Book Club – Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM ch 5

In chapter 5, “The Jews and the Caravan Trade”, Nibley takes a closer look at what he claims is Lehi’s career in his younger days, a caravan merchant.

“Jewish merchants were very active in Arabia in Lehi’s day, diligently spreading their religion wherever they went, and settling down not only as tradesmen in the towns but as permanent cultivators and colonizers in the open country.”

I think I have only one possible quibble with this statement.  Were Jewish merchants of the day really “diligently spreading their religion wherever they went”?  I view Judaism in the period as rather closed as a religion.  I do not see missionaries being sent out, nor do I see much preaching being done to other nations.  I could be convinced otherwise, but remain unconvinced so far. While Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of other nations, it was not to teach them the gospel, but to foresee their ultimate destruction for how they treated Israel.  Perhaps Jonah’s story is one of the few where a Jew actually went and called a Gentile city to repentance.

Daniel, Ezekiel and others living in Babylon during the Diaspora did not seek to promote the Jewish religion, but only to privately practice it and not have other religions and gods imposed upon them.

Nibley mentions Solomon as having influenced many areas (Queen of Sheba and her lands, for instance). However, Solomon was not a merchant traveling in caravans.  People came to see him for his wisdom.  And Solomon lived several centuries before Lehi, allowing the Israelite state to move from a new mighty nation to one of many states struggling under the hegemony of the Babylonians and Egyptians.

The Roman period Nibley mentions was also different than the Lehi era.  Babylonians and Assyrians spoiled the conquested cities and disbursed the inhabitants to other areas, in order to destroy them as a people, and have them integrate into their culture.  Alexander the Great brought Greek culture and philosophy with him to introduce into the conquered areas.  Rome continued this concept, leaving peoples in place as long as they did not rebel.

As for the requirements for becoming a Jewish convert…. if you think paying ten percent tithing and not drinking alcohol can dissuade some from joining the LDS Church today, imagine what circumcision would do to dissuade people from becoming Jewish!  🙂

“Lehi’s activity in this regard is more or less typical, and closely resembles that of his predecessor Jonadab ben Rekhab.”

In many ways, Nibley may be right here. However, there is one area in which I think he may err.  The Rekhabites were not merchants traveling around in caravans seeking great wealth.  Instead, they tended herds outside of the cities, living a life similar to the Bedouin. When the descendants of Jonadab ben Rekhab are with Jeremiah, he presents them to the elders of the Jews in the temple as a symbol of the people of God, completely the opposite of the wealth-seeking merchants and princes of the people.

Lehi would be more like the Rekhabites AFTER he receives his prophetic calling and takes his people into the wilderness.  Suddenly, he is not in a large caravan, meeting with the leaders of cities and towns, gaining wealth for his old age.  Instead, he follows the trade route along the Red Sea, but keeps himself separate from the caravans.  They do not make fires to cook their food, keeping themselves hid often from the criminal element that always followed the caravans, looking to plunder the weak and unaware.  Lehi built altars in the wilderness to worship God in the pattern of Abraham and Jonadab because he is no longer connected to the temple cult in Jerusalem..  As with Abraham and Jonadab, Lehi’s tent becomes the center of the family’s universe.  It represents the Tabernacle, where the presence of God can be experienced. It is in this tent that Lehi saw the Vision of the Tree of Life, his own personal endowment. The Liahona was found directly outside his tent door.  Only in this new life as prophet-wanderer does Lehi find himself as a reflection of Jonadab Ben Rekhab or Abraham.

An interesting point for Israel is its geographical position relative to the world of trade.  Nibley points out that the Phoenicians and others were heavily involved in trade, and ran some of the major centers for trade.  Joseph of old was traded into Egypt by merchants. Often, Israel was threatened by war by large nations, not because they were an important nation in the area, but because many trade routes passed in or near their nation.  The nation that controlled the trade route controlled the wealth.  In the north were Assyria and Babylon. To the south were Egypt, Ethiopia, and Arabia. To the east were Persia and India.  In the west, we find the rising nations of Mesopotamia, Carthage, Greece and Rome.  In the Roman period, we find that near the Sea of Galilee was the trade city of Sepphoris, which was active with trade from Greece, Rome, and elsewhere in the world – definitely affecting the nearby little town of Nazareth and the boy Jesus.  Israel was in the center of all the trade activity.

“The first thing a Hebrew merchant would do upon settling down in a place even for a limited stay was to set up an altar, exactly as Lehi did at his first important camp. “It is to be assumed without question that the settlement of Israelite merchants such as those at Damascus (1 Kings 20:34) had an altar that stood on Israelite earth (cf. 2 Kings 5:17). Without such it would have been impossible to live after the manner of Israel.””

This may have been true through several periods of Judaism.  I’m wondering how true it held after the Josian reforms.  Josiah intentionally destroyed all the altars and high places in Judea and Israel that were under his control.  This included all altars to Yahweh.  The newly discovered book of Deuteronomy essentially mandated all sacrificial worship would occur in the Tabernacle/Temple.

Yes, it is possible that Jewish merchants may have continued the practice of altars while in other lands. Perhaps these were altars for worship, without animal sacrifice,   Yet, Lehi offered sacrifice upon is altar (1 Ne 2:7).

I think we need to separate out Lehi the merchant from Lehi the prophet and seeker of the Promised Land.

“Equally common was the naming of the colony after the leader—a regular Book of Mormon practice, and perfectly familiar from Greek and Roman history and legend.”

Again we have a problem here.  Jewish custom was very different than western custom, which comes centuries later into the land of Israel.  Isn’t it more likely that Book of Mormon custom, if it were to be a Jewish custom, would be to name a city after an event – as did the ancient patriarchs?  Jacob sees the throne of God and the staircase into heaven and calls the place Beth-El (House of God).  It seems more to me that either the Nephites picked up a tradition from the people of Mesoamerica or elsewhere on their travels, or it is one of the anachronisms put in place by Mormon when he abridged the record, or created in Joseph’s translation.

As for the Rechabites, they were different than the colonists and merchants.  For one, they did not have houses.  They lived in tents, just as their ancestors did, serving God in the way Abraham and Rechab did.  Jeremiah brought the descendants of Rechab into the temple, to show the priests and elders the proper way of worship.

“The word which came unto Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, saying,
Go unto the house of the Rechabites, and speak unto them, and bring them into the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink.
Then I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, the son of Habaziniah, and his brethren, and all his sons, and the whole house of the Rechabites;
And I brought them into the house of the Lord, into the chamber of the sons of Hanan, the son of Igdaliah, a man of God, which was by the chamber of the princes, which was above the chamber of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, the keeper of the door:
And I set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites pots full of wine, and cups, and I said unto them, Drink ye wine.
But they said, We will drink no wine: for Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying, Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever:
Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers.
Thus have we obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab our father in all that he hath charged us, to drink no wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons, nor our daughters;
Nor to build houses for us to dwell in: neither have we vineyard, nor field, nor seed:
But we have dwelt in tents, and have obeyed, and done according to all that Jonadab our father commanded us….
I have sent also unto you all my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them, saying, Return ye now every man from his evil way, and amend your doings, and go not after other gods to serve them, and ye shall dwell in the land which I have given to you and to your fathers: but ye have not inclined your ear, nor hearkened unto me.
Because the sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have performed the commandment of their father, which he commanded them; but this people hath not hearkened unto me:
Therefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring upon Judah and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the evil that I have pronounced against them: because I have spoken unto them, but they have not heard; and I have called unto them, but they have not answered.
And Jeremiah said unto the house of the Rechabites, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Because ye have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts, and done according unto all that he hath commanded you:
Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever” (Jeremiah 35:1-19)

So, in some instances, I think Nibley is trying too hard to make merchants, colonists, Rechabites and Lehi sound all like the same thing.  They aren’t, although he may have been a merchant/colonist in his time, in leaving Jerusalem as a prophet, he was more of a Rechabite than the others.

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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

4 thoughts on “Book Club – Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM ch 5

  1. Interesting thoughts, Rameumptom. I have only one passage to comment on this round:

    “From the earliest times the Hebrew carried within himself two opposite tendencies . . . the story of Jacob plainly reveals a man of immense commercial proclivity fighting desperately to retain his instinctive appreciation of the spiritual.”

    This is something Nibley borrows from elsewhere, but the way he uses it to interpret Lehi—a merchant, on Nibley’s argument—is fascinating. How much of the Nephites’ long-standing struggle with prosperity was already at work in Lehi?

  2. Joe,

    I’m beginning to realize that wealth and pride together becomes the scourge or bane of the Israelites. It seems amazing that Lehi would have been so engulfed in that world, only for the Lord to call him out of it.

    I now wonder if the book Lehi read (1 Ne 1) displayed the sins of wealth and pride, as the reason for their downfall. It definitely makes the BoM very relevant in our day, when wealth, pride, fancy clothing, etc., become such a preoccupation in the world.

  3. Thanks for your perspective Rameumptom! I remember seeing a segment some time ago on what I think were Jews living in Ethiopia who looked African and still kept Jewish traditions. However, I do not think it was until the day of Pentecost that the real missionary work began among the Gentiles.

  4. Regarding the building of altars away from Jerusalem (and the complexity of the Josiah reforms), I think there is a lot we don’t know about exactly how the Melchizedek Priesthood fit into the Israelite Mosaic schema.

    Presumably, legitimate Melchizedek Priesthood holders were rare in Mosaic Israel. In fact, they might have been extraordinarily rare.

    When was the Masoretic Text redacted? They might have smoothed over any remaining difficulties when they were covering the Josiah era. Real history is rarely as cut and dry as it is presented by the powers that be.

    Just some random thoughts.

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