I've said before that I'm not a feminist. But I still appreciate female role models from the scriptures. Yes, we can all learn something from Alma and Moroni and Nephi, but there's something special about having an exemplary woman to look up to that speaks to me more. I can connect with her, feel like she had some of the same struggles I face. There's a bond of kinship, even though I don't know her. I strain for every detail of her life, each recorded word she spoke, and the stories that were told about her. I imagine myself in her place. I imagine the story from her perspective, and it gives me hope and comfort.
But the task is difficult. Women in the scriptures never write their own stories; they're always a footnote to the story of some great prophet, king, or general. Most of their words aren't recorded, and often their very names are lost to history. But occasionally they leave clues as to the women they were and the lives they led.
Take Sariah, wife of Lehi, mother of Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and probably a few daughters. She had a comfortable home in Jerusalem, land for her children to inherit, and was likely well-known and respected in the community.
Then her husband saw a vision, and her world changed. Lehi announced that they would leave Jerusalem--a city, he said, which has become so wicked that it would soon be destroyed. They're leaving in a hurry, and they're not coming back. In her day, that meant she would never see her friends or extended family again. Her previously well-stocked kitchen and trips to the market would be replaced by cooking whatever her sons killed with their bows, in the desert on an open fire. Saintly though she may have been, I can't imagine her being thrilled by the prospect. Then, after another vision, Lehi announced that her four sons must go back to Jerusalem, a journey of many days in a hostile land, to retrieve gold plates from their clan chief, a greedy madman and a notorious drunkard. For weeks, there was no sign of her sons. I imagine a Sariah who hourly scanned the horizon for some sight of her sons' return.
When the appointed day had passed, and still her sons were missing, Nephi records that "she had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against my father... saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 5:2). Sariah gets a bad rap for her harsh words--she comes off as the complaining wife who added to the burdens of an already-weary prophet. But how many of us would bear up under any portion of what she experienced with so little complaining? For a woman who had been heartbroken to leave the land and the people she loved, and then had lost all of her sons, and "she truly had mourned because of us," it's a wonder she didn't hurt anyone physically.
I see her as a woman of great love. She left Jerusalem without complaining. She traveled many miles in the wilderness to a destination she could not conceive of. She mourned the loss of sons she loved. And she rejoiced at their return.
I love the scene of her reunion with her sons. Nephi records:
"And it came to pass that after we had come down into the wilderness unto our father, behold, he was filled with joy, and also my mother, Sariah, was exceedingly glad...And when we had returned to the tent of my father, behold their joy was full" (1 Nephi 5:1,7).
And then, these beautiful words, which are Sariah's transformation:
"...and my mother was comforted."
"Comforted" comes from Middle English, from Old French, from late Latin. The word originally mean "strengthened, filled with strength and power." It means that not only was Sariah was no longer sad, she was filled with testimony, with understanding, with the power it would take to spend the next eight years and at least two pregnancies in the wilderness. That's the only way I can explain what happens next:
"And she spake, saying: Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them" (1 Nephi 5:8, emphasis added).
"Now," she said, she knew that the course she had been pursuing all this time was correct. This is Sariah's transformation.
Before this moment, she was a dutiful wife, following the direction of her husband according to Middle Eastern custom. Lehi said he was acting on commandment from the Lord, but Sariah had seen no visions, heard no heavenly voices. Now the Lord strengthens her, gives her the knowledge that surely she had sought. Now she becomes a willing partner, a participant in the Lord's miracles to her family. She took a step into the darkness, and then another, and another, and when her challenges had been sufficient, the light followed her, and strengthened her.
From this point on, we never hear her complain. She eats of the fruit of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8:14-16). She rejoices in her family's triumphs, and trusts in the Lord when the journey is difficult. Even when her family is without food, and all the men, including Lehi, murmur against the Lord, Sariah is faithful (1 Nephi 16).
Sariah became ill on the voyage to the promised land, amidst fraternal squabbles, a great tempest, and general unrest. Her young sons, who needed her, were distraught. It is not known whether she ever reached the promised land.
Sariah was a noble and great woman who endured much. She saw her family ripped apart by injured pride and insincere repentance. She crossed a hostile wilderness, giving birth amidst great afflictions. She loved her family deeply, and their fighting concerned and hurt her. She will be remembered for her great love and faithfulness. Sariah is my hero.