Nephi’s response to his brothers directly attacks their understanding of Moses’s significance. Where they see him as a law-giver whose “statutes and judgments” provide a determinate — and juridical — criteria of righteousness, Nephi insists on the primacy of Moses as the hero of a story of exodus and desert redemption.
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake unto them, saying: Do ye believe that our fathers, who were children of Israel, would have been led away out of the hands of the Egyptians if they had not hearkened unto the words of the Lord? (1 Ne. 17:23)
Notice the way in which Nephi directly attacks his brother’s criticism of Lehi’s words as a means to illegitimate power. It was only by hearkening to the “words of the Lord” (not his “statutes and judgments?) that the Children of Israel were redeemed. He then proceeds to recapitulate the story of the original Exodus in a way that recapitulates the journey of the Lehite group out of Jerusalem. First, he says:
Now ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work; and ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither, and they passed through on dry ground. (2 Ne. 17:26)
This miraculous crossing of a water can be seen as a reference to the situation of Nephi before Irreantum, the great waters that he will pass through the miracle of God’s revealed plan to create a ship. Next, Nephi invokes the story of the Children of Israel being fed by manna from heaven and the water that sprang forth when Moses smote the rock. This also seems to be a reference to the experience of the Lehites. Immediately prior to the story of Nephi’s attempts to build the ship, we have the story of Nephi’s broken bow and the miraculous manner in which he was able to find food through the intervention of the Liahona.
Nephi ends his recounting of the story of the Exodus with the story of the invasion of Canaan.
And after they had crossed the river Jordan he did make them mighty unto the driving out of the children of the land, yea, unto the scattering them to destruction. And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, where were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you Nay. (1 Ne 17:32-33)
Notice that here Nephi is offering a counter criteria for judging the righteousness of a people. Where Laman and Lemuel look to the legal criteria of keeping “statutes and judgments” Nephi appeals to a violent, historical event. The implications here are potentially troubling if we read this as endorsing a kind of cosmic trial by combat in which victory provides evidence of the righteousness of the victor. On the other hand, it is also possible to read this appeal to the invasion of Canaan against the background of Lehi’s prophecies in Jerusalem. Lehi’s “words,” far from being an attempt to lead people into the desert and get power over them, actually consisted of a prediction of imminent military catastrophe. In other words, Nephi defends his father by reading the story of Moses as ultimately judging righteousness in terms of geopolitical events.
There are any number of points that we might take from my reading of chapter 17. In a nutshell, my argument is that at its heart this story is about two dueling ways of understanding how scriptures become normative in our lives. Laman and Lemuel offer up a legal reading whereby scriptures provide rules that are then used to judge righteousness. Nephi, on the other hand, constructs his entire narrative around a competing view of scripture. On this view, scripture’s normative power comes from the recapitulation of its stories in our lives. It orders our lives not through a set of juridical rules but rather through a set of narratives that transform our existence from a mere sequence of events into the incarnation of God’s working in the world. The point is most powerfully driven home in the final passage of the story. After praising God, explicitly recounting Lehi’s story, and linking Laman and Lemuel to the wicked people left behind in Jerusalem, Nephi literally becomes the embodiment of God’s power:
And now it came to pass that when I had spoken these words they were angry with me, and were desirous to throw me into the depths of the sea [an implicit comparison to Pharoh’s armies?]; and as they came forth to lay their hands upon me I spake unto them, saying: In the name of the Almighty God, I command you that ye touch me not, for I am filled with the power of God, even unto the consuming of my flesh; and whoso shall lay his hands upon me shall wither even as a dried reed; and he shall be as naught before the power of God, for God shall smite him. (1 Ne. 17:48)
Faced with the miraculous power of Nephi, Laman and Lemuel ultimately relent, “[a]nd it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timber of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from tie to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.” (1 Ne. 18:1) Nephi’s ultimate triumph in this passage is not simply a victory of brother over brother. It is also a victory of one mode of interpretation over another, a prioritizing of the narrative power of scripture over its juridical content.