An outstanding recent book on the Book of Mormon is Testaments: Links between the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible by David E. Bokovoy and John A. Tvedtnes (Tooele, Utah: Heritage Press, 2003, 232 pages). This morning I read chapter 14, “The Personification of Death and Hell.” The authors discuss the ancient Near Eastern patterns in treating death and hell that have strong parallels to the Book of Mormon. I was especially intrigued by the issue of “swallowing” and its relationship to the bands of death.
In the ancient Near East, hell, or Sheol in Hebrew, was the shadowy underworld where departed spirits dwelt in grief, but was often personified with a demonic deity, the power behind death. Death also was often personified. The forces or monsters of death and hell often had to be overcome in battle, as in legends from the Canaanites. This concept is embodied in the Old Testament and is also found in the Book of Mormon. For example, Jacob in 2 Nephi 9 calls death and hell a “monster” three times (verse 10, 19, and 26). For example, in verse 9, he refers to death and hell as a monster from whom we must escape with the help of God:
10 O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.
Among Old Testament passages personifying death, of particular importance is Isaiah 25:8, where we learn that the Lord “will swallow up death in victory.” The use of the word “swallow” is especially interesting, for in ancient Canaanite mythology, death was depicted as the “swallower” – a monster with a limitless appetite. Bokovoy and Tvedtnes note Isaiah’s ironical touch in predicting that Jehovah would “swallow the swallower.”
This very concept, resonating with ancient Semitic concepts, is found in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 16:7-8:
7 And if Christ had not risen from the dead, or have broken the bands of death that the grave should have no victory, and that death should have no sting, there could have been no resurrection.
8 But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ.
I note that similar language is used in Alma 22:14, which summarizes the basic teachings (“missionary discussions”) of Nephite missionaries teaching Lamanites:
14 And since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth; and that he breaketh the bands of death, that the grave shall have no victory, and that the sting of death should be swallowed up in the hopes of glory; and Aaron did expound all these things unto the king.
The Nephite missionaries apparently were highly influenced by the recorded teachings of Abinadi.
The same concept is repeated in Mormon 7:5:
5 Know ye that ye must come to the knowledge of your fathers, and repent of all your sins and iniquities, and believe in Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God, and that he was slain by the Jews, and by the power of the Father he hath risen again, whereby he hath gained the victory over the grave; and also in him is the sting of death swallowed up.
In the short passage of Mosiah 16:7-8, Abinadi employs several ancient Near Eastern concepts: personification of death, a battle of death to give victory, the imagery of swallowing death, and the concept of “the bands of death.” Reference to the “bands of death” occurs in several parts of Abinadi’s discourse (Mosiah 15:8-9, 20, 23, 16:7) and in other parts of the Book of Mormon (Alma 4:14, 5:7,9-10, 7:12; 11:41-42; 22:14). This phrase does not occur in the KJV, but is found in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. For example, in Psalm 18:4-5, the KJV has:
4 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid.
5 The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.
The Hebrew word, hevel has been translated as “sorrows” in these verses, but it also has the meanings of “cord” or “band.” Thus, the “sorrows of death” in Psalm 18:4 might more clearly be translated as the “bands of death” or “cords of death” — phrases used in many modern translations. The same Hebrew phrase that can be translated as “bands of death” also occurs in 2 Samuel 22:6 and Psalm 116:3, where the KJV sticks with “sorrows of death” in both cases.
(To those who accuse Joseph Smith of plagiarizing because of Book of Mormon quotations from the Bible, please do not lose you faith in the Bible by noting that Psalm 18:5 is shamelessly plagiarized from 2 Samuel 22:6. Those Bible authors, sad to say, were rogues cut from the same fabric as Joseph.)
While the KJV does not use the phrase “bands of death” as the Book of Mormon does, a hint of that concept is in Ps 107:14: “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder.” And Psalm 73:4 has “there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.”
As another example of Book of Mormon passages dealing with the bands of death, consider Abinadi’s teachings in Mosiah 15:8,9:
8 And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men–
9 Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.
Again we see the themes of a victorious conquest, breaking the bands of death, and delivering fallen man.
(FYI, I think the authors have made a mistake in their essay, ascribing the Hebrew word hevel to “snares” in Ps. 18:5, when my reference materials give it as a different word, moqesh, that does mean bait, trap, or snare.)
Summarizing, I find it interesting that Abinadi would introduce the phrase “bands of death” that appears to be translated from an authentic Hebrew phrase that did not make it into the KJV Bible. And he uses this phrase in the context of a battle of deliverance between a divine hero, Jehovah, who would conquer the personified monster of death and thus “swallow up” death in victory. These concepts are solidly grounded in ancient Near Eastern concepts.
Bokovoy and Tvedtnes offer these remarks in conclusion (p. 87):
The personification of Death and Hell, together with motifs such as bands of death, preparing an escape route, and swallowing up one’s adversary, demonstrate an authentic core to the Book of Mormon’s claims for ties with the ancient Near East. Until quite recently, biblical scholars were unaware of these cosmological elements in the Old Testament. Yet Book of Mormon authors drew upon these archaic themes with poetic ease when presenting their testimonies that Christ was victorious over the grave.
Personally, I am moved with the power of the testimonies of Christ in the Book of Mormon. There is richness to the words and symbols used, a richness that cannot be appreciated without turning to the ancient Semitic and other Near Eastern roots of the ancient and inspired text. This truly is a marvelous and divine testament of Christ.