Monday, January 3, 2011

The Nephite-Kenite Hypothesis: Introduction

Moses takes his leave of Jethro, by Jan Victors
 In his book An Approach to the Book of Mormon, Hugh Nibley fleshed out the religious, economic and cultural milieu of 600 B.C. and painted the picture of Lehi as merchant. This created a base camp from which various LDS scholars have launched intriguing explorations into Lehi's background. While all of this is highly speculative, I do think we can advance the discussion by systematically gathering all the indicators about Lehi that would align with specific trades of his time and then template these professions over a background that best fits this training. After doing so, I propose that the closest match will have some connection to the Midianites and their sub-clans the Kenites and Rechabites, metalworking tribes in the Levant.

This exploration will entail multiple parts. The first three sections will entail documenting the indicators of Lehi's apparent professional training as priest, scribe, and metalworker. To do so I will use Nephi's narrative about Lehi as well as texts about Nephi and his siblings. Remember that the socio-economic environment of the ancient near east was structured into guilds that were clan-based and the trades of the father were usually the trades of the son. Thus, Nephi tells us that he “was taught somewhat in the learning of [his] father” (1 Nephi 1:1), which aligns with the practice of the times. It also means that indicators about Nephi's background can give us some insight into Lehi and his origins as well, since in a guild-clan structure Nephi would reflect the learning and trade of his fathers.

After documenting the indicators for Lehi and Nephi as priests, scribes, and metalworkers, I plan to examine how someone trained in all three of these professions would fit within a Midianite context. Metalworking in ancient Palestine was not practiced by Israelites but rather by Phoenicians on the coasts or Midanites/Kenites to the south in the copper mines of the Trans-Jordan. It is among these Midianites that Moses finds refuge, and it is the Midianite priest Jethro who mentors Moses before he is divinely commissioned to return to Israel. These priestly tribes accompany Israel into Canaan and inter-marry with their priestly families and are listed as scribes and counted as members of various tribes. On the eve of destruction, Jeremiah gathers the Rechabite priests in the temple to commend them on their zeal in obeying the commands of their father. This is the milieu in which I believe that Lehi's background is to be found, among the Midianite/Kenite/Rechabite lineage that carried the Melchezidek priesthood (see D&C 84), which Lehi appears to hold.

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