1 Nephi 17 tweet: Arrival at Bountiful. N told 2 build a ship. L&L laugh. N reminds L&L about Israel and rebukes them. N shocks L&L and they cannot touch him.
I began to look at chapter 17 in last week’s post. Having completed chapter 17 this week, I think that this chapter is actually quite pivotal and that there is a lot more going on in what Nephi wrote than I initially thought. If we read it closely, we’ll see that there are several things that Nephi is deliberately trying to do with the text of the dialogue between him and his brothers. I’ll try and highlight some of these ideas in this post.
To start with, Noel Reynolds has written about what he sees as a deliberate structure to all of Nephi’s writings. He suggests that the building of the ship in the second half of 1 Nephi is written as a parallel to the story of obtaining the brass plates – the central story in the first half of 1 Nephi. He says “each of these stories is also structured as a long and elaborate chiasm. The brass plates story focuses on the most egregious example of Laman and Lemuel’s murmuring—that being immediately after they were rebuked and taught by an angel. The ship-building story focuses on Nephi’s only detailed response to that murmuring”.1 He suggests the following chiastic structure to the exchange between Nephi and his brothers:
A – Nephi is summoned to the mountain, where he speaks to the Lord (17:7)
B – Nephi is told to construct a ship after the manner the Lord will show him (17:8)
C – The Lord shows Nephi where to find ore to make tools (17:10)
D – The Lord will miraculously bless them in the wilderness so they will know it was he who delivered them. Nephi keeps the commandments and exhorts his brethren to faithfulness (17:12–15)
E – Nephi’s brothers murmur against him and withhold their labour from him (17:17–18)
F – Nephi is exceedingly sorrowful (17:19)
G – Nephi’s brothers present the details of their case against him and their father (17:19–21)
H – Nephi’s brothers defend the Jews of Jerusalem for their righteousness (17:22)
I – Although the Lord by miracles led “our fathers,” the Israelites, out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the promised land, they hardened their hearts and reviled against both Moses and God (17:23–30)
J – God blesses the righteous and destroys the wicked. He “esteemeth all flesh in one.” Whoever is righteous is favoured of the Lord (17:31–5)
J’ – The Lord blesses the righteous and destroys the wicked. He loves whoever will have him to be their God (17:36–40)
I’ – Even though the Lord loved “our fathers,” covenanted with them, led them out of Egypt, and straitened them by miraculous means in the wilderness, still they hardened their hearts and reviled against both Moses and God (17:40–2)
H’ – Nephi prophesies the destruction of the Jews of Jerusalem for their wickedness (17:43)
G’ – Nephi presents the case against his brothers (17:44–6)
F’ – Nephi’s soul is rent with anguish (17:47)
E’ – Nephi’s brothers are angry with him, but he commands them not to withhold their labour from him (17:48–9)
D’ – The Lord miraculously shocks Nephi’s brethren so they will know the Lord is their God. Nephi tells them to obey specific commandments (17:53–5)
C’ – The Lord shows Nephi how to work timbers for the ship (18:1)
B’ – Nephi builds the ship after the manner the Lord has shown him (18:2)
A’ – Nephi often goes to the mount to pray to the Lord (18:3)
Connected to the idea that the ship-building story parallels the story about obtaining the brass plates, we also see that in this story Nephi returns to the theme of the Lord providing away for His children to accomplish whatsoever he commands. In the last post I highlighted the ‘thus we see’ editorial insight in verse 3. But notice also Nephi’s subtle use of the word accomplish. He only uses that word a few times in his writings – famously in 1 Ne 3:7, but also here in verse 3 to emphasise the same point. Therefore, it seems to me he quite deliberately puts the phrase ‘thou canst not accomplish’ (v.19) into the speech of his brothers in order to contrast their faithlessness with his own faith.
Another theme that I think Nephi is trying to stress in this chapter is the limitations of the Law of Moses. In verse 22 we see that Laman and Lemuel put great stock in the fact that the Jews in Jerusalem kept the Law of Moses. Grant Hardy makes the following point:
Whatever else they may have been, Laman and Lemuel appear to have been orthodox, observant Jews. Nephi – who had a vested interest in revealing their moral shortcomings – never accuses them of idolatry, false swearing, Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, adultery, or ritual uncleanness.2
For Laman and Lemuel, obedience to the Law was the end itself. But for Nephi, obedience was the means to a greater end – to experience direct communion with God. So while Laman and Lemuel may have observed the Law of Moses, they missed the end for which the Law was given – to point them to Christ and to prepare them to receive their own revelation. Hence their belief that the Lord would not speak to them directly (see 1 Ne 15:8–9) and their refusal to believe that He was instructing Nephi (see 1 Ne 17:18). They, like their fathers before them were unprepared to receive the knowledge of God, settling for life in the shadows instead of receiving the brightness of His glory:
And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God …. For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live. Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; but they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory. Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also. (D&C 84:19–25)
President Ucthdorf recently warned that “sometimes I think we misunderstand obedience. We may see obedience as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.”3
For Nephi, the end itself was personal revelation. Though he had seen visions, I actually think what he valued most was the still small voice. In verse 45 he seems to suggest that it is of no real virtue to see an angel, or to experience God as a voice of thunder. Instead, the spiritually sensitive feel the still small voice, a stillness that Laman and Lemuel were past feeling. Could it be that in part it was the still small voice that Nephi had in mind when he observed that it is by small means the Lord can bring about great things? (1 Ne 16:29)
It is somewhat ironic then that Nephi closes the chapter by counselling his brothers to observe the Law:
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. (v55)
Note, however, that he adapts the Law slightly by referring to the land which the Lord shall give thee (i.e. future tense).
The one other theme I wanted to address was regarding what Laman and Lemuel knew. But I’ve run out of space. So I’ll just point out how what they believe/know changes over the course of the chapter. As mentioned already, in verse 18 Nephi refers to what Laman and Lemuel did not believe and also what they would not believe. In verse 19 and 22 Laman and Lemuel themselves talk about what they know – that Nephi couldn’t build a ship, that he was lacking in judgement, and that the Jews are a righteous people. Throughout his response, Nephi refers to many things about the children of Israel that Laman and Lemuel know – note how many times he says “ye (also) know”. Then in verse 53 the Lord Himself tells what He will do so that Laman and Lemuel might know that He is the Lord their God. And finally the chapter concludes with Laman and Lemuel admitting at last that they now know the Lord is with Nephi. I think there are some potentially interesting lessons to draw out of Laman and Lemuel’s changing knowledge but I’ve run out of space. So please share any thoughts you may have in the comments section.
Next week’s reading: 1 Nephi 18
- Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, p. 39