History: Because the introduction to this occasion is explicitly connected with the law of Moses (Mosiah 2:3), we may legitimately look to the scriptures for an explanation of this type of gathering. Terrence Szink and John Welch link Benjamin’s speech to the complex of autumn festivals of ancient Israel:
Of the three annual festival times in ancient Israel, the autumn festival complex was the most important and certainly the most popular in ancient Israel. In early times it apparently was called the Feast of Ingathering. According to many scholars, the various components of the autumn festival were celebrated as a single season of celebration in the earliest periods of Israelite history. Its many elements were not sharply differentiated until later times, when the first day of the seventh month became Rosh ha-Shanah (New Year), followed by eight days of penitence, then followed on the tenth day of the month by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and on the fifteenth day by Sukkot (Festival of the Tabernacles), concluding with a full holy week.
Although the authors discuss the important correlations they see between Benjamin speech and these Israelite festivities, the differences, which they do not analyze, are also important. This discussion will deal with both. Given the 476 years that have passed since the departure from Jerusalem (Mosiah 6:5), it is reasonable to expect at least some evolution, particularly in adaptations that would accommodate traditional festivals of the New World. It seems reasonable that the Zarahemlaites, who had lost other Israelite beliefs, had engaged in these local practices prior to their union with the Nephites.
One point of conjunction between the Israelite and New World practices occurs in the New Year celebration. Allen Christenson, an assistant professor of humanities and classics at Brigham Young University who is conversant in Quiché Maya, has examined the correlation between the Maya November harvest festival and rituals of coronation and kingly renewal: “Throughout the history of the Maya, who dominated southern Mesoamerica, the most important public festival of the year was timed to coincide with the main corn harvest in mid-November. For the most part, this also served as the New Year’s day of the solar calendar, when kingship was renewed.”
As noted, the Hebrew autumn festivals included the New Year celebration. Indeed, we will also examine this particular speech in the context of a special type of New Year celebration from an Old World context. Prior to that, however, we should also note the Mesoamerican background for New Year’s celebrations. A new year was also heralded with great ceremony. However, another very important type of New Year celebration may enter into Benjamin’s New World accounting. Understanding this possible Mesoamerican influence requires a brief discussion of the Mesoamerican calendar, with which the Zarahemlaites were most certainly familiar and which the Nephites would have had difficulty avoiding. According to archaeologist Muriel Weaver Porter:
The 260-day cycle, already in use during Preclassic times, formed a basic part of all Mesoamerican calculations. Among the Mexica, this cycle was known as the Tonalpohualli… ; the Maya called it the Tzolkin. This cycle was composed of 20 day signs, which ran consecutively, combined with a number from 1 to 13 as a prefix. A day would be designated, for example, as 5 Atl (water) or 8 Tochtli (rabbit) in the Tonalpohualli. In order for the exact day 5 Atl to come around again, 260 days would have to elapse (or 20 x 13, since there is no common denominator). This 260-day cycle is not based on any natural phenomenon and we do not know how to account for its invention. In addition to the Tonalpohualli or Tzolkin, another cycle ran concurrently, resembling our solar year of 365 days. This was made up of 18 months of 20 days each (18 x 20 = 360), plus 5 additional days of apprehension and bad luck at the end of the year. Days were numbered from 0 to 19. The Mexica called the 360-day year the Xihuitl, and the 5-day period of bad luck the Nemontemi. The equivalent Maya periods were named the Haab (360 days) and Uayeb (5 days).
These two independent but concurrent calendars both began again every 260 and 360+5 days. However, every 52 years, their beginning dates coincided:
The Tzolkin and the Haab ran concurrently, like intermeshed cog-wheels, and to return to any given date, 52 years, or 18,980 days, would have to elapse (because both 365 x 52 and 260 x 73 = 18,980). In other words, the Tzolkin would make 73 revolutions and the Haab 52, so that every 52 calendar years of 365 days one would return to the same date. A complete date in this 52-year cycle might be, for example, 2 1k 0 Pop (2 1k being the position of the day in the Tzolkin, 0 Pop the position in the Haab). Fifty-two years would pass before another 2 1k 0 Pop date returned.
One cannot overemphasize the significance of this 52-year cycle for Mesoamerican peoples. It is called the Calendar Round or Sacred Round. Aside from the Maya and Mexica we know it was in use by the Mixtecs, Otomis, Huastecs, Totonacs, Matlazinca, Tarascans, and many other groups. The cycles of time are believed to have been primarily divinatory in purpose. When these coincided, it was an event of great importance, marked by special ceremonies and perhaps by the enlargement of architectural structures.
It was expected that the world would end at the completion of a 52-year cycle. At this time, among the Mexica in the Valley of Mexico, all fires were extinguished, pregnant women were locked up lest they be turned into wild animals, children were pinched to keep them awake so that they would not turn into mice, and all pottery was broken in preparation for the end of the world. In the event the gods decided to grant man another 52 years of life on earth, however, a nighttime ceremony was held in which the populace followed the priests through the darkness over a causeway to the top of an old extinct volcano that rises abruptly from the floor of the basin of Mexico, known today as the Hill of the Star, the hill above Ixtapalapa. There, with all eyes on the stars, they awaited the passage of the Pleiades across the center of the heavens, which would announce the continuation of the world for another 52 years. When the precise moment came, a victim was quickly sacrificed by making a single gash in his chest and extracting the still palpitating heart. In the gory cavity the priests, with a fire drill, kindled a new flame that was quickly carried by torches across the lake to the temple in Tenochititlan, and from there to all temples and villages around the lake. This was known as the New Fire Ceremony among the Mexica, and in some way this same completion and renewal of each 52-year cycle was recognized by all Mesoamericans. It was probably rare for a person to witness more than one of these celebrations in his lifetime, so undoubtedly it was an event approached with great anticipation and relived many times after its passing.
For our purposes, we note that the fifty-two-year cycle is not only extremely significant but is also marked at times by the “enlargement of architectural structures.” This accompanying feature will become particularly important as we analyze the gathering of Benjamin’s people at the temple in Zarahemla.
An alternative parallel for this special occasion is the Old Testament jubilee year. Every seven years was a sabbatical, and every seven sabbaticals was the jubilee. Szink and Welch describe the relevant context for seeing this particular festival as a jubilee year:
The jubilee text of Leviticus 25 compares closely with two sections of Benjamin’s speech. Leviticus 25 reflects the words and phrases associated with the jubilee in ancient times. A considerable density of phrases and ideas from these chapters can be found in the latter portions of Mosiah 2 and 4, sufficient to indicate a textual dependency of Benjamin’s words on these or similar jubilee texts. The main parallels between these passages and Benjamin’s speech can be outlined as follows:
· Benjamin’s “return the thing” (Mosiah 4:28) recalls “return every man unto his possession” (Leviticus 25:10).
· His injunction “Ye will not have a mind to injure one another” (Mosiah 4:13) echoes “Ye shall not oppress one another” (Lev. 25:14, 17).
· At the jubilee, it was required: “He shall reckon with him” (Lev. 25:50; compare 15–16). Similarly. Benjamin said: “Render to every man according to that which is his due” (Mosiah 4:13).
· “And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea though he be a stranger or a sojourner; that he may live with thee” (Lev. 25:35) has the same import as “Ye… will succor those that stand in need,… ye will not… turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 4:16).
· “I am the Lord your God, which brought you forth” (Lev. 25:38) implies the same conclusion as “Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have” (Mosiah 4:19).
· The promise in Leviticus reads: “Wherefore ye shall do my statutes and keep my judgments, and do them; and ye shall dwell in the land in safety. And the land shall yield her fruit” (Lev. 25:18–19); and in Benjamin, “If ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land” (Mosiah 2:22).
These relatively specific parallels, coupled with similarities in the overall tone and concerns of the jubilee texts and Benjamin’s speech, indicate Benjamin’s intense feelings about helping the poor, establishing God’s covenant among his people, being conscientious in walking in the paths of righteousness, and realizing man’s utter dependence on God for life and sustenance. These may well be attributable to the heightened sense of these principles felt by the ancient Israelites during the jubilee season.
A further parallel, expressing the spirit behind all sabbatical and jubilee laws, is found in Deuteronomy 15:9: “Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.” This compares closely with Benjamin’s injunctions to his people to impart freely of their substance to the poor without grudging (see Mosiah 4:22–25).
We now have two parallels for the background of Benjamin’s speech. The Israelite context may be a jubilee year, while the Mesoamerican context may be the beginning of a “century.” Which was it? It is possible that the true answer is “both.” Jubilee years occur every fiftieth year (after the seventh set of seven years). The Mesoamerican “century” occurred every fifty-two years. With the close proximity of the cycles, it would not be unreasonable to find the two merging into a single ceremony. This process of religious adaptation is called syncretism, and most religions which come into close contact with other religions (particularly dominant ones) will exhibit some form of syncretism, whether mild or extensive.
Modern Christian practice shows any number of cases of syncretism, particularly where a symbol is borrowed from another context. An early example is the Christian appropriation of the figure of the youth with a ram on his shoulders, a pagan figure representing humanity. In Christian hands, this symbol for humanity became a symbol for Christ. Later (and more current) examples would be the yule log and the Christmas tree, both appropriations from paganism. The point is not the borrowing, which is normal, but rather the importance of realizing that the borrowing can occur within the context of continued faith. The modern Christian is fully capable of enjoying an Easter that includes bunnies and colored eggs (in addition to a celebration of the resurrection, of course), without understanding the borrowing of rabbits and eggs from ancient pagan spring fertility symbols. Those religions have not survived, but their symbols have.
We may suppose that, in the same way, Nephite/Zarahemlaite culture also borrowed elements of the surrounding cultures (as would be quite evident in their architecture). Thus, I hypothesize that Benjamin had the unique opportunity of living at the important juncture of a New Year/New “Century” that also coincided with an actual or assimilated jubilee year. This auspicious combination of events provides the background for the specific ceremonies, for the details of the speech, and for the temple’s building/renewal that Benjamin proposes. It also helps explain why King Benjamin chose to crown Mosiah three years before his own death (Mosiah 6:4–5). Although Benjamin describes himself as old (Mosiah 2:30), he was obviously not on the verge of death. Rather, he saw this time as appropriate for naming a new king and renaming his people because the year itself as a moment of renewal, the beginning of a new “century.”