This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
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Sandwiched in between the Daughter’s of Ishmael’s complaints about their afflictions and Laman’s complaints about the women’s afflictions (16:35-36 and 17:20-21), Nephi acknowledges that they were indeed afflicted. It’s an indirect acknowledgment, however, offered with a positive spin: Look! God blessed us to be able to eat raw meat! And not once did our women have to watch their babies starve without enough milk! I laughed when I read it this time. Nephi was clearly impressed, but I wonder what the women thought about becoming like unto men. Perhaps, if we had their account, the women too would’ve appreciated it. Perhaps, lacking a gendered discrimination of duties for wilderness survival, everyone simply took part in the hunting and gathering and camp making. Perhaps it was a time of great empowerment for the women. That’s me, following Nephi’s lead, and putting the most positive spin that I can imagine on it.
But here’s the key phrase: “And they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.” It’s true, humans adapt. We move on from the death of a child or the crushing loss of betrayal, we adapt to impoverishment and disease and to the heartache and bitterness and the suffering of exile and emigration in the wake of political violence. We ought to see the miracle of that fact and be grateful. But everything about their journey from Lemuel to Bountiful was clearly a miserable slog (analogous perhaps to our own cradle to grave journey).
Here, though, is a different paradigm. I think by and large we see things very differently than Nephi—which is quite understandable given our different circumstances. We tend to think that life should be good, in the sense that Laman soon goes on to describe (vs. 23): comfortable, stable, such that we can enjoy our possessions, free from serious sacrifice and loss (Laman would hardly qualify as a hedonist by our standards; his hopes sound wonderfully moderate). Nephi’s baseline seems to me to be very different. Life is hard. Life is precarious and full of affliction and pain. Tragedy—or at least suffering—is the default. That’s the background, the clearing, the constant field against which our lives take shape. God’s commands, however, are inexorable. But if we follow them, we’re nourished and our hardship becomes bearable. Following them, I can become strong like unto a man, and I can nurture my children as a healthy woman.
There we have it. Eight years in exactly 34 verses. What does Nephi describe in those years? Hunger, affliction, the Liahona, the voice of the Lord, more hunger and affliction, Nephi’s own leadership, growing strong. And then a final reminder that these were an afflicted eight years, even more than Nephi can write. It’s a well-crafted narrative, undoubtedly it was a powerful political tool, and functions today—as to some extent it may have then—as faith generating scripture. It also reflects a grim existence. I can’t help but think of my pioneer ancestors, whose lives and hardships I can’t help but romanticize now. Pioneering, however, is what we all remember and talk of; it’s what serves as our foundational narrative today. But of course, the pioneering was merely the forging. Carving out a life in early Utah was hardscrabble at best. With the exception of a story about Seagulls when many of our people perished from hunger related causes, we don’t build much of early Utah into our faithful narratives—we simply say that the desert blossomed as a rose. Pioneering was a necessary rending and reforging that allowed our ancestors to survive and become a people. These eight years of hardship in the wilderness are undoubtedly what gave Lehi’s people the means to survive and carve out a life in the New World. Or as Jacob later notes, as one of those born during this passage of scripture, “We [were] a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren . . . wherefore, we did mourn out our days.”