Jacob, Alma and Ammon in The Book of Mormon all have the same lament. They are “wanderers in a strange land,” or as Jacob says more poignantly, “wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness (Jacob 7:26, Alma 13:32, Alma 26:36).
It is clear that their forefather’s wilderness journey from Jerusalem has marked their lonesome sensibilities hundreds of years later. In fact, the type of the wilderness journey with its repeated patterns is one of the underlying themes that unite not just the text of the book, but the Nephite’s entire experience itself. They have made wilderness journeys as a community and they make them personally as well.
They see it not just as a physical journey toward a promised land, but a spiritual metaphor as well. It is the soul’s journey, the journey of us all. Who is disconnected from our true home, seeking to escape bondage, and assaulted by every difficulty before we can be cleansed and reborn in the wilderness, and made ready to be partakers of the promised land? Every one of us.
What is the Pattern of the Wilderness Journey?
Bondage: The people are in bondage either to sin or to a tyrant who holds them as slaves. Their world is ripe for destruction, so much so that in many cases, it is imminent. Sometimes the Book of Mormon calls that bondage as being in “chains.”
This is certainly true for Moses and the Children of Israel who are literal slaves of Pharaoh and have, in fact, grown used to the ways of Egypt. When life gets a little tough in the wilderness they whine, “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full” (Exodus 16:3).
For Nephi, their world was about to be decimated by Babylon, and soon the people would be in bondage, weeping by the waters of Babylon for their lost Zion. They had brought this on themselves by their own wickedness.
A Prophet Warns and Saves: When the people are about to be destroyed or when they must be led out of bondage, a prophet comes to warn the people or save them from slavery. Not every one will hear this warning and sometimes the prophet is ridiculed or threatened.
Those who are righteous will be led away from imminent destruction where they can worship God freely and without the corrupting influences at home. Interestingly enough, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70AD, the Christians had already removed themselves from the city and were saved. They had remembered that earlier Jesus had foretold the terrible events that would follow his death. They knew to carefully watch for these signs, and when they saw them they fled from the city and were spared.
Flee Bondage into the Wilderness: The people are cast into the wilderness where everything is difficult. The heat bears down. Food and water are scarce. It is easy to lose your way in a trackless world.
The object of the wilderness journey is to cleanse the travelers of the world and to teach them their complete dependence on the Lord. There is no solving the intensity of the problems without His help. Your own efforts are clearly puny and ineffectual.
What is interesting here is that it is a snare to think you could just return to your old comfortable ways or put a coat of paint on the corruption. No, instead, the wilderness is a place where you must be utterly reborn through the Atonement. You cannot bring the “natural man” to the new place.
Divine Guidance is Offered, Dependent on Righteousness: Since the wilderness is trackless, you will wander without divine guidance. It is a must, an unvarying necessity.
The Camp of Israel had their cloud by day and their pillar of fire by night. The Nephites had their Liahona. The Brother of Jared asked for light in the wilderness, because it was impossible to descend into the ocean in dark barges. You cannot make your way in the wilderness unless you are helped.
The Lord tells Nephi: “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; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led” (1 Nephi 17:13).
Necessities of Life Provided: Often food and water are miraculously provided. The Lord gave the Children of Israel manna to eat and water gushing from the rock. Nephi was led to make a bow and find food in the wilderness. Their meat, though raw, was made sweet to them.
In the Lord’s lifetime, he provided fish and loaves in the wilderness and the sacrament in the Americas.
They Carry Scripture with Them: So they don’t lose their way and forget the words of the Lord, they carry scripture with them. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and likewise Nephi killed Laban that he might have the plates of brass.
Many Murmur: The wilderness does not have the same cleansing effect on all of them. Some find it impossible and “murmur”, a word found in both Moses’ and Nephi’s accounts. For those who murmur or rebel, they have been in the wilderness, but the wilderness has not gone through them and fulfilled its cleansing purposes.
Stephen Crane wrote this poem that could be applied to the murmurers:
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
Water: The wilderness journeys usually have an element of water that must be passed through or over. The Children of Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and again passed through the River Jordan on the way into the Promised Land. The Nephites circumnavigated more than ½ the globe in a sea journey.
These symbolize birth and the rebirth of baptism. You cannot take even your favorite vestiges of your old self into the Promised Land if it is to be the land it can be. You must be reborn to come.
What we are seeking, of course, is not just a physical landscape. The promised land, located in a particular geography on earth, does not answer all of our longings, which come from the core of our being, that bright internal source that first existed somewhere else. A physical location could never answer those yearnings for home. Even in the Promised Land itself, we are still strangers and sojourners.
It is our heavenly home that excites the ache that cannot be totally spoken.
Still Strangers Even in the Promised Land
Israel’s first prophets, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, still refer to themselves as strangers and sojourners even when they live in the Promised Land of Canaan, not exactly what you’d call yourself if you believed you were truly home and had your complete inheritance.
Bruce J. Boehm notes, “Abraham had to sojourn ‘in faith’ even in the land of Canaan because ‘he longed for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God’”
If Abraham was a stranger in the Promised Land, so were Isaac and Jacob. The Lord established his covenant with them “to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers” (Exodus 6:4).
Paul says, “They desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).
Alma clearly makes the connection between the wilderness journey and our mortal life in talking to his son, Helaman, “And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise” (Alma 37:45).
Who Makes a Wilderness Journey?
So, who packs their bags and makes a wilderness journey, in this book of books, The Book of Mormon? Nearly everybody. More people than we sometimes realize. It is a theme that carries from first to last.
Nephi, of course, makes the journey to the Promised Land, and if that’s not enough, not less than a year later, he must journey again to what becomes the Land of Nephi.
Mosiah and his people leave the Land of Nephi. “As many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him, into the wilderness” (Omni 13).
Alma and his people flee King Noah’s court into the wilderness. Limhi and his people escape out the back way into the wilderness. The people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi make an exodus into the wilderness.
Before them all, the Jaredites make a wilderness journey that involves land and seas, building barges to be buried in the deep, all aiming toward the Promised Land.
And, of course, the scripture ends that way, as well, in a perfect unity. This is not put together this way accidentally.
As Boehm notes, “The Book of Mormon itself ends with an exodus, as Moroni, a lone Nephite makes one final departure into the wilderness. He laments, ‘And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life’ (Moroni1:3); yet his wandering, his exodus, is forlorn and fruitless, as he has ‘not friends nor wither to go’ (Mormon 8:5).
The wilderness journey is the spiritual pattern that dominates scripture. It is the story of stories that resonate with our spirits. Understanding that helps to open up the scriptures to our view and expands our understanding to see connections we might have missed before.
Nephi Aware They are Following the Exodus Pattern
Of course, one of the most dominant types of the wilderness journey is the exodus that Moses took with the Children of Israel toward the Promised Land. It will be remembered by all of Israel for all time and celebrated each year in the Passover. Something in her stirs the human spirit as God’s people are released from terrible bondage in the world and must wander in the wilderness to have the world cleansed out of them.
Our Latter-day Saint pioneers saw themselves as following the archetype of the wilderness journey, calling themselves very consciously, the Camp of Israel.
As they came to America, the New England Puritans also perceived themselves in the same light. Their view of their own destiny was that they were making an exodus into the wilderness and then on to the Promised Land.
It should not be surprising then, that Nephi and his family also understood they were acting out yet another type of the exodus pattern. Nephi specifically reminds his brothers: “Let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea” (1 Ne. 4:2).
When he is able to make a bow and find food, he reminds his brothers that the Israelites “were fed with manna in the wilderness” (1 Ne. 17:28). When the Lord tells Nephi, “I will . . . be your light in the wilderness,” Nephi again reminds his resistant brothers that the God of the Israelites went before them, “leading them by day and giving light unto them by night” (1 Ne. 17:13, 30).
Here is the power of these recurring wilderness journeys. Each is connected and they not only anticipate the journeys that follow, but the wanderers that are aware of earlier journeys become strengthened in their own. Here Nephi is reminding his brothers that God has the ability to fulfill all His words, that he absolutely can be counted on to do His own work, which is to save His children.
The Wilderness Journey of Alma the Younger
It is not just groups of people or communities that make wilderness journeys in the Book of Mormon. It is the type that describes the journey of sin for an individual, too.
The rebellious son, Alma, the younger, was “the bonds of iniquity”, “in the darkest abyss” and “racked with eternal torment”. When he is visited by an angel, “who descends as it were in a cloud”, he is overwhelmed with his sin, becomes unconscious and has his own wilderness journey.
Years later, he compares his release from sin in wilderness journey terms, “And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers our of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time.
“Yea, and he has also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem; and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity”(Alma 36:28,29).
Personal deliverance from bondage is accomplished through the Savior in our own wilderness journey.
One Last Note
Years ago when I first read Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces, I was struck forcibly by something that paralleled this consistent theme of the wilderness journey that weaves and laces its way through so much scripture.
Campbell said no matter what story you hear, whether it be the sonnets of a mystic, the fairy tale of an Eskimo or a Greek myth, they are all essentially the same story, told again and again through every culture and every people. He says, “It will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than ever will be known or told.”
He said that these stories persist over time because they talk deeply to our souls and our psyches. They are “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”
The story is about the hero and the God. The bare bones of the universal story is this: separation—initiation—return. Campbell describes the hero in all these stories this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious venture with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
What happens in all the deepest myths of the world is this: the hero leaves home. There has been a call to adventure. In the world (or wilderness), there is great difficulty including enemies to overcome and obstacles to vanquish. He must turn from temptations. The hero only can survive with supernatural aid and a penetration to some greater source of power. The really creative acts involve some sort of dying to the world. Campbell says, “The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is the “the king’s son” who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power—“God’s son,” who has learned to know how much that title means.
Perhaps the stories all cultures have told themselves and the wilderness journey which permeates the scriptures is a latent memory we carry with us. Perhaps it is the key to understanding ourselves and our God.
For Further Reading
George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 245–62.
Bruce J. Boehm, “Wanderers in the Promised Land: A Study of the Exodus Motif in the Book of Mormon and Holy Bible” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 187–203.