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1 Nephi 16
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1 Nephi 16
Laman and Lemuel Can’t Bear Nephi’s Words
1 Nephi 16:1–6
1 And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of speaking to my brethren, behold they said unto me: Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.
2 And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.
3 And now my brethren, if ye were righteous and were willing to hearken to the truth, and give heed unto it, that ye might walk uprightly before God, then ye would not murmur because of the truth, and say: Thou speakest hard things against us.
4 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did exhort my brethren, with all diligence, to keep the commandments of the Lord.
5 And it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord; insomuch that I had joy and great hopes of them, that they would walk in the paths of righteousness.
6 Now, all these things were said and done as my father dwelt in a tent in the valley which he called Lemuel.
As with the previous time that a testificatory amen caused Nephi to end a chapter, the story he was telling had not ended. He ended the chapter testifying that he had taught his brothers truth, but he didn’t finish telling what effect his teaching had. Of course, we expect that it was effective and these verses show that indeed it was.
Nephi had begun explaining the general symbols of Lehi’s vision, but the ending pointed directly at Laman and Lemuel. They got the message. Nephi exhorted them to keep the commandments, and they humbled themselves to repentance. Again. Of course, we who have read the whole story know that this will be temporary. However, that is also the lesson for us, as readers. We too may be humbled, but the task of the gospel is not just the ability to be humbled and repent, but to endure in that repentance until the end. That is the part that Laman and Lemuel will miss.
We know that this story has now ended because Nephi states that: “all these things were said and done as my father dwelt in a tent.” As we have seen before, Nephi uses the tent of his father as transition points in stories inside of chapters. He is now ready to begin a new story.
Lehi’s Family Leaves the Valley of Lemuel
1 Nephi 16:7–9
7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.
8 And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord which had been given unto him. And also, I, Nephi, had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly.
9 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.
If no other verses informed us that Nephi was interested in something other than history, these verses would make it abundantly clear. Nephi has just spent a long time discussing his father’s vision, his own vision, and his brothers’ reaction.
Now, the story moves forward with remarkable rapidity and frustratingly few details. The intermarriages for which Ishmael’s family had been invited on the journey took place. Nephi, the unromantic, simply notes that now the commandments of the Lord had been fulfilled.
With that “little” commandment out of the way, Yahweh commands Lehi to leave the next day. It is important to note that Yahweh comes to Lehi in the night. In Genesis 46:2 we learned that “God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night.” Similarly, in Job 4:13 we learn that revelation can come “in thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men.”
Lehi was truly a visionary man, truly a dreamer. Nephi has already told us: “And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision” (1 Nephi 8:2). The communication came at night because that was the way Lehi received visions from God.
1 Nephi 16:10–11
10 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.
11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.
Yahweh commanded that they depart, but did not leave them without guidance. Lehi finds “a round ball of curious workmanship.” We will not learn the name for this round ball until Alma 37:38, where we are told that it is “the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass.” It is only called by that name this one time in the text. Mostly it is described as “the director,” rather than use the foreign word. This may indicate that Liahona really wasn’t the name, but rather something that it was called in a different language. There is no accepted etymology for Liahona.
Another concept that is important to our understanding of the ball, or director, is that it was “of curious workmanship.” In Joseph’s day, “curious workmanship” referred to careful or intricate workmanship. Thus, it is intended to speak of the quality, not anything unusual about it.
The two spindles which show the way make for confusing directions. One might expect that if the two spindles pointed in different directions, that one would not know where to go. This, however, might be exactly what was intended. The director worked according to faith. Thus, Yahweh was behind the spindles. If the two aligned, it would not have been random chance, but a divine direction. Therefore, they would know which way to go. Without divine direction, the spindles would separate and the ability to guide them would be lost.
1 Nephi 16:12–17
12 And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman.
13 And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer.
14 And it came to pass that we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families; and after we had slain food for our families we did return again to our families in the wilderness, to the place of Shazer. And we did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea.
15 And it came to pass that we did travel for the space of many days, slaying food by the way, with our bows and our arrows and our stones and our slings.
16 And we did follow the directions of the ball, which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness.
17 And after we had traveled for the space of many days, we did pitch our tents for the space of a time, that we might again rest ourselves and obtain food for our families.
The function of these verses is to indicate that the ball, or director, accomplished its purpose. The family departs into the wilderness as directed. They were following Yahweh’s will, therefore the director showed them where to go.
This story introduces the traveling family, and the need to hunt for food. The fact that they take their bows and arrows to provide food becomes critical as the next part of the story develops and the bows are no longer available.
This part of the story is simply told because its basic function is to move to the next important story. Nephi’s stories have been increasingly showing his growing importance to the family, and the story of the broken bow is a continuation of that trajectory.
Nephi’s Bow Breaks
1 Nephi 16:18–22
18 And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food.
19 And it came to pass that we did return without food to our families, and being much fatigued, because of their journeying, they did suffer much for the want of food.
20 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; and also my father began to murmur against the Lord his God; yea, and they were all exceedingly sorrowful, even that they did murmur against the Lord.
21 Now it came to pass that I, Nephi, having been afflicted with my brethren because of the loss of my bow, and their bows having lost their springs, it began to be exceedingly difficult, yea, insomuch that we could obtain no food.
22 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did speak much unto my brethren, because they had hardened their hearts again, even unto complaining against the Lord their God.
Nephi had set up this story by indicating the importance of the bows to the provision of food for the family. Now he provides the crisis. His bow broke. From a literary point of view, it is interesting that he doesn’t mention what happened to his brothers’ bows until a few verses later. It is probable that as Nephi wrote he knew that this was the incident he wanted to tell, and it is a story about Nephi. Therefore, he begins that story.
However, Nephi realizes as he had written that a reader wouldn’t understand why the family had no food if only his own bow had broken. Why not simply use his brothers’ bows? He has to explain, therefore, that those bows had already become unusable because they had lost their springs, meaning that they no longer had the sufficient pull strength to launch an effective arrow.
What Nephi doesn’t explain is how his steel bow broke, or how the other bows lost their springs. First, the steel bow might have had metal as part of its construction, but bows at that time were not completely made of steel. There was wood involved. In the change of climate, the wood of all the bows dried out. The brothers’ apparently completely wooden bows lost their power, and Nephi’s bow probably warped, and broke as he pulled it. This would not be unusual given the timeframe and environment, that possibly had much less moisture in the air.
1 Nephi 16:23–26
23 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow; wherefore, I did arm myself with a bow and an arrow, with a sling and with stones. And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food?
24 And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord, for they had humbled themselves because of my words; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul.
25 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came unto my father; and he was truly chastened because of his murmuring against the Lord, insomuch that he was brought down into the depths of sorrow.
26 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.
Even though this is increasingly a story about Nephi, while they are in the Old World it is Lehi who is the leader of the family. What Nephi shows is that the situation is sufficiently dire that even his father was wavering in faith. This contrasts with the Lehi who comforted Sariah when her sons took too long to return. At the beginning of the journey, Lehi is a strong leader. Nephi writes him as less of a leader, and himself as ascending to that position.
Thus, Nephi still comes to his father, and his father repents and inquires of the Lord. Apparently, the director had ceased to work but now it does. Nephi is directed to where he will find food.
Nephi told us that his bow was broken. Here, he tells of making a new bow and a new arrow, as well as taking a sling with stones. He doesn’t tell us why his brothers didn’t make new bows. That, however, isn’t necessarily the most curious part of the story. Why did Nephi have to make new arrows? Those had not broken when the bow did.
The answer is in the pull strength of a bow. Arrows must be appropriate to the bow used to shoot them. The steel bow would have had a stronger pull and would have required stronger arrows to resist wobbling from the power of the string being released. The same arrows that would work for the stronger bow would have been too heavy for the new wooden bow. One scholar who understood archery indicated that using the old arrows would have been like trying to shoot telephone poles.
1 Nephi 16:27-29
27 And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were written upon the ball, he did fear and tremble exceedingly, and also my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and our wives.
28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.
29 And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.
The result of asking Yahweh for assistance was answered through the director. New words were written upon the ball. Nephi doesn’t tell us where they were written, or what they said. Nephi specifically notes that that the pointers, or the spindles, worked according to faith. This is the first time he provides us with that understanding, although it is probable that the family understood that prior to his time.
Nephi’s point is that Lehi takes his position as mouthpiece for Yahweh, and receives divine guidance through the medium of the divinely-provided ball, or director.
After Nephi mentions that there was new writing, he briefly leaves his temporal narrative and adds information that came from later experience. Even though he has been telling the story in basically chronological sequence, from time to time he will step out of that strict chronology. He does that here by noting that what was written changed from time to time. That statement required experience he had not yet had at this point in the story.
Nephi ends that very short aside with a moralization, “and thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” As miraculous as it sounds to us, Nephi considered the workings of the director to be a small thing.
1 Nephi 16:30–32
30 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball.
31 And it came to pass that I did slay wild beasts, insomuch that I did obtain food for our families.
32 And it came to pass that I did return to our tents, bearing the beasts which I had slain; and now when they beheld that I had obtained food, how great was their joy! And it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord, and did give thanks unto him.
Of course, it was “I, Nephi,” who followed the directions on the ball and went for food. Of course, following the director’s instructions, Nephi was successful. The story began with extreme danger to the family, and ends with a small miracle by which the family could be fed.
This was a single occasion, and certainly the celebration when receiving the food was spontaneous and seen as salvation. However, the journey is not over, and the next day they will need food again. Perhaps the brothers did make bows so that there were more men hunting to provide for the family. We don’t know and that isn’t the point of the story. The story is here to continue to show Nephi growing into his divinely appointed role.
This story ends with Nephi returning to “our tents,” not specifically the tent of his father. This is a variation on the connector he has used for his divisions between stories, but it functions in the same way. The incident of the broken bow is over. It is time to move to the next story.
1 Nephi 16:33–34
33 And it came to pass that we did again take our journey, traveling nearly the same course as in the beginning; and after we had traveled for the space of many days we did pitch our tents again, that we might tarry for the space of a time.
34 And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.
Ishmael dies and is buried in a place called Nahom. Where Lehi had named other locations, this one apparently already had a name. Most remarkably, recent work has demonstrated that there were a people who lived in this region; the name for that people and place was NHM. Semitic languages were written with consonants and the vowels were left out, so this is as close as is possible to having a precise Book of Mormon name appear in modern archaeology.
The name was found on two altars donated by a NHM-ite. They date from around the time of Lehi. Thus, there is a location with the right name during the right time period. In the first verse of the next chapter we will learn that the family turned nearly eastward at this point. It happens that this is a location where the Frankincense trail splits into two branches. One of the two, the lesser traveled, turns nearly eastward right at this location.
The positives of the association are that we find a name in the right location, at the right time, and the right position to provide the eastward turn. That is a significant set of correspondences.
Less certain is the name itself. Nibley suggested that it could be a pun on the mourning that the daughters do for their father. That would be appropriate, but would not have been the local meaning of the word. Although the vowels may be disputed, and meanings may or may not be significant for the Book of Mormon, the fact that it was a place name makes it more important than the meaning of the word.
1 Nephi 16:35–36
35 And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and 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.
36 And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me; and they were desirous to return again to Jerusalem.
Nephi describes the daughters of Ishmael, that they “did mourn exceedingly.” He provides what must have been an accurate picture of their grief. Whatever they might have felt about leaving Jerusalem, they had done so because their father had agreed to leave and join with Lehi. Without their father, they must have felt that the purpose had been lost. It is not surprising that this blow opened other frustrations. They might be able to miraculously obtain food when they had thought they would have none, but there was no way that they would regain their father. On top of that, he was to be buried in a foreign land that they must have known they would not see again.
It is no surprise that they murmured. What is interesting is how Nephi continuously tells the story to increase his role in the family. They murmur against Lehi, but also against Nephi. Nephi is raised to a parallel with Lehi as a figurehead for the family’s journey out of Jerusalem and towards a new land.
1 Nephi 16:37–39
37 And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren.
38 Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and 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. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger.
39 And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish.
Of course, it is not only the daughters of Ishmael who murmur. Laman, Lemuel and Ishmael’s sons are worse than the daughters. They not only mourn and murmur, they turn to planning murder.
Nephi has raised himself to Lehi’s level in the family. Both of them are responsible, and therefore, as Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael plot murder, it is against both Lehi and Nephi. Nephi makes sure that his readers understand that the murderous men undertake their plans because they are seeing how Nephi is becoming the ruler and teacher over them. This is, of course, the point of the stories that Nephi selected to tell.
Nephi does not say how the word of the Lord was with them. Laman and Lemuel had already been chastised by an angel, and this might have been the audible voice of the Lord. It is also possible that the word of God came through Lehi (or perhaps Nephi, though that might have made the situation worse). However it came, it was sufficiently recognized that they turned away their anger and things returned to a more appropriate relationship in the family.
Although our Chapter 16 ends here, Nephi’s original chapter did not. The next verse followed directly, without a chapter break.
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