What’s in a Name? – Reading Nephi – 18:23-19:1

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 18:23-19:1

They arrive at the promised land. They pitch their tents. I can’t help but picture elation and Hollywood scenes of the family kneeling to kiss wet sand as water rolls over their feet. They made it!

Now what? At the end of years of travel, when one finally reaches one’s destination, what does one do? As Nephi goes on to note, they’re in a new land with new flora and fauna and resources—but a land of which they’ve zero knowledge. Particularly when it comes to survival, local knowledge is everything. I imagine a profound funk of “what now?” hung over them. After more than eight years, are they simply to stop? Do they stop and build right on the coast? Do they look around for a fertile valley? Do they have to try and find an uninhabited location? Are they sure that God doesn’t want them to continue on further into the wilderness?

Nephi makes no comment about these decisions and does not mention revelation here. It’s unclear that the Liahona—so integral to their ocean voyage—could be of any use at this point (beyond serving as a talisman, which is precisely what it becomes; no other prophet is mentioned using it; much like Joseph’s seer stone). How do they operate? Where do they build? How do they build? Every scriptural account of arriving in a promised land makes clear that arrival does not itself provide milk and honey. “Promised Land” denotes an action, a process. It is something we do. Notice that all of the “finds” that Nephi describes are located in “the wilderness.” What is there to distinguish the newly designated “promised land” from the wilderness? Is it merely the perimeter of their own tents? Most clearly in these verses I see the specter of starvation—that frequent, perhaps constant companion during the Lehite Exodus (maybe I see this only because it’s been such a constant aspect in their journey; but I’m confident that learning the local for-food flora and fauna took at least some time).

The beginning of their coping and acting, and what was surely a leap of faith, was, I believe, what Nephi first notes—that they actually called this place the Promised Land. And here is the magic of language, that supreme gift of our God. And here is the answer to Juliet’s poignant question. Names are often bridges attempting to span existential chasms of dissonance. This wilderness is the Promised Land. This life is the pivot point of eternity and an imperative experience for which we shouted for joy. Names allow us to hold firmly to the reality of mortal travail and the promise of immortal glory at the same time.

As part of his typical preoccupation with food, Nephi focuses on the miraculous: their seeds grew. It wasn’t merely their growing that was the miracle, it’s that the Lehites survived. Notice that they put ALL of their seeds in the ground—hardly a prudent act. They weren’t fools. I can only see this as a desperate act. I suspect they were facing starvation, and that planting everything was more an act of necessity than a leap of faith—they didn’t have enough grain or enough alternative food sources (remember: new land and very new flora and fauna) to only plant some and still survive. It was all or nothing. They needed all of it to grow. And it did. Their grain together with the wild animal population was enough. They had food and once again, they didn’t starve.

Pitching tents, securing food, creating a scriptural record. Nephi’s narrative seems to follow Maslow’s hierarchy: shelter, food, religion. It’s striking that beyond shelter and food, the first thing Nephi mentions is finding ore and God’s command to make a record. Looking closer, even the wild animals are there for the use of man. As are the ores mentioned. Nephi offers an implicitly instrumentalist approach to nature. But undergirding it all is a religious outlook. Conspicuously, all of it—Maslow’s shelter, food, and religion, both the journey and the settling, the whole thing—is oriented around their relationship with God. Nature as instrument for one’s relationship with deity demands a kind of humility toward and gratitude for nature that we sorely lack today with our destructive, fetishized exploitation of all creeping and non-creeping things—including ourselves. Humility and a deep reverence and gratitude for that which they used allowed for a promised land. Today, we have no promised land; we have only an occupied, a possessed land.

This jubilation of landing and building, this process of Promised-ing the Land has one large lacuna: there is no mention of family relations or roles. Not until Lehi’s death.

8 comments for “What’s in a Name? – Reading Nephi – 18:23-19:1

  1. Northern Virginia
    April 23, 2018 at 7:44 am

    James, would it be outside the purposes of your post to discuss the historicity of the animals Nephi states he found in the promised land as well as the planting Old World crops in the New World? It’s problem I’ve never been able to adequately deal with since I had a 4th grade teacher ridiculed me for believing that First Nations people had horses before Columbus arrived.

  2. adano
    April 23, 2018 at 10:24 am

    ^ This is a good question, but since the BoM never discusses horses in a manner suggesting that people rode them, I’ve always assumed the applied the name to some new animal, whether that means a llama or whatever. I mean, if people rode them, we’d hear about horses going into all the battles that occur, yet that never happens.

    Even the discussion of Ammon and Lamoni using horses and chariots suggests something other than an Old World chariot, since chariots are never mentioned in the context of battle in the BoM or of being used for anything other than royal (Lamoni) travel, which makes me think “horses” was applied to some pack animal and “chariots” was applied to some kind of litter.

    But I’m no expert and would love more insight on these things.

  3. Stephen M (Ethesis).
    April 23, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Adano—nicely said.

  4. Clark Goble
    April 23, 2018 at 8:22 pm

    Just as an aside there is some evidence that the lost 116 pages say that the Liahona was still used including in war and eventually is used to lead Nephites to the location of the Jaredite spectacles. After that it ceased to work. Don Bradly has a book coming out on this soon although he’s discussed elements he’s found in various presentations. LDS Perspectives interview with him is particularly worth reading. (There’s a transcript for those who don’t want to listen to the podcast.

    BTW – that’s a great point about the Nephites planting all their seeds. It’s possible they were so desperate that they used up their seeds and eventually had to eat what was native.

    Virginia, a bit beyond the topic. But I think it clear the Nephites lost their old world crops fairly soon. Just because they have them when they arrive doesn’t mean they have them a few years later. It’s a place where the 116 pages would be helpful.

    For horses I think they’re actually a compelling story that they are spirit animals used in war. More symbolic akin to a flag. There’s no indication they are ever ridden. The main problem in the Book of Mormon IMO aren’t seeds or animals but metal which still doesn’t have a good explanation. (I’m sure there is an explanation I just don’t know)

    I should note that semantic drift can explain a lot of the words in the Book of Mormon that appear problematic. It’s not hard to find early Spanish writings that refer to native animals using old world terms. Or vice versa where Aztecs used native words to refer to new animals like horses introduced by the Spanish.

  5. Jerry Schmidt
    April 24, 2018 at 8:35 am

    My own theory, based on the Plains native people’s word for horse, “big dog,” is that dogs served this pack animal purpose. Not only were dogs used in this manner by natives on the U.S plains, but by Inuit as sled pullers far north in what is now Canada.

    As to planting non-native plants, it would be mixed results, naturally. I can’t help thinking how early English colonists in the northeastern U.S. almost starved.

    These colonists benefitted greatly from native education in planting techniques, such as the 3 sisters, beans, corn, and squash, grown in close proximity to each other as each benefitted from the others growth.

    Meh, what do you expect from an amateur anthropologist?

  6. Jerry Schmidt
    April 24, 2018 at 9:15 am

    Clark Goble, I like your comment about spirit guides and symbology. I realize that Hebrews had animal symbology around Jehovah, as did Persians (Uruk) around their gods.

    Christians, post-advent, added their own symbology, depending on region. Is it possible to trace North American native tribal symbologies to the Christian religion Clan Lehi brought to North America?

  7. Clark Goble
    April 24, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    If you’re interested Jerry, here’s a bit more on that from Brant Gardner. There’s more in the book including copies of the art. It’s not a perfect explanation but resonates with me.

    Maya art represents the king riding on a litter associated with an animal as an accompanying spirit. The graffiti litters at least open the possibility that these were simply formal litters and not limited to battle context. These litters were accompanied by a “battle beast,” or an animal alter ego, embodied in the regalia of the king and litter.37 I suggest that the plausible underlying conveyance in the story of Ammon was a royal litter, accompanied in peacetime by the spiritual animal associated with the king. I suggest that the appearance of “horse” in this context comes from Joseph’s assumptions in the translation rather than the meaning of the text on the plates.

    (Gardner, Brant A.. Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Part 2) (Kindle Locations 573-578). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.)

  8. Jerry Schmidt
    April 24, 2018 at 9:47 pm

    Cool, Clark Goble, thank you!

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