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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Again, they stop for food. And also “to rest.” Once more I can’t help but picture the women pregnant, nearing full-term. Nephi rarely mentions the women or their condition, but this strikes me as likely, almost a certainty; particularly when considering Sariah’s age.
This also helps to animate the image of suffering and make sense of the anger involved when Nephi breaks his bow and the brothers are unable to obtain food for their families. “They did suffer much for the want of food.” I’ve journeyed through pregnancy six times with my wife; I can’t imagine not being able to fix her food. Once we hiked through snow in Alaska, much of it thigh high, for nearly six hours when she was five months pregnant. I can’t remember now what we ate, but I remember my pack was quite heavy with food. What if my pack had broken and the food had accidentally fallen out of it on the way? What a horrible night that would’ve been. We then would’ve undertaken the grueling hike back out the following day. There would’ve undoubtedly been “much suffering.” Followed by a restaurant and gorging. What if there was no possibility of hiking back out, no possibility of purchasing food?
I’ve also on two different occasions built a bow in a primitive skills class. Under the tutelage of a highly skilled bow maker I was able to go from sapling to fully functional bow in one day. We then started with modern, pre-made, string to fashion the bowstring. I’m going to assume that Nephi was able to re-use his bowstring (or one from his brother’s defunct bows). On the second day we made an arrow. Typically, one uses a reed, which will grow much straighter than a stick. It’s odd that Nephi mentions making a new arrow—why not re-use the old arrows (he doesn’t mention anything wrong with the old ones)? Perhaps they didn’t fit his new bow. Regardless, though it’s a stretch, if I assume that this wasn’t Nephi’s first bow, but that he’d grown up making them (Nephi certainly seems to have been skilled at making things), and that he had an excellent and very sharp knife rather than the draw knives and Shinto rasps that I used, then I can imagine him making a bow and an arrow in one or two days. They were already famished, perhaps having gone a day or two without food before he started. I suspect they foraged for edible roots and the like to stay alive while Nephi made his bow.
But what of (the possibly pregnant) Sariah? Or perhaps Sariah was more wilderness woman than Lehi; perhaps Lehi had been accustomed to always traveling well provisioned and had never known real hunger. Perhaps this was the first time he’d undergone the physiological adaptations that set in with starvation. If so, he wasn’t alone. He watched his children suffer with him. I can understand a prophet murmuring here. He knew they were led by the Lord. So why would God require this of them? Why lead them out of Egypt only to starve in the wilderness? Where was their manna? O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
Contrast Lehi’s murmuring with that of Laman & Lemuel: Lehi murmurs against God. Initially it states that Laman & Lemuel just murmur. God’s not in their picture—just a deranged father and an incompetent brother. Perhaps this was also an important political opportunity for the two of them. Perhaps that’s why they were so angry with Nephi’s bow breaking, despite their own bows having earlier “lost their spring.” Lehi’s murmuring seems plausibly like a poignant cry to a God he knows is there but who has chosen to let his people suffer. Laman’s and Lemuel’s murmuring was plausibly a rebuke to Nephi’s leadership or whatever prestige he’d earned as a leader up to this point.
In the end though, even if indirectly, Nephi notes that it was all murmuring against God. The reactions of Lehi, Laman & Lemuel, and Nephi to what I assume was serious suffering strikes me as an appropriate taxonomy of theological responses to evil—we can turn away from God or turn towards God; in turning towards God we can challenge God’s (in)actions or submit to them. We can do each of these three in myriad ways. For example, we can obviously submit in different ways. Nephi models a particularly pro-active manner of submission that is at the same time an acceptance and a negotiation with God. This is a type of submission that is reasonable for children who are, as Joseph Smith put it, “co-equal” with God. Who can help being moved by this?
A final question strikes me in this episode. What does it mean that Nephi spoke “in the energy of [his] soul”? I wonder, if I were a film director, how would I direct my actor to speak “in the energy of [his] soul”? Whichever of the various interpretations I gave to this odd phrase, however I had my actor portray it, how would the audience react? And what difference would there have been in an ancient Israelite audience from a contemporary one?