There are some interesting concepts from ancient Israel that connect with this lesson, and these will be the focus of this blog lesson.
2 Nephi 3
First is the blessing given to Joseph, Lehi’s youngest son. Lehi discusses the reason he named Joseph after the patriarch of old. Then Lehi explains that the blessing he gives Joseph is based upon the blessing Joseph of Egypt gave to his descendants in a prophecy long ago, not found in the Bible. First is the early concept of Messiah Ben Joseph (Messiah, son/descendant of Joseph). This was a belief in a second Messiah, one who would precede Messiah Ben David, who would restore truth and be slain by his enemies.
Messiah ben Joseph
From wikipedia, we read:
“Messiah b. Joseph will appear prior to the coming of Messiah ben David. He will gather the children of Israel around him, march to Jerusalem, and there, after overcoming the hostile powers, reestablish the Temple-worship and set up his own dominion. Thereupon Armilus, according to one group of sources, or Gog and Magog, according to the other, will appear with their hosts before Jerusalem, wage war against Messiah ben Joseph, and slay him. His corpse, according to one group, will lie unburied in the streets of Jerusalem; according to the other, it will be hidden by the angels with the bodies of the Patriarchs, until Messiah ben David comes and resurrects him “
As many prophecies have multiple fulfillments, some LDS think this may either directly or indirectly apply to Joseph Smith. He came forth prior to the Second Coming to restore ancient teachings and prepare the way for the Christ (Messiah Ben David). Joseph Smith gathered Latter-day Saints or spiritual Israel around him, was driven with the Mormons from New York, Ohio, and then Missouri. He re-established temple worship, and established gathering places for the saints. While Joseph Smith was never near the literal Jerusalem, he believed that the spiritual or New Jerusalem would be established in America. He was slain by a large angry mob, who would have been glad to leave his body to rot, but ran off, fearing Mormon revenge (there was none). Joseph’s body was hidden for decades along with his brother Hyrum’s body. Hyrum was the Patriarch of the Church, when both were assassinated by the mob. Joseph's body was literally hidden with the body of a Patriarch. LDS believe the two will be resurrected together at the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Other beliefs have Messiah Ben Joseph gathering the Ten Tribes of Israel, and later joining them all under Messiah ben David, or Jesus Christ. In the Kirtland Ohio Temple, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the “keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north” (D&C 110:11) from the prophet Moses.
Another apocryphal story relates that Joseph of Egypt foresaw the coming of Messiah Ben Joseph, who would restore true worship. In Ginsberg’s “Legend of the Jews” we read:
“Once Joseph dreamed a dream, and he could not refrain from telling it to his brethren. He spoke, and said: "Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed. Behold, you gathered fruit, and so did I. Your fruit rotted, but mine remained sound. Your seed will set up dumb images of idols, but they will vanish at the appearance of my descendant, the Messiah of Joseph. You will keep the truth as to my fate from the knowledge of my father, but I will stand fast as a reward for the self-denial of my mother, and you will prostrate yourselves five times before me."”
That the Book of Mormon contains a prophecy from Joseph of Egypt foreseeing the coming of Joseph Smith actually gives strength to this ancient prophecy regarding Messiah ben Joseph, and Joseph Smith providing one possible fulfillment of the prophecy.
2 Nephi 4
A psalm or hymn is often connected to temple worship (cf Psalms in the Bible). For Nephi, he tells of his constructed temple in 2 Nephi 5:16, so his psalm may very well be connected to temple worship. That his psalm discusses his visions ties it to the temple, as the temple is the mountain of the Lord, the place where heaven and earth meet, and where man goes to see the face of God.
Nephi’s Psalm has always appealed to me. Years ago, as I was studying a hymn in the Community Rule scroll (1QS) of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I noticed it strongly reminded me of Nephi’s Psalm. In studying the two together, I clearly saw a pattern in both. You can see my side by side comparison here: http://rameumptom.weebly.com/nephipsalm.html
In it, we see both begin with discussing a book or the words of God. As it continues into the struggles and faith of Nephi and the author of the Community Rule, we see a pattern that works in both. Finally both end by stating God as their rock, twice:
“He that is everlasting is the support of my right hand; the way of my steps is over stout rock which nothing shall shake; for the rock of my steps is the truth of God and His might is the support of my right hand." (Community Rule)
“I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen.” (2 Ne 4:35)
My conclusion was that either there is a huge coincidence at work here, or the author of the Community Rule and Nephi had a common pattern to use, written by someone previous to both of them.
Nephi’s Temple - were they alone?
2 Nephi 5
Nephi’s description of his building a temple brings up an important question: how could a group of perhaps twenty adults build a temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon”? The short answer is, they could not. Solomon’s temple required years of building by thousands of workers. Nephi and twenty people could not have built a temple anywhere near the manner of Solomon’s temple within just a few short years.
This becomes a strong piece of evidence that the Nephites were not alone in the Americas. The Nephites were often a minority among other people, but still were able to gain control of governance (cf Omni 1:12). It is very possible by this time that Nephi became leader of a group of people that became Nephites, not from Israelite DNA, but from adoption into the culture and religion.
Even in their escape from Laman, Nephi suggests there were other people now in their group, beyond his brothers and the sons of Ishmael:
“Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words” (2 Ne 5:6).
Prior to this time, when Nephi discussed the various groups, they were named (Laman, Lemuel, Ishmael’s sons, etc). This time, not only does Nephi note his brothers and Zoram, and his sisters, but also all others “who would go with me.” Except for the children of Laman, Lemuel and the brothers of Ishmael (who could easily be enumerated with the rest), who else could there have been, except for peoples already living in the Americas and absorbed into the Nephite and Lamanite nations.
Later evidence will show that distances in Nephite territory only allow for a land of perhaps 250-400 square miles. It becomes ever clear, as we study the text, that the Nephite nation during the period of the Book of Mormon was in a very limited area.
Interestingly, among the ancient Maya, history shows that their agricultural methods would leave lands infertile for years, forcing whole peoples to move to new areas on occasion, in order to prevent famine. It is possible that one reason Nephi and his people had to move was a severe shortage of resources, which Laman and Lemuel could have blamed on Nephi, in order to obtain political power.
Such political struggles with foreign groups included increases in the struggles and political intrigue we shall see occur as we continue on through the Book of Mormon.
Does this mean that not all Native Americans are not Lehi’s descendants? Modern DNA tests show no definite ties to Israel and the Middle East among Native Americans, but then what does Lehite DNA look like? What we see in the Book of Mormon is people are adopted culturally into the nation (i.e., Mulekites), and become literal descendants of Nephi and Laman.
Cut off from God’s Presence
Interestingly, as Nephi and his people fled, the presence of God went with them. This is much like the Tabernacle of Moses, where when the faithful travelled, the Lord went with them. We see that those that did not follow the prophet and his standard were “cut off from the presence of the Lord”, even though the Lord was technically not visible to Laman, etc. That Nephi built a temple shows that the Lord was with them, and to be in God’s presence meant one had to accept Nephi as prophet and worship at the temple. Nephi refused to be king, because the Lord was their king.
My side-by-side comparison of Nephi’s Psalm and the Community Rule Scroll (1QS - Dead Sea Scrolls):
Community Rule Scroll (1QS): http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/community
Messiah Ben Joseph/Ephraim, wikipedia:
Louis Ginsberg, “The Legends of the Jews” vol II, regarding Joseph of Egypt and Joseph ben Messiah:
Kevin Barney on Messiah ben Joseph: http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/08/30/the-messiah-ben-joseph-tradition/
Jewish Encyclopedia on Messiah ben Joseph: http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10729-messiah#anchor16