“Nephi Began to Be Old”

Brant Gardner

Culture: “According to the reigns of the kings” contains a world of information. Nephi himself established the transfer of rulership in the Nephite community during his reign. He did not leave the mechanism of transferring power to chance, tradition, or the rise of a strong man, but rather designates and anoints his successor. The need for a formal mechanism discloses a situation with enough aspirants to be disruptive, sufficient wealth and power to make the position desirable, and a sufficient population to make divisions reasonable. When a king personally endorses (here anoints) a successor, it minimizes internal feuding. Our understanding of the Nephites’ social organization suggests at least three hundred households and probably more.

The second point is that Nephi anoints his successor. The term anoint signals a Jewish tradition. Other verbs describing this process might be crowned, invested, or elevated; but describing it as an anointing confirms the concept of a king under Yahweh in the Israelite tradition. Even though the “others” who had joined the Nephites may have had a different mode of creating a king, their acceptance of Nephi as their ruler presupposes their acceptance of his way of transferring power.

The process of anointing also includes the use of a liquid (olive oil in the Old World, unknown for the New World) invested with religious symbolism. We must assume the Old World olive oil was replaced with some New World liquid. We have insufficient data to know what that liquid might have been. We can assume, however, that the anointing of the king is tied not only to the political necessity, but to the religious definition, of reality. The application of the holy liquid not only marks the man as a political leader, but it invests him with religious significance and divine approbation.

Lastly, Nephi’s successor is not named (he is identified only by the “Nephi” throne-name), but it is not Jacob. Daniel Ludlow observes that the king may have been either Jacob or a son of Nephi: “It is not clear who succeeded Nephi as king over the Nephites. Some Book of Mormon scholars have surmised that Nephi’s successor was probably Jacob; they say Jacob failed to mention this here because of his modesty. However, other scholars feel that Nephi was probably succeeded as king by one of his sons.” We might assume that Jacob is a logical candidate for the next ruler because of his importance to Nephi and his appearance as the only named adult male in the only record we have for this time period (given the loss of the book of Lehi). However, Jacob retains his own name while the next king takes the throne name of “Nephi.” Nothing in Jacob’s writings suggests that he possesses political influence—rather, he was politically marginalized, with some also attempting to marginalize him religiously.

The next most likely candidate is Nephi’s eldest son, following the conventional Old World model “according to the reign of kings.” Old World lineage models select a king’s brother only if he lacks a male heir. While the text does not mention a son of Nephi, nothing suggests that he did not have one. Since Jacob does not mention his name, he seems to assume the reader’s understanding that the most logical candidate was appointed without controversy. In short, this verse documents the creation of a lineage-based rulership that follows Nephi’s direct line with its kings also taking possession of the physical symbols of rulership—the sword of Laban, the Liahona, the brass plates (Mosiah 1:16) and the large plates.

As Nephi’s brother and as a prophet in his own right, Jacob has the qualifications to fulfill Nephi’s intent for the small plates. Nephi has created two transmission lines for his records: the official “history” (the large plates of Nephi) and this secondary “sacred history” through his brother’s descendants.

As time went on, Jacob’s parallel line might have asserted a claim to the throne, but it apparently never happened—either because Nephi’s direct line always produced a suitable successor or because an unknown mechanism continued to remove Jacob’s descendants from prominent positions. As we move to the end of the small plates, even the position of main religious leader no longer belongs to Jacob’s lineage. The last writers on the small plates are descendants of Jacob, but the religious leadership is invested in Mosiah1. There is no indication among the writers in the book of Omni that any of them have any religious prominence. This marginalization tells us even more of the reason that those descendants lacked the political or economic clout to obtain the materials to continue the small plates.

Translation: The phrase “began to be old” occurs six more times in the Book of Mormon, but not in the Bible or any other scripture. In each case, the phrase is used in a context that suggests that the person who “began to be old” is near death. For example (italics added):

And it came to pass that I began to be old, and an hundred and seventy and nine years had passed away from the time that our father Lehi left Jerusalem. (Enos 1:25)
And it came to pass that I began to be old; and, having no seed, and knowing king Benjamin to be a just man before the Lord, wherefore, I shall deliver up these plates unto him. (Omni 1:25)
And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni. (Morm. 6:6)
And the brother of Jared began to be old, and saw that he must soon go down to the grave; wherefore he said unto Jared: Let us gather together our people that we may number them, that we may know of them what they will desire of us before we go down to our graves. (Ether 6:19)

In each of these examples, the person who “begins to be old” appears to be on his deathbed. The single exception to this interpretation might be Ether 9:14: “And it came to pass that Omer began to be old; nevertheless, in his old age he begat Emer; and he anointed Emer to be king to reign in his stead.” Certainly Omer is not on his deathbed if he begets Emer and is able to anoint Emer to reign after him. Even in this case, however, we are dealing with the final acts of a man who is about to leave this earth. While it appears that begetting Emer follows “began to be old,” this is not necessarily so. Omer does beget Emer when he is “in his old age”; rather, the begetting may differentiate the official “end of life” events from those associated with “began to be old.”

It appears that a possible “translation” for began to be old might be “on his deathbed,” with connotations of setting one’s affairs in final order.

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