After chapter two, we have a clear division between Lehi’s sons. Nephi has chosen to be part of the covenant, and Laman and Lemuel are in process of choosing to not be a part of the covenant.
“The covenant”, of course, refers to the covenant between God and Abraham. In Hebrew, it is called Brit bein HaBetarim, meaning “between two parts”. A covenant is an agreement between both parties, so anytime Scriptures say we are to do such-and-such, and the Lord will do such-and-such, that is part of the covenant. Anytime we both have something to do or be for the other, anytime He makes promises to us contingent upon our doing or being something for Him, that is covenant-ness. Most often, if the Lord is talking about his people, you can see the covenant language when it says “If they will… then I will….”, and you can liken it to yourself by reading “If I will… then He will…”. That’s covenant language.
The Jews were born into the covenant. But like people who grow up in the church today, there still comes a time where the individual has to choose for themselves to become a part of that covenant. Nephi did that in chapter two.
At the same time, all of this covenant-ness really is from before the time of Abraham. We call it the Abraham-ic covenant because he was so faithful in keeping it, and because through his faithful example many specific promises were made. That’s why D&C 132:32, when it says “go and do the works of Abraham”, it means to be faithful and obedient like Abraham and those same blessings of that covenant will be for you, too.
It is by the covenant – by choosing it, and by behaving and interacting in ways that show we choose it – that we learn the laws of Heaven. This changes us, ever so subtly but powerfully, so that become more like Him the more we conform to His laws. The more like Him we become, the more we are able to be in His presence. It is an ongoing process of being sanctified, or made holy, in which we are changed by the power of the Spirit – but that can only happen when we are choosing to live worthy of the Spirit. It seems a daunting task, yet each tiny act of obedience and any act of faith at all will move us forward. Each simple act of obedience is one step out of our “bondage”, and each act of faith increases our ability to see that Sheckinah presence, the “pillar of cloud and pillar of fire” that led the Israelites out of Egypt. Each tiny effort is a one step from bondage towards the promised land, one rung higher on the ladder – one rung at a time, line upon line.
To become like Him is impossible, excepting for the power of the Spirit being able to transform us, change us.
And always, we are lifting Him up. For as we grow and change and become like Him, as we climb that ladder, we are ever adding to His glory – for it is by His work in us that we are changed (we cannot do it on our own – it is made possible by the atonement, and it is accomplished by the Spirit), so any changing that happens not only lifts us… but also lifts Him higher.
He is exalted by our choosing to be obedient. We show our love by doing what He says, and the transformation He accomplishes in us leaves us forever indebted to Him. Our praise and the evidence of our transformation is what gives Him glory, lifting him “higher and higher” as it says in Isaiah
So the covenant was in place from the beginning.
The covenant was in place since before the beginning, actually.
We know from D&C 84 specifically, that our premortal covenant was to do the work of accomplishing His will for all people; namely, the premortal covenant was that Christ agreed to come an atone for us (which He did), and we would come and testify of that atonement (which we are called to do, always, in all things).
We see Lehi do it in 1 Nephi 1:18, when he had understands (remembers) the things of God, and goes to testify of it to those around him.
Then in 1 Nephi 2:1, the Lord says Lehi has been faithful. That is HOW Lehi has been faithful: by testifying. Lehi was faithful – not just obedient in his life now – but he has been faithful to his premortal covenant by testifying of the Lord, which simply means sharing the ways God has worked in his life and giving God credit for it. Sometimes that is a formal testimony, like on Fast Sundays, but in our everyday lives it can be a very simply acknowledgment of gratitude, a pointing out of blessings or tender mercies as you notice them, a sharing with loved ones what amazing things God is doing for you this year, this month, this week, this day. It doesn’t have to be all formal and stuffy and nerdy; it’s just an acknowledgement of what you notice about how God is working in your life.
Gratitude is contagious. Seeing the positive side of life, in a sincere way (not a fake Pollyanna kind of way), is contagious. Life is hard, really hard, for all of us in all kinds of ways. So there is comfort and relief to discover some fresh new perspective on goodness, and to acknowledge it with gratitude can be a kind of worship. Noticing the sunset, appreciating a flower, cherishing a friend, being kind, smiling, any of that counts. It’s so simple.
God works through people. And when people get a real taste of God, they are hungry for more.
This is why false God-ness is so bad, why people are so turned off by false religions and hypocrites. The spirit within a person knows those are not of God, and they are literally revolted by them. Their whole being pulls away, doesn’t want it, and shifts into defensive mode to protect themselves. As they should.
But when there is a piece of truth, a glimmer of light, whether it comes from a sunset or scripture, a song or poem, a book or a friend, when there is a moment of God – the person’s spirit knows. We call it the Light of Christ – something that is in all people, something that confirms to them what is truth and error. Sometimes the world calls it a conscience, but it is much more than that. Most into any kind of spirituality have an understanding of their spirit-self, and they know that their spirit knows what is truth and light. All goodness, all truth, all light – it all comes from God, and it is all for the purpose of moving us closer to him.
My mother, who is not LDS, still has an appreciation and understanding of mormon culture – mostly because she is a history buff and knows more about mormon history than I do. But what the spirit within her appreciates is the change in me since I got baptized. She doesn’t want to be a mormon, but she knows that it is God who has changed me, rescued me, “delivered” me from “bondage”. So even though she doesn’t agree with every theological detail, we share an appreciation of what God has done in our lives, and the healing that has come… we worship together because we know the atonement is at work in our family.
My little niece and nephew live with their mom, and so they are not LDS. But when I drive them back and forth to visit their dad (my brother!), we play Christian music CD’s. They aren’t LDS specific songs, but we can worship together as we sing. They love learning the sign language to the songs, and they ask great questions that lead to really good discussions.
My neighbor on one side of me does not attend any church, and my neighbors on the other side of me are Jewish. We all enjoy the same sunrises on our back porches in the morning, and the same sunsets on our front porches in the evening. We all have different religious backgrounds, but we all testify of the majesty of God as the sun moves across the sky, and we are all left in awe at the creative beauty as colors paint the sky.
Learning of God moves us to want to know more.
That’s where we start with 1 Nephi 3, as Nephi has just finished testifying to his brothers in the last chapter, and now he wants to know (remember) more. He goes to his father, seeking further instruction. And instructions he gets!
It’s the classic fairytale, the buddha under the tree, the epic odyssey of any young warrior who wants to learn. Instead of just giving him the answers, Nephi is given a task. We learn by doing! So when Nephi wants to know, and says he truly is ready to understand, then he is given an errand, a task, something to DO so that he can show he really ready… and learn the answers in process of the journey. Classic motif that makes me smile, and makes you want to curl up in the chair because you know a good story is about to unfold.
So here is the task that Lehi gives his son Nephi: when the family left Jerusalem, one of the things they left behind was their family history (genealogy records). This is a big deal in Jewish culture. They also have a copy of the scriptures that the Jews have thus far, and that was also left behind. These records are on plates of brass, bound together by rings.
Lots of people like to pick on this piece of mormon culture and history, about metal plates. But it was actually very common practice in Jewish and Egyptian history. Similar metal plates are in museums all over the world.
So this is the task Lehi gives Nephi, to take his brothers back to Jerusalem to fetch these records they left behind.
Where are the records? Laban has them. Laban is a ruler of sorts, and he is a bad dude.
So it’s the classic knight-battling-the-dragon kind of story, with the records being the fairy princess in the tower.
Except, as you may have guessed, Laman and Lemuel are not into slaying dragons. They don’t want to be knights in shining armor. They don’t even want to put on armor. They do want to go back to Jerusalem, remember, but they want to go back to hang out in their crib, to chillax in their refined and easy life from before. They don’t like the wilderness. It’s dirty, hot, and maybe has bugs. So they are being whimpy still, and whimps don’t slay dragons.
And so the murmuring begins. More murmurming! Worse than just the usual “Are we there, yet?”
Lehi tells Nephi that his brothers are murmuring because they think what Lehi is making them do is too hard; but to Nephi, who has made himself part of the covenant, Lehi can explain that this task is not his idea, but what the Lord has commanded should be done.
And since Nephi is NOT murmuring, and willing to be obedient, then the Lord is pleased.
Not just pleased, but favors Nephi for his not-murmuring.
I can say after the adventure last weekend in a one bedroom apartment with six kids, that I did favor those who were not murmuring!
So again, the same lesson: even the tiniest act of faith, even the tiniest effort at obedience is immediately blessed.
This is Nephi’s classic answer in response to being given this task: “I will go and do”.
Nephi says to Lehi (in verse 7), “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”
This sets a pattern in Nephi’s life that we will see over and over. He never questions what the task is, and he always very willingly sets out on the journey. And each time, in a variety of circumstances, Nephi will look to the Lord to be taught HOW to accomplish what the Lord has asked… but he never doubts that he CAN.
I love this because it is a reminder that God wants us to succeed. This is so different than a judgmental, punitive version of God. God knows what is best for us, and so does give us commandments as good boundaries to keep us safe and well and healthy and progressing. But He WANTS us to succeed. He wants us to make it back to His presence.
Two years ago, I was laying in my sick bed trying not to die in that giant, lonely house in my tiny little Rapunzel room. I don’t think I would have understood if you told then that in two years I would have my own house built, have a vegetable garden, two puppies, and be sober and chaste and a MORMON. Not just that I wouldn’t have believed it, but I wouldn’t have been able to UNDERSTAND it. Understanding comes a piece at a time, line upon line, each one building on the acts of faith and acts of obedience that came before it.
This is why the hero always needs an epic journey.
So Nephi says, “I will go and do”.
This made Lehi happy.
But verse 8 is interesting, because it was not just the words of Nephi’s willingness that made Lehi glad. Lehi was glad because he KNEW he had been blessed of the Lord. Nephi’s obedience proved him a child of the covenant, which fulfilled the Lord’s promise to Lehi of having descendants who will serve the Lord. This moment with Nephi is a tiny piece of that promise being fulfilled.
So Nephi and his brothers head off toward Jerusalem. Along the way, they talked about how to slay this dragon. How were they going to get the records back from Laban? Nobody exactly wants to fight a dragon. So, as was the custom, they cast lots to see who has to go try first.
Laman was the lucky winner. So Laman is the first to go to Laban’s house. He tries the personal approach, ringing the doorbell and sitting in the living room to have a chat and explain the situation gentleman to gentleman. He politely stated that he was there to request the records of his father be returned to him.
Excepting Laban is no gentleman! He is angry that Laman wants to take anything from him. Not only does Laban say no, but he calls Laman a robber! And says he will kill him!
So poor Laman has to high-tail it outta there, and fast!
This is too much for Laman and Lemuel who are already murmuring and complaining. When you are lost in negativity and bitterness already, then there is no room for the normal stresses of life. I have to teach this to patients all the time. People who choose to be negative and bitter have no room for the good. So when they already thought something was impossible, and then they had a bad day that seemed to prove it, they were ready to give up and quit. They didn’t even want to try anymore.
However, when you are filled with faith and truth, then there is always hope still. So Nephi won’t let them run away, saying that nobody is running away like fraidy cats. Nephi says that they will not go back to their father in the wilderness without doing what the Lord commands; they are not going home without those records.
Because Laban didn’t respond to the personal approach, they try the diplomatic approach next. Nephi (inspired by the Lord) and his brothers go back to their old homestead where the family had left all their riches behind. They gather gold and silver and other riches, and take the money to present to Laban to buy back what is rightfully theirs.
You can see Nephi’s line upon line unfolding, as he begins to understand the vital importance of the task given him. Nephi expresses an understanding (because he KNOWS, and he KNOWS because of his testimony) that Jerusalem will be destroyed, and they have to obtain the records in order to preserve them. If they leave the records in Jerusalem, the records will be destroyed when Jerusalem is destroyed.
This again has two layers: the immediate and physical, and the future metaphorical. They have to save the records from the destruction of Jerusalem, but the purpose in preserving the records is so that the teachings of the prophets (like Isaiah and those before him) can be passed down to their children. Nephi says in verse 20, “… that we may preserve unto them (future generations) the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God, since the world began, even down unto this present time (present time being Isaiah).”
So teaching this (testifying!) to his brothers did help them “be faithful in keeping the commandments of God” (verse 21). In this case, having an understanding of the wise purpose for what the Lord is trying to accomplish did help the murmuring brothers do the immediate task before them, which was trying to get the records back.
Always, such an eternal perspective helps us do what we need to do. Without that motivation and purpose, it would feel too hard. But when we understand who we are (children of God), why we are here (to testify of Him), and what we are to do (get back home to Heavenly Father), there is clarity in seeing what the task is that lies before us and strength to get it done.
So they took the money they had gathered, and went back to Laban’s house. They ever so politely rang the doorbell again (not really, I am teasing about the doorbell, of course), and went into his house and ever so politely requested to purchase the records which were really theirs anyway.
Well, of course a bad punk like Laban wanted all that money!
Excepting he wasn’t about to give up any of his “stuff”.
Poetic comparison, by the way, between those who knew the words of God were their treasure, and him whose “stuff” was is his treasure. This reminds us of Matthew 6:21, when Jesus said “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. And by heart, in Jewish Hebrew or Ancient Greek, it means your motivations and intent, or the filter by which you make decisions. So if you have an eternal perspective, you will make choices based on your intent and motivation to get home to Heavenly Father. If you have a perspective dulled by the riches of the world, you will make choices based on your intent and motivation only to get more “stuff”.
While there is nothing wrong with providing well for yourself and your family, the danger is when we let “stuff” fill our present moment. We become hedonistic like infants, demanding instant gratification in the here-and-now. We want what we want, and we want it now. That’s very different than delaying what we might want now in order to choose things more eternal in nature. Keeping the present moment clear and open (instead of distracted by or filled with “stuff”) helps us to focus on what is truly important, to work on becoming who we want to become (instead of being stuck in the past, or behaving like spoiled children that throw tantrums whenever they don’t get what they want right away).
So Laban shows us spoiled child syndrome, and kicks them out, refusing to give them what they want.
Excepting he is such a bad dude that not only does he not give them what they want, but he sends his people after them to steal all their money! So Nephi and his brothers had to run away, leaving behind all their gold and riches and money.
Now Laban has their records and all their money. He does not play fair!
We all have days like that, when life is not playing fair. What is our response? Do we give up and quit because it is hard? Do we stomp our feet and complain like spoiled children? Or do we keep fighting, keep trying, keep trusting the Lord to teach us how to accomplish what we are to do?
Nephi is not about to give up. He and his brothers hide out in a cave, waiting for Laban’s people to quit chasing them.
Now Laman and Lemuel are really mad. We are past murmuring. Now they are just straight up angry. All this time Laman and Lemuel have been focusing on their own comfort, their own sustenance, their own cozy life in the mansion with all their riches. It’s one thing to go camping with dad in the wilderness, it’s another thing for your little brother to lose all the family’s money. So now they are mad, because up until now they kind of thought this whole leaving Jerusalem was just a silly idea, a passing fancy. But losing all the money means they really can’t go back. Losing all the money got their attention, and now they are upset because now they are stuck, not just humoring old dad on some adventure.
So Laman starts the trouble, and Lemuel chimes in. Contention always spreads like this. Negativity is contagious. If one person starts, it gets passed around until everyone is diseased. Not only did they yell and scream and Nephi, but they beat him up!
Verse 29 says, “And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands.”
The appearance of an angel gets their attention!
But even still, Laman and Lemuel show how little faith they have when they say (in verse 31), “How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man…”
So even when chastised by an angel, they stop doing what they were commanded but continued to murmur. They stopped beating up Nephi, but they are still complaining! This is the superficiality of those who do just enough to get by, those who go through the motions but complain every step, those that show up but are dragging their feet.
Yet the question is legitimate. Nephi knows the Lord CAN accomplish the task, but now that they have tried doing it their own way, it is time to ask the Lord how to do it HIS way.