A Model Group in Lehi's World
One of the most enigmatic groups briefly mentioned in the Old Testament is the Rechabites. Although (and perhaps precisely because) only a few references to them exist in the entire Old Testament, people throughout the centuries have been fascinated by this extraordinary family group, and scholars have dug for clues in the Bible to explain who they were and where they came from. While many questions remain unanswered about this interesting group, it can be assumed with some confidence that Lehi and Nephi would have been familiar with the Rechabites, if not in person, at least by their general reputation for leading a righteous, covenant-based life in their tents out in the wilderness away from the wickedness in Jerusalem. It is therefore reasonable to surmise that Lehi and his followers may have modeled their behavior in certain respects after this exemplary group of pious but eccentric Israelites.
Several similarities between the Rechabites and the Lehites can be observed. Some are superficial and ordinary; others are interesting and intriguing. Taken together, the few bits and pieces of information that we have about the Rechabites provide evidence that Lehi’s group was not completely idiosyncratic or that their behavior would not have been viewed as completely aberrational in the world of Jerusalem in the late seventh century.
Nibley also linguistically linked Nephite culture to Jonadab the Rechabite on two intriguing but inconclusive grounds: the personal name suffix -nadab also appears at the end of the Book of Mormon name of Aminadab, and, in general, “the Rekhabite teachings are strangely like those in the Book of Mormon.” From such clues Nibley concluded that “one is forced to admit at very least the possibility that Lehi’s exodus could have taken place in the manner described, and the certainty that other such migrations actually did take place.”3 Nevertheless, the Rechabites remained for Nibley and for us today a “strange and baffling” group, especially as they come to be represented in later traditions associated with messianic expectations.4
The only glimpses we have of this obedient group in Lehi’s day come from Jeremiah 35. Acting on the Lord’s command, “presumably in 599 or 598,”6 Jeremiah invited the Rechabites to the temple, a place with which they may have been deeply associated,7 as an example of an obedient people. When Jeremiah offered them wine, they refused declaring, “We will drink no wine: for Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying, Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever” (Jeremiah 35:6). The Rechabites added to this stipulation the command of their father that they were not to be bound to any property, that they were not to “build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers” (Jeremiah 35:7). The Lord himself contrasted the obedience of the Rechabites (who obeyed their father) with the disobedience of the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “Ye have not inclined your ear, nor hearkened unto me. . . . this people hath not hearkened unto me: . . . saith the Lord God of hosts” (Jeremiah 35:15–17). For their obedience the Rechabites were blessed: “Because ye have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts, and done according unto all that he hath commanded you: therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever” (Jeremiah 35:18–19).
Saliently, Jeremiah admired the Rechabites for their obedience to the righteous commandments given by Jonadab, their father, and he wished that all of Israel would obey God with the same degree of diligence. No attentive reader of 1 Nephi could miss the similar emphasis placed by Nephi on the principle of obeying the personalized commandments of God issued by a righteous father: Receiving a command of God from his father, Nephi set his face like flint: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Nephi 3:7). Later in the wilderness he again testified “that the commandments of God must be fulfilled” and that if “the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them” (1 Nephi 17:3).
Such a temporary lifestyle seems to parallel the regular behavior of the Rechabites, whose code of conduct specifically required that “all your days ye shall dwell in tents” (Jeremiah 35:7). Because of their tent dwelling and their avoidance of agriculture, some scholars have labeled the Rechabites as nomads.9 Scholars have recognized different kinds of nomadic living in the ancient Near East. The first is the “true nomad or Bedouin” who dwells in the desert and relies solely on the camel. This group has little or no contact with cities. The second breeds sheep and goats and thus is required to move and live where there is rainfall and will usually have some contact with settlements. The third lives a seminomad and semiurban lifestyle. In addition to sheep and goats, this group raises cattle, cultivates a few simple crops, and has some contact with established city centers.10 Both the Rechabites and the Lehites seem to fit into the second or third group. The Lehites led a more nomadic style of life during their years of trekking through the Arabian Peninsula and later became more settled in the land of Bountiful.
Each group was composed of a closely knit full family group. The Rechabites consisted of wives, sons, daughters, and fathers (Jeremiah 35:3, 5, 8). This was a family organization, a type of tribe or clan. Whether there were nonrelatives who joined is not clear; but at least a substantial number, if not all, seem to have been of the same bloodline. Notably, the Rechabites, when they left the wilderness and moved nearer to Jerusalem as Nebuchadnezzar later was invading the land, may have picked up a few outsiders, for the Rechabites appear to have invited others to come up with them at that time (Jeremiah 35:11). Similarly, Lehi’s group also consisted initially of a single family. Ishmael’s family and Zoram then joined the clan as they fled from danger (1 Nephi 7:2–5; 4:35). It is possible that Ishmael and Lehi were related to each other; soon Ishmael’s daughters became the wives of Lehi’s sons and of Zoram, and hence they and their children all became part of the family of Lehi (1 Nephi 16:7; 2 Nephi 1–4).
The Rechabites were not gender or age specific; they were not ascetic monks, as they are sometimes cast in light of later Christian narratives.12 “Wives . . . sons . . . [and] daughters” all lived the Rechabite lifestyle (Jeremiah 35:8), negating the idea that it was a type of monastic life. Lehi’s departing group was also organized as a tribe or clan. Following the Lord’s command, Lehi took his wife, sons, and daughters with him; the group later included Ishmael’s family, whose daughters would become wives for his sons (1 Nephi 2:2–4; 7:1–6; 2 Nephi 5:6).
Nephi appears to be familiar with metallurgy, as has been suggested, especially by John Tvedtnes.20 When he is at Irreantum he is commanded by the Lord to “construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee” (1 Nephi 17:8). Nephi then proceeds to ask “Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools” (1 Nephi 17:9). It has been noted that Nephi did not ask how to make tools, nor did the Lord say he would show Nephi how to make them. Nephi only asked to find the ore so he could make them. This would seem to indicate that Nephi already had the necessary knowledge to make tools. He evidently already knew how to make bellows out of hides without information from the Lord (1 Nephi 17:11). If, as Forbes suggests, metallurgical knowledge was highly guarded, then Nephi must have been taught by a family member or friend—possibly even by someone like a Rechabite, although this cannot be known with any certainty. It is interesting, however, that the Lord did not need to show Nephi how to make the tools just as he showed him how to make the ship. Also noteworthy is the fact that Laman and Lemuel mocked Nephi for trying to build a ship, but nothing was mentioned about his making tools (1 Nephi 17:17–18).
Both groups grounded their religious obligations in a covenant with the Lord. The Rechabites had been promised that if they did not drink wine, build homes, or plant fields, they would “live many days in the land where [they were] strangers” (Jeremiah 35:7). The Lord assured them eternally that, because of their obedience, “Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever” (Jeremiah 35:19). Perhaps this promise of the Lord alone motivated their stalwartness in keeping their father’s commandments. The Lord’s promise to Lehi was similar, namely that “inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led” (1 Nephi 17:13) and that they would “prosper” in the promised land (2 Nephi 1:9). This undoubtedly provided a similar stimulus for the Nephites to be righteous.
Lehi and his family, likewise, remained confident and obedient, although in a different way. They knew of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, about which Lehi had read unmistakably in the book shown to him in vision (1 Nephi 1:13). Still, they left their home and went forth, trusting in the Lord, knowing that his “power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth,” and that those who will come to God shall not perish (1 Nephi 1:14).
Above all, Lehi knew of the coming of “a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world” (1 Nephi 10:4). As Nibley notes above, and as has been discussed elsewhere, the Rechabites become the subject of later Jewish and Christian histories and legends that associate them with messianic expectations, looking forward to the time when God will reestablish his righteous covenant with a reunited Israel. Found in several versions, the History of the Rechabites is an early Christian text, based on a much earlier Jewish tradition that tells how the Rechabites were led from Jerusalem before the Babylonian captivity to a land across the ocean, having several experiences similar to Lehi’s.22 Whether this religious lore has any historical connection with Lehi and his covenantal group similarly living in a state of messianic expectation and apocalyptic anticipation remains uncertain, but the possibility cannot be completely discounted.
In conclusion, there are many interesting comparisons between the Rechabites and Lehi and his family. Both groups lived more in accord with righteous principles than their fellow Israelites. The two groups certainly could have known each other, since they did live in or around Jerusalem at the same time. Depending on many unknown factors, the Rechabites and Lehites may have had even more in common than these surviving glimpses disclose. Both were, in their own ways, part of the dispersion of Israel in which the Lord leads “away the righteous into precious lands” (1 Nephi 17:38), “scattered upon all the face of the earth” (1 Nephi 10:12).
- Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 151.
- Ibid., 146.
- Ibid., 69.
- Ibid., 68.
- Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: Clark, 2003), 124.
- John Bright, Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 190.
- Barker, Great High Priest, 29, 124, surmises a connection between the name Rechab and a memory of the merkavah, the chariot-throne in the temple.
- Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 243.
- Frank S. Frick, “Rechab,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:631; see also Frank S. Frick, The City in Ancient Israel (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars, 1977), 211–17.
- Frick, City in Ancient Israel, 189–90 at 189. See also Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 1:3–4.
- The term ben or son of can mean son or descendant; see Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 120–21.
- See Narrative of Zosimus, concluding sections; Barker, Great High Priest, says “ascetics,” 28, and “monastic,” 124.
- Frick, “Rechab,” 631.
- Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 621; see also Frick, “Rechab,” 631.
- See R. J. Forbes, Metallurgy in Antiquity: A Notebook for Archaeologists and Technologists (Leiden: Brill, 1950), 64–68, 98. See also Frick, “Rechab,” 631; John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 125. Frick discusses the Rechabites’ association with Ir-nahash in the genealogical lists in 1 Chronicles 4 and with the Kenites in 1 Chronicles 2:55. Both the father Ir-nahash and the Kenite clan were involved in metallurgy.
- Brown, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 883–84. See also Frick, “Rechab,” 631.
- Frick, “Rechab,” 631. Frick also discusses this behavior in relation to their abstinence and nomadism, writing that such “measures . . . were designed to guard the secrets of the trade.”
- Forbes, Metallurgy, 64–68; see also Frick, “Rechab,” 631–32.
- John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999), 94–97.
- Although only wine was prohibited, it is assumed that abstinence from all alcohol was practiced since all scriptures in the Old Testament that discuss abstinence preclude both wine and strong drink (see Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3; Judges 13:4, 14).
- John W. Welch, “The Narrative of Zosimus (History of the Rechabites) and the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 323–74, citing several scholarly sources regarding this body of literature; to that material should now be added Chris H. Knights, “A Century of Research into the Story/Apocalypse of Zosimus and/or the History of the Rechabites,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 15 (1997): 53–66; and “The History of the Rechabites—An Initial Commentary,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 28/4 (1997): 413–36.