New Light on a Book of Mormon Mother
By Kevin Christensen

Nephi tells one story about his mother, and it involves her complaining.  The story in 1 Nephi 5:1-9 reports on Sariah’s fears that her sons had perished, her complaints to Lehi, her joy at their safe return, her testimony, and finally, her offering sacrifice and giving thanks with Lehi. What makes this story the single most important story that Nephi could tell about his mother? 

And it came to pass that after we had come down into the wilderness unto our father, behold, he was filled with joy, and also my mother, Sariah, was exceedingly glad, for she truly had mourned because of us. For she had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness. And after this manner of language had my mother complained against my father. (1 Nephi 5:1-3)

Nephi reports that “I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred.” (1 Nephi 19:6). What makes this “complaint” story sacred? In an essential book for understanding the literary strategies applied by ancient Hebrew writers, Robert Alter observes:

Since biblical narrative characteristically catches its protagonists only at the critical and revealing points in their lives, the biblical type-scene occurs not in the rituals of daily existence but at the crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes. . . . Some of the most commonly repeated biblical type-scenes I have been able to identify are the following: the annunciation . . . of the birth of the hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of the dying hero. [1]

In comparing this passage to the Book of Mormon, we think of Nephi’s vision of the virgin; Nephi’s journey to find Ishmael, whose daughters marry Lehi’s sons, thereby fulfilling a commandment from God (see 1 Nephi 7:1; 16:7-8); Nephi’s vision; Nephi’s initiatory adventures in securing the plates of Laban; much danger in the desert; the discovery of the Liahona; Lehi’s blessings to his sons; and other closing testimonies by his successors. Clearly, the selectivity of the Book of Mormon narrative has a cultural background and a literary context. With an eye alert to the notion of type-scenes, when we look back at the other fairly detailed accounts of specific women (or groups of women) in the Book of Mormon, we should notice that all of them have significant archetypal or ritual backgrounds. In my research, I have found that when women move from the background to the foreground in the Book of Mormon they typically do so for three reasons:

  • to highlight profoundly archetypal situations
  • to show the mutual dependence and independent agency of men and women
  • to emphasize that the promises and obligations of the gospel apply equally to men and women

There is a consistency and deliberation in this on the part of the authors that suggests a positive intent and attitude, as Nephi himself explains when he says “For I did liken all scriptures unto us, that is might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Nephi 19:23)

We can gain insights into Book of Mormon stories by reading them against larger contexts, and identifying the allusions that guide us to the “likening” that the authors intend. The literary context for Nephi’s story about Sariah turns out to be the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17:9-24. The Kings account begins with a famine in the land, and the prophet being told:

Arise, and get thee to Zarapath.and dwell there: behold I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee. (1 Kings 17:9)

Notice that the widow has been commanded before Elijah arrives, and the word “sustain.” My wife and I looked up the word for a Relied Society lesson she was to give:

Sustain [2]

  1. to keep up, keep going, prolong
  2. to supply as with food or provisions
  3. to hold up, support
  4. to bear, endure
  5. to suffer, experience (as in, “sustain a broken leg.”)
  6. to allow, to admit, to favor
  7. to agree with; confirm

All of these meanings presuppose strength on the part of the one doing the sustaining. And notice that the Elijah finds the widow at what appears to be the very end of her physical strength. How can she sustain the prophet? She is about to prepare the last of her food for herself and her son, and expects then to die. The prophet first asks her to feed him, to literally give everything she has.  He makes a promise that their food will last, but it is up to her to believe that promise and act.  She provides sustaining for the prophet, and God sustains them both. However, even after this act of faith and sacrifice “the son of the woman . fell sick . that there was no breath in him.”  (1 Kings 18:17).  So what does the widow – who has already shown the faith to sacrifice all she had – do?  She complains.

What have I do with thee, O Thou man of God? Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance and slay my son? (1 Kings 17:18)

Elijah does not rebuke her for faithless murmuring, but offers comfort, and more, takes her case to God, and prays for the return of her son’s soul. And miraculously, the son’s life is restored, and Elijah can report, “See, thy son liveth.” Then we have the widow’s testimony:

Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth. (1 Kings 17:24)

Like the widow, Sariah had been asked by a servant of God to sacrifice all her material goods (1 Nephi 2:4) and subsequently seems to have lost her sons. She too complains, and Lehi recognizes the validity of her concerns. He offers no rebuke, but comforts her:

And it had come to pass that my father spake unto her, saying: I know that I am a visionary man; … I know that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness. And after this manner of language did my father, Lehi, comfort my mother, Sariah, concerning us, while we journeyed in the wilderness up to the land of Jerusalem, to obtain the record of the Jews. (1 Nephi 5:4-6)

The narrative then reports Sariah’s testimony, which contains clear echoes to that of the widow:

And when we had returned to the tent of my father, behold their joy was full, and my mother was comforted. And she spake, saying: Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them (1 Nephi 5:7-8).

The comparison of the widow and Sariah also makes Lehi an Elijah in the same way that biblical stories of Elisha parallel Elijah’s acts and demonstrate that Elisha was Elijah’s successor. So, of all the stories Nephi could choose to tell about his mother, he chooses one that “likens” her to an exemplary woman in the scriptures.

Finally, Nephi’s “complaint” story concludes with another significant passage:

And it came to pass that they [Lehi and Sariah] did rejoice exceedingly, and did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord; and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel. (1 Nephi 5:9)

The man and the woman pass through an ordeal and worship together afterwards. Next time, I will discuss how these two stories shed light on the story of the stripling warriors, and their miraculous deliverance.

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 51.

[2] World Book Dictionary, Doubleday & Company, 1981.