Scapegoats in the Book of Mormon

Recently, scholar Andrei Orlov* uploaded a paper to Academia.edu, entitled “The Curses of Azazel”.  In this paper, Orlov uses the ancient document, Apocalypse of Abraham, to discuss the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, the Festival of Atonement.  His excellent article made me think of how such issues may also be found in the Book of Mormon. I will discuss it momentarily, after a brief introduction to the Festival of Yom Kippur and some other important issues to consider.

Yom Kippur

During Yom Kippur, the high priest performs very important functions. Among these ordinances, is entrance into the Holy of Holies (the only time during the year it is entered), sanctifies the instruments and Mercy Seat, and utters the sacred and ineffable name of God, “YHWH”. As he enters the Holy of Holies, he wears a special priest garb, which includes a turban/mitre, a sash, and the robes.  On his robes are bells, which tinkle as he moves, so those waiting outside for him can listen in and ensure he is still alive. If the high priest enters unworthily, God would strike him dead, and the silence of the bells would tip off his assistants to pull his body out by the rope attached to him for such an event. On the turban, one finds the name of “YHWH”. It is the unspeakable, ineffable name. Only the high priest knew the correct pronunciation. Some of his assistants would know portions of the pronunciation, but not all, so that at the death of the high priest, the assistants could each whisper their portion of the Name into the ear of the newly chosen high priest, allowing him alone to then know the full pronunciation.  The Name, as Orlov notes in his article, is extremely important. To have God’s name was to have his power to create, destroy, or perform miracles. Orlov notes from several ancient texts of fallen angels, or Watchers, who found out the Name and misused its power on the earth, causing them to be rejected by God.

One of the other major events in Yom Kippur, is that of the two goats. Two goats are chosen and brought before the high priest. One will be the sacred sacrifice, given to God. For Christians, this represents the sacrifice of Jesus by his Father.  The other goat, known as the scapegoat, also has an important role to play.  The high priest, prior to dressing in his temple robes, pronounces the sins of the people. Laying both hands on the head of the goat, he transfers those sins from Israel to the goat. A crimson wool thread is placed on the head of the goat. The goat is then sent into the wilderness, although some ancient texts show that it is pushed off a cliff, where it dies in a wilderness area. Those who lead the goat to the wilderness/death, then are to wash their clothes and become clean again from touching that which is unclean. Tradition has it that the scarlet thread became white, once the scapegoat was dead.  Orlov suggests that this directly ties in with Isaiah’s initial plea to Israel:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;  Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isa 1:16-18)

With this ordinance, the nation of Israel is absolved of its sins once a year.  For early Christians, both goats represented different aspects of Christ’s life: the sacrificial goat and the one who takes upon himself all the sins of the people.

Apocalypse of Abraham

Yet, for many ancient Jews, the scapegoat represented the devil or a fallen angel. Orlov notes in the Apocalypse of Abraham, a contest occurs between God’s angel, Yahoel against the fallen angel Azazel. As with the high priest at Yom Kippur, Yahoel pronounces the sins of Azazel, curses him, and then sends him packing to the wasted lands of earth. Yahoel then puts upon Abraham holy garments and brings him up to heaven. Yahoel the heavenly priest, stands between Azazel and Abraham, and pronounces blessings and curses, as did the ancient high priest at Yom Kippur. Orlov also shows a variety of similar actions found in other ancient texts, including the Enoch literature.

As mentioned above, I started to ponder whether such could be found in the Book of Mormon. For example, the gathering King Benjamin commanded to teach his people and proclaim his son as king, is very reminiscent of the Festival of Booths.

But what about the scapegoat and the Festival of Yom Kippur? Orlov’s article gave me a different method of looking.

Jacob and Sherem

In the book of Jacob, we read about one potential Yom Kippur experience.  Jacob even uses terminology that is used the Apocalypse of Abraham, such as the importance of clean and unclean garments.

…wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day. (Jacob 1:19)

 

Now, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob, according to the responsibility which I am under to God, to magnify mine office with soberness, and that I might rid my garments of your sins, I come up into the temple this day that I might declare unto you the word of God. (Jacob 2:2)

In this second quote, Jacob is at the temple. He is wearing the garment of the holy priesthood, and is focused on ensuring his own garments remain clean, that they will remain white/spotless, and not be found red/crimson with sin. As high priest, he declares the sins of the people (pride, greed, polygamy, and mistreating their families). Interestingly, he notes the goodness of the Lamanite husbands, in comparison to Nephite men, who were taking extra wives and concubines. Jacob, the high priest, stands between the Nephite and Lamanite goats, and judges them, as Yahoel did of Azazel and Abraham.

Interestingly, the Nephite sin of polygamy is similar to one of the major sins the Watchers or fallen angels were accused of: sexual transgression. The Watchers sought to have children through human wives and concubines – leading to the corruption of all the earth and the destruction by the great Flood in Noah’s day. As with the fallen Nephites, these angels sought to corrupt God’s plan of procreation in order to promote their own purpose.

In addition, Jacob shares a fascinating story of the first anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon, Sherem (Jacob 7).

As with Azazel and other ancient stories of fallen angels and Watchers, Sherem seeks to use special skills and knowledge to meet his goals and purposes, while overthrowing God’s plan and high priest. He plans to bring all followers of Christ over to his own personalized religion, putting himself up as a replacement for the high priest. Jacob notes that Sherem is “learned” with a “perfect knowledge of the language”, skilled at flattery, and sought to “over throw the doctrine of Christ”. Sherem was so good at persuasion, he thought he could convince Jacob, the high priest (and reminiscent of Abraham) of the errors of his faith.

As with the priestly angel Yahoel, Jacob uses his knowledge of God’s word and his own spiritual experience and power to resolve the situation. He pronounces Sherem’s sins and places a curse upon him, just as the ancient high priest of Israel would declare the sins and curse the scapegoat. Upon receiving the curse, Sherem is struck down, a symbolic toss from the cliff, where he shortly confesses his own sins, fears he has committed the unpardonable sin (as the scapegoat carrying all of Israel’s sins), and dies.

Nehor

In Alma 14, we come across the first anti-Christ that Alma will deal with. Nehor also uses flattering words to convince people to believe in his teachings. Survival of the fittest is the focus of Nehor’s doctrine. In preaching, he ends up slaying Gideon, who preaches the doctrine of Christ.

It is now Alma, the high priest, who must contend in this Yom Kippur event. As with Jacob, he also speaks of the importance of spotless garments.

And may the Lord bless you, and keep your garments spotless, that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out. (Alma 7:25)

Here, Alma brings up Abraham, the hero of Orlov’s paper. Once Yahoel casts Azazel down, Abraham is brought up to heaven and given a holy, spotless and white garment.

I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins. And now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness? Behold, what will these things testify against you? (Alma 5:21-22)

In this instance, Christ becomes a holy symbol for the scapegoat, rescuing all those who will allow Jesus to purify their garments of stains (crimson, scarlet). Those with stained garments on the last day, will experience what it is to be their very own scapegoat, taking upon themselves all their own sins and stains before the Great High Priest.

Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb. (Alma 13:11)

In Alma 13, the prophet talks about the pre-existent and holy calling of high priest. This seems as an important prologue to the following chapter, where Alma will face Nehor, and make him the scapegoat for his people at that time.

Again, Alma pronounces the sins of Nehor and those who follow him. He establishes God’s existence and righteousness.  Because of his sin (murder), Nehor is cursed or condemned to death. His “ignominious death” is carried out on top of a high mountain. To me, this suggests a few methods of death. Perhaps as with some Mayan practices,, Nehor is sacrificed to the gods/God. He may have been cast into a volcano. Or, as with the scapegoat of Israel, he may have been cast off a cliff to his death.

Korihor

Alma gets a second chance to deal with a scapegoat with Korihor. Again, flattery is the tool most used by Nephite anti-Christs. Alma testifies against Korihor, pronouncing the sins of him and his followers upon him. When pushed, Alma curses Korihor, who pleads to have the curse and sins removed from him. God and Alma do not remove the curse, but ensure it remains with Korihor, who is then sent out “into the wilderness”, where he eventually is trampled to death by other wicked people (the Zoramites).

Conclusion

Here we find another possible layer of complexity within the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith would not have known about in his day. He would not have known how Yom Kippur and the scapegoat would apply to fallen beings, such as Azazel in the Apocalypse of Abraham, and how this ties in with the high priest and the holy garments.

As LDS, we can learn that the Book of Mormon is begging for us to study it on many different levels. It dares us to compare it with the best ancient texts from Israel, and see just what we can learn about the ancient Nephites and how it can apply to us today.

 

* Hat tip to David J. Larsen for introducing me to Orlov’s great scholarly works.

3 thoughts on “Scapegoats in the Book of Mormon

  1. This is interesting concept. I don’t have too much to add on the atonement aspect of scapegoating. I might ask about if we can see the modern understanding of scapegoating in the BoM. In what ways do people we traditionally see as villains might have legitimate complaints or exculpating factors? John Welch did some of this in Legal Cases in the BoM. He looked at the incident of Nehor, and found that his conviction wasn’t for murder likely because there wasn’t enough evidence of premeditation. There is also some evidence that Gideon was wearing armor and that he escalated the argument by threatening him with church discipline. He goes on to describe how difficult political factors forced Alma into a difficult decision and innovative decisions to execute him for enforcing priest craft with the sword (Alma 1:12).

    In my new book, Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, I find several similar examples. For example, if you compare Moroni’s actions with that in the Amlicite rebellion, you see that Moroni was far more proactive, and some might even say militant in trying to stamp out the rebellion. This is understandable considering the events in Alma 1-4, but it had its own disastrous consequences. Instead of a simple vote, Moroni and his men rushed forth with their armor to influence the voice of the people. I suggest this had militant overtones that we often miss. (Though people defying the government in Oregon don’t seem to miss it.) After Amalickiah was expelled, Moroni seized a great deal of Lamanite land during a time of peace. We can tell from Alma 47 that the Amalickiah was very smooth and likely made a great case for why the Nephites were dangerous. I’m sure the Nephites seizing land in Alma 50 and expelling the Lamanite settlers only strengthened the arguments that Amalickiah had been making to the king and the people.

    There are others items I could point to, but both of these items suggest its possible that Moroni’s militant and preemptive actions helped precipitate the war and strengthened Amalickiah’s arguments. This is a somewhat controversial reading of the text that goes against what is popularly assumed. Yet if we are looking for scapegoats, mining the text for subtle clues, and accounting for the predisposition of the editor we find that Amalikiah might be one. Of course this doesn’t excuse his evil machinations described in Alma 47. Yet Helaman’s servant stabbed an assassin after nighttime spying, and Nephi exposed another one in Helaman 2:6 and 9:6. Leaders in Nephite lands beat confessions out of criminals (Alma 14:17-22), and both Lamanites and Nephties attempted to poison each other with wine (Alma 55:13). The Nephites even tested the wine on their prisoners first (Alma 55: 31-32)! This is in addition to Moroni’s preemptive war and indefinite detention of prisoners (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4). The Nephites weren’t strangers to cunning or militant actions with dubious morality. Amalickiah is scapegoated as the villain even though we can see or infer where Moroni’s actions helped lead to war.

    Thanks for letting me talk about scapegoats! Good post.

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