“Nephi and the Exodus,” Ensign, Apr. 1987, 64–65
Latter-day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon has some distinctively Hebrew characteristics, a belief that many non-LDS scholars have either ridiculed or minimized. However, more and more scholars are discovering striking Hebrew parallels in the Book of Mormon, supporting that scripture’s claim that it has strong ties to the Jews and their learning. Recently, several researchers, George Tate, John W. Welch, and Avraham Gileadi, have noted that one of the most important of all Hebrew motifs, the exodus cycle, is woven throughout 1 Nephi.
Nephi was born of Jewish parents and reared in Jerusalem. He tells us that he was taught in the learning of his father and that he employed the learning of the Jews in writing his record. (1 Ne. 1:1–2.) With his background, Nephi knew the vital parts of Hebrew history and literature.
Indeed, Nephi knew the details of the Exodus well enough that he could recite them extemporaneously. In 1 Nephi 17:23–43, [1 Ne. 17:23–43] Nephi rehearses the events of the Exodus to remind his brothers of the power of God and to exhort them to obey Him. The sermon, in its present form, resembles the narrative psalms of remembrance, a rhetorical pattern actually used for both psalms (Ps. 78; Ps. 81; Ps. 105) and sermons (Deut. 4:1–40; Josh. 24:2–15; Ezek. 20:3–44; Acts 7:2–53). Such narratives encourage belief and commitment by recalling the Exodus and sometimes use a question/answer format (Deut. 4:7–8, 32–34), as does Nephi.
Nephi had access to the Exodus account on the plates of brass, which contained the five books of Moses and an account of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. (1 Ne. 5:11, 15.) However, even before Lehi’s family had obtained the plates of brass, which undoubtedly aided in Nephi’s study, Nephi still knew the story of the Exodus.
In 1 Nephi 4:1–3, [1 Ne. 4:1–3] Nephi draws upon the Red Sea events to encourage his brethren: “Let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea. …
“The Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.”
Nephi’s familiarity with the Exodus story is paralleled by his apparent familiarity with the exodus cycle as a literary pattern. The exodus cycle is the pattern of enslavement and divine rescue used often in the Bible and in other Jewish writings. The Exodus from Egypt becomes a type for other episodes in Israelite history. (See Judg. 6–8; 2 Kgs. 18–19.)
The use of the Exodus as a pattern for historical events is distinctively Jewish. That fact that Nephi’s account of the journeyings of his father’s party follows such a pattern is evidence that the Nephites preserved, as the Book of Mormon says, a Hebrew heritage. (See Mosiah 1:3–6; Alma 37:2–4, 8–9.)
The overall pattern of Lehi and his people’s exodus is a story of deliverance through a divinely led departure, in which Nephi emphasizes their encounters with God just as Moses does in Exodus. The people of Judah are in bondage to Babylon and in danger of being utterly destroyed. The Lord leads a partially rebellious remnant from Jerusalem and nurtures them through mighty miracles and the giving of laws so they can inherit a promised land.
Since an exodus cycle deals with how events fit the pattern of deliverance, the order of events is relatively unimportant. Hence, Nephi’s account does not always follow the sequence Moses used in his writings, but it does share numerous motifs of the Exodus, some of which are listed in the accompanying chart. (The list is a sampling only; it is incomplete and represents no attempt to order the significance of the parallels.) The instances of similarity are many, and the result is the same: after the people have arrived in the promised land, they know that the Lord is God and that he delivered them from destruction.
Nephi makes this point quite clearly by quoting the words of the Lord to Lehi’s band:
“I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led.
“Yea, and the Lord said also that: After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction; yea, that I did bring you out of the land of Jerusalem.” (1 Ne. 17:13–14.)
The lesson evidently stayed with Lehi’s descendants, for righteous men after Nephi, such as King Limhi and Alma, saw their forefathers’ experience in terms of the Exodus (Mosiah 7:19–20; Alma 36:28–29), and the pattern of bondage and deliverance is common throughout the Book of Mormon.
One final characteristic of the exodus cycle is that its end marks the beginning of a new era. After experiencing a number of localized exodus cycles, the era will end in the prophesied final exodus out of Babylon—out of a wicked world. This perhaps accounts for why Nephi quotes Isaiah 48 and 49 in 1 Nephi instead of quoting them with the majority of Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. Both chapters prophesy of the last great exodus:
“Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter to the end of the earth; say ye: The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.
“And they thirsted not; he led them through the deserts; he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them; he clave the rock also and the waters gushed out.
The final testimony of the exodus of the last days is the same as the testimony of the exodus from Egypt and the exodus from Jerusalem: “All flesh shall know that I, the Lord, am thy Savior and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (1 Ne. 21:26; Isa. 49:26.)
Nephi’s use of the Exodus shows that he freely used Hebrew literary methods. His writing in 1 Nephi is full of Hebrew substructures, Hebrew forms of prophetic speech, Hebrew typologies, Hebrew rhetoric, and Hebrew literary motifs. It is truly a record that “consists of the learning of the Jews.” (1 Ne. 1:2.)
Motifs Common to Both Accounts
Lord’s command to depart
sacrifice to the Lord after three days’ journey
murmuring against the Lord
dwelling in tents
promise of a new land of inheritance
victory over enemies
rebellious desire to return
a record of the journey
instruction from a heavenly being on a high mountain
prophet who teaches the people after divine instruction
miraculous physical object (rod and liahona)
Lord’s provision of food
prolonged wandering in the wilderness
afflictions in the wilderness
crossing the sea
acknowledgment of the Lord’s power
two sons born in the wilderness
Lord’s providential wind
death threats from the Lord
inheritance of a promised land
thunderings and lightnings
Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), pp. 106–14.
George Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), pp. 245–62.