Evidence #159 | March 1, 2021

Altars of Deliverance

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Book of Mormon’s presentation of altars as places of deliverance is corroborated by biblical narratives featuring altars.

Altars are mentioned only three times in the Book of Mormon,1 and in two of those instances they were seen as places of deliverance. The first is Lehi’s “altar of stones” (1 Nephi 2:7), to which Nephi and his brothers fled after he slew Laban (1 Nephi 5:9). The second altar, located in the land of Sidom, is where the people sought deliverance “from Satan, and from death, and from destruction” (Alma 15:17).2

Lehi and family offer burnt sacrifice. Image via Gospel Media Library.

Nephi Seeks Refuge after Slaying Laban

According to one Hebrew Bible scholar, “The earlier laws of Exodus identify altars as places of refuge where someone who had unintentionally committed manslaughter could seek asylum.”3 The specific law being referenced is found in Exodus 21:12–14:

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.

Adonijah grasping the horns of the tabernacle altar in refuge. Image from thegospelcoalition.org. 

Evidence that altars were indeed thought of as places of deliverance or refuge can be found in two related biblical narratives (1 Kings 1:50–51 and 1 Kings 2:28), wherein Solomon’s enemies Adonijah and Joab flee and “grab ‘hold on the horns of the altar’ in hopes of temporary asylum.”4 Thus it was “a long-held Israelite custom” to see “the altar as a location of deliverance from death.”5

With this in mind, it is significant that after slaying Laban, Nephi and his brothers fled back to the tent of his father, where the family offered “sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord” (1 Nephi 5:9).6 Although not stated directly, these sacrifices were surely offered upon an “altar of stones,” as is mentioned in 1 Nephi 2:7, which similarly presents Lehi’s family fleeing from danger toward a place of deliverance in the wilderness. In other words, just as the law demanded, Nephi fled to a place of refuge—specifically to an altar in the wilderness—where the Lord had appointed his family to flee.7 The “burnt offerings” in particular may have been offered up, at least in part, for “the taking of human life.”8

Petitions for Deliverance at the Altar in Sidom

After Alma established the Church at Sidom, the people there “began to assemble themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction” (Alma 15:17; emphasis added). The emphasis on deliverance in this passage is noteworthy. Rather than casually discussing the need for deliverance from some ailment or another, the people petition for a three-fold deliverance from the main forces of evil and ruin—specifically from (1) Satan, (2), death, and (3) destruction.

Conclusion

Considering how sparsely this topic is covered in the Bible, it would take a very careful and astute reader to recognize that altars were considered places of deliverance and legal refuge in ancient Israel. And yet, this same theme of deliverance shows up in two out of the three instances where the presence of an altar is specifically mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon’s subtle consistency with ancient Israelite law and custom on this point is suggestive of Hebrew origins.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did the People of Sidom Go to the Altar for Deliverance? (Alma 15:17),” KnoWhy 122 (June 15, 2016).

David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 14.

John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 121–123.

1 Nephi 2:71 Nephi 5:9Alma 15:17

1 Nephi 2:7

1 Nephi 5:9

Alma 15:17

  • 1 A fourth mention can be found in 2 Nephi 16:6, but this is a quotation of Isaiah 6:6.
  • 2 The final mention of an altar is in reference to the converts of the sons of Mosiah coming “before the altar of God, to call on his name and confess their sins before him” (Alma 17:4). This instance, however, doesn’t have any direct connotation of deliverance.
  • 3 David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 14. See also Bernard S. Jackson, Wisdom Laws: A Study of the Mishpatim of Exodus 21:1–22:16 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 138–139; Alison P. Coutts, “Refuge and Asylum in the Ancient World,” M.A. Thesis in the David M. Kennedy Center (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2001), 77–78.
  • 4 Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, 14.
  • 5 Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, 14.
  • 6 For analysis of the types of offerings made on this occasion, and their potential relevance to Nephi’s slaying of Laban, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Lehi’s Sacrifices and Burnt Offerings,” November 26, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 7 See John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 121–123.
  • 8 S. Kent Brown, “What Were Those Sacrifices Offered By Lehi?” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 6. See also, Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Nephi’s Slaying of Laban,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
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