Question: How could Lehi and his family, being Israelites, be allowed to offer sacrifices "according to the Law of Moses," since only Levites were authorized to perform sacrificial rites in Israel?

Revision as of 21:21, 9 May 2024 by GregSmith (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Question: How could Lehi and his family, being Israelites, be allowed to offer sacrifices "according to the Law of Moses," since only Levites were authorized to perform sacrificial rites in Israel?

In Lehi's historical context, the offering of sacrifice by a non-Levite is perfectly legitimate

A related claim insists that Israelites would not have constructed a temple outside of Jerusalem, since this was forbidden by Jewish law and practice.

In Lehi's historical context, the offering of sacrifice by a non-Levite is perfectly legitimate. Rather than a blunder by Joseph Smith, this aspect of the Book of Mormon is consistent with what later research has revealed about Jewish practice before the Babylonian captivity.

The Book of Mormon makes it clear that Lehi (a descendant of Manasseh) offered ritual sacrifice to God (1 Nephi 2꞉7, 1 Nephi 5꞉9) and later Nephites do likewise (Mosiah 2꞉3).

David Seely offered three perspectives on this issue:[1]

Possibility #1: Deuteronomy did not intend to eliminate all sacrifice outside of the temple

1. Deuteronomy 12 did not intend to eliminate all sacrifice away from the main sanctuary. The first possibility is that the injunction in Deuteronomy did not originally intend to eliminate all sacrifice outside of the Jerusalem temple. The fact that, after the Israelite possession of the land, altars and sacrifice and even other temples continued at various places has led many scholars to believe that the laws in Deuteronomy 12 were either understood differently before the time of the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah or were written but enforced later—perhaps during the reigns of Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Josiah.[2]

Those who believe that the laws concerning the centralization of worship were early argue that the original intention of those laws was distributive. That is, the phrase the place which the Lord your God shall choose originally was not interpreted as applying exclusively to Jerusalem (in fact, Jerusalem is not mentioned anywhere in Deuteronomy). Rather, the expression was originally understood to apply to a succession of sanctuaries over time (such as Shechem and Shiloh) and only eventually to Jerusalem.[3] Others have argued that the passage was not meant to refer to just one place but to any place that the Lord approved. In this view, there could be any number of divinely approved places of sacrifice.[4]

Even bracketing the issue of the original intention of Deuteronomy 12, it seems certain that by the time of Lehi "the place where the Lord would choose" was understood in ancient Israel to mean the temple in Jerusalem, as understood by Solomon's dedicatory prayer in 1 Kings 8:. In the course of Josiah's reforms (King Josiah was a contemporary of Lehi), a book was discovered in the temple that many scholars believe was some form of the book of Deuteronomy. Admittedly, Josiah's reforms are described in language similar to that in Deuteronomy, and the nature of the reforms closely follows the laws found only in Deuteronomy, especially in terms of the centralization of worship. Motivated by the instructions in the book, Josiah eliminated idolatry throughout the country, cleansed and purified apostate temple practices, broke down the high places, and destroyed the altars throughout the land, including the altar at Bethel (2 Kings 23:).

Those reforms are significant for Book of Mormon studies since Lehi grew up in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah and must have been influenced by the religious reforms that affected the lives of everyone living there and that did not go unnoticed. For example, Lehi's contemporary, Jeremiah, lamented the death of Josiah and praised him for his righteous reign (Jeremiah 22:15—16). Because the plates of brass contained the five books of Moses (1 Nephi 5꞉11), Lehi and his descendants must have been familiar with the book of Deuteronomy. The language and theology of the Book of Mormon are heavily dependent on Deuteronomy, perhaps more than any other biblical book. The very basis of the oft-repeated covenant in the Book of Mormon that "inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper" (1 Nephi 2꞉20) reflects the theology of Deuteronomy: "Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper in all that ye do" (Deuteronomy 29:9).

The reforms of Josiah dictated the centralization of worship, which included the commandment that altars and sacrifices should be limited to one place. The only place in scripture that this injunction is found is in Deuteronomy 12. It is possible, of course, that the passage in Deuteronomy did not originally intend to limit sacrifice to only one place. Even so, any explanation of Lehi's altar and sacrifices must deal with the biblical evidence that, during Lehi's time, it was widely understood and enforced that Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifice could be offered.

Possibility #2: Limitation does not apply to the Melchizedek priesthood

2. Melchizedek Priesthood holders were not bound by the centralization of worship as prescribed by Deuteronomy 12. It seems certain that Lehi, not being of the lineage of Levi, officiated through the Melchizedek Priesthood. Because Lehi and his descendants held this priesthood, they may not have been constrained by all of the injunctions of the law of Moses. There is much that we do not understand about Nephite worship in light of the fact that Lehi and his people were living the law of Moses but apparently possessed the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The Book of Mormon simply does not provide enough data.

Since Lehi was not a Levite, he probably did not have personal access to the temple in Jerusalem. While living there, he may have simply offered his required sacrifices through the approved channels of the Aaronic Priesthood, or perhaps he received divine approval and authority to build altars and offer sacrifice according to other instructions of the Lord or according to his own discretion. We do not know. However, the fact that the patriarchs of old, officiating with Melchizedek Priesthood authority, built altars and offered sacrifice in various locations, and the fact that the restored Church of Jesus Christ builds temples throughout the world, suggest that the centralized worship prescribed in Deuteronomy was either misunderstood or was part of the lower law—a temporary law—that was fulfilled with the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Possibility #3: Restriction applied only to the Land of Israel

3. Deuteronomy 12 may have been interpreted anciently as applying only to the land of Israel. While it is clear that Josiah interpreted the injunction of centralized worship to refer only to Jerusalem, it is possible that anciently there was another viable interpretation of those laws.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide possible evidence for this view. Twice in the Temple Scroll the expression three days' journey from the temple occurs (column 43:12 about the law of the tithe, and column 52:14 concerning sacrifice). The most important passage for our study appears in column 52:

You shall not slaughter a clean ox or sheep or goat in all your towns, near to my temple (within) a distance of a three days' journey; nay, but inside my temple you shall slaughter it, making it a burnt offering or a peace offering, and you shall eat and rejoice before me at the place on which I shall choo{se} to put my name." (11QT 52:13—16; emphasis added)

The standard interpretation by Yigael Yadin and others of the phrase three days' journey in this passage is that the Temple Scroll prohibits all nonsacrificial slaughter within the boundaries of three days' distance from Jerusalem. Within this geographical boundary the only permissible slaughter is sacrificial; in other words, the Temple Scroll bans all slaughter for nonsacrificial purposes, the so-called secular slaughter for human consumption. This of course would be a very restrictive injunction. Recently a scholar, Aharon Shemesh, has suggested a new interpretation of the phrase in question. He has demonstrated from rabbinical sources that the actual distance of a three-day journey from the Jerusalem temple would, for all practical purposes, mark a radius encompassing the whole land of Israel, since any point therein can be reached from the temple within that time frame.

Shemesh suggests that the passage in column 52 of the Temple Scroll should be read as an interpretation of Deuteronomy 12:1—5, which is discussed in the Temple Scroll in the preceding passage in column 51. Those verses in Deuteronomy describe the manner of sacrifice in the land after the conquest and the destruction of the pagan altars. Shemesh concludes that the Temple Scroll interprets the whole of Deuteronomy 12 in light of its opening verse: "On this basis, we can then suggest that the author of the Temple Scroll embraced the opinion that the law of centralization of worship applied only in the land of Israel in line with Deuteronomy 12:1's opening declaration: 'These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land.'" Shemesh cites several other examples from rabbinic literature to show that some of the ancient rabbis did not condemn the temples, altars, or sacrifices in the Jewish temple of Onias in Egypt because they were "outside of the land of Israel."

The same method of interpreting Deuteronomy 12 may lie behind the Nephite justification for building a temple in the New World even in light of their continued obedience to the law of Moses. It is possible that they understood the injunction of Deuteronomy 12 concerning altars, sacrifices, and temples to apply only to the land of Israel as suggested by Deuteronomy 12:1.

Thus, in the Temple Scroll we find an ancient interpretation of the centralization of worship in Deuteronomy that prohibits sacrifice within a three days' journey of Jerusalem. Whether this passage is interpreted to mean that there should be no sacrificial slaughter in Israel except at the temple or that secular slaughter was allowed in Israel, it is clear that an ancient interpretation limited the application of Deuteronomy 12 to a geographical area established by the distance of a three days' journey from Jerusalem—an area that roughly coincided with the boundaries of Israel.

Nephi recorded of his father Lehi "that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness . . . that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God" (1 Nephi 2꞉6—7). This statement may simply be due to the historical fact that Lehi and his family traveled for three days before they stopped for a significant rest. But the note on the three days' journey may also be Nephi's way of saying that Lehi and his family were acting in accordance with an understanding of the law of Moses found in Deuteronomy 12.

That understanding is consistent with what we find preserved in the Temple Scroll. According to that document, the building of an altar and the offering of sacrifice were allowed only outside the radius of a three days' journey from the temple in Jerusalem. To put the matter differently, sacrifices beyond the three-day limit were acceptable under the law of Moses. In this view Lehi was conforming to the Mosaic requirement expressed in Deuteronomy 12 when he built an altar in the wilderness and offered sacrifice.

Historical and critical textual perspective(s)

Possibility #4: The Levite perspective may the result of later editors or practice

Many scholars also conclude that the prohibition on non-Levite priests was not a feature of pre-Babylonian captivity Israel, but was only introduced after the return from captivity. It thus would not have been a feature of Lehi's time, especially for someone descended from one of the northern (i.e., "lost") ten tribes like Lehi.[5]

LDS author Kevin Barney notes that many biblical scholars believe that Deuteronomy in its present form was composed or edited after the Babylonian captivity to reflect the religious ideas of that later period (this is the so-called "documentary hypothesis"). In this theory, an earlier source or author (whose ideas would have been familiar to Lehi) is labeled "J", while the later post-captivity ideas are labeled "P" for the "priestly" perspective:

[Critics have] expressed surprise that Lehi, who was not a Levite, would make an offering, as reflected in 1 Nephi 2꞉7: 'And it came to pass that he [Lehi] built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God." As we have seen, the sources differed on this issue. In P only the sons of Aaron are priests and the other Levites are low level helpers, while in the other sources all Levites could be priests. Beyond that, Jereboam in the north appointed non-Levite priests at Beth-EI. The Old Testament records numerous non-Levitical offerings. Gideon and Samuel were Ephraimites; Saul was a Benjamite; David and Solomon were of Judah.

The contradiction [seen by the critics] is not with a unified Old Testament, but with P. Sacrifices are never portrayed in P prior to the consecration of the tabernacle and priesthood in Exodus 40, and then only by Aaron and his sons. This unique perspective of P can be illustrated by a contradiction we have noted in connection with the story of Noah's ark. According to J, Noah took seven pair of clean and one pair of unclean animals onto the ark (Genesis 7:2-3), but according to P he only took one pair of each animal (Genesis 6:19; Genesis 7:8-9,15). The reason for this discrepancy is that, according to J (Genesis 8:20-21), when the flood was over Noah built an altar and offered sacrifices of the clean animals. If he had not brought more than one pair of such animals, these sacrifices would have wiped out each species sacrificed. In P, however, Noah never offered sacrifice; therefore, only one pair of each species was necessary. While it is true that Lehi's sacrifice would have been anathema from the perspective of P [i.e., after the Babylonian captivity], from a northern perspective [such as Lehi's before the captivity] it was perfectly appropriate.[6]


  1. David R. Seely, "Lehi's Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 1 (2001): 62–69.
  2. This is the prevailing view among modern scholars. In the classic documentary hypothesis, the literary strand D—chiefly the book of Deuteronomy— is dated to the middle of the seventh century b.c. While most scholars who hold this view agree that there is older material in Deuteronomy, they believe that the book in its present form was edited in the seventh century and its laws were first applied in their entirety by King Josiah. For a balanced and readable presentation of this view, see Tigay, Deuteronomy, xix–xxvi; and Moshe Weinfeld, “Deuteronomy, Book of,” Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 2:168–83.
  3. See, for example, Alexander Rofé, “The Strata of Law about the Centralization of Worship in Deuteronomy and the History of the Deuteronomic Movement,” in Congress Volume: Uppsala 1971 (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 221–26; Baruch Halpern, “The Centralization Formula in Deuteronomy,” Vetus Testamentum 31 (1981): 20–38; and Levinson, “Innovation of Cultic Centralization,” 24–25.
  4. A. C. Welch, “The Problem of Deuteronomy,” Journal of Biblical Literature 48 (1929): 291–306
  5. Anonymous, "Book of Mormon Answers: Authority to sacrifice among the Nephites? Did the Nephites sacrifice first-born animals contrary to the law of Moses?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 71.
  6. Kevin L. Barney, "Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 97.