Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 18

Our chapter 18 is not a separate chapter in the 1830 edition.

1 And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

2 Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.

3 And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.

4 And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.

This is the conclusion to the problem of building the ship. The aftermath of the conflict was temporary reconciliation that allowed the construction of the ship. The point of these verses is to verify that Yahweh was directing the project. Nephi underscores that Yahweh is the builder behind the physical labor the family contributes.

5 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came unto my father, that we should arise and go down into the ship.

6 And it came to pass that on the morrow, after we had prepared all things, much fruits and meat from the wilderness, and honey in abundance, and provisions according to that which the Lord had commanded us, we did go down into the ship, with all our loading and our seeds, and whatsoever thing we had brought with us, every one according to his age; wherefore, we did all go down into the ship, with our wives and our children.

Even though much of Nephi’s purpose in 1 Nephi is to justify his later right to rule by showing his ascendancy in family leadership, Lehi is still the patriarch and Nephi also accurately notes the correct family order continues. Nephi may be increasingly important in moving this journey forward, but Lehi is still the head of the family and the command to sail rightly comes to Lehi. Nephi may be working events into his underlying purpose, but he is not altering or ignoring history in service of his greater purpose.

7 And now, my father had begat two sons in the wilderness; the elder was called Jacob and the younger Joseph.

8 And it came to pass after we had all gone down into the ship, and had taken with us our provisions and things which had been commanded us, we did put forth into the sea and were driven forth before the wind towards the promised land.

Verse 7 is particularly interesting. There is no reason for it to be here. It notes an event that clearly happened earlier. The two youngest brothers do not play into the building of the ship or in any actions until we arrive in the New World.

I would hypothesize that they had not been important to the overarching theme of Nephi’s narrative and therefore they were not mentioned during Nephi’s recounting of the time period of their birth. As Nephi is writing about boarding the ship for the New World, he realized that he had neglected to mention that they had been born. Although they play no part in the Old World story, Jacob certainly plays a large part in the New World story. Nephi is writing at least 30 years after arriving in the New World and at this point realized that he needed to not only note their birth but the fact that they were also part of the Old World family that arrived in the New World. He added them in here because he needed his audience to know this information for later stories and had forgotten to mention them  at a more appropriate time.

I see this verse as part of Nephi’s writing process. He was so intent on his purpose for writing that he missed an important piece of information that he had to insert. He was reminded of that fact because he had reached a point where he was describing what was loaded onto the ship, and the brothers clearly were part of the family that embarked for the New World.

9 And after we had been driven forth before the wind for the space of many days, behold, my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power they had been brought thither; yea, they were lifted up unto exceeding rudeness.

10 And I, Nephi, began to fear exceedingly lest the Lord should be angry with us, and smite us because of our iniquity, that we should be swallowed up in the depths of the sea; wherefore, I, Nephi, began to speak to them with much soberness; but behold they were angry with me, saying: We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us.

Reading this with modern sensibilities does nothing for Nephi’s reputation. It seems that when members of his family finally were happy and enjoying life that Nephi threw the wet blanket and tried to stop such merriment. Rather than simply discuss an insufficiently serious family, Nephi is using this incident to move his story along. The description of the dancing and singing is really leading to the “much rudeness” and in particular “they did forget by what power they had been brought thither.”

Nephi’s intent in writing this is to indicate that they were drifting away from Yahweh. It is not a condemnation of being happy but is used as an indication of a form of personal impiety the moved them away from their proper relationship with their God. The important line is at the end of verse 10: “We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us.” That is the real conflict, and it is the real story Nephi is telling.

11 And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel did take me and bind me with cords, and they did treat me with much harshness; nevertheless, the Lord did suffer it that he might show forth his power, unto the fulfilling of his word which he had spoken concerning the wicked.

The merriment is the explanation of why Laman and Lemuel, who had returned to the proper relationship with Yahweh as the ship was built, could now forget their lessons and bind Nephi. Nephi also has to explain how his brothers were able to take and bind him if they had not been able to harm him as they were building the ship. Therefore Nephi indicates that “the Lord did suffer it that he might show forth his power.” It isn’t Yahweh’s power, however, it is his will that Nephi be the ruler.

Nephi tells us very little about the journey across the sea. While certainly filled with boredom, it was also certainly punctuated by some kind of event—most probably a landing to resupply. We get nothing except this particular incident. It is an incident that Nephi tells not because he is being faithful to events, but because this story furthers his greater purpose in writing.

12 And it came to pass that after they had bound me insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work.

In this verse Nephi sets up his argument that Yahweh favors him (and therefore his prophesied ascendancy over his brothers). Because Nephi is bound, the Yahweh-provided Liahona ceases to function.

13 Wherefore, they knew not whither they should steer the ship, insomuch that there arose a great storm, yea, a great and terrible tempest, and we were driven back upon the waters for the space of three days; and they began to be frightened exceedingly lest they should be drowned in the sea; nevertheless they did not loose me.

14 And on the fourth day, which we had been driven back, the tempest began to be exceedingly sore.

15 And it came to pass that we were about to be swallowed up in the depths of the sea. And after we had been driven back upon the waters for the space of four days, my brethren began to see that the judgments of God were upon them, and that they must perish save that they should repent of their iniquities; wherefore, they came unto me, and loosed the bands which were upon my wrists, and behold they had swollen exceedingly; and also mine ankles were much swollen, and great was the soreness thereof.

The Old Testament Yahweh is a God of storms. It is fully in character of an angry Old Testament God to raise a terrible storm as witness of his displeasure. In this case, it is a storm that begins with Nephi’s binding and ends with his loosing. Nephi uses this storm as evidence of his personal favored position with Yahweh.

16 Nevertheless, I did look unto my God, and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because of mine afflictions.

This verse is a continuation of the description of his position with his God. Although Nephi had problems worthy of complaint, he did not lay those problems at Yahweh’s feet. The contrast between the praising he did and the murmuring he didn’t are to show that Nephi understood that Yahweh was with him even when actual conditions were bad.

17 Now my father, Lehi, had said many things unto them, and also unto the sons of Ishmael; but, behold, they did breathe out much threatenings against anyone that should speak for me; and my parents being stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children, they were brought down, yea, even upon their sick-beds.

18 Because of their grief and much sorrow, and the iniquity of my brethren, they were brought near even to be carried out of this time to meet their God; yea, their grey hairs were about to be brought down to lie low in the dust; yea, even they were near to be cast with sorrow into a watery grave.

19 And Jacob and Joseph also, being young, having need of much nourishment, were grieved because of the afflictions of their mother; and also my wife with her tears and prayers, and also my children, did not soften the hearts of my brethren that they would loose me.

Lehi was Yahweh’s prophet and certainly spoke of Yahweh’s displeasure. It had no effect. What began with Nephi’s description of merriment is now full rebellion against Yahweh and their father. Nephi lists the things that should have softened his brothers’ hearts but did not. The important aspect of the story comes in the very first phrase in the next verse (20).

20 And there was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts; wherefore, when they saw that they were about to be swallowed up in the depths of the sea they repented of the thing which they had done, insomuch that they loosed me.

This is a story of Nephi’s relationship to Yahweh. It is a story presaging irreconcilable conflict with his brothers that will eventually lead to the antagonistic Nephite/Lamanite division that will characterize the rest of the Book of Mormon. At this point, it is a story intending to show that Yahweh supports Nephi the younger brother over the older brothers and their birthright. No human effort could release Nephi, and Yahweh’s storm begins—and ends with the brothers’ attempt to halt Nephi’s ascension to his Yahweh-ordained position of leadership.

21 And it came to pass after they had loosed me, behold, I took the compass, and it did work whither I desired it. And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord; and after I had prayed the winds did cease, and the storm did cease, and there was a great calm.

When the brothers let Nephi go, Yahweh releases his anger and there is a return to normal conditions. The brothers will yet forget this lesson, but Nephi does not and makes certain that it is entered into the record in support of his rulership.

22 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land.

23 And it came to pass that after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land; and we went forth upon the land, and did pitch our tents; and we did call it the promised land.

This is all we get of the rest of the journey. Nephi is not telling history, he is building a case. The actual events might interest a modern reader, but they were foreign to Nephi’s editorial purpose.

24 And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance.

Although this is an event, it should be seen as a very generic statement that simply indicates that they arrived, began to live their lives, and “were blessed in abundance.” Nephi uses that phrase here and later in the city of Nephi to indicate that Yahweh was watching over them and that they must have been doing the right things witnessed by the fact that they prospered.

25 And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.

This is an unfortunate break in chapters. As with most of what Nephi wrote, it isn’t included to tell us about history, but to move his story along. In particular, the finding of the gold, silver, and copper move directly to the next incident which is the creation of the plates. This verse should not be read separately from the beginning of the next modern chapter. They were not originally separated and Nephi’s intent requires that they be read together.

 

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

5 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 18

  1. Good commentary of this formational period in the Nephite/Lamanite story but I have one small quibble: the mention between verses 11 and 12 that “it was also certainly punctuated by some kind of event—most probably a landing to resupply.” The idea that the sea voyage to the Americas would require resupply enroute, especially on the longer eastward route most of us favor, is entirely speculative. It MAY have happened, but is absolutely not a necessity. Voyages of a year or more in length have been made in early times without any resupply. The ocean provides abundant fish and rainwater which, supplemented with stored provisions, small animals and possibly a small garden onboard (a common practice in some cultures) is more than adequate for as long as one wishes to remain afloat.

    • You are correct that it is speculation, just as it is speculation that they didn’t stop. Nephi didn’t say and we don’t know what happened when he didn’t say anything about it.

      Of course, that also means that I don’t have much riding on either speculation.

  2. This professional mariner certainly hopes they had some opportunities to touch land and to re-supply. Even on modern ships with all the conveniences of home, just a few months at sea are a long haul. Nephi’s boat was no Disney cruise. That was an ordeal. On the other hand, given Laman and Lemuel’s mercurial temperaments, had they made landing, the pair may well have abandoned the cruise and sought refuge in a port of call.
    Jake

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