Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 3

1 Nephi 3:1

1 Nephi 2:15 indicates “and my father dwelt in a tent.” That simple sentence has no specific meaning in the narrative, but is simply used as a division marker. In this case, the “the tent of my father” starts the discussion of Nephi’s revelation from the Lord that he would rule over his older brothers. At the end of that section, Nephi “returned from speaking with the Lord,” and specifically goes to “the tent of my father.

Interestingly, his father has similarly had a revelation, disclosed in verse 2. Thus the “tent of my father” introduces first Nephi’s experience, and then his father’s.

The end of chapter 2 sets up a condition in Nephi’s family where the older brothers are antagonistic to a favored younger brother who is destined to rule over them. The parallel to Joseph of Egypt is intentional, and will be underscored when Lehi “discovers” that he is of the lineage of Joseph from the brass plates.

1 Nephi 3:2

Lehi receives a command that his sons should return to Jerusalem. This information might have been on his father’s record, but it appears to be told from Nephi’s perspective. Nephi indicates that he was there, so this can be direct remembrance.

 

1 Nephi 3:3

The initial information about the brass plates is that they contain a “record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers.” This is a lineage record and therefore kept by Laban, logically as a tribal head. If  they belong to the tribe, then Lehi has a claim to them—though hardly an exclusive claim.

1 Nephi 3:4-6

4 Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brothers should go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records, and bring them down hither into the wilderness.

5 And now, behold thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them; but behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord.

6 Therefore go, my son, and thou shalt be favored of the Lord, because thou hast not murmured.

Lehi has apparently already informed Laman and Lemuel of the mission, and they are murmuring. This is contrasted with Nephi, who has not murmured, and will be “favored of the Lord.” Sam is part of the mission, but we are given no information about him, as is typical. Although it is possible that Sam is also murmuring, that is not the role he is given in Nephi’s writings. The contrast will always be between Laman and Lemuel as a set against Nephi. Sam is part of historical accuracy, but not part of the dramatic tension.

1 Nephi 3:7-8

Nephi is writing this long after the fact. It is possible that he wrote down the words he said. It is also possible that this is what he remembered he said, or even that it represents what he believed he would have said. It serves to create a dramatic contrast between Nephi’s faithfulness to his father’s request (and thereby to the Lord’s command) and the murmuring from Laman and Lemuel.

1 Nephi 3:9

The presentation of Nephi as though it is he who leads the expedition is hindsight revision. It is, of course, Nephi’s remembrance. None of this would have been accessible to Lehi and therefore came from Nephi. Even had Lehi recorded any of it, it would have been second hand from Nephi’s retelling. Therefore, we expect that this section is directly from Nephi’s remembrance. That also allows us to understand how Nephi crafts it to his purpose, having already foreshadowed the Joseph/Egypt connection.

1 Nephi 3:10-14

Certainly this information comes from Nephi’s recollection. The casting of lots fell upon Laman, as it should have. As the eldest, it was his responsibility to lead.

It is probable that Laman’s account of what happened before Laban was much more extensive. Nephi gives us only a brief description because the only thing that mattered was the failure, not the details of how the failure occurred.

1 Nephi 3:15-21

When Laman fails, the mission has failed. There is no assumption that other brothers ought to try their hand. That was, in fact, a reasonable assumption. They had attempted to fulfill the mission and the attempt had failed. At least Laman  and Lemuel would have assumed defeat. Nephi presents himself as the one who is faithful to the mission. This is in keeping (and a foreshadowing) of his leadership role.

This section is interesting in that he repeats to his brothers the reasons that they left Jerusalem.  The recitation of the reasons for leaving Jerusalem seem out of place with verse 16’s suggestion of how they might accomplish the mission. Perhaps the unstated subtext is that they might as well spend the money because it would be lost to them in any case. That fatalism and inability to return justified the exchange of their riches for a document.

1 Nephi 3:22

Perhaps the fact that the aside about the destruction of Jerusalem is bookended by statements about their gold and silver underscores the connection between the inevitable loss and this way to perhaps still gain some advantage from the wealth that was destined to be lost.

1 Nephi 3:23-28

Nephi describes the second failure. This one is directly related to Nephi’s suggestion and therefore is Nephi’s failure. Given the way he invoked divine purpose behind it, it would have been a particularly crushing failure.

1 Nephi 3:28

Given the circumstances, Laman’s anger is rather understandable. Nevertheless, Nephi includes this incident not only for historical accuracy, but as an indication that their success came only through divine intervention. They were not able to succeed on their own.

1 Nephi 3:29-30

An “angel” could simply mean one who is sent, and thus it might be either a divine messenger or a human messenger working a divine purpose. In any case, the reason Nephi writes this part of the story is to provide the proof of divine sanction for what will happen. Even though the prospects are virtually hopeless, nevertheless the divine support is still there—promising or at least foreshadowing a miracle.

1 Nephi 3:31

Nephi increases both the narrative tension and the tension between Laman, Lemuel, and himself. The messenger has decreed that they will yet have success, in spite of two spectacular failures. Laman and Lemuel are shown in their murmuring and doubting guise. Even with a divinely sent messenger, they cannot see how the mission could possibly be accomplished. To highlight the true miracle, Nephi has them indicate that Laban commands fifty. While entirely plausible as a remembered discussion, it is nevertheless recorded to give proper context to the magnitude of the miracle the Lord performs so that the mission may be accomplished. Laman and Lemuel are symbolically underscoring the audacity of Nephi’s declaration that from verse 7 that he knows that the Lord will provide a way. Nephi paints the darkest picture before providing the solution.

There was no original chapter break here. The story should be seen as continuing without break or hesitation with the first verse in our chapter 4.

 

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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 3

  1. Here is my view of the text leading up to the tent verse. Since sacrifice was usually done at the temple, I see Lehi’s tent as a symbol of the temple.

    A Sacrifice (7)
    B Valley of Lemuel (8-10)
    C Stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel (11a)
    D They did murmur in many things against their father, (11b)
    E because he was a visionary man, (11c)
    F and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, (11d)
    G to leave their land, gold, silver, precious things (11e)
    F to perish in the wilderness. (11f)
    E because of the foolish imaginations of his heart (11g)
    D Laman and Lemuel … did murmur against their father (12a)
    C They knew not the dealings of that God (12b-13)
    B Valley of Lemuel (14)
    A And my father dwelt in a tent. (15)

    The details can be seen at ldsgospeldoctrine.net/dlj/visualscriptures.html

  2. The fact that Laban had the records and commanded a militia, would indicate that he was the current prince or ruler of the tribe of Joseph (or of Ephraim or Manasseh—see Numbers 13:1-16) When Nephi slew Laban and took his sword and records, symbols of Laban’s authority, this authority would have fallen upon Nephi.

    • I don’t know of anything that would specifically contradict that reading. Of course, I don’t know of anything that would support it either. Sam is certainly a conundrum. He appears to be on Nephi’s side, but without any events that really define him. Perhaps it is only because Nephi is more interested in telling his own story, and Laman and Lemuel serve as literary foils and convenient symbolic ancestral enemies (as part of the ethnogenetic mythos).

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