I wrote several years ago that one of the reasons I loved the Book of Mormon was because I am a therapist, and family stories were what I did. But now that I have my own family, my own family story is what I do. There is drama and intrigue, epic tales of heroism, and the ongoing journey that weaves the story of the sacred and profane. There are horrific failures, disastrous consequences, and prayers of desperation. There is exhaustion, and humbling, and tearful tales of repentance. It reaches back to before the beginning, unfolds lifetimes, and tells about what is coming next. There are reunions and embraces and royal loves and unimaginable blessings. The Book of Mormon is just very cool, straight up.
The whole Book of Mormon is one giant story, a record, of one family through the years. It’s really that simple.
We make it complicated, but it isn’t: there is a father with a family.
The family story is the entire book. The father moves the family, the family spreads out over time, and we read what happens to them in the process. The lessons are real, as we watch the consequences fall as they do in any family story, with good consequences happening as the people choose well, and bad consequences causing them to suffer when they do not.
The principles we learn are also simple: when we are good and kind and obedient and loving, we (as a people) are “gathered”; when we are not, then we (as a people, as individuals) are “scattered”.
It doesn’t mean that hard life circumstances mean people made bad choices: the hero always has an uphill journey, and we cannot progress without facing challenges that stretch us and cause us to grow. We cannot integrate ourselves without sewing on our shadows. We cannot grow into our true skin if we are not willing to wriggle and shred the old.
It’s very Old Testament-ey. But of course it is, because it’s all happening at the same time. So it’s the same culture, the same people, the same God.
And all of it points to Christ, the Savior, the very Messiah promised even before the beginning.
That’s why it’s not just the story of the father and his family, but it’s also the story of my family.
The father in the story is named Lehi. He was a prophet, a contemporary of the prophets after Isaiah. Jerusalem is already in trouble by then, and the people there had already made their choices. This was in the time where the prophets were no longer calling repentance to help the people avoid invasion, but begging repentance so that the Lord could help them endure and lift the captivity already on its way.
Judah was already at war. Verse four says it was the “first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah”. You can read about King Zedekiah in 1 Kings 22. We know he was a good king, because his name ends with the “iah”, which means “one who seeks after Jehovah”. This also gives us a clue, telling us that Lehi grew up during the reign of good king Josiah. This means Lehi grew up during a period of repentance, when the people were responding to prophets, and when the scriptures were being studied. We can see, then, why he would be concerned about his children growing up during a period of wicked kings.
So a good king, who inherited a crisis of people turning away from God, and so watching his country disappear in war. Everything was in upheaval. Isaiah was the prophet at the time, and Lehi paid attention. Lehi is paying such close attention, in fact, that he knows for himself what is going on and that the family must leave because Jerusalem is going to be destroyed.
You can’t even get through verse one without hitting the Temple pattern. There is creation (born of goodly parents), teaching (all the learning of my father), a type of fall (afflictions different than the peace and joy of before), an expression of at-one (favored of the Lord), given knowledge (of the goodness) and ordinances (“mysteries”). Verse one is Nephi’s testimony of it, his “record”. It is just as we are instructed to study and learn and experience, and then to “explain, share, testify”. Nephi did explain, share, and testify!
The comments in verse three, which could almost be overlooked if you were not paying attention, about this record being true and made in his own hand, are actually very important. Poetically, they are parallels to the “I, Nephi” in the first verse. This is the red flag to pay attention. The “what” to pay attention to is given in the second verse (between the parallels), when he talks about writing in the language or way of the Hebrews and the Egyptians. That is significant historically, and confirms the point of this being a Temple text. It tells us to watch out, because these chapters will be packed full of verses pointing towards the Temple.
So there is Nephi, telling us the story of his father, Lehi, who knows Jerusalem is going down. Lehi is praying for the people, and prophesying to them like many of the major and minor prophets we read in the Old Testament. This is important because we know from the Old Testament that there is a pattern to repentance and bondage:
We know bondage happens because of disobedience.
We also know the Lord has promised, since the beginning of time, that He will never send a people into bondage without first sending them a prophet to warn them. This is that time when the mighty-powerful-just Old Testament God is balanced out by the side of his mercy that we often forget.
If the people listen to the Prophet, and repent, and turn their hearts to the Lord, then they do not have to go to bondage.
If the people do not listen to the Prophet, and do not repent, then they do have to go to bondage. But still, he will help them get out of bondage if they will repent later.
If the people still will not repent, then the cannot get out of bondage (because they have chosen it, and He respects their agency), but the Lord can lighten the load of their bondage and make it easier for them – if they will repent even later.
If the people still will not repent, then their load in bondage will not get easier, but He can deliver them in such a way that everyone will know it is only God who could have delivered them.
That’s what happened when Moses delivered the Israelites.
That’s what happened when I was “delivered” from my “bondage” of the last decade before my conversion.
Lehi knows this, and he is praying for the people that they will repent. Already by now Isaiah has said bondage will happen – they can no longer avoid the consequence of what they have chosen. But there is still time that the Lord can lighten their load and help them if the people will repent. This is why Lehi is praying for the people.
We read in verse 7: “And it came to pass that he returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen.”
What parent of a wayward child does not know this feeling? To know the destruction about to come, to know the consequences lying ahead, to see a way out but watch the child not choose it? Or what spouse, watching their partner choose the very things that are destroying the marriage, or not do the very things that will save it? Or what teenager throws themselves on the bed (after perhaps slamming the door) because they don’t like the punishment just given? What one of us has not collapsed in grief, exhausted from mourning?
This is the kind of feeling Lehi has.
We know that feeling of being so exhausted, and so desperate, and crying out to the Lord with all our being, until there is nothing left to do but fall onto the bed and collapse into His presence.
We know that feeling, of knowing nothing but God can save us… or heal us.
That’s when many of us turn to the temple for solace, for help, for power to endure or conquer or claim the blessings given us. The temple experience for Lehi is more evidence in the Hebrew version:
And while praying, God the Lord, our Master,
came here to him in a pillar of fire that rested on the rock before him
(the same rock that was the first of creation in Jewish lore,
the same rock that was the first bit of Earth dried out of the flood,
the same rock where Abraham offered Isaac,
the same rock where the Temple mount still stands today) –
and he (my father, Lehi) saw and hear much
(the Lord knows Lehi as one who observes and hearkens)
and because of the things seen and heard
(and because of the Law, the Torah, to which Lehi
was faithful to observe and hearken),
and so he (my father Lehi) shuddered and tremorred with great trembling
(when he saw the Lord in the pillar of fire
and recognized the Lord recognizing his faithfulness).
Verse 8: “And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.”
In his vision of seeing God, he sees the apostles and also angels. Angels, in Hebrew, are simply messengers. These messengers come and give him a book, and as he reads it he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord.
An example to us, that even in our most desperate circumstances, our hardest days, in every moment, it is to His book – to His scriptures – that we should turn for answers. And that by doing so, we will be filled by His Spirit, and thus find peace and comfort and solutions and answers. He will give us correction, instruction, and guidance.
When Lehi got his guidance, he did explain-share-testify! He explained to his family what he saw, shared what it meant, and testified that it was of God, that it was an answer for him, that it was guidance for his family, and that he would be obedient to it.
Wanting to help, they shared with their friends as well. But their friends made fun of them, didn’t want to listen, didn’t admit how bad things were, and didn’t think they needed saving from anything. Not only that, but then they got mad. Ang-gry.
Those who had stoned the Old Testament prophets then also tried to go after Lehi and his family.
His family, of course, escaped Jerusalem. That’s the whole story of the whole book! The Book of Mormon is their story of their escape and journey and settling in the new land and their descendants after them.
Of this written record that he worked so hard on, Nephi says (in verse 20), “But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.”
The “I, Nephi” in closing does parallel the “I, Nephi” in the beginning. It makes this a sacred text in a special way poetically, but the exciting piece is that it also confirms that the following chapters are not just a historical journey, but also documenting Temple-ness in a special way. It will be very exciting to discover.
But you have to keep reading to find it!