The purpose of this chapter is to define the general condition of the kingdom of Judah on the eve of her destruction in 586 BC.1 This will be done within the context of the social and political climate of the day and in relation to foreign interactions between Judah and her neighbors. An examination of both internal and external affairs will more clearly portray the final days of the kingdom of Judah and afford a historical context for the prophetic messages and opposition that prophets such as Jeremiah and Lehi encountered there. Contemporaneous individuals, places, and events, coming from both biblical and extrabiblical sources, will be discussed, along with early accounts of Lehi's ministry in Jerusalem as contained in the Book of Mormon.
One may wonder how the Book of Mormon can contribute to this type of study. The historical content of the Book of Mormon actually becomes an invaluable tool in the study of preexilic Judah as it sheds light on typically enigmatic and problematic areas of understanding. Throughout this chapter various cultural and social aspects that are portrayed in the Book of Mormon will be viewed in conjunction with what is known in current scholarship in relation to the respective topics. These topics include political and social attitudes, persecutions of prophets, and scribal traditions in Judah in the late preexilic period.
In order to more fully comprehend the social and political atmosphere in which prophets such as Lehi and Jeremiah ministered, it is necessary to define the effects of the reign of Josiah (one of the most righteous kings in Judah's history). This will thus act as a starting point for the discussion of the kingdom of Judah in the days preceding her destruction.
Josiah ruled as king of Judah from 640 to 609 BC.2 He came to the throne at the age of eight following the murder of his father Amon (2 Kings 21:23–24; 22:1), and the affairs of the kingdom were probably run by others in the royal court until he became of age. It should be remembered that the previous years had been difficult for Judah and that parts of the country had been razed by the Assyrians only decades earlier. Though it had not suffered the fate of the kingdom of Israel in 722 at the hands of the Assyrians, in 701 Sennacherib had invaded the region, destroying many of the kingdom's cities and deporting thousands along the way.3 Though the effects of this invasion had been felt for decades, by the end of Josiah's reign some of these cities were rebuilt and reoccupied. By the beginning of his kingship, Assyria's grip on Judah had weakened, and Josiah witnessed a relative degree of freedom that afforded him and the kingdom of Judah some political and economic success in this period.4
The kingdom's political success was built on the back of a religious revitalization instigated by Josiah. Josiah's famous religious reform began around 628/627 BC.5 This was the approximate time of a Babylonian revolt against Assyria, under whom Judah was still a vassal.6 This was also a time in which civil conflict brewing in Assyria would eventually lead to a civil war there a few years later. The eye of the Assyrians was thus cast away from Josiah and toward affairs closer to home. This Assyrian absence gave Josiah some room to maneuver.
One of the significant events that sparked Josiah's religious revival (according to the king's account) included the finding of "the book of the law" in the temple (2 Kings 22:8),7 giving way to Josiah's reforms.8 Josiah implemented a policy of centralized temple worship confined to the Jerusalem temple and overthrew idolatrous practices throughout the kingdom. A description of his reform states:
Hezekiah's policy may have been consistent, and consistently less fanatical than Josiah's. No report indicates that Hezekiah centralized the rural priests in the capital (2 Chron. 31.15–20). Conversely, Josiah executed the priests of Samaria (2 Kgs 23.20), and herded those of Judah into the temple (2 Kgs 23.8–9). Josiah seems to have taken the business of centralization a good deal more seriously than Hezekiah. Unlike Hezekiah, he allegedly suppressed all worship outside the temple, not just sacrifice outside Jerusalem and the state forts.9
Josiah valiantly attempted to abolish idolatry during his religious reforms, but by the time of the ministries of Jeremiah and Lehi, idolatrous practices had again begun to permeate Judean mentality. The reliance on the God who had delivered their ancestors out of Egypt (which Josiah had attempted to reinstate among his people) had disappeared. The Lord described their obstinate nature and mentality with these words and warning:
Stop before your feet are bare and your throat is parched. But you said, "No; I am desperate. I love foreign gods and I must go after them." As a thief is ashamed when he is found out, so the people of Israel feel ashamed, they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets, who say to a block of wood, "You are our father" and cry "Mother" to a stone. On me they have turned their backs and averted their faces from me. Yet in their time of trouble they say, "Rise up and save us!" Where are the gods you made for yourselves? In your time of trouble let them arise and save you. For you, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns. (Jeremiah 2:25–28 Revised English Bible)
Thus many were turning to idolatry for religious consolation.10 The Lord lamented, "I planted you as a choice red vine, a wholly pure strain, yet now you are turned into a vine that has reverted to its wild state!" (Jeremiah 2:21 REB).11 Despite Josiah's efforts, the hearts of the people failed to turn toward the Lord, and idolatrous attitudes would again show their face in the kingdom of Judah.
Josiah was also able to expand the realms of his domain.12 His expansionist efforts were fueled by his religious reforms: "Josiah was able to launch his annexation policy only after initiating his reform (around 628 BC; cf. II Chron. xxxiv 6), and he seems to have gained control solely over the former Assyrian province of Samerina and to have established a corridor reaching the coast in the northern Shephelah."13 In the days of Manasseh the Assyrians had opened extensive markets into Judah, many of which may have been located on or near Judah's borders.14 Now, with Assyrian influence diminishing within his borders, Josiah was able to take full advantage of the established commercial activity. He broke up lineage compounds within the kingdom and established state trade within his borders.
In the late seventh century, the clans having been demolished, nothing but the nominal sovereignty of Assyria impeded royal plans for expansion. A certain amount of retribalization had no doubt occurred. Against these, even while embracing the ideology of the lineages, Josiah directed his reforms—and against any cultural elements that reinforced symbolically the cohesion of the lineage against the state. The state's relations with the nuclear family and more specifically with its adult male heads were direct, now unmediated—precisely individual.15
Josiah pursued religious reforms, economic recovery, and expansion that would forever mark him as one of the greatest and most righteous kings Judah had ever seen. His untimely death brought serious consequences and retrogression in the kingdom of Judah.
Josiah was killed by Pharaoh Necho II at Meggido in 609 BC. This occurred as the Egyptians were marching north to assist their ally (Assur-uballit II of Assyria) who was falling to the Babylonians and the Medes in western Mesopotamia.16 "His sudden death and the hasty departure of Necho from the land left a vacuum, which was well used by the supporters of Jehoahaz, who crowned him in place of his father."17 During the next four years (609–605 BC), Judah was under Egyptian domination until the Babylonian victory at Carchemish in 605. After Jehoahaz's18 short three-month reign in 609, he was imprisoned in Necho's headquarters in Riblah. Egypt then set Jehoiakim,19 brother of Jehoahaz, upon the throne, and he reigned for the next eleven years in Judah (609–598 BC; 2 Kings 23:33–34).
Jehoiakim becomes a pivotal figure in the study of the early history of the Book of Mormon, as he reigns almost to the beginning of Lehi's ministry in Jerusalem. During his reign the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish (605 BC), up until which time Judah had been an Egyptian vassal.20 Nebuchadnezzar (605–562) succeeded his father (Nabopolassar) shortly thereafter (605), and in that year Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians invaded the area of Palestine. Judah then became a part of their domain sometime around 604/603.21 Concerning this period, Abraham Malamat commented: "With the decline of the mighty empire of Assyria, toward the end of the seventh century BC and the striking victories of the young Nebuchadnezzar in the summer of 605 BC, a most reluctant Judah was swept into the ensuing confrontation that erupted between the Neo-Babylonian empire and Egypt," and "The small state of Judah, located at the particularly sensitive crossroads linking Asia and Africa, was influenced more than ever before by the international power system, now that the kingdom's actual existence was at stake."22 This would eventually create severe tension among various factions (pro-Babylonian vs. pro-Egyptian) within the kingdom of Judah.
Following a stalemate battle between Egypt and Babylon (winter of 601/600), Jehoiakim decided to revolt against Babylon. This was probably encouraged by Egypt, who was nudging Judah to defect to the Egyptian camp.23 For the next two years the Babylonians recuperated and eventually took action against Jehoiakim in 598 (at which time he died).24
Following the death of Jehoiakim, his son Jehoiachin reigned for just over three months before he was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar (597). Thousands25 (including his officials) were exiled with him to Babylon.26 This deportation would take a terrible toll on the kingdom, leaving doubts and uncertainty among the people and leadership.27 It is probably not a historical coincidence that amid this time of deportation and chaos Lehi began his official ministry, as guidance and direction were desperately needed (1 Nephi 1:4).
"King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against the city [Jerusalem], while his troops were besieging it. Thereupon King Jehoiachin of Judah surrendered to the king of Babylon, along with his mother, his courtiers, his commanders and his officers. . . . He [the king of Babylon] carried away all Jerusalem, and all the commanders, and all the warriors . . . and he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon; and the king's mother, the king's wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land, he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon" (2 Kings 24:11–12, 14–15).28
Jehoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah (also known as Mattaniah), was pronounced the new crown prince of Judah in 597 BC.29 He reigned until the kingdom fell to the Babylonians in 586. In 587 the final siege of Jerusalem began, and by this time most of the kingdom of Judah had fallen.30 Though the Egyptians moved forward to aid Zedekiah, they retreated and "Judah found herself in a highly vulnerable position. From both a diplomatic and military point of view, Judah was left in the lurch and had to face the Babylonian might alone—'all her friends have dealt treacherously with her' (Lam. 1.2)."31 The Babylonians eventually breached the walls of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Zedekiah escaped, but the Babylonians captured him near Jericho and took him to Riblah where they killed his sons and princes in front of him, put out his eyes, and threw him in prison in Babylon until he died there (Jeremiah 52:10–11).32
Judah had faced many difficulties leading up to her destruction, and the final years of her existence have been summarized as follows:
In the last two decades of its existence, the rapid pace of the international scene demanded of the Judean rulers exceedingly skilful manoeuvring in order to cope with kaleidoscopic situations. A series of no less than six critical turning points in Judah's foreign policy can be discerned, marking drastic shifts in loyalty from one major camp to the other—all within these twenty years. In other words, the political orientation of Judah alternated radically at an average frequency of every three years. In reacting to external temptations, the little kingdom eventually succumbed not only to international intrigues, but to her own risky policies as well.33
Such was the social and political climate of this late preexilic period in Judah's history, in which Lehi and Jeremiah commenced their ministries.
After examining the external, political circumstances leading up to the time of Judah's destruction, we can turn our attention to more internal affairs. This includes prophetic messages that swayed people's political orientation and allegiances. Prophets were viewed as predictors and were looked to for answers in political binds. In the case of Judah, the people had to wade through the rhetoric of sycophants and "false prophets" while trying to endure the usually unflattering words of the "true prophets." To the dismay of Judah, in the end, popularity lost out to reality and destruction ensued.
In the final days of Judah, many prophets prophesied among the people (1 Nephi 1:4 and Jeremiah 25:4). This was in accordance with the Lord's efforts to lead his people into the paths of repentance. Amos 3:7 states, "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." In God's work, blessings and consequences of disobedience are always clearly defined, and ample opportunities to repent are always extended. A few of the prophets preaching such a message in Jerusalem at this time included Jeremiah and Lehi.
The life of the prophet Jeremiah began in the reign of Josiah and ended at a time postdating the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC when he was taken against his will to Egypt (Jeremiah 43:5–7). The opening verses of the book bearing Jeremiah's name begin: "The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: To whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign" (Jeremiah 1:1–2). These verses describe Jeremiah's priestly heritage and situate him within the reign of Josiah. The Lord declared to Jeremiah, "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).
Lehi (the first prophet of the Book of Mormon) resided in Jerusalem with his family sometime around 600 BC. The first mention of a concrete historical reference is "in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah . . . and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed" (1 Nephi 1:4). This would have been just after King Jehoiachin was exiled to Babylon, Jerusalem had suffered its first capture at the hands of the Babylonians, and Zedekiah had been installed by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (i.e., 597 BC).35 When Lehi was called as a prophet "he was carried away in a vision" (1 Nephi 1:8) and after seeing much he was given a book to read (1 Nephi 1:11).36 Such miraculous revelations and events marked the beginning of these prophets' ministries, but in the heat of international politics, the people seemed to close their eyes to the messages of deliverance the Lord was trying to send them through his chosen servants.
The Lord does not work by surprises, and this leads us to what the prophets were teaching. The Lord spoke to Jeremiah:
And thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord; If ye will not hearken to me, to walk in my law, which I have set before you, To hearken to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I sent unto you, both rising up early, and sending them, but ye have not hearkened; Then will I make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth. (Jeremiah 26:4–6)
Lehi's calling from the Lord to minister among the people came in the form of a revelation37 in which he was commanded to read a book; the following is part of what he read: "Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon" (1 Nephi 1:13). Lehi then proceeded to prophesy among the people (1 Nephi 1:18). The message of the previously cited prophets was simple: repent and follow the prophets or be destroyed.
Beyond repentance, Jeremiah was also teaching that Judah was to submit to the Babylonians because they were not going to defeat them (Jeremiah 34:1–9; 36:29). "Jeremiah, who regarded Nebuchadnezzar as 'God's chosen rod' (of chastisement) realized that the opportune moment had passed: now only voluntary submission to the Babylonians could save Judah; it was the choice between 'the way of life and the way of death' (Jer. 21.8–9)."38 To make things more difficult for the people, at this time when "true prophets" of God were receiving divine direction to warn the people of Judah to repent, as well as to surrender themselves peacefully over to the Babylonians, others were preaching the safety and impregnability of Judah. One such "false prophet" who was attempting to dissuade the people from submission was Hananiah.39 When the prophet Jeremiah had placed a wooden yoke around his neck (symbolic of captivity), Hananiah took it and broke it in front of the people as he "falsely" prophesied safety from the assaults of the Babylonians. Jeremiah was then instructed of the Lord to "Go and tell Hananiah, saying, Thus saith the Lord; Thou hast broken the yokes of wood; but thou shalt make for them yokes of iron. . . . Then said the prophet Jeremiah unto Hananiah the prophet, Hear now, Hananiah; The Lord hath not sent thee; but thou makest this people to trust in a lie" (Jeremiah 28:13, 15). Encouraged by such false prophets and prophecies, many in Jerusalem seemed to believe (because of the miraculous delivery the city had experienced when faced with the Assyrian onslaught of 701 BC [2 Kings 18–19; Isaiah 36–37] and probably to some degree when Judah was spared in 722 when Israel was conquered) that Jerusalem truly was indestructible and still under the protection of the Lord. In order to counter such false deliveries Jeremiah desperately and compassionately pled with his people:
Why will ye die, thou and thy people, by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence, as the Lord hath spoken against the nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? Therefore hearken not unto the words of the prophets that speak unto you saying, Ye shall not serve the king of Babylon: for they prophesy a lie unto you. For I have not sent them, saith the Lord, yet they prophesy a lie in my name; that I might drive you out, and that ye might perish, ye, and the prophets that prophesy unto you. (Jeremiah 27:13–15)40
However, Jeremiah's preaching was to no avail. "Like Isaiah in his day, or Ezekiel his younger contemporary, Jeremiah strove to smash the popular image of Egypt, which had led to a false sense of security among the Judean leadership and spread a spurious hope of military support (cf., e.g., Egypt as 'a staff of reed to the house of Israel . . . and when they leaned upon thee thou didst break,' in Ezek. xxix 7–8)."41 "Instead of turning to powerful Babylon, the Judeans toyed with false hopes created by the misleading image of Egypt that led to Judah's hazardous gamble on her."42 It was in this climate of overconfidence and misconstrued righteousness, with the expectation to qualify for the deliverance of the Lord, that prophets such as Jeremiah and Lehi ministered. It appears that even Lehi—and possibly Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:21)—encountered such attitudes within their own families. The attitude of Laman and Lemuel (two of Lehi's sons) is portrayed:
Now this he spake because of the stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel; for behold they did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart. And thus Laman and Lemuel, being the eldest, did murmur against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them. Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father. (1 Nephi 2:11–13; see also 1 Nephi 17:43–45)
Such was the mentality and attitude of the people in Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction.
As alluded to earlier, the prophets' messages tended to create factions among the people. The messages of the prophets were generally not cordially received. Many prophets do not win popularity contests, nor is the word of God that they preach dependent on it. Thus these prophets encountered stiff opposition in all its forms in the course of their declarations. The following describes the specific difficulties that Lehi's prophetic pronouncements brought upon him, as recorded by his son Nephi:
Therefore, I would that ye should know, that after the Lord had shown so many marvelous things unto my father, Lehi, yea, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, behold he went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard. And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world. And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away. (1 Nephi 1:18–20)43
Lehi's life was not the only one in jeopardy. Probably early in the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598),44 an important event occurred involving one Urijah (Jeremiah 26:20–23). Urijah (ca. 609) had prophesied against Jerusalem (just as Jeremiah had done and Lehi would do), thus infuriating the king and his officials. Fearing for his life, Urijah fled to Egypt. He was pursued by a posse of the king headed by Elnatan45 and was captured and returned to Jerusalem, where he was executed and disrespectfully cast into a grave. A similar pursuit is related in Lachish ostracon 3.13–18.46 A commander named Konyahu, son of Elnatan, had gone down into Egypt; this letter seems to be describing the need for more men for an organized posse or a deputized search team.47 As discussed by Dana Pike, chronological considerations make it impossible to render the events in Lachish and the ones in Jeremiah 26 as one and the same.48 However, it is highly plausible that these two texts are referring to episodes of a similar nature. The individuals mentioned in Lachish ostracon 3 could very well have been pursuing a prophet who was prophesying against the city and had fled to Egypt. The conclusion of Lachish ostracon 3 lends more credence to the possibility of contextual similarities with the conclusion of Jeremiah 26. Lachish ostracon 3.19–21 describes a letter received from the prophet, which began "Beware." This letter was to be sent to Jerusalem reporting that Konyahu and others (whom he commissioned at Lachish) had gone to Egypt, possibly seeking the capture or extradition of the prophet (or another of "similar persuasion"),49 who was weakening the hands of the people through his proclamations and warnings to "Beware" of destruction.50 The historical alignment of the events comprising the end of Jeremiah 26 (Urijah) and the Lachish record is also complementary. Judah under Jehoiakim had been an Egyptian vassal. This explains why his posse was free to enter Egyptian borders in pursuit of Urijah.51 The later Lachish event also finds historical confirmation in that Zedekiah gained the support of Apries (589–570 BC) in his break with Nebuchadnezzar.52 Judah again had Egyptian support and would have had clearance to pursue a wanted individual or fugitive into Egypt. These two disparate episodes suggest a zero-tolerance attitude by the royal officials toward the perceived pro-Babylonian messages of the prophets.53
As just alluded to, Jeremiah faced intense opposition within Jerusalem. His words elicited such a response from the people: "Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak unto all the people, that the priests and the prophets and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die" (Jeremiah 26:8). Jeremiah was also imprisoned on multiple occasions. One of these incarcerations, as well as the recalcitrant nature of the people, is described by Nephi: "For behold, the Spirit of the Lord ceaseth soon to strive with them; for behold, they have rejected the prophets, and Jeremiah have they cast into prison. And they have sought to take away the life of my father, insomuch that they have driven him out of the land" (1 Nephi 7:14).
On the eve of the Babylonian destruction, Jerusalem was an intense hotbed of prophetic persecution. Concerning the disregard for prophetic utterances in relation to submitting to Babylon and not trusting Egypt we read:
The Judean leadership failed to grasp the shift in balance of power, and continued to cling to the dubious image of a strong Egypt which would rush to the aid of its allies in time of need. . . .
In this light, we can appreciate all the more the deep foresight and realistic historical perspective of the prophetic circles in Judah, who had a genuine understanding of the international scene at that time. The great prophets of the day, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (or Uriah, the son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim, who prophesied "in words like those of Jeremiah," Jer. 26.20) were entirely free of the "establishment" line of thought, unlike the false prophets, and were thus able to grasp the situation in more realistic terms. Therefore, theirs was a sober and unbiased appreciation of the situation, for the long-range benefit of the nation, as opposed to the immediate, feasible interests so typical of the establishment and its supporters, the false prophets, such as Hananiah. . . .
In modern terms, these prophets served—with due recognition of their far more profound motives—as analysts and commentators, quite independent of official policy and general consensus. In doing so, they played an active role in the acute issue of foreign political orientation, which had gradually intensified the polarity between the pro-Egyptian and pro-Babylonian factions. This polarity crossed lines—from the royal court onward, through state officials and priestly circles down to the masses. Likewise, political orientation and ideology proved the main bone of contention between the true and false prophets.54
The factions created between pro-Babylonian and pro-Egyptian attitudes (which were exacerbated between the teachings of true and false prophets) proved fatal to the kingdom. Such divisions are discerned in Jeremiah 26 when, after no small debate among the people and leaders, it was decided to spare Jeremiah's life. Later in the same chapter Urijah was killed for preaching in the same fashion. These factions stemmed from a desire to combat Assyria at the side of Egypt rather than to submit to the Babylonians, as counseled by the true prophets of the Lord (false prophets such as Hananiah preached an anti-Babylonian message—the people were not to submit, and victory would follow). Egypt was a logical choice for an ally because Jewish colonies had been established there for years.55 These ties made it easier to side with a power that was weaker and less threatening than the Babylonians who were at the doorstep. Such conflicting attitudes between the people and the local leadership throughout the final days of Judah's existence would bring Judah into a compromising situation from which she would not be able to escape. It was in this political and social climate that prophets such as Jeremiah and Lehi were attempting to persuade people to hearken to the Lord and be spared.
In the midst of such a volatile situation and impending destruction, the Lord commanded Lehi to take his family and leave Jerusalem. This probably came as no surprise to Lehi (especially when the Lord explained the purpose for the departure). It is possible that Lehi had witnessed the events that had transpired in the life of Urijah.56 He was well aware of the danger and threats on his life, but so was the Lord. God had a specific agenda for Lehi and his family, one that required preserving his life.
For behold, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream, and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life. And it came to pass that the Lord commanded my father, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness. And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him. (1 Nephi 2:1–3; see 1 Nephi 3:17–18)
Lehi was obedient to the Lord in taking his family out of Jerusalem, thus preserving their lives. He took them out of the hotbed of prophetic persecutions and into the Judean wilderness. Significantly, the Lord inspired Lehi and his family to flee southward, in a path that would have led them through modern-day Saudi Arabia and into Oman.57 The first place that a posse in search of them would have looked was in Egypt, where Semites had been fleeing in times of famine and danger for over thirteen hundred years and where Jewish settlements were well established in this period of time.
Judeo-Egyptian interconnections required a formal means of communication. This would have included scribal activity between the two states. While the role of the Egyptian scribal tradition in late preexilic Judah remains unclear, the Egyptian scribal community in Canaan is rather well established until the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Dynasty (ca. early twelfth century BC). Hieratic ostraca from this early time "provide clear evidence" of Egyptian scribal activities in city-states such as Tell el-Far'ah, Tel Sera, and Lachish.58 After that time there is a lacuna in the Egyptian scribal traditions in Canaan. However, indications of a continuation of such a tradition into the late preexilic period in Judah is indicated by the existence of hieratic numerals and signs in the Hebrew epigraphic material, and their presence raises many questions as to the scribal traditions and practices of the times. With no definitive answer as to why this seemingly unusual practice occurs in this period and region (in which a large void lies in the understanding of the Egyptian scribal tradition in Judah), Orly Goldwasser states a possible hypothesis:
It might be suggested, as a working hypothesis, that this peculiar and isolated variation of hieratic developed locally from the Egyptian scribal tradition in Canaan itself. . . . We would like to suggest that these Egyptian or Egyptian-trained scribes, cut off from their homeland, well acquainted with Egyptian decorum as well as the Canaanite language, educated local scribes, who in their turn passed on their knowledge to their successors. After three or four centuries of such evolution, most of the Egyptian terms were assimilated into the local language, and the numerals remained the only definitive testimony for the Egyptian archetype.59
The Book of Mormon confirms that the Egyptian scribal tradition in Judah extended into the late seventh century. Archaeological evidence suggests that an extensive Egyptian community resided in Lachish up until the conquest of Sennacherib (ca. 701 BC). Human skulls (695 to be exact) from a mass grave in Lachish were examined, and "curiously, the crania indicate a close racial resemblance to the population of Egypt at that time." Also, "They show, further, that the population of Lachish was probably derived principally from Upper Egypt. . . . If so, this indeed is a conclusion of far-reaching implications."60 This evidence not only establishes an Egyptian presence, but would also suggest an Egyptian scribal tradition within Judah's borders almost into the sixth century. Other evidence also suggests an Egyptian presence in Judah's borders at this time. Na'aman suggests that the site of Mesad Hashavyahu was built by Egyptians (based among other things on the merits of its architecture and layout, which are at variance with others in the region) and opines that the context of the famous ostracon found on that site (generally dated to the reign of Josiah) should be viewed in light of an Egyptian backdrop.61 Na'aman further suggests that the hieratic writing of numerals found at Arad suggests an Egyptian domination over that site. He also believes that the building of the site of Kadesh-barnea (where hieratic numerals have also turned up) was originally initiated by the Assyrians and controlled by the Egyptians in its last phase (prior to its destruction in ca. 604):
In my opinion, Egyptian control of the site during the last phase of the fortress' existence is hinted at by the presence of ostraca in hieratic writing, bearing various figures (from 1 to 10,000) and dimension units commonly in use in the area at the time. These may have been used by pupils of Semitic origin, for practice in the Egyptian method of record-keeping then in force; this would explain the few Semitic words appearing on the ostraca.62
Though Na'aman may have overstated Egypt's formal presence in the region, their interest and affairs are clearly felt in the archaeological and epigraphic evidence at hand within Judah's borders almost into the sixth century (the approximate time of Lehi's ministry). The employment of Egyptian in the Book of Mormon in this time period is consistent with other findings of modern scholarship, and the Book of Mormon begins to confirm such evidence.63
Though conclusive evidence cannot be offered that such an Egyptian scribal tradition in the late preexilic period in Judah existed, the presence of the Egyptian language within Judah's borders at this time is in harmony with what is suggested by other evidence. This makes sense, as there would have been bilingual individuals trained in both Hebrew and Egyptian, just as individuals had been bilingual in the major empires of the ancient Near East. That is not to say bilingualism functioned on a large scale (though it could have), but that it did operate among trained scribes is witnessed in the Egyptian remnants and vestiges extant in the Hebrew epigraphic material, as well as in the Book of Mormon.64
Concerning the language (which is discussed elsewhere in this volume) and writing techniques of the Book of Mormon, Daniel Peterson has concluded that "most who have studied the subject conclude that this signifies writing the Hebrew language in modified Egyptian characters."65 It would seem that space limitations would have caused the writers of the plates to move away from an alphabetically based system (and hence from one script to another) to a system logographic in nature. This would have created more writing space and would have necessitated bilingual abilities on the part of these authors (both of Hebrew and Egyptian).66 That the Nephite authors were capable of dealing with language acquisition and linguistic shifts is witnessed in Mormon 9:32–33, and there are numerous ancient Near Eastern examples of alterations in linguistic dialects and families.67 In the case of script-switching between two alphabetic languages or dialects, this is witnessed between Phoenician and Aramaic (Arslan Tash).68
In relation to the orthography of this reformed Egyptian, John Gee has discussed an "abnormal hieratic" in use in southern Egypt in the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties (727– 548 BC)69 that might be more plausible than the suggestion of Demotic.70 Paleography is a difficult issue since the Nephites had altered the language and since the relevant scripts originated from a single source (Middle Egyptian), wherein at some point in time overlapping similarities occurred in the appearance of random characters. This results in the script resembling both Egyptian logograms and Hebrew characters. This is indeed an issue to be dealt with when examining the few copies of the original characters in our possession today. Other questions come into play: Did the Nephites revert back to a paleo-Hebrew script in writing good Hebrew names (as is witnessed elsewhere in the ancient Near East), or did they use a makeshift system based on Egyptian (or some combination of both)?71 Was matres lectiones abandoned or preserved? Do the characters represent earlier or later developments in the language (or some combination of both)?72 Whatever the case may be, the Book of Mormon claims that Lehi and his family were familiar with a dialect of the Egyptian language.
Laban possessed the records that Nephi obtained. It is difficult to ascertain exactly who Laban was, as the sources say little about him. What we do know, however, answers some vital questions as to why he possessed the records. Laban "was a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records" (1 Nephi 5:16). The "wherefore" in this statement appears to be an explanation of an almost implicit, matter-of-fact concept. Biblical and extrabiblical findings also help clarify such a scribal axiom:
It is of interest to note that the above biblical passages [Joshua 18:6, 9; Judges 5:14; 8:14] mention members of the tribes of Joseph (Joshua the Ephraimite, the leaders of Machir and Gideon of Menasseh). Our abecedary found in the foothills of Ephraim, some 40 kms. due west of Shiloh—in addition to the palaeographically similar Raddana handle, found at the southern border of Ephraim—indicates a wide distribution and use of writing during the period of the Judges, at least among the tribes of Joseph.73
In an early period of Israel's history, a tradition of writing began within the tribe of Joseph. It is thus not surprising (even centuries later) to find Laban, a descendant of Joseph, in possession of written records—especially if the skill of writing with all its conventions was diligently preserved within the lineage, as was the case with Nephi (1 Nephi 1:1–2) and King Benjamin (Mosiah 1:2–4) centuries later. Thus Laban's plates found their continuance in the lineage of Joseph through Lehi and his family, and eventually Joseph Smith—another descendant of Joseph (2 Nephi 3:11–12)—translated the Nephite writings.
Scribal activity had increased in the late preexilic period in Judah. The time of Hezekiah has been defined as a critical period for literary activity in ancient Israel:
At this time, there was a surge in the population of Jerusalem, partially due to disenfranchised people coming into Jerusalem from the northern kingdom. In addition, Hezekiah apparently encouraged the collection and editing of various literary materials (cf. Prov 25:1); this literary activity was undoubtedly prompted by the destruction of the northern kingdom, and perhaps also the crisis surrounding Sennacherib's invasion.74
Laban's possession of a scriptural record is thus not surprising. The content of the brass plates became a significant contribution to the spiritual growth of the descendants of Lehi and his family (as well as of the many lives the Nephite record has influenced in our day).75 For the Lehites, having that record made the difference between spiritual survival and spiritual death (1 Nephi 4:15–16).
The imperative nature of conveying and preserving God's word in Lehi's world is vividly demonstrated in an incident reported in the book of Jeremiah:
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you about Jerusalem, Judah, and all the nations, from the day that I first spoke to you during the reign of Josiah down to the present day. Perhaps the house of Judah will be warned of all the disaster I am planning to inflict on them, and everyone will abandon his evil conduct; then I shall forgive their wrongdoing and their sin. Jeremiah summoned Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on the scroll at Jeremiah's dictation everything the Lord had said to him. (Jeremiah 36:1–4 REB)
When the unpleasant content of these writings was brought to the attention of the king and all his officials, they were promptly destroyed. Jeremiah then redictated the content of the scroll "and much else was added to the same effect" (Jeremiah 36:32 REB). Perhaps because of the ease with which materials such as parchment or ostraca were destroyed, records began to be kept on metallic plates or scrolls whenever this was a viable option. Such metal documents would have been more difficult to destroy and more likely to endure the elements of nature and time. They also reflected the value and preciousness of the content of the text.76 Several of the metallic ancient Near Eastern writings in existence today appear in religious or covenantal contexts or contain the mandates of the king.
Indeed, by the time of Lehi's ministry in Jerusalem, the inscribing of metal objects was already an established practice in the ancient Near East. The employment of metallic mediums for inscriptions had been in use for centuries. From ca. 1900 BC four separate pseudohieroglyphic syllabic texts (Proto-Byblian) were inscribed on bronze copper spatulate tablets.77 This antedates a purely consonantal alphabet in the ancient Near East. In the past century and a half, inscriptions in various languages have been discovered on metallic objects throughout the region. In the period of the early Hittite "Great Kings" there is the "Treaty of Tudhaliya" from Hattusha, which was written on a bronze tablet. A cuneiform inscription on a bronze blade dating to the fourteenth-thirteenth century was excavated in the Tabor valley.78 There are over fifty bronze inscribed Phoenician arrowheads that date from as early as the early eleventh to the tenth century BC, as well as eleventh-tenth–century cuneiform bronze arrowheads from Luristan and western Iran—very similar to the Phoenician arrowheads.79 Furthermore, numerous inscriptions on bronze tablets have been found in South Arabia and Yemen,80 and a document from ca. AD 426 purports that metal plates were used in the time of Noah.81 Needless to say, other inscriptions in various Near Eastern languages and dialects are inscribed on mediums such as gold, silver, and bronze, as well as on objects such as pendants, bowls, bottles, and plaques. At the very least, they demonstrate the relatively early adoption of the practice of inscribing metals. In describing an eleventh-century BC Phoenician inscription on a bronze spatula and an eighth- or ninth-century cuneiform patent issued by a Median king that was inscribed on a flat copper object, W. F. Albright maintained, "while this object is not identical with the Byblian ones in shape, there can be little doubt that they go back to some common source and that the custom of inscribing certain formulaic inscriptions on flat copper objects of cultic provenience was older and more widespread than has hitherto been guessed."82 This statement was made some sixty years ago, and even today "more than 100 examples of ancient writing on metal plates have been discovered, including [a] gold plate of Darius, buried in a stone box in 516–515 BC."83 It seems that inscribing on metal plates may be more consistent and uniform with ancient Near Eastern traditions than has been previously believed.84
In summary, the scribal activity described in the Book of Mormon reflects an Egyptian scribal tradition in preexilic Judah that archaeological, palaeographic, and anthropological evidence currently suggests. Writing in an Egyptian dialect, a tradition of writing within the lineage of Joseph, and the inscribing of metallic plates is consistent with the findings and interpretations of the evidence in current scholarship in relation to scribal activity in the kingdom at this time. These elements of scribal activity also reflect aspects of Egyptian interconnections with the kingdom of Judah.
The items discussed in this chapter portray some of the circumstances, challenges, attitudes, and difficulties that prophets such as Lehi and Jeremiah faced. Other issues relevant to Book of Mormon contributions to the study of this time period include confirming the persecution of the prophets in Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction (which is rather telling) and attitudes of the indestructibility of Jerusalem among its people. An important contribution the Book of Mormon makes—in light of current scholarship discussed in this chapter—relates to establishing an Egyptian scribal tradition in the sixth century in Judah. This is significant as scholars are searching for ways to explain the appearance of such a tradition.
In conclusion, it is miraculous in itself that Nephi was able to obtain the plates (that his people's faith might be preserved) in this turbulent time, and he recognized the Lord's hand in this endeavor. These scriptures were instrumental in perpetuating the faith of many throughout the course of the Book of Mormon's history, and the testimonies of the Book of Mormon prophets have resulted in the blossoming of the faith of millions today. The chain of events that transpired from Lehi's ministry in Jerusalem— including his dreams, obtaining the plates, transporting them to the American continent, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the eventual transmission and translation by the Prophet Joseph Smith—leaves no doubt that the Book of Mormon truly is part of a "marvelous work and a wonder" (2 Nephi 25:17; 27:26).