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3 Nephi 4


The Lord Confirms the Covenant Way

      Alma 45 -- 3 Nephi 10


3 Nephi 4:1 The Robbers . . . Began to Take Possession of the Lands, Both Which Were in the Land South and Which Were in the Land North:


     The Nephites had gathered to "the center of our lands" (3 Nephi 3:21). Apparently the robbers were closing in on the Nephites from at least two sides, the north and the south (see 3 Nephi 4:1). Whether the robbers closed in from the east and the west is not specifically mentioned; however, the phrase "center of our lands" seems to imply as much. Additionally, in 3 Nephi 4:16 it says that the robbers came up on all sides to lay seige. The Nephites seem to have gathered to a hilly area because the robbers had to "come up" to battle against them (3 Nephi 4:4).


3 Nephi 4:4 Having Reserved for Themselves Provisions, and Horses and Cattle, and Flocks:


     In 3 Nephi 4:4 we finds that the Nephites "reserved for themselves provisions, and horses and cattle, and flocks of very kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years." E. L. Peay notes that since horses are associated with the food supply, one might think that horses were a source of food for them. If that were true, this could account for the lack of horses when the Spaniards came; the horses could have been depleted during times of war and famine. [E. L. Peay, The Lands of Zarahemla: Nephi's Land of Promise, p. 153]


3 Nephi 4:4 Having Reserved for Themselves Provisions . . . for the Space of Seven Years:


     According to Hugh Nibley, the Nephite governor Lachoneus "sent a proclamation among all the people, that they should gather together their women, and their children, their flocks and their herds, and all their substance, save it were their land, unto one place" (3 Nephi 3:13). The order was quickly and efficiently carried out with incredible speed, the people "coming forth by thousands and by tens of thousands . . . to the place which had been appointed" (3 Nephi 3:22). The people were used to such gatherings. Particularly significant is it that they brought with them "provisions . . . of every kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years . . ." (3 Nephi 4:4), since as Dr. Gordon has shown, the purpose of the Great Assembly in ancient Palestine had always been to insure a seven-year food-supply, rather than an annual prosperity. (C. Gordon, Ugaritic Literature, pp. 4-5). [Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, (1957), p. 268.]

     According to Nibley, seven years was a set policy of ancient times--the seven-year cycle. You know, the seven lean years and the seven fat years [in the story about Joseph in Egypt]. . . . You would get enough food for seven years, and this was a law in Israel too. Remember, every seven years was a year of release, the Lord's year. The year of release was the seventh year, and the great year was the seven times seventh year, the 49th. So they were just following the old Jewish custom of getting all the stuff you'd need together for a seven-year cycle. [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 3, p. 301]


3 Nephi 4:4 Having Reserved for Themselves Provisions . . . for the Space of Seven Years:


     According to McConkie and Parry, the root of the Hebrew word for seven (sheva) is identical to the Hebrew verb that means "to take an oath," thus connecting the word seven to covenants and covenant making. Further, the word seven denotes perfection and completion. [Joseph Fielding McConkie & Donald W. Parry, A Guide to Scriptural Symbols, p. 99]


3 Nephi 4:7 And It Came to Pass That They Did Come up to Battle; and It Was in the Sixth Month; and . . . and . . . and . . . and:


     Hugh Pinnock writes that polysyndeton is among the easiest of repetitious ancient Hebrew writing forms to identify because it repeats "the word and at the beginning of successive clauses." A good example of polysyndeton in the Book of Mormon is found in 3 Nephi 4:7:

     And it came to pass that they did come up to battle;

     and it was in the sixth month;

     and behold, great and terrible was the day that they did come up to battle;

     and they were girded about after the manner of robbers;

     and they had a lamb-skin about their loins,

     and they were dyed in blood,

     and their heads were shorn,

     and they had headplates upon them;

     and great and terrible was the appearance of the armies . . . because of their armor,

     and because of their being dyed in blood.


     Easily recognizable, polysyndeton was a tool frequently used by Hebrew writers and is an obvious support for the Book of Mormon's Hebraic roots. [Hugh W. Pinnock, Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon, FARMS, 1999, pp. 21-, 25, 27] [See the commentary on Alma 1:29, Helaman 3:14, 3 Nephi 11:19-20]


3 Nephi 4:7 [The Gadianton Robbers] Had a Lamb-skin about Their Loins:


     According to Matthew Brown, the lambskin apparel mentioned in 3 Nephi 4:7 has strong affinities with the ritual aprons of ancient Israel, Egypt, and Mesoamerica. . . . English dictionaries from the time when the Book of Mormon was being translated indicate that the words "girdle" and "apron" could be used interchangeably.105 . . . It is also fairly common for Bible commentators to note that in the Old Testament the Hebrew word translated as "apron" (hagorah) is sometimes also translated as "girdle," and that the two words can be used interchangeably.106 Likewise, in the New Testament the Greek word that is translated as "apron" (simikinthion) literally means "half-girdle."107 . . . Is it possible that when Joseph Smith translated these passages from a modified form of Hebrew/Egyptian, he understood the Gadianton "girdle" to be an "apron"? . . .      At the present time we do not possess a detailed account of Nephite temple activities. . . . we also do not find within [the Book of Mormon] pages a detailed description of the ritual clothing worn by the Nephite temple priests during their ministrations. But because they were orthodox Israelites, it is probably safe to assume that the Nephites wore the very same ritual attire that is divinely prescribed in Exodus 28. . . .

     The temple connection is significant because the temple priests of ancient Israel wore a piece of ritual clothing called the ephod. Some scholars believe that in some instances this item of apparel was "a kind of leather apron."108 . . . In Genesis 3:7 the aprons worn by Adam and Eve were girded about their waists so as to enclose and cover the area of their lap or loins.109 . . . One ancient account of the priestly investiture ceremony says that the apron was symbolic of "prophetic power."110 This connection can be seen in the belief that the ephod originated as the apparel of deity and was worn on the earth by those who represented and spoke in deity's behalf.111 . . . In some Hebrew theological circles it was held that Adam was the first earthly king, and the kings of Israel were thus seen as imitators of the first man (see Genesis 1:26-28).112 . . .

     Hebrew legends taught that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree and it was from this tree's leaves that Adam constructed his apron.113 . . . A strong connection was made in ancient Near Eastern religious thought between the king and the tree of life even to the point where the king was seen as a personification of that tree.114 . . . Since Adam wore an apron made of fig leaves (see Genesis 3:7), is it possible that the apron worn by Israel's king [and High Priest] somehow imitated the one worn by Adam? . . .

     A type of foliated apron was also worn by the Maya kings of Mesoamerica.115 The Maya royal apron was knee length, covered only the front part of the body, was worn underneath a royal belt, and was decorated with a glyph known as god C. The phonetic reading of this glyph is k'ul, which is the Maya word for sacred, holy, or divinity. Therefore this glyph is an identifying icon for the attribute of "holiness" and designates the object to which it is attached as being in such a state.116 More significant, however, is the nature of the god C glyph because it is derived from the Wacah Chan, the Maya "world tree" or tree of life symbol. The Maya king was considered to be a personification of that tree and the central axis of the Maya cosmos.117 . . .

     The astute reader of the Book of Mormon has no doubt also noticed that in 3 Nephi 4:7, and in other places where the skin girdle is mentioned, the context is that of war. In this regard it is interesting to note that as part of his special war regalia the Maya king girded himself with the world tree apron.118 It is evident from surviving artistic examples that many of the Maya royal aprons had an additional emblem attached to them, a woven mat design that was symbolic of the king's throne and thus his "authority, overlordship and power."119 . . .

     We have already mentioned that the prophets, priests, and kings of ancient Israel wore aprons that symbolized their prophetic power. . . . A curious passage in John 19:23 says that the Lord possessed a robe "without seam," which he wore to the crucifixion and may have had with him during the Upper Room activities that commence with John 13. Commentators see in this reference a direct parallel to the robe of Israel's high priest, which was constructed after the same manner (see Exodus 28:31-32).120 In John 13:4-5 we read that Jesus "took a towel, and girded himself . . . and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded." The word translated here as "towel" can also be translated as "servant's apron."121 . . .

     The next pertinent question we should ask ourselves is, What kind of leather were the Christian aprons made of? Various traditions hold that Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel the temple priest, and several early Christian Saints wore sheepskin clothing.122 Why so? Perhaps the idea goes back to the story of God providing "coats of skins" for Adam and Eve (see Genesis 3:21). Some Hebrew traditions maintain that this divine clothing was made from sheepskin.123 Other traditions claim that Adam's raiment was nothing less than the prototype of the high priest's temple robes (see Exodus 28) and that he, and righteous firstborn sons after him, wore this clothing when they offered sacrifices.124

     This perspective may help explain the warning given by the Lord to his disciples to beware of "false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing" (Matthew 7:15; 3 Nephi 14:15). In Zechariah 13:4 we learn that false prophets were in the habit of dressing in the same distinctive vestments worn by the true prophets in order to deceive the people with their message. This is also reminiscent of 2 Corinthians 11:13-14, where we learn that false prophets somehow "transform" themselves to be like the Lord's apostles just as "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (emphasis added). Curiously enough, Joseph Smith taught that one of the ploys Satan uses to deceive others into thinking that he is an "angel of light" is that he wears "holy garb."125 This leads us directly back to the circumstances surrounding 3 Nephi 4:7 and a possible explanation for why the lambskin apparel is mentioned there. . . .

     There is evidence within the Book of Mormon itself that members of the secret combinations were blasphemous imitators of the holy order of God.126 And since the objectives of priestcraft and the secret combinations were one and the same (to get gain) it is proposed that this is the context in which the lambskin apparel of 3 Nephi 4:7 can best be understood. . . . The express purpose of those who joined the secret combinations was for them to obtain power (see Helaman 2:8; Ether 8:14-19, 22-23; 11:15). What could have been a more meaningful symbol for them than an emblem which for long ages past had represented the very thing for which they sought?

     Sorenson has demonstrated several parallels between the Gadianton robbers and ancient Mesoamerican secret societies. Members of one secret society, called the nahualistas, carried pieces of sacred animal skin on their person as a symbol of the "power" given to them by their nahual or guardian animal spirit.127 New members of these societies were required to go through an initiation ceremony in which they were taught secret knowledge by a "religious" or semipriestly order known as "master magicians."128 This is particularly intriguing because in Mormon 1:18-19 a connection is made between the secret combinations and the practice of magic. In Moses 5:30-31 and 49 a connection is also made between secret combinations and the strange title Master Mahan. . . . Footnote d for Moses 5:31, offers several possible meanings for Mahan based on its etymological root.129 Of the choices offered I [Matt Brown] personally feel that "destroyer" is the most probable one. My reasoning for this is that the Hebrew word maha means "destroy."130 and the addition of an n would make the word a noun.131 Hence, maha(n) = destroy(er). . . .

     In conclusion, the lambskin apparel mentioned in 3 Nephi 4:7 has strong affinities with the ritual aprons of ancient Israel, Egypt, and Mesoamerica. . . . Why was the leather apparel worn by those among the secret combinations? If they were, indeed, imitating the ritual apron worn by the legitimate prophets, priests, and kings of Israel, these apostates would have been hard pressed to find a better symbol of the power and authority that they so much desired to usurp for themselves (see Helaman 7:4; Alma 25:4-5; D&C 76:28; 29:36; Moses 4:1-3). Why did the Book of Mormon authors make sure that this particular theme was presented to us in the latter-days? Perhaps to warn us of wolves in sheep's clothing (see Alma 5:59-60). Matthew B. Brown, "Girded about with a Lambskin," in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2, 1997, pp. 124-151]


3 Nephi 4:7 They [the Gadianton robbers] had a lamb-skin about their loins (Illustration): Figure 1. Theodore C. Foote, "The Ephod," Journal of Biblical Literature 21 (1902): 42. Figure 2. William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (New York: Kraus, 1968), 2:1307. Figure 4. The Maya tree of life and its transformation into the royal apron. Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynassty and Ritual in Maya Art (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1986), 77. Matthew B. Brown, "Girded about with a Lambskin," in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2, 1997, pp. 135,137,142]


3 Nephi 4:16,21 [The Robbers] Came up on All Sides to Lay Siege:


     This specific refuge area of the Nephites was apparently small enough for the robbers to "lay siege" (3 Nephi 4:16, 21). There had been a larger Nephite zone which the Nephites had apparently been using for some subsistence, because the robbers thought they could hurt the Nephites by cutting them off from those lands. The Nephites must have occupied a very favorable defensive position, from which defenders could "march out" to harass the robber armies (3 Nephi 4:21).


3 Nephi 4:23 Zemnarihah Did Give a Command . . . That (His People) Should March into the Furthermost Parts of the Land Northward:


     Why would the robbers want to "march into the furthermost parts of the land northward" (3 Nephi 4:23)? And where exactly were these "parts"? According to John Sorenson, it seems that the area indicated could be the same area that was the destination of dissident "king" Jacob in 3 Nephi 7. [See the commentary on 3 Nephi 7:12] It also seems that this area was peopled by many who had previously migrated from the land of Zarahemla to the land northward. [See the commentary on Helaman 3:3-4]


3 Nephi 4:28 Zemnarihah Was Taken and Hanged upon a Tree:


     In 3 Nephi 4:28 we find that "Zemnarihah was taken and hanged upon a tree." According to an article by John W. Welch, several evidences point to an ancient background for this execution. Consider these few items:

     First, notice that the tree on which Zemnarihah was hung was felled. Was this ever done in antiquity? Apparently it was. For one thing, Israelite practice required that the tree upon which the culprit was hung be buried with the body. Hence the tree had to have been chopped down.

     Second, consider why the tree was chopped down and buried. As Maimonides explains: "In order that it should not serve as a sad reminder, people saying: 'This is the tree on which so-and-so was hanged.' "

     Third, the text suggests that the Nephites understood Deuteronomy 21:22 as allowing execution by hanging - a reading that the rabbis saw as possible.

     Fourth, observe that the ancient idea of fashioning a punishment that fits the crime was carried out here. For example, if a thief broke into a house, he was to be put to death and "hung in front of the place where he broke in." Ancient punishments were often related symbolically to the offense. Likewise, the punishment for a false accuser was to make him suffer whatever would have happened to the person he had falsely accused (see Deuteronomy 19:19). In Zemnarihah's case, he was hung in front of the very nation he had tried to destroy, and he was felled to the earth just as he had tried to bring that nation down.

     Finally, the people all chanted loudly, proclaiming the wickedness of Zemnarihah, which may be reminiscent of the ancient practice of heralding a notorious execution (Deuteronomy 19:20) [John W. Welch, "The Execution of Zemnarihah," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, p. 252]


3 Nephi 4:28 When They Had Hanged Him . . . [They] Did Cry with a Loud Voice, Saying:


     According to Terrance Szink, it is interesting to note that after surrounding the robbers, the Nephites took their leader, and hanged him upon the top of a tree.

           And when they had hanged him until he was dead they did fell the tree to the earth, and did cry with a loud voice, saying: May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth. (3 Nephi 4:28-29)


     This ritual is similar in underlying thought to Egyptian oaths called execration texts. In such texts, the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom ritually cursed their enemies by writing their names on bowls or figures of clay and then smashing them. As they broke the bowls or figures they believed they were destroying the power of those whose names were inscribed thereon. The following is an example of a text written on such a bowl: "All men, all people, all folk, all males, all eunuchs, all women, and all officials, who may rebel, who may plot, who may fight, who may talk of fighting, or who may talk of rebelling, and every rebel who talks of rebelling--in this entire land."132

     The reader should note that there is a subtle difference in the two rituals--the Egyptians directly cursed the enemy, while in the Book of Mormon the people asked that they might be strengthened through their righteousness in order that they may destroy the enemy. [Terrence L. Szink, "A Just and a True Record," in Studies in Scripture: Book of Mormon, Part 2, pp. 132-133]


3 Nephi 4:29 May the Lord Preserve His People . . . and Cause to Be Felled to the Earth All Who Shall Seek to Slay Them:


     According to an article by Donald Parry, prophetic symbolic curses are well attested in the Bible. The people of the Book of Mormon demonstrate this Old World tradition of performing symbolic actions that revealed a prophetic curse. For example, according to the Bible, Ezekiel cut off the hair of his beard and his head, and divided it into three portions. One third Ezekiel burned, one third he scattered into the wind, and one third he smote with a knife. This was a prophetic curse, demonstrating the three ways in which Israel would perish -- by fire, by scattering, and by the sword of war (see Ezekiel 5:1-17). A prophetic symbolic action accompanied by a curse is found in the hanging of Zemnarihah on the top of a tree. After his death the Nephites felled the tree and called out in unison, "May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth" (3 Nephi 4:29). This act predicated the way the wicked would be slain if they continued their attempts to murder the righteous. [Donald W. Parry, "Symbolic Action as Prophetic Curse," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, pp. 206-207] [See also Mark J. Morrise, "Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East, Old Testament, and Book of Mormon," in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Spring 1993, pp. 124-138]