There really is something terribly compelling about Nephi. It’s hard not to be won over by his absolute commitment and tenacity. I want to bracket all my inevitable reading of an older political authority justifying the legitimacy of his reign, countering his opposition’s narratives concerning crucial events at the genesis. Instead, I want here to simply let myself be taken in by a youth who displays this unyielding faith and optimism. It strikes me that this is precisely the attitude and commitment that brings about change. How—in the context of ancient Holy Land Jerusalem—can God transplant a faithful family, a family whose faith is rooted in the framework of their people’s having obtained a promised land and established a House of God? It would seem that either God would need a family whose faith was secondary, thin, perhaps non-existent (i.e., they weren’t all that faithfully Jewish and so weren’t committed to the Holy Land); or else God would have to give up on the idea of transplanting them. But here’s a third option: find someone like Nephi who will hold to what he’s been given in revelation and jump into the abyss. Assuming he doesn’t die—that is, assuming Providence—a new land of promise is indeed a possibility.
Looking at Nephi’s persuasive rhetoric, I can’t help but notice the difference between the explanation we get here for why the plates are needed and the explanation given when Nephi quoted Lehi. A difference in time and a difference in perspective have now brought us to the idea that the records are for a preservation of their language and their ability to read the words of the prophets. This strikes me as quintessential Restoration here—these are the same values upon which Joseph Smith operated. First, fully enfranchise a new prophet, a new founding vision and narrative, a new revelation for a new dispensation. On its own, this seems to cut off the need for the ancient prophets—Brigham Young in his heady zeal sometimes leaned this way. But for the Restoration, Joseph’s enfranchisement as a prophet took place via his restoration of ancient prophets. The marriage of the ancient and the new. Nephi articulates the same. Lehi’s first act after his full enfranchisement and break with the Jews is to send his sons back to get the Jews’ old record. And this is what Nephi latches onto. If we want to follow our modern prophet, we’ve got to obtain and maintain the words of the ancient prophets.
Next we see not just Nephi’s faith—which is prodigious enough on its own, but which is also hugely dangerous, and as we occasionally see, a prodigiously insensitive and bludgeoning force. We also see his commitment and trust in God married with his own creativity and ingenuity. And this is where things get really interesting. God commands them to return for the record. Laman, who’s opposed to the entire Lehi Project, nevertheless is willing to sacrifice and lend his own honest efforts to obtaining the record. Why would God not honor Laman’s sacrifice and efforts? I can’t help but think of the poorly described events surrounding Cain’s and Able’s sacrifices, where the Lord comes out looking rather partial and unfair. But God is a God that hides, and Laman’s efforts end in failure.
Nephi’s tenacity and creativity lead to a second attempt—and I can’t help but think that like me, God was genuinely impressed with Nephi’s efforts. Nevertheless, this ends in a second failure. Here we see the workings of our God and a focus on process as much as ends. And here we see how terribly difficult it is for us to be satisfied with such a focus. When God commands Joseph to head out on Zion’s Camp, we damn well expect to see Zion redeemed. When God commands me to have and provide for a family, and when I not only offer my sincere efforts, but also all the creativity and ingenuity I possess, it is an understatement to call it a mere trial when I fail. Can I be satisfied with process, particularly when the price of process is so very dear?
A final word about Laman and Lemuel. I could never condone their violence, but at the same time I can’t help but sympathize with them. It wasn’t mere money they lost with Nephi’s desperate gamble. It was their inheritance. Surely there was a significant part of them that held on to the idea that Lehi would come around eventually—or if not, that they would themselves be able to return (alluding here to their next trip). Even camped in the Valley of Lemuel, having determinately acted upon Lehi’s vision, having made as concrete a break as one can make, I suspect they held onto hope for a return. Even if it was mere psychological comfort, I suspect that such a comfort was comforting indeed—they still had an inheritance in the promised land of Jerusalem. Though they’d left it, there was still significant wealth, and that wealth by right of custom belonged to Laman. His whole identity would have been intertwined with the idea that this wealth would one day come to him and with it he would carry on his family legacy in the land of promise. But now it was gone, lost, squandered in stupidity. How much evidence did one need that the “commandments” Lehi and Nephi so adamantly proclaimed were really a form of neurosis, perhaps even blasphemy? God had not prospered their way and sustained their efforts. Quite the opposite. If they’d been satisfied with the first failure, they might have regrouped. Nephi, however, had lost them that chance.