Evidence #61 | September 19, 2020

Lehi's Seven Tribes

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The way that Lehi’s posterity is consistently divided into seven distinct tribes aligns with key features of the tribes of Israel and most likely has sacred numerological significance.

Seven Tribes in the Book of Mormon

Near the beginning of his record, Jacob clarified that the Nephites and Lamanites were divided into seven distinct tribes: “Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites” (Jacob 1:13). These same tribal affiliations are also reported in 4 Nephi 1:37–38 and again in Mormon 1:8–9, suggesting that they functioned as a “social and legal order that lasted … for almost one thousand years.”2 This system of tribal organization likely stemmed from Lehi’s final patriarchal blessings, where he specifically blessed and counseled the patriarchs or posterities of each of the seven tribes (see 2 Nephi 2–4).3

Modeled After the Tribes of Israel

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (Dalziel's Bible Gallery). Image via  Wikimedia Commons.

In several ways, Lehi’s tribe-defining blessings can be compared to the patriarchal blessings given by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.4 Lehi’s posterity repeatedly spoke of him as “our father Lehi” in the same way that Israelites refer to Abraham as “our Father Abraham.”5 Lehi placed Nephi as a leader over Laman and Lemuel, just as Isaac bypassed Esau and gave the birthright blessing to his younger son Jacob.6 And like Jacob’s final blessing upon his twelve tribes, Lehi divided his family into groups and blessed them with a land of inheritance.7 These patriarchal blessings held lasting “religious, military, political, and legal” importance for both posterities.8

Symbolic Numbers

It seems likely that the twelve tribes of Israel and the seven tribes of Lehi were intentionally counted in such a way as to render their final totals as sacred numbers. In ancient Israelite thought, the number twelve was symbolically linked to government and judgment,9 whereas seven symbolized perfection or completeness.10 Jacob’s twelve tribes were increased to thirteen when Joseph’s inheritance and blessing was divided between his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.11 Yet because the priestly tribe of Levi did not inherit a portion of the promised land, they were not counted as one of Israel’s tribes, and thus the total number of tribes was reduced back to twelve (see Numbers 1:47–50).

Corbin Volluz has argued, “It appears the Old Testament modifies the figure of thirteen tribes to twelve in order to maintain this important number, and the Book of Mormon similarly modifies the figure of eight tribes to seven, omitting the tribe of Sam, which the Book of Mormon goes out of its way to draw special attention to by pointing out that Sam’s seed is being numbered with Nephi’s” (see 2 Nephi 4:11). The symbolic and sacred significance of the seven tribes may have been an important factor in their preservation and continuity throughout so many years.

The seven caves of Chicomoztoc, from Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca. The depiction of a 'curved mountain' at the top of this painting is meant as a referent to Culhucan. Image via Wikipedia.com.

It is also notable that the number seven held cosmic significance among ancient peoples in Mesoamerica. Michael Coe described seven as the “mystic number of the earth’s surface,”13 and according to Diane Wirth, “it represented the seven directions in the universe—four cardinal directions plus the zenith or sky, center, and nadir or underworld.”14 Mesoamerican legends and artwork distinctly and repeatedly depict their various peoples as coming forth from seven caves or lineages.15

Although no direct evidence for a relationship currently exists, it is possible that these Mesoamerican legends in some way reinforced to Lehi’s people the importance or symbolic significance of his seven founding tribes. Or, conversely, perhaps Lehi’s seven tribes in some way helped initiate or perpetuate already existing legends of seven founding lineages found throughout Mesoamerica.  

Conclusion

The formation of Lehi’s seven tribes and their importance throughout the Book of Mormon narrative is not the type of thing that most readers consciously notice. Yet once pointed out, this subtle and symbolic consistency becomes readily apparent and meaningful. Hugh Nibley noted that although these tribes “remain subdued” throughout the text, “[they are] there and they’re the real basis of personal relationships.”16 He saw the “retention of tribal identity throughout the Book of Mormon … [as] a remarkably authentic touch.”17

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Lehi Divide His People into Seven Tribes? (Jacob 1:13),” KnoWhy 319 (May 29, 2017).

Corbin Volluz, “A Study in Seven: Hebrew Numerology in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 2 (2014): 57–83.

Diane E. Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages of the Book of Mormon and the Seven Tribes of Mesoamerica,” BYU Studies Quarterly 52, no. 4 (2013): 77–88.

John L. Sorenson, John A. Tvedtnes, and John W. Welch, “Seven Tribes: An Aspect of Lehi’s Legacy,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 93–95.

John W. Welch, “Lehi's Last Will and Testament: A Legal Approach,” in Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, Book of Mormon Symposium Series, Volume 3, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), esp. 68–70, building on Sorenson, Tvedtnes, and Welch, “Seven Tribes,” 93–95.

2 Nephi 4:11Jacob 1:13 4 Nephi 1:37–38 Mormon 1:8–9

2 Nephi 4:11

Jacob 1:13 

4 Nephi 1:37–38 

Mormon 1:8–9

Culture
Sacred Numbers
Lehi's Seven Tribes
Book of Mormon

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