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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Something’s clearly going on here, and Nephi does very little to help us understand. One possibility is that “rudeness” had a very specific meaning to ancient Nephites—one that’s lost on us. Maybe Nephi—though true to form in painting his brothers in a poor light—is being mercifully vague about what were in fact unconscionable acts. Or maybe Nephi didn’t have much of a case against the brothers, perhaps because of his own poor leadership, which he’s trying to mask here. Maybe things happened quite different—perhaps initially without conflict—but in crafting a divine narrative Laman and Lemuel served as scapegoats, the causes of divine wrath. The most plausible option to my mind is that we should interpret dancing and singing in a negative light—either because it was taboo for them (my mind is struggling to remember any other references to dancing and singing in the Nephite record; perhaps I’m overlooking something; but it’s conspicuously absent, especially given how prominent martial life is in the Book of Mormon—which in most cultures includes a great deal of singing and dancing; so, strange as it is, perhaps Nephites were like various Christian sects that frown on singing and dancing) or because much more than mere dancing and singing was taking place (i.e., we might build something substantive into “rudeness”). The former makes Nephi dramatically misunderstand the situation (God’s not opposed to singing and dancing; quite the opposite); the latter makes the fundamentals of the story opaque to our view.
There are three days of storm, and on the fourth the situation becomes desperate. This story violates the nearly universal, cross-cultural convention of three. This lends credence to the story. Also lending credence is the weight and significance of this event to the Nephite and Lamanite imagination more generally (notice that this event gets referred to later on, with the facts or at least the significance of the facts quite contested).
Could the claim about the wicked perishing be an indirect reference to Lehi’s vision in I Nephi 1?
The passage is full of contrasts: drunken vs. sober, rudeness vs. plainness; calm vs. storm; forward progress vs. driven back; having direction (a functioning Liahona) vs. being lost (a stopped Liahona); faith vs. pride; faith vs. murmuring. I wonder a bit at the storm being a curse—in fact, I can’t help wonder at it given the difference in how we see the world today. It’s easy to see a normal, everyday, life-threatening storm arise in the middle of the ocean, and see Nephi—convinced as he was of the divinity of their mission—jump to the conclusion that this genuinely threatening obstacle must have divine sanction, and so he latches on to the most conspicuous possibility: it’s his blasted unfaithful brothers’ fault. Failing to see the hand of God in the genesis of the storm, however, these contrasts and the story itself help me to see more clearly what a faithful reaction to life’s storms is, and to see the hand of God in response to faith. In other words, here again we’re offered a compelling view of Nephi’s ethic: have confidence and trust in the divine call and covenants we’ve received. Yes, real storms arise. But murmuring is not a legitimate reaction. Murmuring undermines one’s relationship with God and one’s ability to cope either with the storms of the cosmos or the wounds inflicted by our family members. Acknowledging and reaching out faithfully to God is the only way to weather the storms well.