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December 20, 2013
The Temple in the Book of Mormon
by Jeff Lindsay

One of the fascinating things about the Book of Mormon is the intricate way in which ancient and restored temple concepts play a role in the text. Recent scholarship has helped bring out some of these treasures that help us better appreciate the text and its ancient Semitic roots.

I have previously discussed Dave Butler’s insights into Lehi’s vision as a model of a temple gone dark, taken over by apostate priests who mock those seeking to enter into the presence of the Lord.

Lehi’s vision has a large field which he curiously describes as being like “a world” (1 Nephi 8:20). Butler proposes that this is a Hebrew word play, with the Hebrew word for world, olam, being very much like the Hebrew world for the first zone of the Hebrew temple, the courtyard, or the ulam.

After the courtyard, the next part of the temple is the hekal, which means “great building,” perfectly paralleled in Lehi’s vision with the “great and spacious building” that is inhabited by the elite — another excellent word play.

The elite mockers include those wearing “fine” robes, with the word “fine” being used in the Old Testament to refer to priestly clothing only, not profane clothing. The hekal of the Jewish temple has been taken over by the elite apostate priests and leaders of Lehi’s day. It is a temple gone dark.

The righteous must endure the mocking and overcome the deceptions of the apostate priests and other forces of darkness and destruction in order to reach the tree of life, symbolizing the love of God and perhaps His presence in the holy of holies.

Recent scholarship has also shown how much the principles of temple worship in early Jewish religion were changed after the Exile, with major changes already beginning with the reforms of King Josiah shortly before the Book of Mormon begins. The scholarship of Margaret Barker in this area has been a source of fascination for LDS readers.

An excellent review by Kevin Christensen helps us show how precisely the Book of Mormon captures the tensions and controversies in Lehi’s day, and shows the strong presence of religious paradigms predating the Exile.

Here is an excerpt from his chapter, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi's World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker” in the book, Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem, by John Welch, David R. Seely, and Jo Ann N. Seely (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2004). Footnotes have been omitted here.

Starting with The Older Testament in 1987, Margaret Barker proposes a new reconstruction of religious life and practice in Jerusalem before the exile. Barker is a revisionist biblical scholar from England. As a revisionist, her views stand apart from the mainstream, though her books have been garnering more and more attention.

She claims that a "fundamental misreading of the Old Testament" has been "forced upon us by those who transmitted the text," meaning those who initiated Josiah's reform and their exilic and postexilic heirs, the group that even conventional scholarship identifies as the Deuteronomists — a school of authors or redactors of the biblical books from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings.

Thus, according to Barker, the Deuteronomists have superimposed upon the biblical history — in particular, Deuteronomy through 2 Kings — their own particular theological emphasis both in their selection of material to be preserved and in the theological emphasis and interpretation of the history they tell.

Barker directs our attention to "the conflicts of the sixth century BC when the traditions of the monarchy were divided as an inheritance amongst several heirs."

What makes her work of particular interest to Latter-day Saints is the picture she constructs of First Temple theology and practice based on "the accidents of archaeological discovery and the evidence of pre-Christian texts preserved and transmitted only by Christian hands." That is, based on a wide reading of newly discovered texts and a rereading of familiar texts, she constructs a picture of the religion of preexilic Jerusalem that is strikingly different from the conventional view.

Lehi and Nephi offer us another look at the same time and place. How do the pictures compare?

Her model centers on the temple, the monarchy, and the wisdom tradition, all of which were intertwined in the preexilic era but were transformed by reforms initiated by Josiah (2 Kings 22–23), and changes continued during the exile by the Deuteronomic school in response to the destruction of the temple and monarchy in 587 BC.

In comparison, the Book of Mormon begins in "the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah," Nephi's father Lehi "having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days," when "there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed" (1 Nephi 1:4).

The young Lehi was a contemporary of Josiah, in whose reign the book of the law was rediscovered during a renovation of the temple dated at 621 BC (see 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34). The clear Deuteronomic influence in the Book of Mormon plausibly follows from Lehi's experience of Josiah's ten-year reforms and whatever version of their texts Nephi obtained from the plates of Laban.

No matter which proposed date we take for Lehi's departure from Jerusalem, most of Lehi's mature life in that city would have been after Josiah's death and, hence, during the period when his reform unraveled.

The death of Josiah destabilized everything; the power of Egypt did the rest. The king was quickly replaced. The landed nobility was rendered powerless by high taxes. The administration was changed, even if this happened slowly, as we see from the very different groups of people mentioned in the brief accounts of the book of Jeremiah for the period of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah.

Even among the priests, things changed. The groups that had collaborated in a happy period were soon back at their old rivalries. The single movement was dead; the many parties at court returned.

The Book of Mormon stands in clear contrast with the efforts of these reformers. After reaching the New World, Nephi soon sets about constructing a temple, accepts de facto kingship, consecrates high priests, and demonstrates in his writings elaborate ties to known and surmised wisdom traditions, all stemming from the pre-Josiah era.

In claiming roots in Jerusalem at that specific time, Nephi and Lehi give us a look at the other side of the "formidable barrier" that the exile represents. Barker makes her new reconstruction in light of her wide-ranging review of primary sources, including new information from "the accidents of archaeological discovery and the evidence of pre-Christian texts preserved and transmitted only by Christian hands."

How does her view compare with what we see among Lehi and his descendants?

In this study, I show that Lehi's first visions provide a direct connection to Barker's reconstruction of the beliefs and practices of preexilic Israel. I explore in greater detail Barker's reconstruction of the First Temple, the monarchy, and the lost wisdom traditions.

Under each of these three themes, I show parallels to the Book of Mormon and then give some concluding observations. Because the parallels occur in radically different settings, without collusion, and because both differ dramatically from the common views, each can provide checks and potential illumination for the other.

In order to be significant, any parallels that we find should appear as part of a woven fabric rather than as isolated instances. Any differences should have valid explanations in terms of reasonable historical factors and the nature of available sources.

If there is no truth to either account, we should expect the views to have little or nothing in common. If one is accurate and the other false, we should also expect their accounts to have little or nothing in common. If both are accurate, they ought to demonstrate elaborate convergence, which indeed they do.

Christensen’s full article and related articles should be essential reading for Latter-day Saints wishing to understand the Book of Mormon more thoroughly. Margaret Barker’s contributions to understanding biblical history are genuinely worthy of much reflection. Her work is one of many things that make the Book of Mormon more interesting and more plausible as we learn more.

Other scholarship in the past century has revealed more of relevance to themes relevant to the temple in the Book of Mormon, such as the pattern of ancient covenants in the Middle East or the “covenant formulary,” a pattern that we find in King Benjamin’s speech at the Nephite temple, and that we find in the restored LDS temple concept.

The covenant formulary, which I discuss on my LDSFAQ page about covenants, generally has six steps used in making a covenant. The formulary apparently not known or recognized in Joseph Smith’s day, but was first published in the 1930s by biblical scholars. Yet we see it in the Book of Mormon (in King Benjamin’s speech) and in the LDS temple.

I recommend Sinai and Zion by Jewish scholar Jon Levenson as an introduction to the ancient covenant pattern and to many other interesting aspects of the ancient temple.

But how could the Nephites dare to make their own temple in the New World? How could they without the Ark of the Covenant and its sacred, authoritative relics that added to the sanctity of the holy of holies and made it a place fitting for the presence of the Lord?

This is an interesting question addressed by Don Bradley in an article I strongly recommend: “Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages,”, 2012. He asks:

How was it even possible for the Nephites to observe the Mosaic rituals without the Levitical priesthood, the Aaronite high priest, and the Ark of the Covenant? And given that our temple worship today isn’t about animal sacrifice, what, if anything, does their temple worship have to do with ours?

Bradley then points out that the Nephite kings were, at least initially, the de facto high priests in the Book of Mormon, at the top of the priesthood hierarchy. In part of this discussion, he mentions some sacred relics in the possession of the kings:

In addition to the king’s position at the top of the Nephite priesthood structure, we find evidence of his status as high priest in his using the same or a similar instrument to the one used by the biblical high priest to inquire of God’s will for His people.

For the ancient Israelites this instrument was the stones of Urim and Thummim, kept in the pocket of a breastplate. The equivalent Nephite instrument, which also attaches to a breastplate, is called in the Book of Mormon “the interpreters” and in revelation to Joseph Smith “the Urim and Thummim.”

Importantly, this Nephite equivalent to the Jerusalem high priest’s most important relic was the possession of the Nephite kings. Mosiah the Second used it to interpret the twenty-four Jaredite plates, as his grandfather Mosiah the First evidently had to interpret the Jaredite stone record.

This would place the interpreters in the hands of the Nephite kings even while the prophetic record “the small plates” was still being through Jacob’s line, suggesting that the Nephite high priestly relics and role belonged, not to the prophets, but to the kings.

After discussing Nephi’s role as king and legitimate high priest, he addresses the “glaring” issue of Nephite temple worship without the Ark of the Covenant. Incidentally, as discussed by Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, the Ark of the Covenant was removed during the Deuteronomist reforms as the concept of the presence of God in the holy of holies was replaced with an incorporeal voice that merely issued the law.

But for pre-exilic Jews maintaining the early version of their religion, the relics of the Ark of the Covenant would have been vital for the sanctity of a true temple. Bradley continues:

We go from the “who” now to the “how” of Nephite temple worship. Nephi wrote that he had built a temple like that of Solomon. This statement has drawn guffaws from critics, who note the enormous scale and grandeur of Solomon’s temple.

But it isn’t the scale and grandeur of Solomon’s temple that made it a model for Nephi’s. Nephi wanted his temple to be like Solomon’s, not in size, but in functionality. To perform the rituals prescribed by the Law of Moses his people would need a temple parallel to Solomon’s in rooms and relics.

The modeling of Nephite worship on early Israelite worship in Jerusalem has been explored by Kevin Christensen. Christensen describes key features of Jerusalem worship from the days of Lehi’s youth, before the heavy-handed Josian reform, and then observes that Nephite religion contained all of these, “with the understandable exception of the specific temple artifacts kept in the holy of holies, the ark of the covenant … and the cherubim.”

But while the Nephites’ omission of the Ark of the Covenant from their temple is, as he says, understandable, it is also glaring. The Jerusalem temple was, in one sense, a house for the Ark of the Covenant. The temple was structured in layers of sacredness, or degrees of glory, if you will, around the Ark, with the chamber that contained the Ark being the holiest place of all, the Holy of Holies.

The Ark, bearing as it did the stone tablets God touched with His finger on Sinai during the Exodus, provided Israel an embodiment of His presence. The Ark also served as an altar, upon which the Aaronite high priest was required to sprinkle sacrificial blood during the all-important Day of Atonement.

How could the Nephites keep the Law of Moses without access to the Ark of the Covenant? And with what, if not the miraculous relics of the Exodus, including their literal touchstones with Deity, would sufficiently sanctify their Holy of Holies to make it an appropriate dwelling place for God?

As in the case of replacing the Aaronite high priest, they would have to introduce their own fitting substitute. Whether the Nephite temple was like Solomon’s on its exterior was irrelevant. Whether it was like Solomon’s here, at its heart, the Holy of Holies, was vital.

Something, presumably something remarkable, would have to sit in the Ark’s place.

But what did the Nephites have that could stand in for the sacred relics of the Exodus kept in Solomon’s temple? They had their own sacred relics, including those of their exodus to the new Promised Land, relics handed down through the line of kings and then that of prophets and ultimately recovered by Joseph Smith on the Hill Cumorah.

In the stone box — which Martin Harris reportedly called an “ark” — Joseph found a set of Nephite sacred treasures that paralleled the relics associated with the Ark and its custodian, the High Priest.

The relevant relics associated with the Ark and the High Priest were as follows: in the Ark were the stone tablets God had touched during the Exodus, and according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, also Aaron’s rod that budded and a pot of manna. And we’ve already discussed the High Priest’s Urim and Thummim and breastplate, which attached to a garment referred to as the ephod.

Cumorah’s “ark” contained the plates, the breastplate and interpreters, the Liahona, and the sword of Laban. The most obvious identification, which we’ve already made, is that of breastplate with breastplate, and interpreters with Urim and Thummim. Only slightly less obvious is the parallel of scriptural stone tablets with scriptural golden plates — or, golden tablets.

Bradley goes on to equate the rod of Aaron, a symbol of authority, with the sword of Laban, which was akin to the sword of Goliath. Both were used by young men to slay powerful foes and become a symbol of kingship. Both were kept as sacred relics reminding others of God’s power and of the authority of a kingly line (Goliath’s sword was kept with the breastplate in the tabernacle, until David needed it again and took it. See 1 Samuel 21:9.)

But what of the pot of manna? This is what I found most interesting. Recall the description of the discovery of manna in Exodus 16:13-15: “In the morning the dew lay round about the host. And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing…. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna, for they wist not what it was.”

The manna, a symbol of the Lord’s mercy in which he provided sustenance for the Jews in their exodus from captivity to the promised land, was found in the morning as they traveled in the wilderness, and is described as a small round thing that lay on the ground. Any guesses as to what sacred relic among the Nephites might be a fitting substitute for the pot of manna?

Significantly, it was in the morning in the wilderness when Lehi, while leading his family on their own exodus to a new promised land, discovers a strange round thing lying on the ground that gives them guidance regarding where to go, and where to find food.

And like the Jews finding manna who didn’t know what it was, Lehi was also astonished and puzzled: “As my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship” (1 Nephi 16:10).

Lehi’s Liahona serves as a remarkably fitting parallel to the pot of manna, a symbol of the Lord’s mercy and deliverance. And like manna, it wasn’t a gift to be taken for granted, but could quit functioning as a result of rebellion.

Amazingly, all of the sacred relics in the Ark of the Covenant have a fitting parallel among the sacred relics preserved among the Nephites and kept in the charge of their high priests/kings. Bradly then states:

The cache of Nephite sacred treasures was more than sufficient, and at least equal in spiritual power to those in the Ark of the Covenant. Including as it did the interpreters, which had been touched by God and served as a medium of communication with Him, it made an ideal point of contact between God and man to rest at the center of the Nephite Holy of Holies.

This is one of many subtle and fascinating aspects of the temple in the Book of Mormon. I especially like the connection between the manna and the Liahona, and the abundance of pre-exilic temple and wisdom themes in the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon, as usual, is far “smarter” than Joseph Smith, meaning that its ancient influences and themes are far more sophisticated and rich than Joseph or anyone in his day could have contrived. There is much more one can say on this topic, such as the themes we find when Christ ministers to the Nephites and Lamanites at the temple in Bountiful.

Meanwhile, here are some further resources related to the discussion above:

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