We started by revisiting the story of Abraham being tempted to kill Isaac. (See last week's lesson for a discussion of the word "tempt" in the scriptural account.) I asked everyone to pinpoint the "revelation" in this story - to tell me what the revelation was. One of the students immediately answered: "Obedience brings blessings." I pointed out that the story can lead to a lesson about obedience, but obedience wasn't the revelation - since obedience had been taught for a long time prior to that moment. At that point, they were stumped, so I altered the question a bit to be: "What was revealed to Abraham that had been hidden / unknown previously?" After some discussion, they understood that the revelation was that human / child sacrifice was to be discarded as a form of worship - and that animal sacrifice was to take its place.
So, in a very real way, the revelation in the story was a clear statement of what would be worded in Moses' time as:
"Thou shalt not murder (your children)" - with an additional understanding of the Atonement that Abraham hadn't possessed previously.
We then turned to the account of Nephi and Laban, and I asked again what the revelation was in this story. Since nobody could answer that immediately, we read the main verses in 1 Nephi 4 that talk about it. We talked about what it means to be "constrained" ("confined; restrained; compelled; etc."). We talked about Nephi's reaction to the idea that he needed to kill Laban ("No way! I've never killed anyone and can't do it.") - and then we talked about the difference between that reaction and Abraham's reaction first thing the next morning. ("Okay, let's get going so I can do this.")
We discussed the concept that Abraham had to be "constrained" NOT to kill Isaac (since he was inclined naturally by his upbringing to kill his son), while Nephi had to be constrained TO kill Laban (since he lived with a long-time practice of animal sacrifice, not human sacrifice) - and how the Isaac story might have been different if Abraham had reacted like Nephi did. (Since the change in sacrificial ordinance was the intended outcome, God might have gone ahead and revealed that to Abraham right away, without all the drama.)
We read the verses that explain Nephi's justifications of his actions, ending with the "revelation" (the new understanding) in verse 13:
It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
I pointed out that, up until the time when Nephi was faced with doing something he would not have done naturally, he simply was "honoring his father" and "being a good son". His dad told him they needed to get the plates, so he tried to do that. They asked for the plates, and they tried to buy the plates. Finally, he went into the city on his own and discovered Laban passed out drunk. It only was when he was faced with killing Laban (something that went beyond being a good son) that he was able to see WHY he had to get the plates - beyond the generic, "God commanded it." The revelation wasn't the command to get the plates; rather, it was gaining an understanding of the reason for the command.
In Abraham's situation, likewise, the revelation came ONLY when he was ready to do something that he didn't understand naturally - NOT killing his son. He had "gone through the motions" of blind obedience and, unlike Nephi, had to be stopped from killing because he followed his natural instincts rather than thinking and questioning first.
(Note: I think there is a very reasonable justification for Nephi killing Laban, especially for that time period and the overall story. I wrote that post this past Wednesday.)
Finally, to follow the concept of really studying scriptures to understand the people, their stories and the actions of prophets (not just what they taught), I briefly summarized (since we were almost out of time) the story of King Mosiah changing the government structure at the end of his life.
1) Mosiah had taken leadership of a people more numerous than the Nephites. That simple fact opens all kinds of issues relative to his government-altering actions before he died.
2) If one of his sons wasn't going to take his place, there was a good chance that one of the people of Mulek who already was influential and popular would do so - especially if the kingship was determined by popular vote. Again, it is stated clearly in the text that the people of Mulek greatly outnumbered the descendants of Nephi in that area. In fact, the moment Mosiah's sons rejected the throne (and Alma the Younger also did), those other influential Mulekite contenders might have started agitating for the position very quickly.
3) Nehor is described as being another King Noah, in philosophy and intent. Amalici was one of his disciples. They are said to have gained a following FAR too quickly to have started a grass-roots campaign from scratch at the end of Mosiah's life.
4) If Mosiah knew either of them was likely to become the king, it would have provided the best possible motivation to change the system.
5) If you think about it, the best possible reason for Nehor, and then Amlici, to be extremely upset and demand what they had assumed they would attain would have been what they would have seen as an attempt to perpetuate the minority rule of the Nephites over them. Consider the situation in some Islamic countries even today; there are striking parallels.
6) It's easy to condemn Nehor and Amlici, given the descriptions we have of them, and I'm not trying to endorse them in any way - but it's harder to realize that they might have had a very compelling legal argument and an incredibly strong emotional appeal to a majority people ruled by those of the minority.
Many things are more complex than we tend to assume - and many things in the Book of Mormon are pretty amazing when looked upon a bit more comprehensively than we tend to do.
I emphasized that prophets often do things not from revelation (though Mosiah wasn't a prophet, he might have seen his decision as revelatory) but rather from a perceived need at the time. [Another example I didn't share in the class would be Moses' interaction with the daughters of Zelophehad - where he first allowed them to keep the lands of their inheritance when they married (since their father had died without having sons) and then restricted them to marrying only someone in their own tribe (so their tribe would not lose the lands of their father's inheritance when they married).] There is nothing wrong with leaders making non-revelatory decisions, since leaders often have to make decisions for organizations on their own, based on their best understanding - but we need to be careful not to confuse those decisions and personal views as "revelation" and accept everything they do and say, by default, as the pure word of God.
I ended the lesson by mentioning that I believe all of the students will be faced in the future with something(s) that requires them to gain new understanding (to have something "revealed" to them) and that I believe most of those revelations will come to them only when they have thought, pondered, questioned, considered, discussed, studied, prayed, etc. diligently - when they are at the point where they simply can't understand something better through their own efforts. At those times, through patiently "enduring to the end", a new insight will hit them and they will understand FAR better than if they simply had followed conventional wisdom and relied on the testimonies / understanding of others. Those times hopefully won't involve an impression to kill someone, but the deepest insights generally will come in the times of deepest struggle and trial. I told them I hope they don't give up before the revelation they need comes to them, no matter how it comes to them - even if it seems to be only an idea that makes sense as a solution to what they face at the time.