Marriage as Pivot Point – Reading Nephi – 16:7-8

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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There are times when the androcentric nature of the Book of Mormon is stark and unavoidable. These verses are rough.

Here is one of the only direct mentions of Nephi’s wife that we get in the whole account. He married one of the daughters of Ishmael. It’s hard to imagine a sparer introduction. Maybe there are excusable reasons for this. Maybe she went apostate and Nephi felt bitter about it (after all, there was a definite faction of Ishmael’s family that later sided with Laman; perhaps she was one of them; although this would be inconsistent with her actions on the ship, a lot can happen as the years and trials pile up). Maybe she died tragically and Nephi felt too raw to write about it. Maybe, for reasons we all would be sympathetic toward, Nephi and his wife really ended up not liking each other; perhaps Nephi ended up feeling forced to psychologically compartmentalize his personal family life and his public spirituality. And of course, as others have pointed out, perhaps Nephi was so overtly sexist that it’s actually one of those tender mercies of the Lord that he says nothing more about her. Regardless, it seems clear in the context of the rest of this book that she didn’t matter politically. And this veritable silence on women sets a tragic precedent for the rest of the Book of Mormon. We get no hint that women ever play a politically significant role for the Nephites (though Mosiah’s sons among the Lamanites reveal that perhaps women played a significant role there).

Zoram takes the oldest daughter of Ishmael to wife. I wonder—was this a moment of honor, signifying his full adoption into the family, confirming his status in the community because he was honored with the eldest? Or was she the ancient analog of the “old maid” who otherwise had no prospects and so was allowed to marry the nearly-Gentile Zoram? Or, with such small pickings, is it possible that these two genuinely fell in love and received the others’ blessing? I can’t help but think that Nephi’s mentioning it here is one of those small evidences we get that Zoram really did hold an honorable position within the family. He and Nephi were indeed friends. Thus, the later narrative of the Zoramites, whatever kernels of truth it holds, is skewed and unfair.

Notice that Nephi explicitly marks these marriages out as a commandment of God. Reading this I can’t help but think of an Orthodox Jewish man proclaiming that he has kept the mitzvah of God concerning his wife because he’s always done his duty and slept with her on the two Sabbaths each month when she’s not impure. Duty fulfilled.

And then Nephi offers this remarkable final line—a line that marks a great transition. We end this period of initial flight and preparation, and begin the great journey through wilderness. “I, Nephi”—there’s that term-name again—“had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly.” I want to romanticize that line. I want it not to refer simply to the first 15+ chapters of his account, nor merely to the fact that—consistent with his emphasis since verse one—Nephi was blessed of the Lord. I want him to be thinking specifically of his wife here. We’ve seen him go through a prodigious spiritual journey already, we’ve seen him tried, we’ve seen him delivered, we’ve seen him receive great revelations and blessings. But what makes him exceedingly blessed? His wife. Not the keeping of a mitzvah. His wife. This, and not the departure into the wilderness, marks the great, irrevocable pivot point in his life, this marks the transition toward the promised land. This is why he is exceedingly blessed. His wife.

Perhaps my motivation here is a similar desire to romanticize my own marriage—particularly in the context of my own exodus.

17 comments for “Marriage as Pivot Point – Reading Nephi – 16:7-8

  1. Tobia
    October 16, 2017 at 9:15 am

    I always thought that Zoram got the oldest daughter because he was the oldest eligible male. Where I got this idea, I don’t know, whether it was a stray remark in seminary/institute, or because of Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming books.

    “We get no hint that women ever play a politically significant role for the Nephites (though Mosiah’s sons among the Lamanites reveal that perhaps women played a significant role there).”

    Which women? The queen and Abish? Certainly not the wives of the sons of Mosiah.

    This is probably way off topic, but even before this article about marriage and being blessed, I was recently wondering if the sons of Mosiah were married, and what happened to their wives when they went off among the Lamanites. When did the sons become wicked? Were they already married then? What were their wives like? Did they become wicked as well, to match their husbands, or did they try to remain righteous, only to suffer because of their husbands? Did their wives go with them to minister to the Lamanites? I don’t think so — otherwise King Lamoni would probably not have offered Ammon the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. So there they are, all the wives, left behind, no doubt feeling abandoned. Or were the marriages dissolved sometime before? Before the sons went off on their missions? Before the angelic visit? Did the sons come back for their wives eventually, or did they marry a second time, this time to women who were converted from the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi? I don’t know, all I can see here is a group of wives that were practically abandoned at some point. Was the great conversion of the Lamanites worth these broken families?

    Thanks for letting me wonder aloud, so to speak.

  2. Tobia
    October 16, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Sorry, I got so caught up in my ideas of the wives of the sons of Mosiah that I completely overlooked the part where you said women might have played a “politicially” significant role among the Lamanites.

    True, there are mentions of Lamanite queens, but no corresponding mentions of Nephites queens. Was it a cultural thing, not to mention women? Was Nephi being absolutely daring and breaking convention to even mention his wife at all? Makes you wonder … Well, it makes me wonder, anyway. I wonder all the time about the women we don’t read about in the Book of Mormon.

  3. Clark Goble
    October 16, 2017 at 10:24 am

    One thing to keep in mind is that these are primarily religious texts and Nephi has other writings that we just don’t have. So I think we have to be a bit cautious reading too much into it.

    That said, you’re right that the book simply neglects women especially in the Mormon edited portions. The OT isn’t great at that – but there are still prominent women. That’s just not the case in the Book of Mormon at all. This in turn makes it difficult for us today. Something one rather wishes Mormon had been aware of.

    The point about Zoram is an interesting one since we know so little about him including his age. Was he old or was he still a young man? Women tended to marry young in Israel – at least in the second temple era. So we’d expect all the women to be quite young making one worry about big age differences. (Although again we don’t know how old Nephi and Sam are either) I also wonder if Nephi had sisters.

    Regarding the Lamanites, while women leaders appear among the Maya in the classical period that’s well after Mosiah who lived during the late pre-classical era. So it’s a bit dangerous to extrapolate to the earlier period although it is quite possible that’d form a context to the particular groups the Nephite missionaries visited.

  4. October 17, 2017 at 12:06 am

    I always wondered if it wasn’t considered respectable for women to appear in print, so to speak. It’s not that long since Westerners considered that a woman should only appear in print three times in her life: when she was born, when she married, and when she died. It wasn’t respectable to gain notoriety. I kind of suspect that Nephi’s culture told him to protect his wife (and sisters) from the common gaze, even if his narrative required him to mention his mom.

  5. ji
    October 17, 2017 at 11:16 am

    I don’t see any ill intent towards women in the Book of Mormon. There are many possible reasons for the paucity of female names which impute no villainy to the authors.

  6. Clark Goble
    October 17, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    JI, often what matters is what happens, not what people intended. Or, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    I do think it’s an interesting question asking why God didn’t inspire Mormon or Moroni to include more women’s narratives. I’m sure that over the centuries there were some.

    Jean, if it wasn’t respectable for women to be written about that seems a very bad thing. Of course from Jacob, it seems like the Nephites weren’t exactly treating women well from a very early age. There’s lots of examples of egregious treatment of women. When Jacob wrote I’d assume we’re at best at the 3rd generation with most of the 2cd generation still alive. Jacob preached on this but we just don’t know much about Nephite culture after Jacob until Benjamin to know how well he was received. My guess is not terribly well.

  7. Anon
    October 17, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Maybe it’s we who are sexist. Nephi might reply, why do I need to include a female angle or voice when that’s not the story I’m trying to tell. He might tell us is sexist just to interject a woman into a story about King Noah’s court when she wasn’t there. Or that King Benjamin’s sermon was directed at everyone including women and the counsel is the same for both.

    Ironically, in insisting that we have to separate out the messages and stories based on sex might reflect more of our attitudes on sex than theis. N’est ce pas?

  8. ji
    October 17, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    Clark,

    I don’t see Nephi as on the road to hell. I think good intentions are of immeasurable value to our God, and that it is error or sophistry to impute villainy to Nephi and Mormon and others because the Book of Mormon doesn’t contain a “sufficient” portrayal of women. That’s called presentism.

  9. Moss
    October 18, 2017 at 10:57 am

    James, I really enjoyed this post. I feel more compassion for Nephi now.

    I wouldn’t attribute it to villainy, but there is definitely something going on when women are so absent from a narrative. Especially when we have the Old Testament that is full of women, named and unnamed, engaging in all sort of activity- religious, political, economic, and domestic. There’s also the New Testament, which, although mostly later, is also full of women. Many as spiritual leaders (Wasn’t the prophetess Huldah a contemporary of Lehi?) What caused Nephite culture to be different? Were the women “too sacred to be talked about” like we commonly hear about Heavenly Mother? Why were Lamanites different? Why are the heroic women we have in the Book of Mormon largely Lamanite? If the Book of Mormon contains the “fulness of the gospel” what does that mean if there are so few women in it? Are women an afterthought in the Kingdom of Heaven?

    I think we can look at Nephite culture, especially in comparison to the Lamanites, and say that something was going on. You could say “sexism’ or “racism” but those words are so charged people will react with hostility and think you want to throw the whole thing away instead of looking for what is really going on and what God wants us to learn from this complicated book written by complicated people. But those are the words we have. Perhaps, this book that was written for our day, has something instructive to teach us about recognizing and valuing women and their contributions to the Kingdom right now. The Nephites weren’t always the good guys. They were complicated, like us, and had cultural biases, like us. But God still worked with them and had patience with them, like he does with us.

  10. Clark Goble
    October 18, 2017 at 11:24 am

    JI, I think intentions matter a great deal when determining our moral culpability. However in terms of consequences to others they don’t matter at all. If I leave the brake off on my car on a hill and it rolls killing someone, they are dead whether I intended it or not. Whether Nephi intended anything by leaving out women, it likely had an effect on the culture. Although as I noted Jacob 2 strongly suggests the culture had lots of problems even for the righteous Nephites. I don’t necessarily blame Nephi for that since let’s be honest he’s in pretty trying times. Much like Brigham Young I’m more amazed by what he did accomplish rather than dwelling on what he didn’t accomplish. But simultaneously let’s call a spade a spade.

    Anon, the problem with that view is that he states his goals and not having women’s voices undermines that goal.

    Moss, Huldah was definitely a contemporary of Lehi. She was prophesying in Jerusalem along with Jeremiah and Zephaniah. It seems reasonable that she knew Lehi and vice versa. (Which again makes me wish we had the 116 if it went into such matters more) The Talmud claims she was a relative of Jeremiah. Her husband, Shallum, was a major figure in Josiah’s court in charge of his royal clothing and his teacher, according to tradition. The Midrash says that Huldah had a religious school for women where she taught as it pertained to women. (All late traditions so we should be careful)

    To complicate things it’s also possible that, depending upon how Nephi and Lehi view the Josiah reforms, that may account for downplaying women. A lot of this depends upon the view that Lehi is anti-deuteronomist and is at best conflicted about Josiah’s reforms. We know that Lehi offers sacrifice in high places which was stopped by Josiah. We know that Lehi isn’t part of the centralization of the priesthoood to the levites at Jerusalem. There are other hints such as Nephi’s vision potentially making use of Ashtoreth/Goddess imagery with the tree of life. So there are many, such as Kevin Barney, who see Lehi in the anti-deuteronomist camp.

    Huldah on the other hand is responsible for finding the Book of the Law that many think either was Deuteronomy or at least contributed heavily to Deuteronomy. It’s that which leads to Josiah’s reforms. Some that people like Jeremiah saw as good while others were at best seen as mixed. While we don’t have explicit commentary on Huldah by anti-deuteronomists it seems reasonable that those who disagreed vehemently with elements of the reforms might well blame her. Again this is all mostly an argument from silence though so we have to be careful. However getting extremely speculative it might well be that Lehi saw a problem with prophetess. But by the very weak nature of the evidence I wouldn’t take such a view too seriously even if it is apossibility.

    To your other point I think you’re right. Again Jacob is pretty explicit that the Lamanites were better towards women than the Nephites were. (Jacob 2:31) That ought affect how we view the rhetoric of women in Nephite culture.

  11. ji
    October 18, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Clark, we’ll have to disagree. I can’t join you in condemning Nephi as an evil man according to our enlightened modern standards. To me, the record is too brief to justify your conclusion.

    He didn’t give equal affirmative space to handicapped or LGBT people, either — will you similarly see him as bigoted towards those persons in his society?

  12. Clark Goble
    October 18, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    JI, I didn’t say he was evil. I said he did things that undermined his goals. But we all do that. None of us are perfect but Christ. It’d be silly to condemn Nephi just because he’s a product of his time and understanding. In the same way I don’t condemn in the least Brigham Young for being a product of his time and age. I can wish both did more on the issues of race and women’s egalitarianism. But if I condemn them then I have to point a bullseye at myself. I’d lay good odds both do better in the long run than I do. After all I don’t have the excuse of culture they do. I know better.

  13. ji
    October 18, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Isn’t it wonderful to live in such enlightened times, instead of the benighted times of the past?

  14. Psychochemiker
    October 19, 2017 at 2:36 am

    Or perhaps the entire feminine clan is described in the list book of Lehi, lost 116 pages, lost because of disobedience…

    Of course, very because that narrative blames disobedience rather than “male privilege” you are unable to see it as a possibility…judge judge liberal Mormons.

  15. Clark Goble
    October 19, 2017 at 10:43 am

    I’ll fully confess that I’ve very glad to live now rather than the past. Although I confess indoor plumbing and toilet paper play a lot into that decision…

  16. James Olsen
    October 19, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Clark – like normal, I learn a good deal from your comments. I never thought about Huldah’s relation to the deuteronomists as a possible reason for her not being mentioned, nor the Talmudic traditions you mention. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Jerry Schmidt
    October 27, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Clark Goble, I echo James Olsen in appreciating the increased understanding you bring, in particular this topic, and to the deuternomistic reforms.

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