“The Stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel”

Brant Gardner

With these verses Nephi sets up the major conflict within the new colony. Laman and Lemuel are murmurers, doubters, and troublemakers. Not only do they grieve at having to abandon their riches (v. 11), but they cannot believe God’s revelation through the prophets (v. 13). The conflict is depicted as lying between the world (apostate Jerusalem) and Yahweh, with Laman and Lemuel representing the world (Jerusalem—“And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father,” v. 13) and Lehi representing Yahweh’s power (v. 14).

In addition to serving as foils for the conflict between Yahweh and Mammon, Laman and Lemuel were literally hindrances to the small party’s progress. At this time, Nephi identifies only eight known members of the group. He names Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam, and later mentions “sisters,” (2 Ne. 5:6) suggesting at least two. One fourth of this group and two-fifths of the men are adamantly opposed to leaving. To make matters worse, the two who are against the action are the oldest and second oldest sons, next in importance to Lehi himself. Given the relative position of men and women in Israelite society, the attitudes of Sariah and her unidentified daughters, whether positive or negative, would have little influence. Both by numbers and by birthright, Laman and Lemuel occupy a significant position; and their disagreement with their father portends the eventual split in the family itself. Our portraits of Laman and Lemuel are quite negative, but we must remember that they are drawn by Nephi well after the family has been ripped in two by their actions. Thus we may expect that some of Nephi’s later feelings will also color his description of the earlier period.

The situation in Jerusalem after Josiah’s reforms may shed some light on understanding Laman and Lemuel as well as illuminating some of the religious conflict that runs throughout the Book of Mormon. This proposal is absolute speculation on the thinnest of data, but I suggest that, rather than seeing the conflict as stemming exclusively from Laman’s and Lemuel’s stubborn and rebellious natures, Lehi’s family may be a microcosm of the conflict in Jerusalem between those who espoused Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms and the pre-reform religion. Lehi’s theology had affinities with the older religion. What if Laman and Lemuel were believers in the reform? We know that Laman and Lemuel were fond of Jerusalem. Perhaps that fondness extended to accepting and supporting the reforms, including centralizing both political and religious power in Jerusalem. Suppose that these beliefs constituted a firm faith and that they saw Lehi as stubbornly espousing parts of their religion that they sincerely believed needed reformation? They would naturally despise his visions, since those visions contained theological concepts that they felt needed to be “modernized.” Those beliefs would have included Lehi’s faith in the Atoning Messiah, a concept the reformers excised from the religion. Conflict over the identity and nature of the Messiah became the focus of religious debates in the New World. If Laman and Lemuel are actually believers rather than apostates, then it is their belief in contrast to the Atoning Messiah that explains how this particular conflict crosses the ocean to become the major theme of religious conflict in the whole history of the Book of Mormon.

This speculation about Laman and Lemuel’s beliefs has some support in research about personality formation in the ancient world. Malina and Neyrey remind us the idea of individualism is a modern one; in the ancient world, personalities were more group oriented, derived from shared traditions and particularly from geographic locations. Laman and Lemuel identify with Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that had very recently been religiously transformed. Their personal association with that city and its ruling elite would plausibly make them believers—but believers in a different religion from Lehi’s—rather than simple nonbelievers. While being a nonbeliever would be very easy to understand in modern terms, religion defined reality in the ancient world, and it would be an extremely unusual man who did not see his world religiously. As archaeologist William G. Dever explains: “Religion was so taken for granted that biblical Hebrew, for instance, has no specific word for ‘religion.’ Human life was filled with ideas and experiences that were, of course, ‘religious,’ and there are many terms in the Bible for these But religion could not be abstracted and analyzed; nor could it have been an option, as we moderns suppose. Living in antiquity was being ‘religious.’”

Laman and Lemuel were Hebrews. They must have believed in something Hebrew. If they believed in the reform, in contrast to Lehi’s belief in elements of the pre-reform religion, then this hypothesis explains their role in the Book of Mormon in a way that accounts for more tensions than any other explanation. Even though there is so little evidence to confirm it, I will use this assumption as a working framework, precisely because it is so productive in explaining the New World religious tensions.

Laman and Lemuel are definitely presented as villains in the Book of Mormon story; but to their credit, they demonstrated filial obedience to their father, even though they may have had significant (and, given the religious climate in Jerusalem, legitimate) religious differences. Their behavior thus shows a strong sense of moral responsibility that, despite their disbelief, carries them to the New World and lasts until their father dies. With the dissolution of the family, Laman and Lemuel would see themselves as simply claiming their birthright as the eldest sons. Of course, their willingness to turn to violence means that their evil reputation is not wholly undeserved.

Although Laman’s and Lemuel’s resistance was directed pointedly at Lehi’s leadership, when Lehi speaks of or to his wayward sons, he does not condemn them. Rather he expresses his hopes and desires for them. Lehi’s approach to his eldest sons appears almost unfailingly optimistic. He could have scolded Laman for murmuring but instead holds up an image of his capabilities: He could be like a river running to the fountain of righteousness. The implication is clear that this is not what Laman is currently doing, but the sentiment is nevertheless positive. Likewise, Lehi’s desire for Lemuel to be firm as a valley places his transgressions in their most favorable and forgiving light. Were it not for Nephi’s clear explication of their dissention, we could not determine the depths of their disaffection from Lehi’s words alone.

Of course, it is speculation, but perhaps this distinction represents a difference between Lehi’s record and Nephi’s. Laman and Lemuel not only owed their father respect and obedience as a religious and social obligation, but he also controlled their inheritance. Perhaps they tempered their behavior sufficiently around Lehi that the uglier side of their personalities came out only in their dealings with Nephi. Consequently, Nephi’s perspective may have been quite different from Lehi’s, and this explicit discussion of Laman and Lemuel might be unique to Nephi’s account.

Culture: Laman and Lemuel did not believe that Jerusalem could be destroyed. David Rolph Seely (professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University) and Fred E. Woods (associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University) discuss some of the reasons for their disbelief:

At least six interrelated factors, which will be discussed in this article, contributed to the Judahite belief that Jerusalem could not be destroyed: (1) The historical traditions of the spiritual heritage of Jerusalem, “that great city,” suggested to many that the Lord would naturally preserve this holy place from destruction and desecration by the enemies of the covenant people. (2) The Jews misunderstood some of the Lord’s promises in connection with the covenants that he had made with them. In particular, they misunderstood the promises made to David in the Davidic covenant. (3) The miraculous preservation of Jerusalem and its inhabitants when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 18–19) in the days of King Hezekiah (701 B.C.) further reinforced the belief that the Lord would preserve his temple and holy city from the enemy. (4) The city of Jerusalem was fortified and prepared for siege. Hezekiah had heavily fortified the city against the Assyrian siege in 701 B.C. with massive walls and towers (2 Chr. 32:2–8) and had even prepared a water source inside the city for the inhabitants of the city to endure a long siege (2 Kgs. 20:20, 2 Chr. 32:4, 30). Thus the inhabitants of Jerusalem believed they could endure a long siege brought about by their seemingly impregnable walls. (5) The recent reforms of Josiah (640–609 B.C.), who had cleansed the temple and led his people in a ceremony of covenant renewal (2 Kgs. 22–23), had given certain people of Judah an undue sense of self and community righteousness that they believed would surely preserve them from any threatened destruction. (6) Assurances were given by false prophets, who promised Jerusalem and its inhabitants peace, safety, and preservation from the enemy instead of the destruction and exile prophesied by Jeremiah and Lehi, These false assurances were readily accepted by many since they were the words that they wanted to hear.

Scripture: These verses provide one model of how the spiritually hardened react to the word of God: “Now this he spake because of the stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel; for behold 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 Ne. 2:11).

Laman and Lemuel have clearly heard and understood the fact of their father’s preaching and intellectually understand its import. However, they refuse to believe that the words have any validity. They denounce the messenger (“a visionary man”) as a way of demeaning the message. True, Lehi is a dreamer—literally a visionary man. The difficulty in interpreting dreams, however, makes it easier to resist their meaning. They interpret his requirement to abandon their land and wealth as foolhardy—in fact, as evidence of mental instability. Thus, they dismiss Lehi’s visions as the “foolish imaginations of his heart.”

Redaction: In recording this event, Nephi keeps events in their chronological order. To this point in the narrative of Lehi’s family, the textual focus is on Lehi and his actions. Nephi interjects himself in the narrative only in his introduction and a few comments. He is an observer of the action, not an important actor at this point. That will change in the next verses. Could this shift also mark a transition in the primary source material? Is Nephi, from this point on, using first person because the account is his own creation? If so, then the shift in voice also marks the conclusion of his reliance on Lehi’s account and the beginning of his direct recollections. (See also commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 2:16–17.) Because Nephi is describing his father’s ministry, he correctly emphasizes Lehi’s actions in the valley of Lemuel. However, after that exhortation, Nephi comments on his brothers’ character. His explanation of their sins at this point not only elaborates the reasons for Lehi’s particular exhortations but also serves as crucial background to his own emergence as an actor in the narrative.

Geography: The river “continually running” (v. 9) into the Red Sea and a suitable valley have generated much discussion:

At the time the Book of Mormon was first published, the claim that a river ran in arid northwestern Arabia could not be checked. Western explorers did not venture into this remote area until well after 1830. Today it is a different matter. Geologists have thoroughly explored Arabia in search of oil and water.… But the findings of the scientists regarding the possibility of an aboveground river have not been encouraging. Rather, they concluded that Saudi Arabia “may be the world’s largest country without any perennial rivers or streams.”

Potter and Wellington suggest that there is such a continually flowing river. They have located a river that flows year round. Unfortunately, it is not the river indicated in the text. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 2:6–8.)

Jeffrey R. Chadwick discusses the textual requirements for the river Laman:

But a perennial stream is not required to fulfill Nephi’s description or Lehi’s exclamation. Lehi said “continually running,” not “continually flowing.” A Near Eastern wadi’s streambed can run all the way to the sea whether water happens to be flowing in it or not. I have no doubt that water was flowing when Lehi made his statement (which may have been during the winter months). But whether or not water was flowing in that stream six months later does not make or break the issue in terms of identifying the site of the valley of Lemuel. The streambed itself would have been a continually running course to the ocean for the wadi’s water, whether seasonal or perennial.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1