28And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great mediator and hearken unto his great commandments—and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life according to the will of his Holy Spirit, 29and not choose eternal death according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.
30I have spoken these few words unto you all, my sons, in the last days of my probation. And I have chosen the good part, according to the words of the prophet. And I have none other object save it be the everlasting welfare of your souls. Amen.
There are no textual variants in these verses, and no readily apparent influences on other scriptures. In fact, it’s striking how much of Lehi’s phrasing here is singular to these verses:
- great mediator
- great commandments
- faithful unto his words
- will of his Holy Spirit
- eternal death
- everlasting welfare
Other wording is also very uncommon:
- will of the flesh [1 appearance: John 1:13]
- good part [1 appearance: Luke 10:42]
I was struck by these phrases in particular because they all, to some degree or another, make up my sense of mormon scriptural phrasing. That is, with one exception (“will of his Holy Spirit; more later on), all of these phrases seemed or felt like descriptions and phrases that I had heard or read repeatedly in scripture. This is, of course, not scientific: my familiarity could be due to my prolonged and repeated exposure to this chapter! And yet, I don’t think that if you approached an unbiased mormon with these phrases that they would feel unfamiliar to them, or like they didn’t understand or think they understood what the phrase signified theologically.
I’m left with several questions from this exercise:
- To what extent could this possible familiarity indicate the breadth and depth to which Lehi’s words have entered mormon scriptural language? (I do not, for example, think that many people would feel that they were necessarily familiar with much of Lehi’s discourse beyond the tree of life vision.)
- What does Lehi mean by using the adjectival qualifier “great” here? Is it significant that “great commandments” come from the “great mediator”? Is there a specific quantitative thrust at play here? Or just general “greatness”? The fact that it’s unique makes me think Lehi is trying to get at something specific, but I’m not sure what it is …
The strategy I employed for reading these verses here was to closely read them word by word, noting the various word choices employed by Lehi and my responses to them. I’m reproducing what I deemed to be the most interesting results of this exercise in this section; I’ll follow the text fairly chronologically for clarity’s sake.
Returns to the theme or motif of sight/seeing/waking (motions associated with the eyes as sense organs, as portals for information), which Lehi initially brought up in 2 Ne. 1:14: “Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent.” The connection with the phrase “Awake! and arise” is significant for two reasons: 1) the only other instance of this phrase in the Book of Mormon occurs in Moroni 10:31, itself another farewell chapter and 2) the connection between sight and creation.[Fn1]
[Fn1] I’ve been struck by the ways in which the theme of sight, or looking in this case, connects with the creation narrative. We have the LDS temple liturgy of course, in which Adam’s creation in some ways begins with a command that he awaken and rise up to meet Eve. But beyond that, we also have a repeated emphasis on Christ as the figure who restores sight, who covers the eye in order to re-new the vision, re-create the new man in Christ. The emphasis of the atonement is to be reborn anew; one way to mark that rebirth is through a new sight, a new way of seeing, of looking at things, followed, of course, by action: we awake, and then we arise.
Will of his Holy Spirit
How do we understand this phrase? If this refers to the Holy Ghost, then why is he appearing in this context: “and choose eternal life according to the will of his Holy Spirit.” I’m just not clear on what is going on here, and would appreciate some discussion. The closest I’ve come is to look at 1 Nephi 10:17 (words are spoken and knowledge is given by the power of the Holy Ghost) and Moroni 10:5 (by the power of the HG you can know the truth of all things).
I think Lehi’s switch to the title “Mediator” here at the end is interesting in part because of the role of the mediator to reconcile estranged parties. This is precisely Lehi’s hope against hope: to reconcile the bitter factions within his own family. With Lehi, no matter how great the scope of the visions, in the end he returns to his personal anxieties for the salvation of his own family members (e.g., his version of the tree of life vs. that of Nephi’s).
Just a note: the choice Lehi puts forward here is not the choice between the Mediator and the Devil, but rather in this case the choice between eternal life or eternal death. It seems like it would be easier to justify choosing the devil over the christ in some ways (in that one could always say something like “well, he may be the devil from your perspective, but from mine he’s not” or some other relativizing of the situation) than it would be to choose eternal death over eternal life. Eternal death and eternal life cannot be (as easily) explained or justified away, and they involve not a choice between associates, but rather a choice between one’s own, personal future. Just an interesting rhetorical strategy to again personalize his discourse for his sons, trying to reach them.
Lehi’s witness here is explicitly oral rather than written. Lehi is a prophet of the book, to be sure, but in the end it’s the spoken witness, the oral testimony, that he chooses to leave with his sons rather than his writings.
This word does appear at other places in the Book of Mormon:
- 1 Ne. 10:21 [Nephi responding to Lehi’s tree of life vision]
- 1 Ne. 15:31–32 [Questions from his brothers regarding Lehi’s vision]
- 2 Ne. 2:21 [This discourse]
- 2 Ne. 9:27 [By Jacob]
- 2 Ne. 33:9 [By Nephi in his farewell chapter]
- Helaman 13:38 [By Samuel the Lamanite]
- Mormon 9:28 [By Moroni in what he thinks is his farewell chapter when he’s writing it]
1) The majority of the users are those directly connected to and presumably thus influenced by Lehi, Samuel the Lamanite, and Moroni (who, presumably in his role as Mormon’s son was also exposed to Lehi).
2) Its use appears often in discourses connected thematically with a final farewell, with an emphasis on the state of the soul after death.
Note that this is singular, not plural (which is how I’ve always accidentally read it). Singular usage by original Lehites appears to refer either to a prophet previously identified in the discourse, or to Isaiah in most cases.
None other object
In these last few sentences, Lehi is being deliberately apolitical, setting himself apart from the family feud. This rhetorical move is pathetic—it evokes a strong sense of pathos as it highlights Lehi’s sorrow at his fracturing family and what, to him, must have seemed like failure on the family level.
I ended up doing a little digging surrounding the phrases “hearken unto his great commandments”and “be faithful unto his words.” These are both phrases unique to Lehi, but that in part appears to be due to an inversion of the verbs “hearken” and “be faithful.”
The phrase “unto his words” is much more commonly associated with the phrase “hearken” as in “hearken unto his words”: 5 out of the 7 instances of these words appearing together in a verse use some variation of “hearken unto his words”; one of the two instances where this is not true is here in 2 Ne. 2.
The connection between “faithful” and “keeping commandments” is a little more complicated, but essentially the same: of the 26 instances where these words appear together
- 12 are in slight variations of the phrase “be faithful in keeping the commandments”
- 4 refer to the commandments themselves as being faithful
- 5 use faithful as an adjective unrelated to the act of keeping the commandments
- 2 explicitly identify people who keep the commandments as faithful
- and 3 are instances where the words are not in a related phrase
2 Ne. 2:28
1 Cor. 7:25
I realize this may have been a bit tedious, and there are definite drawbacks to looking at things on a word/phrase level rather than in terms of the big picture, but hopefully there are some thoughts here that will allow us to continue our discussion this week.