Evidence #68 | September 19, 2020

Testament of Lehi

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Lehi’s final words to his family reflect a pattern of discourse used by dying patriarchs in ancient testamentary literature.
Jacob Blessing Joseph and His Sons by Charles Foster.

Early Jewish literature is filled with many examples of what is sometimes called testamentary literature. Generally dating from 200 BC to AD 500, these “testaments” are modeled after Jacob’s last blessings and curses upon his sons in Genesis 49. According to James H. Charlesworth, “No binding genre was employed by the authors of the testaments, but one can discern among them a loose format.” That format involves:

The ideal figure faces death and [1] causes his relatives and intimate friends to circle around his bed. He occasionally informs them of his fatal flaw and [2] exhorts them to avoid certain temptations; he typically [3] instructs them regarding the way of righteousness and [4] utters blessings and curses. Often he illustrates his words—as the apocalyptic seer in the apocalypse—with [5] descriptions of the future as it has been revealed to him in a dream or vision.1

This pattern can be easily demonstrated in several of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which are among the earliest examples of testamentary literature.2 Take for example, the Testament of Joseph, who was one of the twelve patriarchs of Israel:3

  1. The introduction says, “A copy of the testament of Joseph. When he was about to die, he called his sons and his brothers…” (1:1),4 and proceeds from there to give lengthy instruction.
  2. The patriarch Joseph tells, at length, the story of his resisting temptation from Potiphar’s wife, occasionally adding specific warnings and exhortations about sin (e.g., 7:8; 10:1–6).
  3. The narrative is also laced with many instances of righteous instruction, such as the counsel, “in every act keep the fear of God before your eyes and honor your brothers” (11:1; cf. 2:4–7; 3:4; 4:3, 6; 9:3; 10:1–6; 11:1–7; 17:2–8).
  4. Joseph also promises blessings, saying, “If you live in accord with the Lord’s commands, God will exalt you with good things forever” (18:1, the blessings continue throughout 18:1–4).
  5. Finally, the testament closes out with an apocalyptic prophecy (19:1–11).

This same format can be found in the Book of Mormon when Lehi instructed and blessed his posterity shortly before passing away (2 Nephi 1:1–4:12):

Lehi Blessing His Posterity, by Jodi Livingston.

1. Family Gathering

Nephi said that Lehi “spake many things” to his family members who had gathered to hear him speak. The audience at least included Laman, Lemuel, their posterity, Sam, the sons of Ismael, Zoram, Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph (2 Nephi 1:282:13:1; 4:1, 3, 9–11). It is clear throughout Lehi’s discourses that he was about to die, as he frequently spoke of how he “must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave” (2 Nephi 1:14; cf. 1:21; 2:30; 4:5). Nephi soon confirmed, “after my father, Lehi, had spoken unto all his household … he waxed old. And … he died, and was buried” (2 Nephi 4:12).

2. Exhortations to Avoid Temptation

Lehi lectured his older sons about “their rebellions upon the waters” (2 Nephi 1:2). He encouraged them to “awake” and “shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound” (2 Nephi 1:13) and “observe the statutes and the judgments of the Lord” (2 Nephi 1:16). He warned them of the consequences that would follow if they failed to keep the commandments (2 Nephi 1:204:4). And he counseled all his posterity to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh” (2 Nephi 2:29).

3. Righteous Instructions

Lehi declared that the Lord’s “ways are righteousness forever” (2 Nephi 1:19), and he encouraged his sons to “put on the armor of righteousness” (2 Nephi 1:23). He taught them the Plan of Salvation (2 Nephi 2) and instructed, “I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit” (2 Nephi 2:28).

Isaac blessing Jacob by Nicolas-Guy Brenet, 1782-1792.

4. Blessings and Curses

Lehi spoke of blessings and curses throughout his discourse. He warned Laman and Lemuel of the curses that would befall them if they failed to keep the commandments (2 Nephi 1:18, 22) and left them a conditional blessing (2 Nephi 1:28–29). He also blessed Zoram (2 Nephi 1:30–31), Jacob (2 Nephi 2:3–4), and Joseph (2 Nephi 3:3, 25). For the children of Laman and Lemuel, he pronounced a blessing on them while cursing their parents (2 Nephi 4:5–9).

5. Prophecies of Future Events

Lehi began, “I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem is destroyed” (2 Nephi 1:4). Lehi then prophesied about the future of the promised land (2 Nephi 1:6–12). He also shared an extensive prophecy from Joseph of Egypt describing many future events (2 Nephi 3). According to Lehi,

Joseph truly saw our day. And he obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of his loins the Lord God would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel; not the Messiah, but a branch which was to be broken off, nevertheless, to be remembered in the covenants of the Lord that the Messiah should be made manifest unto them in the latter days, in the spirit of power, unto the bringing of them out of darkness unto light—yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom. (2 Nephi 3:5, emphasis added)5

Chart comparing the Testament of Joseph with the Testament of Lehi. Chart by Book of Mormon Central.

Interestingly, in the Armenian version of the Testament of Joseph, Joseph was said to have prophesied that a portion of Israel “cried out to the Lord, and the Lord led them into a fertile, well-watered place. He led them out of darkness into Light” (19:3). From there, the patriarch saw the gathering of Israel (19:4–7). As in Lehi’s account, the Greek version of the Testament of Joseph indicates that Joseph knew of the coming Messiah and that the Messiah would not be from his own posterity, but Judah’s (19:8).

Conclusion

Clearly, in some ancient Jewish traditions, it was normal and expected that the patriarch of the family would gather together his family and bless, instruct, exhort, and prophesy to them before passing away. Lehi’s final words fit this pattern well. While the known testamentary literature is from a period later than Lehi’s own day, it ultimately stems from Genesis 49, which was likely on the plates of brass.6 

Many, but not all, of the figures in testamentary literature are patriarchal figures from Israel’s past. In portraying Lehi in this role, Nephi established Lehi and his posterity as an independent branch of Israel. Lehi’s lasting legacy as a founding patriarch among Book of Mormon peoples is consistent throughout the text of the Book of Mormon.7 As John W. Welch has explained,

Seeing Lehi in the patriarchal tradition is borne out by the fact that Lehi was remembered by Nephites from beginning to end as “father Lehi.” … Since Lehi is the only figure in the Book of Mormon called “our father,” this designation appears to be a unique reference to Lehi’s patriarchal position at the head of Nephite civilization, society, and religion.8

Finally, in both Lehi’s discourse and the Testament of Joseph, Joseph seems to prophesy of a portion of Israel being broken off and led to a land of promise. Both patriarchs also prophesied of the gathering of Israel and that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah. The prophecy from the Testament of Joseph cannot currently be traced back to Lehi’s time, let alone all the way back to Joseph of Egypt, yet this comparison illustrates that some well-documented ancient traditions are consonant with traditions found in the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon Central, “Should 2 Nephi 1:1–4:12 Be Called the ‘Testament of Lehi’? (2 Nephi 3:3),” KnoWhy 29 (February 9, 2016).

John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Last Will and Testament: A Legal Approach,” in Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 61–82.

2 Nephi 1:1–4:12

2 Nephi 1:14:12

  • 1 James H. Charlesworth, Introduction to Testaments Section, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols., ed. James H. Charlesworth (Peabody, MA: Henrickson Publishers, 1983), 1:773, brackets added.
  • 2 For background and translation of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, see H.C. Kee, “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:775–828. All quotations will come from this edition.
  • 3 The following points can each be seen, albeit sometimes only subtly, in Genesis 49:  Jacob (1) “called unto his sons” to gather together (49:1–2); (2) his words to Reuben warn against instability (49:4), and his words to Simeon and Levi condemn “cruelty,” murder, anger, and wrath (49:5–6); (3) he speaks of waiting for the Lord’s salvation (49:18) and his words to Joseph illustrate the blessings of leaning on the strength of “the mighty God of Jacob,” and the “stone of Israel” (49:24); (4) the bulk of the chapter is blessings (49:8–13, 19–26, 28) and curses (49:4, 7, 15); and (5) all his words to his sons are about “that which shall befall you in the last days” (49:1), but the blessings to both Judah (49:8–12) and Joseph (49:22–26) are particularly prophetic.
  • 4 All references to chapter and verse are in the Testament of Joseph.
  • 5 Lehi also said that Joseph prophesied about restoring the House of Israel (2 Nephi 3:13, 24).
  • 6 Both the Nephites and the later Jews may have developed “testament” traditions independently based upon Genesis 49 as a model. It is also plausible that earlier strands of testamentary literature existed before its earliest known extant samples. In that scenario, Lehi may have been familiar with the formula based not only on Genesis 49 but via other documents available in his day.
  • 7 For studies which compare Lehi’s posterity to the twelve tribes of Israel, see 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; 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; Corbin Volluz, “A Study in Seven: Hebrew Numerology in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 2 (2014): 57–83.
  • 8 John W. Welch, “Lehi’s Last Will and Testament: A Legal Approach,” in Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 69–70.
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