1 Nephi 1-1 Nephi 2
I read these chapters every time I start to read the Book of Mormon. Sometimes I've done well and I've read the entire thing. Often I've gotten side-tracked in my reading and then I start over when I get back to it. So, obviously I've read the beginning chapters more than any other. I imagine that many people are similar to me and do this as well. I think the Lord knew human nature and so packed the beginning with so much good stuff.
One of the thoughts I had when I read the first chapters of the Book of Mormon is about Lehi. Who is he? What was his position in society? What are his thoughts about leaving his homeland to go into the wilderness? I lament the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript--the Book of Lehi. Did he cry in despair regarding the spiritual loss of his oldest sons? Would he have offered comfort to latter-day parents grieving over their own children? Would he give more details of his vision of the Tree of Life--perhaps a clearer and even more frightening description of the Great and Spacious Building? And the amazing vision where he saw God sitting on His throne and the book he was given? I suppose we may not be ready for that knowledge.
Perhaps all we really need to know of Lehi we can glean from the writings of his son Nephi. Lehi and Sariah are "goodly parents" (1 Ne 1:1) meaning wealthy. Lehi had lands of inheritance, gold, silver and precious things (1 Ne 2:4). Lehi was a prophet; called to prophesy repentance unto the people (1 Ne 1:5). He was given many amazing visions including a vision of God and the Tree of Life. The Lord thought highly enough of him to save his family from the destruction of the Babylonians and bring them to a new promised land. And still he had to sons who were spiritually lost.
I often see Lehi depicted in artwork as a small, old man, but I wonder how accurate it is. From the few glimpses in the first few chapter of Nephi, I picture Lehi as a strong, but humble man. He was strong enough to endure the mocking of the Jews and strong enough to escape the physical harm of stoning--a fate other prophets had not escaped. (1 Ne 1:19-20) Obviously, his strength came from his faith in God, but Nephi describes his father as "mighty". Lehi was also strong enough to force Laman and Lemuel to leave Jerusalem and go with the family into the wilderness. But 1 Nephi 2:14 describes how Lehi "...did confound them, that they durst not utter against him; wherefore, they did as he commanded them." Again, filled with the Spirit, Lehi became mighty.
One of the great lessons from these beginning chapters of 1 Nephi is the difference between being forced to do something and gaining one's own testimony and then being obedient. In 1 Ne 2:14 we see how Laman and Lemuel were forced by their father to leave Jerusalem with the rest of the family. Throughout their journey and in the Americas, they are rebellious; they murmur continuously murmur and eventually fall away from the gospel and the family completely.
In contrast, Nephi hears his father's word and then goes to the Lord asking for himself is his father's words are true. He gains his own testimony; believes his father and is obedient. I would imagine that Nephi had his own initial reservations about leaving his homeland and his wealth, but he "...did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart..." (1 Ne 2:16). The key words being "cry" and "soften".
So often I am asked/commanded to do something that is hard, uncomfortable or difficult (say, like serving in the nursery) but by following Nephi's example I can receive strength from the Lord and He will "soften my heart". It's easier to do what is right when we have our own testimony. I should follow Nephi's example to go to the Lord in prayer with a great desire to know the truth for ourselves.
As a child, I often wondered why Lehi made Laman and Lemuel come with the family. It seemed like they could have been spared so much trouble and turmoil later. There were probably several reasons.
1. They were Lehi's sons and he and Sariah loved them.
2. Left behind, they might alert authorities of where Lehi had gone. How trustworthy were they?
3. In the wilderness, the family needed their strength.
But the main reason is clear in 1 Nephi 2:24--so they could humble the Nephites when they forgot to be righteous.
In a literary context, the first two chapters of 1 Nephi are excellent at setting up the rest of the book. In the first chapters, Nephi introduces himself; testifies to the truth of the book; and introduces the main characters and the main conflict.
Nephi is the clear protagonist--he's young, large, religious, soft hearted, faithful, obedient, diligent, a ruler and a teacher. He is open to the spirit.
Laman and Lemuel are the antagonists--stiffnecked, murmuring against their father, rebellious.
The main conflict is that the Lord has told Lehi to take his family out of Jerusalem and into the wilderness but already a subconflict between brothers is already introduced (1 Ne 2:22) "thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over they brethren".