The Children of Israel – Reading Nephi – 17:23-47 – Part II

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 17:23-47

Our fathers (note: in Hebrew this would be fathers or parents) were the children of Israel.

Nephi is preoccupied throughout the narrative with this central fact, which is foundational to his attempt to hold his people as a people and to hold them as a people of God. There’s a great deal that’s built into this central claim, which Nephi relates to the Nephites: God loved our ancestors. God covenanted with them. God proved his love and remembrance in the Exodus. God is proving now, with us, that he continues to love all those who will have him to be their God. Hence if we are righteous, then we can’t help but be led and miraculously blessed. Regardless of the wretchedness of the conditions in which we labor.

This is a powerful ethic. I feel its pull deeply. But there is a second half, a dark side: God punishes the unrighteous. On the one hand, this ethic offers a powerful motivation to repent and to be righteous, to cling to God, especially in the midst of trial. It counteracts the absence or hiddenness of God or the “natural man’s” struggle to perceive God. On the other hand, it leads easily to the prosperity gospel. To the dehumanization of the Canaanites. To the dehumanization of the natives of the New World with their dark skin. To the breeding a Nephionic form of racism.

The whole point of a text like Job is that the most righteous among us might be struck lower than all—and struck precisely not for the reasons for suffering that Nephi here articulates. The dark side overwhelms Nephi’s ethic if we can’t keep the fact of Job as a central pillar. Without Job, Nephi’s claims here can only be read as pernicious. Can we hold to the motivational potency of the first part of Nephi’s account and marry it to Job in the second?

Verse 32 sounds to me like it’s written for a contemporary audience, for the Nephites in Nephi worried about the other inhabitants of the New World. Worried about how much more numerous they were. Worried and self-conscious about their own status as squatters and usurpers. (Maybe it’s my own worries in the midst of a populous Babylon that make Nephi’s comments here sound so.) Nephi focuses on the unrighteousness of the Canaanites, perhaps paralleling his thoughts of the New World’s natives. This might well explain the Nephite’s racism and unwillingness to intermingle—note how different this is than the Lamanites who clearly didn’t hold these views about un/righteousness and do not seem to have harbored Nephionic racism (which explains not only their darker skin but also the fact of their always being so much more numerous than the Nephites). That said, note how utterly different this form of Nephionic racism is from the racism that has and continues to plague the US. Nephi and his people may well have been repulsed by a darker shade of skin, much as white America. But they never developed 19th century notions of racial inferiority. Anytime the dark skinned Lamanites convert in the Book of Mormon, they’re not only readily accepted, but esteemed and held high as examples. A reasonable parallel might be loathsome atheists (or evangelicals or Muslims or Jews or whoever) who are put on a public pedestal and championed by Mormons when they convert today. Hence in verse 35 God esteems all flesh in one. Divine favoritism only runs along the axis from righteous to unrighteous (compare with II Nephi 26:33).

Again we get a focus on water—water as a meeting point of heaven and earth; water as battleground of good and evil: the Red Sea, the smitten rock, the River of Jordan, the sea at Bountiful. These sites of water are sites of miracles, and the focus of the narrative is a pointed critique of Laman. It’s not simply that God miraculously led Israel just as he is miraculously leading Lehi; but also, that Israel, even after all of these miracles, hardened her heart, blinded her mind, and reviled against God. Water as the source of life; water as the filthy depths in which we drown.

Final question: what does it mean for the earth to be God’s footstool?

34 comments for “The Children of Israel – Reading Nephi – 17:23-47 – Part II

  1. Meaningful OP. I would postulate tribalism in place of racism, however, though there may not be a lot of difference. I also don’t think this tribalism originates with Nephi, but is at least a quasi-religious tradition going all the way back in Israelite lineage to Abraham, who sent a servant some distance to find a mate for Isaac so he could marry in the covenant, as their present location was similarly among strangers

    In fact, I waa given the impression through LDS seminary that Lehi invited Ishmael’s clan into their journey precisely to ensure mating among his children with others in the covenant ( the covenant here being the Abrahamic covenant).

  2. Not sure where this conjecture is all coming from. “Natives” in the new world? Thats a secular understanding as the Nephite record makes no claim of natives. Where do peopke come up with this stuff? Certainly not from the BoM text.

  3. I mean, c’mon, everytime the Nephites do find a new people or evidence of their remains they put it in their record. If there really were “natives” in the new world woulldnt you think Nephi would have mentioned them? Without no doubt! He would have wanted to know who they were, how they got there, what their circumstances were and most important- their knowledge of God and if they wanted to convert to their religion. But no, no record of that story exists, there were no natives in the new world that Nephi and company came to or saw. And, Nephi wasnt racist either.

  4. Mr. Osborn, the scriptural text does not explicitly mention something, so it does not exist, correct? I must admit that your POV is valid, but there are so many other considerations I have to pay attention to that I feel I cannot see with just one POV, not even just my own.

  5. Since this was written prior to their arrival in the promised land, I think it makes more sense that Nephi was thinking more in the vein of what would happen when they got there.

    In regards to your question, one explanation I’ve read indicates that the footstool is where the lord rests. If we sin, we defile the footstool, it is no longer worthy of the Lord’s rest and he abandons it. However, I don’t tend to like the idea of the Lord abandoning the earth. Since the verse in question specifically talks about the Lord’s throne being heaven and the earth being a footstool, the imagery seems to reaffirm the greatest of God.

  6. Jerry,
    I find it quite telling that Lehi is commanded of the Lord for Nephi and his brothers to return and get Ishmael and his family so that they can raise up seed in the promised land. If there were natives in the promised land couldnt they just wait?

  7. @Robert Osborn

    “If there were natives in the promised land couldnt they just wait?”
    Not if they wanted to preserve their culture and religion.

  8. Cameron,
    But, according to those who believe there were natives in the new world, some of them went with Nephi and company to establish the land of Nephi. Certainly they intermingled. But, I realize this couldnt be either because the Nephites stayed white while the Lamanites turned dark skinned. So, it really creates a problem. Did the natives who went with Nephi and company not intermingle their seed- kinda stayed in their own tribe marrying only their own? That just creates more problems because the dark skin was a sign or way for the Nephites not to mix their seed with the Lamanites. It must have got confusing right away having the dark skinned natives with them- how would they tell them apart from the bad dark skinned people?

  9. Robert,

    I think you are being too absolute in your reading, putting too much weight on generalities expressed by ancient prophets and extrapolating too much. Surely their words along these lines refer to the majority or supermajority rather than every last individual.
    Also, surely the voyage itself was long enough to warrant not postponing marriage if children and families are so important to the Lord. Sometimes we ask shallow questions because we aren’t being thorough enough. EG how would they tell them apart from bad dark skinned people? Think about how you do this in real life–it isn’t that hard. How would you tell a ‘black’ person in the US apart from somebody from Chad, apart from a 2nd generation Mexican American, apart from a polynesian, apart from a dark-skinned korean person, apart from a fair skinned person obsessed with tanning? Not that hard, color/value is just one variable in our visual world. There is also form, proportion, size, texture, etc.

  10. Robert, please go back and re-read the revised introduction to the Book of Mormon. The introduction was changed in 2006. Where the Lamanites were once THE ancestors of the American Indians, the Church now considers them to be AMONG the ancestors of the American Indians. This is not recent news. Why are you being contentious about a dead issue?

  11. If it was so important to keep their genes “clean” in order to preserve their religion and culture, they sure did a lousy job of it. Like 100% failure. Today the tools of molecular biology tell us the result.

    Let us consider a group of 20 to 40 Hebrews from two extended families (and Zoram) coming to a new land and only intermarrying with each other 95% of the time. Let us further consider that when they do mate with the natives, they are unsuccessful in preserving their culture and religion 95% of the time. Let us allow these customs to continue for centuries. What do these selective forces look like in the DNA of their descendants? Is not this the very opposite of genetic dilution, of genetic drift and genetic shift?

    We can’t have it both ways. The first generation had to refrain from intermarrying to preserve belief and genes. Yet every apologetic explanation based in science for the absence of Hebrew DNA in all tribes of Native Americans rests on the smallest numbers of founders and early frequent mixing to achieve the degree of dilution, drifting and shifting for gene frequencies to go down to zero. This is crucial for nothing distinctive of Hebrew origin at all to remain in the genetic material studied to date. While the number of genes now known in these studies continues to multiply. Finally, this increasing implausible string of ubiquitous genetic disappearances had to happen, not once, not twice, but three times (Lehites, Mulekites, Jaredites).

    Aside from molecular biology, I really cannot get around passages like 2 Nephi 1:5-11. How much more plain and simple and repetitive does it get- that the land was empty and preserved for their posterity? When we have to change the meaning of these passages (and several others liken unto it) to the degree (from 0% to 100%) that allows even the small sliver of literal plausibility that we reach for with biased genetic arguments, we make it hard to take any passage at face value. We can make it say whatever suits our needs. We have become gold medalists in rhetorical gymnastics.

    Precise, straight-forward interpretations of the Book of Mormon are no longer plausible. I think the outrageous idea- that a common peasant who was taught to read, could understand God’s word in scripture- is a Protestant idea. The Book of Mormon account is obviously not literally accurate in a scientific sense and its value is entirely in what we want to make it say. It is platform upon which to construct our teachings and doctrine.

    Since the topic of this string is the love and blessings of God given to us across generations (not DNA problems of the Book of Mormon now over 20 years old and growing more difficult) and even though I am with Rob Osborn in principle, let us keep quiet for now and move forward with inspirational conjecture. Racism is certainly far from dead in American South and probably elsewhere.

  12. I think its important to read the text as it stands and not insert secular beliefs into the text. Scholars want to insert the whole “natives” into tge BoM text because their secular beliefs and understanding require them to do so. For instance- secular understanding is that native populations migrated to the Americas and spread throught both North and South America some 20-30,000 years ago. So, for the secular LDS scholar to make the Book of Mormon work within this framework (yes, secular understanding requires it from this side first) he must somehow insert these “natives” into the text. But, it doesnt just stop there, no. In the process they must also explain things like the color of the Lamanites skin changing from a secular understanding and in so doing discount the prophets and their understanding and relationship with God. Thus, it all works to undermine the validity if the book itself. It was thus wisdom by the Lord that Joseph was untrained in secularism when he translated the Book of Mormon. Secular history has flat out gotten the ancient history of the Americas wrong. Pretty much completely wrong! And yet, it doesnt seem to matter for LDS secular scholars, they just keep making adjustments to the interpretation until the BoM peoples become a small minority in the Americas amongst other greater cultures. Its not long before they will all be relegated to a microscopic isolated tribe that had no contact or influence on all the other supposed bigger cultures tgey were contemporary with. At that point (its actually already happening) they already have both feet out the door of our religion and they become critics of their own religion.

    Lets drop secular understanding and read the BoM how its supposed to be read. There were no native populations in the vicinity of where the Nephites and Lamanites were. The mark of dark skin that came upon the Lamanites wasnt from mixing their seed with a native population. You dont have to have hundreds or thousands of people to begin having wars and preaching tge gospel. The text needs to be read with the idea that the Nephites and Lamanites were isolated from any others until they found the Mulekites in Zarahemla.

  13. Norther Virginia,
    We cant assume that after the destruction of the Nephites and Lamanites that God didnt bring any other people to America. In fact the scriptures tellus the opposite- that once they ripen for destruction they are destroyed and God brings other people into the land. So, its no surprise that the Americas now have become the blending pot from peoples all over the world. We have no record as of yet what happened between the destruction of the Nephites and the explorers finding the Americas almost a 1,000 years later.

  14. Rob and I seem to agree upon what the Book of Mormon says.
    Mostly. Except for example “…the BoM peoples become a small minority in the Americas…” I think so small of a minority that they were never even there. Invisibly small.

    We might part ways on how much science gets it right.

    My remarkably curious son became interested in the archeology merit badge for most of a year about 15 years ago. A professor at a leading university was his merit badge counselor. He understood the part of scouting that teaches to “do my best” and he treated my son like he was one of his special graduate students. We went to lectures, seminars and we participated in an excavation of an Indian village dated to about 900 AD. (Thousands of similar projects are conducted every summer. North America is about the most excavated place anywhere). On the family summer trip to Utah we met a geologist and spent a few days at the Dinosaur National Monument and then out in the desert rock hunting. We found some very interesting fossils, to us anyway.

    What I gained from these experiences is that although archeological science is not perfect, it is extremely rational and convincing. To make bold, sweeping statements against it requires dismissing the life work of hundreds of extremely intelligent and sincerely dedicated people over more than a century with no shared axes to grind. (Like a narrative of a sacred text). They say, “the bones don’t lie.” Science is self-correcting and in no other field is this more obvious than archeology. To dismiss and overthrow it with virtually no sound evidence beyond revelation is also quite audacious.

    How is the Book of Mormon supposed to be read? More precisely how am I supposed to read it? I read it more than 50 times when younger. But I stopped reading it so much; that was the only way I could continue to still believe a little bit in it. And that was quite a long time ago.

    This schism is a microcosm of the problems that have torn most of Christianity apart into the literal-conservative churches and the allegorical-progressive churches and beyond. I wonder how long the LDS faith can weather this storm. How we treat the Rob Osborns among us and how they treat the free-thinkers like me might provide a sort of prophecy of the ultimate outcome of this struggle.

  15. Mike,
    Trust me, Im as free thinking as they come. In fact my own views on American archeology and history are parallel to no other LDS I have come across. I learned a long time ago that even in archaeology and anthropology most of their conclusions are based on conjecture. It led me to the premise of- either they are right and the Book of Mormon is false or the Book of Mormon is true and they are wrong. The evidence itself leads me to believe the latter.

  16. For Rob Osborn, it seems that “free thinking” means free to think whatever he wants and place that above science, experts, experience, etc. Trailblazer. Bold. Doubt him at your own peril. We have his word. Trust him.

    Like most thinkers of this type, there is also one remarkable thing that always works in their favor: the very absence of evidence tends to supports their conclusions.

    Without fail, every time James Olsen posts, Rob Osborn will be one the first commenters to correct the post and enlighten us. He almost never comments on any other post. I understand, he is an expert in this field.

  17. Brian:

    I am also guilty as charged in your first two paragraphs. Now that we have that all cleared up, maybe I should apologize for making the thread jack worse and we can get back to the ideas proposed by Bro. Olsen. I will try to keep my”free-thinking” under tabs here for at least a few hours.

    Except allow me one last snarky excuse. The absence of evidence in archeology never stops the conclusions of our apologists. Thus we see it is not a rare logical flaw.

  18. Mike, I agree that apologists should not draw conclusions from lack of evidence. And I agree with most of your thoughts. And while you might be a “free-thinker” in the traditional sense of preferring logic and reason, Rob is clearly not, as I was trying to point out–but perhaps we are getting into semantics here.

  19. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. No evidence of black swans existed in Europe prior to Clumbus, so it was assumed black swans did not exist. Then black swans were observed in the “new” world.

    Science has not exhausted the potential research yet, at least from my limited point of view. In fact, I feel gratified to learn every new theory that validates (in my opinion) teachings of Jesus and ancient prophets. For me these human discoveries act in a way like similar observations made by Alma as he spoke to Korihor the would-be anti-Christ, “But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true.”

    But I respect that Mr. Osborn has a differing view, just as each of y’all have had differing views. I don’t wish to consider any view invalid, especially if it’s different than my own. This is not to brag, but to encourage open-minded dialogue.

  20. Brian,
    This whole time I have been posting with reason and logic. James certainly has his own views that go so far outside of the bounds I cant help but say something. I think the real serious questions have to be answered instead of just throwing things inbetween the lines that arent supported by the text. If there really were natives, then how come no mention of them? The text actually says the opposite.
    I could throw out my own ideas that I feel are bound in solid reason and logic. But, to do so one must discard certain aspects of secularism to a high degree. I feel our approach has been so far off, especially for LDS scholars. We have blinders on for sure.

  21. Brian & Mike – the significance of absence really depends upon how much search one has done. To draw an analogy if you have a big bag of marbls finding no red marbles after a few samples doesn’t tell us much. If you’ve checked more than a 100 marbles it starts to be more significant. So by way of analogy I think the evidence against horses or bows in the main period of the Book of Mormon is pretty compelling. The implication is that the words likely were applied by the Nephites to other similar objects like Tapirs or atlatls. So the argument from silence is only a fallacy in some cases and gets into the probabilistic nature of induction.

    My objection to Robert is that he pretty well rejects all evidence that goes against how he wants to read the text. But that’s not worth really debating anymore. I just think him profoundly wrong on that point since of course the evidence for inhabitants in America living continuously here for more than 10,000 years is so overwhelming that denying it is akin to denying the earth being round in preference to the old Hebrew cosmological conception. When you can’t inject evidence into the discussion, what’s the point of discussion? Robert’s made his position clear that we should reject all scientific evidence. The only context external to the text that matters to him are traditional mid 20th century readings. Nothing else is permissible. Given that conversation is impossible.

    Getting back to the OP, I tend to have some qualms here. For one while I understand why people raise apparently racist passages in terms of 19th century racism, I’d strongly prefer reading them in an ancient context. The reality is that racism of the sort we think of is a relatively recent invention. It was largely created to justify European colonialism and slavery. While I’m sure it, like other elements of Joseph’s environment, shaped the translation, I think we focus on it to such an extent we miss what’s in the text.

    For instance the insistence of readers to assume Nephites looked like Scandinavians undermines that as Palestians they’d have quite dark skin. Doubly so as they worked outside in a hot environment. The differences from the Lamanites probably have much more to do with war painting or tattoos which were common in the region. That also would explain why it could easily change.

  22. Clark, I agree with your analogy of searching, no disagreement there. I think most of us agree on this issue by large margins more than disagree. Also, I apologize that my “absence of evidence” phrase created an unintentional thread jack. I should have directly addressed what I was referencing with that phrase, which is the “God of the Gaps” worldview. Thanks for keeping it real . . .

  23. Clark,
    If you side so much with science you should outright reject the Book of Mormon. Perhaps you could point me to at least one of sciences “peer reviewed” papers that discusses the validity of the Book of Mormon? It doesnt surprise me you think the mark of dark skin is tattoos or war paint- thats typical of secular thinking.

  24. Mike: “Aside from molecular biology, I really cannot get around passages like 2 Nephi 1:5-11. How much more plain and simple and repetitive does it get- that the land was empty and preserved for their posterity?”

    I agree that sometimes it can be difficult to find alternative ways to read the BoM text. Even so, with regard to the specific verses you cite, the BoM itself forces us to read that passage a little differently than how it may appear on its face. We know by reading the BoM as a whole that there were likely millions of Jaredites living not too far from where Lehi landed at the time he arrived. And so, one can infer from the BoM text itself, without referencing any outside studies, that there were lots of people in the general area prior to Lehi’s arrival.

  25. Rob, I’d be the first to admit there’s insufficient public evidence for the Book of Mormon to argue it’s true independent of personal revelation. However that seems irrelevant to my point which is about how to read the Book of Mormon. As I said, you’re pretty up front you reject any evidence that doesn’t comport with your preferred reading so what is there to say?

    I’d just say it seems odd to call me a secularist when I accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon due to revelation, believe in angels, miracles and so forth. All I don’t believe is that God intentionally made the earth to appear other than it was. That is I don’t think God lies with evidence. So if there’s dated human bones showing continuous habitation in the Americas then I think it is deceitful to discount it just because it doesn’t agree with your preferred reading. Especially when there are other readings completely compatible with the truth of the Book of Mormon that don’t demand such deceit.

  26. Clark, it appears we both suffer from the same problem- we reject what we dont want and believe only what we want.

  27. Jack,
    You bring up a point that I have always wondered about. How did millions and millions of people and their nassive civilization go undiscovered by the Nephites for 400 years if they were in the same vicinity?

  28. Unless one has the missing pages how do we know they went undiscovered? (And I’d say there’s indirect evidence they did meet others). Further if they don’t know what the Lamanites, Jaredites and Muelikites encountered so there’s a whole lot of arguing from little evidence. That’s almost 400 years of history we’re missing.

  29. Rob: “How did millions and millions of people and their massive civilization go undiscovered by the Nephites for 400 years if they were in the same vicinity?”

    The Book of Ether serves as a good example of an historical narrative that is so tightly focused that it seems to omit vital information. My guess is that it is derived from records that were kept only by descendants of Jared–and it never loses that narrow perspective. In fact, it is so tight that there are stretches of history where we learn about several generations of Jared’s descendants who were living in captivity, probably doing nothing more than suffering through a meager existence–and we hear *nothing* about the conquering peoples. The record is silent — at least, as it’s abridged by Moroni — about the much larger world that existed beyond the domain of those in captivity. I’d even go so far as to say that the omission of the name of the brother of Jared might have more to do with the tight narrative of Jared’s record than with the name being tediously long for transcribers.

    That said, if we take the Book of Ether as an example of how histories were kept among BoM peoples — especially those that were maintained by a narrow priestly line of rulers (which seems to be the case among the Nephites with regard to their sacred writings) — what we have is a pattern of record keeping that is so narrowly focused that it rarely, if ever, touches on issues that have to do with anyone or anything outside the concerns of the genealogical line of the record keepers.

    And so my guess is that the narrow covenantal and ethnocentric focus in the record is the main reason why we don’t hear too much about outsiders in the BoM text–though, a careful reading (IMO) does reveal a lot of fun clues that point to the reality of “gentiles” among the Nephites.

  30. Jack,
    Thats a lot of assumptions. Seems like they actually spend a lot of time talking about traveling to far off lands, preaching the gospel and discovering peoples. Its hardly narrow at all.

  31. I’m going to bypass the entire discussion on evidence of other people here when the Lehites arrived.

    The OP discussed the possible problems it sets up to preach the prosperity gospel, and the accompanying punishment of the wicked, because it may lead to dehumanization of people who are not prospering, and the tendency to blame them for their own unblessed state, and justify their destruction. If we are righteous, we are blessed. If we are not righteous, we are not blessed.

    Before James Olsen’s thoughtful discussion of those implications, I had a very simple justification for Nephi’s sermon in this chapter. He was preaching specifically to his wicked brothers, and he was trying to scare them into repentance. There was no need for fine nuances and gradations of blessedness. Laman and Lemuel were wicked and must be warned of their impending punishment from God. He did not have a wider audience at that moment.

    But there is also the fact of Nephi’s prior vision, in which he learned that his descendants would be completely destroyed, while L&L’s descendants would survive. Nephi was righteous, but he had to accept that he was not righteous enough to save his posterity. At some point, L&L’s posterity were given promises that were denied to Nephi’s posterity. Plus, Nephi is about to experience the consequences of L&L’s wickedness, when their disobedience sets off a storm on the boat. Nephi knows that righteousness does not always lead to prosperity and ease. I think he’s pleading with L&L to see the wider consequences of their actions, but this sermon has no more impact on L&L than his previous sermons did. It’s not that righteous people should get smug about how they deserve more blessings; it’s that the wicked people cause the righteous to suffer as well. Maybe that’s the reason for the tribalism – it’s self-preservation to stay away from people who are going to call down the wrath of God.

  32. Melinda W, you breathed fresh air into this conversation, and brought the focus where I also believe the OP was concentrated on. Your argument regarding the intentional/unintentional tribalism makes sense, especially in this context; it’s not about racism and appearance, it’s about larger cultural issues that follow from previous generational behavior (tradition).

    Avoiding antagonists is usually preferred to trying to continually fail to negotiate a peace. However, unlike the peoples in the BofM, and in general human history, we modern humans have run out of places to migrate to avoid potential antagonists, or to flock together “of a kind.” For us, tribalism is no longer effective nor desirable.

    This may be a genuine disconnect between us and Nephi in terms of time and place. Thankfully the “tender mercies” of the Lord allow for continuing revelation. For LDS members now, a global church is the reality, and no longer seemingly vague prophecies in ancient texts. The Lord couldn’t wait for us to be fully ready individually and culturally for the gospel and church to go (back) to Africa, or the other places it has gone.

    Indeed, this potential may or may not have been a comfort to Nephi, or any ancient prophets, since it may not have been even a potential reality for them.

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