Service and Temple in King Benjamin's Speech

In one of the most influential sermons1 recorded in Nephite annals, King Benjamin introduced his topic in a most curious way. After his expected, straightforward declaration that his audience should not “trifle with [his] words” and his affirmation that his kingship had come to him from “this people,” “my father,” and “the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 2:9, 11), he turned abruptly to service. In language that is saturated with servanthood, he brings his hearers to his main topic: God the King, God the Servant.2

In a concrete sense, this set of concepts about God had governed his own kingship and therefore carried a practical imperative for his people: “If I, whom ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service . . . do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!” (Mosiah 2:19). It is clear that he is linking together the divine and human spheres of activity. Out of this linkage grows his most famous couplet that combines the divine and human: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). But there is more than meets the eye in Benjamin’s reference to service. Such references fit very naturally, indeed compellingly, within a temple setting. Significantly, Benjamin and his audience3 were gathered at the temple in the city of Zarahemla.4 Both this setting and Benjamin’s language about service form an integrated, organic connection that is most easily seen by reference to its Old Testament roots in temple service. In this paper I will link or associate Benjamin’s references to service to that of the ancient temple system. This magnificent temple setting gave Benjamin opportunity to accentuate certain topics during his speech—service (in light of temple service), sin, and the atonement.

The Temple Setting of Benjamin’s Speech

The opening verses of Mosiah 2 make clear that the temple imposes itself upon Benjamin’s listeners as he presents his sermon. There are five explicit references to the temple in these verses, shown here in italics. In language that bears the sense of sacred pilgrimage to a holy sanctuary—ascending or going up to a holy place—verse 1 relates that “the people 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 2:1).5 Subsequent passages indicate that the Nephites oriented their tents “round about” the temple, making the temple the focal point of their temporary tent city: “When they came up to the temple, they pitched their tents round about, every man according to his family. . . . And they pitched their tents round about the temple” (Mosiah 2:5–6). In fact, the tents’ doors faced the temple: “Every man [pitched] his tent with the door thereof towards the temple” so that the Nephites “might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them” (Mosiah 2:6). Apparently, then, Benjamin stood on his tower between the temple and the people. As the people sat in their tents and listened to Benjamin’s speech, they were able to look past the king at the temple, which stood in the immediate background as a chief point of focus.

The fifth reference to the temple explains why the Nephites gathered “round about” the temple rather than within its walls. “For the multitude being so great that king Benjamin could not teach them all within the walls of the temple” (Mosiah 2:7).

In addition to the five explicit references to the temple, there is a pointed statement about the temple’s sacrificial system: “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). Some of these offerings were likely thanksgiving offerings (see 2:4, “that they might give thanks to the Lord their God”).6 While the Book of Mormon specifically refers to the temple, its walls, sacrifices, and priests (see 6:3; 11:5), it does not explicitly mention other parts of the temple. For instance, the text does not refer to the sacrificial altar, temple implements,7 utensils, furniture, and sacred vestments. Nor does the text mention other things that were part of the temple setting, such as the bleating of the sheep or goats before their slaughter, the smell of burning animal flesh mixed with smoke (but note the allusion in 3:27 of flames and ascending smoke), and the sight of blood spattered on officiants’ vestments. These dimensions are assumed by Mormon, the editor, and therefore do not come into his narrative.

What is important is the fact that Benjamin invited his people to the setting of the temple, a holy place of sacred service, so that he could more effectively teach regarding service to God and service to one’s fellow beings. The setting is key. Further, Benjamin spoke of service within sixty seconds after opening his talk, if our text is complete (see Mosiah 2:11–12).8

Service in the Temple and the Law of Moses

Significantly, to underscore temple ties, Benjamin’s opening words deal directly with service. He repeated four terms—servants, serve, served, and service—a total of fifteen times in eighteen verses. Benjamin, the master of discourse, presented his words in such a manner that some members of his audience may have understood service from at least three different perspectives.

1. Benjamin spoke of serving and service as manual labor. This is evident in a number of verses. Benjamin himself labored with his own hands instead of seeking gold, silver, or riches (see Mosiah 2:12). He served his fellow citizens so that they would not be overburdened with a tax structure that elevated unnaturally a king and his kingdom (see 2:14).

2. At several points in his sermon, Benjamin briefly connected service and slavery. We note Benjamin’s explicit words: “Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another” (Mosiah 2:13). Benjamin also used subtleties and implicit references that suggest a king-vassal relationship or a master-slave connection. The expressions king (see 2:11, 18, 19, 26)9 and unprofitable servants (see 2:21) speak especially of a powerful ruler and his lowly subjects. Also, terms such as lending (see 2:21), indebted (see 2:23–24), and paid (see 2:24) pertain to kings and their vassals. Some of Benjamin’s listeners possibly comprehended Benjamin’s words in light of ancient Near Eastern laws and customs regarding slavery, kings, and servants.

3. Another perspective in which Benjamin’s hearers may have understood service pertains to temple work and religious service—serving one’s fellow beings and serving God in a sacred setting. It is this third sense that draws our most rapt attention here.

As we are aware, the Old Testament sets forth a strong connection between temples and service. The Hebrew words ʿavodah (service) and ʿavad (serve) frequently refer to the ancient Israelite temple system.10 In fact, some Hebrew scholars and lexicographers disclose that the verb ʿavad, often translated “to work” or “to serve,”11 also means “to worship” or “to perform a (cultic) rite,”12 referring specifically to temple worship.

In this connection, service and serve occur approximately sixty times in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the Levite task of dismantling, transporting, and reassembling the Mosaic tabernacle. Service and serve also occur with regard to other official duties connected to the tabernacle (and later the temple), including the guard duty of the structure and its courtyard, the system of sacrifices, and the upkeep and care of the sacred furniture, utensils, and instruments.

The expressions “service of the tabernacle” (Hebrew, ʿavodat hammishkan) and “to do the service of the tabernacle” (Hebrew, laʿavod ʾet ʿavodat hammishkan) are both formulaic or standard phrases (see Numbers 3:7–8; 7:5, 9; 8:22; 16:9; 18:4, 6, 21, 23, 31).13 After the tabernacle was permanently dismantled and Solomon’s temple was built, the formula “service of the tabernacle” was discontinued. It was replaced with the expression “service of the house of God” or “service of the house of the Lord,” referring to Solomon’s temple. These phrases also became formulaic, especially in Chronicles (see 1 Chronicles 9:13; 23:28, 32; 28:13).14

Specific examples of serve and service in the Bible demonstrate their usage in different contexts. Let me enumerate them. Numbers 8 sets forth that the Lord called the Levites to “execute the service of the Lord” (v. 11) and to do the service of the tabernacle for the children of Israel. Verse 19 of the same chapter reads: “I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel in the tabernacle of the congregation, and to make an atonement for the children of Israel.” Verses 21–22 read:

The Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes; and Aaron offered them as an offering before the Lord; and Aaron made an atonement for them to cleanse them. And after that went the Levites in to do the service in the tabernacle of the congregation . . . as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites.

Further, the sacred vessels and implements of the temple were called “the vessels of service in the house of the Lord,” underscoring the connections between service and holiness (1 Chronicles 28:13; see also 1 Chronicles 9:28). As these verses illustrate, genuine service was thought of as a sacred, sanctifying act.15

Another formula pertains to service in the tabernacle and the age that priesthood members are called to serve. Of such peoples the King James Version generally repeats the wording, “that entereth into the service, to do the work in the tabernacle” (Hebrew, habbaʾ latsavaʾ laʿavod ʾet ʿavodat hammishkan) in place of this formula: “From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old . . . every one that entereth into the service, to do the work of the tabernacle” (Numbers 4:30, 35, 39, 43; compare also vv. 4:47; 8:24–25). Again, the place of holiness—the tabernacle—is explicitly linked to service.

In one of the most basic senses, the term service embraced the Mosaic sacrificial system in the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Joshua, for example, the children of Israel declared, “[Let us] do the service of the Lord before him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings” (Joshua 22:27; emphasis added). As a second example, during the days of King Josiah (640–609 BC) a great Passover was kept, during which the priests and Levites prepared more than 5,000 small cattle and 500 oxen for the sacrifices. The Chronicler states, “So all the service of the Lord was prepared the same day, to keep the passover, and to offer burnt offerings upon the altar of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 35:16; emphasis added). Thus, both sacrifices and Passover preparations—sacred acts—were thought of as service.16

Sins, Sacrifices, and Service

Benjamin’s last mention of service as recorded in Mosiah 2 is connected to a significant temple theme—sprinkling the blood of the sacrificial victim onto the altar. Mosaic law required priestly officiants to sprinkle the blood belonging to the sacrificial animals of all sin offerings onto the temple’s altar (see Exodus 24:6; Leviticus 4:6, 17).17 On occasion, as the priest sprinkled the blood upon the altar, the blood spilled out of the vessel or splashed from the altar onto his temple clothing. The blood spilling apparently occurred often enough that the law of Moses instructed priesthood members how to care for spilled blood: “When there is sprinkled of the blood thereof upon any garment, thou shalt wash that whereon it was sprinkled in the holy place” (Leviticus 6:27). Thus the priest purges the stain.

A reference to blood on garments appears in Mosiah 2, where Benjamin links service and the blood on his own garments: “As I said unto you that I had served you, walking with a clear conscience before God, even so I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together [at the temple], that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me. . . . I say unto you that I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might rid my garments of your blood” (Mosiah 2:27–28).18 One may speculate that prior to speaking to the people Benjamin offered sacrifices himself and had blood on his garments that he was unable to remove before his speech. Or during the offering of sacrifices some of the temple officiants may have accidentally sprinkled blood onto their garments, thus creating a visual image to accompany Benjamin’s words. As the temple workers were required by the law of Moses to wash their stained garments, so Benjamin was ridding his garments of the blood of his listeners by serving them and by “walking with a clear conscience before God.”

Benjamin’s expression “that I might rid my garments of your blood” (Mosiah 2:29) depicts three images—garments, human blood, and the removal of that blood. These three images are found in other passages where God’s servants remove others’ guilt and filth (represented by blood) from themselves (represented by garments) through proper service. Jacob 1:19 (compare Mormon 9:35 and Ether 12:38) also contains these three images: “We did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.”19 Second Nephi 9:44 also presents the three images and explicitly links “iniquities” with “blood.” Alma 5:22 comprises yet another example, speaking of human “garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness.”

Benjamin’s three images—garments, human blood, and the removal of that blood from the garments—correspond with Book of Mormon passages that also feature the same three images, but with some important differences (see 1 Nephi 12:10–11; Alma 5:21, 27; 13:11; 34:36; 3 Nephi 27:19; Ether 13:10). These passages emphasize Jesus Christ’s atoning blood20 (versus human blood) and its power to rid garments of stains made through sin. These passages emphasize the following elements:

The sacrificial Lamb and his blood. The emphasis rests in naming Jesus as the “Lamb” and referring repeatedly to “the blood of the Lamb” (1 Nephi 12:10–11; Alma 13:11; 34:36; Ether 13:10; compare Alma 5:21; 3 Nephi 27:19).

Washing/cleansing of garments. The image is that “garments are washed white” or “garments must be purified until they are cleansed” (Alma 5:21). In slightly different language we read that “garments are made white” (1 Nephi 12:10–11) or “garments have been cleansed and made white” (Alma 5:27; see similarly Alma 13:11; 34:36; 3 Nephi 27:19; Ether 13:10).

Importantly, in these passages the person’s garments symbolize the person himself or herself, and the Lamb’s blood refers directly to Jesus Christ’s atonement and his power to cleanse those who demonstrate faith in Jesus, repent, and remain faithful (see 1 Nephi 12:11; 3 Nephi 27:19).

In sum, Benjamin’s speech took place in a dramatic and sacred setting, the Lord’s temple. Mosiah 2 incorporates many elements that hark back to the temple system of the Old Testament—multiple references to the temple itself, temple worshippers who go up to the temple, a sacrificial system that includes burnt offerings and a flock’s “firstlings,” both of which are offered “according to the law of Moses,” and reference to garments or temple vestments with blood on them. King Benjamin may have employed various Old Testament formulae—such as “the service of the house of God,” or “in the service of the house of the Lord”—to connect his message of service to the temple system. This language recalls priestly service in the ancient temple system, thus linking service to others to service before God in his holy house. In connection with stained garments, Benjamin’s speech was given after the offering of blood sacrifices, during which blood was used for various ritual purposes. The king’s language regarding blood on the garments skillfully recalls scriptural passages that speak directly to the atonement and Jesus’s power to cleanse one’s own garments from filth and stain caused by transgression. This cleansing takes place only after individuals wash their garments in the Lamb’s blood.

Jesus Christ’s atoning blood became a prominent element in the multitude’s response to Benjamin’s sermon. After Benjamin concluded his words, his audience fell to the earth and “cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified” (Mosiah 4:1–2). King Benjamin’s discourse on service in its temple setting—where sacrifices were made under the law of Moses—ultimately points to the supreme and final service: Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice.


1. Previously published examinations of King Benjamin’s speech include Hugh W. Nibley, “Old World Ritual in the New World,” in An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 243–56, a comparison of the speech with ancient year-rite festivals; Stephen D. Ricks, “Treaty/Covenant Patterns in King Benjamin’s Address,” BYU Studies 24 (1984): 151–62, a study of Benjamin’s speech in connection with ancient Near Eastern treaty-covenant assemblies; John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals” (FARMS Prelimi-nary Report, 1985); John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also by Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197–237, two studies that present evidence that the Nephite gathering in Zarahemla under King Benjamin was an Israelite Feast of Tabernacles celebration; Susan Easton Black, “King Benjamin: In the Service of Your God,” in The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, Salvation Only through Christ, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1991), 37–48, an investigation of the speech in light of service and knowing God’s mysteries; Blake T. Ostler, “The Covenant Tradition in the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 230–40, discusses the two covenant-renewal festivals of the Book of Mormon—King Benjamin’s address and the account of King Limhi; W. Ralph Pew, “For the Sake of Retaining a Remission of Your Sins,” in The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, 227–45, focuses on Benjamin’s teachings of forgiveness of sins and helping the poor, clothing the naked; Stephen D. Ricks, “King, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 209–19, King Benjamin’s farewell address and Mosiah’s succession to his father’s throne reflect features of ancient Israelite and Near Eastern culture; John W. Welch, “Benjamin’s Speech: A Classic Ancient Farewell Address,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 120–23, a comparison of Benjamin’s speech to ancient religious and political farewell addresses; Neal A. Maxwell, “King Benjamin’s Manual of Discipleship,” Ensign, January 1992, 8–13, Benjamin describes how to be a true disciple of Christ; and S. Kent Brown, Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2004), 65–88. A number of the articles listed above have been revised and republished in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998).

2. Brown makes this point in his Voices from the Dust, 75–77.

3. Benjamin’s audience consisted of “people who were in the land of Zarahemla” (Mosiah 1:18). A great multitude responded to Mosiah’s invitation to gather at the temple to hear Benjamin speak. According to Mosiah 2:1–2, “And it came to pass that after Mosiah had done as his father had commanded him, and had made a proclamation throughout all the land, that the people 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. And there were a great number, even so many that they did not number them” (see also v. 7).

4. In addition to Benjamin’s religious affiliation with the temple, it is possible that he also had an emotional bond to it; this is because he may have been “involved to some extent in its construction.” On this idea, see John W. Welch, “Benjamin, the Man: His Place in Nephite History,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 37. See also John W. Welch, “The Temple in the Book of Mormon: The Temples at the Cities of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful,” in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 348–49.

5. On the language of pilgrimage, see Brown, Voices from the Dust, 72. Scholars propose that Benjamin’s speech was given in the setting of ancient Israelite pilgrimages and festivals, such as the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. See Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 295–310; John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197–237; Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” King Benjamin’s Speech, 147–223.

6. Brown (Voices from the Dust, 72–73) suggests peace offerings.

7. Although the Book of Mormon does not mention the temple implements and utensils, perhaps Nephi implied their existence with these words: “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance. And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (2 Nephi 5:15–16).

8. The time frame of 60 seconds is based on orally reading the opening unit of English text of Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 2:9–28) with a timer in hand.

9. Benjamin’s repeated reference to king in his sermon is certainly not arbitrary, in part because the setting of Mosiah 1–6 includes one of coronation and enthronement. According to Stephen D. Ricks, “The first six chapters of Mosiah . . . portray for us the succession of Mosiah2 to the Nephite throne. Many features of this coronation ceremony reflect ancient Israelite culture.” See Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 233 [233–75].

10. These Hebrew words appear in the Old Testament in a variety of contexts that pertain to slaves and slavery, household and family servants, working the soil in the cases of agriculture, and hard labor in the case of the Israelites during their servitude in Egypt. Additionally, the Lord’s prophets are called servants.

11. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977–2001), 10:381–84.

12. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden: Brill, 1958), 670–71; see also Jacob Milgrom, Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology (Leiden: Brill, 1983), 19.

13. The formulae are scattered throughout Numbers, but note also the cluster located in Numbers 18: “to do the service of the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:7) “to do the service of the tabernacle” (3:8) “to do the service of the tabernacle” (7:5) “the service of the tabernacle” (7:9) “to do their service in the tabernacle” (8:22) “to do the service of the tabernacle” (16:9) “for all the service of the tabernacle” (18:4) “to do the service of the tabernacle” (18:6) “the service of the tabernacle” (18:21) “the service of the tabernacle” (18:23) “your service of the tabernacle” (18:31)

14. By way of example, I list the following: “the service of the house of God” (1 Chronicles 9:10, 13); “for the service of the house of God” (1 Chroni-cles 23:28); “in the service of the house of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 23:32); “service in the house of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:13).

15. A number of additional passages from the Old Testament connect service with temple worship. Regarding the Kohathite clan of the Levitical family: “Their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the hanging, and all the service thereof” (Numbers 3:31). Speaking particularly of priests, the Chronicler wrote: “Of the priests [the text then lists names and genealogies] and their brethren, heads of the house of their fathers, a thousand and seven hundred and threescore; very able men for the work of the service of the house of God” (1 Chronicles 9:10, 13).

16. In Exodus 12, the chapter that describes the laws regarding the Passover, Moses emphasizes that the Passover sacrifice is also called service. Moses instructs the children of Israel, “It shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover” (Exodus 12:25–26).

17. On the rite of sprinkling blood in the temple, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, Anchor Bible 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 233–34.

18. One source notes that “Benjamin’s use of the key words of garments and blood signal this as a temple oration.” Alison V. P. Coutts and others, “Appendix: Complete Text of Benjamin’s Speech with Notes and Comments,” King Benjamin’s Speech, 529.

19. In the above paragraph, I have drawn a connection to Benjamin’s statement “that your blood should not come upon me . . . that I might rid my garments of your blood” with temple sacrifice. In the present paragraph, Jacob’s just-cited statement regarding the blood and garments (Jacob 1:19) is also contextually associated with the temple; two verses earlier, Jacob made the statement “as I taught them in the temple” (Jacob 1:17).

20. For additional references to Jesus’s atoning blood in Benjamin’s speech, see Coutts and others, “Appendix: Complete Text of Benjamin’s Speech,” 554.