Reading Nephi – 3:31-4:3

068-068-the-liahona-fullThey misplaced the chapter break.

We’ve reached a hard spot in the Book of Mormon for me—perhaps the hardest spot in Nephi’s record. The text in chapter four challenges me on multiple fronts every time I read it. I hope that my wrestling with it is fruitful and faithful, but often it’s merely implacable.

One thing that I can see clearly is that we here get Nephi’s commentary on the nature of miracles and the way they interact with human reason and trust. All of us have Laman and Lemuel within us. Analyzing the variables of our life, we simply cannot see a solution to a given problem—there is no plausible way out of whatever bind we find ourselves in. Laban has twice now sent his henchman to threaten Laman. The reality of Laban’s ability to kill him is obviously quite firmly in the forefront of Laman’s mind—encounters with those who are perfectly comfortable using violence to coerce others is bound to have that sort of effect. This isn’t a game anymore, this isn’t perseverance or faith or optimism; this is now suicidal—Laban wants to kill us. Laban’s perfectly capable of killing us. I don’t walk on water, and the water doesn’t part for me. Yes, I’ve read that God’s performed water miracles in the past, but I have no experience with such things. My experience with water is that when I step into I sink, and should I try to cross a lake let alone a sea, I would drown. My experience with Laban is that he kills with impunity and God doesn’t spare his victims. I’ve confronted Laban twice with no miracle—if we keep playing this game, I’ll drown. I hear these words in my own voice as I confront certain challenges.

Nephi’s narrative is crafted to highlight even further that this—Laman’s realist perspective—is a perspective we can inherit even after witnessing miracles—or certain types of miracles. God’s sent an angel to confirm to me that we ought to get the plates, but God’s also allowed me to almost be killed. God seems pretty minimalist when it comes to miracles, and while he commands that I continue to strive for the plates, he certainly doesn’t offer me a personal guarantee—it seems quite plausible that I end up the sacrificial lamb in order to get these plates away from Laban. How’s that for your Exodus parallel? If just one of us make it out alive with those plates, it’ll be a genuine miracle. I can believe in miracles and believe that God wants my dad to have the plates and still not know that I’m going to come out of this alive; in fact, it looks much more likely that it’ll be my blood smeared on the lintels.

I personally wrestle with this, because I worry that I’m more like Laman and Lemuel than I am like Nephi. I have faith in God’s miracles and power of deliverance, but I have a great deal of faith in Job as well. I have a faith in the story of Lehi’s family for that matter. Ultimately they don’t make it out alive. Rather than a family making it to build Zion in a new promised land, we end up with a disastrous family fission followed by centuries of war and eventually genocide.

This is one of the deep challenge I face. At the end of the day (i.e., at the end of life), Laman is absolutely right. Laban can command and even slay fifty. Then why not us? The reality is, he will slay us. We will die. And I can believe in Moses and in Nephi and in temporary deliverance, and angels can minister to me. And I will still watch those I love, those who mean more to me than my own life, die in front of me. And eventually I will confront the inevitability of death myself. If I interacted with resurrected beings, if the Christ confronted me with wounded hands and side, then perhaps I’d be in a different category of reason, faith and expectation. But the finality of death is an inevitable challenge to the temporary deliverances I witness, no matter how dramatic.

Nephi is trying to give me another way of experiencing my death and consequently how I live, altogether. I can see that much. I deeply want to see and understand more. I want to live in the face of my mortality as he did.

9 comments for “Reading Nephi – 3:31-4:3

  1. Jay
    October 23, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    I’m grateful for your last sentence.

  2. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 11:02 pm

    I should have added in the last section on the angel (29-31) how odd this section is. I’ve often wondered if there’s a translation issue here. Is this an angel in all its glory appearing as a divine being to Laman and Lemuel? Or is this angel in the broader Hebrew sense of malak simply as messenger. In most places the word pops up it’s not a divine angel. (For instance in 2 Sam 5:11 it’s translated as “messenger.”) My understanding is that even malak yhvh (messenger of God) needn’t be a divine being.

    Hopefully Ben S, who actually knows Hebrew, will chime in here.

    I just wonder how much of this might be Joseph’s context affecting the translation. Note I’m not saying it wasn’t an angel. Just that if it was an angel Laman and Lemuel’s actions always seemed quite strange to me. I sometimes wonder if this wasn’t an other prophet like Lehi acting as a diving messenger. This would explain Laman and Lemuel’s murmuring much better. Of course one can also read Nephi i 4:3 as himself amazed they don’t believe after seeing something so amazing.

    But if it was a prophet I can see Laman and Lemuel saying, “well if the prophet’s words were so great, how come we already had an invasion that put Zedekiah on the throne and ransacked Jerusalem? Doesn’t seem to me God’s too inclined to protect people from armies.” (I’m here assuming Laban is an appointed figure – probably by Nebuchadnezzar II which may explain some of the later actions with Nephi)

  3. October 27, 2015 at 10:57 am

    Clark, it’s interesting how often in the Old Testament, people don’t recognize angels as divine beings. For example, I was just reading in Judges (chapter 13), and Samson’s parent’s treat the “angel” as a “man of god” but not really a divine being, until the angel ascends to heaven, at which point they realize what this messenger really was.

  4. Ben S.
    October 27, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Right, mal’ak is not necessarily divine, glorious etc. It simply means “messenger” which becomes “divine messenger” which mutates into our current cultural ideas of “angel” as white, glowy, appearing suddenly, etc.
    I’m not sure off the top of my head if there’s ever clearly a human mal’ak yhwh, though.

  5. Clark Goble
    October 27, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    I did a brief search. Admittedly I’m no expert on this so I can’t judge the quality of analysis. The Jewish Encyclopedia says, “in the earlier Biblical writings the term “Malak YHWH” (messenger of the Lord) occurs chiefly in the singular, and signifies a special self-manifestation of God. … At times the angel clearly distinguishes himself from the Lord who sends him ” (Interestingly there’s some ambiguity in some of the early sections of 1 & 2 Nephi on who is actually manifesting — such as the Spirit of the Lord in Nephi’s merkabah vision) It then says that’s it’s during the exile that there’s a big shift in angelology. I suspect many would argue with their notion that the divine counsel or pantheon is purely an exilic evolution. They argue that it’s this evolution from Babylon that provides the more human like malak yhvh. Suddenly angels are more human. They point in particular to the book of Zechariah for this. Even there though while there’s a certain ambiguity it appears these “men” are divine in some sense. But perhaps (according to the article) due to influence of the Babylonian pantheon.

    Anyway most of the sources agreed that “angel of the Lord” are divine. I couldn’t find an example of a human in that role. So that’d imply 1 Ne 3:29 fits that usage.

  6. Clark Goble
    October 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    This Tyndale article on “Angel of the Lord” seems helpful.

  7. James Olsen
    October 27, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Clark this is a fascinating point, though I think — as you ultimately conclude here — that this was an angel of the heavens. I’ve always particularly appreciated how close malak is to melekh — on multiple levels.

  8. Terry H
    October 27, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Clark, some of the differences are more fully described in the “Interpreting Angel Motif” I’ve described in other posts. I’m also going to look more closely at “Angel Veneration and Christology” by Loren Stuckenbruck (Mohr Sebeck, 1995). As a start, I’d also recommend the entry “Angels” in the Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, Eds. Collins and Harlow. Its written by Archie T. Wright, pp. 328-331 (Eerdmans, 2010). It has a section on the “Bene (ha) Elohim), not really applicable here, also on Malak/Angelos which is a good summary and says it can be human or heavenly. Then it talks about the angels in Job and Zechariah, Daniel, and other Jewish Literature. The article describes their roles as being “Surrogates for God”, “Intercessors”, “Teachers and Tour Guides” and that they have a distinct hierarchy. The bibliography alone provides some heavy-duty additional reading.

  9. Clark Goble
    October 27, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Terry, I think part of the problem is that those texts date to after the exile. At least in the key parts. So most sources I have suggest the hierarchy and more significant angelology date to after the exile with heavy Babylonian influence. The earlier strata (although this may be reading too much into it) seems much more like how Mormons conceive of angels typically.

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