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Interpreting Interpreter
Nephi’s Probation

This post is a summary of the article “The Nephite Metaphor of Life as a Probation: Rethinking Nephi’s Portrayal of Laman and Lemuel” by Noel B. Reynolds in Volume 57 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Reynolds reflects on Nephi’s described relationship with his brothers, and concludes that the purpose of his descriptions are spiritual (as well as historical), with Nephi’s family struggles meant as an allegory contrasting a worldly life with a life of adherence to Christ. This allegory hinges on the metaphor of life as a day of probation, where we are judged on how well we have been transformed by the gospel of Christ.


The Summary

In this article, Noel B. Reynolds counters various arguments related to Nephi’s treatment of his brothers in the events recorded in 1 and 2 Nephi. Instead of merely trying to convince us that his brothers are bad people, or using them as rhetorical placeholders for the disfavored reforms of Josiah, Reynolds suggests that he is using his real experiences with his brothers to frame an allegory about the meaning of life. This allegory contrasts Nephi’s faithfulness with the murmurings and rebellions of Laman and Lemuel, who, despite opportunities to repent, remain tied to the cares of the world. Given that, for Nephi, their lives are a probationary state, he is sending a message that those who follow this worldly path will have a share of their eternal consequences.

Several of Reynolds previous articles have been concerned with the rhetorical structure of the Small Plates, and he highlights here how that structure is grounded in Nephi’s conflict with Laman and Lemuel, these stories being embedded in the books’ chiastic underpinnings. This conflict is first framed by the wickedness of Jerusalem, which Nephi specifically connects to his brothers, and is contrasted with the humility demonstrated by the rest of the family. These descriptions form the basis of what Reynolds calls “the allegory of the prophet and his sons”, distinguishing it from other allegories used by Nephi. It focuses on the choice of whether to heed the influence of the Holy Ghost, a choice that leads to two very different cultural paths (aligning with the commonly-employed metaphor of the Two Ways). This choice applies to far more than just Laman and Lemuel’s personal situation. Nephi’s focus is on its universal relevance, including to us in the modern day. That choice doesn’t require perfection, as exemplified by Nephi’s own shortcomings, and Reynolds suggests that Lehi himself may have been on the wrong side of that coin prior to his prophetic call.

For Reynolds, this allegory hinges on a key metaphor—of life as a day of probation. He sees this as a “primary metaphor” grounding Nephi’s worldview, one that is conceptual, unconventional, and basic, in the sense that the rest of that worldview depends on it. It helped Nephi frame and understand the cycle of past and future apostasy that would dominate the Israelites of the Old and New World, a perspective that came through his notable visionary experiences, specifically, his expansive vision of the Tree of Life. Seeing Jerusalem’s impending destruction and the destruction of his own descendants impressed upon him the consequences that wickedness brings, in contrast with those who partake of the fruit of the tree. For Nephi, this life is a small but essential period within the eternal landscape, where we are free to choose between liberty and eternal life. Reynolds sees support for this metaphor in Moses 4, which he suggests would’ve been available to Nephi via the Brass Plates, and finds it echoed in other areas of Mormon’s abridgement, including Abinadi, Alma, and Amulek. Though the metaphor has seen limited application from the Early Modern period through to the 20th century, it doesn’t appear to have featured prominently in Christian theology.

As Reynolds concludes:

“In the first book of his final writings, Nephi has composed an allegory based in his own life’s experience that shows how all people can rise above limited understandings or metaphors of life and engage the eternal vision that characterizes mortal life as a probationary state… Nephi’s first book not only reports the revelations and spiritual teachings received by him and his father Lehi, but it also goes to the next literary level by transforming their family experiences into an allegory…that grounds the plan of salvation as revealed to them.”


The Reflection

In my view, Reynolds provides a compelling reminder of the spiritual purposes underlying Nephi’s writing. Sometimes it can be tempting to find and elevate the tantalizing pieces of subtext that arise in scripture, but if we take Nephi at his word (and give any amount of weight to the sheer amount of words he devotes to the subject), his intent should primarily be seen as spiritual. Nevertheless, it’s not necessarily an “either/or” problem. Nephi can be doing multiple things at once, and not all of those things have to be conscious and intentional. Behind his spiritual themes could be a relatively quiet expression of his views on Josiah’s reforms—and if his framing of Laman happened to strengthen the legitimacy of his claims to the kingship, I doubt he would’ve complained. Regardless, Reynolds reminds us that Nephi’s feelings for his brothers are relatively unimportant compared to his central, universal message—to make the choice to follow the Savior and heed the promptings of the Spirit, and to thereby gain eternal life.

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