“Hard for Many of My People to Understand”

Brant Gardner

Sociological: Nephi presents us with a little dilemma, a dilemma we usually miss because we find Isaiah “hard for many of [us] to understand.” We presume that Nephi is explaining Isaiah because it is difficult to understand. Yet Nephi is not specifically mentioning that Isaiah is difficult, but rather that Isaiah is difficult in a very particular context, a context where one "know[s] not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.

In this verse and the next. Nephi provides us with clues as to the nature of the shift in cultural education that has occurred in the New World. In this verse he specifically notes that there are many of his own people who do not understand the “manner of prophesying among the Jews.” In the next verse we get a little more information about the reason why this is so.

Narrative: Nephi has just copied a large amount of Isaiah’s writings from the brass plates onto the small plates. He is now beginning his personal commentary that springboards from the themes of Isaiah. While it is true that this general method of using text is part of Nephi’s (and Jacob’s) known pattern, there will be a difference in these final chapters of Nephi that must be noted.

To this point in the construction of Nephi’s text we can discern two distinct stages in writing. The first stage is the reflective/historical phase. In the reflective/historical state, an older Nephi, already in the New World, and already a leader of his people, places his story in text. We can locate the beginning of the writing of this section of Nephi’s oeuvre to around 30 years after the departure from the Old World, and covering the next 10 years with great rapidity (2 Nephi 5:28 and 34) . Estimates of Nephi’s age upon departure vary, but certainly the Nephi who begins writing the reflective/historical part is somewhere near 50 years old, and ages another 10 years in less than 10 verses.

The second section of his narration is one that is contemporaneous with the writing. This section begins in 2 Nephi 5, and continues through the end of the 2 Nephi. We don’t have very many markers to indicate the passage of time during these sections, but it is probably that we can separate the narrative section dealing with Jacob’s sermon from the Isaiah/Isaiah exegesis section. It is in this second section of Nephi’s writings, those that he writes “in real time” rather than historically, that we can begin to see a change in the nature of Nephi’s narrative style.

To this point in Nephi’s work, his narrative is rather well controlled, with a particular focus on sacred lessons that are placed into the framework of historical events. Onto the bones of history, Nephi lays the flesh of experience with the spirit and with particular conflicts of spirit, such as the contentions with his brothers. When Nephi presents his version of discourse to his brothers, it is characterized by the general style of scriptural citation, followed by a tightly reasoned discourse that applies that text to the current situation.

Even in the presentation of Lehi’s final sermons we find a clear and logically developed argument where element follows element in a tightly argued sequence that develops the point of the story. The final chapters of Nephi’s work, beginning clearly with chapter 25, are qualitatively different in the structuring of argumentation. The information that will be presented in these final chapters is powerful, but the presentation of the arguments lacks the power of Nephi’s younger work.

We have two possibilities to explain the difference in the nature of Nephi’s argumentation in the earlier and later sections. The first is the possibility that advancing age has taken its toll on the great man. While that is possible, and certain from a physical standpoint, there is nothing in the narration that suggests that any of his prophetic power, or the great power of his testimony have been effected. The second, and more likely explanation, is that we are seeing the difference between writing after having time to structure an argument, and writing straight to the plates. In the earlier discourses, Nephi had the benefit of time to hone the argument, and whether or not he had written them down at the time, the discourses certainly reflect what he meant to say, whether the precise words are the same or not.

In the current section, however, Nephi is writing and composing at the same time. This provides us with a more genuine link to his thoughts and feelings without the masking of reworked structure. We have from here to the end of Nephi’s writings perhaps our most intimate interaction with the man Nephi - a time when we find him coming straight from the heart without the benefit of time and restructuring of argumentation.

What evidences will we see of this hypothesis? The primary evidence lies in the lack of discretely developed units. As Nephi writes, he touches upon a subject. and then tangentially expands that topic. New topics will be introduced that, while important, do not logically flow from the previous topic. Rather than exegetical elaborations of themes, Nephi presents information.

These chapters are the final statements, written late in life of a man attempting to share his vast store of prophetic knowledge with those generations whose time he has seen.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon