There’s a reason why this—the return for the plates—is the first event Nephi mentions following their departure from Jerusalem. I wonder if there’s not also an inspired reason for it to come upfront. Lehi’s theophany and departure is the rupture that opens a new dispensation. The story of the retrieval of the record of Laban is the founding of Nephite history, the origin of Nephite political legitimacy, and perhaps even the founding of Nephite religion.
Once again, there is a great deal going on in this story, with absences that are as revealing as what gets stated. Nephi subtly lets us know that he speaks with Lehi in confidence, that Lehi already spoke with Laman, Lemuel, and Sam, and that this meeting(s) didn’t go well. Lehi attempts to pre-empt what he assumes will be Nephi’s similar balking at the idea of returning for the record. Why do the others balk? Especially at the idea of a return trip—even temporary—to Jerusalem? Is it that taking the records is an irrevocable movement away from Jerusalem, something that makes their stint in the Valley more than a mere waiting for things to die down? Why does Lehi think Nephi will also balk? What have Nephi’s speech and actions been up to this point that cause Lehi to take preemptive measures in discussing the return? Why wasn’t Nephi with is brothers when Lehi approached them about the return? Why is Nephi getting his own meeting with Lehi?
It’s interesting that here the record for which they return is only named as a record of the genealogy of Lehi’s fathers. This foreshadows the later ignorance that we see of what the record held, after the brothers successfully return with the plates. This underscores how often we are ignorant of God’s purposes, the meanings behind what we are asked to do. Undoubtedly there are goods invested in possessing a genealogical record—we’re very familiar with some of those today. But these were not the goods that God had in mind.
I can’t help but see a negative lesson in Nephi’s cavalier attitude. We don’t have to dismiss the inspiring nature of Nephi’s zeal or quit singing the uplifting primary jingle surrounding our 3:7 scripture mastery. But perhaps we could likewise learn the lesson that becomes painfully obvious here: mere zeal has great risks and perhaps even predictable costs. What if Nephi had combined an equally zealous love for his brothers and a wise (common sense even?) respect for the difficulty of their proposal? Perhaps God would not have needed to bail Nephi out after his disastrous provoking of Laman and Lemuel. Perhaps Nephite religion would not need to be built on the back of the murder of the lawful keeper of the scriptures in a perverse, reverse parallel of the murder of the Messiah.
Finally, I can’t help but credit Laman for his efforts. We learn in this passage that for whatever reason Laman was strongly opposed to this quest. Nevertheless he went. Nevertheless, he courageously submits to his selection and makes an honest attempt to obtain the records. As much as anything, here I see a grand truth: those of us inspired by Nephi must learn that there is no way to build Zion without Laman. Zion, if it is to be built at all, must be built together with all of the Lamans out there: those with whom we find ourselves at cross-purpose, who see the point of the gospel quite differently than ourselves, who lack what we think of as righteous zeal, but who nevertheless are willing to put forth honest efforts to fulfill the assignments given to them—sometimes against their own better judgment.
The haunting lesson that we see unfolding here is that if we cannot do this—if we fail as Nephi failed—the results are disastrous. And Zion does not materialize.