"They Came Forth and Fell Down and Partook of the Fruit of the Tree":
Proskynesis in 3 Nephi 11:
12–19 and 17:
9–10 and Its Significance
When Jesus appeared in the Americas, he declared: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world. And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.” Nephi records that the immediate reaction of the multitude to this declaration was that “the whole multitude fell to the earth” (3 Nephi 11:10–12). Likewise, later that day “all the multitude, with one accord, did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him. And they did all, both they who had been healed and they who were whole, bow down at his feet, and did worship him” (3 Nephi 17:9–10). Although the descriptions of the multitude’s reaction in these incidents is slightly different—”the whole multitude fell to the earth” and “they did . . . bow down at his feet, and did worship him”—both events seem to be evidence of an ancient practice found in the ancient Near East known as proskynesis.
Proskynesis, very literally “a kissing in the presence of,” is a term the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 1.134) originally applied to the ancient Persian custom of “prostrating oneself before persons and kissing their feet or the hem of their garment [or] the ground.” 1 The word in its broadest sense denotes the “hierarchical prostration of inferior to superior,” 2 but in a narrower, cultic sense it signifies “formal submission in the presence of a being from the divine realm.” 3 Hence, proskynesis is widely used by scholars as an umbrella term for similar rites known from Egypt to the Far East, whereby deities, kings, and other persons deified or thought to belong to the divine realm were so acknowledged and reverenced. It is in this extended sense that the term proskynesis will be used in this study.
Hugh Nibley was the first to call attention to proskynesis in the Book of Mormon as an example of “Old World ritual in the New World.” 4 He saw the scene of King Benjamin’s people falling to the earth in “the fear of the Lord” (Mosiah 4:1–3) as a textbook example of Old World proskynesis 5 but left the matter of proskynesis elsewhere in the Book of Mormon unexplored. There are, however, a number of other significant instances of proskynesis in the Book of Mormon that prefigure and help readers to better appreciate the nuances of the two events in 3 Nephi. This paper will attempt to show that Mormon clothed the moving events in 3 Nephi in language that recalls the accounts of Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions of the tree of life and that he also included other momentous scenes in which people “fall down” in proskynesis to illustrate how Israel should approach the Lord and come to know “the joy of [their] redemption” (Moses 5:11). It emerges that there are no more sublime examples of proskynesis anywhere than those found in 3 Nephi 11:12–19 and 17:9–10. Taken together, the worship of Jesus and the scenes that anticipate that occasion show that proskynesis is an essential “rite of passage . . . from profane life into life before God.” 6 It is the quintessential expression of gratitude—of total dependence on, deepest faith in, and love for Jesus Christ. It is to experience the atoning Lord and to be granted life in his presence.
In what follows I will briefly discuss the concept of worship and the practice of proskynesis in the ancient Near East and then turn to the accounts in the Book of Mormon, culminating with the accounts in 3 Nephi.
Where the scriptures speak of “worship,” the concrete image of cultic prostration is being conveyed and not simply the abstract idea of holding a deity in reverence. 7 Our modern English word worship derives from the Old English word weorðscipe (compare worthy + ship),8 which denoted not only to “regard or approach [deity] with veneration” but also “to adore with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies.” 9 Early translators of the Bible into English used worship in this cultic sense to render the Hebrew verb hištaḥawāh throughout the Old Testament, especially where God is the object of obeisance.
In English translations of the New Testament, worship is used to render the Greek verb proskyneō, which literally means to “kiss in the presence of,” 10 and as a rite denoted “prostrating oneself before persons and kissing their feet or the hem of their garment [or] the ground,” as noted above.11 The Septuagint (LXX), an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from which the New Testament writers frequently quoted, uses proskyneō to translate hištaḥawāh.12 In this sense especially one may speak of hištaḥawāh as “proskynesis” 13 or “adoration.” 14
The Hebrew verb hištaḥawāh in its widest sense connoted the act of “bow[ing] down” 15 and occurs some 170 times in the Hebrew Bible.16 The Psalms attest the practice of hištaḥawāh before the Lord as an important part of the Israelite temple experience (for example, Psalms 5:7 [5:8 MT]; 29:2; 95:6; 96:9; 99:5, 9). In its temple context hištaḥawāh manifests “the interior attitude of the Israelite suppliant.” 17 Since “God’s presence was particularly apprehended in the course of worship in the temple,” 18 it was the quintessential “attitude of prayer.” 19
Some scholars have suggested that the verb originally meant “to throw oneself down (striking the earth),” from the root *ḥwy “to strike,” while others have suggested it meant “to cause oneself to live (by worship),” from the root *ḥyy “to live.” 20 The latter suggestion is given added plausibility by the observation that such “falling down is equivalent to the death-feigning reflex well-known to behavioral research.” 21 In other words, proskynesis is, in origin, a lifesaving gesture. 22 Whatever the precise etymology, Hebrew-speaking Israelites like Nephi may have associated hištaḥawāh with “life,” on account of its homophony with forms of *ḥyy (“to live”).23
As Israelites of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, Lehi and his party would have appreciated the “extraordinary cultural significance” 24 of this verb, especially in its temple context.25 It is likely that in speaking of the Nephites and Lamanites worshipping the risen Lord, Mormon intends to convey the Israelite concept of hištaḥawāh, albeit supplemented by a rich accumulation of tradition about Jesus Christ handed down by Lehi, Nephi, and later prophets, and finally informed by his own experiences (see Mormon 1:15). The “worship” of the Savior in person at the temple in Bountiful (3 Nephi 11:17; 17:10) is to be understood as the fullest possible “apprehension” 26 of Yahweh’s presence, as sought by Israel in proskynesis at the temple before, during, and after Lehi’s and Nephi’s time.
The Emergent Symbol of Proskynesis in Lehi’s and Nephi’s Visions of the Tree of Life
Nephi’s account of his father Lehi’s vision of the tree of life describes a group of people who “continually [held] fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (1 Nephi 8:30). The image is counterintuitive: people normally reach out or up to pluck fruit from a tree (for example, Genesis 3:22; Alma 42:3–5). The act of falling down to partake of the fruit of the tree suggests a degree of humility, devotion, and a love of God that exceeded that of any of the other multitudes mentioned. The paratactic (staccato) rhythm of the verb combination—they came forth and fell down and partook—not only is very Hebraistic 27 but also constitutes a prostration formula (compare 1 Samuel 20:41), the kind within which the unique Hebrew verb hištaḥawāh functioned in the Hebrew Bible, often within a temple setting (compare Psalms 5:7 [5:8 MT]; 95:6; 1 Chronicles 29:20; 2 Chronicles 20:18).
When Nephi was granted his “desire to behold the things [his] father saw” (1 Nephi 11:3; compare 14:29), he saw not only those “things” but also events in the life of Christ that shed greater light on what those “things” meant. Seeing the “tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10), he came to recognize it as a symbol of “the love of God which is . . . most desirable above all things” (11:22), which (as his angelic guide poignantly noted) is “the most joyous to the soul” (11:23). Nephi then “beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and . . . I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him” (11:24). Recalling that Lehi had seen the multitudes who “came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree [of life]” (1 Nephi 8:30), Nephi understood that the waters issuing from the “fountain of living waters . . . [were] a representation of the love of God; and . . . that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God” (1 Nephi 11:25).
Nephi saw that to fall down at the Savior’s feet and worship him is to assume the posture of partaking of eternal life—to fall down in order to drink the “living waters” and eat from the “tree of life,” symbols of the divine presence (compare Alma 5:34).28 Nephi here binds the concepts of proskynesis (that is, hištaḥawāh) to “life” (ḥay) and “living” (ḥayyîm) together by way of a poetic paronomasia—a wordplay involving similar sounds—that recalls the play on “Eve,” “life,” and “living” in the account of the fall and expulsion from Eden in Genesis 3:20–24. Falling down and causing oneself to live through worship—partaking of the fruit of the tree of life—precipitates a reversal of the fall.
Nephi saw that proskynesis before the Lord was both a lifesaving gesture and a response to the “love of God” 29 that acceptably reciprocated that love (11:24–25).30 This awareness stands behind his further instructions regarding the “right way”—the way to truly fulfill the whole law, as well as the way back from the fall:
And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out. (2 Nephi 25:29)
To show how proskynesis is both lifesaving and the expression of the love for God par excellence, Nephi cleverly recasts a part of the well-known Deuteronomic “Shema”: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and will all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; emphasis added), replacing the phrase “love the Lord thy God” with an injunction to “bow down before [God] and worship him.”
By casting the commandment to “bow down . . . and worship” the Lord in the language of the Shema, Nephi reveals the proper mode of proskynesis before God: it must be done with all one’s might, mind, strength, and one’s whole soul, like the offering of “whole souls as an offering unto [the Holy One of Israel]” (Omni 1:26).31 Acceptable proskynesis is inseparable from faith in Christ (“the right way is to believe in Christ . . . ; wherefore ye must . . . ,” 2 Nephi 25:29) and is a supernal manifestation of it.
The promise to those who so worship is a promise of eternal life: “ye shall in no wise be cast out” (2 Nephi 25:29). Through faith in Christ, the “children of men” (1 Nephi 11:22, 24) can again have access to the tree of life. They must therefore come forth, fall down, and partake of the fruit of that tree.
Mormon saw in his ancestors’ accounts of their visions of the tree of life the very picture of “Paradise Regain’d” 32 later realized among the Nephites and Lamanites at Bountiful in 3 Nephi. At that time, even the descendants of Laman and Lemuel “came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (compare 1 Nephi 8:30, 35 with 3 Nephi 11:12–19; 17:9–10). All of the children of Lehi, for a time, had continuous access to the tree of life—the full blessings of the divine presence—in Jesus’s personal presence: “After that he did show himself unto them oft, and did break bread oft, and bless it, and give it unto them” (3 Nephi 26:13). The availability of the “fruits” of his presence continued afterward in his disciples: they “did heal the sick, and raise the dead, and cause the lame to walk, and the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear; and all manner of miracles did they work among the children of men . . . in the name of Jesus” (4 Nephi 1:5; compare 3 Nephi 17:9).
These descendants of Lehi “had all things common” and “were all . . . partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 1:3; emphasis added). This access to the divine presence was only ended when the “pride” of the “great and spacious building” (4 Nephi 1:24–26; 1 Nephi 8:26) got such a hold on the people that the Lord took “away his beloved disciples, and the work of miracles and of healing did cease” (Mormon 1:13). The “fruits” of the atonement were thus withdrawn.
While Lehi, Nephi, and their posterity in the temple at Bountiful are a lesson on how “the just shall live by his [or her] faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; emphasis added), the last generations of the Nephite nation are a cautionary tale regarding the destructive effects of the “pride of the world,” which inevitably causes people to fall (1 Nephi 11:36; Mormon 8:7; Moroni 8:27), and regarding falling “away into forbidden paths” until one is “lost” (1 Nephi 8:28; Mormon 6:17–20). Those later generations were cut “off from the presence of the Lord” 33 or “cast out” (Helaman 12:25) 34 and subject to the awful violence that necessarily pervades when the Lord’s Spirit has “ceased to strive” with a people” (see Mormon 5:16; Moroni 8:28; 9:4; compare Genesis 6:3, 11; Ether 15:19).
“Tasting” the Fruit of the Lord’s Spirit at the Temple in Zarahemla
Mormon, knowing the arc of Nephite-Lamanite history—that pride would ultimately prove to be the destruction of the Nephite nation (Mormon 8:27)—took care to include, at key moments in his history, scenes that would show his latter-day readership the critical importance of cultivating humility. Mormon uses these scenes to illustrate how one can acceptably humble oneself in the presence of God, just as Nephi and those at the temple in Bountiful knew what to do when the Savior appeared to them (3 Nephi 11). He details two such instances in which people humble themselves in proskynesis as a concrete act of faith, comparable to deciding to partake of the fruit of the tree of life.
The first of these events is recorded in the book of Mosiah, which chronicles a series of seismic changes for Nephite society in its political, social, and religious life. Such a cluster of sudden and sweeping changes would not occur again until the coming of the Savior in 3 Nephi. Covenant making is a leitmotif of the book of Mosiah, 35 and a national covenant-making ceremony coincided with King Benjamin’s epic sermon and the coronation of his son Mosiah (see chapters 5–6).
At this important moment, and in response to King Benjamin’s preaching about the atonement, the multitude is said to have fallen to the earth (Mosiah 4:1). Here Mormon highlights proskynesis as illustrative of the kind of faith that secures the blessings of the atonement on which Benjamin had been sermonizing, the antidote of pride and the natural man (Mosiah 3:18–19). The setting of this falling down is the temple:
And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all 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; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. (Mosiah 4:1–2)
As Nibley observed, “This was the kind of proskynesis at which Benjamin aimed[,] . . . a flat prostration upon the earth [being] the proper act of obeisance in the presence of the ruler of the universe.” 36 Not that King Benjamin, or Mosiah, was that ruler, for King Benjamin had taken pains at the outset of his sermon to reinforce the opposite idea (see Mosiah 2:11). In coming to an awareness “of their own carnal state” as being “less than the dust of the earth,” the people were prepared to fully appreciate their total dependence on the Savior’s atonement and their equality with each other in the presence of God (compare Jacob 5:74).37
What is the lesson here? Since, as King Benjamin says, we “cannot say that [we] are even as much as the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 2:25), we are to “get down there and realize what [we] are,” as Nibley puts it.38 King Benjamin revives the lessons from the biblical account of the fall and its nameplay on Adam: the man (ha-ʾ adām, “humanity”) was taken from ha-ʾ adāmāh (“earth,” “ground,” “soil,” Genesis 2:7; 3:19).
Moses, after beholding “the world upon which he was created . . . and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created” (Moses 1:8), could only “f[a]ll unto the earth” (1:9) on account of the incapacitating effects of the theophany and because he had discovered that “man is nothing, which thing [he] never had supposed (1:10). Similar to Moses’s experiencing the Lord in his majesty and his own nothingness, King Benjamin’s people had to “view themselves . . . even less than the dust of the earth” and to “humble [them]selves even in the depths of humility” 39 (Mosiah 4:2, 11) in order to fully comprehend the blessing of becoming sons and daughters (Mosiah 5:7; Moses 1) who shall stand “at the right hand of God” (Mosiah 5:9), “begotten” through the atonement of Jesus Christ. The humility exhibited by the multitude at the Zarahemla temple on this occasion helps us to appreciate the humility with which the Nephites and Lamanites met the Savior when he first appeared at the temple in Bountiful, and later when he healed them because their “faith [was] sufficient” (3 Nephi 17:8).
Recognizing their state of total dependence on God, the people beg him to “apply the atoning blood of Christ” (Mosiah 4:2), which immediately evokes images of the Day of Atonement and the ceremonial application of atoning blood on the lid of the ark of the covenant, 40 a stylized throne on which the Lord was thought to sit or stand (see Leviticus 16:14–16).41 The people “had fallen to the earth” at “the place of [the Lord’s] feet” (Ezekiel 43:7), that is, within the precincts of the temple in Zarahemla, to make a covenant. They cite the fact that they “believe in Jesus Christ . . . who shall come down among the children of men” (compare 1 Nephi 11:3; 3 Nephi 11) as their sole qualification to have the atoning blood of Christ applied in their behalf:
And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them. (Mosiah 4:3)
The people’s falling down with “exceeding faith” in the presence of the Lord—the temple—to partake of the blessings of the atonement precipitates their being “filled” with overwhelming joy, just as Lehi’s soul had been “filled . . . with exceeding joy” when he partook of the fruit of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8:12). They, like Lehi, prayed to the Lord to “have mercy” (1 Nephi 8:8; Mosiah 4:2). They, like Lehi, experienced the Lord through the Spirit. The result was the surpassingly sweet experience of “a remission of sins, and . . . peace of conscience” on a grand scale (Mosiah 4:3; compare 1 Nephi 8:11–12).
In the same way, the experience of “being filled with joy” (Mosiah 4:3) through the Spirit of the Lord after falling down in worship anticipates the inconceivable “joy which filled [the] souls” of those who experienced the Lord in person (3 Nephi 17:17–18; compare Psalm 16:11), the same fulness of joy experienced by the Savior himself on that occasion (“And now behold my joy is full”; 3 Nephi 17:20). Through their faith in Christ, manifest as proskynesis, the multitude in the temple at Zarahemla had “come to the knowledge of the glory of God” and had now “known of his goodness and [had] tasted of his love and [had] received a remission of [their] sins” (Mosiah 4:11). In a similar, but even more profound way, the multitude in the temple at Bountiful years later would come to “know of a surety” (3 Nephi 11:15). In sum, the Nephites at Zarahemla tasted, just as Lehi had tasted (1 Nephi 8:11; 11:7) and as others would taste. We will examine this experiential sense of taste below.
Lamoni’s Father Partakes of the Fruit of the Tree of Life
An equally moving instance of proskynesis occurs at what proves to be another major turning point in Nephite and Lamanite history. This event would help change the dynamics of Nephite-Lamanite relations for generations. It may well be that Mormon included this scene in anticipation of the events attending Christ’s appearance in 3 Nephi. Aaron may have been thinking in terms of the symbolism that emerged from Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions of the tree of life when he taught the Lamanite king how to worship the Lord:
And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy. But Aaron said unto him: If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest. And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying: O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. (Alma 22:15–18)
Aaron instructs the king to “bow down before God” in response to the king’s desire to have “eternal life,” to “be filled with joy,” and to “not be cast off at the last day”—themes all connected by Nephi to Christ and the tree of life. He instructs the king in the lifesaving rite of proskynesis linked in Nephite tradition with the tree of life (1 Nephi 8:30; 11:24–25) and not being “cast out” (2 Nephi 25:29). According to Aaron, this expression of faith in and dependence on God will eventuate in eternal life.
Thus, according to this account, the act of prostrating oneself before God is tied to both “call[ing] on [God’s] name in faith” with the trust that one will receive the promised blessings of joy and eternal life, and to “repent of all [one’s] sins,” or to “give away all [one’s] sins.” The proskynesis of Lamoni’s father is a lesson in the posture one must assume in order to call upon God with sufficient faith in Christ to “give away” all one’s sins. His was the posture of partaking of the fruit of the tree of life.
This account is remarkable in its depiction of a man of such high status prostrating himself before the Lord presumably inside his own palace (compare Alma 22:2), the most visible emblem of his supreme status among his own people.42 By prostrating himself on the ground, the king not only forsook all earthly status 43 but showed his willingness to come into God’s presence—God’s “palace” 44—and partake of eternal life.
Aaron had placed the tremendous emphasis on “bow[ing] down before God,” that is, in God’s presence.45 Accordingly, in the midst of this visible demonstration of faith, the king was granted an ecstatic (albeit brief) experience like the visions his son Lamoni, Lamoni’s wife, and others had received (compare Alma 18:42–19:33), which involved the removal of “the dark veil of unbelief” and being “carried away in God” (Alma 19:6). The king’s becoming the Lord’s “vassal” (his “knowing” God) 46 meant the end of his earthly kingship (compare Alma 24:2) but the beginning of eternal life for him and those of his people who followed him.47
The king’s theophanic experience also anticipates the Christophany in 3 Nephi 11. Jesus pronounced the people blessed because of their faith (3 Nephi 17:20), faith that was “sufficient that [he] should heal” them (3 Nephi 17:8). So great was their faith and joy in worship that Jesus himself expressed “my joy is full” and “he wept” (3 Nephi 17:18–21). Lamoni’s father showed himself to be “truly penitent” and a “humble seeker of happiness” (Alma 27:18). Like the Nephites and Lamanites at Bountiful years later, he no longer wanted any part of his sins, only to have “eternal life” and to “be filled with joy” (Alma 22:15).
This desire brought the Lamanite king not only down “upon his knees” (Alma 22:17), but even to “prostrate himself upon the earth” (Alma 22:17). Just as the Nephites and Lamanites at Bountiful would cry several generations later, “Hosanna” (“Save now!” 3 Nephi 11:17), the Lamanite king “cried mightily” in faith amidst his proskynesis to “be raised from the dead and be saved at the last day” (Alma 22:18). Like the Saints at Bountiful, the king was granted “this great joy” (Alma 22:17; 27:18): to feast upon the fruit that was “desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10), the fruit of eternal life.
The Christophany at the Temple in Bountiful
When the resurrected Savior appeared from heaven to the assembled “people of Nephi who were spared, and also those who had been called Lamanites” (3 Nephi 10:18), he introduced himself in unmistakable terms:
Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world. And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning. (3 Nephi 11:10–11)
“He that cometh,” 48 the one who would truly “come . . . to do [the] will” of the Father, 49 was now physically standing before them. The people’s response to the Savior’s words bears witness to their appreciation of the sacred nature of the occasion and the prophecies that it fulfilled:
And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth; for they remembered that it had been prophesied among them that Christ should show himself unto them after his ascension into heaven. (3 Nephi 11:12)
Their immediate response was the proper ritual gesture for meeting the Lord (Yahweh) in his holy place.50 Jesus—the Holy One of Israel—does not keep the people at a distance but invites them to come forth and partake of his holiness, to experience him.
Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. (3 Nephi 11:14) 51
Jesus’s invitation contains a sequence of five verbs, three of which are sensory. He invites them to come forth and partake of his salvation (compare 2 Nephi 26:24–28). Lehi in 1 Nephi 8:15 beckons his family to “come unto me, and partake of the fruit” or “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). In both Hebrew and Egyptian, the verb “to taste” (Heb. ṭaʿam, Eg. dp) also meant “to experience.” 52
Lehi noted that when he “did go forth and partake of the fruit,” he “beheld that it was most sweet, above all that [he had] ever before tasted” (1 Nephi 8:11)—it was the sweetest thing he had ever experienced. The multitude at this temple, like the multitude at the temple at Zarahemla, now had the opportunity to “taste of his love” (Mosiah 4:11). Mormon, who himself “tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus” (Mormon 1:15), describes how these ancestors of his came forth and experienced the Lord, one by one:
And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come. (3 Nephi 11:15)
What the people felt on this occasion went beyond even the witness of the Spirit and certainly anything that any Israelite had encountered in a temple previously. Indeed, there may be much more to what Mormon attempts to convey by “feel” here than is immediately apparent. In Hebrew, the same verb that denotes the “fastening” or “striking” (tāqaʿ) of a nail can also denote a “striking” or “fastening” (that is, clasping) of hands together in a handshake.53 In ancient Israel, one became a “guarantor” or a surety for another person “by giving a handshake” 54 or, in other words, having one’s hands “fastened to the hand of” the person.55 As they saw with their eyes and felt with their hands the tokens of Jesus’s atonement and death, what had been for many previous generations “faith in Christ” became, for this multitude, a sure knowledge of his Messiahship—that he was their guarantor or surety with the Father. The language of this passage (prints, nails, feeling or fastening of hands, surety) conjures up Isaiah’s image of the “fasten[ing]” of “a nail in a sure place” (Isaiah 22:23, 25).
And when they had all gone forth and had witnessed for themselves, they did cry out with one accord, saying: Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him. (3 Nephi 11:16–17)
Their cry (“Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God!”) is an adaptation of the liturgy of Psalm 118:25–26: “Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord. . . . Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” It may also derive from the exclamation of “the Spirit of the Lord” to Nephi at the beginning of his vision of the tree of life: “Hosanna to the Lord, the Most High God” (1 Nephi 11:6). The people acknowledged Jesus as the “life of the world” (3 Nephi 11:11) with Israel’s ritual plea for life (“Save now!”) and reverenced him with Israel’s lifesaving obeisance.
The Lord then personally addressed Nephi3, the preeminent prophet among the people, and “commanded him that he should come forth” (3 Nephi 11:18). He not only “went forth” but also “bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet” (11:19). This statement recalls the staccato worship language of 1 Nephi 8:30, as well as the liturgy of the Psalms. It particularly recalls the coronation liturgy of Psalm 2:12, “kiss the Son” (KJV)—or, as this problematic text has been reconstructed in recent times: “Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet” (Psalm 2:11–12 RSV).56
Nephi3, better than anyone present, knew what actions were appropriate for that occasion. He needed only to be told to “come forth.” His humility, love for the Savior, and knowledge of what was appropriate for this sacred occasion guided his subsequent actions. He had the opportunity of doing what Lehi had seen symbolized in vision and what had long been ritualized in the temple (compare Psalms 2:12; 29:2; 95:6; 96:9). Only in Luke (7:37–38, 45) is it recorded that anyone had ever kissed the feet of the Savior.57 This is the first recorded instance of the kissing of the feet of a resurrected Deity.58
What had uniquely been Nephi3‘s privilege later becomes the privilege of the whole multitude assembled in the temple:
And it came to pass that when he had thus spoken, all the multitude, with one accord, did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him. And they did all, both they who had been healed and they who were whole, bow down at his feet, and did worship him; and as many as could come for the multitude did kiss his feet, insomuch that they did bathe his feet with their tears. (3 Nephi 17:9–10)
Never before had any people so fully and tenderly worshipped Deity in person. Never before had any people so literally come forth and fallen down and partaken of the fruit of the tree of life, the “fruit . . . desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10). Jesus had indeed brought life to these Israelites and enabled them to have it more abundantly (compare John 10:10)—the life and happiness that are the “object and design” of human existence (compare 2 Nephi 2:25).59 The scene was incomparable. Paradise had been regained. God’s love and love for God were present in such abundance that one witness to those events testified, “No one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls” (3 Nephi 17:17).
When Mormon reports that at “fifteen years of age” he had been “visited of the Lord” and “tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus” (Mormon 1:15), he speaks of experiencing and knowing the Lord in the same way that the Nephites and Lamanites at the temple in Bountiful experienced and knew him (3 Nephi 11; 17). This degree of knowledge was not possible before the Savior’s mortal ministry, death, and resurrection (compare Mosiah 4:1), although the experience of the brother of Jared came close (Ether 3:6–20).
Mormon, however, living in the “mists of darkness” of his time and looking back on history, could appreciate and identify with Lehi’s description of those who “continually [held] fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (1 Nephi 8:30), just as many Nephites all around him “fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (8:28). From his knowledge of the Nephite records, he could appreciate how groups falling down in proskynesis had transformed society (see Mosiah 4:1) and how even an individual decision to fall down and partake of the tree could give life to many in later generations (see Alma 22). He could surely appreciate what it meant to come forth and fall down and partake when the resurrected Lord appeared to the people in Bountiful (3 Nephi 11; 17).
Mormon knew that the latter-day audience to which he was writing would be “press[ing] forward through mist[s] of darkness” of their own and would need to have some idea of what—or who—they were pressing toward, how to reach him, and what to do when they reached him. And he knew of no better people to illustrate how to press forward through mists of darkness until “they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” than the Nephites and Lamanites of 3 Nephi. More than any other group of people, they demonstrated how to receive and reciprocate the love of God—to “love God with all [their heart], might, mind, and strength” (compare Moroni 10:32).
The proskynesis in 3 Nephi 11:12–19 and 17:9–10 thus stands as one of the sublimest scenes recorded anywhere. If these events anticipate (or typify) a future occasion when all the faithful shall “come forth” in the morning of the first resurrection and “fall down and be crowned with glory” (compare Doctrine and Covenants 133:32), we can surely conclude that Mormon has done everything to prepare his audience for that occasion.
Matthew L. Bowen is a PhD candidate in biblical studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He previously earned a BA in English (with a minor in classical studies) from Brigham Young University and an MA in biblical studies from CUA.
1. Walter Bauer et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and ed. Fredrick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 882.
2. Albert B. Bosworth, “Alexander (3) III (‘the Great’) of Macedon,” in Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 59.
3. K. Grayston, “The Translation of Matthew 28.17,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 21 (June 1984): 107.
4. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 304: “The proskynesis was the falling to 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.”
5. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 504–5 n. 22. Here Nibley has provided some useful examples of this practice ranging from Anatolia all the way to Persia and notes how the practice was eventually adopted by the Byzantine emperors.
6. Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, trans. Timothy J. Hallett (Winona, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 310.
7. Today, worship is used more often in the abstract sense. This can be seen in the phrase “worship services,” a description that offers only the vaguest idea of the actual contents of such services.
8. Oxford English Dictionary, ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), s.v. “worship,” 575. The noun, first attested in AD 888, originally meant “the condition (in a person) of deserving, or being held in, esteem or repute; honour, distinction, renown; good name, credit.” As a verb weorðscipe was in use by AD 1200.
9. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “worship,” 577.
10. The nominal form of this word is first attested in Herodotus, Histories 1.134.
11. Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 882.
12. The Gospel of Matthew employs proskyneō as a Leitwort (“leadword”) to portray Jesus as Emmanuel (“God with us”). To this end, Matthew follows the Septuagint translators’ practice of using the verb proskynein to express the idea of hištaḥawāh, which he uses thirteen times. Matthew opts for this verb where the other Gospel writers describe the same events in less obvious language. For Matthew, Jesus is the divine Son to be reverenced with proskynesis even in infancy (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11); he was the Lord mentioned in Deuteronomy 6:13 to whom proskynesis was due alone (Matthew 4:9–10) and so reverenced by a leper (8:2), a ruler (9:18), disciples in a ship (14:33), a Syro-Phoenician woman (15:25), and the mother of James and John (20:20). He was the divine king of the parable of Matthew 18 and was “worshipped” (18:26) by the slave seeking remission of a ten-thousand-talent debt. He was the resurrected Lord who met his disciples in Galilee, whom “they came and held [ekratēsan]. . . by the feet and worshipped [prosekynēsan] (28:9; emphasis added), whom they “worshipped” on the “mountain appointed” (28:16–17; compare “temple”), and to whom all exousia (“authority,” “power”) had been committed. In sum, he is the divine Jesus who is to be worshipped with the hištaḥawāh (proskynein) offered to Yahweh in the Old Testament.
13. Proskynesis is often used by scholars as a technical term for ritual prostration as a gesture of approach, although specific practices, and the meaning attached to them, often vary from culture to culture.
14. Our English word adoration is a borrowing from the Latin noun adoratio, which denotes an act of worship or obeisance (from ad ora, literally, “to the mouth,” possibly originating with a gesture involving the placing of the hand to the mouth and kissing) cognate with the verb adorare. The Latin Vulgate uses adorare to render both Hebrew hištaḥawāh and Greek proskyneō into Latin. Hence “adoration” has passed into Western religious discourse. The modern sense of “adore” as romantic love is derivative.
15. Compare the Ugaritic cognate verb yštḥwy. See Gregorio Del Olmo Lete and Joaquín Sanmartín, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 381; compare 333.
16. See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 295–96; and Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 360.
17. Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World, 308.
18. John Day, Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1992), 128. Day cites Psalms 23:5–6; 27:4; 42:1–2; 84:1–7, 10.
19. Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 296.
20. See Waltke and O’Connor, Introduction to Biblical Syntax, 360 n. 34. They note that the traditional derivation from *sḥy, often cited in older lexica, may be secondary. For earlier scholarly speculation on a *ḥwy/ḥyy derivation, see William F. Albright, “The North-Canaanite Epic of ‘Al’eyan Ba’al and Mot,” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 11 (1931): 197 n. 41. Martin Hartmann seems to have first made the suggestion that hištaḥawāh derives from a Semitic root *ḥwy rather than *šḥy. “Die Pluriliteralbildungen in den semitischen Sprachen mit besonderer Berüksichtigung des Hebräischen, Chaldäischen und Neusyrischen. 1. T.: Bildung durch Weiderholung des letzten Radicales am Schluss and des Ersten nach des Zweiten” (inaugural dissertation, Halle, 1875), 17. Siegfried Kreuzer suggests the meaning “Hoch leben lassen.” “Zur Bedeutung und Etymologie von Hištaḥwah / yštḥy,” Vetus Testamentum 35/1 (1985): 39–60.
21. Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World, 310.
22. Notably, several incidents in the Book of Mormon in which individuals have sudden, overwhelming encounters with the holy illustrate this point: the Sherem incident at the temple (Jacob 7:15, 21), the appearance of the angel to Alma and the sons of Mosiah (Mosiah 27:12, 18; Alma 36:7, 10–11), Lamoni’s conversion (Alma 18:42), the shock of the unbelievers at the sign of Christ’s birth (3 Nephi 1:16–17), and the brother of Jared’s falling down with fear when he sees the finger of the Lord (Ether 3:6, 19). The falling to the earth in these scenes seems to be done out of sheer shock or fear for one’s life, rather than as a matter of ritual.
23. Compare the identification of Eve (Ḥawwāh), whose name may have suggested the meaning “life giver” to the Israelite ear, as the mother of all living (ḥay).
24. Waltke and O’Connor, Introduction to Hebrew Syntax, 361; compare 1 Nephi 17:55.
25. Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World, 361. Its prominence in the Psalms pertaining to Yahweh’s kingship confirms this, as mentioned above.
26. Compare Day, Psalms, 128.
27. H. D. Preuss, “חוה ḥwh, השתחוה hištachavāh,” in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 4:249 notes how the Hebrew verb hištaḥawāh is frequently used in parataxis.
28. Compare the life-bringing waters of Ezekiel 47 and the Menorah, the stylized tree of life that symbolized the presence of God in the temple. See the gemara, or commentary, of Babylonian Talmud Menachot 86b.
29. The phrase love of God is formally ambiguous. The context provided in 1 Nephi 11 partially suggests that “God’s love” (a subjective genitive) is intended: “I know that he loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17). However, immediately seeing that the tree of life signified the “love of God,” Nephi sees many of the “children of men” fall down at the feet of the Son of God and worship him (11:24, suggesting that a reciprocal “love for God” (objective genitive) is also implied in the meaning of the tree of life.
30. 1 John 4:19 articulates this principle: “We love him [God], because he first loved us.”
31. Perhaps Paul had this kind of worship in mind when he encouraged the Roman Saints to “present [their] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1). Lesser worship risks becoming empty ritual, or worse, the unacceptable offering of which part has been “kept back” (see Acts 5:2).
32. “Paradise Regain’d” was the title of poet John Milton’s 1671 epic sequel to his more widely read and better-known epic poem, “Paradise Lost” (1667).
33. 1 Nephi 2:21; 2 Nephi 1:20; 4:4; 5:20; Alma 9:13–14; 36:30; 37:13; 38:1; 42:9–14; 50:20; Helaman 12:21; 14:16; Ether 2:15; 10:11. See especially 2 Nephi 9:6; Alma 42:14; Helaman 14:16.
34. This phrase is also used of the “exile” of Israel from the Lord’s presence in the Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy 9:4; 1 Kings 9:7; 2 Kings 17:8, 20; 24:20) and in Jeremiah (7:15; 22:26, 28; 23:39; 52:3; etc.).
35. See Mosiah 5:5–8; 6:1–2; 18:8–13; 21:31–32; 24:13; 26:20; compare 9:6.
36. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 304.
37. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 304–5.
38. Hugh W. Nibley, “The Faith of an Observer,” in Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple, ed. Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2008), 167.
39. Our English word humility derives from the Latin word humus (“soil, dirt”). Thus, to humble oneself is very literally to put oneself in the dust.
40. Their language also evokes the memory of Moses sprinkling the Israelites with the “blood of the covenant,” when they made a covenant with the Lord (Exodus 24:8).
41. See Leviticus 16:14–16. Sometimes the Lord is given the epithet “[He who] dwelleth between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 1 Chronicles 13:6) or, more accurately, “He [who] sitteth between the cherubims” (Psalm 99:1).
42. The king approached the Lord with the very gesture that was due himself (as king) by custom (compare Alma 47:23), the gesture with which Aaron had approached him upon entering his palace (Alma 22:2).
43. The king “cast . . . away” his earthly kingship, considered himself a fool before God, and came down in the depths of humility so that God would open the heavens unto him (see 2 Nephi 9:42).
44. In the Hebrew Bible the temple is sometimes called a “palace” (hēḵāl), a word that came into Hebrew from Sumerian (É.GAL = “great house”) by way of Akkadian (ēkāllum). More often it is simply referred to as the Lord’s “house” (bēṯ YHWH). The phrase before the Lord is often synonymous with the temple in the Hebrew Bible.
45. The Hebrew preposition lipnê (“before,” “in the presence of ”) literally means “to the face of.”
46. Regarding the use of know as a covenant term, see RoseAnn Benson and Stephen D. Ricks, “Treaties and Covenants: Ancient Near Eastern Legal Terminology in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 48–61.
47. The Lamanite king’s total self-abasement is a moving lesson in doing what Jesus said was necessary for one to “be exalted” (see Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14).
48. Hebrew habbāʾ (Psalm 118:26; compare Greek ho erchomenos; Matthew 3:11; 21:9; 23:39; Mark 11:9; Luke 13:35; John 1:15; 3:31). The expression is usually thought to refer to the worshipper coming into the temple. However, these passages from the New Testament amply attest the messianic interpretation and expectation attached to this expression. One need not confine oneself to either interpretation—after all, Jesus was the worshipper of the Father par excellence. He came into the world and accomplished the will of the Father in all things.
49. Compare 3 Nephi 1:14; Isaiah 53; Mosiah 15:2, 7; see Psalm 40:8.
50. Compare again Psalms 5:7; 29:2; 95:6; 96:9; 99:5, 9.
51. The phrase slain for the sins of the world first occurs in 1 Nephi 11:33 as a part of Nephi’s vision of the tree of life. Korihor’s offhand remark in Alma 30:26 indicates that it had become a Nephite liturgical phrase. It is significant, then, that Jesus uses this specific phrase to introduce himself.
52. Koehler and Baumgartner define טעם as not only to “taste” but to “perceive by experience” (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 377); compare Psalm 34:8; Proverbs 31:18. Raymond O. Faulkner lists “taste” and “experience” as his two glosses for dp in A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1999), 312. The experiential sense of taste helps us better understand Alma’s desire “to bring souls to repentance” that they might taste of the exceeding joy which [he] did taste” (Alma 36:24; compare v. 26).
53. See entry for תקע in Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 1785–86.
54. Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 1786.
55. “Lay down now, put me in a surety with thee, who is he that will strike hands with me?” [Or, “Who is it that will be fastened to my hand?”; mi hû’ leyādî yittāqēa’?] (Job 17:3).
56. A century ago, Bertholet reconstructed the troublesome phrase wgylw br’dh: nšqw (“Kiss the son [understanding Aramaic br as ‘son’] and rejoice with trembling”) to wnšqw brglyw br’dh. See Alfred Bertholet, “Eine crux interpretum,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 28 (1908): 58–59; Barnabas Lindars, “Is Psalm II an Acrostic Poem?” Vetus Testamentum 17/1 (1967): 61. The RSV and NRSV were confident enough in this emendation to follow it in part. Lindars believes that “the picture given by [this] most probably restoration . . . is certainly the homage of vassal kings to their overlord.” The reconstructed phrase *we našqû beraglâw compares favorably to Akkadian našāqu[m] šēpī (to “kiss the feet”).
57. This story, as told by Luke, also marvelously depicts the love of God: Jesus’s love for the woman as manifest in his forgiveness of her sins and in her reciprocal love for the Savior. Sometimes it is wrongly concluded that her sins are forgiven because she manifests her love for Christ, based on a misreading of Luke 7:47 (the Greek hoti, rendered “for” in the KJV, should be translated as “therefore,” reflecting the underlying Semitic idiom (compare Heb. kî). The opposite is true: her standing at the feet of Jesus “weeping” and “wash[ing] his feet with tears,” and “wip[ing] them with the hairs of her head,” and “kiss[ing] his feet” and “anointing them with . . . ointment” (7:38) was due to the fact that he “frankly forgave” her out of his infinite love and compassion (7:42). She showed her gratitude and reciprocal love for the Savior in the most appropriate way that she (or anyone) could conceive.
58. The cult statues of deities had been kissed in many a temple, but never the feet of the “image” of the living God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15).
59. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 255–56.