First Nephi relates the ministry of Nephi - from his family's departure out of the land of Jerusalem to their arrival in the promised land. The first part of his "journal-history" is a synopsis of his father's record. "I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life." (1 Ne. 1:17.)1 His own account begins in chapter 10.
Nephi began with a note about his goodly parents, giving particular credit to his father, from whom he had learned of the goodness and mysteries of God. Generations of writers following Nephi bear similar testimony of the valuable instruction of their fathers.It appears to be a characteristic of goodly parents to spend an adequate portion of their time and energy teaching their children the things of God. In promising great blessings to Abraham, the father of hundreds of millions, the Lord said that "Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation. . . . For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him." (Gen. 18:18-19.)
Nephi and later writers of the record referred to the language of the fathers. Language facility, the ability to communicate with others, is the breath of life to any civilization. Lehi's sons were taught in the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. The sons had likely been educated in Hebrew and Aramaic grammar and vocabulary (Aramaic being the lingua franca, or hybrid language, of diplomacy and commerce at the time), but it appears that they had learned to express their thoughts in written form in Egyptian characters. Lehi had been "taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read
the brass plates'T engravings, and teach them to his children." (Mosiah 1:4.) Perhaps Lehi mastered the Egyptian language, as Joseph and Moses before him.
There appears to have been considerable commercial and cultural interchange between Judah and Egypt in the late 7th century before Christ. Excavations show great Egyptian influence in this period, which influence rises out of that nation's rule over the land of Judah during some years prior to the opening of the Book of Mormon record. Egyptian soldiers, merchants, and travelers were present and active in those days.
Twenty years before the commencement of the Book of Mormon, the kingdom of Judah was experiencing its last period of greatness. The Assyrian Empire was rapidly disintegrating, and the righteous King Josiah expanded the political borders of the kingdom, instigated rigorous religious reforms, and established relative peace during his reign.
Josiah's life ended tragically with his death at Megiddo. He had gone there at the head of his armies to stop the Egyptian advance under Pharaoh Nechoh toward the Euphrates, Nechoh wanting to support the last Assyrian king in a stand against the new Babylonian Empire. Josiah apparently intended to keep Egypt from acquiring total control over Judah, though upon Josiah's death, Pharaoh Nechoh proceeded to flex his military muscle and overran all phases of Judah's political life. That situation lasted for about four years, until the Babylonian invasions. Josiah's death marked the beginning of the end for the kingdom of Judah. (See 2 Kgs. 22-23.)
Josiah's son Jehoahaz was made king after his father's death in 609 B.C., but Pharaoh Nechoh took him away to Egypt and put his brother Eliakim on the throne. Eliakim's name was changed to Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim reigned for 11 years, until 598 B.C., after which Nebuchadnezzar carried him away bound to Babylon, along with thousands of others, including Ezekiel. Jehoiakim's son was allowed to rule as a vassal or puppet king of the Babylonians. His name was Jehoiachin. He reigned only three months, and then Nebuchadnezzar summoned him to Babylon along with "ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths" (2 Kgs. 24:14), and his uncle Mattaniah began to reign. His name was changed to Zedekiah.
Book of Mormon history begins in the first year of Zedekiah's reign, which, according to Bible chronology, was 598 or 597 B.C. The Book of Mormon designates the year of its beginning, and the first year of Zedekiah's reign, as 600 years before the coming of Christ into the world.
Lehi and his family were living at Jerusalem. (See 1 Ne. 1:4,7 and 2 Ne. 25:6.) The preposition "at" in this case could mean on, in, within, close by, or near. Lehi could have lived several miles away and still lived at Jerusalem. It is recorded at least 33 times throughout the Book of Mormon that Lehi and Nephi went out from "the land of Jerusalem." Any satellite towns or villages that surrounded larger population or political centers were regarded in ancient times as belonging to those larger centers.
That Lehi and his family lived outside of Jerusalem proper is also evidenced in the account of the sons' attempt to obtain the plates with their abandoned wealth: "We went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things. And after we gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban." (1 Ne. 3:22-23.)2
Nephi wrote that "there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed." (1 Ne. 1:4.) Amos taught that the Lord God would do nothing "but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:7.) The Lord always gives sufficient warning; "never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord." (2 Ne. 25:9.)
For such a dramatic and devastating destruction that was coming, the cast of prophets was indeed, as the Book of Mormon says, "many." Lehi, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zephaniah, Habukkuk, Ezekiel, and one Urijah of Kirjath-jearim (Jer. 26:20) were all contemporaries. "And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy." (2 Chr. 36:15-16.)
While Lehi was out teaching in the city, he prayed earnestly in behalf of his people. As he prayed he saw and was taught many things through a spiritual manifestation that caused his whole body to tremble. Perhaps he was physically exhausted by the spiritual work; he cast himself upon his bed and was overcome by the Spirit. He saw a heavenly court full of brilliant beings. One of them handed Lehi a book with the judgment to be passed upon Jerusalem: death, destruction and deportation to Babylon.
As with former prophets, Lehi then went forth to declare boldly what he had seen and heard. He detailed in the ears of Jerusalem's citizens a lengthy catalog of their sins; the result was mockery, anger, and violence. That the city of Jerusalem was doomed to destruction could not have been such shocking news to the Jews, as other prophets had been saying the same; Jeremiah had been sounding that warning for nearly three decades already. What could be so difficult about believing that people would be taken captive to Babylon when thousands had already been taken? It would seem that someone would now be ready to listen! But people do not like to hear about their sins, especially when they are enjoying them and have no inclination to change. Lehi's hearers wanted to remove his antagonizing, grating voice.
Another significant witness Lehi bore to his Jerusalem audience was of the coming of a Messiah, for "none of the prophets have written nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ." (Jacob 7:11; see also 3 Ne. 20:24.) John later exclaimed that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10); that is, testifying of Jesus is the essence of prophecy. Even six hundred years before He would come in the flesh, the people needed to know to whom they should look for their redemption.
Into the Wilderness
The Lord warned Lehi in a dream to take his family and depart into the wilderness. Why Lehi? What qualified this Judahite3 to lead a colony of Israelites through the wilderness to a new Promised Land? There are hints in the scriptural record that Lehi was wealthy. (1 Ne. 2:4; 3:16, 22.) The Mediterranean world was alive with mercantile activity in this period of time, Syria/Palestine being the hub of sea and commerce, the place where continents and cultures come together. Caravans traversed Judah from all directions: side roads off the Coastal Highway and the King's Highway, the distant Frankincense Trail, pilgrims' highways and trade routes connecting Moab, Edom, and Arabia with Gaza and Egypt.
Lehi could have been a trained and experienced caravaneer and trader. He knew what provisions to prepare and what route to take. Knowing how God has worked in other periods of history, it is not unlikely that He selected a man who, in addition to his spiritual maturity and responsiveness, was already adapted to the particular task at hand, in this case one acquainted with the rigors of desert travel and survival. Here was the right man for the right time.4
Lehi and his family abandoned all unnecessary possessions and gathered together appropriate provisions for an indefinite period of travel in the desert. Besides the tents especially mentioned, they would need food, emergency water, extra clothing, bedding, cooking equipment and eating utensils, weapons and pack animals, probably camels.
The word wilderness occurs more than 300 times in the Book of Mormon and may at some later time in the western hemisphere refer to the thick forests or jungle, but not while in Judah and its neighboring deserts. Two Hebrew terms for wilderness are midbar and jeshimon. Midbar is generally land to the east of the central hills, east of the agricultural fields, out into the rain shadow, with a feeble vegetation. These are tracts for pasturing flocks. Jeshimon is the desolate wasteland beyond, where little rain falls.
The Judean Desert through which Lehi and his family probably journeyed is at first midbar and then jeshimon. It is known scripturally as a place of flight and refuge. It is a frightening, foreboding place for the uninitiated.
Having arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, Lehi and his party decided to continue on for another three days, after which they established camp "in a valley by the side of a river of water." (1 Ne. 2:6.) The phrase "river of water" seems redundant to Western ears, since we are accustomed to thinking of rivers as logically consisting only of water. In the Near East, however, most rivers are not perennial, but are wadis, an Arabic word meaning a valley or wash that contains water only in the rainy season, for relatively few days of the year; usually a wadi is dry and sandy and quite passable for travel. If they pitched their tents in a wadi near a flowing stream, it may tell us something about what time of year it was, perhaps spring, the time of winter runoff.
Lehi built an altar of stones to make an offering and give thanks. It was an altar of unhewn stones as stipulated in Exodus 20:25. The wording is intentional, again showing the Book of Mormon to be translated from an ancient Semitic record. It was not a stone altar (which might allow for cut, fitted stones), but an altar of stones.5 Lehi then began naming various geographical features around the camp. All hills, rock outcroppings, wadis, and other topographical details were and are given names in the Near East. The ancient Hebrew people loved imagery and figures of speech. The most powerful way to illustrate a truth was to find something in human nature or conduct that corresponded to something in nature. If only Laman could be like this river, continuously flowing toward the source of righteousness! The prophet Amos pled with northern Israelites to "let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty
or everflowingT stream." (Amos 5:24.) The two prophets wished that their people would be more constant and stable in their devotion and loyalty to God and His purposes.
1See S. Kent Brown, "Lehi's Personal Record: Quest for a Missing Source," BYU Studies 24.1 (Winter 1984): 19-42.
2For additional details see D. Kelly Ogden, "Why Does the Book of Mormon Say that Jesus Would Be Born in Jerusalem?" in Ensign, August 1984, pp. 51-52. See also Ian W.J. Hopkins, "The `Daughters of Judah' Are Really Rural Satellites of an Urban Center," Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October, 1980, pp. 44-45.
3Lehi learned that he was a descendant of Joseph. But living in the kingdom of Judah, he was a Jew by nationality. We know that with Jeroboam's religious excesses in the North, righteous people from various tribes migrated to the southern kingdom. Especially with the fall of Israel in 721 B.C. did members of the other tribes take up residence in the land of Jerusalem. (See 1 Chron. 9:3.) Lehi, Laban and Ishmael were all from the Joseph tribes.
4For more insights into Lehi's qualifications and connections, see Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), chapters 5 through 7, entitled "Lehi's Affairs." 1. "The Jews and the Caravan Trade." 2. "Lehi and the Arabs." and 3. "Dealings with Egypt."
5The form "altar of stones" instead of the customary English form "stone altar" conforms to the standard Hebrew construction, called the "construct state." Examples from the Bible are "gods of gold" (Ex. 20:23), "altar of stone" (Ex. 20:25), "bedstead of iron" (Deut. 3:11), "helmet of brass" (1 Sam. 17:5), "house of cedar" (2 Sam. 7:2), "throne of ivory" (1 Kgs. 10:18), "girdle of leather" (2 Kgs. 1:8), and "pulpit of wood" (Neh. 8:4). Other examples from the Book of Mormon include: "land of promise," "skin of blackness," "rod of iron," and "yoke of iron."
6Heber J. Grant, Improvement Era, September 1941, p. 524.
Plates of the Book of Mormon
BRASS PLATES OF LABAN
Record of the Jews
Writings of the prophets up to Jeremiah
Prophecies of Jacob (Israel)
Non-biblical records such as Zenos, Zenock, Neum, Ezias
Five books of Moses
EXTRACTS INCLUDED ON NEPHI'S PLATES
SMALL PLATES LARGE PLATES PLATES OF
OF NEPHI OF NEPHI ETHER
Sacred record secular and sacred record Jaredite record
Abridged by Mormon Abridged by Moroni
circa A.D. 335-384 circa A.D. 385-421
PLATES OF MORMON
TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH, 1828-1829
BOOK OF MORMON
Small plates of Nephi
Mormon's abridgement, writings
Words of Mormon
Lehi (lost 116 pages)
Title page of the Book of Mormon