Revision 2.9. “Fidelity to One’s Promises in Ancient Arabia (and the Book of Mormon!)”

Revision 2.9. “Fidelity to One’s Promises in Ancient Arabia (and the Book of Mormon!)” July 26, 2020


UAE's LDS meetinghouse
The Abu Dhabi Stake Center in the United Arab Emirates


As in the case of Shanfara, the devotion to one’s oath among these ancient Arabians is strik­ing.  They were a people who saw words themselves as sacred, as containing a power of their own, independent of the intentions of those who uttered them.  Such a notion wasn’t uncommon among pre-modern peoples. (We ourselves still speak of “casting a spell,” an expression that seems to reflect a similar past belief in the literal power of words themselves.) The story of Isaac’s bless­ing of Jacob, which couldn’t be undone even though it was given to the wrong person, illustrates this.[1] So, too, does the story of Zoram in 1 Nephi. Zoram had every reason to be afraid of Nephi and his brothers: They had killed his master, had “stolen” the brass plates, had lured him beyond the city walls after dark, and were going about in disguise. And they, in their turn, had good reason to mistrust him. Had he not been the trusted servant of the evil Laban? Might he not escape and inform the authorities of their activities? Weren’t the people of Jerusalem already seeking to kill Lehi? The obvious course would have been to kill him on the spot in order to prevent him from escaping or, at least, to bind him hand and foot and never let him out of their sight. But Zoram, after hearing their explanation of what they had done, and after hearing Nephi swear an oath that he could go with them and be a free man like themselves, swore an oath, himself, that he would stay with them and not attempt to flee. So confident were they that he would hold his word sacred, Nephi later recorded, “that when Zoram had made an oath unto us, our fears did cease concerning him.”[2]

The ancient Hebrews took the notion of keep­ing one’s solemn oath so seriously that it was included in the requirements for admission to the temple-shrine of God.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.[3]

Another list, even more complete, of those who “shall dwell in [the] tabernacle [and] . . . in the holy hill” identifies among them “he that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.” That is, whoever has made an oath when it seemed easy to carry out and then, later, discovers that fulfilling it will cost him substantially more than he had anticipated, or cause him pain, or put him at risk, but who still abides by his promise, will be admitted to the Lord’s temple. Implicitly, too, that person of integrity will be admitted to the Lord’s presence in the life to come, which is what the temple symbolizes. (Another of the catego­ries of people who are to be admitted to the temple is described here as “he that putteth not out his money to usury.” This principle as it relates to Islam will be discussed in a later chapter.)[4]

Another feature of the story of Samawal that’s worthy of note is his remarkable devotion to his guest, to the extent that he’ll sacrifice his son rather than yield up the armor that his guest had entrusted to him. This, too, has its analogy in the rather horrifying story of Lot and his angelic visitors, told in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis. Lot, it will be recalled, offered his two daughters for the abuse of the men of Sodom, rather than allowing his two guests—whom he apparently didn’t know to be angels—to be abused while under his protection. It shouldn’t be thought that Lot made this offer (which, fortunately, wasn’t accepted by the Sodomites) out of a lack of respect for women or some such motive. That would be to read twenty-first-century concerns back into a very ancient story. The real reason was the sacredness, as the ancient Semites saw it, of the relationship between host and guest. The host should allow nothing bad to happen to his guests, no matter what it cost him to ensure their safety and security. This relationship even overcame the traditional demands of vengeance: One story from pre-Islamic Arabia tells of a man who had vowed to avenge the murder of his son and then, to his shock, discovered that a man he had accepted as his guest was, in fact, his son’s murderer. He took no action against the man, although the man did not realize who his host was and that he was completely within the power of that host. Instead, the host declared, he would wait until the murderer had left his castle and was no longer under his sacred protection. Then, although it would be far more difficult, the father would feel that he could legitimately seek his vengeance.


[1] Genesis 27.

[2] 1 Nephi 4:37.

[3] Psalm 24:34.

[4] Psalm 15:4-5. This idea of “swearing to one’s own hurt” shows up in an interesting way in the Old Testament books of Ruth, Samuel, and Kings. There, a formula running roughly as follows occurs several times: “The Lord do so to me, and more also, if I do not do x, y, and z.” Edward F. Campbell, Jr., a non-Latter-day Saint biblical scholar, offers some insights into these passages that many members of the Church of an older generation will find intensely interesting. See Edward F. Campbell, Jr., Ruth, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 7 (Garden City, N.Y.: Double­day, 1975), 74.


Posted from Breckenridge, Colorado






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