Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 5

1 Nephi 17: A Key to Nephi's Narrative

Nephi's striking account of his family's journey into the wilderness provides the Book of Mormon with an epic beginning. We are tossed right into the action. Within a few pages, Lehi has preached repentance, his life has been threatened, and he and his family are commanded to leave their home and flee into the wilderness. Subsequent chapters recount in detail the movement of Lehi's family with a particular emphasis on the contrasting attitudes of Nephi and his older brothers Laman and Lemuel.
The story of Lehi's family in 1 Nephi parallels closely the account of the children of Israel in Exodus. In fact, evidence abounds in the narrative suggesting that Nephi himself believed he was, in a sense, re-enacting a sacred pattern—that of the exodus.
Nephi's awareness of the similarities between the two events leads him to comment frequently on Exodus themes. The most complete and powerful of these comments is his rebuke of his brothers in 1 Nephi 17. In a way, this rebuke, or exodus sermon, is the key to understanding 1 Nephi. It shines a light on several important threads that weave through the book and lends a unity to the events of the story.
Scholars have written at length about the points of comparison between Lehi's family's journey and that of the children of Israel.1 Let's focus specifically on two groups of similarities: 1) the murmurings of Laman and Lemuel/the children of Israel, and 2) the assistance the Lord gives the two traveling parties.
"They Did Murmur"
The murmuring of Laman and Lemuel (and the sons of Ishmael) in 1 Nephi is remarkably similar in content and effect to the murmuring of the children of Israel in the wilderness. Note the following parallels:
Exodus1 Nephi
"And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?" (Ex. 15:24, see also Ex. 16:7-11) "The people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?" (Ex. 17:3) "Our families... being much fatigued, because of their journeying, they did suffer much for the want of food. And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael did begin to murmur exceedingly, because of their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness." (1 Ne. 16:19-20) "They did murmur against my father. . . saying: . . . We have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger." (1 Ne. 16:35-36)
"And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the LORD brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey?" (Num. 14:2-3) "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." (1 Ne. 17:20)
"And the people murmured against Moses. . . And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me." (Ex. 17:4)"And it came to pass that they did lay their hands upon me, for behold, they were exceedingly wroth, and they did bind me with cords, for they sought to take away my life, that they might leave me in the wilderness to be devoured by wild beasts." (1 Ne. 7:16)
"Were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt." (Num. 14:2-4)"And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me; and they were desirous to return again to Jerusalem." (1 Ne. 16:36)
"For that the Lord heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against him: and what are we? your murmurings are not against us, but against the LORD." (Ex. 16:7-8)"And now, behold thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them; but behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord." (1 Ne. 3:5)
And Moses. . . said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee. (Ex. 4:1) "And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? (Ex. 2:14.) "After he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure." (1 Ne. 16:38) "They did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem." (1 Ne. 2:11)
"The Tender Mercies of the Lord"
Laman and Lemuel and the children of Israel murmured against their respective leaders in spite of the generous help the Lord gave each party in the wilderness.
In the first place, the Lord gave each party miraculous guidance. In the case of the children of Israel, he provided a pillar of fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day (Ex. 13:21). Lehi was given the Liahona (1 Ne. 16:10). When either group failed to live righteously, this guidance was withdrawn (1 Ne. 18:12).
He also physically nourished them in miraculous ways. The children of Israel were fed with quail, manna, and water from the rock at Horeb (Ex. 16:14, Ex. 17:6). Lehi's family was assisted several times: raw meats were made sweet to them, Nephi was directed in hunting for food, and so forth (1 Ne. 16:30-31, 17:12).
"Slow to Remember"
It appears that Laman and Lemuel, as familiar as they were with the story of the Exodus, were blinded to the obvious similarities between their attitudes and experiences and those of the children of Israel. Nephi attempts to open their eyes.
  1. Laman and Lemuel had questioned Lehi's fitness and Nephi's motives in leading them into the wilderness. Nephi counters their complaints by reminding them that both Lehi and Moses were called of God (1 Ne. 17:23-24, 44).
  2. Laman and Lemuel believed they had been in no real danger while they remained in Jerusalem. Things weren't so bad. Nephi assures them than it was better for the children of Israel to be delivered from bondage (vv. 25, 43).
  3. Laman and Lemuel had complained about the conditions of their journey. Nephi reminds them that the Lord had provided for Israel's life-sustaining needs: "And ye also know that they were fed with manna in the wilderness. 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" (v. 28-29)
  4. Laman and Lemuel criticized Lehi's guidance of their family in the wilderness. Nephi responds by reminding them that it was only Moses but the Lord himself who guided Israel in their journey (v. 30)
Nephi chides them for their continued lack of faith, citing again the children of Israel in the wilderness: "And notwithstanding they being led, the Lord their God, their Redeemer. . . 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" (v. 30).
"Liken the Scriptures"
Nephi's rebuke is the centerpiece of the book of First Nephi. It illustrates the spiritual awareness Nephi gained through study of the plates and contrasts it with his brothers' negligent attitude toward the scriptures. Nephi underscores this idea: "I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (1 Ne. 19:23). This same message is also reflected in the divergent attitudes of Nephi and his brothers on the issue of returning to get the scriptures from Laban in chapters 3 and 4.
Do we liken the scriptures to us? Or do we criticize Laman and Lemuel without learning from their experience and example? If so, we may be in danger of falling into the same trap they did.
1. George S. Tate, "The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon," in Neal E. Lambert, ed., Literature of Belief, BYU-RSC Monograph Series, vol. 5 (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1981), 245- 62.
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