The Book of Mormon and Ancient Israel
According to the Book of Mormon, its authors were prophets descended from Israelites who came to the New World about six hundred years before Christ. When Lehi, their first prophet, left Jerusalem, Solomon’s temple was still in use. If these statements are true, then we should expect to find, in the Book of Mormon, evidence of its Israelite origin. Merely copying information from the Bible is not sufficient, however. The best evidence should include information about ancient Israel that is known from sources outside the Bible.
In recent years, a number of scholars (of Mormonism) who believe in the Book of Mormon have found within its pages ties to ancient Israel. In this article, we shall examine some of their findings.
King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles
In one of the more interesting stories of the Book of Mormon, found in Mosiah chapters 1-6, we read of a special assembly held in the Nephite city of Zarahemla, which some scholars believe to have been in Guatemala. The assembly was conducted at the city’s temple by a king named Benjamin, who preached to his people and designated his son Mosiah as his successor. A number of elements found in the ceremony are reminiscent of the ancient Israelite celebration of the feast of Tabernacles.
Among these features are the fact that the people gathered by families in their tents around the temple and brought animals for sacrifice. As in the feast of Tabernacles, it was the king who conducted the meeting and addressed the people, quoting some of the same Old Testament passages (mostly from Leviticus and Deuteronomy) used in Tabernacles liturgy. He spoke from atop a tower or platform, as was the practice anciently. The feast of Tabernacles was, in ancient Israel, an occasion for anointing a new king or renewing the kingship. In Zarahemla, king Benjamin announced the appointment of his son Mosiah as his successor. At the end of the Tabernacles assembly, it was typical to take the names of the adults present as a testimony that they had entered into a covenant with God; this, too, is found in the story of King Benjamin.
Moroni‘s Standard of Liberty
In the Book of Mormon, a Nephite general Moroni tears a piece of his clothing and writes on it, “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” then mounts it on a pole around which he rallies his troops for battle. In recent years, it has been discovered that this is an authentic ancient practice. Ancient Egyptian wall reliefs depict armies carrying banners with symbols on them. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls from two thousand years ago, the War Scroll, speaks of the Israelite army carrying banners with religious mottos written on them.
The medieval Jewish writer Eldad ha-Dani reported that the Jews of Ethiopia wrote the Shema (the biblical declaration found in Deuteronomy 6:4) in black on white banners that they carried into battle. The Aramaic translation of Numbers 2:10 known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says that the Shema was written on the banner of the Israelite tribe of Reuben, while the same translation of Numbers 2:18 and 2:25 indicates that other Bible passages were written on other Israelite tribal banners. In its version of Numbers 2:3, the Targum says that the banner of the tribe of Judah had the words, “Let the Lord arise and let your enemies be dispersed and your adversaries be put to flight before you.”
The Hanging of Traitors
In the Book of Mormon, we read that a man named Zemnarihah, leader of a rebel band, was publicly executed by hanging, after which the tree on which he was hanged was cut down. While this is not the usual manner of execution in ancient Israel, we have evidence from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that hanging was the appropriate punishment for Zemnarihah’s crime. The Temple Scroll (11Q19) calls for execution by hanging for the crime of treason:
“If there were to be a spy against his people who betrays his people to a foreign nation or causes evil against his people, you shall hang him from a tree and he will die. On the evidence of two witnesses and on the evidence of three witnesses shall he be executed and they shall hang him on the tree. Blank If there were a man with a sin punishable by death and he escapes amongst the nations and curses his people /and/ the children of Israel, he also you shall hang on the tree and he will die. Their corpses shall not spend the night on the tree; instead you shall bury them that day because they are cursed by God and man, those hanged on a tree; thus you shall not defile the land which I give you for inheritance.”
The rebel band led by Zemnarihah consisted of “dissenters” who had turned against the Nephites (Helaman 11:24-26; 3 Nephi 1:27-28). Giddianhi, Zemnarihah’s predecessor as leader of the band, admitted that his people had dissented from the Nephites (3 Nephi 3:9-11). It is also of interest that Giddianhi swore “with an oath” to destroy the Nephites (3 Nephi 3:8), clearly cursing the people as also mentioned in the Temple Scroll. Later Jewish law, patterned after the law of Moses, required that the tree on which a criminal was hanged be cut down and buried with the body. The Talmud recommends hanging the culprit on a precut tree or post so that, in the words of Rabbi Maimonides, “no felling is needed.”
The Land of Jerusalem
The Book of Mormon speaks of “the land of Jerusalem,” an expression not found in the Bible. But other ancient documents confirm that the lands surrounding a city were called by the name of the city. For example, the Mesha or Moabite stela of the ninth century B.C., discovered in Jordan in 1868, reporting the rebellion of Mesha, king of Moab, against Israel, lists a number of “lands” which are known from the Bible to be cities. Some of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century B. C. documents found in 1887 at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt use the term “land” for Canaanite sites known to have been ancient cities. For example, one text (EA 289) speaks of the “town of Rubutu,” while another mentions the “land of Rubutu” (EA 290). The first of these also speaks of “land of Shechem,” and “the land of the town of Gath-carmel” (both ancient cities) and says of Jerusalem, “this land belongs to the king.” A third text (EA 287) mentions the lands of Gezer, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem.
Though the term “land of Jerusalem” is not found in the Bible, it is known from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls attributed to the prophet Jeremiah and denominated 4Q385b. The importance of Jerusalem as capital of the kingdom of Judah is demonstrated by a Babylonian text recounting Nebuchadrezzar II’s seige of Jerusalem, in which it is called “the city of Judah.”
The Book of Mormon contains a prophecy that Christ would be born in “Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers” (Alma 7:10). We all know, of course, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This is particularly interesting in view of one of the Amarna texts (EA 290), which speaks of “a town in the land of Jerusalem” named Bît-Lahmi, which is the Canaanite equivalent of the Hebrew name rendered Beth-lehem in our Bible.
Temples Outside Jerusalem
The Book of Mormon speaks of temples being built in the Nephite cities of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful. To Bible readers, it seems strange to read of Israelites building temples anywhere but Jerusalem, yet there is evidence that they did so. During the 1970s, archaeologists uncovered Israelite temples and sacrificial altars at the ancient Israelite sites of Arad, Beer-Sheba, and Dan, all of which were contemporaries of Solomon’s temple. Other temples built by Jewish exiles in the sixth century were uncovered at Leontopolis and Elephantine, in Egypt. Of special interest is the corpus of Jewish writings from Elephantine. A letter from 407 B.C. addressed to the governor of Judah requests permission to reconstruct the temple that had been destroyed by a local governor hostile to the Jews. The letter granting permission to rebuild the temple has also been found, along with another letter noting that the temple had been rebuilt and that sacrifices and offerings were being made therein.
Some of these Israelite sanctuaries were similar in structure to Solomon’s temple, though smaller in scale. This accords with what we find in 2 Nephi 5:16, where we read, “And I, Nephi, did build a temple: and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.”
Descriptions of the Jewish temple at Leontopolis are similar. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century A.D., wrote that Onias, son of the high priest of the same name, fled to Egypt in the days of Ptolemy Philopater and asked Ptolemy and Cleopatra permission to “build a temple in Egypt like to that of Jerusalem.” In his letter to the king and queen, he said he wanted “to build there [Leontopolis] a temple to Almighty God, after the pattern of that in Jerusalem, and of the same dimensions” (Antiquities of the Jews 13.3.1). They gave their permission and “So Onias took the place, and built a temple, and an altar to God, like indeed to that at Jerusalem, but smaller and poorer” (Antiquities of the Jews 13.3.3). Josephus also noted (Antiquities of the Jews 20.10.1) that the temple built by Onias was “in imitation of that at Jerusalem.”
The temple built at Arad, southeast of Jerusalem, in the tenth century B.C., was also patterned after the temple of Solomon, though on a smaller scale. Both structures faced east and both had an outer court, an inner court, and a holy of holies. The inner court of the Arad temple, uncovered in the 1960s, measures six cubits wide by twenty cubits long. These are the same proportions as the tabernacle of Moses, which was supported by six boards on the short sides and twenty on the long sides. In this court was found an altar of unhewn stone, as required in the law of Moses, with the same dimensions as the altar built for the tabernacle, three cubits high and five cubits on each side. The holy of holies of the Arad Temple was blanked by carved stone incense altars on either side.
Scholars (whether Mormons or other) who accept the Book of Mormon are intrigued by ties such as these and consequently consider the Book of Mormon to be an additional source for information about the ancient world that produced the Bible.