Faithful vs. Secular Murmuring – Reading Nephi – 16:17-25

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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Again, they stop for food. And also “to rest.” Once more I can’t help but picture the women pregnant, nearing full-term. Nephi rarely mentions the women or their condition, but this strikes me as likely, almost a certainty; particularly when considering Sariah’s age.

This also helps to animate the image of suffering and make sense of the anger involved when Nephi breaks his bow and the brothers are unable to obtain food for their families. “They did suffer much for the want of food.” I’ve journeyed through pregnancy six times with my wife; I can’t imagine not being able to fix her food. Once we hiked through snow in Alaska, much of it thigh high, for nearly six hours when she was five months pregnant. I can’t remember now what we ate, but I remember my pack was quite heavy with food. What if my pack had broken and the food had accidentally fallen out of it on the way? What a horrible night that would’ve been. We then would’ve undertaken the grueling hike back out the following day. There would’ve undoubtedly been “much suffering.” Followed by a restaurant and gorging. What if there was no possibility of hiking back out, no possibility of purchasing food?

I’ve also on two different occasions built a bow in a primitive skills class. Under the tutelage of a highly skilled bow maker I was able to go from sapling to fully functional bow in one day. We then started with modern, pre-made, string to fashion the bowstring. I’m going to assume that Nephi was able to re-use his bowstring (or one from his brother’s defunct bows). On the second day we made an arrow. Typically, one uses a reed, which will grow much straighter than a stick. It’s odd that Nephi mentions making a new arrow—why not re-use the old arrows (he doesn’t mention anything wrong with the old ones)? Perhaps they didn’t fit his new bow. Regardless, though it’s a stretch, if I assume that this wasn’t Nephi’s first bow, but that he’d grown up making them (Nephi certainly seems to have been skilled at making things), and that he had an excellent and very sharp knife rather than the draw knives and Shinto rasps that I used, then I can imagine him making a bow and an arrow in one or two days. They were already famished, perhaps having gone a day or two without food before he started. I suspect they foraged for edible roots and the like to stay alive while Nephi made his bow.

But what of (the possibly pregnant) Sariah? Or perhaps Sariah was more wilderness woman than Lehi; perhaps Lehi had been accustomed to always traveling well provisioned and had never known real hunger. Perhaps this was the first time he’d undergone the physiological adaptations that set in with starvation. If so, he wasn’t alone. He watched his children suffer with him. I can understand a prophet murmuring here. He knew they were led by the Lord. So why would God require this of them? Why lead them out of Egypt only to starve in the wilderness? Where was their manna? O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?

Contrast Lehi’s murmuring with that of Laman & Lemuel: Lehi murmurs against God. Initially it states that Laman & Lemuel just murmur. God’s not in their picture—just a deranged father and an incompetent brother. Perhaps this was also an important political opportunity for the two of them. Perhaps that’s why they were so angry with Nephi’s bow breaking, despite their own bows having earlier “lost their spring.” Lehi’s murmuring seems plausibly like a poignant cry to a God he knows is there but who has chosen to let his people suffer. Laman’s and Lemuel’s murmuring was plausibly a rebuke to Nephi’s leadership or whatever prestige he’d earned as a leader up to this point.

In the end though, even if indirectly, Nephi notes that it was all murmuring against God. The reactions of Lehi, Laman & Lemuel, and Nephi to what I assume was serious suffering strikes me as an appropriate taxonomy of theological responses to evil—we can turn away from God or turn towards God; in turning towards God we can challenge God’s (in)actions or submit to them. We can do each of these three in myriad ways. For example, we can obviously submit in different ways. Nephi models a particularly pro-active manner of submission that is at the same time an acceptance and a negotiation with God. This is a type of submission that is reasonable for children who are, as Joseph Smith put it, “co-equal” with God. Who can help being moved by this?

A final question strikes me in this episode. What does it mean that Nephi spoke “in the energy of [his] soul”? I wonder, if I were a film director, how would I direct my actor to speak “in the energy of [his] soul”? Whichever of the various interpretations I gave to this odd phrase, however I had my actor portray it, how would the audience react? And what difference would there have been in an ancient Israelite audience from a contemporary one?

3 comments for “Faithful vs. Secular Murmuring – Reading Nephi – 16:17-25

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    November 6, 2017 at 6:54 am

    For some odd reason as I was reading this post I was thinking about Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In this narrative, Charlie’s family is shown as actually starving before Charlie fatefully finds the money that allows him to buy the chocolate bar with the Golden ticket to the Wonka chocolate factory. The ticket itself, however, does not keep his family from starving; it gives him access to the chocolate factory and a series of character tests.

    Only after Charlie, through no extraordinary effort on his own, survives the character tests does he qualify for the reward that is implied will rescue him and his family from hunger. Charlie’s ability to survive is not due to any particular virtus on his part, but rather his consistent willingness to follow the chocolatier wherever the chocolatier leads, and a shared vision of chocolate and candymaking.

    I realize that I am drawing parallels between scripture and a book written by a man of no particular religious leaning that I’m aware of. If I looked at what I just wrote through different eyes I would likely dismiss it. But my own lived experience has found me and my family in economic hardship. My family has needed food assistance from the LDS church to temporarily see us through. Our suffering is relative, even then, to that of Lehi’s clan particularly at this time in Nephi’s narrative.

    But I could understand how Lehi, at this point, would feel “unmanned” by circumstance, and in his love for his family question his previous faith decisions that had lead them to this situation. I am no Lehi, but I think I get it. And I can see how a young man, still open to the magic realism that has been the clan’s shared experience on this journey, might act boldly enough in the face of misfortune, expecting at least one more element to be in his favor, would just keep trying.

  2. Clark Goble
    November 6, 2017 at 11:20 am

    It’s worth noting that Nephi’s steel bow is a bit of a mystery. The phrase appears in the OT as well. “Steel” in this case is a KJV word issue. The underlying word means bronze, not steel. But no one is quite sure what steel bows actually were since no one would want to make a bow from bronze. Aron Pinker has the main analysis in “On the meaning of ??? ?????.” Pinker argues that the best interpretation is “snake like bow” or a double convex bow. Such bows are attested historically. The problem with this is that the Book of Mormon doesn’t merely use “steel bow” but has Nephi saying, “it was made of fine steel.” So Pinker’s speculative reconstruction can’t work for us.

    Nibley long ago speculated that Nephi was making a composite bow. It’s not clear why he’d do that since composite bow’s main advantage was for horse based troops. They are smaller than regular bows but don’t have much more strength. The classic problem in the ancient world was problems with glue delaminating which may explain why it broke. Composite bows were common in the Palestine-Syria region from around the 14th century onward. Typically they were made from alternating layers of bone and wood with animal tendons providing stress. Metal can also be used. It was used in Asia for instance. So far as I know there’s no extant evidence of a metal composite bow in the Palestine region. However it is quite possible they were used. It’s also possible that metal was used just for the handle riser (the middle of the bow where the arrow would rest) although typically that’s dates to the Hun conquest around the 4th century. On the other hand metal composite bows were known in India in the relevant era. The Visnudharmottara mentions metal composite bows, although that’s typically dated to well after Nephi (~3-4 century AD although parts date much earlier)

    The better explanation for Nephi is that the bow was a more traditional composite bow or even Pinker’s convex bow but that the arrowheads were bronze. These are well attested during the relevant time frame. In this interpretation Nephi is simply talking of bows and arrows as a single item. Note that the arrows had to be made custom for the bow in question. The length obviously depends upon the size of the bow. However the stiffness of the arrow has to match the pull strength of the bow in various ways. Presumably Nephi’s newly made bow wasn’t as strong as his old bow requiring new arrows.

  3. Jerry Schmidt
    November 6, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Clark Goble, you don’t need my validation but this was the direction my personal research pointed me, although I appreciate the details on the metallic composite bows including the Indus region textual reference. Also, thanks for the relationship between bow structure and arrow structure, I hadn’t encountered that knowledge yet.

    I don’t trip over the reference to steel in the B of M, mostly because I suspect we’re getting a filter of the source term through young Joseph Smith’s mind, and steel was the closest analog his vocabulary made available. Or I could be mistaken…

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