“They Came from Jerusalem: Some Old World Perspectives on the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 27
Understanding the Book of Mormon—or any other ancient religious record—is not always easy. Even though the meaning of certain messages may be unmistakably clear, other scriptural passages are difficult to put into perspective and to comprehend fully.
One of the reasons for this is the distance between us and the ancient world. We don’t always know exactly why the prophets said what they said, to whom they said it, and what cultural practices or religious precepts colored the manner in which they acted or delivered their message.
Even though our situation handicaps us in comprehending every detail of our ancient sacred writings, we can enhance our understanding by striving, among other things, to understand each text in its original context.
This can be hard. It means that we must set to one side our purely modern concepts before we can appreciate and understand many Old World perspectives. It also means that we must accumulate a great deal of information. What did the ancients think about man, about God, about history, revelation, literature, languages, political institutions, economics, social life, philosophical attitudes, religious practices, theological precepts, and general human needs? That may sound overwhelming, but exploring such things is actually exciting and rewarding, for all these factors, to one extent or another, influenced the way the ancient prophets wrote and the messages they propounded.
Developing a capacity for appreciating these kinds of ancient perspectives is often vital in understanding the Book of Mormon. Nephi understood this same truth when he saw the difference that even a few years made to his people, isolated from their native Hebrew culture and struggling to understand its sacred scriptural writings. He explained their difficulty:
“For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews. …
“[But] my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah; for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.” (2 Ne. 25:1, 5; italics added.)
What Nephi says here is significant. One cannot fully understand much of the scriptures without understanding the world in which they were written. To understand the ancient Nephite prophets, it follows that we must consider both “the manner of prophesying” and “the manner of the things” of their basic culture.
We do this through a detailed process. Sometimes we must give attention to fragmentary bits of cultural evidence. Other times we may have to ponder that which seems foreign to our way of thinking. But the rewards of gaining a perspective on old world concerns can be substantial.
Sometimes these perspectives help us focus on the specific meaning or importance of a particular passage. Other times they spare us an erroneous interpretation. Generally, they help us appreciate the authenticity and historical integrity of the scriptures, especially of the Book of Mormon. Always they remind us that there is more to inspired writing than first meets the eye.
Consider an example: King Mosiah established a form of government among the Nephites, saying, “Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers.” (Mosiah 29:25.)
From a modern perspective we might think this verse tells of the establishment of a democratic or representative government very much like the one we now have in the United States. But on reflection we observe that Nephite politics were different from ours in many significant ways: the Nephites had no Constitution, no Bill of Rights, no separate branches of government, and no parliamentary system of government. Their elected officers served for life, and apparently political parties and campaigning for election were discouraged.
Seen without modern influences, then, Nephite democracy assumes an ancient character all its own. On the one hand, the use of popular consent among the Nephites resembles very closely the rite of royal anointing such as David experienced in ancient Israel. (2 Sam. 5:1–3.) This popular allegiance supplied a special bond of legitimacy between the ruler and his people. In Zarahemla, moreover, the popular voice of allegiance also included a covenant that placed a primary moral responsibility of sustaining the law upon the people themselves. (Mosiah 29:30.)
Other discussions of ways in which ancient backgrounds set the stage for the Book of Mormon can be found in books like those by Hugh Nibley, who has explored at length many ancient Near Eastern backgrounds of the names, practices, and literature we find in the Book of Mormon.1
For the present, however, let us turn our attention to a few of “the things of the Jews” and to something of the “manner of prophesying” that relate to the early part of the Book of Mormon.
Because of the importance of culture, as we begin studying the early chapters of First Nephi we need to understand the religious history of Jerusalem in the seventh century B.C. Such an understanding will shed much light on Lehi and his heritage.
From what we know, Lehi must have been born around 650 B.C.2 Thus, the era he knew in the prime of his life was the turbulent closing quarter of the seventh century B.C. During these few years great empires fell and others rose; allegiances were tested and tormented; religious zeal rose to some of its greatest heights and sank to some of its deepest despair. Out of this era emerged a few men with a profound sense of righteousness and with durable attitudes toward the meaning and purpose of human existence. Lehi was such a man.
We are not told where Lehi was born and raised, but we do know that he was not a member of the tribe of Judah. Lehi’s tribe was Manasseh (Alma 10:3), one of the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, whose population had been deeply humiliated and partially taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. (see Ps. 79; 2 Kgs. 15:16–20, 29).3
Like Israel, the southern kingdom of Judah also came under the political control of Assyria, in 701 B.C. At the time of Lehi’s birth some fifty years later, the kingdom of Judah was still paying a heavy tribute, and Judah’s king, Manasseh (whose long reign lasted from 687 to 642 B.C.), was merely a puppet of the powerful Assyrian king, Ashur banipal (699–633 B.C.). The influence of Assyrian manners, customs, dress, philosophy, and religion was deeply felt in Jerusalem during this period of subjugation; the worship of Jehovah was stifled and perverted as the little kingdom of Judah danced to the tune of its foreign lords.
Reform was badly needed, but obviously Judah could not move until Assyria had lost its grip. Remarkably, this happened with dramatic suddenness.
By 635 B.C., Ashurbanipal had grown quite old and his Assyrian supremacy was seriously threatened on many fronts. The Persians and Scythians were freely attacking the empire’s borders, and by 626 B.C. the Chaldeans had seized control following a bloody civil war. Only fourteen years later, Assyria’s proud capital, Nineveh, fell to the Babylonians, and by 609 B.C. the last remnant of Assyrian resistance was wholly destroyed.
The momentous turmoil caused by external power struggles worked first to stimulate Judah’s incredible resurgence and then just as swiftly to cause its catastrophic destruction. Lehi personally witnessed it all.
Judah’s upward cycle began in 640 B.C. when young, progressive King Josiah assumed the throne. Sensing the fresh winds of independence as Assyria declined, Josiah introduced over the next twenty years the most profound reforms Israel had ever known. In a bold move defying Assyria, he supported nationalist zeal and independence in Judah and Israel. He advocated the reunification of all Israel under a monarchy modeled after the Davidic kingdom. He purged the religion of pagan practices, eradicated magic and divination, advocated deep religious devotion, and, perhaps most dramatically, closed down all local shrines and centralized the worship of Jehovah at the temple in Jerusalem. Most of these reforms, it can be seen, remain alive in the attitudes strongly held by Book of Mormon prophets concerning a belief in central temple worship, the abhorrence of priestcrafts, the future hope for the reunification of all Israel, and the establishment of righteousness and devotion.4
Many of Josiah’s reforms were motivated and strengthened by the rediscovery of the “book of the law” in 622 B.C., during a renovation of the temple. (See 2 Kgs. 22:3 to 2 Kgs. 23:25.) This book is thought to have been Deuteronomy, which, like the Book of Mormon, profoundly emphasizes the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The rediscovery of this lost book had profound impact on Lehi’s generation. It showed among other things that the word of God would be preserved and would endure, even though it might be hidden from the world for a time.
The discovery of this book emphatically showed the Jews the importance of keeping careful religious records, a concern that is evident in Nephi’s history. (See 1 Ne. 5:18–22; 1 Ne. 9:3–6.) Josiah’s people, like the Mulekites, had degenerated into waywardness at least partially because their record of the Sinai covenant was incomplete.
As the political scene in Jerusalem grew even more tense and as whole civilizations during this period faced the prospect of extinction, a great urge to recapture and preserve the records of past cultures swept the ancient Near Eastern world. Whether one looks to the attempt made in this period by the pharaohs of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty to recapture the glories of the past Pyramid Age, or to the effort in Assyria to copy and preserve royal libraries, or to Laban’s jealous possession of the brass plates (see 1 Ne. 3:13), the phenomenon is the same: an intense awareness of civilization’s frailty and a grasp in desperation to preserve it, accompanied by a premonition of impending doom. Lehi perceived this precisely.
Although Josiah’s reforms were profound, they apparently did not become permanent. High hopes soon soured, and those with true religious desires were bitterly disappointed with Judah’s woeful lack of spiritual progress. (See Jer. 6:16–21; Jer. 7:1–15.) When Josiah was killed in 609 B.C. by Egyptian troops marching belatedly to oppose Babylon’s rise, many in Jerusalem saw his death as a sign of divine disapproval of his reforms. Local cult priests were pleased to see them pass.
From 609 to 599 B.C., Judah itself was torn from within by political and spiritual uncertainties, as the fortunes of Egypt and Babylon seesawed in the surrounding areas. Judah vacillated between peacefully supporting one or the other of these two powers, and threatening open warfare. Finally, in a maneuver of blatant arrogance, Jehoiakim, king of Judah, declared war on Babylon. Jeremiah had opposed such a move, but Judah, convinced of its own invincibility, could not be quelled by prophecy of the futility of war.
These became treacherous times for those like Lehi who spoke against Jerusalem or the pompous king of Judah. Consider the fate of Uriah ben Shemaiah, who like Jeremiah prophesied against Jerusalem during the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598 B.C.). Learning that the king sought his life, Uriah fled into Egypt—but he was pursued, captured, and brought back to Jerusalem, where he was executed and dishonorably buried. (Jer. 26:20–23.)5 The same fate might have been Jeremiah’s but for the special intervention of certain powerful elders and princes. (Jer. 26:16–19, 24.) Such a death could truly have been Lehi’s fate as well. (See 1 Ne. 1:20.)
In December of 598 B.C., the Babylonians struck back, besieging Jerusalem. On March 16, 597 B.C.,6 Nebuchadnezzar took the city and captured the king, who was apparently soon assassinated. Jehoiakim’s family, including his many wives, along with court officials, leading citizens, 7,000 soldiers, and 1,000 craftsmen, were deported to Babylon. (See 2 Kgs. 24:16; Jer. 24:1.)7 This represented a tremendous drain on Jerusalem’s leading and upper class, as well as a loss of about five percent of its total population. In addition, the Babylonians demanded a heavy tribute and placed Zedekiah, the third son of Josiah, on the throne at the age of twenty-one. But Zedekiah did not inspire much confidence and his staff was inexperienced. In Jerusalem the people blindly preferred Jehoiachin, the exiled son of the recently assassinated king, while throughout the world the shadow of Nebuchadnezzar became ever more foreboding.
It was in 597 B.C.,8 the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, that Lehi heard further prophecies of destruction, perhaps from Jeremiah (see 1 Ne. 1:4), and witnessed continued agitations for war in Judah. The people of Judah again became arrogant and false messianic hopes were high. Looking back over the thirty-five years just past, Lehi, like others, may have then wondered what use Josiah’s reforms had served, whether the fate of his northern homeland in 722 B.C. would overtake the south, whether the true Davidic messiah would ever emerge, whether righteousness would ever reign over a united house of Israel, whether a pure center for worship could ever be maintained in Israel as a whole, and whether the sacred law of covenant could survive where even the law of Assyria had not.
In a setting such as this, with his world perilously near to destruction, Lehi went forth and “prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.” (1 Ne. 1:5.) The vision that came led him out from Jerusalem to prepare a nation in a promised land where a righteous people could be prepared for Christ’s coming. (See 1 Ne. 2:20, 23–24; 1 Ne. 12:4–12.) The Book of Mormon, as a record of Lehi’s people awaiting and receiving Christ, reflects and fulfills many of the hopes that had been of utmost concern to the world in which Lehi had lived.
These things show but a few of the attitudes and concerns of the world out of which the Book of Mormon grew. While many other observations could be made in respect to the ancient world and the Book of Mormon, these few ideas at least give us a starting point from which to approach the things of the Jews and the manner of prophecy that we encounter in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon.
To the modern mind, some of these things may seem strange, and so may many other features of ancient writing.9 But such strangeness emphasizes the importance of reading these texts from an Old World perspective. When we understand more about the world in which the scriptures were written, we will also understand more about the significance and meaning of the scriptures themselves. We will understand what was said and why. This understanding will in turn help us to see how the scriptures can be used as guides in our own lives.