Thursday, May 25, 2017

Laman and Lemuel Did Not Think of Themselves as Apostate

In Sunday School lessons in the Church when we discuss Laman and Lemuel we tend to portray them as faithless, scheming, disobedient reprobates who still mummer and complain even after they are shown miracles and angels. Many seem to have a cartoon image of Laman as the stereotypical cartoon villain, complete with evil goatee, and Lemuel as his whiny, dimwitted sidekick.

This simple portrayal seems so obvious, because how else could someone see an angel, experience miracles, hear the word of the Lord, and still not believe? Obviously they had to be faithless schemers or why else would they reject the plain truths as taught by Nephi? They don't even bother to pray, and if they can't even do something as simple and fundamental as that, then obviously they don't have faith and care nothing for religion and eternal truths. Right? Are they really just the faithless, wayward sons of a good man and a prophet? 

Previously I have written about the complex social and religious environment that produced what we now know as the Old Testament. The time of Lehi was an interesting period in history. There was major political upheaval, a previous king of Judah had pushed through some major religious reforms, new histories were being compiled, and differing strands of religious thought were vying for supremacy.

If we read Jeremiah in the Bible we can get a sense that there was disagreement between groups of priests about political matters. There seems to be one group who were very much in support of the king and another that supported Jeremiah. While we may look back and say, "Obviously they should have supported Jeremiah." For those living at the time it may not have been so clear since those opposed to Jeremiah included the High Priest. But even this "picking sides" was not so straight forward since even those who opposed Jeremiah held him in high regard. When the king learned that Jeremiah was in prison he arranged for him to be rescued.

We learn from Nephi that his father Lehi supported Jeremiah, while Laman and Lemuel probably supported the monarchists and the High Priest. One of the harshest criticisms that Lehi leveled against his sons was that they were planning to do to him what the Elders had done to Jeremiah. This was not a criticism that Laman and Lemuel took lightly, but in fact took very seriously. By reading Nephi's account we can easily get the impression that Laman and Lemuel never listened to their father. But if we read carefully we can see that they listened to his prophecies and followed his commands. They did after all go get the brass plates, and they did attempt to buy them with all that they had. They did hold reverence for the word of God.

While some have tried to explain Laman and Lemuel's obedience to their father as some manifestation of the high regard that their culture gave to obedience to parents, that seems like a gross over simplification of the culture at the time, and still does not explain why they chose to follow Nephi at many points.

When we consider the interaction between Laman, Lemuel, and Nephi we unknowingly impose our modern biases on the story. To illustrate this let us consider perhaps the most over used but entirely misinterpreted interaction between Nephi and his brothers.

In 1 Nephi 8 we have recorded Lehi's famous vision of the tree of life. Immediately after this experience Nephi "desired to know the things that [his] father had seen" and thus sought and received the revelatory experience recorded in 1 Nephi 11-14. Upon returning to the camp where his family was staying Nephi found Laman and Lemuel debating the vision of their father. Prompted by Nephi's questions Laman and Lemuel responded, "Behold, we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken concerning the natural branches of the olive tree, and also concerning the Gentiles."

This response prompted Nephi to ask the question that forms the basis of so many seminary, institute, Sunday School lessons, Sacrament meeting talks and question prompts in church manuals.
"And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?"
"And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us."
To us, Nephi's question is so blindingly obvious, and Laman and Lemuel's response so typical of non-believers that it may not occur to us that Laman and Lemuel could very well have a rational reason for not praying to know the interpretation. In our culture we are accustomed to the concept of praying. For us the most fundamental way we interact with the divine is to pray. It is so ingrained in our culture that we do not realize that in a different culture it may not be so obvious.

In our culture it is natural for us to ask, "Have ye inquired of the Lord?" We would think it very odd to go looking for someone who could use divination to answer our questions. In our culture the practice of using peep stones, divination in cups, and seemingly magical items is not considered socially acceptable or valid for divine communication. But in the culture at the time of Lehi not only was divination acceptable, but firmly entrenched as the preeminent method of divine communication.

In 1 Samuel 23 there is the story of David on the run from King Saul. Wanting to know the King's plans, David consulted with the priest Abiathar. In order to get an answer, David asked Abiathar to bring the ephod (part of the high priest's clothing associated with the Urim and Thummim) so that they could receive revelation from the Lord. There are other instances where questions directed to the Lord could not be answered without the use of the Urim and Thummim.

At the time of Lehi praying to ask the Lord questions was not ingrained in the culture. If someone wanted to ask the Lord a question they would have to find someone with a sacred object to be used for divination. Thus for Laman and Lemuel, if they wanted to know the interpretation of Lehi's vision, an obvious course of action would not be to pray and ask, but to find someone with a Urim and Thummim, or similar item, that could divine the answer.

When Nephi begins to explain the vision Laman and Lemuel are not passively listening, but actively asking questions. In fact they ask better questions than you would find in most Sunday School lessons about Lehi's vision. These are not the actions of non-believers who failed to ask questions. They did apply themselves and attempt to understand the vision, but because of their culture it did not occur to them that they could pray and ask the Lord for answers. They were keeping firmly within their religious tradition and thought that these were answers that could only be answered by a seer with some sacred object for divination.

It is particularly telling that after this experience, but before they traveled into the desert Lehi was given the Liahona, which was a sacred object that could communicate the word of the Lord. It was like the ephod for David, or the Urim and Thummim for the priests. It validated Lehi's position as a seer in the eyes of Laman and Lemuel. As a seer that had an object that could he could look into and see sacred communications, Lehi and his visions were established as divine. Hence Laman and Lemuel could follow him into the desert.

Also years later when they were in danger of starving in the desert Laman and Lemuel murmured against Lehi, partly because he had failed to use the Liahona. They eventually followed Nephi because he could use the Liahona, the sacred object that provided divine communication.

Sometimes there are things that are "obvious" to us and we wonder how anyone could be so dimwitted not to see the obvious. But it is important to remember that people like to think they have a good reason for doing what they do. For Laman and Lemuel praying to know the interpretation of a vision was according to their culture "weird". Using a sacred object to divine the answer was just as normal and obvious to them as praying is to us.


Sam said...

What a fantastic post! (I've been following your blog for a while and have enjoyed all your posts.) I haven't seen this interpretation before. I assume it's yours?

I agree that the common portrayal of Laman and Lemuel as foolish villains isn't likely to be accurate. I also don't believe that Nephi was the whiny propogandist that scholars sometimes portray him as.

I do wonder though... Is it necessary that Laman and Lemuel felt that a sacred object was required? Or perhaps what they meant was that they were not prophets, and that only prophets get the kind of revelations that Nephi was talking about. That's similar, I think, to what you're proposing. What do you think?

Quantumleap42 said...

Hi Sam,

I don't know if anyone has made the connection between Laman and Lemuel and the Liahona as a sacred object that facilitated revelation, but others have been looking at Laman and Lemuel as being heavily influenced by the Deuteronomist reforms started by King Josiah. So I definitely not the first one to propose that idea.

My thought that Laman and Lemuel considered a sacred object as necessary for revelation is purely conjecture. There is nothing in the Book of Mormon that would show that directly. But it is a possibility given the culture at the time. Which makes it something that I would never teach in Church, but something that I am interested in discussing online. There are those (see the link above) who would probably argue that Laman and Lemuel would most likely reject the concept of sacred objects as conduits of revelation. But we don't have any firm evidence either way, just conjecture based on what would have been possible from the culture at the time.

When Nephi finished explaining the vision to Laman and Lemuel they tell him that he was teaching them hard things. Usually in church lessons we conclude it is because he told them to repent, but it may actually be because he taught them things that went against their ingrained religious assumptions. It makes me wonder how many ingrained religious assumptions we have that are hard for us to give up.

Sam said...

Like you said, this kind of thing doesn't belong in a regular church class. But I've considered doing a fireside or two covering some of the least speculative ideas about the Book of Mormon, from resources like the Interpreter, such as the fact that the Amlicites and Amalekites are likely the same group. For me, at least, it makes the book much more interesting (and real). I think that there's some great Book of Mormon scholarship that moves past the question of whether it's true or not--It is!--and adds color and depth to the book. But I've worried about what the reaction might be and what kind of ingrained assumptions I might run into with that kind of presentation.

Sam said...

(That may sound more judgmental than I intended. My reluctance has more to do with a lack of time and confidence than anything else.)

LL said...

Laman and Lemuel were pragmatic. Pragmatism was not what the Lord required. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all
progress depends on the unreasonable man." And to be fair to them, they did hang in there (though they complained all the while).

One day when the large plates are revealed and translated, we will learn that the 'new land' that Nephi and Lehi found was populated with people. Those people lived off the land and Laman and Lemuel joined with them (and lost their genetic identity in time) because it was the practical thing to do. The Lord required something else.

A lot of what people teach in church is the "legend of the Book of Mormon" rather than specifically what is written and what is not. You've touched on it on this blog.

Quantumleap42 said...

I am someone who is always looking for more information, so having the large plates would be a beautiful treat. Maybe I'm wrong about Laman and Lemuel, but until we get more information we work with what we have.

LL said...

I think that you're spot on.