Three Days Journey for Sacrifice
John A. Tvedtnes
“And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water. And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.” (1 Nephi 2:6-7)
S. Kent Brown has demonstrated that Lehi’s first offering in the wilderness, following his departure from Jerusalem, was likely what the King James version (KJV) of the Bible calls a “peace offering,” made in gratitude for the family’s safe arrival at a source of water.[i] In reading the Bible, we find other ancient patriarchs building altars and offering sacrifices upon arriving in new lands.[ii] Perhaps more significantly, some of these sacrifices, like the one Lehi offered beside the Arabian river, took place after three days of journeying.
For example, Abraham traveled three days to the place where he was commanded to take his son Isaac to sacrifice him (Genesis 22:4). A few generations later, the Lord told Moses to ask the king of Egypt to allow the Hebrews to travel “three days’ journey into the wilderness” to offer “sacrifice unto the Lord our God” (Exodus 3:18; 5:3; 8:27-28; 10:24-26). Pharaoh’s refusal brought a series of plagues that devastated the land of Egypt. When Israel ultimately left the land of their captivity, after crossing the Reed Sea (KJV “Red Sea”), they “went three days in the wilderness” (Exodus 15:22; Numbers 33:8), though no sacrifice is mentioned.
When the Israelites Arrived at the mountain where the Lord revealed his law to Moses, the Lord instructed them to abstain from sex for three days, after which he would come down to speak with them (Exodus 19:11, 15-16). From this evidently came the tradition that one could not enter the tabernacle or temple unless one had been kept from women for three days (1 Samuel 21:5-6), evidently for ritual purity. Sexual abstinence was required because any bodily issue (including open sores and menstrual blood) rendered the individual ritually impure and required water purification (Leviticus 15:16-18, 32). Similar rules applied to times of war, when men were required to stay away from their wives. Even a soldier who soiled himself during an involuntary nocturnal emission was considered ritually impure (Deuteronomy 23:9-11).
Under the law of Moses, one could also become ritually unclean by killing someone (i.e., in battle) or by touching the carcass of a human or an animal. Purification from such uncleanness required being ritually purified on the third and seventh days before returning home or going to the sanctuary (Numbers 19:11-12, 16-20; 31:19).[iii] This may be why Ezra and those who accompanied him to Jerusalem waited three days before bringing the temple implements and sacrificial animals to the priests (Ezra 8:32-35).
Symbolism of the Three Days
The three days evidently symbolize the time during which Christ’s body would lie in the tomb.[iv] Christ declared that “as Jonas [Jonah] was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly [Jonah 1:17]; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40; see also Matthew 16:4).[v] The three days had been foreseen by a number of ancient prophets,[vi] including Hosea, who wrote, “Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight” (Hosea 6:1-2).[vii] Though graves were opened during the earthquake that accompanied the Savior’s death, the dead did not rise from those graves until after Christ arose (Matthew 27:52-53; cf. Helaman 14:25; 3 Nephi 23:6-13).
Christ’s resurrection on the third day may also be symbolized in other events and teachings of Old Testament times. For example, vegetation began appearing on the earth on the “third day” of creation (Genesis 1:11-13). In the Holy Land, the greenest month, with the most grass, is the month of Abib, when the grain harvest begins. The fifteenth day of this month is the feast of Passover, which commemorated the Israelite departure from Egypt and was when Christ was crucified and rose after three days. It was immediately preceding this feast that the curse of darkness in began in Egypt and lasted three days (Exodus 10:22-23). When the Savior was crucified, three days of thick darkness fell over the land inhabited by Lehi’s descendants in the New World and lifted only when he was resurrected (Helaman 14:20, 27; 3 Nephi 8:3, 23; 10:9).
The Lord forbade the Israelites to eat the flesh of a sacrificial animal on the third day, and commanded that it be burnt (Leviticus 7:17-18; 19:6-7). So the sacrifice was fully consumed on the third day after the animal had been slain.
The prophets at Jericho found it hard to believe Elisha when he told them that Elijah had been taken to heaven, so they spent three days searching for him in the wilderness, perhaps thinking to find him dead (2 Kings 2:17). Interpreting the dreams of the butler and the baker with whom he was imprisoned in Egypt, Joseph told the one that he would be restored to his former position after three days, while the other would be hanged on a tree after three days (Genesis 40:12-13, 18-20). One seems to represent Christ’s crucifixion, the other his resurrection.
Following his collapse at the appearance of the angel, Alma remained incapacitated for “three days and three nights,” i.e., the same amount of time Christ spent in the spirit-world (Alma 36:10, 16). Similarly, the Lamanite king Lamoni lay as if dead for three days until he revived (Alma 19:1, 5, 8, 11-12).[viii] When Hezekiah, king of Judah, was ill, the Lord instructed the prophet Isaiah to tell him that he would be healed and, “on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 20:5-8), presumably to offer sacrifice.
Sacrifice on the third day seems to have symbolized the coming sacrifice of Christ, whose body lay in the tomb for three days before returning to life and making the resurrection possible for all of God’s children who had come into mortality.
[i] S. Kent Brown, “What Were Those Sacrifices Offered by Lehi?” chapter 1 of Brown, From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998). A condensed version was published as a FARMS Update, “Lehi’s Sacrifices in the Wilderness,” in Insights: An Ancient Window 21/9 (September 2001), and is posted at http://farms.byu.edu/publications/insights/?vol=21&num=9&id=214&q=Lehi+Sacrifices.
[ii] Genesis 8:18-20; 12:5-8; 13:1-4, 18; 26:23-25; 33:17-20; 35:1-7; Exodus 17:15; 18:12; 24:4-6.
[iii] For a discussion, see “The Nephite Purification Ceremony,” chapter 24 in John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights From a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999, later reissued by Horizon).
[iv] Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19; 27:63-64; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:31-33; 24:7, 19-21, 44-46; Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4; D&C 20:23.
[v] After casting Jonah into the sea, the men on board the ships offered sacrifice to Israel’s God (Jonah 1:15-16).
[vi] E.g., 1 Nephi 19:10; 2 Nephi 25:13; Mosiah 3:10; Helaman 14:20, 27; 3 Nephi 8:3, 23.
[vii] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 56:1 cites a number of passages where God sent his salvation on the third day of trial or suffering: Hosea 6:2; Genesis 42:18; Joshua 2:16; Exodus 19:16; Jonah 2:2; Ezra 8:32; Esther 5:1. Cf. Genesis 22:14 & 22:4.
[viii] Jewish tradition holds that the spirit remains with the body for three days after death, then departs. The idea probably came from the fact that the body would begin to decay and to decompose after three days. Lazarus, having been in his tomb for four days, was thought to “stink” and therefore his sisters expressed doubt that Jesus, who had raised others from the dead, could bring him back to life, though he did so (John 11).