Monday, September 21, 2009

Background of the Book of Mormon

Before we actually start presenting the evidences for validating the existence of the Book of Mormon, let’s first have a quick overview of the book, itself, and then briefly review its coming forth, especially for those who have little knowledge of the subject.

Short Overview of the Book of Mormon
It is stated in the Introduction of an 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon that it, “... is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”

Like the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon is comprised of a series of smaller books; in this case there are 15 such smaller books. In order of presentation their names are: First Book of Nephi, Second Book of Nephi, Book of Jacob, Book of Enos, Book of Jarom, Book of Omni, The Words of Mormon, Book of Mosiah, Book of Alma, Book of Helaman, Third Nephi, Fourth Nephi, Book of Mormon, Book of Ether, and Book of Moroni.

These books were written through the spirit of revelation by ancient holy men, known as prophets, who testified of Jesus Christ. The history contained in the Book of Mormon involves a very brief history of two great civilizations, made up of four specific people, that lived here upon this, the North American Continent.

The first of the two civilizations mentioned in the book came from Jerusalem in about 600 B.C. A prophet of god, by the name of Lehi, was warned by God to take his wife, Sariah, and four sons, Laman, Lemuel, Sam and Nephi, and flee Jerusalem, which he did just before its fall to the Babylonians.

The Book of Mormon tells of their trials in the wilderness and eventual arrival to a “promised land.” When father Lehi died, this family split into two opposing and warring factions. The rebellious Laman and Lemuel revolted against Sam and Nephi. The followers of each group became known as the Lamanites and the Nephites, the Nephites, generally, being the more righteous group. The Book of Mormon tells of the struggles, the wars, and the interrelationships between these two groups.

A third group of people, known as the Mulekites, was encountered by the Nephites approximately 320 years after Lehi’s arrival in the new land. Mulek was a son of King Zedekiah, of Jerusalem; one whom King Nebuchadnezzar did not slay. Mulek, probably with the aid of seafaring associates, also fled Jerusalem just after Lehi, about 586 B.C. Eventually arriving in the new land, also, the people of Mulek merged with the people of Nephi about 200 B.C.

The second civilization mentioned came to this land much earlier at the time that God confounded the languages of the people while they were building the Tower of Babel; this group of people were known as the Jaredites. The beginning of the Nephite civilization very briefly overlapped the ending of the Jaredite people.

The major event mentioned in the Book of Mormon is the personal appearance and ministry of our Lord, Jesus Christ, among the Nephite people after His resurrection. To them He put forth the Gospel of salvation as He did among those in the holy land during His mortal ministry.
Many beautiful truths are taught which have been lost due to erroneous translations of the of the Holy Word. And the Book of Mormon stands as a true witness of the Savior’s redeeming love for all of mankind throughout the world.

From that point forward, all of the Book of Mormon people lived in peace and righteousness for nearly 200 years. However, as the people became more prosperous they also became proud, eventually drifting backwards from their righteous condition to that of great wickedness once again. After many hundreds of years, from about 600 B.C. to 421 A.D., the people of Nephi became so spiritually depraved that the Lord allowed the Lamanites to annihilate the Nephite people.

Brief History of Pre-600 B.C. Jerusalem
To begin our review of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, we will have to travel back in time when the northern Kingdom of Israel was first invaded by Assyria, in 770 B.C., under the hand of Put, one of the Assyrian kings.

Shalmaneser besieged Samaria for three years and destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C., and Sennacherib invaded the kingdom of Judah in the reign of Hezekiah. Between 770-686 B.C. the ten tribes of the northern Kingdom of Israel (House of Israel), together with the larger portion of the southern Kingdom of Judah (House of Judah) were taken captive into Assyria. (2 Kings 17:6-18.)

The Assyrian kings didn’t leave a real estate vacuum, but placed some of their own people in Samaria and in the cities round about. (2 Kings 17:24.) The descendants of these foreigners, who occupied Samaria, were the ones referred to in the New Testament as the Samaritans, who the Jews despised, and of whom Jesus gave the parable of the good Samaritan.

Because of their wickedness, for which they were previous reprimanded by God, Assyria fell to the Medes in about 626 B.C., as previously prophesied by Isaiah (Isaiah 10:5-19), under the hand of Nabopolassar. The prophecies of Nahum against Assyria were probably delivered shortly before the final catastrophe.

Nebuchadnezzar, of the Babylonian empire, invaded Judea about 609 B.C. At the time, Johoiakim was king of Judah (609-598 B.C.). Nebuchadnezzar permitted him to stay on the throne as a vassal, or servant king. It was probably about this time that Daniel was taken to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar desiring “... certain of the children of Israel,... Children in whom was no blemish, but well favored, and skillful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge,...” (Dan. 1:3-4.)

Shortly thereafter, Johoiakim rebelled, so Nebuchadnezzar had him deposed and put to death, installing Johoiakim’s son Jehoiachin as the new vassal king. It was during the reign of Jehoiachin that Ezekiel was taken to Babylon.

Symptoms of disaffection raised its ugly head again and Nebuchadnezzar re-entered Jerusalem for the third time. He took Jehoiachin and a large portion of the population of the city, along with a large part of the temple treasures, into Babylon, installing Jehoiacin’s uncle Zedekiah as another vassal king.

Through all of this the southern Kingdom of Judah had a series of kings of various repute; some righteous and some not so righteous. But even during the times of good kings, the general populace continued to be idolatrous. Consequently, God sent prophets, such as Jeremiah, to warn the people to repent.

Many Prophets in the Land
The Bible names some of those prophets around about Jerusalem at about 600 B.C., and the Book of Mormon mentions another — Lehi. The Prophet Lehi dwelt at Jerusalem. He had a wife, Sariah, and four sons, Laman, Lemuel, Sam (Samuel) and Nephi.

Lehi preached repentance to the people of Jerusalem, or they would be destroyed. The Book of Mormon tells us that, at the time, “... there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent.” (1 Ne. 1:4.)

Being a student of trivia, I often wondered just who some of these many prophets were, so I did a little research. I found a few prophets who were contemporary to that of Lehi, and some of them were: Nahum (660-606 B.C.), Zephaniah (642-608 B.C.), Habakkuk (626-612 B.C.), Jeremiah (626-570 B.C.), Urijah (608 B.C.), Ezekiel (617-571 B.C.), Obadiah (613-583 B.C.), Daniel (604-520 B.C.), and Baruch (603 B.C.). These are all I have come up with at this time, perhaps there were others.

Flight from Jerusalem
During the reign of Zedekiah, the people were quite idolatrous, worshiping graven images and Babylonian gods and goddesses, such as Baal, Tammuz and Ishtar. Not only that, since God had saved the city of Jerusalem many times in the past, they became a haughty and proud people, thinking that their great city was impregnable. So the proud and wicked, not taking well to being called to repentance, sought to take the lives of some of those who had the courage to follow God’s voice and call them to task for their unrighteousness.

For example, Jeremiah was placed in prison by Zedekiah. But we know that Urijah also prophesied against Judah at the same time Jeremiah did during the days of Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim sought Urijah’s life, so Urijah escaped south as many of the prophets did. But Urijah was soon captured in Egypt by Jehoiakim’s men and taken back to Judah. There Urijah was slain by the King and buried in a common grave. (Jer. 26:20-23; Smith’s, A Dictionary of the Bible, 1966, p. 722.)

The Prophet Lehi was no exception. He was warned by God in a dream to take his family and flee Jerusalem before it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. We know that Jeremiah and Baruch fled south to Egypt, but Lehi headed south in another direction, down the east coast of the Red Sea.

As prophesied by Jeremiah, Lehi, and other prophets, Jerusalem was leveled to the ground. Zedekiah, who Nebuchadnezzar installed as king, disaffected, and for the fourth and last time Nebuchadnezzar took the city in 586 B.C. Zedekiah fled by night but was overtaken in the plains of Jericho where he and his sons were taken captive. Nebuchadnezzar had all the sons of Zedekiah killed while their father watched, and then put out the eyes of Zedekiah so that the last thing that Zedekiah would remember seeing was the death of his sons. Zedekiah later died in chains in a Babylonian prison.

The Book of Mormon informs us, however, that Zedekiah had one son that was not killed. His name was Mulek. Mulek was warned of the plot and somehow escaped the slaughter. He eventually sailed to a new world, along with his servants and followers. (Hel. 6:10; 8:21.)

We are not told in the scriptures much about Zedekiah’s daughters except that he had some, nor does the Bible give any historical account of what happened to them beyond telling us that they were taken to Egypt with Jeremiah, Baruch and others.

It was during this tumultuous political backdrop of wars and invasions, of both the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah, that the stage was set for the rise of a new civilization of people. The seed was planted from which sprang the sacred record of those people, the Book of Mormon.

Modern Day Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon
In the short overview of the Book of Mormon we read earlier, it was mentioned that after many years the Nephite nation became so wicked that they were destroyed by their enemies. During the end of this period, which stretched from about 600 B.C. to 421 A.D., a prophet, by the name of Mormon compiled all the records of his people. He abridging some of the most important points, then left them in the charge of his son, Moroni.

The interesting thing about these people is that their records were kept on thin sheets of gold, or gold plates, instead of parchment or leather scrolls as appeared to be the custom in the middle east. This phenomenon of writing on gold plates will be considered more thoroughly in our study at a later time.

Having been entrusted with the plates containing the abridged records at the time of his father’s death, Moroni proceeded to add some of his own account pertaining to the demise of his people. Upon completing this, he sealed those plates in a stone box, and hid the box in a hill which was known by his people as Cumorah. This is the same Hill Cumorah found in up-state New York today.

The records remained in that hill, undisturbed, for nearly 1,400 years until, in 1823, this same Moroni, now a resurrected being, appeared to the young man, Joseph Smith, Jun., and gave him information concerning the buried plates and the ancient people mentioned thereon. He also gave Joseph instruction relevant to their eventual recovery and translation. Three years later, Joseph Smith was instructed to retrieve the plates, which he did.

It is interesting that, as word spread concerning his story, he was ridiculed and disbelieved as being a fabricator of a great lie. Yet, as knowledge got around of Joseph having the golden plates, some tried, on various occasions, to steal those plates which they claimed he didn’t have in the first place.

Nevertheless, by the gift and power of God, and by the use of the Urim and Thummim, which Joseph called “interpreters,” Joseph translated those plates from an ancient language and had that translation published, in 1830, at Palmyra, New York, as the Book of Mormon. Because of Mormon’s work in abridging the records of his people, the published book was named after him — the Book of Mormon.

The Urim and Thummim
Mention was made that Joseph Smith used what was called the Urim and Thummim when he translated the plates. Many say they have never heard of such things, being quite ignorant of the Holy Bible. (See Ex. 28:30, Lev. 8:8, Num. 27:21, Deut. 33:8, 1 Sam. 28:6, Ezra 2:63, Neh. 7:65.) The Smith Bible Dictionary (1966), page 723, has the following to say about the Urim & Thummim:

"U’rim and Thum’mim (Light and perfection). When the Jewish exiles were met on their return from Babylon by a question which they had no data for answering, they agreed to postpone the settlement of the difficulty till there should rise up 'a priest with Urim and Thummim.' Ezra 2:63; Neh. 7 :65. ... Urim means 'light,' and Thummim 'perfection.' Scriptural statements. — The mysterious words meet us for the first time, as if they needed no explanation, ... They are mentioned as things already familiar both to Moses and the people, connected naturally with the functions of the high priest as mediating between Jehovah and his people. ... In the blessings of Moses they appear as the crowning glory of the tribe of Levi: 'thy Thummim and thy Urim are with thy Holy One.' Deut. 33:8, 9. In what way the Urim and Thummim were consulted is quite uncertain."

Exactly how Joseph Smith employed the Urim and Thummim in translating is sometimes disputed, but the fact remains that such instruments existed in ancient times for prophets to use for guidance and revelation. Why, then, would it be so strange for God to have the same done today, especially since He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

This is a very sketchy background of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, but it should be enough to set the stage for our investigation for evidences in support of that book.