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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Why did everyone tremble when they looked on the Liahona? We’re getting Nephi’s explanation. But at the time Nephi wrote about all of this, the miraculous ball had long become normalized for him—it had even become a “small means”! The older Nephi writing here understands exactly how the Liahona works—he experienced its miraculous nature for at least eight years in the wilderness, and here he explains it all rather casually. But initially, when Nephi’s extended family all saw the writing (or perhaps when they saw the writing change) for the first time, they were all quite astonished. Who wouldn’t be? Was it the fact of the writing’s appearance or was it the content of what was written that caused them to tremble? I wonder if we’re not the inverse today of the Nephites then. That God spoke to them or wrote to them doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing to utterly astonish them; especially not at this point. Instead, I suspect it was the fact of written text appearing/changing that was so amazing. Conversely, with our handheld smartphones and Google, it’s not the fact of information appearing that would astonish us, but the direct, dialogic revelation.
This incident of Nephi’s broken bow (or the incident of the family nearly starving) is the only real incident that Nephi records between the Valley of Lemuel and Nahom. Following up on the question of Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael murmuring, I see two possibilities: either this was a significant flap in Nephi’s political career or it was a significant triumph. Nephi certainly writes it as a triumph. And by the time they reach Nahom, it’s clear that Nephi has been playing the role of leader. Whether triumph or flap, it seems clear that this incident was an issue in the older, contemporary Nephi’s day.
The timing in the record is also curious. This story immediately precedes Ishmael’s death. It could be a discrediting not only of Laman & Lemuel, but also the sons of Ishmael—and perhaps any alliance that might have existed between the two of them. What we have is a consistent character portrayal: Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael are faithless, they rebel outside of Jerusalem, they rebel in the wilderness, they rebel when Ishmael dies, they rebel at Bountiful. And finally, once Lehi dies in the New World, they rebel and divide the family. Either Nephi determined to only record those events between Jerusalem and the Americas wherein Laman, et al rebelled; or Nephi made sure that at each juncture he portrayed Laman, et al as rebelling.