The Book of Mormon testifies that record keeping is critical, particularly in the development and preservation of a civilization. One of the Nephite record’s most poignant lessons is the power of scriptural sources to prevent a nation from dwindling and perishing through illiteracy and lack of faith. (See Omni 1:14–17.) King Benjamin explained to his sons that “were it not for these plates [of brass], which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God.” (Mosiah 1:3.)
Alma likewise explained to his son Helaman that the plates of brass* “have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls.” (Alma 37:8.)
The plates of brass are integral to the story and message of the Book of Mormon. Nephi was instructed by the Spirit to obtain the plates, and the Spirit explained that, in so doing, Nephi would help to preserve a people: “The Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Ne. 4:13.)
Obviously, the plates of brass were extremely important to Lehi and his descendants. Since the record we have received from these ancient Americans—the Book of Mormon—is so important to us, knowing where the plates of brass came from and what they contained can help us understand the message of the Book of Mormon better.
The Book of Mormon does not give us a lot of information about the origins of the plates of brass. Nephi explains that “Laban also was a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records.” (1 Ne. 5:16.)
Exactly how long before Laban’s time the records were begun is unknown. The tribe of Ephraim, whom Jacob set before the older Manasseh (see Gen. 48:5, 13–20; 1 Chr. 5:1–2), probably kept them, and thus Laban may well have been an Ephraimite.
Sidney B. Sperry suggests that “the prophets in both nations probably paid little attention to the political lines of division, but it is improbable that all of them had their words recorded in the scriptures of both nations. … The Brass Plates may well have been the official scripture of the Ten Tribes. It is probable that some prophets wrote on these plates whose writings may not have been recorded on the records kept in Judah. Were Zenos, Zenock, Neum, and Ezias … among them?” (Answers to Book of Mormon Questions, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967, pp. 43–44.)
In suggesting how the families of Ephraim and Manasseh came to settle in Jerusalem, Brother Sperry wrote: “The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians when its capital of Samaria capitulated to Sargon II in 722 B.C. The forebears of Laban may have fled to Jerusalem to prevent the sacred records from falling into alien hands. Lehi’s grandfather or great-grandfather may have left his northern home for Jerusalem in order to prevent his children from intermarrying and making religious compromises with foreigners brought into the land by Assyrians.” (Answers, p. 43.)
Also, other migrations occurred before the destruction, and Laban’s ancestors may have settled in Jerusalem during one of those. The Old Testament mentions one particular migration during the reign of Asa, one of the most righteous Judean kings. Many from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon left the northern kingdom for Judah when they saw that God was with King Asa. (See 2 Chr. 15:9.)
Although the information is sparse concerning the origin of the plates of brass, the Book of Mormon is quite detailed on what the plates contained. According to Nephi, the plates of brass contained the books of Moses and the Mosaic law (see 1 Ne. 4:15–16; 1 Ne. 5:11), tying the Nephites to their Old World kinsmen in both cultural practice and belief. They contained, in addition, a listing of Lehi’s fathers back through Joseph of old (see 1 Ne. 5:14), linking the Lehite colony genealogically with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thereby perpetuating the patriarchal covenant—“the promises made to the fathers” (D&C 2:2; JS—H 1:39)—in a new hemisphere. Finally, the plates contained a more extensive account of Old Testament peoples and events than the Bible (see 1 Ne. 5:12–13; 1 Ne. 13:23), although only a few precious remnants of this account are found in the Book of Mormon.
Among these remnants are teachings of four prophets not mentioned in the Bible: Zenos, Zenock, Neum, and Ezias. Other than the fact that they lived “since the days of Abraham” (Hel. 8:19), we know very little about these men. We are aware of their existence because their words or works are in many cases quoted or mentioned in passing by Nephite leaders.
Of Ezias, we know only that he prophesied of the coming of the Messiah. (See Hel. 8:18–20.)
Neum spoke prophetically of the crucifixion of the Son of God. (See 1 Ne. 19:10.)
Zenock bore witness of the Savior: that redemption would come only through the atoning sacrifice and death of Christ (see Hel. 8:18–20); that destruction would accompany his crucifixion (see 3 Ne. 10:14–16); that he would be lifted up by wicked men (see 1 Ne. 19:10); and that God the Father was angry with his people because they did not understand his mercies extended through the Atonement. Because of his testimony, the people stoned Zenock to death. (See Alma 33:15–17.)
The plates of brass contain more of the oracles of Zenos than any of the other nonbiblical prophets. Nephi, Jacob, and Alma all quoted Zenos extensively. (See 1 Ne. 19:11–17; 1 Ne. 22:15–20; Jacob 5; Alma 33:3–11.) Nephi, the son of Helaman, explained that because of his testimony of the Redeemer, Zenos was slain by unbelievers. (See Hel. 8:19.)
Note Mormon’s words concerning Zenos and Zenock: “Many have testified of these things [signs of the Savior’s death] at the coming of Christ, and were slain because they testified of these things.
“Yea, the prophet Zenos did testify of these things, and also Zenock spake concerning these things, because they testified particularly concerning us, who are the remnant of their seed.” (3 Ne. 10:15–16; italics added.) This passage certainly suggests that Zenos and Zenock were of the lineage of Joseph.
The link to Joseph was crucial, for the plates of brass contained writings of that patriarch not contained in the Bible. When Lehi in his old age spoke to and blessed his son Joseph, he recalled numerous covenants that the Lord had made with the Joseph who was carried into Egypt, including the promise “that out of the fruit of his loins the Lord God would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel; not the Messiah, but a branch … to be remembered in the covenants of the Lord.” (2 Ne. 3:5.)
Lehi also quoted many of Joseph’s prophecies about the record that Joseph’s seed would write, a great Joseph who would translate that record in the latter days, and also about Moses. The prophecies pertain to Lehi’s posterity up through the restoration of the gospel and the translation of the Book of Mormon. (See 2 Ne. 3:6–24.) Nephi added a postscript to these words, saying, “The prophecies which [Joseph] wrote, there are not many greater. And he prophesied concerning us, and our future generations; and they are written upon the plates of brass.” (2 Ne. 4:2.)
Whereas the Old Testament prophecies of Christ are often veiled, the prophets of the plates of brass are bold in testifying of the coming of Jesus Christ and are specific as to his ministry. They provide plain evidence of the Savior’s words to his apostles: “All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” (Luke 24:44; see also Luke 24:25–27; D&C 20:6–26.)
Note the specificity of Nephi’s words concerning the time of Christ’s death and signs accompanying it: “The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself … to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death.” (1 Ne. 19:10.)
Zenos and Zenock presented a view of the Godhead that is consistent with the knowledge revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, establishing the distinct personalities of the Father and the Son and their separate functions. This knowledge, restored through the Book of Mormon, reaffirms that the ancients had a correct idea of the nature of God.
These two prophets both addressed God the Father and acknowledged his Son, Jesus Christ, in the following passages. Zenos said in one prayer, “It is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me, … for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son.” (Alma 33:11.)
Zenock wrote, “Thou art angry, O Lord, with this people, because they will not understand thy mercies which thou has bestowed upon them because of thy Son.” (Alma 33:16.)
Many of the Nephite prophets used the words of earlier prophets, especially from the plates of brass, to reinforce their teachings. For example, Alma used Zenos’ prayer in teaching the Zoramites, and Jacob used Zenos’ allegory of the olive trees in writing to his brethren, the Nephites and Lamanites. (See Alma 33:3–11; Jacob 5.)
There are several instances in the Book of Mormon when prophets speak of things based on the scriptures they had but that we do not have in our present Old Testament. Three of the most significant follow.
1. The fall of Lucifer. One of the most profound doctrinal sections of the Book of Mormon is a father-son discussion between Lehi and Jacob. Lehi said:
“According to the things which I have read, [I] must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God.
“And because he had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind.” (2 Ne. 2:17–18.)
Biblical references to the fall of Lucifer in premortal times are scarce. (See Isa. 14; Rev. 12.) However, in the Joseph Smith translation of Genesis 3:1–5, [Gen. 3:1–5] found in Moses 4:1–4, is a plain account of the grand council in heaven, which tells us that Jehovah was selected as the Savior and Lucifer was cast from heaven for rebellion.
The Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, in fact, may contain some of the information found on the plates of brass. Robert J. Matthews suggested that “the JST, having received the touch of restoration through the hand of the Prophet of God, resembles the doctrinal content of the Brass Plates more fully than does any other Bible.” (“The Joseph Smith Translation—Historical Source and Doctrinal Companion to the Doctrine & Covenants,” Ninth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, p. 22.)
2. The Creation, Fall, and Atonement. Also from 2 Nephi 2, we learn invaluable truths about the plan of salvation. Lehi explained to Jacob that “if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever.” (2 Ne. 2:22.)
The Joseph Smith translation of the Creation account contains a similar truth about the state of things before they were subject to death. The Lord says of the earth and the things on it, “It was spiritual in the day that I created it; for it remaineth in the sphere in which I, God, created it.” (JST, Gen. 2:11; Moses 3:9.)
Herein, Moses provided an extensive account of the Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall. At one point, Eve said, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption.” (JST, Gen. 4:11; Moses 5:11.)
3. Abraham’s knowledge of the Messiah. Nephi, the son of Helaman, in teaching about the Son of God, said:
“Moses did not only testify of these things, but also all the holy prophets, from his days even to the days of Abraham.
“Yea, and behold, Abraham saw of his coming, and was filled with gladness and did rejoice.” (Hel. 8:16–17.)
Though the Bible recounts episodes in which Abraham heard the voice of the Lord and received revelations, it does not contain any record of Abraham beholding the Savior in vision. Yet the Savior, in the New Testament, referred to such an instance: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” (John 8:56.)
It would appear that Abraham had such a vision but that the episode has been lost from the present biblical collection. The Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, however, contains such an account. After Jehovah had explained the inheritance of the promised land to Abraham, “Abram looked forth and saw the days of the Son of Man, and was glad, and his soul found rest.” (JST, Gen. 15:12.)
As the people of the Church and the world become ready to receive additional light and truth, more records will be forthcoming than what little we have. Among the records awaiting us are the plates of brass. After searching the plates of brass “from the beginning,” Lehi was “filled with the Spirit, and began to prophesy concerning his seed—
“That these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed.
“Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time.” (1 Ne. 5:10, 17–19.)
Indeed, Alma’s prophetic words to Helaman show that this record will eventually go to more than the seed of Lehi. According to Alma, the plates of brass were to be “kept and handed down from one generation to another” among the Nephites, “and be kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon.” (Alma 37:4.)
Until that marvelous restoration of ancient records, one of the ways by which the seed of Lehi and, indeed, all men will know of the messages on the plates of brass is through the Book of Mormon. As a result of the Book of Mormon, we can enjoy another ancient witness of Jesus Christ and his gospel, a record that is as venerable as the Old Testament and older than the words of Nephi.