Abstract: The Book of Mormon begins at a pivotal point in Israelite history and in the history of the ancient Near East more broadly. With the fall of Assyria and the power vacuum that grew out of Assyria’s demise, questions of sovereignty were of paramount concern. It was at that time that Lehi led his family into the wilderness after witnessing the impending destruction of Jerusalem in vision. Nephi, “desir[ing] to know the things that his father had seen” (1 Nephi 11:1), describes his own vision, where he saw the coming of the “Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:7), the destruction of his own people, and the “formation of a great church” (1 Nephi 13:4) that would “destroy the saints of God” (1 Nephi 13:9). These elements, along with others in Nephi’s vision, seem to reflect the underlying insecurity of the time concerning divinely appointed sovereignty and the right to rule. Because of the deeply personal nature of Nephi’s vision and its pressing relevance, we might expect it to contain elements that represent the cultural and social realities of his time. When we approach Nephi’s vision in this way, surprising parallels can be found between the “great church” of his vision and the Assyrian Empire. These parallels help provide a new context for viewing Nephi’s vision that can heighten our awareness of the loving kindness the “Son of God” displays as the universal sovereign.
For centuries, the recording and transmission of Assyria’s ideology played an important part in maintaining Assyria’s dominance in the ancient Near East. This has led many scholars such as Lawson Younger to assert that the history of Israel and Judah1 “is inextricably bound to the history of Assyria … and is profitably analysed in this light.”2 Prior to the Babylonian exile, Biblical writers often used the Assyrian Empire as the dominant foil when crafting their records.3 Shawn Aster points out that Isaiah uses a “sort of ‘replacement theology’ in which [Page 2]the universal sovereignty of YHWH is imagined and described based on Assyrian claims of universal dominion.” Aster further claims that there is a “consistent use of Neo-Assyrian4 royal motifs throughout [Isaiah,] … motifs which are borrowed, subverted, and adapted to fit the prophet’s message.”5 If Isaiah was using and subverting Assyrian rhetoric when he crafted his rhetorical arguments, this implies that the intended audience of those writings were familiar with Assyrian ideology.6
These suggestions have implications related to how we are to interpret Nephi’s record given Nephi’s apparent training as a scribe7 and his extensive use of Isaiah’s writings.8 Furthermore, if, as Noel Reynolds proposes, Nephi and his father, Lehi, are also “participants in a Manassite scribal circle,”9 we might expect to find parallels10 within Nephi’s record to Assyrian rhetoric given their connection to Mesopotamian scribal culture.11 These parallels might be most apparent if we are to look at Nephi’s apocalyptic vision.12 The account of Nephi’s vision is unique within the record of the Book of Mormon, as it is a first-person, unabridged account of a deeply personal experience. Nephi received that vision because of a desire to know the things his father had seen (1 Nephi 11:1). Unlike the other parts of Nephi’s record, which he presumably crafted for an audience that would read his record at some future point in time, Nephi’s vision was first and foremost intended to teach him. It, therefore, has the greatest potential to reflect the cultural milieu familiar to Nephi.13
In that vision, Nephi’s “Spirit” guide first praised Nephi for believing in the words of his father concerning the coming of the “Son of the most high God” (1 Nephi 11:6). Next, an angel showed Nephi the Son of God, whom he called the “Lamb of God,” condescending to come to Earth. However, the radiance of those scenes soon faded as Nephi saw his descendants slip into unbelief and civil war. Presumably anticipating Nephi’s anxiety at witnessing such a scene, the angelic guide “spake unto [Nephi], saying: Look! And [he] looked and beheld many nations and kingdoms. And the angel said unto [Nephi]: What beholdest thou? And [he] said: I behold many nations and kingdoms. And [the angel] said unto [Nephi]: These are the nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles. And it came to pass that [Nephi] saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church” (1 Nephi 13:1–4).
The angel showed Nephi this “great church” presumably to teach him what led to the destruction of his envisioned descendants and how the devil works to destroy other “great” nations (1 Nephi 14:9). In evaluating the identity of this “great church,”14 the instruction of Hagedorn and [Page 3]Tzoref seems apt: “As far as the foreign nations are concerned the beginning of the literary development is marked by the individual judgment against a concrete people, which threatens the existence of Israel.”15 The Assyrian Empire provides just such a “concrete” example of a nation that “threaten[ed] the existence of Israel” and was also capable of teaching Nephi about the future destruction of his own people. After all, it was the Assyrians who were initially responsible for the destruction of Israel and the exile of Nephi’s ancestors.16
Hagedorn and Tzoref further assert that in the book of Nahum we see that “after the fall of Assyria, the fate of Nineveh is transferred to Babylon, which is now seen as the aggressor that threatens Israel and no longer as the welcome destroyer of the Assyrian tyrant. Prerequisite for this addition has been the fact that Nineveh indeed fell … thus providing proof for the authenticity of the prophecy.”17 The contemporary relationship between Nahum’s record18 and Nephi’s vision suggests the possibility that, when Nephi saw the “great church,” it was actually the Assyrian Empire.19 Assyria’s fall is “proof of the authenticity of the prophecy” Nephi received as he witnessed their fate being transferred to the Nephites.
Many of the ideas presented in Nephi’s vision are without a parallel in the Bible. Yet through the recent availability of Assyrian records, we find helpful context that seems to ground Nephi’s vision in a particular time and place. The parallels I suggest in this paper between the “great church” in Nephi’s vision and the Assyrian Empire remain conjectural, yet they offer an insightful and historically relevant reinterpretation of the vision. Through the repetition of Assyrian imagery, which often undergoes a subversive reversal, Nephi’s vision seems to contrast the historical claims of the Assyrians against the Lamb’s future victory over the “Great and Abominable Church” (1 Nephi 13:6).
These Assyrian precursors provide added depth to elements of Nephi’s vision, such as the flood, mists, rod, lamb, and blood. For example, as I document shortly, the Assyrian kings in their hubris claimed to destroy those that opposed them as if they were “lambs.” Understanding this can provide new context for evaluating the repeated references to the “Lamb of God” as the universal sovereign of Nephi’s vision. Such a title is given greater meaning if it is also seen to be subverting the claims of the Assyrian kings. Using these new insights, we can see how the behavior of the Assyrian kings contrasts sharply with that of the “Lamb of God.” Furthermore, against this backdrop, the “Lamb of God” can be seen as a uniquely loving and merciful universal sovereign. As such, the [Page 4]Assyrian Empire and its ideology can work as a foil capable of grounding the greater typology of Nephi’s vision concerning the fall of the great and abominable church.20
Parallels to Assyrian Traditions
Biblical scholars have proposed many parallels connecting the motifs and ideologies found in the Assyrian records to what is found in the Bible. It is important to recognize why the Assyrian records may have left this imprint. Shawn Aster suggests that
all ideologies of empire seek to perpetuate the empire while simultaneously according it legitimacy, and Assyria’s was no exception. But Assyria’s ideology was more clearly defined and effectively communicated than that of any previous empire. It was relentlessly broadcast using a deft combination of art, ritual performance, oral communication, and written text, all designed for the consumption of two audiences: the administrative personnel of the empire, and the states and regions it sought to dominate.21
Because the Assyrians put so much effort into the distribution of their state ideology, it is not surprising that we find parallels in the biblical record, and it is what we should expect to find in Nephi’s writings.22
Important to the record of the Book of Mormon is the idea that the use of Assyrian rhetoric didn’t end after their demise.23 According to Eckart Frahm, “The Assyrian Empire continued to serve as a cipher for imperial hubris in newly written Biblical texts.”24 As Shawn Aster points out, Isaiah’s writings “contain unique linguistic features that cannot easily be explained without reference to the Assyrian material.”25 That is to say, it is hard to understand the rhetorical arguments behind Isaiah’s narrative unless we first see that he is borrowing from Assyrian writings. If Nephi did understand Assyrian rhetoric and how it was being used by Isaiah, this provided an ideal way for the “spirit” messenger in his vision to teach him. However, this potentially creates a problem for modern readers unfamiliar with this rhetoric. Nephi potentially hints at this difficulty when describing the challenge that the Nephites faced when they were taught the words of Isaiah (see 2 Nephi 25:1–3).
In Aster’s paper looking at an Assyrian influence on Isaiah 2, he shows that the set of motifs found in the Assyrian campaign reports “provides the most appropriate comparative context within which to [Page 5]analyze the passage.”26 For example, when looking at “imperial hubris” or the “opposition to the haughty and lofty,” Aster points out,27
The declared objective of this divine campaign is to [bring] low the “haughty” and the “lofty,” as is emphasized by the repetition of this theme in vv. 11, 12, and 17 (using the words ge’eh and ram), and in vv. 13–16 (God attacks possessions that feed pride). This corresponds precisely to one of the standard elements in Assyrian characterizations of the enemy, which appear in royal inscriptions from the thirteenth century down to the Neo-Assyrian period. It is against these enemies that the Assyrian king’s campaigns are directed. The characterization of the enemy as “arrogant,” “obstinate,” or “proud” is part of a stylized “moral profile” found in Assyrian royal inscriptions. … The goal of the campaigns, according to this formula, is to subdue the “proud.”28
This comparative context also matches the way “proud” is used in Nephi’s vision to describe those that oppose the divine campaign of the “Lamb of God.” Nephi writes “that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great. … Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (1 Nephi 11:36). Further establishing the relationship of the “great and spacious building” to the concept of pride and loftiness, Nephi records that this is the same building that his father saw which was standing “as it were in the air, high above the earth”29 (1 Nephi 8:26). Nephi’s vision suggests that the fall of the “great and spacious building” was due to the things that feed pride, things described in Nephi’s record as “exceedingly fine” (1 Nephi 8:27). This understanding of pride matches the way Isaiah used the Assyrian writings to frame his rhetorical arguments.
However, when evaluating this particular parallel in Nephi’s vision, caution must be taken. Frahm points out that “Assyrian ‘motifs’ have also left — more indirect — traces in a number of Biblical narratives and poetic sections. Tracking down such traces is, unfortunately, charged with significant methodological problems. It is not enough to hunt for isolated parallels — if one wants to establish an Assyrian background for a Biblical story, the parallels have to be numerous and/or specific.”30 The parallels between Nephi’s use of pride and the Assyrian records are not unique to Nephi’s record and they can best be explained by a relationship to Isaiah’s writings. Therefore, when evaluating whether the “great church” Nephi envisioned shares some relationship to Assyria [Page 6]and their rhetoric, we need to find numerous specific and unique points of contact to Assyrian materials. It is in evaluating Nephi’s account of the “great church” in his vision that we seem to find numerous specific and unique points of contact to Assyrian materials.
Nephi’s “Great Church” and Assyrian Rhetoric
After Nephi sees the “great church” in his vision he goes on to say, “And the angel said unto me: Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity” (1 Nephi 13:5). In this passage describing the “great church,” we are presented with specific descriptive elements that can be used to evaluate potential parallels between the “great church” of Nephi’s vision and the Assyrian Empire and ideology.
In Gordon Johnston’s work looking at Nahum’s use of rhetorical allusions to the Assyrian Empire, he points out that “one of the most common Assyrian metaphors is the ‘yoke’ as a symbol to depict Assyrian suzerainty. … This metaphor is distinctly Assyrian; it occurs rarely in the literature of other ancient Near Eastern nations.”31 Assyrian kings referred to this metaphor often in their records with such sayings as, “The heavy yoke of my rule I laid upon them, and I made them subject to Ashur my Lord.”32 Both Israel and Judah came under the “heavy yoke” of Assyrian rule.33 After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, Jeremiah warned Judah that if they did not trust in the Lord, another nation, such as the Babylonians, would “put a yoke of iron upon” them (Jeremiah 28:13–14).34 Yet, Nephi’s use of the yoke metaphor is unique in that it contains the elements slayeth, tortureth, bindeth them down and bringing them down into captivity that are not easily explained by a relationship to the Biblical record. These elements potentially provide our first unique points of contact between Nephi’s “great church” and the Assyrian Empire. The records of Ashurbanipal, the last dominant Assyrian king to live during Lehi’s lifetime, display a striking resemblance to what the angel showed Nephi in vision. In the accounts of his campaigns, we read:
[I am] Ashurbanipal, the great king … who has made all the other rulers bow to his feet and who has laid the yoke of his overlordship upon them and they pulled the straps of his yoke.35
[Page 7]He further describes those who opposed Assyrian sovereignty by saying,
[I] pierced the lips [and] took them to Assyria as a spectacle for the people of my land.36
Or on another occasion he said,
[T]he living men I impaled on stakes round about his city, of the others I put out the eyes. The rest of them I transported and brought to Assyria.37
The documentation of what Ashurbanipal did was not just limited to the written record. His brutality was also recorded in reliefs carved to commemorate his victories.38 Of the destruction of Judah’s neighbors, the Elamites, Ashurbanipal had images carved that depicted
naked men, tied to the ground by staked ropes, with two Assyrians flaying them with knives. To the right is an Assyrian carrying away a head on a string. At the bottom are two Assyrians removing the tongue of an Elamite prisoner, and just above them the next victim is being thrown down with his arms tied behind his back to wait his turn. In related scenes, Elamite heads are shown being collected as trophies.39
As gruesome as the depictions above may sound, they are not isolated occurrences within the Assyrian records. They are in fact part of a long history of Assyrian kings recording, and then transmitting, what happens to those that failed to acknowledge Assyrian sovereignty and thus were compelled to carry the Assyrian yoke. Given that this was a fate which presumably many of Nephi’s ancestors would have experienced it is unlikely that these horrific accounts of Assyrian brutality were unknown to Nephi and his family.40 The fact that we find so many of the same elements used to describe the Assyrian campaigns in Nephi’s description of the “great church” is compelling evidence that the two might be related.
In Isaiah 8:7–8, we see two parallels that appear to be borrowed from the Assyrian records of their campaigns. According to Peter Machinist, “The first is the image of the king advancing into battle like raging water. In Assyrian texts, the waters are called abubu, i.e.,‘flood,’ recalling the primeval Flood; and the abuhu can either appear as the weapon of the king or be directly likened to him. … The second parallel concerns the ‘glory’ of the king which overwhelms all his enemies.”41 It appears that in Nephi’s vision, the angel draws a connection between the wars that lead [Page 8]to the destruction of Nephi’s descendants in the promised land and the Assyrian flood and glory tropes. However, in what Nephi saw in vision, there seems to be a destabilizing adaptation, as the flood water became filthy, and the glory became darkness that covered the land. Further, in Nephi’s record the darkness is not simply described as darkness but as a “mist of darkness.” This unique qualifier helps to further identify what Nephi saw with the Assyrian records, which often describes the terrifying glory of the approaching Assyrian army using a cloud metaphor.42 For those who did not avoid the approaching cloud that was the Assyrian army, destruction and being carried away captive was most often their fate. In Nephi’s vision the effect of the “mists of darkness” is the same; the people are led away, perish, and are lost.43
Fear of the yearly campaigns also ensured that those under Assyria’s yoke continued to pay tribute to the empire. That tribute fueled future campaigns. This relationship provides another unique element to the metaphor of the “yoke” found within Nephi’s vision and which again cannot easily be explained without reference to the Assyrian records. When explaining why the “great church” slayed, tortured, bound down, yoked, and carried captive the “saints of God,” Nephi wrote,
I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots. And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots, are the desires of this great and abominable church. And also for the praise of the world do they destroy the saints of God, and bring them down into captivity. (1 Nephi 13:7–9)
This combination of the yoking metaphor with the acquisition of “gold,” “silver,” “fine-twined linen,” and “harlots” is unparalleled in the Bible.44 However, the records of the Assyrian king’s campaigns are full of such parallels. Assurnasirpal reported on his campaign against the city of Suru saying,
I built a pillar over against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. [Page 9]Ahiababa I took to Nineveh, I flayed him, I spread his skin upon the wall of Nineveh. My power and might I established over the land of Lake. While I was staying in the city of Suru, (I received) tribute from all the kings of the land of Lake, — silver, gold, lead, copper, vessels of copper, cattle, sheep, garments of brightly colored wool, and garments of linen, and I increased the tribute and taxes and imposed them upon them.45
In another account he said,
All the rebels they seized and delivered them up. My officers I caused to enter into his palace and his temples. His silver, his gold, his goods and his possessions, copper, iron, lead, vessels of copper, cups of copper, dishes of copper, a great hoard of copper, alabaster, tables with inlay, the women of his palaces, his daughters, the captive rebels together with their possessions, the gods together with their possessions, precious stone from the mountains, to the yoke, trappings of men and trappings of horses, garments of brightly colored wool and garments of linen.46
The Assyrian kings also boast that even the approach of the king’s army was all that was needed to obtain tribute: “During my advance I received much tribute … silver, gold, lead, vessels of copper, and garments of brightly colored wool, and garments of linen.”47 Fear of the Assyrian campaigns was often enough to keep vassal states paying onerous tributes to the Assyrian Empire.48 Chief among those things collected were what Nephi saw in vision; gold, silver, fine linen, and women.49 This was the terrifying reality that hung over Judah, right up until Nephi’s lifetime, while they were under the Assyrian “yoke.” This was the same association Nephi’s messenger chose to make between the “yoke of iron” and the campaign of fear that defined the “great church” in Nephi’s vision.50 The behavior of the Assyrian Empire and their eventual demise would be a fitting analog for a “great church” that was meant to help Nephi understand how a great nation of his own descendants would one day fall.
The drama that plays out in Nephi’s vision corresponds well with the way the Assyrian royal inscriptions describe their campaigns to maintain sovereignty over the known world. According to Eckart Frahm, typically these records begin with an introduction, “which focus[es] on the general qualities of the king,” and second, focuses on the “campaign reports,” [Page 10]which “can be labeled ‘epic’” and records the triumph of the king over those opposing his sovereignty.51 In much the same way, we are first introduced in Nephi’s vision to the “Most High God” (1 Nephi 11:6) and the appointment of his earthly king, the “Lamb of God” (1 Nephi 11:21). The bulk of the vision then consists of the actions of the king or “Lamb of God” and those who oppose his sovereignty or “church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10). Much like the writings of the Assyrian kings’ campaigns, the “epic” nature of Nephi’s vision develops in such a way as to show the inevitable victory of God’s appointed King.52 During a time of great uncertainty for Nephi and his family, this assurance should have provided Nephi with some comfort and hope.
A New Look at Nephi’s Vision
Pride or failure to put one’s trust in the Lord led to the fall of Nephi’s people, and in his vision, the fall of the “great and spacious building” was used as a symbol for that fall. Destruction came because the Nephites sought for possessions that fed their “vain imaginations and [their] pride” (1 Nephi 12:18), i.e., the gold, silver, and fine apparel. If what Nephi saw in vision was to help him understand the fall of his own people, it is possible that by witnessing the fall of the palace of Nineveh, Nephi was given a powerfully relevant example that is critical of the claims made by the Assyrian kings.
The Assyrians had used their palaces as part of their efforts to ensure loyalty. According to John Postgate, those that came to the palace to deliver tribute “were fed at the state’s expense. They were also given presents of clothing and of shoes for their journeys. The practice of rewarding the loyal — or bribing the potentially loyal — by presenting them with rich garments and other gifts is not restricted to ambassadors.”53 All this was done to persuade those who entered the palace to be loyal to Assyria and then work to influence others’ loyalty. This brings to mind how Lehi describes those he saw in the “great and spacious building,” where “their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who” (1 Nephi 8:27) had not entered the building.54
The Assyrian palace also provides an important literary link between the “great and spacious building” and the “great church” of Nephi’s vision. To the Assyrians, the palaces and temples of Nineveh were repeatedly referred to as “great” and their production and maintenance depended on the terrifying campaigns waged by the Assyrian army.55 As such the king’s palace was designed to psychologically overwhelm [Page 11]those who came to court to pay tribute and acknowledge Assyrian sovereignty. The Assyrian word ekallu means palace, but according to Simo Parpola it also “had a more specific religious meaning. In Assyrian royal inscriptions, it often referred to the temple. … The semantics of Assyrian ekallu, ‘palace’, thus were exactly the same as those of the biblical Hebrew, Jewish Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic words for ‘temple, church’… Although these words, all of them certainly loanwords from Akkadian, also mean ‘palace’ or ‘great building’ in general, their primary meaning is ‘temple, church.’”56 Therefore the semantics of Nephi’s time equate a “great and spacious” palace, like those found in Nineveh, with a “great church.” It is fitting then that when Nephi needs to understand the destruction of his own people, the angel begins by showing him the formation of a “great church” which linguistically is related to the “great and spacious building.”57 This relationship had its most salient parallel during Nephi’s lifetime to that of the fall of the “great and spacious” palaces of the Assyrian Empire.58 This is something Nephi presumably known from first-hand accounts that the “fall thereof was exceedingly great” (1 Nephi 11:36).
With the rise and then apparently precipitous fall of the Assyrian Empire, we find in the scriptures a growing rhetoric around issues of sovereignty. This rhetoric is often subversive to the Assyrian claims to universal sovereignty.59 In Nephi’s vision there seems to be a similar phenomenon at work where the “Lamb of God” is presented as the universal sovereign: the “one Shepherd over all the earth” (1 Nephi 13:41). On a later occasion, Nephi builds on the idea saying, “The Holy One of Israel must reign in dominion, and might, and power, and great glory. And he gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth;60 and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd; and he shall feed his sheep, and in him they shall find pasture” (1 Nephi 22:24–25).61 The image of a king shepherding over the “four quarters of the earth” in power and glory62 is common in the Assyrian records and is often associated with the king holding a scepter.63 The scepter symbolized the power of the Assyrian king’s word, which he used to spread destruction and terror via the yearly campaigns to maintain control of the “four quarters of the earth.” In what appears to be a subversive reversal to the actions of the Assyrian kings, we see in Nephi’s vision that the “Lamb of God” brought peace, healing, and order through his words or “rod of iron” (see 1 Nephi 11:24–31). Nephi said that he saw the “Lamb of God” going “forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him. And it [Page 12]came to pass that I beheld that rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God” (1 Nephi 11:24–25). Bowing down at the feet of the one who possesses the rod or scepter is a motif that is used by Assyrian kings to legitimize their right to rule.64 Therefore, when the Assyrian ideologies are contrasted with what Nephi writes, our understanding of the “Lamb of God” as the universal sovereign is enhanced.65
This association is further developed within Nephi’s vision with the use of another common motif found within the Assyrian records. Nephi records that the “angel said unto [him]: Look! And I looked, and beheld three generations pass away in righteousness; and their garments were white even like unto the Lamb of God. And the angel said unto me: These are made white in the blood of the Lamb, because of their faith in him” (1 Nephi 12:11). When this exchange is viewed in relation to what the Assyrian kings did to those that were the focus of their campaigns, Nephi’s record gains important context. The motif of objects being dyed by blood like a red garment was commonly used by the Assyrian kings in the records describing the king’s campaign. For example, Sargon II when describing the fate of a defeated Hittite king says he “D[yed] the skin of Ilu-bi’di, the wretched, red, like wool.” The use of this motif in Nephi’s vision contrasts the power of the “Lamb of God” to the claims of the Assyrian kings. Nephi saw in vision that those who put their trust in the “Lamb of God” need not fear the boasts made by the powerful Assyrian kings. The Assyrian kings might claim the power to shed the blood of those that oppose them, turning things red like dyed wool, but the “Lamb of God” has the power to heal our wounds and make our garments white again through his blood (1 Nephi 12:10–11). This again seems to be a reversal of the Assyrian king’s claims of sovereignty. Therefore, what Nephi saw in vision further reinforces the position of the “Lamb of God” as a uniquely compassionate sovereign.
The love and care the “Lamb of God” shows as shepherd contrasts sharply with the cruelty and depravity depicted in the records of Assyrian campaigns. Those records describe the Assyrian kings as shepherds of a different sort. Gordon Johnston points out that “[w]hile peoples in the ancient Near East were often compared to sheep, the Assyrians took the sheep metaphor to new heights, comparing their victims to sheep that had been slaughtered. Assyrian kings often used sheep imagery when boasting of the ease and brutality with which they defeated their enemies.”66 For example, Ashurbanipal wrote, “I entered that city; its inhabitants I slaughtered like lambs.”67 The repeated accounts of the Assyrian kings “slaughtering” people “like lambs” contrasts sharply [Page 13]with the constant repetition of the title “Lamb of God” to describe the sovereign of Nephi’s vision.68
The title “Lamb of God” is no doubt a reference to the role Jesus Christ would play in offering his life as an act of redemption.69 However, there is something unique to the way this title is used in Nephi’s vision when viewed in the context of the struggle for sovereignty around 600 bce. For those familiar with the claims of the Assyrian kings, this constant reference to the “Lamb of God” in Nephi’s vision begins to sound like a steady drum beat that mocks the claims of the kings who were once the most powerful sovereigns in the ancient Near East. The Assyrian kings claim to be able to destroy their enemies “like lambs,” yet when Nephi sees the coming of the universal sovereign and King,70 he is introduced as the “Lamb of God.” The overemphasized reference to the “Lamb” throughout Nephi’s vision works in a profound way if it counters the Assyrian kings’ boast of easily slaughtering their enemies “like lambs.”71 This humble title highlights the ironic difference between the actions of God’s appointed sovereign, the “Lamb,” who truly cares for those he shepherds, and the hubris of those that oppose him in order to obtain the riches of this world through violent and oppressive means, like that of the Assyrian Empire.
Using this new conceptual framework, a new picture emerges from Nephi’s vision. The Assyrians accumulated “fine” things and built their “great” palaces by spreading fear and death through their relentless wars. Their ideology of bringing order to the world through compulsion and terror is therefore contrasted in Nephi’s vision by a symbol of Assyrian derision, the “Lamb.” In Nephi’s vision we see that the actions of the “Lamb of God” brought order and peace through his care and covenant.72 Seen in this light, Nephi’s vision recapitulates the great War in Heaven as it now plays out in mortality. Lucifer’s premortal fall now has an analog in Nephi’s vision with mortal struggles tied to the fall of the great and abominable church.73 Furthermore, we learn from Nephi’s vision that we must once again put our trust in the “Lamb of God” if we are to avoid another fall.74 Nephi’s vision teaches us that those who trust in the “Lamb of God” as their sovereign will avoid such a fall by being armed with his “righteousness” and “power” (1 Nephi 14:14).75 This is the same power the “Lamb of God” used when “ministering unto the people” (1 Nephi 11:28) and healing “multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted” (1 Nephi 11:31). This suggests that only in covenanting to do the same will we be “delivered by the power of God” (1 Nephi 13:19) and avoid the fate of Assyrians, the Nephites, and ultimately that of the great and abominable church.76
Understanding how the transmission of Nephi’s vision might have been influenced by Assyria’s interactions with Israel and Judah can help strengthen the relationship of his record with other contemporary accounts found within the Bible. Matthijs de Jong has proposed that an “identifiable layer of the Isaiah tradition consists of passages dealing with the destruction of Assyria and the restoration of Judah. In these passages, it is emphasized that it is Yahweh who carries out Assyria’s destruction as part of his dealings with the entire world. Closely related to the theme of Assyria’s destruction is that of Judah’s restoration: the reign of a new, ideal, Judean king. The themes of Assyria’s downfall and the reign of the ideal king are two sides of the same coin, as both result from Yahweh’s intervention.”77 The parallels contained in Nephi’s vision to Assyrian tradition suggest a similar theme. Using this conceptual framework, we see that, like Isaiah’s prophecies, we have in Nephi’s vision two sides of the same coin. Nephi’s vision describes the fall of the great and abominable church and the reign of the ideal king or “Lamb of God,” who works to restore Israel. Nephi further sees in his vision that essential to this restoration effort was the coming forth of his record in the Book of Mormon, which “shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world” (1 Nephi 13:40).
The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire played a dominant role in shaping the history of Israel leading up to Nephi’s lifetime. The power vacuum that grew out of Assyria’s fall was certainly being felt by Nephi and his family. Assyrian domination had created a general anxiety in the ancient Near East related to questions of sovereignty and this anxiety would last long after their fall. These questions were central for those living in Jerusalem around 600 bce, and the message of Nephi’s vision seems to reflect this uncertainty.78 Isaiah suggests that the Lord had used Assyria as a tool in his hand to correct “hypocritical nations” (Isaiah 10:6). It is not surprising then that within Nephi’s vision there seems to be found parallels to motifs used by the Assyrian Empire to assert their control over other nations, such as Israel. Recognizing these parallels can help connect us to the milieu of that time and broadens our understanding of the message of his vision.
During that vision, Nephi saw the rise and then fall of his descendants, the Nephites, in a land the Lord prepared for them. After witnessing the devastating destruction of the Nephite nation, Nephi next saw many more nations. From these nations, Nephi saw — much like he witnessed earlier [Page 15]with the Nephite nation — the formation and fall of a “great church.” The “great church” that Nephi describes as part of his vision contains an extensive number of specific and seemingly unique parallels to the records and iconography of the Assyrian Empire. The nature of these parallels suggests that such a connection is not by chance but rather reflects a real link that ties Nephi’s record to that particular time and place. It is therefore possible that the historic demise of the Assyrian Empire and the fall of the great palace of Nineveh provided Nephi with a compelling and relevant real-world example capable of explaining the dramatic fall of the Nephite nation. Looking at Nephi’s vision through this interpretive lens does not limit other possible interpretations for the “great church” but instead highlights the polyvalent nature of Nephi’s vision and the tension between the past, present, and future found within the vision.
[Author’s Note: I would like to express my thanks to Godfrey Ellis, who, as editor, preformed exceptional work in helping to get this paper ready for acceptance.]