While I was serving in on a mission in England in 1973-1975, one of my investigators made a comment regarding King Benjamin’s speech. He pointed to the chapter 4, verse 2, where it describes the multitude “crying aloud with one voice, saying, “O have mercy and apply the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.” He had a problem with the text reporting that everyone fell to the earth, and everyone made the covenant.
“People don’t behave that uniformly,” he said. “Not everyone would have accepted it. Some would have refused.”
At the time, the best I could do was to remark that, “It was a good speech.” Not surprisingly, this didn’t impress him. I filed his question to a mental back burner, and about a year later, a member in the Lancaster branch loaned me a copy of Hugh Nibley’s 1957 priesthood manual, An Approach to the Book of Mormon. On the next P-Day, I took it with me to the claw-footed iron bathtub in our apartment, thinking that while I soaked, I could read any chapters that seemed interesting.
I read the whole book before I got out of the tub, and was particularly struck by Nibley’s chapter on “Old World Ritual in the New World.” There Nibley demonstrated that King Benjamin’s discourse was a coronation rite, following a thirty-six element pattern. Professor Welch summarizes these as:
… the proclamation, transfer of kingship, assembly around the temple, taking a census, bringing firstlings and offerings, giving thanks for deliverance, dwelling in tents around the temple, the king speaking from a tower, the call or silentium and teaching of the mysteries, hailing the king, homage by the people to the king (which Benjamin rejects), cleansing from sin, acclaiming the king, recounting the story of creation, the king’s ritual farewell and descent into the underworld (which Benjamin refers to as a literal event soon to occur), choirs, ensuring succession to the throne, promises of peace and prosperity, the preservation of records, God preserving his people, promises of never-ending happiness, divination of the future, a day of judgment, falling to the ground before the king, seeing all men as equals, the closing acclamation, making of a covenant, receipt of a new name, begetting of the human race, concern about standing in the proper place, having a seal, recording names in a register, appointing priests to remind people of their covenant, and dismissal.” 1
Notice that all those attending the ceremony are expected to both fall to the ground, and to make a covenant. The very things that my investigator found troubling when considered in light of his personal modern experience transformed into evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon when considered in light of the ancient context.
Indeed, when he introduced the lesson in the Priesthood manual, Nibley wrote, ”In the writer’s opinion, this lesson presents the most convincing evidence yet brought forth for the authenticity of Book of Mormon. Very likely the reader will be far from sharing this view, since the force of the evidence is cumulative and based on extensive comparative studies that cannot fully be presented here.” 2
Nibley’s insights helped me to understand the meaning of the parable of the Sower. I saw that the same story, the same words, could produce vastly different yields depending on the soil in which it was planted, and the care with which it is nurtured.
In this case, the soil was the context: reading it through modern preconceptions did not tell nearly as much as reading against the ancient setting. As Nephi said, we can’t understand the writings of the ancients unless we study their culture (2 Nephi 25:5). As Jesus told the people in 3 Nephi, we can’t understand it all at once, but must prepare our minds (3 Nephi 17:3).
After that first reading of Nibley completely transformed my reading of King Benjamin, I have found that many other scholars have demonstrated other impressive aspects of the same discourse:
- John Tvedtnes compared it with the ancient Feast of the Tabernacles, and showed that the Benjamin’s speech qualifies.3
- John Welch examined the literary structure, and not only found his first example of chiasmus in King Benjamin’s discourse, but found that the whole discourse is chiastically structured. 4
- Professor Ricks found an ancient treaty-covenant pattern and an “interrelated cluster of concepts in Israelite religion that connects the themes of rising from the dust, enthronement, kingship, and resurrection.” 5
- Professor Thomasson observed the importance of the private rituals preceding the public coronation. 6
- Professor Welch and Professor Szinc of BYU reported on additional patterns from Hebrew ritual. Benjamin’s discourse seems also to be a Day of Atonement, a Sabbath Year, and a Jubilee Year. Other scholars had theorized that before the exile, these three festivals had originally been combined. The Book of Mormon provides unexpected evidence that the theory is correct.
Uttering the Name of the Lord
One of the most striking observations that Professor Welch and Professor Szinc report concerns the divine names used in the text. So holy was the Day of Atonement that on this day the ineffable name of God, YHWH, could be pronounced. During the Yom Kippur service at the temple, the priest could pronounce this sacred name aloud. Later Jewish tradition seems to have the priest utter this name ten times during the Yom Kippur liturgy, and to a similar degree, Benjamin employs the expanded names Lord God and Lord Omnipotent seven and three times, respectively.
Seven of these utterances are in the reported words of the angel to Benjamin (see Mosiah 3:5, 13, 14, 17, 18, 21, 23). It seems more than coincidental that it is in the mouth of an angel that such names appear seven times and that the number seven reflects a “spiritual” perfection. The other three utterances come in the words of Benjamin (see Mosiah 2:30, 41, and 5:15). These three utterances come at important ceremonial breaking points in the speech, not merely at random or inconsequential places.
The response of the people to the pronouncement of the sacred name was singular. According to the Mishnah, each time the people at the temple in Jerusalem heard the sacred name they would fall prostrate on the ground.113
This can be compared with the reactions to King Benjamin’s speech in Zarahemla. When he finished reciting the words of the angel, “he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them” (Mosiah 4:1). It is possible that Benjamin’s people would have fallen down in profound reverence and awe several times when Benjamin spoke the holy name of God, as the Israelites did on hearing the tetragram, according to the Mishnah.7
Professors Welch and Szinc also urge us to visualize the ritual actions that would accompany the words being uttered. For instance, the references to the atoning blood in Mosiah 3:15-16 and 4:2, likely refer directly to the actual sacrifice made during the ritual. Just so, the reference to driving away the ass in Mosiah 5:14 is likely done while the actual scapegoat ritual is being performed. 8
This, it would seem, should be enough new complexity to bring to our reading. Yet there is more. Professor Welch read a study of ancient farewell addresses in which the author demonstrated an ideal 20 element pattern. 9 And compared to these ancient farewell addresses, Benjamin’s discourse fits better than the best one cited in the study.
Even more recently, several LDS scholars have noticed importance of the temple setting. In an essay published in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, I wrote:
The most obvious aspect of the temple in Jerusalem involved the levels of sacredness, increasing from the inner court to the holy place and to the holy of holies. According to Mircea Eliade, the three parts of the temple at Jerusalem correspond to the three cosmic regions. The lower court represents the lower regions (“Sheol,” the abode of the dead), the holy place represents the earth, and the holy of holies represents heaven. The temple is always the meeting point of heaven, earth, and the world of the dead.36
Lehi’s cosmology saw the world in these three realms (heaven, 1 Nephi 1:8; the earth, 1 Nephi 1:14; and the realm of the dead, 2 Nephi 1:14). King Benjamin, speaking from his temple, also sees the cosmos in terms of heaven, the earth, and the realm of the dead (Mosiah 2:25, 26, 41), with entrance into God’s presence as the ultimate joyous state (Mosiah 2:41).
Benjamin’s people come to the temple to have their eyes and ears opened that they may receive the mysteries of God (Mos. 2:9). They receive a Name (Mos 1:12). They listen to a discussion of the creation (Mos. 2:23) and of the fall of Adam (Mos. 3:11). They are warned about the dangers of following the evil spirit (Mos. 2:37), and given a message from a true, angelic messenger (Mos. 3:2). They are told about the saving atonement of Christ (Mos 4:6), They are told to pray (Mos. 4:11), and to keep the commandments by covenant (Mos. 5:8), to look out for one another spiritually and temporally (Mos. 4:21). They are reborn as the “sons and daughters” of Christ (Mos. 5:7).
And still, new insights are still being found. In a new essay on “Instructional Wisdom in the Book of Mormon,” Alyson Von Feldt has found that King Benjamin’s discourse is “structured similarly to Proverbs: it is composed of several sections separated by ceremonial breaks or interludes.” 10 She shows that the “throughout his speech, King Benjamin invokes themes familiar from Proverbs.11Finally, she shows that “thematic and literary similarities between Mosiah 1-5 and proverbs 1-9 lend weigh to the possibility that Proverbs 1-9 has ritual significance.
The instructions, like King Benjamin’s speech, may have been part of a cultic liturgy spoken at an ancient temple ceremony. In that scenario, Wisdom is depicted as a high priestess inviting the spiritually famished to partake of a ritual feast at her temple table — a feast of ordinances, knowledge, and blessings.” 12
I’ve also read in online discussions that LDS Mesoamericanists have compared elements of King Benjamin’s speech to recently discovered Mesoamerican temple murals that date close to Benjamin’s time, not far removed from the area that most LDS scholars see as the most likely setting for Book of Mormon events.
In a discussion of the content of the murals, a non-LDS scholar, Laura Harbold writes: 13
The murals, which depict the Maya creation myth, run along two walls of the nine-by-four-meter chamber. “One of the things that’s neat about these murals is that they imply a sort of narrative tradition,” Saturno says. “It looks like a Maya screenfold book just unfolded and painted on the wall. You see the page breaks; you can tell where the gutter is.” Because the murals depict a cyclical, epic tradition, Saturno says, you can start at any corner and read from left to right.
According to Karl Taube, iconographer for the San Bartolo project, the murals represent an early version of a myth that dominated Maya culture for fifteen hundred years. In the first scene, a man stands in water, sacrificing a fish to the principle bird deity, who perches in the first “world tree.” In the second scene, a man stands on land, offering a deer to a second bird in the second world tree; in the third, he floats in the air, presenting a turkey; in the fourth, he hovers in a field of flowers, offering incense. The four trees represent the four cardinal directions or levels of the cosmos: the underworld, the earth, the sky, and the afterlife.
In the final scene, the Maya maize god stands in front of a fifth world tree, establishing the center of the universe. The bird deity lies slain at the bottom of the tree, dispatched for his arrogance and vanity. The maize god crowns himself king, wearing a headdress made from the body of the bird. The wooden scaffold upon which he sits is the same throne depicted in the coronation of Maya kings for centuries, Taube says.
Another series of murals depicts the life cycle of the maize god — his birth in water, his emergence from the earth bearing the harvest, his death represented by diving back into the water, and his resurrection and second coronation. “The whole narrative leads to the coronation of a named individual,” Saturno says, establishing the maize god as the foundation of Maya kingship.
Those familiar with King Benjamin’s account should notice the reference to the Tower associated with the coronation (see Mos. 2:7). Other points of interest include the reference to the Mayan “screenfold books,” which are “unfolded.” LDS scholars have urged us to remember that Benjamin tells the attending multitude that “the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.” (see Mos. 2:9).
Professor’s Szinc and Welch have compared the references to “drive him away, and cast him out” (Mos. 5:14) to the action in the scapegoat ritual form the Day of Atonement. This in turn, resonates with the imagery of the defeated Bird God at San Bartalo. None of these parallels ought to be seen as proof, but as demonstration that major elements and themes from the Mosiah account fit comfortably with both the roots in Ancient Israel but also in the ancient American setting that it claims for itself.
Professor Allen Christenson has written of the Maya Harvest Festivals in comparison to Book of Mormon accounts.
Benjamin’s address closely parallels the ancient Mesoamerican pattern of harvest festivals in which the life god, or his earthly representative, descends into the underworld and is overcome by evil powers of death and sacrifice. Benjamin begins by declaring to the people that he intends to unfold “the mysteries of God … to [their] view” (Mosiah 2:9). He announces his imminent death and “descent” into the grave (Mosiah 2:26-30). In his absence, he warns the people to beware of the “evil spirit,” “the enemy of all righteousness,” the “enemy to God” who brings destruction upon mankind (Mosiah 2:32-33, 37-38).
It is precisely the descent of the king into the underworld in the Mesoamerican festival at the end of the calendar year which permits the forces of death and evil to reign upon the earth. Although this is usually only a temporary ritual death on the part of the king, the prospect of his actual death was cause for great concern. 14
Planting a Good Seed
This kind of contextualizing enhances my appreciation and depends my understanding of the text. It helps me appreciate how miraculous the translation of the Book of Mormon was. I feel the urgency attached to Alma’s simple question in discussing what happens when we plant a good seed, and feel it grow, feel it expand our minds, enlarge our soul, increase our understanding. “Is this not real?” he asks.(Alma 32:35).
Of course there are critics, who answer, “No,” claiming, for example, that Joseph Smith composed the discourse, based in his experience with Burnt-Over District revivalism. For instance, one critic claims that “the apex of the narrative … depends … fundamentally on a nonbiblical pattern contemporary with Smith” 15 He sees the four-step pattern as “(1) Revival Gathering (Mosiah 2); (2) Guilt-Ridden Falling Exercise (4:1-2a); (3) Petition for Spiritual Emancipation (v. 2b); and (4) Christological Absolution and Emotional Ecstasy (v. 3).” 16
Notice that in developing labels for this four-step pattern, he uses language designed to invoke a 19th century setting and neglects the vocabulary of Book of Mormon text. For example, the gathering in Mosiah in centered around Benjamin’s declaration that Mosiah is to succeed him as King (Mosiah 1:10). Finding a Burnt-Over District revival that met at a temple for the purpose of announcing the succession of the next king would be difficult, to say the least. 17
The occasion for “falling” in Mosiah has distinct ritual theological contexts. The petition for to apply the atoning blood of Christ fits as comfortably in an ancient setting as any 19th century setting. Margaret Barker’s ongoing recovery of Temple Theology has opened up new horizons to consider the frequent claim that the Book of Mormon (and hence, Benjamin), is too Christian before Christ.18 And step four can be matched not only in the 19th century conversion accounts, but by conversion accounts throughout history and across many cultures. 19
To date, no critic who has claimed a 19th century origin for Mosiah 1-5 has confronted the accumulation of studies that I have mentioned here. Although the Book of Mormon can be explained as simply a 19th century composition, the real question is whether that is the best explanation. Any honest declaration of “best” must involve comprehensive comparisons to alternatives, and open declaration of the standards by which “best” is determined.
Back in 1953, Hugh Nibley explained:
But how can we be certain about anything in criticizing the Book of Mormon? To this Blass gives us the answer: the nearest we can get to certainty, he says, is when we have before us a long, historical document, for it is “improbable in the highest degree, and therefore to be regarded at all times as inadmissible that any forger coming later [than the pretended date of authorship] can have the knowledge and diligence necessary to present any quantity of historical data without running into contradictions.” In this, the one sure way of detecting a falsifier, according to our guide, is by those things which he cannot well have succeeded in imitating because they were too trifling, too inconspicuous, and too troublesome to reproduce.
In Lehi in the Desert we said: The test of an historical document lies, as we have so often insisted, not in the story it tells, but in the casual details that only an eye-witness can have seen. It is in such incidental and inconspicuous details that the Book of Mormon shines. 20
Looking at a Fractal
For me, consideration of Benjamin’s discourse is like looking at a fractal. The more closely I look at various studies like the ones I have mentioned here, the more complexity I see. I get the sense that the text is “real”, that it gives a real discourse from a real person to a real audience in a plausible setting. 21
The location of Zarahemla in the Grijalva River valley 22 not only fits the geography and topography, but it links the major linguistic groups. The Nephites entered a Mayan-speaking area. The Mulekites entered a Mixe-Zoque speaking area. The movement of the Mulekites/Zarahemlaites up the Grijalva valley parallels the known movement of Zoque (a daughter language of Mixe-Zoque) up that valley.
This explains why the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites spoke different languages when there was insufficient time for an unintelligible divergence from Hebrew to have occurred. (In only four hundred years some vocabulary would change, but the languages would still have been mutually intelligible.) 23
It also brings to mind Professor Midgley’s challenging comments in the first issue of Review of Books on the Book of Mormon:
From my perspective, the Book of Mormon signals that far more is going on in the restoration achieved through its means than merely an awkward way of providing a random assortment of theological gems that we can fit into our own schema. 24
Benjamin’s discourse is often treated as a collection of “theological gems” that we read without considering their own context. Although we all have to start someplace in our appreciation, and there are some beautiful passages that we can easily treat as quotable “gems,” we should also make a concerted effort to let the text tell us what we don’t already know. It is too easy to skip to the bits we recognize and can then discourse upon easily. Yet, if part of the message of the text is that it is real, we should be all the more attuned to find out what it really says.
As an important example, I’ll refer to a book by Colleen Harrison, He Did Deliver Me From Bondage. One of the many interesting insights she offers concerns the problem of “spiritual dyslexia.” Now, dyslexia is an affliction which leads individuals to perceive words and letters in reverse. As an example of fairly common LDS spiritual dyslexia, she cites a passage in Mosiah 4:14:
And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will he suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel with one another…
Sister Harrison observes that this is a passage that can be very frustrating for a parent if read out of context.
When read in context, Mosiah 4:14 is not a mandate or a command; it is actually a promise! 25
That is, rather than misreading the promise as a command, and trying to coerce our children into submitting to the laws of God, to prevent all their fights and quarreling by sheer “righteous” domination, she finds that as she strove to let Christ into her own heart according to the actual admonitions in Mosiah 4:
I found myself naturally inclined to love and accept, to listen to my children’s feelings and needs… As I changed, my children began to change. My ability to “walk in the ways of truth and soberness” caused them to become more honest and sober also. Their excesses of misbehavior began to diminish even as mine did. Humbling it has been to see that much of the confusion and contention in them had been a reflection of my own behavior. 26
In considering Mosiah, I see much of what Alma describes as “cause to believe.” The strength of my belief should lead me to let the word of Christ grow in my heart, changing me so that I can receive the promised blessings. Then by doing his word, I can grow in discipleship, and truly know not only the truth, but let that truth bring Christ’s freedom into my life.
For myself, I have learned that when I run into questions for which I do not have answers, my best response is 1) give things time, 2), keep my eyes open, and 3) periodically reexamine my own assumptions.
1 John W. Welch and Terry Szinc, “King Benjamin’s Speech,” 202 note 3, in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks., eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom (Provo, FARMS, 1998),
2 Hugh Nibley, “An Approach to the Book of Mormon 2nd ed. Salt Lake City, page 243.
3 John Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of the Tabernacles,” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen A. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also By Faith, v2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 197-237. More recently, Diane Wirth has explored parallels between the Feast of the Tabernacles and the Mayan Cha-Cha’ac ceremony. See her Decoding Ancient America: A Guide to the Archeology of the Book of Mormon ) Springville, Horizon, 2007), “Parallels Between Hebrew and Nephite Festivals: pages, 27-33.
4 John W. Welch Parallelism and Chiasmus in King Benjamin’s Speech,” 315-410 in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks., eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom (Provo, FARMS, 1998),
5 Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant” in Mosiah 1-6” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 233-275.
6 Gordon C. Thomasson, “Mosiah: The Complex Symbolism and Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon.” in Journal of Book of Mormon Stories, vol 2 n 1, pages 21-38.
7 Welch and Szinc, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” 179.
8 Welch and Szinc, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” 178.
9 John W. Welch, “Benjamin’s Sermon as a Traditional Ancient Farewell Address” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 89-118.
10 Alyson Skabelund Von Feldt, “His Secret is With the Righteous: Instructional Wisdom in the Book of Mormon,” (FARMS Occasional Papers, n 5 (Provo, FARMS, 2007), p 68.
11 Ibid., 69.
12 Ibid. 72.
13 https://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2006-11/Portrait_of_the_Past.html, accessed April 27, 2008.
14 Allen J. Christenson, “Maya Harvest Festivals and the Book of Mormon,” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon vol 3 1991. page 28.
15 Brent Lee Metcalfe “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis” in New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1993) p. 421 n. 31.
17 See my discussion in “Paradigms Crossed” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon v7, n2, page 174-176. More recently, Grant Palmer, in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 2002) refers to the same four step pattern, citing not the Metcalfe’s previously published version, but personal correspondence. He refers to a farewell speech at a revival by one Bishop M’Kendree, which is a fair comparison to Mosiah 1-5, but fails to refer to any of ancient comparisons, which draws his claim to be an insider into question.
19 See Stanislav and Christina Grof, Beyond Death: The Gates of Conciousness (London, Thames and Hudson, 1990), 28-30.
20 Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley Vol 8 (Provo and Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1989), page 58-59
21 For a proposed site for Zarahemla, see John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 148-161.
22 For the Grijalva as the only river in the Western Hemisphere that fits the textual description of the Sidon in the Book of Mormon, see Larry Poulson’s page here: https://www.poulsenll.org/bom/grijalvasidon.html
23 Brant Gardner, quoted in Kevin Christensen “Truth and Method” in FARMS Review 16:1.
24 Louis Midgely, “Prophetic Messages or Dogmatic Theology” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, vol 1, page 93.
25 Collen Harrison, He Did Deliver Me From Bondage, 2nd ed. (Pleasant Grove,Windhaven, 2002) A-9.
26 Ibid., A20-A21.