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According to John Welch, there were three main Israelite holy festivals:

1. The New Year’s holiday complex, which later developed into a composite observance of:

a. Rosh Ha-Shanah (New Year and Day of Judgment)

b. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)

c. Sukkot (Tabernacles)

2. Pesach (Passover) which began the feast of Unleavened Bread in the Spring.

3. Shavuot (Pentecost) which came fifty days after Passover.

There is abundant evidence that an ancient New Year‘s festival was observed at the time of King Benjamin’s speech. In the earliest periods of Israelite history, the New Year’s festival appears to have been a single celebration. Its many elements were not sharply differentiated until later times, when the first month of the year was made to begin with Rosh Ha-Shanah, followed by eight days of penitence, followed further on the tenth of the month by Yom Kippur and on the fifteenth Sukkot, concluding with a full holy week. King Benjamin’s speech weaves together all the major themes of these sacred holidays, just as one would expect in a pre-Exilic Israelite community in which the New Year was not a separate feast, but rather a consolidated fall Feast of Ingathering, or “an unusually solemn new moon, the first day of a month which, at that time, was full of feasts.” Thus one finds in Benjamin’s speech the themes of Rosh Ha-Shanah (simply meaning “the beginning of the year”) interwoven with the announcement of and the celebration of the festivals of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, set alongside coronation and other ritual and covenantal materials traditionally linked with the New Year. [John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” 1985, F.A.R.M.S., pp. 2, 12-13]

“The People Gathered Themselves Together to Go Up to the Temple Kingship Feast Celebration”

According to John Tvedtnes, some years ago Hugh Nibley outlined at least 36 similarities between the Book of Mormon account of King Benjamin’s kingship festival and ancient Middle Eastern coronation rites. Says Tvedtnes, “My own research further explores the Israelite coronation/New Year rites, and aims to complement other scholarly studies of the ceremonial context of Benjamin’s speech.”

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), like the Feast of Unleavened Bread/Passover, began and ended with a day of rest, including a “holy convocation” and a “solemn assembly.” During the week of the feast, the Israelites would gather together and build for each family a booth or tabernacle. Special sacrifices were also ordained (Numbers 29:12-38).

From the descriptions (reviewed in the article), we may reconstruct the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles as observed in the sabbatical and jubilee years, as follows:

1. The people were (a) assembled, most often at the cult site (“before God”), where (b) they were sometimes divided into two companies. (c) Strangers were also invited to attend. (d) At the conclusion of the festival, the assembly was formally dismissed and sent home.

2. The leader (king, where applicable) delivered an address in which (a) he read from the Law of Moses and cited the blessings and curses contained therein, (b) he exhorted the people to love and fear God and serve him, (c) he recounted God’s dealings with the fathers (especially the Exodus from Egypt), (d) he designated God as creator and the source of all we have, (e) he called upon the people to assist the needy, (f) he read (where appropriate) the “Paragraph of the King,” (g) he blessed the people, and (h) he added such other items as necessary (notably, comments on the plan of salvation).

3. God covenanted with his people that, if they would obey his commandments, he would (a) give them prosperity in the land and longevity, (b) defeat their enemies (through the king, who was commander-in-chief), and (c) send rain for the crops.

4. The people (a) covenanted with God to be his servants and to obey his Law. (b) To this they were called to witness. (c) The covenant (or, sometimes, the Law or the ruler’s speech) was written down. (d) A “pillar” was erected as a symbol of the covenant.

5. For purposes of sacrifice (a) an altar was constructed and (b) burnt and peace offerings were made upon it.

6. The joy of the people was expressed by praising God, music, and sometimes dance.

7. Trumpets were blown, as was usual for the seventh month.

8. The coronation ceremony stressed (a) that God was the real King of Israel, (b) that it was God who chose the earthly king--his viceroy--through a prophet, with (c) the approval of the people (who use the formula “God save the king” in KJV) and the previous king. The king was then (d) anointed and (e) given a charge.

9. There were sometimes other elements, such as a communal meal. In addition, there were the features already discussed above (e.g., the presence of tents or booths, the building of a wooden platform, and the presence of strangers or foreigners).

The biblical Sukkot celebration is closely paralleled by the account of King Benjamin’s assembly recorded in Mosiah 1:1-6:6. [John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also by Faith, Vol. 2, F.A.R.M.S., pp. 197-221]

“The People Gathered Themselves Together to Go Up to the Temple Kingship Coronation Rites”

According to Hugh Nibley, in the Bible in the book of Kings, you read that there were many kings and how they got to be kings. We are told how they got to the throne and how they lost the throne. There’s a lot said about it. But not one instance in the Bible tells us how a coronation was performed--what they did at a coronation. Yet that is one thing on which we are best informed in all ancient records. In Egypt we know every step of a coronation, and in Babylon, and wherever you go, because it’s in the government records. The coronation is a great ritual. It’s a solemn rite, and it’s a historical event, too. There’s the great assembly. I wrote this here about the great assembly. [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, p. 440]

Let us mark the various details descriptive of the rite in the Book of Mormon, numbering them as we go:

1. The first thing King Benjamin did in preparation was to summon his successor, Mosiah, and authorize him (for it is always the new king and never the old king that makes the proclamation) to “make a proclamation throughout all this land among all this people … that thereby they may be gathered together; for on the morrow I shall proclaim unto this my people out of mine own mouth that thou art a king and a ruler over this people, whom the Lord our God hath given us.” (Mosiah 1:10)

2. “I shall give this people a name, that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem.” (Mosiah 1:11)

3. “He [Benjamin] gave him [Mosiah] charge concerning all the affairs of the kingdom” (Mosiah 1:15). King Benjamin also consigned the national treasure to Mosiah’s keeping: the plates, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona, with due explanation of their symbolism. (Mosiah 1:16-17)

4. Obedient to Mosiah’s proclamation, “all the people who were in the land of Zarahemla … gathered themselves together throughout all the land, that they might go up to the temple to hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them.” (Mosiah 1:18, 2:1)

5. There was so great a number, Mosiah explains, “that they did not number them.” This neglect of the census being apparently an unusual thing. (Mosiah 2:2)

6. Since these people were observing the Law of Moses and their going up to the temple was in the old Jewish manner “they also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses.” (Mosiah 2:3)

7. The "firstlings’ (Mosiah 2:3) mark this as a New Year’s offering.

8. Just as the great Hag was celebrated after the Exodus in thanksgiving for the deliverance from the Egyptians, so the Nephite festival was “to give thanks to the Lord their God, who had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, and who had delivered them out of the hands of their enemies” in the New World. (Mosiah 2:4)

9. The multitude pitched their tents round about the temple, “every man according to his family … every family being separated one from another.” (Mosiah 2:5) This is a Passover practice according to the Talmud

10. Every tent was erected “with the door thereof towards the temple …” (Mosiah 2:6) This was the festival of the “booths.”

11. In theory, these people should all have met “within the walls of the temple,” but because of the size of the crowd the king had to teach them from the top of a specially erected tower. (Mosiah 2;7) Even so, “they could not all hear his words,” which the king accordingly had circulated among them in writing. (Mosiah 2;8)

12. King Benjamin’s formal discourse begins with a silentium, that is, an exhortation to the people to “open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of god may be unfolded to your view.” (Mosiah 2:9)

13. The people were there for a particularly vied and dramatic form of instruction “unfolding to view” the mysteries of God.

14. Then Benjamin launches into his discourse with a remarkable discussion of the old institution of divine kingship. Throughout the pagan world the main purpose of the Great Assembly, as has long been recognized, is to hail the king as a god on earth;

15. Benjamin is aware of this, and he will have none of it (see Mosiah 2:10-11). Benjamin will go just so far in the traditional claim to divine rule, but no farther: he has been elected by acclamation of the people, as the king always must at the Great Assembly, and the Lord has “suffered” him to be a ruler and a king.

16 Benjamin says to the people, “I have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you” (Mosiah 2:12), which is a reminder that the king at the Great Assembly everywhere requires all who come into his presence to bring his rich gifts as a sign of submission.

17. “This day” is the formally appointed time for settling all accounts between the king and the people: “… ye yourselves are witnesses this day … I tell you these things that ye may know that I can answer a clear conscience before God this day.” (Mosiah 2:13-15) It is also the time to enter and seal covenants, while restating the fundamental principles on which the corporate life of the society depends. Benjamin states these principles with great clarity (see Mosiah 2:16-19).

18-19. King Benjamin tells the people that they are there not to acclaim “the divine king,” but rather “your heavenly King … that god who has created you, and has kept and preserve you, and caused that ye should rejoice, and … live in peace one with another.” (Mosiah 2:20-21) These are the very two motifs (18 & 19) emphasized by Benjamin in the verses just quoted. (see also Mosiah 2:25-26)

20. Then comes the king’s farewell, when he declares that he is "about to yield up this mortal frame to its mother earth … (Mosiah 2:26-29)

21. Now one of the best-known aspects of the Year-drama, is the ritual descent of the King to the underworld--he is ritually overcome by death, and then ritually resurrected or (as in the Egyptian Sed festival) revived in the person of his son and successor, while his soul goes to join the blessed ones above.

22-23. Now comes the main business of the meeting: the succession to the throne. Benjamin introduces his son to the people and promises them that if they “shall keep the commandments of my son, or the commandments of God which shall be delivered unto you by him” (22) prosperity and (23) victory shall attend them, as it always did when they kept the commandments of the king. (Mosiah 2:30-31) … the people will have prosperity and victory (the two blessing that every ancient king must provide if he would keep his office) provided they remember “that ye are eternally indebted to your heavenly father” (Mosiah 2:34-35)

24. Another requirement of the people is to preserve the records and traditions of the fathers. (Mosiah 2;34-35). If they do that they will be “blessed, prospered, and preserved,” (Mosiah 2:36) … blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful tot he end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. “O remember, remember that these things are true… .” (Mosiah 2:41)

25. After this blissful foretaste of “never-ending happiness” which is always part of the Year Rite, King Benjamin proceeds to look into the future, reporting a vision shown him by an angel in a dream (Mosiah 3:1-2).

26. Divination of the future is an essential and unfailing part of the Year Rite and royal succession everywhere and always in the Old World, but again Benjamin gives it a spiritualized turn, and what he prophesies is the earthly mission of the Savior, the signs and wonders shown the ancients being according to him “types and shadows showed … unto them, concerning his coming.” (Mosiah 3:15)

27. The whole purport of Benjamin’s message for the future is that men should be found blameless before the Great King, who will sit in judgment (Mosiah 3:21), exactly as the King sat in judgment at the New Year.

28. On the theme of eternity, the closing sound of every royal acclamatio, King Benjamin ended his address, which so overpowered the people that they “had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.” (Mosiah 4:1) This was the kind of proskynesis at which Benjamin aimed! The proskynesis was the falling to the earth (literally, “kissing the ground”) in the presence of the king by which all the human race on the day of the coronation demonstrated its submission to divine authority; it was an unfailing part of the Old World New Year’s rites as of any royal audience. A flat prostration upon the earth was the proper act of obeisance in the presence of the ruler of all the universe. So on this occasion King Benjamin congratulated the people on having “awakened … to a sense of your nothingness … and come to a knowledge of the goodness of God, and his matchless power … and also the atonement which has been prepared from the foundation of the world . . for all mankind which ever were since the fall of adam, or who are, or who ever shall be, even unto the end of the world.” (Mosiah 4:5-7)

29. The King then discourses on man’s nothingness in the presence of “the greatness of God” (Mosiah 4:11), and the great importance of realizing the equality of all men in the presence of each other. This is a very important aspect of the Year Rites, which are everywhere supposed to rehearse and recall the condition of man in the Golden Age before the fall, when all were brothers and equals. Benjamin does not mince matters: “For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have… . And now if God, who has created you … doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right… . O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.” (Mosiah 4:19-21)

30. When this speech was finished the people approved it by a great acclamatio, when they “all cried with one voice,” declaring, when the king put the question to them, that they firmly believed what he had told them, and that they “have great views of that which is to come.” (Mosiah 5:1-3)

31. Then they took a significant step, declaring, “we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things … all the remainder of our days… .” (Mosiah 5:5)

32. Then King Benjamin gave the covenant people a new name, as he promised his son he would:

And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you … And I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God, that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. (Mosiah 5:7-8)

As we noted above, the Year Rite everywhere is the ritual begetting of the human race by a divine parent.

33. Next Benjamin makes the interesting remark that whoever complies “shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called,” (Mosiah 5:9), all others standing “on the left hand of God.” (Mosiah 5:10) At the Great Assembly when all living things must appear in the presence of the King to acclaim him, every individual must be in his proper place, at the right hand or left hand of God. “Retain the name,” Benjamin continues, “written always in your hearts, that ye are not found on the left hand of God, but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also the name by which he shall call you.” (Mosiah 5:12) “If ye know not the name by which ye are called,” Benjamin warns them, they shall be “cast out,” as a strange animal is cast out of a flock to whose owner it does not belong. (Mosiah 5:14) To avoid this, the king “would that … the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his.” (Mosiah 5:15)

34. All this talk of naming and sealing was more than figurative speech, for upon finishing the above words “king Benjamin thought it was expedient … that he should take the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments.” (Mosiah 6:1) And the entire nation gladly registered. (Mosiah 6:2) Some form of registering in the “Book of Life” is found at every yearly assembly.

35. Having completed these preliminaries, the king “consecrated his son to be a ruler and a king over his people … and also had appointed priests to teach the people … and to stir them up in remembrance of the oath which they had made.”

36. Then king Benjamin “dismissed the multitude, and they returned, everyone according to their families, to their own houses.” (Mosiah 6:3)

[Hugh Nibley, “Old World Ritual in the New World,” in An Approach to the Book of Mormon, pp. 259-267]

Alan C. Miner -

Alan C. Miner

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary

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