Win the Battle, Lose the War – Reading Nephi – 17:48-55

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 17:48-55

Conspicuous that Grant Hardy titles this pericapee “Nephi Commands His Brothers”—which is clearly what took place, though Nephi never explicitly states as much.

I find that this kind of critique—together with the harshness of the negative rhetoric in verses 44-47—is never more than a short-term fix. Nephi’s approach of candid, unyielding denunciation consistently results in a begrudging, temporary truce. And ultimately—failure. The great question is whether the short-term victories are worth it. Sometimes—such as when one is under what appears to be an existential crisis—perhaps it is. It’s not clear Nephi could fulfill God’s commandments otherwise, and in the scriptures God rarely gets into the details of how we are to bring about his stern commands (which makes sense—not having detailed plans demands not only our faith but our fully committed engagement and best efforts; which is always a large part of the point). I’m sympathetic to the pressures and alienation and even the self-righteousness that Nephi manifestly felt. It’s conspicuous that God both supports and restrains Nephi’s approach. Cumulatively, however, at Jerusalem, outside of Jerusalem, while starving in the wilderness, at the death of Ishmael, here at Bountiful, next on the sea, and then in the New World, Nephi’s strategy wins battles and loses the war.

The eternal cosmological drama in which we’re embedded demands that we work to reflect the divinity of our enemies back to them if we wish them to join with us in our Zionic alliance of apotheosis. And whether we do, that is what we ought to wish. There is no exaltation outside of this approach.

19 comments for “Win the Battle, Lose the War – Reading Nephi – 17:48-55

  1. It’s worth noting that at this point both sides are probably looking at the story of Joseph hard. Nephi, because he’s a younger brother who saves his other brothers and gives them great riches if they’d follow him despite their trying to kill him. Laman and Lemuel because of course the story is complicated and ends up with the Jews enslaved in Egypt despite all of Joseph’s good things. Plus Joseph really did usurp the birth right in a practical way. So Laman and Lemuel can certainly see themselves as Reuben. (Who’s Reuben — exactly) What’s interesting are the parts of Joseph’s story missing from the Book of Mormon typology. Nephi appears to have no problems with amorous wives of indigenous leaders for instance. Joseph’s tricking his brothers with the cup is missing in the accounts in the Book of Mormon as well.

    Complicating all this was the deuteronomist situation. Leadership in Jerusalem pushed alliances with Egypt. It appears, although still someone conjectural, that Laman and Lemuel were more on the deuteronomist side of things. Certainly they didn’t think Babylon would conquer Jerusalem. Nephi and Lehi, despite their apparent Egyptian knowledge, do.

    So you get this weird tension. Laman and Lemuel favor the Egyptian alliance but it’s plausible saw Nephi’s usurpation as akin to what go the Jews in trouble in Egypt originally. Nephi taking the role of Joseph has all these Egyptian connections but opposes Egypt and wants to flee into the wilderness in what is both a reenactment of Moses’ fleeing Egypt but simultaneously with respect to his brothers entering Egypt.

    I should add that since Lehi wasn’t a polygamist that we can tell, that whole aspect of Rueben’s birthright can’t really exist as a type setting. Although it’s worth asking if it informs Jacob later on after Nephi dies. (Which would be yet an other inversion if he does appeal to it)

    Don’t know if anyone else noticed the tension between the Exodus pattern and the Joseph pattern in the text. But I’ve long been fascinating by it given how it leads to inherent conflict.

  2. Oh I certainly don’t either. They could have just headed back at any time. Until they got on the boat. And they choose to get on the boat.

  3. What strikes me is the power and authority that Nephi speaks with against his brothers. Truly a great great prophet of the Lord!

  4. Clark Goble,

    I’ve been saying that Laman and Lemuel were “Deuteronomists” for a long time. Their biggest complaint against their father was that he was a “visionary” man, which was anathema to the Deuteronomists. The Egyptian angle wasn’t one that I’d really given thought to but I will going forward. Sure, its a bit speculative, but L & L (and the priests of Noah) sure fit my definition from all my reading on the subject. Sherem also kind of fits from my standpoint, but perhaps James will get to him eventually.

  5. I agree with the last paragraph. If you try to see Nephi from Laman and Lemuels perspective, Nephi was a self righteous individual who had little respect for his older brothers, and did little to make them feel included.
    He is the one writing the book so presents things from his point of view, but even then does not try to present a ballanced view. He is always the goody, they are always the baddies.
    Would you want to be friends with a younger brother who was so unpleasant to you?

  6. Sometimes the baddies really are the baddies. Families who do not learn from their own histories will usually repeat the unhealthy traditions of ancestors. “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.” I don’t care if a gentile wrote this line of dialogue; it reminds me of the repeating familial and socio-cultural patterns in the B of M and in my own freaking lineage. I tried to do what a small, weak man could to identify and disrupt some of these patterns. Only time will tell if it worked, and I may be witnessing my succeeding generations from the wrong side of heaven. Certainly I won’t be able to do anything more about it.

  7. The original post suggests that if Nephi had approached his brothers differently, there might have been a way to bring about permanent change in them. I’ve heard that suggestion and opinion multiple times. I respectfully disagree. I used to agree with that idea, but my perspective on Nephi changed several years ago. I had been struggling in a truly bad relationship, and was blaming myself for the other person’s failure to change, repent, and treat me decently. If only I could find the right approach, I could spark genuine change and save this relationship! But I finally gave up entirely and ended the relationship. And then I found a soulmate in Nephi.

    Laman and Lemuel abused Nephi. They blame him when things go wrong (emotional abuse), they try to kill him on multiple occasions (physical abuse), they threaten him (verbal abuse), and then they say he deserved everything they did. They apologize only when forced to do so by an outside force like angels, the voice of God, or the others in the family. But their apologies were never a product of any genuine respect or love for their brother; they have no conscience about how they treat Nephi. Their repentance was only ever temporary. That’s a classic abuse pattern.

    To suggest that Nephi’s approach to his brothers could have made a difference is to blame the victim. This isn’t sibling rivalry. This isn’t a mutual relationship in which Laman and Lemuel were just asking to be accepted as somewhat less spiritual than Nephi. Nephi is fighting for his life against his brothers. As I’ve compared the stories in 1st Nephi with books about abuse, I’ve been struck at how perfectly this relationship between Nephi and his brothers mirrors the abusive psychology and abusive patterns of any abusive family relationship. No, Nephi did not trigger this abuse by being self-righteous, any more than a wife triggers a beating by suggesting paying tithing could help with their family’s financial problems.

    The truth is, if you’re in a relationship with an abuser, the short-term fix is the only thing that’s available. You can’t change someone who wants to treat you with hatred, contempt, violence and disrespect. The only thing you can do is stand up for yourself, maintain your own self-respect, and testify that what they’re doing is wrong. It won’t change them, but it keeps you right with God, and it keeps you from going crazy. Nephi never blames himself for what his brothers do. Nephi never says, “if I’d been a better brother my brothers wouldn’t have tried to kill me.” A wife should never say, “if I’d been a better wife my husband wouldn’t have beaten me.” A child should never say, “if I’d been a better child my father wouldn’t have thrown me into a wall.” The violence and the hatred is in the abuser. An abuser can always find an excuse to abuse. “My brother was so righteous I had to try and kill him so he would stop annoying me” is a pretty lame excuse for abuse.

    I’ve written several pages discussing the abusive patterns in Lehi’s family. I have more pages comparing and contrasting the story of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. Writing it all out was very healing for me. There is a difference between the habitual abuse in Nephi story, and the one-time atrocity in Joseph’s story. But it’s too much to put in a comment to a blog post. I used to think Nephi could have changed something if he had handled his brothers better. I don’t think that anymore. I know there are plenty of people who criticize me for the way I handled my own abusive relationship. I did the best I could. Nephi did the best he could. Being inside an abusive relationship makes you crazy and desperate, and it doesn’t make sense to people outside of it. Nephi is actually remarkable for how grounded he stayed. Having his parents’ support probably helped a lot with that.

    I agree with Jerry Schmidt’s comment: Sometimes the baddies really are the baddies.

  8. I think Nephis narrative is both balanced and true. Theres a lot of naysayers out there now trying to discount Nephi. Nephi is more than patient with his brothers. He goes to the ends of the earth to forgive them. Laman and Lemual on the other hand dont really ever give an inch.

  9. Geoff, while I think it’s valuable to look at things from Laman and Lemuel’s perspective I have to agree they were abusive. They clearly were angry for leaving Jerusalem and their sufferings. But they weren’t willing to leave and scapegoated Nephi because Nephi was usually successful and agree with his Father. While I’m sure Nephi has left things out, the reality is that Laman and Lemuel are the cause of most of their problems. They want the world to be different than it is and won’t adjust. They’re bitter and taking it out on others rather than stepping up and taking control of their own fate. And again, they are very abusive. At a certain point I’d have told them to stay and left without them.

    Melinda, I agree with most you say although I’d say that Joseph’s brothers level of abuse was pretty high to Joseph. Selling your brother into slavery is pretty horrific. And they originally wanted to kill him but Reuben stopped them. To reach that level probably a lot more had been going on before. My point about the Joseph story though was that it was a well known story that probably both Nephi and his brothers knew. They think through the present via the archetypes of the past. One of the reasons Joseph’s brothers hate him is because of his visions. Ditto with Nephi.

  10. Melinda, I agree with your description of the abuse of Nephi, except I percieve him to be the one in power, he certainly is the one writing the book. His version of events just does not sit well with me, It feels like he is taunting , bullying his brothers.

  11. Melinda, et al: I can see how easily my original post led to your trenchant response, which I very much appreciated. I’d like to clarify. But first, thank you for your willingness to share these insights. Victim blaming is a plague, and one that’s incredibly hard to overcome—individually and collectively. I love the glimpse you give into an alternative reading of these passages and the connection to literature on abuse that you allude to. I think this a wonderful example of how we ought to read scripture.

    Back to my OP: “The great question is whether the short-term victories are worth it. Sometimes—such as when one is under what appears to be an existential crisis—perhaps it is.” I was thinking of this in terms of power struggles, politics, conflict over how to shape our society. That is, I was thinking about approaches to conflict between parties that though perhaps not equal are both well enough equipped to be agents and rivals—and not situations of abuse (though the situation of abuse is an interesting one to think about here as well, and abuse certainly doesn’t require power asymmetries). I certainly feel myself more skeptical than some of you with regard to both the power dynamics and the moral conflict between Nephi and Laman. It’s hard for me to read Laman as mere baddie, especially given the occasionally blatantly unfair and transparently agenda-driven nature of Nephi’s account.

    But really, all of that is orthogonal to my point here, and I think the issue is made even more poignant if we do take Laman as mere baddie (and likewise Nephi as prodigiously righteous—which, despite his manifest flaws, I take it he genuinely was). We’re in a world with baddies. Real ones. Who are capable of eternal exaltation. For whom God was willing to sacrifice his Only Begotten Son. Period. I don’t think our doctrine lets us get away with the simplistic approaches moral conflict that we’re prone to. One form of overly simplistic characterization and approach is unfair labeling of one side as “good” and the other side as “bad.” We’re all familiar with that approach and its illegitimacy. But an entirely other form of overly simplistic characterization and approach concerns what we do with the “ok-admittedly-complicated-not-all-bad-but-genuinely-abusive-jerks-who-are-determined-to-undermine-the-work-of-Zion.” What do we do with them?

    As Melinda and others bring up, and as my line quoted above admits: we’re finite. Sometimes the best we can do is to get away from them, separate. Sometimes it’s to insist on our own dignity and worth and speak truth to those who are abusing us. Practically, and as a short-term tactic, this seems right. But enter Mormon theology, and all of the sudden there is no ultimate, long-term separation (at least not one that we well understand; God’s explicit about the fact that we’re not being given more than a glimpse of outer darkness and what it entails; and outer darkness is only a rare exception anyways). We’re cosmologically thrown in with all the goodies and all the baddies for all eternity. God—and all the rest of us—are forever finding ourselves in the midst of all the other intelligences in the cosmos, worlds without end. At least for the duration of our existence here and now God’s not at all interested in separating us, and God either couldn’t or didn’t prevent the war in heaven. But whether there or here, there is no war of annihilation option.

    Consequently, as I think is well illustrated throughout the books of Nephi, winning battles is not the same as winning the war. Hence God commands our forgiveness and our perfection. Which means our becoming as God is. Which means our being willing to sacrifice everything that is most dear to us for those who not only do not deserve our sacrifice, but who directly work against our righteous purposes. Practically, I don’t think this means we submit to abuse. But I do think there are serious practical implications, including a fundamental commitment to “reflect the divinity of our enemies back to them” and ceaselessly seeking to persuade them “to join with us in our Zionic alliance of apotheosis.” It is a fearful doctrine.

  12. James Olsen, I think your argument is valid. Melinda W, as with Clark Goble, your argument is valid and personal. The B of M functions as a personal history, with the authors directly impacted by the events of the narrative; as religious guide, as the authors are also decidedly followers of Jesus (the Christ) pre- and post-advent; and ultimately a nation’s history, a rise and fall.

    This kind of multi-layered text is going to yield all kinds of rich fruit, sweet, bitter, and bitter-sweet, to a reader who attempts to plumb its depths (talk about mixed metaphors). My fuzzy contextual boundaries tend to cross multiple layers simultaneously as I read, but I can only state this is why I value this whole text, for all its flawed narrative and all its flawed characters.

  13. Robert Osborn et al, I apologize for inferring your arguments were not valid by not mentioning you specifically, please forgive me.

  14. James, perhaps this talk from 2-3 years ago captures what you are trying to say?

    One thing that struck me as I read 2 Ne. 5 after reading this post: how similar Laman and Lemuel are to Cain. They basically were the forerunners who reintroduced the ultimate evil of trading life for power/money into their own microculture.

  15. James – I didn’t meant to imply that I have the only valid reading of Nephi, and I don’t believe you took it that way. One of the miracles of scriptures is how many-layered they are. We all bring our own experiences to the scriptures, and see our lives reflected there. I’ve truly enjoyed reading these posts of yours. You bring out a depth to the text that I hadn’t seen before. I am very glad you’ve written them. I look forward to your next installment.

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