Posted by: isaiahsfan | March 15, 2007

Poetic Couplet on Laman & Lemuel

Posted by Isaiah’s Fan

Desert river

To me, one of the most beautiful and enchanting parts of the Book of Mormon we have encountered so far has been the poetic couplet Lehi composed to his sons Laman and Lemuel as they came down into the wilderness by the Red Sea. Lehi saw what must have been a scene of great power and beauty in the form of a desert valley by the side of a river of water.  As he gazed upon this scene, his heart yearned for the spiritual wellbeing of his two eldest sons, Laman and Lemuel.  He named the river Laman, and the valley he called Lemuel.  He then admonished first Laman, then Lemuel:

O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!

O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!

To my mind, these verses call up an immediate image of Christ, and I wonder how close the Savior was to Lehi’s mind as he composed these words. Other Biblical authors have likened the Savior unto these two very same figures.  Isaiah says that in Zion “there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.  For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us.” (Is. 33:21-22)  Here Isaiah compares Jehovah to a place of broad rivers and streams.  In another passage Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah saying, “Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you.  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing; for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.” (Is. 35:4-6)  Christ is also compared in many places to a Rock, like the firm and steadfast rocks of the desert valley Lehi named after Lemuel. 

Hugh Nibley has compared these two verses to the poetry of the ancient Near East.  Nibley says that they resemble the poetic form known as Quellenlieder, desert poetry written by the Arabs after having refreshed and washed themselves in some fountain of running water discovered in the course of a long journeying.  They also compare to the Saj, a short, rhythmical appeal with a goal of having two verses perfectly parallel in form and content.  This poetic form was considered a form of revelation, it’s aim being to compel action.  The couplet also contains elements of the Arabic poetic forms qasida and shirat dodi.

I think the poetry of the scriptures is one of the things which brings it so powerfully to the soul of the reader.  I’m pleased to encounter this charming couplet here in Chapter 2, which gives us an insight into the deep emotions of Lehi the parent.



  1. Lovely post. Thanks. What is there more to say to that? 🙂

  2. Also, in our culture the image of a firm and steadfast valley makes no sense. The immovable things to us are the mountains. We sing, “Firm as the mountains around us . . .” We refer to items as being solid as the Rock of Gibraltar.

    In the desert, though, the firm and steadfast things are the valleys cut by rivers. Those are landmarks you can trust.

    And what’s with Lehi’s reference to a “river of water?” Of course it’s a river of water — what else would it be, a river of Mountain Dew?

    Nibley spoke about this, differentiating (in the Arabic, I think) between a “river of water” and a “river of sand.” In desert life, where water is life, a river of water refers to one that flows year round. A river of sand has water only at certain times of the year.

    I may not have that exactly right. Perhaps someone better — and more recently — versed in Nibley will set it straight.

  3. I was reading that same thing this week in Nibley, John, you are correct. Sounds a little foreign to us but that was their assurance of something firm.
    Well stated Cheryl! (I bet if we think about our own children we could come up with some pretty poetic couplets ourselves:-))

  4. At least for me, it seems that I wax the most poetic when I am concerned about one of my children–when they are straying we tend to have deep and emotional feelings for them. I don’t think Lehi ever gave up on Laman and Lemuel. Here we see that he saw them as they could be; as they surely had the capability to become. I think it helps if we can look at our children with a recognition of their great potential.

  5. wonderful post. I like the idea to look at our children with the recognition of their great potential. One of the greatest blessings of my life has been to be with those of my children who have received their Patriarchal Blessings. As Lehi was his children’s Patriarch, I’m sure you are right Cheryl that he saw their potential and never gave up on them. We should also try to look at ourselves in that same way. I think I find it easier to see the potential in my children than I do in myself.

  6. […] with this morning’s cartoon, A Work in Progress, I meant to add a link to the lovely post at Book of Mormon Groupies about father Lehi’s poem to […]

  7. Hi. Found your site and really like it.

    I was just considering this couplet today, but my focus was more on the specific messages for Laman and Lemuel and what we learn about their respective character. The idea that Lehi wants Laman to be “continually” flowing into the fountain of all righteousness implies to me that Laman was a man who at times was onboard with the Lord. Unfortunately, unlike the river of Laman, his commitment would often get diverted, perhaps through doubt, pride, or sin. He could not sustain his faith. Lemuel’s problem on the other hand, was that he was too easily influenced to do the wrong things (usually by his brother). Unlike the valley, he could not stay firm. As I read I feel that both brothers were too disconnected from personal revelation. As long as there was a great speaker or leader in front of them, they could feel it. But when left to their own thoughts, Laman would waver and Lemuel would follow his lead.

  8. Great insight, Roy. It’s good to have you here, come back soon!

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