Source:Nibley:CW06:Ch17:1:The "Title of Liberty"

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On the "Title of Liberty"


The "Title of Liberty"

Hugh Nibley wrote of the "Title of Liberty":

A Strange Order of Battle

....The Book of Mormon story of Moroni's "Title of Liberty" gives valuable insight into certain practices and traditions of the Nephites which they took as a matter of course but which are totally unfamiliar not only to the modern world but to the world of biblical scholarship as well. Since it is being better recognized every day that the Bible is only a sampling (and a carefully edited one) of but one side of ancient Jewish life, the Book of Mormon must almost unavoidably break away from the familiar things from time to time and show us facets of Old World life untouched by the Bible. The "Title of Liberty" story is a good example of such a welcome departure from beaten paths, being concerned with certain old Hebrew traditions which were perfectly familiar to the Nephites but are nowhere to be found either in the Bible or in the apocryphal writings. These traditions, strange as they are, can now be checked by new and unfamiliar sources turned up in the Old World, and shown to be perfectly authentic.

A New Discovery

It has always been known, if only from the pages of Varro and Livy, that the ancients had a ritual concept of war. The closely related functions of hunting and warfare were never undertaken without certain observations of a ritual or cultic nature, which are everywhere hinted at in ancient literature but nowhere fully expounded. It was the discovery among the Dead Sea Scrolls of a long and beautifully preserved text, now designated as the Milḥamah ("Battle") Scroll, that for the first time cast a flood of light on the nature of sacred warfare among the Jews. The same text serves to illustrate and explain most remarkably a strange and wonderful episode in the Book of Mormon, which should serve as a reminder that the ways of the ancients are not our ways, and that to produce the Book of Mormon would have required far more than luck and learning of any man.

Moroni Rouses the People

The episode to which we refer is the story of the Title of Liberty. One of those strong and ambitious men around whom the usual resistance to the Church crystalized in the first century B.C. was Amalickiah, "a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words" (Alma 46:10) whose ambition was to be king, and whose chief support came from "the lower judges of the land, and they were seeking for power" (Alma 46:4). He made a deal with the judges and began openly to rally his forces, whereupon "Moroni, who was the chief commander of the armies of the Nephites" and who had shortly before won a magnificent victory over the traditional enemy, "was angry with Amalickiah" (Alma 46:11).

And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole (Alma 46:12; (italics added)).

Then he dressed himself in his full armor,

and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren (Alma 46:13).
And it came to pass that when he had poured out his soul to God, he named all the land which was south of the land Desolation, yea . . . all the land . . . a chosen land, and the land of liberty.
And he said: Surely God shall not suffer that we, who are despised because we take upon us the name of Christ, shall be trodden down and destroyed, until we bring it upon us by our own transgressions (Alma 46:17-18).

Then Moroni "went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment . . . that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part," and calling upon "whosoever will maintain this title upon the land," to "come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them" (Alma 46:1-20). All who were willing to join came together dressed for war, "rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress . . . and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments" (Alma 46:21). Then at the mustering place apparently "they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni," witnessing to the chief that they asked God to "cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression" (Alma 46:22).

The Garment of Joseph

Moroni then reminded the multitude that they were actually "a remnant of the seed of Jacob," and also "a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces" and if they should do wickedly "our garments shall be rent by our brethren, and we be cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain" (Alma 46:23). Then Moroni told an apocryphal story of how Jacob

before his death . . . saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said—Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved, . . . while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment (Alma 46:24).

Moroni suggested that the lost remnant of the garment may actually represent the Nephites who had fallen away from the church (Alma 46:27).

To the modern and the western mind all this over-obvious dwelling on types and shadows seems a bit overdone, but not to the ancient or Oriental mind. The whole Arabic language is one long commentary on the deep-seated feeling, so foreign to us but so characteristic of people who speak synthetic languages, that if things are alike they are the same. In the Israelite way of thinking, writes Pedersen, "the clothes follow and partake of the total character of the soul. . . . There may be garments, so penetrated by a definite physical substance, that they are indissolubly connected with its forms of manifestation. This holds good where special importance is attached to the functions. Thus . . . the honour and glory of the priest is bound up with his garment (Sir. 50, 11). . . . The anxiety lest the holy garments should be defiled, appears from the careful ritual for the Day of Atonement, preserved in the Mishna."1 It is interesting that the principal evidence here given comes from nonbiblical, that is, apocryphal sources, since the entire episode from the Book of Mormon has no parallel in the Bible and yet may be substantiated as genuine old Israelite lore from apocryphal texts.

When Moroni and his agents went around everywhere gathering recruits, all who would not join "to stand against Amalickiah and those who had dissented" they classed as Amalickiahites (Alma 46:28). Amalickiah tried to play the Lamanites against Moroni as his trump card, but Moroni beat him to it by making "a covenant to keep the peace," while intercepting Amalickiah's forces before they could make contact with the Lamanites (Alma 46:31).2 Since Moroni had just won a miraculous victory over the Lamanites, who for a time had threatened the whole Nephite nation with extinction, it was nothing but the basest treason for Amalickiah, a Nephite, to go over to the Lamanites and try to revive the war. Moroni took strong but legitimate measures to put down the sedition:

And it came to pass that whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, that they might maintain a free government, he caused to be put to death; and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom (Alma 46:35).

One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the manner in which Moroni sought to stir up patriotic fervor by appealing to ancient and traditional devices. He connected the whole business of the rent garment with the story of the tribal ancestors Jacob and Joseph, and suggested that "those who have dissented from us" were the very "remnant of the seed of Joseph" to which the dying Jacob prophetically referred (Alma 46:27). It was not merely a resemblance or a type, but the very event foreseen by the patriarch of old. Plainly the whole background and explanation of Moroni's strange behavior is to be sought in the Old World and among traditions not preserved in the Bible....

The Torn Garment, an Apocryphal Tale

When Moroni begins his story by saying, "Let us remember the words of Jacob," he is plainly reminding his hearers of a tale that is familiar to them all. Yet who in the West has ever known anything about the story that follows, in which the words of Jacob are: "Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved, . . . while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment"? Here the survival of Joseph's garment guarantees and typifies the survival of Joseph (Alma 46:24).

In the tenth century of our era the greatest antiquarian of the Moslem world, Muhammad ibn-Ibrahim ath-Tha'labi, collected in Persia a great many old tales and legends about the prophets of Israel. After the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews, many of the sectaries, such as those that once lived around the Dead Sea, moved East to be under the protection of the Persians. Thus groups of Jews representing various sects and shades of belief were scattered all over central Asia in the Middle Ages, and it is from such, no doubt, that Tha'labi gets his amazing fund of information, which is worthy to be set up beside the most enlightening volumes of Apocrypha. Among other things, Tha'labi tells a number of stories, which we have not found anywhere else, about Jacob and the garment of Joseph. In one, Joseph's brethren bring his torn garment to their father as proof that he is dead, but Jacob after examining the garment ("and there were in the garment of Joseph three marks or tokens when they brought it to his father") declares that the way the cloth is torn shows him that their story is not true: "Behold, if the bear had eaten him he surely would have rent his garment, and since he would (naturally) have fled towards the gate, verily the garment should have been torn behind." But since this is not the case it may be that Joseph still lives. Another account is the case of "the vizier" Potiphar, who by examining the tears in Joseph's garment, knew that he was innocent and spared his life, "for he knew that if he [Joseph] had attacked his wife the tear would have been in front." So again his torn garment declared that Joseph should live.17

Most significant is Tha'labi's discussion of the two remnants of Joseph's garment, from which we quote:

And when Joseph had made himself known unto them [his brethren] he asked them about his father, saying, "What did my father after [I left]?" They answered, "He lost his eyesight [from weeping]." Then he gave them his garment [qamis, long outer shirt]. According to ad-Dahak that garment was of the weave [pattern, design] of Paradise, and the breath [spirit, odor] of Paradise was in it, so that it never decayed or in any way deteriorated [and that was] a sign [omen]. And Joseph gave them that garment, and it was the very one that had belonged to Abraham, having already had a long history. And he said to them, "Go, take this garment of mine and place it upon the face of my father so he may have sight again, and return [to me] with all your families." And when they had put Egypt behind them and come to Canaan their father Jacob said, "Behold, I perceive the spirit [breath, odor] of Joseph, if you will not think me wandering in my mind and weakheaded from age." . . . [for] he knew that upon all the earth there was no spirit [breath, odor] of Paradise save in that garment alone. . . . And as-Sadi says that Judah said to Joseph, "It was I who took the garment bedaubed with blood to Jacob, and reported to him that the wolf had eaten Joseph; so give me this day thy garment that I might tell him that thou art living, that I might cause him to rejoice now as greatly as I caused him to sorrow then." And Ibn-Abbas says that Judah took the garment and went forth in great haste, panting with exertion and anxiety . . . and when he brought the garment he laid it upon his face, so that his sight returned to him. And ad-Dahak says that his sight returned after blindness, and his strength after weakness, and youth after age, and joy after sorrow. [Then follows a dialogue between Jacob and the King of Death].18

Note here that there were two remnants of Joseph's garment, one sent by Joseph to his father as a sign that he was still alive (since the garment had not decayed), and the other, torn and smeared with blood, brought by Judah to his father as a sign that Joseph was dead. Moroni actually quotes Jacob ("Now behold, this was the language of Jacob" [Alma 46:26]) as saying: "Now behold, this giveth my soul sorrow; nevertheless, my soul hath joy in my son" (Alma 46:25). Compare this with Judah's statement in the Old World account, that the undecayed garment caused Jacob as much joy as the bloody garment caused him sorrow. In both accounts Jacob is described as being near to death—hence Judah's haste to reach him with the garment and make amends for the evil he has done.

Surely there is "a type and a shadow" in this story, for the particular concern of Israel is with Joseph and Judah and how, after working at cross purposes, they were reconciled after many years by the magnanimity of the one and the remorseful repentance of the other. It is another form of the symbolic story of the Two Sticks told in Ezekiel 37. But aside from the great symbolic force of the tale, there can be no doubt that the story told by Moroni as one familiar to all the people actually was one that circulated among the Jews in ancient times and was taken to the East by them, being like much early Jewish lore completely lost in the West. It was totally unknown to the world in which Joseph Smith lived.

These interesting little details are typical apocryphal variations on a single theme, and the theme is the one Moroni mentions; the rent garment of Joseph is the symbol both of his suffering and his deliverance, misfortune and preservation. Such things in the Book of Mormon illustrate the widespread ramifications of Book of Mormon culture, and the recent declaration of Albright and other scholars that the ancient Hebrews had cultural roots in every civilization of the Near East. This is an acid test that no forgery could pass; it not only opens a window on a world we dreamed not of, but it brings to our unsuspecting and uninitiated minds a first glimmering suspicion of the true scope and vastness of a book nobody knows.[1]

Notes

  1. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 14, references silently removed—consult original for citations.