Book Review: A Brief Theological Introduction to 1 Nephi, by Joseph Spencer
It’s a pleasure to read scriptural commentary by someone who thinks critically while simultaneously loving holy text. Joseph Spencer’s excellent companion to 1 Nephi fills both these categories, offering an abundance of enjoyment for scripture and also tackling some of the harder parts of the book.
The section I enjoyed the most was chapter 6, about the role of women in 1 Nephi. Many Mormon women, including myself, struggle with not only the absence of female voices in the Book of Mormon, but also how men treat women. The Nephites, supposedly the mostly-heroes of the book, often seem to have serious issues with women. Spencer willingly enters into the problem without trying to smooth it away, writing, “The Book of Mormon undeniably presents a depressing picture of the situation for Nephite women” (pg. 104) and “It apparently would never occur to Nephi to set women at the heart of the narrative” (pg. 105). Yet without brushing away the problem, Spencer’s careful reading offers some compelling arguments about what the text says about sexism.
First, Spencer compares the stories of Sariah criticizing Lehi and the daughters of Ishmael mourning their father, two moments of female resistance in the early chapters of the books. By comparing and contrasting the narratives, Spencer suggests that the split between Nephites and Lamanites made the situation for women worse and that the generational transition from Lehi to Nephi actually prompted a regression for women’s status. In this section, I was pleased that Spencer noticed how Laman, Lemuel, and Nephi all use their wives’ experiences to add evidence to their own conflicts rather than actually giving voice to the women involved. For example, when the brothers discuss the suffering of the women giving birth in the wilderness, all of them seem more interested in proving a point than in improving the lives of the women involved. “When men usurp female-male conflict and transform it into male-male conflict, there’s no expression of deeper faith for the women in the company, just as there’s no hint at sharing real commitment to God. There will be further talk of the women’s suffering but only as it’s weaponized by men in conflict with other men” (pg. 113).
My only criticism of this volume is that I would have liked to see Spencer tackle Nephi’s rage and the problematic things he says about his brothers and their descendants. While the worst of Nephi’s words come in 2 Nephi (2 Nephi 5), chapter 12 of 1 Nephi includes enough of these ideas–which have been used to justify racism in LDS doctrine and policies–that a reference to them is warranted. Spencer’s clear-eyed and thoughtful reflections could add a great deal to the discourse on those hard sections.
After this first volume, I look forward to reading the forthcoming volumes about the Book of Mormon from the Maxwell Institute. This is the kind of work that will get readers thinking in new ways about text they’ve read many times before.