And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.
Lehi had to flee into the wilderness because the people were trying to kill him, he had to leave behind all his property and riches, and we subsequently learn that his family did not believe him (and seem to have been most unconcerned about any death threats). Yet the first thing Lehi does when he reaches a stopping point is to build an altar, make an offering and give thanks to the Lord!
He’s a better man than I am!
Several things stood out to me today.
Firstly, there’s Lehi’s dream in verses 1-2. This is the third visionary experience of Lehi’s we have record of (after the two in 1 Nephi 1), although obviously there may be more. This is the one that kicks off the account of the Book of Mormon as we have it, however, since it’s the one that commands Lehi to take his family and flee into the wilderness (more on that in a bit).
One thing that struck me when reading it, however, was how much clearer it was that Lehi’s first two, the first of which we really only have Lehi’s reaction (1 Nephi 1:6), and the second couched very much in apocalyptic terms (in the original, not popular sense). This may be an artefact of how they are recorded, but then that too would be a deliberate choice. I wonder if one implication is that, since Lehi was obedient to what God had commanded him to do earlier (as he is particularly commended for in 1 Nephi 2:1), that further instructions came with increased clarity. In the same way, as we learn to follow the promptings of the spirit and revelation, it becomes easier to hear the spirit and understand what we are to do. That’s one suggestion.
Turning now to the journey into the wilderness. This is a motif, of course, that occurs throughout scripture, especially in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon: Abraham was commanded to leave his home and kindred and promised a land of promise; Jacob fled the home of his father-in-law to return to said land; Moses leads the people of Israel across the wilderness in the exodus; in the Book of Mormon not only do Lehi and his family embark on this trek, but many groups of their descendants will likewise have to flee into the wilderness; and it turns out that long before them the Jaredites had to do the same thing. It is a recurring pattern, one that has also recurred in more recent eras, and may well do so again.
One reason for that, I believe, is the important symbolic meaning attached to these journeys, as both Alma the younger and the author of Hebrews point out. As Alma states, speaking of Lehi’s journey, in Alma 37:45:
And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.
And in Hebrews 11:13-16, speaking of the patriarchs:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.
And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.
But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
These recurrent treks in the wilderness, leaving behind previous comforts and braving the trials of the journey for a new land of promise, are a type of our journey through mortality, seeking the “better country”, the “far better land of promise”, that is our hopefully heavenly destination, one that we too might not always see clearly.
Why did these thoughts pop up while reading this today? Well not just because this is the beginning of Lehi’s journey, but also because of what he did (1 Nephi 2:4):
And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.
This again is a recurrent part of the pattern, but I think a vital one. Such treasures are of course little use on such a journey: facing the trials of a genuine wilderness, the accoutrements of civilisation shed their apparent value. Perhaps that’s one reason why the people of God have to recurrently make such trips literally. But we too, travelling through mortal life, must also learn to leave such things behind: not just material treasures (though often them), but also all the other things that the world would teach us are utterly necessary but which are ultimately transitory: titles, position, careers, awards, degrees and much else. These may be useful for a season, but we cannot take them with us, and we need to be prepared to give them up, lest we end up like Laman and Lemuel whose opposition to their father was rooted in the fact that he had lead them “to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things” (1 Nephi 2:11). We must, as the book of Hebrews states, hold the attitude that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth”, because as C.S. Lewis pointed out in the Screwtape Letters, it is when we feel we are finding our place in the world that it is finding its place in us.
Speaking of the Exodus, one thing to note as we read through 1st Nephi is how closely tied the account is to the Exodus narrative. There’s several deliberate allusions and references, of course (most especially in 1 Nephi 17), but one detail I first noted when I wrote an undergraduate essay on the topic (while in Jerusalem) can be seen in this chapter, which is the detail that Laman and Lemuel “murmur” against their father (v. 11). The word choice is interesting, because one can find that “murmur” and its derivatives (“murmuring” and so on) are used 22 times in the Exodus narrative in the KJV, and only 18 times in the entire rest of the Bible. The same pattern occurs with 1 Nephi, which uses “murmur” and so on 19 times, compared to only 14 times for the entire rest of the Book of Mormon. The word choice is deliberate.
As a final item, it’s also worth noting in verse 20 onward is the first appearance of the oft-quoted promise to Nephi’s descendants in the Book of Mormon: “And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper…”. Of course, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the Lord’s notion of prosperity may not be the same as the world’s and – per C.S. Lewis – worldly prosperity was often highly spiritually dangerous for the Nephites.