Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why I Believe: Evidence Forty-six: “Zingers” in the Book of Mormon, Part 3: “Altars, Offerings, Sacrifices, and Thanksgiving.”

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Forty-six:
 “Zingers” in the Book of Mormon, Part 3: 
“Altars, Offerings, Sacrifices, and Thanksgiving”© 

Attacks on the Book of Mormon began before it actually came off of the press and have continued almost unabated since that time. One issue that arose early and continues to periodically surface is the matter of Lehi and Nephi, non-Levites, exercising the priesthood in temple related ways.  In 1832 Alexander Campbell a well-known leader of a “restoration” movement and founder of what became The Church of Christ wrote one of the earliest critiques of the Book of Mormon in a pamphlet entitled Delusions.(1) His first argument under the heading of “Internal Evidence” is that early in the story Lehi builds an altar whereupon he makes offerings, sacrifices, and gives thanks.  (See 1 Ne. 2:7; 5:9; and 7:22). Campbell asserts that Joseph erred when he made Lehi a descendant of Joseph rather than of Levi and goes to some length to show how in the Old Testament the priesthood was confined to the families of Levi and Aaron. The Book of Mormon he claims, errs when Lehi builds an altar and offers sacrifices and burnt offering to the Lord, and later to have Nephi build a temple in the new world. This is compounded later in the book when high priests are consecrated.  Campbell concludes:
Although God had promised in the law of Moses, that if any man not of the tribe and family of Levi and Aaron, should approach the office of priest, he would surely die; he is represented by Smith as blessing, approbating, and sustaining another family in this appropriated office. The God of Abraham or Joseph Smith must then be a liar!! And who will hesitate to pronounce him an impostor? This lie runs through his records for the first six hundred years of his story.(2)
Campbell’s argument is the first of two issues relating to the altar and ritual practices there in First Nephi. The second is the widely held belief that Deuteronomy 12 centralized Israelite worship at the temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices and other rituals associated with temple worship were not permitted outside of Jerusalem. So, what was Lehi doing with an altar in northwestern Arabia? Did Joseph Smith make two blunders that expose his authorship of the book?

Some interesting information which helps answer these two questions has been accumulating as Latter-day Saints try to understand and defend the Book of Mormon on these points. In a 2001 article entitled “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness,” BYU professor David Rolph Seely has effectively summarized three possible answers to these questions.(3) The first is the possibility that “Deuteronomy 12 did not intend to eliminate all sacrifice away from the main sanctuary.” The provisions found in Deuteronomy 12 do not explicitly say sacrifice may not be made except at the Jerusalem sanctuary. It apparently took on this interpretation over time, but we know from both the Old Testament and archaeology that altars, sanctuaries, and temples existed in at least a dozen places during the Old Testament period.(4) Nevertheless, Seely reports, during the time of Lehi, King Josiah initiated reforms which did interpret Deuteronomy 12 as restricting sacrifice to the Jerusalem sanctuary. He and Hezekiah are credited with centralizing Israelite worship in Jerusalem..(5) So, this leads to the second possibility–that Lehi held the Melchizedek Priesthood was “not bound by the centralization of worship as prescribed by Deuteronomy 12.”(6)  

He quotes the Prophet Joseph Smith as saying, “All the prophets had the Melchizedek Priesthood and were ordained by God himself.”(7) Through a misreading of a Seely footnote at this point I encountered a happy accident. I thought the footnote was quoting Joseph Smith to the effect that Lehi held the Melchizedek Priesthood.(8) I was not familiar with such a statement from Joseph Smith though I have spent much of my adult life studying his teachings, so I was understandably interested in finding this quotation. I did a word search but could not come up with the quotation.  After several failures I reread the Seely footnote and realized my error. But the effort was not in vain because in my word search I came across a very nice statement from Oliver Cowdery. In early 1835 he was editor of the Church’s periodical The Latter-Day Saint Messenger and Advocate. In March of that year he responded to some of Alexander Campbell’s criticisms of the Book of Mormon found in Delusions. Happily for me, he took up the issue of Lehi’s priesthood.  Cowdery wrote:
Now, as it is, and very correctly too, Lehi and his sons were blessed with the high priesthood–the Melchesedek priesthood. They never made any pretence [sic] that they were descendants of Aaron, or ever received that priesthood which was conferred upon him by the hand of Moses, at the direction of the Lord. 
How did it happen that Moses had authority to consecrate Aaron a priest? Where did he get his authority to arrange the tabernacle, ark, &c.? Who laid hands upon him? Had he authority to "come near" when the Lord was entreated by sacrifice? He was Aaron's brother, to be sure, but Aaron was the high priest. 
Should Mr. C. [Alexander Campbell] finally learn, that Moses received the holy priesthood, after the order of Melchesedek, under the hand of Jethro, his father in-law, that clothed with this authority he set Israel in order, and by commandment ordained Aaron to a priesthood less than that, and that Lehi was a priest after this same order, perhaps he will not raise so flimsy an assertion, as he does when he says the validity of the book of Mormon is destroyed because Lehi offered sacrifice; and perhaps, also, he may not be quite so lavish with his familiar titles as he was when he called brother Smith "as impudent a knave as ever wrote a book!!"(9)
This fully agrees with the Prophet Joseph, and coming from the “second elder” of the Church and amanuensis for the Prophet in the translation of the bulk of the Book of Mormon, this is strong evidence that Joseph believed that Lehi and other Book of Mormon prophets held the Melchizedek Priesthood. Therefore, from a Latter-day Saint point of view, it was not inappropriate for Lehi to build an altar or Nephi to build a temple where their people could worship according to the law of Moses.  

Seely’s third defense of Lehi’s altar and rituals brings to light an interesting potential correlation with the First Nephi account in the Book of Mormon. He said, “Deuteronomy 12 may have been interpreted anciently as applying only to the land of Israel.”(10) He points out that the famous Temple Scroll which was recovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls possibly supplies another part of the puzzle.  Much of the Temple Scroll is devoted to interpreting the Torah related to the temple and twice it uses the expression “three days’ journey from the temple.” The second use is in context of the Deuteronomy 12 restrictions. He tells us that the standard interpretation of the passage in question is that the Scroll “prohibits all nonsacrifical slaughter within the boundaries of three days’ distance from Jerusalem.”(11) Given about an 18-mile daily travel in Israel, this would extend the restriction to the then extent of the land of Israel, reaching nearly to the southern tip of the Dead Sea.

But the standard interpretation about “nonsacrfical” killing has been questioned by Jewish scholar Aharon Shemish. He suggests the passage was an interpretation of Deut. 12:1-5. Shemish writes:
On this basis, we can then suggest that the author of the Temple Scroll embraced the opinion that the law of centralization of worship applied only in the land of Israel in line with Deuteronomy 12:1's opening declaration: ‘These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land.’”(12)
Seely continues, speculating that the Nephites may have held the same understanding of Deuteronomy 12 that “the injunction ... concerning altars, sacrifices, and temples” applied “only to the land of Israel....”(13) This then may explain why Nephi is particular to note that it was “when he [Lehi] had traveled three days in the wilderness ... that he built an altar....”(14)

Once again we find interesting details in the Book of Mormon which are often questioned and criticized but, when more throughly investigated actually become positive evidence for it’s authenticity.(15) Of course, these are evidences only and not proof. Evidence is the point of this series of essays and the author knows that though Joseph Smith is reported to have said to a colleague in the 19th Century “if you live into the next century you will see evidence for the Book of Mormon come forth in droves,”(16) it is not the Lord’s plan to provide so much evidence that our intellects and wills are overpowered by it to the  point that we cannot disbelieve. Faith and belief are always a choice, and there will always be those who interpret the evidence negatively. Nevertheless, the Prophet’s words are continuing to be fulfilled even into the 21st Century. Here is one more evidence why I believe.

Thank God for Joseph Smith.

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Alexander Campbell.  Delusions.  An Analysis of the Book of Mormon: with an Examination of its Internal and External Evidences, and a Refutation of its Pretences [sic] to Divine Authority.  Boston: Benjamin H. Greene, 1832.  Reproductions available several places on the internet.

2.  Ibid., pp. 11-12.

3.  David Rolph Seely, “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness.”  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 1 (2001): 63-69, 80.

4.  Seely, “Lehi’s Altar...,” p. 65, citing Manachem Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel (Ocford: C\larendon, 1978), pp. 459-64.

5.  Seely, “Lehi’s Altar...,” pp. 66-67, emphasis in original.

6.  Seeley, “Lehi’s Altar...,” p. 67.

7.  Joseph Smith, in Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), p. 181.

8.  It is footnote 6 on page 80.  It reads: “As a prophet, Lehi held the Melchizedek Priesthood and by that authority offered sacrifice (Teachings, p. 181)....”  As written I thought it was a quotation from Joseph Smith.  But unable to find it I reread it more carefully and realized that the quotation continued after the ellipses for a dozen more lines and came from a commentary on the Book of Mormon by Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet!  It pays to read closely and carefully. However, I view the incident as one of the tender mercies of the Lord to bring to my attention the Cowdery quotation used in the article above. 

9.  Oliver Cowdery, “‘Delusion,’” Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 6 (March 1835): 91, spelling and grammar retained.

10.  Seeley, “Lehi’s Altar...,” p. 68.

11.  Ibid.

12.  Aharon Shemesh, “Three-Days’ Journey from the Temple’: The Use of this Expression in the Temple Scroll,” Dead Sea Discoveries 6/2 (1999): 126-38, cited in Seely, pp. 68-69, emphasis in the original.

13.  Ibid, p. 69.

14.  1 Ne. 2:6-7.

15.  Melvin Thorne has written, “Interestingly enough, many examples of arguments for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon based on such complexities are times that at first appeared to be evidences against the book, because they seemed so fantastic in Joseph’s day.”   “Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B Reynolds.  Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997, p. 191, n. 16.

16.  Truman G. Madsen, opening statement of the 2005 video, “Journey of Faith."

1 comment:

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