A Classic Midrash of “Our women . . . were strong . . . like unto the men.”
Guest post by Bradley J. Kramer
Bradley Kramer is a scholar of interfaith studies, particularly the relationship between Mormonism and Judaism. His book Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon is available here. Brad’s work in Mormon midrash inspired the Exponent II short story contest. This post is an example of one kind of midrash: a classic dialogic midrash. There are, however, many other kinds, including straight narrative. The point of midrash is to pay attention to subtle clues within the scriptural text and uncover the stories left “between the lines,” as it were. We hope this post will inspire you to think about the scriptures in a new way and, perhaps, submit your own midrash.
Rabbi Abigail asked: Why does the Book of Mormon say that the Lehite women “were strong, yea, even like unto the men” (1 Nephi 17:2)? Is this supposed to be a compliment? Many of the Lehite men murmured continually during their journey to the Promised Land. Some even rebelled against their leaders. This does not seem very complimentary, or respectful.
Rabbi Eliezer said: “Like unto” here means “better than” or “greater than,” as in the brightness of God is “like unto the brightness of a flaming fire” (1 Nephi 15:30) or God’s voice is “like unto the voice of thunder” (1 Nephi 17:45). In these examples, the first element in the comparison is clearly superior to the second element. Therefore this passage is saying that the Lehite women were superior to many of the Lehite men, in that “they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings” (1 Nephi 17:2).
Rabbi Joshua said: In the Book of Mormon, “like unto” often means “the same as” or “equal to” in a hopeful, future-oriented sense. Lehi’s wish that Laman would “be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness” clearly shows his hope that his eldest son would progress spiritually towards the Lord. The same is true for Lehi’s desire that Lemuel. be “like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 2:9). This passage in chapter 17 therefore is saying that the Lehite women were the same as the men—some complained and some did not—but there is a hope that they would all become strong, perhaps even stronger than their men.
Rabbi Leah said: “Men” in this passage does not mean the Lehite men; it refers instead to “the mighty men of valour” (giborim in Hebrew), a select group of strong and noble warriors spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures. This passage is therefore likening these Lehite women to the legendary heroes of old and, in so doing, praises their nobility and strength and courage without reference to the men who were accompanying them.
Just as Joshua commanded the Manassehite “mighty men of valour” of his time to pass before their brethren and help them take possession the land which the Lord their God had given them (Joshua 1:12-15), so Lehi charged these Manassehite women to march off with their men to take possession of their Promised Land across the many waters. And they too not only did so valiantly, fearlessly, passing through many hardships and difficulties, but like Joshua’s soldiers, they answered their prophetic call boldly, proclaiming by their actions that, “All that thou commandest us we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us, we will go” (Joshua 1:16).
This was literally so for a daughter of Ishmael whom Rabbi Miriam in the name of Sariah the Matriarch identifies as Levah. Earlier when Laman and Lemuel, and two of the daughters of Ishmael, and the two sons of Ishmael and their families had rebelled against Nephi and tied him up, Levah was so moved by Nephi’s Joshua-like speech that she quoted these exact words to Laman and Lemuel as they were about to abandon Nephi to be devoured by wild beasts (1 Nephi 7: 6, 16). Afterwards Levah marched forward, stood by Nephi, and offered to defend him and die with him if they should attack him. Inspired by Levah’s courage, Levah’s mother and one of the sons of Ishmael came forward as well, and together they pled for Nephi’s life. As a result, the rebels’ hearts were softened, so much so that they bowed down before their beloved sister, their mother, and their brother, as well as before Nephi, and earnestly sought their forgiveness (1 Nephi 7:19).
And there were other similar acts of bravery performed by the other Lehite women. As a result, this passage in chapter 17 is confirming that they were all indeed very much like Joshua’s “mighty men of valour.” Not only did they show courage and determination by lighting out into the wilderness on their own, but they did so in a warrior-like—living on raw meat, like soldiers in the field, by wading through much affliction, again like combatants slogging through swamps and bloody battlefields and by bearing children, not simply giving birth to them or having these children, but by carrying them and caring for them like wounded comrades in arms (1 Nephi 17:1). In this way, the Lehite women showed themselves to be “strong and of a good courage” (Joshua 1:18), just as the valiant heroes of Joshua’s time.
Rabbi Judah said: And that may be why Nephi took Levah to wife (1 Nephi 16: 7). Not only did her words confirm his previously voiced conviction that “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7), but that through her support he saw how keeping God’s commandments God “doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them” (1 Nephi 17:3).
Rabbi Abigail said: And that is why Levah left her mother and father and did cleave unto Nephi (Genesis 2:24), because they were one in conviction, commitment, and ability. They were also near each other physically. Levah was with Nephi when he received the revelation to not make much fire as they journeyed in the wilderness and assured him that food could still be prepared properly without it. She was also with him when this commandment was reversed and he was told to make fire in order to construct a ship. That is why Nephi uses the plural ye and you when he quotes the Lord saying to him “I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not” and “I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments” (1 Nephi 17:12-13).
Rabbi Leah said: Levah also helped Nephi work on the ship when no one else would—tending the fire, providing heat and light, as she was commanded by the Lord—as well as sharpening the tools, preparing the ropes, measuring the timbers and, with her husband, drawing up plans. And so when Laman, Lemuel, and the other men mocked Nephi for attempting such a huge project without their help, Nephi correctly said that “after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us” (1 Nephi 17:22), meaning him and Levah
Rabbi Johanon said: Later Levah left off working closely with Nephi when the other men agreed to help her husband. She instead turned her attention to provisioning the ship in all things “according to that which the Lord had commanded us”—again, a directive given to both her and Nephi (1 Nephi 18: 6). And when all was in readiness, Levah boarded the ship with the other Lehite women—as Nephi wrote, “we did all go down into the ship, with our wives and our children” (1 Nephi 18:6). However, Levah died early into the voyage. She was therefore not present to keep her brothers in check or to soften the hearts of the other men when Nephi was once again tied up and threatened with death.
Rabbi Leah said: Despite her early death and the fact that she never, like Moses, reached her Promised Land, Levah was long honored for her nobility, strength, and heroism in following the Lord, particularly by her husband. Despite not wanting to profane her name by giving it out in his plates for people to use as they will, Nephi played upon the sound of their names to poetically hint at just how united he and Levah were, how they suffered together, and how they learned from those sufferings, and were blessed together.
As Nephi writes in 2 Nephi 4, “Behold, my soul [nefesh in Hebrew, a word that sounds similar to Nephi] delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart [lev in Hebrew, a word that sounds like Levah and has a similar meaning] pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard. Nevertheless, … my heart [Levah] sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul [Nephi] grieveth because of mine iniquities…. [But] why should my heart [Levah] weep and my soul [Nephi] linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions? … Awake, my soul [Nephi]! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart [Levah], and give place no more for the enemy of my soul [Nephi]. May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart [Levah] is broken and my spirit [Nephi] is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road!”
Rabbi Abigail said: Nephi wrote this passage after Levah died, and he therefore uses first-person singular pronouns as he continues on alone but still drawing support from her. He hints at how the Lord, through Levah, made a way for his escape from before his enemies, made his path straight, and cleared the way before him, and therefore he will go on, trusting the Lord and in the lessons he learned from her. As he writes, “Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man,” but blessed is he that trusteth such a mighty woman of valour (2 Nephi 4:33-34).