Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Why Sariah Feared for Her Sons at the Hands of Laban

The trip from the Valley of Lemuel to Jerusalem, a one-way distance of some 210 miles, which also involved the time of meeting with Laban, running and hiding from his guards who sought their lives, then debating and ending up going down to get their father’s riches and return to Jerusalem and confront Laban once again, and having to flee from him a second time, the occasion in the cave and the beatings, then Nephi’s return to Jerusalem at night to find Laban drunk and passed out in the city streets, and then his exchanging clothes, surprising Zoram, and obtaining the plates from the Treasury, all would have taken considerable time—what Nephi writes in a few verses taking place over several days—no doubt causing Sariah undue concern, for surely, like any mother, she would have counted the days of the trip to and from Jerusalem and when the boys were several days late in arriving back to their tent, she would have become anxious and envisioned the worse for her sons.
    Like any mother, she blamed her husband for putting her sons in the dangerous situation she envisioned for she was related to Laban, though distantly, obviously knew of his nature and tendencies. So supposing her sons had perished in their return to Jerusalem, she remonstrated, “For she complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 5:2).
Sariah and Lehi welcome back their sons from the trip to Jerusalem with great enthusiasm and relief 

    And again, like any mother, she was bitter toward what she thought was the probability that she had lost her children and became outspoken over it. But true to his strength as a family leader and prophet, Lehi responded: “I know that I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren. But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness. And after this manner of language did my father, Lehi, comfort my mother, Sariah, concerning us, while we journeyed in the wilderness up to the land of Jerusalem, to obtain the record of the Jews” (1 Nephi 5:4-6). 
    Now Sariah had much to be concerned about for Laban was a man of questionable virtue and driven by forces of avarice and power. As the "military governor” of this whole region, in control of the defenses along the western frontier of Judah, and an intermediary with the authorities of Jerusalem," or as Hoshaiah, "apparently the leader of the military company situated at some outpost near the main road from Jerusalem to the coast," whose character was one of "fawning servility.” As such, it was one of his functions (as any governor in the East) was to hear petitions, and the established practice has ever been to rob the petitioners (or anyone else) wherever possible. 
    Hugh Nibley points out “The Eloquent Peasant” story of fifteen centuries before Lehi and the innumerable “Tales of the Qadis” of fifteen centuries after him lead to a clear understanding of this picture, which Laban fits into as if it were drawn to set off his portrait.
Laban orders his guards to seize Nephi and his brothers 

    A few deft and telling touches resurrect the pompous Laban with near photographic perfection. First, he commanded a garrison of fifty, that he met in full ceremonial armor with "the elders of the Jews" (1 Nephi 4:22) for secret consultations by night, that he had control of a treasury, that he was of the old aristocracy, being a distant relative to Lehi himself, that he probably held his job because of his ancestors, since he hardly received it by merit, that his house was the storing place of very old records, that he was a large man, short-tempered, crafty, and dangerous, and to the bargain cruel, greedy, unscrupulous, weak, and given to drink. All of which makes him a Rabu to the life, the very model of an Oriental pasha.
    As to the garrison of fifty, it seems pitifully small for a great city. It would have been just as easy to have written "fifty thousand," and made it really impressive. Yet even the older brothers, though they wish to emphasize Laban's great power, mention only fifty (1 Nephi 3:31), and it is Nephi in answering them who says that the Lord is "mightier than Laban and his fifty," and adds, "or even than his tens of thousands" (1 Nephi 4:1). As a high military commander Laban would have his tens of thousands in the field, but such an array is obviously of little no concern to Laman and Lemuel: it is the "fifty" they must look out for, the regular, permanent garrison of Jerusalem. The number fifty suits perfectly with the Amarna picture where the military forces are always so surprisingly small and a garrison of thirty to eighty men is thought adequate even for big cities. It is strikingly vindicated in a letter of Nebuchadnezzar, Lehi's contemporary, wherein the great king orders: "As to the fifties who were under your orders, those gone to the rear, or fugitives return them to the ranks." Commenting on this, Offord says, "In these days it is interesting to note the indication here, that in the Babylonian army a platoon contained fifty men;" 40 also, we might add, that it was called a "fifty,"—hence, "Laban and his fifty" (1 Nephi 4:1). Of course, companies of fifty are mentioned in the Bible, along with tens and hundreds, etc., but not as garrisons of great cities and not as the standard military unit of this time. Laban, like Hoshaiah of Lachish, had a single company of soldiers under him as the permanent garrison, and like Jaush (his possible successor) worked in close cooperation with the authorities in Jerusalem.
From time to time the claim is put forth, as it has been here in our own blog, that the story of Laban's death is absurd, if not impossible. It is said that Nephi could not have killed Laban and made his escape on one of the city streets of Jerusalem. Those who are familiar with night patrolling in wartime, however, will see in Nephi's tale a convincing and realistic account. In the first place, the higher critics are apparently not aware that the lighting of city streets, except for festivals, is a blessing unknown to ages other than our own. When I was ten years old, I recall hearing a new song called “The Old Lamplighter,” by Danny Kaye, (14 weeks on Billboard peaking at #1), which starts out with “He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go,” and is about an occupation now long extinct of a man assigned to go around and light the lamps of the city as dusk fell, for lights had to be manually lit each evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, the lamplighter would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights were generally candles, oil, and similar consumable liquid or solid lighting sources with wicks. Before this, torches were lit, but did not burn all night—usually only until people were indoors and generally gone to bed in the early evening. Only through movies do we find ancient street lighting burning all night, for without light, you can’t shoot film or see what is on the screen.
    Hundreds of passages might be cited from ancient writers, classical and Oriental, to show that in times gone by the streets of even the biggest towns were perfectly dark at night, and very dangerous. To move about late at night without lamp bearers and armed guards was to risk almost certain assault. In the famous trial of Alcibiades for the mutilation of the Hermes, we have the testimony of one witness who, all alone, beheld by moonlight the midnight depredations of a drunken band in the heart of downtown Athens, from which it is clear that the streets of the greatest city in the western world were unlighted, deserted, and dangerous at night. In times of social unrest the streets at night were virtually given over to the underworld, as they were in some European cities during the blackouts of the Second World War.
The extreme narrowness of ancient streets made their blackout doubly effective. From the Greek and Roman comedy and from the poets we learn how heavily barred and closely guarded the doors of private houses had to be at night, and archaeology has shown us eastern cities in which apparently not a single house window opened onto the public street, as few do even today at ground level. East and West, the inmates simply shut themselves in at night as if in a besieged fortress. Even in Shakespeare's day we see the comical terror of the night watch passing through the streets at hours when all honest people are behind doors. In a word, the streets of any ancient city after sundown were a perfect setting for the committing of deeds of violence without fear of detection
    That Nephi’s deeds went completely unnoticed, unobserved, and unseen is far more factual than for someone seen something and raised a  hue and cry as we find so often in fiction .


  1. The map you use does not place the valley of Lemuel in the most accepted place: 28°33'48.3"N 34°48'29.2"E I wonder why?


  2. The maps we use and create and too small to be exact in this manner. The site I am using is the one Potter found, which is near the Red Sea, beyond the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba between two ranges, one along the coast of Aqaba and the other slightly inland. This Comment Section does not allow for maps or inserts, but on the map we used, it was close enough to make the point we were suggesting.