We all pontificate on the merits of Nephi’s actions and the skullduggery of his vile and lesser older brothers. Nephi was undoubtedly a great guy; he saw God (1 Nephi 11:27-33; 12:6; 2 Nephi 11:2-3; 31:17), spoke with the Lord (1 Nephi 2:19), ogled the mother of Christ (1 Nephi 11:14-15), and was not shy about telling us how buff (1 Nephi 2:16; 4:31) and athletic (1 Nephi 4:31) he was, nor in telling his brothers how wrong they were (1 Nephi 3:15-21; 4:1-3; 7:8-15; 15:7-25; 16:1-4, 22, 24; 17:15, 45-47; 18:10).
For all of Nephi’s wonderful traits, most of us probably can identify with, and should emulate, the examples of Laman and Lemuel, at least up until that whole fratricide incident (2 Nephi 5:1-5). Whether or not Laman and Lemuel would have made good on their threats is not clear, the Lord’s warning in verse five does not tell Nephi why he is to leave. Allegations of attempted and intended fratricide pepper Nephi’s account prior to the final schism, but if adequate intent existed during those years action would have followed much sooner. Where there is a will, there is a way. In any event a final big family misunderstanding took place, words were said which should not have been said, and an irreconcilable breach occurred.
If we look past the biased narrative of a wronged younger brother who is establishing a moral and spiritual case for his superiority and authority in the rule of his faction in the family feud (2 Nephi 5:6), what can we learn about Laman and Lemuel?
Right from the beginning, 1 Nephi 1:1, Laman and Lemuel had many of the advantages Nephi had. They likewise were born of goodly parents (the same ones which produced Nephi), were taught in the learning of their father, saw afflictions, were highly favored of the Lord, and knew something of the mysteries and goodness of God.
Laman and Lemuel were obedient to the command of the Lord and followed their father into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:4-5), leaving their life of comfort and ease behind (1 Nephi 2:4,11; 3:22, 25; 17:21). The most damming thing Nephi can say against them for the first few chapters is that they murmured and were stiff necked (1 Nephi 2:11-12). Their parent’s, Sariah (1 Nephi 5:1-3) and Lehi (1 Nephi 16:25), and Nephi himself (2 Nephi 4:26-29; 5:1) also murmured, but this is not held against them later in the narrative. Nephi also faults Laman and Lemuel for not knowing the dealings of God (1 Nephi 2:12), but Nephi’s favorite prophet Isaiah (1 Nephi 19:23; 2 Nephi 11:2, 8; 25:5, 7-8) has a ready response (Isaiah 55:8-9), which is interestingly not among the many portions of Isaiah’s writings Nephi chose to copy. Not until chapter seven does he start accusing his brothers of intent to murder.
Murmer (1828 ed. Webster’s American Dictionary)
(n) 1. A complaint half suppressed, or uttered in a low, muttering voice.
(v) 1. To make a low continued noise, like the hum of bees, a stream of water, rolling waves, or like the wind in a forest; as the murmuring surge.
2. To grumble; to complain; to utter complaints in a low, half articulated voice; to utter sullen discontent; with at, before the thing which is the cause of discontent; as, murmur not at sickness; or with at or against, before the active agent which produces the evil.
Stiff-necked (1828 ed. Webster’s American Dictionary)
(a) Stubborn; inflexibly obstinate; contumacious; as a stiff-necked people; stiff-necked pride.
The worst Laman and Lemuel did initially was to grumble and complain, be discontented. Not all of us are yet like the apostle Paul (Philip 4:11), and on occasion we feel compelled to say, “This is a hard thing we have been asked to do (1 Nephi 3:5).” Like Laman and Lemuel, and even Nephi (2 Nephi 4:26-29; 5:1), Sariah (1 Nephi 5:1-3), and Lehi (1 Nephi 16:25), we murmur. The real question is what happens then. Will we step forward and follow the example of Laman and Lemuel? They too went and did, not knowing how things would work out (1 Nephi 3:7, 9). They left Jerusalem with their father, despite having difficulties with faith and in believing the words of the prophet (1 Nephi 2:11-13). They went forward, acting on faith which was apparently must less than Nephi’s. Once one has spoken with Christ, seen visions, some things are not as difficult as they may be for the novice Christian. In their weakness, Laman and Lemuel acted, they followed the command of the Lord. They pressed forward in incomplete faith. I admire that. In our weakness, when we cry, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), there is power in following the example of Laman and Lemuel, putting one foot in front of the other, acting in faith when every synapse of reason is screaming inside for us to turn and run the other way.
They returned to Jerusalem for the brass plates. Laman was the first to attempt acquiring the brass plates from Laban. Laman and Lemuel went a second time to try and obey their father. They waited for their brother to come back from the third attempt, they could have left him to his fate in the night (1 Nephi 4:4-5,27).
They went back to Jerusalem a second time to bring back Ishmael and his family. No mention is made of how this commandment to go and find a wife was received, just that they obeyed (1 Nephi 7:1-3). Nephi then faults them for wanting to go back to Jerusalem (1 Nephi 7:7), yet the end result is Laman and Lemuel returned to the tent of their father (1 Nephi 7:22). How often are we obedient with full purpose of heart (Jacob 6:5)? How often, like Laman and Lemuel do we hold something back, wishing for that summer cottage in Babylon, or attempt to commute from a second residence on weekends (Neil A Maxwell, “A Wonderful Flood of Light,” 1989)?
They journeyed deeper into the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:11-12). They helped build a boat (1 Nephi 18:1) under the direction of their younger brother who was not a master boatwright. They obtained provisions and set off in a boat built with their own hands at the command of God, on a journey to a new land (1 Nephi 18:6,8).
Laman and Lemuel were stuck with a brother they did not like, and who they felt did not respect them nor their place in the family (1 Nephi 16:37-38; 17:17-21), yet time and again they overcame that dislike and followed their brother Nephi. They were stuck with a brother and ecclesiastical leader who spoke to them with sharpness and great anger (2 Nephi 1:26; 2 Nephi 4:22, 27, 29, 33), yet time and again they listened, followed Nephi, and repented (1 Nephi 7:20; 15:20; 16:5, 24, 39; 18:1).
Not to excuse their actions, but any actual physical violence committed by Laman and Lemuel was limited; a beating (1 Nephi 3:28), a binding and a half hearted attempt at alleged murder with no follow through (1 Nephi 7:16-19), alleged intent to murder with no action taken (1 Nephi 16:37-38; 17: 48, 52), and a second temporary binding (1 Nephi 18:11,15).Why was a stick used in the beating in the cavity of the rock? Was it because Nephi fought back, or escalated a verbal confrontation to violence? He was large in stature, strong (1 Nephi 2:16; 4:31), and quite opinionated (1 Nephi 15:6-11; 16:22; 18:9-10). Nephi tellingly does not take the opportunity to burnish his narrative, and further paint his brothers as the scum of the earth, by saying he turned the other cheek in response to an unprovoked attack. The narrative instead implies Nephi was not winning the confrontation (1 Nephi 3:28-29). Nephi himself was not above threats of violence and death (1 Nephi 17:52).
Laman and Lemuel had their weaknesses and shortcomings, but who of us is ready to throw that first stone (John 8:7)? Their weaknesses are our weaknesses, and thus their example may be more applicable to us than the sanitized and idealized version of himself Nephi portrays. We all struggle with the same things Laman and Lemuel dealt with. Like them we too can press forward and obtain the promised land. Like them, we too can face ultimate downfall. Their sin of stiffneckedness / pride, is the defining sin of our day, our generation (Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware the Sin of Pride,” and Dieter Uchtdorf, “Pride and the Priesthood”), and we have it in spades. Their secret desire to return to Jerusalem, to live in the world and enjoy their possessions and be happy, is the same siren call we face. Let us rather say, “O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell; We’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell (“Ye Elders of Israel”).”