Driven Towards the Promised Land – Reading Nephi – 18:1-8

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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I Nephi 18:1-8

“And they did worship the Lord”—that’s the conclusion to the whole row. I wonder at it. What was the change? Was it that here we get Nephi, perhaps even inadvertently acknowledging that Laman and his cohort did in fact worship God, regardless of everything else—and that the change here is merely that in addition, they submitted themselves to Nephi’s oversight in constructing the ship? The other obvious possibility is that their submission to Nephi and the work of the ship was accompanied by a change in Laman’s cohort’s religious practices. In this case, why were they reluctant to so worship the Lord before? Why was this the dramatic turn that went hand in hand with their willingness to submit to Nephi’s leadership and help him to build the boat? Of course I don’t know. But I strongly suspect that Nephi’s political and ecclesiastical leadership went together. One plausible option is that perhaps Lehi’s altar in Bountiful was overseen by Nephi. I imagine that bringing your sacrifice not simply to God but to your younger usurping brother would have been a hard pill for Laman to swallow. But perhaps after the dramatic events of the preceding chapter he did indeed swallow it or some such other pill.

It’s conspicuous that the text notes that Nephi did not build the ship after the manner of men. The implication, of course, is that Nephi knew and understood how “men” built ships. He was self-consciously aware of the differences in his own construction. Since there were no shipwrights in Jerusalem, this argues strongly in favor of there being local shipwrights. I do not believe it changes the claim that God showed Nephi how to construct the ship to likewise claim that God did it through local shipwrights. This is especially true since Nephi wasn’t creating a fishing or local trading vessel, but a vessel capable of a transoceanic voyage. The lesson seems to me to be that if you need miraculous teaching or if you desire to learn from God, you ought well to look around you to see what educational resources God has in fact already provided.

Another curious phrase concerns the fitting out of the ship. They took their supplies, whatever they’d brought with them, “every one according to his age.” What one could take was determined according to age (as opposed to size, need, etc). Age mattered. This is another aspect that highlights the fault-lines in the political conflict between Nephi and Laman. It also argues for why­—despite Nephi’s visions that determined for the family that they were moving, and despite the merit Nephi earned for having actually built an exceedingly fine ship—it was Lehi and not Nephi who (at least formally) instructed the family when it was time to load up and leave.

A sidenote: being a backyard beekeeper myself, I can’t help but notice that they took honey “in abundance.” Since one couldn’t go down to a local Arabian Peninsula supermarket to get the honey, this likely means they went during or just after the honey flow (i.e., the nectar flow). If it was Virginia, this would probably be sometime in July. After the nectar flow, the bees have to start eating their honey in order to survive until the next spring. Either they destroyed numerous bee colonies in order to gather many small quantities into an abundance, or they harvested at the typical time of harvest and left around mid summer. The other possibility is that they saved up honey over a period of years or that they traded for others’ built up supply; in which case they might have left at any time.

I love the final line here, a metaphor for life: “and we did put forth into the sea and were driven forth before the wind towards the promised land.” I hope that the winds of this world likewise drive me toward the promised land, or that the ship I’m in is so designed as to take advantage of the winds’ power, whichever way they blow, in order to move me in that direction.

10 comments for “Driven Towards the Promised Land – Reading Nephi – 18:1-8

  1. Robert Osborn
    March 6, 2018 at 2:34 am

    He worked timbers unlike the learning of man. I dont think there were other shipbuilders around. I feel they were all alone. Nephi and Lehi were smart and observant. They would know general knowledge about craftsmanship. Obviously because Nephi knew he had to get ore to make tools and then make them.

  2. James Olsen
    March 6, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Rob, I think that you’re right that they were generally savvy. And Nephi’s already shown himself a craftsman with successfully building and using the bow. I get the impression throughout that Nephi was an extremely handy guy. But people build boats all the time now. My son built himself a boat at a three week boat building school last summer. My favorite fiction series is all about tall ships. I’ve been on a lot of boats myself and watched plenty of movies and documentaries about them. It’s hard for me to imagine that I’m not far more familiar with boats than the Nephi of Jerusalem/wilderness. And yet I wouldn’t be able to say if something I built was “not after the manner of men.” I suppose we could say this was mere braggadocio; but I’d rather take Nephi at his word.

  3. Rob Osborn
    March 6, 2018 at 3:00 pm

    To me the context of the verses doesnt imply there were others in their bountiful building the ship. If there were Nephi probably could have bartered for the tools necessary. Instead, he has to go find ore, make a fire and bellows to make the tools to build the ship. Thats a lot of work just to get to the point of beginning to build the ship. I work in a job where we sometimes have to make tools. Even by modern standards and technology we first exhaust all outside resources before proceeding to tool up. Im sure it was no different for Nephi. He knew they were very isolated from civilization and so he knows the only way this is gonna happen is to find ore, refine it, and then make tools. Not an easy task at all. I can safely assume they are alone based on that fact alone.

    We know Nephi was schooled and had knowledge of things. In similar fashion we too are schooled and have knowledge of things. Its wrong of us to assume Nephi had no knowledge of the basics of ship construction according to how man built ships.

  4. Jerry Schmidt
    March 7, 2018 at 4:55 am

    It’s just as much a mistake to assume Neph knew the basics of ship-building. He was the son of supposed merchant, but how familiar or not with ships we just don’t know; this portion of narrative is not a DIY guide, but rather a record of Nephi’s faithful obedience very similar to when he went into Jerusalem for the brass plates “not knowing beforehand the things which he should do.” However as James said, Nephi made a functioning bow, so perhaps the Lord helped Nephi by expanding on bow construction to how it might apply to ship construction. And as Rob pointed out, Nephi went so far as to fashion tools for construction. While this of itself does not prove nobody else was around, it does imply tools weren’t readily available.

    This portion of the narrative reminds me of the situation the brother of Jared found himself in regarding light sources for the Jaredite sea voyage. The solution wasn’t the Lod saying, “go do this and this.” It was the Lord reasoning the possible solutions out with the brother of Jared, perhaps with faith in the brother of Jared to figure out a solution for himself, as any wise mentor might.

  5. Clark Goble
    March 7, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    In the Yemen area the honey flow period is quite long – around January – March as I understand it. Yemese honey is world famous. We used to sell a truffle using it prior to the tragic civil war – war with Saudi Arabia. It has an amazing taste unlike any other honey you’ve had. Even back then it was pretty ridiculously expensive (fortunately truffles didn’t take a lot). Even back in Nephi’s day Yemen was famous for it’s honey. While it’s ridiculous hard to come by these days, hopefully the war will end and it’ll be available again. If you get the chance to try it I strongly encourage it. It is amazing.

    You’re point about honey flow makes me wonder, given the time frame, if “they did worship the Lord,” implies Passover as they could best celebrate it. There are strong suggestions in comments about the lost 116 pages that Lehi had a portable tabernacle somewhat like Moses’. The hints suggest that to consult the Liahonah Lehi actually went into the equivalent of the Holy of Holies. It’s very speculative but I could see them timing their leaving to such an event. An other one of those places where one wishes we had Mormon’s summary of what happened.

    Still, while speculative, and while we don’t know a lot about pre-exilic passover, the idea of a religious worship to celebrate release from Egyptian bondage would tie in nicely – especially with Nephi’s clear typology of Moses in his mind. We know 600 years later Ps 113-114 was typically recited. I can see 114:5 in particular relevant for their trip.

    One bit of symbolism that doesn’t get mentioned much in the Book of Mormon but which seems obvious is Noah. I’ve wondered why that is. That is Lehi and company board a miraculously constructed boat as commanded to flee the destruction of the wicked. They’re miraculously carried upon the lands until they’re given a new promise land with an accompanying covenant. Noah does get mentioned (Alma 10:22) but more as a type of the destruction of the Nephites in the future. I wonder if Mormon’s record of these same events used that imagery.

  6. Robert Osborn
    March 7, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    We are obviously missing some details about what was known, and by whom in their group, concerning ship building. What we do know is that the manner in which they worked the individual timbers themselves was not the known methods known to man. What this entailed we do not know. Someone, perhaps several, had at least seen ships previously and knew the manner in which they were constructing their ship looked differentvthan what they had seen. The bottom line here is its highly probable they were alone in their little corner of the world constructing their ship by themselves.

  7. Clark Goble
    March 7, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    It’s quite plausible their camp was away from others. I’m not sure that means they weren’t relatively close to others at times. I’m not sure Nephi’s strange construction explains that though since if they had visitors the visitors most likely were ignorant of ship construction.

  8. James Olsen
    March 10, 2018 at 7:04 am

    Rob, you may be right. I’ve already stated in an earlier post my own musings on Nephi’s asking for tools. The anthropological evidence is quite against you with regard to whether there were others in the vicinity of Bountiful—the whole of the Arabian peninsula was populated; they at least had neighbors, and again, I’ve written earlier my thoughts on a lush, “bountiful” area being entirely uninhabited; but maybe you’re right. And Jerry, your right to press us on the meaning of this particular tale rather than details of shipbuilding. Which was, in fact, my original point. I can’t help but be interested and think through what strikes me as most plausible, but in doing so, as noted above, the lesson I gleaned this time through is the importance of seeing the miraculous hand of God in the quotidian lessons we learn from our neighbors and the opportunities that surround us—a lesson that this tale affords, regardless of any facts related to Nephi’s former knowledge or local educational opportunities.

  9. James Olsen
    March 10, 2018 at 7:09 am

    Clark: Well, now I’ve got to try some Yemenis honey.

    You’re right that the absence of Noah throughout this is conspicuous. Get’s mentioned in Ether, but not here.

    Can you share with me the sources containing the rumors of what the 116 pgs contained? And I sure like a Passover connection to their departure, even if it’s mere speculation.

  10. Clark
    March 13, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    Don Bradly did a really interesting interview about his forthcoming book I’d check out. I believe there’s a transcript there too.

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