I’m first struck by what a joy this must’ve been for Lehi. At this point, he’s as committed as he could be, completely immersed in living the life of a prophet that he feels he’s been called to. Of course, it’s a serious question whether or to what extent he’d been exposed to scripture prior to this point. We see here that he was obviously familiar with the fact that there were five books of Moses, and the story of Joseph of Egypt was known to him (as was, of course, the story of Moses that Nephi used earlier). But clearly he had no copy of the scriptures himself—no one did back then. There were only communal copies, and it’s not clear that Laban would’ve been any more liberal with the plates back when Lehi was a normal merchant of Jerusalem than he was when Laman went to speak to him (for that matter, it’s not at all clear that Lehi was interested in the scriptures prior to his hearing many prophets out preaching to the people). But having committed himself to this life and this path, seeing himself (however humble or vain he might have been) as one of the prophets, he now, probably for the first time in his life, had the opportunity to sit and read the scriptures. What possible parallel do we have? I can imagine a woman in the DRC who leaves her tribal homeland, ostracized from her tribe, in order to travel to Kinshasa to join with the Saints there and try to work out a life for her family. Over the course of a few extraordinarily difficult years she’s able to set up a life for herself and her children, feeling led be revelation the whole time. She’s baptized and begins serving in the church, and a recent returned missionary teaches her to read. A friend in the ward then gives her a Lingala edition of the Book of Mormon and the Bible (probably the only two full length Lingala books that exist). I can at least begin to imagine what that must be like then, to sit down and not just hear a recounting of scriptural stories, but to systematically pour through the scriptures.
I’ve always assumed Lehi knew himself to be descended from Joseph. The destruction of the North was only a little over a hundred years ago—I certainly know who my great, great grandparents were and where they came from. But why project that on Lehi? The language here is of Lehi learning about this fact. Here it looks like he wasn’t a Moshivite refugee from the North—he was an assimilated Jew in the south. Perhaps his family had migrated south as merchants well before the destruction in the north—which makes his building an altar and sacrificing even more shocking.
Mostly, it’s verses 20-22 that catch my attention. Nephi returns again to his careful crafting of an overall narrative: my father and I kept the commandments, we were blessed of God for it, and here was a moment of our reward as we gained the blessing of the scriptures and could see their worth. And so we catch once again a glimpse of the opposition’s narrative: Why in the world were these sons’ lives put at risk (see again Sariah’s challenge)? What good were the plates? Lehi was crazy enough to endanger his sons’ lives in sending them back on merits of a pretended revelation, and what came of it was an irrevocable degradation of the family, with the zealot Nephi committing murder and theft in order to obtain the plates. And for what? What good were they? Added weight to their cargo as they eked out a hardscrabble life, suffering serious depredations in the wilderness. I can hear the bitterness.
Not so for Nephi. Once again, he works to help his reader—help me—to see something more, to shift the narrative, making the story a miraculous, divinely guided triumph. It’s a potent enough telling to ground his political authority. And potent enough to shift my own eyes and heart.