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.
* * * *
The Spirit comes to Lehi “by night;” another Nephionic euphemism for revelation coming to Lehi in a dream. Regardless of what one thinks of dreams or Jeremiah’s disparagement of dreams, they have been a potent source of revelation in human history and not just in the Books of Nephi. Would we have the Book of Mormon if Lehi had not ignored Jeremiah’s jeremiad and embraced his dreams? Even so, can you imagine—honestly—forsaking your home and property, putting your wife and children (and grandchildren?) in significant jeopardy over a dream?
As with the rest of this tale, however, revelations don’t come by themselves. As Nephi notes throughout, revelation comes along with the means to fulfill God’s directives—in this case a Liahona. Stumbling into this “ball of curious workmanship” would have made it rather more difficult to ignore the dreams. Would Lehi have in fact left without the Liahona? Had Lehi had similar dreams before? Had the imperative to depart into the wilderness come multiple times? Was Lehi dragging his feet? Did he need this extra nudge? Was he like the later missionary Amulek, called often but not responding until he received an angelic nudge? Or was it the opposite: had Lehi been praying for some time, inquiring of God what they should do now that they had left Jerusalem, how to proceed into the wilderness? Was he desperate to know what the next step should be? I can imagine a tense anxiety—skeptical sons, anxious family members, dwindling supplies, together with a fear of going back anywhere near Jerusalem on account of Nephi’s murder. Was this a time when God withheld revelation, despite the mounting desperation, until the night before the “morrow” on which God intended them to leave? Does it parallel a later Nephi’s anxiety on the night before the birth of Christ?
I find it significant that Lehi found the Liahona at the door of his tent. It makes obvious logistical sense—like when I leave notes for my wife on the bathroom mirror, or when she sends me a text in the middle of the night, knowing that I’ll see it when my alarm goes off. But here, Lehi exits from his dwelling place and enters the wilderness; and here, at the meeting point of the domestic and the wild, is a gift from God—a concrete, hands-on signifier of their covenant, and the means by which he can accomplish what God has commanded. In Egypt, doors were the location of covenant making, gateways between this world and the next, a location where Gods and mortals meet. God also met the Hebrews at their doorposts when they were slaves in Egypt, where the blood of lambs marked their covenants and directed God’s angel. Did Lehi, familiar as he must have been with Egypt and its customs and his own people’s history, see the significance?
Nephi certainly piques our curiosity with that second, un-described Liahona spindle. Where did it point? Did it act as a literal compass? Did it point the way back to Jerusalem? Or was the second “spindle” the site where (as we are later told) messages would be written from time to time?
This passage, the mark of their great journey, is bookended by the Liahona. They receive it. They depart. They travel according to it. It denotes a specific kind of journey—a journey of faith according to the spiritual revelations and physical tools God had given them.
This fact is again emphasized by Nephi’s description of their taking with them the provisions which God had given to them. This phrase also creates a lacuna. What is the story behind this giving? My mind speculates wildly. Did they come across an abandoned settlement near Lemuel with provisions growing wild? Perhaps they stumbled across an abandoned farm where food grew wild and was there for the harvesting. Or maybe they stumbled into an abandon caravan—a romantic and adventurous beginning. Perhaps there was a settlement near the Valley of Lemuel with friendly neighbors from whom they were able to gather provisions. Maybe Lehi’s talents as a merchant were magnified and they were able to make a fortuitous, perhaps even miraculous trade deal.
Regardless, we see that they took seeds with them. That means they were in Lemuel at least through a harvest. It seems more likely to me that they were there for over a year; long enough to have sewn and raised and then harvested crops. Long enough to have created a kind of familiarity, regularity, a kind of home a mere three days from Jerusalem. Close enough that food wasn’t a scarcity. Close enough to not yet be refugees and wanderers.