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.