Nephi now returns to his other theme, the preservation of his message for his descendants. Here he introduces an idea not present in any of his other writings. Nephi links his writings to the preservation of the seed of Joseph. The first clause sets up the condition, that there is a purpose in what Nephi writes. That purpose is first that they should be preserved by handing them down from generation to generation. The second, and most fascinating assertion, is that this process of handing down Nephi’s writings (and safely extrapolated to the whole of the plate tradition) is somehow going to fulfill the promise to Joseph that “that his seed should never perish as long as the earth should stand.”
It is not clear how Nephi sees this prophecy being fulfilled, other than he clearly sees the Book of Mormon as a fulfillment of it. Our first problem in understanding the prophecy comes in understanding how Nephi sees the preservation of the seed of Joseph.
Nephi answers this question later in his discourse when he speaks of his vision of the destruction of his people:
2 Nephi 26:9
9 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.
2 Nephi 26:10
10 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.
Nephi sees the ultimate dissolution of his people. What he sees is not just genocide, but rather apostasy. He sees the dwindling of the believers but this is certainly to be contrasted with the elimination of the people entirely. He is very clear that there will be people in the latter days that carry the inheritance of Joseph, as that inheritance comes through Lehi and therefore through both Lamanites and Nephites:
2 Nephi 26:15
15 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.
Nephi sees that the future generations will hold remnant of both Nephite and Lamanite lineages. Thus while we typically speak of the destruction of the Nephites at the end of the Book of Mormon, we are speaking of a different conception of that term thn does Nephi. What Nephi sees is the preservation of the genetic connection to Joseph, where the destruction of the Nephites by the time of the end of the Book of Mormon relates to a political/religious body rather than to physical bodies.
The answer to this first question of Nephi’s perception of the seed of Joseph raises other questions, however. While the seed may be seen as the lineage of Joseph, a lineage that Nephi prophecies will persist through both the his own and the houses of his brethren, we are not now certain how the passing of the text from generation to generation will effect their preservation, as they will have been physically preserved for centuries while the text is no longer being actively passed through generations. How will the text effect the preservation, if it is not even present during the years of greatest conflict with the gentile world that threatened the physical existence of all Amerindian populations?
The nature of the text and its function in proclaiming the Messiah gives us the clue. Nephi is not concerned with a blessing of the preservation of the physical seed of Joseph, but with their eternal preservation that will come through their reliance on the grace of the Messiah. Because Nephi sees the physical remnant at a point prior to the reintroduction of his written testimony, he must understand this prophecy in its spiritual sense rather than a physical one.