Sacrifices and Burnt Offerings in the Book of Mormon
In abridging the account of the Nephite gathering under King Benjamin, Mormon stated, “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). Under Mosaic law, firstlings, or firstborn animals, were dedicated to the Lord (see Exodus 13:12—15), meaning they were given to the priests, who were to sacrifice them and consume the flesh (see Numbers 18:17). The exception to this rule was the firstborn lambs used for the Passover meal, which all Israel was to eat (see Exodus 12:5—6). There is no suggestion in the biblical text that firstlings were used for burnt offerings, the only sacrifice in which the entire animal was burnt on the altar rather than cooked and eaten. However, there are several possible explanations for what Mormon may have meant by his statement.
It is possible that since the Nephites were not descendants of Aaron, there were no Aaronic priests among them to whom the firstlings could be given. If so, the Nephites would have been in a situation comparable to Abel. In Genesis we read that Abel, who lived long before Aaron and so could not deliver his sacrificial animals to the priests of that line, brought “of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” and offered sacrifice to the Lord” (Genesis 4:4). Similarly, in the case of the Nephites it may have been that offerings were made directly to the Lord in the form of burnt offerings, as had been done in earlier generations.
Another possible explanation lies in later rabbinical teachings. According to these traditions, there were exceptions to the usual practice of offering firstlings outlined in the Bible. The Mishnah, written by Rabbi Judah the Prince, who lived while the temple still operated in Jerusalem, provides additional perspectives on Israelite sacrifices of that time. According to the Mishnah Zebahim 5:8 and 10:3 and Temurah 1:1, only the priests ate the firstlings, but Mishnah Temurah 5 describes several ways by which one can “evade” the law regarding firstlings. For example, Temurah 5:2 notes that in the case of twin animals, one of them becomes a burnt offering (if both are males) or a peace offering (if both are females) or need not be offered if the sexes are mixed. Thus, according to rabbinical understanding, even firstlings could on occasion legitimately be used as burnt offerings.
A third possible explanation is that the wording of Mosiah 2:3 may be idiomatic in character and need not be read as suggesting that the Nephites necessarily used firstlings for burnt offerings. Mormon’s statement may simply mean that, in accordance with Mosaic law, the Nephites (1) brought firstlings to be offered in the sacrificial peace offering and (2) also brought other animal victims for the burnt offering. Several factors contribute to this interpretation.
Deuteronomy 12:5—6 indicates that the Israelites were to bring the firstlings of their flocks and herds to the temple along with other unspecified animals to fill various sacrificial and dedicatory purposes. Although these verses enumerate several forms of sacrifice associated with Israelite temple worship (burnt offerings, heave offerings, freewill offerings, etc.), the only animals mentioned are firstlings, even though these may not have been used as burnt offerings. In this case the mere reference to burnt offerings probably implies animals other than firstlings, even if no other animal victims are explicitly named.
Research on the subject of the Israelite sacrificial system helps to shed light on this possible interpretation. In Exodus 10:25, Moses tells Pharaoh, “Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the Lord our God” (Exodus 10:25). Baruch Levine and Gary Anderson, two leading authorities on Israelite sacrifice, note that this passage refers to the burnt offering (olah-zebah) and to the peace offering (olah-shelamim). Levine and Anderson also suggest that frequent reference in the Old Testament to these two sacrifices should be interpreted as a merism for the entire sacrificial system known to ancient Israel.1 (Merismus is a literary device sometimes used in Hebrew in which an entire subject is invoked by mentioning some of its parts.)2 In other words, the phrase “sacrifices and burnt offerings” (Exodus 10:25) is simply an idiom that encompasses all the various sacrificial offerings made under the law of Moses without mentioning each offering specifically. In light of Levine’s interpretation of such biblical passages, it is reasonable to interpret Mormon’s use of the phrase “sacrifices and burnt offerings” in his abridgement in a similar way.
This Research Report was prepared by the FARMS Research Department and is based on the latest available scholarly research. It is subject to revision as more information on the subject becomes available. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the position of FARMS, Brigham Young University, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Report last updated August 2000
Brown, S. Kent. “What were those sacrifices offered by Lehi?” In From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon, 1—8. Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998.
Roper, Matthew. “Firstlings, sacrifices and burnt offerings.” In “A Black Hole That’s Not So Black.” Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book “Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon,” by Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner. Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/2 (1994): 169—74.
1. Gary A. Anderson, “Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:878; and Baruch A. Levine, In the Presence of the Lord: A Study of Cult and Some Cultic Terms in Ancient Israel (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), 21—22.
2. A. M. Honeyman, “Merismus in Biblical Hebrew,” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 13—15.