Perhaps as we begin another Book of Mormon year in Gospel Doctrine, you are saying to yourself, “Haven’t we been here before?” After all, 1 Nephi is one of the most frequently read books in all of scripture. But I have a suggestion that may help to enrich your understanding of the Book of Mormon: read the book of Deuteronomy first. What you find there will have been uppermost in the minds of Lehi and his family as they fled from Jerusalem and then tried to make sense of their long journey to a new promised land. If you want to see the world as the earliest Nephites saw it, read Deuteronomy.
How do we know what Lehi was thinking? Here a bit of historical inference is required. In the first year of the reign of Zedekiah (597 BC), Lehi had four unmarried sons and probably at least two daughters who would have married the sons of Ishmael (Nephi’s sisters are mentioned at 2 Nephi 5:6). It would be reasonable to think of Lehi as being in his thirties when the Lord first spoke to him. This means that he would have been a child or a young man in 621 BC, when one of the most dramatic events in the religious history of Judah occurred.
According to 2 Kings 22-23, King Josiah ordered workmen to repair and restore the temple in Jerusalem. Sometime during the renovation, the High Priest Hilkiah reported that he had found a long lost “book of the law.” When the book (actually, a scroll) was read aloud to the king, he tore his clothes in grief because he realized that the curses contained therein would fall upon his people for their disobedience. Consequently, he gathered his people for a covenant renewal ceremony:
And the king went up into the house of the Lord, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in his book. And all the people stood to the covenant [which means that they all joined in the covenant]. (2 Ki. 23:2-3).
Was Lehi, who had “dwelt in Jerusalem in all this days” (1 Ne. 1:4) part of that crowd? Maybe, maybe not, but in any case, he certainly would have been aware of what came next. King Josiah launched a massive reform program throughout the land in which he destroyed and desecrated unauthorized shrines, deposed idolatrous priests, expelled temple prostitutes (!), and expunged the pagan images and vessels that had been introduced into the temple by a succession of wicked kings. And then Josiah called for a nationwide Passover celebration, something that had not been done since the time of the judges.
Scholars have long identified the mysterious “book of the law” or “book of the covenant” as Deuteronomy, or at least its central portions (verses 1:1-4:43 and chapters 31-34 may have been added later). What would it meant to a young Lehi to have been alive at a time when a key scriptural text was rediscovered? Perhaps his response would be similar to how you would feel if the Church announced that the lost 116 pages had been found and a new, expanded version of the Book of Mormon was about to be published. Assuming that he had been religiously inclined throughout his life, Lehi would have eagerly sought out all the information he could, and he would have passed those precious teachings on to his children. In fact, Deuteronomy 4:9 specifically commands parents to teach its words to their offspring. Unfortunately, at that time the scriptures were not as readily available as they are today. You can see how excited Lehi is to receive that Brass Plates in 1 Ne. 5; it seems as if he has never had his own copy before.
Now before you actually open Deuteronomy, I should warn you that there’s not much of a narrative there. The book is organized as a set of three farewell discourses delivered by Moses to his people shortly before his death and their entry into the promised land. In the first discourse (1:1-4:43), Moses reminds the people of the Exodus and their wanderings in the wilderness, and then exhorts them to obey his words. The second discourse (4:44-26:28) is a long repetition of the law of Moses as found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (with a few significant changes). This is why the book is called Deuteronomy, which means “the second law.” And the third discourse (29:1-30:20) is a covenant renewal ceremony on the plains of Moab, where the blessings for obedience are spelled out, along with the much longer list of curses for disobedience.
As the young Lehi read or heard the “book of the law” from the temple, he would have reflected on its teachings concerning idolatry, clean and unclean foods, tithes, debts, slavery, various feasts and festivals, sacrifices, proper judicial procedures, regulations for kings, the privileges of priests, cities of refuge, behavior in warfare, murder, inheritance, sexual relations, and marriage and divorce, along with the ten commandments.
These were the basic rules for organizing a society that would be dedicated to the Lord, and Lehi must have felt considerable distress as he compared the Deuteronomic commandments with the behavior of his fellow citizens in the years leading up to his prayer on their behalf that was answered by a “pillar of fire” (1 Ne. 1:6). When his own prophesying was rejected and his flight into the wilderness looked like it would turn into a journey to a new promised land, Lehi, like the ancient Israelites on the plains of Moab, would have wanted a guidebook for establishing a society virtually from scratch in a new homeland. No wonder he was so eager for his sons to acquire a copy of the Brass Plates.
Scholars have noticed a distinctive writing style in Deuteronomy, which Michael Coogan, in his Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006), describes in this way:
It is intended to persuade, and it does so by repeated use of the same phrases and concepts, which are italicized in the following summary: The law that Moses proclaims consists of commandments, statutes, ordinances, decrees, and in it the Israelites are urged to love God with all their heart and all their soul. He chose them from all the nations, rescued them from Egypt with his mighty hand and outstretched arm, because he loved them.