Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alternative titles for the first four books in the Book of Mormon

A good friend recently got me thinking about Book of Mormon summaries. Most summaries of the Book of Mormon focus on what happens in the book, just like summaries of novels focus on the plot. But because the Book of Mormon isn't a novel, the "plot" is both a) hopelessly complicated and b) periodically abandoned for sections of the book where nothing really happens.

So how might a person usefully describe the shapes of the Nephites' books? I've given it a shot for the first four by coming up with alternate titles:


1 Nephi: The Book of the Visionary

1 Nephi is a book with plenty of events to describe. But if you describe them according to modern sensibilities, you'll probably focus on the journeys rather than on the visions.

But the book isn't a travelogue or a simple diary. It's structured according to the visions Lehi and Nephi receive--and especially on the aftermath of each vision. Again and again, the pattern is vision, action, obstacle, action, expanded vision. It's best to read the book not as a report on how Lehi's family got to the ocean, but rather as a sort of handbook on being a visionary. A systematic record of the joy, burdens, and techniques that come with following a revelatory God.

2 Nephi: The Book of Deathbed Blessings

Most plot summaries of the Book of Mormon are 50% made out of summarized events from 1st Nephi, usually followed by a sentence or two on the war cycles of Alma-Mormon and a sentence or two on the appearance of Jesus in 3rd Nephi. Even though it's longer than 1st Nephi, 2nd Nephi doesn't contribute much because very little happens: it's a book where four prophets (Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah) just talk.

That may explain why so many people struggle to get through 2nd Nephi--if you're reading for plot, it's pretty boring.

But if you look carefully, it seems clear to me that 2nd Nephi has just as clear a structure and purpose as 1st Nephi. After the book of visions, we have a book of blessings--the blessing of two dying patriarchs.

Most people recognize Lehi's blessings and warnings easily since they only take up a few chapters and are so clearly reminiscent of Genesis 49. But it may be harder to notice that from chapter 6 on, Nephi is probably dying. And so he gives the people a new prophet (ch. 6-11), an old prophet (ch. 12-24), and his own personal blessings and warnings to conclude the book.  

Jacob: The Book of the Exile

There are far more tragic events in the Book of Mormon than the handful of incidents mentioned in Jacob, but not many sadder narrators. At the end of his book (7:26), Jacob talks directly about his feelings of exile and alienation, but indirect evidence of those feelings permeates the whole text. Jacob doesn't just write down whatever happens: his book is built around the tensions of emigration. There's evidence in the book of a significant generation gap between Jacob himself and his new-world-raised relatives, who have their own values and priorities. There's a large passage devoted to the allegory of the olive tree, which describes the quiet background relationship between Jacob's descendents and the land/people they came from. It's a book, in the end, about exile and the long (but confident) wait for redemption.

Enos: Prayer of the Native Son

Part of the structure of Enos is obvious to most readers: it's a book about a prayer. What may not be as obvious is that it's also the first book about someone who grew up in the Americas. If you look carefully at Enos, I think you'll see how that shift is also an important part of the book.

6 comments:

  1. Wow! I love those titles, so much more descriptive and actually inviting, as in visit my pages and learn of my world. Thanks for sharing; I'm constantly amazed at the depth of some people's thoughts and wonder how I can get there too.

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  2. Thanks for this insight. I'll try to remember this as I'm reading. I'd be interested in alternative titles for the rest of the Book of Mormon too!

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    1. Let me know when you come up with them. ;)

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  3. Interesting! Having the Book of Lehi as the lost 116 pages section for this part was a good catchall title that we miss with the small plates version.

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  4. I sometimes think of Mosiah as "The Book of Kings" and Alma as "The Book of Judges" but that could get confusing.

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  5. I might suggest First Nephi also be considered the Book of the True King. In much the same way you suggest that it reads as a handbook on how to become a visionary, it also seems to exist similarly as a manual for how to become righteous royalty. Jerusalem had decayed under the reign of kings who continually set the God of Israel at naught through the worship of foreign gods and defiling the temple. The very first verse in the Book of Mormon sets the stage by invoking the name of Zedekiah, a puppet king and relative of the king of Babylon. But early in the record, we are given a protagonist who desires to know the dealings of that God who created him. And so, the Lord sends him on a quest to recover a record that contains history, doctrine, law, geneaology, and covenants. The Lord even makes Nephi kill in order to obtain the record (then shows him in vision that his posterity will dwindle and perish in unbelief anyway). After the death of his prophet-father in the new world, Nephi takes all those who "believe in the revelations of God" and flees into the wilderness to establish his own kingdom; one where a king labors with his own hands and one of the first things he builds is a temple. A kingdom built by one dedicated to knowing Israel's God. And so beloved was Nephi of his people that the called their kings thereafter "Nephi."

    I have reflected greatly on the travails of Nephi in the wilderness: the poignancy of his conflicts and the bittersweetness of his visions. I grow more and more convinced with each subsequent reading that God wasn't just preparing a prophet. He was crafting a king.

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