New Book Offers Views of Jerusalem as Lehi Knew It
Nephi and his brothers referred to Jerusalem as "that great city" (1 Nephi 2:13). Their opposing views about it became a point of contention that tore Lehi's family in two, and their memories of it influenced the cultural perspective of their descendants in the New World for dozens of generations. The people known as Lamanites longed after it as a lost paradise and named one of their lands of settlement in its honor (Alma 21:1). Among the Nephites it was held up as an example of the dire consequences of unbelief (Helaman 8:20). But what was the Jerusalem of Lehi's day really like?
In its 22 essays, the new volume Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem, edited by John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, examines this question. This anthology gathers the penetrating insights of 19 scholars from varying fields on the political, religious, social, cultural, economic, and legalistic situation of Jerusalem, Judah, and the nations surrounding them in the decades before the city's destruction by the Babylonians in 587/586 B.C. The stage is nicely set by the first three articles, which present a cultural capsule of Jerusalem at the time, the cast of biblical characters Lehi might have known, and a photo essay of the city and its surroundings. From there, a multitude of scholarly tools are brought to bear on the topic, resulting in a composite picture that brings Lehi's Jerusalem vividly alive.
The reader is presented with a picture of typical home life in Jerusalem for those in the wealthier stratum of society, to which Lehi and his family belonged, with special emphasis on a woman's life at this time and on the economic concerns of men in its primarily agrarian economy. The extent and nature of literacy are examined, with particular attention being given to inscriptions from this era. These reveal a surprising degree of influence from Egypt that is not clearly documented in the Bible. Apparently, Lehi's facility with Egyptian, as well as Hebrew, was not uncommon for educated people in his time and of his social standing. Such finds as this from archaeology, paleography, and linguistics enrich the historical record and, more than incidentally, disarm those critics of the Book of Mormon who find no biblical basis for its claims of Egyptian language combined with Hebrew learning. Other influences from Egypt are also evident in the material culture of Judah emerging from archaeological digs dating to the seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.
All this portrays Jerusalem as prosperous and cosmopolitan as Laman, Lemuel, and many of its inhabitants could wish, a city favored by heaven and secure enough to stand against any enemy. In contrast, as the first chapters of the Book of Mormon reveal, Lehi and his fellow prophets saw Jerusalem as a hotbed of change, turmoil, and contention fast rushing toward its doom. Little Judah lay right in the midst of the superpowers of its day——Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia——and maintained its relative freedom through a blend of carefully crafted diplomacy and divine aid. The reader is introduced to the institutions that preserved this delicate balance: the intricacies of Judaic politics and law under the kings on the one hand and, on the other, obedience to the will of God as voiced by the prophets.
Through the examination of key aspects and events, the growing imbalance between those elements during Lehi's lifetime becomes clear. The bearing of international politics on Judah's situation, the calling and authority of the prophets and the Judahites' expectations of them, Israelite religion as practiced before the exile, the importance of the temple, the effects of the religious reforms enacted by King Josiah and the Deuteronomists, the trial of Jeremiah—all art part of the panorama in which the prophets foresaw disaster. The destruction decreed by heaven came, but not before Lehi and his family had escaped their city's fall by fleeing into the wilderness——an action not without precedent in that time period——and traveling to southern Arabia along well-used commercial routes to continue their epic journey to the New World land of promise.
Given that this volume examines a time of significant complexity——a crucial moment in the history of the world documented only by ancient writings that sometimes contradict each other and the serendipitous findings of archaeology that represent only a small fraction of the whole picture——the writers have constructed a remarkably full and detailed picture of life in Jerusalem as Lehi might have known it. As one might still expect, the incompleteness and ambiguities inherent in the evidence surface in the occasionally differing opinions expressed in these essays. For example, some take at face value the seemingly approving descriptions of Josiah's religious reforms found in the book of 2 Kings; others note the less flattering comments about Josiah in 2 Chronicles and Jeremiah and wonder if the reforms added to the tension in negative ways. The reader therefore becomes a discerner, participating in the exciting task of reconstructing Jerusalem before the exile and deciding which aspects and events may have shaped the contrasting viewpoints of Lehi's family members as they recalled their former home.
As the first book ever to deal exclusively with life in Jerusalem in the days of Lehi, this work is a welcome and timely publication for Latter-day Saints as they begin a year's study of the Book of Mormon. However, its value will certainly extend beyond a few weeks of supplementary reading as it continues to present solid, scholarly context for the words of Nephi, Jacob, and subsequent Book of Mormon prophets in reference to their Israelite origins. It will add depth and perspective to Old Testament studies as well, and its list of suggested readings provides a starting point for further research of a fascinating yet understudied period of scriptural history. As in the metaphors of Joseph of Egypt, it will enhance the reader's understanding of both the branches that run over the wall and the root from which they sprang (Genesis 49:22).