God’s Demand That We Suffer – Reading Nephi – 17:17-22

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 17:17-22

Considering their security concerns, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Laman here. The Lehites have just undergone eight years of hardship before finally coming to the coast—there’s no visible way of continuing. I suspect that there were fishers and others in boats nearby, but even so, trans-oceanic passage was undoubtedly unheard of. There’s no reason for Laman and the others to even suspect that there’s land on the other side of that incomprehensible expanse of water. Mormon sci-fi authors might offer a kind of analogy. Sure, we all know about NASA and SpaceX and the like. But can we imagine our prophet declaring that he’s received revelation to build a space ship and travel to another planet? We’ve no reason to even suspect that there’s another inhabitable planet within traveling distance. I don’t care what kind of faith you have, Nephi’s idea on the face of it is loony.

In this context, it’s telling that Nephi immediately precedes his account of the attempted Laman-et-al coup with this passage about God initiating the shipbuilding. He focuses on two key themes: If you keep the commandments you prosper (and if you don’t you won’t); and once you reach the promised land, then you’ll know that I the Lord God brought you out of Jerusalem. The latter in particular is conspicuous. Again, if we take the narrative at face value, then Laman and Lemuel and the others have had multiple divine manifestations, multiple opportunities to know that it is the Lord that initiated their exodus and has sustained them during their travels. I’m tempted to launch into a counter-narrative that makes rationally plausible Laman’s witnessing angels and hearing the voice of the Lord and experiencing the various miracles, and yet disbelieve that it was in fact God commanding them to cross the ocean. Instead, I’ll simply note that this odd placement in the narrative of God’s declaration that once they’ve reached the promised land, then will they all know that God has brought them there from Jerusalem—if nothing else, it signifies that the decision to get in a boat and travel to the New World remained a controversial move in the older Nephi’s day. Whatever else is taking place, Nephi is clearly seeking political unity, which requires the trip from Bountiful to Nephi to have been inspired. This in turn signals that the Promised Land was not a land flowing with milk and honey. There are only two such flowing lands mentioned in the scriptures: Jerusalem and Bountiful.

It’s interesting that here Laman employs the epithet that Nephi is like his father. Bountiful isn’t Jerusalem, but it’s another place of permanence and prosperity where they might enjoy their possessions and be happy. This line makes it easy to read Laman as a mere hedonist (perhaps because Nephi’s intentionally portraying him that way with the words he has Laman say). I think it’s more valuable to read Laman as instead taking a position like Aristotle: happiness and flourishing require a minimum level of one’s needs being met. Grinding poverty or chronic lack of food or wandering in the wilderness for eight years without stability or even fires—none of these are conducive to living in happiness. Maybe Laman really is murmuring about his lack of luxury. But he’s surely also murmuring about their lack of basic necessities.

What’s more, I don’t think that the proper response is to challenge Laman on this front. In fact, I think he’s actually right. The gospel is hard—and not in the abstract way in which today we get online and tell our ideological foes to suck it up because the gospel is hard. Rather, the gospel is hard because it literally demands—at least at times—that we sacrifice and live at a level below what one can reasonably claim is necessary for an adequate life. Lehi and Saraiah gave up far more than just their possessions when they left Jerusalem. In addition to their health and comfort, they gave up their family unity, much of their heritage and traditions and community, any notion of stability, any local notions of what the good life was. Ezra Booth wasn’t delusional in his recognition of Mormonism’s extreme lack of polish and Zion’s lack of display of any sign of bounty or utopia. Our pioneer ancestors sacrificed far more materially than we do today, and the poor back then suffered far more than our poor today. Black members were asked to give up far more than merely holding the priesthood pre-1978 (and continue to be asked to give up more than others with whom they share the pews). Gay members are asked for far more than mere celibacy. The demands for sacrifice are not symmetric and as far as I can see there’s nothing fair about them. Failing to recognize this point—perhaps in our Nephionic zeal to defend the claim that God in fact is leading us—we can easily misrecognize the actual situation that mortality places us in, miss what our covenants demand of us, and miss the humanity of our sisters and brothers who struggle.

On the other hand, it’s a mistake to make too much of the asymmetry. Nephi’s personality and certainly his outlook were much more conducive to weathering the trials that Lehi’s family underwent—that is, it might well have been harder both psychologically and physically for Laman than it was for Nephi—but it’s romantic nonsense to think that Nephi didn’t likewise sacrifice. Just as it’s nonsense to think that men don’t likewise suffer with the asymmetric burden we place on women in the church today. Simply because one’s suffering is less than another’s is no reason to dismiss that suffering.

Just as with Nephi and Laman, some of the sacrifice and suffering we undergo occurs because God demands it of us. And frequently it occurs on account of our reaction to God’s demands.

The rhetoric of the older Nephi is often laced with bitterness, as I think it is here. I can taste the remnants of Nephi’s bitterness at the actions of Laman and Lemuel. Nephi, in addition to offering an ethic that makes our sacrifice of happiness and life worthwhile, seems also to retreat from this world and its difficulties and inevitable disappointments. I suspect that the intense conflict experienced at Bountiful—let alone the levels of conflict seen in the Promised Land following Lehi’s death—is not what the young Nephi had in mind when the angel told him back near Jerusalem that he would become a ruler and a teacher over his brethren. Nephi suffered.

Which makes me wonder: given the poignant levels of disappointment through which we’re called to wade in this life, how do we live as faithfully as Nephi while still affirming this world (and not, as he seems to have done, retreating from it)? How do we make such faith more than an ideal to strive toward? How do we obtain the goods of the covenant as well as the goods of the world in which we are and will be immersed for the duration of our lives?

We get the briefest of glimpses into Nephi’s soul here. He wasn’t impervious to his brother’s criticism. It depressed him. Exceedingly. Nephi often paints himself two dimensionally—a flat, heroic figure. But the reality of the much richer Nephi is unmistakable.

The last word of verse twenty-two is a gem. Despite our movies and paintings, this is not a scene where Nephi, working alone, confronts an unruly mob of brothers and in-laws. As we’ve already seen, and as we will see again on the ocean and again in Nephi, there are factions. Nephi—inevitably—was an us.

15 comments for “God’s Demand That We Suffer – Reading Nephi – 17:17-22

  1. Here is where I simply cannot agree with seeing Laman’s point of view vis a vis being commanded of the Lord to do things. Laman is, if we believe anything in the narrative, utterly unwilling to accept truth or excercise any degree of faith. Let’s look just one chapter back, when Laman, reasonable man that he is, is talking about killing his brother. You know, as one does:

    38 Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and after he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger.

    Dude, you SAW THE ANGEL! Don’t be saying that Nephi “lies unto us”. You yourself actually beheld an angel. Not to mention that after this wonderful little display of Laman refusing to believe things that he himself experienced, the Lord chastened them with His own voice. So RIGHT before this ship business, Laman directly experienced something that should have told him that a.) he should be having some dang faith and b.) it’s entirely in line with their journey that the Lord should direct them to do things. He sent them back to Jerusalem to get the plates, sent an ANGEL to tell them to stop their nonsense, delivered the plates into their hands, had them seek out Ishmael and his family to go with them (didn’t notice any griping about that one), chastised them with His own voice, etc.

    This is, I think, part of the “bitterness” of Nephi. What other witnesses do you need, Laman and Lemuel? Also, recall that Nephi already knows that Laman’s descendants will ultimately wipe out his descendants. Laman, the liar and would be murderer, who utterly refuses to do anything he’s commanded to do unless “convinced” or even threatened to do so. This man, who will teach his children to hate and kill his brother’s children, must infuriate Nephi. I cannot fault Nephi for being bitter later in life as he sees these wars with the Lamanites while knowing that, although he’s right, ultimately his side will lose and be destroyed. Utterly. That is a terribly hard pill to swallow.

  2. I think Laman’s complaints make sense. However I have to agree that if Nephi is even moderately accurate in the description of miraculous events – particularly the angel – that it’s hard to really understand Laman. Yeah it sucks, but what exactly does Laman think was going on? Particularly with the Liahona. Now there’s some indication that the narrative on the lost pages fills a lot in here. Particularly there’s an argument that the Liahona was kept in a portable temple and only Lehi or Nephi entered into the equivalent of the Holy of Holies to consult it. If so that might increase some of Laman’s skepticism – particularly if he never actually sees the Liahonah. However the angel part is much harder to understand.

    We have to acknowledge that Nephi is almost certainly using typology to fit his narrative to the Exodus narrative where the wicked Israelites see tons of miracles and turn away from them. So Laman is typologically akin to those people (which in turn has a type of what’s going on politically in Jerusalem with leadership literally allying themselves with Egypt and Laman apparently being one of those). So there may be some typological distortion at work. Still I think we have to accept that the miracles happened in this first person account, which does make Laman’s actions difficult to be sympathetic towards.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks. It’s as if one of you (Clark or J) has considered the *Book of Laman* or at least some of its same postulates, while the other of you has not. I, you, us implies a place for each individual’s pov but also the necessity to share them. Of course in the cited scripture, there is the us versus them dynamic, which throws away a notion of sharing. And then there’s a blog like this that permits “charitable” comments from you’s and I’s.

  4. Why must we read this extra stuff in? From the point where Laman and Lemual humble themselves and build the ship and get on it there isnt any text saying they complained during that process. Thus I have a hard time trying to understand all this extra dialogue folks make up that distorts the original text and intent.

  5. I think the angel part is quite easy to understand. There are plenty of times in the Old Testament people encounter angels – even “the Angel of the LORD” and don’t recognize it as an angel, or are unsure until some sign is given. For example, see in Judges where Samson’s parents are unsure – the mom thinks it might be the Angel of the Lord, or it just might be some holy man of some sort. The father is less sure – until the angel ascends to heaven, and then the father is all “We shall surely die, because we have seen God!” – it wasn’t until the angel did something only an angel could do that they realized it really was some sort of heavenly messenger or YHWH’s avatar or whatever.

    Perhaps the visitation wasn’t as spectacular or unambiguous as we like to think, and Laman and Lemuel could write it off as some self-styled holy man siding with the self-righteous Nephi, rather than a glowing being in robes descending from the skies in power and glory.

  6. Living the gospel is hard i guess, but in this context they are literally escaping rape and death.
    Living the gospel may be hard, (physically) but there is no price too high to conquer satan and or physical harm from sin.

  7. I agree with Ivan. I like the idea of a “plain clothes” angel appearing to the brothers. The real miracle could be that a complete stranger somehow had an intimate understanding of their situation and was able to offer meaningful counsel on how to proceed. IMO, such an encounter would have been miraculous enough to induce faith but no so powerful as to coerce belief.

  8. Deconstructing a text, particularly such a “devotional” text as the B of Mormon (from Jonathan Green’s OP on readings of scripture), is something I was trained to do in college. If I look back, even LDS seminary was training me to deconstruct spiritual texts, only it was called “likening the scriptures unto us.” To a certain extent, deconstruction is an intuitive exercise for most humans, but not all.

    Nephi strikes me as an intuitive, perhaps even more deliberate, deconstructionist. Perhaps this helps him navigate otherwise complex situations which may confuse and intimidate other humans.

    So far the substance of this conversation reminds me of James Olsen’s OP on Elder Rasband’s talk “By divine design.” (sorry, fuzzy contextual boundaries). Some recognize the “tender mercies” of the Lord in their life path, others call it “proof texting.” I won’t force people to see what they won’t see; that’s been a hard lesson for me, and I still pay for it, which kind of makes me bitter sometimes. But charity is the 3rd in the triumvirate of “faith, hope, and charity,” and perhaps the biggest challenge, even for a person like Nephi.

  9. My apologies to Nathaniel Givens for attributing his OP on Elder Rasband’s general conference talk to James Olsen. I may have fuzzy contextual boundaries, but details are still important.

  10. “I can taste the remnants of Nephi’s bitterness at the actions of Laman and Lemuel.”

    I don’t detect bitterness in Nephi. Maybe regret, and some honesty.

  11. Yeah, I suspect Nephi’s not completely fair to Laman and Lemuel but I don’t sense bitterness so much as regret and sadness.

  12. I was in a Sunday School class once in which the teacher talked about how much faith it would have taken for Nephi et al to get on a ship and launch off into the unknown, as you have explained so well in this post. I remember thinking that it would have taken more faith to let Laman and Lemuel get on the ship with you. Did Nephi ever consider leaving them behind? It would have saved so much hardship and war later on. And, as you mention, there was an “us” — there were factions, entire groups. Why not leave L&L in Bountiful?

    And yet cause and effect are not serial when faith is involved. “and once you reach the promised land, then you’ll know that I the Lord God brought you out of Jerusalem.” Once you fulfill everything God said to do, then you know he was the one commanding you. Nephi knew L&L’s seed would destroy his own seed, but he apparently never thought about trying to dodge that prophecy by leaving L&L on the seashore. That’s some pretty impressive obedience.

    Maybe Nephi was bitter. I don’t think he paints himself as the hero all the time. He’s earned the right to be sick and tired of L&L. I don’t think any less of him for it. In fact, I want to meet him in the afterlife, and we can trade stories about frustrating cruel people who would simply never change, no matter how many chances they got and how much evidence there was that they were wrong. He won’t tell me that I have to be more forgiving and just have a great attitude no matter what. He gets it, and it’s fine with me if some of the bitterness, emotional exhaustion and pain shows through sometimes. I’ve felt that way too.

  13. Melinda W, you just taught me that ” likening the scriptures unto us” doesn’t just cross time and place, but gender. Human experience is human experience.

  14. Yes, getting on that ship took some serious faith/confidence. Interestingly, as skeptical as L&L are initially, and as over the top as their reaction is to Nephi’s exhortation to help him (they want to throw him into the sea), by the time Nephi has told them to “touch me not,” (v48) they are not ready to disregard what he says and risk withering like a dry reed. It seems that at that point they have felt the “Spirit of God” (v52), are even willing to help him build the ship, and do so for “many days.” It’s not clearly stated, so perhaps they are only avoiding him at that point, and don’t start helping until after he shocks them.

    God in fact tells Nephi, though, to give them a demonstration again that he is in fact doing God’s will in asking his brothers to help build the ship: he says to shock them, and they are ready to worship him after this demonstration. God acknowledges how big an ask it is to have everyone sail off into the unknown, and acts to assure even the stubborn L&L.

    Yes, Melinda, I love your point that it was a huge ask for Nephi to accept L&L on the ship! Thank you for that insight!

    And yet, as often as they rebelled, they also have these moments of humility and cooperation and belief. Once they’ve helped build the ship, how can Nephi leave his own brothers behind? 70 times 7.

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