(3/2021) Biblical Archaeology and the Book of Mormon
In recent years I have given a few tours to Mormon groups and families. Unlike most of the rest of the world, the LDS Church does not proselytize in Israel. Being so, little is known about them by the local population in Israel. In fact, most Israelis have probably never even heard about them. When I came to know that they sanctify another book as part of the Bible I felt compelled to get a copy, preferably in Hebrew. And finding one turned out to be not so easy.. the only (partial) Hebrew translation of The Book of Mormon is from 1981 that is out of print and simply not available in Israel.
But thanks to the Southwick family that I had the privilege of guidin in 2019, I managed to obtain a copy, and thanks to COVID19 I managed to find the time to read it. And yes it, requires much time to read it, as it is a very long book – and a fascinating one. The Book of Mormon claims to document several civilizations that thrived in north and central America, and 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.
For me, the most intriguing part of this book is its first chapters. It opens with the documentation of an Israelite named Lehi who lived in Jerusalem. Following a vision, in the first year in the reign of Zedekiah Lehi leaves Jerusalem and his estate and embarks on a long journey with his extended family. Crossing the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea, the eventually arrive at a site named “bountiful” from which they sail to the “Land of Promise”.
While there is no archaeological evidence to any of the stations and events on this journey, I did find some interesting links between the story and archaeology of the Holy Land. Below are the top three.
Khirbet Beit Loya = House of Lehi?
Khirbet Beit Loya is an archaeological site in the southern Shephelah (Judean Foothills), 10 km east of Lachish, and round 50 km southwest of 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 this site. He suggested the possibility that the Arabic name of the site – “Kihrbet Beit Loya”, might be an alternation of the site’s ancient name in Hebrew חורבת בית לחי – “Ruins of the house of Lehi.” Moreover, he presented the testimony of an Arab sheikh from the area regarding a prophet that once lived at the site and mysteriously disappeared one day.
Over the years, the site has been excavated by several expeditions. Although it has not been possible to verify that Lehi actually lived here. However, there are several finds that can be linked to Lehi’s biography as presented in the Book of Mornon. The most interesting discovery was made in 1961. A burial cave was uncovered at the eastern end of the site. It dated to 7th-6th centuries BC, which is said to be the time Lehi lived.
But of more significance are several images and inscriptions engraved on the cave’s walls. One of the inscriptions mentions Jerusalem, thereby linking it to Jerusalem (as Lehi did), and some of the images are of boats sailing. Perhaps they were documenting resindents’ intention 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. Entering through the city’s gate, gthey manage 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 of the city’s wall and gate during the time of Zedekiah were uncovered. After the Six-day War in 1967 Israel launched a large-scale archaeological project in parts of Jerusalems’ Old City. Most of the excavations were carried out in the Jewish Quarter, which lay in ruins for 19 years.
Among other finds, the archaeological expedition uncovered a large section of a massive wall which marked Jerusalem’s northern fortifications at the time of King Hezekiah. To this day, that massive wall has been left exposed, 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 the corner of a gate, added at the time of King Zedekiah. These reinforcements were added by King Zedekiah, probably in anticipation of a Babylonian assault (2 kings 25). While it is an important testimony that validates the last part of the 2 Kings, Mormons can also claim that these finds attest to certain references in the Book of Mormon. Known as the “Israelite Tower,” this site has unfortunately been closed to visitors for several years.
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 document a sectarian group that opposed Jerusalem, and consequently withdrew to the desert. That alone is an interesting link to the biography of Lehi, but even more is the fact that one of the scrolls was actually also made of metal: the copper scroll!
Although it didn’t document the history of the group (unlike the brass plates) it did document very valuable information of some 60 locations where treasures where hidden. The copper scroll fascinates archaeologists to this day. I personally participated in some of the research for these treasures and have appeared in several TV productions related to the quest after these treasures (see below). Even if the treasures are never to be found, the authenticity of the copper scroll itself is unchallenged. It is a genuine 2,000 year old document, deliberately incised on a metal sheet, ensuring it would survive until found many centuries later.
This can be viewed as a fantastic parallel to the Mormon narrative. Here too people documented the information of their time, on metal plates, ensuring it would last for centuries. And in both cases it endured the test of time, remaining in very good condition when rediscovered.