Wilderness Starvation – Reading Nephi – 16:12-17

This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.

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Now they cross the River Laman and depart into the wilderness. I notice that Nephi’s last note before departing concerned the gathering of food, and the only thing he really mentions from their journey and travels is food. Food is a huge issue for Nephi. I’m tempted to add up the verses that account for the eight years between the Valley of Lemuel and Bountiful and divide them by the number of verses speaking about food. Quantitatively and qualitatively, this is the issue—in a way that it isn’t and really could never be for most of us. But I do deeply recognize consuming hunger on a spiritual level, the kind of hunger that rivets one’s attention and drives one’s actions, that leads to significant conflict with others and brings about a sore temptation to murmur against God.

Shazer. The footnote says it means twisted or intertwining. A series of canyons? A land, I take it, with a thriving ecosystem, providing water and forage and animals. Perhaps it intertwined with other humans as well. A fertile part of the wilderness that warranted a stop long enough to gather food—that all important element—before departing. Maybe they traveled through the fallow season and stopped to sew, raise, and harvest crops before continuing. Then they travel south south-east for many days, only stopping to hunt. Shazer was no Valley of Lemuel, but it wasn’t just a place to hunt either. What was it? Why mention it? In Hebrew, sh’azer could also mean “who/that [which] helped.” Did someone assist them in this valley? Was it a place they felt God helped them—providing food for them? Was the valley itself a helper?

Thereafter, we get a grand blank. They’re traveling. They’re hunting. How long? “Many days.” What else do they do? Their everyday activities are a grand mystery. We can’t know; but I can’t help thinking that their everyday reality was pretty hellish. I don’t think Lehi up and decided spontaneously to murmur in a few verses simply because Nephi’s bow broke. I suspect that this great big old hole in Nephi’s account is where—unlike the discovery of the Liahona and unlike Nephi’s miraculous crafting of a new bow and providing food—nothing about their journey seemed to manifest the hand of God. Hunger was obviously the overwhelming variable of their travel in this period. Perhaps there was also disease. The incredible hardship of pregnancy (after all, they’re all married now and without birthcontrol—even Sariah gets pregnant twice). Perhaps the women’s breasts do not “give suck” here, which is why it’s later mentioned with such gratitude. Maybe this is the analog to the failed “prophetic” adventures of Joseph to Canada and Boston, seeking treasure and finding only embarrassment. And, of course, the hard won, dearly paid for spiritual growth that the wilderness—the real wilderness, the unromanticized, unmiraculous, tedius, painful, seemingly unending wilderness—provides.

There is one element of the journey mentioned in addition to food (sort of). They traveled in the more fertile parts of the wilderness. I wonder: was it their need for the fertility (again, food) that determined the general direction of their travels? Or was it the Liahona that guided them independently of their needs and judgments? Or did they both serve as guides, perhaps complementing or mutually reinforcing each other? Figuring this out—what is revelation and what is mere necessity and what is the relation between the two—is the great epistemic question of our own journey, the ever-present question in our attempt to carve out and live faithful lives.

4 comments for “Wilderness Starvation – Reading Nephi – 16:12-17

  1. Jeff Walsh
    October 30, 2017 at 5:43 am

    All the speculation gets quite tedious. What is the point, just accept the story, why analysis ????

  2. Jerry Schmidt
    October 30, 2017 at 9:07 am

    Speculation is part of deconstructing a text, and the Book of Mormon yields rich fruit behind the surface narrative. It’s ok to go with the narrative from its face, and it’s ok to take a deeper dive. Thus speaketh the hippie.

  3. Clark Goble
    October 30, 2017 at 10:45 am

    Jeff Walsh, “just accept the story” presumes we understand the story. Readings like this ask questions highlighting what we don’t know. It’s not that these questions are presuming answers so much as highlighting that the “story” is more complex and perhaps unknown than it first appears.

    To the OP, it’s interesting looking at all the back and forth between critics and apologists over the Nahom debate. While I’ll admit I’m pretty skeptical that Nahom is “a bullseye” as some have put it, the debate itself is quite interesting. It seems pretty reasonable to assume the Lehites were following a standard trade route and did meet people along the way. Whether it’s ultimately what Kent Brown asserts as the path or not, it seems likely they’d have encountered people along the way and gathered supplies.

    The bigger question (and I know I’m jumping the gun a bit) is the ocean voyage and preparing food for that.

  4. Terry H
    October 30, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    For a fascinating look at how important food can be, try “The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food” by Lizzie Collingham. Its hard to write something new about World War II, but this book manages. Transport her argument to the time of Nephi and its easy to see why food would be so important.

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