God’s Favor and Human Arrogance and Contempt – Reading Nephi – 16:33-39

This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.

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How far and long has it been since the breaking of the bow? How long has it been since Shazer? Since Lemuel? Since Jerusalem? All of these locations come with minimal detail in the space of a few pages (most of these journeys are within chapter 16 itself), giving the illusion of a short period of time, perhaps mere weeks. But after this break in Nahom, Bountiful is the only other mention. I suspect it may have been years at this point (though it seems clear that the trip from Nahom to Bountiful takes some time, perhaps even the bulk of their time).

Once again the families stop to rest. And stopping, Ishmael dies. Did they stop because Ishmael was too infirm? Because of the “many afflictions” of the women, which likely included watching infants and young children die (things like starvation and disease (think malaria) disproportionately impact children under 6; it’s conspicuous that Nephi doesn’t give us details on their suffering; though note that in Laman’s parallel speech in the next chapter—in 17:20—he notes that the women did have children in the wilderness and that they suffered everything except death; I can’t help but think that this alludes to the fact that while the women didn’t die, some of the children did). Was stopping in Nahom a desperate attempt to care for and try to recover an ailing Ishmael? I suspect they chose Nahom because it was inhabited (notice that unlike the Valley of Lemual and Shazer, they didn’t call the name of the place Nahom; it was already named).

Regardless, Ishmael dies, the women murmur, and Laman makes his move to gain—or in his mind, it’s surely re-gain—authority. It seems that Ishmael was a pillar standing against Laman as well as his own sons all along. Ishmael chose to come in the first place, despite the reservations of his sons. Ishmael again decided to continue and join up with Lehi when Laman and his gang tied Nephi up and then campaigned to return. It’s curious that his name was Ishmael—one couldn’t have a more poignantly “Gentile” name. Yet without any recorded dramatic revelation, he was unwavering, clearly helping to hold the entire expedition together. He lives through what may have been the hardest portions of their exodus, but dies even before reaching Bountiful, their paradisiacal sojourn. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Notice the seriousness of the women’s affliction, despite Nephi’s muted mention of it. If nothing else, the final line of verse 39 makes clear that they almost died of starvation. Even in our day, the cultural right of women is to be protected and cared for; in their day it was even more so. What a sore thing it is now and historically has been for a woman to throw her lot in with a man who then betrays her by being incapable of providing. These women suffered in more than a physical sense. We don’t get details on Ishmael’s words and deeds during their journey. But the fact that things fall apart when he dies speaks volumes.

Here we get the accusation of Nephi making himself out to be king. And it’s past tense. Laman’s not worried that Nephi will gain authority; he’s furious that Nephi already has. Here’s a giant gaping hole—at what point did Nephi take the lead? When the bow broke? In what sense did he lead? How did Lehi and Ishmael and Laman all fit together in actual fact? Nephi’s record alludes throughout to a kind of meritocracy in his reign. Note that Laman and company turn Nephi’s good traits, his “cunning arts” by which he works wonderful works, against him. Nephi’s occasionally prone to bragging in his account, but it’s clear even in spite of this that he was a prodigious leader. Jacob 1 speaks both of the love of the people for Nephi as well as his singular competence in protecting them. Nephi was something of a genuine marvel.

Which leads me to wonder: How can one be favored of God, consecrate one’s talents for the good of one’s people, and not elicit distrust and anger and opposition? Is it possible? The scriptures make it clear: it’s at least very very hard, perhaps impossible. But the scriptures also make clear some of the foibles to which those with talents are vulnerable (Nephi, Joseph, Saul). As Moroni states, I hope we can learn from their mistakes. I likewise hope that we do not allow their mistakes to mask their emulation-worthy talents and character.

I’m struck by the concreteness of the narrative. The focused political message is clear and consistent, but throughout are the casually mentioned names, locations, geographic details, the fully embodied realism of the Book of Mormon account.

Finally, I can only imagine in wonder what this looked like, with the exhaustion and hardship of the exodus, with the family in deep mourning over Ishmael’s death together with the loss of Ishmael’s expertise, with Laman plotting murder—conditions are ripe for an insurrection and return to Jerusalem. Note the parallel to the Hebrews in Sinai, longing to return to Egypt. Ironically, here Jerusalem has become Egypt. Also, note that they’re in Nahom, a populated location. Surely an opportunity existed to return to Jerusalem via caravan rather than wandering back through the wilderness; this was a golden opportunity for the rebellious faction in the family. And here, the voice of the Lord speaks to them. This is clearly something distinct—not Lehi and Saraiah pleading as tender parents, not Nephi speaking in the energy of his soul, not a miracle with the Liahona, but the actual voice of the Lord. What justifies this divine and direct intervention? Nephi gives so few details. I suspect this was a dark time indeed—that only the intervention of God kept things on course.

Perhaps I ought to be grateful that no such crisis demanding the voice of the Lord has come into my life. Or perhaps I should wonder at the silence of the heavens.

6 comments for “God’s Favor and Human Arrogance and Contempt – Reading Nephi – 16:33-39

  1. I wonder if Nephi was being more straight-shooting than we might give credit, though I admit that’s a biased view. But the argument Laman is referenced bringing against Nephi is fairly conspicuous in the details of the group’s suffering. If Nephi controls the narrative, why allow Laman any kind of decent argument? I see narrator Nephi as the older man realizing what a nerve-wracking experience the exodus really was, and how, at the time, he may have been in a spiritual fugue and not fully aware of what the others were experiencing.

    The narrating Nephi does not openly acknowledge this, but allows Laman the valid argument about the situation. But narrator Nephi knows that despite later regrets, young Nephi had two jobs at this point in the exodus: being defacto prophet, as Lehi may also have been stricken as Ishmael, and logistical leader as his elder brothers were likely passive-aggressively leaving the work, and thus the blame, for Nephi.

  2. The whole question of Nahom is interesting. Not because of the debate within apologetics over whether Nahom is a “hit” by Joseph Smith about Arabia but about Nahom proper. Reading the text from our more knowledgeable viewpoint it seems certain that Nephi and company would have encountered others. Maybe traders, given they were likely following a trade route. But also just because when you’re near a fertile area in a land not known for fertile areas it seems likely you’re going to meet a lot of people. This in turn suggests there’s a lot being left unsaid in this record. Was more said in the lost 116 pages? We don’t know.

    The big question I have is one you allude to. Why on earth didn’t Laman and Lemuel flee?

  3. Jerry – it could certainly be the case that although understandably unwilling to recreate the complete argument, Nephi is indirectly acknowledging it and the genuine hardships undergone. And it makes sense that an older Nephi removed by years from the narrative would be more open on this. For me the question turns on the context of the older Nephi and how secure he felt. I find that the overall narrative hints at an insecure context; my bet is that Nephi’s acknowledgments stem from these hardships being an explicit issue in the later context.

    Clark – yes this is indeed the question. I turn various possibilities over in my mind, but none of them are satisfactory. For whatever reason splitting with the family was not something Laman was willing to countenance. Ever.

  4. James, my conclusion always seems influenced by Milton. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. That is if Laman left he’d be a nobody.

  5. Thank you James for the fair assessment of Nephi! I grew up on the Living Scriptures version of Nephi, not a flaw to be seen. Coming to terms with Nephi’s faults is a bit of a growing up experience (I just read Claudia Bushman’s “I, Nephi” essay in “Perspective on Mormon Theology: Scriptural Theology”, and I winced quite a bit). It seems increasing difficult to recognize faults while respecting strengths in a world that can’t seem to forgive the sins of the fathers.

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