One of the great things about reading the Book of Mormon text to see what it says (rather than what people say about it) is that it opens up a range of possibilities. An alternative Sunday School lesson I would suggest is one that covers the ranges, and explains where they come from.
To begin with, how many people were in Lehi’s party?
We know that as to Lehi’s family, he is very particular to note that he only brought his nuclear family, not his household. No servants, slaves, grandparents, retainers or others. But when he sends his boys back to seek wives, they bring the entire household with them.
How big was a household?
Abraham’s household included his servants, 318 men raised from their youth strictly for war, herdsmen, family members and others. Two or three thousand people would not be an estimate of his household that is exaggerated, and it was his strength that allowed him to win the battle of the five kings.
Ishmael’s household was probably smaller than that. But the initial range of how many people went into the wilderness with Lehi is somewhere between twenty and three or four hundred.
Next, what was the scope of the broken bow incident? How were they hunting? Slings, bows and spears? Was it a traditional hunt, where beaters drive the game to the “hunters” who slay it as it approaches them? Is the bow a symbol of kingship and rulership or just a bow?
Next, just what happened in the wilderness. Hebrew servants and slaves have a right to their freedom at their seven year anniversary. They spent more than seven years in the wilderness. Is the later complaint about how Nephi made them slaves in the wilderness some hyperbole, or did he insist that if anyone wanted to stay with the group at the seventh year, they had to submit to having their ears pierced and becoming a slave?
When Nephi goes to build a boat unlike any the brothers had ever seen and they withhold their labor, are they just refusing to work or are they withholding the labor of their share of the servants and slaves? Are they just blind to a ship they are working on or are they not personally involved until they walk out to the beach and see it some day?
When they leave for the new world, is the ship carrying a score or so of people or is it carrying several hundred?
When they arrive, do they meet no one, or are their native peoples there?
When Nephi leaves while his brothers are out hunting, taking whosoever is willing to come with him, does he leave with all the servants and slaves or is that just a code phrase for Zoram, Sam and Jacob and their wives and children? Does he take perhaps ten people or does he take three hundred or more? When he makes “many” swords, is he making 3-4 or is he making 40+
When Jacob is dealing with the issue of concubines, does he have a community of 40 or 50 people or does he have one of several hundred embedded in a group of natives of several thousand (whence come the concubines)?
You can look at issues of scale like that throughout the Book of Mormon.
When the Nephites arrive in Zarahemla in the middle of a civil war, and there are many more people there than there are Nephites, is it a migration of thousands or a migration of a few score? What kind of civil war was going on, and how did the Nephites end up in charge?
Are the Nephites a small elite in a much larger polis (remember, when Alma has questions about the Church, he goes to the king who meets with the king’s counsel of priests and then gets back to Alma? Just what is going on there, how are there independent priests who do not answer to Alma as high priest over the Church? — and a counsel of them? Is that a large polis or city or is that just some sort of small counsel of personal advisers?)?
At the last battle, (remembering that the wars among the people that exterminate the Nephites don’t end, the destruction of the Nephites seems like a sideshow to them) are ten thousands measurement numbers or are they names for a military unit (much like a centurion led a century — which just happened to be 40 to 60 men — and was part of a “legion” or a ten thousand man unit — that was between 6000 and 600 men depending on which legion and what time period).
Do they cover an area as large as the Asian steppes or something smaller?
Bringing up the scope of possibilities that are inherent in the text, treating it like an historical work in comparison to other historical works, and then letting people talk about what they think, what they’ve thought, what the possibilities suggest, would make for a wonderful lesson. That is only 10-15 minutes of lecture and hours of conversation.
What possibilities come to mind when you consider the potential scope of the Book of Mormon? Have you ever considered what a history of the Middle Ages written by a Jewish sect would read like, if it focused on Jewish issues vs. a history written by Arabs or one by Visgoths? How does that affect your view of the various stories in the Book of Mormon and what it means for our time? What is the difference if Nephi’s temple was built for 70 people vs being built for a population of 7,000? Think of other stories and the differences that the changes in scope and range might make for them.
What do you think, what would you say in such a lesson?