Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lehi & Nephi: The Power of Scriptural Stories Gets Lost if We View Prophets as Objective Historians

I believe the power of the stories in our scriptures gets lost when family dynamics and other practical, real-life factors are ignored - when "the prophets" are viewed as next to perfect and their narratives are viewed as objective history. I understand that considering these things often moves the reader into a realm of speculation, to varying degrees, but I believe it is important to accept the need to speculate a bit when reading such stories. 

For example, I believe any effort to understand Nephi's narrative in the Book of Mormon as fully as possible must include consideration of Lehi's vision and his sudden conversion at the beginning of the Book of Mormon - and I believe understanding that vision and conversion more fully must include an attempt to consider multiple possibilities for Lehi's life prior to that vision and conversion, since his prior life had to have influenced the family dynamic and Nephi's subsequent narrative.

There is NO indication Lehi was a religious man before his vision - and there is evidence that he was an absentee father, to some degree, during Laman and Lemuel's early years. I read Nephi's family narrative as similar to the one involving Israel and his son, Joseph - the favored younger son and the anger of the older brothers, right down to "birthright / ruler" issues.

In other words, I see a very complicated, very dysfunctional situation.

In this post, I am going to focus on only one aspect of that dysfunctionality - the possibility that Lehi was an absentee father, to some degree, and the impact that simple fact might have had on the narrative we have.  

1) Lehi had the ability to pack his entire family and leave at a moment's notice - for an extended journey.  That would not have been common if he had been a "city dweller" (thus, "at" Jerusalem and not "in" Jerusalem).  Such readiness implies a background of ready mobility, which, in that time, likely means an occupation that required regular travel. 

2) Lehi followed a route through a forbidding, dangerous, nearly barren area that, despite hardship along the way, ended at a habitable area.  It might have been accidental or revealed divinely, but it also might have been due at least partly to previous travel through some of that area and/or areas like it. 

3) Lehi obviously was a wealthy man, based on Nephi's description of their attempts to get the plates.  I like Nibley's suggestion that the most likely occupation was merchant trader, and that he probably traveled to Egypt as part of that trade.  It would explain a lot of other things in the narrative, especially his understanding of written Egyptian.  It also would make him, of necessity, an absentee father, to some degree, especially in the earliest years of Laman's and Lemuel's childhood. 

4) Lehi appears to have favored Nephi more than Laman and Lemuel.  That could have been for any number of reasons, but the most likely are:

a) He had more than one wife in this lifetime (two, for sake of ease in discussion), and Nephi (and possibly Sam) were from his second wife.

There is nothing whatsoever in the record to tell us Sariah's genetic heritage.  That isn't a surprise, necessarily, given the male-centric nature of most record keeping back then - but the lack leaves interesting doors open. Lehi wasn't Jewish, and, based on his lack of knowledge of his own ancestry (finding out only by reading the plates), he wasn't a religious man in the traditional, orthodox sense of the time.  Being a man who was open to visions doesn't mean he was a religiously devoted or "actively religious" man.  There is no way to know with certainty about his background prior to his vision, which opens all kinds of possibilities outside the social, insider norm.  His married life easily could have been a bit complicated and/or unorthodox, as well. 

b) He was entering a retirement or management stage in his life a few years prior to his vision (which would make sense, psychologically, since extra time for contemplation could lead to such an experience).  If Nephi had been born as or after Lehi was entering that retirement or management stage in his life, Lehi would have doted on Nephi more than the older children who were establishing their own lives as emerging adults.  That would be doubly true if Nephi was the only son of the new wife of a wealthy, older man.

c) It also appears that Nephi's personality was much closer to Lehi's personality at the time of the vision than was true of Laman and Lemuel - and, being even more speculative, I think Laman and Lemuel might have been closer to how Lehi used to be prior to his vision.  They appear to have been more focused on wealth and the lure of the city, probably having begun to establish their own ties and their own future careers - perhaps in their father's business and perhaps as sons of luxury.  If they had been helping run the family business while their father was traveling . . . and if they were concerned about losing position and possible inherited wealth as their younger brother got more and more attention from their father . . . and if their father suddenly announced he was abandoning his (their future) business and wealth . . . and if their father asked them to abandon what they had been building for themselves to join him in the wilderness. . . and if their younger brother positioned himself as their father's confidant against them . . . and if their younger brother gave away their wealth for a history book (meaning they couldn't go back at any point and reclaim it when their father's foolish impulse ran its course) and then killed a prominent man to get that same history book (meaning they couldn't return even without their former wealth) . . .

All of that leads me to believe Lehi might have been an absentee father to some degree in his life. 

I don't know if what I just described is accurate, but I think it would explain a LOT about the narrative and how it unfolds - and I think it is a good foundation for charity in the way Laman and Lemuel are viewed.

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