Monday, November 20, 2017

Did Laban Have the Ownership Rights to the Brass Plates? – Part I

We find in Nephi’s writings, no doubt he took and abridged from the original Book of Lehi, which 116 translated pages Martin Harris lost, that the Lord, knowing of the pending doom that awaited the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding region, as well as the immediate dangers facing Lehi from the wicked inhabitants of the city where Lehi had been preaching, had cautioned Lehi, while there was still time, to leave his home and take his family into the wilderness. Now, this was not surprising, since "Hiding in the wilderness" was exactly what people of the Middle East were known to do when difficulties within the city arose, as we find with David hiding in the wilderness of Ziph in the Judean desert when King Saul hunted him (I Samuel 23:14).and in Lehi’s case, we find a parallel event. 
    So in obeying the Lord, Lehi left his home at Jerusalem and traveled into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:4), down into the lowest land elevation on Earth at 1300 feet below sea level, skirting the Dead Sea, and then through the wadi Arabah (HaArava) along the Arabah Depression, to the Gulf of Agaba, whose shoreline the depression incorporates. In Biblical times, this area was a center of copper production, where King Solomon apparently had his mines. The area was home to the Edomites (Idumea) and to the east was the domain of the Nabateans, builders of the city of Petra. The area is very scenic, with colorful cliffs and sharp-topped mountains, notable for its prehistoric rock carvings, some of the oldest copper mines in the world, and a convoluted cliff called King Solomon's pillars. The Arabah is very hot and dry, and consequently only lightly populated, with the main economic activity agriculture and herding sheep, along with selling camels to those travelers, like Lehi, that would have come off the Jerusalem mountains with donkeys, as such exchange sales are done even today.
Top: The arid Negev (han-Néḡeḇ, meaning “dry south” and references “the [mountain] pass”) at 4,700 square miles, it covers half of Israel, and is the largest desert in the southern region, through which the Wadi Arabah passes; Bottom: the Wadi Arabah—the entire area is a rocky desert of dusty, rocky mountains interrupted by wadis and deep craters, and craterlike makhteshim, or box canyons
Once reaching the southern end, near the Gulf of Aqaba (called the Red Sea in the scriptural record), Lehi traveled three more days before stopping and pitching his tent by the side of a river of water (1 Nephi 2:5-6) that emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:9)

At this point, Nephi writes: “And my father dwelt in a tent” (1 Nephi 2:15), signifying that Lehi was not a city dweller, but one who lived outside the city and was both familiar with, and comfortable, living in a tent. In fact, Taufik Canaan in Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine, states that there were only two classes of Jews in Palestine, the “dwellers in cities and villages, and the Bedouin” (Luzac & Co., London, “The Palestinian Arab House: Its Architecture and Folklore,” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society, vol 13, nos 1-2, 1927, p1932).
    In addition, Stephen L. Craiger in Bible and Spade: “an Introduction to Biblical Archaeology,” also refers to Palestinians as either “city dwellers” or “tent dwellers.”  (Oxford University Press, 1944, p181). Hugh Nibley in Lehi in the Desert, expands upon the subject, saying: “Nephi himself finds the fact very significant and refers constantly to his father's tent as the center of his universe.”
    Nephi is clear when he refers to his father as a “tent dweller,” letting us know his familiarity and comfort with tent living, as opposed to city living. And with this announcement in his record, Nephi tells us that his father assumed the desert way of life, as obviously, he must have in order to complete his lengthy journey (to Bountiful).
    The question is, where did Lehi go into the wilderness, since the region of Jerusalem is surrounded in the south by the wilderness desert—the Negev—also called in part the Wilderness of Zin (Sin). Yet the southern coastal route directly toward Egypt would have been watched and controlled, and though often that route toward Egypt saw many prophets take to escape from Jerusalem, many were followed and brought back for execution.
    Nibley states of Lehi’s route: “As to the direction taken by Lehi's party the Book of Mormon is clear and specific. He took what we now know to have been the only possible way out [from Jerusalem], what with immediate danger threatening from the north, and the eastern and western lands held by opposing powers on the verge of war. Only the south desert, the one land where Israel's traders and merchants had felt at home through the centuries, remained open—even after Jerusalem fell this was so. And the one route into that desert was the great trade-road down the burning trough of the Arabah.”
    This, of course, is the only route that would have been open later for Mulek and his party that whisked the young lad out of Jerusalem and into the south wilderness before Nebuchadnezzar could exact his revenge on the last of king Zedekiah’s family.
    So it was this route, branching east of the Gulf of Agaba and through the mountains toward the Red Sea, into which the Gulf of Agaba emptied. In Nephi’s account, understanding that the Gulf of Agaba was part of the Red Sea, he states of those last three days in their journey as “he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:5, emphasis added).
    It was here, encamped in the valley that Lehi called Lemuel, resting from their lengthy journey from Jerusalem, that Lehi “dreamed a dream,” which is to say, he had seen a vision, as he told Nephi, “in which the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem, for behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass” (1 Nephi 3:2-3).
    Now Laban, described as a notable citizen of Jerusalem that commanded both great wealth and many servants, was the keeper of the record of the Jews, and commanded a garrison of at least fifty men (1 Nephi 3:31), though it should be understood that his position as high military commander, he would have commanded tens of thousands (1 Nephi 4:1) in the field away from Jerusalem, where only fifty were housed for local control.
    It might be noted that for quite some time, according to the Amarna tablets, that the cities in Palestine and Syria had basically been under military rule of native local governors, though they were answerable to Egypt, at a time when Egypt controlled or held influence over much of the Middle East, including Greece, Turkey and most of the Fertile Crescent.
    According to Nibley, “These commandants (called rabis in the Amarna letters) were subordinate to the city-princes (chazan), who commonly address them as 'Brother' or 'Father.'  They were by and large a sordid lot of careerists whose authority depended on constant deception and intrigue, though they regarded their offices as hereditary and sometimes styled themselves kings...The Lachish letters show that such men were still the lords of creation in Lehi's day—the commanders of the towns around Jerusalem were still acting in closest cooperation with Egypt in military matters, depending on the prestige of Egypt to bolster their corrupt power, and still behaving as groveling and unscrupulous timeservers.”
    The Lachish letters mentioned were written shortly before Lachish (an ancient city that is now an archaeological site located in the Shephelah region of Israel between Mount Hebron and the Mediterranean Sea)  fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army in 588-86 B.C. during the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, and refer to commandants (commander of any army), of which Laban would have been one.
    Another question that arises, is why did Laban have the Brass Plates? At the time, Zedekiah, of course, was king, not a prophet, nor was Laban, though his genealogy, as was Lehi’s, was recorded on the Brass Plates. It is likely that Laban held the plates in some official capacity, and kept them in his treasury, evidently because of their great value. It is also likely that he took them with him to the Sanhedrin from time to time to be read among the Elders of the Jews, which is borne out by Nephi’s statement: 
    “And as I went forth towards the treasury of Laban, behold, I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban, that he should go with me into the treasury. And he supposed me to be his master, Laban, for he beheld the garments and also the sword girded about my loins. And he spake unto me concerning the elders of the Jews, he knowing that his master, Laban, had been out by night among them.  And I spake unto him as if it had been Laban. And I also spake unto him that I should carry the engravings, which were upon the plates of brass, to my elder brethren, who were without the walls. And I also bade him that he should follow me. And he, supposing that I spake of the brethren of the church, and that I was truly that Laban whom I had slain, wherefore he did follow me. And he spake unto me many times concerning the elders of the Jews, as I went forth unto my brethren, who were without the walls” (1 Nephi 4:20-27).
    Thus, Laban’s servant, Zoram, was not at all surprised that Nephi, posing as Laban, took the Brass Plates and carried them to who Zoram thought were the brethren, or leaders of the Church at the time.
(See the next post, “Did Laban Have the Ownership Rights to the Brass Plates? – Part II,” for more on this subject)

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