Mosiah 13:25-35 — LeGrand Baker — Salvation and the Law of Moses
Abinadi’s argument here is the same as Paul’s in the first 7 chapters of Romans and in Galatians. That is, that the Law of Moses cannot save anybody; that the performances of the Law were intended to remind one of the Saviour; and that one’s redemption can only come through the atonement of Christ.
The more I study the Old Testament, and the Book of Mormon, the more I become convinced that we do not now have enough information to actually know what “the Law of Moses” was. The Book of Mormon is not a good source, because Mormon assumed we would know and didn’t bother to tell us – And even if we didn’t know, he didn’t tell us because that isn’t what the Book of Mormon is about. The Old Testament is a good source to know what Paul was talking about when he referred to the Law, but it only helps a little when we want to know what the Book of Mormon prophets meant by “the Law of Moses.” I have mentioned that before, in passing, but would now like to address it more fully. As I write this I am acutely aware that I am only an historian, and not a prophet who actually knows. Historians are people who try to understand their world through a rear view mirror. We see only a small portion of what was actually out there; but we often write as though what we see is all there ever was. In fact, all we can see is that little bit of information which by chance happened to survive. What survived may not have been the things which were most important, but we treat it as though it was. We draw conclusions and make judgements about what it all means based upon our own learning and experience, rather than on the cultural and personal experiences of the people who actually lived back then. I fall into those traps as much as anyone else. I wrote all that as a disclaimer which you may translate to mean this: What I am about to write is only my opinion, and it’s probably not what you learned in Sunday School class, so if you don’t like it, I will deny that I ever wrote it.
Let me begin by making some observations about the nature of restoration of the Gospel in Joseph Smith’s day.
Teaching the gospel has to be a culturally related thing. That is, because we learn new truths by relating them to truths we already know, most of what we learn is just a new bit added to the old. That is true whether we are learning chemistry, political philosophy, or the gospel. It is exceeding difficult – almost impossible – for us to learn information that is 100% new. For that reason, when the Prophet restored the gospel he and the missionaries had to teach a gospel which was understandable to people who grew up in a Christian-Protestant culture. I do not believe, as some have suggested, that he translated the Book of Mormon into the language of his back- country New York contemporaries. But I do believe that he preached the gospel to them in that language. The history of the church throughout Joseph’s lifetime, is the story of building line upon line, precept upon precept – of his slowly introducing new ideas which they could then relate to his earlier new ideas, until he was able to teach them the temple, and deliver the King Follett discourse. It is my belief that he as easily could have given that discourse on the evening of the first day the church was organized. But if he had tried to do so, it is likely that most of the people present would have gotten up and walked out.
From Joseph’s day, to the present, the history of the development of the “policies of the church” have been in part the story of cultural and circumstantial ccommodation – I do not mean that in any way which might suggest either criticism or non-revelation. Let me give you some obvious examples. 1) Until 1888, the focus of the church’s missionary work was the gathering to Zion. After that the focus changed to becoming an international church. It took more than half century for that transition to be made, but in the 1950’s President McKay announced that the gathering had officially ended and that all people were to stay where they were and increase Zion in that place. 2) Another example: the word of wisdom was given by the Prophet, but not until President Grant’s day was it announced that people who did not keep the word of wisdom could not go to the temple. The timing of that announcement proved to be critical to the greater mission of the church. Within a few years WWII happened, Mormon boys were drafted and sent to war. The word of wisdom was their badge of identification, both to themselves and to others. It gave them the need to unite into small church groups, and it helped provide coherence to the people in those groups. After the war, they came home, got educated through the GI bill, and began to scatter to the major cities of the US to find jobs to go with their new educations. Then they again did what they had learned to do while they were in the military. They sought out other members of the church, met together on Sundays, organized small branches, and eventually became the nucleus of wards and stakes in cities all over the country. It is possible all that could have happened without President Grant’s decision about the Word of Wisdom, but it would have been much less likely.
3) Those of you who went to the temple for the first time as many years ago as I did will recall that part of the ceremony used to be about Mormons in a Protestant environment. That part was not vital to the ceremony, but it helped give the temple message a relevant interpretation. That interpretation would have been meaningless to people living in South America, Africa, or Japan – but that was OK because there were no temples there. Then the ceremony was changed – none of the important things were taken out, but all the culturally oriented things were removed so that it becameana-culturalceremony. Assuch,itisasmeaningfulinUtahasitisinAfrica,South Africa, Japan, China, Russia or anywhere else. Removing the Protestant oriented cultural characteristics from the ceremony was probably a necessary prerequisite to establishing small temples all over the world. 4) Another example which I will not have to explain is the changing of the duties of the Quorums of Seventy. That’s what I meant when I wrote the “policies of the church” accommodate to the time and place. I wrote, “policies of the church” but did not write “doctrines of the gospel.” The doctrines of the gospel do not change, but the cultural package in which those doctrines are taught may be very different from one dispensation to another.
The Law of Moses was apparently that kind of cultural packaging. Moses had to teach the gospel to a people who had been steeped in Egyptian culture for 400 years, and who were moving into Canaan where most of the people were apostates. He had the Melchizedek Priesthood, and so did Aaron and others. (Moses, Aaron, and 70 others went on the mountain and saw God. D&C 84 says no one can see God who does not have the Melchizedek priesthood.) Moses’ Tabernacle was a Melchizedek priesthood temple. I assume that from a statement in the D&C which is about the purpose of the Nauvoo temple. It says, “For, for this cause I commanded Moses that he should build a tabernacle, that they should bear it with them in the wilderness, and to build a house in the land of promise, that those ordinances might be revealed which had been hid from before the world was.” (D&C 124:38) If those ordinances done in Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple were the same as the ones done in the Nauvoo Temple, then both of those ancient Israelite structures must have been Melchizedek priesthood temples. Moses received his priesthood from his father-in-law Jethro who was a priest and prince of Midiah. That is very important. It means that at the time of Moses there was at least one group of people who were not Israelites who had the Melchizedek priesthood, and therefore must have also had the fullness of the gospel. To show that there was one such group of people is not sufficient evidence to prove that there was more than one, but it is evidence that just because the Israelites rejected the fulness of the Gospel, it does not follow that everyone else in the ancient Near East had also rejected the gospel and that the gospel could not be found on the earth at that time. (The most recent issue of the Biblical Archaeological Review has an article which says there were non-Israelite temples outside of Israelite territory which were dedicated to the worship of Jehovah.)
D&C 84 says the Melchizedek priesthood was taken from the Israelites, and they were left with the Aaronic priesthood. Then that revelation does a 12 or 14 hundred year leap and says John the Baptist was a legitimate heir to that priesthood. Some have taken that to mean that, except for a few individuals, the Melchizedek priesthood did not function among the Israelite people during that 1200 or so years, but the D&C does not say that. Indeed, both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon strongly imply that was not true.
Nephi says that the Israelites could not have occupied the land if the people who lived there had not already apostatized and corrupted the principles of the Gospel. Evidence of that apostasy is very strong when one considers that the Lord told Moses they were to cleanse the land of its wicked inhabitants. Joshua’s armies did not complete that cleansing, and the implication is that they should have done. But one of the cities which was left untouched by the Israelites for about 300 years was Jerusalem. Then, when it was captured by David, all sorts of strange things began to happen.
David began to act as though he had the Melchizedek priesthood. He was not a Levite who could hold the Aaronic priesthood, yet he used the Urim and Thummim. He spoke with God as prophets do. He planned to build that temple the D&C mentions, in which Melchizedek priesthood ordinances would be performed. He is credited with having written the Psalms which are the text of that temple’s ceremonies. The New Year’s festival – if it was anything like how I understand it to have been – could not possibly be considered to be anything except a Melchizedek priesthood ceremony. David’s son, Solomon, who built the Temple, talked with God, and therefore must have had the Melchizedek priesthood. So did Hezekiah, the king of Judah who was a close friend of Isaiah.
Every so often in that part of the Old Testament that deals with the history before the Babylonian captivity, there appears a group called “the prophets.” Scholars don’t know what to make of them, and have suggested they were itinerant shamen or magicians. These prophets watched when Elijah and Elisha went into the wilderness together, then were amazed at Elisha’s story of Elijah’s being carried off to heaven before his eyes. I have wondered if these people were actually the leaders of the ancient Church. The Old Testament does not say there was a pre-exilic church among the Jews, but Nephi tells us that Laban was among “the brethren of the church” (1 Ne 4:26), so I suppose there was such an organization among the Jews in Old Testament times.
At the time of, or shortly before and after, the Babylonian captivity, Lehi, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel (who was probably about the same age as Nephi), and the three young men in the blazing furnace, all saw God. If we can assume, as the D&C tells us, that one must have the Melchizedek priesthood to see God, then we can assume that Israelites who were in a variety of places had the Melchizedek priesthood. Lehi was on his way to America. Jeremiah was at Jerusalem, Ezekiel was somewhere in Mesopotamia. Daniel and his three friends were in Babylon. However, withing 150- 200 years after that, there is almost no evidence that there was a functional group of Melchizedek priesthood holders.
Now to return to the question of what was the “Law of Moses.” When Paul spoke of the Law, he included the law of circumcision, which was not instituted by Moses, but by Abraham. In Paul’s day, the Pharisees controlled the temple and the “official” Jewish religion. Their official canon of scriptures became the Jewish canon after the destruction of the Temple, and was adopted by the Christians as our Old Testament. When the Pharisees spoke of the Law, they meant whatever Moses said, plus and minus whatever they had added to or subtracted from the performances of the Law since Moses’ time. So in New Testament times, it appears that when Paul spoke of the “Law” he meant something like “current Jewish practices.”
Much of our Old Testament was written after the Babylonian captivity. At about that same time, the Jews (who were then part of the Persian empire, so did not have their own independent kingdom with its independent king) substantially changed their religion to fit their new political situation and apostate beliefs. They abandoned the old godhead which consisted of Elohim, Jehovah, and a heavenly Council, and replaced it with monotheism – worshiping only Jehovah, but not understanding that Jehovah would also be the Messiah. They didn’t take the name Elohim out of their scriptures, they just did what the Christians would later do – acknowledge that there was a Father and a Son, by merging them into one god.
When the post-exilic Jewish leaders changed their religion, they also changed their history, and (according to Margaret Barker) they also changed their calendar, and the times and ceremonies of their sacred festivals. Also see the chapters on the Jewish apostasy after the Babylonian captivity in Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord.
Barker and many other scholars believed that the Books of Moses were either written or severely edited at that same time. The Book of Mormon shows sufficient evidence that Moses wrote the books of Moses, but all one has to do is compare the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price to the book of Genesis, to discover that some editor with a pen had a hey day with the scriptures.
The results of that post-exalic apostasy, and the editing that went along with it, were these: 1) The books of Moses, perhaps especially Leviticus, were edited so that the only instructions left regarding the sacred ceremonies were those which had nothing to do with the Melchizedek priesthood, the king, or the people’s participation. 2) When Kings and Chronicles were written (First and Second Kings were originally one book, so was First and Second Chronicles) the parts of the temple ceremony and coronation rites, which necessarily would have included Melchizedek priesthood rites, were simply left out. There can be no question about whether they were once there: The Psalms and the last half of Isaiah is sufficient evidence of that, and the Book of Mormon is full of it
As in the Book of Mormon, it appears to me that after David and the Temple, the people in the Old Testament continued to express their Melchizedek priesthood gospel understanding by using both the rites and ordinances of the Law of Moses and those associated with the Jerusalem Temple. But unlike in the Book of Mormon, the Melchizedek priesthood was taken away from the Jews a second time, sometime during the second temple period. The Jews were taken to Babylon in about 587 B.C. – 13 years after Lehi left to come to America – Cyrus decreed they might return to Jursalem in 537 B.C. Malachi prophesied almost exactly a hundred years later, 432 BC. After that – darkness – until John the Baptist.
What we don’t know is just what it was that Abinadi called the Law of Moses. It certainly included the laws of animal sacrifice prescribed by the Law. But we can’t be sure exactly what that was or how it was understood to represent the atonement of Christ, because all we have to tell us is the edited version of the Books of Moses in the Old Testament, where much of those things have been edited out. Abinadi’s “Law” may also have included
Melchizedek Priesthood rites and ordinances which may have been re-taught to the Israelites by the Jesubite inhabitants of Jerusalem when David conquered the city, and before his son built the Temple. The latter seems to have been so, because Abinadi makes references to temple and coronation principles which suggest that king Noah and his priests were adhering to many of the outward performances of Melchizedek kingship rites.
Now, after all that, let me finally get around to the point I was wanting to make. It is this: We do not, and probably cannot, know what priesthood sacrifices, rites, and ordinances were performed by Noah and his governing priests. Nor can we know what was being referred to by Abinadi when he used the phrase, “the Law of Moses.” It may have been only animal sacrifices, or more probably, it may have included the full range of Aaronic and Melchizedek rites and ordinances proscribed in the Brass Plates. What we can know, from the testimonies of both Paul and Abinadi is this: What one does, in the performance of religious services, is not sufficient to save.