2 Nephi 9:1-7 — LeGrand Baker — Keys to Ancient Israelite Religion
I have appreciated Richard Dilworth (Dil) Rust’s comments on Jacob’s teachings — and I look forward to what else he promises to say. Dil has observed that Isaiah is extremely important to our understanding of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I would like to mention why that is so.
Discovering the religion of the ancient Israelites before the Babylonian captivity is not as simple as it appears on the surface, and, surprisingly, the Bible is not as good a source as one might think. Even though much of the Old Testament tells about time before the exile, a good part of that was written after the exile, so seems to reflect the religion of the period in which it was written rather than the religion of the period it tells about. From the pre-exilic period, we have the words of Moses and Isaiah; some minor prophets; and some poetic works and wisdom literature; but that is about all. Most scholars believe that the historical portions of the Bible (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, etc.) were either written or severely edited after the Babylonian captivity. Consequently, they tell the post-exilic official version of their early history and religion, but they are not a contemporary record, and that “official” reflects much of the apostasy which had already occurred. Lemche explains it this way,
In the Old Testament a number of texts — to a large degree to be found in the book of Psalms, but also elsewhere — seemingly testify to religious beliefs which are obviously not in accordance with the official version of the religion as given by the historical literature….The most important evidence of this state of religious affairs may be Deut. xxxii 8-9, in the LXX version, according to which Yahweh seems not to be identified with El Elyon but is considered a son of this mighty creator of the world. Other important testimonies are Ps. lxxxii and Ps. lxxxix 6-9, in that both testify to the belief in a divine pantheon in Israel, although Yahweh is obviously considered to be the king of the assembly of the gods….It now looks as if the description of the Israelite religion in the formative period of the nation as a religion which contained a strictly monotheistic faith has to be surrendered in favor of another picture of the religious development…Still, we are sorely without knowledge as to the content of their religion, and no source available can prove that the religion of the early Israelites was ever a monotheistic one, whether Yahwistic or no….I would say: so much for the presumed original Israelite monotheism! (Niels Peter Lemche, “The Development of the Israelite Religion in the Light of Recent Studies on the Early History of Israel,” in Congress Volume, Leuven, 1989 (Louvain, Belgium, E.J. Brill, for the International Organization fro the Study of the Old Testament, 1991), 109, 112-113, 115.
H. H. Rowley, The Old Testament and Modern Study, A Generation of Discovery and Research (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951), contains several essays on the history of academic discussions about the authorship and historicity of the books of the Old Testament. The three which are of most immediate interest to our studies are: N. H. Snaith, “The Historical Books,” p. 84-114; Aubrey R. Johnson, “The Psalms,” p. 162-209; and G. W. Anderson, “Hebrew Religion,” p. 283-310.)
This argument, that the historical books of the Old Testament were written after the Babylonian captivity and reflect the religion of the post-exilic rather than the pre-exilic Jews, has important implications to any study of the Book of Mormon. Lehi left Jerusalem a few years before the Babylonian captivity. Therefore, the religion of the Nephites should reflect the belief in a pantheon and that Jehovah is the Son of God as in the religion of the pre-exilic Jews. But it must not reflect the idea that Jehovah is alone in the godhead, which was the idea adopted by the post-exilic Jews. If that test were used to determine whether the Book of Mormon is an accurate reflection of the pre-exilic Israelite religion, the Book of Mormon passes with flying colors.
If these scholars are correct, and the evidence seems to indicate they are, then we have only small windows through which to see the religion of David, Solomon and the pre-exilic prophets. Let me give an analogy of the problem that poses. Having only those sources and trying to discover a complete theology is analogous to the challenge one might have if he tried to discover the theology of Latter-day Saints by reading only the Documentary History of the Church (which is the story of our beginnings as the books of Moses is the story of theirs), a collection of Conference addresses by Wilford Woodruff (which we might put in place of one of the ancient prophets), a single General Conference address by about half a dozen different general authorities (the minor prophets), and some of the words of the temple ceremony without any indication at all of what those segment were about or in what sequence or context they were spoken (the Psalms). Those sources would be important, of course, but they would also be inadequate. The list does not even include the standard works, just as our Bible does not include their ancient scriptures, such as the unedited books of Moses and the books of Enoch, Abraham, Joseph, Zenos etc.
Except for the book of Job, everything in our Bible was written by or after the time of Moses. But there can be little question but that the people who lived while our Bible was being written had ancient scriptures of their own. The complete Book of Enoch is just one probable example. The Book of Enoch was considered scripture by both Jews and early Christian. For example, 1 Enoch 1:9 is quoted as scripture in Jude 1:14. Our problem in trying to discover the ancient Israelite theology is about as difficult as trying to discover Latter-day Saint theology using only the sources I mentioned above.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel were both written at the time of the captivity and are about what was happening then, and prophecies about what would happen in the future. There are theological statements in them of course, but hardly enough to reconstruct even the basic assumptions of their theology on subjects other than those immediately addressed.
So that leaves basically foun places to look. The books of Moses, Job, Psalms, and Isaiah. Job is a review of the temple sequence with great emphasis on this lonely, dreary world. It also contains relatively little theology.
So our two most valuable sources in the pursuit of the ancient Israelite religion are the books of Psalms and Isaiah. The Psalms are quoted in the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as in the Book of Mormon. Many scholars believe that the Psalms are the very words which were spoken an sung of their endowment/enthronement temple ceremony.All we have to do is discover the context in which those words were spoken (probably sung) and we can know a great deal about the theology of ancient Israel, as well as their enthronement/ endowment ceremonies. But that is exceedingly difficult because they were re-arranged in the post-exilic period so their arrangement is no longer in the sequence which gives them a story line. In Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, Stephen Ricks and I have put many of them back in the order of the temple drama.
That leaves Isaiah as one of the best source in the Old Testament by which one might discover the ancient religion of Israel. Scholars agree that Isaiah is heavily dependent upon the Psalms for its ideas and some of its words. So the key to unlocking Isaiah is the Psalms. Knowing what the Psalms are makes it possible to restate that by saying the key to unlocking Isaiah is the temple.
I suppose that the Brass plates contained many of the Old Testament scriptures which are lost to us. So Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi, the Saviour and others might have quoted Enoch or Abraham just as well as Isaiah. But they didn’t. They quoted the one major source which we could turn to in our Bible to learn the fulness of the ancient gospel. Those long quotes in the Book of Mormon let us compare the Isaiah of the Bible with the Isaiah of the brass plates. The upshot of that comparison is that the Bible’s Isaiah is remarkably accurate (except for the Cyrus part stuck in during the Exile). So in the Book of Mormon we not only have confirmation that the Bible’s Isaiah is mostly dependable, but we have the repeated admonition to read it and discover the ancient religion for ourselves. We also have a good deal of help in doing that as the Saviour and the greatest of the Book of Mormon prophets read it to us and explain what it means.