“I Should Engraven the Heads of Them Upon These Plates”

Brant Gardner

Text: It is interesting that Nephi’s instructions to Jacob so clearly define the nature of the record and perhaps, in retrospect, also define Nephi’s record. Nephi tells Jacob four categories of information to include on this set of plates: First, history (but only “lightly,” v. 2), then “preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying.”

Indeed, Nephi’s record follows this general outline of topics, with far less history than we might want, revelations (e.g., the tree of life dream), prophesying (parts of the tree of life dream as well as his prophetic extrapolation of Isaianic themes), and preaching (e.g., his speeches to his brothers, Lehi’s final blessings, and Jacob’s speech). Jacob faithfully follows that model, presenting painfully little history, but significant amounts of revelations and sermons.

It is not clear what Jacob means by engraving the “heads” of these things. Jacob likely meant a synopsis of the most important aspects rather than a full treatment. The plates were limited in size, and Nephi had filled most of them. It is therefore probable that Nephi was urging some restraint on the quantity while focusing on the quality of the content.

John A. Tvedtnes has suggested that the use of the word “heads” in this context might reflect an underlying Hebrew structure in the Book of Mormon: “The term head seems out of place. We would expect something like most important to be used. But the expression is readily explainable in terms of Hebrew. The Hebrew word for the head of the body is sometimes used to describe things as chief (see Deut. 33:15, Ps. 137:6, and Prov. 1:21) or precious (see Amos 6:1, Song 4:14, Ezek. 27:22). This is probably the sense in which Jacob used the word.”

This hypothesis presents an interesting possibility, but for all that has been written on the Hebrew language background of the Book of Mormon, the evidence is still inconclusive, having almost as much possibility of derivation from King James Version language as from an original Hebrew. Because the King James Version preserves so much of the Hebrew structure, some of the “Hebrewness” of a text might be due to the borrowing of the King James Version style, which also retains the Hebrew features. The nature of the translation and what we might learn about the plate text will continue to be a topic of discussion throughout this commentary. (See 3 Nephi, Part 1: Chapter 3, “Notes on the Translation Process” and commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 8:18–19.)

Narrative: The final phrases of this verse are crucial to understanding the verses that follow. It was unfortunate that such critical information was separated into two verses by the artificial creation of the verse. Jacob focuses on Nephi’s instruction that the Messiah be the focus of the record. This should be done “for the sake of our people,” the particular phrase that is explained in the next verse.

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