Posted By Eric Ethington-Boden on July 25, 2016
Lesson 2 in the Gospel Doctrine manual is all about the first few chapters of 1st Nephi, and how obedience to the Mormon god supposedly brings safety and salvation.
To start, the manual tells us to read the stories of 1st Nephi 1-7 which—for those who need a quick summary—follows Lehi, his wife Sariah, and their sons Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam (there are actually six sons, and at least two daughters – although Nephi’s sisters apparently matter so little to him that he doesn’t even mention they exist until after the family arrives in the Americas, and even then not by name or how many he has) as they leave Jerusalem after Lehi has a vision of the city being destroyed. The family packs up their household and travels from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, then travel back from the Red Sea to Jerusalem twice for the brass plates and then for the family of Ishmael.
Traveling From Jerusalem to the Red Sea
On modern roads, the distance from Jerusalem to the Red Sea is roughly 222 miles.
First, let’s consider the journey from Jerusalem to the Red Sea through the desert. According to 1st Nephi 2:6, the trip took three days. If you look at a map of Israel, the trip from Jerusalem to the Red Sea using modern roads (route 25 and route 90) is a distance of approximately 222 miles. The Book of Mormon is claiming a family in the year 600 BC (roughly) was able to travel the 222 miles through the desert in three days?
Anyway, back to the lesson:
“…ask a class member to prepare to summarize the efforts of Nephi and his brothers to obtain the brass plates from Laban (1 Nephi 3:9–4:38).”
After the family has traveled 222 miles from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, Lehi calls Nephi to his tent and tells him that he dreamed that god told him that Nephi needed to go back to Jerusalem with Laman, Lemuel, and Sam to obtain Lehi’s genealogy, which is recorded on brass plates and in the possession of a man named Laban.
One might ask, if god is all-knowing and isn’t capable of having slips of mind, then why didn’t he tell the family to get the brass plates before travelling 222 miles through the desert? Or, since god has been regularly talking to both Lehi and Nephi, why couldn’t he just dictate the genealogy to them? Or if that’s too much trouble, couldn’t he just give them a copy since he already gave Lehi a book to read earlier in the story (1st Nephi 1:11)? Some apologists argue that while the god could indeed have told them to take the book with them earlier, god wanted to test the brothers. But if god is all-knowing and already knows the future (as established by the fact that he has warned the family to leave Jerusalem because the city is going to be destroyed), then he already knows how they would do in the test – making it completely unnecessary.
Nephi’s brothers have a rather reasonable response (3:5), questioning the validity of Lehi’s vision which he himself described as “a dream.” But Nephi reveals his dubious morality, accepting his father’s dream as truth without question because an angel had promised him prosperity and rulership over others if he did (1 Ne 2:19-22).
So the brothers begin the ∼444 mile round trip back to Jerusalem. Upon arrival, the brothers cast lots—apparently the modern equivalent to flipping a coin—to decide which of them has to do what god supposedly told them to go do (3:11). Laman draws the short straw and asks Laban for the plates, but is chased away. The brothers then try buying the genealogy with all the gold and silver that was still in their abandoned house (looters in 600 BC were notoriously procrastinators), but that fails too.
God & Murder
Nephi then sneaks back into the city again, and just happens to come across Laban passed-out drunk in the street (4:7). The god of the Book of Mormon proves himself to be just as monstrous as the god of the Old Testament, and tells Nephi to take Laban’s sword and kill the unconscious and (now) unarmed man (4:10). There are several issues with this particular passage, even outside of the unethical order to murder. Could Nephi not have just tied Laban up somewhere so he didn’t have to kill him (Laban is passed out and will have no idea who did it)? Or, since the Mormon scriptures say that god has the power to soften people’s hearts so that they will follow his instructions (1 Ne 2:16; 2 Ne 10:18; Mosiah 21:15; D&C 105:27, etc.), why couldn’t god just soften the heart of Laban so that he’d be willing to give the brass plates to the family, or even just enough so he’d sell them to the family? As mentioned before, since god is all-knowing he already knows whether or not Nephi will commit murder if he orders him to, so the apologists’ arguments that Nephi needed to prove himself also don’t hold much weight.
There’s an additional dimension to this order to commit murder. For Nephi to follow it, he had to have already been under the impression that murder is something his god might ask him to commit. If he thought that his god was good and would never order him to murder a helpless human being, then when the order came his response would have been something along the lines of “depart from me evil spirit, for my god would never instruct such a thing!” But since this was not Nephi’s response, it tells us that murder was already something he accepted his god might tell him to do and god chooses to reward this acceptance with confirmation that murder is indeed in his nature.
It’s also worth mentioning that 1 Ne 4:9 specifically claims that Laban’s sword was made “of the most precious steel,” even though steel wouldn’t exist in the Middle East for several hundred more years after this story supposedly took place.
Fortunately, no one in the populous city of Jerusalem saw the murder take place, and Nephi strips the decapitated Laban of all of his (presumably blood-drenched) clothing and armor, and puts them on (4:19). The disguise is so impressive that Nephi is not only able to fool Laban’s servant (who doesn’t notice the blood despite walking next to him) into bringing the brass plates outside the city to a small group of waiting men, but even Nephi’s own brothers can’t recognize him until he speaks.
This part of the story concludes as Lehi prophecies that the brass plates will “go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed. Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time.” (1 Ne 5:18-19). However, the brass plates are virtually never mentioned or heard from again, except for Nephi telling us that they included some version of the Genesis story, and it “sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph.” (1 Ne 6:2)
The manual poses the following question:
“How did Nephi show strong and abiding faith? How can we follow his example?”
From an ethical standpoint, it would probably be a good idea to not follow Nephi’s example. Following an authority’s instructions unquestioningly in order to receive promised rewards is not a moral act. Put it into a different context, if someone claimed they had a bag of $25 million hidden in a locker somewhere, and they’ll tell you the location if only you will follow their instructions unquestioningly, would you do it? Additionally, when it comes to an action as serious as murder, is thinking that a god has commanded you to commit it really an excuse? That excuse isn’t all that rare even in modern times, such as the case of Deanna Laney who smashed her three sons’ heads in with a rock because she thought god told her to do it. Even if you believe that a god is actually talking to you, can you confirm it and that you’re not having a hallucination or a psychotic break (even a temporary one), or hearing the wind whistling, etc.? Wouldn’t the moral person demand independent verification that a god really was demanding such a thing? And even if turned out to be true that a god was commanding you to commit a murder, is that a god worthy of adulation or worship given that they’re capable of directing events in a manner that doesn’t require murder but they’re telling you to go ahead with it anyway?
Going Back for Wives
Now that Nephi and his brothers have completed the 444+ mile round trip back to their tents by the Red Sea, god tells them to pick up and go back again, this time to get Ishmael who has enough daughters for all of them (1 Ne 7). Ishmael takes practically no convincing that he should give the brothers his daughters to marry, and for the entire household to abandon their homes and go live in the desert (let’s hope neither family carries any genetic issues, since they’re starting a while civilization themselves).
The manual concludes lesson 2:
“Remind class members that because of Lehi’s and Nephi’s willing obedience, millions of people have been blessed. Encourage class members to always ‘go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Nephi 3:7).'”
It’s unclear who the “millions” of blessed people are. According to the Book of Mormon, the only civilization to survive in the Americas were the Lamanites, who were cursed by god. In fact, 1 Ne 13:10-16 describes the rape, torture, enslavement, and massive injustices committed against the Native Americans by Christopher Columbus and then the United States as simply the “wrath of god” for the supposed wickedness of their ancestors against the Nephites — which itself seems to be a contradiction of Mormonism’s claim not to believe in the concept of Original Sin. Perhaps the lesson is referring not to the direct and hereditary “beneficiaries” of Lehi and Nephi’s decisions, but to the more vague “anyone who reads about them” audience. However, in that case one could argue that Lehi and Nephi are entirely irrelevant, as an all-knowing god simply picked the two people who he already knew would play out the story the way he wanted them to, so they might as well have been fictional characters.