Friday, January 29, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 18

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 18
Hello, all! This week's Book of Mormon analysis is brought to you by 1 Nephi 18, the chapter where Lehi and sons sail across the sea to the promised land.
When Nephi, Lehi, and their family finally cross the ocean, the text makes a point of saying that they brought seeds along with them (verse 6). Why mention seeds, and why make a point of saying that they planted those seeds once they got to the promised land in verse 24? I'd suggest that these seeds represent what seeds, as miniature replicas of a grown plant, always represent: a microcosm of something bigger and more developed. Specifically, I'd go along with Alma 32's metaphor and suggest that these seeds symbolize tiny pieces of divinity that they keep safe as they cross the ocean. Seeds need ground, after all; they can't thrive in open ocean. The seeds in this chapter need protection and a dry place to be stored, which is exactly what Nephi's ship provides
So perhaps we can think of 1 Nephi 18 as the tale of safely getting these seeds from the Old World to the Promised Land. But what does this mean on a deeper level? The I Ching, a Chinese oracle text, can give us a wealth of symbolic associations to build on for this point. If you put the trigram symbolizing wood and wind (suggesting a ship) over the trigram symbolizing "the abyss," you get hexagram 59, otherwise known as Dispersion or Dissolution. The "Judgment" for this hexagram gives a very interesting description:

"Dispersion. Success.

The king approaches his temple.
It furthers one to cross the great water.
Perseverance furthers"
And the hexagram's "image" goes like this:
"The wind drives over the water:
The image of Dispersion.
Thus the Kings of old sacrificed to the Lord
And built great temples."
Even apart from the obvious resemblances, the I Ching's commentary on the hexagram parallels the Book of Mormon's story a great deal. Take the phrase "the king approaches his temple," for instance. Reading the word "temple" both as a literal temple and as any symbolic place to contain divine presence, we can see the Book of Mormon's story parallel that line from the I Ching in a) the way Nephi "did build a temple...after the manner of the temple of Solomon" in 2 Nephi 5, b) how Nephi makes plates of ore--themselves a divine receptacle--to record his people's history in 1 Nephi 19, and c) the fact that Nephi and his family have just arrived in a "land of promise," making the whole continent a kind of temple. To put it a little differently, the seeds of divinity that came across the sea can now grow into their own in a temple--effectively a safe plot of ground for divinity to grow into itself.
So at this point, the I Ching has given us a way to think of this Book of Mormon chapter as the story of these seeds getting blown across the sea to be planted in the "earth" of another continent. This is effectively what happens when we are baptized. We leave behind the old "natural man" and--by going through the water--emerge as a new person. We're "born again:" we get a new lease on physical life, meaning that life post-baptism has all the bounty and prosperity of Nephi's land of promise, albeit in a spiritual sense. The ground we walk on is no longer the same: we leave the natural earth behind and get celestial earth in its place; muladhara or the root chakra gets transposed to the visuddha or throat chakra, both of which share the earthy elephant as an animal symbol.
Therefore, I choose to read the exodus to the promised land as an exodus from a "natural" way of being to a "spiritual" one. We make this pilgrimage when we're baptized, yes, but we also make it whenever we abandon a literal, physical way of looking at the world for a spiritual one. In an ordinance like the Sacrament, do I just see bread and water, or do I use a metaphorical eye to see what those symbols represent? Are the scriptures just easily rippable paper or a window to divinity? By moving toward the metaphorical, the spiritual, or--as Henry Corbin and James Hillman put it--the imaginal, everything becomes spiritual unto us, just as Christ says everything is spiritual unto Him in D&C 29:34. By looking with a spiritual eye, the world opens up to celestial light; the world--before dirty and opaque--is now made of glass. We have left Babylon behind and entered the promised land.
Moreover, I have a hunch that this is how Joseph Smith saw the world. If it turns out that some things he claimed weren't objectively, historically true, this wouldn't bother me. In my opinion, Joseph Smith didn't care about history at all; he was a typical puer aeternus, a precocious youth who bounds in like Peter Pan from eternity's higher soil and tries to make this earth an image of heaven. The puer sees history as an obstacle to overcome; history doesn't matter, meaning that its "matter" is irrelevant and ultimately unreal. Despite whatever "actually" happened in America 2500 years ago, Joseph Smith saw the true history of that continent, the one you won't find in textbooks: one where--in a land mysteriously between east and west--the wisdom of a whole nation germinates like a seed in the (spiritual) ground until it's ready to be harvested in these latter days. In my opinion, that seed is what went across with Nephi on his boat, and the fruit is what Joseph Smith harvested millennia later.
That's that for this week. If you're interested in more of my take on this part of the Book of Mormon, check out my post on the Liahona from last fall.

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