“Father Lehi: Prophet and Patriarch,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 58–60
The Book of Mormon begins with Lehi—his vision of the destruction of Jerusalem, his family’s journey in the wilderness, and their voyage to America. But because his son Nephi wrote the narrative, we often do not realize father Lehi’s dominant role as prophet and patriarch in the heaven-directed exodus: Nephi is giving us an account of his own proceedings, his own “reign and ministry.” (1 Ne. 10:1.) Thus Lehi, the man whose actions started the magnificent saga of the Book of Mormon, remains shadowy, his personality much less clearly defined than that of Nephi, Jacob, or other major figures in the scripture.
Although Lehi says little about himself in the record we have, we do see him functioning as prophet and patriarch. We glimpse him as a patriarch calming his wife, struggling with his disobedient sons, rejoicing in his obedient ones, and finally blessing his sons and through them his descendants. As a prophet he sees the future of his people and risks his own life to warn them, plunges into seemingly impossible missions when the Lord commands, and receives a vision of the struggle of all men to overcome ignorance, pride, and temptation in order to eat the fruit of the tree of life.
Lehi is a great prophet, paralleling in his mission the experiences of other prophets. He shows the devotion, the openness to the Lord’s will, and the determination to follow the Lord’s direction that we look for in the ideal of a prophet. In answer to earnest prayer, Lehi is dramatically called to prophesy through a vision of a pillar of fire. Like Zephaniah and Jeremiah, he is a prophet of doom to his nation, and like many Old Testament prophets he predicts the coming of the Messiah. He is rejected by his hearers, his life is endangered, and like Abraham and Moses he leaves his homeland to establish a new nation.
But Lehi is more than a “typical” prophet. And despite the lack of information, he is a man whose personality, at least in part, can be discovered. Lehi himself gives one key to his character. When Sariah, supposing that her sons have “perished in the wilderness,” accuses Lehi of being a “visionary man,” Lehi agrees: “I know that I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.” (1 Ne. 5:2, 4.)
Dreams and visions dominate Lehi’s life; he is called by the Lord in a vision in which he sees Christ and the twelve. (1 Ne. 1:6–14.) In another prophecy he foretells the Babylonian captivity, the ministry of the Messiah, and the preaching of the gospel to the gentiles. (1 Ne. 10:3–14.) Even the journey into the wilderness was commanded in a dream. (1 Ne. 2:1–3.) In other dreams Lehi was commanded to send his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain the plates of Laban and later to persuade Ishmael and his sons and daughters to join them. (1 Ne. 3:2–4, 1 Ne. 7: 1–2.)
Lehi does not distinguish between dreams and visions—he begins his report concerning the tree of life by saying, “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.” (1 Ne. 8:2.) He is indeed a “visionary man.”
Jeremiah, who prophesied at the same time, left behind a body of teachings: fifty-two chapters of prophecy and five chapters of lamentation when his darkest prophecies were fulfilled. Lehi was completely lost to the world until 2,430 years after he left Jerusalem, when his life and words were again published. Yet at the time Lehi also was such a powerful voice for the Lord that the people of Judah sought to kill him. (1 Ne. 1:18–20.) We are fortunate to have some of his prophetic utterances made available again.
And Lehi was not the only prophet of that time whose name the Old Testament has forgotten. Nephi says that just prior to his father’s call “there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” (1 Ne. 1:4.) These were among the messengers of God that the Bible tells us were “mocked,” their messages “despised,” and themselves “misused.” (2 Chr. 36:15–16.) No prophet who sees beyond the immediate situation to the fall of a nation is ever popular with the people of that nation; and most of the time, unfortunately, he is ignored.
Such prophets seem to gather around themselves small groups of followers, while the majority of their hearers go carelessly to their predicted doom. Noah with part of his family and Abraham with his family and servants foresaw coming destruction and took their few followers with them to safety. Likewise Lehi took his followers—some of them reluctant to accompany him—into the wilderness, across an ocean, and into a new land. But even in that chosen land, Lehi saw that after the development of a great nation would come its fall: “If the day shall come that they will reject the Holy One of Israel, … he will take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten.” (2 Ne. 1:10–11.)
Until his death Lehi is lamenting: “O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.” (2 Ne. 1:13.)
He does not rejoice in the fall of the wicked. Instead his compassion makes him grieve: “My heart hath been weighed down with sorrow from time to time.” (2 Ne. 1:17.)
Lehi is not a carefree man, but he is a man finely tuned to the Spirit of the Lord, one who asks for knowledge with faith that he will be answered and that whatever happens he and his loved ones will be protected by the Lord. Only once does Nephi tell us that his father complained about misfortune. When the wanderers in the wilderness were without food after Nephi had broken his bow, Lehi “began to murmur against the Lord his God.” Later the Lord spoke to Lehi and chastened him, “insomuch that he was brought down into the depths of sorrow.” (1 Ne. 16:20, 25.) But except for this moment of frustration, Lehi again and again shows his trust in the Lord.
Of the many prophets who spoke for the Lord at that time, most went into captivity with the Jews or made some accommodation with the Babylonians. Lehi, however, was stopped in the middle of his prophetic career in Jerusalem and told to leave. Apparently he never wavered. His reliance was on the Lord alone, and he turned from a dangerous and important task to pursue an even more dangerous and important task. No longer would he try to change a nation. Now he would create one; he would raise up a righteous people for the Lord.
Lehi’s family had always been important to him, but now his entire calling focused on his children and their children. His own sons and daughters were his mission, with no distractions. And suddenly the role of patriarch and the role of prophet became one. It was for the benefit of “his seed” that he was commanded to send his sons for the plates of Laban (1 Ne. 5:19), and when he asked Ishmael and his family to share the journey, he was choosing the mothers who would help shape his righteous progeny. (1 Ne. 7:1–2.) And at the end of his life, when he learned in a vision that Jerusalem had been destroyed, he did not mourn for the city he had loved and served so well. Instead he reminded his children that they lived in “a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands.” (2 Ne. 1:5.) He had been a prophet to his family, and he was satisfied. (2 Ne. 1:14–15.)
A “visionary man” sounds impractical to us; a dreamer seems unsuited for tasks demanding decision, strength, and directness. But Lehi’s dreams were not daydreams. They were the word of the Lord to one of his few children faithful and strong enough to obey him in all things. It was no weakling who led his strife-torn family through the wilderness. Nephi makes it clear that no matter how close Nephi came to the Lord, the revelations as to where the family should go came to Lehi. The Lord spoke to Lehi “by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.” (1 Ne. 16:9.) The “ball of curious workmanship” that directed them on their way appeared before Lehi’s tent. (1 Ne. 16:10.) When Nephi’s bow broke and he made another to keep the group alive, he went to his father to find out where he should go to get meat. (1 Ne. 16:23–26, 30–31.)And though the Lord spoke to Nephi to command him to build a ship (1 Ne. 17:8), Lehi received the Lord’s direction to enter it and begin the voyage. (1 Ne. 18:5.)
Lehi was too righteous a man to resent Nephi’s emerging leadership. He rejoiced that one of his sons was following the Lord so faithfully. Nephi had his father’s complete trust when, “being stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children, [Lehi and Sariah] were brought down, yea, even upon their sick-beds. … They were brought near even to be carried out of this time to meet their God.” (1 Ne. 18:17–18.) It must have been a comfort to Lehi to watch his godly son direct the ship the rest of the way to the promised land, and when he saw Nephi stop the wind and calm the storm, he knew that the Lord had provided a leader for the next generation. (1 Ne. 18:21–22.) He counsels his other sons, “Rebel no more against your brother, whose views have been glorious, and who hath kept the commandments. … He hath not sought for power nor authority over you, but he hath sought the glory of God, and your own eternal welfare. … And it must needs be that the power of God must be with him, even unto his commanding you that ye must obey.” (2 Ne. 1:24–25, 27.)
Yet even as Nephi gradually assumed leadership, Lehi remained as the patriarch until the end. Despite all the quarrels and struggles within the family, the family members did not split up until after Lehi died. (2 Ne. 4:12–13, 2 Ne. 5:5.)
Lehi longed for all his descendants to be as righteous as Nephi (2 Ne. 1:28), but he suspected that they would not. The Book of Mormon proves that Laman and Lemuel, not Nephi, represented the major future of Lehi’s seed. For a thousand years the people of Lehi vacillated, first righteous, then proud and sinful—repenting when they were brought up short by the Lord’s judgments, and sinking into sin again when the Lord blessed them and they prospered. When Lehi spoke to Laman and Lemuel, he was speaking to all future generations: “My heart hath been weighed down with sorrow from time to time, for I have feared, lest for the hardness of your hearts the Lord your God should come out in the fulness of his wrath upon you, that ye be cut off and destroyed forever. … O my sons, that these things might not come upon you. …” (2 Ne. 1:17, 19.)
He pled with them to “be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!” and to “be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” (1 Ne. 2:9–10.) Like many prophets after him, Lehi had to speak with the power of the Spirit, so that his sons’ “frames did shake before him.” Thus did Lehi “confound them, that they durst not utter against him.” (1 Ne. 2:14.) But as soon as they were away from the prophet, they rebelled.
Even Lehi’s last blessing to Laman and Lemuel is a plea repeated over and over that they forsake their unrighteousness: “That my soul might have joy in you, and that my heart might leave this world with gladness because of you, that I might not be brought down with grief and sorrow to the grave, arise from the dust, my sons, and be men, and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye may not come down into captivity.” (2 Ne. 1:21.)
In all that Lehi does he looks to the future. He knows that Jacob’s “soul shall be blessed,” that his “days shall be spent in the service of … God.” (2 Ne. 2:3.) The remainder of Jacob’s blessing is a sermon, for Jacob’s descendants and for us. The blessing of Joseph, Lehi’s “last-born,” is a prophecy for Joseph’s seed and for the seed of Joseph who was sold into Egypt.
Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Lehi was a prophet known only to his children; but through them he influenced nations for thousands of years. In his words to his children he also speaks to us: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.” (2 Ne. 1:20.) He explains a cardinal principle of progression: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) Then he applies this principle to the fall of man: “If Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden,” and he and Eve “would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” (2 Ne. 2:22–23.)
Lehi was a strong man, not because he relied on his own wealth, power, or talents, but because he relied completely upon the Lord. From his earliest vision to the end of his life, Lehi expressed that confidence. His greatest joy in life came from the works of God, and he exclaimed, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” (1 Ne. 1:14.)
Though by following the Lord Lehi tasted suffering many times in his life, he had a greater reward than many who outwardly seem more successful and content. Just before his death he said, “Behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” (2 Ne. 1:15.) He followed his visions all his life, knowing that the giver of those dreams would eventually give him eternal life, where with those of his family who would follow him he could taste the white fruit of the love of God forever. (1 Ne. 8:11, 13, 16, 1 Ne. 11:21–22.)