“We Did Observe to Keep the Commandments of the Lord”

Brant Gardner

Nephi declares his people’s religion. Only a few were Old World Israelites who had lived the Mosaic law in Jerusalem, and Nephi’s clear revelation of the Atoning Messiah who would come is an important theme in his and Jacob’s teachings. Nevertheless, he did not make major adaptations in his traditional religious practices. Obviously, religious observances were intimately bound up with the institutions of the Mosaic law. He would have seen no conflict between the continuation of those practices and his understanding of the Atoning Messiah. (See 1 Nephi, Part 1: Context, Chapter 1, “The Historical Setting of 1 Nephi.”) Lehi and now Nephi had obtained more information about the Messiah, but it was already part of how they understood the Mosaic law.

The law that Nephi inherited and implemented made no differentiation between civil and moral laws. The specific content of the law with which Nephi was familiar is dependent upon how one accepts the historical development of the Old Testament. The historical development accepted in this commentary suggests developments in the construction of our Old Testament that added post-exilic content to some sections of the Bible that discuss preexilic topics. In particular, many of the priestly laws elaborating cultic purity and performance appear to have been post-exilic additions. However, the holiness code is likely at least based on much earlier law. The Deuteronomic code would probably have been instituted during the reign of Josiah and therefore have been relatively new as a codified document in Nephi’s time. However, it is also very probable that the Deuteronomic code collected principles of law that had already been accepted. Thus, even though I have suggested that Lehi disagreed with some of the Josian reforms (see1 Nephi, Part 1: Context, Chapter 1, “The Historical Setting of 1 Nephi”) the specific disagreements should not be construed as a complete disagreement. Josiah codified a number of concepts that were already represented in the religious and legal climate of Judah, and it would be too simplistic to suppose that Lehi would automatically disagree with everything just because he disagreed on one known, albeit major, point.

The exigencies of the new life would certainly lead to adaptations of the Old World model, but questions of leadership, worship, land management, and social organization would be based on the principles in the law of Moses. A rapid adaptation would have been applying the names of animals in the Old World law to New World fauna. For example, Exodus 22:1 says: “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” Neither oxen nor sheep were available in the New World, but the principle of restoration in an amount greater than the theft would still apply. Since there were five oxen to one ox but only four sheep for one sheep, the New World would have to establish relative values for whatever animals would be involved in such reparations.

In spite of Nephi’s declaration that they followed the law of Moses, the Book of Mormon has relatively few clear examples of either civil or cultic practice related to that law. Lehi offers a sacrifice in 1 Nephi 7:22, and sacrifices are mentioned as part of the gathering called by Benjamin in Mosiah 2:3. Purity laws, however, are not clearly present in the Book of Mormon. (See commentary accompanying Alma 60:22–23 for a possible reference to purity laws.) The Nephite law of egalitarianism appears to be based more directly on Isaiah than on the law of Moses. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 15:8.) Rather than seeing the absence of mention as an absence of attention, we should understand that the purpose of the Book of Mormon writers was not to give us a complete picture of their society. In particular, aspects that they would have deemed commonly known and unremarkable would not have been expressly included in their text. In this context we can see the Mosaic requirement for circumcision. This rite is never mentioned in the Book of Mormon until it appears in a declaration that it is no more required: “Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me” (Moro. 8:8). Circumcision must have been practiced, or the declaration that it was no longer required would be unnecessary. It must also have been controversial in the New World, just as it was in the Old World, for our indication of the declaration that circumcision has been “done away” comes in an epistle from Mormon to Moroni in the context of other doctrinal controversies at that time. We only speculate that the context of the controversy was similar to that in the New Testament. Unfortunately, we are given no more explicit information. The information about the controversy itself, as with more information about the practice of circumcision, is simply not part of what the authors thought important enough to include.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2