Feast upon the Word Blog

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Nephi and His Brothers

Posted by NathanG on January 22, 2008

I had this discussion over a campfire with BrianJ last fall and he has been threatening me to post it ever since. Since we’re in the beginning of the Book of Mormon it seems to be an appropriate time.

Last summer I started reading the Book of Mormon again and took a different approach to 1 Nephi. I tried to read the story from the perspective of Laman and Lemuel. As I was getting towards the end of 1 Nephi I was surprised to find that I was tired of Nephi’s rebukes. It seems like every story Nephi relates contains a rebuke. Each time Nephi rebuked his brothers it seemed excessively hard. In 1 Nephi 15 when Nephi returns from his marvelous expanded lesson on the tree of life his brothers are disputing about what Lehi had taught about the olive tree. He asks if they have prayed and when they say no, he says “How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts?” Then he explains, but it seems to be an impatient explanation. Perhaps he could have said, “Great, I’m glad you’re interested in understanding; I just spent the last however many hours praying and learning for myself and here is some of what I have learned.”

With these feelings toward Nephi, I arrived at one of my favorite passages, 2 Nephi 4. I recall numerous lessons where Nephi’s cry of being a wretched man are brushed aside because we don’t dare imagine that Nephi was capable of doing anything wrong. Nephi is the model of faithfulness, so whatever wretchedness he felt was probably because of some minor fault we are not spiritually prepared to even notice in ourselves. However, he explains at least part of his problem in verse 27. He is angry because of his enemies. His enemies are his brothers.

Why does Nephi have this anger? Why does he describe it at this point? 2 Nephi 5 describes the splitting of the family and the new distinction of Nephites and Lamanites. Two references in time are given at the end of chapter 5: 30 years after Lehi left Jerusalem and the family is divided, and 40 years after Lehi left and the small plates had been written (at least started).

So, two questions.
1. Why is Nephi angry with his brothers?

2. What time does his psalm represent? Is it the feelings he had specifically after his father had died, and later wrote about? Or are these feelings he generated as he was writing the small plates (~10 years after the split) and already knowing the trouble that his brothers had caused (i.e. already we have had wars and contentions). Or maybe a combination of both?

A couple ideas to get started.

Is Nephi only a little annoyed with his brothers, and we are correct in supposing Nephi was not capable of any sins that I might commit?
Is Nephi angry with them because they are angry with him?
Is Nephi angry because his brothers ruined a happily-ever-after ending in the promised land?
Is Nephi angry because after relating the story, he thinks that possibly part of his brothers’ stubbornness is a result of his excessive sharpness and he sees his own immaturity in dealing with them?
Is Nephi angry because in spite his fantastic, Spirit led rebukes, they still turned out wicked and they are now disrupting his desire for peace?
Is Nephi’s anger an aspect of the deep grief that he feels over his brothers’ wickedness?

By the way, I still like Nephi. I think he is a good example. However, I’m willing to allow him to have made mistakes along the way and that the story of 1 Nephi describes some spiritual maturing for Nephi and how he learns to do things the Lord’s way (his deliverance from his brothers after they picked up their wives). He may even relate some of Lehi’s counsel and rebukes to his sons as a contrast to Nephi’s counsel and rebukes to his brothers.

23 Responses to “Nephi and His Brothers”

  1. I would answer you questions with a no followed by yes to all the rest.

    I think a large reason Nephi includes so much rebuking and negative stuff about Laman and Lemuel is to justify why they are the bad guys and the Nephites are the good guys.

    Don’t get me wrong Laman and Lemuel are not good guys but Nephi is no angel either. The entire conflict between Nephites and Lamanites begins here and leads to so much death and despair. What would their world be like if Nephi and his brothers could have resolved their differences rather than turn to swords.

    I contrast their story with Esau and Jacob who both were much more mature and found away to heal their division rather than scapegoat one another and create cultures founded on traditions of scapegoating one another.

  2. I have thought of this as well. It seems like L&L shortcomings are brought out in the open very often, by both Lehi and Nephi. And while they may have brought this on themselves, Lehi and Nephi are not necessarily great examples of creating positive human relations. Lehi names a valley and a river after L&L, expressing that he wishes that they were faithful and righteous, but saying that they are not. And the names and reasons for them are a constant reminder of this rebuke.

    It seems there is an all or nothing standard that Nephi particularly sets for his older brothers.

  3. JrL said

    Unfortunately (I suppose), I don’t think we really have enough of the story to reach these kind of conclusions. Even the first few chapters of 1 Nephi cover a period of years, giving us just a handful of conversations over that period. We really have very little idea of what the day-to-day relationships among the brothers was. For all we know, a book written from a different point of view could, accurately, have given as many – or more – instances where Laman or Lemuel gets on Nephi’s case, perhaps even legitimately.

  4. brianj said

    Nathan, I think two passages are very interesting when read in light of your question.

    1 Nephi 7:8-15 says that Nephi was grieved “for the hardness of [Laman and Lemuel’s] hearts.” But look at how Nephi acts. Instead of expressing his grief (e.g., “I’m sad because you are doing things that will not make you happy.”), he calls them stubborn and stupid (hard in heart and blind in mind). Is it any wonder that they got so angry with him?

    They tie him up, he breaks free, and speaks to them again (we don’t know what he says this time). L&L are angry again and want to kill Nephi. Remember, of course, that their rebellion at the beginning of the chapter was merely that they wanted to go back to Jerusalem—now they want to kill their brother!

    At any rate, I find verses 19-20 incredibly amazing (and I really wish Nephi hadn’t glossed over the details!):

    …one of the daughters of Ishmael, yea, and also her mother, and one of the sons of Ishmael, did plead with my brethren, insomuch that they did soften their hearts; and they did cease striving to take away my life. And it came to pass that they were sorrowful…insomuch that they did bow down before me, and did plead with me that I would forgive them….

    What did Ishmael’s family say that Nephi didn’t?! And should Nephi have said that to begin with?

  5. brianj said

    Okay, so the second passage I find so interesting is Chapter 15. Nephi’s brothers get such a bad rap, but look at their questions in Chapter 15—how many of wish our children or our students would ask such insightful questions? My favorite is verse 31:

    Doth this thing mean the torment of the body in the days of probation, or doth it mean the final state of the soul after the death of the temporal body, or doth it speak of the things which are temporal?

    Stop and think about how profound that question really is.

  6. brianj said

    joshua: Thanks for the comparison to Esau and Jacob. If I ever get the guts to bring up this kind of discussion in class, I will be certain to use Esau/Jacob as the counterexample.

    Eric: I’m not sure that naming the landmarks after L&L should be taken as a backhanded gesture. We don’t get to read Lehi’s reasoning here, only Nephi’s explanation of why his father did it. Did Nephi actually know why Lehi named the landmarks after L&L? Maybe Lehi told him or wrote it in his records. Dunno. Anyway, I think it can be seen as a father really reaching out to two sons he is concerned about.

  7. brianj said

    Nathan: “Why is Nephi angry with his brothers?”

    I’ll take a stab at that. More than anything else, it seems most likely to me that Nephi is mad because he knows that his brothers’ seed will live on and eventually thrive, whereas his own seed will eventually be destroyed entirely. Think of the Parable of the Two Sons (aka, Prodigal Son) and how similar sentiments arise. From Nephi’s perspective, Nephi gets a pretty raw deal despite all of his righteousness (sort of the opposite of Abraham’s covenant).

  8. robf said

    And don’t forget that Laman and Lemuel saw Nephi sneak off and kill someone in the dark of night because The Spirit told him to. How comfortably did they sleep at night in their tents after that?

  9. BrianJ said

    robf: perhaps I should edit my “I’ll take a stab at that” sentence in #7. {smile}

  10. kimmatheson said

    brianj #7: I’m VERY much intrigued by this idea, and want to think about it much more. But in light of the resurrection, it seems silly to think that Nephi is focused on a temporal competition about whose line will last longer. In the end, everyone is resurrected and brought to stand before the judgment bar of God.

    I tend to follow the school of thought that Nephi is angry with his brothers because he sees them as the source of the problems in their dysfunctional family (and it is HIGHLY dysfunctional–sons trying to kill fathers? Definitely physical abused when L&L beat Nephi and Sam with a rod, etc…) That type of dysfunction surely angers Nephi; perhaps there’s a risidual resentment at the attention the elder brothers get because of their wickedness? In that light, we can almost read 1 Nephi 3:7 as a brash young teenager making a bold speech to call attention to his faith and please his father…

    But I certainly love this thread! Keep the thoughts coming!

  11. NathanG said

    Jrl #3:
    Your point is a good one. We don’t know what their day to day relationship was like. It was because all I heard (read) from Nephi to Laman and Lemuel was a rebuke that made me wonder why he was angry to begin with. I wondered if Laman and Lemuel were really as bad as we judge them (they do have murderous intentions, which is a definite strike against them), or if they just wanted to be less active Jews and left alone and their life was taken over for a cause they didn’t care about. I also wondered if they were only rebuked those times that are recorded (which only adds up to a few times over a course of around eight years of wilderness and ocean time).

  12. NathanG said

    Eric #2

    I was talking with another friend about the naming of valley and river after Laman and Lemuel. At the top of a hymn there is a single word to describe how the song should be sung or played (majestically, reverently, etc.) My friend quoted Lehi with a tender voice and said he thought Lehi was trying to teach in a positive way. I have always heard it in my mind as a bold, powerful, condemnation, but after this discussion with my friend, I’m not sure I had it right. Nephi describes Lehi as having all the tender feelings of a parent. I wonder again if Lehi’s rebukes are a contrast to Nephi’s rebukes. Did Lehi understand sharp rebukes followed by an increase of love?

  13. NathanG said

    The story after they picked up Ishmael’s family is interesting. 1 Nephi 7:17 reads:

    But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.

    He prays for deliverance asking for a fascinating show of God’s power to deliver him. I’ve heard a lot of people comment that instead of a superhero bursting of his bands, they just fall off. So much for the fantastic show, but that didn’t even solve his problem (he wasn’t delivered yet). Laman and Lemuel get angrier (maybe he was getting a little overbearing in his further words. In the end, his deliverance and intervention from God came in the way that God uses so often, somebody else who is willing to follow the Spirit.

    Maybe Nephi only frankly forgave them because he was a little disappointed in the lesson he had just learned. God doesn’t usually work through a fantastic show.

  14. kim, #10

    im not sure why you think its silly that Nephi may have been focused on temporal competition with his brothers in light of the resurrection. When I look around and at my own self there is no oubt temporal concerns tend to hold more sway, at least much more than they should for most of us.

  15. brianj said

    Nathan: I totally missed the point about deliverance. That is truly beautiful! Next time I have to speak on “Answers to Prayers” that’s going in.

    Kim, #10; joshua, #14: I think it’s a good question: what perspective does the resurrection give? I can’t help but think about it from my own perspective—and I would be deeply troubled if I were in Nephi’s shoes. Posterity, “family can be together forever”, etc. are all so much more powerful if you believe in resurrection.

  16. kimmatheson said

    Let me reemphasize that my thoughts on the resurrection were an initial reaction to brianj’s idea about why Nephi was so angry with his brethren. It really is a fascinating idea, and more and more I’m led to think that it may have more weight than I initially thought.

    But when I think about my own brother, I don’t care one bit about how many kids he’s going to have compared to me, or how many generations his family line will continue. Obviously, that’s a bad analogy, because our culture is NOTHING like theirs, where posterity was everything.

    I have trouble with the idea of a 15-year-old boy being angry with is brothers because thousands upon thousands of years later, Laman and Lemuel would still have descendants alive and he wouldn’t.

  17. brianj said

    kim, 1 Nephi 15:5 “And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall.” Clearly Nephi is bothered because his seed will be destroyed. As you say, however, it is not clear whether Nephi cares at all about the success or failure of his brothers’ seed. Let’s say, for argument, that in Nephi’s vision he saw that the Nephites would destroy the Lamanites and then in turn be destroyed later on by the Gentiles—would that have made Nephi any less upset? I don’t think so. And I think that this is the distinction you make: Nephi is clearly depressed, but not necessarily jealous.

    P.S. I have no idea whether Nephi was 15 or 35 or whatever.

  18. kimmatheson said

    Thanks for faithfully referring to the text, brianj! Nothing wins me over to an argument quite like textual evidence! :D

  19. NathanG said

    My last line of thought for this topic.

    For most of my life I have been reluctant to take an approach of learning about people’s sins. When books like “Rough Stone Rolling” come out that discuss the humanness (is that a word?) of the prophets, I have typically cringed. I have been willing to exalt the prophets (probably against their wishes, if they were to make it known). I have not cared about their imperfections.

    I read 1 Nephi from Laman and Lemuel’s perspective out of concern of my own sins, repentance, and subsequent re-sins. I wanted to understand what the “real sinners” were like and see what I could learn. I couldn’t bear comparing myself again to the “perfect” examples of faith and obedience. As I reread Nephi’s lament over his sins, I realized (again) that he isn’t perfect, but that he made a journey through his life. His teachings are powerful, particularly towards the end of 2 Nephi. I think overall his life is a great example of faithfulness (I’m not sure if he ever dropped his anger). I now feel that I can join him on the journey and look to him as an example, not in the sense of “Nephi was right in every decision, do what he did,” (we only have one example of that) but as a “Nephi stayed faithful to the Lord and the Lord worked out his rough spots along the way.”

    I think I am more willing to consider things like “Rough Stone Rolling” because my framework for reading such books is better. I would not be worried about my testimony being damaged, but it would be to join in the journey of being faithful to the Lord.

  20. JWL said

    I am pleased that several commentators have noted that Nephi was just a young teenager at the beginning of the BoM. However if you do some basic arithmetic and assume that (1) there was no special miracle involved in Sariah bearing Jacob and Joseph in the wilderness, putting her in her early 40s at the oldest at that time, and (2) even assume that she was as young as 14 when she first bore Laman, then the oldest Laman could have been in the beginning of the BoM is his late teens, maybe early 20s. The whole Laman – Nephi conflict, at least in the beginning, takes on a little different light when you picture it occurring between 14 year old and 19 year old brothers rather than the muscular adult men of the Arnold Friberg pictures. Yes Nephi was a righteous man, but recognizing that we also have a younger teenage brother siding with his father against two older teenage brothers shows a family dynamic which can effect one’s views well into adulthood. We all know that youthful family conflicts can stay with us our entire lives, and I would suggest that as a way of understanding Nephi’s lingering anger.

  21. NathanG said

    The conflict may have begun as teenagers and young adults. We still have to consider that the family didn’t split until 30 years after Jerusalem (which comes right after Nephi’s psalm in the narrative) and Nephi didn’t start writing the small plates until around 40 years after Jerusalem (and then add however much time it took to write 1 Nephi and keep up on the large plates). Why didn’t they ever grow up? Is Nephi’s anger toward his brothers so deep and encompassing that it is causing him such remorse, even at least 30 years later? What a tragedy to let teenage conflicts never go away.

  22. brianj said

    JWL: I appreciate the effort to deduce ages, and the assumptions seem reasonable. I don’t agree, however, that anything like “teenager” existed even 100 years ago, let alone 2500.

  23. JWL said

    Brianj — I agree that what we usually mean by “teenager” is a modern social construct. However, I think using the term is useful for two reasons: (1) if you are the youth Sunday School teacher it can help the students relate to the people they are studying in ancient scriptures (intending in that context a broader utility than the specific topic of this thread) and (2) although people of that age in earlier societies assumed adult responsibilities, I know of no evidence that they were thereby more emotionally mature than modern youth of those ages. And history certainly teaches us that in all ages people can hold youthful grudges for a lifetime.

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