Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Tower and a Name: Benjamin as the Anti-Nimrod

The name of the LORD is a strong tower.  (Prov. 18:10)

In a veiled story in Genesis associated with a Babylonian kingship rite, Nimrod builds a temple-tower to “make a name” for his people, the result of which is a confusion of tongues and scattering of the people. In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin builds a tower at the temple in Zarahemla in order to give his people a name and pronounce his son a king. And he does this after the Nephites have discovered a remnant of scattered Israel who has experienced a degeneration of tongues and who has mixed with the seed of those who left Nimrod's temple-tower. In doing so, Benjamin seems to be deliberately constructing an event that is both related and opposed to what happened on the plains of Shinar. And both episodes seem to be connected to the yearly fall festival in ancient Israel.

 Nimrod as King and God

In the table of nations (Genesis 10), Nimrod is described as a mighty hunter and a king of Babylon in the land of Shinar. Because Babel is “the beginning of his kingdom” (Gen 10:10), the tower episode has always been associated with Nimrod and his ascent to the throne. Many Jewish legends place the tower story in the context of his coronation as king after a great war between the descendants of the sons of Noah.[1] Several of the legends explain that Nimrod “wishes to 'set himself up as a god' so that all nations will pay him divine homage.”[2] In these texts, the role of the tower is to empower him with divine status to rival that of God's:

And not all this sufficed unto Nimrod's evil desire. Not enough that he turned men away from God, he did all he could to make them pay Divine honors unto himself. He set himself up as a god, and made a seat for himself in imitation of the seat of God. It was a tower built out of a round rock, and on it he placed a throne of cedar wood, upon which arose, one above the other, four thrones, of iron, copper, silver, and gold. Crowning all, upon the golden throne, lay a precious stone, round in shape and gigantic in size. This served him as a seat, and as he sat upon it, all nations came and paid him Divine Homage.[3]

The tower-temple as the location for a heavenly throne follows the function of ancient temples generally, including those of Babylon,[4] where God's throne is in his temple. Much of Babylonian literature represents Bel-Marduk reigning as king of the gods from his temple-throne.[5] Kings in the ancient near east would sit on God's throne in the temple and represent him as they ruled on his behalf, becoming an anointed son of God.[6] The ancient Hebrew tradition was fairly similar, with the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies representing God's throne in heaven. Solomon sat on this throne in the temple as king (1 Chron 29:23), and Psalm 2 recounts the coronation ritual of the Israelite king becoming God's divine son.[7] In many instances the king became identified with the god he represented, just as Nimrod was often equated with the Babylonian god Marduk.[8] This lends context to Isaiah's story about a Babylonian king who desired to sit on God's throne and rebel against him:

12 How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!
13 You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High."
15 But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.
(Isaiah 14:12‒15; NIV Translation)

While this has always been understood as prophetic invective against the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar who wanted to become divine, many early Christians understood the context as a comparison between Nebuchadnezzar and one of God's chief angels who rebelled and took a host of heavenly beings with him.[9] But many scholars suggest that the foundation of the comparison is not just to Nebuchadnezzar or to the angelic rebellion but also to Nimrod and his temple-tower.[10] Perhaps this is because Nebuchadnezzar seems to have intentionally created a link between himself and Nimrod by re-elevating the god Marduk to supremacy through rebuilding the temples of Esagila and Etemanki,[11] long considered candidates for Nimrod's original tower.[12] But the elements of Nimrod's rebellion are there: pride and and a throne in opposition to God's. We see another point of contact with Nimrod in the 'name' terminology of the last verse in Isaiah's message: "'I will rise up against them,' declares the Lord Almighty. 'I will cut off from Babylon her name and survivors, her offspring and descendants,' declares the Lord” (Isaiah 14:22; NIV translation; emphasis mine). In the Genesis account, Nimrod also desired to give his people a name so that they would not be cut off.

Tower as Temple

The Genesis pericope tells us that the tower's top would “reach unto heaven,” which is language that reflects the spiritual rather than the literal function of the building. And this wording is found in many of the Babylonian temple texts as well.[13] The word 'babel' itself comes from bab il ('gate of God'), and ancient tower-temples were stepped in construction to symbolize the ascent to God's gate and presence. The Egyptian pyramids are a good example:

The step-pyramids had the shape not only of a hill, but (at least in their most ancient form) of a staircase. Spell 267 of the Pyramid Text reads: “A stair case to heaven is laid for him [i.e., the king] so that he may climb up to heaven thereby.”[14]

The staircase to heaven theme is emphasized by the fact that Osiris, the judge of the dead in the Egyptian pantheon, was known as “the god at the top of the staircase.”[15] We see the same concepts at work in Mesopotamia:

The construction of the Esagila, the principal temple of Babylon, is described within the framework of the creation epic Enuma Elish . . . It is called the “house of the foundation of heaven and earth” . . . In step-temples, the character of staircase generally dominates that of the primeval hill. It is obvious where the huge stairs lead. The ziggurat of Larsa bears the beautiful name, “house of the bond between heaven and earth”; that of Kish is the “exalted house of Zababa and Ininna, whose head is as high as the heavens” (cf. Gen 11:4; Ps 78:69). The step-tower of Nippur bears the title, “house of the mountain”; that of Assur is the “house of the great mountain of the nations.”[16]

The idea of a staircase to God lies behind the Psalms of “ascent” or Psalms of “degrees” that were sung by pilgrims on the way up the hill to the temple complex or while climbing the steps of Solomon's temple itself. Northrop Frye makes the connection between this staircase, Jacob's Ladder (Gen 28:12) and the Tower of Babel.[17]

Scholarship almost unanimously equates Nimrod's tower in Genesis with the Babylonian temple-tower, or ziggurat. And in the “Babylonian tradition the temple-tower of Babel was a cosmic and holy place, built by the gods, where Marduk's presence was manifested on earth.”[18] The ziggurats were terrestrial representations of the mountain of the Gods,[19] much as the Israelite tabernacle represented a horizontal version of the sacred mountain of Sinai and the ascent into God's presence,[20] just as the later and more permanent temples represented the mountain of the Lord (cf. Isa 2:2).

These temple-tower themes carry over into late Jewish and early Christian texts as well. Hermas, for example, represents the church as a tower and the Son of God as the gate through which its members must enter.[21] And the watchtower in Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard (see Isa 5:1-7) clearly symbolizes Israel's temple in many texts, including Enochic litereature, where the parable is retold with the tower as the temple that is destroyed because of covenant violation (see I Enoch 89:51-67). In the New Testament, Mark's account of the Savior calling the temple a den of thieves borrows phrasing from Isaiah's vineyard parable in a way that clearly connects the watchtower to Herod's temple.[22] The same argument is made in some rabbinic texts as well.[23] A text from Qumran links the watchtower in Isaiah 5 to the temple using a familiar ziggurat temple-tower phrase (“to the gate of the holy height”; see 4Q500, line 4), and the Aramaic Targum version of Isaiah makes the temple-watchtower link very clear:

The prophet said, I will sing now for Israel—which is like a vineyard, the seed of Abraham, my friend—my friend's song for his vineyard: My people, my beloved Israel, I gave them a heritage on a high hill in fertile land. And I sanctified them and I glorified them and I established them as the plant of a choice vine; and I built my sanctuary in their midst, and I even gave my altar to atone for their sins; I thought that they would do good deeds, but they made their deeds evil. And now I will tell you what I am about to do to my people. I will take up my Shekinah from them, and they shall be for plundering; I will break down the place of their sanctuaries, and they will be for trampling.[24]

A parable very similar to the one in Isaiah 5 is also found in the Doctrine and Covenants, where modern temples are referred to as towers (D&C 101:44-62). Anciently, the figure of the watchman on the watchtower referred to the prophet in his temple, receiving revelation to warn Israel.[25]

A Name as Divine Covenant

The Genesis tower narrative has the protagonists telling each other, “let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad” (Gen 11:4). This comes immediately following the temple-centric phrase about the tower reaching into heaven, placing the idea of a name, land-covenant, and seed in the world of the temple as well. This is prefigured by the story of the offspring of the sons of God in Genesis 6—'giants' who were “men of renown,” or “men of the name” (Gen 6:4; KJV translation; emphasis mine). The KJV translators did not translate the word 'giants' from the Hebrew text, which reads nephilim (נפלים) but from the Greek translation (the Septuagint, or LXX) that interpreted the nephilim to be giants and so used the Greek word gigantes (γίγαντες). Most modern translations, however, prefer to simply leave it as nephilim,[26] the root of which is the verb nfl (נפל) “to fall or remove.” In other words, the people in question are spiritually fallen, not physically large. They had been “men of renown,” a translation of the Hebrew anshey ha-shem, or “men of the name” who have fallen and been removed from their covenant and priesthood offices. The version of this story in the Pearl of Great Price emphasizes that Noah's sons were called “sons of God” because they hearkened unto the Lord (Moses 8:13) in the context of patriarchal covenants with God about his seed filling the earth—a promise for posterity and land (Moses 8:23). In contrast, the children of these sons of God forsook the Lord and his covenants, taking to wives daughters of men who were not participants in these covenants (“daughters of men” in contrast to the “sons of God”; Moses 8:21). These sons of God become increasingly wicked after forsaking their covenant of the name (Moses 8:22). Rather than a tale of giants, this is the story of men “of the name” who made priestly covenants but chose to abandon them in order to pursue wickedness. They are apostates. The Enoch account of this rebellion (I Enoch 69:13-21 ) refers to them as angels who have sought to apply the 'name' covenant that lies behind the very act of creation to their oath of rebellion. The temple-tower story would have to be telling a similar story.

The make-a-name temple theme from Genesis 11 had at its root a desire to prevent the scattering of a people and seed. In the ancient near east, this scattering is prevented by the retention of a land promised by God for those who obey him. It is the land-covenant concept that we see promised to God's people and associated with the Jubilee year requirements as outlined in Leviticus 25:18-19 that promised security and safety in the land from one's enemies. Given this, it is intriguing to see the tower episode of Genesis 11 immediately followed (in Genesis 12) by the name symbolism of the Abrahamic covenant in conjunction with blessings of a land (“that I will shew thee”), a posterity of righteous seed, and a name. God tells Abram, “I will bless thee, and make thy name (shem) great” (Gen 12:2), followed by a covenant that promised him a posterity as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen 15:510). This covenant is reiterated later along with a change of name (shem) to Abraham (Gen 17:18). Remember that this same type of covenant for righteous posterity was given to Noah's first son, who was called Shem (the word for 'name'). These patriarchs were truly anshay ha-shem, or “men of the name.”

After Abraham, this 'name' covenant is renewed with Isaac and then Jacob, the latter in a series of encounters with God that involve both a tower and a name. After Isaac reiterates the blessings of Abraham to Jacob and counsels him to find a suitable wife in order to fulfill this 'name' covenant (Gen 28:1‒4), Jacob sees a ladder reaching into heaven with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen 28:12). At the top of the ladder is the Lord, who proceeds to renew the Abrahamic 'name' covenant with Jacob (Gen 28:1‒15). Knowing the place to be sacred, Jacob calls it 'the house of God' and 'the gate of heaven' (Gen 28:17). The 'gate of heaven' terminology is strikingly similar to the 'gate of God' terminology behind the name Babel and its staircase construction. Genesis Rabba tells us that Jacob's ladder was really a staircase.[27] And other commentaries on Jacob's experience make the connection to the staircases on the ziggurat temple-towers of Mesopotamia based on the word used for 'ladder':

Etymologically, the term (stem sll “to heap up, raise”) suggests a ramp or a solid stairway. And archaeologically, the Mesopotamian ziggurats were equipped with flights of stairs leading up to the summit . . . Only such [a] stairway can account for Jacob's later description of it as a “gateway to heaven.” . . . The phraseology is much too typical of the temple tower to be merely coincidental, and the underlying imagery cannot be mistaken; the allusion is all more suggestive when viewed in connection with Jacob's journey to Mesopotamia.[28]

Bethel is later associated with a temple in Israel,[29] and in second temple Jewish texts it becomes the site of many temple-related functions, such as Levi's divine investiture as a priest.[30] Notice that—like Osiris in the Egyptian temple texts—the Lord stands at the top of this ladder that is the 'gate of heaven,' or 'gate of God' in the case of the Babel temple-tower. This is the idea of God as the keeper of the gate and explains the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob's atonement terminology:

O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name. (2 Nephi 9:41.)

The concept of approaching the Lord at the gate brings us to (the Biblical) Jacob's next encounter with God. Shortly after the event just described, Jacob sees God and wrestles with him, asking for a blessing and God's name (Gen 32: 24‒30). This can be understood with Nibley's explanation that the word 'wrestled' here is better translated as 'embraced'.[31] Thus, in a series of theophanies related to Jacob's intent to seek a wife in order to enter into the Abrahamic 'name'-covenant promises of posterity to fill the earth, he sees God at the gate of heaven, then later embraces him and asks his name, whereupon God gives him his name, touches the hollow of his thigh, and blesses him.

The make-a-name theme is found elsewhere in the Hebrew bible in contexts of posterity, land, redemption, and atonement. For example, David inquires of the Lord about the future of his descendants:

And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to himself, and to make him a name, and to do for you great things and terrible, for thy land, before thy people, which thou redeemedst to thee from Egypt, from the nations and their gods? (2 Samuel 7:23; 1 Chr 17:21.)

And there are many other passages that link the make-a-name theme to atonement. Isaiah talks about the Messiah's suffering and affliction that saved and redeemed Israel (Isa 63:9) then uses the escape from Pharaoh and the waters of the Red Sea as a metaphor for this redemption: “[He] led them by the right hand of Moses with his glorious arm, dividing the water before them, to make himself an everlasting name?” (Isaiah 63:12; see also verse 14). And in a striking reversal of the Tower episode usage, God employs the phrase in terms of gathering those who have been scattered: “Even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth” (Zeph 3:20). As with the idea of scattering, the principle of gathering reinforces the idea of land-covenant righteousness.

But most of the references to the name take us back to the temple. Solomon's temple was a place that was sanctified for God's name (2 Chr 7:20), where God's name could dwell (1 Kgs 8:29) and where people could approach God by confessing his name (1 Kgs 8:33). The High Priest wore the sacred name on a thin plate of gold on his forehead as a symbolic crown. This name was so sacred that later it would be forbidden to be pronounced outside the realm of the temple.[32] And even in the temple, it was usually pronounced only once a year during the Day of Atonement ceremony, where the children of Israel—along with their land and temple—were healed and redeemed from the effects of sin and rebellion (see Lev 16). In this ritual, the High Priest would sacrifice the goat “for Jehovah” (Lev 16:8, 21) and take its blood beyond the veil of the temple, into the holy of holies (the only time he entered this “most holy place”). He would then sprinkle the blood onto the ark of the covenant (the 'mercy seat' or 'atonement covering') to purge the congregation of their sins (Lev 16:1516). After changing his blood-spattered robes and emerging, he would pronounce the sacred name as he read the text of Lev 16:30, after which the gathered people prostrated themselves in the dust:

The response of the priests and the people in the temple court reaches a crescendo at this point, and it is said that on hearing the name “they used to kneel and bow themselves and fall down on their faces and say, “Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever!”[33]

This temple rite helps us understand what happens near the end of the gospel of John. At the close of his intercessory prayer and its sufferings associated with the workings of the Atonement, the Savior tells his father, “I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it” (John 17:26). As he arises, he is approached by Judas and a group sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, and he asks them who they seek (John 18:4). When they tell him that they seek Jesus of Nazareth, he announces, “I am he” (John 18:5). Although the KJV translators here have chosen to insert a pronoun ('he'), the original Greek simply reads ego eimi (εγω ειμι), or “I am,” which is how Jehovah announces himself to Moses (see the “I AM” declarations in Ex 3:13‒15), a derivative of the sacred letters making up the name of Jehovah, the name used only in the temple on the Day of Atonement. After the Savior pronounces the sacred name, those who came seeking him “went backward and fell to the ground” (John 18:6), just as gathered Israel did on the Day of Atonement.

What all of this tells us is that the tower episode in Genesis appears to contain all the elements of an intended temple coronation accompanied by the themes of land-covenant and posterity usually associated with the Day of Atonement. And this means that there is some kind of relationship between this episode and the annual fall festival observed in ancient Israel. This feast, which would be broken up into three separate rituals after the exile (New Year, Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles), celebrated the enthronement of Yhwh (Jehovah) as king, who after his victory over the monsters of chaos renewed the covenant of creation, stood as judge over his assembled people, and extended atonement and healing to the land and people, after which they celebrated the harvest and started the new year. (See my previous post, The Annual Fall Festival in the Book of Mormon.) Yet by what authority does Nimrod expect to conduct this festival given his rebellion towards God and his throne? If he gives his people a name so that they retain a land where they cannot be scattered—essentially a promised land—whose name does he plan to give them? It can hardly be God's name under the circumstances. Is it his own? Whatever is going on, it seems that he has turned the worship of God into the worship of himself and in so doing has turned the premise of the festival on its head.

A Jaredite Heritage among the Mulekites and Nephites

In the Book of Mormon narrative, we read of serious warfare among the sons of Lehi (Omni 10), after which Mosiah 1 and his people discover a remnant of scattered Israel in the land of Zarahemla. These descendants of Mulek, a son of Zedekiah (Mosiah 25:2), had experienced a deterioration of their language severe enough that neither “Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah could understand them” (Omni 17). The Mulekites had recovered a record of the earlier Jaredite nation engraved on stone that provided details of how their “first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people” (Omni 22). Although Ether prophesies of the destruction of the household of Coriantumr and chronicles the destruction of his people, there were likely a number Jaredite survivors that had mixed with the Mulekites:

Ether writes of the annihilation of his people, but this was not necessarily an extermination of the entire population. One may assume that many of the commoners were not in the two armies and thus survived after these wars. The Jaredite people were crushed and dispersed, but probably not exterminated, since explicit features of Jaredite culture (especially personal names) were later evident in the Nephite culture.[34]

The fact that the language spoken by the Mulekites was unintelligible to the Nephites points to a diverse ethnic population rather than just a deterioration of the language,[35] and this diverse ethnic population likely would have included Jaredite remnants. As mentioned, many of the Jaredite names are later transmitted to the Nephite culture[36] via the Mulekites. We also see a descendant of the Mulekite Zarahemla with the Jaredite name Coriantumr (Hel 1:15-17), raising the possibility that Jaredite remnants had intermarried into the Mulekite monarchy.

In this context, Jaredite themes and founding narrative events like Nimrod's tower episode would have influenced much of the Mulekite social and political structures, as well as the oral histories of both peoples.[37] For an example of how formative events continue to impact the later oral history of a people, note how the frequency with which the Jaredite rulers remember their fathers crossing the 'great deep' shows up even in a translation of a summary of a translation (see Ether 7:27; 8:9; 10:2). In this light, the name Zarahemla itself is worth considering. Most likely based on the Hebrew zéraʻ hemlā (זֶרַע חֶמְלָה), meaning "seed of compassion," it probably refers to Mulek as the sole surviving son of Zedekiah. (Note how the Mulekites are referred to as “the seed of Zedekiah” in Hel 8:21.) However, another possibility involves the Jaredite account of the tower episode, which is the only place in the Book of Mormon where we find a convergence of the terms 'seed' and 'compassion.' After Nimrod's enterprise ends in disaster, Jared asks his brother to plead with the Lord on their behalf (Ether 1:34) then repeatedly emphasizes the Lord's compassion in sparing them (Ether 1:35, 37, 40) and providing a special land for their seed (Ether 1:42). And of course, this discourse about land and posterity is simply another version of the patriarchal name-covenant episodes from Genesis that we saw earlier. And if Zarahemla and his people were indeed of mixed heritage, the name could well reference both the tower episode as well as Mulek's flight, since both of these events defined their respective cultures by an escape from the old world and a promised land for their posterity in the new. That the name could have combined both Jaredite and Mulekite foundational elements is demonstrated when Ether does something similar by merging the special-land theme of the Jaredites (Eth 13:2) with the theme of compassion on the descendants of Joseph (Eth 13:7) of the Nephites.

Tower and Temple

It is in this cultural milieu that Mosiah's son Benjamin has grown up, less than a generation removed from the discovery of the Mulekites and their stone that proclaimed the origins of the Jaredites. His own reign would have been the first time a king was chosen after the confluence of the two nations and therefore the first test of his father's ascendancy over the diverse Mulekite population that had likely absorbed Jaredite remnants. What were the populace's expectations of their monarch? Did the old Mulekite nobility retain any influence in the society and cause any friction? If so, was the friction still alive at the end of Benjamin's life? What did the Jaredite history mean to the Nephites in this first generation of contact and assimilation with the Mulekites? In this context, I wonder what the expectations were among Benjamin's people when he called for a special assembly near the end of his days to anoint his son a king and a ruler and to give his people a name.

While the Genesis tower is really a temple, Mosiah's tower is really just a tower—an elevated platform from which the king could address his subjects. But it is located at the temple for a reason. The whole focus of this event is the temple, as this is the place where the king is to be anointed, just as in ancient Israel. The people have gathered together “that they might go up to the temple to hear the words which King Benjamin should speak unto them” (Mosiah 2:1). And it was Benjamin's intent to speak to them in the temple but because there is not enough room there he does so from the tower instead (Mosiah 2:7). But in doing so, he is following the custom of ancient Israelite kings who built tower platforms at temple complexes for instruction, anointing, and to dedicate the temples in prayer.[38] In other words, we should read this as a temple event and a temple text. Benjamin's tower is simply part of the temple.

And because this is a temple ritual, the people have brought animals to sacrifice “according to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:3). Just what was the underlying ritual associated with the coronation? Most scholars have identified the ritual as the pre-exilic yearly fall festival,[39] which is the same festival that appears to lie behind the Genesis tower episode. Anciently this festival celebrated the coronation of Jehovah as king who then atoned for the land and its people through the sprinkling of a goat's blood that represented the blood of God himself. It also celebrated the new year while initiating (every seven and fifty years, respectively), the sabbatical and Jubilee years when the prisoners and servants were released, debts were forgiven, and the land was allowed to rest and heal. Benjamin's discourse likely took place during this fall festival while initiating a Jubilee year.[40]

Name as an Atonement Covenant

Before Benjamin begins, he tells his son that his purpose is to give his people a name: “And moreover, I shall give this people a name, that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem” (Mosiah 1:11; compare the taking of a name by the people of Ammon in Alma 23:16; 27:26). Fairly soon it becomes evident that the name is actually the name of the Messiah. Salvation comes through this name (Mosiah 3:9)—in fact, it's the only name whereby salvation can come (Mosiah 3:17). This is achieved through repentance and faith on his name (Mosiah 3:21; 5:7) and by calling on his name (Mosiah 4:11), begging for a remission of sins through his name (Mosiah 4:20). The name Benjamin wants to give them is the name of Christ:

There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. (Mosiah 5:8)

If the name of Christ becomes a covenant, it is because the Messiah is both the redeemer and the judge, themes from the Day of Atonement aspect of the fall festival, which is the day of judgment. “For behold he judgeth,” says Benjamin, “and his judgment is just” (Mosiah 3:18). He is the very God of Israel who assumes mortality to save his people in a sacrificial death, after which “he standeth to judge the world” (Mosiah 3:10). His atonement is accomplished through the shedding of his own blood “that cometh from every pore” (Mosiah 3:7), reminding us of the blood of the goat “for Jehovah” that redeemed the people and their land on the Day of Atonement. This is the one day of the year that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, sprinkling the blood in the dark over the mercy seat, gathering blood on himself and the veil in the process (see my previous post, “Rid of Your Blood: Robes and Atonement in the Book of Mormon”). Benjamin uses this Day of Atonement blood imagery to emphasize the themes of sin and atonement:

Even so at this time have I caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me . . . that I might rid my garments of your blood (Mosiah 2:27-28).

As with the Day of Atonement festival, Benjamin's atonement discourse centers around redemption through the sacred name, after which the assembled people fall to the dust, just as gathered Israel did on the Day of Atonement:

When king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words . . . he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth . . . . And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mosiah 4:1-2)

Within the atonement context, the posterity or seed that God promises is for the obedient to become the very sons and daughters of God himself:

And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. (Mosiah 5:7)

And of course the keeping of this covenant is tied to the land. Benjamin makes it a point to tell his subjects repeatedly that if they keep the covenant they will prosper (Mosiah 2:22) and their enemies will have no power over them (Mosiah 2:31; see also 2:36), echoing the land-covenant promises from Leviticus associated with the Jubilee and the Day of Atonement.

All of these elements are the same that we see at work with the name-covenant patriarchal episodes in Genesis as well as what appears to be going on in the tower pericope at Babel. They are all related to the yearly fall festival and its elements of coronation, atonement, and name covenant to redeem the people and inherit a land for their posterity where they cannot be scattered by their enemies. The difference is that Benjamin seems to be addressing an additional element that is front and center in the Genesis tower narrative: pride and rebellion against God. While the Babel tower episode features Nimrod's desire to usurp God's power and throne, Benjamin continually emphasizes his human status even as a divinely-appointed Israelite king:

I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen by this people, and consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people; and have been kept and preserved by his matchless power, to serve you with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me. (Mosiah 2:10-11)

This is the tenor of the entire first chapter of the discourse. Benjamin is a mortal man who depends on God for his very breath. In this he is the anti-Nimrod because he apparently has no desire to sit on God's throne and take his power as Nimrod did. Despite Benjamin's royal—and thus divine—status, he exists to serve God and his people, not to use them for his own ambition. A clearer contrast with the original tower episode and Isaiah 14 couldn't be given. Then Benjamin emphasizes that those who don't serve God are listening to his adversary, the evil spirit (Mosiah 2:32-33; 37), and have come out in open rebellion against God (Mosiah 2:37), just as Nimrod did.

The intriguing thing is that other fall festival narratives don't feature the pride-mortality element to this degree—except, of course, the Genesis tower episode. What connects the two is the Jaredite migration from the old world that retained an account of the whatever these unauthorized covenant practices were. Several generations later, the daughter of Jared asks:

Hath he not read the record which our fathers brought across the great deep? Behold, is there not an account concerning them of old, that they by their secret plans did obtain kingdoms and great glory? (Ether 8:9)

So aside from oral history, apparently there were physical records that recorded these secret practices. But what kingdoms and great glory are referenced here? Could at least two of these be the tower episode and the fallen “sons of god” narrative from Genesis 11 and 6 that both involve oaths and covenants? In any case, the record mentioned here contains the details of a ritual oath ceremony that is used by Jared in his quest for power. And the ritual is renewed several generations later by Heth (Ether 9:26-27). Speaking of these Jaredite records, Alma tells his son Helaman that the secret oaths destroyed the Jaredite nation, and he therefore begs Helaman not to reveal the rituals that were recorded on the plates (Alma 37:21-32). But with Jaredite remnants among the Nephites, an idea of their type and origin must already have been circulating because these oaths end up destroying the Nephites as well. Indeed, the governor of the Gadianton society, Giddianhi, tells Lachoneus that their secret works “are of ancient date” and that they had “been handed down” to them (3 Nephi 3:9).

One wonders how much this type of activity had permeated Benjamin's society. Why does he take so much time during a fall festival discourse to address themes of rebellion against God as contrasted with mortality, humility, and service? This in the context of a scattered remnant of Israel whose language had degenerated, a seeming parallel to language confusion themes in the tower narrative. He seems to be building an inversion of the tower story in the context of the fall festival, contrasting the types of secret oaths and name-covenants associated with rebellion with taking on oneself the name of Christ, the Messiah, the very God of Israel. He is addressing remnants of the people whose fathers came from the tower and carried powerful memories of that event and used them for their gain. There are many threads that run through Benjamin's discourse. But one of them surely appears to be Benjamin's deliberate association—and disassociation—with the tower story in Genesis.


1. Stephen R. Haynes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 42‒43.

2. Haynes, 43; see also Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol 1 (Kessinger, 2004) 121-122, where Abraham's mother asks “Is there a god besides Nimrod?” while the Babylonian courts calls Nimrod as “our king and our god!”

3. Ginzberg, 1:116.

4. Herodotus describes The Esagila temple as having a throne room (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol 1 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979] 388; Julye Bidemead describes throne rooms as part of the temple complexes in Mesopotamia (Julye Bidmead, The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia [Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2004] 115-116; in one Sumerian epic poem, Enmerkar, the king of Erech, “received emissaries from Iran in the gu-en-na, the throne room of the temple” (Max E. L. Mallowan, Early Mesopotamia and Iran [UK: Thames and Hudson, 1965] 88).

5. Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Mantetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (London: T&T Clark, 2006) 128; see especially The Poem of Erra, where the protagonist visits Marduk in his temple-tower ziggurat:
"I will make Marduk angry, stir him from his dwelling, and lay waste the people!"
The warrior Erra set out for Babylon, city of the king of the gods.
He entered Esagila, palace of heaven and earth and stood before him.
He made ready to speak, saying to the king of the gods:
(tablet 1, lines 127‒130)

6. cf. Sarah Iles Johnson (ed.), Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004) 551.

7. Most agree that the “anointed” here is the Israelite king who becomes the son of God. Cf. “Psalms” in Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990), 208: “In Psalm 2 the 'anointed one' is the king in the Davidic line. He is the Son of God in the sense 2 Samuel 7:14: 'I will be his father, and he will be my son'”; Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (eds.) The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1983), 792: “At any rate it is clear that the psalmist is telling the earth's kings to submit to the Lord and to his anointed son, Israel's king”; others argue that this phrase is Messianic in its entirety, while some will differentiate between the Israelite view of a king becoming an adopted son of God (still human) and the rest of the ancient world where this concept is literal and the king actually becomes defied in the process. For related concepts, see my earlier post, “Psalms 1 and 2 as the Tree of Life Vision.

8. Cf. William Ewing and John E. H. Thomson, The Temple Dictionary of the Bible (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1910) 514; International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 7 (Albany, Oregon: AGES Electronic Edition, 1996) 1141; Claus Westermann, Genesis 1‒11: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsberg, 1984) 515.

9. For a survey of early Christian thought on this, see Robert L. Wilken (ed.), Isaiah Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007) 173‒181.

10. Cf. Steven Goldsmith, Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993) 64; Martin Kessler, Battle of the Gods: The God of Israel Versus Marduk of Babylon (Assen, The Netherlands: Royal Van Gorcum, 2003) 207.

11. Cf. David Noel Freedman (ed.), Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000) 953; also Mark H. Munn, The Mother of the Gods, Athens, and the Tyranny of Asia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2006) 206; H. W. F. Saggs, Babylonians (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2000) 166.

12. Cf. M. A. Dandamaev, A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire (Leiden: Brill, 1989) 46; Gmirkin, 120; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1:388; Saggs, 166.

13. The description of the construction of the ziggurat temple-tower Esagila in the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish (6:60‒62) is very similar; see also Westermann, 545‒46.

14. Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (New York: Seabury Press, 1978) 113; see also Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: The History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West (New York, New York: Doubleday, 2004), 37: “The steps suggest a ladder or staircase for the king to ascend to his heavenly abode, as in one of the depictions of the ascent of the pharaoh in the tomb of Unas.”

15. Northrop Frye, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Publishing, 2008), 140.

16. Keel, 113.

17. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (London, England: ARK, 1981), 158.

18. Ronald Hendel, “Genesis 1‒11 and its Mesopotamian Problem” in Erich S. Gruen (ed.), Cultural Borrowing and Ethnic Appropriations in Antiquity (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005) 32.

19. W. F. Albright, “The Babylonian Temple-Tower and the Altar of Burnt-Offering” (JBL 39, 3/4), 137.

20. Matthew B. Brown, The Gate of Heaven (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 1999) 60.

21. Pastor of Hermas, Book 1, Vision 3, Chapters 2-9; Similitude 9, Chapters 2-13; see also Lloyd Gaston, No Stone on Another (Leiden: Brill, 1970) 199, who links the tower in Hermas to the tower in the book of Enoch.

22. Timothy C. Gray, The Temple in the Gospel of Mark (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 62.

23. Cf. Tosefta Sukkah 3:15.

24. Craig A. Evans, The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew - Luke (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Cook Communications, 2003) 399.

25. Cf. Margaret Barker's commentary on Isaiah 21 in James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (eds.), Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 2003), 514:

The fragments of this oracle enable us to glimpse the eighth-century prophet at work. He is the “watchman who stands on the tower” (21:8, just as in Hab 2:1; thus 1QIsaa, but older translations use the impossible MT “lion”), and he sees history unfold before him, as does Enoch (1 Enoch 87:1-4), Abraham (in the later Apocalypse of Abraham 21-29), and Jesus (Luke 4:5: “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time”). This is temple tradition, seeing all history from beyond time from the presence of God in the holy of holies (see on Isa 40:12-31).

Her commentary on the towers in Isaiah 33 is intriguing as well:

The Targum of Isaiah understood the curious activity of “counting towers” (33:18) as the “counting of mighty men” (“exalted ones,” a possible understanding of the Hebrew), another description of heavenly triumph (cf. Isa 40:26, where the Lord numbers the host of heaven and names them as a sign of his power).

26. Cf., The New International Version, The New Jerusalem Bible, The New English Translation, The Jewish Publication Society, The American Standard Version, The Revised Standard Version, The New American Standard Bible, and The New Revised Standard Version Bible.

27. Heinz Schreckenberg and Kurt Schubert, Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity (Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1991) 196; See also Frye 2008, 139: “Further, if angels were going both up and down on it, it was really a staircase, not a ladder.”

28. E.A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1986), 218, 20 as quoted in Brown, 42.

29. Cf., Margaret Barker, The Gate of Heaven (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008) 14, 17; Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: an Introduction (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1984) 269‒70; Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1985) 13‒42, esp. 28‒30;

30. See Esther Eshel's survey in “Jubilees 32 and the Bethel Cult Traditions in Second Temple Literature” in Things Revealed: Studies in Early Jewish and Christian Literature in Honor of Michael E. Stone (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004) 21‒36.

31. Brown, 43.

32. Generally, see tractates tamid and yoma in the Talmud; for an excellent overview on the subject, see chapter two, “The Use of the Name YHWH,” in Sean M. McDonough, YHWH at Patmos (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999) 58‒122.

33. McDonough, 100‒101; see also tractate yoma 3:8.

34. Morgan W. Tanner, “Jaredites” in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism online at http://mi.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=51&chapid=385; see also Hugh W. Nibley's chapter “A Permanent Heritage” in Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites (Deseret Book, 1988); John L. Sorenson, “The Years of the Jaredites,” in BYU Today, September 1968, pp. 18—24:

There is solid evidence in the Book of Mormon itself, and certainly more from archaeology, indicating that remnants of the old population survived in various spots after the final organized battle. The scripture only talks, after all, of the destruction of the Jaredite people as a social entity, not the extinction of the entire population.

35. John L. Sorenson, “Peoples of the Book of Mormon” in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism online at http://mi.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=51&chapid=424

36. Cf. John A.Tvedtnes, “A Phonemic Analysis of Nephite and Jaredite Proper Names,” presented at the Twenty-second Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures and Allied Fields, held at Brigham Young University on October 28, 1973. Accessed online at: http://ancientamerica.org/library/media/HTML/qx6x4fwp/A%20PHONEMIC%20ANALYSIS%20OF%20NEPHITE%20AND%20JAREDITE%20PROPER%20NAMES.htm?n=0. See also Nibley, “A Permanent Heritage.”

37. Note how Zarahemla is able to give “a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory” (Omni 18), which implies a systemic oral history is being preserved at least among the Mulekites; if the two cultures have mixed, would the oral history of the Jaredites have been preserved in this fashion as well?

38. Cf., “Upon the Tower of Benjamin” in Melvin J. Thorne and John W. Welch (eds.), Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999). Notice also how Noah builds a tower near his temple (Mosiah 11:12), although it doesn't seem to have much of a spiritual function.

39. Cf. Terence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin's Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals” in John W. Welch 1998 147–223; John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (eds.), By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: 1990).

40. Some scholars argue that King Josiah's temple reform (622 BCE; 2 Kings 22) and Ezekiel's vision of the restored temple exactly 50 years later (572 BCE; Ezekiel 40:1) are Jubilee events. (Cf. Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest [London: T&T Clark, 2003] 36-37; Håkan Ulfgard, The Story of Sukkot: The Setting, Shaping, and Sequel of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998] 42). If we accept these dates as a starting point for the Jubilee cycle, then 122 bce would have been a Jubilee year as well, and King Benjamin's discourse is usually dated to “around 124 b.c.” There are many points of contact between Benjamin's discourse and Jubilee texts, leadings several LDS scholars to argue for Mosiah 2-4 as a Jubilee year sermon (cf., Szink and Welch).


Michaela Stephens said...

I like how you have linked so many things together.

One thought I had:

When King Benjamin tells the people that he tells them these things to make sure his garments are not spotted with their blood, he may also be evoking the imagery of the high priest on the day of Atonement washing his robes of blood after having sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat.

The part about additional Jaredites remaining alive after the Jaredite destruction, I am not so sure about because the whole issue is a big problematic mess. I started probing into it and I found multiple problems--this view and nearly every other alternative I explored revealed more nit-picky contradictions-- and my comment got too long, so I'm going to have to make it a post on my blog. I'll let you know when I've finished it, though.

Joey Green said...

Hi, Michaela.

I agree that Benjamin's comments refer to the blood on the HP's robes from sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat. I tried to highlight that thought in the post. I also made that thought the central theme of an earlier post: "'Rid of Your Blood': Robes and Atonement in the Book of Mormon."

I realize that there is some disagreement over how many--if any--Jaredites survived the destruction of their government and society. I look forward to your thoughts on the subject when you post them.