Yesterday a local Mormon leader asked me a rather common question posed by Mormons seeking to discuss their faith with Jewish friends and colleagues. He has a Jewish coworker who has expressed the desire to read the Book of Mormon in order to better understand his Mormon friends’ belief system. While the leader was looking forward to giving his friend a Book of Mormon and discussing it with him, he was wondering what to say if/when his friend asked him about certain passages in the book that appear to treat Jews harshly. I told him that if his friend was familiar with the Hebrew Bible, he would have nothing to worry about.
According to the Book of Mormon narrative, a group of Israelites led by a prophet named Lehi left Jerusalem around 600 BCE and eventually made their way to the Americas. Lehi’s righteous son, Nephi, is the author of the first two books in the Book of Mormon. A cursory reading would seem to suggest that Nephi harbored some unkind feelings towards the Jews of his time. For example, in the first chapter of the first book, Nephi refers to his father’s Jewish persecutors’ “wickedness” and “abominations,” and in the second book he condemns the Jews’ “works of darkness” (2 Nephi 25:2). However, when those remarks are put into context they should not trouble Jews – or anyone else – at all.
If indeed Nephi and his family left Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity, they would certainly have had good reason to condemn their neighbors’ conduct. Jeremiah the prophet would have been their contemporary. As one rabbi put it to me, “When it comes to criticizing Jews’ sins, Nephi’s got nothing on Jeremiah.” A few minutes ago I happened to open the Book of Jeremiah to chapter 9, where Jeremiah calls his people “adulterers” and “treacherous men” who “bend their tongues like their bow for lies” and “proceed from evil to evil.” Students of the scriptures will recall that Jeremiah’s Jewish contemporaries were sacrificing their children to heathen idols and engaging in every sin imaginable, to the extent that they had broken their covenant with God. When viewed in this light, Nephi’s condemnation of their actions is more than justifiable.
During my presentations on Jewish-Mormon relations, I point out that while history shows it is possible to revere the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and still be an anti-Semite, it also shows that it is not possible to revere the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Book of Mormon and still hate Jews. If my friend’s coworker does read the Book of Mormon, he will also come across the 29th chapter of Nephi’s second book, which contains the most philo-Semitic rebuke in all of scripture. Here Nephi slams Gentiles for not showing enough appreciation to Jews:
And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.
But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?
O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.
Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? [2 Nephi 29:3-6]
There’s a lot more to say on this subject, but my examples should suffice to reassure new readers of the Book of Mormon that there is no anti-Semitic theme in the book. As Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager is fond of saying, Hebrew prophets are unique in that they criticize their own people. Isaiah and Jeremiah certainly did, so Mormons can be forgiven for not getting too excited when a man whom they accept as an Israelite prophet had unflattering things to say about his (and Jeremiah’s) contemporaries.