Embodied Spirituality – Reading Nephi – 17:7-12

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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I Nephi 17:7-12

Another statement of many days. How long were they in Bountiful? Had they already created a permanent settlement, or were they still weary from their journey and longing to create permanence in this bountiful land when Nephi again begins to uproot them?

In passages like this one, Nephi strikes me as incredibly concrete and practical in nature—much more a Brigham Young than a Joseph Smith. Here the focus shifts immediately from God’s directive to “build a ship” to Nephi’s inquiring about ore, to a description of his building a bellows from the skins of animals and striking rocks to make fire. It’s very corporeal, hands-on. This again fits in well with the political narrative, highlighting Nephi’s practical, able-bodied, can-do approach; it pairs well with his obtaining the Plates of Brass. But it also fits in well with his overall personality and demeanor. Here is the same man whose response to a frightened Zoram was to tackle him.

In order to build a ship Nephi needed to make tools. This seems to suggest that either there weren’t people nearby making ships (from whom they could purchase/barter/work for tools), or else Lehi’s family was destitute and had no means of acquiring the tools (seems less likely since they could surely have traded or worked for them), or perhaps that there were significant tensions between the locals and the newly arrived, self-righteous, upstart Jerusalemites squatting on a prime piece of the collective commons. The first option argues against those who claim Nephi learned to build a ship from the locals, but not the second two.

I’ve gotten to know and become friends with our “local” primitive skills expert, a man who goes by “Drev,” a shortened version of his last name. He can do absolutely anything in the way of primitive skills, though of course he is better and worse at various things. That said, he’s a true blue expert in hand- and bow-drill fire starting. I watched him start a fire using his hand drill and some local cattail fluff in less time than it takes a boy scout with matches and lighter fluid (less than 30 seconds). Genuinely awe-inspiring. Despite his skill, which once-upon-a-time many people living in the Americas might have had, he insists that indigenous peoples’ primary focus was not on starting but on maintaining fires—it’s simply far more efficient given the exigencies of weather. This point includes when traveling. There are certain mushrooms, for instance, that can smolder in your leather carrying case for over a week. Consequently, it stands out conspicuous to me that Nephi takes the time to explicitly note that he struck two rocks together to make fire. It’s a throwaway line that’s easy to miss, or simply throw in with the other details of Nephi’s concrete, practical-oriented narrative. But I suspect it would’ve struck the ancient reader—especially a second generation Nephite born and raised in the promised land of Meso-America—as odd that Nephi needed to do this. Why wouldn’t they have just carried fire with them everyday? Surely they had fires going “after many days” in Bountiful, right? Nephi feels the unasked question of his contemporary audience and answers it: God hadn’t suffered them to use fire in the wilderness. The fact that they didn’t have fires going in Bountiful either perhaps speaks to the fact that relations weren’t so good with the locals, and they didn’t want to attract attention to their newfound, squatted settlement.

While Nephi’s practicality reminds me of Brigham Young, this constant intermingling, this tacking back and forth between the sacred and the mundane, is paradigmatic Joseph Smith. Both Bushman and Givens dwell on this point at length in their writings concerning Joseph Smith. The story of the Restoration is a story of concrete details and mundane events overlapping and interweaving with the doctrinal, the sacred, the profound. The Doctrine and Covenants is a prime example, but all of Joseph’s accounts are this way. I can’t help but think of the Kirtland temple. Nephi and Joseph reacted very similarly, a variation of Lord Nelson’s famous quip on naval strategy to forget the tactics and just go straight at ‘em. Neither Joseph nor Nephi were terribly concerned about the economic, social, and political strains created by gathering and building. In both instances this created serious hardships for their people. It’s another reminder that we can well receive directives from heaven without receiving (or employing) the wisdom of how best to implement those directives. Their accounts make it quite clear that this was the case for both Joseph and Nephi. How much more so for me?

I can’t help but wonder: what would Laman & Lemuel have preferred Nephi to do? Despite their rhetoric, they obviously thought Nephi more than a fool. They found him dangerous. His visions were a continual threat to Laman’s plans and hopes and desires. Had Nephi not bent all his energy and ingenuity on building a ship, but instead united with Laman to build a life in this rich and fertile land—what kind of a home could they have acquired? Bountiful was undoubtedly different than Jerusalem, culturally and ecologically, but not even a fraction as different as Jerusalem and, say, ancient Guatemala. It’s hard not to feel the weight of Laman’s implied argument: Here there’s the possibility of a genuinely good life. Taking to the seas is a guarantee of further and perhaps even greater hardship than they’d already passed through in the last eight years. The line between revelation and insanity is never very clear; it must have looked a great deal like Nephi had crossed it.

That said, my own suspicion is that Bountiful’s other inhabitants and near neighbors would not have stood for the newcomers taking up this land. I suspect Laman’s desire for permanent settlement as a people was a pipe dream. Much like our early Mormons, their options were probably assimilation or annihilation—even if that choice hadn’t yet become clear to them.

12 comments for “Embodied Spirituality – Reading Nephi – 17:7-12

  1. I can understand and go along with your reasoning here. As I ponder on this situation, I wonder if, as you imply, settlement in this location would’ve been short-lived, but also still too close to Jerusalem. I suspect there were other reasons for leaving Jerusalem than exodus to a place, just as the LDS exodus was motivated as much by “you can’t stay here” as “go West, young saints.” Clan Lehi needed sufficient distance from “home” to become a ‘new’ people.

    As with many humans, Laman was still seeking, in effect, shortcuts to what he assumed was the goal of clan Lehi, but since he hadn’t put personal time into understanding the goal as Nephi had, he necessarily could not share the vision that guided Lehi and Nephi. So for Laman and Lemuel, yes visions were hallucinations and signs of madness. But as you have posited before, the eldest son is acting with a predatory patience for his moment.

  2. The only problem with writing outsiders into the narrative is just that—you have to write them in, in the wilderness, in Bountiful, and in the promised land. There are a few details that suggest the presence of others, but they are not compelling. The one instance when the Nephites do meet outsiders (the Mulekites), a big deal is made of it. Seems to me if Lehi’s traveling band had met strangers, it would be mentioned as significant. Same with the Nephites and Lamanites in the promised land. The narrative pretty much eliminates outsiders except where it mentions them specifically. It’s just the Nephites and Lamanites until the people of Zarahemla enter the picture. After that, it’s still primarily Nephites and Lamanites. Everything else is just reading stuff into the narrative.

  3. Yes, a literal interpretation of any text, espescially scriptures, is the only valid interpretation.

  4. Just to be more than a little bit pedantic, silence isn’t really about literalism. If we were literalists we’d say we don’t know. What gets called “literalism” is reading in cultural assumptions about what happened. So since the text doesn’t say it must mean what our community assumed it meant. Which when you stop and think about it is extremely anti-literalist.

  5. Reading a lot into it with what-ifs that dont really add to the story. Laman along with Nephi and the others were happy to finally rest and be in bountiful. Laman did not believe Nephi ws instructed of the Lord to build a ship nor did he believe Nephi could take on such a large task. Its the common story over and over again of Laman lacking faith and once again its Nephi convincing Laman of the error of his ways (along with God shaking them) until he comes down into repentance and helps Nephi. They all were pleased with their craftsmanship and entered the ship to continue their adventure knowing they were still on their journey and their destination had not yet been achieved.

  6. Except this narrative necessarily exists in, and stems from, a much larger cultural and historical context. I’ll take the criticism for calling an interpretation literal and not fully understanding what literal may mean. But absence of evidence is not evidencs of absence. North America was not an empty wilderness until clan Lehi arrived, and there’s no reason to believe the path clan Lehi traveled up to Bountiful was empty either. Not mentioning such details is not sufficient evidence they didn’t exist.

  7. Clark, I appreciate your pedantry. Rob, thank you for the incisive illustration of Clark’s point.

  8. Rob, I don’t disagree with most of what you write. And as we’ve discussed before I think James’ point in this series is to raise the “ifs” to see where we’re just bringing in assumptions the text doesn’t offer. Thinking through other ways to read the text that don’t make those assumptions is important – if only to showcase that the text is more ambiguous than we thought.

    I do think Laman and Lemuel liked Bountiful. I’d also agree they were in a certain sense lazy – not necessarily in the normal sense of the term but in terms of not wanting to go beyond their comfort zone.

    While I’m jumping ahead on James here, I’ve long found verse 22 interesting in terms of the increasingly common view of seeing a big theological divide between Laman & Lemuel and Nephi reflecting the theological divide between the prophets like Lehi and Jeremiah and the common view. It takes Nephi not just preaching at them but doing a miracle. They then humble themselves, but I’m not sure that means they were pleased to enter the boat. Just that they were willing to.

    With regards to people at Bountiful, I confess to having a hard time believing a fruitful area would be unpopulated. Maybe there wasn’t necessarily a permanent populace, but if they were there for a long time I’d be shocked if they didn’t meet others.

  9. You are bringing in assumptions that the text doesnt offer. Logically, they havent built a fire so they wouldnt be noticed. Then at Bountiful when he goes to make tools he builds a fire. The text doesnt offer one way or the other specifically but it can be inferred that because they now had fire that there wasnt anyone around. It can also be inferred that they all were proud of the ship and went into the ship wanting to test its ability. No complaints arise on the ship until the storm arises. In fact they were carrying on in a partying manner.

  10. Rob, I certainly agree. However when you say, “logically they haven’t built a fire so they wouldn’t be noticed” you’re doing the same thing. I’m more than willing to discuss such matters. But an other perfectly acceptable explanation would be “logically they haven’t built a fire because they didn’t have any wood.” And if they were on a regular route they’d be noticed whether they had fire or not. Ditto to your final point. To say they were proud of the ship and went in wanting to test its ability is pure conjecture. Again that’s fine. We have to do that. But let’s at least be honest about what we’re doing. It could easily be argued that they went into the ship because they’d been chastened by Nephi’s electric shock and because otherwise they’d be left behind alone.

  11. Clark,
    The only thing that matters is they went in the ship. They enjoyed Bountiful but they knew it wasnt the promised land. Nephi is the real hero here, a balance of physical strength, spiritual faith, and leadership getting the job done. It was truly humbling for Laman and Lemual when the ship is finished and Nephi, through Gods instructions, has completed the ship.

  12. I’m not sure that’s true. Certainly it’s the main thing that matters. But only thing? I think there’s a lot more going on here than it appears at first glance. But I’ll await the future posts to comment on that.

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