Mysteries of a Diachronic Narrative – Reading Nephi – 16:26-32

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.

9 comments for “Mysteries of a Diachronic Narrative – Reading Nephi – 16:26-32

  1. ji
    November 13, 2017 at 6:34 am

    Well, Nephi was telling the story which is the story of a split in the children of Lehi, so it makes sense that he describes instances of Laman’s obstinacy.

    I know some sophisticated people like to think of Nephi as petty, self-serving, and self-aggrandizing, and Laman as the pitiful object of a younger brother’s unrighteousness coup, and like to say we only hear one side of the story (Nephi’s), and Nephi obviously wrote to justify and cover his own faults. I think this is a perverse way to approach it.

    Of course the record only touches on a few facts and happenings — that’s the nature of a record. I think Nephi carefully (not maliciously) selected events that would help others understand the story of faith (not justify his own unrighteousness).

  2. Jerry Schmidt
    November 13, 2017 at 9:42 am

    James Olsen, I may not agree with your conclusions, but I appreciate the alternate view you provide.

    For me, the sons of Ishmael saw themselves as having fulfilled their obligation to the mitzvot to “honor thy father and thy mother,” and felt they did not owe Lehi this same. Nephi was loyal to Lehi on at leat two levels, as son and as one who recognized Lehi as a prophet of God. Laman and Lemuel persistently sought reason to disobey Lehi despite their obligation under the mitzvot.

    I agree with you this is a political dilemma for the group, but Nephi appropriately asserts his father’s authority, if not as the next patriarch of the clan, then as the one elder male still heeding God’s instructions and receiving revelation from God, and therfore qualified to lead.

  3. James Olsen
    November 13, 2017 at 10:24 am

    ji – Thanks for your thoughts. Rather than respond directly, I’ve decided to respond indirectly and more fully (i.e., generally) in a separate post.

  4. James Olsen
    November 13, 2017 at 10:31 am

    Jerry – the relevance of the mitzvah to honor one’s father and mother is a great insight here vis-a-vis the sons of Ishmael. I don’t remember thinking about it, but it certainly helps to make sense of the timing of the rebellion after Ishmael’s death. One of my future posts takes this rebellion up again.

  5. Jerry Schmidt
    November 13, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Again, for me, the issue between Lamuel (sorry) and Nephi is similar to that dispute between Jacob and Esau; a dispute over birthright. As Nephi pointed out to his brothers, God favors obedience to His revealed will over tradition, even tradition based on past revelation. By extension, and this plays out in biblical Joseph’s narrative also, God chooses His authorities, they are not self-chosen nor is the authority inherited.

    I see, correctly or incorrectly, this pattern repeated through the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and LDS church history. Inheritance is a persistent human claim, though the examples I have seen in biblical narratives show inheritance as problematic at best. One of the ideas I was raised with was the United States promised a new political tradition that rejected inheritance, so I view human inheritance (material inheritance) as ultimately destructive of self and others.

  6. Clark
    November 15, 2017 at 11:05 am

    Jerry I think that you’re right. We know Nephi in particular is fond of allegories and type settings. It’s hard not to see Jacob and Esau constantly in the background. Nephi in particular sees himself as a weird combination of Moses, Jacob, Joseph and even Isaac with his father being Abraham.

    I’d add that if we take seriously Nephi fitting his history into the archetypes of these earlier figures then it’s hard not to see the murmuring in light of the children of Israel in the 40 year journey or Joseph’s brothers upset at Joseph. How much of that is a literary feature, how much is how he actually saw Laman and Lemnuel at the time, and how much is just unfair isn’t clear. However it does suggest that we should tread cautiously and that Nephi might be fitting things to a pre-existing narrative rather than trying to be fair in a more objective fashion.

  7. James Olsen
    November 17, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Jerry & Clark, I think this is a very important element of Nephi. I also think that his “fitting things to a pre-existing narrative” seemed very different to Nephi than it does to someone doing so today—if Pres. Nelson, for example, wrote an autobiography that was constantly making parallels to earlier prophets’ lives. That would be very odd. One can’t escape our modern sense of history today. Finding and fashioning parallels, however, perhaps “likening,” just was the main reason for incorporating history into scripture. Since Nephi is self-consciously writing scripture, it would be odd if he weren’t to some extent intentionally mimicking scripture as well.

  8. Clark Goble
    November 17, 2017 at 10:22 am

    James I think that’s an important point, and may underlie some of the criticisms of what you are doing. Reading some of say Alter’s work on type scenes is rather important to understand the narrative conventions Nephi is working under. As a literary feature of even personal history culturally we tend to emphasize what is unique and put a strong value on objectivity of a sort. (Even when we’re far from doing it, it remains an ideal in the background) This simply wasn’t the case in ancient literature. Instead what was most true was what fit existing archetypes. It was repetition of the pattern that was focused on. This is true not only of the Old Testament, but as N. T. Wright is fond of pointing out also the new. That is people read these narratives not as history independent of themselves which at best one may draw strained allegories out of. Rather they read it as teaching archetypes of which they are a part. The type scenes aren’t just a literary trope but are a fundamental way of how people viewed events.

  9. CKNY
    November 17, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Surprised no one has mentioned the seer stone narrative within this context.

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