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.
* * * *
Another statement of many days. How long were they in Bountiful? Had they already created a permanent settlement, or were they still weary from their journey and longing to create permanence in this bountiful land when Nephi again begins to uproot them?
In passages like this one, Nephi strikes me as incredibly concrete and practical in nature—much more a Brigham Young than a Joseph Smith. Here the focus shifts immediately from God’s directive to “build a ship” to Nephi’s inquiring about ore, to a description of his building a bellows from the skins of animals and striking rocks to make fire. It’s very corporeal, hands-on. This again fits in well with the political narrative, highlighting Nephi’s practical, able-bodied, can-do approach; it pairs well with his obtaining the Plates of Brass. But it also fits in well with his overall personality and demeanor. Here is the same man whose response to a frightened Zoram was to tackle him.
In order to build a ship Nephi needed to make tools. This seems to suggest that either there weren’t people nearby making ships (from whom they could purchase/barter/work for tools), or else Lehi’s family was destitute and had no means of acquiring the tools (seems less likely since they could surely have traded or worked for them), or perhaps that there were significant tensions between the locals and the newly arrived, self-righteous, upstart Jerusalemites squatting on a prime piece of the collective commons. The first option argues against those who claim Nephi learned to build a ship from the locals, but not the second two.
I’ve gotten to know and become friends with our “local” primitive skills expert, a man who goes by “Drev,” a shortened version of his last name. He can do absolutely anything in the way of primitive skills, though of course he is better and worse at various things. That said, he’s a true blue expert in hand- and bow-drill fire starting. I watched him start a fire using his hand drill and some local cattail fluff in less time than it takes a boy scout with matches and lighter fluid (less than 30 seconds). Genuinely awe-inspiring. Despite his skill, which once-upon-a-time many people living in the Americas might have had, he insists that indigenous peoples’ primary focus was not on starting but on maintaining fires—it’s simply far more efficient given the exigencies of weather. This point includes when traveling. There are certain mushrooms, for instance, that can smolder in your leather carrying case for over a week. Consequently, it stands out conspicuous to me that Nephi takes the time to explicitly note that he struck two rocks together to make fire. It’s a throwaway line that’s easy to miss, or simply throw in with the other details of Nephi’s concrete, practical-oriented narrative. But I suspect it would’ve struck the ancient reader—especially a second generation Nephite born and raised in the promised land of Meso-America—as odd that Nephi needed to do this. Why wouldn’t they have just carried fire with them everyday? Surely they had fires going “after many days” in Bountiful, right? Nephi feels the unasked question of his contemporary audience and answers it: God hadn’t suffered them to use fire in the wilderness. The fact that they didn’t have fires going in Bountiful either perhaps speaks to the fact that relations weren’t so good with the locals, and they didn’t want to attract attention to their newfound, squatted settlement.
While Nephi’s practicality reminds me of Brigham Young, this constant intermingling, this tacking back and forth between the sacred and the mundane, is paradigmatic Joseph Smith. Both Bushman and Givens dwell on this point at length in their writings concerning Joseph Smith. The story of the Restoration is a story of concrete details and mundane events overlapping and interweaving with the doctrinal, the sacred, the profound. The Doctrine and Covenants is a prime example, but all of Joseph’s accounts are this way. I can’t help but think of the Kirtland temple. Nephi and Joseph reacted very similarly, a variation of Lord Nelson’s famous quip on naval strategy to forget the tactics and just go straight at ‘em. Neither Joseph nor Nephi were terribly concerned about the economic, social, and political strains created by gathering and building. In both instances this created serious hardships for their people. It’s another reminder that we can well receive directives from heaven without receiving (or employing) the wisdom of how best to implement those directives. Their accounts make it quite clear that this was the case for both Joseph and Nephi. How much more so for me?
I can’t help but wonder: what would Laman & Lemuel have preferred Nephi to do? Despite their rhetoric, they obviously thought Nephi more than a fool. They found him dangerous. His visions were a continual threat to Laman’s plans and hopes and desires. Had Nephi not bent all his energy and ingenuity on building a ship, but instead united with Laman to build a life in this rich and fertile land—what kind of a home could they have acquired? Bountiful was undoubtedly different than Jerusalem, culturally and ecologically, but not even a fraction as different as Jerusalem and, say, ancient Guatemala. It’s hard not to feel the weight of Laman’s implied argument: Here there’s the possibility of a genuinely good life. Taking to the seas is a guarantee of further and perhaps even greater hardship than they’d already passed through in the last eight years. The line between revelation and insanity is never very clear; it must have looked a great deal like Nephi had crossed it.
That said, my own suspicion is that Bountiful’s other inhabitants and near neighbors would not have stood for the newcomers taking up this land. I suspect Laman’s desire for permanent settlement as a people was a pipe dream. Much like our early Mormons, their options were probably assimilation or annihilation—even if that choice hadn’t yet become clear to them.