Evidence #335 | May 2, 2022

Lehi’s Calling (Book)

Post contributed by

 

Scripture Central

Abstract

The book given to Lehi by an angel has parallels with heavenly books (especially the sub-type known as the book of fate) found in a variety of ancient texts.

In Nephi’s summary of his father’s record, Lehi was introduced to a council of divine beings and received a prophetic commission (1 Nephi 1). In several ways, the details of Lehi’s heavenly encounter follow the pattern of prophetic call narratives found in biblical and pseudepigraphic literature.1 One common motif in this genre is the heavenly book. In Lehi’s calling, angelic beings descended from heaven and delivered to him a book containing pronouncements of judgment:

… and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read. And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord. And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon. (vv. 11–13)

The Flight of the Prisoners, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.

Not all was doom and gloom though. Lehi also “testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (1 Nephi 1:19).

The Heavenly Book Motif in the Bible

The Ten Commandments—written by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10)—constitute the prototypical heavenly book in canonical Jewish texts. While these tablets weren’t given to Moses during his initial prophetic call, they were certainly delivered as part of an ascension narrative.

In Ezekiel’s prophetic call, a “roll of a book” was delivered to him which contained “lamentations, and mourning, and woe” (Ezekiel 2:9–10). In a striking metaphor, he was then commanded to “eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel” (v. 3:1). The prophet Daniel, in one of his visions, saw the “Ancient of Days” sitting on a fiery throne surrounded by countless angels. In this setting, “the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9–10). In the concluding chapters of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi reports that a “book of remembrance was written before [the Lord] for them that feared the Lord” (Malachi 3:16).

Ezekiel's Vision, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's. Image via pitts.emory.edu.

In the book of Revelation, John saw God sitting upon a throne surrounded by angelic beings giving him praise. “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.” Then the Lamb (Christ) “took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne,” and the angels “sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof” (Revelation 5:9). The heavenly book motif surfaces repeatedly in John’s Revelation, especially the “book of life.”2 This same sub-type is also mentioned in Philippians 4:3.

Several of the above examples have similarities with the heavenly book given to Lehi. For instance, the books revealed to Daniel and John were each part of an ascension narrative featuring a throne scene.3 An even closer analogue is the heavenly “roll” given to Ezekiel. Just as in Lehi’s account, this heavenly document was given in conjunction with Ezekiel’s prophetic calling.

The Book of Fate

Despite contextual similarities, none of the heavenly books mentioned above clearly match the specific type of book given to Lehi—the book of fate.4 According to Leslie Baynes, “The book of fate, as its name suggests, records what will happen in advance, either to an individual or to a larger community.”5 Such books can “predict good or ill” and often “act as witnesses to the trustworthiness of God’s word.”6

This may explain why immediately after reading about the future destruction and captivity of his people, Lehi could so enthusiastically join the angelic hosts in praising the Lord (1 Nephi 1:14).7 Knowing the ultimate fate of Israel—especially the final redemptive power of the Messiah—was apparently enough to overshadow any discouragement over the impending calamities. “The concept of a heavenly tablet gives readers hope that God is in control.”8

As counted by Baynes, “There are only two or three occurrences of heavenly books that fall under the sub-type book of fate in the Hebrew scriptures: Psalm 139:16, Psalm 56:8, and Daniel 10:21.”9 Not only are these passages sparse, but their references to the book of fate aren’t particularly obvious. They are obscure enough, in fact, that one scholar has questioned whether the motif exists at all in biblical texts.10

Baynes points out that the “minimal use” of the book of fate in the Bible stands in “sharp contrast” to “its employment in ancient Mesopotamian texts, where that sub-type of the motif dominates descriptions of heavenly books.”11 For example, in Mesopotamian enthronement texts a king would often ascend “to heaven to receive, among other things, the tablets of destiny and to get his commission.”12 These heavenly tablets, which boldly proclaimed the “destinies of all beings,” were the “primary way that the gods memorialized their will.”13

Although the mode of transmission is uncertain, it can be assumed that Mesopotamian literature in some way influenced the book of fate motif in early Hebrew literature, as well as its later development and flourishing in apocalyptic texts of the second temple period.14 A particularly apt example of the latter category is the book of Jubilees, which is well-represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls and ostensibly derives from heavenly tablets given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jubilees doesn’t just mention a heavenly book; it purports to be a heavenly book, nearly in its entirety. As a book of fate, it presents the past and future destinies of Israel as having been essentially foreordained by a heavenly record.15

Furthermore, on at least one occasion, Jubilees describes a book of fate in an internal narrative. When discussing Jacob’s vision at Bethel, the text states that Jacob saw an angel “descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages” (32:21).16

Other documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls present similar themes.17 As understood by Armin Lange, one of these texts (4Q180 1, 3–4) explains how the “predestined and pre-existent order of the world was inscribed on the heavenly tablets and revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of the Torah.”18 Another text (1QHa ix.24) states that “Everything has been engraved before you with the stylus of remembrance for all the incessant periods and the cycles of the number of everlasting years in all their predetermined times.”19 Yet another reports that engraved upon a heavenly book “is that which is ordained by God against all the . . . [. . . of ] the sons of Seth, and a book of remembrance is written in his presence for those who keep his word.”20

Finally, the book of fate motif surfaces repeatedly in 1 Enoch.21 In one instance, an angelic messenger tells Enoch to

look at the tablet(s) of heaven; read what is written upon them and understand (each element on them) one by one. So I looked at the tablet(s) of heaven, read all the writing (on them), and came to understand everything. I read that book and all the deeds of humanity and all the children of the flesh upon the earth for all the generations of the world. At that very moment I blessed the Great Lord, the King of Glory for ever, for he has created all the phenomena in the world. I praised the Lord because of his patience. (81:1–3)22

This passage is especially relevant, not only because Enoch received a heavenly book which foretold the past and future deeds of humanity,23 but because immediately after reading it he praised the Lord for his greatness and patience with mankind. Lehi essentially had the same response after his reading of a heavenly book: “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” (1 Nephi 1:14).

God Took Enoch, by Gerard Hoet. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Conclusion

It seems probable that by Lehi’s day written documents were viewed as a uniquely authoritative mode of communication.24 Thus, Lehi’s message to the people wasn’t merely his own prophecy, uttered through spiritual inspiration. It was instead grounded in things that he “saw and heard” in vision, as well as what he “read” from a heavenly book given to him by an angel (1 Nephi 1:19). Whatever its physical form, such a book would undoubtedly have been viewed as more binding than even the most esteemed legal or political documents of the day.

While the heavenly book motif is well attested in both biblical and extrabiblical texts, the specific type of book delivered to Lehi—the book of fate—is rarer. Not only is it absent from the Bible’s prophetic call narratives, it can hardly be found in the Bible at all, unless one knows what to look for.

In contrast, the book of fate shows up clearly and repeatedly in the later pseudepigraphic literature that developed from the writings of Lehi’s day. For the most part, however, these texts weren’t available in English until after 1829.25 Thus, the best parallels with the specific type of heavenly book given to Lehi are found in ancient Jewish texts that were most likely unknown to Joseph Smith when he translated the Book of Mormon.

Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 155–180.

John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo: FARMS, 2004), 421–448.

Brent E. McNeely, “The Book of Mormon and the Heavenly Book Motif,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 26–28.

Blake T. Ostler, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form Critical Analysis,” BYU Studies Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1986): 67–95.

Bible:Exodus 31:18 Deuteronomy 9:10Psalm 56:8Psalm 139:16Ezekiel 2:9–10Ezekiel 3:1Daniel 7:9–10Daniel 10:21Malachi 3:16Book of Mormon1 Nephi 1:11–19

Bible:

Exodus 31:18

Deuteronomy 9:10

Psalm 56:8

Psalm 139:16

Ezekiel 2:9–10

Ezekiel 3:1

Daniel 7:9–10

Daniel 10:21

Malachi 3:16

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 1:11–19

Footnotes
  • 1 See Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 155–180; John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo: FARMS, 2004), 421–448; an earlier version was published as “The Calling of a Prophet,” in First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr., Book of Mormon Symposium Series, Volume 2 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 35–54; Stephen D. Ricks, “Heavenly Visions and Prophetic Calls in Isaiah 6 (2 Nephi 16), the Book of Mormon, and the Revelation of John,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 171–190; Blake T. Ostler, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form Critical Analysis,” BYU Studies Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1986): 67–95.
  • 2 See Revelation 3:5; 5:1–9; 10:2, 8–10; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12–15; 21:27; 22:18.
  • 3 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Lehi’s Prophetic Calling (Ascension),” Evidence# 0328, April 11, 2022, online at evidencecentral.org; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Lehi’s Prophetic Calling (Throne Scene),” Evidence# 0329 , April 11, 2022, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 4 Other categories of heavenly books include the book of life, book of deeds, and book of action. See Leslie Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif in Judeo-Christian Apocalypses 200 BCE – 200 CE (Boston, MA: Brill, 2012), 7–8. It’s possible that the heavenly roll given to Ezekiel was a book of fate (Ezekiel 2:9–10), especially because of its pronouncement of woe. However, the text doesn’t give enough information to be certain. Woe, entailing great sorrow or distress, could be evoked from a book of life or book of deeds as well.
  • 5 Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 8. 
  • 6 Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 44. 
  • 7 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Lehi’s Prophetic Calling (Songs of Praise),” Evidence# 0331, April 18, 2022, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 8 Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 131.
  • 9 Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 44–45; formatting of versification silently adjusted. Since Psalm 56:8 could be interpreted as a book of deeds or book of fate, Psalm 139:16 and Daniel 10:21 are the only clear examples. 
  • 10 See Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 45–46. 
  • 11 Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 46. 
  • 12 Geo Widengren, The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book (Uppsala, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1950), 21.
  • 13 Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 46. 
  • 14 See Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 52. 
  • 15 See Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 109–115. 
  • 16 James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 2: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 118.
  • 17 See Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 117: “Without doubt Jubilees was held in high esteem at Qumran, and its extraordinary emphasis on heavenly tablets that function as a book of fate is reflected in several Qumran texts. The idea that ‘the calendar, the history of the creation of the world and the cosmos are already written down upon heavenly tablets’ is a contention that Jubilees and these texts from the Dead Sea share. This is demonstrated in 4Q180 1, 3–4 (4QAges of Creation A) and 1QHa ix.24 (1QHodayota). A third text from Qumran, 4Q417 2 i.14–18 (4QSapiential Work A), also highlights a book of fate.”
  • 18 Armin Lange, “Wisdom and Predestination in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” DSD 2 (1995), 353; as cited in Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 118. 
  • 19 Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Leiden/Grand Rapids, MI: Brill/Eerdmans, 2000), 1.158–161; as cited in Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 118. Parenthetical Hebrew script silently omitted. 
  • 20 García and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2.858–859; as cited in Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 118. While the passage itself describes the heavenly record as a “book of remembrance,” Baynes sees it as a book of fate because of the apparent foreordination of punishments. This passage is of particularly interest because of its connection with Moses 6:3–5: “And God revealed himself unto Seth, and he rebelled not, but offered an acceptable sacrifice, like unto his brother Abel. And to him also was born a son, and he called his name Enos. And then began these men to call upon the name of the Lord, and the Lord blessed them; And a book of remembrance was kept.” For analysis of the significance of this passage, see David Snell, “New Find in Dead Sea Scrolls Reveals Joseph Smith Scored Another ‘Lucky Guess’,” Third Hour (blog), June 16, 2020, online at thirdhour.org. See also, Pearl of Great Price Central, “Enoch’s Teaching Mission: Enoch Reads from a Book of Remembrance,” Book of Moses Essay #10, July 3, 2020, online at pearlofgreatpricecentral.org.
  • 21 In addition to the discussion of 1 Enoch 81:1–4 below, see also 93:2, 103:2, 106:19, 108:7, 15. These passages are identified and discussed throughout Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 124–131.  
  • 22 Translation from James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 59.
  • 23 Concerning whether or not this passages really evokes the book of fate motif, Baynes writes, “Initially, this looks like a book of deeds, and George Nickelsburg seems to support that contention when he writes that ‘the records of all deeds of humanity . . . will serve as testimony at the coming judgment.’ But because the deeds of the people are predetermined, these tablets also indicate a book of fate.” Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 125. 
  • 24 As explained by John W. Welch, “The fact that Lehi was handed a written decree may … reflect the contemporary legal and political practices of his day. Some have theorized that preclassical, nonwritten prophecy flourished in the ninth and tenth centuries BC in part because at that time an ‘oral message was still regarded as an authoritative decree.’ During Lehi’s day, however, written edicts under the Assyrian practice had become the standard legal mode of issuing proclamations and prophets were more concerned with writing, and thus the authoritativeness of Lehi’s words in the minds of his listeners was probably enhanced by the fact that he could report that he had read these words in a written decree.” Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of Jerusalem,” 432. In a somewhat related discussion, Baynes contrasts “the more ‘Jewish’ notion of the privileged status of writing as opposed to the Platonic notion of the privileged status of speaking.” Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif, 183.
  • 25 One exception is 1 Enoch, which was published in English in 1821. It is doubtful, however, that Joseph Smith was familiar with this text in 1829. See Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and Ryan Dahle, “Could Joseph Smith Have Drawn on Ancient Manuscripts When He Translated the Story of Enoch?: Recent Updates on a Persistent Question,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 308–311.
Literary Features
Lehi's Calling
Lehi's Calling (Book)
Book of Mormon

© 2024 Scripture Central: A Non-Profit Organization. All rights reserved. Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-5294264