As we read the Book of Mormon we soon recognize that it has its roots deep in the Semitic culture and Hebrew language of the ancient Near East. These roots provided the cultural framework and social support for the Book of Mormon people. Also, out of these roots came the moral heritage and spiritual leadership that strengthened these people for 1,000 years.
Knowing just a few of the following roots of the Book of Mormon, we can better appreciate the Old World heritage of this important scripture:-Tribal Social Order - The Book of Mormon record the history of many different groups of people. Almost all names used to identify these groups came from persons who became ancestors of great tribes. Very few groups were identified by their geographic origins or religious attitudes-- two identifications readily used to label people today.
The Book of Mormon community was primarily a tribal society, stemming from the tribes of Israel in Canaan. This tribal pattern was established early in Book of Mormon history as witnessed in the patriarchal blessings given by father Lehi shortly before his death.
In 2 Nephi 4 and 5, we find Lehi's family and others traveling with them in America were already dividing into different family subgroups within the two major groupings of the Nephites and the Lamanites. These tribal identifications remained centuries later after the whole Nephite and Lamanite political structure collapsed and the people reverted back to a pure tribal society. (3 Ne. 7:1-4.)
Tribes were more than extended family organizations since they also provided the social services and personal welfare needs that governments usually provide today. To leave or to be expelled from your tribe anciently was much more than a social disgrace-- it meant forfeiting the tribal benefits that we now receive from social security, unemployment funds, health and life insurance, catastrophic aid, etc. The trauma of leaving one's tribe, becoming social outcasts and being dependent upon others is seen vividly in the Lamanite converts, the people of Ammon, who left their people and moved among the Nephites. (Alma 27, 53.)
Tribal identity and power was the basic social foundation of the people of the Book of Mormon, and it is important to understand why it was so rare and difficult to leave one's own wicked tribe and to convert and move to another more righteous tribe. Tribal affiliations generally had a stronger pull on the Book of Mormon people than religious commitments or political allegiance.
- Nephite Leaders and Their Stewardship - From the Bible we learn the pattern of rule by judges and kings that carried over into the Book of Mormon, and we also see the importance of stewardship and the accountability the people have to respond positively to the prophetic word.
The Book of Mormon historians and writers came entirely from the Nephite community, which was governed either by kings or judges during most of its history. Kings ruled over the Nephites until about 91 B.C., when a system of judges was established. However, the concept of judges governing Israelite tribes was not new to the Nephites since their Old World ancestors had lived through centuries of rule by judges.
There are examples of good and bad kings and judges in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. However, an important biblical judge, the prophet Samuel, exemplified a valuable role model as a political leader who was sought after throughout the Book of Mormon time period.
In 1 Samuel 12, Samuel and the people are asked to witness and testify of each other. Samuel asks the people to witness that he had been fair, just and righteous in his dealings with them. He testified to them of their responsibility toward the messages and warnings that he had given them. This pattern of stewardship accountability and testifying follows the example of Moses in Deuteronomy, especially chapters 1-7 and 28-33, and it also is found in Mosiah 2 where King Benjamin asks the people to judge him and he bears witness to them. The same pattern, with an emphasis upon testifying to the people about their responsibility toward the prophetic word, concluded the writings of all four major writers of the Book of Mormon-- Nephi in 2 Ne. 33:10-15, Jacob in Jacob 6:11-13, Mormon in Mormon 3:20-22, and Moroni in Moroni 10:24-34.
- Personal and Place Names - Numerous papers and articles have been written about the unusual, but authentic, Hebrew and Semitic names in the Book of Mormon. Some of them are unusual because they were not found in the Bible or other known ancient records when the Book of Mormon was first published in 1830. However, they seemed to have genuine linguistic roots in the Old World, and some of them have since been identified on other ancient documents found since 1830.
Also, some awkward phrases and sentences in Joseph Smith's translation do not correspond to either the "King James English," the general English style of the Book of Mormon, or the American English patterns of the 19th century. However, translators of the Book of Mormon into Semitic languages have commented on how easy and natural these passages were to translate. It seemed they were being restored closer to their original tongue-- Hebrew, written in Egyptian characters-- a feat no more difficult than using Latin characters and Arabic numbers in all our contemporary languages.
Thus, rather than complaining about these strange names and awkward passages, we should appreciate the Semitic flavor and Hebrew origin that they provide to the Book of Mormon. In understanding the language roots of the Book of Mormon, we can more easily comprehend the style and message of this valuable scripture.
- Vows and Oaths - In the light of our Western culture, the Book of Mormon presents a pattern of vows and oath-making quite contrary to our normal experience. The intensity of making a promise and the sincerity of keeping an oral commitment is vividly portrayed in three incidents:
Nephi and Zoram, the captured servant of Laban, were in an intense physical struggle until they each made an oath with each other and then their relationship remained peaceful and harmonious for the rest of their lives. (1 Ne. 4:32-37.) The oaths of Zerahemnah, an aggressive Lamanite leader, and General Moroni of the Nephites resulted in the death and then in the preservation of many lives during one major battle. (Alma 44.) And the people of Ammon, the Lamanite converts mentioned earlier, were the givers and the recipients of pivotal oaths that at times seemed to bring weakness and possible destruction but finally result in physical and spiritual salvation for many people. (Alma 24:14-19; 43:11-13; 53:11-14.)
These are just a few examples illustrating a stringent observance of the biblical commandments, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain," (when making a sincere vow in His name), and "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (when making a promise to someone else).
The moral integrity of the Israelite society demanded that its members spoke the truth in crucial situations and kept their promises in serious matters. The oath was an ancient Semitic means of impressing this obligation on the responsible parties. The vow was fortified by holy words and holy acts that created confidence for both parties and developed a sense of security that held the community together. (See The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vo. 3, pages 577-479 for further biblical examples.)
The personal oath or sacred vow was an important part of the Hebrew community, and we see valuable examples of it in the Book of Mormon. By understanding the importance of ancient oaths and vows, we can better appreciate the seriousness of the promises and covenants we have made to others, especially our Heavenly Father.
- Prophetic Tradition - A final Old Testament root of the Book of Mormon is hopefully so obvious that no specific examples are needed. Starting in the days of Adam, God Elohim - the Father of us all - and His son Jehovah - the Lord of the Old Testament - have communicated through all types of revelation to prophets through the ages. The tremendous visions and prophecies of the Book of Mormon prophets illustrate the concern and love God had for others of His children living on the American continent. And since the Book of Mormon was written primarily for those living on the earth in the last days before the coming of Christ in power and glory, we are particularly strengthened and enriched by this scripture.
Thus even if there were no direct cultural and linguistic linkage between the Bible and Book of Mormon communities, God's pattern of communicating to His children through prophets would have been a root shared by both scriptures.
Indeed, we all share another root with the prophets and peoples of both scriptures-- we have access to the same Holy Spirit that testified to the ancients and that bears witness to us today of the truthfulness of Christ and His gospel. Through studying the roots of scriptures, we will appreciate more than their common origin-- we also will share in their eternal strength.