Reading Nephi – 3:1-14

068-068-the-liahona-fullThere’s a reason why this—the return for the plates—is the first event Nephi mentions following their departure from Jerusalem. I wonder if there’s not also an inspired reason for it to come upfront. Lehi’s theophany and departure is the rupture that opens a new dispensation. The story of the retrieval of the record of Laban is the founding of Nephite history, the origin of Nephite political legitimacy, and perhaps even the founding of Nephite religion.

Once again, there is a great deal going on in this story, with absences that are as revealing as what gets stated. Nephi subtly lets us know that he speaks with Lehi in confidence, that Lehi already spoke with Laman, Lemuel, and Sam, and that this meeting(s) didn’t go well. Lehi attempts to pre-empt what he assumes will be Nephi’s similar balking at the idea of returning for the record. Why do the others balk? Especially at the idea of a return trip—even temporary—to Jerusalem? Is it that taking the records is an irrevocable movement away from Jerusalem, something that makes their stint in the Valley more than a mere waiting for things to die down? Why does Lehi think Nephi will also balk? What have Nephi’s speech and actions been up to this point that cause Lehi to take preemptive measures in discussing the return? Why wasn’t Nephi with is brothers when Lehi approached them about the return? Why is Nephi getting his own meeting with Lehi?

It’s interesting that here the record for which they return is only named as a record of the genealogy of Lehi’s fathers. This foreshadows the later ignorance that we see of what the record held, after the brothers successfully return with the plates. This underscores how often we are ignorant of God’s purposes, the meanings behind what we are asked to do. Undoubtedly there are goods invested in possessing a genealogical record—we’re very familiar with some of those today. But these were not the goods that God had in mind.

I can’t help but see a negative lesson in Nephi’s cavalier attitude. We don’t have to dismiss the inspiring nature of Nephi’s zeal or quit singing the uplifting primary jingle surrounding our 3:7 scripture mastery. But perhaps we could likewise learn the lesson that becomes painfully obvious here: mere zeal has great risks and perhaps even predictable costs. What if Nephi had combined an equally zealous love for his brothers and a wise (common sense even?) respect for the difficulty of their proposal? Perhaps God would not have needed to bail Nephi out after his disastrous provoking of Laman and Lemuel. Perhaps Nephite religion would not need to be built on the back of the murder of the lawful keeper of the scriptures in a perverse, reverse parallel of the murder of the Messiah.

Finally, I can’t help but credit Laman for his efforts. We learn in this passage that for whatever reason Laman was strongly opposed to this quest. Nevertheless he went. Nevertheless, he courageously submits to his selection and makes an honest attempt to obtain the records. As much as anything, here I see a grand truth: those of us inspired by Nephi must learn that there is no way to build Zion without Laman. Zion, if it is to be built at all, must be built together with all of the Lamans out there: those with whom we find ourselves at cross-purpose, who see the point of the gospel quite differently than ourselves, who lack what we think of as righteous zeal, but who nevertheless are willing to put forth honest efforts to fulfill the assignments given to them—sometimes against their own better judgment.

The haunting lesson that we see unfolding here is that if we cannot do this—if we fail as Nephi failed—the results are disastrous. And Zion does not materialize.

20 comments for “Reading Nephi – 3:1-14

  1. Ojiisan
    October 18, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    Difficult to see how you are even reading the same scriptures as the rest of the Mormon community.. Nephi didn’t fail. He got the plates. And he did it not only without the help of Laman but in spite of the abuse suffered at the hands of Laman. As for the lesson you purport to see I doubt there is really any lesson of that sort in here but if there is it would seem to be that we are better off leaving the Lamans where they are because they will only hinder our mission with their doubts and failure to follow through in rough times.

  2. Clark Goble
    October 19, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    The story of the retrieval of the record of Laban is the founding of Nephite history, the origin of Nephite political legitimacy, and perhaps even the founding of Nephite religion.

    While there’s a certain sense of politics going on, I’m not sure it is sufficient in the least to ground political legitimacy. We’ll get to that in 2 Nephi though. So there’s definitely reading the Nephites as being part of God’s divine plan as well as reading classic political texts in light of the community. Interestingly on Sunday I was reading some N.T. Wright who makes a very similar point about Paul. I wonder how much of this is legimizing Nephite authority so much as it is attacking Lamanite politics in a manner akin to how Jews saw Rome in 1st century Palestine and how they likely saw Babylon and Assyria in the southern kingdom around the time of Lehi.

    Why do the others balk? Especially at the idea of a return trip—even temporary—to Jerusalem? Is it that taking the records is an irrevocable movement away from Jerusalem, something that makes their stint in the Valley more than a mere waiting for things to die down?

    I think there’s a lot of missing information here. I’d love to know how the lost 116 page covered this.

    It’s interesting that here the record for which they return is only named as a record of the genealogy of Lehi’s fathers.

    I think that’s a misreading. Verse 3 suggests two documents. “Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers.” The thing that’s always bothered me is the use of the word “the” in the text. Clearly there were other copies. What makes this particular collection so significant?

    One almost thinks this was a very special collection. We criticize the scribes for how they compiled the Bible. But what if the source of some of the loss of records to the Palestinian Jews actually was Nephi? (I’m not saying that’s the case – but there’s an emphasis on the singular nature of these plates and then the plates are lost to the Jews)

    I can’t help but credit Laman for his efforts. We learn in this passage that for whatever reason Laman was strongly opposed to this quest. Nevertheless he went.

    Yes, I’ve noticed this. While Nephi portrays Laman and Lemuel singularly negatively, in many ways the narrative undermines this in places.

  3. Clark Goble
    October 19, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Ojiisan (1) I think you’re misreading James there. He is saying Nephi failed not in terms of getting the plates but in terms of family unity. That’s why he says, “Zion, if it is to be built at all, must be built together with all of the Lamans out there.” That said, I think expecting that one can always have unity is wishful thinking. It’s not always the leader who is at fault. Even Jesus couldn’t maintain unity in his quorum of apostles.

  4. Ojiisan
    October 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Clark (3): If that’s the case then his interpretation becomes even more strange: how can you fail at something you are not even attempting to do? His task was to get the plates. I’m not sure that family unity was anywhere on the table but if it was it would have to have been Lehi who was attempting to do that by sending all the boys out on the task.

  5. Clark Goble
    October 19, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    Yes the task as outlined in the opening of the chapter doesn’t include that at all.

  6. Terry H
    October 19, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    1. I have always viewed Nephi’s statement in v. 7 as a variant of covenantal language (if not a full on covenant) to get the plates. We always quote it to say that when God commands he makes a way, but viewing it in the light of Old Testament covenants has caused me to seriously reconsider this part of it. (“I will go and do” “for I know the Lord [YHWH] giveth no commandments”) Scott Hahn’s Kinship by Covenant, AYBRL, 2009 has great references and descriptions of biblical covenants.

    2. Laman and Lemuel come across to me as part of the political split that occurred at the time of King Josiah. Their biggest (and constant) criticism of Lehi is he was a “visionary” man.

  7. Clark Goble
    October 19, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Could you expound on that Josiah aspect?

  8. Terry H
    October 20, 2015 at 1:05 am

    Barker states that there were great political upheavals at the time of Josiah when “the book of the Law” was found. The easiest place to find her statements about this (along with Kevin Christensen’s applications) are in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem ed. Welch, Seely and Seely. (FARMS 2004). Most assume today that it was the book of Deuteronomy and she’s of the school where the Deuteronomists were those who blamed the loss of the 10 tribes on Israel’s disobedience. A few other main things were that “no man can see God” and that “no man can atone for the sins of another”. Barker and others point out the differences between the appearances of God in Exodus and Genesis and the lack thereof in Deuteronomy. The Deuteronomists when on to write the Deuteronomist history (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). According to Barker (and others), they also did away with the phrase “Lord of Hosts”. They didn’t like the Kings (note how almost all of them turned bad or got worse than their bad fathers). i like to say imagine if the priests of Noah had written the stories of Mosiahs 1 and 2 and Benjamin. Its actually a lot more complex that that and I’m currently in the middle of a more serious look at the Deuteronomists. Having said that, there’s a lot of Deuteronomy in the Book of Mormon (another project for sometime in the future).David R. Seely is working on the next AB volume of Deuteronomy to finish what he says is author Moshe Bernstein’s work. He pointed out to me privately (and I don’t think he’d mind me saying so), “Jesus loved Deuteronomy”.

    With that as a far too brief preliminary, I’ve always thought that Laman and Lemuel were of the Deuteronomist faction. I think they believed in God, but they did not believe in visions (like Lehi’s and certainly not Nephi’s). That would explain where Sherem comes from and the priests of Noah (who it can be argued are Deuteronomists). My position may change based on the research I’m working through now.

    I’m sure I’ll want to correct more of this once I hit send, and I’ll point out more about Laman and Lemuel (and the Deuteronomists) as we progress.

  9. J Town
    October 20, 2015 at 7:27 am

    I just don’t know about the criticism of Nephi and the “necessity” of having to incorporate the “Lamans” into Zion. On the one hand, yes it’s easy to see that Lehi’s family was divided and also that some of Nephi’s language could be construed, by us, to be overly harsh. But remember that when Laman and Lemuel claim that very same thing, Lehi himself, the one who tries to be conciliatory, rebukes them and says Nephi was NOT harsh, but it was the Spirit of God which [Nephi] could not restrain. If the Spirit tells you to rebuke, you rebuke. This theme is taken up several times in the Book of Mormon, including a very telling instance from Mormon when he speaks about trying to communicate with those who will not be influenced by the Spirit. Either you use no sharpness and they ignore you or you use sharpness and they get angry. That isn’t a failing in the speaker, that’s a failing in the listener.

    Also, I’m not sure where we get the idea that all people (or even this family) should be unified. That isn’t what the scriptures say. They say things like “I bring not peace, but a sword”. They speak of separating wheat from tares. They speak of a vast gulf separating the wicked from the righteous. Zion, not the world, should be unified. Zion should and will be separated out. And Laman (and Lemuel) are clearly NOT people who are choosing to be part of Zion. They are “murderers in their hearts”. They speak of killing Nephi and even their own father. To disbelieve that is to completely disbelieve Nephi’s record. Laman and Lemuel, by their own choices, force a schism in the family. They choose to not be part of Zion. I think that it’s unwise to attempt to blame Nephi even a little for that. Could he have acted differently? Of course. But I think the record, and the fact that Lord delivered it to us, shows that he acted, on the whole, as the Lord commanded. Let us not blame him for the failings of his brethren.

  10. Clark Goble
    October 20, 2015 at 10:08 am

    I don’t understand how the priests of Noah could come from the Lamanites though. It seems the Lamanites split fairly early. There are admittedly movements in the book of Mormon that are mysterious. (Where does Sherem come from? Where does Abinadi come from?)

  11. Cameron N.
    October 20, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    “I can’t help but credit Laman for his efforts. We learn in this passage that for whatever reason Laman was strongly opposed to this quest. Nevertheless he went.”

    “Yes, I’ve noticed this. While Nephi portrays Laman and Lemuel singularly negatively, in many ways the narrative undermines this in places.”

    While I agree that members could learn from a honest comparison of their own faults with Laman and Lemuel as well as the Pharisees, let’s not forget that both groups were murderers in their hearts and overcorrect too much.

  12. Terry H
    October 20, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Clark, I’m not saying the Lamanites were Deuteronomists, but those ideas certainly appear to me to be prevalent in some of the peoples in the Book of Mormon. The record itself has big gaps, which would make a direct tracing impossible without additional information, but the ideas behind the Deuteronomists and their feelings about things like visions are clearly present. I think Laman and Lemuel likely felt they were believers and that their father was “visionary” like Jeremiah (who was jailed). I think this requires more analysis and study, but Sherem is clearly a Deuteronomist “no man can atone for the sins of another” and the priests of Noah claimed to teach the law of Moses, but were called on it by Abinidi.

  13. Clark Goble
    October 20, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    There’s definitely some big gaps of the range of views of the Nephites. Just by the time of Jacob there are already big dissents. However much is due to theological dissent brought from Jerusalem seems difficult to discern.

  14. Terry H
    October 20, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    Clark. This is where the history of ideas gets a bit harder. Its similar to the idea I raised earlier of the interpreting angel motif. I’m still working to place it in the Book of Mormon context where it appears in Judaism AFTER the Exile (70 years after Lehi left). Joseph Smith definitely wasn’t sophisticated enough to figure this one out. I’m not saying that the dissent came directly from Jerusalem, but these ideas likely didn’t occur in a vacuum either. For me, the “visionary” complaints of Laman and Lemuel are a place to start. There’s no indication who Sherem was, where he came from, or where his teaching came from, but let’s explore how it fits into what we know about Second Temple Judaism. This is an area I’m working now to get a handle on, but the literature is vast (to use a word that is definitely NOT an overstatement). What I do believe is that Laman and Lemuel definitely had leanings toward the Deuteronomistic reforms if they weren’t actual Deuteronomists themselves. Just take a moment (or more) and focus exclusively on the two brothers. See everywhere Nephi writes about them (taking it with a grain of salt for his point of view as well). Notice how their relationship with God is believing, but more fatalistic. In addressing questions above, was there a Deuteronomistic element that required those who didn’t believe to be killed (to keep the people of God pure)? Likely. Once again, I’m wrestling with a lot of literature from the period (including Qumran).

  15. October 21, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Yeah, it the distinction between a literary reading and establishing causality. I think it’s worth noticing these parallels and they can inform how we read the text. When we start pushing more than that I get a bit suspicious.

    I always find the ancient near east parallels to the Book of Mormon interesting. However I’ve noticed that a lot have been raised since FARMS came onto the scene, many end up offering competing models, many parallels (not this one) end up tending to be fairly late (typically 100 BCE – 200 CE), and I always wonder how the lines of influence would work. I’m more persuaded that there was at best only a priestly line reading Hebrew with most Nephite more or less adopting the indigenous culture. In that case I’d expect indigenous influences to vastly outweigh Palestinian ones. Further complicated traditions that aren’t explicit in texts would seem likely to disappear fairly quickly and be dwarfed by other factors. It’s just that since we’re basically completely ignorant of the culture the Nephites found themselves in that we can’t say much there. We look for parallels where we can find them. I’m just not convinced most end up making sense if we take seriously a limited geography somewhere near southern Mexico.

  16. Terry H
    October 21, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Clark, that parallel situation is the one that is the most curious. The parallels ARE clearly there, but they’re often (as you say) dated to the post-exilic period (if not later). Now, how would Joseph Smith (a) know about the parallels in the first place, since they’re not direct copies (like the Interpreting Angel motif, etc.) and (b) why are they post-exilic, since the Lehites left PRE-exile. Was there more going back and forth perhaps than we know, or was it the way things were perceived and “evolved” over time no matter whether on the American continents or in the ANE? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t we think the two branches would evolve differently? I think this is where the bras plates argument comes into play, because Mosiah points out the Zarahemlites didn’t have the “written word” and their language had adapted to a far different point (probably mingled with native populations) whereas the written words from the plates kept the Nephite language (and literary motifs, techniques, etc.) more intact. Food for thought.

  17. October 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    In some cases I think there’s a case to be made that the tradition was passed along. Take the Merkabah tradition. Clearly its there with Nephi and Lehi’s visions. So it makes sense that not only the literary work (the representation of the vision) is passed along but also a tradition on how to have the vision. Indeed we could easily say that an external structure (a commonality in how God gives visions – see D&C 76 for instance) is part of the tradition. Thus when we encounter elements of that tradition in a more separated text like Mosiah 15 it seems to me there’s some justification to argue for reading it in a Merkabah tradition beyond not liking the 19th century modalist interpretation.

    The angel motif is a bit trickier. First because let’s be honest. Most pre-exilic presentations of Jewish thought is pretty hypothetical to begin with. There’s not a lot unambiguously pre-exilic. And even the parts tied to before the exile are more traces with different theories about what each trace means. However it’s quite plausible to find common basis. We just need to be a bit more careful I think and argue not just for the parallel but an explanation of how the parallel would make sense. (Either due to diffusion arguments or common environmental structures)

    Of course a lot of this is made difficult because not only do we not know a lot about pre-exilic Israel, but we know even less about the Nephites. And that’s made worse because the texts we do have are manipulated even more than the Documentary Hypothesis argues for the OT. We have Mormon taking bits and pieces from who knows how many different texts, adding his own editorial aside and then some unknown process of translation that appears to have modified at least somewhat the underlying text. (Say quoting the KJV when the underlying text has something similar, doing a loose translation, and most likely offering expansions to the underlying text in places)

    Trying to work out the nuances of influence in some passage given all those layers is difficult in the best case scenario.

  18. October 21, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    To add, that’s why I’m not opposed to what I might call a deconstructive reading of the text where we read the text through these ideas on the margins. Contra some I’m not sure this is necessarily apologetics and it can illuminate the text’s possible meanings in interesting ways. I just think we have to be cautious and not be too committed to such readings.

  19. Terry H
    October 21, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Yup. Sounds reasonable to me (since those issues have occurred to me too).

  20. James Olsen
    October 23, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Sorry to have been absent the conversation, but it’s nice to read through the dialogue. I’ll simply add that I often find myself doing something like what Clark posits in #18. I can’t help but try to place the text in historical context, and whatever I know and learn from that context creates new possibilities for me — though largely, I’m giving (and think we all ought to give) it literary and scriptural readings — a reading that takes the text at face value and pays close attention.

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