Here is a poignant scene. Reunions are an important trope in all stories, because they’re an important element in all of our lives. As Mormonism’s grand cosmological narrative makes clear, our very life is about separation from our parents and working toward an eventual reunion—after we’ve made our (usually very messy) journey and acted in faith to do the things that we’ve been commanded to do. Verse one gives us a nice twist, however. It’s not that the brothers have completed their quest and come home like every other Odysseus. Rather, they’ve completed their quest and having done so returned to the wilderness. The Book of Mormon is indeed, as Jacob who was born in the wilderness will later state, a story of strangers wandering in the wilderness.
Grant Hardy offers a compelling argument that this scene is a matter of artful obfuscation. Nephi distracts his readers from his murder and what was surely an awkward reunion—one can almost hear the irony, imagining Nephi declaring that he has accomplished the commandments of the Lord—by throwing his poor mother under the bus and making the reunion about her own struggles and faithful reconciliation. It’s also hard not to see this as adding insult to injury, given that this is the one time Nephi focuses on a woman’s experience or quotes her (one of three named women).
While I agree that Sariah’s experience is being exploited here, I see it as political exploitation—and it’s of course impossible to know how willing she might have been in this regard (i.e., while Nephi’s certainly making use of her experience, exploitation might be the wrong word). Imagining competing narratives of the events and meanings of the Lehite exodus, it’s hard to imagine Sariah’s struggles not playing a role. It’s certainly conceivable that there’s good reason Nephi never again quotes his mother. Here Nephi uses her experience as another evidence of his overall position: yes, it’s hard to see, and yes, it’s a struggle, but God is the one behind the exodus, and it succeeded to the degree we were faithful to God’s commands. If Sariah’s struggles were as significant as this tiny glimpse makes them appear, then her reconciliation and testimony of Nephi’s narrative at this point is powerful indeed.
While I think Hardy makes a compelling case for how this scene literarily distracts the reader from the murder, I imagine it playing a slightly different role for a later Nephite audience already familiar with an “anti-Nephi” narrative that undoubtedly focused in on the murder. Sariah’s experience and testimony corroborate Nephi’s overall account that begins with his pre-return conversation with Lehi. The murder is solidly wrapped in a faithful discourse—Nephi promises to do as God commands; Nephi obtains the plates; and given the literary placement of Sariah’s testimony, the murder ultimately becomes not only God’s design, but also evidence of God’s purposes being fulfilled in Nephi’s actions.
What stands out most in this passage, however, is the tension between Lehi and Sariah. How are we to accomplish this Herculean task of becoming one flesh? We cannot but be two humans, which means we cannot be without two sets of experiences and worldviews. And God—at least in the scriptural stories—is absolutely partial. Where is Sariah’s pillar of fire on a rock? Where are her visions? Why is Lehi the one who’s given certainty about this crazy, perilous quest to regain the plates from a man whose character they undoubtedly knew in advance? Acknowledging Lehi’s prophetic role, is certainty so precious a good that it couldn’t also be shared with Sariah? I do not understand the contrast between an Emma and a Mary Whitmer, and even less the trial for Sariah. If we assume that God understood their educational needs and provided accordingly, than we admit that we’re capable of being made to understand. My wrestling hasn’t yet brought me a plausible reason.
I’ll confess, it is Sariah’s experience that I find it easier to relate to, though I occasionally find myself dumbfounded in Lehi’s shoes as well (“Yes, I’m a visionary man, isn’t that a blessing?”). What allows her to sit back and permit Lehi to send off her sons? The easy answer is of course a rigidly chauvinistic culture, but let’s bracket that (especially since, not knowing more of Sariah and Lehi and their interactions, it’s hard to know how relevant that element was). I see a faithful woman—without knowledge—willing to wait on the Lord, but candid rather than cavalierly blustering about what faith and waiting entails. Here Sariah gives us the testimony that our family relationships are ultimately what matters, that there is no grand prize that we obtain that makes up for failure on the familial end. What comfort would brass plates be if either Laman or Nephi returned home dead? Would there be even that small consolation of plates? Or would they all perish in absolute vanity? In the wake of mortal uncertainty—an uncertainty guaranteed to endure to the end—how do we unite with our spouse on crucial issues when we begin in diametrically opposed positions, and when the stakes are existential? This is the question that rivets my reading of this passage.
Here also, Sariah gives us that prodigious transformation from waiting on the Lord without knowledge, to faithfully seeing in the return of her sons the hand of God and the expunging of her doubt. We all have similar experiences of triumph; my own triumphs tend to haunt me as much as they do ground me. I can’t always make this transformation. And when I do, it doesn’t always last through eight years of brutality in the wilderness. A few months of genuine hardship are enough shake me to the core. I can only hope that I can obtain and be what Sariah was.