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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How far and long has it been since the breaking of the bow? How long has it been since Shazer? Since Lemuel? Since Jerusalem? All of these locations come with minimal detail in the space of a few pages (most of these journeys are within chapter 16 itself), giving the illusion of a short period of time, perhaps mere weeks. But after this break in Nahom, Bountiful is the only other mention. I suspect it may have been years at this point (though it seems clear that the trip from Nahom to Bountiful takes some time, perhaps even the bulk of their time).
Once again the families stop to rest. And stopping, Ishmael dies. Did they stop because Ishmael was too infirm? Because of the “many afflictions” of the women, which likely included watching infants and young children die (things like starvation and disease (think malaria) disproportionately impact children under 6; it’s conspicuous that Nephi doesn’t give us details on their suffering; though note that in Laman’s parallel speech in the next chapter—in 17:20—he notes that the women did have children in the wilderness and that they suffered everything except death; I can’t help but think that this alludes to the fact that while the women didn’t die, some of the children did). Was stopping in Nahom a desperate attempt to care for and try to recover an ailing Ishmael? I suspect they chose Nahom because it was inhabited (notice that unlike the Valley of Lemual and Shazer, they didn’t call the name of the place Nahom; it was already named).
Regardless, Ishmael dies, the women murmur, and Laman makes his move to gain—or in his mind, it’s surely re-gain—authority. It seems that Ishmael was a pillar standing against Laman as well as his own sons all along. Ishmael chose to come in the first place, despite the reservations of his sons. Ishmael again decided to continue and join up with Lehi when Laman and his gang tied Nephi up and then campaigned to return. It’s curious that his name was Ishmael—one couldn’t have a more poignantly “Gentile” name. Yet without any recorded dramatic revelation, he was unwavering, clearly helping to hold the entire expedition together. He lives through what may have been the hardest portions of their exodus, but dies even before reaching Bountiful, their paradisiacal sojourn. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Notice the seriousness of the women’s affliction, despite Nephi’s muted mention of it. If nothing else, the final line of verse 39 makes clear that they almost died of starvation. Even in our day, the cultural right of women is to be protected and cared for; in their day it was even more so. What a sore thing it is now and historically has been for a woman to throw her lot in with a man who then betrays her by being incapable of providing. These women suffered in more than a physical sense. We don’t get details on Ishmael’s words and deeds during their journey. But the fact that things fall apart when he dies speaks volumes.
Here we get the accusation of Nephi making himself out to be king. And it’s past tense. Laman’s not worried that Nephi will gain authority; he’s furious that Nephi already has. Here’s a giant gaping hole—at what point did Nephi take the lead? When the bow broke? In what sense did he lead? How did Lehi and Ishmael and Laman all fit together in actual fact? Nephi’s record alludes throughout to a kind of meritocracy in his reign. Note that Laman and company turn Nephi’s good traits, his “cunning arts” by which he works wonderful works, against him. Nephi’s occasionally prone to bragging in his account, but it’s clear even in spite of this that he was a prodigious leader. Jacob 1 speaks both of the love of the people for Nephi as well as his singular competence in protecting them. Nephi was something of a genuine marvel.
Which leads me to wonder: How can one be favored of God, consecrate one’s talents for the good of one’s people, and not elicit distrust and anger and opposition? Is it possible? The scriptures make it clear: it’s at least very very hard, perhaps impossible. But the scriptures also make clear some of the foibles to which those with talents are vulnerable (Nephi, Joseph, Saul). As Moroni states, I hope we can learn from their mistakes. I likewise hope that we do not allow their mistakes to mask their emulation-worthy talents and character.
I’m struck by the concreteness of the narrative. The focused political message is clear and consistent, but throughout are the casually mentioned names, locations, geographic details, the fully embodied realism of the Book of Mormon account.
Finally, I can only imagine in wonder what this looked like, with the exhaustion and hardship of the exodus, with the family in deep mourning over Ishmael’s death together with the loss of Ishmael’s expertise, with Laman plotting murder—conditions are ripe for an insurrection and return to Jerusalem. Note the parallel to the Hebrews in Sinai, longing to return to Egypt. Ironically, here Jerusalem has become Egypt. Also, note that they’re in Nahom, a populated location. Surely an opportunity existed to return to Jerusalem via caravan rather than wandering back through the wilderness; this was a golden opportunity for the rebellious faction in the family. And here, the voice of the Lord speaks to them. This is clearly something distinct—not Lehi and Saraiah pleading as tender parents, not Nephi speaking in the energy of his soul, not a miracle with the Liahona, but the actual voice of the Lord. What justifies this divine and direct intervention? Nephi gives so few details. I suspect this was a dark time indeed—that only the intervention of God kept things on course.
Perhaps I ought to be grateful that no such crisis demanding the voice of the Lord has come into my life. Or perhaps I should wonder at the silence of the heavens.