1 Nephi 1:4 — LeGrand Baker — Historical Background to the Reign of Zedekiah

Sometimes the best way to understand what is going on in the Book of Mormon is to relate it to the history, religion, or culture of the Old Testament. That is certainly true of the beginning of First Nephi. What follows is a brief attempt to provide an historical context for Nephi’s story. It seems appropriate to begin about 130 years earlier, in 728 B.C., with the reign of Hezekiah and conclude in 587 when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.

I am using as sources for the dates the chronology in the LDS Bible Dictionary and various articles from the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vols. (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1991

Briefly, the chronology of that period is this:

740 — Isaiah chapter 6 begins in the year that King Uzziah died
728 – 697 — Hezekiah, king of Judah
721 or 722 — End of the northern kingdom of Israel; Assyrians deported the Ten Tribes to northern Mesopotamia.
697 – 642 — Manasseh, king of Judah
642 – 640 — Amon, king of Judah
640 – 609 — Josiah, king of Judah.
628 — Jeremiah began to prophesy during the time of Josiah
609 — Jehoahaz, king of Judah, removed by Necho king of Egypt
609 – 598 — Jehoiakim made king of Judah by Necho
598 – 597 — Jehoiachin, king of Judah
597 — Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem; Jehoiachin taken as a captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar; Daniel and Ezekiel also taken to Babylon
597 — Zedekiah made king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar
597 — Nephi begins his narrative in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah. Soon after that, Lehi and his family leave Jerusalem
587 – Babylonians capture Jerusalem a second time, They destroy the city and the Temple; They deport all but the poorest Jews; Zedekiah taken as a captive to Babylon

There are two reasons to begin with the reign of Hezekiah. First, it was during his time that the Ten Tribes became “lost.” Second, Isaiah’s writings play a major role in the Book of Mormon. Hezekiah and Isaiah were contemporaries and good friends. Together they played a pivotal role in the history of Judah. Knowing Isaiah’s place in history helps us understand the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon.

In the days of Hezekiah and Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was the most aggressively expansive that the ancient Near Eastern world had ever known.

The meaning of empire had been redefined in 745 when Tiglath-pileser III (called Pul in the Bible) seized the Assyrian throne. Before his time, wars usually had been fought to obtain slaves, plunder, tribute, and commercial advantage; but now, Tiglath-pileser began aggressive wars with the intent of expanding his administrative territory. From Nineveh, his capital (located on the east side of the Tigris river, about halfway between the river’s headwaters to the north and the city of Babylon to the south), his empire reached to the south beyond Babylon and on to the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; eventually, it stretched southwest to include the lands of Syria, Israel, and Egypt. To guarantee the success of their empire, the Assyrians developed a policy of deporting conquered people to distant territories and then repopulating the vacated land with conquered people imported from other lands. It was assumed that people who were separated from their homes, their traditions, and their local gods, would not have the patriotic cohesion to start a rebellion in their strange new surroundings.

By 734 the Assyrian empire had covered much of the northern and eastern part of the fertile crescent and was beginning to threaten the western side along the Mediterranean and toward Egypt. In response, Israel and Syria formed a defensive coalition against Assyria, and tried to force Ahaz, king of Judah, to join them. They threatened to invade Judah and replace the king if he did not meet their demands. Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-pileser for help. He responded with vigor, and, in 732, conquered Syria, deported much of its population, and made it part of his empire.

Nine years later, in 721, the Assyrians conquered Israel and deported most of its inhabitants to northern Mesopotamia and Media. The northern kingdom of Israel, the “Ten Tribes,” had lasted about two centuries after they separated from Judah following Solomon’s death. The Assyrians left only the poorest people in the land, and then brought in other peoples whom they had conquered. In time, these foreigners merged with the remaining Israelites to become the Samaritans whom we know from the New Testament.

A few years before the defeat of the ten northern tribes of Israel, Hezekiah became king at Jerusalem.

As the Assyrians became more aggressive, it became apparent that they would try to extend their empire along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and to Egypt. As that time approached, Hezekiah made preparations for war. He made other preparations also. The people of Israel, the ten tribes, were mostly apostate, but some still worshiped Jehovah. Hezekiah provided an excuse for those faithful to flee from the impending Assyrian invasion by sending messangers through Israel to invite them to come to Jerusalem for Passover (2 Chronicles 30:1-11). The Bible says many responded and came.

Against the advice of Isaiah, Hezekiah allied himself with Egypt in defense against further Assyrian encroachments, then he prepared for war. His engineers cut a tunnel 1,750 feet long through the solid rock under Jerusalem from the Gihon spring in the Kidron valley to bring water into the city. It would also deprive an invading army of water during a siege. Even though Isaiah opposed the alliance with Egypt, he prophesied that Jerusalem would be saved from the Assyrian invaders (2 Kings 19:1-34).

As expected, Sennacherib, the new king of Assyria, brought an army south along the Mediterranean coast. They soundly defeated an Egyptian force, then turned on Jerusalem. A large contingent of the Assyrian army surrounded the city and prepared for a long siege. An account of what happened next was found by archaeologists excavating in Nineveh. Sennacherib had boasted that he had shut up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” but that was his face-saving version of the story.

The prophet had promised, “Jerusalem shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.” The Assyrians had mockingly quoted that prophecy (2 Kings 19:10), but later the Bible description of what happened to the besieging Assyrian army tells how the promise was fulfilled.

35 And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.
36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.
37 And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead (2 Kings 19:35-37).

The sudden deaths in that part of the Assyrian army spared Jerusalem and prevented its people from being scattered, but did not keep Judah out of the grip of the Assyrian empire.

Hezekiah is reported to have been the best of all the kings of Judea. He and Isaiah successfully reformed the religious practices of the Jews and brought them back into conformity with the laws of Jehovah. But Manasseh, his son and successor, turned away from Jehovah and made Baal worship the state religion. Manasseh seized Isaiah, then offered to spare him if he would worship Baal. When Isaiah refused, the king had him stretched out and “sawed him asunder with a wood-saw.”{1}

Manasseh ruled for 45 years, the longest reign in Judah’s history (687-42). After that, the Jews never fully recovered from the apostasy he had begun. When he died (only about 50 years before Lehi left Jerusalem), he was succeeded by his son who was soon assassinated. His grandson Josiah was proclaimed king when he was only eight years old. During his minority, the regents and real rulers of Judah were the temple priests.

Because the Assyrian empire had begun to crumble from internal weakness, by 628 when Josiah was 20 years old, his kingdom had become politically and financially independent. There were small temples scattered throughout Judea. Menahem Haran explains:

In addition to the twelve or thirteen temples listed so far, ancient Israel may have known some other temples which have left no trace whatsoever in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable assumption that any addition to this list (which would have to be based on new, extra-biblical evidence) would be insignificant, and that the total number of Israelite temples can not have been much greater than that which emerges from the biblical records.{2}

Josiah and his priests closed the local small temples{3} and sanctuaries that were dedicated to Jehovah, and centralized the collecting of tithes and offerings under the control of the priestly bureaucracy at the Jerusalem Temple.{4}

Beginning with the reign of Josiah and the priests, the most important religious practices of the worship of Jehovah were also changed. One of the strongest evidences of that change is that Josiah ordered that the Ark should no more be carried outside the Temple. The record simply says:

3 And said unto the Levites that taught all Israel, which were holy unto the Lord, Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon the son of David king of Israel did build; it shall not be a burden upon your shoulders: serve now the Lord your God, and his people Israel (2 Chronicles 35:3)

If the Ark could no longer be taken from the Temple, then those ceremonies conducted annually outside the Temple—probably including most or all of the Feast of Tabemacles temple drama{5} —were abandoned.{6} Josiah replaced the temple drama with a prolonged Feast of the Passover and seems to have sought to validate the change in the minds of the people by providing great amounts of food for everybody for seven days (2 Chronicles 35:3-19).

Josiah ruled for 31 years, until 609 B.C.— Ezekiel and Jeremiah lived most of their early adult lives during the reign of Josiah. Their attitude toward the decreasing righteousness of the Jewish people is a very good gauge by which to judge the changes that were being made in Josiah’s new state religion and carried out by his successors. The near-culmination of this apostasy in Judah was described by Nephi: “and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed” (1 Nephi 1:4).

Lehi may have been several years younger than Josiah. It is rather easy to calculate Lehi’s approximate age at the time he left Jerusalem. In Jewish tradition, the ages when boys did important things was pretty well established by custom. At age 8 days a boy was circumcised. Age 13 was his bar mitzvah. At age 18 to 20 years he married. At age 31 he became a “young man” and could sit in the ruling councils of the synagogue or the Sanhedrin. So the “rich young man” who went away in sorrow when Jesus told him to sell everything was about Jesus’ own age.)

Laman, Lehi’s oldest son, was not yet married, so Laman was not older than 20.
If there had been about 2 years between the births of the sons, Lemuel would not have been older than about 18,
Sam would have been about16.
Nephi would have been about 14. (He describes himself as being “exceedingly young” in 1 Nephi 2:16.)
Lehi and Sariah also had at least one daughter, but we do not have any evidence about when she might have been born.
Lehi was married by about age 20, so if Laman had been the oldest child, that would make Lehi about 40 when he left Jerusalem. (It is possible, however, that Sariah was Lehi’s second marriage.)

If those calculations are correct, then all of Lehi’s four oldest sons had been born during Josiah’s reign. Lehi was a wealthy man whose children would have associated with the aristocracy. That is, if Lehi lived in, or frequented, Jerusalem, his older sons would have known and probably associated with the young men who followed Josiah to the throne.

As the Assyrians had grown weaker, Babylon had grown stronger. Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612, but the Assyrian army was not completely destroyed until three years after that.

In 609, as the Medes and Babylonians gathered for the kill, the Egyptians, who feared a strong Babylon, rushed to assist the Assyrians. Josiah tried to intercede and was mortally wounded during the battle in which the Egyptians routed his army. He died a short time later in Jerusalem.

After Josiah’s death, the Jewish monarchy slowly melted into chaos. Pharaoh Necho was defeated by the Babylonians but his ambition for empire was not diminished. On his way back to Egypt, he stopped at Jerusalem and deposed Josiah’s son Jehoahaz, who had been on the throne only three months. In his place, Necho installed Jehoiakim, another of Josiah’s sons, as king of Judah.

Now that the Assyrians were no longer in the game, the struggle for supremacy was between Babylon and Egypt. Their armies met at Carchemish in 605. There Nebuchadnezzar{7} soundly defeated the Egyptians, but the next day he learned that his father had died, so rather than pursue the Egyptians, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Babylon to secure his place on the throne.

Diplomatically, Jehoiakim was forced to try to keep his balance between these two strong enemies. Geographically, Judah was on the road that the armies of both would have to travel in order to challenge the other. Egypt was the closest, and therefore had been the first to claim dominion over its Jewish neighbor.

When Nebuchadnezzar defeated Necho, Jehoikim tried to avoid trouble by pledging his support to Babylon, but then switched back to Egypt again in 601 when Necho and Nebuchadnezzar fought to a draw. Because of his vacillations, Jehoikim was distrusted by both of his more powerful neighbors, and he was left without a firm ally.

By this time, the prophet Jeremiah was deeply involved in Jewish politics and urged his king to return to the Babylonian fold and stay there, saying that Egypt was too weak to be counted on. Since Lehi was apparently a friend and associate of Jeremiah, one can assume that he and the other prophets Nephi mentions were also taking the same political side. Nephi described the events of only a year later when he reported, “and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” The connotations of that warning seem to be as much about national politics and international relations as they are about religious righteousness. Jeremiah’s history certainly suggests that was so. The prophets were arguing that bad political decisions had been based on bad moral choices. Given the climate of the times, it is not unlikely that Lehi’s political stance as well as his cry for repentance had alienated the people who conspired to take his life.

Late in 598 Jehoiakim died, and his 18-year-old son Jehoiachin came to the throne. Even then, Nebuchadnezzar had already begun his march toward Jerusalem. After he had been king for only three months and 10 days, in the spring of 597, Jehoiachin surrendered Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar. The Jewish king and most of the aristocracy were then transported to Babylon, apparently more as hostages than as slaves, for archaeologists have found records that show that Jehoiachin was well treated while he was there. Other members of the landed and merchant classes were left behind. We know of two specific examples: Lehi, whose estates were not plundered by the Babylonian armies (the boys were able to go back and gather up a good deal of treasure to take to Laban); neither was Laban’s home in Jerusalem. His royal and sacred regalia (including clothing and the sword), and also the brass plates that contained his genealogies and were the official evidence of his aristocratic birth, all remained undisturbed.

Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin’s 21-year-old uncle Mattaniah on the Jewish throne. He gave the young king the new covenant name of Zedekiah{8} (2 Kings 24:17-19), so that name, Zedekiah, represented the covenant relationship between Mattaniah and Nebuchadnezzar. If Zedekiah were to break the treaty his kingship would be forfeited. He did break the treaty and reigned only eleven years, 597-587. He was destined to be Judah’s last king.

Nephi began his father’s history “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah.” If the above chronology is correct, that would have been in 597 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and installed Zedekiah as king.

During that year that Lehi received a commission from the Lord to warn the people of Jerusalem of their impending doom. That is especially interesting in view of the fact that Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion had already passed, and he had made an alliance with Jerusalem’s new king, so Judah’s situation appeared to be stable. In fact, it would prove to be on the edge of disaster. Lehi and his family left sometime after that, but not so late that they did not have time to return twice before Nebuchadnezzar’s final and fatal attack.

The closing act in the complex drama of Judah’s last hundred years was a kind of replay of the previous calamities. Caught in the tensions between Babylon and Egypt, the weak king repeatedly sought Jeremiah’s advice, but then always rejected it. Zedekiah vacillated between keeping his covenants with Nebuchadnezzar and allying himself with Necho, until 589. Then, hanging his hopes on Egyptian promises, Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had toyed with the Jewish kings too long, and this time when he came to Jerusalem with an army to remove Zedekiah from his throne, he would leave the city broken and uninhabitable.

With siege works, Nebuchadnezzar sealed Jerusalem off from the rest of Judah. Then, while the people in the city starved, the Babylonian army systematically decimated the rest of the country (see 2 Kings 25:1-21; Jeremiah 37:21, 39:1-10, 52:1-30; Lamentations 2, 4). The siege of Jerusalem began in 589 B.C., in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign. The city’s walls were breached in July, 587. That would account for why Lehi’s party did not know about the fall of Jerusalem. It took them eight years to get to Bountiful, so they would have been in the new world before Jerusalem was destroyed.

After his first successful invasion, Nebuchadnezzar had taken golden vessels and other treasures from the temple, but otherwise had not damaged the building. After his second invasion, however, his attitude completely changed. The city and the temple were plundered, then the temple was burned along with most of the rest of the city.

Zedekiah and his family tried to escape but were captured and taken before the king of Babylon. There Zedekiah’s sons were killed before his eyes, after which he was blinded so their deaths would be the last thing he ever saw. “Zedekiah” had ceased to exist when he broke his covenant with Nebuchadnezzar.{9} Now Mattaniah, the one-time king, was only a blind slave. He was bound in chains and forced to walk across the desert to Babylon. There he spent the rest of his life climbing the endless stairs of a treadmill—lifting water from a canal into an irrigation ditch. The prophecies of Lehi, Ezekiel (12:13), and Jeremiah (34:2-5) had all been fulfilled.
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FOOTNOTES

{1} The Martyrdom of Isaiah, in R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913),155-62.

{2} Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into Biblical Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly School (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978; reprinted with corrections: Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1985), 39.

{3} For further information on additional Israelite temples, see “Temples,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962),4:560- 68; Beth Alpert Nakhai, “What’s a Bamah? How Sacred Space Functioned in Ancient Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review 20, 3 (May/June, 1994): 18-29, 77- 78. On page 26 there are two photographs of the remains of a small Israelite temple that was probably destroyed as part of Josiah’s crusade against the small temples.

{4} W. Eugene Clabum, “The Fiscal Basis of Josiah’s Reforms,” Journal of Biblical Literature 92, 1 (March 1973): 11-22. For a discussion of other Israelite temples, see Haran, Temples and Temple-service, especially chapter 2, “The Israelite Temples,” and chapter 7, “The Centralizations of the Cult”; Zeev Herzog, “Israelite Sanctuaries at Arad and Beer-Sheba,” Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, 120-22.

{5} See Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord? the chapter titled “Evidences of Ancient Jewish Apostasy,” first edition, 57-74; 2011(paperback) edition, 55-65. For further discussion, see Albertson, “Reflections on the Emergence of a Standard Text”; G. W. Ahlstrom, Joel and the Temple Cult of Jerusalem (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 77 -78, fn. 3; Klaus Baltzer, “Considerations Regarding the Office and Calling of the Prophet,” Harvard Theological Review 61, 4 (1968): 567-82; George A. Barton, The Religion of Ancient Israel (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1961),158-64.

{6} See Margaret Barker, Great High Priest, The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 149.

{7} His name was officially Nebuchadrezzar and is spelled that way in Jeremiah. However, his name Nebuchadnezzar was used in certain accounts and is usually spelled that way in our Bible.

{8} It is almost universally accepted that this is the Zedekiah Nephi mentions. However there is apparently another possibility. Jeremiah 27:1-4 speaks of Jehoiakim as “Zedekiah.”

{9} For a discussion of the significance of new names see Bruce H. Porter and Stephen D. Ricks, “Names in Antiquity: Old, New, and Hidden,” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990).

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