Monday, September 8, 2014

Lehi as a Visionary Man

One of the complaints leveled against Lehi by his rebellious sons Laman and Lemuel and his wife Sariah was that he was a "visionary man" (1 Nephi 2:11; 5:2). Although this term does not appear in the King James translation of the Bible, it accurately reflects the Hebrew word hazon meaning divine vision (John A. Tvedtnes, "A Visionary Man," in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne [Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999], 29—31). Although this Hebrew term appears in connection with true prophets of God it is also sometimes written with a negative connotation, describing false prophets, especially in the writings of Lehi's contemporary, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:16).

In Jeremiah 23, the prophet refers to certain opponents who cried peace in contradiction to his true message of repentance and the impending destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah wrote, "they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:16). They deceptively cried peace for Jerusalem "unto everyone that walketh after the imagination of his own heart" (Jeremiah 23:17). The Lord drew a distinction between true prophets and the false prophets of his day. "For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it? . . . But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from their evil doings" (Jeremiah 23:18, 22, emphasis added). The Hebrew word rendered "counsel" in this passage is sod meaning a "council" or "assembly." In contrast to these false prophets, Jeremiah had received his message in the heavenly council of God (Hebrew sod), while the false prophets had not (H. Wheeler Robinson, "The Council of Yahweh," Journal of Theological Studies 45/179—80 [1944]: 151—57; S. B. Parker, "Council," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst, 2nd rev. ed. [Leiden: Brill, 1999], 204—8; John W. Welch, "The Calling of a Prophet," in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. [Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988], 35—54).

In a revelation to Jeremiah which some biblical scholars date to the early reign of Zedekiah (Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 21—36 [New York: Anchor Bible and Doubleday, 2004], 211). the Lord said, "I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart; Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour. . . . The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully" (Jeremiah 23:25—28).

While we do not know whether these revelations of Jeremiah would have been known to Laman and Lemuel at the time, the charges they leveled against Lehi seem to reflect similar views. "For behold they did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man. . . . And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart" (1 Nephi 2:11). Later, they leveled the same false accusation against Nephi (1 Nephi 17:20). In light of the controversies reflected in Jeremiah, it seems likely that when Laman and Lemuel described their father as a "visionary man," they were not simply suggesting that he was an old fool. They were accusing him of being a false prophet who was leading their family astray.
Nephi, on the other hand, who knew that those accusations were false, countered them by noting that (1) Lehi (like Jeremiah) had stood in the divine council and received his message from the Lord (1 Nephi 1:8—14); (2) unlike the false prophets who had a message of peace, Lehi preached that the people must repent or be destroyed (1 Nephi 1:13); (3) unlike the false prophets who claimed dreams but did not reveal their content or call the people to repentance (Jeremiah 23:28), Lehi openly declared the messages he received from the Lord to the Jews (1 Nephi 1:18) and to his family (1 Nephi 8:2—38). In his account of his father's visions, Nephi seems to be responding in some measure to his brothers' accusation that Lehi was a false visionary.

In this light, Lehi's gentle response to his wife's accusation is also interesting. He affirmed, "I know that I am a [true] visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren" (1 Nephi 5:4). This was a knowledge that the false prophets in Jerusalem did not have. "For my people is foolish, they have not known me; they are sottish children, and they have none understanding: they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge" (Jeremiah 4:22). Lehi's declaration that he knew of "the goodness of God" reflects what he had learned in his vision of the heavenly council, where he "had read and seen many great and marvelous things" and learned of God's "power, and goodness, and mercy" (1 Nephi 1:14). Like the false prophets at Jerusalem, Laman and Lemuel were ignorant of the Lord and his ways (1 Nephi 2:12; 15:3). The false visionaries would not hearken to the message of Jeremiah and were cast out of God's presence (Jeremiah 23:39). A similar judgment awaited Lehi's sons if they continued to reject the teachings of true visionary men like Lehi and Nephi (1 Nephi 2:21).

[From Matthew Roper, “Lehi as a Visionary Man,” Insights: An Ancient Window 27/4 (2007): 2-3].

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