Monday, March 10, 2014

Israelite Festivals in the Book of Mormon: Pentecost

[From  “Did Abinadi Appear in the City of Nephi on Pentecost?” in John W. Welch, Legal Cases of the Book of Mormon, 2008, 188-93].

An important part of the law of Moses, and one that ties in closely with Abinadi's quotation of the Ten Commandments, required the observance of certain holy days each year (e.g., Exodus 23:14–19). Fifty days after Passover on the ancient Israelite calendar was the festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot (Weeks), which commemorated Moses's receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai. For several reasons, it appears that Abinadi entered the city of Nephi around the time of Pentecost. Not only does he quote the Ten Commandments to Noah and his priests, but he also draws on many religious themes that were distinctively associated with the Pentecost season in ancient Israel. Understanding this likely festival background to Abinadi's words adds yet another dimension to the legal backgrounds of the trial of Abinadi, as the following excursus briefly explains.

Shavuot marked the concluding phase of Passover. It was also an agricultural holiday sometimes called the Day of the Firstfruits (Numbers 28:26). It was a pilgrimage festival, with a "holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:21) rejoicing in the bounty of the spring, especially the new wheat (Deuteronomy 16:9–12; 26:5–11). Just as Passover marked a time of poverty and bondage for Israel, Pentecost exulted in a time of bounty, with offerings of leavened bread baked from the new crop of wheat (Leviticus 23:17) and of the choicest firstfruits. At this same time of the year, Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1). Thus, in antiquity, Pentecost probably also celebrated God's giving of the law to Moses. The connection between Pentecost and the giving of the law is well documented from the time of the Talmud, but exactly when this connection was first established in ancient Israelite practice is a matter of historical debate. Moshe Weinfeld, however, argues convincingly that this connection was made very early in Israelite history, as evidenced by Psalms 50 and 81, which he concludes were the words of hymns sung at Pentecost.

In this setting, several arguments can be marshaled to support the idea that the trial of Abinadi took place on or around Pentecost. In general, timing would have been important to Abinadi. He had already been expelled once from the city (Mosiah 11:26–29). Reentry on or near a festival day would have given him a ready audience, as virtually all of Abinadi's words deal with themes that would have been especially pertinent at the time of Pentecost. The following points suggest possible thematic connections between the account of Abinadi and Pentecost:

      •   When a bounteous grain season was at hand, Abinadi cursed the crops: he prophesied that the Lord would send destructive hail and dry winds upon the people and that insects too would "pester their land . . . and devour their grain" (Mosiah 12:6).

      •   While Israel's deliverance from bondage was being celebrated, Abinadi called upon Exodus terminology to proclaim that bondage will return: "They shall be brought into bondage; and none shall deliver them" (Mosiah 11:23), "and I will cause that they shall have burdens lashed upon their backs" (12:2, 5; compare Exodus 1:11).

      •   At precisely the time when Noah's priests would have been hypocritically pledging allegiance to the Ten Commandments and celebrating the giving of the law, Abinadi rehearsed to them those very commandments (Mosiah 12:33–36; 13:12–24). On any other day, this might have seemed a strange defense for a man on trial for his life, but not on Pentecost.

      •   Indeed, the connection with Pentecost could hardly have been made more graphically than when Abinadi's "face shone with exceeding luster, even as Moses' did while in the mount of Sinai, while speaking with the Lord" (Mosiah 13:5; Exodus 34:29–30). This is an obvious reference to the time when Moses received the law, probably the main event celebrated on Shavuot.

      •   A number of connections between Abinadi and Exodus 19 further involve him with Pentecost. For example, cursing Noah to be like a garment in a hot furnace" recalls the fact that Mount Sinai became a furnace (Exodus 19:18) and that people whose garments were unclean were not "ready" for the coming of the Lord (vv. 10–15).

      •   The ancient festival appears to have been a three-day event (Exodus 19:11), which could explain why Abinadi's trial was postponed for three days" (Mosiah 17:6), as discussed above.

      •   At Sinai, the people had looked forward to an appearance of the Lord: on "the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people" (Exodus 19:11). Abinadi's testimony was that the Lord would come down again (Mosiah 15:1), an idea that King Noah and his priests found to be blasphemous (perhaps because they thought Abinadi was implying that this earlier time when the Lord came down was not enough).

      •   In addition, intriguing parallels exist between Psalm 50 and Abinadi's piercing rebukes of the priests. If this psalm was known and used as a Pentecost hymn in Abinadi's world as Weinfeld avers it was in ancient Israel, several of its lines would have found a haunting echo in Abinadi's stinging prophetic words.

           --For example, Psalm 50:2 begins, "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined." The irony would have been insufferable when "the Spirit of the Lord was upon [not Noah's colony but upon Abinadi], and his face shone with exceeding luster" (Mosiah 13:5).

           --Psalm 50:3 reads: "Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence." Abinadi boldly affirmed the same, "that God himself shall come down" (Mosiah 15:1; see 17:8).

           --In Psalm 50:4–7, God brings a metaphorical lawsuit to "judge his people" (v. 4; compare 82:1). Likewise, Abinadi's words take this very form, that of a prophetic lawsuit. The psalmist intones, "I will testify against thee" (50:7). Abinadi does precisely that.

           --Psalm 50:8–14 makes it clear that the Lord prefers thanksgiving and devotion rather than sacrifices. To the same effect, Abinadi requires the commandments of God to be "written in your hearts" (Mosiah 13:11). If God "were hungry," he had no need for man to give him bullocks or goats, for all the world is already his (Psalm 50:12); therefore the purpose of sacrifice must be something else. As Abinadi explains, the laws of sacrifice were given as spiritual "types of things to come" (Mosiah 13:31).

           --Psalm 50:15 promises that, "in the day of trouble" if the righteous will call upon him, he "will deliver" them. Abinadi makes it clear that if the wicked people of Noah call upon God, "[he] will not hear their prayers, neither will [he] deliver them" (Mosiah 11:25).

           --Psalm 50:16–21 shows that Pentecost also became a day of stern admonition. People were chastised who rejected instruction and collaborated with lawbreakers: "What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, . . . seeing thou hatest instruction? . . . When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers" (vv. 16–18). Transgressors were reprimanded publicly: "But I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes" (v. 21). Surely Abinadi reproved and then set the teachings of the Lord in perfect order openly, before the very eyes of Noah and his priests.

           --A warning like Abinadi's must have been especially potent on a day when the people were venerating the law. Psalm 50:16 asks what a person must do in order to teach the law, "to declare my statutes." The implicit answer is that one must keep the law. This is exactly Abinadi's point: "And again he said unto them: If ye teach the law of Moses, why do ye not keep it?" (Mosiah 12:29). Both Psalm 50 and Abinadi particularly condemn those who wrongfully become rich and those who commit whoredoms (Psalm 50:18; Mosiah 12:29).

           --Otherwise, God will "tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver" (Psalm 50:22). This compares with Abinadi's words, "and the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts, shall devour their flesh" (Mosiah 12:2), and "none shall deliver them" (11:23).

           --Moreover, Psalm 50 ends with the assurance "to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God" (v. 23). Showing the "salvation" of God (Mosiah 12:21, 24, 31, 32; 13:27, 28; 15:14, 18, 24, 27, 28, 31) was exactly what Abinadi explicitly and comprehensively did. His closing statement even began with the headline "The time shall come when all shall see the salvation of the Lord" (16:1).

      •   Psalm 82, the other Pentecost psalm identified by Weinfeld, sings of the time when that salvation will be seen. Recognizing that "ye are gods, and all of you are children of the most High" (v. 6), the psalmist still reminds Israel that all people must "die like men" (v. 7). Nevertheless, all the earth will yet be judged (v. 8). Abinadi also expounds on the theme of "who shall be his seed?" (Mosiah 15:10)— namely, "all those who have hearkened unto [the prophets'] words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins" (v. 11). He then speaks soberly about death and dying (vv. 19–20) and being raised to stand before God to be judged (15:21–16:12).

Taken together, these details all point to one conclusion: No other day on the ancient Israelite calendar fits the message, words, and experience of the prophet Abinadi more precisely or more appropriately than does the ancient Israelite festival of Pentecost. It is thus ironic that, at the very time when Noah and his people would have been celebrating the law, the most unfortunate judicial result in Nephite history should have taken place.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Interview with John L. Sorenson

John Sorenson, author of the recent book Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book and many articles and books on the Book of Mormon recently participated in and Q & A with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. This three part interview can be found on the Maxwell Institute blog here

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Lamanite Alliances in the Book of Alma

Ryan Tanner guest posting at  Warfare and the Book of Mormon has some thoughtful insights into the political background of Alma 47 that is worth reading

Lamanite Alliances, Spheres of Influence, and Historical Complexity, Part I


Lamanite Alliances, Spheres of Influence, and Historical Complexity, Part II