The Contents and Nature of the Brass Plates of Laban

by F. Allan Roth
© 2020

This morning, I was reading in 1 Nephi 5 about what Lehi found when he read the plates of Laban “from the beginning.” Verses 11 through 15 of that chapter describe the contents as comprising the following:

  • The five books of Moses (verse 11)
  • A record of the Jews down to the reign of Zedekiah (verse 12)
  • The prophecies of the prophets, including many prophecies of Jeremiah (verse 13), who was a contemporary of Lehi.

Then, verse 14 says that Lehi “also found” a genealogy of his fathers on the plates, and he devotes three verses to describing that genealogy.

I’ve read those few verses dozens of times, and I’ve always just glossed over them, thinking that the plates must have contained the scriptures, or the Old Testament, but I’ve never really thought about it more than that. This morning, I thought about it more than that.

It’s a bit inaccurate to say that the brass plates of Laban contained the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, since the Jews did not have a Bible yet at the time of Lehi. The selection of books that would eventually become the Hebrew Bible had not been agreed upon at that time. They certainly had not been bound together in a single volume yet, and many of them had not even been written yet.

Like the brass plates, the Hebrew Bible as it exists today, also contains three main divisions, the Torah (five books of Moses), the Nevi’im (writings of the prophets), and the Ketuvim (other holy writings). In fact, the most common name among Jews for their Bible is “Tanakh,” which is an acronym for these three divisions, Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim: TaNaKh.

Nephi’s description of the contents of the brass plates is similar, but not identical, to the contents of the Hebrew Bible as it exists today. I believe that a study of what may have been on the brass plates can give us a good idea of the development of the Hebrew Bible as it existed then, in Nephi’s day, six hundred years before Christ.

Five Books of Moses

The first section of the brass plates that Nephi mentioned was the Torah: the five books of Moses. In any discussion of Jewish holy writings, these books always come first, as they are universally regarded as the foundation of Jewish thought, theology, and history. They come first in our Christian Bible, they come first in the Tanakh, and they came first in the brass plates. This is as it should be.

Writings of the Prophets

The third section Nephi mentioned (I’ll skip over his second section, the historical record, for a moment) was the writings of the prophets. This would seem on the surface to correspond fairly well to the Nevi’im in the Hebrew Bible, as long as we realize that many of the prophets we know today had not lived yet at Nephi’s time.

But which prophets would have been included in this section of the brass plates? Actually, not very many. The brass plates contained all or most of Isaiah and some of the writings of Jeremiah, since those prophets are both mentioned by name, and Isaiah is quoted extensively. It is possible that the brass plates could have included some of the so-called minor prophets (Hosea to possibly Zephaniah), but none of those prophets are directly mentioned anywhere in the Book of Mormon. There is a single passage in the Book of Mormon that seems reminiscent of Hosea (2 Ne. 8:16. Compare to Hosea 1:10 and 2:23), but that is the only passage I’ve found so far that seems reminiscent of any of the thoughts of any of the minor prophets.

Other than Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the prophets mentioned in the five books of Moses (Adam, Abraham, Isaac, etc.), not one of the other Old Testament prophets—not even the mighty prophet Elijah—is mentioned by any Book of Mormon prophet. Elijah was mentioned once by Jesus (3 Nephi 25:5, when He gave the Nephites the record of Malachi), but that would not have come from the brass plates.

Since the names of some Old Testament prophets were known among the Nephites (such as Samuel, Joshua, and Gideon) their stories might have been included, but the Hebrew prophets known by those names are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The Old Testament prophet Samuel was mentioned (by Jesus) in 3 Nephi 20:24, but like Jesus’s mention of the prophet Samuel, that did not come from the brass plates.

Two other prophets (Zenos and Zenock) who lived during the Old Testament period are mentioned extensively, so their writings must also have been included on the brass plates. Unfortunately, their names and writings are unknown in any other source.

Nephi said that the brass plates contained “the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah.” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zenos, and Zenock seem to me like a fairly small group of prophets to fit this description.

There might have been other writings on the brass plates that Nephi was considering “prophecies,” though. Some books we today consider historical (such as Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) are considered prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, and Nephi might have been including them among the “prophecies of the prophets.” A few stories (but very few) from those books also seem to have been known by Book of Mormon people.

For example, in 1 Nephi 17:32-33, Nephi reminds Laman and Lemuel of how the Israelites had crossed the Jordan and scattered the children of Canaan. This crossing of Jordan is found in Joshua 3 and subsequent chapters, not in the five books of Moses. Jacob also recounts the story of David and Solomon, and their many wives and concubines (Jacob 2:23-24). This story, which comes from 1 Kings 11 and 2 Samuel 5, probably also was found on the brass plates of Laban.

It is impossible to tell whether those stories were considered by Nephi to be part of the “prophecies of the holy prophets” or whether Nephi would have included them in the section he called the record of the Jews.

But in any case, the prophecies of the prophets found on the brass plates of Laban were not as extensive as we have today.

Record of the Jews

The second section Nephi mentioned was a historical record of the Jews “from the beginning” down to his time. This sounds like a history, but it does not seem to correspond very well to the holy writings from the Hebrew Bible as they are known today.

The only books from the holy writings, or Ketuvim, in the Hebrew Bible that could have existed at Lehi’s day would have been Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, and possibly part of Chronicles. All the other books included in this section of the Hebrew Bible were written after Lehi left Jerusalem.

Surprisingly, there is almost no clear reference in the Book of Mormon to any of these writings. Even the beloved Psalms do not seem to be quoted by any of the Book of Mormon writers, as far as I have found. I can only assume that they were not included on the brass plates.

I have found a single reference to Proverbs in 2 Nephi 4:5, where Lehi told the children of Laman, “I know that if ye are brought up in the way ye should go ye will not depart from it.” Here, Lehi seems to have been paraphrasing Proverbs 22:6, but this does not necessarily mean that the book of Proverbs was included on the brass plates of Laban. Lehi was obviously well educated in the scriptures, and he may well have been speaking from memory.

In my opinion, the poetic books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Song of Solomon, as well as the book of Ruth were probably not found on the brass plates. This would explain why Book of Mormon prophets never quote from any of those books.

So what was the “record of the Jews” on the brass plates, and why did Nephi distinguish the record of the Jews as a separate section of the brass plates, distinct from the other sacred writings?

The books we call 1 and 2 Chronicles are a single book in today’s Hebrew Bible, and that book is included among the Ketuvim, rather than among the prophets. Surprisingly, Chronicles begins with Adam and Eve and describes the chronology of the patriarchs and kings of Israel from the Garden of Eden down to Lehi’s day (and beyond, of course).

It could be possible that those portions of the book we now call Chronicles that predated Zechariah’s reign were included on the brass plates. This would correspond perfectly to Nephi’s description of “a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah.”

It is also possible that Nephi was considering the books of Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings to be part of this “record of the Jews,” rather than part of the prophecies.

A Genealogy of my Fathers

So what of Lehi’s genealogy, which also was on the plates?

The scriptures do not contain a genealogy of Joseph that extends as far as Lehi’s day. The fact that such a genealogy was not part of the scriptures is why Nephi says that Lehi “also found” it on the plates. Nephi had been thoroughly taught in all the “learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:2), so he would have been familiar with all the scriptures and would have recognized that this genealogy did not really belong with the other writings. This may also be why he devoted three verses to describing the genealogy and only a single verse to each of the other three main divisions of the brass plates. Perhaps he thought that since this genealogy was unfamiliar, it needed more explanation. In 1 Nephi 5:16, Nephi mentioned that Laban was also descended of Joseph, as were Lehi and Nephi, explaining why he and his family had kept the brass plates.

Nephi carefully excluded the genealogy from the other portions of the plates that he recognized as scripture. He knew what was scriptural and what was not and kept them separate in his own mind, as well as in his record.

This separation is reiterated in 1 Nephi 6:1-3, where he says that he will not include the genealogy on “these plates which I am writing . . . for I desire the room that I may write of the things of God.” In Nephi’s mind, the “also included” genealogy was clearly not the same kind of material as the other scriptural material on the brass plates.

Conclusion

So what? Why does it matter to us today what was on the brass plates?

It seems to me that Nephi’s brief description of the contents of the plates, as found in these few verses, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the thinking of the Jews and reflects a sophisticated understanding of how they viewed their own sacred writings, as well as the level of development of their own canon of scripture. Even though the Jews would not consolidate their writings into a “Bible” for several hundred years after Lehi’s time, even at that early date, they obviously (1) recognized the primacy of the five books of Moses and (2) distinguished between the writings of the prophets and other sacred but historical records. Nephi, being educated in all the learning of the Jews knew this.

Nephi also recognized that the genealogy of Joseph, even though it dealt with a figure from the Torah, was not in the same category of writing as the other works that would become canonized as scripture. It was something else, so he describes it by saying it was “also found” on the brass plates of Laban.

This also explains the limited references to Old Testament stories and scriptures in the Book of Mormon. Many Old Testament stories that are widely known and loved today are completely ignored by the Book of Mormon writers. That’s probably because those stories were not included on the brass plates.

These limitations are followed consistently throughout the Book of Mormon.

 

So if the Book of Mormon was a blatant forgery, a work of fiction, written by an uneducated farm boy from an insignificant farming village in upstate New York (as is so often claimed), how on earth did Joseph Smith manage to describe Jewish theology, literature, and history so accurately in these few spare verses? And how did he manage to get every one of the Biblical references from the other 500-plus pages of the Book of Mormon to conform perfectly with this one-page summary that we pay so little attention to today? Was the twenty-four year old farmer a secret scholar of Jewish lore, more learned than all the professors and ministers of his day? Or was he just lucky?

The answer, of course, is that the Book of Mormon is exactly what it purports to be: a sacred history, written by Israelites who escaped Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the Babylonians, translated by the gift and power of God.

No other explanation really will do.

 

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If you enjoyed this discussion of the Book of Mormon, perhaps you will also enjoy A Missionary’s Musings on the Book of Mormon, also by F. Allan Roth.

It is available in paperback or e-book exclusively from Amazon.