Evidence #23 | September 19, 2020

Falling Down

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Scripture Central


The way that individuals and groups fall to the earth in worship in the Book of Mormon suggests that the author of the text was sensitive to and intimately familiar with the nuances of this practice’s ancient symbolism.

Proskynesis in the Ancient Near East

The act of falling at the feet of a ruler and even kissing the ground or his feet is a well-known form of worship in the ancient world called proskynesis.1 Variations of this practice can be found throughout the ancient Near East, but in most cases the ritual act symbolized reverence for or submission to the gods or one of their appointed rulers.

For example, in an ancient Near Eastern letter, a vassal showed respect to a Lord through phrases such as “[I am] your slave” and “the dust at your feet” and “I prostrate; at the feet of my king, my lord I fall.”2 An ancient Egyptian liturgical text similarly declares, “As I kiss the ground, even so do I embrace Geb.”3 According to Matthew L. Bowen, this text “prescribes proskynesis, including a ritual embrace of a god (Geb, the earth), as part of a ritualized theophany in a temple setting.”4

Possible depiction of the Israelite King Jehu performing Proskynesis before King Shalmaneser III of Assyria on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Image via Wikimedia commons.

Proskynesis was also known to the ancient Israelites.5 Joseph who was sold into Egypt dreamed that his brothers’ sheaves and also the sun, moon, and stars paid homage to him. This prompted his father to ask, “Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?” (Genesis 37:10).6 Psalm 95:6 reads “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” And New Testament texts—such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Revelation—abundantly demonstrate that the early apostles and followers of Jesus viewed proskynesis as an appropriate mode of worshipping Jesus Christ both before and after His resurrection.7

Proskynesis in the Book of Mormon

Demonstrations of falling to the earth in ritual prostration are similarly evident in a number of Book of Mormon narratives. For example, when King Benjamin reported the words “delivered unto him by the angel,” he looked upon the multitude and saw that the people “had fallen to the earth … And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 4:1–2). Hugh Nibley commented,

This was the kind of proskynesis at which Benjamin aimed! The proskynesis was the falling to the earth (literally, “kissing the ground”) in the presence of the king by which all the human race on the day of the coronation demonstrated its submission to divine authority; it was an unfailing part of the Old World New Year’s rites as of any royal audience.8

In Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life, those who pressed forward and held to the rod of iron eventually “came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (1 Nephi 8:30, emphasis added). Bowen noted that the “tree of which they partake is functionally the true God, Jesus Christ.”9

The Risen Lord by Arnold Friberg.

This symbolism is powerfully realized when Jesus visited the people in the Americas. After Jesus declared His identity, “the whole multitude fell to the earth; for they remembered that it had been prophesied among them that Christ should show himself unto them” (3 Nephi 11:12). Similarly, after they had all gone forth and touched the wounds in His hands, feet, and side, they “did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (v. 17). And when Jesus commanded Nephi to come forth, He “bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet” (v. 19, emphasis added for all verses). Bowen remarked, “There is no better description of proskynesis anywhere in literature, ancient or modern, than this.”10


Bowen has highlighted and explored a number of examples of proskynesis in the Book of Mormon.11 In each case, they arise in appropriate contexts and are usually recorded in ways that are narratively significant. As explained by Bowen,

Proskynesis was an important rite of worship among the peoples of the Book of Mormon. Besides being performed in a temple setting and being connected with the most climactic and sacred events chronicled in that religious text, these ritual prostrations were the most profound expression of love for God. They signified his presence among the people, in body and in spirit. They demonstrated reverence and awe for God and were an acknowledgment of fallen man’s comparative cosmic smallness, and humanity’s dependence on him.12

While knowledge of this ancient practice was generally known in 1830, its presentation in the Book of Mormon indicates that the text was written by an author who was sensitive to and intimately familiar with the nuances of its ancient symbolism.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did the People Fall Down at the Feet of Jesus? (3 Nephi 11:17),” KnoWhy 202 (2016).

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘They Came and Held Him by the Feet and Worshipped Him’: Proskynesis before Jesus in Its Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Context,” Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 5 (2013): 63–68.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘They Came Forth and Fell Down and Partook of the Fruit of the Tree’: Proskynesis in 3 Nephi 11:12–19 and 17:9–10 and Its Significance,” in Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2012), 107–130.

Matthew L. Bowen, “And Behold, They Had Fallen to the Earth”: An Examination of Proskynesis in the Book of Mormon,” Studia Antiqua 4, no. 1 (2005): 91–110.

Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988) 295–310.

1 Nephi 7:201 Nephi 8:301 Nephi 11:241 Nephi 17:552 Nephi 25:29Mosiah 4:1–2Mosiah 7:12Mosiah 20:25Alma 22:16-17Alma 31:1Alma 46:13Alma 47:22–23Helaman 7:103 Nephi 1:113 Nephi 4:83 Nephi 11:11–12, 17, 193 Nephi 17:103 Nephi 19:19, 27Ether 3:6–7Ether 6:1

1 Nephi 7:20

1 Nephi 8:30

1 Nephi 11:24

1 Nephi 17:55

2 Nephi 25:29

Mosiah 4:1–2

Mosiah 7:12

Mosiah 20:25

Alma 22:16-17

Alma 31:1

Alma 46:13

Alma 47:22–23

Helaman 7:10

3 Nephi 1:11

3 Nephi 4:8

3 Nephi 11:11–12, 17, 19

3 Nephi 17:10

3 Nephi 19:19, 27

Ether 3:6–7

Ether 6:1

Falling Down
Book of Mormon

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