I think it’s interesting to look at Book of Mormon narrators as real people, as characters in their own stories with their own personalities, styles, and reasons for writing what they did. Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming they are omniscient and unbiased historians, and we forget that there’s a story behind the story they’re telling—there are details they’re leaving out, there are perspectives of which they are not aware. Far from discrediting their writings, this approach takes the authors seriously, as it assumes, first and foremost, that they are real people. Omniscient, unbiased narrators belong in the realm of fiction, and the Book of Mormon is anything but. Book of Mormon authors, just like normal people, have their own biases and experiences that color the way they write.
For instance, whenever a Sunday School class gets to the war chapters of the Book of Mormon, we’ll often have a discussion about why so many war chapters are included. Common answers include the idea that we’re engaged in latter-day warfare, or that we should expect physical and/or spiritual war before the Second Coming, etc. Often overlooked is the simpler answer: there are a lot of accounts of war in the Book of Mormon because Mormon, who was abridging and editing the history, was a soldier and a general—Mormon knew war really well. He had seen war all his days, and so when he went back to the historical record, he found the accounts of battles particularly gripping. We see the way he treats the account of Captain Moroni, almost falling all over himself to lionize him, excuse his actions, and hold him up as a standard for others to follow. He even named his son after the man. As you read, you can almost see Mormon, with the wreckage of his wicked, embattled people all around him, with the death toll mounting daily, daydreaming in the library as he pores over the records of an earlier time—the last time when his people, the Nephites, were righteous and victorious in battle. As he envisions what life could have been like if there had been a few more men like this Captain Moroni he’s read so much about, he writes, “if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17).
Every story has context. Sometimes we have to read between the lines to see it. I’ve been working on that this year, and I’ve been amazed at how my perspective of the Book of Mormon stories has changed.
Nephi is another interesting character to look at. We hold him up in children’s songs as a paragon of virtue, the ultimate Mr. “I-will-go-I-will-do.” But I’ve often thought he came off a little rude to his brothers, and had some sympathy for them—after all, he was always running around quoting scripture at them, telling them off for their unfaithfulness, and haughtily interpreting prophecy. If I had a snot-nosed little brother doing that all the time, I’d probably want to tie him to the mast, too. I’m not saying he wasn’t in the right—just that maybe he could have used a few more people skills.
While his family is in the wilderness, the family patriarch (and Nephi’s father-in-law) dies, and Nephi records his death and his daughters' words of sorrow: "And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger" (1 Nephi 16:35).
It's interesting to me that Nephi frames this encounter quite negatively. The girls have been uprooted from their home, lost their father, and they list their afflictions, but Nephi dismisses their concerns as "murmuring against" Lehi. He sees the women's trials so much differently: "And it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth. And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness. And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings" (1 Ne. 17:1-2).
Nephi's brothers, who we label wicked and contentious, saw their wives' suffering differently, "we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years,” they said, “and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions." (1 Ne 17:20). It occurs to me that perhaps Nephi was the one in the wrong here: perhaps he was guilty of a lack of empathy. Perhaps his over-zealousness to inherit the promised land led him to ignore the very real suffering of his wife and his sisters-in-law, who bore children in the wilderness without the benefits of ultrasounds and infant formula. Maybe it appeared to Nephi that the women “began to bear their journeyings without murmurings” because they got tired of talking to someone who refused to listen and reprimanded them for their unfaithfulness when their backs got tired of carrying their children across the desert.
I find it interesting that Nephi records three responses to the same women's suffering: his own, his brothers', and their wives'. And yet it doesn't occur to him that one of these things is not like the others. Many years later, Nephi's brother Jacob chastised his people for their callous behavior toward their wives, and commended the Lamanite men for the care and love they showed theirs, "Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none…Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?" (Jacob 3:5-7)
I wonder if it's too much of a stretch to say that the dynamic manifested there was already emerging as the family was crossing the desert. I'm not saying, of course, that Nephi was guilty of concubinage--or that Laman and Lemuel were great guys I'd want to go on a road-trip with. Just that perhaps they were better than Nephi in this, at least--they listened to their wives. They took their concerns seriously. They defended their wives and stood up for their needs. And it hurt them to see their wives go through so much pain.
I've been amazed since I got married at how loving and good Chandler is to me. It has been hard for me to adjust to all the changes that have taken place in the past few months, and a few weeks ago all the stress and pressure boiled over again and I was crying and heartsick. But when I looked in Chandler's eyes and saw how heartbroken he was to see me so sad, how willing he was to do anything at all to make me happy, I was filled with so much love for him, so much gratitude that I'd been given this good man who truly loved me, more fully and deeply than I knew or deserved. He's the kind of man who would stick up for me when I was most vulnerable, who would say, "Screw you, Nephi, we're not leaving this campsite until my wife recovers, and I don't care how good you think raw meat is for nursing women or how much you think we'll be blessed for getting back on the camels *this instant*!" (Actually, he's far more diplomatic than that, so he'd probably find a nice way to say that, but still, he's got my back.) And then he would come stroke my hair and rub my feet and hold me as I sobbed incoherently, and most importantly, he'd listen to me and validate my concerns and mingle his tears with mine and help me know that really, everything would be okay. I know it sounds like some odd combination of cheesiness and blasphemy to thank God for a husband who complains like Nephi and loves like Laman and Lemuel, but, well, there it is.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love the Book of Mormon. It’s an endless source of fascination to me—especially when I look for the story behind the words on the page.