This passage doesn’t seem to reflect well on Nephi. I don’t blame Nephi. To the degree that any of us have good reason to think poorly of family members who have wronged us, I think that the older man Nephi has cause to think poorly of his brothers. But how can we not also see the older, embittered Nephi projecting back on his brothers here? Our memories are inevitably colonized by our present experiences—sometimes glamorized and sometimes darkened.
If I read past Nephi’s retrospectively projected interpretation, however, I am deeply moved by Lehi’s wisdom and love. There is no way to see what this family is going through as anything other than wrenching and difficult. I keenly remember feeling like my whole life was torn out from under me when as a melodramatic young teenager my family moved towns. I certainly murmured. I continue to feel my feet kicked out from under me as I move through life (and alas, I continue to murmur). I think we can see a general phenomenon in Lehi’s wrenching experience; but we can also see a particular affinity to our experiences today: we maintain very little in terms of solid, stable, long-term cultural transmission. By which I mean that time and place and identity and purpose are no longer tightly married together and stable over the course of multiple generations.
When I was young, Utah was a homeland, even though I never lived there. Politics and pollution and the shift to an international church have done a lot to make that feeling fade, however much I continue to love Temple Square, Manti, and the mountains above Fairview. I feel like I’ve inherited just enough of an understanding of homeland to catch the tiniest glimpse of what it must feel like to have actually had one—but maybe that’s just substituting sentimentality for the real thing. In reality, I don’t even have a hometown, let alone a homeland. I never know what to say when people ask me where I’m from. I tend to say the Washington, DC area—my most recent place of residence. I’ve moved more than twenty times in fourteen years of marriage, and will move again before this next summer. I have no wealth, no lands, no physical inheritance, no stability of long-term relationships and community coinciding with physical geography. While my experience is perhaps a little extreme, this seems to be normal today.
But it wasn’t Lehi’s normal. Quite the opposite. I don’t know how many generations his family had lived in Jerusalem after their exodus from the North—one or two, or was it more? Long enough that his sons seem to have fully assimilated. It was their homeland and hometown and theological home in addition to its being their physical home. It was likely the same for everyone that they knew or encountered.
But change is something with which we all must cope, even those who lived in this ancient city. Lehi was a prophet called to prophesy this very fact: prepare yourself, for the Eternal City is about to change and be destroyed. Prepare yourself, my family, our entire world is about to be disrupted and change.
Where then is our Polaris?
Lehi gives us two articulations of how we can remain grounded and overcome the vertigo:
- “Oh that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness.”
- “Oh that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord.”
Continual, progressive discipleship channels our inevitable movement and change, directing it toward the divine, toward a deeper relationship. It allows us to be nourished and nurtured by and through the changes we experience. We need not disrupt such discipleship. In the midst of dramatic, wrenching change our lives can be a river—constantly interrupted and shifting, expanding and contracting, but never ceasing to flow and find its way to the sea. The commandments and our keeping of them can be a rock, a foundation, a firm grounding. They anchor us as individuals, and they ground us as a people, and they bind us across generations and even across historical epochs.
I see Lehi’s love and understanding and wisdom here, not Nephi’s bitter, righteous indignation and accusation. I see wisdom for coping with my own changes.