Nibley – An Approach to the BoM, ch 8, Politics in Jerusalem
For me, this is a very interesting chapter in Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon. He groups this chapter with the two following, and prefaces them as the “Doom of the City”.
Why is the city of Jerusalem doomed? In this chapter he gives a very important reason. The Lord has given his authority and power to the king and prophets, but this has been replaced with a new group, what Nibley calls the “new aristocracy.” King Zedekiah has limited power because of the Sarim or elders that hold the real power.
As I see it, Zedekiah is one to be pitied. Babylon has already removed his brother as king, and placed him in the position to see all the demands of Babylon be granted. Yet, Jerusalem, the temple priests and its elders (Sarim) are beholden to Egypt. He is between a rock and a hard place. We note in the book of Jeremiah that Zedekiah actually calls Jeremiah to him at night to get guidance, and rescues him from death on at least one occasion. Yet, he never takes a strong stance either way. As a weak king, he seeks a balancing act, which never works as he would hope, and ends in disaster as Babylon runs out of patience with the upstart nation.
The Sarim or elders are a new aristocracy. The king does not have the power he did in the times of David or Solomon. Instead, he is more of a figure head, waiting to anger some group and lose his place. So, who are the Sarim?
Since Nibley’s writing, several Old Testament scholars, such as Margaret Barker, have written regarding the drastic change in the religion under the Deuteronomists in Josiah’s time. Josiah being a small child when made king, could easily be manipulated by the temple priests to do their will. In his reforms, Josiah destroyed the high places or wilderness altars of Yahweh/Jehovah, removed the concept of angels and the Tree of Life/Asherah out of the temple service, and left the Jews with a watered-down version of the ancient religion.
Jeremiah would bring the sons of Rechab into the temple to show the elders and temple priests (who could have been one and the same), how true Israelites worshiped God. In essence, Jeremiah was telling them that the temple in Jerusalem had lost its way, and these Israelite Bedouins were right in sacrificing at altars in the wilderness. Later, we’ll see Lehi follow the pattern of the Rechabites by also offering sacrifice in the wilderness, resembling Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in so doing.
We will see that this issue of old and new aristocracy becomes a major issue in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites begin their story with kings that descend from Nephi, whom God has anointed to be their leader. Yet, we see challenges to this authority, first by Laman and Lemuel (who represent the new aristocracy in Jerusalem), and later by the Mulekites/Jaredites in Zarahemla. When Mosiah II rearranges the political structure to Judges, he still seeks to retain the chief judge position for only Nephites. However, a century later, we find that the new aristocracy, which included Gadiantons, would take over the chief judge’s seat and wreak havoc upon the traditional and God ordained position of leadership. Only with the coming of Christ to the Nephites, is this position fully returned to a proper aristocracy of leadership under Nephi and the 12 disciples (none of which have a Jaredite name). This unauthorized change in authority again occurs, the 12 disciples are removed from earth, and it leads to the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Nephites.
Not wanting this to be a politics thread, we could look to see how our own Republic has changed over the years. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe definitely depicted an aristocracy of leadership. However, we find Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson seeking to democratize the system, abandoning the old aristocracy and allowing a man born in a log cabin to become our 16th president. Could Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage occur under our original aristocracy? Or did it require a change similar to Mosiah II changes, needing to change the structure of his society, in order to provide greater freedoms, while retaining much of the original aristocratic power? How far can we bend the system, until it becomes something totally different that no longer works? Will we see Josian-like reforms to government and perhaps religion that make them no longer acceptable by God, and unworkable for man?
When Nephi states he built a temple, he says it is after the manner of Solomon’s temple. Why Solomon’s? Why not the temple built by Nehemiah and Ezra? Why not the temple after the Josian reforms? Clearly there was an ancient order to be preserved, which new Sarim elders of authority were corrupting. Nibley notes that Korihor and Nehor seek the old priestcrafts that destroyed Jerusalem. This isn’t the priests of Solomon’s day, but of Zedekiah’s day.
For more on the Documentary Hypothesis, see here.