Nephi's Masterpiece:
The Amazing Structure of First Nephi

As this presentation is not easy to follow without reference to the graphics, I recommend that you print Figure 2 before beginning the discussion of that figure and the following figures. Figure 2 is a map to all that follows. To view a figure not shown on this page, click on the figure number.


© Copyright 1999 by Richard G. Grant.
Free use is granted, with attribution, for any non-pecuniary purposes.






It had been thirty years since the family of Lehi arrived on the shores of the promised land. Lehi was dead. Nephi's older brothers had become a major problem. They had even threatened Nephi's life. Nephi, and those who followed him, had fled many days into the wilderness and had established a new home in the place they called Nephi. The people made Nephi their "king" and accepted his spiritual leadership. Then, Nephi received new instructions from the Lord. He was to write a second history of his people, to be engraved on plates as he had done the first. Possibly, he puzzled over the reason for this additional history. Then, perhaps the revelation of the Lord explained fully its purpose.

As we contemplate the value of the small plates of Nephi as a substitute for the pages of translation lost by Martin Harris, we might think this record to have been little more than an additional burden to Nephi. Some might see it to be a work which Nephi kept "on the back burner." After all, he tells us that it took him ten years to complete this short history. It might, at first, appear that he gave it little attention. Kings and prophets are busy men, and he did have his other record to maintain.

Yet, Nephi did have a problem that he wanted to address. Perhaps it was even given to him by the Lord as a direction which this record was to take. He, Nephi, was making a claim to leadership of Lehi's descendants which was uncharacteristic of their culture and clearly unacceptable to his elder brothers. Yet, it had been commanded by the Lord — the Lord, who his brothers also rejected. Nephi had seen Jesus Christ and knew of his mortal ministry. Nephi knew of the Lord's love for his children, his mercy, and his saving grace. Nephi knew of the power of God unto the salvation of his people. Nephi also knew that the descendants of his brothers would do all they could to lead his people away from Christ and wrest the political leadership from the hands of his posterity. Yes, Nephi had a very important message to give his people. A message which would take him ten years to craft, to polish, to perfect.

To Establish Political and Spiritual Authority

Dr. Noel Reynolds, a professor of political science at BYU, makes this important observation regarding the need of a newly established culture to define and defend its foundation:

Every people needs to know that its laws and rulers are legitimate and authoritative. This is why stories of national origins and city foundings are so important to human societies throughout the world. Such stories provide explanations of the legitimate origins of their laws and their rulers. Not untypically, such traditions also deal with ambiguous elements of the founding, explaining away possibly competing accounts.

Nephi saw this need, and there were "ambiguous elements" and special, even sacred circumstances, related to his claim of authority over his brothers. Dr. Reynolds continues:

When Nephi undertook late in his life to write a third account of the founding events of the Lehite colony, it appears that he wanted to provide his descendants with a document that would serve this function. His small plates systematically defend the Nephite tradition concerning origins and refute the competing account advanced by the Lamanites. Several factors indicate that Nephi carefully structured his writings to convince his own and later generations that the Lord had selected him over his elder brothers to be Lehi's political and spiritual successor. Thus, the writings of Nephi can be read in part as a political tract or a "lineage history," written to document the legitimacy of Nephi's rule and religious teachings.(1)

Nephi's Thesis Statement

Nephi begins this new record with what Dr. Reynolds describes as a thesis statement:

Behold, I , Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance. (1 Nephi 1:20)

Dr. Reynolds suggests that Nephi develops this thesis in three separated dimensions. He says that "when we follow these three dimensions through, we get a much better understanding of this book, 1 Nephi." These dimensions are:

  1. Six stories: Each story following a similar outline. If they were fiction, you could say that they each have the same plot:
    • Some one's physical welfare is at risk
    • Nephi is obedient to the Lord
    • Deliverance comes by divine power
  2. Testimony: Through the atonement of Christ, all who will come unto Him can be delivered from death, hell, and the devil.

  3. Prophecy: The day will come when the Lord will make "bare His arm in the eyes of all the nations."

There is a forth dimension, both suggested and described in detail be Dr. Reynolds, which I will call the dimension of structure. As will be seen, Nephi masterfully structures this chapter of First Nephi. I see three important reasons for this structure: First, structure contributes to the presentation and emphasis of the message. Nephi's structure helps us see clearly Nephi intent — what was most important to him. Second, the structure gives a form of validation to the message. Today this structure validates the ancient origin of the record. For Nephi's descendants it would have served to verify the integrity of transmission of this text. It would seem that Nephi intended this to be a near legal document, a constitution for his people. The complexity of the structure served to minimize changes. Any change to a significant element would be obvious. Third, Nephi was writing what he knew to be a sacred record. He was passing on to his people and to us his testimony and witness of Jesus Christ and of the condescension of God. This was also his testimony of the triumph of Christ over evil, and the salvation, both spiritual and physical, granted to the faithful. Just as we use our finest material and workmanship in the construction of holy temples, Nephi employed his most intricate and sophisticated writing skills to craft the very finest piece of work of which he was capable. The result was a masterpiece!

It is with this fourth dimension of structure that this paper primarily deals.

The Magnificent Structure of First Nephi

First, an interesting question: "Why are there two chapters for Nephi's record?" There is neither change of message or emphasis in Second Nephi. Why this division? The division occurs at the structural boundary. As will be quickly apparent, all elements of the many structures of First Nephi end with chapter 22. If there is any similar structure to Second Nephi it's not yet been identified. But, the structural complexity of First Nephi is astounding!

To begin, we will stand back and take two looks at the outline of First Nephi.

Figure 1

An Outline of First Nephi

A)  Lehi's dream leads him to prophesy warnings to the Jews (Ch. 1)

B)  The departure from Jerusalem (2)

C)  Nephi accomplishes a great feat in obtaining the Brass Plates and the brothers are confounded (3-5)

D)  The Brass Plates, a source of spiritual guidance as they travel through the wilderness of this life towards the spiritual promised land: Heaven

E)  Ishmael joins the group with his daughters (7)

F)  The Tree of Life (8)

G)  Lehi prophesies about the Old World and the Coming of the
Lamb (10)

H)  Nephi and the Spirit of the Lord (11)

G') Nephi prophesies about the New World and the Coming of the
Lamb (12-14)

F') The Tree of Life interpreted (15)

E') The sons of Lehi marry the daughters of Ishmael and Ishmael
Dies (16)

D') The Brass Ball, the Liahona, a source of physical guidance as they traveled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land: America

C') Nephi accomplishes a great feat by building a ship and the brothers are confounded (17)

B') The departure from the Old World (18)

A') Nephi warns the Jews and quotes the prophecies of Isaiah (19-22)

As is apparent in figure 1, this outline of First Nephi is chiastic. Notice that Nephi's vision of the mortal ministry of Jesus Christ is at the center (the focus) of this chiasmus. Note also, the linking of the Brass Plates with the Brass Ball. Remember, in chapter 11 the angel shows Nephi the vision of the tree of life seen by his father. Have you ever wondered why Nephi waits until chapter 15 to give us the explanation of that vision? That's exactly where the chiastic structure required this explanation to be.

This is one view of Nephi's structure of First Nephi. If this were the only structure, it would yet be impressive. To organize the presentation of the elements of a true narrative history in such a complex manner, without interrupting the natural flow of the narrative, is the accomplishment of a master. But, you ain't seen nothin yet!

I said we'd look at two outlines of First Nephi. This second, shown here in figure 2, is the map for all that will follow.(2)

Figure 2

Another Outline of First Nephi

 (A) Lehi's Account 
( 1 Nephi 1-9)

(B) Nephi's Account
(1 Nephi 10-22)

1. Nephi makes a record (or account) of his proceedings but first gives an abridgment of Lehi's record (1:1-3, 16-17).

1. Nephi now commences to give an account of his proceedings, reign, and ministry but first "must speak somewhat of the things of [his] father, and . . . brethren" (10:1).

2. Nephi gives a brief account of Lehi's prophecies to the Jews, based on visions he received in Jerusalem (1:5-15, 19).

2. Nephi reports Lehi's prophecies about the Jews, as given to Laman and Lemuel in the wilderness (10:2-15)

3. Lehi is commanded to journey into the wilderness, and he pitches his tent in the valley he names Lemuel (2:1-7).

3. Nephi desires to see, hear, and know these mysteries; he is shown a great vision by the Spirit of the Lord and by an angel (10:17-14:30).

4. Lehi teaches and exhorts his sons, and they are confounded (2:8-15).

4. Nephi instructs and exhorts his brothers, and they are confounded (15:6-16:6)

5. Nephi desires to know the mysteries of God; he is visited by the Holy Spirit and is spoken to by the Lord (2:16-3:1).

5. Lehi is commanded to journey further into the wilderness, and he pitches his tent in the land he names Bountiful (16:9-17:6).

6. Lehi is commanded in a dream to send his sons for the brass plates of Laban; this he does (3:2-5:22).

6. Nephi is commanded by the voice of the Lord to construct a ship; this he does (17:6-18:4).

7. In response to a command from the Lord, Lehi sends for Ishmael's family (7:1-22).

7. In response to a command from the Lord, Lehi enters the ship and then sails (18:5-23).

8. They gather seeds of every kind (8:1).

8. Lehi's family plants the seeds and reaps in abundance (18:24).

9. Lehi reports to his sons the great vision received in the wilderness (8:2-35).

9. Nephi details the distinctions between the two sets of plates (19:1-7).

10. Lehi preaches and prophesies to Laman and Lemuel (8:36-38).

10. Nephi preaches and prophesies to Laman and Lemuel, his descendants, and all Israel (19:7-21:26)

11. Nephi makes a distinction between the two sets of plates (9:1-5).

11. To explain Isaiah's prophecies to his brothers, Nephi draws on the great vision given to him and Lehi (22:1-28).

12. Nephi ends with a general formulation of his thesis, focusing on the knowledge and power of God, and with the formal close: "And thus it is. Amen" (9:6).

12. Nephi ends with the highest formulation of his thesis, focusing on the salvation of man, and with the formal close: "And thus it is. Amen" (22:29-31).

Before examining the details of this second outline some background is necessary. There is a most peculiar ending recorded in 1 Nephi 9. Nephi says, "And thus it is. Amen." I say it's an unusual ending — not unusual in form but in place. These are exactly the same words with which Nephi ends this book, in chapter 22. But, why this ending in chapter 9. A hint is given in two verses: the first in verse 17 of chapter 1 and the second in verse one of chapter 10. In chapter 1, Nephi tells us that he is making an abridgement of the "record of my father." After which, "I will make an account of my own life." Chapter 10 begins: "And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceeding." It would seem that Nephi is saying that chapters 1-9 were taken from Lehi's record while the remainder of First Nephi will be taken from Nephi's own record. But, this just doesn't fit the text. Most of chapters 1-9 are Nephi's personal experiences and chapter 10 is almost in its entirety the teachings of Lehi. What's going on?

Lehi's Account and Nephi's Account

Dr. Reynolds suggests that Nephi is telling us about the structure of this text. He suggests, for purposes of discussion and study, that we call chapters one through nine "Lehi's account," and the remainder of First Nephi (10-22) we'll call "Nephi's account." Then, we can analyze the relationship between these two accounts. The outline in figure 2 is the beginning of that analysis. Note the similarity in the elements of each account. Each element in Lehi's account is matched by a corresponding element in Nephi's account. Note also that with the exception of elements 3, 5, 9, and 11, there is a direct sequential correspondence between these elements — they are in the same order in each account. Also, note the correspondence of elements 3, 4, and 5, in the Lehi account to elements 5, 4, and 3, in the Nephi account. That is, their order is reversed. Similarly, this same relationship exists between element 9, 10, and 11. Figure 3 demonstrates the significance of this structure. These out of order elements of Lehi's account, when viewed together with their corresponding elements in the Nephi account, form a chiasmus with Nephi's two great heavenly communications appearing at the focal point.

Figure 3


(A-3) Lehi is commanded to journey into the wilderness, and he pitches his tent in the valley he named Lemuel.

(A-4) Lehi teaches and exhorts his sons, and they are confounded.

(A-5) Nephi desires to know the mysteries of God; he is visited by the Holy Spirit and is spoken to by the Lord.


(B-3) Nephi desires to see, hear, and know these mysteries; he is shown a great vision by the Spirit of the Lord and by an angel.

(B-4) Nephi instructs and exhorts his brothers, and they are confounded.

(B-5) Lehi is commanded to journey further into the wilderness, and he pitches his tent in the land he names Bountiful.

Similarly, the elements 9 through 11 form a chiasmus as shown in Figure 4. However, I think this chiasmus has little more than structural consistency. I don't see any great significance in emphasizing the distinction between Nephi's two sets of plates.

Nephi! How Did You Do This?

Now it really starts to get complex. For me, the task of creating the structure just described is impossible to comprehend, but Nephi didn't stop there. On top of, and woven into this already impressive structure, Nephi places four more perfect chiasmi. This is more than the work of a master, this is genius!

The Lehi account is a chiasmus (Figure 5) with the focus on Nephi's obtaining of the brass plates. The Nephi account is another chiasmus (Figure 6) with the focus on Nephi's building of the ship. These are the two central stories in Nephi's defense of his right to leadership. In each case the elder brothers declared the task impossible. In each case the mantel of leadership fell upon Nephi and he accomplished the impossible. Also, in each case the Lord manifested Nephi's leadership to his brethren: first by the words of an angel, then by power given to Nephi himself.

It should come as no surprise that these two stories are also put by Nephi in chiastic form. In the story of the brass plates (Figure 7) it is the brothers murmuring, even after the testimony of an angel, that Nephi makes his focus. This is placed in an environment of testimony: "the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way . . ." And the way is prepared and the plates are obtained.

In the story of building the ship (Figure 8), Nephi reverses this focus (he is an artist!). At the center he places a lengthy testimony gleaned from examples in Israelite history of the Lord's power in support of the faithful and His rejection of the wicked. This testimony is placed in a contents of murmuring and complaining by the elder brothers.

Nephi's message is clear. The elder brothers, who by right of family position should have taken the leadership role, failed to provide that leadership. Instead of leading, they complained. Instead of finding ways to accomplish the commanded tasks, they declared them to be impossible. In each case, the vacuum left by the brothers was filled by Nephi. In each case this leadership role came by divine appointment, because of Nephi's faith and diligence in seeking to perform the task which the Lord had commanded.

Nephi Tells Six Stories

Out of the possibly voluminous history of the travels of Lehi's colony from Jerusalem to the new world, Nephi chose to share with us six stories. As with all else in the record these are balanced between the Lehi account and the Nephi account. Not only are they balanced, they are almost mirror images. Dr. Reynolds suggests this relationship between these stories:

Figure 9
(Lines connect stories containing parallels)

LEHI'S ACCOUNT                       NEPHI'S ACCOUNT


Lehi leaves Jerusalem <———————> Lehi crosses wilderness



(A-6) Nephi obtains brass plates <——> Nephi builds a ship (B-6)



Ishmael leaves Jerusalem <———> Lehi's company crosses ocean


The similarity between the stories of obtaining the brass plates and constructing the ship has already been pointed out. Both are stories of faith enabling the achievement of what was considered by the elder brothers to be impossible. Careful reading shows that similar relationships exist between the other stories. For example, Dr. Reynolds suggests this comparison between the story of the trip to bring back Ishmael and his family (A-7) with the story of the journey in the ship (B-7):

  1. Both accounts are prefaced in the usual way by a command given to Lehi.
  2. In each case Nephi's brothers first become rebellious because of their afflictions and lack of faith.
  3. After Nephi's exhortations, they rebel against him and bind him with cords.
  4. In the first story Nephi is given power from God to burst his bonds, but in the second he specifies that the Lord permitted him to be bound for a purpose.
  5. In both instances one of Ishmael's daughters and others plead with Laman and Lemuel to reconcile themselves with Nephi.
  6. In the first story they are successful, but in the second these pleas fail and the order brothers are persuaded to relent only when the power of God threatens them with destruction by a storm.
  7. In each case relief comes as Nephi prays.
  8. Both times Laman and Lemuel repent of their actions.

Brother Reynolds goes on to observe:

This analysis shows eight analogous items in the same order in two completely different stories which occupy parallel positions in the structural halves of 1 Nephi. The strength of the claim of parallelism between these two stories does not rest primarily on the uniqueness of the matched items, as only two elements in the series of eight are unique to these two stories. Rather . . . the strength of the claim rests on the precise order of the parallel elements within each episode.(3)

A similar pattern can be observed in the comparison of each of those stories shown in figure 9 to be related. Yet, the text reads naturally. There is no sense of forced order, no feeling that any part of the stories have been contrived, modified, or rearranged in order to fit Nephi's structure. In each story success is a consequence of faith in the word and power of God. In each story Nephi's faith and leadership is demonstrated while the failure of Laman and Lemuel and their lack of leadership is evident.


This understanding of the structure of First Nephi may not give you significantly greater comprehension of the important messages Nephi has directed to our day. The structure was, perhaps intended by Nephi as a way of emphasizing his message to his people. Remember, Nephi's writings are among the few in the Book of Mormon which were directed to the writers contemporaries. This ancient art was a form of textual formatting. Important points were placed, as it were, in bold text by their placement in these chiastic structures. Also, they were an aid to memorization. Once you knew the structure it would be much easier to flesh it out with the detail of the message.

For me, the value of knowing of this structure is the added insight into the scholarly attainments of this great prophet, Nephi. I have always known him to be a spiritual giant, and a leader for whom no task seemed too great. Now I know him also as a man of great intellect, a master artisan, a true literary genius; which I never would have supposed. Dr. Reynolds provides this fitting conclusion:

First Nephi is not the travel diary of a youngster. Nor is it possibly a figment of young Joseph Smith's imagination. It is a highly complex and passionate account, purposefully written by a mature man of great culture and vision, to defend those things that he believes most worth defending. Nephi's writings were composed at a time when Nephi could see the need to provide his people with an account that would explain, document, and justify his ascent to leadership. For Nephi's people, his writings long served both as an extremely sophisticated political tract — something of a founding constitution for the Nephite people — and as an elaborate and compelling witness of Jesus Christ. In all these functions, the books of Nephi call on the reader to believe, as their author does, "that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance" (1 Nephi 1:20).(4)



1. "The Political Dimension in Nephi's Small Plates," by Noel B. Reynolds; BYU Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, p. 15. Dr. Reynolds's work is the source for most of what is presented in the paper. Some material has been included from two FARMS videos, "The Political Context of the Book of Mormon," and "Nephi," both by Dr. Reynolds (transcripts available).

2. "Nephi's Outline," by Noel B. Reynolds; BYU Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 134. This article has also been included in Book of Mormon Authorship, Noel R. Reynolds, ed. This chart, and the following discussion of the Lehi and Nephi accounts, together with the accompanying chiasmi are from this article.

3. Ibid., pp. 135-6.

4. Noel B. Reynolds; BYU Studies Vol. 27, No. 4, p. 36