1 Nephi 17:22 — LeGrand Baker — The Brothers’ Rebellion

1 Nephi 17:22 

22. And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.

This can be read two ways, but we suspect Nephi had only one in mind. The first way is to read it with disdain. The evil brothers were misusing the word “righteous” and were giving the people in Jerusalem credit they could not possibly deserve.

The second, and we think the more correct, is that the brothers knew exactly what they were saying, that their argument was not only sound in their thinking, but technically correct; and that it was because of the technical correctness of their argument that Nephi chose to include this incident as part of his story. The English word “righteous” is translated from the Hebrew zedek. In the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon, “righteousness” usually means priesthood and temple correctness, that is doing the precisely right thing at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, with the right authority, saying the right words, and dressed the right way.

If Nephi’s brothers had accepted Josiah’s religious innovations, and were using the word “righteous” to mean simply following the prescribed pattern in religious ritual, then their argument would seem sound enough. They said, “And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people.” Nephi’s reply does not challenge his brothers’ argument, only their definition of “righteousness.”

Rather than discussing whether the king, High Priest, and their followers at Jerusalem were doing the temple sacrifices, festivals in a form that seemed to follow the rules of the Law of Moses, Nephi asked about the Canaanites who were in the land before the Israelites came. He asks if they were righteous. To us that is a relevant question, and may imply that the apostate religions of the Canaanites looked from the outside very much like the religion from which they had apostatized. We can know from the discoveries of the ancient libraries of Ras Shamra that some of the Canaanite religious practices were similar to those of the Israelites.{1}

It appears that Nephi acknowledges his brothers’ contention that the people at Jerusalem seem righteous because they have perpetuated some of the works required by the Law of Moses. But by this acknowledgment he does not concede either the validity or correctness of those works or of his brothers’ conclusion that they were truly righteous as he and his father would define the word. Rather, he insists on the correct definition of “righteousness.” Nephi achieves that by recounting the story of Moses’s deliverance from Egypt (1 Nephi 17: 23-40). Nephi’s statement to his brothers may be read as simply a quick review of their ancient history, but it would seem relevant if we understood it to be his reminding them of the Feast of Tabernacles temple drama and of the covenants they made during those ceremonies.
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FOOTNOTE

{1} For a discussion of the libraries of Ugarit and what they teach us about the Canaanite religion, see, “Part 1, The Modern Re-discovery of the Ancient Israelite Feast of Tabernacles Temple Drama in the Old Testament,” in Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord.
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