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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Our fathers (note: in Hebrew this would be fathers or parents) were the children of Israel.
Nephi is preoccupied throughout the narrative with this central fact, which is foundational to his attempt to hold his people as a people and to hold them as a people of God. There’s a great deal that’s built into this central claim, which Nephi relates to the Nephites: God loved our ancestors. God covenanted with them. God proved his love and remembrance in the Exodus. God is proving now, with us, that he continues to love all those who will have him to be their God. Hence if we are righteous, then we can’t help but be led and miraculously blessed. Regardless of the wretchedness of the conditions in which we labor.
This is a powerful ethic. I feel its pull deeply. But there is a second half, a dark side: God punishes the unrighteous. On the one hand, this ethic offers a powerful motivation to repent and to be righteous, to cling to God, especially in the midst of trial. It counteracts the absence or hiddenness of God or the “natural man’s” struggle to perceive God. On the other hand, it leads easily to the prosperity gospel. To the dehumanization of the Canaanites. To the dehumanization of the natives of the New World with their dark skin. To the breeding a Nephionic form of racism.
The whole point of a text like Job is that the most righteous among us might be struck lower than all—and struck precisely not for the reasons for suffering that Nephi here articulates. The dark side overwhelms Nephi’s ethic if we can’t keep the fact of Job as a central pillar. Without Job, Nephi’s claims here can only be read as pernicious. Can we hold to the motivational potency of the first part of Nephi’s account and marry it to Job in the second?
Verse 32 sounds to me like it’s written for a contemporary audience, for the Nephites in Nephi worried about the other inhabitants of the New World. Worried about how much more numerous they were. Worried and self-conscious about their own status as squatters and usurpers. (Maybe it’s my own worries in the midst of a populous Babylon that make Nephi’s comments here sound so.) Nephi focuses on the unrighteousness of the Canaanites, perhaps paralleling his thoughts of the New World’s natives. This might well explain the Nephite’s racism and unwillingness to intermingle—note how different this is than the Lamanites who clearly didn’t hold these views about un/righteousness and do not seem to have harbored Nephionic racism (which explains not only their darker skin but also the fact of their always being so much more numerous than the Nephites). That said, note how utterly different this form of Nephionic racism is from the racism that has and continues to plague the US. Nephi and his people may well have been repulsed by a darker shade of skin, much as white America. But they never developed 19th century notions of racial inferiority. Anytime the dark skinned Lamanites convert in the Book of Mormon, they’re not only readily accepted, but esteemed and held high as examples. A reasonable parallel might be loathsome atheists (or evangelicals or Muslims or Jews or whoever) who are put on a public pedestal and championed by Mormons when they convert today. Hence in verse 35 God esteems all flesh in one. Divine favoritism only runs along the axis from righteous to unrighteous (compare with II Nephi 26:33).
Again we get a focus on water—water as a meeting point of heaven and earth; water as battleground of good and evil: the Red Sea, the smitten rock, the River of Jordan, the sea at Bountiful. These sites of water are sites of miracles, and the focus of the narrative is a pointed critique of Laman. It’s not simply that God miraculously led Israel just as he is miraculously leading Lehi; but also, that Israel, even after all of these miracles, hardened her heart, blinded her mind, and reviled against God. Water as the source of life; water as the filthy depths in which we drown.
Final question: what does it mean for the earth to be God’s footstool?