What’s in a Name? – Reading Nephi – 18:23-19:1

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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I Nephi 18:23-19:1

They arrive at the promised land. They pitch their tents. I can’t help but picture elation and Hollywood scenes of the family kneeling to kiss wet sand as water rolls over their feet. They made it!

Now what? At the end of years of travel, when one finally reaches one’s destination, what does one do? As Nephi goes on to note, they’re in a new land with new flora and fauna and resources—but a land of which they’ve zero knowledge. Particularly when it comes to survival, local knowledge is everything. I imagine a profound funk of “what now?” hung over them. After more than eight years, are they simply to stop? Do they stop and build right on the coast? Do they look around for a fertile valley? Do they have to try and find an uninhabited location? Are they sure that God doesn’t want them to continue on further into the wilderness?

Nephi makes no comment about these decisions and does not mention revelation here. It’s unclear that the Liahona—so integral to their ocean voyage—could be of any use at this point (beyond serving as a talisman, which is precisely what it becomes; no other prophet is mentioned using it; much like Joseph’s seer stone). How do they operate? Where do they build? How do they build? Every scriptural account of arriving in a promised land makes clear that arrival does not itself provide milk and honey. “Promised Land” denotes an action, a process. It is something we do. Notice that all of the “finds” that Nephi describes are located in “the wilderness.” What is there to distinguish the newly designated “promised land” from the wilderness? Is it merely the perimeter of their own tents? Most clearly in these verses I see the specter of starvation—that frequent, perhaps constant companion during the Lehite Exodus (maybe I see this only because it’s been such a constant aspect in their journey; but I’m confident that learning the local for-food flora and fauna took at least some time).

The beginning of their coping and acting, and what was surely a leap of faith, was, I believe, what Nephi first notes—that they actually called this place the Promised Land. And here is the magic of language, that supreme gift of our God. And here is the answer to Juliet’s poignant question. Names are often bridges attempting to span existential chasms of dissonance. This wilderness is the Promised Land. This life is the pivot point of eternity and an imperative experience for which we shouted for joy. Names allow us to hold firmly to the reality of mortal travail and the promise of immortal glory at the same time.

As part of his typical preoccupation with food, Nephi focuses on the miraculous: their seeds grew. It wasn’t merely their growing that was the miracle, it’s that the Lehites survived. Notice that they put ALL of their seeds in the ground—hardly a prudent act. They weren’t fools. I can only see this as a desperate act. I suspect they were facing starvation, and that planting everything was more an act of necessity than a leap of faith—they didn’t have enough grain or enough alternative food sources (remember: new land and very new flora and fauna) to only plant some and still survive. It was all or nothing. They needed all of it to grow. And it did. Their grain together with the wild animal population was enough. They had food and once again, they didn’t starve.

Pitching tents, securing food, creating a scriptural record. Nephi’s narrative seems to follow Maslow’s hierarchy: shelter, food, religion. It’s striking that beyond shelter and food, the first thing Nephi mentions is finding ore and God’s command to make a record. Looking closer, even the wild animals are there for the use of man. As are the ores mentioned. Nephi offers an implicitly instrumentalist approach to nature. But undergirding it all is a religious outlook. Conspicuously, all of it—Maslow’s shelter, food, and religion, both the journey and the settling, the whole thing—is oriented around their relationship with God. Nature as instrument for one’s relationship with deity demands a kind of humility toward and gratitude for nature that we sorely lack today with our destructive, fetishized exploitation of all creeping and non-creeping things—including ourselves. Humility and a deep reverence and gratitude for that which they used allowed for a promised land. Today, we have no promised land; we have only an occupied, a possessed land.

This jubilation of landing and building, this process of Promised-ing the Land has one large lacuna: there is no mention of family relations or roles. Not until Lehi’s death.

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