Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Big Picture, Part II

Just a couple more examples of how seeing the big picture might change your perspective on scripture. First, one from Robert J. Matthews, in his talk, "The Old Testament: A Voice from the Past and a Witness for the Lord Jesus Christ," from the book Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament:

"It is interesting to how [Moses in] the book of Genesis allots various space to each of its topics. The Creation is covered in two chapters. The early years of man are also covered rather quickly. The time from Adam's fall to Abraham is recorded in only eight chapters. The story of Abraham, who lived 175 years, requires at least a dozen chapters alone, (that ought to tell us something of his importance), and the story of Jacob and Joseph and the founding of the house of Israel (totaling probably two hundred years) requires all the way from Genesis chapters 27 to 50--twenty-four chapters for only two hundred years. You can see that the purpose of Genesis is to get the idea clearly before us of the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, the house of Israel, and the prominence of Joseph." (41)

Thinking about the space allotment in Genesis also teaches us something about how we ought to study and think about our own sacred history. Moses emphasizes the most recent, relevant portions--if we were to write something like the book of Genesis for our own times, Joseph Smith would take the place of Jacob and Joseph; our focus should be on the Restoration, and that's a lesson available in the composition of Genesis, where Moses helps the Israelites focus on their recent past as a learning opportunity.

OK--just one more bit on seeing the big picture. 1 Nephi 2:15 is one of the shorter scriptures in the Book of Mormon and so got quite a bit of attention during my teenage years, when I was asked to quote a verse of scripture. I've also heard a number of commentators remark on this scripture, explaining that it teaches us something about Lehi's humility, that he stayed in a tent. This may be true (although I think Hugh Nibley would disagree in Lehi in the Desert), but Nephi doesn't tell us that his "father dwelt in a tent" in order to comment on his father.

If you read through the 1 Nephi quickly, in a single sitting, you'll be struck by the fact that this phrase, "And my father dwelt in a tent," occurs repeatedly; in addition to 1 Ne. 2:15, it shows up in 9:1, 10:16, and 16:6--over and over again. If you look at the phrase you'll understand why Nephi uses it: to provide narrrative structure in a book that might otherwise seem fragmented. The repetitions are a reminder that until 1 Nephi 16 Lehi and Co. stay in one place, camped out, not journeying to the promised land. Nephi's account wanders all over, and we might be tempted to think that Lehi and his family do as well--but Nephi's reminders that his father dwelt in a tent actually remind us that he is stationary and remind us of the context in which Lehi's vision, Nephi's vision, and the explanation, take place.

My point is simply that the verses are not intended to be a statement about Lehi; they are meant to help the reader understand 1 Nephi as a continuous narrative experience, and anything they tell us about Lehi is incidental.

Happy hunting in the scriptures...and Happy Thanksgiving!

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