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Mormanity:King Benjamin's Speech: Great Literature from an Ancient Voice
by Jeff Lindsay
Some of our critics frequently slam The Book of Mormon for its alleged lack of literary value. True, its writers are often not poets like Isaiah, and the text from Mormon, for example, tends to be very straightforward and direct. But there are literary treasures in the book that our critics and even faithful readers may be missing.
For example, take another look at the powerful speech of King Benjamin in the early chapters of Mosiah in The Book of Mormon. Although critics might lampooned this as just another revival sermon obviously drawn from Joseph’s 19th Century experiences, they are missing an ancient gem that ought to command a little more respect, even awe.
In my opinion, this section of The Book of Mormon raises serious questions about attempts to explain the book as a result of plagiarism from Solomon Spaulding, Ethan Smith, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, the Apocrypha, or even Walt Whitman. Perhaps even more than the extremely sophisticated chiasmus of Alma 36, Mosiah 1-6 contains such strong textual evidences of ancient Semitic origins that it strains the imagination to think that Joseph Smith whipped this up, no matter whose shoulder he was looking over in 1829.
I would especially recommend that you read “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6” by Stephen D. Ricks, an excellent chapter in one of my favorite books, King Benjamin’s Speech, edited by John Welch and Stephen Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), pp. 233-275. The Maxwell Institute provides the entire book online, a wonderful freebie. I especially enjoyed: Chapter 3, “Benjamin’s Speech: A Masterful Oration” by John W. Welch; Chapter 5, “Assembly and Atonement” by Hugh W. Nibley; Chapter 10, “Benjamin’s Covenant as a Precursor of the Sacrament Prayers” by John W. Welch; and Chapter 11, “Parallelism and Chiasmus in Benjamin’s Speech” by John W. Welch. Awesome! But that’s just a fraction of all the great information and testimony-building insights from the book, so I still hope you’ll buy your own copy.
In part of Welch’s chapter on kingship and coronation, he discusses the six elements of the ancient covenant renewal pattern. Pay attention to these points. Long before this book was published, my testimony of the Restoration and especially of the divinity of the Temple got a major boost when I bought and read a book by a Jewish scholar on the ancient temple paradigm.
Dr. Jon Levenson of Harvard is the author of this favorite book of mine, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985).
I was amazed to read about the twentieth-century discovery of a common pattern found in many ancient Middle Eastern covenants between unequal parties (e.g., a ruling nation and its subjects). This ancient pattern for making a covenant between God and man or a king and his subjects is known as the “covenant formulary” and includes the following six elements, though many ancient examples of covenants may only have a subset of the six:
2. Historical prologue (description of what the king has done for the subjects)
3. Stipulations (to secure fidelity of the subjects to the king)
4. Deposition of the text of the treaty or covenant (special writings and other means to ensure that the covenants aren’t forgotten and are recorded and reviewed)
5. List of witnesses
6. Statement of curses and blessings (the results of disobedience or obedience)
This ancient pattern is becoming relatively well known now, and has even made its way into some mainstream Christian sermons, such as a 2004 sermon by Reverend Neil Bramble-Chapman (amazingly, he even mentions the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis in his sermon).
While I do not desire to discuss details of the temple, each element of the ancient covenant formulary is clearly present in the LDS temple. And as Stephen Ricks shows in his chapter, these elements appear to be present in the covenant-making process that King Benjamin directs (though one element is implied rather than explicitly present). This adds an interesting perspective to our appreciation of The Book of Mormon.
Modern recognition of the ancient covenant formulary dates back to the 1950s, when George Mendenhall and Klaus Baltzer began comparing biblical literature with other ancient treaties (see discussion in Levenson, p. 26; see also George Mendenhall, “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1954, pp. 50-76, as cited by Stephen Ricks “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6,” with references pertaining to Mendenhall and other related sources cited on p. 274).
Though these elements can be found scattered in the Bible, their significance and their relationship to each other was not appreciated in Joseph Smith’s day. (Actually, there is still vigorous debate on these elements: see “Covenant, Treaty, and Prophecy” by E. C. Lucas, originally printed in Themelios, Vol. 8, No. 1, Sept. 1982, pp. 19-23. This article discusses the ancient six-part treaty concept proposed by Mendenhall and reviews some recent criticisms of Mendenhall’s views.)
Although the covenant formulary is an exciting concept for appreciating King Benjamin’s speech, there is much more in Levenson’s book and other modern writings about ancient practices that puts not only The Book of Mormon but also the LDS temple ceremony squarely into the realm of ancient practice.
Some of the elements that deeply impressed me were the relationship between the temple and the Sabbath day (sacred space and sacred time), the symbolism of the baptismal font (and subterranean waters in general) in the temple, the relationship between mountains and temples (also found strongly in the Bible and The Book of Mormon), the significance of covenant making, the link between Zion and the temple, the things one does to show reverence for sacred ground, the significance of the Creation story, and so on.
Levenson probably knows little of LDS temples, at least when he wrote this, yet his writings about the ancient Jewish experience did more for my understanding of LDS temples than any modern LDS writer had up to that time.
A related summary of information about the ancient Middle Eastern temple concept is available online in John M. Lundquist’s scholarly article, “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” originally printed in H. B. Huffman, F. A. Spina, and A. R. W. Green, eds., The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1983), which was republished in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. by Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994, pp. 83-118). Although Lundquist’s article is not explicitly about the LDS temple, those familiar with LDS temples will find intriguing evidence for its ancient roots.
See also “Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices” by John A. Tvedtnes at FAIRLDS.org.
Getting back to The Book of Mormon, I am impressed with how often we can better understand the text by understanding aspects of the ancient world. It is a book written for our day by people who never experienced a 19th Century revival, but were steeped in the patterns and ways of antiquity.
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