Atonement and the Temple
In 1988 Hugh W. Nibley noted that the use of terms based on the word atone (atonement, atoning, atoned, etc.), while used in the Old Testament mostly in association with rites performed in the tabernacle of Moses, clearly tied the Nephites to preexilic Israel, that is, prior to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in 587 BC. He found that most of the occurrences were "in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where they explicitly describe the original rites of the tabernacle or temple on the Day of Atonement."1
This English word is found only once in the King James version of the New Testament (at Romans 5:11) but 81 times in the Old Testament. All of these Old Testament passages are cultic in nature, and all but four of them are associated with rites performed in the tabernacle of Moses. The Book of Mormon includes 39 occurrences of atonement words,2 suggesting to Nibley a closer tie to preexilic Israel than to postexilic Israel and the New Testament, where the word occurs much less frequently. Lehi's departure from Jerusalem preceded the exile of Judah into Babylon, so it is the preexilic milieu that is reflected in the Book of Mormon.
Equally interesting, but missing in Nibley's study, is the use of the term in the early parts of the Nephite record, where Lehi uses the term once (2 Nephi 2:10), his son Nephi once (2 Nephi 25:16), and Lehi's son Jacob—the priest in charge of the temple in the city of Nephi—eight times (2 Nephi 9:7 [twice], 25—26; 10:25; Jacob 4:11—12; 7:12). The first five occurrences of Jacob's use of the term appear in his covenant speech, presumably given at the temple (see 2 Nephi 6:2; 9:1). Two others (Jacob 4:11—12) clearly appear in a temple discourse (see Jacob 1:17; 2:2, 11). Significantly, King Benjamin used the term seven times in his sermon at the temple in the city of Zarahemla (Mosiah 3:11, 15—16, 18—19; 4:6—7), and the people used it once in their response to him (Mosiah 4:2). Another main user of atonement terminology was Alma, who was the high priest at the time he invoked this term seven times in Alma 13, 33, 36, and 42, while his companion Amulek spoke the word six times in Alma 34.
Thus the use of atonement terminology by the first generations of Lehi's family, together with its continued connection to the temple, places the concept in its proper ceremonial context and provides further weight to Nibley's suggestion that the use of these terms is evidence that the Book of Mormon correctly reflects its origins in the religious world of preexilic Israel.
By John A. Tvedtnes
Senior resident scholar, FARMS
1. See Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Atonement," in his Approaching Zion, ed. Don E. Norton (1989), 566—67. Nibley's paper was originally presented on 10 November 1988 as part of a lecture series sponsored by Deseret Book and FARMS.
2. The figures presented here were obtained by means of a computer search of the scriptures. Nibley did not have access to the electronic version of the scriptures and consequently erred in his count. He wrote that the atonement words appeared 127 times in the Old Testament (5 of them outside the Pentateuch) and only once in the New Testament, in the epistle to the Hebrews. In reality, the word's sole appearance in the KJV New Testament is in Paul's epistle to the Romans (5:11).