpose” in creation. There’s little motivation to prefer one of these over the other, though I think there’s a certain poetic power in taking “this thing” to refer back to the “thing of naught” (“thing” and “thing”). If that’s not a bad interpretation, we might play around with what it means to say that the “thing of naught”—the formless itself—is what destroys God’s wisdom, etc.
Why do “if ye shall say” and “ye shall also say” drop out of Lehi’s logic after the first two sentences of verse 13?
We might play with the possibility that there’s just some kind of abbreviation going on here—that Lehi means to continue with the “ye shall say” and the “ye shall also say” formulations, but that the text is leaving them out for economic reasons. It’s more likely, it seems to me, that the shift is intentional. If Lehi’s addressing these words to all his sons—Laman and Lemuel among them, then—it might be that they’d only be willing to say that there’s no law, no sin, and no righteousness. Perhaps they’d be reticent to go on to say that all that would imply that there’s no happiness. Indeed, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Lehi’s sons thinking that happiness is precisely what would exist if the law and the sin/righteousness couple were dispensed with.
Is there a significant difference between the “there is” of sentences one, two, five, and six, and the “there be” of sentences three and four?
Is it significant that Lehi shifts, as he drops the “ye shall say”/“ye shall also say” formula, he leaves the indicative “is” for the subjunctive “be”? If so, why does he shift back, two sentences later, to the indicative “is” and “are”? The first shift makes some sense. When using the intersubjective “ye shall say”/“ye shall also say” business, it makes sense to use the indicative (whoever it is that says this stuff would say that “there is no” this or that); and when leave this behind, it makes sense to use the subjunctive (since we’re now talking about hypothetical absolutes, the subjunctive mood is perfectly appropriate). The question, really, is why Lehi shifts back to the indicative in sentences five and six. Does this bring out or highlight the absurdity of the conclusions, perhaps? It’d be one thing to remain in the subjunctive mood, maintaining the hypothetical. It’s another to assert these conclusions straightforwardly in the indicative, forcing a full recognition of the sheer insanity of what “ye shall say” leads to: the non-existence of God, and then, in fact, of ourselves and the earth!
Why the sudden return of “all things” right at the end of the verse?
Nowhere in verses 12-13, except in the last, short sentence, does “all things” appear, despite the fact that it’s so centrally important to verse 11—though it may, complexly, be the reference of “it” and “this thing” in verse 12. Suddenly it comes back, and perhaps we should feel the force of this quite fully: ultimately, if there’s not “an opposition in all things,” there aren’t “all things.” They “must have vanished away.” We conclude verse 13 with what verse 11 opens with disappearing entirely.
What’s at work in “must have vanished away,” since it’d seem more appropriate just to say that “all things” never were?
It has to be said that the wording here is a bit strange. It would seem more natural to say that “all things must never have been.” Is Lehi referring to a specifiable event that would have taken place—an actual occurrence in which “all things must have vanished away”? Or is Lehi just being a bit sloppy with his words? Or is Lehi trying to make the absurdity of these conclusions only sharper? (I can picture him saying this line with a deeply sarcastic voice: “Then what happened to everything? I guess it all just disappeared, huh?”) All of these are possibilities worth thinking about.
Let’s call that good for basic textual issues. On to theological interpretation!
Some Theological Reading
Verse 11 might be said to give a strictly abstract bit of theological discourse. We’re just being given, there, a handful of principles: the necessity of there being a kind of basic inconsistency at the core of all things, the role that that necessity plays in possibilizing (but not necessitating) ethical opposition, the necessity that all things be a kind of compound, the role that that necessity plays in possibilizing existential opposition, etc. Now in verse 12 we turn from the abstract to the concrete. Now it’s a matter of talking about God’s activity, about the designs and intentions of an actual person (albeit a divine one), etc.
It seems obvious to me that most of verse 12 is working on the hypothetical “if” of the second half of verse 11: if it weren’t the case that all things were compounded; if all things were, in fact, merely one body. The last part of the verse, however, seems to me to return to the concerns of the first half of verse 11. The lack of existential oppositions would compromise God’s purposes in creation—and this would “destroy,” then, His “wisdom.” But when we get this “and also” business, which turns from wisdom and purpose to “power,” “mercy,” and “justice,” it seems to me that we’ve come back to the ethical oppositions of the first part of verse 11. Does verse 12, then, in the end, assert—subtly, sure—some kind of relationship between the two sets of oppositions from verse 11? Or are we just being told that the elimination of the basic opposition at the core of “all things” would be problematic for both sorts of opposition: ethical and existential?
This might seem a less-than-burning question, so let me explain why it strikes me. If God’s mercy and justice go out the window with His wisdom and purposes, and if the latter are compromised in particular by the disappearance of existential opposition, then aren’t we saying that mercy and justice can only take on any real significance in a frame oriented by the difference between life and death? That, it seems to me, would be the implication. Further, if there’s a connection here—again: however subtle—then we’re perhaps being told that mercy and justice lie at the heart of God’s “eternal purposes.” But maybe that’s a separate question. Let me turn to it now.
Do we learn anything from verse 12 about God’s actual purposes, about God’s wisdom? It seems to me that the second half of the sermon will say a good deal more about this; here it almost seems to be assumed—as if all concerned already know what God’s “eternal purposes” are. Or, as I suggested just above, perhaps God’s purposes are meant to be suggested by Lehi’s brief mentions of justice and mercy. But maybe any search for an actually identified purpose is misguided here. Lehi’s emphasis is first just on the fact that, without compoundedness in all things, there would’ve been no purpose at all. The point, perhaps, isn’t to identify specific purposes so much as to point that purpose as such only makes sense in the framework of compoundedness and existential opposition. But isn’t that again to say that it’s the polarity of life and death that allows everything to make real sense?
Well, you can see where verse 12 leads my thoughts—always to the apparent sense-granting opposition between life and death. The question, though, is how that opposition gets off the ground, no? Verses 11-12 only tell us that it couldn’t arise without a kind of compoundedness in things. That’s a necessary condition of possibility, but it’s not clear that it’s a sufficient condition for existential opposition. And verse 13, it seems to me, tells us the other one: the imposition of law. This brings us back to verse 10, or even back to verse 5—to those places where law has already surfaced as a focus of the discussion. We saw in verse 5 a split between the temporal and the spiritual law, the former apparently being the word given in Eden to Adam and Eve regarding the tree and tied to a specific penalty—temporal death—and the latter apparently being the words given outside Eden to Adam and Eve regarding doing good and not doing evil which were in turn tied to a specific penalty—spiritual death. We saw in verse 10 that law is somehow connected with punishment, which is affixed in opposition to happiness, which is somehow connected with the atonement.
Perhaps I should have made a bigger deal last week of the possibility of verse 5 helping us to make sense between the two sets of non-ontological oppositions in verse 11: the ethical oppositions are, in a way, rooted in the spiritual law, while the existential oppositions are, in a way, rooted in the temporal law. No? If that’s right, then verse 13, by returning to the theme of the law and what’s said about it in verse 5, may well be telling us more about the relation between the two sorts of oppositions. Existential oppositions have to be produced first, perhaps, and that through the temporal law—the law that introduces the opposition between death and life—and then it’s possible to produce ethical oppositions through the spiritual law—the law that introduces the opposition between wickedness and righteousness.
And now I think I see the logic of verse 12-13 for the first time. Verse 12 begins from existential opposition, from the question of how the opposition between life and death is necessary if purpose is to have any real purchase, but it eventually finds that it can’t get very far in this without turning to the mercy/justice couple. That leads into verse 13, which begins from ethical opposition, following the introduction of mercy and justice into the discussion, but then it produces an argument that roots that sort of opposition in purpose and wisdom—since if there isn’t righteousness-and-punishment, there’s no God, etc. Over the course of verses 12-13, then, we move in a kind of circle: from life/death and its connection to purpose/wisdom to justice/mercy and its connection to righteousness/wickedness, and then from righteousness/wickedness (now implicitly with its connection to justice/mercy) to purpose/wisdom (now implicitly with its connection to life/death).
Of course, there’s much more that can be said about verse 13. How do we think about the weaving of Lehi’s logic back and forth from just one side of the opposition in question to the opposition itself? (To be clear: the first connection is between law and sin, but the second connection is between sin and righteousness; third comes the connection between righteousness and happiness, but fourth comes the connection between righteousness/happiness and punishment/misery. It’s as if Lehi alternates between vertical and horizontal connections.) We might well ask about why Lehi opposes “righteousness” to “punishment” and “happiness” to “misery” here, when he opposed “punishment” to “happiness” in verse 10. We might also ask about exactly how Lehi makes the leap to “there is no God.”
And we might especially begin to ask about the “act”/“acted-upon” couple. I have a million questions about this, such that I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps I’ll just let others decide whether we want to take this up now or later (when it appears again), and what sorts of question to ask. My only question for now will be: What sorts of questions need to be asked about the opposition between acting and being acted upon?
There, a relatively short post! Now, let’s get talking!