Lord foresaw Lehi's arduous exodus

First Nephi 2:11-19 gives us insights into the character of Lehi's four sons. Laman and Lemuel are portrayed as stubborn, hard-hearted, lovers of money, faithless and spiritually weak. Nephi and Sam, on the other hand, are humble seekers of knowledge and of God, faithful, and obedient to parents. The latter two are exemplary, deserving of being emulated, which, since we all need role models, is one of the main purposes for the painstaking inscribing done on the metal plates - to preserve for us in modern times patterns for our lives.

President Heber J. Grant wrote: "I read the Book of Mormon as a young man and fell in love with Nephi more than any other character in profane or sacred history that I ever read, except the Savior of the world. No other individual has made such a strong impression upon me as did Nephi. He has been one of the guiding stars in my life." (Improvement Era, September 1941, p. 524.)By way of further tribute to Nephi in particular, we observe that the marvel is not that some complained about the hardships in leaving all and journeying into the wilderness, but that others did not! Conditions were such that anyone could have murmured. What was the reason for Nephi's amazing ability to press forward positively and not join in the grumbling and rebellion?

"I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers." (1 Ne. 2:1 6.)

Faith and faithfulness are always rewarded. "The Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart." (1 Ne. 2:19.) Nephi was promised a new land, rulership of it and prosperity in it. Nephi and all the others were called upon to make a great sacrifice, to leave behind practically all they had known; but the Lord promised, despite the sacrifice of the moment, that they would eventually possess more and greater blessings. We, of modern times, struggle with that principle also. One of the most dangerous problems we face is wanting immediate gratification. Few people, it seems, believe in postponement - if we want something, we want it now.

Lehi's family sacrificed their possessions, their riches, to follow the old patriarch into the great Arabian desert and over the sea; but after their journey, they possessed a land of amazingly abundant wealth. The promises of the Lord to Lehi and to Nephi (as with our own patriarchal blessings) must have encouraged and sustained them through the sometimes bitter trials they had to endure along the way.

As Lehi and his family traveled through the Arabah and near the Red Sea, they must have been inspired by the example of the prophet-hero Moses, who led their ancestors through some of the same terrain to their promised land. Lehi's wilderness journeys were shorter in time but greater in distance.

Obtaining the Plates of Brass

The Lord commanded Lehi in a dream to send his sons back to Jerusalem for the plates of brass, then in the possession of an elder of the Jews named Laban. (1 Ne. 3:1-4.) Lehi and his family did not have their own copy of the scriptures (roughly equivalent to our Old Testament), and Lehi did not want his children growing up without them, so the brothers had to go back. We might ask at this point, why did the Lord wait until they were many miles away from home to command Lehi to get the plates? Could not arrangements have been made for them before they left Jerusalem? One more test! The older brothers immediately protested, saying it was a hard thing. We usually suppose that their foremost excuse for not wanting to go was their fear of Laban; but there is no doubt that the distance and topography also had some bearing on their resistance.

The Book of Mormon itself and most Book of Mormon commentaries say little, if anything, about the distance and terrain involved. Professor Hugh Nibley refers to the two return trips as "quick trips," noting that "Lehi's sons made a flying trip back to Jerusalem."1

Some friends and I learned by walking it that the distance between Jerusalem and the Red Sea is 200 miles. (Some authors insert a figure of 150 miles or so, "as the crow flies," but ancient Judahites were not crows and they didn't fly, and it was 200 miles to the Red Sea.)

An agreeable pace for a group of people on camels would be between 20 and 30 miles a day. So the journey was a minimum of seven or eight days. Add to that the three days they traveled after reaching the Red Sea, and the figures are up to 260-290 miles in 10 or 11 days. That is one direction only. The round-trip that the Lord and Father Lehi were asking of the four sons was over 500 miles and at least three weeks through some of the most rugged terrain in the Near East. And they had no clue as to how they were going to obtain the plates. (And we, having the advantage of "knowing the end from the beginning," are amazed to think ahead and realize that Lehi, soon after his sons returned from their first assignment, would command them to go back again. That is over a thousand miles and many weeks on those desolate tracts of land - and we have often looked down on Laman and Lemuel for being chronic complainers.)

Having already worked things out with the Lord, Nephi responded positively to the Lord's command. In one of the most inspiring outpourings of faith in all of scripture, Nephi assured his father that he would go and do the things the Lord had commanded because he knew that the Lord never gives a command without providing some way to fulfill it. (See 1 Ne. 3:7.)

The brothers set out with their tents to go up to the land of Jerusalem. Approaching Jerusalem from any wilderness requires an ascent in elevation. All the locative adverbs in the next pages of scripture accurately depict the topography of Judah and the deserts to the south. After Laman's attempt to talk Laban out of the plates, the brothers agreed to go down to the land of their inheritance (which suggests that their homestead was outside of the city proper), gather the gold, silver, and other valuable objects they had left behind, and offer them to Laban in exchange for the plates. They went up again to Laban's house in Jerusalem, and upon their failure to secure the plates by that means, they fled for their lives and hid in a cave ("cavity of a rock" - caves are numerous in the Judean hills and desert).

Having exhausted their resources and their patience, Laman and Lemuel had some hard words for their younger brothers; they even resorted to physical violence until stopped by an angel. The angel again commanded them to go up and get the plates, saying that the Lord would deliver Laban into their hands. After all human effort was expended, the Lord Himself would help them to accomplish the task. One more time they went up to Jerusalem. Nephi, although repulsed by the idea, killed the drunken Laban, who was a thief and a murderer. (1 Ne. 4:5-13.)

Nephi then disguised himself and imitated Laban well enough to convince Zoram, Laban's servant, to open the treasury, get the plates, and follow Nephi outside the walls of the city. Along the way there was talk about what the elders of the Jews had been discussing that night, possibly including the delicate political turmoil in which they were enveloped. Nephi reassured his frightened brothers that he was not Laban. He also convinced Zoram that he could stay with them and be a free man, and he bound him with an oath to do so. Then the five set out down through the wilderness on the long journey back to the main camp. (1 Ne. 4:18-33.)

When the sons returned, the family rejoiced and gave thanks by offering up burnt offerings; then everyone's attention turned to examining their new treasure, the plates of brass.

Contents of the Plates of Brass

The plates that Lehi's sons had obtained at the peril of their lives would prove of inestimable value to prophets, historians, and numberless righteous people for a thousand years. Lehi and Nephi found them "of great worth. . . . insomuch that [they] could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto [their] children." (1 Ne. 5:21.) The brass plates were preserved for the Nephites just as the Book of Mormon was preserved for us. Not only that, but Lehi prophesied that "these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people" who were of his seed. He further prophesied "that these plates of brass should never perish." (1 Ne. 5:18-19.)

As Lehi's family and Zoram scrutinized the plates in their tent-camp on the shores of the Red Sea, they learned that they contained the five books of Moses (1 Ne. 5:11), including an account of the creation of the world, and of Adam and Eve. These five books presumably correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in modern Bibles.

In addition to the five books of Moses, the brass plates also contained a record of the Jews and the prophecies of the holy prophets from the beginning down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, even prophecies that had been spoken by Jeremiah. Laban was also a descendant of Joseph, as was Lehi. (1 Ne. 5:12-16.) Either he or some scribal assistants had been interested in recording two decades of Jeremiah's prophecies.

We know from later writings that it was not easy inscribing on metal plates. Nephi explained why he worked at it so earnestly: "The fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved." (1 Ne. 6:4.) He later added: "We labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ. . . . We prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins." (2 Ne. 25:23, 26.) Nephi followed the example of the great patriarch Abraham, who noted in his own writings: "I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me." (Abr. 1:31.)

The Family of Ishmael

Now Lehi had another revelation: the sons must go back to the land of Jerusalem once again! We repeat the query of the previous episode: Could not the Lord have arranged somehow for Ishmael's family to accompany the others into the wilderness on one of the two prior journeys? We have to repeat also the answer: Yet another test! But the record does not say that they murmured about having to return for their future brides; that was a fairer proposal - bringing marriageable women into the growing colony was apparently worth the aching bones and muscles of an additional long journey.

We might wonder how another family, without direct revelation from the Lord, would be so willing to abandon their home and all they had known to join these refugees in the wilderness. We can only surmise from the record of Nephi that Ishmael believed the words of the Lord that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the enemy armies who already occupied the city. Besides, Lehi's sons had quite a story to tell about how an angel had appeared and how the Lord had miraculously made it possible to secure their genealogical and scriptural records. The one reason given in Nephi's account for the family's willingness to go was 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." (1 Ne. 7:5.)

Our tradition that Ishmael's ancestry went back to Ephraim, son of Joseph, is based on a discourse given by Elder Erastus Snow, in Logan, Utah, on May 6, 1882. He said: "The prophet Joseph informed us that the record of Lehi was contained on the 116 pages that were first translated and subsequently stolen, and of which an abridgment is given us in the First Book of Nephi, which is the record of Nephi individually, he himself being of the lineage of Manasseh; but that Ishmael was of the lineage of Ephraim, and that his sons married into Lehi's family, and Lehi's sons married Ishmael's daughters."2

From the above quotation and from 1 Nephi 7:6 we may propose that two of Ishmael's sons had married daughters of Lehi and Sariah. That would mean the two families were already related by marriage, which might explain Lehi's seeming nonchalance about instructing his sons to bring Ishmael's family down into the wilderness. There might already have been marriage plans between the two families - only the setting for the ceremonies would now have to change from the city to the desert. Another reason why Ishmael's family in particular was elected to join Lehi's was that Ishmael's had five unmarried daughters; the four sons of Lehi along with Zoram would in time marry Ishmael's daughters - a perfect five-way match set up in advance by the Lord.

The final journey from Jerusalem to the Red Sea was not without the usual friction, and even open conflict, between Nephi and his elder brothers. Laman and Lemuel again vented their anger on Nephi to the point of physical violence, and they were finally pacified only by the pleading of some of Ishmael's family. Their hearts were actually softened enough that they bowed down and asked Nephi's forgiveness. The greatness of Nephi's soul is again revealed in his terse summation of the episode: "I did frankly forgive them all that they had done." (1 Ne. 7:21.)

The Lord had now warned at least 18 people to flee from the wrath to come over Jerusalem: Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Zoram, Ishmael, his wife, five daughters, and two sons with their wives. (We do not know, but there may also have been children from the latter four.)

Two Reasons for Two Journeys

In some ways it must have been a sacrifice for Lehi and his family to leave Jerusalem, but their lives were spared by doing so. What about the other two trips? Besides the inevitable lesson that would come from submission and obedience to the will of God, to learn to respond no matter what the command and the conditions, what good reasons were there for commanding four men to trek a thousand miles through the inhospitable desert? The main reasons were two: records - of ancestry and prophecy and marriages - posterity. What they were doing then was tied to the past as well as the future. They needed to preserve the knowledge and memory of one nation while producing with their wives another, that the covenants of the Lord would be fulfilled.


1 An Approach to the Book of Mormon, pp. 87-88, and Lehi in the Deseret (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), p. 63.

2 Journal of Discourses 23:184.

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