The Gospel Doctrine lesson #2 manual objective is “To help class members see, through the examples of Lehi and Nephi, that safety and salvation come through obedience to the Lord.”
To help class members learn through the example of Sariah.
The writers of the Book of Mormon, as far as we know, were exclusively men. As with all scripture in our Standard Works, the Book of Mormon offers a male perspective and presents mostly male stories. Women who faithfully read the scriptures become adept at finding personal meaning in the stories of men, at identifying with male characters, and at understanding female stories through the lens of male narrators and family members.
These are useful skills, and have been valuable to me as I have made a home in the scriptures. (Unfortunately for male readers, they have little opportunity or need to develop these same skills since the gender disproportion in the scriptures lies in their favor. If I were a man, I would not feel much need to try to relate to Ruth, Mary, Abish, or Emma, since so many male models are available to me. I hope there are many men who prove this assumption wrong).
Because not much is said about women in the Book of Mormon, it is easy to fall into the trap of over-simplifying female figures, particularly by viewing them as merely an attachment to a man’s story. Note that the Guide to the Scriptures entry on Sariah says:
“In the Book of Mormon, the wife of Lehi (1 Ne. 5:1-8; 8:14-16; 18:19) and the mother of Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and daughters (1 Ne. 2:5; 2 Ne. 5:6).”
That is all. But is that really all we know about Sariah? Is it all that is worth mentioning? That she is related to some well-known men, and to several unnamed, unnumbered women? I took an hour, and found what I believe to be every verse in the Book of Mormon that mentions Sariah. This is what the text tells us, with no elaboration.
- She was goodly (1 Ne. 1:1).
- She traveled with Lehi into the wilderness (1 Ne. 2:5).
- She had mourned because of her sons’ long absence on their dangerous mission to Jerusalem (1 Ne. 5:1), she thought they had perished (1 Ne. 5:2) and she was filled with joy and gladness when her sons returned safe (1 Ne. 5:1).
- She complained against Lehi, and called him a visionary man, because of her presumed loss of her sons (1 Ne. 5:2).
- She was comforted by Lehi’s assurance that her sons would return safely (1 Ne. 5:6), and her joy was full and she was comforted when they returned (1 Ne. 5:7).
- She rejoiced and with Lehi offered sacrifice and burnt offerings, and gave thanks to God (1 Ne. 5:9, assuming the pronoun “they” continues to refer to Sariah and Lehi in this verse).
- Nephi instructs Laman and Lemuel to honor her (1 Ne. 17:55).
- She gave birth to Jacob and Joseph in the wilderness (1 Ne. 18:7) in the days of Lehi’s greatest sorrow (2 Ne. 3:1).
- She was very old once the family was crossing the ocean (1 Ne. 18:17) and had gray hairs (1 Ne. 18:18).
- She suffered much grief because of her children (1 Ne. 18:17).
- She became bedridden with sickness on the boat, along with Lehi (1 Ne. 18:17).
- She nearly died because of her grief over Laman and Lemuel’s iniquity (1 Ne. 18:17).
- Her sons Jacob and Joseph were very young and still in need of nourishment from her when she was thus sick and grief-stricken (1 Ne. 18:19).
Now that we have the plain facts, we can begin to make some logical inferences about Sariah’s life and character. Our instinct as Mormons tends toward painting everyone as heroically (or villainously) as possible, so this is something to be careful about when reading between the lines. Here is one example of an insight we might gain from the verses about Sariah:
Sariah may have followed Lehi into the wilderness not because she had a sure testimony of his calling by God to do so, but because she did not want to separate from her family and/or because socially she had no stable alternative. We don’t know how “on board” she was at the beginning, but we do see a shift in chapter 5. Nephi provides two direct quotes from his mother. When her sons have not returned with the plates she says (1 Ne. 5:2),
“Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.”
Can we imagine her anguish? She has abandoned everything familiar to her in order to remain with her husband and children (at least) and to be obedient to God (at most). Now her sons are presumed dead, and she fears for her own life and Lehi’s. When her sons return her second quote stands in antithetical parallel to her first (1 Ne. 5:8):
“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.”
Surely we are all allowed to make the same journey as Sariah — to come to know the Lord’s will and the Lord’s goodness gradually through trials of obedience, through experience, through loss and salvation. (I love that Nephi chose to include his mother’s testimony and witness, certainly the exception among writers of his time and of the Book of Mormon. He clearly honors her faithfulness here, and elsewhere in the text.)
We could tell other stories about Sariah, based on the few verses we have about her. We might consider what it was like to bear, nurse, soothe, and clean newborn babies in the desert, especially in light of Israelite laws surrounding menses and childbirth. We might imagine how her grief on the boat was intensified by her inability to provide nourishment to her vulnerable young sons, whose anxiety on her behalf she must have known (1 Ne. 18:19). Even without reading in between the lines, we can see her as an autonomous figure. How would we all benefit from reading the story through her perspective on occasion?
As Lehi’s entry in the Guide to the Scriptures now stands, Sariah is not even mentioned. What if we experimentally turned the tables, and Lehi’s entry read, “Husband of Sariah, who left her home in Jerusalem by the command of the Lord to seek a land of promise for her posterity (1 Ne. 2:5), who led her family in goodness (1 Ne. 1:1), who remained faithful through intense grief and physical trial (1 Ne. 5:1; 2 Ne. 3:1, 1 Ne. 18:17), and who bore personal witness of the power of God (1 Ne. 5:8).”
Related Mormon Women Project Interviews
Choosing Good and Making Change, Bethany Brady Spalding
One of my favorite parts of Mormonism is its rich feminine theology: an understanding of a Heavenly Mother; the knowledge that Eve’s choice in the garden of Eden was deliberate and courageous; the many ways in which Christ championed and elevated women. But as a mother to three Primary-age girls, it has been difficult that in the Church—my faith community wherever I have lived—there are so few stories, songs, and role-plays about women and girls. My daughters, as young as they are, feel that acutely.
Celebrating the Unseen Woman, Heather Farrell
I got my degree in Public Health and did a Women’s Studies minor. I learned that God did not make women unequal, but in the way our world is set up, we don’t see women. They’re invisible. A lot of the classes I took asked us to look for what the issues are for women and to talk about them. I realized that a lot of the anger I had was simply because women aren’t talked about. I think that’s central to my blog. Once you know that there are women in the scriptures, you can bring them out and talk about them.
Choosing God and Abundance, McArthur Krishna
We used to think there weren’t enough women in the Book of Mormon to fill a book, but when I read and researched the Book of Mormon really thoroughly, specifically looking for women, I found over a hundred instances when women are mentioned—even though they’re not often mentioned by name. Our books—including the current Girls Who Choose God Bible stories—have both named and unnamed women. Even if women aren’t named, it’s important to understand that they were active participants.
Other Related Women’s Voices
Look Up and Press On, Elaine L. Jack
In this quest for the best in us, we are like Sariah, who, with Lehi and their family, left Jerusalem at the Lord’s command. We stand with our ‘family, and provisions’ (1 Ne. 2:4), and we travel through the wilderness. We give ‘thanks unto the Lord our God.’ (1 Ne. 2:7.) Sometimes we grieve because of the hardened hearts of those we love. Some moments we are ‘filled with joy, and … exceedingly glad.’ (1 Ne. 5:1.) At other times we ‘exhort … with all the feeling of a tender parent’ (1 Ne. 8:37), whether we are physical mothers or not. We toil. We encounter conflicts. We strive for faith. We ‘[suffer] all things.’ (1 Ne. 17:20.) Yet, like Sariah, we keep moving towards exaltation, the ultimate promised land.
Sariah, the wife of Lehi, had the wrenching experience of leaving their home and their possessions to travel in the wilderness. We are not told of the trials she may have experienced; but going on foot, living in tents, and cooking over an open fire could have been devastating after their comfortable life in Jerusalem. We do read of her anguished waiting when she feared her beloved sons had perished in their return to obtain the plates. (See 1 Ne. 5:2.) But in spite of troubles, she did love and serve her family. With the return of her sons, she knew of a certainty that the Lord had commanded her husband to flee into the wilderness, and in their safe return she found the assurance that the Lord was with them. (See 1 Ne. 5:8.) Their circumstances did not change; they still slept in tents. But she had joy and comfort in the knowledge that the Lord was guiding them. In that light she could carry on and meet further difficulties as they came.
Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from The Book of Mormon, McArthur Krishna & Bethany Brady Spalding
Sariah chose to love unconditionally. Even though she grieved over Laman and Lemuel’s actions, she tried to encourage them. As the wise matriarch of her family, she counseled her children and reminded them that God had protected them. Regardless of her sons’ choices, Sariah tried to love them as God loves. Sariah’s wisdom and love influenced generations. Her children were among those who settled the promised land, and many of her descendants were visited by Jesus Christ.
Featured image by Kathleen Peterson from Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from The Book of Mormon