Jewish Festivals in Zarahemla
The recent discovery of evidence in the Book of Alma of an observance of a Feast of Passover is likely to be remembered as one of the most significant finds of the year. On August 15, a good sized group met at a special F.A.R.M.S. research meeting. The discussion was led by Gordon Thomasson. The purpose was to rethink many Book of Mormon passages in light of ancient Israelite festivals, and some very striking results emerged.
There is, of course, general evidence that the Nephites celebrated the feasts required by the Law of Moses, since Alma 30:3 says that they were strict in the observance of the Law of Moses. But where does the Book of Mormon ever mention the observance of any feast by name?
While no festivals are ever mentioned explicitly, many unmistakeable clues of specific festivals were found. For example, "We've known for several years that a strong case can be made that Benjamin is observing a Feast of Tabernacles in Mosiah 1-6," states Thomasson. See, for example, John Tvedtnes' paper entitled "A Nephite Feast of Tabernacles" (available as a F.A.R.M.S. Preliminary Report).
But the evidence was found to run even deeper. For example, each Jewish festival begins with a prayer, traditionally spoken on the first night of the celebration. It is called the Shecheheyanu, and begins: "Lord God, King of the Universe, who has kept us and preserved us to read this season." If the Nephites had just uttered words such as these at the beginning of Benjamin's festival, think how very potent the words of King Benjamin must have sounded as he told those people that they were still unprofitable servants, even though one might "render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who was . . . kept and preserved you . . . that ye might live." (Mos. 2:20-21)!
The evidence became even more astonishing when the attention shifted to the possibility that Alma was observing a Feast of Passover at the time he instructed his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton, in Alma 36-42. Plentiful Passover themes and phrases were readily found: "crying out" (compare Dt. 26:7 and Alma 36:18) for "deliverance" from "affliction" (Dt. 26:6; Al. 36:3, 27) and from "bondage in Egypt" (Al. 36:28), from the "night of darkness" (Ex. 12:30, Al. 41:7) At Passover, as well as in Alma's account, a destroying angel figures prominantly, as do the three days and three nights of darkness (Ex. 10:22, Al. 36:16).
The clinching piece of information involves the three sons themselves. At Passover, Ex. 10:2 counssels fathers to gather their sons (compare Al. 35:16). Traditionally, three sons would each in turn ask their father a question. The first son asked a question about the statutes and ordinances of the Lord. The father then spoke to that son about the meaning of the law especially for future generations. For his question, this son was praised as a wise son. This could not describe any better Alma's words in Alma 37 to his wise son Helaman. The second son would ask another question, and for asking such a question tradition said he was a wicked son. The father was then to berate him for excluding himself from the community; he was to correct the son's belief in false doctrines, and was to teach the son (in a way that would set his teeth on edge) that he will be accountable for his own sins. Are these not Alma's precise words to Corianton?
Many other festivals and Book of Mormon accounts were discussed with highly promising results. Obviously, the meeting on August 15 was just a beginning. Much work remains. As a result, a new committee has been formed to search out other such links between the Book of Mormon and Israelite festivals. Watch for news as this important work progresses.