Friday, June 4, 2010

The Annual Fall Festival in the Book of Mormon

In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work . . . For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the LORD. (Leviticus 16:29-30)
The Hebrew Bible actually records three festivals in ancient Israel during the autumnal harvest month of Tishri: New Year (Rosh ha-Shana) starting on the 1st of Tishri, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) starting on the 10th, and Tabernacles (Sukkot) starting on the 15th (cf. Num 29 and Lev 23). However, this tri-fold division of the festival complex is generally seen as a post-exilic redaction, the consensus being that anciently there was a single yearly autumnal agrarian ingathering festival that was later divided into the three distinct feasts.[1] This is seen as happening in stages. In the time of King Josiah, the deuteronomist reformers deemphasized the land atonement and land fertility aspects of the fall festival (as well as its local nature) in order to create a national festival at the Jerusalem Temple.[2] Later, due to the exile, the solar-based harvest calendar is abandoned in favor of a Babylonian lunar system of chronology that required fixing rituals to precise calculations of new moons rather than on a fluctuating harvest season.[3] Many of the names used for months in Israel's calendar, including Tishri itself, are actually of Babylonian origin; very few of the original Hebrew names for the months are actually known, further evidence of the editing that took place due to Babylonian influence.

While the existence of a single pre-exilic fall festival period is generally accepted, its precise character has been debated. In part this is because there is a general suspicion that ritual texts like Leviticus were finalized after the exile and thus contain a mixture of both early and late material.[4] Further, the rituals are often given as simply lists of instructions with few (if any) explanations as to meaning, purpose, or context—possibly because later priests (after the exile) no longer knew the reasons behind the first Temple rituals and thus had altered them.[5] The texts that are definitively considered to be pre-exilic rarely mention the festival yet provide a narrative that assumes a ritual festival as its context. To overcome the paucity of reliable data, many scholars have attempted to flesh out the festival complex by looking for instances elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible where the cultural and religious aspects of (sometimes only implied) cultic festivals are emphasized. In the early twentieth century, the Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel proposed that the context missing from the instructional texts could be recovered in a large part from the Psalms, many of which he saw as cultic hymns and prayers for these very rituals.[6] He reconstructed a single fall festival that centered on the enthronement of Yhwh (Jehovah) as king, who after his victory over the monsters of chaos renews the covenant of creation, stands as judge over his congregated people, and extends atonement and healing to the land and people, after which they celebrate the harvest and start the new year.[7] He and others saw parallels between this reconstruction and the yearly purification and enthronement festivals of other ancient peoples, such as with the Babylonian Akitu festival. Mowinckel's theory has largely altered all discussion about the fall festival, and most still accept his basic thesis with various modifications.[8]

Several LDS scholars have engaged these ideas with good results. A few examples would include Hugh Nibley's ongoing discussion of the year-rite kingship ceremonies of ancient nations,[9] and Terence L. Szink and John W. Welch's thesis of a single fall festival with its three component parts as the setting for King Benjamin's speech.[10] The same thesis is used by Robert D. Hunt and John W. Welch in describing Jerusalem circa 600 BCE:
The third festival encompasses three holy days. This festival is celebrated in the fall and is made up of Rosh ha-Shanah, or New Year; Yom Kippur, Day of Judgment, or Day of Atonement; and Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles. Today, Jews celebrate these days as separate, distinct holidays but here in the ancient world Israelites looked upon them as one large and single season of celebration.[11]
Understandably, much of the research to date focuses on King Benjamin's kingship ceremony and covenant-making ritual with his people in comparison to what we now know as Sukkot, or Tabernacles. However, what has gone undocumented to a certain extent is the pervasive nature of the priestly Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement aspects in this and other portions of the text. I believe that we see aspects Yom Kippur not only in King Benjamin's discourse, but that it is the main context for understanding Jacob's sermons in 2 Nephi 6-10 and Jacob 2-3. It also seems to be an important aspect of Lehi's land-covenant discourse in the first chapter of 2 Nephi. Over the next few months I hope to elaborate on these and related themes to try and flesh out the connections I see.


1. Cf. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 2327 (Anchor Bible Series 3B, New York: Doubleday, 2001) 204546; Margaret Barker, The Great Angel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) 44: “The pattern of festivals for the month Tishri in the period of the second Temple suggests that the three (New Year, Day of Atonement, Tabernacles) were the separated parts of what had formerly been the one great festival.”; Roland J. Faley, “Leviticus” in Raymond Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphey (eds.), The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968) 8183; Norman Snaith “The Religion of Israel” in H. Wheeler Robinson (ed.), Record and Revelation: Essays on the Old Testament by (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938) 260; fairly representative is Hayyim Schauss (trans. Samuel Jaffe), The Jewish Festivals: From Their Beginnings to Our Own Day (Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938) 112122, esp. 113:

In those days they observed only one festival at that time of the year, the Festival of the Ingathering of the fruits and grapes. That festival had many rites that are now associated with Rosh Hashonoh, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos. It was only later, after the Babylonian Exile, that the autumn festival was divided into three separate holidays. For this reason Jews observe, in one season of the year, three festivals which are all actually New Year festivals.

2. Cf. Frank H. Gorman Jr., “Feasts, Festivals” in David Noel Freedman (ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 45759; Håkan Ulfgard, The Story of Sukkot: The Setting, Shaping, and Sequel of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998) 45: “ Emphasis on the pesah/ massot festival instead of the autumnal harvest festival meant a conscious delimitation over against other cultures, a way of denoting a particular Judaic identity in the worship of YHWH. The idealized story about Josiah’s Passover (2 Kgs 23:21-23; cf. 2 Chron 35:1-19)—the culmination of the Josianic and deuternomistic cult reformation—illustrates the emphasis on this particular festival . . .” Yet the Song of Moses, or Cantemus Domino (Deut 32:143), which itself shows evidence of later redaction (cf. Barker 1992, 4344), emphasizes the earlier, pre-exilic view concerning the coming of the Messiah on the Day of Judgment/Day of Atonement to perform atonement for the land as the high priest (Deut 32:43); Roland de Vaux emphasizes the land aspect as the genesis for the festival, in Ancient Israel: It's Life and Institutions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997) 495496.

3. Julye Bidmead, “New Year” in David Noel Freedman 2000, 962; G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, Heinz-Josef Fabry (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol 10 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000) 246248; Roland de Vaux 1997, 498: “the date was not fixed . . . and was therefore held when all the crops had been gathered in”; Walter J. Houston, “Leviticus” in James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (eds.), Eerdman's Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003) 120: “The tension arises in that the harvest does not begin or end on fixed dates every year.”; Håkan Ulfgard 1998, 37-55, esp. 43:

Evidently this is an example of the tension between older and younger calendrical traditions, where the ancient agrarian calendar's dating of the harvest festival to the turn of the year at the autumnal equinox has been replaced by the lunar calendar's precise dating of the festival to the 15/7 (the full moon of the seventh month). Similar conclusions are reached by H. Cazelles, explaining how the ancient, pre-exilic autumnal and harvest and New Year festival was split up into three separate holidays.

4. On Leviticus as a whole, see Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 67; Walter J. Houston, “Leviticus” in James D.G. Dunn 2003, 102103; Watson E. Mills, Edgar V. McKnight, Roger A. Bullard (eds.), Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Mercer University Press, 1997) 511. On Leviticus 16 in particular (the Day of Atonement ritual), see Roland de Vaux (trans. John McHugh), Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997) 509; Martin Noth, Leviticus: A Commentary (The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1965) 117–125;

5. Cf. the explanation for the priestly blood sprinkling in Exodus 29 in Z’Ev Ben Shimon Halevi, Kabbalah and Exodus (Boston, MA: Weiser Books, 1988) 171:

The two rams were then to be slaughtered. The first was another burnt food offering to placate the Deity while the second ram’s blood was put on the right ears, thumbs and toes of Aaron and his sons, before it also was flung against the altar. This again is probably the description of a symbolic ceremony that had become corrupted by priests who no longer knew anything more than the outer form. The text goes on to describe how the ram’s blood should be sprinkled over Aaron and his sons’ vestments, that they might become holy. This is an account of an event that at one time must have had much more to it than what is described, if its purpose was really to make a man and his garments become holy.

For the lack of explanation behind the rituals in Leviticus, see Walter J. Houston, “Leviticus” in James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (eds.), Eerdman's Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003) 102103; Martin Noth sees the Day of Atonement rituals as partially corrupted with the original reason lost, in Leviticus: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965) 117–119; Margaret Barker explores the Enoch traditions as texts that claim to preserve the true priestly tradition that has been altered in Leviticus, in The Gate of Heaven (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008) 41–43; Jacob Milgrom argues for the goat ritual (Leviticus 16) as a later priestly altering of an earlier pagan practice whose function is then theologically changed by the priests over time, in Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1992) 1018, 1020, 1023–1024.

6. He advanced his theories in German in a six-volume series entitled Psalmenstudien (published in Kristiania, Norway between 1921–1924 by Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, II. Hist.-Filos. Klasse). The Norwegian edition was entitled Offersang og Sangoffer (Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co, 1951), while the English version (trans. D.R. Ap-Thomas) emerged as The Psalms in Israel's Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962).

7. See especially chapter five (“Psalms at the Enthronement Festival of Yahweh”) in The Psalms in Israel's Worship.

8. A good review of Mowinckel's theory, an assessment of its detractors' arguments, and its current state in the scholarly world is found in J.J.M Roberts, “Mowinckel's Enthronement Festival: A Review,” in Peter W. Flint and Patrick D. Miller (eds.), The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception (Leiden: Brill, 2005) 97-115. See also Patrick D. Miller, “Israelite Religion,” in Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker (eds.), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (Philadephia: Fortress, 1985) 220-22.

9. Cf. his chapter “Old World Ritual in the New World” in An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988) 295–310; see also his “Assembly and Atonement” as published in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (eds.) King Benjamin's Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998) 121–122.

10. “King Benjamin's Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals” in John W. Welch 1998 147–223.

11. Robert D. Hunt and John W. Welch, "Culturegram: Jerusalem 600 BC” in Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem by David R. Seely, JoAnn H. Seely, and John W. Welch as found at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at

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