The following two abstracts summarize papers recently received by FARMS. The complete papers, including surveys of the literature and exhaustive examples, provide interesting insights into otherwise perplexing aspects of the Book of Mormon.
"Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East, Old Testament, and Book of Mormon," by Mark J.Morrise.
In this paper, Mark studies the use of the simile curse, a special form of malediction found in ancient Near Eastern documents and related texts. "Just as this wax is burned by fire, so shall Arpad be burned." This example of a simile curse appears in an Aramaic treaty of about 750 B.C. Book of Mormon readers will immediately hear echoes in the treaty between Moroni's army and the dissident followers of Zerahemnah: "Even as this scalp has fallen to the earth . . . so shall ye fall to the earth except ye will deliver up your weapons of war and depart with a covenant of peace." (Alma 44: 14)
Using the system outlined by D. R. Hillers in his "Treaty Curses and the Old Testament Prophets," Mark points out that the cursing/blessing section of a treaty was one of its six standard parts. Such curses were important because they were often the only enforcement mechanism of the treaty short of military measures.
While Ancient Near Eastern treaties contained several kinds of curses, the most interesting are simile curses which seem to have been accompanied by a ritual. For instance, one treaty curse apparently was recited while a ram's head was torn off in token of the same event befalling the covenanting king should he break the treaty. Other curses had once been accompanied by rituals but had since become largely literary.
The Old Testament contains many curses. Nevertheless, it is comparatively rare to find a simile curse as part of covenants in the Pentateuch. It is more common to find the decree type of curse that describes the consequences for wrong-doing ("Cursed be he that removes his neighbor's landmark," Deut. 27: 17); or the futility curse ("you'll betroth a wife but another will bed her," Deut. 28: 30). One ritual simile curse is found in Jer. 34:18 (transgressors of the covenant will become like "the calf which they cut in two").
The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, maintains a vivid affinity to the ancient Near Eastern simile curse. Beside the more comrnon use of similes in prophetic teachings ("the life of King Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace"), the ritual simile curse appears several times: Alma 44:14, with the scalp example already cited; Mosiah 5:14, when a strange animal is "cast out" of the flock as the disobedient person will be; Alma 46:12-27, with the symbolic rending of garments as Moroni establishes the title of liberty; and in 3 Nephi 4:28-29, with the felling of a tree on which a rebel leader has been hanged. Unlike many Near Eastern curses, these Book of Mormon curses identify God as the agent. They are not magic spells.
Even though ritual simile curses seem strange in the context of our culture, their appearance in the Book of Mormon is another indication of Near Eastern influence upon it.
"A Comparison of the Use of the Oath in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon," by Roy Johnson.
The use of the oath, a covenant/curse combination, appears in many ancient cultures including those of the Israelite and Book of Mormon peoples. Roy concludes that its importance can be understood only on two assumptions ancient people made about the oath: that it was irrevocable, and that God himself would enforce the oath. Sometimes the oath included the types of rituals discussed in the paper above. However, a more frequent form was the use of the oath formula which specifies the power being sworn by and the actions being sworn to.
The power element in oaths in Israel's culture was nearly always a variation of "As the Lord liveth. . ." (Sometimes an attribute of God, a holy object such as the temple, or a powerful substitute for God such as the king or priest would also appear). A common but erroneous interpretation of this expression is to read it as: "It is true that God lives and it is also equally true that I will do X." Instead, the purpose of this phrase is to invoke as a living presence to witness the sincerity of the statement but even more importantly to punish anyone who dared bring "the abomination of a lie into contact with the sacred name of God."
Israelites commonly accompanied their oaths with gestures -- most commonly raising the right hand or both hands to God. Even God uses this formula. In two cases, the head of a clan (Abraham and Isaac) required an oath-taker to place his hand "under the thigh" of the leader -- an oath gesture still used among Arabs -- and swear under penalty of being cut off from the family. There is no record, incidentally, of either kind of oath gesture being used in the Book of Mormon.
During Old Testament times there were heavy restrictions against swearing falsely but apparently few other restraints. Swearing in the name of the Lord was a sign of righteousness, actually commanded by the Lord as a sign of commitment. (Deut. 10:20). Later, oaths in the name of the Lord were forbidden except in judicial proceedings.
Roy finds that Book of Mormon peoples shared several common understandings with their Old Testament counterparts. The irrevocability and power of the oath is seen when Zoram is completely reassured by Nephi's oath that he will not be harmed; the Anti-Nephi-Lehis are willing to be slaughtered rather than break their oath, etc. Similarly, they frequently used the formula "as the Lord liveth," and the Lord also swears by himself. Another interesting resemblance is swearing "as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt" or something similar, which appears in both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon.
Christ told his disciples on both continents to "swear not at all" -- and specified that they should not swear by the heavens or the earth. Later we see Nephites falling into great wickedness shortly before their destruction and swearing "by the heavens. . ., and also by the throne of God" to go to battle. Mormon promptly refuses to lead them any longer because "they had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." It is evident that the Lord's injunctions were taken very seriously by the righteous. When Mormon took up the leadership of the armies again, he "repent[ed] of the oath which I had made." Since the righteous oath is generally held to be irrevocable, this reference is somewhat puzzling. Both the Talmud and Arab custom, however, provide for the release from an oath at the discretion of the person to whom the oath is made.
An important variation of the oath formula is Nephi's use of the oath "as I live." He makes this oath once to his brethren who are anxious to stop trying for Laban's plates and once to Zoram. This forrmula does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament but is a proper Arabic usage. An oath "as I live" says "expel me from the clan if I don't keep this promise," which is a fitting representation in the context of Nephi's promise to give Zoram a place in the family or clan of Lehi. (1 Ne. 4:32-34).
Several drafts of papers have come in since the last Newsletter. A paper by Blake T. Ostler, "The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi," is particularly promising.
Several working papers emerged fram John Sorenson's course on Archeaology and the Book of Mormon, taught last fall at BYU. These studies compare Book of Momon customs and Meso-American equivalents. FARMS Archives have retained papers on hand-held weapons by Janet K. Williamson, on diseases and curses, and wounds and healing by Camron Wright, on the art of war by Scott McKee, on fortifications by Maurice Hason, on religious similarities by Bruce Goodmansen, and on foods by Cookie Clove.
Thirty-seven other papers were written by students in Jack Welch's course on Ancient Legal Systems in the Scriptures, taught at the BYU Law School also last fall. These papers spanned a broad range of topics in Ancient Near Eastern and Book of Mormon legal institutions, law and theology, the ancient administration of justice, crimes and punishments, and civil laws. Many of these papers will be appearing in coming months as FARMS Preliminary Reports.
Report from San Francisco Region
Diane E. Wirth, regional coordinator for FARMS in the San Francisco Bay area says she is "delighted" with her association and "looks forward to its growth among both LDS and non-LDS communities." She sees a particularly fertile field among non-LDS scholars of diffusion -- the concept of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages.
As she has talked about FARMS, she finds that LDS listeners often want to be reassured, "Are they on the up-and-up? Are they supportive of Church doctrine?" Diane has found the July 1981 Newsletter useful to let people know who is in charge and that FARMS has both the spiritual and academic dimensions of the Book of Momon at heart.
Diane's own interest in the Book of Mormon cultural background came from discussions with her nonMormon husband. She began studying available information about the white and bearded God of the Arrericas which, in turn, led to research into the theory of diffusion. She summarized her findings after five years in a self-published book, Discoveries of the Truth, and through articles and papers for Pursuit, the journal of the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained and at symposia on the archaeology of the scriptures at BYU in 1977 and 1979.
"Let's face it," says Diane, "not all LDS members are enthusiastic about archaeology and the scriptures, but those of us who are can get others excited about it. Even if they aren't interested in archaeology as such, they may still be interested in the topic of cultural similarities. I'm going to tell others about FARMS in hopes that news of this organization will reach those who can benefit from the work, energy, and time many scholars are devoting to these special research projects."
Diane can be reached at 3 Buckeye Lane, Danville, CA 94526, (415) 820-5312.