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Designation, Demonstration, and Confirmation: Nephi and the Three-Stage Process of Gaining Power in Israel

Nephi about to slay wicked King Laban, by Jody Livingston
While reading in Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press, 2003) last night, I came across some interesting remarks about the process by which Saul came to power. According to Long, et al. (Long is the primary author of the chapter on the early monarchy), “the process by which leaders in early Israel came to power seems to have entailed three stages: designation, demonstration, and confirmation” (p. 210). Long, et al. are drawing the work of Baruch Halpern here, which I have not read (though I have read other things by Halpern, and I find him to be a rather good scholar).

Long, et al. further explained, “First, an individual would be designated by some means for a particular role. Next, the new designee would be expected to demonstrate his status and his prowess by engaging in some feat of arms or military action. Finally, having thus distinguished himself and come to public attention, the designee would be confirmed in his leadership role” (p. 210). My understanding, based on Long, et al.’s discussion of this (pp. 210–214), is that the designation comes through divine means (anointed by the prophet, or chosen through a medium believed to reveal divine will, like casting lots), demonstration is, as pointed out in the quote, usually of militaristic nature, and confirmation comes through the people via public ceremony.

With all that in mind, I got to wondering about whether anything like this might show up in the Book of Mormon. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything like this Mormon’s abridgment (and wouldn’t necessarily expect it, since he lived in pre-Columbian America, and his ancestors had also for the last 1000 years). But it was pretty easy to come up with examples, in the proper order, for Nephi—who was probably schooled in Israelite scribal practices, and whose record has been seen as something of a royal apology (that is, a defense of his right to rule).

Designation

Nephi is designated a ruler by the Lord via revelation in 1 Nephi 2:22, and then again by an angel to his brothers in 1 Nephi 3:29. Interestingly, in between these two is the casting of lots, which selects not Nephi, but Laman (1 Nephi 3:11). I would suggest this could be read as a counter designation, which plays a specific and somewhat polemic role in the narrative.

Demonstration

I would propose at least 2 demonstrations in 1 Nephi. The first demonstration is when Nephi obtains the brass plates. The slaying of Laban has long been recognized as one of the most politically charged narratives in 1 Nephi. It plays a major role in Nephi’s argument for his right to rule. It is full of militaristic elements, from his speech in 1 Nephi 4:1–2 to his actual beheading of Laman and donning his armor, Nephi’s obtaining the plates easily qualifies as “a feat of arms.”

What is interesting here is that as part of the narrative you have the counter-designation of Laman in between, followed up with Laman’s failure to accomplish his charge. This is followed Nephi’s own failure, in which Laman then beating Nephi with a rod (1 Nephi 3:22–28). Laman’s beating Nephi with a rod (a symbol of authority/rule in the ancient Near East) could be seen as an attempted demonstration on Laman’s part, which is interrupted by the angel who redesignates Nephi.

The second demonstration comes in the broken bow narrative in 1 Nephi 16. The bow is another symbol of authority in ancient Near Eastern perspectives, and so Nephi’s fashioning bow (while his brothers bows have lost their spring’s), and then successfully killing prey and returning victoriously with food could be seen as another demonstration of Nephi’s right to rule (1 Nephi 16:18–32).

Both of these demonstrations are interesting because, I as I mentioned above, there seems to be some polemical implications in them. They are not just demonstrating that Nephi is fit to rule, but also that Laman is not—he fails to obtain the plates, his attempted demonstration of authority over Nephi is stopped by Nephi’s own divine redesignation, and his bow is defective and he fails to obtain food for the family.

Confirmation

This is vaguest of the three in Nephi’s record, but I believe it is there. It does not come until 2 Nephi 5:18, where Nephi is chosen as king by the people. Granted, Nephi himself expresses reluctance to accept, but Jacob 1:9–11 tells us that Nephi appointed a king as his successor, filled the functions of a king, and his name became a royal title. So it would seem that Nephi did, in fact, become a king for the people. Many scholars have even suggested that 2 Nephi 6–10 was a speech given at Nephi’s coronation, as it has many themes coronation themes in it.

Final Thoughts


It should go without saying that this is extremely preliminary. More reading on this three-stage process is needed, along with greater analysis of the Book of Mormon, particularly 1 and 2 Nephi. But I think this sketch sufficiently illustrates that there is some potential here and that such a framework might have some interesting interpretive possibilities for how we read 1 and 2 Nephi. 

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