Laman and Lemuel offer up their gloss on the story of Moses in verse 22 and in so doing model a particular type of scriptural and legal interpretation. They say:
And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like him. (1 Ne. 17:22)
There is a great deal that is going on in this sentence. It begins with an assertion that the people in Jerusalem were righteous. If this is true, of course, the entire journey through the desert has been in vain or worse. It is also a frontal attack on the prophetic claims of Lehi and by extension Nephi. The claim is justified by an appeal to Moses, but unlike the narrative references made by Nephi, the appeal is a “legal” one. The people of Jerusalem were righteous because they “kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord . . . according to the law of Moses.” The Moses to which Laman and Lemuel appeal, however, is a very different figure than the one to which Nephi appeals.
For them Moses is a lawgiver rather than a preacher or a wilderness leader. The law he gives, in turn, becomes the primary mediator between God and man. Whereas Lehi claimed that the people of Jerusalem were unrighteous because of a revelation from an angel, Laman and Lemuel come to the opposite conclusion on the basis of legal analysis. Note also the way that they understand Lehi’s rebuke to the Jews at Jerusalem as a legal act — “he has judged them” — one that he has performed badly. Indeed, whereas in 1 Nephi chapter 1, Lehi’s powerful preaching is evidence of his divine calling, Laman and Lemuel understand the preaching — “his words” — very differently. For them the preaching, far from being prophetic or divine, is a way of getting power over another. It is an illegitimate way of getting power that is implicitly contrasted the legitimacy of the “statutes and judgments of the Lord.”
Hence, where Nephi experiences the story of Moses in the story of his family’s exodus, Laman and Lemuel experience the story of Moses in the correct application of the law. This law — the normatively primary part of Moses’s legacy — is found in the juridical content of the scriptures rather than in its narrative. “Statutes and judgments” dominate stories of preaching and fleeing the wrath that is to come. Strikingly, as we will see, it is this interpretive move on the part of Laman and Lemuel that calls forth Nephi’s most elaborate response.
To be continued…