The Narrative of Divine Command – Reading Nephi – 17:13-15

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 17:13-15

This passage is paradigmatic of the careful crafting of Nephi’s narrative, reflective of those concerns dominating his life when he wrote it, and a passage that parades itself conspicuously. Two remarkable items: the repetition of Nephi’s mantra concerning the need to keep the commandments of God in order to prosper and to see the hand of the Lord; the placement of this mantra immediately preceding Laman’s criticism.

If we take Nephi’s account at face value, we have on multiple occasions had the fulfillment of the promise given in verse 13: miracles have taken place to assure them all that they really are led by God, that it is the hand of God that has spared their life and made it possible for them to reach their destination. Repeating that promise at this point in the narrative seems entirely superfluous. Why repeat it again when we’ve already seen it’s fulfillment so often in the narrative? Either here in Bountiful or later in the land of Nephi or perhaps most likely in both places, the decision to build a boat and continue journeying must have been a serious public issue. That is, it was a live controversy concerning whether they ought to sail across the waters—a controversy for the family in Bountiful or else a controversy for the family living in Nephi. I suspect that both the natural bounty of Bountiful as well as the harsh and unforgiving nature of carving out a life in an entirely new and exotic ecosystem in the New World called into question the wisdom of their trans-oceanic journey. [FN 1]

Nephi confronts this challenge with his adamant and oft-repeated claim that their journeying was a commandment of God, and with the claim that those who keep the commandments are inevitably able to see the miraculous hand of God and know that God led them. Again, this seems to argue that neither was clearly evident at the time of Nephi’s writing. I have a hard time not seeing Brigham Young’s leading the saints West as clearly necessary and just as obviously an example of divine intervention and preservation. Belief in that fact is firm in my gut, and from where I stand my reason affirms that gut. That said, I find it healthy to gaze upon and ponder these events from other heights as well. John Turner’s volume on Brigham Young is a wonderful example of such other heights. Imagining myself starving with my ancestors, eeking by on mostly dandelion greens and prickly pears in one of Utah’s valleys is another such height. Thinking about the theft of lands, the murder at Mormon hands, and the close of an era of native people’s sovereignty and prosperity is another still. I suspect that there were just as compelling multiple accounts and reasons to wonder at Nephi’s narrative of divine command and intervention.

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  1. It strikes me as likely that Bountiful was both an ultimately hostile and untenable social climate AND that retrospectively, gazing from the brutal conditions of their settlements in the Americas, Bountiful looked awfully good. This wouldn’t be terribly different than the historical romanticizing we’re all quite familiar with today.

8 comments for “The Narrative of Divine Command – Reading Nephi – 17:13-15

  1. Why do you think America looked bad? The main crisis was over who’d succeed Lehi as leader. But beyond that 2 Nephi 5 has Nephi gushing about how great it is. I’d have to imagine that compared to arid Palestine and Arabia that America truly did look like the land of promise. So we have Nephi saying, “we did prosper exceedingly; for we did sow seed, and we did reap again in abundance. And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind.” (5:11) The main problem is war by “the people who were now called Lamanites.”

    I’m sure compared to most of Arabia Bountiful looked great. Compared to a real lush area? It probably pales in comparison. That said, I suspect that if Bountiful is a small oasis in the desert, there’d be conflict over its resources even if not mentioned in the text.

  2. The dispute between Laman, lemual and Nephi and Lehi always comes down to one of faith. Laman and Lemual lacked faith and were very quick to forget or unable to see Gods hands and miracles in their lives. Nephi is making the point here that it requires fait, diligence and obedience- constant course corrections, humbling oneself before God and remembering to acknowledge Gods hands and miracles. This stopage and dissertation by Nephi is just that. Laman and Lemual have already forgotten to recognize the many miracles already in their journey. So, what do they do? They again lack faith and mock Nephi not believing the power of God to help them build a ship. Nephi brings them to realize the Hand of God and for a time they humble themselves and believe Nephi and the power of God in helping them build a ship.

  3. Clark, I don’t think it works to simply say that Arabia’s climate was harsh while meso-America’s was lush, especially since Arabia’s climate was far less harsh 2600 years ago than it is today, and even today it comfortably supports life. One’s knowledge of local flora & fauna—not to mention disease—which isn’t developed overnight—is critical to survival. Which doesn’t even bring in the cultural differences of locals. In our day of travel it’s hard to recognize the psychological disruption of not only moving, but moving to an entirely different ecosystem and climate and culture. The record doesn’t say much about any of this. You’re right, Nephi focuses on food—which is a subject of an upcoming post—and notes that they didn’t starve. But I don’t think this is much of a case that they were comfortable. All of Nephi’s happy-talk in II Ne 5 didn’t convince Jacob in 7:26.

    But that’s not the argument of this passage. This post is trying to think through the logic of the passage. Why make a deal of this here in the record? I think Rob’s insight is correct, that this was a point of contemporary tension (Zeniff makes this clear in Mosiah 12 where he details the various grievances that the Lamanites had against the Nephites). Nephi needed to justify their leaving Bountiful. Why on earth would he need to do that? The only clue we get as to why that might have been an issue—especially in the wake of an amazing, miraculous, successful sea voyage—is that the promised land wasn’t as dreamy as they’d anticipated (and as we romanticize).

  4. James, I think Jacob’s existential angst in 7:26 is much more due to the war and the time in the wilderness prior to the new land. It’s worth noting again that after the Lehites find their promised land, they’re forced to leave due to the conflict with the Lamanites upon Lehi’s death. I think that issue of having no fixed home and being constantly under threat is the main issue for Jacob.

    While Arabia’s climate was different 2600 years ago, I’m not sure the Yemen area was lush. My understanding is that Yemen’s agricultural prowess was primarily due to irrigation. At least according to Wikipedia.

    I just don’t think we know enough about the Lamanite grievances at the time to say too much. Since we’re missing the 116 pages (or as Don Bradley argues – over 200 pages) that deal with the temporal history by Mormon it’s hard to say much. All I can say is that 2 Nephi 5 seems to be pretty positive and effulgent. Jacob to my reading is disappointed primarily because of the spiritual state of things along with the wars. His concern isn’t their worldly wealth. Indeed Jacob 2 seems to acknowledge just how good the land has been for them in such a short time. (Jacob 2:13)

    But I do agree that Nephi needs to justify leaving, but that makes sense when a guy who has never sailed builds a boat. I mean just on common sense grounds that’d take a lot of justification. Plus while I suspect Bountiful wasn’t as nice as the promised land, it sure what nicer than most of what they’d been through getting there. I rather imagine they thought things were about to get rough again. The part that seems strange to me is much more the celebration on the boat – but I assume that’s your next post.

  5. What’s more American than rednecks getting drunk on a boat? I know, I know, gross oversimplification. Anyway, Clark Goble, I can appreciate your alternate reading; you make persuasive points. James Olsen, I grock the OP and your response to Clark Goble, especially since I’m trying on dialectal reasoning in my old age. Rob Osborn, Laman and Lemuel have become fairly predictable at this point, at least through Nephi’s eyes. I believe Nephi might say “ad nauseum” about his older brothers, if Nephi spoke Latin. Au revoir, y’all.

  6. “..,miracles have taken place to assure them all that they really are led by God…”

    Matthew 16:4, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah”. Jesus then left them and went away.

    The truth is the truth, whether there are miracles or not.

  7. David, while Jesus says that it’s also interesting how the gospels emphasize miracle narratives as evidence Jesus was Jesus. So there’s an interesting tension even inherent to the Gospel of Matthew. It’s also an interesting question what “sign of Jonah” means here. Typologically Matthew sees it as Jonah’s being in the fish for three days and ties it to the three days before Jesus was resurrected. But contextually it makes no sense as those looking for a sign don’t see Jesus resurrected. The people Jonah was to preach to didn’t see the miracle of Jonah’s survival. So even here this tension persists. There’s the idea of a miracle with a miracle narrative as being so important. Yet the miracle itself is withheld.

  8. Both locales were similar in that they were green and lush. But, the Promised Land was more so, especially if we imagine it as Mesoamerica–which I do. And this leads me to another possible reason for Nephi’s purposeful description of the two: It could be that he’s intuitively expressing an exodus pattern in his narrative. And, if so, it would be at this particular point where one goes from paradise to an even more abundant existence.

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