(3/2021) Biblical Archaeology and the Book of Mormon
In recent years I had a few tour orders from Mormon groups and families. Unlike In the USA, the LDS church does not proselytize in Israel, and so little is known about them. In fact most Israelis probably never even heard of them. Learning that they sanctify another book as part of the Bible I was intrigued to get a copy, preferably in Hebrew. It wasn’t so easy to find one. The only partial Hebrew translation made of The Book of Mormon is from 1981, and is out of print. Furthermore, it is simply not available anywhere in Israel.
But thanks to the Southwick family, whom I guided in 2019, I managed to obtain a copy. And thanks to the Wohan virus I managed to find the time to read it. Yes, It’s a very long book. Yet fascinating. It claims to document several civilizations that thrived in north or central America, but eventually perished. However, their documentation was recorded on brass and gold plates, which were recovered in the 1820’s in the state of New York.
But most intriguing for me was the opening of the book. It begins with a documentation of an Israelite person named Lehi. Following a vision, he left Jerusalem and his estate on the first year of the reign of King Zedekiah. With his extended family Lehi crossed the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea, and eventually they sailed from a site called “Bountiful”, which was near the Arabian sea, to the “Land of Promise”.
While there is no archaeological evidence to any of the stations and events during this journey, I did find some interesting links between the story and archaeology of the Holy Land. Below are the top three.
Khirbet Beit Levya = House of Lehi?
Khirbet Beit Loya is an archaeological site in the southern part of the Shephelah (the Judean Foothills). Is it 10 km east of Lachish, and about 50 km from Jerusalem. The late Dr. Yosef Ginat, an Israeli anthropologist who studied at the University of Utah, was possibly the first to draw the Mormons’ attention to the site. He suggested that the Arabic name of the site – “Kihrbet Beit Loya”, could be preserving the ancient name of the place in Hebrew חורבת בית לחי – “Ruins of the house of Lehi”. Moreover, he presented a testimony of an Arab sheikh from the area. He claimed to a local memory that once a prophet lived at the site, but one day he disappeared, and no one knows why.
The site was excavated by several expeditions. True that to this day no proof was found to the inhabitation of the site by Lehi. Yet, several finds link to his biography as presented in the Book of Mormon.
The most interesting discovery was made already in 1961. A burial cave was uncovered by chance at the eastern end of the site. It dated to 7th-6th centuries BCE, which is said to be the time Lehi lived. But more significantly – several images and inscriptions were engraved on its walls. One of the inscriptions mentioned Jerusalem was linked to Jerusalem (as Lehi did), and some of the images were sailing boats. Perhaps they were documenting the intention of its residence to sail away from here?.
Wall and gate from the time of Zedekiah found in Jerusalem
In the first book of the Book of Mormon we read of Lehi’s sons sneaking into Jerusalem at night. They entered through the city’s gate and managed to confiscate the brass plates of their father, which were held by a man called Laban. While the names Nephi and Laban are not known from the Hebrew Bible, evidence for the city’s wall and gate from the time of Zedekiah was uncovered. After the six day war in 1967 Israel launched a large scale archaeological project in parts of the old city of Jerusalem. Most of the excavations were carried out in the Jewish quarter, which was in ruins for 19 years.
Among others, the archaeological expedition uncovered a large section of a massive wall which marked Jerusalem’s northern fortifications in the time of King Hezekiah. That massive wall is exposed to this day and is known as The Broad Wall. What is less known to the public is the fact that the expedition also found further fortifications, and even a corner of a gate, added in the time of King Zedekiah. These reinforcements were added in the time of King Zedekiah, probably anticipating the Babylonian assault (II kings 25). While it is an important testimony to validate the last part of the book of Kings, Mormons can also claim these finds attest to certain references in the book of Mormon. Unfortunately, this site, known as the “Israelite Tower”, has been closed to visitors for several years, which is a shame
Moroni’s Brass Plates and the Copper Scroll
But perhaps the most intriguing archaeological discovery made in the Holy Land that relates to the Book of Mormon is the famous find of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered mostly in the 1950’s in 11 caves near Qumran, these hundreds of scrolls documented a sectarian group that opposed Jerusalem, and so left to the desert. That alone is an interesting link to the biography of Lehi, but even more is the fact that one of the scroll was actually also made of metal – the copper scroll!
Although it didn’t document the history of the group (unlike brass plates) it did document very valuable information of some 60 locations where treasures where hidden. The copper scroll fascinates archaeologist to this day. I personally participated in some of the research for these treasures and have appeared in several TV productions relating to the hunt after these treasures (see below). Even if the treasures will neve be found, no one doubt the authenticity of the copper scroll itself. It is a genuine 2,000 year old document, deliberately incised on a metal sheet, so it would last for centuries till found.
This can be viewed as a fantastic parallel to the Mormon narrative. Here too people documented information of their time, on metal plates, so it would last for centuries. And in both cases it was said to last, and in very good condition.