"His Secret is with the Righteous":
Instructional Wisdom in the Book of Mormon
While studying the topic of personal revelation a number of years ago, a furious cross-referencing of Doctrine and Covenants 76 landed me in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, and I stopped to explore the territory. I turned to chapter 1 and read straight through until the wonder wore off somewhere after chapter 8. I first understood the dominant message to be an impassioned invitation to search for the knowledge of the mysteries of God, to seek personal revelation. But a note fell out of my Bible that I must have made some time before when preparing a Gospel Doctrine lesson or studying for a BYU religion test. It characterized Proverbs as “a collection of folk sayings; hard to see as scripture.” This did not seem an apt description of the passages I had just breathlessly encountered.
Over the years, I have learned that my reading of Proverbs 1—9 that night was unusual. Though scholars recognize that the author beseeches the reader to find wisdom, they almost always take this to be practical knowledge about how to live life richly, rather than how to obtain the riches of eternal life.1
But what has also surprised me is that many of the writers of the Book of Mormon were familiar with the literary forms, themes, and vocabulary of Hebrew wisdom literature, of which Proverbs 1—9 is an example, and made them part of their own sacred record keeping. What’s more, Book of Mormon authors clearly understood the search for wisdom to be a quest for eternal life and the mysteries of God.
This paper will start with a short introduction to Hebrew wisdom literature. I will then turn to an exploration of similarities between selected Old Testament wisdom texts, primarily Proverbs 1—9, and passages in the Book of Mormon, and I will investigate how the two sources elucidate each other.
Instructional Wisdom in Ancient Israel and the Near East
Scholars believe that wisdom sayings develop naturally in families and villages because of the human need to capture and distill the lessons of life and make them memorable. A literary wisdom tradition emerged anciently throughout the Near East, particularly in Egypt and Mesopotamia.2 Similar individual proverbs, coined originally by ordinary people, found their way into writing independently in these and other cultures, but at some point the Near Eastern traditions certainly came into contact with and borrowed from each other.
After many centuries of relative neglect, the study of the Hebrew wisdom tradition, sometimes simply called Hebrew wisdom, was reborn in the past century after the 1923 publication of The Instructions of Amenemopet, an Egyptian wisdom document from approximately 1186 to 1069 BC. A renewed and unprecedented surge in Old Testament wisdom scholarship began about 1970.3 Joseph Smith and his contemporaries could have known very little about the wisdom tradition, as its study was not pursued in modern times with any vigor until over a hundred years after the publication of the Book of Mormon.
The corpus of wisdom is defined by similarities of intent, form, terminology, content, and even setting. Hebrew wisdom literature includes Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes from the canonical Old Testament, and the Wisdom of Solomon (often simply called Wisdom) and Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach or ben Sira) from the Apocrypha. Wisdom texts are also found among the Pseudepigrapha and in other ancient Near Eastern writings.
Wisdom is sometimes classified broadly into two main genres known as sentence wisdom (or experiential wisdom) and instructional wisdom (or theoretical wisdom).4 Sentence wisdom passages are comprised of short, pithy sayings, usually couplets, that express an observation or suggestion memorably. An example is this couplet about the benefits of being generous with one’s possessions: “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty” (Proverbs 11:24). The bulk of Proverbs 10—31, as well as Ecclesiastes, reflects the sentence genre.
The instructional genre is characterized by longer poems with a clearly didactic intent—that is, they are meant to teach—usually in the form of a father offering counsel to his son or a wisdom sage offering counsel to his pupils. Proverbs 1—9, 22:17—24:22, and 31:1—9 belong to the genre of instructional wisdom, as do the speeches in Job and the apocryphal books Wisdom and Sirach.
Modern analysis reveals that Hebrew writers were influenced at times by Egyptian wisdom but that they did not incorporate it wholesale. Even in the case of Proverbs 22:17—24:22, which clearly resembles The Instruction of Amenemopet, the author freely adapts the Egyptian material in order to express his own unique beliefs.5
Turning to a comparison of Old Testament wisdom and the Book of Mormon, the most obvious similarities between the two involve the instructional writings of Proverbs, comprising chapters 1—9. For this paper, I will for the most part limit my comparison of Book of Mormon passages to biblical instructional wisdom asexpressed in Proverbs 1—9.
A quick note about the dating of Proverbs: to the extent that Proverbs 10—31 is a set of collections of folk wisdom, the origins of some of the individual sayings could be very ancient, at least as old as the time of Solomon (mid-tenth century BC) and probably older.6 Some of the collections seem to have been made during the period of the monarchy, in preexilic times (see Proverbs 25:1). Scholars do not agree on the dating of Proverbs 1—9. Since it appears to be an introduction to the sentence proverbs of 10—31, and for other reasons, many postulate that it was written at a later date, after the exile and possibly after the Macedonian conquest.7 But as we shall see, the earliest Book of Mormon prophets were clearly familiar with motifs more fully developed in Proverbs 1—9 than in the earlier collections of 10—31. We are justified in postulating that Proverbs 1—9 or an earlier version of the literary/rhetorical tradition which it expresses did, in fact, exist before the exile, during the time Lehi lived in Jerusalem.
Characteristics of Hebrew Instructional Wisdom: Structure, Content, Literary Forms, and Terminology
With a goal of identifying instructional wisdom in the Book of Mormon, we will quickly study the composition of Proverbs 1—9, and we will look at the literary forms, terms, and motifs of instructional wisdom in general.
Proverbs 1—9 is composed of ten instructions, also known as lectures, discourses, or admonitions, which are interspersed with five interludes or hymns. The interludes, with the exception of C, elaborate a similar theme: the persistence and excellence of wisdom. The whole collection is introduced by a prologue.8
Like Near Eastern instructions in general, most of the instructions of Proverbs have a tripartite structure. They are introduced by (1) an exordium in which a father (a) addresses his son, (b) exhorts him to pay attention, and (c) motivates him by emphasizing the value or rewards that will flow from heeding his teachings. Following the exordium is (2) a lesson, summed up by (3) a conclusion.
In almost all cases of both Hebrew and Near Eastern instructional wisdom where the teacher’s gender can be identified, it is male—a father or wise man.9 In some cases, such as instructions I and IX of Proverbs, the mother who stands behind the teachings is also mentioned. We have no sure indication that the voice is ever hers, but we might imagine that the parents take turns offering the counsel—the father giving the instruction, with the mother speaking the interludes or dramatizing the voice of the wisdom woman.10 Proverbs 31:1—9 is the only instance in extant wisdom documents where the lesson is clearly taught by a woman, in this case the queen mother of the Old Testament king Lemuel. Instructional lectures are sometimes called patriarchal admonitions when the setting is that of a Hebrew patriarch/prophet addressing his sons at the end of his life.
Hebrew wisdom speech in the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha, because of its didactic intent, employs frequent use of words and concepts such as wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, discipline, instruction, and learning. These concepts are not always clearly distinct. Another hallmark of wisdom teaching is the use of contrasts: most characteristically wisdom versus folly, but also life versus death, righteous versus wicked, happiness versus cursedness, rich versus poor, industrious versus idle, safety versus destruction, light versus dark, pride or vanity versus humility, sight versus blindness, awake versus asleep, remembrance versus forgetfulness, and so on. The tree of life and fountains of water are important motifs, as are other images from nature. Wisdom teaching contrives analogies and parables about plants and animals, farming and husbandry. Indeed, the wise men appeal frequently to empirical experience and to the natural order of the world to elucidate their case.
Composition of Proverbs 1—9
|Instruction I||1:8—19||Avoid gangs ;(“secret combinations”in Book of Mormon terms)|
|Interlude A||1:20—33||Wisdom’s warning|
|Instruction II||2:1—22||The path to wisdom|
|Instruction III||3:1—12||The wisdom of piety|
|Interlude B||3:13—20||In praise of Wisdom|
|Instruction IV||3:21—35||The wisdom of honesty|
|Instruction V||4:1—9||Loving wisdom, hating evil|
|Instruction VI||4:10—19||The right path|
|Instruction VII||4:20—27||The straight path|
|Instruction VIII||5:1—23||Another man’s wife and one’s own|
|Interlude C||6:1—19||Four epigrams on;folly and evil|
|Instruction IX||6:20—35||Adultery kills|
|Instruction X||7:1—27||Beware the seductress|
|Interlude D||8:1—36||Wisdom’s self-praise|
|Interlude E||9:1—18||Two banquets|
Instructional Wisdom in the Book of Mormon
With this overview of the defining characteristics of Hebrew instructional wisdom, we can search for Book of Mormon passages with similar characteristics. Most of those I have identified are listed in the table below. Many of these texts can be classified as patriarchal or final admonitions.11 Other examples of Book of Mormon passages with wisdom overtones include the Beatitudes of 3 Nephi 12; the sacrament prayers of 3 Nephi 18:7, 11 and Moroni 4:3, 5:2; and the related administration of the sacrament of 3 Nephi 20:7—9. I will omit a discussion of these and other short pieces. So the list below does not exhaust every wisdom affinity in the Book of Mormon, but it certainly suffices for an initial study.
Of the passages listed, 2 Nephi 25—33,12 2 Nephi 6—10, Mosiah, Alma 36—42, and Helaman 13—15 all evidence the classic tripartite structure of a wisdom instruction. Nephi’s instructions in 1 Nephi are not tripartite. Lehi’s testament (2 Nephi 1—4) does not have the usual tripartite structure either, and this may be because Nephi is clearly abridging his father’s full admonition. Likewise, Joseph of Egypt’s admonition (2 Nephi 3:4—22) and Helaman’s admonition (Helaman 5:5—13) are also excerpts and are not tripartite. Ammon’s extended reflection on “boasting” (Alma 26) is properly neither a patriarchal admonition nor an instruction—we might call it an exultation—but it has strong wisdom affinities nevertheless. Mormon’s editorial comment in Helaman 12 as such lacks tripartite structure as well.
Instructional Wisdom in the Book of Mormon
|Nephi||1 Nephi 1:1—4; 10:17—15:36; 19—22, 2 Nephi 25—33 (final admonition)|
|Lehi||2 Nephi 1—4 (patriarchal admonition)|
|Jacob||2 Nephi 6—10, Jacob 2—6(patriarchal admonition)|
|Joseph of Egypt, as excerpted by Lehi||2 Nephi 3:4—22 (short excerpt of patriarchal admonition)|
|King Benjamin||Mosiah 1—5 (final admonition with tripartite structure commencing in 2:9)|
|Alma||Alma 32, 36—42 (patriarchal admonition)|
|Helaman||Helaman 5:5—13 (short excerpt of patriarchal admonition)|
All of these passages use terms, motifs, and other devices familiar from the Hebrew wisdom corpus. The admonitions of Nephi (2 Nephi 25—33), Lehi, Joseph, Benjamin, and Alma (Alma 36—42) all show strong internal consistency as well. The authors seem to be following a model for passing knowledge between generations that we see only partially in Proverbs 1—913 but more completely in the Pseudepigraphal patriarchal admonitions.14
Elements of the pattern include a father—who is often also a prophet, high priest and teacher, or king—
•providing instruction or counsel near his death or at the end of his ministry
• advising sons, other descendants, or the people in general, sometimes at the temple in association with a ritual festival (Jacob, Benjamin, and arguably portions of Proverbs 1—9)
• promoting the keeping or transmission of a written record (and sometimes other artifacts)
• expressing joy
• giving promises about the blessings of keeping the commandments (especially the promise of prosperity/fertility in the land)
• advocating the search for the mysteries of God and prayer in general
• administering temple ordinances
• giving warnings about the consequences of rejecting temple or sacred knowledge
• recounting instruction by an angel and other mystical experiences (“example stories”)
• reviewing the Lord’s work in history, or even rehearsing the creation account
• teaching of Christ and the plan of redemption (in the Book of Mormon)
• using wisdom vocabulary and themes to teach about living an upright daily life, such as avoiding pride or vanity, caring for the poor, and recognizing the dangers of sexual transgression
I will now take a closer look at how each of the Book of Mormon passages identified above (omitting treatment of the short excerpt of Joseph’s blessing in 2 Nephi 3:4—22) compares to Proverbs 1—9, highlighting formal, thematic, and linguistic similarities.
Wisdom in the Small Plates of Nephi
Prologue to Nephi’s Record
The correspondences start at the very beginning of the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s prologue to his writings (1 Nephi 1:1—3) has much in common with the prologue of Proverbs (Proverbs 1:1—7), as well as with that of some foreign wisdom instructions. The purpose is to introduce the work, convey the qualifications of its author, and commend it to the recipient.
Often, prologues to wisdom texts “detail the titles, posts, ancestry, and position of the teacher” to demonstrate his qualifications.15 The author of Proverbs 1—9 is said to be “Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1). Scholars doubt that Solomon wrote Proverbs itself or even sponsored it, but his reputation as a great sage lends credibility to the collection.16
The prologue to Proverbs then immediately introduces some of the language characteristic of wisdom texts: wisdom, instruction, understanding, knowledge, and learning (Proverbs 1:2—5). It also hints that there is a riddle to be solved:
“A wise man will hear, and will increase learning;
and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:
To understand a proverb, and the interpretation;
The words of the wise, and their dark sayings.” (Proverbs 1:5—6)
“Words of the wise,” ḥakamῑm, seems to indicate the teachings of a specific group, and “dark sayings,” ḥidāh, is sometimes translated as “enigmas” or “riddles.” 17 So the promise seems to be that those who listen carefully will be able to discern and interpret an enigma in the text.18 Michael V. Fox tells what characterizes an enigma: “The outstanding figure of an enigma is its immediate obscurity. . . . Words and images must be read as tokens of entities and events in another domain. An enigma deliberately blocks immediate understanding by ambiguities and obscurities before allowing the audience to push through to a deeper understanding.”19
Jesus used another wisdom rhetorical form, the parable, to accomplish much the same function: to hide “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:10—17).
The problem is that scholars do not see much that is hidden or cryptic in Proverbs. As Fox jokes, “Having been informed in the Prologue that the wise will understand the enigmas to follow, one hesitates to volunteer for the other category by failing even to detect them.”20 He suggests that the sage who wrote Proverbs is making an exaggerated claim to esoteric knowledge in order to give the book greater prestige.21
However, read in light of Book of Mormon passages in 1 and 2 Nephi, Mosiah, and elsewhere, the riddle, as well as its solution, becomes clear: the knowledge discussed in Proverbs 1—9 about the path to a good, long life can be understood at a deeper level to represent knowledge about the path to eternal life.
There is even a clue in Proverbs 1:5—6: “a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels” can be understood as the wise counsels of Yahweh’s heavenly assembly, the sod, which mortals are occasionally permitted to observe in vision.22 The Hebrew words used here are not the same words used in classic Old Testament passages about the assembly or sod,23 but there would not be much of a riddle if they were. The actual word sod is used in Proverbs 3:32: “For the froward24 is abomination to the Lord: but his secret is with the righteous” (emphasis here and in all subsequent scriptural quotations is added).25 As Daniel Peterson notes, sod is never used to mean only “secrets,” but rather, it always refers to the intimate group that counseled together, as well as to the decision upon which they agreed.26 John Welch also notes that “mysteries” can be a translation of the word.27 In Job 15:8, another passage from the wisdom genre, sod is parallel to wisdom: “Hast thou heard the secret of God? and dost thou restrain wisdom to thyself?” So allusions in the text push us toward elucidation of the enigmas, and our first clue is that the kind of wisdom discussed in Proverbs 1—9 has to do with the council of heaven and the mysteries of God.
Now, let’s compare the Proverbs prologue to Nephi’s prologue in 1 Nephi 1:1—3. Nephi identifies himself as the author of the record and then invokes his pedigree by simply noting that he was “born of goodly parents” (1 Nephi 1:1). Nephi’s credit to his parents is similar, incidentally, to Proverbs 4:3—4, where the writer also reflects on the teachings of parents who loved him.
Nephi then gives his qualifications. Aside from being “taught somewhat in all the learning of [his] father,” which included “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,” he has obtained a “knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 1:1—2). (Remember that “mysteries” is a possible translation for sod.) This knowledge authorizes him as a source of wisdom more than any other sort of education, occupation, or title could, because, as Nephi will proceed to recount, he has effectively solved the riddle hinted at in the prologue to Proverbs. By seeking diligently, he has seen and felt, through transcendent visionary experiences, the unfolding of God’s loving plan for the world, including Christ’s redemption and the joys of eternal life. He has been taught by angels and lifted upon the wings of the Spirit to mountaintops for instruction. He himself has found wisdom.
However, unlike the author of Proverbs, Nephi does not attempt to disguise any teachings. Although he admits that his father’s teachings are “hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord,” yet he insists that the meaning will be made known if one asks “in faith . . . with diligence in keeping [the] commandments” (1 Nephi 15:3, 11). Having done so himself, he is eager to lay out Lehi’s teachings as they have been explained to him in vision. He does the same with passages from Isaiah. Thereafter, he repeatedly emphasizes the “plainness” of his teachings: “I have spoken plainly . . . that ye cannot misunderstand” (2 Nephi 25:28; see also 2 Nephi 25:20; 32:7); in fact, he “glor[ies] in plainness” (2 Nephi 33:6).
Wisdom Personified and the Tree of Life
One of the most remarkable features of Proverbs 1—9 is the personification of wisdom. This figure is first introduced in Proverbs 1:20—33. She is pictured here as a herald, crying out to get the attention of the masses “in the streets,” “in the chief place of concourse,” and at “the gates” of the city from where all the roads of the city fan out (Proverbs 1:20—21). These are all crowded, bustling places. Her message is directed to the general public. In Proverbs 8, she herself says that she calls to “the sons of man” (v. 4). In Proverbs 9, she sends forth “maidens” (v. 3) to help get the word out, much like the king in the parable of the marriage of the king’s son sends servants to the highways to extend the invitation to as many as can be found (Matthew 22:1—14). What Wisdom has to offer is not reserved for a cadre of claimants privileged by status or inheritance, and she goes to great lengths to make sure her call is heard by all.
Likewise, Nephi teaches that Jesus “manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith” (2 Nephi 26:13). He goes on to elaborate. Beginning with “I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness,” Nephi emphasizes that the Lord God “layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” and that “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:23—33).
The father in Proverbs 2:1—22 explains that wisdom is more precious than silver (v. 4), and Proverbs 3:13—20 teaches that Wisdom’s merchandise is better than gold or rubies. “All the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her” (Proverbs 3:15; see also Proverbs 8:10—11, 18—19). What does she offer that is so precious and important? “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her” (Proverbs 3:18).
This calls to mind the visions of Lehi and Nephi in the Book of Mormon. When Lehi sees the tree of life, he knows that the “fruit [is] desirable to make one happy.” He tastes it himself, and it fills his soul with “exceedingly great joy,” and he finds that it is “desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8:10—12). Later, Nephi explains that the tree (and the fountain of living waters, an image that appears several times in Proverbs 10—31) represents “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of . . . men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things . . . and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:21—23).
Peterson has argued that given the iconography and religious practices of Nephi’s Jerusalem, Nephi would have instantly recognized the tree of life as a symbol for the goddess Asherah. Her image stood in the temple on and off until the time of Josiah, where she may have been worshipped alongside Yahweh, apparently as his consort or wife, although not without controversy.28 Her image was finally removed from the temple by Josiah during his reform, which extended into Lehi’s lifetime, and from the canon after the Babylonian exile by a group of editors known as the Deuteronomists. Knowledge of this goddess was lost from the dominant religion for two and a half millennia. But in the last century, archaeological finds have confirmed her place in the preexilic Hebrew tradition, and scholars have pieced together her ancient history and traced her memory in Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity down to the present.29
Mainstream modern wisdom scholars remain reluctant to interpret the wisdom woman as a version of the Hebrew goddess, mostly because they date Proverbs 1—9 after the exile when Israel had become very strictly monotheistic.30 At best, they describe her as an “emanation” of God or a “hypostasis,”31 but more often just as an ordinary if vivid literary personification of an important virtue of either God or man.32 Sometimes scholars suggest that she was an image borrowed from the Egyptian, Canaanite, or Greek pantheon (Ma’at, Ishtar, or Isis, respectively).33
For his part, Nephi in interpreting his and his father’s visions never overtly describes the tree of life as a woman or a goddess. He never personifies wisdom at all. However, wisdom does receive an “inchoate personification”34 later in the Book of Mormon. The first instance occurs when King Benjamin warns that having been taught the prophecies contained in the scriptures,
if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved—I say unto you, that the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit. (Mosiah 2:36—37)
The second instance of the personification of wisdom is when King Limhi, after receiving assurance from Ammon that the king of Zarahemla, as a seer, would be able to translate the Jaredite plates, exclaims:
O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them! (Mosiah 8:20)
The third and final example of wisdom’s personification in the Book of Mormon is in what appears to be an editorial remark by Mormon. Commenting on the descent of the Nephites into wickedness shortly before the birth of Christ, he appropriates wisdom vocabulary to lament their foolishness, vanity, and pride:
How slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths! (Helaman 12:5)
These three Book of Mormon personifications are all consistent with the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 1—9. In King Benjamin’s warning, submission to the Spirit for guidance on wisdom’s paths is contrasted with submission to the evil spirit, which results in psychological pain described in terms of hell: “guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever” (Mosiah 2:38). This is like the contrast in Proverbs between wisdom’s shining path and folly’s dark path toward Sheol, which we will discuss in greater detail below.
King Limhi’s exclamation recalls the fools of Proverbs 1:20—33, who refuse the counsel and reproof of wisdom. Moreover, the translation preserves the feminine personification of wisdom, using she rather than the neuter pronoun it to refer to the antecedent wisdom.35 The translation as well as the literary image both nod toward Hebrew wisdom materials.
But all of these Book of Mormon personifications occur hundreds of years after Nephi recorded his vision of the tree of life. His interpretation of the tree is that it (and the fountain of waters) represents the love of God.36 He also interprets for his brothers the other symbols related to the tree, introducing terminology and concepts that are shared with Proverbs 1—9. He explains, for example, that those who hold fast to the word of God (the iron rod) that leads to the tree will “never perish; neither [will] the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary . . . lead them away to destruction” (1 Nephi 15:22—24). He tells them that the tree’s fruit “is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits . . . and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36). The evil power of flattery, paths toward destruction or happiness, and joy itself are three themes from Proverbs 1—9.
As the similarities between Nephi’s writings and Proverbs 1—9 begin to mount, it is worth turning aside from our comparison momentarily to use Nephi’s plainness to help clarify the message of Proverbs. Most commentators on Proverbs understand that the happiness37 derived from finding wisdom means a pleasant or successful earthly existence, and that the length of days that wisdom promises (Proverbs 3:2, 16; see 8:34—35 and 9:11) refers to a long mortal life. But Nephi’s teachings make it clear that on a deeper level, what is promised is eternal life. Most explicitly, Nephi in his final testament says that the “straight and narrow path . . . leads to eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:18; see 1 Nephi 14:7; 2 Nephi 31:19—21; 2:27—29). “The wise shall inherit glory,” reads Proverbs 3:35; and the verses in Proverbs 4:6, 9 promise that wisdom will “preserve thee” and “keep thee,” delivering “a crown of glory.” In view of instructional wisdom from the Book of Mormon, we can be sure that these Old Testament passages are promising eternal glory to those who love and follow wisdom. It is increasingly clear that Proverbs 1—9 is hardly mundane, practical advice but rather counsel of eternal import.
The Strange Woman and the Great Whore
We return to our search for motifs common to both the small plates and Proverbs 1—9. In Proverbs, a significant figure known as the “strange woman” is contrasted with Wisdom. Lectures on the strange woman include Proverbs 2:16—22, 5:1—13, 6:20—35, and 7:1—27. The figure is most fully developed in Proverbs 9:13—18, and is sometimes referred to here as “Lady Folly” or “Dame Folly.” In Proverbs 2:1—22, the strange woman has a wicked male counterpart, the “evil man” (v. 12). The strange woman is a seducing adulteress, and illicit relations with her are contrasted with legitimate relations with one’s wife.
The strange woman is characterized primarily by her smooth, flattering tongue and her disloyalty to her husband. She ventures forth from her house to entice her victims, calling them “in the high places of the city” (Proverbs 9:14), not unlike Wisdom. Her words “drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil” (Proverbs 5:3). But like the evil man (Proverbs 2:12—15), she dupes the fools she hunts into leaving the path of life and following her downward on paths of death, resulting in the destruction of their souls. The father in Proverbs 7:1—27 elaborates the seduction, vividly describing the scene and the strange woman’s flattering words in order to imprint the danger—and the allure—of sexual transgression on the mind of his offspring. “Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:27). “Her guests are in the depths of hell” (Proverbs 9:18). Instead of veering off on this perilous path, the youth in Proverbs 5:15—19 is encouraged to “drink waters out of thine own cistern,” meaning that he should find sexual pleasure with his own wife, and to be “ravished always with her love.”
Protection from the seductive dangers of the strange woman comes by “attend[ing] to wisdom” (Proverbs 5:1), by keeping the commandments and embracing Wisdom as one’s friend and intimate. “Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman,” teaches Proverbs 7:4. Where the strange woman’s way leads downward to Sheol, Wisdom’s followers stay on the “the paths of life” (Proverbs 2:19). She leads “in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 8:20). Her path is pleasant (Proverbs 3:17) and bright, shining “more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18).
Now we turn to the Book of Mormon for a comparison. Admonitions about sexual behavior are infrequent in biblical wisdom literature outside of Proverbs 1—9,38 though they do occur in extrabiblical wisdom sources such as Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Extended warnings about sexual sin occur twice in the Book of Mormon. Jacob, taking note of a declining family structure among his people, gathers them in the temple and delivers an admonishment from the Lord: “There shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me” (Jacob 2:27—28). The husbands are not to “lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction” (Jacob 2:33). Though Jacob delivers this warning to the people as the Lord’s mouthpiece rather than as a patriarch admonishing his children, the themes of fidelity and captivity are straight from the wisdom tradition of Proverbs 1—9.
In Alma the Younger’s patriarchal admonition to Corianton, he chastises him for boasting in his own strength and wisdom and taking up with the harlot Isabel. Like the strange woman of Proverbs, she “did steal away the hearts of many,” but this is no excuse. Alma teaches that sexual sin is “an abomination in the sight of the Lord,” almost as serious as murder or denying the Holy Ghost (Alma 39:3—6). He warns Corianton not “to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots” (Alma 39:11). The image is comparable to the flattering strange woman or evil man of Proverbs.
But the most striking comparison in the Book of Mormon to the strange woman in Proverbs is Nephi’s image of a seductive evil woman. He calls her the “great whore” or the “whore of all the earth.” The image appears first in Nephi’s tree of life vision as the “large and spacious building,” which the angel says is “the world and the wisdom thereof” (1 Nephi 11:35). As the vision is extended and applied to the history of the world, the image becomes “the great and abominable church,” founded by the devil and preoccupied with earthly treasures, sexual sin, and the praise of the world (1 Nephi 13:4—9). For these idols the church “destroy[s] the saints of God, and bring[s] them down into captivity” (1 Nephi 13:9). In 1 Nephi 13:26—27, this church is guilty of “tak[ing] away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord” in order to “pervert the right ways of the Lord.”
It is in 1 Nephi 14:10 that this evil church is first personified as “the mother of abominations” and “the whore of all the earth.” Nephi tells later of the church’s great fall into the very pit it had “digged to ensnare the people of the Lord” (1 Nephi 22:13—14). He associates her again with Satan (1 Nephi 22:15) and subtly contrasts her with Isaiah’s image of the grieving mother Zion (1 Nephi 21:14—25; 22:25).
The motif returns for a last time in 2 Nephi 26—28. Nephi describes the Gentiles of the last days as building up many churches that minimize “the power and miracles of God.” Rather, they “preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor” (2 Nephi 26:20). Nephi introduces “secret combinations” here, which he says are founded by the devil (2 Nephi 26:22). They bring to mind the gangs of Proverbs 1:8—19, established to kill the innocent in order to acquire their “precious substance” (v. 13). Nephi also speaks of “priestcrafts,” which are organized to “get gain and praise of the world” (2 Nephi 26:29). He teaches that those who belong to the great and abominable church must repent or be grasped by the chains of the devil and perish.
Nephi warns of the seductive powers of the devil, who, like the evil man of Proverbs 2:12—15, uses his power of speech to deceive and ensnare. He will stir some up to anger, while pacifying others, lulling them into a feeling of security, flattering them, whispering in their ears “until he grasps them with his awful chains” (2 Nephi 28:19—23). Like the strange woman whose paths are “unto the dead” (Proverbs 2:18) and the evil man whose paths are dark and crooked (Proverbs 2:15), the devil “cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Nephi 28:21).
The wicked of the last days will hearken “unto the precepts of men, and den[y] the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 28:26). They will refuse the word of God, believing that they have enough, and will consequently lose that which they already have (2 Nephi 28:29—30). “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in . . . the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 28:31). This is like those in Proverbs who adhere to the teachings of the strange woman, forsaking the “guide of [their] youth”— wisdom—and forgetting “the covenant of [their] God” (Proverbs 2:17), in favor of the flattering words of the evil woman. The risk is to “die without instruction,” having by a rejection of the knowledge of God become “holden with the cords of . . . sin” (Proverbs 5:22—23; compare Satan’s cords in 2 Nephi 26:22 and the “cords of vanity” and rope of sin in 2 Nephi 15:18, parallel to Isaiah 5:18).
In Proverbs, Wisdom is not sympathetic:
Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord: they would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices. (Proverbs 1:24—31)
Nephi, however, offers hope even at the very last:
Wo be unto the Gentiles, saith the Lord God of Hosts! For notwithstanding I shall lengthen out mine arm unto them from day to day, they will deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them, saith the Lord God, if they will repent and come unto me; for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long, saith the Lord God of Hosts. (2 Nephi 28:32)
Paths toward Hell and Paths toward Life
Another particularly significant metaphor in instructional proverbs is the two-paths dichotomy. Wisdom calls men to follow her on the shining path of the righteous (Proverbs 2:20; 4:18), while the strange woman leads on the dark path of the wicked (e.g., Proverbs 4:14, 19). Fox explains that as “the ground metaphor of Prov 1—9,” this image “organizes other perceptions and images and conveys a way of perceiving the world.”39 He notes that another scholar proposes that the two-paths metaphor does not stand by itself as the ground metaphor, but is closely coordinated with a second ground metaphor—the two women.40 Fox also shows that while a path metaphor likewise permeates Egyptian wisdom literature, instructions in these sources are about the “way of life” and do not include the notion of an opposing path. According to Fox, “the polarity of the [two paths] is a deliberate development in Proverbs.” 41
As is apparent from our earlier discussion of the great whore, the two-paths metaphor is manifested in the Book of Mormon too. In fact, Mack C. Stirling has argued that the portrayal of two diverging and opposing paths, one leading toward life and one toward death, is “the fundamental conceptual substrate for the view of reality held by the Book of Mormon prophets.” 42 Stirling shows that the Book of Mormon presents a unified message that during probation, “men either hearken to the voice of Christ and progressively acquire spiritual life or they hearken to the voice of the devil and progressively descend into spiritual death.” 43 He explains that “those in the way of life become progressively sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” 44 It is significant indeed to recognize that both Proverbs 1—9 and the Book of Mormon are internally unified around the same metaphor.
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves and have yet to explore specific examples of the two-paths metaphor in the Book of Mormon—limiting ourselves in this section to examples from Nephi’s books. Leading to the tree of life is a strait and narrow path; one stays on this path, even when darkness moves in, by clinging to the rod of iron, which stands for the word of God (1 Nephi 8:19—25; 11:25; 15:24). “Forbidden paths” and “strange roads” also figure into Lehi’s vision (1 Nephi 8:28, 32), and the angel explains to Nephi that “mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which . . . leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost” (1 Nephi 12:17; see also 2 Nephi 28:21).
Jacob teaches that the Holy One is the “keeper of the gate” of the strait and narrow path (2 Nephi 9:41; compare 2 Nephi 31:17—18). He will not open the gate for the wise, vain, or proud, but only for those who “consider themselves fools before God” (2 Nephi 9:42—notice the wisdom speech contrasting the wise and the foolish). Nephi engages in an unusual depiction of the interplay between Christ and the Holy Ghost as guides to and on the righteous path. He says that Jesus’s example leads the children of men to the gate—to repentance and baptism (2 Nephi 31:9, 13)45—where they then experience “a remission of . . . sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:17). Then, once they have thereby entered “the strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:18), the Holy Ghost becomes their lifelong guide, showing them “all things what [they] should do” (2 Nephi 32:5) by giving them the “words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3).
This is similar to the counsel about the guidance of wisdom in Proverbs: “I will pour out my spirit unto you. I will make known my words unto you” (Proverbs 1:23). “For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding. . . . When wisdom entereth into thine heart, and knowledge is pleasant unto thy soul; discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee: to deliver thee from the way of the evil man” (Proverbs 2:6, 10—12). “Keep sound wisdom and discretion. . . . Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble” (Proverbs 3:21, 23). “My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother. . . . When thou goest, it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest, it shall keep thee; and when thou awakest, it shall talk with thee” (Proverbs 6:20, 22). Clearly, whereas in Proverbs the guide that opposes the strange woman is the wisdom figure, for Nephi, the guide on the strait and narrow path that is rejected by the great and abominable church is the Holy Ghost. Nephi closely associates the Holy Ghost with the word of God, just as Wisdom is linked to the law and the commandments in Proverbs 1—9.46
Reflections on the Holy Ghost, Wisdom, and the Mysteries of God
Nephi explains that “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost” and that they speak the “words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3). The role of angels in the Old Testament is to serve as messengers from the divine assembly of Yahweh. The English word angel is from the Greek angelos and means “messenger.” As messengers from the sod, their function is to deliver the counsels of Yahweh. They bring “the words of Christ” exactly as that word is decreed in heaven and according to the instructions of the God they serve.47 By relating the Holy Ghost with angels because the Holy Ghost gives them the power to speak the words of Christ, Nephi establishes that the Holy Ghost gives angels the authority or capability to act as agents of Yahweh.
Moreover, angels and prophets are most effective when they deliver their instructions by the power of the Holy Ghost. Nephi implies this in 2 Nephi 33:1. In fact, he himself as a scribe worries that his words will not carry the power that they do when spoken, “for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men” (2 Nephi 33:1).
Much as the Holy Ghost makes angels and prophets capable of teaching with power, the Holy Ghost grants mankind the capability of experiencing the transcendent visionary or auditory experiences of learning from heavenly beings or of standing in the presence of God. It is “upon the wings of his Spirit” that Nephi is carried “upon exceedingly high mountains” to behold things too great to be written (2 Nephi 4:25). It is by the power of the Holy Ghost that Christ “manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him” (2 Nephi 26:13). “Overcome with the Spirit,” Lehi “was carried away” in vision to the heavenly assembly, where he saw God on his throne surrounded by angels (1 Nephi 1:8). Nephi was so taken with his father’s dreams and teachings which he spoke “by the power of the Holy Ghost,” that he too “was desirous also that [he] might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (1 Nephi 10:17).
So to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost is to be privy to the plans of Yahweh’s heavenly council—to the mysteries of God—or to receive personal testimony of these mysteries when they are delivered by angels or prophets.
This lends weight to the earlier contention that Proverbs’ promise that those who really hear and understand the teachings of Proverbs “shall attain unto wise counsels” (Proverbs 1:5) means learning the mysteries of God as Nephi did. In fact, Nephi’s exuberance to learn (“I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things” [1 Nephi 10:17]) and his insistence that such learning is accessible to the faithful (“he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost” [1 Nephi 10:19]) is an apt demonstration of the persistent searching advocated in Proverbs 1—9. “If thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding . . . then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” is the promise of Proverbs 2:3. Likewise, the father in Proverbs 4:7 exhorts his children: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.”
More Wisdom Speech in Nephi’s Record
Before leaving our exploration of wisdom affinities in the small plates of Nephi, we should draw our attention to several more obvious parallels with Hebrew wisdom.
The first is in connection with the prosperity promise first recorded by Lehi: “Inasmuch as [they] shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land . . . and they shall dwell safely forever” (2 Nephi 1:9). Notably, Lehi precedes this promise with the explanation that “it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations” (2 Nephi 1:8). When his descendents dwindle in unbelief, having once had great knowledge and power, the Lord will “take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten” (2 Nephi 1:11). Proverbs includes a very similar promise and warning in Proverbs 1:24—33, concluding with the reassurance that “whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely.”
Another parallel is that the classic wisdom motifs of remembering, hearkening, waking, seeing, or hearing are repeated throughout 1 and 2 Nephi and Jacob (and indeed later in the Book of Mormon). In Proverbs, we see it in exhortations such as “forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments” (Proverbs 3:1) and “keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. . . . Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 7:1, 3). The parents urge their son or children to “hear” (e.g., Proverbs 1:5, 8; 4:1), “hearken” (Proverbs 1:33), “receive” (Proverbs 2:1), “incline thine ear” (Proverbs 2:2), “apply thine heart” (Proverbs 2:2), “attend,” and “bow thine ear” (Proverbs 5:1).48 They are prodding their children to hear and see in a different way, with new insight. The speaker of interlude C exclaims, “How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?” (Proverbs 6:9; compare Proverbs 6:4 and 20:12—13).
In the Book of Mormon, Lehi makes frequent use of this call in his testament (2 Nephi 1—4). He begs his sons to “remember,” “hearken unto [his] words,” and “awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell” (2 Nephi 1:12—13). Nephi pleads with his own soul to “awake . . . ! No longer droop in sin” (2 Nephi 4:28). Jacob renews the call in Jacob 3:11: “O my brethren, hearken unto my words; arouse the faculties of your souls; shake yourselves that ye may awake from the slumber of death.” 49 King Benjamin uses similar language in his temple speech, and remembering becomes part of the sacrament prayers. Indeed, Louis Midgley has shown that remembrance is a pervasive theme throughout the Book of Mormon, noting that remembrance in the Book of Mormon is not just the recall of information but “results in action.” 50
Yet another connection in Nephi’s record to the wisdom tradition is admiration of Isaiah, who is often quoted and interpreted by Nephi and Jacob, and later on by other Book of Mormon figures. Isaiah’s writings are certainly not classified as wisdom texts, but William J. Whedbee has made a persuasive case that Isaiah drew extensively on wisdom forms and vocabulary and adapted them for his own teachings.51 He argues that Isaiah’s use of parables and proverbs from nature and empirical experience, his woe oracles, and his use of the term counsel are evidence of wisdom influence. To be sure, Isaiah seems to denounce the “wise men” of his day, but Whedbee claims that “Isaiah . . . borrowed the vocabulary and traditions of wisdom in order to combat the apostasy engendered in part by the royal wise men.” He uses the wisdom tradition to “condemn the ostensibly wise and to defend the true Yahwistic wisdom,”52 which is that “Yahweh was a master counsellor, who always executed his plan with the right method for the right time (Isa. 28:23ff.).”53 Many of the passages Whedbee refers to in Isaiah to prove his points are also quoted in the Book of Mormon.
Nephi and Jacob follow Isaiah’s practice of using wisdom speech to craft a message for their particular problems in their particular setting. It is striking to discover that in connection with his interpretation of Isaiah, Jacob delivers a remarkable wisdom discourse in 2 Nephi 9:28—43, 50—53, which actually helps bolster some of Whedbee’s arguments. Jacob teaches explicitly that the so-called wise who “hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves” are the real fools (2 Nephi 9:28). He teaches clearly that “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). It is also worth noting that Whedbee links the terms counsel or plan used by Isaiah to a very early wisdom tradition regarding the heavenly assembly.54
Jacob launches next into a series of woe indictments (2 Nephi 9:27—38). Whedbee points out that “Isaiah has far and away the greatest concentration of woes of any book in the Old Testament.”55 Though he admits to a “paucity of woe forms in the extant wisdom literature,”56 yet he argues that the woe formula originated in the wisdom tradition and stood as a contrast to the bliss formulas or ašrs (“blessed is he . . .” or “happy is he . . .”) seen in the Psalms and in Proverbs.57 We cannot know if Jacob used his woe statements because he was following the practice of Isaiah or the wisdom tradition in general, but it is remarkable that his list of woes includes warnings to the wise, the rich, the deaf that will not hear, the blind that will not see, the uncircumcised of heart, and others who are blatantly rebellious—all categories of the foolish in the wisdom tradition.58 He follows his indictments with a warning that only those who “consider themselves fools before God” will be admitted through the gate kept by the Holy One (2 Nephi 9:41—42). In an invitation much like Wisdom’s in Proverbs 9:5, which we will return to later, Jacob says: “Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat” (2 Nephi 9:50; compare Isaiah 55:1 and 2 Nephi 26:25).
Finally, before leaving our study of wisdom in the small plates, we should highlight some of the wisdom influences in Jacob’s admonition in Jacob 2—6. I have already indicated that his message is structured in the usual three parts of a classic passage of instructional wisdom: exordium, lesson, and conclusion. After giving advice about the conditions that make seeking riches appropriate and counsel about how to treat the poor (Jacob 2:12—22)—wisdom topics, to be sure—Jacob leaves pride and turns to sexual sin, which is another wisdom theme particularly manifest in Proverbs 1—9, as we discussed earlier. Jacob 4 contains elements reminiscent of Job 28:
How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God. (Jacob 4:8)
Where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? . . . The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. . . . Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air. . . . God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. (Job 28:12, 14, 21, 23)
The Jews . . . sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand. (Jacob 4:14)
Finally, Jacob recounts Zenos’s extensive allegory of the tame and wild olive trees. Use of such an allegory from the natural world is a hallmark of the wisdom tradition. Jacob’s last injunction is wisdom language at its simplest: “O be wise; what can I say more?” (Jacob 6:12).
Wisdom and King Benjamin
It should be clear by now that shared motifs and vocabulary between the small plates and Proverbs 1—9 are numerous and significant. As we move on to Mosiah 1—5, the comparison is only intensified. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks have called this the most eloquent, insightful, and profound speech in sacred literature, aside from the words of Christ himself.59 So genuine similarities between Mosiah 1—5 and Proverbs 1—9 will enrich our understanding of the Book of Mormon, as well as in the other direction, our understanding of Proverbs and its enigmas.
We can begin the comparison by recognizing that King Benjamin’s speech is structured similarly to Proverbs: it is composed of several sections separated by ceremonial breaks or interludes.60
Similar to the prologues of Proverbs and Nephi’s record, the preparation section recounts King Benjamin’s endeavors to teach his sons the mysteries and commandments of God. In both 1 Nephi 1 and Mosiah 1, emphasis is placed on the importance of records to facilitate instruction.
Welch has argued that the number of sections—seven—is significant and has shown how they relate to each other in a chiasmatic pattern.61 However, in comparing King Benjamin’s speech to instructional wisdom, it is useful to adjust the groupings of the sections in order to see that the king’s speech is made up of five instructions, and like the proverbial instructions, all but the last one are tripartite in structure.
In the preparation section, like in Proverbs, Benjamin explicitly addresses his “sons” (Mosiah 1:3, for example). But in the exordia of the following sections, in contrast to Proverbs, King Benjamin addresses his audience not as “sons” but rather as his “brethren” (instructions I, II—Mosiah 2:9, for example), then as his “friends,” “brethren,” “kindred,” and “people” (instruction IV—Mosiah 4:4).62 And though the last section (instruction V) does not include an exordium, the very topic under consideration is the name by which the people shall be called: “Ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters. . . . Whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ must be called by some other name; therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God” (Mosiah 5:7, 10). This is one of many clues that we shall find in King Benjamin’s speech that helps us understand that the instructions of Proverbs 1—9 may have a ritual significance. The “sons” who are urged repeatedly to seek for wisdom may be understood to be the potential “sons of God,” and the father behind the proverbial instructions may be Christ himself or a high priest or king standing in his stead.
Of all the sections of King Benjamin’s speech, the two most readily comparable to Proverbs 1—9 are the parallel sections 2 (of instruction II; Mosiah 2:31—41) and 6 (of instruction IV; Mosiah 4:13—30). But throughout his speech, King Benjamin invokes themes familiar from Proverbs. The chart below samples the similarities.
Composition of Mosiah 1—6:3
|Preparation||1:1—2:8||Successor named and new name to be given; people gathered; tower constructed|
|Section 1||2:9—28||All are indebted to God|
|Break A||2:29—30||Coronation announcement|
|Section 2||2:31—41||Consequences of obedience of disobedience|
|Break B||2:41—3:1||Exhortation to remember and renewal of call to attention|
|Section 3||3:2—10||The angel’s testimony of Christ’s deeds|
|Section 4||3:11—27||Sanctification by the atonement of Christ|
|Break C||3:27—4:4||The people fall to the ground and request application of atoning blood of Christ; the Spirit of the Lord comes; they receive remission and feel joy and peace|
|Section 5||4:4—12||Benjamin’s testimony of God’s goodness|
|Section 6||4:13—30||Righteous behavior of the redeemed|
|Break D||4:30—5:6||Exhortation to remember: covenant response of the people;Benjamin accepts their covenant|
|Section 7||5:6—15||The sons and daughters of God|
|Final acts||6:1—3||Names recorded of all who accepted the name; Mosiah consecrated; priests appointed; people dismissed|
The similarities are so marked that it is not unreasonable to explore a new interpretation of the setting for Proverbs 1—9. Much has been written by Latter-day Saint scholars arguing that the context for King Benjamin’s speech was very likely an ancient Israelite festival or coronation ceremony.63 As Benjamin addresses his people from the temple on the occasion of a festival prescribed by Mosaic law, perhaps we may set the exhortations of Proverbs 1—9 at a similarly solemn place and occasion. The father and at times the mother delivering the instructions could be figurative for the Heavenly King and Queen, or at least for the earthly high priest and priestess, or king (and queen?), standing ceremonially in the place of Yahweh.64 King Benjamin explicitly teaches that those who have been born of Christ are called his sons and daughters (Mosiah 5:7). When the Lord accepts David’s offer to build a temple, the Lord says, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14), another indication that the Lord (or his high priest or priestly king) might address his people as “sons” when speaking to them in or from the temple.65 In such a scenario, the father’s commandment and the mother’s law (Proverbs 6:20) are not just the practical advice of earthly parents but the word of the Lord.
Thematic Similarities Between King Benjamin’s Speech and Proverbs 1—9
|Hearken/Hear/See||“Hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view” (Mosiah 2:9)||“Incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2)|
|Remember||“O remember, remember that these things are true” (Mosiah 2:41)||“My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments” (Proverbs 3:1)|
|Awake||“If the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you” (Mosiah 4:5)||“How long wilt though sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?” (Proverbs 6:4, 9—11; compare Proverbs 20:12—13)|
|Pour out Spirit||“He has poured out his Spirit upon you” (Mosiah 4:20)||“I will pour out my spirit unto you” (Proverbs 1:23)|
|Seek not riches/Gold and silver||I “have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you” (Mosiah 2:12)||“Riches and honour are with me.. . . My fruit is better than gold . . .and my revenue than choice silver”(Proverbs 8:13—19)|
|Prosperity/Safety||“If ye shall keep the commandments . . . of God . . . ye shall prosper in the land” (Mosiah 2:31)||“The upright shall dwell in the land” (Proverbs 2:21)|
|Evil spirit/Contention/Rebellion||If “ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord . . . the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit” (Mosiah 2:36—37)||“When wisdom entereth into thine heart . . . to deliver thee from the way of the evil man, from the man that speaketh froward things . . . who rejoice to do evil” (Proverbs 2:10, 12, 14)|
|Guide on right paths||“That ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths” (Mosiah 2:36)||“I have taught thee in the way of wisdom; I have led thee in right paths” (Proverbs 4:11); the strange woman “forsaketh the guide of her youth, and forgetteth the covenant of her God” (Proverbs 2:17)|
|Happiness/Blessedness/Joy||“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” (Mosiah 4:3)||“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom.. . . Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:13, 17)|
|Seek knowledge of God||If ye “humble yourselves . . . calling on the name of the Lord daily. . . . Ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true” (Mosiah 4:11—12)||“If thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding . . . then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:3, 5)|
|Impart substance to your neighbor||“Ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another” (Mosiah 4:21)||“Withhold not good from them to whom it is due” (Proverbs 3:27)|
Proverbs 9:1—5 Elucidated by King Benjamin’s Speech
With a ritual context in mind, Proverbs 9:1—5 becomes a particularly fascinating passage. The house of Proverbs 9:1 is the temple:
Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.
The pillars could be part of the temple structure.66 They could also be associated with the altar platforms at the temple from which the law was read to the people by the king or another leader on solemn occasions, from which covenants were renewed, and from which dedicatory prayers for the temple were offered (e.g., Exodus 24:4; 1 Kings 8:22; 2 Chronicles 6:13).67 In all cases, the pillars point to the temple and to ritual. These possibilities are bolstered by what follows in Proverbs 9:2—5:
[Wisdom] hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.
The killed beasts refer to cultic sacrifice, and the table, bread, and wine allude to the table of the shewbread and to ritual libations.68 These are temple images. Wisdom is depicted here as a high priestess preparing for ritual and enticing69 all who are spiritually hungry and thirsty to participate.70 She boldly issues her call from the hills or the natural high grounds of the city, which is of course where the temple was located.71 From there she would have given herself great visibility.
Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1—5 is like Moses in Exodus 24:4—12. Moses builds an altar and twelve pillars, offers sacrifice, reads the book of the covenant to the people, sprinkles the blood of the sacrifices on the people as a token of the covenant the Lord has made with them, and then journeys up the mount with the elders of Israel, where they see God and eat and drink. Wisdom’s invitation in Proverbs 9:5 has overtones of the Lord’s invitation to Moses in Exodus 24:12, “Come up to me in the mount,” which precedes the Lord’s command to build a sanctuary.
Wisdom has enlisted “her maidens” to help get the message out. The maidens are messengers, like the servants who are sent to the highways to gather all into the marriage feast in the parable of the wedding of the king’s son (Matthew 22:2—14), or like the servants in Zenos’s vineyard who labor with the Lord to bring forth the most good and precious fruit (Jacob 5:61, 72). More plainly, these messengers are angels and prophets, “the wise” of Proverbs 1:6, sent forth from the heavenly assembly to deliver the words of Christ to all nations.72
The Book of Mormon passages that show the strongest similarities to Proverbs 1—9 in terms of form and content (1 and 2 Nephi, Jacob 2—6, Mosiah 1—5, Alma 36—42) all include an account of the author’s instruction by an angel. The Book of Mormon formula for a wisdom instruction seems to include a description of the personal mystical experience that led to the author’s firm testimony of the material that he is teaching. He never claims himself as the source of knowledge, but always credits his heavenly source.73 In other words, Book of Mormon wisdom teachers claim to have acquired wisdom only as a result of being taught by the Spirit or by the Lord through an angel.
In Proverbs 9:1—5, the theme of finding the mysteries is renewed as Wisdom makes a very public invitation to come feast at her table—a table in the temple. John must have remembered her words in recording Revelation 22:17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
The Spirit and feasting are also paired in 3 Nephi 12:6 and 3 Nephi 20:8—9.74 The tree of life and the bread and waters of life are matched in Alma 5:34: “Yea, [the Lord God] saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely.”
So to sum up, the thematic and literary similarities between Mosiah 1—5 and Proverbs 1—9 lend weight to the possibility that Proverbs 1—9 has ritual significance. The instructions, like King Benjamin’s speech, may have been part of a cultic liturgy that was spoken at an ancient temple ceremony. In this scenario, Wisdom is depicted as a high priestess inviting the spiritually famished to partake of a ritual feast at her temple table—a feast of ordinances, knowledge, and blessings.
When we understand Wisdom as a holy woman at the temple, it becomes clear that the ornament motif of Proverbs 1—9 may be understood to have ritual significance as well. To explore this possibility, let us first review the proverbial passages that refer to ornamentation:
My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck. (Proverbs 1:8—9)
Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: so shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:3—4)
My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: so shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. (Proverbs 3:21—22)
[Wisdom] shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee. (Proverbs 4:9)
My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck. (Proverbs 6:20—21)
My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart. (Proverbs 7:1—3; compare Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18 among Moses’s admonitions to Israel.)
Fox points out that “ornaments and amulets in Deuteronomy signify remembering and treasuring God’s law” and that they can signify not only learning but also its rewards.75 The word ornaments in Proverbs 1:9 and 4:9 is sometimes translated “garland,” chains from Proverbs 1:9 can also be “necklace” or “pendant,” and the crown of Proverbs 4:9 is also “diadem.” They are symbols of favor, honor, and nobility.76 They can be understood to shield the wearer, to provide protection.77 Archaeologists have recently discovered silver foil amulets inscribed with scripture that may have been worn around the neck, a literal fulfillment of these proverbial injunctions.78
But we have yet to explore the cultic significance of these ornaments taking our cue from King Benjamin’s speech that Proverbs 1—9 may be set at the temple or derived from liturgic material. In a temple context, the chains about the neck might compare to the wreathen chains that fastened the high priest’s breastplate to the ephod. Aaron was commanded to “bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually” (Exodus 28:29). The head ornament would be the turban or mitre worn by the high priest, which had the name of the Lord inscribed upon a golden plate attached to the front upon the forehead (Exodus 28:36—37).79 Isaiah associates a “crown of glory”—the same Hebrew phrase as in Proverbs 4:9—with the receipt of a “new name.” Speaking of the gathering of Israel in the last days, he says:
And the Gentiles shall see thy [Zion’s] righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name. Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God. (Isaiah 62:2—3)
In Proverbs 8:15—16, Wisdom declares that “by me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.” A plausible interpretation is that earthly potentates can access wisdom and use it to rule justly.80 But we are unwinding the riddles of Proverbs and can find hidden meaning here, which is that Wisdom elevates righteous souls to receive temple ordinances, to stand as heavenly kings and judges.81 She is an agent of coronation and adoption, bringing righteous souls to stand before God and to be named his sons and daughters, just as King Benjamin did in Mosiah 5:6—12.82 Stephen D. Ricks has shown that the conferral of a new name and divine adoption are two elements of ancient coronation ceremonies.83 He observes that under King Benjamin, “what was once reserved for kings at coronation has now been extended in Nephite culture to the people generally.” 84 What is also remarkable is that in Proverbs 1—9, we see long-forgotten evidence in the Old Testament of this more democratic extension of the blessings of the higher priesthood.
Ammon’s Wisdom Boast
We move now to a comparison of Proverbs 1—9 with later Book of Mormon passages.
Ammon’s psalmlike rejoicing in Alma 2685 employs the wisdom device of an agricultural metaphor: his brothers have been like field workers in delivering converts (sheaves) to the Lord of the Harvest (Alma 26:5—7). Scolded by Aaron for boasting, Ammon defends himself, turning the usual wisdom caution against boasting on its head. “I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom,” he says, but in his God, “for in his strength I can do all things” (Alma 26:11—12). “He has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being, even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe on his name” (Alma 26:35).
Ammon describes his and his brothers’ missionary efforts in much the same terms as Wisdom’s. Even as Wisdom cries “in the streets,” “in the chief places of concourse,” “in the openings of the gates,” and “upon the highest places of the city” (Proverbs 1:20—21; 9:3), so Mosiah’s sons have “taught [the people] in their streets,” “upon their hills,” and in their house, their temples, and their synagogues (Alma 26:29). Their invitation, like Wisdom’s, has been extended democratically to all:
He that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good words, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance. (Alma 26:22)
Alma and Wisdom
Alma also draws from the wisdom tradition in his instructions to the poor among the Zoramites. He begins his discourse with a conditional ashre, or bliss formula, which we saw earlier is a device used in the wisdom literature: “I behold that ye are lowly in heart; and if so, blessed are ye” (Alma 32:8). Because of their humility and poverty (two wisdom virtues), they “may learn wisdom” (v. 12). Much of the rest of Alma’s instruction regards why they and others who humble themselves are thus blessed, and he repeats the ashre with various modifications (vv. 13—16). His lecture on faith begins in verse 21, where he contrasts faith with “perfect knowledge“—a familiar wisdom term. A search for knowledge begins by believing on God’s word, which—of particular importance in light of our earlier discussions—comes from angels: “He imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned” (Alma 32:23).
One begins to experiment upon the word by awaking and arousing one’s faculties (v. 27). Then Alma launches into his famous seed analogy. As we have said, use of analogies from nature is a tactic often used in wisdom teachings, and the comparison of the acquisition of knowledge to the ingestion of precious fruit from a tree that springs up unto everlasting life is most clearly an allusion to the tree of life (Alma 32:28—43). Interestingly, shortly afterward, Alma quotes from Zenos, the author of the Book of Mormon’s other extended metaphor from nature in Jacob 5 (Alma 33:3—11).
Alma’s counsel to his sons is not set at his death, yet this text can surely be classified as a patriarchal admonition. Not surprisingly, it is filled with wisdom elements.
He first directs his instructions to his son Helaman in Alma 36—37.86 Alma reiterates the prosperity promise that was given originally by Lehi in his testament (2 Nephi 1:9). He asserts that none of his knowledge came by his own faculties, but rather from the Spirit of God as a result of his rebirth experience. He recounts his own life-changing mystical experience, telling the story of his conversion by the angel who began his rebuke with the word arise (Alma 36:8). He describes the horror he felt because of his iniquities and the terror of being “encircled” by the “chains of death” (Alma 36:11—18), then contrasts this with the joy that came to him when he appealed to Jesus for mercy (Alma 36:20—21). His experience culminates in a throne vision much like Lehi’s (v. 22).
Alma’s account is an example story—its retelling offers a vicarious experience of the horrors and joys known personally to Alma and thus a visceral imprint of his testimony. He expresses his gratitude that his people were brought out of Jerusalem and captivity and reiterates the prosperity promise before turning over the records to Helaman. Alma says that they are sacred and are being preserved for a wise purpose (Alma 37:2). He contrasts foolishness with wisdom, mentions mysteries and the knowledge of Jesus Christ, invokes the path motif, and enjoins Helaman to remember (Alma 37:6—13). “Learn wisdom in thy youth,” he says, “yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God” (37:35), reminding us of Wisdom’s promise in Proverbs 8:17 that “those that seek me early shall find me.” As Nephi did in his final admonition (“pray always,” 2 Nephi 32:9), Alma exhorts Helaman to “counsel with the Lord in all thy doings” (Alma 37:37).
Then come instructions for Alma’s next son, Shiblon, in Alma 38. Alma formulaically reiterates the prosperity promise (v. 1) and then makes mention of the joy that Shiblon has brought Alma because of his steadiness (vv. 2—4). He recaps the angel’s visit (vv. 7—8). “See that ye do not boast in your own wisdom,” says Alma in 38:11. He then offers typical wisdom advice of a more practical nature: “Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness” (Alma 38:12).
Last comes Corianton in Alma 39—42, who has boasted of his own wisdom (39:2; compare Proverbs 3:5: “Lean not unto thine own understanding”). Alma teaches that denying the Holy Ghost is unpardonable and that it is difficult to be forgiven of murdering “against the light and knowledge of God” (Alma 39:6). Corianton has allowed himself to be distracted from the ministry by a prostitute. Like the parent in Proverbs, Alma takes up the wisdom warning against sexual sin. He sternly rebukes his son for allowing “the devil to lead away [his] heart after harlots” (39:11; compare Proverbs 7:6—27, especially v. 25: “Let not thine heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths“). “Seek not after riches” (Alma 39:14), adds Alma, which we can compare to Proverbs 2:4—5: “If thou seekest [knowledge] as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” Alma gives Corianton further instruction that he received himself from an angel (40:11) about the resurrection and the plan of mercy.
The patriarchal admonition of Helaman, Alma the Younger’s grandson, is recorded in part in Helaman 5:5—13. He exhorts his sons to “remember to keep the commandments,” using the word remember six times in verse 6 alone. He wants them to “lay up for [them]selves a treasure in heaven,” even “that precious gift of eternal life” (Helaman 5:8). He wants them to remember that there is “no other way” besides “the atoning blood of Jesus Christ” (Helaman 5:9).
Mormon uses wisdom speech in an extended editorial in Helaman 12. The Nephites have sunk into wickedness after a period of prosperity. He laments:
O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and how devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world! Yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride; yea, how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths! Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide. (Helaman 12: 4—6)
Notice that the personification of wisdom, which we discussed earlier, is still in use as a device nearly a millennium after Lehi’s family left Jerusalem and their immersion in preexilic Hebrew wisdom conventions.
Mormon then dwells on the power of God in the natural world and in judgment, which is strikingly like the wisdom passage in Job 28. He ends with an ashre (“blessed are they who will repent and hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God;
for these are they that shall be saved,” Helaman 12:23), contrasting eternal life with everlasting damnation.
Samuel and Wisdom
Samuel the Lamanite draws from the wisdom tradition as well. He appeals to the authority of an angelic declaration (Helaman 13:7). Preaching from the high walls of the city, he presents an image of Wisdom herself, rebuking the people from the high places for not remembering the Lord, but rather for remembering their riches with “great pride, unto boasting” (Helaman 13:22), “walk[ing] after the pride of [their] own hearts” (Helaman 13:27; compare Proverbs 1:20—33; 9:3). They have chosen to follow “foolish and blind guides” (Helaman 13:29) rather than true prophets (13:24, 26, 33). Samuel alternates woe invectives with bliss promises (Helaman 13:11—16). The primary curse he delivers is that the wicked who “shall hide up treasures in the earth shall find them again no more” (Helaman 13:18). Compare Wisdom’s curse that “the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them” (Proverbs 1:32).
Samuel preaches of Christ’s coming, and his list of natural disasters at the time of Jesus’s death once again is reminiscent of Job 28. Though he pronounces a woe upon the people of Nephi (Helaman 14:3), yet the “more part” of the Lamanites are in the “path of their duty” and “do observe to keep his commandments” (Helaman 15:5). Samuel promises that “in the day of [the Lord’s] wisdom,” the Lamanites “shall again be brought to the true knowledge, which is the knowledge of their Redeemer, and their great and true shepherd, and be numbered among his sheep” (Helaman 15:16, 13).
The Book of Mormon and the Lost Wisdom Theology
Turning from an analysis of individual passages within the Book of Mormon to a reflection on the Book of Mormon as a whole, it becomes apparent that the record represents a strand of Hebrew religious thought that is underplayed in the Old Testament.
There has been a persistent trend, until recently, to dismiss the biblical wisdom literature (temporarily broadening our discussion from only Proverbs 1—9) as theologically illegitimate. Murphy discusses this trend in detail.87 The embarrassment of the wisdom texts for many scholars is that they stand at odds with the more predominate model of faith in the rest of the Old Testament—that is, that God’s character and will is revealed through the series of events that is Israel’s history and through his interactions with prophets acting as national leaders. The wisdom literature, on the other hand, is concerned with mundane, everyday human experience, such as the correct attitude toward mealtime (Ecclesiastes 2:24), drunkenness and gluttony (Proverbs 23:20—21), and discretion in speech (Proverbs 21:23), just to give a few examples. These scholars see the wisdom literature as, at worst, “secular or profane,”88 or at best, an unusual form of mainstream Israelite belief created in order to “discuss both the multiplicity of trivial, daily occurrences as well as basic theological principles.”89
Murphy, for his part, points out that the wisdom experience itself was historical, even as it describes Israel encountering her creator in everyday events:
In the smaller concrete details of life one found innumerable situations that called for attitudes, actions, and decisions that ultimately had a profound effect on the individual. This sphere was not felt to be withdrawn from the Lord and his activity; God was as much at work here as in the heady experiences of Israel’s history and liturgical worship.90
The [wisdom] sages penetrated into the divine mystery in a manner that even the prophets never equaled. God drew the people, through their daily experience of themselves and creation, into the mystery of God’s dealings with each individual human being.91
For Murphy, “wisdom literature provides a biblical model for understanding divine revelation apart from the historical mode (salvation history) in which it is usually cast. . . . [In the wisdom literature], it is the dialogical relationship with God in which a faith response occurs, through God’s free and gracious communication.” 92
Democratic Dialogic Revelation in Hebrew Wisdom Literature and in the Book of Mormon
Such a dialogic relationship of each individual with God concerning all aspects of life—which is, for many, an unnoticed or unwelcome stepchild in the Old Testament canon—is adopted by the Book of Mormon, where it flourishes. Terryl Givens has suggested that it “may well be the Book of Mormon’s most significant and revolutionary—as well as controversial—contribution to religious thinking.” 93
Givens shows that the Book of Mormon, “through chiastic form, thematic structure, numerous textual examples, and a final, concluding instance of readerly invitation . . . hammers home the insistent message that revelation is the province of everyman.” 94 The individual’s dialogic relationship with God, I would point out, is vastly more explicit—more “plain”—in the Book of Mormon than it is in the wisdom literature. Of particular note for our discussion is Givens’s review of 1 Nephi, where Nephi repeatedly seeks knowledge from God “for personal, rather than public, edification,” is “commended, not reproved” for doing so, and where he and his family receive knowledge from the voice of the Lord, or the Spirit, or angels, often in a personal appearance.95 Givens says that the Book of Mormon depicts “a kind of egalitarian access to truths that range from the sublime to the mundane, from principles of salvation to advice on prime hunting grounds,” 96 not unlike the truths we find cherished in the wisdom literature. In summary, Givens claims that the Book of Mormon’s moral “seems to be the indispensability of personal revelation as a key to spiritual survival.” 97 While this may not be obvious in all of the wisdom literature, it is precisely and explicitly the point of Proverbs 1—9.
I have made the case that Wisdom’s very public beckoning is not only to urge individuals to obtain personal revelation, but also to seek the higher priesthood blessings of cosmic coronation or apotheosis. There is no other instance in the Old Testament of such an invitation. On the contrary, searching for knowledge is censured (Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God”), and the priesthood is restricted to Levites. But Wisdom’s democratic invitation is entirely consistent with the doctrine of Alma 13, where a call to be ordained a high priest “after the order of his Son” (v. 2) like Melchizedek (v. 14), is extended not on the basis of lineage or social status (or even gender, possibly), but only on terms of faith, repentance, and good works (vv. 3, 10). Qualified initiates are “sanctified by the Holy Ghost,” are made “pure,” and “[enter] into the rest of the Lord their God” (v. 12).98
The Lost Wisdom Tradition in the Book of Mormon
I have shown that scholars such as Whedbee and Murphy see a theology inherent in the wisdom tradition that is every bit as valid as the salvation history apparent in other Old Testament books and that is consistent with it. God is found in the everyday as well as in the epic events of Israel’s past. While there may have been tension at times between the wise man and the prophet, the prophet felt at home with wisdom and was quick to appropriate wisdom speech, borrowing its devices and concepts to reprove the learned from straying from their own tradition.
Margaret Barker makes a different argument about the validity of extant wisdom texts. Reviewing McKane, Whybray, and von Rad, she argues that the apparent secularism of much of the wisdom literature is imposed on it by later redactors. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah at times attack the wise men as a secular force opposed to divine rule, yet given what is extant of the wisdom texts, Barker wonders why anyone would want “to fulminate against the purveyors of the harmless platitudes which now form the Book of Proverbs.” 99 Something is missing, and the words of the sages cannot be trusted, nor can the attitude of the prophets toward them be fully understood.100 Instead, using the pseudepigraphal books of Enoch and careful textual analysis of the Old Testament’s inconsistencies and silences, Barker reconstructs the wisdom theology of the preexilic period.
According to Barker, wisdom was an “all-encompassing knowledge of all things such that they could be controlled, or even created.”101 Revelation of such knowledge was given in a mystical experience to a chosen person by an angel. The fundamental aspect of the experience was “the vision of God and the heavenly court.”102 The chosen one was transformed into a divine being and receives eternal life and power, even power over creation. Wisdom was closely associated with the temple, the monarchy, and the ancient Melchizedek priesthood. Knowledge itself was never condemned, but only its misuse. The wisdom tradition included an angel mythology of righteous and fallen angels. The Most High God was El, father of the host (the angels), and the greatest angel was Yahweh.103 There was a divine woman as well, Wisdom, “the archetypal angel high priest.”104
Barker argues that evidence of this tradition was deliberately suppressed from much of the Old Testament by a group of reformers known as the Deuteronomists.105 Although they acquired the dominant influence over the canonical texts, the older cult lived on as an extrabiblical tradition and provided a foundation for the emergence of Christianity.
The suppression of the ancient wisdom tradition had its roots in the late seventh century BC during the reform of Josiah.106 Lehi lived during part of this reform and in the short period before the exile when it partially unraveled.107 Kevin Christensen has comprehensively reviewed Barker’s reconstruction of the lost wisdom mythos and compared it with Book of Mormon theology. He has found numerous and pervasive correspondences. 108 Indeed, Book of Mormon prophets seem to have been clearly aware of the tension Isaiah and Jeremiah felt toward the so-called wise.109 Like the Old Testament prophets, Nephi and Lehi warned that the Lord would take away knowledge if it was rejected. Christensen shows that Jacob in particular seems to have known what would be lost, and therefore he testified specifically of these things in his temple admonition.110
Christensen’s analyses confirm that the influence of the lost wisdom tradition as reconstructed by Barker on Book of Mormon writers extends far beyond literary similarities. It is evident in fundamental Book of Mormon theology, with its testimonies of angel instruction, throne theophanies, claims of power over creation (e.g., Jacob 4:6: “We truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea”), temple themes and practices, prophecies of things to come, and teachings about Christ and the plan of redemption. I urge the reader to review my study alongside Christensen’s analyses for the fullest picture of wisdom in the Book of Mormon.
Both the Book of Mormon and Proverbs 1—9 have been hidden from the world for centuries—Proverbs 1—9 because of its enigmatic disguise, the world’s eyes open to its deciphering only after the discovery of the Book of Mormon from its literal hiding place in the earth and the restoration of the ancient gospel that followed.
The Latter-day Saint temple liturgy, a fundamental aspect of the restoration, represents our journey back into God’s presence. To be with him and feel his love, to stand confidently before him with our earthly families, is the greatest joy we could feel and the sweetest fruit of which we could ever partake. In Proverbs, Wisdom begs for us to promptly seek this blessing—to seek the mysteries of God and eternal life. In turn, the authors of the Book of Mormon face our way, telling their stories, adding their witnesses, teaching us wisdom, coaxing us onto the shining path. From the Book of Mormon, Wisdom calls to us in the voices of ancient American prophets.
How did Book of Mormon Prophets Become Familiar with Wisdom Speech?
The Exposure of Lehi’s Family to Hebrew Wisdom
We know that Nephi was an accomplished writer and poet. John Welch has elucidated the elaborate chiasms he constructed for 1 and 2 Nephi.111 Nephi’s work, as well as the teachings of his father Lehi and his brother Jacob included on the small plates, also demonstrate an intimate familiarity with the forms, themes, and terminology of the wisdom school, particularly the genre of instructional wisdom that we are studying in Proverbs 1—9. They clearly drew on these riches, adapting them for their family and posterity in the New World.
How were these men exposed to wisdom texts, and in what setting did Nephi in particular develop his literary skills? He says that he was “taught somewhat in all the learning of [his] father” and that he wrote “in the language of [his] father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:1—2). Did Lehi teach his sons himself? Perhaps Nephi was instructed by a hired tutor or attended a wisdom school.112 The evidence is strong that wisdom was an established, or rightly ancient, tradition in Israel by this time.113 Lehi and his family, as upper-class members of their culture, may well have been simply steeped in sapiential thought and literature, perhaps even scripture. As has become apparent in our discussions above, Lehi, as a Melchizedek Priesthood holder, may also have been exposed to wisdom words and images in association with any temple duties he may have had.
We know from the account of the retrieval of the brass plates from Laban (1 Nephi 3—5) that sacred records were engraved on metal, perhaps because the political turmoil of Lehi’s time drove a commitment to transfer important documents to metal plates for long-term preservation.114 Moreover, silver foil amulets have been found dating from Lehi’s time on which scripture is recorded. These seem to have been worn on a cord around the neck, possibly in adherence to the admonition in Proverbs to “bind [the commandments and the law] continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck” (Proverbs 6:20—22).115 If Nephi and Lehi were metalsmiths, as John Tvedtnes has proposed,116 they could have been suppliers of such rolls or plates. If so, they would have played a key role in a practice, now little understood, that is alluded to in the wisdom literature.
These speculations are not verifiable, but we may still be able to deduce that Lehi and Nephi had exposure to the same tradition or documents that comprise or underlie the Hebrew instructional wisdom of the Old Testament, and through them, future Book of Mormon prophets did as well.
The Brass Plates
The only ancient document that we can be sure that Lehi and Nephi read is the brass plates. By the time Lehi’s family fled Jerusalem, they were literally willing to give their gold and silver and to risk their lives to obtain these writings. They were thus blessed by their pursuit of the word of the Lord over riches as promised in Proverbs 3:13—14: “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding, for the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.” After Lehi and Nephi had perused the plates to discover their contents, Nephi says they “found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children.” His testimony is worded appropriately: “It was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us, as we journeyed in the wilderness towards the land of promise” (1 Nephi 5:21—22).
The brass plates must have preserved not only the commandments, but also the literary conventions of Hebrew recorders of scripture, possibly including the wisdom tradition. Nephi’s listing of their contents (1 Nephi 5:10—16) does not include mention of any known wisdom texts, nor for that matter any of the poetic books now known as the Old Testament Writings, which encompass Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and sometimes the Song of Songs. Perhaps the writings of Zenos, Zenock, or Neum were wisdom texts.117 As I showed above, Isaiah, so influential to Book of Mormon scribes, drew heavily on the wisdom tradition.118 It seems probable that Lehi and Nephi studied wisdom documents before they left Jerusalem, and in bringing the brass plates, it is possible that they made ancient wisdom texts accessible to their descendants as well.
Other Book of Mormon Prophets
Both King Benjamin and Mormon, writing hundreds of years after Lehi left Jerusalem, use a literary device peculiar to the wisdom literature that Nephi does not—the personification of wisdom. The records of these and other Book of Mormon prophets evidence other sapiential influences as well, as I have explored. Their familiarity with wisdom could have come from Nephi’s small plates, Lehi’s writings on the large plates, which we do not have today, or uncodified or unpublished liturgical materials. They may also have been influenced by sources on the brass plates.
Wisdom as Revelatory Form
Another important possibility to explain the evidence of Hebrew wisdom in the Book of Mormon is that the Lord himself reveals truth using forms and categories familiar from the wisdom tradition. The reappearance of these forms across great spans of distance and time may not only indicate that prophets assimilate them as they study the writings of past generations when available, but also that they encounter them freshly when they receive firsthand the ordinances, visions, and knowledge that the Lord also granted to wise men in earlier times. This possibility bespeaks a consistency on the part of the Lord, a constant reinforcement of his teachings using the same images and words across the aeons, adapted to the understandings and circumstances of his children throughout the world. A study of wisdom forms in the Doctrine and Covenants would shed even more light on this idea.
I am grateful to Kevin Christensen and John Tvedtnes for inspiration, encouragement, and suggestions. I am also deeply appreciative of Jennifer Baird, who arranged many playdates for my children at her home so that I could be sure they would be happy and well loved while I was writing this paper.
1. Compare Doctrine and Covenants 6:7.
2. For a survey and brief analysis of Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom documents, see James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 205—26; or Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 151—79.
3. Old Testament wisdom studies surged after the publication of Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM Press,1972) by the eminent Protestant theologian Gerhard von Rad. Other major studies during this time period include William McKane’s Proverbs: A New Approach (London: SCM Press, 1970) and Prophets and Wise Men (London: SCM Press, 1965); and R. N. Whybray’s The Book of Proverbs (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972). For more recent analyses of Old Testament wisdom, superb sources are Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (which includes a concise survey of recent wisdom scholarship in the introduction); Michael V. Fox’s Anchor Bible commentary, Proverbs 1—9: A New Translation and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000); and Murphy, Tree of Life.
4. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 5, 64.
5. Murphy, Tree of Life, 24.
6. 1 Kings 4:29—34; Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1.
7. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 48—49. Fox’s possible Hellenistic dating derives from Greek influences that he finds in Proverbs 8.
8. The composition given here is from Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 44—47, although he uses the term lecture for the main discourses. I prefer the term instruction because lecture connotes a one-way discourse, whereas similar Book of Mormon texts, to which I will be applying the term, sometimes involve interaction between the teacher (father, king, priest, or angel) and those being taught.
9. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 258.
10. Murphy, Tree of Life, 16.
11. John Tvedtnes has identified the patriarchal admonitions in the Book of Mormon and compared them with Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and other wisdom passages in pseudepigraphical texts in an unpublished paper, “Patriarchal Admonitions.”
12. Beginning at 2 Nephi 25:4, Nephi’s admonition starts with an exordium and continues with an extended lesson and testament. It ends first with a false conclusion (2 Nephi 31:21) but then is followed by an addendum (2 Nephi 32) and a final conclusion (2 Nephi 33:10—15).
Although Jacob’s discourse in 2 Nephi 6—10 is recognizably divisible into at least three parts, John S. Thompson has shown in finer detail that it follows the basic six-part covenant/treaty pattern of the ancient Near East. He also suggests that it represents “a prophetic imitation” of the liturgy associated with preexilic autumn festivals. See Thompson, “Isaiah 50—51, the Israelite Autumn Festivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6—10,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 123—50. This understanding of the setting for Jacob’s sermon, joined with a similar understanding of King Benjamin’s sermon—which we will explore below—and an observation of the sapiential elements in both, might lead us to the conclusion that wisdom speech was a form of expression deriving from the ancient temple cult. I will explore a related argument in greater detail below.
13. That Proverbs 1—9 partially expressed this formula first occurred to me after reading John Tvedtnes’s comparison of 1 Nephi 1:1—4 and Mosiah 1:2—6. See Tvedtnes, “A Note on Benjamin and Lehi,” Insights 22/11 (2002): 3.
14. See the pseudepigraphal Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, chapter 4 of Tobit, and Sentences of the Syriac Menander for other patriarchal admonitions. Tvedtnes’s “Patriarchal Admonitions” includes a study of these texts as well as a discussion of patriarchal admonitions in the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
15. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 55.
16. For a discussion of Solomon as a sage, see Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 35—44.
17. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 64.
18. The later wisdom text Sirach understood that proverbs and parables hid divine mysteries. See Sirach
39:2—3, and, for a discussion, Raymond E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 9—10.
19. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 65.
20. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 66.
21. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 66—67.
22. Daniel C. Peterson has written at length about the divine assembly in ” ‘Ye Are Gods’: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 471—594. John Welch has shown that Lehi’s admission to this council in 1 Nephi 1 (his vision of God sitting upon his throne) would have given him all the qualifications that would have been expected in the ancient world for an authentic claim to authority. See John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 427—29.
23. 1 Kings 22:19—22; Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1—3; Daniel 7; Amos 3:7; Job 15:8. See Peterson, “Ye Are Gods,” 500.
24. “Froward” is the translation of the root lwz, which can mean “to depart, to go crooked, or to be lost from view.” This is an image that also appears in Nephi’s dream; see below.
25. Sod is also used in Proverbs 11:13.
26. Peterson, ” Ye Are Gods, ” 507.
27. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet,” 435. See Brown, Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery.”
28. Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8—23,” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 194—200.
29. See generally Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990); Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 227—61; Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah.”
30. Alternatively, her appearance in a postexilic text could be evidence that monotheism was not universally accepted. Or it could be evidence that the text is not postexilic.
31. These are technical terms. An emanation is very broadly a manifestation of (otherwise transcendent) God in the world in such a way as to be apprehended by mankind. The spirit, the word, and the Shechinah are examples that non—Latter-day Saint scholars might give. A hypostasis is a concept or abstract quality that has developed into a deity; for example, in the Egyptian religion, the god Sia is a hypostasis of perception.
32. For example, Murphy, Tree of Life, 133.
33. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 334—38. Fox refutes the possibility that she was modeled on Ishtar or Ma’at but is tempted by comparisons to Isis in her late, Greek form. But the Hellenistic Isis religion did not spread abroad until the late third century BC, so Fox points out that dating presents an impediment to this hypothesis.
34. The term is Fox’s, Proverbs 1—9, 331. An inchoate personification is “where person-metaphors are used in passing but not developed as figures.”
35. îokmāh, the Hebrew word most often behind the English translation “wisdom,” is a feminine noun and thus requires feminine pronouns in Hebrew. The English noun, however, is neuter, and usually takes the genderless pronoun it.
36. “The love of God” in English can be a double entendre. In this context, it could mean a feeling of love from or about God. It could also refer to the person whom God loves, in the same way that I might say that my husband is “my love.” My thanks to Kevin Christensen for making this observation.
37. There seems to be wordplay in Proverbs 3:18, where the promise is made that those who find the tree of life will be happy. The word ašrē, here translated as “happy” and elsewhere as “blessed,” comes from the root <šr and underlies the word asherah as well (Peterson, “Nephi and his Asherah,” 212). See also Proverbs 8:32, 34. Bliss formulas (happy is the man . . . blessed is he . . .) are sometimes called ashres.
38. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 260 n. 177.
39. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 128-29.
40. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, as noted by Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 129 n. 115.
41. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 130.
42. Mack C. Stirling, “The Way of Life and the Way Death in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (1997): 153. Stirling notes a similar dualism in certain Dead Sea Scroll texts and in the writings of John but does not mention earlier wisdom texts (p. 194). He believes that this dualistic perception of reality was revealed to the prophets by God (p. 193).
43. Stirling, “Way of Life,” 152.
44. Stirling, “Way of Life,” 188, emphasis in original.
45. For a nuanced explanation of the Holy Ghost’s role before baptism, see Dallin H. Oaks, “Always Have His Spirit,” Ensign, November 1996, 59—61, especially p. 60, where he says that “manifestations of the Holy Ghost are given to lead sincere seekers to gospel truths that will persuade them to repentance and baptism,” after which they receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
46. Wisdom is associated with the word of God in other texts as well. See, for example, Sirach 19:20. In medieval Jewish kabbalistic lore, the feminine presence of God, the Shechinah/Matronit, was also linked with the Torah. She was said to dwell with those who studied the Law. See, for example, Patai, Hebrew Goddess, 145.
47. Peterson, “Ye Are Gods,” 499—504.
48. These injunctions often occur in the exordia as calls to attention.
49. For a discussion about how Lehi’s admonitions impact the teachings of his son Jacob, including use of the call to awake, see John A. Tvedtnes, “The Influence of Lehi’s Admonitions on the Teachings of His Son Jacob,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/2 (1994): 34—48.
50. Louis Midgley, “The Ways of Remembrance,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 169. See also Midgley, ” ‘To Remember and Keep’: On the Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Disciple as Scholar, 95—137.
51. See generally William J. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971).
52. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom, 147.
53. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom, 145.
54. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom, 112—13, citing Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 162, and others.
55. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom, 80.
56. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom, 85.
58. For example, Psalms 106:3; 41:1; Proverbs 3:13; 8:34. See also Isaiah 3:10—11 and Ecclesiastes 10:16—17.See Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom, 87—90.
58. John W. Welch has compared Jacob’s ten woes with the Ten Commandments. See Welch, “Counting to Ten,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003): 49.
59. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), ix.
60. John W. Welch, “Parallelism and Chiasmus in Benjamin’s Speech,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 326—27. Welch thoroughly analyzes the chiasmus that characterizes the composition of the speech. The composition given here is Welch’s, with the exception of the groupings into instructions, which is mine.
61. Welch, “Parallelism and Chiasmus,” 373—76.
62. The angel’s exordium, instruction III, does not include a direct address, but does include a call to attention
(“awake, and hear”) and a motivation (“that [thy people] may also be filled with joy”). See Mosiah 3:2—4.
63. For example, Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 147—223; Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1—6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 233—75; and John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 2 vols., ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197—237.
64. Kevin Christensen describes research finding that during certain periods of the monarchy, the king was also the high priest in the temple and as such represented Yahweh himself. See “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004), 59—90. On another note, I think it is significant that in modern Latter-day Saint tradition, the wife of the temple president is known as the temple matron. In Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), the feminine counterpart of God, the King, is the Matronit. This pair is delegated the task of caring for mankind by their supernal parents (Patai, Hebrew Goddess, 128—30). TheMatronit, also known as the Shechinah, is surely a memory of the ancient Hebrew Goddess (Patai, Hebrew
65. For more on divine adoption, see Ricks, “Kingship,” 253—54.
66. The two pillars of Solomon’s temple had seven meshwork decorations (1 Kings 7:17). Two pillars found in the temple at Arad may have stood for Yahweh and Asherah (Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” 197).
67. Ricks explains that pillars are associated with the coronation of new kings and served as a place by or from which the king or another leader on solemn occasions would read the law to the people in “Kingship,” 244—47. See also Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” 205—7. Tvedtnes shows how pillars are often erected as tokens of a covenant in the Old Testament (Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” 200, 231 n. 26).
68. Since King Benjamin’s instruction seems to have been associated with the harvest festival, these sacrifices and drink offerings may even be connected with the special sacrifices associated with the feast of the harvest as well. See Numbers 29:12—39.
69. Compare Mosiah 3:19.
70. Perhaps there is some connection to the cakes for the queen of heaven and the drink offerings of Jeremiah
71. Jeremiah also delivered his message from the temple court (Jeremiah 7:2). See John W. Welch, “The Trial of Jeremiah: A Legal Legacy from Lehi’s Jerusalem,” in Glimpses, 339—41. If Proverbs 1—9 or its textual/rhetorical antecedents are dated from before the exile, as I am suggesting, they may have had influence on Jeremiah, or vice versa. Samuel the Lamanite also spoke from high places—the city walls (Helaman 13:4).
72. Also compare 2 Nephi 32:3; Alma 12:29; 13:22—27; 32:23; Moroni 7:2—23; and Moses 5:58. Accordingly, the seven pillars of Proverbs 9:1 could also represent the seven dispensations, signifying Wisdom’s invitation to all nations in all dispensations.
73. See, for example, Alma 5:46; 38:6; Helaman 7:29.
74. Also compare Isaiah 55:1, 10—11.
75. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 84.
76. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 84, 176.
77. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 176.
78. Dana M. Pike, “Israelite Inscriptions from the Time of Jeremiah and Lehi,” in Glimpses, 213—15.
79. See also Barker, Great High Priest, 138—39.
80. Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 274.
81. Compare Doctrine and Covenants 76:52—59.
82. Note that King Benjamin urged his people to “retain the name written always in your hearts” (Mosiah 5:12), much like Proverbs 3:3 and 6:21. Compare Jeremiah 31:31—34, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah . . . I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.”
83. The conferral of a new name and divine adoption are still part of modern coronation ceremonies for monarchs and the pope.
84. Ricks, “Kingship,” 254.
85. My thanks to S. Kent Brown for drawing my attention to this passage; he treats it in greater detail in Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights (American Fork, UT: Covenant, 2004), 119—20.
86. John W. Welch has discovered a beautiful chiasm in Alma 36 that helps emphasize the contrasts of Alma’s condition before and after he cries to Jesus for mercy. See Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering, 114—31.
87. Murphy, Tree of Life, 121—26.
88. C. Westermann, as quoted in Murphy, Tree of Life, 122.
89. Von Rad, as quoted in Murphy, Tree of Life, 122.
90. Murphy, Tree of Life, 124.
91. Murphy, Tree of Life, 125.
92. Murphy, Tree of Life, 126.
93. Terryl L. Givens, “The Book of Mormon and Dialogic Revelation,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/2 (2001): 21—22.
94. Givens, “Dialogic Revelation,” 21.
95. Givens, “Dialogic Revelation,” 23.
96. Givens, “Dialogic Revelation,” 24.
97. Givens, “Dialogic Revelation,” 24.
98. For a lengthy discussion of this passage, see John W. Welch, “The Melchizedek Material in Alma 13:13—19,” in By Study and Also by Faith, 2:238—72. He says, “For Alma, Melchizedek is . . . an example of the fact that all men can receive the same knowledge and authority that made Melchizedek great” (p. 263). See also Daniel Peterson’s discussion of New Testament instances of promises of exaltation for the righteous in “Ye Are Gods,” 516—28. See especially pages 524—25, where Peterson quotes one scholar as saying, “Paul’s understanding of salvation involves a rather astounding (at least to modern ears) scheme of ‘mass apotheosis.'”
99. Margaret Barker, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult of Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1987), 90.
100. Barker, Older Testament, 81—103.
101. Barker, Older Testament, 279.
102. Barker, Older Testament, 148.
103. Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 4—7; 71—72.
104. Barker, Great High Priest, 238.
105. Barker, Older Testament, 142—60. For discussions of the Deuteronomists, see William J. Doorly, Obsession with Justice: The Story of the Deuteronomists (New York: Paulist Press, 1994); and Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (San Francisco: Harper, 1997). For a Latter-day Saint application, see Christensen, “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament”; or Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses, 449—522.
106. Margaret Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?” in Glimpses, 523—42.
107. Kevin Christensen, “The Temple,” 450.
108. See generally Kevin Christensen, Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001); and Christensen, “The Temple.”
109. Stuart Weeks has sharply criticized the arguments of wisdom scholars who claim that there was a distinct class of professional wise men associated with the court, and that the tradition they nurtured was originally secular (Stuart Weeks, Early Israelite Wisdom [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999]). Scrutinizing citations in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, Weeks claims that there is no basis for such an assumption; on the contrary, he says that “wisdom is associated with God and with divine inspiration on a number of occasions” (p. 89). Studying Jeremiah 18:18, Weeks says, “It is in their role as sources of divine guidance, not as representatives of the establishment, which unites the priest, the wise man, and the prophet in Jer. 18. 18” (p. 89). Rather, “wise men” describes a variety of individuals who give advice based on, or otherwise take comfort in, instruction from God, even though that instruction has become false or corrupt. Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s warnings that counsel from God has been withdrawn or will be withdrawn is intolerable to the people. “Although they can bear to hear about Yahweh’s anger and judgment, the idea that he might abandon them altogether is provocative beyond endurance” and leads to Jeremiah’s death (p. 89). Book of Mormon prophets never speak of a class of wise men, but rather, they speak generally of “those wise in their own eyes” (2 Nephi 15:21, cf. Isaiah 5:21). The possible exception is the priests of King Noah, who do seem to represent a class of religious advisors to the king, and whose duty is also to teach the people. Perhaps their functions had been modeled after the administrative practices of preexilic Jerusalem. Noah gathers them to advise him about what to do with Abinadi (Mosiah 12:17). Abinadi says to them, “Are you priests, and pretend to teach this people, and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desire to know of me what these things mean? I say unto you, wo be unto you for perverting the right ways of the Lord! For if ye understand these things ye have not taught them; therefore, ye have perverted the ways of the Lord. Ye have not applied your hearts to understanding; therefore, ye have not been wise” (Mosiah 12:25—27). Compare Proverbs 1:5: “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.” Also compare Jeremiah 6:16: “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.”
110. Christensen, “The Temple,” 502—4.
111. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis, ed. John W. Welch (1981; repr., Provo, UT: Research Press, 1999), 198—210.
112. Scholars hotly debate the question of whether or not there was a class of professional sages or wisdom schools in preexilic Jerusalem. They agree that wisdom originated anciently and was passed on in a family setting. As educational institutions developed, they may have been associated with the court (see Proverbs 25:1, which mentions “the men of Hezekiah” collecting the proverbs). Wisdom schools are known later in Israel. For example, the sage Sirach, writing in the second century BC, urges the reader to attend his own house of study (Sirach 51:23) and elevates the scribal profession (Sirach 39:1—11). There is positive evidence of royal scribal schools in Egypt at the time of Lehi and Nephi, but it is not clear if Lehi or Nephi would have had access to such an institution in Jerusalem as youths pursuing their education. For a discussion of Hebrew wisdom institutions, see Fox, Proverbs 1—9, 6—12.
113. Isaiah especially, but also Jeremiah, both preexilic prophets, use wisdom speech to criticize the wise. See Isaiah 5:19—24; 10:13—19; 19:11—13; 29:14—16; 30:1—5; 31:1—3; and Jeremiah 49:7 (Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 21, 31 n. 8). Kevin Christensen has reviewed the evidence that Josiah’s reform, with its emphasis on law and history, played out in Lehi’s lifetime, so it was relatively new when Lehi’s family left Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic reform—apparently hostile to wisdom—postdates the exile (Christensen, Paradigms Regained, 9—11). All this leaves open the likelihood that Israelite culture at the time of Lehi was imbued with wisdom images.
114. John W. Welch and Robert D. Hunt, “Culturegram: Jerusalem 600 BC,” in Glimpses, 22.
115. Dana M. Pike, “Israelite Inscriptions,” 213—15.
116. John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 2003), 93—96.
117. See 1 Nephi 19:10. Zenos’s use of an extended allegory from nature (Jacob 5) is a common wisdom device. Zenos clearly testified of Christ (1 Nephi 19:10—17). If he was a wisdom sage, then we might conclude that at least some preexilic wisdom sages wrote more about Christ than extant wisdom texts would lead us to believe.
118. See William J. Whedbee, Isaiah and Wisdom.