Firstlings, Sacrifices, and Burnt Offerings
In abridging the account of the Nephite gathering under King Benjamin, Mormon stated, "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). Under Mosaic law, firstlings, or firstborn animals, were dedicated to the Lord, meaning they were given to the priests, who were to sacrifice them and consume the flesh (see Exodus 13:12—15; Numbers 18:17). The exception to this rule was the firstborn lambs used for the Passover meal, which all Israel was to eat (see Exodus 12:5—7).
Mormon's statement is curious because the Nephites at that time were strict observers of the law of Moses (see 2 Nephi 5:10), yet there is no suggestion in the biblical text that firstlings were used for burnt offerings (the only sacrifice in which the entire animal was burned on the altar rather than cooked and eaten). There are, however, several possible explanations for what Mormon may have meant.
First, because the Nephites were not descendants of Aaron, there would have been no Aaronic priests to whom the firstlings could be given, in which case the Nephites would have been in a situation comparable to that of Abel. In Genesis we read that Abel, who lived long before Aaron and consequently could not deliver his sacrificial animals to the priests of that line, "brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof" and offered sacrifice to the Lord (Genesis 4:4). In the case of the Nephites, because there probably were no Aaronic priests to whom the firstlings could be given, the offerings may have been made directly to the Lord as burnt offerings, as had been done in earlier generations.
Another possible explanation lies in later rabbinical teachings. According to these traditions, there were exceptions to the usual practice of offering firstlings as outlined in the Bible. The Mishnah, written in the second century AD by Rabbi Judah the Prince and citing rabbis who lived while the temple still operated in Jerusalem, provides additional perspectives on Israelite sacrifices of that time. According to the Mishnah Zebahim 5:8 and 10:3 and Temurah 1:1, only the priests ate the firstlings, but Temurah 5 identifies several ways in which one can "evade" the law regarding firstlings. For example, Temurah 5:2 notes that in the case of twin animals, one of them becomes a burnt offering (if both are males) or a peace offering (if both are females) or need not be offered if the sexes are mixed. Thus, according to rabbinical understanding, even firstlings could on occasion be used as burnt offerings.
A third possible explanation is that the wording of Mosiah 2:3 may simply mean that in accordance with Mosaic law, the Nephites (1) brought of the firstlings of the flock to be offered in the sacrificial peace offering, and (2) they also brought other animal victims for the burnt offering. Several factors contribute to this explanation. Deuteronomy 12:5—6 indicates that the Israelites were to bring the firstlings of their flocks and herds to the temple along with other unspecified animals to fill various sacrificial and dedicatory purposes. It is noteworthy that although these verses enumerate several forms of sacrifice associated with Israelite temple worship (burnt offerings, heave offerings, freewill offerings, etc.), the only animals mentioned are firstlings, even though these could not have been used as burnt offerings. In this case, the mere reference to "burnt offerings" probably implies animals other than firstlings, even if no other animal victims are explicitly named.
Research on the Israelite sacrificial system sheds light on this interpretation. In Exodus 10:25, Moses tells Pharaoh, "Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings that we may sacrifice unto the Lord our God" (Exodus 10:25). Baruch Levine, a leading authority on Israelite sacrifice, notes that this passage refers to the burnt offering (olah-zebah) and to the peace offering (olah-shelamim). Levine also suggests that frequent references in the Old Testament to these two sacrifices should be interpreted as "a merism for the entire sacrificial system" known to ancient Israel.1 (Merismus is a literary device sometimes used in Hebrew in which an entire subject is represented by mentioning only some of its parts).2 In other words, the phrase "sacrifices and burnt offerings" (Exodus 10:25) is simply an idiom that encompasses all the various sacrificial offerings made under the law of Moses without mentioning each specifically. In light of Levine's interpretation of such biblical passages, it is reasonable to interpret Mormon's use of the phrase "sacrifices and burnt offerings" in his abridgment in a similar way.
By Matthew Roper
Resident Scholar, Maxwell Institute
Senior Research Associate, Maxwell Institute
1. Baruch Levine, In the Presence of the Lord: A Study of Cult and Some Cultic Terms in Ancient Israel (Leiden: Brill, 1974), 21—22.
2. A. M. Honeyman, "Merismus in Biblical Hebrew," Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 15.