Commentary on 1 Nephi 17, pt. 2

January 22, 2009 | 2 comments
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Laman and Lemuel make their appearance in chapter 17 in verse 17, where they say:

Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters. (1 Ne. 17:17)

When Nephi sorrows at the “hardness of their hearts,” they continue their taunts, saying:

We knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment; wherefore, thou canst not accomplish so great a work. And thou are like our father, led away by the foolish imaginations of his heart; yea, he hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled being big with child; and they have born children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jersusalem than to have suffered these afflictions. (1 Ne. 17:19-20)

Given the way that Nephi has already located his narrative within the story of the Exodus, I think that we are meant to read this passage against that background.  Certainly, the structure of the story is striking.  God’s chosen people are led by revelation out of a wicked country, and travel to the promised land.  Their way is blocked, however, by a body of water that they are called upon to miraculously cross.  In Exodus, of course, the body of water is the Red Sea, while in Nephi 17 it is “Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters” (v. 5).  That being the case, the lament of Nephi’s brothers seems to echo the lament of the Children of Israel on the shores of the Red Sea:

And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?  Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness. (Ex. 14: 11-12)

The comparison, however, does more than simply cast Laman and Lemuel as the faithless lusting for the flesh pots of Egypt.  Both Nephi’s brothers and the Children of Israel are enmeshed in a narrative irony.  They both believe that they know how the story is going, but both are mistaken.  As Moses explains to the faithless Israelites on the shores of the Red Sea:

Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shewy to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever.  The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace. (Ex. 14: 13-14)

Later in the chapter, Nephi will offer his own rebuke to to his brother’s accusations that he is a fool who cannot build a ship or cross the waters. 

And I said unto them: If God had commanded to do all things I could do them.  If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done.  And now if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship? (1 Ne. 17: 50-51)

Notice how Nephi’s rebuke explicitly harks back to Moses before the Red Sea — “If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth” — reinforcing the sense that Laman and Lemuel don’t really understand the story that they are inhabiting, the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.  The ignorance of Laman and Lemuel about the meaning of this story becomes very important for the battle about interpretation that lies at the heart of this chapter, because as we will see in the next passage, Laman and Lemuel claim to have a true understanding of Moses and the meaning of his story!

To be continued…

To see part one of this commentary, click here

2 Responses to Commentary on 1 Nephi 17, pt. 2

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 22, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Laman and Lemuel illustrate the fact that people lacking faith do not accept miraculous blessings from God even when the evidence is before their eyes. The fact that they had arrived in the one small fertile area in the Arabian peninsula, without any prior knowledge of the place and the route there, logically demonstrated that the Liahona did indeed work miraculously. But even though they were faced with the evidence of this all around them, they refused to draw the obvious conclusion, that Lehi and Nephi were indeed being guided by God. The water, the grain, the fruits, the honey, were simply facts to them, and they refused to reason from those facts to the underlying reality of the power behind the compass.

    This is an example of the truth that it is those who are skeptical who refuse to use reason, while those who exercise faith are the ones who do use their reason to understand the world. The scientific fact that the physical constants of nature are apparently arbitrary and indpendent numbers which are finely tuned to produce a universe where life can flourish, is simply brushed off by materialists as a simple fact that we should not reason from. It is those who apply reason to these observed facts who conclude that somebody or something “cooked the books”.

    The only scientific alternative theory is that EVERY quantum event spawns an entirely new universe (Where does all that matter/energy come from? The Conservation of Energy is just thrown out as being too restricting, even though it is still fundamental for everything we see in our own universe.) so there is every possible universe in existence somehwere, even though there is by definition no way to ever see any of the hypothetical infinite number of other universes. So to avoid the idea of an invisible god, they propose that there are an infnity of invisible universes. Which of these hypotheses is more parsimonious, more simple? Indeed, the Many Worlds hypothesis turns back on itself, because it means that there has to be a universe that has a being that is the practical equivalent of God, and because of the nature of infinity, there are an infinite number of such universes. Furthermore, the Many Worlds partisan has to admit that, for all we know, we are IN one of those God-inhabited universes. The materialist has created a theory which argues for the existence of God somewhere, and quite possibly right here in our universe! This might not qualify as the immaterial God of the creeds, but we Mormons don’t have a problem with a God made of a spiritual matter that is definitely not immaterial.

  2. Jim F on January 23, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Nate, this is an absolutely brilliant reading! Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to the rest, as well as to the final version which I hope you will publish, perhaps in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (which now has a new name that I do not know).