History: The story of the Mulekites up to this point begins in the same place as that of the Lehites and at roughly the same time. During Zedekiah’s reign, the Lord instructed Lehi to leave Jerusalem, and the Mulekites took shape as a group when Zedekiah, a Babylonian client king, was dethroned.
Siegfried H. Horn, professor emeritus of archaeology at Andrews University, 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 Kgs. 24:17, 2 Chr. 36:13, Ezek. 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 (Jer. 29:3–7). In Zedekiah’s fourth year (594/593 B.C.), he himself made a journey to Babylon (Jer. 51:59), 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 (Jer. 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.
Zedekiah reigned from 597 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E. Lehi was called as a prophet in the first year of his reign (1 Ne. 1:4), and Mulek left shortly after his reign ended. In vengeance for Zedekiah’s treachery, Nebuchadnezzar killed his sons before his eyes, then blinded Zedekiah and carried him off to Babylon (2 Kgs. 25:7). The Bible reports no other details, but the Book of Mormon makes it clear that a son named Mulek avoided the fate of his brothers and crossed the ocean as part of the group that eventually becomes the people of Zarahemla (Mosiah 25:2, Hel. 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.” 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 mlk, 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 (Jer. 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 (Jer. 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.
Robert F. Smith’s suggestion has been controversial, even among LDS scholars. Nevertheless, as archaeologist Jeffrey R. Chadwick recounts Smith’s argument:
Smith also suggested that the Book of Mormon name Mulek might be a shortened form of the biblical Hebrew Malkiyahu. In support of this possibility, he noted that while Jeremiah’s scribe is called Baruch… in Jeremiah 36:4, a longer form of his name—… (Berekhyahu)—appears on an ancient stamp seal impression published by Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad. Since the Hebrew long-form name Berekhyahu could apparently be expressed in a hypocoristic (short form) version like Barukh, Smith reasoned that perhaps the long form Malkiyahu could have a short form like Mulek. In that event, the “Malkiyahu son of the king” in Jeremiah 38:6 could well have been the Book of Mormon’s Mulek, son of King Zedekiah (see Hel. 8:21).
This suggestion has been strengthened by archaeological evidence:
Recently, an ancient Judean stamp seal has been identified as bearing the Hebrew form of the name “Malchiah son of Hammelech.” Does this mean that an actual archaeological relic that belonged to an ancient Book of Mormon personality has been located? Has the seal of Mulek been found?
To answer this question requires us to explore a number of different but related issues. First, a word of explanation. The reading of Jeremiah 38:6 in the King James Version is somewhat misleading. The Hebrew Bible… [text is] pronounced Malkiyahu ben hamelek. The name Malkiyahu was reasonably rendered into English as “Malchiah” by the King James scholars, and the word ben was accurately translated as “son.” But the King James term Hammelech… is not really a name; it is a transliteration. In Hebrew, hamelek means “the king” (ha is the definite article “the,” and melek is the word for “king”). Thus, accurately translated, Jeremiah 38:6 refers to “Malkiyahu son of the king.” Noted biblical scholar John Bright translates the phrase as “Prince Malkiah” (the term prince referring to a royal son) in his Anchor Bible commentary on Jeremiah.
Of course this is the most promising connection between Mulek and Zedekiah. However, another alternative is possible. What relationship did Mulek have to the throne of Israel? Although identified as Zedekiah’s son, he is not numbered among them. Possibly, “son” is used metaphorically rather than literally. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, provides three possible ways that “son” was used in connection with royalty: “(1) the word means what it says; (2) ‘son’ refers to a royal official unrelated by blood to the king; [or] (3) ‘son’ refers to any male scion [descendant] of the royal family.” The non-kin connection is supported by a bulla, or clay seal, identified as the official seal of the “son” of King Jehoiakim. This “son” is named Yerame’el, but Shanks finds it doubtful that he is King Jehoiakim. By this reading, Mulek would be an important functionary rather than a legitimate son, all of whom where killed, according to the Bible text.
If Mulek was a literal son, then how did he survive? Joseph L. Allen suggests four hypotheses:
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 to the 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 would explain, as do the above two proposals, the reason for this group’s not having any records with them. The group had no time to collect records, as they were fleeing. The mother’s major concern probably was the protection of her unborn [child] 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 events are then in line with the commentary of Archaeologist [Bruce] Warren, who identified the date of the Mulekites’ arrival to Mesoamerica at about 536 B.C., which matches a significant date in the Nuttall Codex.
Allen appears to prefer the fourth proposal based upon the date correspondence in the Nuttall Codex and his interpretation of the danzante figures at Monte Albán. Contrary to Allen’s preference, this is probably the least viable of the alternatives. The Nuttall Codex is a Mixtec document probably dating to the fifteenth century. The Mixtecs are a Central Mexican culture group who are distant in language and culture from the area where the majority of the Book of Mormon took place. On these grounds alone the connection between a date in the Nuttall and anything in the Book of Mormon is questionable. The Mixtec calendar used the same general system as most Mesoamerican calendars. They combine day, month, and year signs into sets that recur every fifty-two years. In all of the Mesoamerican calendars, only the Maya Long Count used a fixed date in history in addition to the fifty-two-year cycle. Therefore, while it is relatively easy to know when a Maya Long Count date correlates to the Western calendar, most Mesoamerican dates recur every fifty-two years and we cannot tell from that date alone in which fifty-two-year cycle it occurred. It is rather like having a month/day calendar, but no year date. We might know, for instance, that April 6 is an important date, but seeing the date alone does not tell us the particular year in which April 6 occurs.
Allen prefers this reading because he accepts Monte Albán as the probable site for the city of Mulek and reads the danzante figures as reminiscences of the Babylonian captivity. Monte Albán was an important Zapotec center in Oaxaca that began its history around 500 B.C. Archaeologist Susan Toby Evans describes the danzantes: “One monumental construction that may possibly have been established in Monte Albán Early I phase [500–300 B.C.] is a collection of bas-relief portraits, the danzantes, called “dancers” because of their unusual postures. To date, over 300 danzante sculptures have been recovered, many of them reused as steps in later buildings. Many scholars believe that these are portraits of sacrificial victims… but an alternative view presents them as figures undergoing age-set rituals.” The sacrificial reading might correlate with Allen’s reading only in that it was captives who were sacrificed. However, even in that case, the iconography appears to emphasize the sacrifice, not the captivity. Equally certainly, these sacrifices did not survive their captivity, which is required for Allen’s “born in Babylon” hypothesis.
I follow Sorenson’s hypothesis which locates the city of Mulek at La Venta rather than Monte Albán. The internal distances in Sorenson’s correlation appear to fit the data better and suggest that Allen may have been over-influenced by the danzante figures to accept Monte Albán.
As a final issue with the “born in Babylon” hypothesis, Omni 1:15 notes: “The people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.” “At the time” does not seem to allow time for a child to be born in the Babylonian captivity.
In any case, the political unrest was sufficient reason for Mulek and his associates to flee from Jerusalem. It also seems reasonable, if Mulek was Zedekiah’s actual son, that he escaped death with his brothers by being a young child or an infant, even an unborn infant. His status as a nominal prince (or, if not Zedekiah’s son, his possible important court position) would explain why the city was named for him.
Like the Lehites, the Mulekites fled through the “wilderness” (Omni 1:16); but without more details, their route is impossible to trace. Since it was 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. We also have no details about the vessel in which they crossed the ocean or the ocean route they took. However, they landed in the “north” compared to Lehi’s landing (Hel. 6:10). This landing was apparently in the Jaredite territory that the Nephites later called “Desolation” because of the evidence of the devastating genocidal battles there (Alma 22:29–30). Furthermore, the city of Mulek was on the east coast. From that original location, the Mulekites moved (again, no details are given) to Zarahemla, a location “south” of Desolation and “north” of the land of Nephi.
Archaeology: This discussion must begin with an acknowledgment of archaeology’s limitations in elucidating history and particularly our inability to identify any archaeological artifact as “Mulekite.” There is no better archaeological evidence for the Mulekites than for the Lamanites and Nephites. (See “Excursus: Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” following 1 Nephi 18.) There is also no worse evidence for the Mulekites than for the Lamanites and Nephites. For all Book of Mormon peoples, the archaeological goal cannot be one of firm identification, but rather of the plausible context of a known time period and culture. With the union of Nephites and Mulekites, the Book of Mormon story becomes more culturally diverse, thus justifying a discussion about a hypothetical but plausible relationship between the Mulekites and Mesoamerican archaeology.
The oldest major Mesoamerican civilization is called the Olmec, a name assigned to the residents of the southern Gulf lowlands in the southern part of the modern state of Veracruz. The name they called themselves is not known. This culture provided the foundation of many 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 B.C. and were at their most influential between 1200 and 600 B.C., with fading influence lasting to A.D. 1. They are considered to be Mesoamerica’s most advanced and influential culture during the time of their florescence. (See Ether, Part 1: Context, Chapter 1, “Historical Background of the book of Ether.”)
The Mulekites arrived in this Olmec culture region during the final years of Olmec influence. Obviously, the Mulekites were able to survive as a distinct cultural group, and perhaps their ability to do so can be attributed to their arrival at a time when the Olmec political hegemony had been disrupted and when it would no longer swallow a new group 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 B.C. 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.”
The stela is suggestive, but Sorenson’s interpretation is heavily based on the interpretation of the man’s facial features, including the beard. Sorenson himself describes the wide variety of facial types in Mesoamerican populations. The suggestion that a beard is necessarily a marker of a foreign population over-simplifies a complex relationship between the physiology of the population and the artistic record. Beards are not uncommon in Mesoamerican art and not conclusively markers of foreignness. Nevertheless, Sorenson’s 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 B.C. (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.
The reasons are unclear, but both the Olmec sites of San Lorenzo and La Venta were abandoned around 400 B.C. although they were near the end of their dominance around 600 B.C. It is absolutely certain that the Mulekites would have adapted to the Olmec cultural ways during the three hundred years between their landing in the Olmec culture region and their encounter with Mosiah1’s at Zarahemla, which is located on the periphery of Olmec influence. Like the Nephites, the Mulekites would have adopted the material culture of their powerful neighbors. They would have become Mesoamericanized. A significant difference between Sorenson’s position and mine is the nature and direction of rule. Sorenson sees the Mulekites as ruling in La Venta. I see them as absorbing Olmec culture but lacking political dominance until they moved to Zarahemla where they either founded the city and, hence, automatically become politically dominant by default or took over an existing city, including, naturally, its political system.
By moving to Zarahemla, the Mulekites (at least the remnant that were the people of Zarahemla) were removing themselves to the periphery of Olmec influence. This move may have resulted from the political upheavals following the disintegration of the Olmec power structures. The ancient Olmec lived in an area currently home to two linguistic-cultural groups, the Mixe and the Zoque. The linguistic reconstruction of the languages indicates that during the time of the Olmec the two daughter languages were a single language called Mixe-Zoque. The later split in the languages also represents a separation of peoples and politics.
Archaeologist Susan Toby Evans describes population movements that are very similar to the Book of Mormon’s description of a cultural confluence in this area:
A few centers of interior Chiapas survived what appears to have been major population restructuring in the period 400–200 B.C., when La Venta’s important influence on this region was dead, and Maya centers in the Petén were growing powerful. In fact, Maya peoples began to push into the northern part of the interior of Chiapas, and Zoque-culture communities that survived, such as Santa Rosa [Sorenson’s Zarahemla], Chiapa de Corzo [Sorenson’s Sidom], and Mirador [Sorenson’s Ammonihah], show a strong presence of Maya trade wares and architectural styles. Yet continued elite ties with other Mixe-Zoque peoples of the Isthmian region are indicated by the very early calendric monument, Chiapa de Corzo’s Stela 2, dated to 36 B.C. Chiapa de Corzo is one of Mesoamerica’s oldest continuously occupied communities, and in the Late Formative period [300 B.C.–A.D. 1] it had one of Mesoamerica’s earliest true palaces.
When the people of Zarahemla and the righteous refugees from Nephi met, two separate material and intellectual cultures joined. Even though both began in Jerusalem, the intervening three hundred years meant that they absorbed much of the surrounding material and intellectual cultures, leading to some similarities but also to differences. From this point on, the Book of Mormon shows a discernible Jaredite influence (brought into Zarahemla as part of the Mulekites’ Mesoamerican experience) as well as the necessity of cultural accommodation, as indicated by the problem of language (vv. 17–18).