Mosiah 2:3. Firstlings as Burnt Offerings
Mosiah 2:3 says that the Nephites followed the Law of Moses in offering firstlings of flocks as burnt offerings, yet firstlings were never used for burnt offerings or sacrifices in the Mosaic Law.
While it is true that firstlings were not used for the burnt offering, critics are mistaken in claiming that firstlings were never sacrificed. Under Mosaic law the firstlings (firstborn animals) of flocks and herds were dedicated to the Lord (Exodus 13:12,15) and were given to the Levites. The Israelites were forbidden to use them for work or gain (Deuteronomy 15:19-20). On appointed occassions they were to take these firstlings to the temple (Deuteronomy 12:5-6), where they would be sacrificed. Their blood was sprinkled upon the altar and their fat was burned (Deuteronomy 18:17-18). What was left then was given to the individual and his family to eat in a specified place (Deuteronomy 15:19-20). Thus, the Book of Mormon is correct in stating that firstlings were brought to the temple and sacrificed, for they certainly were. In fact, it would appear that Mosiah 2:3 seems to be a reference to the commandments given to Moses:
“But unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even unto his habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come: And thither ye shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and heave offerings of your hand, and your vows, and your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and of your flocks” (Deuteronomy 12:5-6).
These verses indicate that the Israelites were to bring the firstlings of their flocks and herds to the temple along with other unspecified animals to fill various sacrificial and dedicatory purposes. It is noteworthy that although this verse mentions several forms of sacrifice associated with temple worship (burnt offerings, heave offerings, freewill offerings, etc.), the only animals actually mentioned are the firstlings, even though the firstlings were, as far as we know, never offered as the burnt offering under Mosaic law. However, the mere mention of “burnt offerings” clearly implies animals other than firstlings, even if no other animals are explicitly mentioned. Similarly, it is reasonable to interpret the Mosiah 2:3 reference to “sacrifice and burnt offerings” as an allusion to two distinct forms of sacrifice-the sacrifice of firstlings in the so-called peace offering and the burnt offering taken from other animals. Thus, the Nephites, in accordance with the legal prescriptions of Mosaic law, “took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:3). We should probably understand this to mean that they brought (1) firstlings to sacrifice and (2) other animals as burnt offerings.
Using language reminiscent of the Book of Mormon, Moses told Pharaoh, “Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the Lord our God” (Exodus 10:25). Baruch Levine, a leading authority on Israelite sacrifice, has not only seen in such passages an obvious reference to the burnt offering (olah-zebah) and the peace offering (olah-shelamim), but further argues that frequent references in the Old Testament to these two sacrifices should be interpeted as “a merism for the entire sacrificial system” known to ancient Israel.[i] That is, “sacrifices and burnt offerings” is an idiom that represents all the various offerings made in ancient Israel.
Another possible explanation is that, since the Nephites were not descendants of Levi, there were no Levites to whom the firstlings could be given. In Genesis 4:4, we read that Abel, who lived long before Levi and Aaron and consequently could not deliver his animals to priests of that line, brought “of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” and offered sacrifice to the Lord. In the case of the Nephites, since there were no Aaronic priests to whom the firstlings could be given, it probably made perfectly good sense to offer them directly to the Lord as burnt offerings, as had been done in earlier generations. This is perfectly logical, in view of the fact that they, as Israelites but not descendants of Aaron, would not have been permitted to consume the firstlings or make other use of them.
An examination of Jewish law may also shed light on this question. According to Mishnah Zebahim 5:8; 10:3 and Temurah 1:1, only the priests ate the firstlings. But Mishnah Temurah 5 gives several ways by which one could “evade” the law regarding firstlings. For example, Temurah 5:2 notes that, in the case of twin animals, one of them becomes a burnt offering (if both are males) or a peace offering (if both are females) or need not be offered if the sexes are mixed. Twins are not uncommon in sheep and goats and some other herd animals, so it would have been relatively common to offer firstborn animals as burnt offerings, even though this was not the normal sacrifice for them.
This response is based on the article by Matthew Roper and John A. Tvedtnes, “Firstlings, Sacrifices, and Burnt Offerings,” FARMS Update 18, Insights 26/5 (December 2006). A French Version, “Sacrifices et holocausts dans le Livre de Mormon,” has been posted on the Idumea web site at http://www.idumea.org/Etudes/Ecritures/LM/Holocaustes.htm.
[i] Baruch A. Levine, In the Presence of the Lord: A Study of Cult and Some Cultic Terms in Ancient Israel (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974), 21-22. See also A. M. Honeyman, “Merismus in Biblical Hebrew,” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 15.