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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Above all, this passage reveals the deep hypocrisy of Laman. In verse ten Laman is the adamant defender of tradition and the cultural norms that ought to govern our lives—he refuses to accept rule from a usurping younger brother. In verse seventeen and eighteen, however, he has no compunction with regard to deposing the patriarchal rule of his father—a far greater infraction of tradition. Even more, he shirks the duty of the firstborn to care for the parents in their old age; quite the opposite, he creates conditions that bring his parents to the point of death and refuses to alter course when this becomes clear. Even taking Nephi’s account with a grain of salt, it’s hard to imagine a scenario here where Laman doesn’t come off very poorly.\
Part of the function of this passage is to reveal the utter ungovernability of Laman. It’s not just that he won’t submit to Nephi, a younger, usurping brother; it’s that he won’t submit to any form of authority, any of the cultural norms and constraints—Laman is refusing to submit to patriarchy, divine command, meritocracy, the general will, or even the cultural obligations of mercy. Outside of a desire for power, fear of death is the only motivating force attributed to him. Here it takes much less imaginative power to think of alternative and plausible motivations—such as the prominent possibility that Laman saw the ends (perhaps of returning the family to some state of stability or normalcy) as justifying the means. But even so, he still doesn’t come off very well. In my reading, this is the low point in Laman’s dealings—the bottom in a slow decline of radicalization. That said, and even if Nephi’s attribution of a purely selfish desire to save his own skin is correct, Laman deserves some credit for ultimately relenting and submitting again to Nephi’s authority.
The passage is likewise revealing of their father Lehi. Nephi notes that Lehi tried and failed to stand as family patriarch—to rein in both his own sons and the sons of the departed Ishmael. Nephi spends significant effort offering excuses for this failure. Two prominent possibilities here are that Lehi was conspicuously silent or permissive of Laman’s actions, perhaps offering only mild or half-hearted criticism. Or perhaps Lehi truly had lost the ability to govern effectively (which might stem from health or simple inability). Perhaps Nephi feels the need to defend a father who at this time (and perhaps for some time before?) had lost authority (this loss of authority might well have been catalyst for Nephi’s own progressively conspicuous leadership, extending back at least to the episode of the broken bow; in fact, this provides a plausible alternative to mere ambition with regard to why Nephi is motivated to take command early—the other candidate to replace a flagging Lehi was Laman). Either way, Nephi places the blame squarely on Laman and company.
Verse nineteen is the sole window into Nephi’s family that we get in the entire record. In an earlier verse he mentioned the marriage. Here, we see that he had a wife who cared enough for Nephi to weep and plead for him. He had children who likewise pled on behalf of their father. That said, the mention is merely instrumental. His wife and children play a role in the logic of the passage, representing the cultural norm of mercy, embodied by a pleading wife and children. This recreates the traditional, chauvinistic divide: men (and leadership) on one side, women and children (and vulnerability) on the other. The redeeming element to the binary is perhaps that in the logic of this passage one can read the pleas of women and children as equal in force to the pleadings of the patriarchal ruler Lehi. But overall, this brief mention underscores the stark chauvinism of the text.
Nephi does three things upon release: he takes up the Liahona; he prays; he works to guide the ship. These actions seem a sermon: secure that which is holy, that which God has already imparted to guide you; connect with the heavens, acknowledge and petition them; work like an atheist. [FN]
Finally, we’re presented with a great contrast: in the wake of the life-threatening storm there was a great calm. And the journey continued.
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FN: This is shorthand for the viral story that Rabbi Jeffrey Sacks has popularized with his variations; the punchline is “Because those who have faith sometimes make their peace with the injustices of this world by claiming that they are the will of God. Therefore God created atheists to protest and fight every injustice.”