Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 7

1 Nephi 7:1

This verse should follow immediately after our 1 Ne. 6:6, without the chapter break which was added later. With this verse, Nephi moves back to historical time after the brief  break from his story into his own time.

It is possible that the conceptual structure of his second chapter is intentionally parallel to the major theme of the first, which was the return to Jerusalem for the plates. Now there is another episode that begins with a prophetically-dictated return to Jerusalem. This time they do not return for things, but for people. It may be that Nephi’s reference to genealogy in the brass plates is a subtle inverted parallel to the theme of acquiring descendants. The first trip to Jerusalem tied Lehi’s family to the heritage of past generations. The second creates future generations.

1 Nephi 7:2-3

The final phrase of verse tells us that Lehi was commanded that his sons should have wives. Verse 2 says that Nephi and his brothers should return to Jerusalem to get Ishmael and his family, and verse 3 says that Nephi and his brothers went to Jerusalem. That is a lot of repetition. It is doubtful that this was due to Nephi’s inability to remember what he wanted so say and therefore repeated himself.

The end of verse 1: “it was not meet for him, Lehi, that he should take his family into the wilderness alone; but that his sons should take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise.” This sets up the command specifically to Lehi. Lehi is leading his family into the wilderness. In verse 2 we have: “Lord commanded him that I, Nephi, and my brethren, should again return.” This essentially repeated in verse 3: “I, Nephi, did again, with my brethren, go forth into the wilderness to go up to Jerusalem.”

Lehi’s command is to leave Jerusalem and move toward the New World. It is Nephi who is required to return to Jerusalem. That direction shift must be important, particularly because later it will be Nephi who begins to become a co-leader in the movement to the Land of Promise. As a guess, this is an intentional reversal intended to create a division in the current relationship in the family. Lehi is still the prophet of the family exodus, but Nephi is emerging as a leader among the brothers. It is quite likely that the command as it fell from Lehi’s lips would have Laman in the first position as the oldest son. We are getting this through Nephi, who is creating a document to present his story/justification for his eventual leadership over his brothers and over a new city in a new land.

As a literary progression, we move from a command to Lehi that they should not be alone in the wilderness to a command to Nephi to specifically bring Ishmael and his family. The third repetition changes command to action.

1 Nephi 7:4-5

Verses 4 and 5 summarize the facts. A divine command came to Lehi, and it is transmitted to Ishmael through Nephi’s sons (“we did speak unto him the words of the Lord” 1 Ne. 7:4). There must have been longer discussions, but the point Nephi wants to make is that Ismael heard the word of the Lord and obeyed.

1 Nephi 7: 6-7

If the first story of the return for the brass plates, Laman and Lemuel are defined as both unified in their intentions and opposed to Nephi. As with most of Nephi’s narrative, Sam is a bit player who appears as Nephi’s supporting cast without actually figuring in to the action. We should remember that this is Nephi’s narrative choice. Sam  might have played a little bigger role, but it does not serve Nephi’s editorial purposes to highlight it (if it did occur—we simply have no information).

In this second story of a return, Laman and Lemuel again appear as a pair opposed to and rebellious against Nephi (and the commands of the Lord). In this case, they have already been paired with two of Ismael’s daughters who will clearly become their wives. It is probable that these are arranged marriages not simply by family, but perhaps by the easy correlation of ages. Thus the oldest two daughters are to wed the two oldest brothers. Their rebellion is therefore related to their family duty to their (future) head of household. It is doubtful that there was an internal division of opinions in Ishmael’s family that exactly replicated the sentiments that cleaved Lehi’s family.

The final sentence is also important information. “They were desirous to return to the land of Jerusalem.” This becomes the leit motif for both the physical and symbolic rebellion in Lehi’s family. They want to not only leave the journey and return to a place, but when it becomes impossible to return to a place, they wish to return to a state. Laman and Lemuel appear to believe in the state version of Judah’s version rather than the one their father (and Nephi) believe. They continue to want a return to all of their social and religious beginnings rather than the more distant and different future that awaits them.

1 Nephi 7:8

Nephi’s account of his response to this situation is much longer than the exposition of the problem. Therefore, it is what Nephi includes in his response that tells us of his editorial intentions. In  verse 8 Nephi deftly reprises his comparison to the story of Joseph of Egypt. In 1 Nephi 5:14 Nephi tells his readers that his father’s lineage traces to “Joseph; yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt, and who was preserved by the hand of the Lord.” Nephi has made sure that his readers are aware of the connection to Joseph, and the parallels between his story and that of Joseph. This is not only intentional, but repeated. The emphasis here is found in the need “that I, your younger brother, should speak unto you, yea, and set an example for you?”

1 Nephi 7:9-12

Each of the four verses begin with a question: “how is it that ye have. . .” This is an intentional literary parallelism. Nephi is using the parallel phrasing to build a case against his brothers. Each of these failings demonstrate that the brothers who should lead the family are failing in their duty.

Were I the one creating verses, I would separate the last sentence of verse 12 and move it to the beginning of verse 13. Verses 9-12 (minus the last sentence) are parallel condemnations. That last sentence is the transition to the exhortation. It is the reversal from declaring what has failed to declaring what should happen.

One of the interesting vocabulary items here is the word “faith.” Faith is a word that appears only twice in the KJV Old Testament (Deut. 32:20; Hab. 2:4). It is a translation issue, not a theological one. The concept that is translated with the word more familiar from the New Testament is that of loyalty. Thus, it is likely that the brothers are being called out for disloyalty rather than what our modern ideas of faith might be. With that meaning, verse 11’s “how is it that ye have forgotten what great things the Lord hath done for us”  becomes even more powerful. How can you not be loyal to a patron who is doing so much for you. At least in New Testament times, the terms “faith” and “charity” were used in very specific connection to the patron/client relationship. (see E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, (Downers, Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012), 82.) That culturally-defined, and culturally-understood relationship is probably the best context in which to see this exhortation. It will also be the best context for king Benjamin’s speech later in the Book of Mormon.

1 Nephi 7:13

Nephi specifically declares the prophetic destruction of Jerusalem. This is intended to relate to the desire to return to Jerusalem that he mentioned earlier. Even though they have returned twice and are now returning directly from Jerusalem, the Lord had declared that it will be destroyed. There will be nothing to return to. If they are loyal to the God who has performed miracles in their behalf, they must also heed the prophetic word that tells them that they will be unable to return to Jerusalem (a Jerusalem representing their past way of life, social status, and religions structures).

1 Nephi 7:14-15

These two verses are intended to be read together. Nephi is creating a direct parallel between those who are in Jerusalem and his brothers who want to return.

Jerusalem will be destroyed because:

  • the Spirit of the Lord ceaseth soon to strive with them;
  • they have rejected the prophets, and Jeremiah have they cast into prison.
  • they have sought to take away the life of my father

These simultaneously describe Jerusalem and the fate awaiting Laman  and Lemuel. Nephi tells them that they will perish with Jerusalem if they return, but it isn’t just the physical Jerusalem.

  • The spirit of the Lord will cease to strive with them
  • They have rejected their prophet father
  • They have sought to take away the life of Nephi (who is a prophet in his own right).

 

1 Nephi 7:16

There is an immediate manifestation that Laman and Lemuel follow in the disastrous example of Jerusalem and specifically seek the death of a prophet. It is also a direct parallel to the Joseph of Egypt story

1 Nephi 7:17-18

Nephi relates his miraculous salvation. This is a repeat of the previous salvation through divine intervention. This part of the story is also to be seen as an intentional literary parallel to the previous story of a return to Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 3:28-29). As I suggested earlier, these two chapters are intended to be seen as parallel.

1 Nephi 7:19-20

Although the previous intervention that calmed Laman and Lemuel had been an angel (1 Nephi 3:29), this time it is members of Ishmael’s family who plead for a cessation of violence. Nephi does not tell us which daughter it was. We might speculate that it was the daughter betrothed to Laman. It would be difficult to know which other daughter would have had sufficient influence.

These verses set up the condition where we would have a repentant Laman and Lemuel. The verses therefore are not only descriptive of the historical situation, but create the ability of Nephi to be forgiving in the next verse.

1 Nephi 7:21

Nephi closes the incident with his declaration of forgiveness. The fact that he is in the position, being a younger brother, to pronounce forgiveness on his elder brothers again shifts the family dynamic and reprises the reference to Joseph of Egypt.

1 Nephi 7:22

Wherever the family might be in the physical world, their location was at “the tent of our father.” It was the family seat and therefore becomes the indication of the end of the journey. Thus, there are two poles in contrast, that of Jerusalem and the “tent of my father.” They both serve as capitals of nations, Jerusalem of the much older and larger, and the “tent of my father” as the seat of a new family dynasty.

There is no chapter break here. Although Nephi has created two parallel stories in the return to Jerusalem, the purpose of this return was to look forward rather than back. Therefore, it becomes the introductory story to the next phase. From this point, the story is one of travel to the Land of Promise without any return to the land of Jerusalem.

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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.

One thought on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 7

  1. You commented, about verse 19, that the un-named daughter might have been the one betrothed to Laman. I think it might have been the one betrothed to Nephi, but that is beside the point I want to make. A daughter or mother pleading with an enemy, in the culture of that time & place, held great influence. I base this on the writings of Hugh Nibley published by F.A.R.M.S. in a paper entitled Lehi in the Desert, page 70. The custom was sort of a point of chivalry. It was unmanly to ignore the pleadings of a female relative of the person you were trying to kill. Understanding that cultural tradition makes the whole scene more understandable.

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