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Old World Themes, Parallels and Customs in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon—another testament of Jesus Christ—is a record of the peoples who lived in the ancient Americas. However, the story begins in ancient Jerusalem with the prophet Lehi, who was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah. Thus, the Book of Mormon—including and especially the accounts of Lehi and his family—are filled with elements of the Old World.

Like Jeremiah, Lehi warned the people to repent, but they would not listen, and instead tried to kill him. Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said of Lehi:

Initially his was a voice of warning, but after faithfully declaring the same message as Jeremiah, Lehi was commanded by the Lord to take his family and depart into the wilderness.

Eventually, Lehi and his family made it to the seashore, crossed the ocean and landed in the Americas, establishing their own civilization in the New World. Modern scholars provide an interesting perspective in the study of the Book of Mormon as it bridges the Old World and the New through the writings and travels of Lehi and his family.

 

Lehi’s Journey into the Wilderness

The Old World themes in the Book of Mormon begin almost immediately—with the flight of Lehi and his family into the wilderness. The late Hugh Nibley, a Mormon scholar, wrote:

That a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem should leave the land of his inheritance at a moment’s notice and with no more substantial incitement than a dream may seem at first blush highly improbable, to say the least. Yet … in taking his sudden departure Lehi was doing not only the sensible but also the ordinary thing. From the earliest times to the present day the correct thing to do when going got rough in the cities and states of the Near East was simply to take off and seek the security of the desert. Sinuhe, a high official at the court of Amenemhet I, fearing a palace revolution on the death of the king, rushed impulsively out into the night and the desert, where he would have perished of thirst had he not been picked up by some friendly Arabs who traded with Egypt. His story, thirteen hundred years older than Lehi’s, illustrates the ease with which men passed between the desert and the town, and shows us how natural was the impulse to take to the sands in a crisis.

The fact that Lehi was prepared to leave at a moment’s notice also lends credence to his background. Nibley wrote:

There is ample evidence in the Book of Mormon that Lehi was an expert on caravan travel, as one might expect. Consider a few general points. Upon receiving a warning dream, he is ready apparently at a moment’s notice to take his whole “family, and provisions, and tents” out into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:4). While he took absolutely nothing but the most necessary provisions with him, he knew exactly what those provisions should be, and when he had to send back to the city to supply unanticipated wants, it was for records that he sent and not for any necessaries for the journey. This argues a high degree of preparation and knowledge in the man, as does the masterly way in which he established a base camp in order to gather his forces for the great trek, in the best manner of modern explorers in Arabia.

The journey was not without challenges—one of the greatest being the complaints and rebellion of Lehi’s oldest sons. But even the complaints of Laman, Lemuel and other family members are telling. Nibley explained:

His family accuse Lehi of folly in leaving Jerusalem and do not spare his personal feelings in making fun of his dreams and visions, yet they never question his ability to lead them. They complain, like all Arabs, against the terrible and dangerous deserts through which they pass, but they do not include ignorance of the desert among their hazards, though that would be their first and last objection to his wild project were the old man nothing but a city Jew unacquainted with the wild and dangerous world of the waste places.

Examining what is—and is not—said provides insight into the story of Lehi.

 

‘And My Father Dwelt in a Tent’

Lehi and his family lived in a tent.

The ancient Book of Mormon prophet Lehi and his family fled into the wilderness, living in tents.

Nearly every reader of the Book of Mormon has, at one time or another, wondered about this short verse in 1 Nephi 2:15. However, Nibley explains that this verse is highly significant. He wrote:

To an Arab, “My father dwelt in a tent” says everything. “The present inhabitants of Palestine,” writes [Taufik] Canaan, “like their forefathers, are of two classes: dwellers in villages and cities, and the Bedouin. As the life and habits of the one class differ from those of the other, so do their houses differ. Houses in villages are built of durable material; . . . on the other hand, Bedouin dwellings, tents, are more fitted for nomadic life.”

… So with the announcement that his “father dwelt in a tent,” Nephi serves notice that he had assumed the desert way of life, as perforce he must for his journey. Any easterner would appreciate the significance and importance of the statement, which to us seems almost trivial.

This simple statement speaks volumes about how Lehi and his family are familiar with the desert and its customs. And, interestingly, Nephi seems to take it for granted that the reader will also understand the importance of his statement.

 

What’s in a Name?

Lehi and his family camped

During their journey to the Promised Land, Lehi often named places after family members, which is an ancient custom among nomadic travelers.

As Lehi and his family journey through the wilderness, Lehi names the places they visit. This also was a custom typical of the culture. Noel B. Reynolds, professor of political science and president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, wrote:

Lehi and his party, like other nomads of the Arabian peninsula, often named the places they visited in their travels, particularly their long-term campsites. Some places had already been named, of course, like Jerusalem and the Red Sea, but other places did not have universally recognized names. Lehi named a river after Laman and a valley after Lemuel, and when they finally arrived at the seashore, he named the spot Bountiful for its “much fruit” and the sea Irreantum, or “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). But Ishmael was buried “in the place which was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:34), suggesting that the location had already been named.

Many places had more than one name. As Mormon scholar S. Kent Brown explained:

… Landmarks and important places received names from both local residents and from traveling caravanners. These names were never the same because the places in question meant different things to these individuals, depending on the function and importance of the landmarks or depending on an event that occurred there.

Nephi recorded the names that his father gave to the locations because of the spiritual significance to the group.

 

Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life

The prophet Lehi is a “visionary man.” It is because of these visions that Lehi takes his family into the wilderness to spare their lives. During his sojourn into the wilderness, Lehi had a vision of the tree of life, which is rich in imagery as well as Old World themes and parallels. In his dream, Lehi saw:

  • A great and spacious building (see 1 Nephi 11:35–36; 12:18),
  • A path following a river (see 1 Nephi 8:19–22),
  • A mist of darkness (see 1 Nephi 12:16–17),
  • An iron rod which led through the mist of darkness (see 1 Nephi 11:24–25),
  • The tree of life, “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10; see 1 Nephi 11:8–9, 21–24).
  • Great multitudes of people “pressing forward” (1 Nephi 8:21) toward the tree.

Interestingly, Lehi and his story have a parallel in at least one ancient text. LDS Scholar John Welch tells of a Christian writing titled “The Narrative of Zosimus,” which dates to the time of Christ or earlier. Originally written in Hebrew, the first modern appearance of this ancient writing was a Russian translation from an Old Church Slavonic text dating back to the 1870s—40 years after the Book of Mormon was first published.

According to LDS Scholar Michael Ash, Welch’s findings are notable:

The “Narrative of Zosimus” … tells of a righteous family that God had led away from Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Babylonians around 600 B.C. and how this group escaped to a land of blessedness where they kept records on metal plates soft enough to be inscribed by their fingernails. In the story, Zosimus was allowed to visit these people in vision. In order to get to their land, he had to journey through the wilderness, pass through impenetrable mists of darkness, cross the ocean, and come to a tree that bore pure fruit and gave forth water sweet as honey and was the fountain of living waters.

Other similarities include being greeted by an escort, being interrogated as to desires, beholding a vision of the Son of God, receiving revelations concerning the wickedness of the people of Jerusalem, and yet obtaining assurances of the mercy to be extended to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. A few parallels might be counted as lucky guesses, but such numerous parallels suggest some sort of connection between the Book of Mormon and the world from which it claims to have derived.

But that is not the end of the similarities in ancient writings. Ash continued:

We now know … of similar motifs— dating to the fifth through third century B.C.— from Italy, Sicily, Crete and Macedonia which depict the dead wandering through a world of darkness in search of a white cypress tree. Non-Mormon commentators agree that the cypress tree represents the tree of life and that this mythology most likely originated in Egypt.

But the parallel to ancient narratives is just the beginning to the Old World themes in Lehi’s vision. In addition to these parallels, at least one scholar finds other similarities in Lehi’s narration of his dream. Brown wrote:

The dream is also true to other cultural and geographical dimensions of the family’s world. For example, Lehi’s dream began in “a dark and dreary wilderness” wherein Lehi and a guide walked “in darkness” for “many hours” (1 Nephi 8:4, 8). Plainly, they were walking at night, the preferred time for traveling through the hot desert. Further, when Lehi reached the tree that grew in “a large and spacious field”—which field is different from the wilderness—he partook of the fruit of the tree and then looked for his family, apparently expecting to see them (see vv. 9, 12–14). This sort of detail meshes with the custom of family travel in the Near East, with the father going as a vanguard to look for danger and for food while the mother and younger children follow. When there are other adult members in a clan or family, the males form a rear guard, as did Laman and Lemuel in this set of scenes (vv. 17–18). Hence, in the dream Lehi was evidently not alone with the guide as they traveled. His family members were following him, but at a safe distance as custom required.

 

Old World Themes and Symbolism

The rod of iron, the great and spacious building and the tree of life and its fruit all have roots in the ancient world. British scholar Margaret Barker, who is a Methodist preacher and president of the Society for Old Testament Study, explains the significance of the iron rod. Typically, she notes, biblical rods represent rulership, but a more accurate symbol would be a shepherd’s rod as a symbol for guidance. She said:

Lehi’s vision has the iron rod guiding people to the great tree. [This is] the older and probably the original understanding of the word (rod).

The great and spacious building also has significance. Nibley explained:

When Lehi dreams of the vanity of the world, he sees “a large and spacious building,” suspended in the air out of reach and full of smart and finely dressed people (1 Nephi 12:18; 8:26). That is exactly how the Bedouin of the desert, to whom the great stone houses of the city are an abomination, pictures the wicked world; and as the city Arabs still mock their desert cousins (whom they secretly envy) with every show of open contempt, so the well-dressed people in the big house “were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers” (1 Nephi 8:27) at the poor little band of bedraggled wanderers, hungrily eating fruit from a tree, and duly abashed that their poverty should be put to open shame. One is reminded by Lehi’s imagery of the great stone houses of the ancient Arabs, “ten- and twelve-story skyscrapers that . . . represent genuine survivals of ancient Babylonian architecture,” with their windows beginning, for the sake of defense, fifty feet from the ground. At night these lighted windows would certainly give the effect of being suspended above the earth.

Perhaps the most common Old World theme is the tree of life itself. C. Wilfred Griggs, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, wrote:

The Book of Mormon brought the tree of life to our attention long before modern scholarship revealed how common the tree was in ancient history. The symbol of that tree pervades the art and literature of every Mediterranean culture from centuries before the time of Lehi until well after the time of Moroni. This fact, and the fact that Lehi and Nephi portrayed the spiritual meaning of that symbol much the same way other ancient cultures portrayed it, demonstrates that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text….

In addition to the tree of life, the fruit of the tree is a common theme in ancient writings. Barker explained that in ancient traditions, the purpose of the tree of life is to make one happy and the fruit is described as “beautiful, fiery” and much “like white grapes.” She wrote:

Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy.

The fruit of the tree of life is also found in ancient Egyptian culture. Griggs wrote:

Egyptian coffin covers often depict the deceased eating and drinking from a tree of life, out of which is growing the goddess Nut. She pours drink from a pitcher and offers food from a tray to a man, who needs nourishment as he wanders through the dark netherworld.

Many other Egyptian artifacts show divine beings refreshing the pharaohs with the fruit of the tree of life. A pond or stream of sacred water often lies near or under the tree, with the god of writing, Thoth, inscribing the name of the king on the tree. In all these examples, partaking of the fruit of the tree is a sacramental act, one that symbolizes unity with the gods; hence, the fruit is not available to mortals in the normal course of daily life but can be found only in the rituals relating to eternity.

Lehi’s dream of the tree of life also symbolizes a unity with God—partaking of the love of God.

 

Nephi and His Asherah

Upon hearing of his father’s dream, Lehi’s son, Nephi, “desired to know the things that my father had seen” (1 Nephi 11:1). Nephi also received a vision of the tree of life, but his is an expanded version. Like his father, Nephi also has a guide. When Nephi asks to know the interpretation of the tree of life, he is shown the virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. When the guide asks if Nephi understands, Nephi answers, “Yea, it is the love of God, … wherefore it is desirable above all other things.” (See 1 Nephi 11:11-22.) Mormon scholar Daniel Peterson explained:

Clearly, the answer to his question about the meaning of the tree lies in the virgin mother with her child. It seems, in fact, that the virgin is the tree in some sense. Even the language used to describe her echoes that used for the tree. Just as she was “exceedingly fair and white,” “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins,” so was the tree’s beauty “far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” Significantly, though, it was only when she appeared with a baby and was identified as “the mother of the Son of God” that Nephi grasped the tree’s meaning.

How does Nephi make the connection between a sacred tree and Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ? The answer lies in an ancient Israelite tradition. Citing Peterson’s research, Ash wrote:

Despite most people’s perception of the ancient Israelites, modern scholars recognize that the Israelites were not typically monotheistic (they didn’t believe in a single God). For many years under the reign of the judges, many Israelites worshipped a female virgin deity— a consort to God— by the name of Asherah. …

So popular and important was Asherah during Israelite history that “an image or symbol of Asherah stood in Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem for nearly two-thirds of its existence.” The image had a female body from the waist up and a single column from the waist down. The top half represented her maternal nurturing powers; the single column represented a tree trunk. Asherah was not only associated with the sacred tree of life but was, in fact, considered to be the tree of life. Likewise, the Menorah— the seven-branch candle that stood for centuries in the Jerusalem temple— is said to represent a stylized almond tree that, at certain points in its life cycle, was radiantly white. The Greek word almond likely derives from a Hebrew term that means “Great Mother.”

Thus, Nephi’s understanding stemmed from his knowledge of the Asherah. Ash continued:

Mary was a perfect mortal typification of Asherah— she was a virgin, fair (“white”), and the mother of the most joyous thing in the world.

While Mary is not Asherah, it’s easy to see how Nephi’s culture would have prepared him to understand such an interpretation. … Methodist scholar Margaret Barker observed that both Nephi’s vision and ancient Near Eastern traditions symbolized the tree as the Heavenly Mother.

These are just a few examples of Old World themes, parallels and customs found in the Book of Mormon. And they provide insight and background in the study of this ancient text.

 

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