Evidence #141 | January 25, 2021

Elders of the Jews

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi’s description of a group called the “elders of the Jews” who were consorting with a military leader named Laban is consistent with biblical history.

In a famous episode from the Book of Mormon, Nephi disguised himself as a ruthless military leader named Laban in order to obtain the plates of brass (1 Nephi 3:3). During this episode, Nephi encountered Zoram, “the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury” where the plates were deposited (1 Nephi 4:20). Unaware that Nephi had slain his master, and “supposing that [Nephi] … was truly that Laban” (v. 26), Zoram confided freely with Nephi. Twice in this conversation Zoram mentioned “the elders of the Jews” in Jerusalem (vv. 2227).

Nephi talking about the elders of the Jews with Zoram. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Hebrew word translated as “elder” in the English Bible is zāqēn, which derives from the Hebrew word for “beard.” At its most basic definition, then, a biblical “elder” was an aged (“bearded”) and therefore wise and experienced male who held cultural, political, or religious authority and prestige in Israel.1 City elders are mentioned especially in the book of Deuteronomy, reflecting the social institutions and civic attitudes that would have been most prominent in Jerusalem in Lehi’s day.2 The “elders of the Jews” in 1 Nephi 4:22, accordingly, were probably senior religious or political bureaucrats who served as “community leaders” in a number of capacities.3

Jesus Teaching the Elders in the Temple, by Grant Romney Clawson.

The Hebrew Bible appears to distinguish between “national elders” or the “elders of Israel” who were appointed according to Mosaic law (e.g. Exodus 24:1, 9–11Numbers 11:16) and “city elders” (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:4) who “perform[ed] several functions within their local community.”4 It is not entirely clear whether the “elders of the Jews” spoken of in 1 Nephi 4:22 were national or local leaders, but a close reading of the Book of Mormon plausibly suggests the latter.5

John A. Tvedtnes has observed that “Jerusalem was a royal city and, consequently, its elders were public officials in the service of the king.”6 That Laban would be associated with these elders is understandable given how he is presented in Nephi’s record: as an aristocratic military official who commanded a garrison of soldiers and had access to a private “treasury” (1 Nephi 34). In this position, Laban would undoubtedly have had connections with Jerusalem’s elites, including the city elders who could influence royal policy and who oversaw both civil and religious administrative bureaucracies.7

Laban's treasury. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org

The mention of these Jewish elders may actually help explain some otherwise odd details in Nephi’s account. For example, Nephi encountered Laban late at night in the darkened streets of Jerusalem while the latter was bearing a sword and dressed in his armor (1 Nephi 4:19). If the elders with whom he was meeting were city government officials, then it is understandable that Laban would meet with them while dressed in his official military attire. This would presumably grant him as much prestige as his position allowed, not to mention a degree of personal safety while being out by night.

It should be remembered that Jerusalem had a politically volatile and charged environment around 600 BC, with competing political and religious factions jockeying for power.8 Laban being “out by night,” armed and in his armor, may even suggest he was involved in some sort of conspiracy (1 Nephi 4:22).9 While this can’t be proven, it is not implausible that the violent Laban would ally himself with a cohort of conspirators wishing to take advantage of Judah’s vulnerable situation for their personal gain.

Laban keeps Lehi's possessions after seeking to murder Lehi's sons. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

The seemingly clandestine activity of these elders, and their apparent involvement with Laban in particular, might help make sense of why Lehi faced such bitter opposition. Lehi, like his prophetic contemporary Jeremiah, was not afraid to rankle the elites of Jerusalem who felt no need to repent and who persisted in their wickedness. “These elders were no friends of Lehi,” Hugh Nibley observed, “for if they had been, his life would never have been in danger. As it was, he ‘was driven out of Jerusalem’ (Helaman 8:221 Nephi 7:14) by the only people who could have driven him out, the important people, those responsible for the ‘priestcrafts and iniquities’ that were to be the ruin of them at Jerusalem (2 Nephi 10:5).”10

Conclusion

Nephi’s portrayal of a group known as the “elders of the Jews” who seem to have held some sort of political or religious authority in Jerusalem around 600 BC, is consistent with what is known of Israelite society at that time. The clandestine nature of this group’s meetings with Laban, a ruthless military official, is also plausible, considering the degree of political intrigue transpiring at that time of Judah’s history. The way that a historical understanding adds realism to this story, as well as potentially explaining some otherwise odd narrative details, adds another hint of authenticity to the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon Central, “Who Were the ‘Elders of the Jews’ Mentioned by Zoram? (1 Nephi 4:22),” KnoWhy 464 (September 4, 2018).

Aaron P. Schade, “The Kingdom of Judah: Politics, Prophets, and Scribes in the Late Preexilic Period,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 299–336.

John A. Tvedtnes, “The Elders at Jerusalem in the Days of Lehi,” in The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City, UT: Cornerstone Publishing, 1999), 59–75.

See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, The Collected Work of Hugh Nibley: Volume 5 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 98–99.

Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 6 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 96.

1 Nephi 4:22, 27

1 Nephi 4:22, 27

Biblical History
Book of Mormon

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