Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Behavior of Laman and Lemuel

The story of Lehi takes place around Jerusalem toward the end of king Josiah’s thirty-one year reign, which ended in 609 B.C. while fighting Pharaoh Necho II at the Battle of Megiddo (Har Megiddo, meaning Mount of Megiddo or Armageddon). Josiah, who was thirty-nine years old at the time, thought to deny the Egyptians passage through his kingdom on their way to meet the Syrians along the Euphrates River. 
One of Josiah’s four sons, Shallum, succeeded him as king of Judah, under the name Jehoahaz (1 Chronicles 3:15; Jeremiah 22:11), who Necho deposed after only three months, and replaced him with his older brother, Eliakim, under the name Jehoiakim (2 Chronicles 3:15), who was succeeded by his own son, Jeconiah (2 Chornicles 36:8), and finally by Mattanyhahu under the name Zedekiah.
    These events marked the end of the Davidic line, and Judah’s relative independence in the face of a resurgent Egypt bent on regaining its traditional control of the region and the imminent rise of the Babylonian empire. Between 609 and 605 B.C., Judah fell under Egyptian control, lost much of its territory in the south, and though paying a high tribute to Egypt, Jehoiakim launched an aggressive building campaign, including a new palace built with forced labor and scarce resources. Jeremiah was an outspoken opponent of Jehoiakim’s reckless behavior. At the same time, Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar drove the Egyptians out of their outpost at Charchemish along the upper reaches of the Euphrates and pursued them south toward Palestine.
    By 604 B.C., the Babylonians had reached as far as the Philistine territory along the coast to the southwest of Judah. Jehoiakim, alarmed at the prospect of the hostile Babylonians so close, even though he had been put in power as a vassal of the Egyptians, and under threat of invasion declared allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar as a matter of expediency.
The Babylonians continued pressing southward into Egypt, and by 601 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar was engaged in fierce fighting with Pharaoh Necho. However, Nebuchadnezzar was unable to subdue Egypt and finally returned to Babylon at the end of the year. Jehoiakim, encouraged by this apparent Babylonian retreat, and expecting help from Egypt, withdrew his allegiance from the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1). It was a disastrous miscalculation. As soon as he was able, in late 598 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar sent his army to reestablish control over Judah, the gateway to Egypt. During this time, Jehoiakim suddenly died, probably by assassination according to the hints found in Jeremiah (22:18-23, 36:30).
    In 597 B.C., placed Jehoiakim's uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne of Judah. The intent was to have a puppet king who would be loyal to the Babylonians; however, the political and religious forces in Judah at the time would not allow passive submission to a foreign power, even though Jeremiah had been preaching for 40 years that this was, indeed, God’s will for the nation.
    After Josiah’s death, Judah’s territory had been considerably reduced, the countryside had been decimated by invading armies, and outlying cities destroyed. A considerable number of the nation’s most valuable citizenry, those most capable of leading the nation in a crisis, had been removed to Babylon as exiles or more likely hostages to insure the continued submission of those left in Judah. Zedekiah turned out to be a vacillating leader, unable to chart a clear course of action or to withstand political pressures.
    Throughout the Biblical record, the Jews thought Jerusalem could not and would not be destroyed. It was, after all, God’s city, and the people of Jerusalem were God’s people. They fully expected God to be on their side as they fomented rebellion. But in 597 B.C., all of Judah, including the fabled city of Jerusalem, was only nine years away from total destruction.
Lehi preaching to the scoffing Jews in Jerusalem of their pending doom if they did not repent
    It was during this time that Lehi was called to preach in Jerusalem. Nephi makes it clear: “After the Lord had shown so many marvelous things unto my father, Lehi, yea, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, behold he went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard, [but] the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of the Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (1 Nephi 1:18-19).
    Like others of his time and many before, “when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain.” When he called for their repentance, “they also sought his life, that they might take it away” (1 Nephi 1:20).
    At this time, Lehi fled Jerusalem at the Lord’s command (1 Nephi 2:1-3).
    But Laman and Lemuel objected to leaving their home and their friends at Jerusalem. They did not believe the Lord would destroy the city and people. Like the wicked people to whom Lehi had been preaching, his two oldest sons sought rebellion against him.
For they “did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness.” And this they said he had done because of “the foolish imaginations of his heart” (1 Nephi 2:11). Like the Jews in Jerusalem, they defended evil by saying: “And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses” (1 Nephi 17:22). And like the Jews they left behind, they did not believe “that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father” (1 Nephi 2:13).
    The character and behavior of Laman and Lemuel conform to the normal pattern of the Bedouin Hebrew and Arab nature. How true to their way are their long, bitter, brooding and dangerous outbreaks! The ancient Hebrew family was a peculiar organization, self-sufficient and impatient of any authority beyond its own.
    It might be of interest to better understand, not only Laman and Lemuel, but the entire nomadic story of Lehi’s eight years in the desert (1 Nephi 17:4). First of all, Nephi says of his father, “And my father dwelt in a tent” (1 Nephi 2:15), which is not only a common saying among the nomadic Bedouin, but also suggesting that Lehi was quite familiar with such a life.
And unlike Laman and Lemuel, Lehi obviously felt no regret or remorse at deserting Jerusalem, and even when his sons thought of home, it was specifically the land of their inheritance, their own family estate, and their own wealth for which they yearned. Not even Nephi displays any loyalty to "the Jews who were at Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 2:13), split up as they were into squabbling self-interest groups, working in darkness and abominations. When Nephi writes of his history, he speaks of it as "an account on these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry" (1 Nephi 10:1), as if, like the Hebrew and Arab Bedouins, the family recognized no government but that of its own head—a reasoning Nephi seemed to have entertained long after leaving “For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations” (2 Nephi 25:2).
    Perhaps the noble and legendary pre-Islamic Arab poet, Amr Ibn Kulthum, stated it best when he wrote: "many a chief of a tribe, whom they had crowned with the crown of authority and who protects those who seek refuge with him." The sheikh was the high priest or religious leader, a venerable old man, and head of his family and tribe or village. In this, each sheikh was truly a leader. In fact, anciently, states in the region were called “sheikhdoms” or “emirates” mainly to convey their form of government under sheikhs or emirs and the importance of the rulers’ roles in the management of their affairs.
While Lehi lived, he was the sheikh (tribal elder or patriarch), and the relationship between he and his family as described by Nephi is accurate in the smallest detail. With the usual deft sureness and precision, the scriptural record shows Lehi leading—not ruling—his people by his persuasive eloquence and spiritual ascendency alone, while his two murmuring sons follow along exactly in the manner of the Hebrew Bedouin—"an undercurrent of tension in the ranks all day," and great difficulty to "appease their evil, envious souls." That Laman and Lemuel were envious is certain, for they feared and were angered by the thought that their younger brother should rule over them (1 Nephi 18:10; 2 Nephi 5:3).
    Vacillating between fear (1 Nephi 18:20) and belligerence (1 Nephi 17:19), and between true repentance (1 Nephi 17:55) and outright rebellion (1 Nephi 17:48), we see Laman and Lemuel, and later the sons of Ishmael, so constantly irritable that they often sat about pouting and grumbling—hatching up one plot after another. Like the typical Hebrew and Arab Bedouin, never happy, never satisfied, often angry, and frequently grumbling and plotting, often acknowledging no power greater than themselves, other than their own father.
    How perfectly they resemble the Hebrew and Arab Bedouins of history, with their sudden and complete changes of heart after their father has lectured them, fiery anger yielding for the moment to a great impulse to humility and an overwhelming repentance, only to be followed by renewed resentment and more unhappy wrangling! They cannot keep their discontent to themselves, but are everlastingly "murmuring."
    Such is the accuracy of the scriptural record. Thus are Laman and Lemuel (and the sons of Ishmael) aptly portrayed.


  1. One of my Institute teachers, years ago, mentioned this anecdote:
    Two young men of apparent near-eastern descent were in his class when he gave a lesson about Nephi and his brothers going back to get the Brass Plates. (I do not recall if he mentioned that this was their first time in his class or not.)
    They were quiet throughout the lesson, until he got to the point when Nephi was reluctant to kill Laban. Then they began talking to each other in another language quite energetically (again, I can't remember if he knew what language they were speaking, but it wasn't one he knew).
    He asked them what their concern was, as he would often have a student express concern about God demanding Laban's death. They responded that they were concerned about his delay in killing Laban once God had told him too.

    Cultural differences can be quite stark.

  2. My tangential $0.02.

    I think there's a bit of the classic authorship bias going on in Nephi's narrative. The picture that Nephi paints is that Laman and Lemuel are basically satans. Are we really to believe that in 8 some-odd years Laman and Lemuel never did anything of any redeeming value or demonstrated good character? And, are we also to believe that in the same time frame Nephi never messed up or pulled a "Buckner?" ('86 World Series reference for the confused). No, that's just silly.

    2 Things: Authorship bias and thematic purpose.

    1. Authorship Bias. I wonder what choice nuggets we'd find out if Laman or Lemuel had their say.

    2. Thematic Purpose. Nephi employed characterization templates to the players in order to color his overall purposes in writing. His entire account is basically archetypal in many respects. The journey to the promise land is the struggle for eternal life. Nephi uses particular events and characterizations in order to demonstrate in the most obvious ways possible how one is to successfully travel the path. He, and his brothers, become symbols--characters.

    I think one of the reasons for the way Nephi begins his narrative (being born of goodly parents, educated by them, etc...) is as a "disclaimer" of sorts. He knew he was going to make himself look like Captain Awesome and his brothers like Dopey Devil Delinquents. Therefore, he sort of starts out by focusing on his parents, subtly saying that who he is he owes to them, and that this whole journey and story came about because of his dad. He was just a player in the production.

    I doubt that the real picture of the 8-year events is as cut-and-dried as Nephi makes it seem. He'd probably also be the first to admit it, too. He was trying to communicate an idea, not a biography.

  3. Nephi never wrote what we have as the first books as the only record. The lost pages had Lehi's writing, which was more of a historical record. Nephi's writing was parallel to that.

    As for Laman and Lemuel, for a significant portion of the 8 years of travel, they were apparently dutiful sons. Additionally, once in the Promised Land, there is no overt rebellion noted, other than Lehi's concerns in his blessing, until after Lehi's death.