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Jewish Festivals in the Book of Mormon

Research by Kerry A. Shirts

Mosiah 1-6 represents a prime example of a New Year rite in the ancient Near East, such as the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Scholars have also noted elements of the ancient coronation rite and covenant renewal ceremony in Mosiah 1-6.

Matthew Roper, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, p.186

King Benjamin's speech also appears to contain all the major elements of a classic farewell address.

(the references are Stephen D. Ricks, "The Treaty COvenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address" "BYU Studies", 25(1984): 151-62; John Welch, "King Benjamin's Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals" FARMS working paper, 1985; Gordon C. Thomasson, "Mosiad: The Complex Symbolism and the Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon" FARMS working paper, 1982; "The Coronation of Kings," FARMS update, July 1989; "The Sons of Passover," FARMS Update Aug, 1984; "The Execution of Zemnarihah," FARMS update, Nov. 1984; "This Day" FARMS update April 1990; "New Years Celebrations," FARMS update Jan 1985; "Dancing Maidens and the Fifteenth of Av" FARMS update Feb. 1985; "Abinadi and Pentecost" FARMS update Sept 1985)

I think there is far more to attest to ancient Israeilte Festivals in the BofM than you critics are letting onto. Granted, each and every item is not mentioned specifically and described in detail about who does what, and when, and where, and for who, and who all participates, etc., etc. There is no blueprint to be sure, but FARMS has demonstrated conclusively, for those who would bother to do just a smidgin of homework that the argument of the BofM having a blank screen for ancient Israelite Festivals is simply false. COnsider John Tvedtnes' discussion of the Tanners' argument concerning just this idea.

Another item the Tanners consider critical but "missing" from the Book of Mormon is reference to Jewish festivals. In this, they appear to be unaware of the fact that I published, in 1978, a rather detailed article showing that the Nephites practiced the Feast of Tabernacles. That work has since been considerably enlarged and was again published in 1990. Some five or six years ago, I participated in a F.A.R.M.S. round-table discussion in Provo in which scholars who had been following up on my earlier work presented their most recent findings. All of the Old Testament festivals have now been identified in the Book of Mormon from their particular characteristics. (see the above list of named papers and articles)

Likewise, many passages of the Book of Mormon are discussed and understood by comparison to Jewish feasts and festivals, part of the Mosaic law, largely documented from later rabbinic sources rather than the Old Testament. For example, Abinadi is seen in the context of Pentecost (pp. 135–38), the dancing maidens in the context of the Fifteenth of Av (pp. 139–41), Alma’s sons in the context of Passover (pp. 196–98), and covenant renewal in the context of the New Years’ Celebration (pp. 209–11). Many of these comparisons are compelling, yet the Book of Mormon is remarkably silent about any specific festival or ritual known from the Mosaic law. The only specific mention of practices from the law of Moses is the sacrifices and offerings offered by the people who are non-Levites and with the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood (Alma 13), which is not typical of the Mosaic law as practiced and recorded in the Old Testament. Perhaps it is worth considering the Book of Mormon practice of the Mosaic law. Did the Book of Mormon peoples practice the law of Moses precisely as outlined in the Old Testament?

The Tanners find fault with the Book of Mormon for not naming any of the Jewish festivals of the Old Testament. Why they should insist on the very names and ignore the evidence for the observance of some of these festivals is beyond me. Their mathematical game doesn’t really shed any light on the matter. Most of the Old Testament references to the festivals are found in the law of Moses (Exodus through Deuteronomy), where they are instituted. One cannot compare this legal code with the Book of Mormon, which is mostly prophecy, preaching, and history. It would be more reasonable to compare Mormon’s abridgment with the main history of the Israelites, found in Joshua through 2 Kings. Most Bible scholars agree that the books of Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings were compiled or redacted at the same time and comprised the essential history of ancient Israel from the time of the conquest of the promised land down to the exile therefrom. In this sense, it is roughly parallel in nature, though not in time, with the Nephite record.

John A. Tvedtnes, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, p.224-228

Noting that Passover is mentioned 77 times in the Bible (I found only 45 in the Old Testament) and unleavened bread 43 times, the Tanners write, "We would expect, therefore, to find a significant number of references to that festival in the Book of Mormon," along with references to its associated Feast of Unleavened Bread (p. 94). In their count, they fail to tell us that some biblical references to "unleavened bread/cakes" are not in the context of a festival and are simply mentioned as things eaten (Genesis 19:3; Judges 6:19–21; 1 Samuel 28:24; 1 Chronicles 23:29).

Most references to the two festivals of Passover and unleavened bread are found in the law of Moses. But in the main history portion of the Old Testament (Joshua through 2 Kings), there are only two references to them. Joshua and the Israelites celebrated the two feasts after crossing the Jordan river into the land of Canaan (Joshua 5:10–11). It is likely that this was the first time they had celebrated the feasts since the exodus. Joshua 5:2–9 expressly states that, prior to the celebration, they circumcised all Israelite males for the first time since leaving Egypt. (In Exodus 12:43–48, we read that uncircumcised males cannot participate in the Passover feast.) Later, we read that when a copy of the law (Deuteronomy, according to most Bible scholars) was inadvertently discovered in the time of King Josiah, he and his people celebrated the Passover with unleavened bread (2 Kings 23:9, 21–23; 2 Chronicles 35:1, 6–9, 11, 13, 16–19). In both cases, we are dealing with the reinstitution of the festival, not an annual observance. The chroniclers later credited King Hezekiah with a similar celebration (2 Chronicles 30:1–2, 5, 15, 18, 21), but this may have been an attempt to build up Hezekiah, who was highly revered in post-exilic times. In this case, too, we are dealing with a reinstitution of the festival, of which, we are informed, there had not been "the like in Jerusalem" "since the time of Solomon" (2 Chronicles 30:26).

In the historical text of Joshua through 2 Kings, there is no mention of the feast of Tabernacles or of booths. Indeed, when it was reinstituted in the days of Ezra, it was noted that the feast had not been celebrated "since the days of Jeshua [Joshua]" (Nehemiah 8:17). The only reference to circumcision in Joshua–2 Kings is the one performed in conjunction with the celebration in Joshua 5, noted above. Almost all the other references to circumcision are in the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The Tanners cite Moroni 8:8, which speaks of the abolition of circumcision by Christ, and declare that it is "a very strange statement because there seems to be no evidence in the Book of Mormon that it was ever practiced" (p. 95). We could say the same of the historical record of the Israelites, with the sole exception of Joshua. Moreover, the very fact that circumcision is mentioned in Moroni 8:8 shows that Joseph Smith, if he authored the Book of Mormon, was aware that it should have been a normal practice among an ancient Israelite group. Why, then, would he avoid mentioning it earlier in the Book of Mormon? My answer, which will undoubtedly not satisfy the Tanners, is that he did not author the Book of Mormon and that its true authors, like the author(s) of Joshua–2 Kings, accepted circumcision as a given and saw no need to explain it. As for the complaint that the only other references to circumcision in the Book of Mormon are to circumcision of the heart (p. 95), we should point out that this concept began with Moses (Deuteronomy 10:16) and was repeated by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:4), a contemporary of Lehi.

I believe that the Nephites, like the ancient Israelites, accepted the festivals, the sabbaths, and other ceremonial aspects of the law of Moses as a given and therefore found no need to mention them at every turn in the road. That they did, indeed, practice unnamed ceremonies is confirmed in Mosiah 19:24, where we read, "And it came to pass that after they had ended the ceremony, that they returned to the land of Nephi." The fact that "the ceremony" is mentioned only in passing and is not described suggests that it was such a normal thing that there was no need to explain it. I believe that these Nephites, who had just slain their king and perhaps others in battle, underwent the purification required under the law of Moses for those who had touched dead bodies. I have submitted an article on this subject, entitled "The Nephite Purification Ceremony," to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

The Tanners criticize John Welch for suggesting that the "trump of God" in Alma 29:1 shows that the Nephites practiced the blowing of the shofar at the new year. They write, "It is hard for us to understand how the mention of the ‘trump of God,’ which appears about 120 pages after King Benjamin’s speech in the Book of Mormon, provides evidence" for this practice (p. 123). Anyone unacquainted with the use of the shofar would naturally be confused. It is necessary to understand that, for the Jews, the blowing of the shofar at the so-called "new year," the first day of the month of Tishre, is considered an announcement to mankind to repent and prepare for the judgment, which is precisely what Alma is saying in Alma 29:1. That judgment, they believe, takes place on Yom kippur, the "day of atonement," nine days later, when the names of the righteous are "sealed" in heaven. Four days after that, when the danger of damnation is past, the people celebrate the feast of Tabernacles.

The Feast of Tabernacles

There is abundant evidence in Mosiah 1–6 that the Nephites, on this occasion at least, observed the feast of Tabernacles. Yet the Tanners state, "We are so certain that these six chapters contain nothing concerning the Feast of Tabernacles or any other Jewish festival that we are including the entire text in this response" (p. 100).

Simply saying that there is no evidence that Mosiah 1–6 has a relationship to the feast of Tabernacles is not enough. I wrote two lengthy articles on this subject, detailing features shared by the Jewish and Old Testament feast of Tabernacles and the Nephite assembly under King Benjamin. Unless the Tanners can show that these shared features do not exist, they should refrain from their strong assertions. They have completely failed to address the evidence.

The following is a list of features associated with the ancient Israelite feast of Tabernacles that are also found in connection with the Nephite assembly under King Benjamin.

 

• The people assemble at the temple

• The king or political leader presides from a raised platform

• People dwell by families in booths or tents

• Special sacrifices are offered

• Exhortations addressed to the adults specifically exclude children

• The law is read (especially the "paragraph of the king")

• God’s mercy and salvation are mentioned

• Recitation is made of God’s dealings with his people

• Recitation is made of the commandments of God

• Recitation is made of the curses and blessings of the law

• The people are exhorted to love and serve God

• The people are promised prosperity if they obey God

• The people, in chorus, make a covenant of obedience

• The people prostrate themselves to worship

• Sometimes the coronation of the king is involved

• Sometimes the names of the covenanters are taken

• The king blesses the people

It should be readily apparent that the Nephite assembly parallels the feast of Tabernacles in a large number of features. By contrast, only a few of these features can be found in the nineteenth-century camp meetings to which the Tanners compare Mosiah 1–6 (pp. 134–35). Indeed, some of these may not have been typical of such meetings. For example, the fact that families brought their tents to one meeting, as cited by the Tanners (p. 135), is not evidence that this always happened and, indeed, from other contemporary descriptions, this appears not to be the normal thing to do. (I suppose it depended on how far away the meeting was from the settlements.) The building of the platform for the camp meeting speakers seems to be a logical thing to do, in view of the large numbers of people who had to be addressed. From this standpoint, Joseph Smith, had he authored the Book of Mormon, could have used the same logic or simply described what he saw in camp meetings. But the fact that the Book of Mormon says Benjamin had a tower constructed moves us from nineteenth-century America to ancient Israel, where the Hebrew term for the platform constructed for the feast of Tabernacles is, in Nehemiah 8:4, called migdal, the normal Hebrew word for "tower" (which is the way it is usually translated in KJV).

Metcalfe suggested that aspects of the camp meetings were drawn from the biblical feast of Tabernacles. To be sure, this would have made it easier for Joseph Smith to borrow the idea from preachers of his time. But if he knew that they were copying the feast of Tabernacles, why didn’t he use that term in the Book of Mormon? More important, however, is the fact that Benjamin’s assembly includes features of the Feast of Tabernacles not mentioned by the Tanners or Metcalfe in connection with the camp meetings. This includes the references to parts of Deuteronomy (notably the paragraph of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14–20) used anciently in the liturgy of the feast of Tabernacles, the fact that the king (rather than the high priest) presided, the coronation ceremony, the assembly at the temple (camp meetings typically being in the countryside), and the fact that, during the meeting, each family remained in its own tent.

One piece of evidence given by the Tanners to refute the idea that King Benjamin presided at a celebration of the feast of Tabernacles is that he had to call the people together (Mosiah 1:10), whereas the ancient Israelites "knew when these festivals took place and automatically gathered to worship the Lord" (p. 118). But in New Testament times, when we have more information about the festivals, people awaited word from Jerusalem to declare the beginning of the month with the appearance of the new moon. Fire signals were lit on hilltops across the country (and into Babylon) to send the message, later to be replaced by runners. For festivals like Passover/Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles, which each began at sundown on the fourteenth day of the month (i.e., at the full moon), people had about two weeks’ warning. We do not know what the procedure was in Old Testament times, but it is likely that people didn’t have calendars hanging on the wall by which they could check the dates of the festivals. Indeed, after Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the only Old Testament festival celebrations in Israel were declared by the king (2 Kings 23:1–99, 21–23; 2 Chronicles 30:1–2) or other political leaders (Nehemiah 8:13–15), just as in the Book of Mormon. We cannot reject these parallels simply because they denote a restoration of a discontinued practice; for all we know, King Benjamin may have reinstituted the feast in his day.

Firstlings of the Flock

The Tanners, citing M. T. Lamb, point out that, under the law of Moses, the firstborn of the flocks belonged to the Lord and were turned over to the high priest and, while they could be offered as a peace offering, were never used as a sin or burnt offering. Consequently, they say, Mosiah 2:3 is wrong in saying that the Nephites "also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses" (p. 96). Various responses to this dilemma have been given, including the one cited by the Tanners (p. 99) in which L. Ara Norwood indicates that the word firstling could have been a mistake made by Mormon in his abridgment. While this is not impossible, I think there is a simpler answer. Since the Nephites were not descendants of Aaron, there were no Aaronic priests to whom the firstlings could be given. In Genesis 4:4, we read that Abel, who lived long before 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. (The law of Moses even forbade working a firstborn bullock or shearing the wool of a firstborn sheep).