Reading Nephi – 2:16-24

068-068-the-liahona-fullI’ve no desire to rob those who are physically large with a means of relating themselves to Nephi. But I can’t for the life of me see how we connect “large in stature” with physically large. [Note: later in the text we do get a direct connection between Nephi’s stature and physical size, so perhaps that later connection colors things here; but for all we know, these were different words all together that both came out as ‘stature’ on Joseph’s stone.] The contrast in this clause is with young—which I suppose might be intuitively connected to physical size—my children do this all the time (they can’t quite understand that mommy is older since daddy is bigger). Just yesterday they nearly came to blows over whose foot was larger, which is apparently a genetic marker of natural aristocracy and right to rule. But it’s the right to rule that matters—and as soon as I convinced my children that there was no connection between foot size and ruling, they no longer cared about it.

This helps us get at another interpretation of stature that I find far more plausible: status. In Biblical Hebrew qaton means small, young, or insignificant, while gadol means large, great, or important. Although young, Nephi already had a significant community status—just what that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps Nephi was like young Joseph Smith and was well respected in his family for his ability to find lost objects with a peepstone, or whatever the ancient analog might have been. Whatever it was, Nephi associates his status with his desires and abilities to find, not lost objects, but the mind of God.

Here too I see another correlate with Joseph. Young and naïve and utterly dumbstruck by James’s counsel, Joseph seemed to unquestioningly believe that God would answer his inquiries. Nephi was young and naïve and utterly dumbstruck by his community status and so likewise unquestioningly believed that God would answer his prayers. I’m only being somewhat facetious. His confidence in his status, however, did not prevent him from seeking God humbly—which, like Joseph, accounts in part for the answer he received.

At any rate, Nephi leaves us precious little hint of the dialogue and drama of the family council underway. It’s absence fairly well screams at us from off the page. Lehi’s family had taken an initial departure and were now firmly planted in the Valley of Lemuel. How long? How much had been revealed to him by this time, and how much had he in turn revealed? I suspect that it is only here and only after some time (paralleling the circumstances of their departure from Jerusalem) that Lehi makes known that he plans to continue on journeying in the wilderness. That is, the rift Lehi has imposed between his family and the people and House of God in Jerusalem is now proposed to be made definite and final. This makes sense of the discussion at the end of chapter 2, as well as Laman and Lemuel’s actions during their two returns to Jerusalem (it also helps make sense of the returns themselves). At any rate, something shook Nephi and his brothers up; something caused him to pray and to censure his brothers for not praying; something led Nephi to wrestle to convince his brothers to go along with their father. As written, this struggle makes absolutely no sense: they’ve already left Jerusalem and settled three days south in the “borders” by the Red Sea. They’re not praying and arguing over whether to leave. I suspect they’re praying and arguing over whether to continue and make their exodus permanent.

This episode first raises and seems to presage and perhaps even cement the rift between Nephi and his older brothers. Having become spiritual convinced of his father’s correctness before God, Nephi presents what he takes as revelation to his brothers. Obviously Laman and Lemuel cannot accept it. Doing so would likewise be to accept the largeness of Nephi’s stature. Nephi’s move here places himself firmly as the spiritual heir of Lehi’s prophethood.

Once again, I am moved by what takes place between a father and his son in this passage. Lehi, as we saw in Chapter 1, translates his spiritual communication into verse. Nephi follows suit. I’m reminded of Manley Hopkins and his son Gerard. And I’m touched not only by the fact of Nephi following in his fathers poetic as well as prophetic footsteps, but likewise I’m moved by the poetic verse itself. There are depths here, enough to anchor a young life.

“Blessed art thou” not simply because of your faith. Faith is a common, a cheap response to trial because it too often is a narrow, reduced phenomenon that does not touch the whole of our lives. Unlike the claim of faith’s critics, faith is too often not used as a crutch—an instrument for aiding a person in moving. Rather, faith is an amnesiac. Elsewise, it’s a shield against the pain of exploration and leads to arrogance. But as God declares here, these are not how faith operated for Nephi. His faith was mixed with searching. In the midst of trial, faith is not the ability to hunker down and wait—it’s a motivation to search for the better. But also, Nephi sought humbly. Granted, Nephi’s record as an older man thinking back challenges this assertion; but we can take it on faith that there was more humility in the actual young Nephi and his searching than in the older Nephi writing the account.

There’s a beautiful parallel here as Nephi (and the Lord) riff on Lehi’s poetic comparison between the immovable valley and the keeping of commandments. Dwelling in that valley leads to both prosperity and to being led—perhaps even being led out of the valley on certain occasions, as Nephi is about to experience in his confrontation with Laban.

There is a choice land, and one has to wonder why the adjective choice is used. Perhaps God’s variability in leading an exodus vs. staying with the prophets (who end up martyred or in prison or merely witness to the Babylonian destruction) has something to do with choice. I can’t help but hear in this echoes of Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds theodicy; which is inextricably tied up with choice.

Note the reciprocal nature of verses 22 and 24. On the one hand, if Nephi’s brothers rebel against him, they’ll have no choice but to be subject to Nephi as a teacher and a “ruler;” to be corrected and straightened out by Nephi. On the other hand, the posterity of Nephi’s brother’s will serve in this exact same role of teacher, straightening out Nephi’s rebellious posterity as well. Thus while we might interpret the warning that if they rebel, then they’ll be cutoff rom the presence of God in a vengeful manner—as in, God will wrathfully, actively cut them off—there seems to be a deeper and more comprehensive message here. If we react to our enemies with animosity and attempt to oppress or persecute them, or should we otherwise leave the protection of the immovable valley of God’s commandments, then we cut ourselves off from God’s ability to lead and bless us, and thus subject ourselves to another, more difficult school of learning.