“As He Dwelt in a Tent”

Brant Gardner

Redaction: In terms of narrative continuity, this chapter does not belong here at all. In Nephi’s text this apparently unrelated material comes without a chapter break at the end of Lehi’s vision. Because Nephi intentionally ends a chapter (his chapter covers chapters 6–9 in the 1879–1981 editions) on this material, it becomes even more anomalous. That very anomaly tells us that something is happening here to which we should pay attention.

This unit closes Nephi’s long narrative that began with the journey to Jerusalem for Ishmael’s family, followed by Lehi’s vision of the tree of life. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 2:15 for “dwelt in a tent” as a marker of a narrative unit.) It now ends with Nephi in his own present, writing on the plates. It is a complete departure from the past episodes he has been writing about. This unit also appears to be thematically independent from the rest of Nephi’s original chapter.

Complicating this unit as a transition is the next chapter (1879–1981 chapter 10), which begins with Lehi’s exposition of his vision, almost as though Nephi had not written chapter 9. One explanation is that Nephi simply inserted an unrelated aside; but because I see Nephi as carefully constructing his narrative, I argue that he intended chapter 9 as a divider between the story of Lehi (and his family) and the remainder of the small plates, which focus on Nephi. This statement of the small plates’ purpose becomes the fulcrum on which he lifts the narrative focus from his father’s story and lays it firmly on his own.

The next chapter’s beginning makes explicit this shift in focus: “And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry; wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren.”

In the beginning of Nephi’s narrative, he tells his father’s story and finds that he must “speak somewhat” of himself. Now he shifts into a focus on “my reign and ministry” but finds that he must “speak somewhat” of his father and brethren. Significantly, Lehi’s negative vision, preaching, and prophecy about the fate of Laman and Lemuel is the point that Nephi chooses as the logical place to interpolate essential background. In essence, Laman and Lemuel will make in life the choice that Lehi has seen them making in vision. Their fate is sealed.

As Nephi begins his new section of narrative, he focuses on his father’s teachings that flowed from the tree of life vision, and most significantly, on the mission of the Messiah. One of the facets of Lehi’s testimony is the 600-year prophecy (that the Messiah would come 600 years from their departure from Jerusalem), recounted in 1 Nephi 10:4.

This pattern is not coincidental. In 1 Nephi 19:1–7, Nephi again shifts to the present to discuss the plates, again notes that they focus on sacred things, and again immediately testifies of the Messiah. As if to remind us that this is an intentional pattern, Nephi also repeats the 600-year prophecy as he picks up his theme of the Messiah after discussing the purpose of the plates (1 Ne. 19:8). This pattern underscores Nephi’s focus on the Atoning Messiah as the most important spiritual message of his account.

In 1 Nephi 19:1–7 we also have a text that has been artificially separated into a new chapter. Similar to the original location of our current chapter 9, chapter 19 was also a part of Nephi’s conceptual unit rather than a new topic. It also functions as a transition between types of narrative. In 1 Nephi 19 the narrative shift is from story to prophecy, with chapters from Isaiah laying the groundwork for Nephi’s final prophetic description in chapter 22.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1