Evidence #197 | May 28, 2021

The Case of Sherem

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Scripture Central

Abstract

As the earliest legal incident in the Book of Mormon, the case of Sherem is particularly consistent with ancient Near Eastern legal standards.

Near the end of Jacob’s ministry, a man named Sherem “began to preach among the people, and to declare unto them that there should be no Christ” (Jacob 7:2). Sherem was “learned” and “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech” (v. 4). At some point during his rising popularity, Sherem “sought much opportunity” to speak with Jacob, apparently to engage him in a public debate over the doctrine of Christ (vv. 3, 6).

As Nephi’s spiritual successor and the leader of those who followed Christ, Jacob must have been viewed as a major obstacle to Sherem’s agenda. Rather than simply seeking out a friendly discussion over differing doctrinal views, Sherem was actively trying to “overthrow the doctrine of Christ” by discrediting and even eliminating that doctrine’s most prominent advocate (Jacob 7:2).

Jacob and Sherem, by Joseph Brickey

Sherem’s Accusations

Part of this strategy involved publicly accusing Jacob of three specific crimes, which can be summarized as (1) leading the people into apostasy, (2) blasphemy, and (3) uttering a false prophecy (Jacob 7:7). As demonstrated in more detail in a separate Evidence Summary, each of these crimes was “punishable by death” and “can be traced to specific provisions in pre-exilic Israelite law.”1

Jacob’s Response

In response to Sherem’s accusations, Jacob asked, “Deniest thou the Christ who shall come?” When Sherem evaded answering directly, Jacob followed up by asking, “Believest thou the scriptures?” (Jacob 7:9–10). By asking these questions, “Jacob framed the thrust of his response in the interrogative form, which was a common form of ancient response or accusation.”2 After confirming that the scriptures testify of Christ, Jacob himself bore testimony of Christ’s Atonement, based on personal knowledge communicated to him “by the power of the Holy Ghost” (v. 13).

Jacob and Sherem. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Sherem Demands a Sign

Sherem replied, “Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13). Clearly, Sherem saw this as an opportunity to undermine Jacob’s authority by testing and proving false his personal claim to revelation. According to Welch, “Sherem’s conduct requesting Jacob to produce divine evidence was not a casual case of idle sign seeking, but rather followed a significant rule of ancient Israelite jurisprudence,”3 as found in Deuteronomy 19:16–17.

“Properly or officially consulting the gods through omens, divination, oaths, and ordeals was indeed a fairly normal practice in ancient Israelite and ancient Near Eastern trials.”4 Evidence of divine intervention was especially sought “when a sole defendant (such as Jacob) insisted upon his innocence but the plaintiff’s evidence had come up lacking (as had Sherem’s).”5 Based on this and several other correspondences with ancient legal precedents, Welch reasoned that “Sherem’s case was the very kind of case that would have demanded that the parties produce some form of divine evidence.”6

Jacob Grants a Sign

Jacob granted Sherem’s request, but did so with some reservation:

What am I that I should tempt God to show unto thee a sign in the thing which thou knowest to be true? Yet thou wilt deny it, because thou art of the devil. Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine. (Jacob 7:14)

Jacob made it clear that he wasn’t the one petitioning God for a sign, nor producing the sign himself. When declaring “What am I that I should tempt God to show unto thee a sign,” Jacob seems to allude to the episode at Massah, when the Israelites “tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7). Such behavior was explicitly condemned in Deuteronomy 6:16: “Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.”

Sherem Contends with Jacob. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

While signs are often not given to those who idly seek them, the unique and dire circumstances of this situation may help explain why God openly revealed his power to Sherem and the people. Sherem’s aim was to overthrow the doctrine of Christ and Jacob’s life was threatened by Sherem’s accusations. The religious welfare of the entire community apparently hung in the balance. And yet, as observed by Welch, “Both parties thus found themselves in a bind, each needing support for their accusations against each other. The entire process was at a logical impasse. … Thus, ascertaining God’s will may have been the only logically consistent way to obtain competent evidence on the issue.”7

Sherem Is Smitten

Immediately after Jacob’s declaration, “the power of the Lord came upon [Sherem], insomuch that he fell to the earth. And it came to pass that he was nourished for the space of many days” (Jacob 7:15). “The fact that Sherem survived for several days would have tended to exculpate Jacob from any legal liability for his death and exclude him as the legal cause of Sherem’s demise, for biblical law held that a tort was not the proximate or culpable cause of death if the injured party survived for a day or two after the injury.”8

Sherem being struck by the power of God. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Sherem’s Confession

Considering that Sherem had “a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” (Jacob 7:4), it is noteworthy that his formal confession has a chiastic structure, a literary form that was commonly used in legal texts:9

A

I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin,

 

B

for I have lied unto God;

 

 

C

for I denied the Christ,

 

 

 

D

and said that I believed the scriptures;

 

 

 

D

and they

 

 

C

truly testify of him

 

B

And because I have thus lied unto God

A

I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God. (Jacob 7:19)

Sherem’s statement also “fits the prototypical form of the ancient confession,”10 which involved an outright confession, admission of sin, and vindication of the opposing party. In Sherem’s case, he “made an explicit confession, saying ‘I confess unto God’ (Jacob 7:19); he openly ‘denied the things which he had taught’ and admitted that he had ‘lied’ and sinned (vv. 17–19); and he ‘confessed,’ even echoing Jacob’s oath-bound word truly (v. 11) in affirming that the scriptures truly testify of Christ (v. 19).”11

“Obtaining a confession was a desired, if not a required, part of ancient Israelite criminal trials.”12 As a false accuser and a false witness, Sherem’s public confession would have been seen as especially necessary and important.13 The point of confessing was typically not to overturn a conviction or lessen a sentence in mortality, but to in some way let the truth be known to the people, while hopefully lessening the severity of judgment in the afterlife.14 This focus on post-mortal judgment was clearly on Sherem’s mind when he worried that he “committed the unpardonable sin” and that his “case shall be awful” before God (Jacob 7:19).

Sherem’s Death

After his confession, Sherem “could say no more, and he gave up the ghost” (Jacob 7:20). While the text is silent about what specifically afflicted Sherem, it is clear that all present understood it to be an act of divine intervention—the final outcome of God smiting him. Punishment by death may seem unusually harsh to modern audiences, but it was likely understandable and even expected by the ancient Nephite community at that time.

Sherem being carried after being struck down. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

 

“Under the laws of the ancient Near East, the crimes of perjury—namely, the bearing of false witness under oath or the failure to prove one’s sworn accusation against another—were apparently vigorously prosecuted, and offenders were seriously punished.”15 Like other Near Eastern legal systems, the punishment for falsely accusing someone of a capital crime was death: “behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother” (Deuteronomy 19:18–19).

In Sherem’s case, he had contravened many important rules: he had accused Jacob of several capital offenses and had failed to prove any of them, he had lied and thus had borne false witness, and he had attempted to lead the people astray under evil influences and false pretenses (Jacob 7:3, 18). Sherem’s death, therefore, suited his crimes and conditions. His is a classic case where talionic justice and divine retribution were appropriately applied under ancient Israelite law.16

Conclusion

Sherem’s accusations against Jacob and Jacob’s response are clearly grounded in biblical law. Other details, such as Sherem’s chiastic confession and ultimate demise would also be at home in an ancient Near Eastern legal setting. Considering that this is the earliest legal confrontation in the Book of Mormon, it is not surprising that it adheres so closely to legal standards from the ancient Near East—where Lehi and his family had dwelled only a generation earlier.

It is also understandable why Jacob included this event, even though Jacob 6:13 suggests he thought his record was finished. “This case not only reinforced the fact that the crime of falsely accusing any person of a capital offense under the law of Moses exposed oneself to punishment by death (Deuteronomy 19:18–21), but it also opened the way for faithful Nephite leaders to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without the threat of legal complications or contentions.”17

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press), 107–138.

John W. Welch, “Sherem’s Accusations Against Jacob,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999),

Jacob 7:1–23

Jacob 7:1–23

Law
Book of Mormon

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