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Nephi and Balaam's ***


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Nephi and Balaam’s ***:

That’ll Do, Donkey.


 A.    Introduction.

            The effects of his elder brothers’ physical attacks on Nephi, as well as their threats against his person, from earliest chapters of the book of 1 Nephi, surely left life-long scars.  Nephi later expresses dissatisfaction with himself that he still, in his age, cannot extirpate the residual anger earned in his youth.

            Not only was the battered younger brother left angry, he also felt unappreciated, unjustly judged, and diminished.  This is demonstrated by his borrowing from Chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers to describe his feeling like Balaam’s poor, misjudged, beat-up donkey.  And, as the Learned Constable Dogberry said to Conrade, Nephi says to his readers, ". . . I am an ***."[ii]

B.     Background.

            Balaam’s ***.  In the Book of Numbers, Balaam[iii], a non-Israelite prophet, is hired by the gentile king Balak of Moab to prophecy against the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt to Canaan. Balaam's eyes are blinded because of his pride (and the promise of a nice fee) and he cannot see G-d's angel seeking to stop his progress as he rides to curse Israel. Balaam's ***, however, does see the angel and tries to dissuade Balaam from pursuing his chosen path. Three times Balaam's *** moves off the path. Three times Balaam strikes the donkey. Finally the donkey opens her mouth and protests the awful treatment she receives at Balaam's hands when all she wanted Balaam to do is follow G-d's direction.[iv] 

            Nephi ben Lehi.  In the Book of Mormon, Nephi is actually threatened by his brothers four times[v], but he is only beaten or roughed up and tied up three times.[vi] The first time is after Nephi foolishly offered Laban all of Lehi's silver and gold for the Brass Plates[vii], the second time after Lehi tells his sons they had to return to Jerusalem yet again to fetch Ishmael and his family[viii], and the third time, Nephi warned his brothers and their wives about their partying ways while making the ocean crossing[ix].

C.    The Parallels.

            The Angels.  There is an angel present in both instances, each bearing a message of destruction if the recipient continues on a path of rebellion against G-d.

            The Warnings.  Balaam’s *** sought to dissuade her master from riding headlong into danger.  She did it three times.  The angel with drawn sword, invisible to Balaam, stood ready to destroy Balaam.  Nephi likewise warns his brothers not to continue on a path that will lead to their cursing and destruction if they continue on the path they were following.  Nephi, as fledgling prophet, could see where Laman and Lemuel were headed, just as Father Lehi had seen and warned of.[x]

            The Beatings.  As shown above, both Balaam’s *** and Nephi were beaten by Balaam and Laman/Lemuel, respectively, with a rod.  These beatings were dominance displays[xi], demonstrating that, just as Balaam was showing his *** who was in charge, Laman and Lemuel were showing Nephi who was the true heir to Lehi’s leadership of the clan.[xii]

            The Injustices.  Ironically, Nephi is beaten three times by the very people he sought to save, just as Balaam’s *** sought to save Balaam from destruction by the armed angel in the path, for which she was beaten three times.  Nephi spoke each of the three times he was beaten, but Balaam’s *** spoke but once.  G-d opened the mouth of Nephi to deliver G-d’s message to his brothers, just as G-d opened the ***’s mouth to deliver G-d’s word to Balaam.  The message in both instances was that the recipients not continue to rebel against G-d’s word.  Even the language used was nearly identical:


Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod?[xiii]


What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?[xiv]

The injustice of the beatings is made most poignant in the voice of Balaam’s ***:


Am not I thine ***, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?[xv]

 As well might Nephi have said, “Am I not your brother, with whom you have lived and worked and played ever since I was a little child unto this day?  Did I ever speak to you before as I am speaking now?”

            The Resultant Curses.  Moab is cursed rather than blessed because Balak sought to have judgment wrested from G-d to his desires:


I shall see him, but not now:  I shall behold him, but not nigh:  there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab and destroy all the children of Sheth.[xvi]

 Nephi’s angel curses Laman and Lemuel as well, stating:


Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities?[xvii]

 The cursing of Laman and Lemuel is merely deposition, whereas Moab is cursed with destruction.  After Balaam repented, at his ***’s urging, and blessed instead of cursed Israel, the destruction foretold for him was transferred to Balak personally and Moab generally.  Laman and Lemuel, on the other hand, did not repent, and the curse of deposition landed on their heads and on the heads of their children.

D.    Conclusion.

            Nephi uses the rhetorical device of comparing himself with examples from scripture to explain his mental and emotional state upon being threatened and beaten by his brothers.  This is consistent with his use of scripture in other contexts.[xviii]  The physical and emotional scars from the abuse he suffered stayed with him into his age, at the time he produced the Small Plates.  He was brave to share these things with us, as lesser kings would tend to show only their strengths in self apology.  And by so doing, Nephi demonstrates his greatness, a fact the author had never quite realized before.

 E.     Endnotes.

  2 Nephi 4:15-35.

[ii]  Much Ado About Nothing, Act 4, scene ii.

[iii] Robert F Smith:  Making still more likely the use by Nephi of such a literary topos is the appearance of Balaam in other parts of the Bible, as well as in extrabiblical literature -- such as the 8th century B.C.Balaam text from Tell Deir 'Alla in Transjordan, wherein Balaam is termed "seer of the gods." (See Anchor bible Dictionary, I:571) More, the Book of Mormon is heavily influenced by names and traditions of Transjordan and Midian, and this overarching focus is carried into the New World. 

 Additionally, the 1967 8th Century BCE Tell Deir’Alla series of texts show Balaam's notoriety outside the Biblical inclusion. In these accounts Balaam is shown as "for hire" prophet or "shaman" who was a diviner/seer who would exorcise demonic forces from an individual. J.A. Hackett Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas in Austin believes that he was recast from the Levantine mold and used in the OT as "obedient" prophet to entertain the Israelites. A bit of comic relief.

[iv] Numbers 22:28.

[v] 1 Nephi 3, 7, 17, and 18.

[vi] The fourth incident involving threats to Nephi in [presumably Arabian] Bountiful, while Nephi is building the ship without aid from his older brothers. During this incident, he is not actually touched by his brothers: the power of G-d filling him is such that they are afraid of touching him for fear of being consumed.  1 Nephi 17.

[vii] 1 Nephi 3.

[viii] 1 Nephi 7.

[ix] 1 Nephi 18.

[x] 1 Nephi 2:2–11.

[xii] See, ironically, the angel in 1 Nephi 3:29.

[xiii] 1 Nephi 3:29.

[xiv] Numbers 22:28.

[xv] Numbers 22:30.

[xvi] Numbers 24:17.

[xvii] 1 Nephi 3:29.

[xviii] 1 Nephi 19:23.


©Ronald L Dunn (2020)

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12 minutes ago, Robert F. Smith said:

Very nice, Ron.  However, could you please tell me where you got that quotation in note iii?

This here board, about five-ten years ago. Them's your words!

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