Commentary on 1 Nephi 17, pt. 3

Continuing part 1 and part 2.

Laman and Lemuel offer up their gloss on the story of Moses in verse 22 and in so doing model a particular type of scriptural and legal interpretation.  They say:

And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like him. (1 Ne. 17:22)

There is a great deal that is going on in this sentence.  It begins with an assertion that the people in Jerusalem were righteous.  If this is true, of course, the entire journey through the desert has been in vain or worse.  It is also a frontal attack on the prophetic claims of Lehi and by extension Nephi.   The claim is justified by an appeal to Moses, but unlike the narrative references made by Nephi, the appeal is a “legal” one.  The people of Jerusalem were righteous because they “kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord . . . according to the law of Moses.”  The Moses to which Laman and Lemuel appeal, however, is a very different figure than the one to which Nephi appeals.

For them Moses is a lawgiver rather than a preacher or a wilderness leader.  The law he gives, in turn, becomes the primary mediator between God and man.  Whereas Lehi claimed that the people of Jerusalem were unrighteous because of a revelation from an angel, Laman and Lemuel come to the opposite conclusion on the basis of legal analysis.  Note also the way that they understand Lehi’s rebuke to the Jews at Jerusalem as a legal act — “he has judged them” — one that he has performed badly.  Indeed, whereas in 1 Nephi chapter 1, Lehi’s powerful preaching is evidence of his divine calling, Laman and Lemuel understand the preaching — “his words” — very differently.  For them the preaching, far from being prophetic or divine, is a way of getting power over another.  It is an illegitimate way of getting power that is implicitly contrasted the legitimacy of the “statutes and judgments of the Lord.”

Hence, where Nephi experiences the story of Moses in the story of his family’s exodus, Laman and Lemuel experience the story of Moses in the correct application of the law.  This law — the normatively primary part of Moses’s legacy — is found in the juridical content of the scriptures rather than in its narrative.  “Statutes and judgments” dominate stories of preaching and fleeing the wrath that is to come.  Strikingly, as we will see, it is this interpretive move on the part of Laman and Lemuel that calls forth Nephi’s most elaborate response.

To be continued…

8 comments for “Commentary on 1 Nephi 17, pt. 3

  1. Thanks, Nate. We need more of this type of literary analysis of the restoration scriptures.

    Would you say that Nephi is identifying primarily with J’s narratives, while L and L are identifying mainly with the P sections?

  2. The contrast between J and P narratives is very interesting, although I honestly don’t know enough about the ins and outs of source criticism to apply it to my reading. The narrative in 1 Nephi suggests that there is agreement between Nephi and his brothers regarding the content of scripture. For example, there is no suggestion that Laman and Lemuel regard the Brass Plates as an inferior or corrupted text of the law of Moses, although I would need to go back to the Book of Mormon text and look at this more closely.

  3. That’s an interesting point. I don’t know enough about how J and P were perceived at this time to venture a guess if L and L would have seen P as competing with J for legitimacy or even if they were seen at this point as separate texts. But in terms of the ideas expressed in the two sources, there does seem to be a divide between how the brothers approach authentic religion.

  4. It’s my impression that most Biblical scholars date P to the Exile, which would postdate the Lehite exodus.

    I think there’s been some speculation that the brass plates actually contained E, which interestingly enough, seems to place the real founding of Jewish religion to Moses (Moses is the first human to learn the name of God, for instance), de-emphasizing the earlier patriarchs.

  5. Adam: There certainly is a kind of anti-legalism at work here that is similar to Christ’s attack on the Pharisees. The interesting thing about the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is that it is an anti-legal text that is couched in terms of narrative references to Moses. Hence, Christ goes up to the top of a mountain where he announces a new law for the people of Israel. It is a very Mosiac way of attacking the law of Moses.

    Matt b.: That’s very interesting. It is striking that while L & L make legal claims we don’t see any of the substance of their claims. Hence, we don’t know which “statutes and judgments of the Lord” they are referring to. I suspect — although I haven’t done the research — that there may be a story to be told merely in that phrase itself, which of course appears in our Bible. Where is it used? Who uses it? How? Might this tell us anything about the orientation of L&L toward the scriptural texts?

    Frank: Given that God is clearly a lawyer of some sort (notice how much time he spends on law in his books), it makes sense to read the scriptures through legal eyes, n’est-pas?

  6. FYI: An older book that discusses the Sermon on the Mount with considerable insight: Carl Vaught, The Sermon on the Mount: A Theological Investigation, rvsd edition. Baylor U, 1987.

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