I think I first started having these thoughts early in my mission, perhaps even as early as my time in the MTC. Do we oversimplify the story of Laman and Lemuel?
(For my friends unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, let me add a little background: Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is a historical record focusing on the spiritual experiences of some of the native inhabitants of the American continents. We believe it was primarily written by a prophet/historian named Mormon between 380 & 400 A.D. and that it was finished by Mormon’s son Moroni after Mormon was fatally wounded in a battle. When Mormon first started to compile his record, he mentioned that he took his work from many sources, but only one source he quoted verbatim at length, a book written by a prophet named Nephi in the mid-to-late 500 B.C’s. This book was Nephi’s recollection of his life and his travels, and in particular his workings with God. Nephi passed his book on to his younger brother upon his death, and the book was preserved by several generations of his decedents until it was given to the king to be added to the people’s records. Mormon used Nephi’s book word-for-word for the first 6 books in the Book of Mormon. The remaining works are compilations and summaries, with the occasional lengthy quotation from someone’s letter or sermon.)
The basic story of Nephi is that he followed his father Lehi out of Jerusalem in around 600 B.C. because his father had been called as a prophet and the people of Jerusalem would rather have killed Lehi than repent of their sins. Basically Lehi would have been a contemporary to the prophet Jeremiah. Lehi had 4 sons, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi. In general we tend to look at all four of these sons somewhat one-dimensionally: Laman and Lemuel were disobedient complainers, Sam was a good guy, Nephi was a great guy. There is no better (or should I say worse?) depiction of these one-dimensional characterizations than the Living Scriptures company’s cartoons, which are often an LDS child’s first introduction to the stories in the Bible and Book of Mormon. It was as I entered adulthood that I began to feel the traditional depiction in abbreviated stories leaves out much nuance and mystery.
I recently reread the book of 1st Nephi as part of the Instagram BoM365 challenge, and I had that same nagging feeling that we might be missing some of the lessons we can learn from Laman and Lemuel when we oversimplify their characteristics. After all, Nephi wrote this account decades after the fact, and at that point he had the hindsight that the family would break into two main groups after traveling to the American continent. On top of that, he was writing this record onto metal plates, which he complained did not allow for the full expression of language he could use when preaching to his people, so details may have been left out in order to finish his narrative.
As readers we are introduced to Laman and Lemuel in chapter 2 of Nephi’s book. Nephi starts by mentioning that Lehi decided to name the valley they were camped in and the river they stayed by after these two sons. Lehi tells his sons that the river and the valley should serve as reminders to them to keep the Lord’s commandments, and which point Nephi informs the readers that Laman and Lemuel were not too thrilled to have left Jerusalem just because of their father’s vision. We don’t really know anything about Laman and Lemuel before that. We don’t know what they were like when they lived in Jerusalem, all we really know is that they were wealthy and that they were not yet married. Were they stiffnecked and disobedient growing up in a comfortable home, with wealth and a fairly well-known father? Or did that environment make it easier to live righteous lives? We do know that when their father tells them to pack up, leave their wealth, and follow him to uninhabited lands that they did so. They complained about it, but they did it.
In a novel, pointing out the complaints of a person early in a story foreshadows future behavior, but we don’t believe the Book of Mormon to be a novel, the First Book of Nephi is a historical record written by Nephi who personally knew his brothers and experienced this odyssey side-by-side with them over the course of years. So Nephi isn’t foreshadowing the future breakup of his family into two camps, he knows that happened by the time he started writing, he’s looking back at his own history and looking for the point when Laman and Lemuel’s behavior started indicating that they wouldn’t follow their father’s example. He’s trying to explain to future generations that despite his efforts, there wasn’t much Nephi could have done to get Laman and Lemuel on board with the idea to create a community based on the Law of Moses. He might even blame himself for times he could have been more loving, patient, and kind to his brothers and perhaps he feels some of the responsibility for the family’s breakup. After all, at one point, Nephi laments, “wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.”
I wish we knew more about Laman and Lemuel. I believe that Lehi loved these two sons dearly and Nephi wished for a better relationship with them throughout his life. I think that taking a more nuanced look at the whole family dynamic and think about what might have worked in Lehi’s family to keep these two sons committed to the family and the journey, despite the family’s occasional problems and disagreements; rather serious disagreements that often resulted in physical abuse and threats of death. If Nephi and Lehi could reach out to Laman and Lemuel under such trying circumstances and forgive them, and if Laman and Lemuel were able to occasionally swallow their pride and go with the family without being converted to their father’s preaching, then perhaps there is a much deeper lesson about family and forgiveness in these early chapters of the Book of Mormon than we typically teach our children.
[update: as I was looking for some media to add to this post, I found this talk from Neil A. Maxwell. I guess I was on the right track to dig a little deeper: