Category:Book of Mormon/Doctrine/Covenant

Covenant in the Book of Mormon

The "Garment of Joseph" and Parallels from the Ancient World

The great Nephite leader Moroni, when attempting to rouse his brethren to defend themselves against Amalickiah and the Lamanites, reminded them of their link to Joseph of Egypt when he said: "Behold, we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces. . . . Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph; yea, let us remember the words of Jacob, before his death, for behold, he saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said—Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment" (Alma 46:23–24).42

The "coat of Joseph" had a venerable legendary "history." It was first given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, who passed it on through the generations from Seth to Noah. Noah wore it when he sacrificed on an altar, and he carried with him in the ark. But the garment was also seen as having power that might be misused by those into whose hands it fell. Ham stole it and gave it to his son Cush, who later gave it to Nimrod. Nimrod used this garment to obtain power and glory among men and as a means to deceive people and to gain unconquerable strength. He also used the garment while hunting, thereby causing all the birds and other animals to fall down in honor and respect before him. As a result, the people made him king over them. He first became king of Babylon and "was soon able through skillful and subtle speeches to bring the whole of mankind to the point of accepting him as the absolute ruler of the earth."43 Appropriately, it was the garment that finally cost Nimrod his life. According to one account, Nimrod went forth with his people on a hunt at a time when he was jealous of the great hunter Esau. As Nimrod and two attendants approached Esau, Esau hid, cut off Nimrod's head, and killed the two attendants.

Having obtained the garment, Esau either buried it or sold it to Jacob along with his birthright. Numbers Rabbah relates that Jacob desired to offer sacrifice but could not because he was not the firstborn and did not have the birthright, part of which consisted of Adam's garment. It was for this reason that Jacob bought the birthright from Esau, who said, "There is no afterlife, death ends everything, and the inheritance will do me no good," and willingly let Jacob have the garment, along with his birthright. Here Muslim and Jewish traditions overlap. In the Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa (Epistles of the brethren of purity), Esau's sale of the birthright to Jacob was symbolized by the transfer of the sacred garment. Again, according to the Jewish scholar Micha Josef bin Gorion, "Esau's garment in which Rebekah clothed him, namely those made by God for Adam and Eve, had now rightfully become Jacob's, and Isaac recognized their paradisiacal fragrance."44

In a parallel tradition the early church father Hippolytus says that when Isaac laid his hands on Jacob, at the same time feeling Esau's skin garment, Isaac knew that Jacob was the legitimate heir to the blessing—the garment proved that, for Esau would hardly have parted with the garment if he had been worthy of it. Jacob later gave this garment to Joseph. This garment, a Jewish commentary on Genesis 37:3 informs us, was the high priest's tunic.45 Louis Ginzberg observes that, in the original Hebrew of that passage, "pargud mesuyyar is a paraphrase of passim, which accordingly is not to be translated 'a coat of many colors,' but 'an upper garment in which figures are woven.'"46

According to legendary traditions collected by the Muslim theologian al-Tha'labi, Jacob recognized the same fragrance in the garment of Joseph when it was brought to him by Joseph's brothers and at the same time knew by the marks in it that it was the identical garment that he had received from his brother and that Adam had received from God in the garden of Eden. Earlier, when the jealous brothers took the garment away and lowered Joseph into the cistern, Gabriel immediately appeared and brought him a garment so he would never be without protection. The Testament of Zebulon says that Joseph's brothers took from Joseph his garment of honor and put on him the garment of the slave,47 a reminder of traditions about two portions of Joseph's garment, one that decayed and the other that was miraculously preserved.48

Why is the story of Joseph and the covenant-making ceremony in Alma 46:21–24 significant? Because it squares with the ancient Near Eastern stories of sacred garments of the patriarchs and patterns of covenant making. Notably, the use of simile curses in that passage (e.g., "he [God] may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy [Moroni's] feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression," v. 22) follows a venerable tradition in the ancient Near East.49 Further, in mentioning Joseph's garment the Book of Mormon alludes to an ancient tradition in which a patriarch passed on to his successor garments symbolic of his patriarchal authority. Both traditions had a heritage going back to the earliest times, a heritage unknown to Joseph Smith at the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon but with which we have subsequently become well acquainted.[1]

Treaty and Covenant in King Benjamin's Address

There is an amazing ritual density in King Benjamin's address and its related events, which included a covenant making/covenant renewal ceremony as well as a coronation ceremony in which Benjamin's son Mosiah acceded to the throne.1 The series of events outlined in Mosiah 1–6 reflects what biblical scholars call the "treaty/covenant pattern" in ancient Israelite literature—a literary feature that was completely unknown when the Book of Mormon was published in 1830 and was not identified and studied until the past two generations. In 1931 Viktor Korosec identified the treaty pattern from ancient Hittite treaties,2 and in 1950 Elias Bickerman tentatively connected this Hittite treaty pattern with Israelite covenant making.3 It was not until 1954, however, that George Mendenhall set out in detail that connection, identifying the specific elements of the treaty/covenant pattern: (1) the king/prophet gives a preamble that introduces God as the one making the covenant or that introduces his prophet as a spokesman for God; (2) the king/prophet gives a brief review of God's dealings with Israel in the past; (3) the king/prophet notes the terms of the covenant, listing specific commandments and obligations that God expects Israel to keep; (4) the people bear witness in formal statements that they accept the covenant; (5) the king/prophet lists the blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience to the covenant; and (6) the king/prophet makes provisions for depositing a written copy of the covenant in a safe and sacred place and for reading its contents to the people in the future.4

Among its other connections with ancient Israelite religious practice, the assembly recorded in Mosiah 1–6 mentions three interesting features: the pilgrimage of whole families to the temple site, the sacrifice of animals, and the people's dwelling in tents. These elements are so typical of the Israelite Feast of Tabernacles that they strongly suggest that the events recorded in these chapters took place during a Nephite observance of that festival. The Old Testament indicates that the Feast of Tabernacles most likely took place when the Israelites renewed their covenant with God, and that appears to be what the Nephites were doing in the assembly reported in Mosiah 1–6.5

The six elements of covenant renewal mentioned above can be found in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. In addition, the new king would ideally take office before the death of the old one, and this transfer of power was connected with the ceremony in which the people made or renewed their covenant with God. Interestingly, each of these features is found in Mosiah 1–6.

1. Preamble. The passages in the Bible dealing with the renewal of the covenant sometimes introduce God as the maker of the covenant: "God spake all these words saying . . ." (Exodus 20:1). At other times a prophet is introduced to act for God: "Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel . . ." (Joshua 24:2). Similarly, Benjamin's covenant assembly in the book of Mosiah begins: "These are the words which [Benjamin] spake and caused to be written, saying . . ." (Mosiah 2:9). Although Benjamin is speaking, he is clearly acting as the mouthpiece of God. In fact, a sizable part of his address consists of words that had been made known to him "by an angel from God" (Mosiah 3:2).

2. Review of God's Relations with Israel. At this point in the covenant renewal ceremony, according to the Bible, the people hear of God's mighty acts on behalf of his people, Israel. For example, Jehovah says through Moses, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself" (Exodus 19:4; compare Exodus 20:2; Joshua 24:11–23). The Mosiah passage includes a long account of the past relations between King Benjamin and his people as an a fortiori argument for the people's obligation to God (see Mosiah 2:19).

3. Terms of the Covenant. Each of the biblical covenant passages states the commandments that God expects his people, Israel, to keep. A prime example is in Exodus 20–23, where God first briefly lists the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:3–17) and then spells out in greater detail what the people are to obey (see Exodus 21:1–23:19). Benjamin's address also contains numerous commandments; for example: "Believe in God. . . . Believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you" (Mosiah 4:9–10).

4. Formal Witness. Once in the Old Testament, an object—a particular stone—was made witness to the covenant: "for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which he spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest ye deny your God" (Joshua 24:27). In general, though, the people themselves were the witnesses, stating, for instance, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:8). Following King Benjamin's address, the people express a similar desire "to enter into a covenant with [their] God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments" (Mosiah 5:5). They further witness their willingness to obey by allowing their names to be listed among those who have "entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments" (Mosiah 6:1).

5. Blessings and Curses. Biblical covenants often end with a list of curses and blessings for those who enter into the covenant: "Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image. . . . And all the people shall answer and say, Amen. Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen" (Deuteronomy 27:15–16). "Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle" (Deuteronomy 28:3–4).

More often in the Old Testament, however, such curses and blessings are merely implied: "Joshua said unto the people, . . . If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good" (Joshua 24:19–20). Similarly, the curses and blessings in Benjamin's speech are implied rather than stated outright: "Whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God. . . . Whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ must be called by some other name; therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God" (Mosiah 5:9–10).

6. Reciting and Depositing the Covenant. The Bible frequently mentions that the covenant was read aloud. For example, we read that "[Moses] took the books of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people" (Exodus 24:7). Other passages mention that the covenant was written and put in a safe and sacred place: "Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord" (Joshua 24:26). The words of King Benjamin were written and sent out among the people, not only so they could be studied and understood but also, it can be surmised, so they could serve as a permanent record of the assembly (see Mosiah 2:8–9). At the end of Benjamin's address, when all of the people expressed a willingness to take upon themselves Christ's name, their names were recorded and presumably preserved as a memorial of the covenant (see Mosiah 6:1). [2]


  1. Stephen D. Ricks, "Converging Paths: Language and Cultural Notes on the Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Book of Mormon," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 12, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Stephen D. Ricks, "Converging Paths: Language and Cultural Notes on the Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Book of Mormon," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 12, references silently removed—consult original for citations.