Do you want to expand and deepen your study of the Book of Mormon? If so, you will find what you're looking for in this commentary written by gospel scholars D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner.
This volume is the first of a two-volume, reader-friendly exploration of the book of scripture that is the keystone of our religion.
It incorporates sound doctrinal commentary with quotations from General Authorities and explanations of difficult passages--all sprinkled generously with the authors' own experiences to illustrate great lessons and personal applications.
Interspersed with the commentary are feature articles that offer new glimpses into such topics as angels who have come to earth, names and titles of God, Israel and Zion in Latter-day Saint usage, the Isaiah chapters of First and Second Nephi, the allegory of the olive tree, and prophecies of Christ.
Highly informative and easy to read, this commentary on the Book of Mormon provides stimulating views that complement the scriptures. It will be treasured by anyone who wishes to understand more fully the teachings of those whom the Lord called in the land of promise to testify of him.
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Deseret Book Company
December 20, 2011
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Excerpt from Verse by Verse, the Book of Mormon by D. Kelly Ogden
The First Book of Nephi relates the ministry of Nephi from his family's departure out of the land of Jerusalem to their arrival in the promised land. The first part of his journal-history is a synopsis of his father's record: "I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life" (1 Nephi 1:17). His own account begins in chapter 10. Nephi shows us how important journal-keeping really is.
Twenty years before the Book of Mormon begins, the kingdom of Judah was experiencing its last period of greatness. The Assyrian Empire was rapidly disintegrating, and the righteous King Josiah expanded the political borders of Judah, instigated rigorous religious reforms, and established relative peace. Josiah's life ended tragically at Megiddo, where he had gone at the head of his armies to attempt to stop the Egyptian advance under Pharaoh Nechoh II toward the Euphrates. Nechoh wanted to support the last Assyrian king in a stand against the new Babylonian Empire, and after Josiah's death pharaoh flexed his military muscle to control all of Judah's political life. That situation lasted for about four years, until the Babylonian invasions began. Josiah's death marked the beginning of the end for the kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 22-23).
Josiah's son Jehoahaz was made king after his father's death in 609 b.c., but Pharaoh Nechoh took him away to Egypt and put his brother Eliakim on the throne. Eliakim's name was changed to Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim reigned for eleven years, until 598 b.c., after which Nebuchadnezzar bound him and carried him away to Babylon along with thousands of others, including Ezekiel. Jehoiakim's son Jehoiachin was allowed to rule as a vassal or puppet king of the Babylonians. He reigned only three months, and then Nebuchadnezzar summoned him to Babylon along with "ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths" (2 Kings 24:14). His uncle Mattaniah, whose name was changed to Zedekiah, began to reign. Book of Mormon history begins in the first year of Zedekiah's reign, which, according to Bible chronology, was 598 or 597 b.c. The Book of Mormon designates the year of its beginning, and the first year of Zedekiah's reign, as six hundred years before the coming of Christ into the world.
Lehi and his family were living at Jerusalem (1 Nephi 1:4, 7; 2 Nephi 25:6). The preposition at in this case could mean in, within, close by, or near. Lehi could have lived several miles away and still lived at Jerusalem. It is recorded at least thirty-three times throughout the Book of Mormon that Lehi and Nephi went out from "the land of Jerusalem." Any satellite towns or villages that surrounded larger population or political centers were regarded in ancient times as belonging to those larger centers. That Lehi and his family lived outside of Jerusalem proper is also evidenced in the account of the sons' attempt to obtain the plates with their abandoned wealth: "We went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things. And after we gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban" (1 Nephi 3:22-23).
1 Nephi 1:1-3
Nephi began his record with a note about his goodly parents. The adjective goodly may mean distinguished, esteemed, or respected--an allusion to both moral and spiritual status. These days we might consider using the term awesome. Nephi gave particular credit to his father, from whom he had received a proper education and learned of the goodness and mysteries of God. Generations of writers following Nephi bore similar testimony of the valuable instruction of their fathers. For example, the first sentence inscribed on the plates by Enos was a eulogy of his father, Jacob, for having planted some seeds of eternal consequence deep in his heart: "I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man--for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Enos 1:1). The revered King Benjamin caused his three sons to be "taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies" (Mosiah 1:2). It appears to be a characteristic of goodly parents to spend significant time and energy teaching their children the things of God. In promising great blessings to Abraham, the father of hundreds of millions, the Lord said that "Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation. . . . For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (Genesis 18:18-19).
All of these Book of Mormon passages refer to the language of the fathers. Language facility, the ability to communicate with others, is the life-breath of any civilization. We see its importance as Lehi's sons were required to make a lengthy trek to secure some metal plates, which would ensure their emigrant colony some cultural stability and continuity. Lehi's sons were taught in the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. The sons had likely been educated in Hebrew and Aramaic grammar and vocabulary (Aramaic being the language of diplomacy and commerce at the time), but it appears that they had learned to express their thoughts in written form in Egyptian characters. Lehi had been "taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read [the brass plates'] engravings, and teach them to his children" (Mosiah 1:4). Perhaps Lehi mastered the Egyptian language, as Joseph and Moses before him. There appears to have been considerable commercial and cultural interchange between Judah and Egypt in the late 7th century b.c. Archaeological excavations show great Egyptian influence in this period, rising out of that nation's rule over the land of Judah for some years prior to the opening of the Book of Mormon record. Egyptian soldiers, merchants, and travelers were present and active during that period.
Nephi said that he had seen many afflictions during his growing-up years, but also he had been "highly favored," or highly blessed. Blessings and afflictions are part of a normal mortal life. Couldn't all of the noble and great ones start out their life's record with those same observations? Couldn't Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and Joseph Smith have summarized their life with the words--"having seen many afflictions in the course of my days"? Perhaps some of us could summarize our lives the same way. This is not a bad thing, for it means the Lord is working in our lives. He thinks enough of us to send us refining experiences.
1 Nephi 1:4
Nephi wrote that "there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed." Amos taught that the Lord God would do nothing "but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). The Lord always gives sufficient warning; "never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord" (2 Nephi 25:9). For such a dramatic and devastating destruction as was coming, the cast of prophets was indeed, as the Book of Mormon says, "many." Lehi, Jeremiah, Huldah, Zephaniah, Habukkuk, Ezekiel, and one Urijah of Kirjath-jearim (Jeremiah 26:20) were all contemporaries.
"And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy" (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).
1 Nephi 1:5-20
The Book of Mormon begins with the story of a family and a people in crisis. While Lehi was out teaching in the city, he prayed earnestly in behalf of his family and his people. As he prayed he saw and was taught many things through a spiritual manifestation that caused his whole body to tremble. He was physically exhausted by the spiritual work (see also 1 Nephi 17:47; 19:20; Alma 27:16-18; Daniel 8:27; Moses 1:10; Joseph Smith-History 1:20); he cast himself upon his bed and was overcome by the Spirit. He saw a heavenly court full of brilliant beings. One of them handed Lehi a book with the judgment to be passed upon Jerusalem: death, destruction, and deportation to Babylon. This represents Lehi's call to be a prophet; his experience parallels that of others, including Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1), Alma (Alma 36:22), and Joseph Smith (D&C 137:1).
Lehi was to the people of his day what Joseph Smith is to our day. As with other prophets, Lehi then went forth to boldly declare what he had seen and heard. He detailed for Jerusalem's citizens a lengthy catalog of their sins; the result was mockery, anger, and violence. That the city of Jerusalem was doomed to destruction could not have been such shocking news to the Jews, as other prophets had issued the same warning. Jeremiah had been sounding that warning for nearly three decades already. What could be so difficult about believing that people would be taken captive to Babylon when thousands had already been taken? Surely someone would now be ready to listen! But people do not like to hear about their sins, especially when they are enjoying them and have no inclination to change. Lehi's hearers wanted to remove his antagonizing, grating voice.
Another significant witness Lehi bore to his Jerusalem audience was of the coming of a Messiah, for "none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ" (Jacob 7:11; see also 3 Nephi 20:24). John later exclaimed that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10); that is, testifying of Jesus is the essence of prophecy. Even six hundred years before he would come in the flesh, the people needed to know to whom they should look for a remission of their sins. Lehi was a special witness of Jesus Christ.
1 Nephi 1:6
During Lehi's first vision there came a "pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock," and he "saw and heard much" (so did Joseph Smith; see Joseph Smith-History 1:20, 41, 54). The pillar of fire "dwelt upon" a rock--the Hebrew verb shakhan means to be situated or rest upon (compare Deuteronomy 33:16, "dwelt in the bush"). Another form of the word is Shekhinah, which refers to the divine Presence. The pillar of fire was actually the presence and glory of the Lord. Joseph Smith also saw a pillar of fire, or "a pillar of light" (Joseph Smith-History 1:16). 1
1 Nephi 1:8-11
Nephi reported in idiomatic terms that his father, Lehi, saw God sitting upon his throne. ("He thought he saw" means "it seemed to him that . . ."; compare "methought" in 1 Nephi 8:4 and Alma 36:22.) Others have also envisioned the throne room of Deity (Isaiah 6:1-4; Revelation 4:1-4; D&C 76:20-21). Lehi's vision included a book. The same happened later to John the Beloved (Revelation 10:9) and to Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith-History 1:30-34). The book from which Lehi was instructed to read contained scenes of the future of God's people, including judgments to be poured out on Jerusalem.
1 Nephi 1:15
"His whole heart was filled"--in many cultures, ancient and modern, the heart has been considered the center of emotion and affection, and figurative language has centered around the feelings of the heart. Lehi's heart being full is an idiomatic expression for his whole being swelling with deep sentiment of praising and rejoicing.
1 Nephi 1:20
This verse provides comforting assurance to all those who earnestly seek true discipleship: "The tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty." The Lord is merciful to the chosen--that is, to those who choose him--to deliver them from whatever challenges they will encounter; faith brings power to be delivered from any negative influence bearing down on us.
1 Nephi 2:1-3
Lehi was faithful in fulfilling his calling to teach of the Messiah and call his people to repentance. They wanted to kill him because of his teachings. Objections to true teachings are usually a cover-up for not wanting to abandon sins.
The Lord warned Lehi in a dream to take his family and depart into the wilderness. Why Lehi? What qualified this citizen of the kingdom of Judah, a descendant of Manasseh, to lead a colony of Israelites through the wilderness to a new promised land? Lehi understood and could guide a diverse society. Members of tribes other than Judah had taken up residence in the land of Jerusalem years before. First Chronicles 9:3 notes, "In Jerusalem dwelt of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin, and of the children of Ephraim, and Manasseh.'' Lehi, Laban, and Ishmael were all from the tribes of Joseph.
The scriptural record contains hints that Lehi was wealthy (1 Nephi 2:4; 3:16, 22). The Mediterranean world was alive with mercantile activity in this period of time, with Syria and Canaan serving as a hub of sea and land commerce at the place where continents and cultures came together. Caravans traversed Judah from all directions: side roads off the coastal highway and the King's Highway; the distant Frankincense Trail; pilgrims' highways and trade routes connecting Moab, Edom, and Arabia with Gaza and Egypt. Lehi could have been a trained and experienced caravaneer and trader. He knew what provisions to prepare and what route to take. Knowing how God has worked in other periods of history, we believe it is not unlikely that he selected a man who, in addition to his spiritual maturity and responsiveness, was already adapted to the particular task at hand, in this case desert travel and survival. He was the right man for the right time. 2
1 Nephi 2:4-5
Lehi and his family abandoned all unnecessary possessions and gathered together appropriate provisions for an indefinite period of travel in the desert. Besides the tents especially mentioned, they would need food, emergency water, extra clothing, bedding, cooking equipment and eating utensils, weapons, and pack animals, probably camels.
Lehi and some family members were willing to live the law of sacrifice, as outlined in Lectures on Faith: "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation. . . . The faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things." 3
The word wilderness occurs more than three hundred times in the Book of Mormon and may at some later time in the Western Hemisphere refer to the thick forests or jungle, but it does not mean lush vegetation in reference to Judah and its neighboring deserts. Two Hebrew terms for wilderness are midbar and jeshimon. Midbar is generally land to the east of the central hills, east of the agricultural fields, out into the rain shadow, with a sparce vegetation. These are tracts for pasturing flocks. Jeshimon is the desolate wasteland beyond, where little rain falls. The Judean desert through which Lehi and his family journeyed is at first midbar and then jeshimon. It is known scripturally as a place of flight and refuge. It is a frightening place for the uninitiated.
In recent years, researchers have ventured to describe the route Lehi and his family took from Jerusalem to the Red Sea. Gospel scholar Sidney B. Sperry wrote as follows: "As for a route to the Red Sea, they had two choices: they could go either directly south of Jerusalem by the road through Hebron and Beersheba and thence through the great wilderness to the northern tip of what is now the gulf of Aqaba, or they could go directly east across the Jordan until they struck the ancient 'King's Highway' and then proceed south, or nearly so, until the Gulf of Aqaba was reached. Lehi probably used the western route." 4 Lynn and Hope Hilton expanded the possibilities to three: (1) eastward from Jerusalem through the Judean wilderness to the plateau on the eastern side of the Rift Valley to the King's Highway; (2) southward from Jerusalem, past Hebron and Beersheba, and then eastward to join the Rift Valley, called the Arabah; or (3) straight east to the northern end of the Dead Sea, past Qumran, En Gedi, Masada, and on south to the Red Sea.
The Hiltons considered the first option, the King's Highway, unlikely because of passage through foreign lands with border complications, taxes, and so on. They also saw the second option as improbable because the route remains in the hill country, near population centers, instead of entering the wilderness as the account says. The Hiltons, therefore, concluded that the third option was the likely route. 5
Based on our personal experience of walking from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, it seems unlikely to us that Lehi's family would have used the King's Highway or that they would have journeyed straight southward through populated centers, such as Hebron and Beersheba. The account specifically points to immediate entry into the wilderness. The Hiltons' preferred route (east to the area of Qumran and then south) is also unlikely, however, as the fault escarpment of the Rift Valley drops down dramatically to the waters of the Dead Sea and allows no passage to the south. There was no evidence of a road along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea before the Israelis cut and paved one in 1967.
Possible route of Lehi's journey
We believe that a more likely course for Lehi's journey is southeast out of Jerusalem toward Tekoa and then along an ancient road to En Gedi (called the cliff or ascent of Ziz in 2 Chronicles 20:16), and thence southward through the Rift Valley and Arabah. An alternate route could have been from Tekoa southward, passing between the villages of Juttah and Carmel, down into and across the eastern Negev eastward to the Arabah.
1 Nephi 2:6
Having arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, Lehi and his party decided to continue on for another three days, after which they established camp "in a valley by the side of a river of water." The phrase "river of water" seems redundant to western ears, since we are accustomed to thinking of rivers as consisting only of water. In the Near East, however, most rivers are not perennial but contain water only in the rainy season, for relatively few days of the year. Usually such a riverbed is dry and sandy and quite passable for travel. If Lehi's family pitched their tents near a flowing stream, that may tell us something about what time of year it was; perhaps it was spring, the time of winter runoff.
1 Nephi 2:7-9
Lehi, along with all other prophets, held the Melchizedek Priesthood. 6 Lehi's family had no Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood holders among them. Such priesthood functions as offering sacrifices (Hebrew corban), though usually executed under the direction of Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood in biblical times, could also be carried out by those who held the higher priesthood, which comprehends all lower powers (D&C 107:8). Lehi was authorized to perform sacrifices by virtue of the Melchizedek Priesthood he held.
Lehi built an altar of stones to make an offering and give thanks. It was an altar of unhewn stones as stipulated in Exodus 20:25. The wording is intentional, again showing the Book of Mormon to be translated from an ancient Semitic record. It was not a "stone altar," which might allow for cut, fitted stones, but an "altar of stones."
Lehi then began naming various geographical features around the camp. All hills, rock outcroppings, valleys, and other topographical details were and are given names in the Near East. The ancient Hebrew people loved imagery and figures of speech. The most powerful way to illustrate a truth was to find something in the human experience or conduct that corresponded to something in nature. If only Laman could be like this temporary river, or even better, like a perennial river, continuously flowing toward the source of righteousness! Many parents have wished that blessing for children experiencing difficulties. Likewise, the prophet Amos pleaded with northern Israelites to "let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty [or everflowing] stream" (Amos 5:24). The two prophets wished that their people would be more constant and stable in their devotion and loyalty to God and his purposes.
1 Nephi 2:10
Three of our favorite words in the Book of Mormon are firm, steadfast, and immovable. On 31 May 1994, hurricane-force winds swept through Utah's Wasatch Front with destructive results, especially in Provo. Brigham Young University equipment clocked the winds at 121 miles per hour. Though only five minutes in duration, the winds ripped apart or felled upwards of five thousand trees. Provo City announced within a few days that the total loss approached $9 million. One house had four very tall pine trees lying flat in the yard and out into the street, with huge but shallow root systems exposed. There's the gospel lesson: it is not enough to grow tall and broad and beautiful. Shallowness is perilous. We must sink deep roots and be solidly planted to withstand the storms of life; be firm, steadfast, and immovable--enduring, solid, and stable.
1 Nephi 2:11-24
These verses give us insights into the character of Lehi's four sons. Laman and Lemuel are portrayed as stubborn, hard-hearted, lovers of money, faithless, and spiritually weak. Nephi and Sam, on the other hand, are humble seekers of knowledge and of God, faithful, and obedient to parents. The latter two sons are exemplary, deserving of being emulated, which, since we all need role models, is one of the main purposes for the painstaking engraving of the metal plates--to preserve for us in modern times some examples or patterns for our lives. President Heber J. Grant wrote: "I read the Book of Mormon as a young man and fell in love with Nephi more than with any other character in [secular] or sacred history that I have ever read of, except the Savior of the world. No other individual has made such a strong impression upon me as did Nephi. He has been one of the guiding stars of my life." 7
Consider the four brothers. The marvel is not that some complained about the hardships in leaving all and journeying into the wilderness but that others did not! Conditions were such that anyone could have murmured. Murmuring may be defined as half-suppressed or muttered complaint, grumbling behind the scenes rather than being openly critical, or disloyal.
What was the reason for Nephi's amazing ability to press forward positively and not join in the grumbling and rebellion? Nephi wanted to know the things of God; he prayed, and the Lord visited him and softened his heart--which suggests the possibility that his heart was somewhat hard before.
God raises up the young, those malleable and teachable, not set in their ways, to accomplish tasks that will confound the wise--allowing the "weak things of the world" to "break down the mighty and strong ones" (D&C 1:19).
Faith and faithfulness are always rewarded. Nephi and all the others were called upon to make a great sacrifice, to leave behind practically all they had known; but the Lord promised that they would eventually possess more and greater blessings. We of modern times struggle with that principle also. One of the most dangerous problems we face is wanting immediate gratification. Few people, it seems, believe in postponement--if we want something, we want it now. Adam and Eve sacrificed a pleasant existence in the Garden of Eden for something ultimately and infinitely better, though immediately harder. Moses sacrificed prestige in a kingly court for the noble task of suffering the sands and complaints of Sinai. Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the other prophets sacrificed comfort and security to fulfill a difficult duty with eternal rewards.