The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel

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Over the last few years, several Latter-day Saint scholars have commented on how the socio-religious setting of Judah in the late-seventh century bc informs and contextualizes our reading of the Book of Mormon, especially that of 1 and 2 Nephi. Particular emphasis has been placed on how Lehi and Nephi appear to have been in opposition to certain changes implemented by the Deuteronomists at this time, but Laman’s and Lemuel’s views have only been commented on in passing. In this paper, I seek to contextualize Laman and Lemuel within this same socio-religious setting and suggest that, in opposition to Lehi and Nephi, they were supporters of the Deuteronomic reforms.

In his book Understanding the Book of Mormon, Grant Hardy observed, “In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel are stock characters, even caricatures. They don’t develop much, and it seems that their sole mode of communication is complaining.” Hardy argues that Nephi does this deliberately; he “flattens his older brothers by treating them as a single unit rather than as individuals.”1 Nephi, in other words, creates a context (or lack thereof) wherein his brothers merely become oppositional props in his own repeated successes. Using modern scholarship on the religious and social milieu of Judah just before the Babylonian exile, we can create a different context for Laman’s and Lemuel’s actions and attitudes that will flesh out what Nephi flattens.2

Socio-Religious Tension in Seventh Century bc Jerusalem

[Page 88]Lehi raised his family in Jerusalem in the late-seventh century bc before taking his family from that world to the deserts of Arabia early in the sixth century bc (see 1 Nephi 1:4). The seventh century bc was a time of social unrest and uncertainty in Judah. According to John W. Welch and Robert D. Hunt, “This has been a time of momentous turmoil. Civil wars, international conflict, rising and falling fortunes, and shifting cultural pressures and loyalties have raised anxieties and uncertainties throughout the region.”3 Both the political and religious landscape were being transformed in ways that heightened certain social tensions — tensions that were reflected in the family dynamics described in 1 Nephi.

In the mid-seventh century bc, King Josiah instituted sweeping political and religious reforms throughout Judah. “During this turbulent period,” explains Mordechai Cogan, “Josiah’s home-front reputation was made.” Cogan proceeds to summarize Josiah’s reforms, as portrayed by the biblical authors:

Our sources depict Josiah as deeply moved by the message of the “book of law,” when it was read to him, that violators of Israel’s covenant with God would be severely punished. After due consultation and encouragement from the prophetess Huldah, he convoked a kingdomwide assembly to renew the covenant between Judah and God based on the “law.” This commitment in hand, Josiah ordered a thoroughgoing purge of all non-Israelite forms of worship — the residue of centuries-long accommodation and influence. Everything associated with these rituals was removed and burned, and the priests who attended them banned. And, like Hezekiah in his day, Josiah outlawed worship at the local shrines and high places, redirecting all ritual to the newly cleansed Temple.4

According to Margaret Barker, “One generation before Zedekiah there had been the great upheaval in the reign of King Josiah, something now regarded as the turning point in the history of Jerusalem and its [Page 89]religion.”5 Because the book of Deuteronomy is believed to be the “book of law” associated with this reform, the movement is often called the Deuteronomic Reform, and those who agreed with it are called Deuteronomists. Again, Barker explains, “We now recognize that King Josiah enabled a particular group to dominate the religious scene in Jerusalem about 620 bc: the Deuteronomists. Josiah’s purge was driven by their ideals, and their scribes influenced much of the form of the Old Testament we have today, especially the history in 1 and 2 Kings.”6 All of this is likely within the lifetime of Lehi, and the efforts at reform, and the social tensions they created no doubt would have continued into the reign of Zedekiah in 597 bc.

The many scholarly attempts at reconstructing the full nature and extent of these reforms often differ in details. Barker laments, “We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No original versions of the actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval that was not forgotten.”7 It is from these sources that a context for the differing perspectives of members of Lehi’s family can be created. As other Latter-day Saints have noticed, the specific context woven by Barker, though regarded by some scholars as idiosyncratic, proves particularly illuminating for the Book of Mormon.

It is important to realize that Lehi may not have been in complete agreement with Josiah’s reforms. Lehi’s heritage goes back to the northern Israelite Kingdom, to which these reforms showed a certain degree of hostility. Gardner writes, “The antagonism of the Deuteronomic history to the northern kingdom and the Book of Mormon’s affiliation with that kingdom should suggest at least the possibility that Lehi might resist some of Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms.”8 This is not to say that Lehi was completely opposed to the reforms. In fact, Lehi and Nephi do appear to be positively influenced in some ways by the Deuteronomic [Page 90]ideology.9 Thus, the way Josiah’s reforms were seen in Lehi’s eyes might be compared to how the Protestant Reformation is viewed by Latter-day Saints today — the work of inspired and well-intended individuals who are, nonetheless, misguided in some (often many) respects.

Significantly, Barker notes, “Remnants of the older faith survived in many places, preserved by the descendants of those who fled from Josiah’s purge.”10 Although Lehi leaves after Josiah’s day, his persecutors who “sought his life, that they might take it away” (1 Nephi 1:20) were likely supporters of the reform (see below). Hence, Gardner applies this to Lehi.

Lehi and his family fit into Barker’s category of people who left Jerusalem who did not agree with the reforms. The Book of Mormon represents Israelite religion in the pre-exilic period and particularly elements of a time when there were differing ideas and probably heated differences in the direction that religion was to take in addition to the political turmoil imposed by conquering armies, Lehi also experienced a major shift in Judah’s public religion, directed by the king. No change comes without resistance, and many crucial themes of the Book of Mormon emphasize some elements of the pre-reform religion lost to the biblical record, although there are indications that Nephite religion was not opposed to all of the Deuteronomistic agenda.11

Gardner and other Latter-day Saint commentators have used this context productively to shed light on Lehi and Nephi, but this context has been applied to Laman and Lemuel only in passing. These older sons of Lehi seem to have fully bought into the reformers’ ideology, and this is reflected in their reactions to Lehi and Nephi.

Laman and Lemuel As Deuteronomists

“Whatever else they may have been,” reasons Hardy, “Laman and Lemuel appear to have been orthodox, observant Jews. Nephi — who has a vested interest in revealing their moral shortcomings — never accuses them [Page 91]of idolatry, false swearing, Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, adultery, or ritual uncleanness.”12 Hardy’s argument is one from silence, but the silence is significant. Indeed, Nephi says Laman and Lemuel were “like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father” (1 Nephi 2:13). The gate-keepers of Jewish “orthodoxy” just prior to the exile were the Deuteronomists. Kevin Christensen explains, “Laman and Lemuel demonstrate sympathy for the Jerusalem party, the same group of people who caused problems for Jeremiah and Ezekiel.”13 Brant Gardner more explicitly links them to the Deuteronomic reforms.

The situation in Jerusalem after Josiah’s reforms may shed some light on understanding Laman and Lemuel as well as illuminating some of the religious conflict that runs throughout the Book of Mormon. … Lehi’s family may be a microcosm of the conflict in Jerusalem between those who espoused Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms and the pre-reform religion. Lehi’s theology had affinities with the older religion. What if Laman and Lemuel were believers in the reform?14

Though posing the question, Gardner does not explore the possibilities it opens up. Taking a number of case studies from Nephi’s record, the actions and attitudes of Laman and Lemuel do in fact become believable as those of a pair of believers in the Deuteronomic reforms.

Murmuring At the Altar

When Lehi first arrived at his first camp site, “he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord” (1 Nephi 2:7). While alternative interpretations of the legal codes were likely available,15 strict interpretation of the legal codes by Deuteronomists prohibited the [Page 92]sacrifice and offerings by non-Levites outside the temple.16 It therefore seems significant that it is immediately after Lehi sacrifices at the altar that Nephi first mentions Laman and Lemuel, “murmur[ing] against their father” (1 Nephi 2:11–12). Read against the backdrop of the reforms, the timing would suggest the possibility that it was Lehi’s perceived violation of Deuteronomic law which evoked, or at least contributed to, the complaints from his oldest sons.

“Visionary Man”

One of the accusations Laman and Lemuel make against Lehi at this time is that he was a “visionary man,” who followed the “foolish imaginations of his heart” (1 Nephi 2:11; cf. 1 Nephi 5:9; 17:20). According to Kevin Christensen, the Deuteronomist ideology rejected visions as a means of knowing the Lord’s will, and not only did Lehi receive visions, but some of the content of his visions specifically reflected old beliefs the Deuteronomists were trying to eradicate.17

Both John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper have noted that “visionary man” is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew חזה (ôzeh). Roper adds that the pejorative usage of “visionary man” by Laman and Lemuel was more than mere ridicule or name-calling — it was actually the strong accusation that he was a false prophet.18 Deuteronomists would have regarded a prophet like Lehi — who claimed to have seen the divine council and received the mysteries (see 1 Nephi 1:8–14) — as a false prophet. Thus Laman and Lemuel calling their father a “visionary man” would be a direct result of their acceptance of the Deuteronomistic interpretation of what a proper prophet should be. They were declaring that their father, by definition of seeing visions, should not be accepted as a true prophet.

Nephi appears to counter, however, by proof-texting from Numbers 12:6,19 which explicitly declares “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream” (emphasis added). Nephi, it seems, draws on this [Page 93]passage just before introducing his brothers’ complaints, writing, “the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream” (1 Nephi 2:1). Hence, as Nephi sets up the narrative, he has already subtly refuted the charge that his father was a false prophet by the time the reader is exposed to it.

“Jerusalem, That Great City”

According to Nephi, Laman and Lemuel did not “believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets” (1 Nephi 2:13). In this, again, Laman and Lemuel were aligned with the Jerusalem elite. David Rolph Seely and Fred E. Woods note that this was the common attitude in Jerusalem at the time and identify six contributing factors.20 One such factor was the heightened sense of self-righteousness connected with the reforms and manifest in Laman and Lemuel (see 1 Nephi 17:22). “The recent reforms of Josiah (640–609 bc) … had given certain people of Judah an undue sense of self and community righteousness that they believed would surely preserve them from any threatened destruction.”21

Seely and Woods also explain, “The reforms of Josiah — in conjunction with Judah’s perception of the invincibility of their city promised in the Davidic covenant and the miraculous deliverance of the city during the reign of Hezekiah — reinforced the people’s belief that the great city of Jerusalem could not be destroyed.”22 Hezekiah, who instituted reforms similar to Josiah’s about a century earlier, is Josiah’s most immediate ideological forbears. Meanwhile, in the Deuteronomist history, Josiah “is depicted as a second David” and “touted as the ideal Davidic king.”23 Laman and Lemuel, “like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem,” did not believe that their father’s prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem could ever happen.

Rebellion in the Desert and “Murderous” Intent

Deuteronomic ideals also provide a context within which Laman and Lemuel’s rebellion, and even attempt to kill Nephi, in 1 Nephi 7 can [Page 94]make sense. Believing the Deuteronomists were right, and thus the Lord would protect the holy city, “they were desirous to return unto the land of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 7:7). As Nephi tries to persuade them to rejoin their father at his camp, he reiterates the prophecies of destruction and adds to them his own prophetic pronouncement, “Now behold, I say unto you that if ye will return unto Jerusalem ye shall also perish with them,” words which Nephi insists were given to him by “the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Nephi 7:15, see vv. 13–15). Now Nephi, like Lehi, was in their minds a “visionary man,” that is, a false prophet. Grant Hardy explains how this would appear to “orthodox Jews” at that time. “Laman and Lemuel would have been aware that the scriptural penalty for false prophets was death (Deut. 18:20; cf. 13:1–11). … The brothers might well have recalled that the Deuteronomic judgment on false prophets required a summary execution, even for ‘thy brother, the son of thy mother’ (Deut. 13:6).”24 This could also explain their later attempts to kill both Nephi and Lehi (see 1 Nephi 16:37–38).

Nephi As Joseph

At various points in his narrative, Nephi uses allusions to the conflict between Joseph and his brothers to set himself up as a type of Joseph, a younger brother chosen to rule over his older siblings. The Deuteronomists opposed traditions grounded in the old “wisdom literature,” which portrayed prophets as men of visions and dreams. Joseph is one of two biblical figures (the other is Daniel) most prominently portrayed as “wise men” (the prophets of the wisdom tradition).25

That Joseph was a prominent figure in an ideology opposed by the Deuteronomists perhaps adds a layer of subtext to Nephi’s use of Joseph, particularly in the narrative of 1 Nephi 7.26 Here, parallels are most pronounced during Laman and Lemuel’s first rebellion, in which his older brothers take him and bind him with the intent to kill him and let his body “be devoured by wild beasts” (1 Nephi 7:16). Joseph’s older brothers also bound him with the intent to kill him, and told their father he had been devoured by an “evil beast” (see Genesis 37:20, 33). Thus, in the height of his opposition with his brothers, Nephi portrays himself as a second Joseph, one of the heroes of the old wisdom tradition. Laman’s [Page 95]and Lemuel’s affiliation with the Deuteronomists and their opposition to that tradition heightens the symbolism of Nephi’s allusions and imbues them with further meaning: not only Nephi’s brothers, but the movement which they represent, the Deuteronomic reforms, are likened unto Joseph’s brothers and thus given a negative connotation.

Laman, Lemuel, and the Law

The clearest evidence of their Deuteronomic sensibilities is their expressed commitment to the law. The Deuteronomists heavily emphasized the law. “The first wave of activity,” reports Kevin Christensen, “came with Josiah’s decade of reform, the composition of the Deuteronomist edition of the history, and the reemphasis on Moses and the Law in Israelite religion.”27 Christensen explains that the reforms supplanted the older wisdom tradition, to which Nephi and Lehi appear to be affiliated, with a near veneration of the law.28

Laman and Lemuel also hold the law up as the final arbiter of “righteousness.”

And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people. (1 Nephi 17:22)

It was the Deuteronomic movement that placed this kind of emphasis on the law. While Nephi is clearly committed to living the law as well, for Nephi the law is not the end itself (see 2 Nephi 11:4; 25:24). “The picture in the Book of Mormon,” writes Christensen, “strikes a balance between the Law and the wisdom traditions. The Law in the Book of Mormon never closes the door on revelation but rather promises more. The Law in the Book of Mormon is never seen as an end in itself, but as a type and shadow of Christ.”29

At issue, then, is not the question of whether the law is important, but rather the role that the law should play. Nephi’s “soul [was] rent with [Page 96]anguish” after Laman’s and Lemuel’s insistence that the law was all that made men righteous (1 Nephi 17:47), and he held out “great hopes” that Laman and Lemuel would eventually repent (1 Nephi 16:5). Nephi may have used the law as “type and shadow of Christ,” as Christensen puts it, specifically in effort to appeal to Laman’s and Lemuel’s Deuteronomist sensibilities.

Lehi As Moses

All theories are best tested by how well they can account for possible counter-indications. One such potential counter-argument to the thesis I have sketched above is the positive use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi themselves. I will attempt to deal with one significant example of this, found in how Lehi’s farewell address is structured.

Noel B. Reynolds has argued that here Lehi (or, perhaps Nephi in how he records Lehi’s speech) has framed himself as a type of Moses,30 who was the central hero in the minds of the Deuteronomists. Reynolds notes that this is a common technique used by ancient Israelite (Deuteronomist) authors.

Recent scholarly analyses of the Old Testament show that ancient Israelites expected true prophets to draw such comparisons, at least implicitly. … Old Testament texts consciously portrayed great prophets and heroes in ways that would highlight their similarities with Moses, the prophetic predecessor whose divine calling and powers were not questioned.31

Most examples of this pattern come from the Deuteronomist history (Joshua–2 Kings).

As a rhetorical technique, the intent was to convey the message that the later prophet or hero was as significant, in at least some respects, as Moses himself. “By constructing the account of a second figure to evoke the readers’ memories of a prominent earlier figure, a writer can suggest strongly to the readers that the later person plays a similar role in God’s theater, as did the first.”32 Reynolds has argued that in Lehi’s final [Page 97]address to his sons and their families (see 2 Nephi 1), he patterned his speech after Moses’ ceremonial farewell address in Deuteronomy.

Lehi’s last address to his people appears consciously to invoke at least 14 important themes and situational similarities from the final address of Moses as recorded in Deuteronomy. In so doing, Lehi added the weight of the testimony of Moses to his own. This is especially important because, as is often the case with the living prophet, his people were more accepting of the teachings of the long-dead Moses than of the living Lehi and his successor, Nephi.33

How can we make sense of this apparently positive use of Deuteronomy? First, it should be clarified that Lehi was not, as mentioned earlier, completely opposed to the reforms. Second, being against parts of the ideology of a particular group who uses Deuteronomy as a foundation is not the same thing as being opposed to that text itself.34 Lehi and Nephi were not anti-Deuteronomy, and certainly were not anti-Moses.

Moreover, the family dynamics may have also played a role. Laman and Lemuel are heavily targeted in Lehi’s farewell address (see 2 Nephi 1:2, 12–27). Here, Lehi, who has previously “exhort[ed] them with all the feeling of a tender parent” (1 Nephi 8:37), is making his final plea to his rebellious sons. As Deuteronomists, they would have especially revered Moses as the lawgiver. Thus, in an effort to be as persuasive as possible, Lehi patterned his address after that of the one figure he knew his older sons would most revere.35

It is important to point out, however, that while Lehi used Moses in an effort to persuade his wayward sons, as Reynolds stresses, he nonetheless did not consider his own authority as derivative from Moses but rather appealed to his own special revelations.

[Page 98]Lehi used Deuteronomy only as a parallel and not as a foundation for his teaching and blessing. He had experienced the same kinds of visions and revelations that Moses had received. In a vision, God showed Lehi the mixed future of his people and the salvation of all mankind. He had beheld the future birth and ministry of the Messiah, the Son of God. He had seen the triumph of God and his people in the last days, and he had beheld God himself on his throne. The last thing Lehi would have wanted to communicate was that Moses’ writings were the sole source of his understanding. … But he knew that his rebellious older sons specifically rejected his visions, calling him a visionary man (1 Nephi 2:11), and he therefore took advantage of Moses as support. Thus Lehi phrased his message in terms that should have repeatedly reminded his hearers of Moses’ similar message delivered on a similar occasion.36

As mentioned earlier, visions and Messianic teachings such as those taught by Lehi and Nephi were in conflict with Deuteronomist ideals. Yet Lehi knew that Laman and Lemuel held Moses in high regard, and thus sought to use him as an archetype for his own calling. Hence, the above suggestion that Nephi may have used the law to appeal to Laman’s and Lemuel’s Deuteronomist sensibilities, while trying to point them to something greater, may likewise apply here: Lehi draws on the figure of Moses because he knows it will appeal to Laman and Lemuel, but at the same time he is using the Moses type to suggest that he himself was a true and legitimate prophet.


I have attempted to illustrate how the social context surrounding the Deuteronomic reforms, as reconstructed by Margaret Barker, not only explains the actions of Lehi and Nephi, as other commentators have observed, but also illuminates our understanding of Laman and Lemuel and their interactions with the prophetic duo formed by their father and younger brother. To be clear, it must be remembered that Nephi and Lehi are not anti-law nor anti-Deuteronomy nor even anti-Josiah. Rather, they stand in contrast to parts of the ideological agenda of the Deuteronomists. Laman and Lemuel appear to have adopted, perhaps deliberately as rebellious and resentful teenagers often do, the very parts [Page 99]of that ideology that their father rejected. Many of the same conflicts going on in Jerusalem at the time emerge as points of tension between the older brothers and their father and obnoxious little brother. The paradigm juxtaposing Lehi and Nephi as “wise men” of the old tradition and Laman and Lemuel as supporters of the Deuteronomic ideology might thus be used to explain some of the dynamics of Lehi’s family. In saying this, I do not wish to justify Laman’s and Lemuel’s actions — Nephi and Lehi, after all, were true, not false, prophets. Yet this view helps make sense of their actions against Nephi and Lehi.

The examples cited above are merely a sampling of ways this paradigm could enlighten our reading of the Book of Mormon. Much more could be done, for instance, to explore how this perspective might change our reading of Lehi’s vision of the tree of life,37 the place of Laman and Lemuel within that dream, and their struggle to understand the vision. In this article, I have merely provided a few relatively simple “case studies” which I feel serve to build the foundation for seeing Laman and Lemuel as Deuteronomists.

Contextualizing Laman and Lemuel, of course, carries certain consequences. No longer can they be seen as the flat caricatures Nephi makes out of them. The contrast between Lehi and Nephi on one hand, and Laman and Lemuel on the other, no longer stands as the stark and obvious difference between good and evil. Instead, it represents two competing religious ideologies. This isn’t too different from our own world today, and we can now more fully appreciate how Laman and Lemuel could have been led to think, “like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 2:13), that the indignation they directed at their father and brother was justified.

1. Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 33.

2. On the role of the historian or scholar as a creator of context, see Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2001), 17–22.

3. John W. Welch and Robert D. Hunt, “Culturegram: Jerusalem 600 bc,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 22.

4. Mordechai Cogan, “Into Exile: From the Assyrian Conquest of Israel to the Fall of Babylon,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 345.

5. Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2006), 70.

6. Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” 71.

7. Margaret Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 538.

8. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007–2008), 1:36.

9. See Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001): 9–11;William J. Hamblin, “Vindicating Josiah,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. 4 (2013): 165–76.

10. Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?” 534.

11. Gardner, Second Witness, 1:41.

12. Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, 39.

13. Kevin Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 497.

14. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007–2008), 1:92.

15. The Dead Sea Scrolls, though later than Lehi’s time-period, provide an example of an interpretation which is consistent with Lehi’s actions. See David Rolph Seely, “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 62–69.

16. See ibid., 66–67.

17. See Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom,” 452–457.

18. See John A. Tvedtnes, “A Visionary Man,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 29–31; Matthew Roper, “Scripture Update: Lehi as a Visionary Man,” Insights 27/4 (2007): 2–3.

19. I greatly appreciate the insight of an anonymous reviewer who pointed this out to me.

20. See David Rolph Seely and Fred E. Woods, “How Could Jerusalem, ‘That Great City,’ be Destroyed?” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 595–610.

21. Seely and Woods, “How Could Jerusalem ‘That Great City,’ be Destroyed?” 596.

22. Seely and Woods, “How Could Jerusalem ‘That Great City,’ be Destroyed?” 605.

23. Cogan, “Into Exile,” 342, 345.

24. Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, 40.

25. See Christensen, “Paradigms Regained,” 20–21; Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom,” 492–495.

26. See Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, 42–43; Gardner, Second Witness, 148–149.

27. Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001): 11.

28. Kevin Christensen, “Prophets and Kings in Lehi’s Jerusalem and Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 177–193.

29. Christensen, “Paradigms Regained,” 19.

30. See Noel B. Reynolds, “Lehi as Moses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 26–35; Noel B. Reynolds, “The Israelite Background of Moses Typology in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 44/2 (2005): 5–23.

31. Reynolds, “The Israelite Background,” 14.

32. Reynolds, “The Israelite Background,” 15.

33. Reynolds, “Lehi as Moses,” 35.

34. Latter-day Saints should understand this well, since many self-proclaimed “biblical Christians” have similarly created ideologies we disagree with that are founded, at least loosely, on biblical citations. Our disagreement does not mean, however, that we dismiss the Bible itself.

35. What I am suggesting here is not unlike what tends to happen when Latter-day Saint missionaries bump into zealous evangelicals while tracting. In an effort to be persuasive, the missionaries will often proof-text the Bible to teach (or, more often, argue for) doctrines unique to LDS believers, in preference to using modern LDS scriptures that often teach these doctrines more clearly and fully.

36. Reynolds, “The Israelite Background,” 11–12.

37. While others, most notably Daniel C. Peterson in “Nephi and His Asherah,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25, have used the backdrop of Pre-exilic religion and the Josian reforms to discuss the aspects of Lehi’s vision, they have not explored how these dynamics might have played out within his family.

16 thoughts on “The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel

  1. Here are a few other considerations that have occurred to me while working on another article. Deuteronomy 21:17 endorsed primogeniture, i.e., Laman’s right to leadership in the family, another motive for Laman to be a Deuteronomist. As noted above, Josiah had established Jerusalem as the only authorized location for ritual sacrifices. If Laman and Lemuel were pious Deuteronomists, they would have resisted being separated from Jerusalem, the only place where essential ordinances were authorized. Their resistance to Nephi most prominently flared up in moments when they were losing their opportunity to return to Jerusalem. Thus, Laman and Lemuel first became angry with Nephi immediately following the failed attempt to buy the brass plates from Laban. If Laman and Lemuel were Deuteronomists, that was a pivotal and deeply disappointing moment for them. In that moment, they lost their wealth and became outlaws who would probably thereafter have no hope of returning to Jerusalem and certainly, lacking wealth, no hope of returning as Jerusalem elites. Presumably, it was the loss they suffered in that moment of all connection to the sacred city and its—from their point of view—righteous elites and authorized rituals that motivated them to begin beating Nephi. Following the intervention of the angel (whom Deuteronomy advised Laman and Lemuel to ignore if he taught anything contrary to what Moses had handed down), Nephi cited Moses in trying to persuade Laman and Lemuel that they should continue their mission (1 Nephi 4:1-3). This appeal to Moses can be added to the one mentioned in the article that Lehi used as evidence that Laman and Lemuel, like other Deuternomists, thought of themselves as faithful followers of Moses. As the article mentioned, Laman and Lemuel next rebel when Lehi offers the sacrifice Deuteronomy forbade him to offer. The rebellion following that one again occurred during a departure from Jerusalem, the last departure, with Ishmael and his family, again, a time of deep distress for Laman and Lemuel if they were faithful Deuteronomists who revered Jerusalem. One might add that being part of a wealthy family, Laman and Lemuel might have hoped to join those dressed in fine clothing in the Jerusalem palace and temple, the two greatest and most spacious buildings in Jerusalem. While Lehi rejected the people in those buildings, Laman and Lemuel, who thought the Jerusalem elites were righteous disciples of Moses and Josiah, may well have aspired to join them. Their unwillingness to come to the sacred tree in Lehi’s dream, a tree framed as a symbol of the mother of the Son of God, is precisely what we would expect from followers of Josiah who had cut down all the Asherah groves. And their unwillingness to help build Nephi’s ship, that would produce a final, irrevocable, departure from the land of Israel where Jerusalem was located is consonant with the earlier rebellions that occurred as separation from Jerusalem was visited on them. Likewise consonant is the fact that it was Lamanites, the Deuteronomist Amulonites, and the King-man Amalekites (whose name contained the Hebrew word king, M-L-K and who had MuLeKite roots), who built a city named Jerusalem, apparently still resenting or regretting their separation from what Deuteronomy had taught them was the uniquely, exclusively holy city (Alma 21:1-2).

  2. Great article. It hadn’t occurred to me that Laman and Lemuel might be Deuteronomists. Your argument is persuasive. But you are too kind, I think, to Josiah. A strong case can be made—and I think I have made just made it in Square Two—that Josiah’s reforms were an apostasy. The Book of Mormon opens with a point by point rejection and refutation of Josiah’s theological revolution with its hostility to prophets, prophesy, and adding to the word, its rejection of divine corporeality, its rigid monotheism
    If the text is read closely, it is very apparent that Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob (and Zenos and Zenoch) all believed in the older faith that Josiah expunged and replaced. The Bible tells us that Josiah killed the prophets and priests of that older religion. Zenos and Zenoch were probably victims of his or Hezekiah’s purge. These two prophets certainly promulgated views that would have gotten them killed by those zealous royal monotheists.
    Lehi’s ministry begins with what Josiah rejected: a corporeal God on his throne and another God with God who descends followed by twelve others. Having seen this, Lehi soulfully praises the “Lord God Almighty” (in Hebrew, Yahweh El Shaddai). He thus mentions the divine Son, Father, and Mother and alludes to the patriarchal blessing of Joseph that is about to be fulfilled and that also celebrates Son, Father, and Mother.
    In Lehi’s subsequent dream, which seems to be set in his native Jerusalem, the great and spacious building is the temple, which is about to fall. (Lehi probably used the word Hekal, which means either great building or temple.) The chasm is probably the Kidron valley on the east side of the temple mount, which was watered by dangerous filthy flash floods and by a fountain of pure water, the Gihon spring. That places the iron rod and the Tree of Life on the Mount of Olives, where the Garden of Gethsemane will later be located. So those who grasp the iron rod and make their way to the Tree of Life partake of the delicious fruit, the atonement, in Gethsemane.
    As was true in the older religion Josiah rejected, Nephi learns that a Tree signifies the Mother of the Lord. The divine tree is everywhere in Lehi’s teaching, as it had been in the old religion. Unsurprisingly, the Mother tree is also repeatedly mentioned in the allegory of Zenos and there seems to signify the Goddess of the old religion.
    I can’t fully make the case here, but check out the article in Square Two. Hidden in Plain View: Mother in Heaven in Scripture.

  3. I wonder if this article makes too much of Lehi’s heritage from the northern kingdom. When did his ancestors leave that kingdom? We don’t know but we do know that during the reign of King Asa many from the north joined the southern kingdom (2 Chronicles 15:9). They left their previous kingdom precisely because they were rejecting the idolatry and wanted to live the religion Asa supported. That was over 300 years before Lehi left Jerusalem.
    Even if they left the northern kingdom when it was destroyed, that would indicate rejection of that kingdom’s apostasy.

  4. “It is important to realize that Lehi may not have been in complete agreement with Josiah’s reforms. Lehi’s heritage goes back to the northern Israelite Kingdom, to which these reforms showed a certain degree of hostility.”
    I just don’t see it, in light of current LDS manuals, past manuals, Sidney Sperry, FARMS articles and more. Far too much supposition here to say it “is important to realize.” Just sayin’.

    • Further: My jaded view of the subject resulted from reading of some of William G. Dever’s writings on the subject, both for the lay and professional audience. Dever, an atheist, repeats the theories of many before him that the true religion of Israel is manifest in the icons and idols found in the digs of ordinary households, rather than in the writings of the patriarchs and prophets. Dever’s particular brand (again, many precede him) is that the true religion of Israel is of the feminine goddess.
      Thus, the conclusion becomes, that Josiah’s reforms were contrary to “true religion” and that what we have left in the Hebrew Bible is an unrealistic,untrue and skewed view of a highly monothestic worship of Yahweh. Some of that can now be seen in LDS writings, and especially those who follow Barker.
      But that depends upon an a priori assumption that the essential monotheism of the Hebrew Bible can be called into question. If one were instead to assume that the patriarchs and major and minor prophets had things mostly right, then one would assume that their condemnation of competing Gods and Goddesses is “true religion” and that the icons and idols found in the hearth are not. I don’t think that an archaeologist 300 years from now, doing excavation in Cedar City, could rightly conclude that based upon the number households with Maxwell House Coffee tins, the Mormons had no real prescription against coffee.

      • The counterpart to that is 1) what, exactly, IS the proper protocol for dealing with divine beings not part of the Godhead? I have no idea, honestly. The Lord says that all of that will be explained in the millennium, but as of right now, it’s a closely guarded secret. Consider Enoch; who is certainly divine; even during his time on earth he experienced a brief moment of what it must like to be divine. If he showed up now, what do we do? Bow, reverence, what?
        During the Old Testament, it appears that the Divine Council; whomever that may consist of besides the Lord; took some active part on the Earth (indeed, they may still be active in some form). How do you deal with them? Honor, respect, certainly. If some start worshipping them… what does that mean? We are told that at the end of days Michael or Adam will be honored and blessed and all of us will reverence him. Does that mean we are attributing salvic power to him? Not at all.
        I suspect the Deuteronimic reforms started out well, but got in the wrong hands and went off the deep end. Kind of like the Protestant reformation when it decided that works were unequivocally bad. Sure, the Catholics desperately needed reform, but the correction went way overboard. The truth? Who knows.
        As far as the divine Goddess, we know that the LDS church does have a Mother in Heaven doctrine. And we have been carefully limited to right there–the bare existence of such a being. What Her duties, roles, powers, etc are we have been forbidden to know. If the ancient Israelites had more knowledge of Her than we do; and I suspect they did; then who are we to say what they got wrong and right? Was it wrong to worship Her then? I cannot say, and neither can you. If they were authorized to worship Her, then certainly it would have been ok, just as we worship the Holy Ghost in a minor fashion. Would it be wrong to worship Her now? Clearly yes, as that goes beyond any doctrine we have of Her. We can only do what we know and have been authorized to do.
        The evidence is that prior to the reforms of Josiah, Israel worshipped a female deity at some point along with the God of the Bible. Was that authorized or not, no idea. Was it at one point authorized and then it degenerated into pagan worship, thus needed to be eliminated just as the higher Priesthood was withheld? In my view, that is the likeliest thing. And maybe we will get revelation restoring the truth at some point, but my guess is that is a pearl we won’t see until after the Second Coming.

  5. Just last night in my own Book of Mormon study I read the following verse in 2 Nephi 4:
    “And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man; therefore I was bidden that I should not write them.”
    With this article fresh in my mind I wondered that part of Nephi’s testimony was that true temple worship involves living revelation? If we interpret Nephi’s visits to “exceedingly high mountains” as symbolic of being in the House of the Lord, “on holy ground” if you will, and actively feeling the Spirit, in other words, feeling a living Spirit of revelation, that true temple worship involved living revelation which is something, as pointed out in this article, the Deuteronomist reformers rejected. If so, that would be something Laman and Lemuel would reject and needed to accept in order to be involved with true worship of God.

  6. Terrific article! One question and one pushback:
    1) How, if at all, do you see Ishmael and his sons playing into this ideological divide?
    2) Laman and Lemuel’s revelries in 1 Nephi 18:9 don’t seem to be the actions of devout men at all, Deuteronomistic or otherwise. Does this moment in particular contradict your proposed context?

    • I seen this crisiticism/pushback on point 2 from a few people. While I think there is well-founded pushback towards Neal’s reliance on Barker/Christensen’s work(supposition on supposition), I don’t understand necessarily the criticism that Laman and Lemuel were not righteous, therefore, they could not be “deutoronomists” and have differing religious views as Lehi. I think we know people who have religious beliefs and will argue for those, but they don’t necessarily live righteously or by those principles they addition, they could espouse those views just to be in opposition to Nephi and Lehi. How many of us, have espoused an argument just to argue and disagree with someone we don’t like.
      Finally, thank you to Neal for writing this article and those who have commented on it.

      • I think a big issue is that Laman and Lemuel espouse that the people of Jerusalem were ‘righteous’, something which from Jeremiah and the DH does not appear to be the case by deuteronomistic standards (even outwardly, and Deuteronomy certainly doesn’t emphasise outward conformity at the cost of inward commitment – there’s a reason Christ quoted it for the 1st Great Commandment).
        I think you do make a good point that Laman & Lemuel’s views need not be in complete accord with their own lives, though I believe many of their stated objections do not seem based on pious motives. Of course, to some degree their views & actions are moving targets: they had moments of incipient fratricide mixed with moments of genuine repentance, up until the final breach.

      • When the html version was first up (I couldn’t comment on what the PDF version had) it most definitely had הזח (he-zayin-ḥet) – indeed I copy-pasted it at the time for a point on my own blog (about the general point, I might add – the misspelling seemed like a genuine oversight, because it was always transliterated correctly). It appears its been subsequently corrected, so no big problem.
        which I noticed when I copy-pasted that portion at the time. .

  7. I think there are severe problems with this thesis, although I think the biggest are in the uncritical use of the Barker/Christensen paradigm. That paradigm seems to be excessively speculative, mischaracterizes Josiah’s reforms (not least by conflating its supporters with the authorities under Josiah’s successors), and carries significant implications that go beyond the historical. As much as I appreciate Neal Rappleye is trying to distinguish between the ‘Deuteronomists’ and the scriptural works associated with them, I think the paradigm cannot help but affect how one views Deuteronomy and the DH considering the role biblical scholarship gives the hypothetical ‘Deuteronomists’ in the composition of these works and that their supposed views are reconstructed in essence solely from these books. I elaborate more on this elsewhere.

  8. Great article, Neal — and, yes, that makes the historical context for 1 Nephi an even better fit. It’s also the best explanation of Laman & Lemuel’s threatened patricide I’ve run across.
    As Deuteronomists, Laman & Lemuel would have not taken well either to Lehi’s long discourse on Joseph (2 Nephi 3) or to the thought of their Josephite (and non-Davidic) brother Nephi becoming some kind of king. Likewise, Nephi’s construction of a temple would have seemed the rankest heresy — the same way the (post-exilic) Deuteronomist Jews viewed the Samaritans building a temple on Mt. Gerizim a few centuries later. Indeed, one could imagine that the early wars between Nephi and his older brothers may have been over that very issue.

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