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In Our Ward: Lesson 6: “Free to Choose Liberty and Eternal Life”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 12, 2012

We’ve already had ward conference, which puts us a week behind most of you.

Lesson 6: “Free to Choose Liberty and Eternal Life”

2 Nephi 1-2

Purpose: To help class members have a greater desire to “choose liberty and eternal life” through Jesus Christ, “the great Mediator of all men” (2 Nephi 2:27).

Introduction

Today we move from the First Book of Nephi into the Second Book of Nephi. For us, with our modern English editions of the scriptures, the break from one book to the next is very obvious: Even though Second Nephi begins in the middle of the page, there is a bold, large type title, and Second Nephi resets the chapter numbers to Chapter 1. Evidently, though, the shift between books was much more subtle on the plates that Joseph translated: the original manuscript suggests that Joseph recognized a break at this point – a new chapter is begun here – but that chapter is numbered as a continuation of what came before. It wasn’t until Joseph had translated the next lines, the introductory statement beginning “The Book of Nephi, an account of the death of Lehi …” that Joseph realized this was a more significant break, and he changed the designation from a new chapter to a new book.

Knowing what you know about the Book of Mormon narrative, why is this point, or someplace very near it, a good time to transition into a new book? [This question is asked not because it reveals any doctrinal insight, but merely to cause the class to focus on the text and situate themselves for the discussion to follow. They might mention the start of life in the New World, the transition from Lehi’s leadership to Nephi’s leadership, the making of the plates which signifies a shift between catching up with the past and recording events as they happen, or other ideas.]

Scripture Discussion

1. Lehi exhorts his sons to repent, obey the Lord’s commandments, and put on the armor of righteousness.
2. Lehi testifies of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
3. Lehi teaches the importance of opposition and the freedom to choose good from evil.
[4] Using Lehi’s teachings to counter the teachings of the world.

Second Nephi opens, as the heading says, with “an account of the death of Lehi.” He won’t die for several chapters yet, though. First he calls his posterity together to give them his last words of counsel, and to give them individual blessings and warnings and advice, only part of which we’ll discuss today. This is a very longstanding custom among the people of God, one that Lehi may have seen in his lifetime, or that he certainly noticed when he studied the Plates of Brass. What other accounts can you think of where a righteous leader has called his people together to give deathbed blessings? [Class members might recall Adam addressing his posterity at Adam-ondi-Ahman, or Jacob/Israel giving patriarchal blessings at the close of the book of Genesis, or other occasions.] Have any of you ever participated in a family gathering that might be somewhat similar? Why would a parent’s counsel at that time be more impressive or have greater effect than at other times?

Okay, let’s see what Lehi chose to teach his children at this tender moment. Verse 1:

1 And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them, how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem.

Lehi reviews the past – which Nephi kindly summarizes for us. Notice how here and in the following verses Lehi interprets the past in a positive way. That is, wouldn’t it have been equally true for him to have spoken of it negatively, to have said that the family had been forced to flee from the wickedness of Jerusalem?

Notice how in verse 2 Lehi manages to draw a positive memory out of negative behavior:

2 And he spake unto them concerning their rebellions upon the waters, and the mercies of God in sparing their lives, that they were not swallowed up in the sea.

Why does he do that? Is he being hopelessly, foolishly cheerful about everything, or is there some purpose in the way he presents the past?

This positive spin continues in verses 3-4:

3 And he also spake unto them concerning the land of promise, which they had obtained—how merciful the Lord had been in warning us that we should flee out of the land of Jerusalem.

4 For, behold, said he, I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem is destroyed; and had we remained in Jerusalem we should also have perished.

We talked a little bit last week about the death of Ishmael, and the reactions of his daughters – what did they want to do as soon as Ishmael was dead, no matter how impractical it was? Do you think that might have been in Lehi’s mind as he anticipated his own death?

It may be interesting to note that the Lord evidently gave the same or similar vision to the prophet Ezekiel, who had been carried with the other children of Israel captive into Babylon: Ezekiel records his confirming vision of the destruction of Jerusalem in Chapter 24 of his book.

Lehi shuts off any possibility, no matter how impractical, for any part of his family to return to Jerusalem – there is no Jerusalem to return to, he says. And with that review of the past, he turns the minds of his family to their present and future. Verses 5-7:

5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.

6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.

7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.

These three verses could be the subject of an entire Sunday School lesson – they have formed the basis of countless General Conference talks, and written articles about the blessings and responsibilities of living in “a land of liberty.” Today, though, rather than having a discussion about political rights and responsibilities, I’d like to make a few other points about these verses:

1. When Moroni completes the record of his father Mormon and hides up the plates in the hill, he testifies that when it comes forth again it will “be done by the power of God.” Let’s read Mormon 8:17

17 And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire.

In what ways might a book, even one written by prophets under the inspiration of God, contain the faults of a man? What should be our reaction if we were to discover the “faults of a man” in the text of the Book of Mormon?

It so happens that 2 Nephi 1:5 illustrates one of the “faults of a man” that Moroni might have had in mind. LDS scholars have been working very carefully with the surviving manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, both the original manuscript that Oliver Cowdery and other scribes wrote down as Joseph dictated it, and the printer’s manuscript, or the copy that Oliver Cowdery made for E.B. Grandin to use when he set up the type for the first edition of the Book of Mormon. They have discovered that sometimes Oliver miscopied words when he made the printer’s manuscript – as careful as he tried to be, as blessed as he surely must have been by the spirit of the Lord when he performed this work, his hand and eyes got tired from time to time. One of the errors he made more than once was miscopying the word “consecrated” as “covenanted.” Take a look again at the end of verse 5, which reads:

5 … Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever …

The word “covenanted” should be “consecrated,” according to the original manuscript. How do you think Oliver could have made such an error? [The words look quite a bit alike, and the word “covenanted” appears on the line just above this one.]

How serious is this error? What if scholars were to discover 20 such errors? 100 such errors? 1000 such errors? How would that affect the sacredness of the Book of Mormon, and our ability to recognize it as the word of God? What was Moroni’s warning, again, about “he that condemneth”?

2. The next point is one that we have made before: When Lehi spoke these words, he was addressing a relatively small group of people – maybe 40 or 50, depending on how many grandchildren had been born at this point. How much land would a group that size have been occupying at that point? Is that the sum total of the “land of promise,” then, those relatively few acres? Then what, probably, did Lehi mean when he spoke of “a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands … a land for the inheritance of [Lehi’s] seed”?

3. The next point is related to that one: If the “land of promise” refers to much or all of the New World, and it is to be a “land of liberty,” how do we explain the existence, from time to time, in various countries of North, Central, and South America, of political systems that are or were not free? There are times during the period covered by the Book of Mormon when Lehi’s righteous posterity were living as slaves to other people, or under wicked governments. What did the Lord do for those people, as long as they remained righteous? Are there parallels in the last 100 or 200 years, and in our day?

4. Let’s read verse 5 again:

5 But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.

“The Lord hath covenanted – or consecrated – this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.” Lehi seems to be aware here, from his earliest days in the New World, that he and his children are not the only ones who will be brought here by the hand of the Lord. We used to talk about this line, and other similar ones, in terms of the Mulekites, and the Jaredites – other peoples led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord and brought to this land of promise. But at this point, Lehi and his people have not met the Mulekites, nor have they found and translated the ancient plates that tell about the Jaredites.

How do you explain Lehi’s awareness of other people here, “all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord”?

For most of the time since the Book of Mormon was published, we have taught that it is the record of the ancestors of the American Indians – implying, and often stating explicitly, that all Native Americans are the direct descendants of Lehi’s small group. As time has passed, and the people who study such things have shown biological and cultural ties between some Native Americans and some Asians who have no known link to the Holy Land, our understanding of Indian ancestry has been broadened.

For example, the Introduction to the Book of Mormon added when the new edition of the scriptures was published in 1981, speaks of Indian ancestry. Could I have someone – and this is important – who has a paper copy of the scriptures that he has owned for at least five years, turn to the Introduction and read the last sentence of the first paragraph?

After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.

Note that the line says principal, not only, ancestors of the American Indians. This understanding is fully in agreement with 2 Nephi 1:5, and the acknowledgment that others, besides Lehi’s group, “should be led out of other countries” and brought to the New World.

Now could I have someone who has a very recently purchased paper book, or someone who has the scriptures on a smartphone or iPad, read the last sentence of that same paragraph of the Introduction.

After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.

Do you notice the change, one that was made in 2006? The current edition of the scriptures says that Lehi’s group are among – not all, not even principal, but among – the ancestors of the American Indians.

Why was that change made? Does that changed wording harmonize with 2 Nephi 1:5?

In summary, then, I would like to say two things: First, that Latter-day Saint beliefs are not set in stone, fossils that cannot be changed. The Lord has told us that he will yet reveal many great and important things, and he has also instructed us repeatedly to “study it out in [our] own mind[s],” and to “see learning, even by study and also by faith.” The Lord expects us to use the brains he has given us, as well as the revelation he has given us, to understand the gospel.

And the second thing is that we have nothing to fear from science and from the learning of men. They cannot disprove something that is true. True science, true scholarship, can only harmonize with the truth of the gospel.

Some people’s testimonies were rocked in recent years when a limited study of Native American DNA failed to show any direct link to the DNA of modern Israelis. There was no need for such loss of faith, of course. The DNA studies caused Latter-day Saints to look more closely at the Book of Mormon, and we realized that right there in the text – hidden in plain sight all these years – were statements declaring that the inhabitants of the Americas were not limited to Lehi’s descendants, or even necessarily those who came from the Middle East. The text has always told us that this land was a land of promise for anyone the Lord brings here, and that that includes people “led out of other countries” – whoever and whenever the Lord chooses to bring them here. We need to study and rely on the Book of Mormon – even with its occasional “faults of men” – and not rely solely on “the traditions of our fathers.”

Lehi continues to address his sons, speaking of his hopes but especially of his fears for Laman and Lemuel. He tells them, as well as Sam and the sons of Ishmael, that “if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish” but if they rebel against Nephi they will lose their blessing (v. 28-29). He acknowledges Zoram’s friendship, and promises his descendants the same blessings and warnings as those of his own children (v. 30-32).

And then in Chapter 2, Lehi – while still speaking to all of his posterity – addresses his son Jacob in particular. He tells Jacob that he will dwell safely with Nephi. Period. This is a different promise than has been made to the others, isn’t it? Their blessing is conditional – “if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish” – but there is no “if” clause in Jacob’s blessing, is there? Why not? What does Lehi know about Jacob that makes his future more secure?

3 Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.

4 And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh; for the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free.

Notice the clause in verse 3 that says Jacob’s days “shall be spent in the service of thy God.” From your familiarity with what is to come in the Book of Mormon, what can you say about that promise?

[Omit if time is tight:] We know from numerous passages in the Book of Mormon that Nephi, the son of Lehi, did in fact have children – Mosiah tells us that up to his day the kingdom had been conferred upon none except those who were the descendants of Nephi; Mormon identifies himself as a descendant of Nephi, and so on. And obviously Nephi was a righteous man, a prophet and a seer. Yet the mantle of the prophet was not passed down through the first generations of Nephi’s descendants, but through Jacob’s line – the small plates of Nephi, the ones where he specifically recorded the things of God, as opposed to his large plates where he recorded the secular history – passed down through Jacob’s lineage for more than 200 years, until the days of King Benjamin and his son Mosiah, when the roles of king and prophet were joined in one.

I don’t know that that means anything, and I have no particular reason for pointing that out, except that it surprises me that Nephi’s line was not the prophetic one. Do any of you have anything to say about that? [end of potential omission]

Perhaps because of his future role as prophet, Lehi goes on to tell Jacob far more than he said to his older brothers (at least according to the abbreviated record Nephi left us). Lehi teaches Jacob about the role of the Messiah who is to come. He does this not merely by telling Jacob that the Savior will come, and telling him what the role of the Savior will be. He goes further.

First, he establishes that there is an eternal law by which man must live; that man is under condemnation for having broken that law; and that the Messiah’s role is to redeem man from that condemnation. That’s quite a lot of doctrinal territory, which Lehi covers in verses 5-6:

5 And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.

6 Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.

He covers just as much ground in verse 7, where he establishes that the Messiah will offer redemption through the sacrifice of his own life, and tells us what conditions we must submit to if we are to take advantage of that sacrifice:

7 Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.

In what way can we say the Savior’s gift is an absolutely free one? In what way do we also read this as indicating that the gift is not absolutely free?

Lehi tells Jacob that man must choose to accept the redemption offered by the Messiah. When we are brought before God, Lehi says in verse 10, every one of us will be “judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him” – in other words, by the measure of righteousness that each individual has achieved, the merits and demerits of a life lived in choosing to obey or disobey the eternal law of God.

This brings us to one of the most oft-quoted passages in the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2:11-12:

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

I think – I may be wrong, but this is my experience – that we most often quote this passage in a kind of celebration of trials and tribulations. “Oh, well,” we say, “it’s all right if people treat us badly, or if we’re the victims of someone else’s sin or crime or death or poverty or any other bad thing. After all, ‘there is an opposition in all things,’ and if we didn’t know the bitter we wouldn’t recognize the sweet.”

This is no doubt true, as far as it goes, but I think our understanding doesn’t usually go far enough. Let’s look at the first part of verse 11 and identify the three pairs that Lehi says could not exist without opposition

righteousness/wickedness
holiness/misery

(incidentally, “holiness” may be another of Oliver’s miscopyings; “happiness” is more nearly the opposite of “misery” than “holiness” is; “happiness” is paired with “misery” nine times in other places in the Book of Mormon, while “holiness” is never otherwise paired with “happiness”; and Oliver usually spelled “happiness” with one “p,” and his “p’s” were written in an old-fashioned script with a very high riser, both of which make the two words look very much alike. However, the original manuscript for this passage doesn’t survive, so it is impossible to check.

good/bad

When we talk about opposition as a blessing that lets us appreciate the sweet by contrast to having tasted the bitter, we’re usually talking about things that have happened to us, things over which we have little control: Sickness and death come to us all no matter how carefully we try to prevent them; we are the victims of accident and crime and war and poverty, not because we want to be affected by those things, but because they are generally beyond our control.

But is righteousness an accident? Was anybody ever holy or happy contrary to their own desires? Is being good, or doing good, something that is beyond our control?

Then what’s the difference between knowing sweetness because of its contrast to bitterness – which isn’t even part of this scripture – and between achieving righteousness in contrast to wickedness?

The difference is choice – agency – the freedom given to man by God to act in ways that lead toward righteousness, or that lead away from it. If we were denied this choice – if there were not the entire range of choice, all the gradations between the extremes of happiness and misery, between being good and being bad – then the purposes of God would be destroyed.

Conclusion

Righteousness, happiness, and goodness are not accidents. They are the result of conscious choices – a privilege that makes possible the entire plan of salvation. Remember, Lehi teaches about choice immediately after teaching about the redemption of the Messiah, including the resurrection that is part of that redemption. His sermon is a brief one, hitting all the bullet points of salvation:

There is a law.
Man is under condemnation for breaking that law.
The Messiah offers redemption from that condemnation.
We must choose to accept that redemption for it to apply to us – without our choosing to seek righteousness, holiness, and goodness, the power and mercy and justice of God, at least insofar as they apply to us individually, would be as naught.

[Testimony]



3 Comments »

  1. Fantastic, Ardis, especially the last part that goes into greater detail than we normally do regarding opposites. We had our stake conference today, so it’s good to have a gospel discussion like this. I think we’re two weeks behind now since as well as conference today, we had only sacrament meeting the first Sunday in January.

    Comment by Alison — February 12, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  2. Thanks, Alison.

    This went pretty well, I think. There was some enthusiastic discussion of parts, some jotting of notes in scripture margins, and discussion that continued down the hallway and into the chapel.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 12, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

  3. Thank you for doing the hard work of preparing these lessons and also for sharing them with us. Your clear writing conveys your clear thinking, and that’s a rare combination.

    Comment by Ellen — February 13, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

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