Musings on the Making of Mormon's Book: 1 Nephi 17

1 And it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth. And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness.

2 And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.

3 And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness.

4 And we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness.

Remembering that these verses follow immediately upon the end of the Nahom story, we must understand that Nephi saw these incidents in the same literary context as that story. Although the modern chapter break is reasonable because it marks a different set of incidents, Nephi saw it as part of the theme of his chapter.

In this section of Nephi’s chapter he finishes the travel narrative and tells the end of the story at Bountiful. Clearly, Nephi is making some very specific choices about that he tells and does not, because he notes that “we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness.” There is very little text to tell about eight years. It appears that his editorial purpose was served by noting that things were hard (verse 1) but that they learned to live with the hardships (verse 2). These two statements are followed by a homily extracting a moral from them. Then he informs his readers that he is skipping to the end of what should have been a much longer narrative had he had a different reason for writing. Perhaps if nothing else, this simple statement that they spend eight years on a journey that should only have taken months signals that Nephi never intended for this narrative to be a history in any modern sense.

5 And we did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey; and all these things were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters.

Nephi notes that the family calls their final Old World destination Bountiful, a quite intentional contrast to the severity of their sojourn in the wilderness.  When he mentions Irreantum he gives the interpretation. This suggests two things; the future audience wouldn’t understand  it and it wasn’t considered a common word in the language in which he wrote. Were I to call a new land Abundant I wouldn’t need to explain what that meant to anyone who had a reasonable command of English. Therefore, we expect that this meaning comes from a language with which the family was familiar but which was not the language on the plates. The entry for Irreantum in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon suggests both a Hebrew and Egyptian reading for the word. If Nephi wrote in Egyptian, then  it might suggest the Hebrew etymology. If he wrote in Hebrew, then the Egyptian reading is more likely. Of course, not knowing means we simply have to understand the options.

6 And it came to pass that we did pitch our tents by the seashore; and notwithstanding we had suffered many afflictions and much difficulty, yea, even so much that we cannot write them all, we were exceedingly rejoiced when we came to the seashore; and we called the place Bountiful, because of its much fruit.

7 And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord.

Although not precisely the father’s tent metaphor that Nephi has previously used to make transitions, we do have a pitching of tents on the seashore that end the travel narrative. It is probable that this phrase should be seen in conjunction with the other mentions of tents as a narrative marker showing conceptual dividing points that occur inside the chapter.

8 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.

9 And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?

10 And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.

11 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make a bellows wherewith to blow the fire, of the skins of beasts; and after I had made a bellows, that I might have wherewith to blow the fire, I did smite two stones together that I might make fire.

My division at this verse is dictated by the verses which follow. Nephi is telling a story about the command to build a ship. As he begins the story, he mentions that “I did smite two stones together than I might make fire.” This is apparently a phrase that he realizes that his future audience (as he conceived it) would wonder about. The problem isn’t that the audience wouldn’t understand this method for creating fire, but that they would question the need for it. Most typical for a traveling group to wrap coals from a fire to preserve them for the next fire. Understanding this, Nephi interrupts his narrative to explain the reason he had to create fire anew. He has mentioned that they ate raw meat (verse 2), but that might easily have been a dried meat that was common for travelers. Therefore, he realizes that he must explain why he had no coals with which to make this new fire.

After the interruption, he returns to his narrative by noting “I did make tools of the ore which I did molten out of the rock,” which repeats the basics of verse 9. This is a perhaps slightly modified form of repetitive resumption, a technique known from the Bible and the Book of Mormon where a textual aside is brought back to the main theme by repeating something from the text at which the aside began. See David E. Bokovoy, “Repetitive Resumption in the Book of Mormon.”

12 For the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness; for he said: I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not;

13 And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led.

14 Yea, and the Lord said also that: After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction; yea, that I did bring you out of the land of Jerusalem.

15 Wherefore, I, Nephi, did strive to keep the commandments of the Lord, and I did exhort my brethren to faithfulness and diligence.

16 And it came to pass that I did make tools of the ore which I did molten out of the rock.

Verse 16 ends the aside by returning to the topic as noted in verse 9.

Another interesting feature of Nephi’s aside is that he not only inserts the reason, he feels compelled to add a moral to it. Thus the lack of fire becomes the literary foil for the presence of Yahweh  as a guiding light. This is a reference to Exodus 13:21 where Yahweh guides Israel as a pillar of light at night. Remembering that Nephi’s family likely traveled the desert at night, this is a very apt allusion. It is probable that this particular part of the aside is due to the fact that Nephi as author had already planned to move directly to a parallel between his family and Israel in the wilderness. He cites Exodus 123:21 in verse 30 below.

Verse 14 should therefore be seen as Nephi drawing a parallel between his people and Israel. They were both led by a light out of a “sojourn” (S. Kent Brown emphasizes that sojourn often implied captivity) into a new land of promise.

17 And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters.

18 And thus my brethren did complain against me, and were desirous that they might not labor, for they did not believe that I could build a ship; neither would they believe that I was instructed of the Lord.

Nephi’s travel narrative used Laman and Lemuel as naysayers. In this story at the seashore, they again begin to murmur and provide the contrary voice. While certainly based in truth, these events serve as mounting evidence that will justify Nephi’s eventual separation from Laman and Lemuel.

19 And now it came to pass that I, Nephi, was exceedingly sorrowful because of the hardness of their hearts; and now when they saw that I began to be sorrowful they were glad in their hearts, insomuch that they did rejoice over me, saying: We knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment; wherefore, thou canst not accomplish so great a work.

This particular episode of murmuring is not simply designed to report Laman and Lemuel’s dissent, but to use it as a contrast to Nephi’s own reaction. This incident serves to demonstrate the growing gulf between the brothers, continuing to place Nephi on Yahweh’s side and Laman and Lemuel opposite.

20 And thou art like unto our father, led away by the foolish imaginations of his heart; yea, he hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions.

21 Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy.

22 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 unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.

Apart from Nephi’s reason for adding this information, it is invaluable insight into Laman and Lemuel. While modern readers emphasize the brothers’ desire to “have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance,” the real important argument is theological: “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.” Laman and Lemuel do not support their father’s condemnation of Israel and therefore see Israel as righteous and their father as separatist and extremist. By implication, he is a false prophet.

Nephi provides more of their arguments in depth because it sets up the contrast between wanting to stay and wanting to leave. The next verses clearly tell us that Nephi is using Exodus as a model for this part of his narrative. When Moses led Israel to the borders of the Red Sea, they see Pharaoh’s army descending upon them. Israel cries: “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11–12).

Laman and Lemuel, like Israel, stand at the borders of impassable waters and see no way across. Both wanted to return to the life that they had known where things were safer, were better that their current circumstance.

23 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake unto them, saying: Do ye believe that our fathers, who were the 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?

24 Yea, do ye suppose that they would have been led out of bondage, if the Lord had not commanded Moses that he should lead them out of bondage?

25 Now ye know that the children of Israel were in bondage; and ye know that they were laden with tasks, which were grievous to be borne; wherefore, ye know that it must needs be a good thing for them, that they should be brought out of bondage.

26 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.

27 But ye know that the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, who were the armies of Pharaoh.

28 And ye also know that they were fed with manna in the wilderness.

29 Yea, and ye also know that Moses, by his word according to the power of God which was in him, smote the rock, and there came forth water, that the children of Israel might quench their thirst.

30 And notwithstanding they being led, the Lord their God, their Redeemer, going before them, leading them by day and giving light unto them by night, and doing all things for them which were expedient for man to receive, they hardened their hearts and blinded their minds, and reviled against Moses and against the true and living God.

Nephi expounds on the story that the brothers certainly know well. Laman and Lemuel certainly believe all of the things that Nephi emphasizes by highlighting their belief. Verses 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29 are all parallel phrases beginning with “ye know.”

31 And it came to pass that according to his word he did destroy them; and according to his word he did lead them; and according to his word he did do all things for them; and there was not any thing done save it were by his word.

32 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.

Nephi directly invokes scripture after the more subtle allusion that set up this direct reference. In addition to leading Israel out of Egypt, he provides food and water and guidance (reprising his earlier reference to Yahweh as a guiding light). Finally, they are let to a land of Promise. Nephi is obviously promising the parallel preservation, guidance, and deliverance.

33 And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.

34 Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay.

35 Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it.

36 Behold, the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it.

37 And he raiseth up a righteous nation, and destroyeth the nations of the wicked.

38 And he leadeth away the righteous into precious lands, and the wicked he destroyeth, and curseth the land unto them for their sakes.

39 He ruleth high in the heavens, for it is his throne, and this earth is his footstool.

Nephi emphasizes his lesson with the statement that Yahweh rules in heaven and that earth is his footstool. What is much more fascinating is the content of this section. Nephi had moved his Exodus model from Egypt to the promised land. However, after arriving in the promised land, he acknowledges that it was not empty. Israel was being sent to a land where there were already other inhabitants.

At this point we must remember that Nephi is writing this text after thrity years in the New World. He is writing for what he assumes will be a New World audience. He is not writing a modern history that we might say told “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Nephi is selecting his stories according to the purpose of the text. Therefore, this inclusion of the continuation of the story of Israel in their land of promise must be one that Nephi had also seen as parallel to his own people. Everything else in what he has elected to write creates a tight parallel. There is every reason to believe that Nephi, with the advantage of hindsight, sees the Israelite displacement of peoples in their promised land as a parallel to events that had happened in the New World. By literary structure and discernible intent, Nephi is telling us that there were other peoples in the New World when his family arrived, and there were conflicts with them even though righteousness would prevail and allow for this branch of Israel to have their land of promise.

40 And he loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made; wherefore, he did bring them out of the land of Egypt.

41 And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.

42 And they did harden their hearts from time to time, and they did revile against Moses, and also against God; nevertheless, ye know that they were led forth by his matchless power into the land of promise.

Without spelling it out, Nephi uses the description of Exodus to remind Laman and Lemuel of their own tribulations in the wilderness.

43 And now, after all these things, the time has come that they have become wicked, yea, nearly unto ripeness; and I know not but they are at this day about to be destroyed; for I know that the day must surely come that they must be destroyed, save a few only, who shall be led away into captivity.

44 Wherefore, the Lord commanded my father that he should depart into the wilderness; and the Jews also sought to take away his life; yea, and ye also have sought to take away his life; wherefore, ye are murderers in your hearts and ye are like unto them.

Now the past murmurings of Israel become the evidence that they are capable of unrighteousness and capable of becoming worthy of destruction. That was Lehi’s message and the message that Nephi reemphasizes. In the context of this discussion with Laman and Lemuel, it is part of his exhortation for them to change. In the context of the older Nephi writing long after the fact, it is the justification for Laman and Lemuel’s separation from the family and their spiritual destruction.

45 Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder.

46 And ye also know that by the power of his almighty word he can cause the earth that it shall pass away; yea, and ye know that by his word he can cause the rough places to be made smooth, and smooth places shall be broken up. O, then, why is it, that ye can be so hard in your hearts?

47 Behold, my soul is rent with anguish because of you, and my heart is pained; I fear lest ye shall be cast off forever. Behold, I am full of the Spirit of God, insomuch that my frame has no strength.

Again, Nephi writing history uses the moral of the story to express his fear for Laman and Lemuel. By the time he wrote, it was fulfilled prophecy.

48 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; 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.

49 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto them that they should murmur no more against their father; neither should they withhold their labor from me, for God had commanded me that I should build a ship.

50 And I said unto them: If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done.

51 And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?

52 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said many things unto my brethren, insomuch that they were confounded and could not contend against me; neither durst they lay their hands upon me nor touch me with their fingers, even for the space of many days. Now they durst not do this lest they should wither before me, so powerful was the Spirit of God; and thus it had wrought upon them.

Nephi’s words alone were unpersuasive. Divine intervention was required to make certain that Nephi could continue with the command to build a ship. These were, after all, those who Nephi had noted had “seen and angel, and he spake unto [you].”

53 And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: Stretch forth thine hand again unto thy brethren, and they shall not wither before thee, but I will shock them, saith the Lord, and this will I do, that they may know that I am the Lord their God.

54 And it came to pass that I stretched forth my hand unto my brethren, and they did not wither before me; but the Lord did shake them, even according to the word which he had spoken.

55 And now, they said: We know of a surety that the Lord is with thee, for we know that it is the power of the Lord that has shaken us. And they fell down before me, and were about to worship me, but I would not suffer them, saying: I am thy brother, yea, even thy younger brother; wherefore, worship the Lord thy God, and honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God shall give thee.

Israel could only be saved at the Red Sea through divine intervention. Nephi is saved at Irreantum only through divine intervention.

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