I remember when I taught gospel doctrine in my freshman year at BYU, I had a team teacher who used to say she thought old Laman and Lemuel got a bad rap. She imagined from time to time that it might not have been easy to have Nephi as a brother. And it was his record we were reading, after all.
I used to roll my eyes when she’d say these things as we prepared our lessons. And I’d hope she wouldn’t say them while we were teaching.
So it surprised me a little this past week in Sunday School as I felt a twinge of sadness for Laman and Lemuel. Our discussion was around their lack of faith, like that was their Chief Character Flaw. I’m not sure anyone meant the discussion to sound as it did, but from where I sat it sounded like “if they just had more faith, they would have been more like Nephi and less like, well, you know.” Less like themselves.
I don’t mean to defend Laman and Lemuel. They had their agency just as Nephi did. But as the parent of seven kids, I can tell you the notion that Laman and Lemuel and Nephi and Sam all had the same parents plays differently in my head. I know that I parented my first few kids very differently from how I’ve parented the last ones. My first kids taught me valuable lessons as a father, and my younger kids are the beneficiaries of those lessons. My father was the same way. I –- the youngest in my family -- benefited greatly from the sometimes challenging relationship that my older brother had with my dad. (I should point out that my older brother and my dad are both great men, and that they love one another completely. But my brother was my dad’s first teenager. Any of you who have had a first teenager understand. Those who haven’t, just wait.)
Laman and Lemuel were older when they left Jerusalem. They may have had a better –- or at least different -- understanding of what they were leaving behind than young Nephi. At least some of Nephi’s formative spiritual experiences came as his family traveled in the wilderness, when he was at an age that those experiences could shape him. His brothers did not have those experiences at that age. And so their experience was not the same as Nephi’s.
I don’t seek to absolve Laman and Lemuel from their poor choices. Of course one can go to the Lord in prayer at any age and learn His will. But consider how many general authorities talk freely about really coming to their testimonies while serving on a mission. Is there something about that experience at that time of life that affords a certain set of experiences? I think my own experience would suggest that there is. A young man who does not serve a mission will not have the same experiences. He can still gain a testimony and strengthen it, but it will not be the same experience. Similarly, it may be that Nephi’s older brothers did not have the same experiences as Nephi at least in part because of their age.
I don’t know about Lehi’s family, but I know that my younger children were born into a far more prosperous family than my oldest ones. My oldest three came while we were still in school. They had a dad who was preoccupied with school and working and all the stress that comes with poverty-line living. And then they lost their dad to establishing his career. My youngest children have had a completely different experience. (My younger children might point out that their parents are a lot older than their older siblings' parents, so the differences cut both ways.)
Nephi is right when he asks his brothers if they have sought the Lord’s help in understanding their father’s dream. We all can go to God for help and understanding. But there are lots of reasons Laman and Lemuel might not make that choice, might not have the faith, to seek divine assistance.
It is convenient to put black hats on Laman and Lemuel and white hats on Nephi and Sam and to simplify the good-guy / bad-guy myth of the Book of Mormon. But the record itself reminds us that even that story is nuanced: Sariah loved all her sons; Laman and Lemuel did follow their father into the wilderness; even Nephi examined his own personal flaws, recognizing that he was not perfect; and some generations of Lamanites were more righteous than their Nephite brethren.
We benefit, I believe, by remembering – particularly as we apply the Book of Mormon to ourselves – that the story is not a simple one, just as our lives are not simple.