IT IS NOW CLEAR from archaeological findings that the Jerusalem of King David and King Solomon was not really a very large city. It was, of course, the capital for the kingdom, but hardly of any comparison with the other empires. Things, however, changed in the eighth century BC when the Assyrians conquered the northern part of Israel, which was a separate kingdom of itself. Of the twelve tribes that comprised the nation of Israel, ten of them were exiled. The result was a huge influx of refugees from the north into Jerusalem. There are indications that at the time of King Hezekiah, who lived in that end of the eighth century, Jerusalem had expanded twice, perhaps three times, its original size and therefore became one of the major cities in the known world. Jerusalem reached a crescendo of its good fortune when Jeremiah was young, at the beginning of his prophetic career. Josiah, the next king in Jerusalem, was able to take advantage of the weakening Assyrian Empire to regain control of his people and, in that vacuum, Judah was able to expand. But that halcyon period didn't last very long, because the Assyrians were replaced by the Babylonians, and the Babylonians certainly wanted to be able to control the former Assyrian kingdom.
Jerusalem was going through a really difficult period at the time of Lehi because internationally affairs were very unstable. The kingdom of Judah was caught politically between not just two empires, but really three: the Egyptians to the southwest, the Babylonian Empire which was rising, and the Assyrian Empire which was dying. So there were parties and factions in Jerusalem saying the safety of Judah would be greatest with the Egyptians, others said, go with the Babylonians, and some felt that perhaps they ought to stick with the Assyrians. Jeremiah, for example, was very opposed to any kind of dependence on Egypt. But the aristocracy of the city of Jerusalem seemed to feel that Egypt was the way to go. The only problem was that Egypt was very old. It is hard for us to imagine how old Egypt was. Even in Lehi's time the pyramids were roughly two millennia old. So it was hard for them to accept that this seemingly eternal society was on its last legs in some ways. It was about to lose its independence altogether. It seemed strong; it had been there forever. It was a part of life that any inhabitant of Jerusalem had grown up with, for generations on end. So Egypt seemed stronger than it was.
We have to keep in mind that the kingdom of Israel was geographically and historically a narrow funnel that connected Egypt on the one hand and Assyria and Babylonia on the north. To the west of Israel you have the Mediterranean, and to the east you have the great Arabian desert. Egypt, and Assyria/Babylonia were always at odds with each other and wished to conquer each other—for good geographical reasons. The only way they could do it was to go right through the land of Israel. So the history of that period is determined by these geographical grounds.
Jerusalem sat at the crossroads between two superpowers. With the emerging Babylon to the east and Egypt to the southwest, Jerusalem was caught in the middle and it was very difficult for them to know where their alliances should be placed. In 609 BC the king of Judah, Josiah, who was very popular and in some people's minds, nearly Messianic, had been killed at the disastrous battle at Megiddo. This threw politics and the position of Jerusalem into disarray. Some people wanted to ally themselves with Babylon, others with Egypt. I believe Lehi was opposed to the alliance with Egypt for a number of reasons, and this made him very unpopular in some circles. But the general setting of Jerusalem, in its ancient Near Eastern context, was one of great vulnerability. People in Jerusalem tended to be over-confident about their views that God would deliver them again in the future as he had on other occasions in the past.
Judah's problem was that the Babylonians wanted them not only in and of themselves, but they were in the middle of the highway to Egypt. And the Babylonians were going to come to Egypt. It was going to be right over and across them, which, by the way, the Babylonians were able to pull off.
The fundamental political problem of Judea is that of a small country wedged between two major super powers, who are at war with one another. Babylon and Egypt are essentially engaged in an ongoing struggle for domination of the Near East. The Babylonians are going to ultimately win this struggle, but at the time of Lehi, it was still uncertain who would be the dominant power. So Judah is wedged between the two, and if they don't make the right decision, chances are they're going to be destroyed. And of course, they made the wrong decision and they were destroyed. And what Lehi is preaching, from a political sense, is the same message that Jeremiah is teaching. That is if you rely on Egypt, they are not going to be able to save you from the Babylonians.
The Babylonians were coming; they were going to be much stronger than people thought they were at first. So you had factions within the city of Jerusalem jockeying for position—working their influence on the various kings. They'd get a king to make an alliance one direction, then, the next king would make an alliance in another direction. You see a shift of Judahite foreign policy probably about every three to four years in the two decades or so prior to the opening of the Book of Mormon. So it is a very unstable, very chaotic, and very uncertain situation. Judah is under threat and they know it. They just don't know which way to react. The people in Jerusalem and Judah were so confident in the power of Egypt, which was their ally at that point, they believed that Egypt would allow them to resist the Babylonian expansion. And it turned out that wasn't true. Egypt was, as some of the prophets had earlier said, a broken reed. The irony is that from about the middle of the sixth century BC, shortly after the departure of Lehi from Jerusalem, Egypt loses its independence politically. Egypt is not ruled by an Egyptian from that point until the early 1950s, when the officers revolt and Nasser and Sadat take power. It was effectively 2,500 years of Egyptian subservience to foreigners. So, you have a roughly 2,000 year history of great glory in Egypt, but it is about to end. And it ends for a long, long time.
REJECTING THE PROPHETS
I suspect that a lot of the animosity against Lehi was related to his calls for repentance, and those things are never received well by people who feel they are doing quite nicely, thank you. It was probably his linkage also with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was thought of as not only being blasphemous, because he suggested that Jerusalem could fall, but being disloyal, because he suggested that they ought to just give it up and rely on the Babylonians because Egypt was not going to save them. They had forfeited their claim on Jehovah's mercy and so they ought to then play realistic politics in this case. And that was not to depend on Egypt, as the ruling class tended to do, but to rely on Babylonia. I suspect that there was a religious current in Jerusalem at the time that went back to the days of Isaiah. Isaiah had foretold that Hezekiah would not be overthrown by the Assyrians—that the Assyrians siege of Jerusalem would not work. And miraculously it didn't work. You have Jerusalem surrounded, and then suddenly overnight the siege is broken, apparently by some sort of plague.
My suspicion is that this event created in the minds of the people of Jerusalem the sense that they were invincible. They simply could not be defeated. No matter what, God would intervene, defend the temple, defend his city. Jeremiah and Lehi both came with the message that this was not true; the city would be destroyed. The people had forfeited their claim on Jehovah's protection. They had gone too far into sin. And so they saw that view as a dismissal of Jehovah's power and therefore blasphemous. Lehi would be saying in effect, "it is hopeless, the Lord is not going to intervene on your behalf, you have sinned. If you repent, you might be saved." But they say, "What do we have to repent of?" You hear that from Laman and Lemuel, Lehi's elder sons, who seem to be representative of the opinions of the ruling class at Jerusalem, who say, "We know that they were a righteous people. People in Jerusalem were good people. Jerusalem's not going to be destroyed" (see 1 Nephi 17:22). They're quite complacent, quite satisfied with the way they have been behaving. And they don't like it when a prophet comes along and tells them, "Actually you're sinners and the Lord has rejected you." So, it is a natural human response "Oh no we're not!"
Lehi's family and other families who lived in Jerusalem were caught in the debate of whether prophecy was true and Jerusalem would be destroyed as Jeremiah and Lehi and others were saying, or whether Jerusalem was somehow mystically a place that would not be destroyed as in the days of Hezekiah. They remembered Sennacherib coming and his 185,000 dying as they were laying siege to Jerusalem and withdrawing (2 Kings 19:35). And some of them really thought "We're the greatest city, nothing like us ever was, and nothing can destroy us."
Perhaps one of the reasons that Lehi encountered so much resistance when he brought his message that the people needed to repent, that the Babylonians were coming, that they would be destroyed if the situation didn't change, was that it was hard for them to really absorb this message. There are a number of reasons for this. One was that they had a false sense of security by living in Jerusalem. This was the capital city, the temple was here, there was a long historical tradition of the Lord preserving and protecting Jerusalem, since the time of David. It wasn't too many years earlier that the Assyrians destroyed the north and took the captives away, then came and destroyed most of the south. But they were stopped right at the gates of Jerusalem and protected by the Lord. And this was a memory that was clear in their minds, and they had this sense that they would be protected there. The prophet Jeremiah even talks about this when he says, "Don't trust in lying words saying 'the temple, the temple'" (Jeremiah 7:4). In other words, just because we have the temple doesn't mean that the Lord will protect us. If the people have broken the covenant and are wicked, they're not going to be protected (as we soon find out when the Babylonians do come). It is difficult for them to understand this because they had the sense that they were living the law; in other words, they were performing the outward performances of the law. They were performing their sacrifices; they were keeping the Sabbath day—doing all the things that were easily seen. But Jeremiah tells us, and Lehi also, that the more important issues of the law, the weightier matters were things that they weren't taking care of. There was immorality, there was idolatry, and they weren't taking care of the poor, the widows, and the orphaned. The really important matters were being ignored.
|Jo Ann Seely|
Lehi's prophecies consisted of two main thrusts. One had to do with the destruction of the city, if people did not repent. The other, of course, had to do with the Messiah (1 Nephi 1:18–20). Both parts of his message made people angry. Lehi was called and began to preach in the first year of Zedekiah's reign (1 Nephi 1:4). Zedekiah ruled for eleven years, before the Babylonians came the last time and sacked the city. It was then that Jeremiah offered a deal to people in the city that would avert the Lord's anger and would blunt the Babylonian attack. He said, if the people of the city will free their Hebrew slaves, let them go for nothing, the Lord would withdraw his design and preserve the city. The people agreed, initially, then they recanted, and the Lord stood back and let the Babylonian hammer fall (Jeremiah 34).
Jerusalem's good fortune was probably Josiah, who is regarded as one of the greatest, most righteous kings in the tradition of Judah. Josiah really tried to purify things, to get rid of idolatry. The Book of the Law of the Lord was discovered in the temple during renovations there. Many people think that this was possibly a form of the Book of Deuteronomy, which may not have been widely known prior to that time. So that leads to a reformation, a really sincere effort on the part of a lot of people in Judah to get right with God, to get back to the purity of their roots. It is possible that this was a formative influence on Lehi. That he would have grown up under that influence, and that his religious sensibility, his drive to be right with God, might have come out of his youthful experiences in the time of Josiah. But then, unfortunately, Josiah meets this dreadful, sudden, unexpected end at Meggido. We don't know exactly under what circumstances. But his death created a theological crisis really for Judah, for a lot of people who wondered why this righteous king lost his life. After that nothing seems to go right. His successors are almost without exception either evil or weak. And so, what seemed a real high point of Judah's history, suddenly collapses and it becomes a terrible time. Lehi sees both; he grows up in the good period and then sees the crisis arise, suddenly and disastrously.
At this time we look at apostasy from the law of Moses. Josiah's reform had been a bright moment and things were looking quite good. Then Josiah is killed in the chaos of the battles between Egypt and Babylon, and his reform dies with him. From then on the people did not keep the Law of Moses as they had it. But we know that Lehi and his family were dedicated to keeping the Law of Moses (2 Nephi 25:24–25). It traveled all the way to the promised land with them and they kept it until the time of Christ.
LEHI AMONG OTHER PROPHETS
Among those who were Lehi's contemporaries were Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and of course the most famous, Jeremiah. There is reason to believe that Lehi may have known Jeremiah personally. Jeremiah had grown up in a town just about three miles northeast of Jerusalem, but all of his ministry was spent in the city, and that's where Lehi's early ministry was spent as well. They would have stood as a second witness for each other to the city's citizens by saying, "Repent for the day of reckoning arrives."
Lehi was telling them the truth about what was going to happen. Jeremiah was telling them the truth also, and he suffered in various ways. Dear Jeremiah, he's the lonely prophet. Lehi had a family around him. Jeremiah never married. And I think they just wanted to kill him because he was saying things they didn't want to hear. They wanted to hear that Jerusalem was going to be saved again. And he was telling them Jerusalem was going to be destroyed.
Daniel and Ezekiel
Included in the number of contemporary prophets, of course, were the youths who once lived in Jerusalem and moved to Babylon when the Babylonians took captives. They included Daniel and Ezekiel, both of whom had grown up in Jerusalem but lived their adult lives in Babylon.
I like to think that the young Daniel and the young Ezekiel would have known Nephi. The city of Jerusalem is a fairly small place, we estimate about 25,000 people. That means you could get the entire population of that city into a basketball arena. They would have known each other and shared a lot of common goals, and would have been allied with each other in the cause of promoting righteousness and goodness.
Ezekiel was carried off and spends most of his prophetic career in Babylonian captivity. So he's responding to the captivity in a sense from the other side before it occurs. Lehi sees it coming and gets out before it happens. Ezekiel's already a victim. He's been carted off, and he spends his time in exile lamenting the loss. And, of course, Ezekiel came from a priestly background, so for him it is a huge loss. He's not associated with the temple anymore; he can't be because he's nowhere near it. For most of his career, the temple has been destroyed. So from Ezekiel and Lehi, you see both sides of the captivity from different angles. Both were, in a sense, exiled from their home—Lehi in advance, through prophetic foreknowledge, and Ezekiel by force.
Daniel also is an exiled prophet. He's again looking at the situation from the outside. He prays toward Jerusalem and the temple. You see the great longing, which is in a sense comparable to the feeling that a lot of Jews had up until 1948. "Next year in Jerusalem," that sort of idea, has been a standard theme in Jewish history—ever since that time they wanted to get back to their homeland. So you get a really strong feeling of yearning in Daniel and Ezekiel for the return.
Lehi found out not long after the Book of Mormon opens that he was of the tribe of Manasseh (1 Nephi 15:14; Alma 10:3). Manasseh was a tribe that belonged originally to the northern kingdom, which had been carried off a century or so before the opening of the Book of Mormon. The best guess is that Lehi's family probably had come from the northern kingdom, maybe warned by prophets, or maybe simply seeing the signs of the times and knowing that it would be safer to move to the south, because the threat was coming from the north. And so they moved, apparently, down to Jerusalem which would be the ancestral homeland, the sacred site. It seems that Lehi and his family are to a certain extent, outsiders. The best guess is that Laban was a kinsman and also of Manasseh, although the record does not say so. That would be why Lehi would want to go to him because he would have the records that indicated Lehi's genealogy, specifically the records of Joseph (1 Nephi 5:16). There are signs in the Book of Mormon that the biblical tradition it is based on is not quite like the tradition we have. The one we have is a Judahite—southern kingdom—tradition for the most part. But there are northern kingdom elements apparently in the version of the Bible that Lehi had. So there a lot of pointers to the idea that Lehi and his family may have been in Jerusalem for over a century but that they really didn't belong in the city. They were outsiders in a number of ways, including possibly having their actual house outside the city walls. Laban, too, would be a prosperous member of the society of Judah, but not really a Judahite, not really, fully integrated.
Laban was wealthy and greedy and had accumulated a great number of things, including apparently the clan records. They would have been a very expensive commodity. Having them would of course be a great status symbol. It is hard for us to imagine that such records would be quite rare. They would be very expensive, particularly on metal plates, but even if written on parchment, to have a copy of the scriptures would be a rarity. You didn't just tuck your quad under your arm and head off.
Laban is a good example of an administrator who may have exceeded his administrative role. He is able to command 50 soldiers within the walls of the city of Jerusalem, which means that he is a military officer and a very high ranking official. But it is very unusual for soldiers to ever be garrisoned or stationed within a city wall in an ancient city during times of peace, so Laban may have been overreaching his position by having those soldiers stationed there. Laban guards the treasury, which has to be the royal treasury of the king. But because the king is weak, Laban's authority as manager of the treasury becomes all the more prominent. He controls the records and a lot of other treasures, probably a part of the temple treasury.
Laban was a powerful man among the Jewish elders at the time. He was out by night with the Jewish elders, who were also corrupt (1 Nephi 4:22). So he's not meeting with good people, he's meeting with an apostate group of people. The ones that the prophets were inveighing against.
Laban talks about "his brethren" as being leaders of the community or maybe leaders of the Jewish, or the Judahite community (1 Nephi 4:26). Possibly he's managed to insinuate himself into the aristocracy, the leadership of Judah or Jerusalem at the time. With his wealth, that wouldn't be too surprising, particularly if he had no prophetic scruples like Lehi did. He would have the same kind of education roughly as Lehi, which would be the education of an upper-class member of Judahite society. So it probably was that kind of group that he was meeting with. And these were the people who were most opposed to Jeremiah; most pro-Egyptian. They were most inclined to go along with the most common policy of the royal house and were unsympathetic to the real prophets who were warning them against that course. Laban's house seems to have been within the city walls.