2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, Terryl Givens Review
Terryl Givens’ 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction is structurally quite different from Joe Spencer’s volume on 1st Nephi, demonstrating the flexibility and openness of the ‘theological introduction’ as an approach to The Book of Mormon. The approach that Givens uses resonates less with me than Spencer’s minute, close reading. What Givens offers here is more of a broad overview of what 2nd Nephi is doing, highlighting major theological questions that drive the text and providing some insight into various large concerns of Nephi’s text. The volume does carry over the interest and engagement that Spencer shows with the importance and centrality of ‘covenants’ to both books.
I love the nitty-gritty close reading that Spencer offers and was initially disappointed to find Givens taking a different approach. However, Givens’ volume has moments of clear analysis and close reading that inform the over-arching arguments being offered and serves as a valuable foundation to build on as I return to 2nd Nephi. Rather than modeling the close reading that I strive to do with all of scripture, Givens seems to be providing the tools so that I can do some of that close reading on my own. Ultimately, after finishing the text—as with Spencer’s volume on 1st Nephi—I wanted to immediately return to the scriptural text in question and re-read with the fresh eyes and perspective that Spencer and Givens’ work provided.
The new perspective that Givens offers begins with the introduction. Givens thoughtfully considers why 1st and 2nd Nephi are divided the way they are, thinking about what significant event takes place in the break and which events are not significant enough for Nephi to use as a breaking point. The answer? The destruction of Jerusalem, shown to Lehi in vision. Givens charts throughout the introduction and the subsequent chapters how this moment colors everything that follows, showing that Nephi, Jacob, and the rest of the family were significantly affected by the revelation.
I love this sort of work and am often reminded of how poorly I’ve read The Book of Mormon when I encounter insights like this. I don’t think I ever stopped to think about the larger structure of the text, instead focusing on small nuggets of wisdom and insight (perhaps another reason I find myself more naturally inclined to Spencer’s approach). What Givens does throughout the volume helps me think at a macro level about 2nd Nephi and how it begins to fit into the world of The Book of Mormon more broadly. I hope to do more thinking along the lines of what Givens provides, considering why the books within The Book of Mormon are organized the way they are, what outside events are informing the structurally and narrative choices, how are the lives of the Nephites and Lamanites and others influencing what is being recorded, what’s happening just off or around the edge of the pages?
One of the most provocative moments of the book comes towards the end as Givens explores Nephi’s engagement with Isaiah:
Nephi invokes Isaiah repeatedly, not just to affirm his prophecies concerning the destiny of Israel and of future events but to adapt Isaiah’s words to his people’s particular predicament. Latter–day Saint scholars have already shown how he thoroughly infuses his prophecies of Nephite destiny with passages from Isaiah, re-purposing them to fit a people and place Isaiah may never have had in mind. (91)
Givens seems to be arguing here and throughout this section that Nephi anachronistically interprets Isaiah, but that such anachronism is a potential sign of the prophetic nature of Isaiah’s language, rather than a flaw in Nephi’s interpretation. This re-purposing of scripture and prophecy to suit our own circumstances is for Givens the embodiment of likening the scriptures unto ourselves. I am drawn to this approach and think that we can all benefit from interrogating the ways we anachronistically engage with scripture (because how can we not?) and strive to develop responsible ways to do so.
Once again, I find myself eager to read the next volumes in the series (particularly since I’ve listened to the authors’ conversations with Blair Hodges on the Maxwell Institute Podcast). This volume provides some interesting framing for 2nd Nephi that promises to provoke further insight as I wrestle with it in my return to the scriptural text and that seems to be precisely what such books should do.