Here again we get a narrative, and in the perceptible foil of a competitor narrative. Once again, Nephi works hard to discredit Laman & Lemuel, and here we can see clearly what their major point is: returning to Jerusalem. It’s easy to imagine a New World experience decades into the future, in the wake of hardships that rival or surpass the hardship of the 8 years in the wilderness—infant mortality, disease, lack of food, the general hardship of coping with an entirely unfamiliar ecosystem, together with whatever struggles they might have had with their native neighbors. It’s easy to imagine competitor narratives to Nephi’s rule that focus on the illegitimacy of leaving Jerusalem—that comparative Utopia still very present in Lehite memory. It’s easy to imagine a public unconvinced either by the claims of Jerusalem’s destruction or unconvinced that becoming a vassal state would’ve been overall worse than what they suffered in the exodus and settlement of the Americas. Such a narrative might make a great deal of a pivotal moment when a majority or near majority attempted to return.
The major points of Nephi’s narrative—preservation and deliverance in the wake of scrappy, faithful obedience to God’s commands—coincide with the major elements of criticism. There’s plenty of room within the text itself to craft a plausible counter-narrative to Nephi’s claims. Here’s some possibilities:
At this point, Laman and Lemuel must have felt a little desperate. It is no longer a matter of waiting things out in the Valley of Lemuel. It’s not clear how long they stayed there (long enough at least to harvest an abundant amount of seeds of all kinds as the beginning of Chapter Eight notes); but it’s easy to imagine them as having stayed for some time, perhaps even a few years. Long enough to make it clear that Lehi had no plans to return, that patience wouldn’t win the day for Laman and Lemuel. And what clearer symbol of this could there be than being sent back to fetch Ishmael’s household and their future wives?
Maybe the “bad” sons didn’t really believe that Jerusalem would be destroyed (as Nephi claims). But maybe (as Hardy notes) that’s just because they were good faithful Jews and believed in the scriptures of their day, which state emphatically that the throne of David would never be cast down, and that Jerusalem was God’s city, and the temple there was God’s house. They certainly weren’t ignorant of the politics of the day, and things looked rather grim for Jerusalem. But maybe Nephi wasn’t the only fan of Isaiah. Maybe he actually got his initial interest in Isaiah because Laman and Lemuel preached Isaiah to him, how God miraculously, against all odds, saved Jerusalem from Sennacherib by sending a “destroying angel” (i.e., plague) to wipe out a large portion of his army. That was little more than a hundred years earlier. Why not have faith that God would do so again? Why not hold true and faithful to the traditions of the Jews and their scripture and their whole way of life and pray for deliverance, that they might remain in the thoroughly established, undeniably promised land, rather than fleeing on a desperate whim, believing that maybe there was some other promised land (which certainly would’ve appeared heretical to any faithful Jew at the time)?
Anyway, that’s one possibility—the “bad” sons were really the faithful ones, contra Nephi’s new-spun heresies. Here’s another possibility, a more secular one. Maybe the “bad” sons were patriotic, pure and simple. Maybe they rather agreed with Lehi about the wickedness of Jerusalem, or maybe they were not terribly spiritual in their thinking at all. But it was clear Jerusalem was under serious threat. We have a hard time today imagining what patriotism and loyalty to one’s people really means, devoid of a “people” as most of us are (including those of us who desperately want to see ourselves as part of a people). To live and grow up and be immersed in a culture where it was entirely an “us against them” mentality as they did—how could you tuck tail and run away? Especially considering the brothers’ prime enlistment age and the fact that they were as yet unmarried. Their father was making himself out to be a prophet, cast out from Jerusalem, when really he had simply reacted in a cowardly and unpatriotic manner to the threats of their enemies and the unsympathetic ear of true patriots—and being a traveling merchant, Lehi was doing what he knew how to do: run from Jerusalem. We’ve already witnessed Sariah’s deep concern for the life of her sons—perhaps it wasn’t difficult to convince her to flee the coming armies and so have a chance of watching her sons grow older. Maybe Nephi was a coward like their father. Maybe a coward in a slightly different way, since Nephi surely knew that without the help and skill of Laman and Lemuel, Lehi’s family was doomed to perish in the wilderness (there was of course a good chance they’d perish anyway). Nephi the coward was first running away from defending his homeland—the real promised land—and second, was pleading like a coward with his brothers to continue with him, knowing he had no chance without them.
I can perfectly well understand wanting to tie the coward up while I figured out with the others what in the world to do in this very sticky situation—one in which my very identity was at stake, not to mention my life. Note that for Nephi, Laman and Lemuel have rebelled against most of the company, including Ishmael. But note also that the nature of their rebellion is simply a call to return to Jerusalem. Perhaps they insisted to Ishmael that they convene a family council to really discuss the issue.
Well, but it doesn’t look very democratic to tie Nephi up and leave him to be devoured, does it? But who knows if they had any intentions of “leaving” him to perish by wild beasts, or if that’s just Nephi with a Joseph-of-Egypt complex. I have to laugh out loud imagining Nephi (who in my mind looks an awful lot here like Matthew Broderick in the film Ladyhawk—remember him? the “mouse”?), pleading with God to grant him strength to burst the bonds, and being rather irritated that there was no miraculous strength coming as he fought for all he was worth to get out of the ropes. I see him squealing in desperation, and his bleeding wrists finally lubricating the cords just enough to slip his hands out. Almost startled that he’d gotten his hands out, he looks at his bloody wrists, looks again with that irritated look toward the heavens, shakes his head and says, “Nevermind, I’ll assume that heaven loosened the damn bands!” I’m not sure heaven gave him any help here. Heaven surely didn’t give him any help when it happened again on the ship—which just might have had something to do with Laman and Lemuel realizing that their mousy little brother had to be tied up proper, that they couldn’t go so easy on him.
Next our mouse Nephi has to figure out what to do. He can’t go back to Jerusalem. He probably has no idea how to find his father’s tent, or perhaps can’t get that way without being seen. With little choice, he goes back to the family council that Laman’s called in order to try and decide what to do, and then launches into a pathetic narrative about following God. Lucky for him, Ishmael’s wife and daughter (whom the chauvinistic Nephi can’t even bother to name, despite the fact that they completely save his neck), step in and argue on his behalf. I imagine the terrified, bloody Nephi didn’t appear much a threat and was probably just pathetic enough—and it had likely been just long enough for Laman’s own blood to cool—that Laman welcomed his brother back into the council and offered a formulaic apology, showing everyone there that he not only had the ability to lead courageously, but also the ability to forgive and get past family drama. Nephi had just enough brains to “frankly forgive” Laman and not make any more fuss until they got back to their father’s tent—which was ultimately the decision this family council that Laman (or more likely Ishmael) led. Ishmael would’ve been the real authority here. And it appears that he—being less chauvinistic than Nephi—ultimately listened to his wife and daughters who elected to try their lot with the experienced traveler Lehi rather than watch their sons butchered by the coming armies in Jerusalem.
That sounds plausible to me at any rate. (This story in particular seems rich enough to allow for numerous, different, plausible readings.)
Not only does it strike me as plausible, it strikes me as parallel to today. Things are complicated and messy and the hand of the Lord is anything but obvious in the present—rather, the hand of the Lord is almost always about indeterminate inspiration, and retroactive narrative making. Which of course, is as much as anything a picture of my own experience (however narcissistically I might want to portray it as a matter of careful observation). I wrestle extensively with these things, bending all my exertions toward discerning what inspiration I can from the present mess of my life. And what grace I receive is almost always in terms of the view I get looking back. But it’s also there in the form of a faith I have that the divine nonetheless is somewhere in my present mess, striving and working, calling me (either presently or out of the past), even when I’m unable to discern. And in this sense, I throw my lot in with Nephi, believing that the Lord giveth no commandments without providing a way for us to live them—however implausible it looks.