Monday, July 27, 2020

The Departure of Alma and Traditions about the Death of Moses

Alma counseling Helaman before his departure (
After years of diligent service preaching the Gospel among the people of Nephi, the prophet Alma counseled with his sons, prophesied about the future, and blessed the Church.

And when Alma had done this he departed out of the land of Zarahemla, as if to go into the land of Melek. And it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of. Behold, this we know, that he was a righteous man; and the saying went abroad in the church that he was taken up by the Spirit, or buried by the hand of the Lord, even as Moses. But behold, the scriptures saith the Lord took Moses unto himself; and we suppose that he has also received Alma in the spirit, unto himself; therefore, for this cause we know nothing concerning his death and burial (Alma 45:18-19).

The reference to Moses being buried by the hand of the Lord is seemingly a reference to the account in Deuteronomy which reads

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

The Book of Mormon passage is interesting because it suggests that while the Nephites were aware of the tradition that Moses was buried by the hand of the Lord, they had additional information from their scriptural heritage which indicated that Moses was “taken up” by the Spirit and that the Lord “took Moses unto himself.”

Alexandre Cabanel, The Death of Moses (Wikipedia Commons)
The enigmatic passage in Deuteronomy about the death of Moses gave rise to numerous Jewish and Samaritan stories in late antiquity. These stories have been the object of research by many scholars during the last century. "The death of Moses," writes Samuel Loewenstamm in one important study, "occupied the mind of apocryphal and midrashic writers unceasingly. They never tired of seeking new and innovative ways to understand it" (Samuel Loewenstamm, "The Death of Moses" in George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jr., ed., Studies on the Testament of Moses, Scholars Press, 1976, 185). In some of these tales Moses dies, but only after he is shown a vision of the future. In others, he cleverly evades the efforts of the angel of death to take his life, only to die later in peace to be buried by God or other heavenly beings. Other traditions focus on Moses ascent upon the mount.  "A combination of the midrashim which deny Moses' death with reports of his disappearance in a cloud and his subsequent death leads to a reconstruction of a tradition in which Moses approached God ascending a mountain and was exalted from there to heaven by the cloud of Divine Glory (Loewenstamm, 198).

In the Jewish text Pseudo-Philo which dates to the first century the Lord tells Moses that he will glorify and bury him in peace.

And when Moses heard this, he was filled with understanding and his appearance became glorious; and he died in glory according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him as he promised him. And the angels mourned at his death, and the lightnings and the torches and the arrows went all together before him . . . .And he buried him with his own hands on a high place and in the light of all the world (Pseudo-Philo 19:16, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985, 2:328).

Another example and somewhat more elaborate version of this tradition can be found in the Samaritan Memar Marqah.

How great the hour at which the great prophet Moses stood on the top of Mount Nebo, and all the heavenly angels were doing him honour there. His Lord exalted him and He unveiled the light of his eyes and showed him the four quarters of the world. Great was the joy that was in Moses' heart when He revealed to him the sequel to the Day of Vengeance, so that he did not fear death. Great was the joy that abode in Moses' heart when he saw the angels standing about him, on his right and on his left, behind and before him. The great Glory took him by his right hand, embracing him and walking before him . . . . He turned his face toward Mount Gerizim and lay down on the ground, looking straight in front of him. God made a sleep to fall upon him and his soul departed without difficulty without him knowing (John Macdonald, Memar Marqah: The Teaching of Marqah, 2:206).

In this Samaritan text Moses is received up in glory on the mount in the presence of God and angels, but does not escape death, although it is sweet to him.

Perhaps the best known non-biblical account of Moses' death is that of Josephus who wrote at the end of the first century.

Now as soon as they were come to the mountain called Abarim (which is a very high mountain, situated over against Jericho and one that affords, to such as are upon it, a prospect of the greater part of the excellent land of Canaan), he dismissed the senate: and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear lest they should venture to say that, because of this extraordinary virtue, he went to God. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, verse 48,  William Whiston Translation).

James Purvis thought it likely that "Josephus and Marqah were both dependent upon a common old Palestinian story of the death of Moses, Each told the story in his own way, with Marqah and the other Samaritan writers glorifying Moses to a greater degree than did Josephus" ("Samaritan Traditions on the Death of Moses" in Studies on the Testament of Moses, 110).

Josephus adds details not found in Deuteronomy, such as Moses being received into a cloud on the mount, but denied that Moses escaped death, a view with which he is apparently familiar, but denies. Examples of this alternative view can be found in other Jewish writings such as Philo of Alexandria (On the Life of Moses II:288-291). and some rabbinical sources which held that "Moses never died" (b. Sota 13b), and that in fact he "continues to minister above" (Sifre Deut 357 and Midrash Tannaim 224). It appears that "the two beliefs existed side by side in Judaism. The majority of the Jewish writers followed the biblical account and believed that Moses had died, but others accepted the belief in his bodily translation to heaven to remain there until his return to earth when the times were fulfilled" (Howard M Teeple, The Mosaic Eschatological Prophet. Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1957, 42; see also C. Houtman, "Moses" in Karel van der Toorn, ed., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1999, 596).

The Samaritan Book of Joshua was translated into Arabic in medieval times, but is believed to be based upon a Hebrew original and Samaritan sources that can be traced to the Hellenistic period. It contains similarities to the Memar Marqah mentioned above, but also has significant details not found there. Moses' tearful farewell is described as he ascends the mountain.

They began to cry aloud and wail and weep; and after a space of time he commanded them to be quiet and to sit down. Then he departed, walking slowly up the ascent of the mountain unto which God had ordered him to ascend, and with him were Yusha, the son of Nun, and el'Azar the imam, and the assembly of the leaders who were bidding him farewell and weeping at the approach of his separation from them and clinging to him. And when the farewells were prolonged with them, and night drew near, a pillar of divine fire descended and separated between them and their master-peace be upon him--and no one knows what happened to him after this, even unto this time.

The account goes on to say that after this time, "his dealings were directly with his Lord and His angels." This account is notable in that while it tells of Moses' disappearance the prophet is never said to have died.

Angeli Giuseppe, Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire (Wikipedia Commons)

The persistence of two divergent traditions following the compilation of the Hebrew Scriptures (one where Moses died and another where he did not) has led some scholars to wonder if the roots of the tradition of Moses' translation do not derive from earlier sources which we no longer have. Loewenstamm views the passage in Deuteronomy 34:5-6 as "a toning down" or polemic against a tradition of Moses' translation already known to the biblical writer ("The Death of Moses" 198).

The prophet Elijah who ascended into heaven without tasting death (2 Kings 2:11) is portrayed as a prophet like Moses throughout the Book of Kings. The Elijah account, as many have observed, seems to have been written in such a way as to invite a comparison between the two prophets. It is noteworthy that the place of Elijah's translation is in the same general region as Moses' departure on the other side of Jordan, opposite Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:1; 2 Kings 2:5-6). According to Dale Alison, "It is not impossible that one or more contributors to Kings knew the tradition to which Deuteronomy may already be a counter, that Moses never died" (The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1993, 42).

Gustav Dore', Elijah Taken Up into Heaven (Wikipedia Commons)

Yair Zakovitch also thinks that the account in Kings points to an older and original tradition of the translation of Moses indirectly through the account of Elijah."The tradition of Elijah's ascent to heaven also borrows from the Mosaic narratives: not from the written version of Moses' death found in Deuteronomy 34, but from an earlier stratum of the tradition." He thinks that "the original story of Moses' ascent has disappeared, but its light still shines through in the Elijah story" (
"And You Shall Tell Your Son . . ." The Concept pf the Exodus in the Bible (Hebrew University, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991, 73-74, 79). Elijah, who parted the waters of the Jordan “hither and thither” as Moses did the Red Sea, was taken up by the Spirit (“the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up” 2 Kings 2:16). This is not indicated in the text of Deuteronomy but it is said of Elijah who is portrayed in Kings as a new Moses. Zakovitch sees here an indirect reference to an earlier Moses tradition, known to the writers of Deuteronomy and Kings in which the prophet of the Exodus did not die, but was "taken up" by the Spirit.

A tradition that Moses was taken up by the Spirit was also known to the Nephites who were descendants of the house of Joseph through Manasseh (1 Nephi 6:2; Alma 10:1-3; 3 Nephi 5:20-23). Members of the Church in Helaman's day concluded that Alma, a prophet like Moses, had been translated in a similar manner. Their scriptures also indicated that the Lord took Moses unto himself, a description that is also missing from our current bibles (Alma 45:19). If these were derived from the plates of brass, which contained history, genealogy, and prophecies from their Josephite ancestors (1 Nephi 5:10-19; 3 Nephi 10:16-17), it would make sense that variations or fragments of that tradition might be found in later versions of the Moses story. Indeed, it appears that a tradition in which Moses was taken to God in the Spirit, glorified, but did not die, was had among Samaritans who claim a similar northern heritage.

[For more on Alma's departure and Mesoamerica see this earlier post].

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Destruction of Records in Ancient America and the Book of Mormon

Men of Ammonihah burn the scriptures of believers (churchofjesuschrist,org)

The Nephite prophet-historians carefully preserved their most valuable records which were privately passed down from generation to generation with stern admonitions to keep them safe from abuse and destruction (Alma 37:14-18). Enos, the son of Nephi's priest brother Jacob wrote that their Lamanite enemies, "swore in the wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers" (Enos 1:14), and the Book of Mormon shows that it was only through painstaking labor that they were able to be successful in doing so. Not long before the annihilation of the Nephites, Mormon recorded,

Knowing this to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni (Mormon 6:6).

Attempts to destroy records of the past have a long a tragic history and the history of ancient Mesoamerica is no exception. "Deliberate destruction of records," writes Nichoson, "frequently accompanied pre-hispanic as well as post-Conquest military takeovers. As always, one of the principles prizes of military victory was the past (cf. Orwell's `who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.'), and conscious alteration of existing records for political advantage in the wake of conquests and related upheavals must have been common.--and creates problems in long range chronological interpretation" (H. B. Nicholson, Western Mesoamerica: 900-1620," in R. E. Taylor and Clement W. Meighan, eds., Chronologies in Ne World Archaeology. New York: Academic Press, 1978, 320).

The Spanish Conquest led to the irreparable loss of valuable historical knowledge about the pre-columbian past. Diego Duran, who sought to reconstruct the history of the Mexica wrote with frustration, "Some early friars burned ancient books and writings and thus they were lost. Then too, the old people who could write these books are no longer alive to tell of the settling of this country,and it was they whom I would have consulted for my chronicle" (Doris Heyden, ed., The History of the Indies of New Spain. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994, 20). The sparse details concerning Tlaxcaltecan rulers given in the Anonimo Mexicano, a document written decades after the Conquest, sadly points to the dearth of historical knowledge caused by the loss of such records. 

From Diego Rivera's mural The History of Mexico (Wikipedia Commons)

In a passage which speaks of earlier kings the writer recounts

He was called Cuauhtzinteuctli, grandson of the ruler of Acolhua. And he made himself the ruler. and this ruler's accomplishments were not written, because the books about his rulership perished. The he was succeeded by Ilhhuicamina. After he died, Matlaccoatl followed behind him and was made ruler. After this ruler died, a son called Tezcacoatl received the rulership. After this Tezcacoatl died, one named Tezcapoctli ruled. After this Tezcapoctli died, the lord Teotlehuac followed him. But the accomplishments of all these lords are not found in the painted books. When the Spanish entered, they destroyed all these books (Richley H. Crapo and Bonnie Glass-Coffin, ed., Anonimo Mexicano. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2005, 26).\

In Yucatan, Bishop Diego de Landa caused the destruction of numerous Mayan codices of which less than a handful survive today. He wrote:

These people also made use of certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and by these drawings and by curious signs in these drawings, they understood their affairs and made others understand them and taught them. We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction (Alfred M. Tozzer, ed., Landa Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1941, 169).  

Bernardo de Lizana wrote that Landa discovered a cache of idols in a cave.

Thus he collected the books and the ancient writing and he commanded them burned and tied up. They burned many historical books of the ancient Yucatan which told of its beginning and history, which were of much value if, in our writing, they had been translated because today there would be something original. At best there is no great authority for more than the traditions of these Indians (Tozzer, 78).

Subsequent Spanish Clergy and historians lamented the willful destruction of such records.

With suspicion of this idolatry, they collected all the books and ancient writings which the Indians had and in order to erase all the danger and memory of their ancient rites, as many as they were able to find we burned publicly on the day of the auto and at the same time with these (were destroyed) the history of their antiquities (Diego Lopez de Cogolludo, in Tozzer, 78).

Afterwards some of our friars understood and knew how to read them, and even wrote them, but because in these books were mixed many things of idolatry, they burned almost all of them, and thus was lost the knowledge of many ancient matters of that land which by them could have been known (Alonzo de San Juan Ponce, in Tozzer, 78).

In the province of Yucatan, where is the so-called Bishopric of Honduras, there used to exist some books of leaves, bound or folded after a fashion, in which the learned Indians kept the distribution of their times and the knowledge of plants, animals, and other things of nature and the ancient customs, in a way of great neatness and carefulness. It appeared to a teacher of doctrine that all this must be to make witchcraft and magic art; he contended that they should be burned and those books were burned and afterwards not only the Indians but many eager-minded Spaniards who desired to know the secrets of that land felt badly. The same thing has happened in other cases where our people, thinking that all is superstition, have lost many memories of ancient and hidden things which they might have used to no little advantage. This follows from a stupid zeal, when without knowing or even wishing to know the things of the Indians, they say as in the sealed package, that everything is sorcery and that the peoples there are only a drunken lot an what can they know or understand. The ones who have wished earnestly to be informed of these have found many things worthy of consideration (Jose de Acosta, in Tozzer, 78).

Native accounts from the Valley of Mexico indicate that during the reign of Itzcoatl (1427-1440) many Aztec records were deliberately burned by Aztecs rulers themselves for ideological and propaganda purposes. The rulers at Tenochtitlan rewrote their own history and destroyed earlier versions. “Doris Heyden explains, "The Aztec had to be put in a favorable light in order to eradicate their early and probably undistinguished past” (Heyden, 81, note 7). For example, according to the Florentine Codex, “A council of rulers of Mexico took place. They said: `It is not necessary for all the common people to know of the writings; government will be defamed, and this will only spread sorcery in the land; for it containeth many falsehoods” (Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, eds., The Florentine Codex. Book 10: The People. Santa Fe: School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, 1961, 191).  Joyce Marcus suggests that these burned histories likely, "contained the deeds of previous rulers, their genealogies, and their relations with neighboring peoples” (Joyce Marcus, Mesoamerican Writing Systems: Propaganda, Myth, and History in Four Ancient Civilizations. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992, 146).

In the official Mexica version of the conquest of Azcopalzalco, the Mexica did not acknowledge the substantial aid they received from their allies, the Alcohua of Texcoco; in fact, they neglected to mention that they had had any help. To legitimize their new prominence, the Mexica also needed to establish that they had had a glorious and worthy heritage; thus, they decided to claim descent from the last great civilization, that of the Toltec. They also decided to elevate their patron deity of war, Huitzilopochtli, to a level above that of the other deities populating the cosmos. . . . Itzcoatl thought that the Mexica’s historical archives were no longer appropriate to their new-found prominence, so he burned them and wrote a new history that was more in line with current needs (Marcus 148-49). 

Madrid Codex

“The famous burning of the books by (Aztec) Itzcoatl," wrote Davies, "was hardly an isolated case and the Maya were surely not alone in ritually destroying their carved texts." He believes such codices, "were destroyed at intervals and history was then rewritten to suit the ruler of the day" (Nigel Davies, “The Aztec Concept of History: Teotihuacan and Tula,” in Jacqeline de Durand-Forest, ed., The Native Sources and the History of the Valley of Mexico. Oxford: BAR, 1984, 207). Monuments and Stela appear to have been frequently defaced and destroyed throughout most Mesoamerican history. Such monuments, written on stone, however, constituted only a small part of what once must have been a robust and widespread literary tradition of records written on perishable materials. The late Mayanist Michael Coe wrote that the end of the Classic Period of Maya culture sadly saw the destruction of many such records. 

It was not just the `stela cult’–the inscribed glorification of royal lineages and their achievements - that disappeared with the collapse, but an entire world of esoteric knowledge, mythology, and ritual. Much of the elite cultural behavior . . . such as the complex underworld mythology and iconography found on Classic Maya funerary ceramics, failed to re-emerge with the advent of the Post-Classic era, and one can only conclude that the royalty and nobility, including the scribes who were the repository of so much sacred knowledge, had "gone with the wind." They may well have been massacred by an enraged populace, and their screen-fold books consumed in a holocaust similar to that carried out centuries later by Bishop Landa (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, Fifth edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993, 128).

The deliberate destruction of records makes sense in light of the Book of Mormon which was written by a record keeping people. Nephite enemies had rival traditions which conflicted with those held by the Nephites (Mosiah 10:12-17; Alma 54:16-18; 3 Nephi 3:10). Nephites dissenters, some of whom found value in keeping records for economic reasons, were not particularly interested in preserving much of the Nephite tradition itself (Mosiah 24:5-7). And the Lamanites actively sought to destroy Nephite records and traditions (Enos 1:14; Mormon 6:6). Records written on perishable materials would not likely have survived (Jacob 4:1-2; Alma 14:8). Original documents written on permanent material such as plates were carefully preserved and hidden up to come forth at a future day, but persistent efforts, following the last war to destroy anything considered Nephite would most likely insure that other Nephite records written in reformed Egyptian would not survive. When we think of the people of the people of Lehi as one pre-columbian group among many, it seems more understandable how the records of such a group might no longer be found in archaeological remains.