Nephi 17:21 features a complex array of possible wordplay, hinging on the words “possessing” and “inheritance” (“yrš”), within the context of legal and covenant-oriented passages in the Old Testament. These wordplays emphasize a nuanced meaning of “enjoying” those possessions, and highlight Laman and Lemuel’s attachment to temporal rather than celestial conceptions of happiness.
In this article, Matthew Bowen explores the deeper covenantal implications of the words “possessing” and “inheritance” as used in several passages within the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, suggesting that these terms imply more than just the use of property. Much of his focus is on 1 Nephi 17:21, where Nephi paraphrases his brothers’ complaint about leaving behind the home in Jerusalem. Here Bowen proposes a possible Hebraism in the phrase “land of our inheritance” (a theme expanded on in Jacob, Alma, 3 Nephi, and Mormon). He also notes in the same verse a polyptoton (a potential wordplay involving a repetition of words with the same root), and an allusion to the tree of life. In the latter case, Bowen suggests that the the phrase “we might have been happy” recalls Lehi’s dream, where the tree had fruit that “was desirable to make one happy”, with “happy” (ʾšr/ʾašrê) also potentially forming a wordplay with Asherah, the Lord’s divine consort, who is often associated with the imagery of the tree of life.
Bowen’s analysis hinges on the Hebrew verb “yrš”, meaning “to take possession of”, which first appears in Genesis 15:3-4 and 7-8 as a legal term to describe Abraham’s covenantal promises of having an heir and inheriting the land of Canaan. Some scholars have argued that yrš can mean more than mere possession, but can also communicate a more nuanced concept: “to enjoy possession of”, with that concept applying in a number of different passages in the Old Testament.
These passages include Ezekiel 33:24-29, where God judges those who claim to “possess” the lands of Israel and Judah despite continuing the sinful practices of their exiled forebears, and Psalms 37:11, where the meek shall not only “inherit the earth” but also “shall delight themselves”. In the latter case, these terms would make for a better semantic match if “inherit” means “enjoy possession of”. Bowen also cites Judges 2:6-10, where Joshua sends triumphant Israel to their “inheritance to possess the land” of Canaan, Numbers 36:8, where Moses decrees that daughters should marry within their tribe so that “the children of Israel may enjoy every man the inheritance of his fathers”, and Joshua 1:14-15, where Joshua sends the men of Israel over the Jordan to possess the lands that they had inherited through the Abrahamic covenant.”
For Bowen, this meaning helps provide context for the law presented in Deuteronomy, where Israel’s continued possession of the land was predicated on keeping the commandments (e.g., Deuteronomy 5:31-33), implying that a failure to keep the commandments would result in the loss of that land. This may have been fulfilled through the scattering of the ten tribes, and, in Lehi’s day, through Judah’s exile into Babylon. This thread is continued in the Book of Mormon, where Lehi also predicated inheritance of the land on keeping the commandments when providing final counsel to his sons in 2 Nephi 1:9.
Both Lehi and Nephi appear to have understood that Israel’s disobedience meant that their people had already lost the privilege of possessing the land. But this doesn’t seem to have dawned on Laman and Lemuel, who remain attached to that temporal inheritance, insisting that the people of Jerusalem remained righteous in the eyes of God. Nephi implies that they would have preferred that Lehi had been killed, and, as a result, would then be enjoying possession of the family estate. Bowen notes that Nephi makes this explicit when he accuses them of being “murderers in [their] hearts. Bowen explains that numerous references the “lands of inheritance”, both in 1 Nephi 17 and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon symbolize the celestial kingdom—“a far better land of promise” than the one Laman and Lemuel were leaving behind.
Though Bowen’s wordplay-related highlights are always insightful, what I find most interesting here are the psychological implications for Laman and Lemuel, and how those inform their behavior throughout 1 and 2 Nephi. Laman’s position at the top of the family hierarchy left him literally entitled to wealth and property, and to an imagined happiness and comfort that stood in stark contrast to the desert existence he found himself trapped in. That this entitlement breeds anger, resentment, and hostility should be no surprise. Nephi, on the other hand, seems to benefit from his relative lack of family status and privilege—with no earthly inheritance to look forward to, it may have been easier to focus on broader covenantal promises, and to the heavenly rewards attached to them.
That this focus led Nephi to a position of responsibility and leadership over his brothers is notable. It emphasizes for us that our spiritual inheritance is a conditional one. There is no title that will hand us eternal wealth, honor, or happiness by the mere virtue of our birth; what we have instead is a set of covenantal promises that, if kept, will prepare us to receive and responsibly use the blessings that God has for us. Nephi’s obedience meant that his spiritual inheritance, and the eternal “enjoyment” that accompanied it, began to flow to him naturally, without compulsory means. That it has the potential to do the same for us should lead us to pay careful attention to our own covenants and responsibilities.