Evidence #345 | June 7, 2022

Lehi’s Calling (Overview)

Post contributed by


Scripture Central


In a variety of ways, the account of Lehi’s prophetic calling matches the pattern of ancient prophetic call narratives found in biblical and pseudepigraphic literature.

The Prophetic Call Pattern

In the 20th century, scholars noticed that ancient accounts of prophetic callings (wherein a prophet would receive a divine commission from the Lord) possess a particular form. That is to say, they manifest a number of shared characteristics and motifs.1 Blake Ostler has outlined the common elements of one type of call pattern as follows:2

1. Historical Introduction: There is a brief introductory remark providing circumstantial details such as time, place, and historical setting.

2. Divine Confrontation: Either deity or an angel appears in glory to the individual.

3. Reaction: The individual reacts to the presence of the deity or his angel by way of an action expressive of fear, unworthiness, or having been overpowered.

4. Throne-Theophany: In the commissions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, the individual sees the council of God and God seated upon his throne. This element distinguishes the throne-theophany commission from the primarily auditory commissions.

5. Commission: The individual recipient is commanded to perform a given task and assume the role of prophet to the people.

6. Protest: The prophet responds to the commission by claiming that he is unable or unworthy to accomplish the task. This element is usually absent when the reaction element is present, as in the call of Ezekiel.

7. Reassurance: The deity reassures the prophet that he will be protected and able to carry out the commission. The deity may also reassure the prophet by giving him a sign indicative of divine power and protection.

8. Conclusion: The commission form usually concludes in a formal way, most often with a statement that the prophet has begun to carry out his commission.

In the Bible, the prophetic callings of Isaiah and Ezekiel both closely adhere to this pattern.3 Similar call narratives can be found in the Pseudepigrapha, a body of Jewish and Christian writings which were composed approximately between 200 BC–AD 200 and attributed to prominent figures in Israelite history.4 In addition to featuring the standard elements of the call pattern, most call narratives possess additional themes and motifs typical of the broader apocalyptic genre (to which the call pattern belongs).5

Lehi’s Prophetic Calling

As has been noted by several Latter-day Saint scholars, the details of Lehi’s prophetic calling fit the ancient call pattern exceptionally well (1 Nephi 1:1).6 Aside from the protest (which is only tangentially part of Lehi’s calling), his narrative adheres to every other element in the pattern, while also featuring themes and motifs distinctive of apocalyptic texts in general. These elements have been treated individually in separate evidence articles, the links to which are provided below:

Elements Unique to the Pseudepigrapha

One interesting aspect of Lehi’s calling is that several elements of his call don’t show up in the biblical call narratives, and yet they do show up in call narratives and other stories in the Pseudepigrapha. For instance, Lehi’s Intercessory Prayer doesn’t have an analogue in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Such prayers are present, however, in call narratives in non-canonical texts such as the Testament of Levi,7 3 Baruch,8 the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra,9 and the Apocalypse of Abraham.10 For reference, here is the prayer found in 3 Baruch side-by-side with Lehi’s prayer:

1 Nephi 1:4–5

3 Baruch 1:1

… and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed. Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.

I Baruch (was) weeping in my mind and considering the people and how King Nebuchadnezzar was permitted by God to plunder his city, saying, “Lord, why have you set fire to your vineyard and laid it waste? Why have you done this?”

The bed/couch motif (part of the Reaction element) also fits in this category. After beholding a pillar of fire, Lehi “returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen” (1 Nephi 1:7). In Enoch’s prophetic calling in 2 Enoch, he is similarly lying on a bed when he has a vision: “I lay on my bed sleeping. And, while I slept, a great distress entered my heart, and I was weeping with my eyes in a dream” (2 Enoch 1:3).11 And in Isaiah’s prophetic calling in the Ascension of Isaiah, he reports that he “sat on the couch of the king” when a vision of the heavens opened before his view (6:2).12 Yet, as noted by Ostler, the bed/couch motif is “absent from biblical calls.”13

Lehi recieving a vision while resting on his bed. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

One final example concerns the prophet’s participation in angelic Songs of Praise. After Lehi witnessed “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8), it appears that he himself joined the heavenly choir, exclaiming things such as “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty!” (v. 14). While the prophet’s participation in the heavenly chorus doesn’t appear to be present in biblical call narratives, it is—once again—found in call narratives in pseudepigraphic accounts. Isaiah’s account in the Ascension of Isaiah provides an apt example. After witnessing righteous prophets and angels praising the Lord with “one voice,” Isaiah declared that “I also was singing praises with them, and my praise was like theirs” (9:28).14

Key Prophetic Terms

On some occasions, the terms Nephi uses in conjunction with his father’s calling are particularly apt. The prophet Jeremiah, a contemporary of Lehi, described a true prophet as one who “hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word?” (Jeremiah 23:18). It hardly seems coincidental, then, that Nephi frequently uses the verbs See and Hear to describe his father’s visions, in which Lehi participated in the divine council.15 Nephi’s joint use of these verbs seems intended to demonstrate that his father fit the ancient qualifications of a true prophet, as established by Jeremiah and other prophets.16

Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the hightest heavens, from Gustave Dore's illustrations to the Divine Comedy. 

Another key word that Nephi repeatedly uses in connection with his father’s visions is Mysteries. The Hebrew equivalent of this term (sod) is connected to the divine decrees or heavenly secrets that a prophet learned while participating in the divine council (also called sod).17

While such terms and phrases may not seem especially significant for a modern reader, they would have been loaded with meaning for an ancient Israelite audience.

Comparison with Joseph Smith’s Own Prophetic Calling

When investigating Lehi’s prophetic call, Ostler compared it to Joseph Smith’s own prophetic calling,18 as recorded in various 19th-century historical documents.19 While some superficial similarities are discernable, it “appears that Joseph Smith used … nineteenth-century conversion theology to describe his own experiences, just as the classical Hebrew prophets used literary patterns significant to their culture to express their experiences.”20 In other words, the prophetic call narratives of Joseph Smith and Lehi fit much better in their own respective time periods than they do with one another.

The First Vision, by Linda Curley Christensen and Michael Malm.


After analyzing Lehi’s prophetic calling in its ancient historical context, John W. Welch concluded,

Lehi’s prophetic attributes can be understood and confirmed in light of classical Israelite prophecy specific to his own contemporaneous world. Like other prophets in the seventh century, Lehi was steeped in the precise terminology and conception of the divine heavenly council (1 Nephi 1:8) and in its many particular functions and its distinctive images and protocol, which gave meaning and power to his message.21

In addition to its compliance with the formal call pattern itself, Lehi’s call also features several elements of the broader apocalyptic genre. Perhaps most impressive is the way that some elements of Lehi’s calling are absent from biblical texts but find ready support in the Pseudepigrapha. This suggests that Joseph Smith most likely couldn’t have derived the variety of authentic details in Lehi’s account merely from reading his King James Bible. Even if he potentially could have done so, it would still have required a keen awareness of literary patterns that was likely beyond Joseph’s ability in 1829.22 Ostler explains,

Hence, anyone who would argue that Lehi’s account originated with Joseph Smith in 1830 must be prepared to explain the following details: First, the [ancient] call form does not appear in nineteenth-century literature. Second, the author of 1 Nephi 1 was apparently aware of the significance of the call narrative anciently, as evidenced by its placement at the beginning of the book. Third, the author of 1 Nephi 1 evidently had literary or oral access to an ancient call pattern … evidenced by the combination and comparison of essential motifs, formulaic language, and the completeness of the throne-theophany and commission pattern. Fourth, while the theophany and commission pattern may be detected in part in the Bible if a scholarly synthesis is superimposed upon its texts, it is by no means obvious. Further, it appears that the call form as it is presented in the Book of Mormon evidences at least some awareness of the apocalyptic expansion of that form as is evidenced by its presence in the later pseudepigrapha. If the scholars of Joseph Smith’s own day were ignorant of the call form, what are the chances that he could have detected the essential pattern … and included in his version elements that were present only in the yet unknown pseudepigrapha?23

If one’s goal is to assess the Book of Mormon in light of ancient Hebrew literary and cultural conventions, the first chapter of the Book of Mormon gets off to a very good start. As expressed by Hugh Nibley, “we can say without hesitation that the first chapter of the Book of Mormon, the testament of Lehi, has the authenticity of a truly ancient pseudepigraphic writing stamped all over it. It is a well-nigh perfect example of the genre.”24 How Joseph Smith produced such a narrative in 1829 is hard to explain without an appeal to divine intervention.25

Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 155–180.

John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 421–448.

Stephen D. Ricks, “Heavenly Visions and Prophetic Calls in Isaiah 6 (2 Nephi 16), the Book of Mormon, and the Revelation of John,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 171–190.

Blake T. Ostler, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form Critical Analysis,” BYU Studies Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1986): 67–95.

1 Nephi 11 Nephi 2:11 Nephi 2:161 Nephi 9:11 Nephi 10:171 Nephi 10:19

1 Nephi 1

1 Nephi 2:1

1 Nephi 2:16

1 Nephi 9:1

1 Nephi 10:17

1 Nephi 10:19

Literary Features
Lehi's Calling
Lehi's Calling (Overview)
Book of Mormon

© 2024 Scripture Central: A Non-Profit Organization. All rights reserved. Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-5294264