In 1 Nephi 3, Lehi tells his sons to return to Jerusalem to get scriptures and religious records. In a pre-literate society, these would be rare and valuable things. In Lehi’s view, the information on them is worth more than the monetary value to be had from them – these are the words of God, after all. Lehi knows that his family is going away, far away, and that having such records with them will be what they need to retain their covenant relationship with God.
Lehi’s sons oblige their father and return to the city. There, Laman first asks the owner of the records, a man called Laban, if he might have them. Laban accuses Laman of being a robber and drives him out of his house. One should note that Laban is a very rich man – one of the types Jeremiah warned us about. At any rate, Laman having made his attempt wishes to chalk up a loss and then move on.
Nephi disagrees: he proposes to offer up the family fortune to acquire the records from Laban. Upon seeing the fortune, Laban chooses to keep his possessions and rob the sons of Lehi of all that they have. The sons of Lehi are driven from Laban’s house, and find shelter in a cave.
It is in this cave that Laman and Lemuel, Nephi’s older brothers, become enraged to the point where they begin to beat their younger brothers – Nephi and Sam – with a rod, until an angel halts the beatings and reprimands Laman and Lemuel. But what was it that made Laman and Lemuel so outraged?
Look at the treasures of Lehi for the answer. As long as the gold and silver and other fineries remained in the family home, a return to Jerusalem and the riches was always an option. The family, with or without Lehi, could always go back to the way things were after this unusual interlude in the desert.
But without the riches, the path back is destroyed. Without the riches, the family is completely committed to the path of being destitute wanderers in the desert. With or without God, the fact is that wandering in the desert is always harder to do than enjoying comforts in the city. And with the path back to the city destroyed, Laman and Lemuel become violent.
Laman and Lemuel do not see that returning to the riches is to be the adulterers in Jeremiah’s allegory. They do not see that returning to the riches is to forsake the meaning of their covenants with God, that it hollows out their religious purpose. Culturally, they still exhibit the external modes of righteousness. Internally, they are chasing after other gods: the gold, silver, and other fineries that are the idols of their desire.
We must remember that even if a thing is not associated with a Canaanite or Phoenician or Babylonian or any other god, it can still be an idol when our attentions to that thing cause us to forget that God asks us to be mindful of the poor and to have no divisions amongst us. And when those idols are threatened by God, the idolaters lash out with violence.