Reading Nephi – 2:8-15

068-068-the-liahona-fullThis passage doesn’t seem to reflect well on Nephi. I don’t blame Nephi. To the degree that any of us have good reason to think poorly of family members who have wronged us, I think that the older man Nephi has cause to think poorly of his brothers. But how can we not also see the older, embittered Nephi projecting back on his brothers here? Our memories are inevitably colonized by our present experiences—sometimes glamorized and sometimes darkened.

If I read past Nephi’s retrospectively projected interpretation, however, I am deeply moved by Lehi’s wisdom and love. There is no way to see what this family is going through as anything other than wrenching and difficult. I keenly remember feeling like my whole life was torn out from under me when as a melodramatic young teenager my family moved towns. I certainly murmured. I continue to feel my feet kicked out from under me as I move through life (and alas, I continue to murmur). I think we can see a general phenomenon in Lehi’s wrenching experience; but we can also see a particular affinity to our experiences today: we maintain very little in terms of solid, stable, long-term cultural transmission. By which I mean that time and place and identity and purpose are no longer tightly married together and stable over the course of multiple generations.

When I was young, Utah was a homeland, even though I never lived there. Politics and pollution and the shift to an international church have done a lot to make that feeling fade, however much I continue to love Temple Square, Manti, and the mountains above Fairview. I feel like I’ve inherited just enough of an understanding of homeland to catch the tiniest glimpse of what it must feel like to have actually had one—but maybe that’s just substituting sentimentality for the real thing. In reality, I don’t even have a hometown, let alone a homeland. I never know what to say when people ask me where I’m from. I tend to say the Washington, DC area—my most recent place of residence. I’ve moved more than twenty times in fourteen years of marriage, and will move again before this next summer. I have no wealth, no lands, no physical inheritance, no stability of long-term relationships and community coinciding with physical geography. While my experience is perhaps a little extreme, this seems to be normal today.

But it wasn’t Lehi’s normal. Quite the opposite. I don’t know how many generations his family had lived in Jerusalem after their exodus from the North—one or two, or was it more? Long enough that his sons seem to have fully assimilated. It was their homeland and hometown and theological home in addition to its being their physical home. It was likely the same for everyone that they knew or encountered.

But change is something with which we all must cope, even those who lived in this ancient city. Lehi was a prophet called to prophesy this very fact: prepare yourself, for the Eternal City is about to change and be destroyed. Prepare yourself, my family, our entire world is about to be disrupted and change.

Where then is our Polaris?

Lehi gives us two articulations of how we can remain grounded and overcome the vertigo:

  • “Oh that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness.”
  • “Oh that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord.”

Continual, progressive discipleship channels our inevitable movement and change, directing it toward the divine, toward a deeper relationship. It allows us to be nourished and nurtured by and through the changes we experience. We need not disrupt such discipleship. In the midst of dramatic, wrenching change our lives can be a river—constantly interrupted and shifting, expanding and contracting, but never ceasing to flow and find its way to the sea. The commandments and our keeping of them can be a rock, a foundation, a firm grounding. They anchor us as individuals, and they ground us as a people, and they bind us across generations and even across historical epochs.

I see Lehi’s love and understanding and wisdom here, not Nephi’s bitter, righteous indignation and accusation. I see wisdom for coping with my own changes.

10 comments for “Reading Nephi – 2:8-15

  1. Clark Goble
    October 15, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    The whole “And my father dwelt in a tent” has always been interesting to me. It used to be that folks made a big deal of this suggesting Lehi was a bendouin although it seems like of late people have pushed the Lehi as trader model more. It’s certainly an odd line.

    The whole aside by Nephi about how bad his brothers are is interesting and perhaps due to his looking back. I wonder how much of that was true at the time.

    The one thing I’ve constantly wondered, even given the strong patriarchal cultural at the time, is why Laman and Lemuel went with Lehi.

  2. James Olsen
    October 15, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    I like to interpret it with a temple lens — this is Lehis tabernacle in the wilderness. But that’s because I like to interpret everything scriptural as a temple text. At least I find myself in good company.

  3. Clark Goble
    October 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    I think some things can be interpreted through a ritualistic lens. I think we should be careful when we do so. I’m very skeptical this passage should be so interpreted.

  4. Zil
    October 15, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    @Clark Goble: “The one thing I’ve constantly wondered, even given the strong patriarchal cultural at the time, is why Laman and Lemuel went with Lehi.”

    I recommend the “Lehi in the Desert” portion of Nibley’s vol 5. It’s fabulous reading and addresses this exact question (Chapter 4, “Desert Ways and Places” specifically, but I recommend all of them – even the whole book, though the book from chapter 7 on is about the Jaredites – easy reading – I read it in a 3-day weekend whereas most Nibley books take me about a month to get through).



  5. Clark Goble
    October 15, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    I’m fine with the metaphor the Shiek bringing people into the tent in a ritualistic embrace. I just don’t think that particular verse is dealing with that.

  6. Clark Goble
    October 15, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    To add there are other places where Nephi is definitely using that imagery. Here I think Nephi is telling us more about the family’s place in what is to come. That is I think he’s being non-metaphoric but relating to us something important about his father.

  7. Zil
    October 15, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    @Clark, I’m assuming you’re commenting on the Nibley chapter – if not, sorry, I’m missing something. I wasn’t referring necessarily to these verses, but to your wondering about why Laman and Lemuel went at all or stayed with Lehi.

    And I wasn’t referring to the portion you mention, but the paragraph which starts with “The character and behavior of Laman and Lemuel conform to the normal pattern. How true to the Bedouin way are their long, bitter, brooding and dangerous outbreaks!” – the reason they stayed, in addition to the strong family / tribe ties embedded in the culture, relates to the “entreaties” of their father – this, apparently, is the norm – rebellion, lecture, yielding, more rebellion. The whole section titled “Family Affairs” covers this and other ideas. While completely foreign to western culture, it seems it was Lehi’s culture.

    I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s a very interesting discussion of cultural norms in Lehi’s time and place…



  8. James Olsen
    October 16, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Clark, I don’t doubt that this (verse 15) is saying something important about Lehi. Note that if we decontextualize Nephi’s constant negative commentary on Laman and Lemuel, that is, if we ignore the political narrative that this is, then Nephi comes across as obsessed with his brothers’ behavior; it looks like a kind of neurosis. But if you delete or shrink the commentary and just look at the details of the trip that Nephi gives it runs like this:

    1. Lehi gets revelation
    2. Lehi leads his family to leave the gold and riches and wickedness of Jerusalem
    3. They travel into the Sinai
    4. Lehi sets up an altar
    5. Lehi worships and praises God
    6. Lehi rebukes/encourages those who long to return to the old fleshpots
    7. Lehi dwells in a tent

    The parallels with the Exodus are conspicuous. I think that the dwelling in a tent is part of this, even though it visually appears removed because of Nephi’s inserted commentary on Laman and Lemuel. I find Nibley’s discussion of embracing at the door of the tent fascinating, but I agree with you that it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to take it literally as what Nephi is referring to in this passage. I don’t, however, think it at all a stretch to highlight the parallels to Moses, ironically making Jerusalem the new Egypt and Laman and Lemuel the new weak Hebrews longing to return, and Lehi’s stature coming from the tabernacle. I think that’s exactly what is going on literarily in this passage.

  9. Clark Goble
    October 16, 2015 at 10:22 am

    James, I think the comparisons to Exodus are quite apt. Nephi crouches the entire story of the move to America in terms of the Exodus type narrative. So I’m fine with that comparison and indeed that’s why I’m not sure the tent as temple in verse 15 makes sense. It’s much more about fleeing Egypt.

    Zil, sorry for misunderstanding. Yeah. That makes much more sense.

  10. James Olsen
    October 16, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Hmmm, I missed something in the response. Help me out. We’re in agreement about the literary parallel in this section with the Exodus. I take the establishment of the tabernacle — physically manifesting the presence of God, which in turn establishes Moses’s ongoing political and prophetic authority — as a key event. I’m claiming that the building of an altar and dwelling in a tent are Nephi’s parallel here to Moses’s building of the tabernacle (helping to establish Lehi’s prophetic/political authority). You however, think that the Exodus parallel casts doubt on the tent=tabernacle interpretation. But I’m not sure why. In other words, if you accept the Exodus parallel, why reject the tent=tabernacle parallel?

Comments are closed.