Nephi and the Exodus
Nephi and the Exodus
Terrence L. Szink
One of the best-known sections of the
Book of Mormon tells the story of the journey of Lehi and his family from
Jerusalem to the new promised land in the American continent. Yet, since the
small plates were intended to contain the “things of God” (1 Nephi
6:4), why was this account included on the small plates while other things
that seem to be more the “things of God” (such as the “many
things which [Lehi] saw in visions and in dreams”—1 Nephi 1:16)
were left out?
Quite probably, Nephi, the author of
this section, consciously wrote his account of the wilderness journey in a
way that would remind the reader of the Exodus of the children of Israel from
Egypt. He did this to prove that God loved and cared for the Nephites, just
as the Exodus from Egypt was proof of God’s favor for the children of Israel.
Therefore, this story of the journey truly is about the things of God and
does belong on the small plates.
The Exodus as a Background
It is important to understand that Nephi
wrote this record of his family’s journey at least thirty years after they
had left Jerusalem (see 2 Nephi 5:28-31). In his writing, he most likely referred
to what had been put down on the larger, “historical” plates or
on perishable materials. He could pick and choose information from those earlier
sources and shape it any way he saw fit. The result was not a day-to-day or
even a year-to-year account of what had happened. Rather, it was a record
that highlighted certain events and put special emphasis on “the things
One of the most important “things
of God” for the children of Israel was the Exodus from Egypt. That event
more than any other defined them as a people. Their journey to the promised
land in Canaan is recalled time and again throughout the Old Testament. Not
surprisingly, then, Nephi would be reminded of the Exodus while his group
made their own wilderness journey through Arabia. He was familiar with the
Exodus both in story form as he might have heard it from his father and through
annual Israelite rituals such as the Passover as they were acted out. He also
knew about it from reading the brass plates, which included “the five
book of Moses” (1 Nephi 5:10-12). He taught his brothers from those writings
“that they might know concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands,
among people of old” (1 Nephi 19:22-23). He might even have referred
to the account of the Exodus written on the brass plates as he wrote on the
With this in mind, let us examine the
account of the wilderness journey of Lehi’s party and see how often it is
similar to the account of the Exodus in the Bible.
The Voice of Murmuring in the Wilderness
The wilderness of Sinai and the wilderness
of the Arabian peninsula were both harsh environments. Both the Israelites
and the people of Lehi suffered hunger during their journeys, and they complained
We did return without food to our families, and being much fatigued,
because of their journeying, they did suffer much for the want of food. And
it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael did begin to
murmur exceedingly, because of their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness;
and also my father began to murmur against the Lord his God; yea, and they
were all exceedingly sorrowful, even that they did murmur against the Lord
(1 Nephi 16:19-20).
The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against
Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: and the children of Israel said unto them,
. . . Ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly
with hunger. And Moses said, . . . The Lord heareth your murmurings which
ye murmur against him: and what are we? your murmurings are not against us,
but against the Lord (Exodus 16:2-3, 8).
In both cases the uncommon word murmur
is used. In both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, murmur is used
primarily for the exoduses. Forms of the Hebrew root lwn (translated “to
murmur” in the King James version) occur eighteen times in the Old Testament.
All but one of them are connected with the Exodus. How is the English word
murmur used in the Book of Mormon? It appears thirty-three times; of these,
nineteen describe events in the Old World wilderness.
Of course we do not know exactly what
word Nephi used since we do not have the original text. But this peculiar
term is used with unusual frequency to describe the Book of Mormon wilderness
experience in the same way that it is used almost exclusively to describe
a similar experience in the Old Testament. There are two possible explanations:
(1) Joseph Smith consciously copied the King James version, or (2) Nephi used
the wording from the brass plates (essentially like our Bible) to remind his
audience of the previous Exodus, and Joseph Smith’s translation of this material
was literal enough to preserve the similarity. In view of the complicated
nature of the parallels between the two stories, the second explanation is
far more likely.
Both the Old Testament and the Book of
Mormon mention that this murmuring about the lack of food was directed against
the Lord himself rather than against his prophet-leaders. The similarity continues
in that the problem of food was solved miraculously. For Israel, manna from
heaven was the solution. For the group in the Book of Mormon, the answer was
no less wonderful. They were instructed by the Lord to look at the Liahona,
their miraculous “compass.” When they looked, they saw written directions
that led Nephi to a place where he was able to kill game. When the family
saw that he had obtained food for them, “how great was their joy! And
it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord, and did give
thanks unto him” (1 Nephi 16:32; see also verse 39). In both cases, the
Lord provided for his people in a miraculous way.
Reasonable Fears and Foolish Desires
The tough life in the two wildernesses
led to fear of death, expressed several times in both the Book of Mormon and
This he spake because of stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel; for behold they
did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary
man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their
inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious thing, to
perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish
imaginations of his heart (1 Nephi 2:11; see also 1 Nephi 5:2; 16:35).
They said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast
thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus
with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? (Exodus 14:11, see also Numbers 21:5).
This fear of death was perhaps justified
given the circumstances. It was expressed as the statement that it would have
been better to have died before they had gone into the wilderness:
Thou art like unto our father, led away by the foolish imaginations
of his heart; yea, he hath lead us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have
wandered in the wilderness for these many years; 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 Nephi 17:20).
The children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by
the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots,
and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this
wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Exodus 16:3).
All the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron:
and the whole congregations said unto them, Would God that we had died in
the land of Egypt (Numbers 14:2).
At particularly stressful moments (for
example, in the Book of Mormon at the death of Ishmael or in the Bible upon
hearing the spies report the risks of attacking the Canaanites in the promised
land), an unwise desire was expressed to return to the place they had left:
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. And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me; and
they were desirous to return again to Jerusalem (1 Nephi 16:35-36).
All the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people
wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and
against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we
had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!
And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword,
that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us
to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain,
and let us return into Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4).
Note the striking similarity between
the two occasions: there was crying and mourning, followed by murmuring, which
finally culminated in the desire to return. This desire was irrational because,
in both cases, to return could have meant death. The children of Israel likely
would have been punished for the death of Pharaoh’s host in the Red Sea, while
Nephi, Laman, Lemuel, and Sam could well have been punished for the killing
of Laban in Jerusalem.
That such fears and desires would be
felt during such a difficult journey need not surprise us, but Nephi described
these fears and desires in terms that remind us of the experiences of the
children of Israel during their flight from Egypt. His purpose was to highlight
the spiritual aspects of the events he experienced, and, from the way he highlighted
them, it appears as though he was influenced by the wording of the Exodus
The Liahona and the Serpent
Perhaps the object that more than any
other represents the wilderness journey of Lehi and his family in the minds
of modern readers is the Liahona. This “round ball of curious workmanship”
(1 Nephi 16:10) showed them which way to go in the wilderness, led Nephi to
a source of life-saving food, and gave the group other special instructions
when needed. Nephi commented concerning it, “Thus we see that by small
means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).
Much later the prophet Alma turned the
Liahona over to his son Helaman, along with other sacred relics. While explaining
the history of this object, Alma referred to the story of another brass object,
the image of a serpent that the Lord commanded Moses to make in order to save
the children of Israel from the bites of “fiery serpents”:
O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the
way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that
if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared,
and if we will look we may live forever (Alma 37:46).
The Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon
a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he
looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it
upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when
he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Numbers 21:8-9).
The similarity in these cases is in the
relationship between the people and the objects. To be healed, they had to
act on simple faith. Obviously, both the Liahona and the serpent served as
symbols of Christ. In Alma 37:38-47, the Liahona is compared to the words
of Christ, which can guide us through our own trials. People must seek, pay
attention, and obey to get the benefits. Regarding the serpent image, Christ
himself referred to it as a symbol of both his being lifted up on the cross
and his being slain. Again, the benefit could be had only by a person’s acting
from faith—by obedient “looking” at the object (see John 3:14-15).
With both objects, the way was too easy for some to convince them to act.
Referring to the metal serpent, Nephi says, “The labor which they had
to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness
of it, there were many who perished” (1 Nephi 17:41).
Alma makes a similar statement regarding
the Liahona: “Because those miracles were worked by small means it did
show unto them marvelous works. They were slothful, and forgot to exercise
their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they
did not progress in their journey; therefore, they tarried in the wilderness,
or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst,
because of their transgressions” (Alma 37:41-42).
Lead, Kindly Light
The Liahona was not the only help Lehi
and his family received from the Lord. In describing this help, Nephi once
again drew on the images, and apparently also the language, of Exodus:
I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the
way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore,
inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised
land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led. Yea, and the Lord
said also that: After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know
that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction;
yea, and I did bring you out of the land of Jerusalem (1 Nephi 17:13-14).
The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead
them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go
by day and night (Exodus 13:21).
I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and
ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under
the burdens of the Egyptians (Exodus 6:7-8).
The similarity of the texts is interesting,
but a difference is enlightening as well. In Exodus the concept of a people
chosen by God is emphasized, while in the Book of Mormon the idea is reversed—a
people choose God through obedience to his commandments. This idea is also
a major theme in Nephi’s sermon to his brothers (see 1 Nephi 17:23-43).
Clearly Nephi did not just copy the Exodus
story; rather, he adapted it to his purpose, no doubt by inspiration. Perhaps
he had seen how the perversion of the idea of being the “chosen people”
had contributed to the Israelites’ downfall by making them proud. He may also
have worried that his brothers’ belief that “the people who were in the
land of Jerusalem were a righteous people” (1 Nephi 17:22) was a sign
that they were falling into the same error.
High on a Mountain Top
After the Lehi group had crossed the
desert, Nephi received a summons from the Lord to ascend a mountain. Moses
faced the same call at Sinai once they had left Egypt:
The voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into
the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went into the mountain,
and cried unto the Lord (1 Nephi 17:7).
The Lord came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and
the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up (Exodus
The Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there:
. . . and Moses went up into the mount of God (Exodus 24:12-13).
While on the mountain, Nephi received
detailed instructions concerning the ship he was to build, just as Moses received
orders regarding the building of the tabernacle:
The Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after
the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these
waters (1 Nephi 17:8).
The Lord spake unto Moses saying, . . . Let [the children of Israel]
make me a sanctuary. . . . According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern
of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so
shall ye make it (Exodus 25:1, 8-9).
In both cases a pattern was shown to
the prophet, after which he was to build the structure. In both cases the
purpose is mentioned.
While the two structures were very distinct,
yet some of the words used to describe the craftsmanship involved in the building
of each are similar:
We did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show
me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.
Now I, Nephi did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by
men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build
it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not
after the manner of men (1 Nephi 18:1-2).
Moses said unto the children of Israel, See, the Lord hath called
by name Bezaleel. . . . He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom,
in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; and
to devise curious works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and
in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any
manner of cunning work (Exodus 35:30-33).
In both cases the workmanship was described
as “curious.” In Nephi’s case it was not “after the manner
of men,” while in Exodus the workmen were uniquely filled “with
the spirit of God” in order to do their work.
Nephi’s Powerful Sermon
When Nephi’s brothers saw that he had
begun to build a ship, they began to mock him and complain, refusing to help
him. Nephi responded by retelling the history of the Exodus, touching on many
of the ideas he would later use in writing the story of their own wilderness
journey. Near the end, Nephi draws a clear parallel between the two wilderness
experiences, directly comparing his brothers to the murmuring children of
Israel: “[The Lord] did bring them out of the land of Egypt. And he did
straiten them [gave them hardships] in the wilderness with his rod; for they
hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because
of their iniquity” (1 Nephi 17:40-41).
If his brothers were so much like the
children of Israel, then do we not see Nephi in a similar position as Moses?
For example, Nephi proclaimed the power that the Lord had given him in a way
that brings to mind Moses’ power over the Red Sea:
I said unto them: If God had commanded me to do all things I could
do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou
earth, it should be earth: and if I should say it, it would be done (1 Nephi
But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea,
and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the
midst of the sea (Exodus 14:16).
This sermon, with its references to Moses
and the Exodus, is the most direct evidence we have that Nephi was conscious
of the similarity of the two situations. At the conclusion of this sermon,
Nephi reported that his brothers were so humbled by his speech and fearful
that they “durst [not] . . . lay their hands upon [him] nor touch [him]
with their fingers, even for the space of many days” (1 Nephi 17:52).
This situation recalls the return of Moses from speaking to the Lord on Sinai:
“When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin
of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him” (Exodus 34:29-30).
Two Parties, Too Wild
Once the ship was completed, Lehi’s family
boarded it and set sail for the promised land. After a while, Laman, Lemuel,
and the sons of Ishmael began “to make themselves merry.” Nephi’s
description of this partying suggests a comparison to the incident with the
golden calf during the Exodus:
After we had been driven forth before the wind for the space of many
days, behold, my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began
to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing,
and to speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power
they had been brought thither; yea, they were lifted up unto exceeding rudeness
(1 Nephi 18:9).
He had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O
Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. . . . The people sat
down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play (Exodus 32:4-6).
When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said
unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. And he said it is not the
voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that
cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it
came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf,
and the dancing. . . . Moses saw that the people were naked (Exodus 32:18-19,
The singing, dancing, and nakedness before
the golden calf were apparently part of a ritual connected with this idol.
Is Nephi’s mention of “much rudeness” and “exceeding rudeness”
comparable to Moses’ seeing that “the people were naked”? I suggest
a connection. Also interesting is Nephi’s statement that “they did forget
by what power they had been brought thither.” Compare this to the statement
in Exodus about the molten calf: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which
brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” The children of Israel had
also forgotten that God’s direct power had saved them to that point. Finally,
note that in both cases the prayer of an individual was what saved the people,
who were almost destroyed by a justifiably angry God.
A New Credo
Israel followed the custom of retelling
the Exodus experience to remind them of their dependence on God. The transplanted
Israelites in the New World continued the same kind of memory, but with a
twist. They not only remembered the acts of God among the Israelites fleeing
Egypt, they also retold the story of the journey of Lehi and his family through
the desert and to the new promised land. Eight times in the Book of Mormon,
the Exodus was recalled. Lehi’s journey from Jerusalem is referred to at least
ten times. Even the Lamanites may have followed this custom to an extent (see
In two places in the Book of Mormon,
the two exoduses are retold together. The first is from a speech by King Limhi
to his people; the second is from Alma’s instructions to his son Helaman:
Lift up your heads, and rejoice, and put your trust in God, in that
God who was the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; and also, that God who
brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, and caused that they
should walk through the Red Sea on dry ground, and fed them with manna that
they might not perish in the wilderness; and many more things did he do for
them. And again, that same God has brought our fathers out of the land of
Jerusalem, and has kept and preserved his people even until now (Mosiah 7:19-20).
For he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed
up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised
land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time
to time. Yea, and he has also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem;
and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and
captivity, from time to time even down to the present day (Alma 36:28-29).
In the second pair of verses, note that
Alma describes the two situations in identical terms. These two passages indicate
that, in the minds of at least some of the Nephite writers, the wilderness
journey experienced by Lehi, Ishmael, and their families had become equivalent
in importance to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
There are a number of parallels between
the stories of these two groups of people, both led by God’s hand through
trials in a desert wilderness to a new land. Some are general, and others
are specific and very clear. It seems to me that such a large body of parallels
cannot be accounted for by coincidence. It appears that Nephi purposefully
wrote his account in a way that would reflect the Exodus. His intention was
to prove that God loved and cared for the Nephites just as he did the children
of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt.
Certainly this connection could not have
been a product of Joseph Smith’s writing. The parallels to Exodus occur at
dozens of places throughout the Book of Mormon record. No hasty copying of
the Bible could have produced such complex similarities, not to mention the
differences that remain. In fact, because they are so quiet and underlying,
no Latter-day Saint until our day has even noticed these comparisons. Nephi
clearly composed a masterpiece full of subtle literary touches that we are
only now beginning to appreciate.