Several parts of this chapter caught my attention today, setting aside the amusing fact that Laman and Lemuel seemed to have far fewer problems with this trip back to Jerusalem, or more seriously the considerable faith Ishmael must have had to believe these ragamuffins from the desert and to take his entire family out into the wilderness with them.
Anyhoo, two bits in particular:
Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.
1 Nephi 7:12
I feel there’s so much in just this short verse – not just the Lord’s capacity to do anything for us (though ‘according to his will’), but the crucial connection that we somehow seem to miss despite the obvious connection of the words between having faith and being faithful. We show and exercise our faith in God by being loyal to him.
But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.
And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.
1 Nephi 7:17-18
Deliverance can be a funny thing. Sometimes we try to save ourselves by our own efforts, and that often fails. Sometimes God gives us the power to do things beyond our own capacity, and we then do them, much as Nephi prays for here when he asks for the strength to burst his bonds. But in this case, God didn’t actually give him what he asked for: he went one better and freed Nephi by loosing the bands himself. Sometimes God has a better deliverance for us, and sometimes He will simply deliver us by His own power.
It is amusing to think about how much less Laman and Lemuel objected to this trip compared to that to fetch the plates, so much so that the only trouble we hear off occurs on the way back. What I wonder about – and I do not have a comprehensive answer for – is why all these trips were necessary in the first place. If it were all down to a human being, one could perhaps attribute this to an element of humans suddenly realising what they needed for a long trip to establish a colony. But Lehi has operated under divine direction for each of the three trips: He & his family leaving Jerusalem initially; the brothers returning for the plates; and the brothers returning for Ishmael and his family. The Lord surely could have inspired Lehi to take the plates & Ishmael & family with them the first time. But he didn’t. There’s surely some reason for that, probably more than one. Certainly retrieving the plates proved to be both a test and an educational opportunity for Nephi. I wonder what else could be a factor?
I mentioned it in writing the original post, but Ishmael’s faith stood out to me again, although we hear little of it here except by implication, and never really hear much about him:
And it came to pass that we went up unto the house of Ishmael, and we did gain favor in the sight of Ishmael, insomuch that we did speak unto him the words of the Lord.
And it came to pass that the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness to the tent of our father.
(1 Nephi 7:4-5)
We know that leaving Jerusalem was tough for Lehi’s family: Laman and Lemuel are never reconciled to it (as can be seen in this very chapter), Sariah expressed concerns in 1 Nephi 5, while Nephi had to seek reassurance in prayer in 1 Nephi 2. Likewise we’ll find that much of Ishmael’s family will respond similarly. So again, it’s quite striking that Ishmael and his household respond and leave, even through all they can hear is what is relayed to them second-hand by the brothers, as opposed to Lehi (the one receiving “the words of the Lord”) directly. Of course, this encapsulates the principle contained in Doctrine & Covenants 1:38:
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.
We sometimes take that verse as referring to prophets and apostles as “my servants”, but reading Section 1 in full makes clear that it is more expansive than that: the Lord’s servants are all of those he’s commissioned to relay his words. For those hearing the gospel for the first time, for instance, the “voice of my servants” of this verse includes that of the missionaries teaching them. And Ishmael must have understood that it included the four brothers standing in front of him at that moment.
On the way back, of course, Laman and Lemuel and parts of Ishmael’s household decide that perhaps they don’t want to go anyway. Nephi tries to remonstrate with them, and so they decide to tie him up to leave him to die. What’s interesting here is that they had another option aside from the murder attempt or what they did do (abandon said attempt, repent, and continue on), that Nephi even points out to them in verse 15:
Now behold, I say unto you that if ye will return unto Jerusalem ye shall also perish with them. And now, if ye have choice, go up to the land, and remember the words which I speak unto you, that if ye go ye will also perish; for thus the Spirit of the Lord constraineth me that I should speak.
They reject Nephi’s words, but they could have just left then. If they’d simply left Nephi, Ishmael and the others to continue on, there’s little Nephi could have done to stop them, and they could have continue to live at Jerusalem (at least until the Babylonians flattened the place in 587-586 BC, but they didn’t believe Lehi about that). But instead they get so angry at Nephi that they switch to the murder attempt, and that seems to constrain their options down to two: 1) trying to kill him or 2) repenting of that and continuing on into the wilderness. Rejecting Nephi’s words would at first appear to leave them with more options, but instead the act of rejection and the anger involved appear to involve them with less, so that not only can’t they leave Nephi alone, but they seem unable to take the simple option they claimed to want in the first place. So it is with us: rejecting prophetic counsel may appear to offer more freedom, at least until the Babylonian-like consequences show up. But in practice, I’ve seen people get so angry and obsessive in their apostasy that they then cannot mentally leave alone whatever they are angry at, and so they don’t end up with more agency, they end up with less.