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.