In How to Kill a Dragon, the Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins defines formulas as “set phrases which are the vehicles of themes.” Formulas “make reference to culturally significant features…which accounts for their repetition and long-term preservation” (9). This is essentially Milman Parry’s original definition of formula, but without the restriction to verse. Watkins shows how formulas are building blocks not only of epic, but also of myth, ritual, and other literary genres.
It seems to me that the recurrent combination of “keeping – commandments – in the wilderness” is both a formula in 1 Nephi, and also the characteristic formula of that book. The phrase occurs in several prominent places in the text in various forms, specifically in what might be called the Nephi novel, the narrative account of the family of Lehi (as opposed to the sermons, visions, and scriptural commentaries). “Keeping commandments in the wilderness” also neatly encapsulates the Nephite national myth: the Nephite ancestors kept the commandments in the wilderness, while the Lamanite ancestors and those of the “Jews at Jerusalem” did not.
One of the earliest and most concise occurrences of the formula is 1 Ne. 3:15, when Nephi encourages his brothers to make another attempt to retrieve the brass plates from Laban:
But behold I said unto them that: As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us.
Note here Nephi’s use of another formula, the parallel construction “as the Lord liveth, and as we live,” to focus attention on and to raise the stakes to the highest degree for his following utterance. In 1 Ne. 4, the formula “keeping – commandments – in the wilderness” recurs twice including in verse 14 perhaps the most direct expression of the formula as a national myth:
And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.
Nephite prosperity in the promised land is here conditioned on their own religious observance, but in the context of an oath made elsewhere, in the wilderness. The formula is found again in Nephi’s oath to Zoram in verse 34:
And I also spake unto him, saying: Surely the Lord hath commanded us to do this thing; and shall we not be diligent in keeping the commandments of the Lord? Therefore, if thou wilt go down into the wilderness to my father thou shalt have place with us.
Sariah too includes the elements of the formula in her rejoicing over the return of her sons in 1 Ne. 5: 8:
And she spake, saying: Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them. And after this manner of language did she speak.
And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness.
And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led.
In the same chapter, Laman and Lemuel present their version of events. In verses 21-22, they reverse the usual actors in the formula so that Jerusalem is the site of obedience, and the wilderness is the location of suffering:
Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy.
And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.
(Lehi’s reply to them, again using the formula, comes in 2 Ne. 1: 24: “Rebel no more against your brother…who hath kept the commandments…; for were it not for him, we must have perished with hunger in the wilderness.” Jacob 4: 5 may also make use of the formula, but with Abraham as its subject.)
The minor writer Amaleki describes a later Nephite migration with recourse to the same formula in Omni 1: 13, concerning the first King Mosiah:
And it came to pass that he did according as the Lord had commanded him. And they departed out of the land into the wilderness, as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord; and they were led by many preachings and prophesyings. And they were admonished continually by the word of God; and they were led by the power of his arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla.
It does not seem too much of a stretch to see in this verse the intent to equate a later migration to the earlier, foundational voyage through recourse to traditional language.
The formula is repeated in Mosiah 10:13 when Zeniff gives a thumbnail sketch of the earliest history of the Nephites and Lamanites. When citing the Lamanite claim of having been wronged, Zeniff can’t refrain from repeating the Nephite side of the story using traditional language:
And again, that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance, after they had crossed the sea, and all this because that Nephi was more faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord—therefore he was favored of the Lord, for the Lord heard his prayers and answered them, and he took the lead of their journey in the wilderness.
Zeniff too was the instigator of a migration, and he consciously imitates Nephi in his language as well. Note the beginning of his record: “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance….”
Now one might object that 1 Nephi has much to say about commandments, and commandments are meant to be kept, and most of the story takes place in the wilderness anyway, so that the co-occurrence of the three elements of the formula is accidental (as, for example, in 3 Ne. 4:13) rather than intentional. But I find it somewhat likely that “keeping commandments in the wilderness” is a set phrase that reflects the traditional language of 1 Nephi because of the formula’s restricted occurrence. It is found frequently in the Nephi novel but very rarely outside of it in 1 Nephi or elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, apart from overt or indirect references to the Nephi narrative. The formulaic nature of the phrase would also correspond to its neat summarizing of the Nephite founding myth: the formula is how the Nephites distinguished themselves from the people they left behind, and from their rivals. Perhaps the most compelling reason to regard “keeping commandments in the wilderness” as formulaic is that it usually occurs in the highly marked text types of oaths, covenants, and songs, as well as in literary allusions. For Sariah’s rejoicing and for Laman and Lemuel’s complaint, the text notes that each spoke “after this manner of language,” indicating that their words are stylistically distinctive. One of the stylistic features of their reported speech would appear to be the use of a formula: a recurrent and traditional set phrase that perpetuated the culturally significant theme of Nephite identity.