“Brought by the Hand of the Lord Across the Great Waters”

Brant Gardner

Scriptural history of the Mulekites (up to this point): The story of Zarahemla begins in the same place as that of Lehi, and at roughly the same time - the reign of King Zedekiah. It is during the reign of King Zedekiah that the Lord instructs Lehi to leave Jerusalem, and the origins of the people of Zarahemla come not much later in time.

Siegfried Horn provides the following historical background on Zedekiah:

“When Nebuchadnezzar put Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, on the throne of Judah, the Babylonian king changed his name from Mattaniah, ”Gift of Yahweh“ to Zedekiah, ”Righteousness of Yahweh." He probably did this so that the new name would serve as a continual reminder of his solemn oath of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar, by his own God Yahweh who was considered to have acted as a just witness (2 Kings 24:17; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Ezekiel 17:15-19). Zedekiah, however, was a weak character, and although he was sometimes inclined to do right, he allowed himself to be swayed from the path of loyalty and fidelity by popular demands, as the history of his reign clearly shows.

For a number of years—according to Josephus, for eight years— Zedekiah remained loyal to Babylonia. Once he sent an embassy to Nebuchadnezzar to assure the Babylonian monarch of his fidelity (Jeremiah 29:3-7). In Zedekiah’s fourth year (594/593 B.C.), he himself made a journey to Babylon (Jeremiah 5 1:59), perhaps having been summoned to renew his oath of loyalty. Later, however, under the constant pressure of his subjects, particularly the nobility, who urged him to seek the aid of Egypt against Babylon, Zedekiah made an alliance with the Egyptians (see Jeremiah 37:6-10, 38:14-28). In doing so, he disregarded the strong warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. This Egyptian alliance was probably made after Pharaoh Psamtik II had personally appeared in Judah in 591 B.C. and had given Zedekiah all kinds of assurances and promises of help.

Nebuchadnezzar had prudently refrained from attacking Egypt, in order to avoid the trap that the Assyrians had earlier fallen into. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to lose any of his western possessions to Egypt; he therefore marched against Judah as soon as Zedekiah’s Egyptian alliance became apparent. Nebuchadnezzar systematically devastated the land, practically repeating what Sennacherib had done a century earlier.(Horn, Siegfried H.. “The Divided Monarchy.” In: Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershel Shanks. Washington, DC. Biblical Archaeological Society. 1991, p. 146-7).

Zedekiah reigns from 597 BCE to 586 BCE. Lehi is called as a prophet in the first year of his reign (1 Nephi 1:4), and Mulek would not leave prior to the end of his reign. The Biblical account reports that as vengeance upon Zedekiah for his treachery, Nebuchadnezzar kills his sons before his eyes, and then blinds Zedekiah and carries him off to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). This is all the information we receive from the Bible’s reporting of the event, but the Book of Mormon makes it clear that somehow a son named Mulek was spared this slaughter, and came across the ocean as part of the group that eventually becomes the people of Zarahemla (Mosiah 25:2 and Helaman 8:21).

Of the name Mulek and this enigmatic son of Zedekiah, Sorenson notes:

“Mulek” appears as “Muloch” in the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon and as “Mulok” in printed editions from 1830 to 1852; the name then became “Mulek.”3 However it was pronounced, the name comes to us of course as Nephite ears heard it from the people of Zarahemla, and their pronunciation could have changed it somewhat from the Old World Hebrew familiar to us. What is clear throughout these variations in the spelling of the name is that we have here a reflex of the Hebrew root mik, as in Hebrew melek, “king.”

Nowhere in the Bible are the children of Zedekiah enumerated, let alone named, although we are told that he had daughters as well as sons (Jeremiah 43:6, 52:10). He was twenty-one on his accession to the throne. Being a noble, he already had the economic resources to have possessed a wife and child(ren) at that time. After his accession, he took multiple wives in the manner of the kings of Judah before him (Jeremiah, in 38:22-23, refers to Zedekiah’s “wives”) so that when he was captured at age thirty-two, he might have had a considerable progeny.

Robert F. Smith has mustered evidence that a son of Zedekiah with a name recalling Mulek may actually be referred to in the Bible. Jeremiah 38:6 in the King James translation speaks of Jeremiah’s being cast into “the dungeon [literally, ”pit“] of Malchiah the son of Hammelech.” The last five words should be rendered more accurately, “Malkiyahti, the son of the king.” This personal name could have been abbreviated to something like “Mulek.” Thus Jeremiah might have been put into “the [very] dungeon of Mulek[?], the son of the king [Zedekiah]” referred to in the Hebrew text of Jeremiah 38:6“ (Sorenson, John L. ”The Mulekites." In Nephite Culture and Society. New Sage Books, 1997, pp. 108-9. See also Wirth, Diane E. A Challenge to the Critics. Horizon Publishers. 1986, p. 110-111).

At this point we are left with the question of how Mulek survived when all other sons were killed. Allen suggests four hypothesis:

  1. Some Book of Mormon readers suggest that Mulek was only a baby and that those who were charged with his care literally carried him away from Jerusalem and saw to it that he was brought to the New World.
  2. Other readers propose that perhaps Mulek was disguised as a daughter and was taken into Egypt prior to coming Promised Land.
  3. A further possibility is that the mother of Mulek may have been pregnant at the time and that she was the one escaped the wrath of the Babylonians. This proposal explain, as do the above two proposals, the reason for this group’s not having any records with them. The group time to collect records, as they were fleeing. The mother’s major concern probably was the protection of her unborn and, as such, she played the role of other great women in history who were inspired by the Lord that their children had very significant missions to fill.
  4. A fourth proposal reflects the possibility that Mulek was not even born at the time his older brothers were killed. This proposal suggests that Zedekiah/Mattaniah, who was blind, had children while in captivity among the Babylon. Thirty years later, when the Jews were released from Babylon would then be the time that Mulek, now a young man, was led by the Lord to the “Land North.” These proposed are then in line with the commentary of Archaeologist Warren, who identified the date of the Mulekites’ arrival to Mesoamerica at about 536 BC, which matches a significant date in the Nuttall Codex. (Allen, Joseph L. Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon. SA Publishers, 1989, p. 272).

Allen appears to prefer the fourth proposal based upon the data correspondence in the Nuttal and his interpretation of the danzante figures at Monte Alban. I would suggest that it may be the least viable of the alternatives. The Nuttal is a Mixtec document from much later in history, and dealing with a very different culture group, so the correspondence is shaky on those grounds alone. The presence of a date in any document means nothing without other information as to why that date is there in the record, and the events of the Nuttal are able to be read well enough to correlate most of the events to much later in Central Mexico’s history. Mixtec dates are cyclical, with the same date recurring every 52 years. Unlike the Maya Long Count, the Mixtec dating system had no way to determine which 52 year period the date fell in. It is rather like having a month/day calendar, but no year date. We know that an important date is April 6, but seeing that date alone does not tell us the particular year in which April 6 occurs.

Allen appears to prefer this reading based on his association of Monte Alban as the probable site for the city of Mulek. Using that site, he reads the danzante figures as reminiscences of the Babylonian captivity. There is no consensus on the interpretation of the danzantes, but even if they are depictions of a captivity, the correlation with a specifically Babylonian captivity would depend entirely upon the acceptance of the “born in Babylon” hypothesis first. That is further than I would be willing to push the available evidence. This commentary follows Sorenson’s geographic correlations, which would place the city of Mulek at the Mesoamerican site of La Venta rather than Monte Alban. The internal distances in Sorenson’s correlation appear to fit the data better, and suggest that Allen may have been looking to Monte Alban precisely to use the reinterpreted danzante figures.

As a final issue with the “born in Babylon” hypothesis, Omni 1:15 specifically notes that: “ that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.” It would appear to be a stretch to use “at the time” to include sufficient time thereafter for a child to be born in the Babylonian captivity.

In any case, the death of his siblings is a good reason for Mulek to flee the Old World, whether he was able to make that decision for himself, or it was made by a caretaker. Sometime around “the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon” a group of people including Mulek left Jerusalem. It is quite likely that Mulek was either an infant or very young child when this group left Jerusalem (if not in womb) and so Mulek himself would not have exerted any influence on the management of the group nor on their travels. However, his status as a nominal prince would have easily supplied the reason that he was recognized with a city in his name in the New World (see Washburn, J.N. Book of Mormon Guidebook and Certain Problems in the Book of Mormon. (no publisher). 1968, p. 25).

Just as with Lehi and his family, their initial journey was through the “wilderness” (Omni 1:16). We have no more detail of the “wilderness” than that sole statement, so the particular path cannot be traced. Since it is not unusual for the people of Israel to see their history in terms of sacred models, having any journey begin “in the wilderness” has symbolic associations with the Exodus from Egypt, regardless of the specifics of geography.

After their time in the wilderness, the band crossed the ocean, landing on a shore in the “north” as compared to Lehi’s landing (Helaman 6:10). Their landing appears to have been in Jaredite territory, as their original homeland was in the area of “Desolation,” a Nephite geographical reference to the homeland of the Jaredites so described because of the evidence of the awful final battles in that area (Alma 22: 29-30) and the location of the City of Mulek on the east coast (Palmer, David A. In Search of Cumorah. Horizon Publishers and Distributors, 1968, p. 147). From that original location, the Mulekites eventually moved though the land, arriving in the land that came to be called Zarahemla. Zarahemla is “south” of Desolation, and “north” of the Land of Nephi.

Archaeological History of the Mulekites: Of course entitling this section an “archaeological history” has problems both from the ability of archaeology to elucidate history, and particularly for the identification of any archaeological artifact as “Mulekite.” At the outset it must be admitted that there is no better evidence for the Mulekites than for the Lamanites and Nephites as far as archaeology is concerned. For all Book of Mormon peoples, the question is not one of firm identification, but rather of a plausible context into a known time period and culture.

With the combining of Nephite and Mulekite peoples, the story of the Book of Mormon becomes more culturally diverse, as it includes now a people with a different background than that of the Nephites who arrived in Zarahemla. To best be able to understand the nature of Book of Mormon society from this point on, it is important to take some time to understand the plausible relationship of the Mulekites to Mesoamerican archaeology.

The oldest major civilization of Mesoamerica is called the Olmec. This is a name that has been given to the people, and should does not represent a name they called themselves. This culture provided the foundational shape of much of later architectural and artistic forms, including writing with glyphs (though few of the early forms have been found, and have disputed translations). The Olmec are generally considered to date from 1500 to 600 BC, and were at their most influential between 1200 and 600 BC, with fading influence lasting to AD1 (Diehl, Richard A. and Michael D. Coe. “Olmec Archaeology.” In: The Olmec World. Ritual and Rulership. The Art Museum, Princeton University. 1996. pp. 11-13). They are considered to be Mesoamerica’s most advanced and influential culture during the time of their florescence (Diehl and Coe, 1996, p. 22).

It is into this cultural milieu that the Mulekites arrived during the final years of Olmec influence. As the Olmec culture is diminishing in importance, the Mulekites are entering the area. While we cannot be certain of anything other than the Mulekite survival, it would appear that their ability to remain a political and cultural entity may have been related to their arrival at this time in history when a potential disruption of political alliances had occurred. In such a scenario, it would be easier for newcomers to enter and maintain their separate identity, rather than being swallowed whole into the larger society.

Sorenson has suggested the Olmec site of La Venta as a plausible location for the City of Mulek. In particular, he notes of La Venta Stela 3 : This massive monument dating about the sixth century BC seems to show the meeting of leaders of two ethnic groups. The man on the right looks very much like a Jew of that time." (Sorenson 1985, p. 121). The stela is suggestive, but the iconography of the area is such that I would be hesitant to firmly make the connection. Nevertheless, the suggestion is important. Describing the move of the Zarahemlaites from the City of Mulek, Sorenson further suggests:

“One gets the impression reading about chief Zarahemla’s people in the Book of Omni that they were localized and unsophisticated (for example, they were not literate). Those characteristics ring true for what was going on at the same period in Mesoamerica. Reference to warfare in their background in the centuries before 200 BC (Omni 1:17) fits too. In light of these agreements it is not unreasonable that the descendants of the shipload constituting Mulek’s party were able to find a niche for themselves in the land, incorporating and ruling over some remnant of the people left in the land southward after the abandonment of Olmec La Venta.” (Sorenson, 1985, p. 120).

It is absolutely certain that the Mulekites would have adapted to the Olmec cultural ways during their time there (remembering that we have some 200 years between their landing in the Olmec heartland and their discovery by Mosiah at Zarahemla - a location on the periphery of Olmec influence). Thus just like the Nephites, the physical culture of the Mulekites would have approximated that of their powerful neighbors, and they would have become Mesoamericanized in the three hundred years of their stay.

When they move to Zarahemla they have moved the periphery of the Olmec influence, perhaps again as a result of the political upheavals following the disintegration of the Olmec power structures. When they meet with the Nephites we have the joining of two separate physical/intellectual cultures. Even though both would have begun in Jerusalem, in their respective 200 year sojourn among different cultures, they would have absorbed much of the physical and intellectual culture of the area - which would have similarities to each other, but differences as well. Thus from this point on in the Book of Mormon we will see an increase in the notable Jaredite influences (brought into Zarahemla as part of their Mesoamerican experience) as well as the necessity of cultural accommodation, as indicated by the problem of language mentioned in verses 17 and 18.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon