“As the Lord God Liveth”

Brant Gardner

Redaction: Nephi repeats that the reader cannot err because of his (Nephi’s) clarity in presenting the information, but he does not repeat it as part of a literary parallel. Instead, his sentence is convoluted in structure and rambling in its thought.

Nephi has been expounding two themes simultaneously: (1) Israel’s future history (and the role of his own message in that history), and (2) the Messiah’s mission and Nephi’s testimony. This dual purpose naturally detracts from a single, focused argument. While it is understandable that he should bear his fervent testimony of the Atoning Messiah, it distracts him from his point.

Nephi begins his testimony with the strongest oath available to a Jew: “as the Lord God liveth.” (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 4:31–35.) Nibley explains the binding power of this particular oath:

To be most binding and solemn an oath should be by the life of something, even if it be but a blade of grass. The only oath more awful than that “by my life” or (less commonly) “by the life of my head” is the wa hayat Allah, “by the life of God” or “as the Lord liveth,” the exact Arabic equivalent of the ancient Hebrew hai Elohim. Today it is glibly employed by the city riffraff, but anciently it was an awful thing, as it still is among the desert people. “I confirmed my answer in the Bedouin wise,” says Doughty. “By his life… he said,… ‘Well, swear by the life of Ullah’ (God)!… I answered… and thus even the nomads use, in a greater occasion, but they say, ‘By the life of thee,’ in a little matter.” Among both Arabs and Jews, says Rosenblatt, “an oath without God’s name is no oath,” while “in both Jewish and Mohammedan sources oaths by ‘the life of God’ are frequent.”

Nephi expands his oath by referring to Moses, the supreme prophet of Israel, whose recorded miracles are accepted as unquestioned fact. Nephi used Moses in a somewhat similar way when arguing with his brothers (1 Ne. 17:23). In that earlier speech, he invoked Moses and the exodus as facts his brothers could not deny. Their acknowledgement thereby condemned them for not seeing their own situation as parallel to the exodus. In the case of Nephi’s testimony, he invokes Moses to verify the oath he has just taken.

The miracle of raising the serpent on the pole has christological meanings for modern readers, but not here. Nephi is not using the incident typologically but rather as evidence of Yahweh’s power as manifest through a prophet. Nephi’s second example of this power’s manifestation is Moses’s bringing water from the rock, which is much less obvious as a type of Christ. Even though Nephi is bearing testimony with the purpose of declaring the Messiah, he does not use the incident of the serpent to develop or advance that argument.

Culture: Leaving aside the problem of using “Jesus Christ” as a name, Nephi’s oath highlights the ancient use of names and naming. A personal name was more than a simple appellation. Madeleine and Lane Miller note:

The Israelites took naming persons (and places, too) much more seriously than we do today. To them a name was not just a label provided for convenience in distinguishing one person from another. A name was an essential part of the person so named. Names should be appropriate, for the person’s name was regarded as a sort of duplicate or counterpart of its bearer, and the name revealed something to a person who was told it. This was not a unique approach to naming, but one that prevailed among many ancient Near Eastern peoples.

In the Hebrew world, a change of names denoted a change of identity or at least of status, as when Yahweh gave Abram a new name of “Abraham” (Gen. 17:5).

This intimate connection between name and person explains the modern idioms “speak of the devil” and “give a dog a bad name.” In the first case, the phrase denotes speaking of a person only to have him arrive. It connotes that speaking the individual’s name summons him irresistibly into the speaker’s presence. In the second case, it denotes that a reputation for bad behavior tends to stick to a misbehaving animal or person, but it connotes that giving a name representing viciousness to an individual will cause his nature to become vicious. Similar conceptions of the name and person exist in other cultures. The Navajo do not speak the name of the dead, presumably because it might summon the deceased individual back into this world.

Thus, when Nephi asserts that “there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved,” he is referring to this almost magical power in naming. Furthermore, he refers explicitly to the person, not simply the name: there is “no name… save it be this Jesus Christ… ” (emphasis mine). In the context of the question about the “name Jesus Christ,” “name” should be read in the ancient context, while “Christ” is an artifact of Joseph Smith’s translation process.

Remembering that the invocation of the name is the same (anciently) as the person clarifies that it is Jesus’s mission and actions that are salvific, not our conception of a label. To take upon us his name is to take upon us his efforts and presence. Such a “taking on” therefore implies more responsibility than simply declaring belief in him. The name implies our acceptance of his claim to our obedience.

2 Nephi 25:21

21 Wherefore, for this cause hath the Lord God promised unto me that these things which I write shall be kept and preserved, and handed down unto my seed, from generation to generation, that the promise may be fulfilled unto Joseph, that his seed should never perish as long as the earth should stand.

Nephi now returns to his first theme—the preservation of his message for his descendants who will be part of Israel’s restoration. Here he introduces an idea unique to this passage: the connection between his writings and the preservation of Joseph’s seed. The first sentence explicates Nephi’s purpose in writing (the records should be preserved from generation to generation) while the second asserts that the very act of handing down Nephi’s writings (and hence, the plates in general) will somehow fulfill the promise to Joseph of Egypt that “that his seed should never perish.”

How does Nephi see the preservation of Joseph’s seed? Nephi answers this question in 2 Nephi 26:9–10 when he later describes his vision of destruction:

But the Son of righteousness shall appear unto them; and he shall heal them, and they shall have peace with him, until three generations shall have passed away, and many of the fourth generation shall have passed away in righteousness.
And when these things have passed away a speedy destruction cometh unto my people; for, notwithstanding the pains of my soul, I have seen it; wherefore, I know that it shall come to pass; and they sell themselves for naught; for, for the reward of their pride and their foolishness they shall reap destruction; for because they yield unto the devil and choose works of darkness rather than light, therefore they must go down to hell.

What Nephi sees is not “just” genocide, but, more seriously, apostasy. The believers will dwindle; but some of the Lehites, descendants of Joseph, will continue to survive till the latter days: “After my seed and the seed of my brethren shall have dwindled in unbelief, and shall have been smitten by the Gentiles; yea, after the Lord God shall have camped against them round about, and shall have laid siege against them with a mount, and raised forts against them; and after they shall have been brought down low in the dust, even that they are not, yet the words of the righteous shall be written, and the prayers of the faithful shall be heard, and all those who have dwindled in unbelief shall not be forgotten” (2 Ne. 26:15).

Nephi sees that remnants of both the Nephite and Lamanite lineages will survive into the last days. Thus, although we typically describe the Book of Mormon as ending with Nephite annihilation, Nephi meant that the society and culture would be destroyed but that a lineal connection to Joseph would endure.

This answer about what Nephi meant by “the seed of Joseph,” however, raises other questions. While the surviving inhabitants may be seen as Joseph’s seed, how will passing the text from generation to generation effect their preservation? The text, buried in Cumorah while the Gentiles were pressing the Indians relentlessly, was no longer being transmitted physically. The answer is that Nephi is not concerned about the seed of Joseph’s physical preservation but their eternal preservation, which will be effected through their faith in the Messiah. Because Nephi sees the physical remnant before his written testimony comes among them, he must mean this prophecy in its spiritual rather than physical sense.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2