Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nets of Belial in the Book of Mormon


One of the themes that runs throughout post-exilic Jewish literature is a persistent charge of corruption levied against the religious elite by minority sects of Judaism. The texts authored and preserved at Qumran, for example, repeatedly charge the priestly class in Jerusalem with committing specific sins inspired by Belial (the name used commonly in Qumran texts to refer to the leader of evil forces). The accusations are frequently articulated using the imagery of snares, pits, traps, and nets. And the sins in question are frequently the same: fornication, pursuit of riches, and polluting the sanctuary. But the pattern encompasses more than just the Qumran separatists. The same theme is found in other texts of Second Temple Judaism and is even thought to surface in early Christianity. Using similar terminology, these same specific accusations against a corrupt priestly class are seen frequently in the Book of Mormon. The convergence of patterns is intriguing and could indicate that concerns about these specific sins have a common origin in the situation among the priestly class in Jerusalem at the time of the exile.

Nets of Belial in the Texts of Second Temple Judaism

The Damascus Document (4Q265-73, 5Q12, and 6Q15) is one of the key texts of the Qumran community. The authors, who place their origin in Damascus (most likely Babylon) shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, frequently cite Isaiah and reinterpret key texts like Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and others. Specifically, the Damascus Document (CD) charges the priests at the Jerusalem temple with three sins, using Isaiah 24:7 as the foundation: “Fear (pachad), and the pit (pachath), and the snare (pach), are upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth.” Isaiah's alliterative use of these three terms (pachad, pachath, and pach – fear, pit, and the snare) is interpreted as calling attention to three sins that the authors refer to as 'the three nets of Belial': “The first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is profanation of the Temple” (CD 4:17). Other Qumran texts, such as the Psalms Pesher (4Q171, 2:9-12), talk of the “snares of Belial” using the same word (pach) as the verse in Isa 24.

The first net in the CD is fornication. In a departure from the usual definition, the authors refer to fornication as taking plural wives and concubines (4:20-5:5). A similar injunction against polygamy is found in the Temple Scroll (11QT, 57:17-18).

The second net, pit, or snare, called simply “riches,” refers to lusting after wealth. This is also found throughout the Qumran corpus, with the Habakkuk Pesher containing allusions to “robbing the poor,” and “gathering riches,” while the Psalms Pesher (4Q171) also refers to wealth as a “snare of Belial” (e.g., 2:9-12). The Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) call wealth a snare or pit (e.g, 1QHodayot 11:25-27). In the Quram community, “the disposition of wealth is one of the key criteria for distinguishing the faithful cohort from the devilish assembly.”[1] The CD later pairs the nets of wealth and fornication together: “They are all of them rebels, for they have not turned from the way of traitors but have wallowed in the ways of whoredom and wicked wealth” (8:4-5).

The third net or snare in the CD is defiling the sanctuary. The authors contend that sacred space is violated when its guardian priests commit immoral acts that basically consist of the first two nets--sexual or economic sins. The CD mentions sexual sins committed by priests that pollute the sanctuary (4:20, 5:6-9). And the charges of priestly bribery, thievery, greed, property crimes and other economic immoral acts are compounded throughout the corpus in a leitmotif of priestly defilement and pollution of the temple.[2]

Other Qumran scrolls pair some of these charges together as well. In the Angels of Mastemoth and the Rule of Belial (4Q390), God tells his people why the “rule of Belial” is upon them:

Seventy years from the day when they broke the [Law and the] Covenant, I will give them [into the power of the An]gels of Mastemoth, who will rule them, and they will neither know nor understand that I am angry at them because of their rebellion, [because they aban]doned Me and did what was evil in My eyes, and because they chose what displeases Me, overpowering others for the sake of Riches and profiteering . . . They will rob their neigh[b]ors and oppress one another and defile My Temple . . . and My festivals . . . through [their] children they will pollu[te] their seed. (Frag 2, col 1, 6-10).

Other texts of Second Temple Judaism echo these charges. One of the dominant themes of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs involves the sons of Jacob explaining the 'nets of deceit' as prophesied in the Book of Enoch to their descendants. These nets involve a love of money, lust for women, and defiling the sanctuary and their priesthood. Levi tells his gathered family what his father taught him: “Be on guard against the spirit of promiscuity, for it is constantly active and through your descendants it is about to defile the sanctuary” (T. Levi, 9:9-10). He later gets more specific about the three sins:

And now, my children, I know from the writings of Enoch that in the end-time you will act impiously against the Lord, setting your hands to every evil deed . . . You plunder the Lord's offerings; from his share you steal choice parts, contemptuously eating them with whores. You teach the Lord's commands out of greed for grain; married women you profane; you have intercourse with whores and adulteresses. You take gentile women for your wives and your sexual relations will become like Sodom and Gomorrah . . . Therefore the sanctuary which the Lord chose shall become desolate through your uncleanness, and you will be captives in all the nations.
(T. Levi, 14:1–15:2)

Levi ends by pleading for his children not to choose the “works of Beliar” (19:1). Judah spends many chapters on the evils of sexual promiscuity, after which he tells them: “For in the books of Enoch the Righteous I have read the evil things you will do in the last days. Guard yourselves therefore, my children, against sexual promiscuity and love of money” (T. Judah, 18:1-3). Dan says something similar: “I read in the Book of Enoch the Righteous that your prince is Satan and that all the spirits of sexual promiscuity and of arrogance devote attention to the sons of Levi in the attempt to observe them closely and cause them to commit sin before the Lord” (T. Dan, 5:6; see also T. Naphtali, chs. 3-4; T. Asher, ch. 7; T. Benjamin, ch. 9).

The Book of Jubilees picks up the same theme with similar language that describes three sins in the context of priestly angels involved in fornication:

For it was on account of these three things that the flood was on the earth, since (it was) due to fornication that the Watchers had illicit intercourse—apart from the mandate of their authority—with women. When they married of them whomever they chose they committed the first (acts) of uncleanness.
(Jubilees 7:21)

In the NT, Paul mentions Belial's opposition to Christ in the context of being holy temples of God and coming out from among the wicked and touching not the unclean thing (2 Cor 6:15-17). Several scholars tie Paul's usage to a continuation of the 'net' or 'snare' pattern running from Philo and Qumran into early Christianity.[3] Others see similarities between Paul's statement in Ephesians 5:3 (“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints”) and the CD's 'three nets of Belial'.[4] Still others make a comparison between these three nets and Satan's tempting of Christ in the wilderness.[5]

Pits and Snares in the Book of Mormon

I believe that this pattern of specific charges is repeated frequently in the Book of Mormon. Jacob (Jacob 2‒3) and Abinidi (Mosiah 11–17) make these accusations using similar terminology, while you can see the same theme in the visions and sermons of Nephi (1 Ne 13, 2 Ne 28), Alma (Alma 31), Nephi son of Helaman (Hel 7), and Mormon (Mormon 8). The chapters indicated include specific instances where (usually in the temple) the priestly class is charged with fornication, (whoredoms, plural wives, and concubines), and searching after riches. The third net or snare (pollution of the temple) is never directly addressed in these contexts, although it could be underlying Jacob's sermon.

1. Jacob’s Sermon at the Temple

Sometime after the death of Nephi, wickedness sets in among his people. Jacob catalogs the main sins as taking plural wives and concubines and searching after riches (Jacob 1:15‒16). The next day, Jacob denounces these very problems as the people are gathered in the temple. In Jacob 2:12–22 he addresses the latter:
12 And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully.
13 And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
14 And now, my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. But he condemneth you, and if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you.
(Jacob 2:12–14)

Then he transitions to their grosser crimes of plural marriage, calling it a ‘whoredom’:
23 But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son.
24 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.
(Jacob 2:23–24)

While the women and children are present, Jacob appears to be only addressing the men. Are these men part of a priestly class working at the temple, or is he addressing the entire believing population? While not explicitly mentioning pollution of the sanctuary, Jacob does reference purity and being cleansed from blood in the temple (Jacob 2:2). The context seems to be one of the autumnal ingathering festival that would necessarily involve the priestly question of who can ascend the holy hill and participate in ritual in the Lord's house.[6]

2. Abinidi and the Priests of King Noah

After his conversion, Alma the Elder tells his people about his previous sins: “But remember the iniquity of king Noah and his priests; and I myself was caught in a snare, and did many things which were abominable in the sight of the Lord” (Mosiah 23:9). By extension, Alma here refers to King Noah’s iniquity as a snare, which is similar to the snare, pit, or net terminology used in the Qumran texts. What is this snare of King Noah?

1. He had “many wives and concubines” and committed many “whoredoms and all manner of wickedness” (Mosiah 11:2).

2. Noah “laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed” (Mosiah 11:3) in order to “support himself, and his wives and his concubines” (Mosiah 11:4)

3. He put away the proper priests (Mosiah 11:5) and engaged in idolatry (Mosiah 11:6–7).

The first two mentioned are re-emphasized several times. For example, the narrator tells us that Noah “placed his heart upon his riches, and he spent his time in riotous living with his wives and his concubines; and so did also his priests spend their time with harlots” (Mosiah 11:14). Another time he is charged with the same thing by Abinidi:
29 Why do ye set your hearts upon riches? Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots, yea, and cause this people to commit sin, that the Lord has cause to send me to prophesy against this people, yea, even a great evil against this people?
(Mosiah 12:29)

Abinidi informs us that it is the Devil who entices us towards these sins (cf. Mosaiah 16:3, among others) and tells those of the corrupt priestly class that they will be scattered as a result of their wickedness (Mosiah 17:17).

3. The Great and Abominable Church

Nephi sees the formation of a great and abominable church comprised of a corrupt priestly class pursuing riches, fornication, and persecution of the saints:
6 And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it.
7 And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots.
8 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots, are the desires of this great and abominable church.
(1 Nephi 13:6–8)

The Devil is the founder of this church and will result in the scattering and destruction of those who belong to it. During the vision, the traps laid for the saints by the great and abominable church are compared to a pit (type of snare or trap):
3 And that great pit, which hath been digged for them by that great and abominable church, which was founded by the devil and his children, that he might lead away the souls of men down to hell—yea, that great pit which hath been digged for the destruction of men shall be filled by those who digged it, unto their utter destruction
(1 Nephi 14:3)

See also 2 Nephi 8:1, 14 and 2 Nephi 24:15,19 for additional pit terminology. In several of these, the pit is identified as hell.

4. Nephi sees the Condition of the Last Days

Nephi tells us that in the last days the priestly class and their churches would become corrupt and lifted up with pride (2 Nephi 28:11-12). Among several sins, the lust after riches resulting in the rejection of the poor is emphasized. Whoredoms are also listed:
13 They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.
14 They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.
15 O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!
(2 Nephi 28:13–15)

It is the evil one who lures people into these traps (2 Ne 28:20–23).

5. Alma and the Zoramites.

The Zoramites have separated themselves from the Nephites, building their own synagogues and raised pulpits (the Rameumpton) from which to pray. Alma sees that they are a “wicked and a perverse people; yea, he saw that their hearts were set upon gold, and upon silver, and upon all manner of fine goods” (Alma 31:24). He elaborates further:
28 Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, and their ringlets, and their bracelets, and their ornaments of gold, and all their precious things which they are ornamented with; and behold, their hearts are set upon them
(Alma 31:28)

It is while Alma is here that his son Corianton (part of Alma's priestly contingent) chases after the harlot Isabel, who did “steal the hearts of many” ('many' presumably referring to Zoramites; see Alma 39:3-4). Corianton follows her to a border region with the Lamanites (“Land of Siron”), but part of this must have taken place among the Zoramites, for they see his conduct (v 11). Alma tells his son: “Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world” (v. 14). These sins are attributed to the devil: “Suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots” (v. 11).

6. Nephi, son of Helaman

Nephi, son of Helaman, describes the wickedness of his day. He charges the ruling authority with getting gain and committing adultery, using Nets of Belial imagery:
4 And seeing the people in a state of such awful wickedness, and those Gadianton robbers filling the judgment-seats—having usurped the power and authority of the land; laying aside the commandments of God, and not in the least aright before him; doing no justice unto the children of men;
5 Condemning the righteous because of their righteousness; letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money; and moreover to be held in office at the head of government, to rule and do according to their wills, that they might get gain and glory of the world, and, moreover, that they might the more easily commit adultery, and steal, and kill, and do according to their own wills--
(Helaman 7:4)

Nephi tells us that it is the evil adversary who is leading them in these sins (Helaman 7:16). He later repeats the charge of economic lust (Hel 7:21; “that ye might get gold and silver”), and the accusation of fornication comes soon after (Hel 8:26).

7. Mormon describes the last days

Mormon uses the word ‘pollution’ many times to describe the corrupt priests in the last days. He talks of “great pollutions upon the face of the earth” (Mormon 8:31) that have polluted their churches (8:36). In one verse he further talks about polluting the sanctuary in a way reminiscent of the third net of Belial: “O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” (Mormon 8:38). These religious elites (priestly hypocrites) would be fixated on “whoredoms, and all manner of abominations” (8:31), offer forgiveness of sins for money (Mormon 8:32), build churches to get gain (8:33), and love money and substance more than the poor and needy (8:37).


The Book of Mormon originates with a priestly remnant fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BCE, shortly before its destruction due to altercations with Jerusalem's ruling elite. In contrast, most of the Second Temple texts cited have a final form closer to the common era. The Damascus Document, for example, generally dates to Palestine from 100–50 BCE, and most scholars understand the corruption charges in it to be levied against the Hasmonian priestly line. (Robert Eisenman, in a series of articles and books, however, makes a good case for a Herodian milieu.) However, most of these documents claim an earlier provenance for themselves. The CD's own introduction, for example, tells the story of a priestly remnant of Jerusalem determined to make a new covenant in the land of Damscus after Jerusalem has been destroyed, because the first covenant was not kept by Jerusalem's corrupt priestly class (see ch. 1). Some scholars argue that the CD group itself was formed in Babylon after the exile, while others, like Boccaccini, argue that it is the pattern or motif of accusations that have its locus there.[7] That the 'Nets of Belial' pattern and terminology is fairly prominent in the Book of Mormon and Second Temple texts (maintained by anti-establishment alternative sects of Judaism) while not highly distinguishable (or as dominant) in the final form of the Hebrew Bible shaped by the exilic and post-exilic establishment priests is intriguing. It moves the discussion beyond charges of a Joseph Smith 19th century locus, or simple KJV cribbing. There seems to be a commonality that converges with specific accusations against the priestly ruling class in Jerusalem just before its destruction. And here we are in the territory of Deteronomistic reforms under Josiah, a subject of growing interest.


[1] Catherine M. Murphy, Wealth in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Qumran Community (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 243.

[2] For a good survey of these texts in context, see chapter five (“Sinful People, Impure Priests, and Inadequate Structures: The Temple as Defiled and Rejected”) in Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 145-174, esp. 147-149.

[3] For a survey on this issue, see Albert L. A. Hogeterp, Paul and God's Temple (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2006), pp. 365- 372.

[4] Nils Alstrup Dahl, Studies in Ephesians (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), p. 133:
The threefold complex in Eph 5:3 - Πορνεία, ακαθαρσία, πλεονεξία (see also 4:19: ασελγεία κτλ.) — is strongly reminiscent of the Damascus Document CD IV 15-18.
[5] H.A. Kelly, “The Devil in the Desert,” CBQ 26 (1964), p. 212, as quoted in Monika Pesthy, “The Three Nets of Belial from Qumran to the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum,” in F. García Martínez and G.P. Luttikhuizen, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome: Studies in Ancient Cultural Interaction in Honour of A. Hilhorst (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 246:
Finally, examining the NT, we cannot avoid to speak about the threefold temptation of the Lord. Interpreting this scene, Kelly mentions CD 4:12-19 as a parallel to it and gives the following explanation: “In comparing it with the accounts of Luke, we may correlate the net of lust with the invitation to make bread out of the stones; the net of riches with the offer of the authority and glory of all kingdoms of the world; the net of defilement of the Sanctuary with the temptation to tempt God by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple.”
[6] The annual fall festival entailed a processional ceremony that started at the bottom of the hill from the temple. As they prepared to ascend, there were questions about the participants' worthiness to enter and participate. Several of the Psalms are seen as references to this cultic ritual. Psalm 24 starts with Yhwh as victor over the chaos of creation, after which the gatekeeper asks the question: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place?” (v. 3). The answer comes as: “He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart” (v. 4). The same theme of purity in heart is echoed in Psalm 51, another priestly “gatekeeper” psalm that is part of the fall festival. Jacob's sermon is replete with the same 'pure-in-heart' terminology, as Jacob questions the worthiness of the 'brethren' he addresses at the temple. The implication is that the economic and sexual priestly transgressions result in a question about their presence in the temple and approximates, to some extent, the concerns in the Dead Sea corpus that priestly violations of economic and sexual mores constitute a pollution of the sanctuary. A longer treatment of the Fall Festival setting of Jacob 2-3 and its connection to the entrance psalms will likely be the subject of another post.

[7] Gabriele Boccaccini, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 126:
Many scholars take “the new covenant in the land of Damascus” (6:5, 19; 7:14-15, 18-19; 8:21; 20:12) as a reference to the exile of the Qumran community in the Judaean desert.” For Lawrence H. Schiffman, “Damascus” is “a code word for Qumran.” As Davies has correctly pointed out, however, every time “Damascus” is mentioned in the Damascus Document, “only one historical context is provided, and it is the Babylonian exile. . . . There are cogent reasons for preferring Damascus as a symbol of Babylonia. . . . It is the claim made by the community of CD . . . that the true Israel (or Judah) arose in Babylon . . . [and] that its covenant and its legal tradition and its organization originated in Babylon in the wake of the exile. . . . Damascus lies not at the end of the process, but the beginning.”
This does not mean that the parent community actually developed in the eastern Diaspora and returned to Palestine only during the Maccabean period, as Jerome Murphy-O'Connor suggested. The point of the Damascus document is not that the parent sect lived in Babylon, but that its roots were there. As Davies concludes, “the ideology of CD has powerful roots in priestly exilic literature, especially the Holiness Code and Ezekiel.” The Damascus Document “celebrates a group which claims authentic descent from the Babylonian exile, has its own covenant, exegetical tradition, based on the same scripture, its genealogy (now missing), and an only slight different version of the 'official' history of Israel.


Michaela Stephens said...

This is a very interesting post, but there is something that still confuses me.

“Fear (pachad), and the pit (pachath), and the snare (pach), are upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth.” Isaiah's alliterative use of these three terms (pachad, pachath, and pach – fear, pit, and the snare) is interpreted as calling attention to three sins that the authors refer to as 'the three nets of Belial': “The first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is profanation of the Temple” (CD 4:17).

I'm not sure how the charge of "fear" suggests "fornication".

Everything else in your post makes perfect sense and is very well done.

Joey Green said...

Hi, Michaela.

I agree that it seems odd that they associate specific sins with vague words like fear, pit, and net. They themselves seem to attribute this interpretation to Levi, and the assumption is generally that this must be from a missing portion of "The Testament of Levi," because the current text doesn't clarify this thought.


Joey Green

Jennifer O. said...

Joey, loved the post and the great connections you made. I took the "fear" to mean "afraid of man (image, what they think, etc.)" which in turn can be similar to idolatry because you are not worshiping the Lord only and are putting the praise of man in its stead. This is true idolatry. We know that idolatry and adultery have linguistic connections, so I think there might be a link there after all, albeit not directly. It may refer to the adultery of our relationship to the Lord where we are not "true and faithful" to our covenant with the Bridegroom.

Your post brings to mind a modern-day parallel of three dangers of the church in our day. They are quite similar to what you describe above.

"There are at least three dangers that threaten the Church within, and the authorities need to awaken to the fact that the people should be warned unceasingly against them. As I see these, they are flattery of prominent men in the world, false education ideas, and sexual impurity...

"The third subject mentioned - personal purity, is perhaps of greater importance than either of the other two. We believe in one standard of morality for men and women. If purity of life is neglected, all other dangers set in upon us like the rivers of waters when the flood gates are opened" ("Three Threatening Dangers", Improvement Era, Mar 1914, 476-77)