Category:Book of Mormon/Doctrine/Sacrifices

A Comparison of Sacrificial Practices in the Book of Mormon and the Old World

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Doctrine

Lehi's sacrifices in the wilderness

The chief question concerning Lehi's sacrifices in the wilderness is how Joseph Smith knew the proper sacrifices that travelers were to offer according to the Mosaic law. The answer is that he did not. But Lehi did. And he offered sacrifices suitable for the occasions noted in Nephi's narrative, including burnt offerings for atonement.17

Nephi's account highlights three occasions on which his father, Lehi, offered sacrifices (to be distinguished from burnt offerings). These occasions were when the family arrived at their first campsite (see 1 Nephi 2:7), when the sons of Lehi returned with the plates of brass (see 5:9), and when the sons returned with the family of Ishmael (see 7:22). In each instance, Nephi specifically connects the offering of sacrifices with thanksgiving. Such a detail allows us to know that these sacrifices were the so-called peace offerings that are mandated in the law of Moses (see {{b||Leviticus|3|}).18 According to {{b||Psalms|107|}, a person was to "sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving" for safety in journeying (v. 22, emphasis added), whether through the desert or on water (see vv. 107:4–6, 107:19–30).

The burnt offerings are a different matter entirely. They are for atonement rather than thanksgiving (see Leviticus 1:2–4). This type of offering presumes that someone has sinned and therefore the relationship between God and his people has been ruptured, requiring restoration.19 The priests offered this sort of sacrifice twice daily in the sanctuary of ancient Israel on the chance that someone in Israel had sinned. While the priests could not know that some Israelite had sinned, the Lord obliged them to make the offering anyway. In this sense it was a just-in-case sacrifice.

Lehi offered burnt offerings on two occasions. The second occurred after the sons had returned from Jerusalem with the family of Ishmael in tow (see 1 Nephi 7:22). Had there been sin? Yes. The older sons had sought to bind Nephi and leave him in the desert to die (see 7:6–16). Even though they repented and sought Nephi's forgiveness (see 7:20–21), Lehi felt the need to offer burnt offerings for atonement. In the earlier instance, Lehi offered such sacrifices after the return of his sons from Jerusalem with the plates of brass (see 5:9). Had there been sin? Again, the answer is yes. The two older brothers had beaten the younger two, drawing the attention of an angel (see 3:28–30). There was also the matter of the unforeseen death of Laban (see 4:18:{{{4}}}; 5:14,16). Even though Nephi knew through the Holy Spirit that the Lord had commanded him to kill Laban and thus justified Laban's death (see 4:11–13),21 Lehi was evidently unwilling to take any chances that the relationship between God and his family had not been securely reconciled. So he offered burnt offerings, exactly the right sacrifice for the occasion.[1]

Lehi's sacrificial altar

As his first act, once his tent had been pitched for his first important camp, Lehi "built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks to the Lord" (1 Nephi 2:7). It is for all the world as if he had been reading Robertson Smith. "The ordinary . . . mark of a Semitic sanctuary [Hebrew as well as Arabic, that is] is the sacrificial pillar, cairn, or rude altar . . . upon which sacrifices are presented to the god. . . . In Arabia . . . we find no proper altar, but in its place a rude pillar or heap of stones, beside which the victim is slain."42 It was at this same altar of stones that Lehi and his family "did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings; . . . and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel" (1 Nephi 5:9) upon the safe return of his sons from their dangerous expedition to Jerusalem. When Raswan reports, "A baby camel was brought up to Mishal'il's tent as a sacrificial offer in honor of the safe return of Fuaz," we cannot help thinking of some such scene before the tent of Lehi on the safe return of his sons.43 This is what the Arabs call a dhabiyeḥ-l-kasb, a sacrifice to celebrate the successful return of warriors, hunters, and raiders to the camp. "This sacrifice," writes Jaussen, "is always in honor of an ancestor,"44 and Nephi twice mentions the tribal ancestor Israel in his brief account. In the best desert manner Lehi immediately after the thanksgiving fell to examining the "spoils" (1 Nephi 5:10).
To this day the Bedouin makes sacrifice on every important occasion, not for magical and superstitious reasons, but because he "lives under the constant impression of a higher force that surrounds him." Nilus, in the oldest known eyewitness account of life among the Arabs of the Tih, says, "They sacrifice on altars of crude stones piled together." 45 That Lehi's was such an altar would follow not only the ancient law demanding uncut stones, but also from the Book of Mormon expression "an altar of stones," which is not the same thing as "a stone altar." Such little heaps of stones, surviving from all ages, are still to be seen throughout the south desert.
We have seen that the first thing the Jewish merchant in Arabia would do on settling in a place, whether a camp or town, was to set up an altar. 46 Bertholet has argued that since the family and the house were identical in the common cult of hospitality, to be received as a guest was to be received into the family cult, of which the center was always the altar.47[2]


  1. S. Kent Brown, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail," 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 5, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 19, references silently removed—consult original for citations.

Pages in category "Book of Mormon/Doctrine/Sacrifices"

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