Insights: "Let Us Be Strong": Nephi's Courage in the Context
of Ancient Near Eastern Military Exhortations
The Newsletter of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
The ancient Near East often witnessed the rise and fall of powerful nations, a fact of life reflected in the literary and cultural traditions of the time. Given the constant specter of war, military leaders frequently needed to exhort their people to extraordinary levels of bravery. Literary evidence shows that the phrase to "be strong" was commonly used in a military sense. The Book of Mormon, with its roots in the ancient Near East, also reflects that usage.
Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane has noted that, judging "from a host of ancient Near Eastern and biblical sources, it is quite certain that phrases like 'be strong' or 'do not fear' originally served to exhort an individual to take courage in the face of a new and difficult task."1 He has further shown that in the Old Testament the phrase "be strong" was specifically used in military orations and exhortations.2
In his final speech as king of Israel, David, the founder of the newly established monarchy, admonished his successor to "be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man" (1 Kings 2:2). A survey of David's discourse shows that this commandment was specifically articulated in military terms.3
With a similar statement, Moses counseled the children of Israel, who were preparing for a series of confrontations with the indigenous population of Canaan, to "be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee" (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Moses then provided Joshua with similar counsel since, as Moses' successor, he would lead the military charge: "Be strong and of a good courage" (Deuteronomy 31:7; compare Joshua 1:6–7). While these statements might not prove especially significant to Western ears, the mandate to "be strong" held considerable meaning in the ancient Near East.4
The charge to "be strong" appears in the Book of Mormon with the same connotation attested in ancient Near Eastern texts.5 Near the beginning of the book, Nephi provides an account of his family's efforts to acquire the brass plates from Laban. After Laman failed to secure the plates, Nephi, who apparently modeled his narrative after the Exodus account, admonished his brothers to take courage with an exhortation similar to Moses' military oration. In the face of this "new and difficult task," Nephi encouraged his brothers in a manner reminiscent of Near Eastern leaders:
"Therefore let us go up; 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. . . . Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 4:2–3).
Nephi's admonition not only begins with the biblical phrase "let us be strong," but it also reflects a military connotation. This usage is also seen at the beginning of Nephi's address, where Nephi attempts to rouse his brethren with the statement "behold he [the Lord] is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?" (1 Nephi 4:1).
From these statements it appears that Nephi adopted the oratorical techniques used by Near Eastern military leaders in their efforts to strengthen their audiences' resolve to go forth and accomplish a difficult task.6 In so doing, Nephi demonstrated both his faith in the Lord and his reliance upon the cultural traditions of biblical society.Notes