Nephi’s Anti-Reformism and Ancient Israelite Tradition in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi likely lived most of his life in the Old World during the reign of Josiah, who ruled Judah from around 641 to 609 B.C. Josiah is most famous for enacting a number of drastic religious reforms during his reign which resulted from him royally mandating the book of Deuteronomy and including it in the Mosiac law. Among the reforms demanded by the book of Deuteronomy, Josiah centralized worship of Yahweh (Jehovah) to Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:19-20); he removed the religious iconography from the Jerusalem temple, including the asherah and pillars (2 Kings 23:6; cf. Deut. 12:3); he executed priests of gods other than Yahweh (2 Kings 23:5, 20); sacrifices outside of the temple were forbidden; and he attempted to shut down the ‘high places,’ which were temple-like sites across Judah where local peoples traditionally worshipped Yahweh (2 Kings 23:8-9, 19-20; cf. Deut. 33:29).

The Bible speaks extremely favorably of Josiah and his reforms: “And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.” (2 Kings 23:25) Indeed Josiah is only one of two kings spoken of favorably in the Old Testament history, along with his great-grandfather Hezekiah who attempted a similar reform.

But perhaps Lehi of Jerusalem did not look very favorably on Josiah’s reforms–or at least his son Nephi, who authored the narrative of 1 & 2 Nephi, didn’t.  Nephi says, “For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.” (2 Nephi 25:2, emphasis added)  Indeed in his narrative of his father Lehi, Nephi seems to intentionally contrast his father with the corrupt Jewish religion brought about by Josiah’s reforms and attempts to associate Lehi with the more ancient pre-monarchic traditions.

After a brief introduction, Nephi begins his narrative by recounting a theophany of his father.  Lehi was praying for the people of Jerusalem when suddenly a pillar of fire appears and dwells on a ‘rock’ before him (1 Nephi 1:5-6).  The image of the “pillar of fire” draws from the Exodus account of God guiding the Israelites through the wilderness, which is associated with the Tabernacle imagery–perhaps used by Nephi in order to contrast Lehi’s manner of worship with Josiah’s ‘corrupt’ reform of the temple.  Nephi also claims the pillar comes and dwells on a ‘rock’, from the context likely referring to an altar.  Per Josiah’s reforms, sacrifices could only be offered by priests at the Jerusalem temple.  Lehi was neither a priest nor was he at Jerusalem.  After Lehi and family depart into the wilderness, Nephi explicitly notes, “And it came to pass that he [Lehi] built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God” (1 Nephi 2:7).  Again, per Josiah, sacrifices could only be offered by Levitical priests and at the Jerusalem temple.  Lehi clearly disregards Josiah’s new religious laws.  Similarly Nephi ordains his brothers as priests and the Nephites build multiple temples in the  New World, contrary to Deuteronomistic law.

Also in his initial theophany, Nephi describes Lehi seeing “One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day” (1 Nephi 1:9).  Describing deity in solar terms isn’t extremely common in the Old Testament, but it does occur, and is likely reminiscent of an older Israelite theology.  Psalm 84:11 describes Yahweh as “a sun and a shield.”  In some ancient Near Eastern inscriptions, the bull–a symbol for El/Yahweh–is portrayed with a solar disk above him or between his horns.  As part of Josiah’s reform, he removed the solar imagery in the temple: “And he [Josiah] took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun at the entering of the house of the LORD…and burned the chariots of the sun with fire” (2 Kings 23:11).  Nephi’s description of deity using empyreal imagery stands in sharp contrast to Josiah’s condemnation of solar imagery related to deity.

Then in his narrative Nephi includes a brief statement that, at first glance, seems odd and out of context: “And my father dwelt in a tent” (1 Nephi 2:15).  However, as he did at the beginning of his narrative, Nephi seems to be emphasizing his father’s living condition in order to associate his father with the pre-monarchic narratives in the Old Testament.  According to Genesis, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 12:8; 26:17, 25; 31:24) each traveled and dwelt in “tents”.  Abraham and Jacob both built altars and offered sacrifices after pitching their tents, exactly as Lehi does.  Were Nephi just interested in telling us his father’s living conditions, it seems odd that he would mention it multiple times, that he would mention it in such a context, and that he would single out his father–didn’t Nephi, Sam, Sariah, etc. live in a tent too?

Later Nephi details an elaborate vision his father experiences (and which Nephi later shares in experiencing) which focused on the tree of life (1 Nephi 8:10-11; 11:8).  The tree of life imagery is likely associated with the asherah, the images of which were expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy and were removed from the temple by Josiah.  The tree of life imagery perhaps recalls an earlier, pre-Josiah tradition associated with Eden and the temple.

Nephi’s distaste for Josiah’s reform makes sense.  Lehi and Nephi weren’t native Judeans.  They were descendants of Manasseh and thus likely immigrated from the northern kingdom — perhaps at Hezekiah’s request a century before (see 2 Chronicles 30) during Israel’s collapse.   They would have been accustomed to different sacrificial laws and would have likely worshipped at ‘high places,’ the local temple-like sites where sacrifices and prayers were offered.  Indeed the Nephites may have preserved a more ancient–and simpler– form of Israelite religion, largely untainted by Josiah’s reform.