Evidence #166 | March 15, 2021

Dancing Maidens

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The story of the abduction of the Lamanite daughters by the priests of Noah is consistent with several ancient legal and social conventions.

An Abduction Narrative in the Book of Mormon

The opening verses in Mosiah 20 give an account of the priests of Noah who had fled for their lives after Noah was burned to death. Hiding in the wilderness, the priests one day abducted 24 Lamanite maidens who were gathered to sing and dance at a place called Shemlon. This event sparked a war between the Nephites and Lamanites, who mistakenly assumed the Nephites (rather than Noah’s priests) stole their daughters (vv. 1–6).

Lamanite Daughters by Minerva Teichert.

Later on, an army of Lamanites accidentally stumbled upon these priests, who were led by a man named Amulon (Mosiah 23:30–32). In order to protect themselves, the priests “sent forth their wives, who were the daughters of the Lamanites, to plead with their brethren that they should not destroy their husbands. And the Lamanites had compassion on Amulon and his brethren, and did not destroy them, because of their wives” (v. 34). While the outcome of this story is jarringly at odds with modern-day values, it nevertheless reflects the legal and social conventions prevalent in many ancient societies.

An Abduction Narrative in the Book of Judges

A similar story is found in the book of Judges. In response to the abuse and murder of a Levite concubine, a coalition of Israelite tribes went to war with the tribe of Benjamin, which ended with the Benjaminite men being almost completely eradicated (Judges 19–20).

To remedy this problem, the Israelite coalition planned for the men of Benjamin to abduct dancing maidens at Shiloh, who were gathered there for an annual celebration known as the Fifteenth of Av (Judges 21:17–22). This festival, which appears to date back to the time of Moses, was “primarily a matrimonial holiday” in which young males, after completing their summer chores, would “turn their attention to ‘bride-hunting,’ and the dance of the maidens was ‘designed to meet that end.’”1

Taking advantage of these festivities, the men of Benjamin hid in the vineyards and then “took them wives, according to their number, of them that danced, whom they caught” (Judges 21:23). This story has several similarities with the narrative in Mosiah (see Appendix), leading several scholars to conclude that the dancing of the Lamanite daughters may have taken place in a similar festival context.2

The abduction at Shiloh. Image via fromreformationtoreformation.com.

Fertility Celebrations and Abduction Narratives in Ancient Literature

Accounts of female fertility rites and abduction are common in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean.3 Because of its close similarity to the narrative in Mosiah, one famous story, often referred to as “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” is worth summarizing in detail.4

Legend has it that in the earliest period of the Roman Republic, its predominantly male population was worried that without more female counterparts their society would collapse. Because efforts to find wives among surrounding peoples proved unsuccessful, the Romans abducted a group of thirty Sabine women during a festival celebration. This event initiated a war between the Romans and Sabines. Yet as the final battle ensued, the Sabine women rushed into the midst of the conflict to plead on behalf of their new Roman husbands, as well as their Sabine fathers and brothers.

The Abduction of the Sabine Women, by Nicolas Poussin.

Alan Goff has argued that “the rape wasn’t a crime of overwhelming passion or violence as we modems tend to view rape. The rape was a political tool, a forced marriage to provide safe haven in a hostile location.”5 And the gambit apparently paid off, just as it had for Noah’s priests. The very women over whom the war was being fought proved instrumental in bringing it to a peaceful resolution. After hearing the pleadings of their daughters and sisters, the Sabine men agreed to unite with the Romans and become one people.

The Legal View of Women in Ancient Societies

The similarities found in these accounts is likely due, at least in part, to prevailing marriage customs and to women’s limited autonomy and almost non-existent legal rights in ancient times.6 “Assuming that biblical law has something to tell us about the dancing daughters of the Lamanites, these girls are valuable and vulnerable because they are at the stage to be given to a husband, but not yet given.”7 Once a victim of rape, “the formerly nubile woman would only have lived a life of desolation, unless the rape-for-marriage could be socially validated in marriage.”8

In other words, the best chance for preservation and reintegration into society that Amulon and his priests had was to send forth their abductees (now their wives) in the hopes that the Lamanites would rather legitimize their marriages instead of exacting revenge. For the Lamanites, these would have been seen as the only viable options, seeing that the Lamanite daughters would no longer have value (culturally speaking) after their virtue had been stolen through forced sexual relations.9

Perhaps sensitive to their daughters’ circumstances and also recognizing that Amulon and his priests were of more value alive than dead, the Lamanites apparently chose to legitimize the relationships. This explains why Amulon shows up just a few chapters later as being in league with them (Mosiah 24:1–4). This outcome is similar to the Roman narrative, where the Sabines eventually united with the Romans for the sake of their daughters.

Amulon and the Daughters of the Lamanites, by James Fullmer.

Conclusion

For modern readers, the account of the abduction of the Lamanite daughters may come across as a bizarre and even disturbing series of events and circumstances. Why would the Lamanite daughters be dancing in an apparently secluded place away from the city? Why would Noah’s priests forcibly abduct and then marry them? And then—most strangely of all—why would these daughters plead with the Lamanites to not harm their captors once they were discovered?10 All of these questions are satisfactorily answered when the narrative is placed in an ancient context.

The dancing and singing of the daughters was likely connected to matrimonial festivities. By abducting and then marrying these maidens Noah’s priests (1) regained their status as married patriarchs, (2) procured a possible means of protection if the Lamanites ever discovered their whereabouts, and (3) provided a path to reintegrate with society. As for the Lamanite daughters, they pled on behalf of their captors-turned-husbands because as females with limited autonomy that was the only way to preserve their value and social status. This seems to be exactly the outcome that the priests were expecting or at least hoping for.

On each of these points, the Book of Mormon is consistent with ancient legal and social conventions. As argued by Goff, the “stealing of the daughters of the Lamanites is nothing if not a sophisticated narrative that seems to fit the pattern of matrimonial dancing festivals as well as any example from the Bible.”11

It shouldn’t be assumed, however, that the Book of Mormon narrative is merely derivative in nature. It takes the ancient and widespread abduction motif—what may amount to a literary “type-scene” which was gounded in actual cultural practices and legal customs—and integrates it into its own complex narrative structure for its own intents and purposes.12 This type of complex literary allusion is typical of ancient Hebrew authors.13

Jack Welch, “How the Lamanite Daughters may have been Abducted on an Israelite Holiday,” BMC Blog, online at bookofmormoncentral.org;

S. Kent Brown, “Marriage and Treaty in the Book of Mormon: The Case of the Abducted Lamanite Daughters,” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 99–112; reprinted 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 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2000).

John W. Welch, Robert F. Smith, and Gordon C. Thomasson, “Dancing Maidens and the Fifteenth of Av,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 139.

Alan Goff, “The Stealing of the Daughters of the Lamanites,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 67–74.

Alan Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Historicism, Revisionism, Positivism, and the Bible and Book of Mormon,” (MA dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1970), 64–91.

BibleJudges 19Judges 20Judges 21Book of MormonMosiah 19:9–15Mosiah 20:1–7Mosiah 23:30–35Mosiah 23:39

Bible

Judges 19

Judges 20

Judges 21

Book of Mormon

Mosiah 19:9–15

Mosiah 20:1–7

Mosiah 23:30–35

Mosiah 23:39

Feature

Judges

Mosiah

Maidens Gather for Dancing

“And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances” (21:21)

Now there was a place in Shemlon where the daughters of the Lamanites did gather themselves together to sing, and to dance” (20:1)

Dancing Occurs Regularly

“Then they said, Behold, there is a feast of the Lord in Shiloh yearly in a place which is on the north side of Beth-el” (21:19)

“And it came to pass that there was one day [implying that the dancing there occurred on other days] a small number of them gathered together to sing and to dance” (20:2)

Dancing Occurs at a Designated Location

“Then they said, Behold, there is a feast of the Lord in Shiloh yearly in a place which is on the north side of Beth-el” (21:19)

“Now there was a place in Shemlon where the daughters of the Lamanites did gather themselves” (20:1)

Outcasted Men Were Hiding in the Wilderness for Safety

“But six hundred men turned and fled to the wilderness unto the rock Rimmon, and abode in the rock Rimmon four months.” (20:47).

“And now the priests of king Noah, being ashamed to return to the city of Nephi, yea, and also fearing that the people would slay them, therefore they durst not return to their wives and their children. And having tarried in the wilderness” (20:3–4)

Men Lie in Wait

“Go and lie in wait in the vineyards” (21:20)

“And having tarried in the wilderness, and having discovered the daughters of the Lamanites, they laid and watched them” (20:4)

Men Capture Maidens

“then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh” (21:21)

they came forth out of their secret places and took them and carried them into the wilderness” (20:5)

Men Take Maidens to Wife

“And the children of Benjamin did so, and took them wives, according to their number, of them that danced” (21:23)

“And it came to pass that Amulon did plead with the Lamanites; and he also sent forth their wives, who were the daughters of the Lamanites (23:33)

Culture
Customs and Ceremonies
Dancing Maidens
Book of Mormon

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