Years of research have identified many threads of evidence in the Book of Mormon that tie back into the observance of ancient Israelite festivals. While traces of several preexilic Israelite festivals have been found in various places in the Book of Mormon, no source has been more fertile than King Benjamin's speech. To a greater degree than most people might have suspected, characteristics of the speech that mark the occasion as a day of holy Israelite observances are both rich and specific. Several texts and surrounding contexts highlight the importance of this public occasion as a significant religious event.
During the first two weeks of each fall season, all the people living under the law of Moses kept certain days holy, marking the celebration of the turn of a new year, the continuation of God's reign, and the abundance of God's goodness. Although it is impossible to reconstruct with precision what transpired in antiquity on those days, it appears that such Israelite celebrations probably included religious convocations, rituals, and festivals that served to renew the allegiance of the people to their heavenly and earthly kings, to purify the group from all unholiness, and to strengthen their commitment to revealed principles of personal and community righteousness. Several kings in ancient Israel selected this time of the year for the official inauguration of their reign or the installation of their successor to the throne. From several similar indications, it would appear that King Benjamin likewise planned to celebrate the culminating day of his life—the coronation of his firstborn son Mosiah—on or around this high and holy season in the traditional Israelite religious calendar. No other time of the year would have been more suited for the installation of a new regent or for renewing the covenant relationship between God, king, and people—the essence of any Israelite monarchy.
The discoveries reported and developed in this chapter are attributable to the research, collaboration, and combined criticism of many people. As early as 1957, Hugh W. Nibley proposed the theory that Benjamin's speech was an ancient year-rite festival,1 a theme that he develops further in his newly prepared chapter in this volume. His 1939 doctoral dissertation drew on Roman and other pagan sources to apply a typology of the classical year-rite festivals to the Roman games,2 and his intense familiarity with these popular religious or quasi-religious practices in diverse parts of the ancient world readily led him in 1957 to identify certain parallels between the typical annual pagan ritual and Benjamin's speech.3 Nibley's genius for drawing cultural associations broke new ground forty years ago by inviting Book of Mormon scholars to view Benjamin's speech in an entirely new light.
However, even though Nibley's initial approach included a few references to the Israelite Feast of Tabernacles in connection with his analysis of the standard year-rite phenomenon of many ancient civilizations,4 his original pagan year-rite theory attracted few fully settled followers. More research and further investigation was invited and needed. The main question Nibley left unresolved was why an inspired king in the house of Israel would ever be inclined to mimic or dignify the practices of a pagan year-rite cult.
A possible answer to this question began to emerge in the 1970s and took clearer shape in the 1980s. Rather than ranging far afield among widely scattered ancient civilizations, but without rejecting the value of comparative cultural studies, Latter-day Saint scholars in those years focused their attention more extensively on the Old Testament as well as many features of subsequent related Jewish history, literature, and ceremony grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Interesting bonds were discovered between Benjamin's speech and the laws, statutes, and ordinances revealed by Jehovah to the prophets of Israel who preceded and influenced Lehi and Nephi. The following chapter consolidates the results of this research and reports ideas contributed by many individuals.5 In writing and editing this chapter, we express appreciation for the collegial willingness of this group to explore and share the many possibilities that seem, in our best judgment, to shed light on the setting and significance of Benjamin's address.
Every civilization or culture, it seems, enjoys holidays or special times of the year. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween, and the Fourth of July are among the main holidays celebrated in the United States. Other nations have similar holidays. Certain traditions associated with each of these days are of characteristic importance to their native cultures, especially as these celebrations perpetuate and reinforce the main institutions of that society, whether in the domain of church, state, or family. As important as such secular and religious holidays may be in the modern world, religious festivals and holy days carried even greater significance in the ancient world, particularly in Israel.
Under the law of Moses, Israelites were required to observe three main holy days each year (see Exodus 23:14–19). The first was the well-known spring festival of Pesach (Passover), which began the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The second was Shavuot (Pentecost), occurring fifty days after Passover. The third was an autumn festival complex that later developed into the composite two- or three-week-long observance of the three related celebrations of Rosh ha-Shanah (New Year and Day of Judgment), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).
These holy days held enormous religious, political, and family significance, especially since God had commanded their observance: "Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year" (Exodus 23:14). Details concerning the celebration of each holiday are found in a number of festival calendars and instructions in the Old Testament (for example, see Exodus 23:14–17; 34:18–23; Leviticus 23; Numbers 28–29; Deuteronomy 16). Accordingly, no person could claim to keep the law of Moses and not observe these special holy days, which would have been kept at least as intently as the strictly observed regular weekly sabbaths.
As guided by the Lord and his prophets, Lehi and his people diligently kept the law of Moses. Nephi affirmed, in the sixth century BC, that his people "did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses" (2 Nephi 5:10), and that they did "keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled" (2 Nephi 25:24). In 74 BC, some fifty years after Benjamin's speech, the Nephites were still keeping the law of Moses: "Yea, and the people did observe to keep the commandments of the Lord; and they were strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses" (Alma 30:3). The Nephites were to continue to keep the law of Moses until it was fulfilled entirely by the death and resurrection of Christ (see 3 Nephi 1:24–25), and the Lamanites observed the law of Moses in the days of their righteousness (see Alma 25:15; Helaman 13:1). It stands to reason, therefore, that the Nephites in Benjamin's day would have kept holy observances that were appropriately similar to the festivals and holy days required by the Old Testament texts that the Nephites possessed on the plates of brass.
How the Nephites and Lamanites understood and applied those ancient biblical regulations, however, remains obscure. Jewish practices evolved, at least to some degree, during the period of the Babylonian captivity that began after Lehi and his family left the Holy Land. We do not mean to imply that the Nephites or Lamanites followed "the later varieties of Jewish law that proliferated among various Jewish communities several centuries after Lehi left Jerusalem,"6 but it is still logical to conclude that these Nephites and Lamanites were committed to observe the ancient holy days as best they could in the essential forms in which those festivals were known under the preexilic law of Moses. Indeed, as has been argued extensively elsewhere, "the prophets of the Book of Mormon present a thoroughly Christian theology and religion" but all "against a background of ancient Israelite law and culture."7 For example, Benjamin prepared his people for the end of the law of Moses when he stressed the importance of the atonement of Jesus Christ, repentance, and charity. Benjamin realized, as would the Jews eventually on the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, that "without repentance no sacrificial rites were of any avail. With the cessation of sacrifices, therefore, repentance was left as the sole condition of the remission of sins,"8 placing emphasis on prayer and charity. Nevertheless, Benjamin and his subjects still recognized that the end of the law would not come until God himself would announce that momentous transition, as finally occurred in 3 Nephi 9:17–22.
In the meantime, the Nephites kept careful calendrical watch of their times and seasons, a necessary precondition in any society for the timely observance of specific days as legal holidays or annual festivals. Abundant evidence in the Book of Mormon shows that the people in the Nephite culture generally paid great attention to their calendar. In his editing, Mormon carefully kept track of years, months, and even days; the years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem, the years of the reign of the judges, the years from the appearance of the sign of Jesus' birth, and sometimes the months and days within those years were meticulously noted.9 Throughout Jewish history, one of the most important reasons for keeping an accurate standardized calendar was to regulate and facilitate the observance of specific holidays,10 especially since the law of Moses stipulated a precise day for most of the festivals. Bitter and divisive arguments over who had the right calendar in fact became deep and fundamental points of theological dispute among the Pharisees, the Essenes at Qumran, and other Jewish groups of that period.11 Into the modern period, Jewish law still concerns itself with calendrical issues, such as what happens in regard to the observance of a festival when a Jew crosses the international date line and gains or loses a day.12 Thus, one of the unstated reasons why the Nephites kept such careful track of their days, months, and years may well have been to create a strict framework within which they could properly observe their weekly sabbaths, annual holy days, sabbatical years, and jubilee releases, as well as identifying certain anniversaries in their individual lives that had legal significance under the law of Moses (such as retirement from routine priestly duties at age fifty according to Numbers 8:25).
While the Book of Mormon never mentions Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or any other religious holiday specifically by name, several reasons can be suggested to explain this omission. The ancient writers may have assumed that their readers would naturally understand. A person does not have to say the word Christmas to refer implicitly to that special day. Even a casual mention of "wise men" or "decorating a tree" is enough. In just the same way, the words Passover or Pentecost do not need to appear in the Book of Mormon to evoke images alluding to the Israelite holidays.13 Alternatively, Mormon may have found such points to be irrelevant to his purposes, since he was writing after the time when the law of Moses had been fulfilled in Christ. Moreover, one must remember that the Book of Mormon was not designed to be prescriptive in the same way as are the codes found in the Torah. Thus, although Mosaic festivals receive only indirect attention in the Book of Mormon, this does not mean that they lacked importance in Nephite society, only that further details about them were not chosen for inclusion in the final abridgments of the narratives or speeches preserved in the Book of Mormon. Other Nephite records also existed, and they may well have contained extensive descriptions of their religious and social observances. Indeed, the weekly sabbath is rarely mentioned in the Book of Mormon (see only Jarom 1:5; Mosiah 13:16–19; 18:23), yet is it unthinkable that the righteous Nephites, throughout their history, did not remember to keep the sabbath day; and one must remember that the annual holy days and sabbatical years were also part of the ancient law of the sabbath.
While the annual festivals are not mentioned expressly in the Book of Mormon, perhaps allusions to these festival names were more apparent in the original Nephite languages than they are in the English translation. For example, these Hebrew names have meanings: in Hebrew, Pesach literally means "exemption"; Sukkot means "tabernacles" or "booths"; Yom Kippur is "day of atonement." Thus the reference to the word tents14 in Mosiah 2:5 and the repeated mention of atonement in Mosiah 3 may well have caused a Nephite to think of the respective names of those holidays.
Whether expressly mentioned or not, evidence located in the Book of Mormon, particularly in King Benjamin's speech, supports the claim that those particular festivals which were most likely known to Israel in Lehi's day were indeed observed in the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla. Of course—and we repeat—it is difficult to determine which festivals were observed in preexilic Israel before the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 BC, and how those religious feasts were celebrated in that era of Israelite history. No person alive today, of course, has ever witnessed an ancient Israelite celebration, and biblical scholars differ considerably in their views about the nature of the festivals in ancient civilizations, let alone the possible connections or borrowings between them.
Nevertheless, considerable evidence about ancient Israelite practices can be gleaned from many biblical passages. If those biblical texts were written before the time of Lehi, they become particularly useful and relevant to the study of Book of Mormon world views. It must be noted, however, that some biblical passages may reflect Jewish customs or practices that were influenced or modified in Babylon or Palestine only after Lehi's departure. In that case their value for understanding the Book of Mormon is diminished, although to address the theories and uncertainties involved in Old Testament chronological criticism exceeds the scope of this chapter. Accordingly, as various features of these festivals are discussed below, emphasis will be placed on those practices that can be traced most clearly to the earlier biblical periods, although later Jewish sources are not considered completely irrelevant to the discussion of King Benjamin's speech.
We are aware that it would simplify and tighten our presentation if we were to limit our sources to the preexilic materials; indeed, we believe that most of our points are supported by early data. We have chosen, however, to include later Israelite and Jewish sources, both for the sake of completeness and because research in this area may enrich our understanding. Moreover, many of the detailed and elaborate descriptions of Jewish festivals found in the Talmud and other later Jewish literature may well reflect long-standing Israelite traditions, even though it is not always possible to know which texts or details are archaic and which emerged as later innovations. Thus, while we are keenly aware that these later sources are much weaker than the earlier texts for our purposes, they still offer useful information. Even today, most of the basic elements in Jewish observances of these festivals strive to follow the instructions and patterns found in the ancient Torah scrolls pertaining to these festivals. For this reason, when one reads popular Jewish guides to the prayer services of these festival days today, numerous themes and even some phrases jump out at the reader as points of commonality between the Bible, long-standing Jewish tradition, and parts of Benjamin's speech. For example, during Yom Kippur and Rosh ha-Shanah, prayers praising him "who has granted us life" (She-hecheyanu), prayers signifying "the acceptance of God's sovereignty" (the Shema), prayers recognizing the commandment to love (Ve'ahavta), and prayers describing thirteen attributes of God (El melech yoshev) are recited.15 All these modern prayers are grounded in ancient biblical texts and several similar features are also prominent in Benjamin's speech, sometimes being expressed in quite similar terminology and phraseology.
General observations and caveats such as these lead us to the following position regarding the comparative use of biblical and Jewish sources in studying Benjamin's speech:
There are many possibilities here, and we wish neither to overstate nor understate the possible significance of these Jewish comparisons in probing the context of Benjamin's assembly. Thus, in presenting the findings reported below, we usually will identify or signal the time period or source from which each piece of evidence derives. The biblical texts are the earliest and most relevant; the Mishnah (first and second century AD) and Talmud (second through fifth centuries AD) are later and constitute secondary evidence; Jewish traditions, customs, and liturgies are more recent and are less probative yet, but still interesting. Readers are free to weigh these bits of information as they wish in determining the degree to which these details may shed light on the festival celebration that was observed and enjoyed by King Benjamin and his people.
Finally, caution must be employed in dealing with evidence not only from the Old World, but also from the New. Beyond the problem of tracing the origins and identifying the elements of ancient Israelite and Jewish festivals, additional difficulties arise because it is not clear exactly what form of the law of Moses appeared on the plates of Laban and was brought to the New World by Lehi and his descendants, nor is it known how those rules were implemented.17 The version of law found on the plates of brass may not have been exactly the same as the legal provisions—found mainly in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—that have come down to us in the Bible today.18 Nevertheless, sufficient evidence is available to support a strong presumption that Lehi and his descendants had written legal materials quite similar to many passages in the King James Version of Exodus and Deuteronomy (for example, in Mosiah 13, Abinadi quotes the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). Accordingly, unless a good reason exists for doubting that the Nephites knew of a particular passage in the Torah, one may cautiously proceed on the tentative assumption that they adequately understood and appropriately followed that provision.
In spite of these challenges and uncertainties, attempting to identify the possible ancient Israelite holy days or festival season on which or during which a Book of Mormon speech or event may have taken place is significant and rewarding for several reasons: First, finding evidence of such observances tends to confirm the internal consistency of the Book of Mormon by showing that its peoples kept the law of Moses as they claimed. Second, knowing something of the potential background or context of a passage from the Book of Mormon promotes a better understanding of the possible meanings of its words and phrases. Third, because much of the following information about ancient Israelite or Jewish festivals pertinent to King Benjamin's speech was simply unknown by and—as far as we can discover—unknowable to Joseph Smith in 1829,19 such accuracy supports the claim that the Book of Mormon was translated from an ancient Israelite record, as Joseph Smith explained.
With these general comments and caveats in mind, and without claiming to be exhaustive in our coverage or dispositive in our conclusions, we turn our attention to the exploration of specific details that link King Benjamin's speech to the main fall festivals celebrated in ancient Israel.
Of the three annual festival times in ancient Israel, the autumn festival complex was the most important and certainly the most popular in ancient Israel.20 In early times it apparently was called the Feast of Ingathering. According to many scholars, the various components of the autumn festival were celebrated as a single season of celebration in the earliest periods of Israelite history.21 Its many elements were not sharply differentiated until later times, when the first day of the seventh month became Rosh ha-Shanah (New Year), followed by eight days of penitence, then followed on the tenth day of the month by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and on the fifteenth day by Sukkot (Festival of Tabernacles), concluding with a full holy week.
As this study will show, it appears to us that Benjamin's speech touches on all the major themes of these sacred days, treating them as parts of a single festival complex, consistent with what one would expect in a preexilic Israelite community in which the fall feasts were not sharply differentiated but were still closely associated as parts of one large autumn festival. That the elements of the three Israelite fall festivals appear in one integrated text in the book of Mosiah provides circumstantial evidence agreeing with the scholarly conclusion that the divisions into distinct Jewish festivals may have taken place after Lehi and his family left Israel.22
Many pieces of evidence support the view that an ancient Israelite autumn festival was observed at the time of King Benjamin. Although Benjamin's assembly may have involved only some of the features of these holy days, we believe that it makes good sense if one understands Benjamin's speech as taking place during the season of the year when the Nephites would have been turning their hearts and minds to the kinds of themes and concerns that characterized this time of annual religious renewal and activity in ancient Israel. The purpose of this study is to facilitate this inquiry. The later designations of New Year, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles will be used, though this distinction need not have been clear in the minds of the Nephites, and, as will be indicated, many of the themes associated with these holy days apply to one or more of the individual festivals.
Of the elements of the autumn festival in ancient Israel, one of the most interesting but least certain is the observation of the New Year.23 In postexilic Judaism, the New Year became known as Rosh ha-Shanah, literally the "head of the year." However, this phrase appears only once in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 40:1), and in this case it does not appear to be referring to a New Year but rather to "the beginning of the year."24 Many scholars even deny the existence of a New Year feast day in preexilic Israel.25 Others reconstruct an Israelite New Year on indirect evidence and on the basis of New Year festivals in surrounding cultures.26 Several important elements in the Jewish celebration, however, were probably not like New Year celebrations in other cultures; it was "not a time of revelry, but an occasion of the deepest religious import."27 We will proceed on the assumption that a New Year festival existed in some form in ancient Israel and then compare Benjamin's speech with materials from both its proposed preexilic reconstructions and the postexilic Jewish traditions.
The first point to be made with regard to the New Year is that ancient calendar systems are extremely complex and have been the object of a great deal of study. The Nephite New Year was apparently set in the "first" month;28 however, the dating of this festival in Israel was not always so defined. Exodus 12:2 appears to introduce a change from earlier practices. Later, Rosh ha-Shanah was celebrated on the first day of the seventh month. There appears to be evidence for years starting both on the first month and on the seventh month in preexilic Israel.29 D. J. A. Clines examined all the evidence and concluded that no strong arguments exist for either a spring or autumn calendrical New Year.30
However, a distinction is made for many social purposes between the calendrical year and the agricultural year. Since the Feast of Tabernacles is an agriculturally based festival, it would follow the agricultural calendar. The reckoning of the sabbatical and jubilee years is also based on the agricultural year. Since the New Year is associated with both the Feast of Tabernacles and the sabbatical and jubilee years, it seems likely that it also would have been based on the agricultural year rather than the calendrical year,31 which would argue for its observance, in some form, together with the other agricultural festivals that clearly belonged to the seventh month of the calendrical cycle. This may sound strange until we realize that in modern Western culture we also encounter various "years," the academic and fiscal years being two examples.
Leaving aside the calendrical issue, we can proceed to isolate some of the themes and traditions probably associated with the New Year. Unlike New Year's Day in most Western cultures, the beginning of a New Year's cycle in the ancient Near East was the occasion of a sacred religious celebration, one of the most important religious days of the year. The following are among the main traditions that have come to characterize the ancient Israelite New Year: the blowing of horns, sacrifice of burnt offerings, a day of judgment, the kingship of God, creation and renewal, remembrance and memorial, and the king's humility.
Horns. The blowing of horns was certainly a common part of Israelite culture and worship, and the most characteristic ritual of the later Rosh ha-Shanah was the sounding of the shôfar, the straight horn of a wild ram (see Numbers 29:1).32 This is likely related to the "memorial of blowing of trumpets," specifically prescribed for the first day of the seventh month in Leviticus 23:24. Horns are never mentioned in connection with Benjamin's speech, but one would not necessarily expect this detail to have accompanied Benjamin's written script or to have been preserved.33 Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that some kind of cue, such as the blowing of a horn or the announcement of an acclamation, would have been given to assemble the people (see Mosiah 2:9), to call them again to attention (see Mosiah 3:1), to call the people to fall simultaneously to the ground (see Mosiah 4:1), and to cry aloud all with one voice (see Mosiah 4:2; 5:2).
Furthermore, Jewish literature gives several commonly cited reasons for blowing the shôfar.34 Most of these circumstances pertain to parts of Benjamin's speech that would have offered several occasions for the sounding of horns, namely when: (1) hailing God as King35 (see Mosiah 2:19), especially at a coronation (see Mosiah 2:30; see also 2 Kings 9:13); (2) heralding the season of repentance (see Mosiah 2:9; 4:1; and possibly 4:26); (3) remembering the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai to Moses (which is mentioned in Mosiah 3:14; see also Exodus 19:19); (4) declaring the words of the prophets (prophetic declarations are referred to in Mosiah 3:3 and 3:13); (5) causing the people to tremble (see Mosiah 2:30; 4:1); (6) announcing the judgment of God (see Mosiah 3:18, 24–25) and sounding the horn of warning or alarm (see Exodus 20:18; Amos 3:6), or calling the troops to arms (see Judges 3:27); (7) heralding the coming messianic age (see Isaiah 27:13 and Mosiah 3:5; see also Revelation 8–9); and (8) marking the resurrection of the dead (see Mosiah 3:10). The sounding of the horn in much later Judaism eventually came to be known as a reminder of the following:
A call to contrition and penitence, as a reminder of the Shofar-sound of Sinai; and the Day of Memorial, the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance which culminate in the Day of Atonement, as a time of self examination and humble petition of forgiveness. "The Scriptural injunction of the Shofar for the New Year's Day has a profound meaning. It says: Awake, ye sleepers, and ponder over your deeds; remember your creator and go back to Him in penitence. Be not of those who miss realities in their pursuit of shadows and waste their years in seeking after vain things which cannot profit or deliver. Look well to your souls and consider your acts; forsake each of you his evil ways and thoughts, and return to God so that He may have mercy upon you" (Maimonides).36
Though all these connections may not have been familiar in the days of Lehi, similar sentiments may well have existed already, to be expressed both by his descendants in the New World and by the posterity of his surviving relatives in Jerusalem. Since most of these traditional occasions and purposes for sounding the shôfar are so clearly manifest at the ceremonial sectional dividing points in Benjamin's speech, one can easily envision their being accompanied by the sounding of the shôfar.
Further evidence that the horn (shôfar) or the trumpet (yobel) may have been used among the Nephites as a liturgical instrument, blown at the New Year to herald a season of repentance or on other similar occasions, may be garnered from Alma's wish that he might speak with the "trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people" (Alma 29:1). Alma's psalm may well have been written for a New Year festival, because it appears in the text immediately after the ending of the fifteenth year (see Alma 28:9) and near the time of "the days of fasting, and mourning, and prayer" that seem to mark the beginning of the sixteenth year (Alma 30:2).37
Sacrifice. The typical New Year, like most festivals,38 evidently began with burnt offerings of animals of "the first year." "In the seventh month, in the first day of the month . . . ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord" (Leviticus 23:24–25). Consistent with this, Benjamin's people brought "the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses" (Mosiah 2:3).39
Judgment. A characteristic theme in both ancient Near Eastern and later Jewish sources is that the New Year is a day of judgment. In Babylonia and Assyria, the New Year festival took place in the month of Nisan in the spring.40 An important aspect of the festival was the "Decreeing" or "Determining of Fates," by which the success or failure of the following year was determined.41 Because of the importance and danger of this ominous period of the year, a certain uneasiness was in the air. Frankfort describes it as follows: "The mood of the Babylonians at the beginning of the year was peculiar. They not only felt uncertainty as regards the future but feared that their own inadequacy and guilt might have incurred divine wrath."42 Baruch Halpern adds: "At the start of the feast, a certain insecurity, a cosmic paranoia, seems to have pervaded the air. Fearing for their destinies, perhaps afraid that nature stood in an inchoate or malevolently chaotic state, the people cleansed themselves, to prepare the way, and perhaps to search, for their savior."43
The idea of the New Year as a time of judgment is also found in Judaism. According to the Mishnah, it is the day when all mankind is judged.44 In the face of this judgment, God is "entreated to show mercy to his creatures," and confidence in the mercy of God is expressed.45 This is the only day on which modern Jews are permitted to "kneel and fall upon their faces."46 On this day, people in the Talmudic era wore white garments, and books of judgment were opened:
The completely righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life. The completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the book of death. The average persons are kept in suspension from Rosh ha-Shanah to the Day of Atonement. If they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life, if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.47
Furthermore, Gaster suggests that the symbolism of judgment by fire (compare Ezekiel 38:18–39:16) draws upon imagery pertinent to the fall festivals.48 Corresponding to the mood of the Mesopotamian New Year, the celebration of the Jewish New Year "has no traces of joy, for these are profoundly serious days, with a feeling of the heavy moral responsibility which life puts on all."49
Similarly, Benjamin's people faced a day of judgment. In his speech, Benjamin lays bare the fate of those who remain and die in their sins—enemies to God (see Mosiah 2:37–38); he spells out the nature of God's judgment, "for behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just" (Mosiah 3:18); he makes it clear that all men are subject to this judgment (see Mosiah 3:17), except little children (see Mosiah 3:21); and he declares that these ceremonial words shall stand to judge the people (see Mosiah 3:24–25) "like an unquenchable fire" (Mosiah 2:38).
Just as the Mesopotamians and the Jews were awed by the seriousness of the day, so too were the people of Zarahemla when they heard Benjamin speak about the judgment: "Behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth" (Mosiah 4:1–2). Yet in the face of this judgment, mercy was sought. Benjamin's people cried out in unison, "O have mercy" (Mosiah 4:2). Mercy is mentioned by Benjamin several other times (see Mosiah 2:39; 3:26; 5:15). There is also mention of cleansing of garments (see Mosiah 2:28)50 and of writing down the names of all the righteous who have entered into the covenant to keep God's commandments (see Mosiah 6:1).
The later Jewish liturgy for this "Day of Awe" provides further interesting points of comparison. Although this liturgy cannot be dated confidently before the time of the Crusades,51 some of its elements could, of course, have been drawn from the substantially older traditions discussed above. Schauss gives the following account; parallels to King Benjamin's speech are italicized and referenced in brackets, with citations to earlier biblical precedents:
The greatest and most exalted moment of the services comes when the Ark of the Torah is opened. . . . An unnatural fear grips the hearts of the worshipers [compare Mosiah 4:1; Exodus 3:6; Deuteronomy 28:58] [who] recite the words in a loud voice [Mosiah 4:2; Deuteronomy 27:14] with tears and sobs: "We will declare the greatness [Mosiah 4:11; Deuteronomy 5:24] and the holiness of this Day, for thereon, Thy kingdom is exalted, Thy throne established in mercy and Thou judgest in truth. It is true that Thou art the judge? [Mosiah 3:18; Genesis 31:53], Thou reprovest; Thou knowest all [Mosiah 4:9; 1 Samuel 2:3; 1 Chronicles 28:9], Thou bearest witness [Mosiah 3:24; Isaiah 55:4], recordest and sealest [Mosiah 6:1; 5:15; Isaiah 8:16]. Thou also rememberest all things that seem to be forgotten; and all that enter the world must pass before Thee [Mosiah 3:24], even as the shepherd [Mosiah 5:14; Psalms 23:1; 80:1] causes his sheep to pass under his rod. Thou numberest [Mosiah 6:1; Daniel 5:26] and countest, and visitest every living soul, appointest the limitations of all Thy creatures, and recordest [Mosiah 6:1; Deuteronomy 30:19] the sentence of their judgment." The moans die down and the congregation calms itself somewhat at the words: "But repentance [Mosiah 3:21; Proverbs 28:13; Jeremiah 35:15; Ezekiel 18:30], prayer, and charity [Mosiah 4:26; Leviticus 19:18] avert the evil decree."52
Moreover, the accompanying Jewish prayer does not end here but concludes with a sharp reminder of the shortness and impotence of man's life, contrasted with the greatness of God, and expressed in ancient biblical idioms:
How weak is man [Mosiah 2:25; Psalm 8:4]! He comes from the dust [Mosiah 2:25–26; Genesis 2:7] and returns to the dust; must toil [Mosiah 2:14; Genesis 3:19] for his sustenance; passes away like withered grass, a vanishing shadow, a fleeting dream. But Thou, O God, art eternal; Thou art King [Mosiah 2:19; Psalms 47:7; 89:18; Jeremiah 10:10] everlasting!53
Kingship of God. Part of the New Year festival in Mesopotamia involved reciting the epic poem Enuma Elish.54 In this tale the god Marduk slays Tiamat (goddess of the salt-water ocean), uses the body to create the world, and thus attains suzerainty. He then takes his throne at the head of the gods.55 This festival has served for some as one of the foundations for reconstructing the New Year festival in Israel. As noted above, Mowinckel's attempted reconstruction of the New Year had as its central ritual the enthronement of God.56 Although the ritual in which God becomes king has been the subject of debate,57 "Mowinckel's arguments have carried the greatest support in locating the celebration of Yahweh's kingship at the great autumnal festival of the New Year in the Jerusalem temple."58 Even if no direct connection existed between Mesopotamian and Israelite practices, many of the psalms were probably sung on occasions in Israel when God's kingship was openly celebrated and venerated. Generally God's kingship is celebrated in the Bible because he is able to subdue people and nations (see Psalm 47:3), has power over chaos as represented by the floods (see Psalm 93:3), and is to be the judge of all (see Psalms 96:13, 99:4). In several instances in the psalms cited, God's kingship is celebrated by the sounding of trumpets, characteristic of the New Year, and in many of these "God-is-king" psalms, the people are told to sing unto the Lord (see Psalm 47:5–7, for example). In the Talmud and in later Jewish literature, the ideas of the kingship and judgment of God are also linked to the New Year: "The theme of God as King is particularly stressed on Rosh Ha-Shanah because of the day's association with His judgment."59
The idea that God, not Benjamin or Mosiah his son, is truly the king is expressly found in Benjamin's words, "If I, whom ye call your king, . . . do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King" (Mosiah 2:19), and in his instruction that the people should obey "the commandments of my son, or the commandments of God which shall be delivered unto you by him" (Mosiah 2:31). The same reasons for celebrating God's kingship, as cited above, are also given by Benjamin, and the power of God is acknowledged in close association with Benjamin's declaration that God is king (see Mosiah 2:11, 20–21), and the role of God as judge is proclaimed (see Mosiah 3:18). As noted above, the kingship of God was celebrated by singing, thanksgiving, and rejoicing in Israel, and similarly in his speech Benjamin hoped that his spirit "may join the choirs above in singing the praises of a just God" (Mosiah 2:28), and he admonished his people to "thank your heavenly King" (Mosiah 2:19) and to "render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess" (Mosiah 2:20).
Creation. The New Year was also a day on which the creation of the earth was typically celebrated. As noted above, during the New Year festival in Mesopotamia, the Enuma Elish was read. The principal theme of this epic is the creation of the world. Lambert noted with regard to the Enuma Elish: "There is the fundamental presupposition that myths which we should suppose were regarded as having happened once and for all in the remote past, in fact were conceived to be recurring at regular intervals in the world in which the Babylonian authors lived."60 The repetition of the creation generally took place at the New Year.61
The New Year has also been the time when some Jews have observed the renewal of the creation. "In the beginning" was the creation (Genesis 1:1), and thus it was natural for the Israelite mind to think of the creation at the beginning of each new year's cycle. Psalm 148 would have made a fine hymn for such an occasion. According to Jewish traditions found in the Talmud, the world was created in the first month in the fall, Ethanim (Tishri), and the New Year was an appropriate time to recall the creative work of God in forming a new earth.62 Gaster has summarized: "The world is reborn from year to year—even, in an extended sense, from day to day and from minute to minute; and the primary message of the festival is that the process of creation is continuous, that the breath of God moves constantly upon the face of the waters."63
Perhaps this adds context to the angel's reference in the Book of Mormon to Christ as "the Creator of all things from the beginning" (Mosiah 3:8), and to the people's appellation of Christ as "the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things" (Mosiah 4:2). Benjamin's statement that God has "created you, . . . and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath . . . from one moment to another" (Mosiah 2:20–21), as well as his other frequent references to God's creative powers (see Mosiah 4:9, 12; 5:15), fit well into these Israelite contexts that highlighted God's creative works. Likewise, the rebirth of the people—"this day he hath spiritually begotten you" (Mosiah 5:7)—is evidence that one of the main purposes of Benjamin's ceremony was to see that the people's relationship with God and each other was renewed and reborn.64
Remembrance. Few themes are stressed more emphatically by Benjamin than that of remembrance.65 The word appears with repeated emphasis throughout the text. For example: "My sons, I would that ye should remember" (Mosiah 1:3, 6, 7); "stir them up in remembrance" (Mosiah 1:17); "ye should awake to a remembrance" (Mosiah 2:40); "O remember, remember that these things are true" (Mosiah 2:41); "I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance" (Mosiah 4:11); "O man, remember, and perish not" (Mosiah 4:30); "I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name. . . . I would that ye should remember to retain the name" (Mosiah 5:11–12). The Nephite priests were even appointed to stir the people up "in remembrance of the oath which they had made" (Mosiah 6:3; compare the Kol-nidre liturgy of the Day of Atonement).
In Leviticus 23:23–25, the holy sabbath convocation celebrated on the first day of the seventh month is called a zikkaron (memorial, remembrance).66 This ancient observance, represented as the New Year,67 involved the blowing of trumpets, a holy assembly, and the avoidance of work.
King. The king himself is frequently associated with New Year festivals. This was apparently the preferred time for the coronation of the king and the renewal of the people's covenant to obey him and God. According to John Eaton, at such great Israelite assemblies, the king served in several ways: he would "exhort men in God's way," and admonish them to worship God (compare Mosiah 2:18–19); he would "[testify] to the marvels of Yahweh's salvation and [assert] his superiority to other gods" (compare Mosiah 2:40–41; 3:5, 17; and many others); and he would be God's witness, appearing "as an evidential sign, an abiding token and reminder of God's work in the midst of the nations" (compare Mosiah 2:24, 27, 29; 4:5–9).68 Scholars feel that "the king's function as witness was represented and indeed rooted in the ceremonies of his ordination and its renewal . . . addressed to a great assembly representing Israel and all peoples, indeed all creatures."69 Psalm 40 mentions all these roles of the king, especially the king's duty to call the people to worship God (compare Mosiah 2:22), and also declares God's status as King and Creator (compare Mosiah 3:8) who will rise from the dead (compare Mosiah 3:10).70 Benjamin fulfills all the responsibilities of a king that are outlined in tradition and scripture.
For purposes of comparison, among the Sumerians the responsibilities of the akitu (or zagmuk) festival belonged to the king.71 In the first millennium BC, the king's participation in the akitu/New Year festival was "obligatory."72 It was through this participation that his kingship was renewed.73 Scholars have identified six elements of this festival: (1) a reenactment of the myth of creation issuing in the renewal of the cosmos, (2) a triumphal procession of the god, (3) the death and resurrection of the god, (4) the humiliation and reinstallation of the king, (5) the sacred marriage, and (6) the determination of destiny.74 Though scholars feel (3) is "highly controversial," and (5) and (6) are absent in Psalms, all elements except (5) are clearly present in Benjamin's speech.75 Mosiah 2:20–23 and 4:7 refer to creation and the cosmos; the angel describes Christ's triumphal procession in Mosiah 3:5–9 and his death and resurrection in Mosiah 3:9–11; Benjamin refers numerous times to his own status as a subject to God ("I am also of the dust" Mosiah 2:26) and chooses his son to be his successor (see Mosiah 1:10); and throughout his speech he discusses the consequences and the rewards of one's actions (see, for example, Mosiah 2:31, 40–41; 4:11–12).
Regarding the king's personal participation in the Mesopotamian temple program for the New Year's festival at Babylon, the king was led to the temple, where his royal regalia were taken away; he was made to bow down and to declare before the god that he had neither been neglectful in the worship of the god nor had harmed the city or the people. The text of this negative confession is as follows: "I did not sin, lord of the countries. I was not neglectful of the requirements of your godship. I did not destroy Babylon; I did not command its overthrow; I did not . [broken ] . . the temple Esagil, I did not forget its rites; I did not rain blows on the cheek of a subordinate. . . . I did not humiliate them. I watched out for Babylon; I did not smash its walls."76 He was then struck on the cheek and if tears flowed the god was appeased.77 The king's restoration to the throne symbolized his continuing ability to stabilize the society and the elements. Some scholars have suggested that certain psalms imply that the king in Israel underwent a similar type of ritual humiliation as part of an Israelite New Year festival.78 Johnson suggests that, as part of this humiliation, Psalm 101 was an "affirmation of the rule which he (the king) is wont to exercise" and compares it to the negative confession in Babylon.79
In Israel the situation, although not identical, was apparently similar. A. R. Johnson has concluded that the New Year festival "was used in Jerusalem for the important purpose of binding the people in loyalty not only to the national deity but also to the reigning house."80 J. B. Segal concurs: "The autumn New Year festival in Israel was a formal occasion at which the authority of King or High Priest was proclaimed or renewed."81 De Moor notes that the official beginning of the king's reign was connected with the New Year82 and provides a brief reconstruction:
The celebration of New Year did not differ much from what we have found earlier. The people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The king sacrificed burnt- and peace-offerings of sheep and oxen. He recited ancient songs, recalled the name of his dead ancestor David, praised the Lord and prayed for the prosperity of his dynasty and his people. He also prayed for rain and asked JHWH to judge his servants, condemning the wicked and vindicating the innocent.83
With these concepts of the king's participation in the New Year festival in Mesopotamia and Israel as points of comparison, one may now better appreciate parts of King Benjamin's speech and actions in Mosiah 1–6. Clearly the New Year festival time was an appropriate time for Benjamin to effect his son's coronation.84 It also seems plausible that Benjamin's frequent and sincere statements of humility and the accounting of his stewardship as king are in some way related to the general genre of humiliation and negative confession of the king found in other ancient cultures.85 Benjamin asserts that he is like the people and "subject to all manner of infirmities" (Mosiah 2:11) and is "also of the dust" (Mosiah 2:26), and in rendering the accounting of his stewardship he follows very closely the so-called Paragraph of the King (Deuteronomy 17:14–20), which set standards by which the king's performance was judged in Israel.86
Thus the spirit of the Israelite New Year—as far as that may be known and defined—is reflected with considerable clarity in King Benjamin's speech. The persistence of these traditions carries down even to the level of customary sayings and greetings. Even today, one greets friends on this occasion with "May you be inscribed (in the book of life) and sealed for a good year."87 Suitably, Benjamin gives his people a name that cannot be "blotted out [of the book of life]" except by transgression (Mosiah 5:11), and he hopes that God will seal them his. With possible parallels to Benjamin's speech, the following traditional Jewish New Year's prayer expresses sentiments that Benjamin himself would have whole-heartedly concurred with: "Now, therefore, O Lord our God, impose Thine awe upon all Thy works, and Thy dread upon all that Thou hast created, that all works may revere Thee and all creatures prostrate themselves before Thee, that they may all form a single band to do Thy will with a perfect heart."88
These factors indicate that the themes of King Benjamin's speech and the themes of the traditional Israelite New Year were indeed very similar. This discussion also supplies further reasons to believe that many Jewish traditions remained quite stable over the centuries, and that the Nephites were indeed conscientious and "strict" (Alma 30:3) in observing and perpetuating the law of Moses as they knew it.
Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)89
The next festival aspect of the month of the Feast of Ingathering in preexilic Israel was the all-important Day of Atonement,90 a day of holy convocations and ritual atonement at the temple. It would later become the most sacred day in the Jewish liturgical year.91 The hypothesis that Benjamin's speech was held on or in connection with the Day of Atonement finds initial plausibility in Benjamin's seven explicit references to the atonement. This number seven may be purely coincidental, but doing something seven times is characteristic of rituals performed on the Day of Atonement and during other biblical purification ceremonies prescribed in the book of Leviticus.92 Benjamin speaks of (1) "the atonement of his blood" (Mosiah 3:15), (2) the "atoning blood" (Mosiah 3:18), (3) the blood which "atoneth" (Mosiah 3:11), (4) the blood of Christ which "atoneth for [their] sins" (Mosiah 3:16), (5) the "atonement of Christ the Lord" (Mosiah 3:19), (6) the "atonement" prepared from the foundation (Mosiah 4:6), and (7) the "atonement" prepared for all mankind (Mosiah 4:7). Examining the speech further reveals substantial cumulative evidence that the rituals and traditions manifest in the Day of Atonement are also to be seen in Benjamin's words and deeds.93 These elements involve special preparations, blood sacrifices, sin removal, the holy name of God, fasting, repentance, confession, giving to the poor, repaying debts, rejoicing, and blessing.
Preparations. Special preparations were in order for such a great day, particularly for those in charge, such as the high priest. Rabbinic writings report special efforts taken to keep the high priest awake during the night of Yom Kippur, and pious men followed this example.94 Benjamin's preparations also were substantial; coincidentally, he was awakened, apparently during part of the night, by the visitation of an angel from God: "Awake; and I awoke. . . . Awake and hear" (Mosiah 3:2–3). Several points in the Jewish ceremony draw on biblical precedents: for example, the priest would wash and change his garments (compare Exodus 19:14).95 Perhaps this relates to Benjamin's saying that he has assembled his people that he "might rid [his] garments of [their] blood" (Mosiah 2:28). Yom Kippur is the anniversary of Moses' second descent from Mount Sinai after having received the Ten Commandments. This day was declared one of forgiveness and pardon for the Israelites, and this event is remembered each year even to this day.96 In Mosiah 3:14–15, Benjamin also remembered this event and the law that was received, and throughout his speech can be seen the themes of forgiveness and pardon.
Sacrifice and blood purifications. On this day in Israel, sacrifices were made. First, a special atonement was made by one designated priest. In ancient Israel he would purify various parts of the temple by daubing and then sprinkling blood (see Leviticus 16:16–20), for it was necessary to purify the temple once each year (see Hebrews 9:7). The theme of temple purification is also found during the week of New Year's observances in Mesopotamia. As part of the akitu festival a priest would purify the temple and all its environs by sprinkling water on it from the Tigris and the Euphrates.97
If such a temple purification had just taken place in Zarahemla—or was about to take place—this would have given concrete contextual impact to Benjamin's saying that the Lord "dwelleth not in unholy temples" (Mosiah 2:37). Assuming that Benjamin had followed the rules in Leviticus 16 and had used blood to purify the temple in Zarahemla, his several references to the cleansing power of "the atoning blood of Christ" (Mosiah 3:18) could hardly have been set more vividly in the minds of his people.
Second, the priest would cleanse the people from certain kinds of iniquities and transgressions (see Leviticus 16:21, 33), particularly sins against God: "This shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year" (Leviticus 16:34). Of primary concern on this particular day were the sins of inadvertence. Even though a transgression occurred unconsciously, the ancient Israelites still viewed this as a transgression that defiled the temple and the people, and thus it was necessary to make an atonement (see Numbers 15:27–29). In addition, of grave import were the sins of rebelliousness, or pesha'im.98 Those who "brazenly rebel" are not eligible to have their transgression forgiven through sacrifice (see Numbers 15:30–31). Later, the Talmudic sages made the same distinction and expressed similar concern regarding the different types of sin that were to be expiated on the Day of Atonement.99
In much the same way, Benjamin expressed concerns regarding sin and the need for atonement. He explained that the atoning power of the blood of Christ covers inadvertent sins and sinners: "those who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned" (Mosiah 3:11),100 while he who sins "contrary to his own knowledge" (Mosiah 2:33) receives the harshest condemnation (see Mosiah 2:38–40). Likewise, Benjamin spoke adamantly about the great seriousness of rebellious sin: "Wo unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God!" (Mosiah 3:12). "The man that . . . cometh out in open rebellion against God, . . . the Lord has no place in him" (Mosiah 2:37). Moreover, Benjamin's theology is accurately Israelite when he explains that "salvation cometh to none such" rebellious sinners (compare Numbers 15:30–31), except through the extraordinary redemptive powers of Christ (see Mosiah 3:12). Conventional animal sacrifice could not expiate such sin.
Scapegoat. Leviticus 16:7–10 prescribes the well-known and distinctive scapegoat ritual101 in which the high priest, on the Day of Atonement, took two goats; by casting lots one goat was declared to be "for the Lord" and the other "for Azazel."102 A similar dichotomy appears in Mosiah 5:7–12, in which the people are called either by the name of Christ and found belonging at the right hand of God, or are called "by some other name" and found at the left hand of God. According to later rabbinic tradition, if the lot "For the Lord" came up in the left hand it was permissible to switch the lots with their respective goats so that although the determination of which goat was the Lord's was made by lot, the Lord's goat would be on the right hand while Azazel's goat would be on the left.103
As the goat was set before the high priest, he drew a lot in each hand from an urn. The high priest then actually placed the lots upon the heads of the goats.104 A metaphorical connection of this "head" (Christ) that can make one free appears in Mosiah 5:8.
The goat for the Lord was sacrificed, but the high priest placed his hands on the scapegoat and confessed all the sins of Israel, thereby transferring them to Azazel's goat, which was then taken off into the desert.105 The man who carried the goat out to the empty wilderness became impure and could not come back into the camp until he burned his clothes and washed himself.106 Similarly, any individual who breaks the covenant was, in Benjamin's mind, to be "consigned to an awful view" of his guilt and "into a state of misery and endless torment" (Mosiah 3:25); he would find himself to be "worthless," in a state of "nothingness" (Mosiah 4:5), and ultimately Benjamin compared those who "know not the name by which [they] are called" to an ass that belongs to a neighbor and is not suffered to feed among the flocks but is driven away and cast out (see Mosiah 5:14–15).
Had Benjamin said that the sinner would be driven out like a goat instead of an ass, these connections with the Day of Atonement would have been more direct.107 But in fact, the kind of animal used in such settings was not critical among Israel's neighbors in the ancient Near East. Similar Hittite expiatory rituals drove out bulls, rams, mice, and vermin of the ground.108 Furthermore, asses were commonly used in covenant-making ceremonies during the second millennium b.c. in Mesopotamia.109 Because Benjamin is using the ass as a symbol of excommunication or banishment, not of purification or impurity removal, it makes sense that he referred to a different animal than a goat.
The name. So holy was the Day of Atonement that on this day the ineffable name of God, YHWH, could be pronounced. During the Yom Kippur service at the temple, the priest could pronounce this sacred name aloud. Later Jewish tradition seems to have the priest utter this name ten times during the Yom Kippur liturgy, and to a similar degree, Benjamin employs the expanded names Lord God and Lord Omnipotent seven and three times, respectively.110
Seven of these utterances are in the reported words of the angel to Benjamin (see Mosiah 3:5, 13, 14, 17, 18, 21, 23). It seems more than coincidental111 that it is in the mouth of an angel that such names appear seven times and that the number seven reflects a "spiritual" perfection. The other three utterances come in the words of Benjamin (see Mosiah 2:30, 41, and 5:15). These three utterances come at important ceremonial breaking points in the speech, not merely at random or inconsequential places.112
The response of the people to the pronouncement of the sacred name was singular. According to the Mishnah, each time the people at the temple in Jerusalem heard the sacred name they would fall prostrate on the ground.113 This can be compared with the reactions to King Benjamin's speech in Zarahemla. When he finished reciting the words of the angel, "he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them" (Mosiah 4:1). It is possible that Benjamin's people would have fallen down in profound reverence and awe several times when Benjamin spoke the holy name of God, as the Israelites did on hearing the tetragram, according to the Mishnah.114
Indeed, Benjamin declared that one of the main purposes of the assembly was to "give this people a name" (Mosiah 1:11). Associated with pronouncing the name of God was the giving of his name to the people. In great solemnity and literary emphasis,115 Benjamin revealed the name of the Messiah as the following expression: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning." He also revealed Mary as the name of Christ's mother (see Mosiah 3:8). He concluded his speech, telling the people, "this [the sacred name of Christ] is the name that I said I should give unto you" (Mosiah 5:11; see 5:9–14).
Fasting. On this day, according to the ancient custom, all were required to "afflict" their souls (see Leviticus 16:29–31; 23:27–32). Traditionally this has been understood to mean fasting (see Psalm 35:13; Isaiah 58:3, 5); however, it has been argued that this term should not be limited to fasting but should include other forms of self denial.116 Fasting is not specifically mentioned in Mosiah 1–6. Nevertheless, evidence exists in the book of Alma that fasting was practiced in Zarahemla around the beginning of the New Year (see Alma 30:2; 44:24–45:1). Thus fasting may have been a regular part of the Day of Atonement among the Nephites. If Benjamin spoke on a day when the people were afflicting their souls, his deprecating descriptions of humans as being not even "as much as the dust of the earth" (Mosiah 2:25) and an "enemy to God" (Mosiah 3:19), whose "nothingness" makes them "unworthy creatures" (Mosiah 4:11), would have fit powerfully into that context.
If an ancient Israelite did not "afflict" his soul on this day, he was "cut off" from among the people (Leviticus 23:29). Benjamin speaks of blotting such a person out (see Mosiah 5:11) and of casting him out (see Mosiah 5:14), but since all his people complied with the requirement of making the covenant (see Mosiah 6:2), none had to be expelled.117
Repentance. Benjamin implored his people to repent before God and to settle with their neighbors: to "live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due" (Mosiah 4:13); and to "return [any]thing that he borroweth" (Mosiah 4:28). This, along with prayer, was a necessary condition of obtaining remission of sins: "calling on the name of the Lord daily" (Mosiah 4:11), and imparting of your substance, "for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day" (Mosiah 4:26). Benjamin's exhortations in this regard, as well as his decrees about giving liberally to the poor, reconciling with your neighbor, and realizing that we are "all beggars" (Mosiah 4:19; see also 4:20–28) would be especially pertinent at the time of a Day of Atonement celebration, when people were seeking forgiveness for sin. The Mishnah explicitly teaches that the scapegoat's atonement is effective only when it is accompanied by repentance118 and that transgressions against one's fellowman must first be resolved before the atonement can have a beneficial effect.119
Confession. Also associated with the Day of Atonement and naturally connected with repentance was the process of confession. According to the Talmud, the priest would confess the iniquities of the people—the confessions generally consisting of acknowledging sins and trespasses—and a corresponding expression of remorse from the people would follow.120 This is to be compared with the confession of the people of King Benjamin of their carnal and sinful state (see Mosiah 4:2, 5), specifically adopting the king's own acknowledgment of his "worthless and fallen state" (Mosiah 4:5): "I am also of the dust, . . . [an] unprofitable servant" (Mosiah 2:26, 21). According to one source, forgiveness is granted to all on this day who thus confess and repent (see Jubilees 34:17–18; see also Mosiah 3:16; 6:2).
Giving to the poor or repaying debts. Over the years, Jewish traditions of asking forgiveness of one another, giving gifts to the poor, and generally appeasing one's neighbor developed from these ancient teachings in connection with the Day of Atonement.121 On the eve of the Day of Atonement "it is customary to send gifts to the poor, and a duty to ask forgiveness from one another and to appease each other."122 "Ye should impart of your substance to the poor," says Benjamin, "administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally" (Mosiah 4:26). Expressing the natural human feeling of gratitude and debt that comes with any occasion of profound forgiveness and reconciliation, Jews today recite at Yom Kippur the Avinu Malkaynu prayer, which speaks of the deep indebtedness of all humans to God.123
Joy. The Day of Atonement was apparently in all eras a time of "true joy."124 Similarly, Benjamin and his people experienced "exceedingly great joy" (Mosiah 4:11) and rejoiced (see Mosiah 4:12) abundantly. On the Day of Atonement, Israelites came to feel God's close association with his creatures,125 just as Benjamin exulted in the "goodness of God, and his matchless power, and his wisdom, and his patience, and his long-suffering towards the children of men" (Mosiah 4:6). In this same spirit, the great Nephite celebrations at the beginning of the nineteenth year of the reign of the judges were marked with "exceedingly great joy" (Alma 45:1).
Blessings. On many occasions in Jewish life, but especially on this day, blessings were pronounced. In Benjamin's case, several blessings were mentioned: "he doth bless and prosper you" (Mosiah 2:22); "ye shall prosper in the land, and your enemies shall have no power over you" (Mosiah 2:31); and remember "the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments" (Mosiah 2:41). At the end of the Day of Atonement, Jewish people exchange blessings such as "May you be inscribed for life [in the book of life] and merit many years."126 Likewise, at the conclusion of his speech, Benjamin took "the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments" (Mosiah 6:1). In some cases the Israelites immediately began constructing their booths (sukkot) in preparation for the next phase of this season's celebrations.127
The next aspect of the great fall celebrations in ancient Israel was the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot).128 The earliest sources refer to it as the Feast of Harvest or Feast of Ingathering (see Exodus 23:16; 34:22).129 Later it was called the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths in reference to the booths or huts in which the Israelites dwelt during this celebration. It was also called the "feast unto the Lord" (Leviticus 23:39; Numbers 29:12); "feast to the Lord" (Exodus 12:14); or simply "the feast" (1 Kings 8:2; 2 Chronicles 7:8). Of the three yearly festivals, it is often considered the most significant.130 This portion of the festival eventually came to be observed on the fifteenth of Tishri, the seventh month of the year, five days after the Day of Atonement. Probably an agricultural festival originally, it eventually came to celebrate historical events associated with the exodus.131 The Feast of Tabernacles is mentioned frequently in the Bible (see Leviticus 23:33–44; Numbers 29:12–38; Deuteronomy 16:13; 31:9–13; Zechariah 14:16, 18–19; Ezra 3:4; 2 Chronicles 8:13; John 7:2), and many details about the particular customs associated with this day can be found in these biblical accounts. The description of the Feast of Tabernacles as drawn from the Bible compares very favorably and significantly with further elements in Benjamin's speech. Other important information about this festival is given in the Mishnah, Talmud, and later Jewish writings. While it is not always possible to know exactly which of these later details were already part of the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles in Lehi's day, many intriguing parallels to Benjamin's festival in Zarahemla are found throughout this material as well. The basic aspects of this celebration encompass the following: pilgrimage to the temple, sitting in booths or tents, sacrifices, reading the law, renewing the covenant, coronation of kings, God's heavenly kingship, and praise and thanksgiving.
Pilgrimage. The Feast of Tabernacles was a day of national assembly, a great pilgrimage festival.132 The Mosaic law specified that "all . . . males shall appear before the Lord God" (Exodus 23:17), and in Deuteronomy the entire family was expected to participate: "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates" (Deuteronomy 16:14; compare 31:10–12).133 The people were to congregate at one of Israel's sanctuaries or "in the place which [God] shall choose" (Deuteronomy 31:11).
Similarly, at the occasion of King Benjamin's address, whole families were present. Benjamin caused all the people in his land to "gather themselves together" (Mosiah 1:18) and to assemble together (see Mosiah 2:9, 27), both Nephites and Mulekites (Mosiah 1:10): "every man according to his family, consisting of his wife, and his sons, and his daughters, and their sons, and their daughters, from the eldest down to the youngest, every family being separate one from another" (Mosiah 2:5). They assembled specifically "round about" the main Nephite sanctuary in the days of Benjamin, the temple in Zarahemla (Mosiah 2:6).134
Booths/tents. In Zarahemla, Benjamin's people "pitched their tents round about the temple, every man having his tent with the door thereof towards the temple, that thereby they might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin would speak unto them" (Mosiah 2:6). During the Feast of Tabernacles in the Old World, the ancient Israelites sat in booths or huts made from branches and vines (see Leviticus 23:41–44). According to Leviticus 23:43 the purpose of the booths was to remind the children of Israel that they had been "made . . . to dwell in booths (sukkot)" when they were brought out of Egypt.135 The relationship between such booths and tents has received a fair amount of comment. In particular, the word "booths" (sukkot) does not appear in the account of the exodus. Instead we find that the people lived in tents. For example, in Exodus 33:8, "and it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle (ha-ohel), that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent (ohel) door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the tabernacle."136
Tents were specifically mentioned in connection with the celebration of Solomon's dedication of the temple: "And at that time Solomon held a feast, and all Israel with him, a great congregation. . . . On the eighth day he sent the people away: and they blessed the king, and went unto their tents (le'oholeyhem) joyful and glad of heart" (1 Kings 8:65–66). This feast, in which tents were used, was held in the seventh month (see 1 Kings 8:2) and has generally been thought of as a Feast of Tabernacles.137 A passage in Hosea also refers to tents: "And I that am the Lord thy God from the land of Egypt will yet make thee to dwell in tabernacles (ba'ohalim), as in the days of the solemn feast" (Hosea 12:9). The Hebrew word ohalim, translated in the King James Version as "tabernacles," is most often rendered "tents."138 To the Nephites, their festival use of tents may also have symbolized the time when Lehi and his family had "dwelt in a tent" (1 Nephi 10:16),139 for Benjamin convenes his celebration in part to remember the distinctiveness of his people, whom "the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem" (Mosiah 1:11).
It is evident in Benjamin's speech that the tents are ceremonially significant. Each family had a "tent with the door thereof towards the temple, that thereby they might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them" (Mosiah 2:6). Everyone had a tent, not just those who had come from out of town and needed a place to stay. Furthermore, they all remained in their tents during the speech, surely for ceremonial reasons. If it had not been religiously and ritually important for them to stay in their tents, the crowd could have stood much closer to Benjamin and been able to hear him, obviating the need for written copies of his words to be prepared and circulated (see Mosiah 2:8). Apparently Benjamin considered it more important for the people to remain in their tents than to have them stand within close hearing distance of the speaker. The relationship between booths and tents is not yet entirely clear,140 but the use of the word tents instead of booths in Mosiah 2 does not appear out of place.
Sacrifice. Numbers 29:12–34 lists the sacrifices connected with the Feast of Tabernacles. These sacrifices were greater in number than those connected with the two previous celebrations.141 The Book of Mormon has relatively few references to sacrifices and burnt offerings. Two are found in 1 Nephi during the journey in the wilderness from Jerusalem to the new land (see 1 Nephi 5:9; 7:22). Another is in 3 Nephi 9:19, in which the Lord commands that sacrifices and burnt offerings no longer be performed. It is significant, then, that sacrifices and burnt offerings are mentioned in the prologue to King Benjamin's address: "And they also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses" (Mosiah 2:3).
Law and covenant. During the Feast of Tabernacles, the Israelites celebrated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.142 Ancient Israelites profoundly venerated their laws. Every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles, the law was read, and a statement of the people's commitment to the law took place.143 In postexilic times, this ancient element became so prominent that the ninth day of the feast came to be known as Simhat Torah ("Joy-of-the-Torah"), in commemoration of the revelation of the law at Sinai. Today, the annual reading cycle of the Torah for the Jews ends at Simhat Torah. This expanded practice of reading assigned portions of the law each week during each year is traditionally dated to the time of Ezra the Scribe (fifth century BC), who renewed the celebration of Sukkot after the Babylonian captivity and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem; but originally the law was read all at one time (see Deuteronomy 31:11). It has been suggested that the reading of the law on Sukkot "not only gives us a relatively early basis for the development of the Joy-of-the-Law observance on the ninth day, but also hints at a connection between the Feast of Booths and a formal covenant ceremony at which the reading of the laws of the covenant was a standard feature."144 Thus not only do King Benjamin's constant references to keeping the commandments of God (see Mosiah 2:13, 22, 31, 41; 4:6, 30) and to God's appointment of the law of Moses to a stiffnecked people during the exodus (see Mosiah 3:14) fit the Feast of the Tabernacles perfectly, but also in both Jerusalem and Zarahemla this day was a day of covenant renewal. In Israel, on this day the people renewed their covenant with God to be his people and to obey his laws.145 Benjamin's people also enter into such a covenant, and they follow the form of covenant renewal in Israel in detail.146 Through this covenant, the people became the sons and daughters of God (see Mosiah 5:1–7; compare Exodus 19:5; Jeremiah 31:33; Nehemiah 7:73–8:18; 9:1–13:31). The fact that Benjamin's people simultaneously fell down and spoke certain words in unison (see Mosiah 4:1–3; 5:1–5) strongly suggests a ritual or ceremonial response. The words that the people spoke may well have been prescribed. This does not detract from the profound spiritual state of the people as they uttered them. Solemn covenant renewals can have a profound impact on both hearers and participants, especially when they are beautifully and eloquently presented.
Earthly king. The figure of the king seems to have played an important part in the ancient Feast of Tabernacles. As noted above, King Solomon chose this time to dedicate his temple. To do so, he had to wait eleven months—from the eighth month until the seventh month (1 Kings 6:38; 8:2), indicating the importance he placed on waiting until a specific time in the fall. Later Jewish texts attest to the association between the king and the Feast of Tabernacles. The king's responsibility was to read the law every seven years during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Mishnah gives a good description of the activities of the king: 147 the king stands upon a specially constructed platform,148 and he is given a copy of the law from which he reads various passages from Deuteronomy, including the Paragraph of the King149 and other texts dealing with the law and covenant-making. John Tvedtnes has examined these passages in depth and draws numerous comparisons between its particulars and the text of King Benjamin's address.150 In view of the role of the king in the Feast of Tabernacles it is not surprising that this was the time for the coronation of a new king both in Israel and among the Nephites.151
Heavenly king. Not only did the earthly king play an important part in the Feast of Tabernacles, but God as the Heavenly King is also implied in early sources.152 The prophet Zechariah, who looked strongly toward the heavenly Lord of Hosts as the eternal king, prophesied that the Messiah would come on the Feast of Tabernacles and that the people would venerate him as king after his coming: "And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles" (Zechariah 14:16). Thus the royal aspects of the Feast of Tabernacles also served as reminders that Jehovah rules as king (see Psalms 93:1; 96:10; 97:1). Such references to God as king call to mind Benjamin's reference to God as the "heavenly King" (Mosiah 2:19) and also Benjamin's discussion of the coming of the Messiah (see Mosiah 3:1–10).
Thanksgiving and praise. Finally, prayers of thanksgiving and praising God were an important part of all ancient Israelite holy days. Over the years, a standard thanksgiving prayer known as the She-hecheyanu has been handed down among the Jews. This prayer is recited when eating the first-fruits, offering sacrifices, doing things for the first time (or for the first time in a long time), and at certain other prescribed times, including the beginning of every festival. The words of this prayer today are: Barukh attah YHWH Eloheinu melekh ha-olam she-hecheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higiyanu laz-zeman ha-zeh, which is "Praised (or blessed) art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this [festival] season."153 Although it is impossible for us today to know when the specific words of this short traditional prayer were composed, its sentiments are all found in the Psalms and thus some formulation of this kind may resemble the words used by Jews long ago to express their feelings of praise and thanksgiving to God, especially at the beginning of their important festivals. Indeed, the oral law required the recitation of this blessing in Israel: the Mishnah mentions the prayer in a matter-of-fact manner, as if it were a long-standing tradition.154
Interestingly, King Benjamin's speech contains many of the elements found in the She-hecheyanu.155 Immediately after referring to God as "your heavenly King" (Mosiah 2:19), Benjamin soberly instructs his people to render "thanks and praise . . . to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you" (Mosiah 2:20–21). As the traditional prayer emphasized "this festival season," Benjamin also spoke several times of his assembly "this day," which may reflect a Hebrew idiom referring to the arrival of a festival moment.156 When Benjamin told his people that even by thanking and praising God with all they possessed they would still be unprofitable servants, he implied that they customarily offered such prayers of thanks and praise to God, their Creator, for keeping and preserving them, and causing them to have joy and peace. This deprecating reminder of Benjamin to his people would have been especially impressive to them if they offered this kind of prayer often in their religious worship, and thought it beneficial. Understanding that they may even have uttered such a prayer only shortly before the commencement of Benjamin's speech gives his words a cultural context, provides his message with immediate bearing on his people, and helps explain the powerful impact these words of Benjamin had on his people.157
In sum, many elements in King Benjamin's address and the events surrounding it correspond to the Feast of Tabernacles as practiced in ancient Israel and as those celebrations gradually developed in Jewish history.
In addition to perhaps scheduling his speech during the fall festival, Benjamin seems to have timed this great assembly to occur in connection with the conclusion of a sabbatical year, which came once every seven years. Four of the major themes of the sabbatical year can be found embedded in biblical legislation concerning land, debt, slaves (also servants or service), and the public reading of the law.159
Land, debt, and servitude. Under the law of Moses, in every seventh year beginning at the Feast of Booths, the fields had to lie fallow and their yield was left to the poor (see Exodus 23:10–11). According to the law set out in Deuteronomy, "at the end of every seven years" the covenant people of Israel were required to "make a release," namely that "every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother" (Deuteronomy 15:1–2). This law may have involved either a full release or a one-year suspension, and it applied so long as any poor inhabited the covenant land; debts owed by foreigners were not subject to this release (see Deuteronomy 15:3–4), for God intended Israel to "lend unto many nations" but not to "borrow" (Deuteronomy 15:6). Moreover, in the year of release all Hebrew slaves were to be set at liberty, particularly those who were enslaved for the nonpayment of debts (see Exodus 21:2–6; Deuteronomy 15:7–18; Jeremiah 34:8–16).160 The reason for this was that no one could "claim as his own private property a fellow Israelite, who belonged by right of purchase to God alone."161
Many of these factors are relevant to Mosiah 1–6. If Benjamin's speech came at the end of a sabbatical year, this would explain why King Mosiah, at the end of his coronation, "did cause his people that they should till the earth" (Mosiah 6:7). This royal act would seem to mark specifically the end of the sabbatical year and the ceremonial beginning of a new agricultural period, for it would be odd for a king to command his people to begin tilling the ground unless there had been some reason to cease, or some need to commence this common activity anew. It would also give new significance to the fact that Benjamin affirms that he has not allowed his people to "make slaves of one another" (Mosiah 2:13) and insists that all people belong to God by virtue of his having created them (see Mosiah 2:24). Furthermore, in the context of a sabbatical year celebration it makes good sense for Benjamin to speak so extensively about service, giving to the poor, and the realization that all people are beggars (see Mosiah 4:15–23). In addition, Benjamin commanded his people to settle their debts with their neighbors and not remain borrowers (see Mosiah 4:28). The absence of permanent servitude in his kingdom would have been immediately proven by a royal proclamation releasing all debtors who were working off debts through involuntary servitude.
Similarly, continuing the moral and ethical regime of Benjamin, his son Mosiah would later be remembered as a king who "had granted unto his people that they should be delivered from all manner of bondage" (Mosiah 29:40). It seems likely that such a "grant" would also have involved either a specific decree or the periodic implementation of the sabbatical laws, and that his "deliverance from all manner of bondage" would have included a sabbatical-like release from economic debts as well as all kinds of compulsory servitude.
The reading of the law. As discussed already above, associated with the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles on the sabbatical year was the reading of the law. The stipulations regarding the reading of the law are found in Deuteronomy 31:9–13. The numerous similarities between that passage and the account of Benjamin's assembly present considerable evidence that Benjamin was consciously following the Deuteronomic regulations in observing just such a seventh-year Feast of Tabernacles. Deuteronomy 31:10–13 (with emphasis added) reads:
And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release [compare Mosiah 2:9], in the feast of tabernacles, When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose [compare Mosiah 1:18], thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing [compare Mosiah 2:8]. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children [compare Mosiah 2:5], and thy stranger that is within thy gates [compare Mosiah 1:10], that they may hear, and that they may learn [compare Mosiah 2:9], and fear the Lord your God [compare Mosiah 4:1], and observe to do all the words of this law: and that their children, which have not known any thing, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God [compare Mosiah 3:21–22; 4:15].
The completeness and precision with which Benjamin appears to be fulfilling these technical Mosaic requirements lends weighty evidence to the conclusion that it was at just such a seventh-year Deuteronomic Feast of Tabernacles that Benjamin's speech was delivered.
Moreover, every seventh sabbatical year was a jubilee year.162 It is possible that Benjamin not only selected a sabbatical year on which to crown his son king, but that this great occasion also fell on a jubilee year, as the following factors may indicate:
A time of return. The jubilee year was a time when property was returned to its hereditary owner: "Ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family" (Leviticus 25:10). De Vaux summarizes: "Consequently transactions in land had to be made by calculating the number of years before the next jubilee: one did not buy the ground but so many harvests. . . . Religious grounds are given for these measures: the land cannot be sold absolutely, for it belongs to God."163 On a jubilee year, one could expect a king to comment on this extraordinary time of return, as Benjamin indeed does: "Whosoever among you borroweth of his neighbor should return the thing that he borroweth, according as he doth agree, or else thou shalt commit sin; and perhaps thou shalt cause thy neighbor to commit sin also" (Mosiah 4:28). Benjamin's concern, under one possible reading of this text, is that the very thing that has been transferred should be returned. Substituted property of equivalent value, or money, was apparently not acceptable to Benjamin on this occasion. One wonders why not—perhaps because during a jubilee year the people had to "return every man unto his possession" (Leviticus 25:10, emphasis added). Furthermore, Benjamin expresses concern that the lender might commit sin164 as well as the borrower. Are we to imagine that Benjamin fears that the lender might commit sin by somehow injuring the delinquent debtor in anger?165 Or is this more a reflection of the public nature of the obligation to fulfill the requirements of the jubilee wherein the possession of specific property itself had to be relinquished, and both parties were required to participate or else "commit sin"?
Underlying the jubilee laws was the idea that the land and all the world belongs to God. Private ownership of land in Israel was effectively limited, at least in theory, by the jubilee redemption and fallow laws. A similar concept is also expressly recognized by King Benjamin, who declares concerning the dust of the earth: "behold, it belongeth to him who created you" (Mosiah 2:25). The recognition of God's ownership of the earth would have been as powerfully felt on a jubilee year as at any time on the ancient Israelite calendar.
Jubilee texts. The jubilee text of Leviticus 25 compares closely with two sections of Benjamin's speech.166 Leviticus 25 reflects the words and phrases associated with the jubilee in ancient times. A considerable density of phrases and ideas from these chapters can be found in the latter portions of Mosiah 2 and 4, sufficient to indicate a textual dependency of Benjamin's words on these or similar jubilee texts. The main parallels between these passages and Benjamin's speech can be outlined as follows:
These relatively specific parallels, coupled with similarities in the overall tone and concerns of the jubilee texts and Benjamin's speech, indicate Benjamin's intense feelings about helping the poor, establishing God's covenant among his people, being conscientious in walking in the paths of righteousness, and realizing man's utter dependence on God for life and sustenance. These may well be attributable to the heightened sense of these principles felt by the ancient Israelites during the jubilee season.
A further parallel, expressing the spirit behind all sabbatical and jubilee laws, is found in Deuteronomy 15:9: "Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee." This compares closely with Benjamin's injunctions to his people to impart freely of their substance to the poor without grudging (see Mosiah 4:22–25).
A time of beginning anew. While the jubilee laws served primarily to protect the lives and real property of small individual families from the horrors of bondage and disinheritance, these provisions also expressed powerful ideological values that helped periodically to set the community back on an even keel. Ancient economies were largely unregulated. In such societies, the rich tend to get richer and the poor become steadily poorer; land ownership becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few, and debts accumulate and compound without any hope of relief coming from such modern inventions as bankruptcy laws or government subsidies.
Babylonian kings in the second millennium BC dealt with this broad economic problem by issuing special edicts at the commencement of their reign or periodically as the need arose.167 These so-called misharum decrees forgave classes of people their outstanding debts and canceled taxes, and introduced various reforms,168 thereby setting everyone in the kingdom, to an extent, back on an equal or equitable footing. This often involved the return of land or property that had been seized as collateral or was being held to produce revenue to pay off a debt.169
During its formative years, however, Israel had no kings. In the ancient Israelite world, no decrees would ever be forthcoming through the coronation edict of a generous new ruler seeking to garner political popularity, putting aside all the old obligations legitimized under his predecessor's authority in favor of giving his new administration a clean slate. Perhaps the jubilee laws were understood, in part, to fill this ancient need for periodical recalibration of Israelite economy and society. Whereas the kings of the ancient Near East reestablished their economic order at the time of their coronation and provided occasional subsequent reenactments throughout their reigns, Jehovah, the king of heaven and earth, decreed as a part of his perpetual reign that order should be regularly adjusted every seven years and then substantially re-created at the commencement of every new fifty-year cycle, approximately once in every lifetime. Obviously, religious and moral as well as economic and political purposes are served by this program.170
With this background, it is easy to imagine why King Benjamin would turn to the jubilee texts and sabbatical principles at the end of his reign and the commencement of the regency of his son Mosiah. Benjamin wanted his son to start afresh; he wanted old claims to be settled before new administrators and officers were put into office (see Mosiah 6:2), who would not necessarily know the terms of prior commitments or arrangements. Moreover, the ethical content of the jubilee strongly promoted such ideas as showing mercy (see Mosiah 4:16), forgiving indebtedness (see Mosiah 2:23), making people free (see Mosiah 5:8), proclaiming good news to the poor (see Mosiah 3:3; Isaiah 42:1–7; 61:1), settling accounts and returning borrowed property (see Mosiah 4:28), and retaining one's inheritance and favored condition (compare "retain" in Mosiah 4:12 and 26). These precepts are further bound up tightly with such theological themes as obtaining relief from one's debt to God through his mercy and goodness, being redeemed through the atonement of Christ, being held accountable at God's final judgment, and repenting and retaining a remission of forgiveness—doctrines that appear prominently in Benjamin's speech.
A time of peace. Another clue indicating that Benjamin's speech was delivered at the end of a jubilee year is found in Nephite history half a century later. Every seventh seven-year time period ideally occasioned a jubilee celebration, a time of peace. Mosiah reigned a total of thirty-three years after King Benjamin's speech (see Mosiah 29:46). Interestingly, in the sixteenth year of the reign of judges (the forty-ninth year after Benjamin's speech), "there began to be continual peace throughout all the land" (Alma 30:2). This peace lasted all through the seventeenth year of the reign of the judges (the fiftieth year); "there was continual peace" (Alma 30:5). During this time the people were especially "strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses" (Alma 30:3). Since the Hebrew word yobel (jubilee) literally means "trumpet," and indeed the jubilee was so called because it was opened with the sound of the trumpet,171 we may further conclude that Alma's wish that he might speak with the voice of "the trump of God" (Alma 29:1) is present and especially appropriate in this second identifiable jubilee season in Nephite history, as well as on the typical New Year occasion as discussed above.
The cumulative effect of all the foregoing information, in our opinion, points toward the idea that King Benjamin's speech was delivered in the fall, at the time of the year when all ancient Israelites, including peoples of the Book of Mormon, would have been celebrating their great autumn festival season, which included many ancient elements that later became enduring parts of the Jewish holidays of Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Most of the known or surmised ancient elements of these festivals are represented in the text of the Book of Mormon. A very substantial percentage of the total number of words and topics found in Benjamin's speech are clearly found in the Israelite or Jewish literature associated with these sacred observances.
The setting for King Benjamin's speech was profoundly religious. On this occasion Benjamin disclosed sacred knowledge to his people about the true nature of divine kingship, the atonement of Christ, and the judgments of God. In addition, Benjamin performed the coronation of his son Mosiah and conducted his covenant renewal celebration—the most important ceremonial day of his life. It appears that he deliberately held this sacred assembly at the holy time of the year when such events were typically performed in ancient Israel, and possibly during a sabbatical or jubilee year. Just as the Israelite traditions shed considerable light on Benjamin's words, his speech represents a Nephite version of the ancient Israelite fall celebration, and as such it may add to our understanding of preexilic Israelite religion.
Thus it may be reasonably asserted that the ancient Israelite traditions connected with these festivals provided much of the fabric from which Benjamin fashioned his presentation of many of his revealed and revealing Christian expectations. This address ranks as one of the most spiritual and humanitarian sermons ever recorded in holy books the world over. Benjamin's speech contains numerous elements pertinent to the New Year holy day, the Day of Atonement observances, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the sabbatical or jubilee year. These elements account for the vast majority of themes or topics found in Benjamin's speech.
Benjamin's speech addresses many fundamental religious principles, and none of these topics can be considered out of place in a speech delivered by a king to a group of observant Nephites during their fall festival season. When viewed in light of the holy setting of this speech, its penetrating and revealing themes shine through especially bright and clear. King Benjamin's carefully chosen words and the angel's marvelously articulated messages could hardly have been more timely.