Lehi's 600-year Prophecy
of the Birth of Christ

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (31 Mar 2000).
©2000 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

Index, Home

Contents
1. Historical Setting
1. 1 Reign of Jehoiakim
1. 2 First Destruction
1. 3 Second Destruction
2. Nephi's Account
2.1 Lehi & Jeremiah
2.2 600-Year Prophecy
2.3 Few Captives
2.4 Jehoiakim as Zedekiah
2.5 Duration of Lehi's Ministry
Notes
Comparing Biblical and Babylonian sources upholds the Book of Mormon account that Lehi departed Jerusalem exactly 600 years before the birth of Christ.

The question of the actual date of Lehi's departure from Jerusalem has been a difficult question for scholars because the chronological data that we have has not appeared to be self consistent. Nephi recorded that the Savior "...cometh, according to the words of the angel, in six hundred years from the time my father left Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 19:8). He also records that Lehi began to prophesy after the beginning of the first year of Zedekiah (1 Nephi 1:4), which began in 597 BC, according to well-founded historical evidence. The problem is that there were only 596 years from that beginning of Zedekiah's reign until 6 April 1 BC, the implied date of the Savior's birth according both to modern prophets and other evidence.[1] However, a more careful comparison of Nephi's account to the Bible as well as to Babylonian sources indicates that Lehi most likely really did leave in 601 BC, exactly 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

The usual first response to the above dating problem is that the angel must have only meant that it would be about six centuries until Christ would be born and so 596 years is close enough. On closer inspection, however, that approach does not work because the Nephites explicitly state that just over 600 Nephite years had actually passed away from Lehi's departure until the great sign of the Savior's birth, the night that was as bright as mid-day, was given (3 Nephi 1:1, 19). One solution to the problem which has been offered is that perhaps the Nephites reckoned with short "years," such as the Mayan prophetic year of 360 days[2] or the Arab lunar year of 354 days[3], so that 600 such years could fit into the interval between Lehi's departure and the birth of the Savior. However, a comparison of Nephi's account to Biblical and Babylonian histories indicates that it is more likely that the angel referred to our regular seasonal year and that Lehi actually left in 601 BC. To see why, let us first review the well-established history of that period of time and then look in more detail at the Book of Mormon account to see how it fits into the known historical setting.

1. The Historical Setting

The history of Jerusalem during the time of Lehi is well-founded chronologically because the Babylonian record is a second witness to the Biblical account of the conflicts that occurred at that time between Babylon and Jerusalem. Both histories complement each other on the key issues relevant to this question, with each filling in details left out by the other. The great contribution of the Babylonian account is that it provides an absolute chronological framework for the entire period. It is absolute because the Babylonians kept records of where the planets were among the constellations. When those observations are recalculated by computer and compared to the traditional historical dates for that period, they are found to be in excellent agreement.[4] Such astronomical observations provide the firmest dating of any method known. With that in mind, let us review the history of Jerusalem based on the combined Biblical and Babylonian accounts.

1.1 The reign of Jehoiakim.

Let us begin with Jehoiakim who was the king of Judah when the conflicts between Judah and Babylon began. The first year of Jehoiakim began in 608 BC.[5] At that time Egypt was the dominant force over the Syro-Palestine area; in fact, Pharaoh Necho had placed Jehoiakim on the throne (see 2 Kgs 23:34, 2 Chr. 36:4).

In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the prophets began to predict captivity and destruction unless the people repented. Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be depopulated and destroyed: "this city shall be desolate without an inhabitant" (Jer. 26:9). Another prophet named Urijah prophesied similarly (Jer. 26:20). The people of Jerusalem were shocked at such predictions, which seemed impossible to be fulfilled, because Jerusalem had always been a stronghold. Even when the Assyrians had conquered the rest of the area over a century earlier, they had not been able to conquer Jerusalem. Thus, the people mocked these prophets and sought to take away their lives. Jeremiah's life was finally spared, but when Urijah fled to Egypt, Jehoiakim had him brought back and executed (Jer. 26:21-23).

In the fourth year of Jehoiakim, Babylon's spreading dominion met Egypt head on at the Battle of Carchemish, an Egyptian stronghold north of Jerusalem in Syria (Jer. 46:2). There, in May-June of 605 BC,[6] Nebuchadnezzar, the crown prince of Babylon, defeated Necho. Nebuchadnezzar immediately went to each of the countries which had been under Egyptian rule and took a few captives from among their princes,[7] apparently without further battle. Daniel was among that first group deported to Babylon (Dan. 1:1-6).[8] In August, Nebuchadnezzar received word of his father's death, and he returned to Babylon and was crowned king in Sep 605 BC.[9]

1.2 The first destruction of Jerusalem.

According to a Babylonian account, during the next year each of the kings of Syro-Palestine (which included Jehoiakim) appeared before Nebuchadnezzar and paid him an annual tribute.[10] The Old Testament records that Jehoiakim paid the tribute for three years (2 Kings 24:1) and the Babylonian record confirms that for the three years of 604, 603 and 602 BC the tribute was collected in Nov.-Dec.[11] When it came time to collect the tribute in the next year, Egypt and Judah rebelled. The Babylonian record states that beginning in Nov. 601 BC, Nebuchadnezzar fought a great war with Egypt, which he barely won, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.[12] The Bible states that after Jehoiakim had served Nebuchadnezzar for three years,

"...then he turned and rebelled against him,
"the Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldees, and bands of the Syrians, and bands of the Moabites, and bands of the children of Ammon, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by his servants the prophets." (2 Kings 24:1-2)

Thus, while Nebuchadnezzar was personally at war in Egypt, his vassal kingdoms of Syro-Palestine were punishing Jerusalem for Jehoiakim's rebellion. The destruction they inflicted upon Judah in Nov.-Dec. 601 BC was severe enough that, as stated in the above quotation, it was said to have fulfilled the words of the prophets that Jerusalem would be destroyed. This was the first destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. This destruction has generally been entirely overlooked in histories of this period, so let us not confuse it with the well-known second and final destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon over thirteen years later in 587 BC.

For an account of the last three years of Jehoiakim's reign which followed, the Bible refers us to other books no longer extant (2 Kgs. 24:5, 2 Chr. 36:8), but fortunately the Jewish historian Josephus and other Jewish traditions fill in the gap, presumably because they had access to those books. They state that three years later (in Dec. 598 BC) Jehoiakim again refused to pay the tribute.[13] This time Nebuchadnezzar marched to the city and convinced the Sanhedrin to lower Jehoiakim down over the wall to prevent a battle. Nebuchadnezzar bound him in fetters (2 Chron. 36:6), paraded him before various cities of Judah, and then slew him and threw his corpse to the dogs,[14] thus fulfilling a prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer. 22:18-19).

Nebuchadnezzar then selected Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah to be the new king, changing his name to Jehoiachin. He then returned to Babylon, taking with him some 3,000 more captives from the upper class, including Ezekiel.[15] After arriving in Babylon, his advisers convinced him that it was too dangerous to let Jehoiakim's son reign, so he returned to Jerusalem and demanded Jehoiachin's surrender. On Saturday, 10 March 597 BC (on our calendar),[16] after a reign of only three months and ten days (2 Chr. 36:9), Jehoiachin submitted without resistance, and spent the rest of his life in Babylon. The Babylonian record then states merely that Nebuchadnezzar "captured the city,"[17] and the Bible confirms that the captivity was so complete that "all Jerusalem" was deported, with over 10,000 captives being taken to Babylon, including all of the wealthy:

And he carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land.
And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon, and the king's mother, and the king's wives, and his officers, and the mighty of the land, those carried he into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon.
And all the men of might, even seven thousand, and craftsmen and smiths a thousand, all that were strong and apt for war, even them the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon.
And the king of Babylon made Mattaniah his father's brother king in his stead, and changed his name to Zedekiah. (2 Kings 24:14-17)

Note that even though so many inhabitants of Jerusalem were taken into exile at this time, there was no major battle and the city was not destroyed. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar chose Mattaniah, being Jehoiakim's brother and Jehoiachin's uncle, to be the new king and changed his name to be Zedekiah.

Zedekiah ruled over the poor who were left in Jerusalem for just over ten years. During that time Jeremiah prophesied that the taking of captives was essentially over. Comparing the inhabitants of Judah to figs, the Lord declared through him that all of the good figs worth keeping had already been taken to Babylon, and those left behind were the rotten ones (Jer. 24:1-10). He clearly stated that the next time Nebuchadnezzar returned he would not show mercy, but the inhabitants would either be killed by famine, pestilence or the sword, or would be scattered (see Jer. 21:7). The prophet Ezekiel in Babylon was a second witness to this prophecy. In a dramatic demonstration before the city, he shaved off his hair and beard growth of over a year and divided them into three parts. He burned one part, chopped up another part with a knife, and scattered the third part in the wind (Ezek. 4:5-6, 5:1-2). The Lord explained that the demonstration represented the fate of Jerusalem:

A third part of thee shall die with the pestilence, and with famine shall they be consumed in the midst of thee; and a third part shall fall by the sword round about thee; and I will scatter a third part into all the winds, and I will draw out a sword after them. (Ezek. 5:12)

An important point for this article is that the number of captives that would be taken after Zedekiah began to reign in 597 BC was not enough to be represented at all in the symbolism just described. In fact, the Lord specifically warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem through two witnesses that if they did not repent, the next time they should not to expect anything as merciful as being deported.

1.3 The second destruction of Jerusalem.

These prophecies of pestilence, famine and destruction were fulfilled in the eleventh year of Zedekiah, after Nebuchadnezzar had laid siege to the Jerusalem for a year and a half. The great city of Jerusalem fell in June of 587 BC (Jer. 39:1-8). Most of the inhabitants who had not already died of starvation or pestilence were then either killed by the sword or scattered. Zedekiah was bound in fetters and taken back to Babylon, along with a few other captives (about 800, see Jer. 52:29). The houses of the inhabitants were burned and the wall of the city broken down (Jer. 39:8). About a month later the temple was also burned to the ground (2 Kngs 25:8-9), finishing the complete destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC.

The dates of the two destructions and four deportations of captives are summarized as follows:

Year Event
608 BC 1st year of Jehoiakim. Jeremiah prophesied Jerusalem's destruction and desolation
605 BC Babylon replaced Egypt as world power and took control of Judah. A few princes taken captive (First deportation).
Dec. 601 BC Jehoiakim rebelled; Jerusalem partially destroyed (First destruction).
Dec. 598 BC Jehoiakim executed, Jehoiachin began reign. (Second deportation).
Mar. 597 BC Third deportation (of over 10,000) to Babylon. Then Zedekiah began to reign.
June 587 BC Jerusalem destroyed (Second destruction) and Fourth Deportation of only a few.

Now let us turn to the Book of Mormon account to see how it fits into this known history.

2. Nephi's Account

Nephi describes his father Lehi as a wealthy man who, in the first year of Zedekiah, heard many prophets predict that Jerusalem would be destroyed if the people did not repent (1 Nephi 1:4). Lehi prayed for his people and received his own revelation confirming that Jerusalem would be destroyed. A key point for this discussion is that he also explicitly saw in his vision that "many should be carried away captive into Babylon" (1 Nephi 1:13). That prophecy raises an important issue to resolve.

How could Lehi prophesy that "many" would be taken captive after the beginning of Zedekiah's reign, that is, after the deportation of "all Jerusalem" had already occurred? The Biblical record is clear that only a few were taken captive at the later final destruction of Jerusalem. Moreover, the details that Lehi was wealthy, having "exceeding great" property comprised of gold, silver, and precious things (1 Nephi 3:22-25), and that some of his own sons couldn't believe it possible for Jerusalem to be destroyed (1 Nephi 2:13), argue against the setting being during the reign of Zedekiah (after 597 BC) after all of the wealthy had been deported, and Jerusalem had already been partially destroyed late in 601 BC.

Because of such considerations, it has been proposed that the king whom Nephi called "Zedekiah" must have been Jehoiakim.[18] Let us adopt that proposal as a working hypothesis to see how well it fits the Biblical history.

2.1 Lehi prophesies with Jeremiah.

Nephi describes the response of the inhabitants of Jerusalem to Lehi's prophecy, saying they "did mock him" and "they were angry with him ... and they also sought his life" (1 Nephi 19-20). That matches very well the response to both Jeremiah and Urijah who began to preach of the desolation and destruction of Jerusalem "in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim" (Jer. 26:1). Thus, if Nephi's Zedekiah is the same as the Biblical Jehoiakim, then both the timing of the prophecies near the beginning of his reign, as well as the response of the people, are in perfect agreement. The response of the people would be completely understandable because it would have been before Nebuchadnezzar had begun his dominion.

2.2 The 600-year prophecy.

The problem of 600 years not fitting between Lehi's departure and the birth of the Savior entirely disappears once it is recognized that Nephi's Zedekiah was most likely Jehoiakim. Lehi could have left in 601 BC, 600 years before the birth of the Savior at Passover in the spring of 1 BC. Alma noted that Lehi's departure had the same Passover symbolism as Moses' departure from Egypt, in that Lehi was delivered from bondage and led through the wilderness to a promised land (see Alma 9:9, 36:28-29). Accordingly, it has been proposed that Lehi probably left in the spring of 601 BC at Passover.[19] Another indication that Lehi's departure was 600 years to the very day before the Savior's birth is that 600 years is a lunisolar realignment interval known long before Lehi[20] on which a date on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar (Passover) reoccurs on the same date on a solar calendar (April 6 on our Gregorian calendar). Thus, Lehi probably left Jerusalem during the night preceding Sunday, 6 April 601 BC.

The Nephites most likely used a 365-day year for their civil calendar, as indicated by their reckoning of the interval between the signs of the Savior's birth and death.[21] If so, they would not have inserted any leap days during the 600 Nephite years after Lehi's departure, which would explain why they reckoned that the 600 years were fulfilled several months before the Savior's birth. (3 Nephi 1:1).[22]

Lehi's departure in the spring of 601 BC would fit well with Nephi's statement that Jerusalem had been destroyed "immediately after my father left Jerusalem" (2 Nephi 25:10). That is, Nephi would not have been referring to the final destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, but rather to the first destruction which occurred in Dec., 601 BC.

2.3 "Few" taken captive.

Some hitherto overlooked details of Nephi's account are also explained by the proposal that Nephi referred to Jehoiakim as Zedekiah. After Lehi's group left Jerusalem, they traveled across the wilderness for eight years and arrived at Bountiful (1 Nephi 17:4-5), which would have been in 593 BC according to the proposed chronology. At that time Nephi referred to the final destruction of Jerusalem as a yet future event: "I know that the day must surely come that they must be destroyed, save a few only, who shall be led away into captivity" (1 Nephi 17:43). Note that he declared that "a few only" would be taken captive, whereas Lehi had prophesied that "many" would be taken to Babylon. Knowing that there were two destructions of Jerusalem clarifies those details. That is, Lehi's prophecy that "many" would be taken captive had already been fulfilled in 597 BC. In Bountiful, Nephi spoke of the final destruction of Jerusalem, which would occur in 587 BC, at which time only "few" would be taken captive. Years later, after they had crossed the ocean to the promised land, Lehi received the confirming revelation that Jerusalem had finally been destroyed (2 Nephi 1:4). That revelation must have come after the final 587 BC destruction. The precise way the Book of Mormon account would fit into the historical setting is as follows:

YearEvent
608 BC 1st year of Jehoiakim. Jeremiah prophesied Jerusalem's destruction and desolation
608-607 BC Lehi began to prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction and the captivity of many.
605 BC Babylon replaced Egypt as world power and took control of Judah. A few princes taken captive (First deportation).
6 Apr 601 BC Lehi departed from Jerusalem, 600 years before birth of Christ on 6 Apr 1 BC
Dec. 601 BC Jehoiakim rebelled; Jerusalem partially destroyed (First destruction).
Dec. 598 BC Jehoiakim executed, Jehoiachin began reign. (Second deportation).
Mar. 597 BC Third deportation (of over 10,000) to Babylon. Then Zedekiah began to reign.
593 BC Nephi prophesies in Bountiful of Jerusalem's final destruction, with few captives.
June 587 BC Jerusalem destroyed (Second destruction) and Fourth Deportation of only a few, fulfilling Nephi's prophecy.

2.4 Jehoiakim as Nephi's "Zedekiah."

Why would Nephi have called Jehoiakim "Zedekiah?" There are several plausible explanations.

(1) Zedekiah might have simply been another name for Jehoiakim. In fact, Jehoiakim had a son named Zedekiah (1 Chron. 3:16), not to be confused with his brother Mattaniah whose name was also later changed to Zedekiah when he became king.

(2) Another possibility is that "Zedekiah" might have been a title used interchangeably with the name Jehoiakim, which could explain why the Bible sometimes referred to Zedekiah as Jehoiakim (Jer. 27:1).[23]

(3) Another explanation might be that Nebuchadnezzar might have changed Jehoiakim's name to Zedekiah. At that time, every king of Judah had his name changed by the dominating nation, as a mark of subservience.[24] For example, Pharaoh Necho changed Shallum's name to Jehoahaz, and then Eliakim's name to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34). After Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar changed Jeconiah's name to Jehoiachin, and then Mattaniah's name to Zedekiah. This name changing practice extended even to the captives such as Daniel, whose name was changed to Belteshazzar (Dan. 1:7). Note that the Biblical narrative does not always mention every name change; we only learn of Shallum's name in a revelation where the Lord refers to him by his original name (see Jer. 22:11, compare 1 Chr. 3:15). The only king in this entire period for whom no name change is recorded when a new world power took command is Jehoiakim. Thus, the possibility that Nebuchadnezzar changed Jehoiakim's name to Zedekiah would follow established precedence.

2.5 The Duration of Lehi's Ministry.

One further point to consider is the amount of time that Lehi preached before his departure. Nephi's account that 1) Lehi heard prophets predict destruction, 2) Lehi had his own revelation and began to preach, 3) the people mocked Lehi and sought his life, and 4) the Lord commanded Lehi to leave, sounds as if these events might all have occurred within a period of a few months. But according to the chronology proposed herein, Lehi heard the prophets preach in 608 BC and he departed seven years later in 601 BC Could the interval between those two events have been so long? A careful reading of Nephi's account shows that such an interpretation is allowed; in fact, Nephi specifically states that he is not including a complete account of Lehi's many prophecies at that time (1 Nephi 1:16). Indeed, the Lord's usual pattern is to give people plenty of time to repent before such a major destruction comes; it would have been very unusual for Lehi to have made one quick prophecy and then immediately depart.

In summary, the simple proposal that Nephi may have been referring to Jehoiakim as "Zedekiah" explains 1) how Jerusalem was destroyed immediately after Lehi's departure in 601 BC, and many were taken captive thereafter in 597 BC, fulfilling Lehi's prophecy; 2) how Nephi's prophecy in about 593 BC that Jerusalem would yet be destroyed and "few" would be taken captive was fulfilled in 587 BC; and 3) how the Savior's birth on 6 April 1 BC would have been 600 years after Lehi's departure, as the angel had declared to Lehi.

Endnotes

  1. Pratt, John P. "Passover, Was it Symbolic of His Coming?" Ensign (Jan. 1994), pp. 38-45.
  2. Huber, Jay H., "Lehi's 600 Year Prophecy and the Birth of Christ," (Provo: FARMS, 1982). See also Pratt, J.P., "Book of Mormon Chronology," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1992), vol. 1, pp. 169-171.
  3. Spackman, Randall P., "The Jewish/Nephite Lunar Calendar" The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, No. 1 (Fall, 1998), pp. 49-59.
  4. For example, the Babylonians recorded the positions of the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Saturn on precise dates during one month of the 37th year of Nebuchadnezzar (B.L. van der Waerden, Science Awakening Vol.II, "The Birth of Astronomy", New York, Oxford, 1974, p. 97). Those positions agree with the conventional date of 568 BC for that year of his reign (see R.A. Parker and W.H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.-A.D. 45, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1942, p. 26).
  5. There are two New Year's Days on the Judean calendar, one in the spring and one in the fall. There is evidence that both systems were used by Bible authors to reckon Jehoiakim's reign. For our purposes, it suffices that it began either in the spring or fall of 608 BC.
  6. The Babylonian date was the 21st year of Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar. (See A.K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles , vol. 5 of Texts from Cuneiform Sources, eds. A.L. Oppenheim, et al. (New York: Augustun, 1975) p. 99. Conversion to our calendar taken from Babylonian Chronology, p. 25.
  7. Berossus of Babylon is quoted by Josephus as stating that after Nebuchadnezzar defeated Egypt at Carchemish, he immediately settled the affairs of Egypt, and the other countries and sent captives from the Jews, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Egyptians to Babylon before he returned there himself to be crowned king after his father's death (Antiquities X.xi.1).
  8. The Book of Daniel apparently uses the fall reckoning because it gives the year as the third year of Jehoiakim. See Pratt, J.P., "When was the Seventy Year Captivity of Judah?" Ensign, 28, No. 10 (October, 1998), 64-65.
  9. Babylonian Chronicles 5:10-11 (Grayson, p. 99-100).
  10. Babylonian Chronicles 5:17 (Grayson, p. 100).
  11. Babylonian Chronicles 5:17, 23; R5:4 (Grayson, p. 100-101).
  12. Babylonian Chronicles R5:6-7 (Grayson, p. 100).
  13. Josephus Antiquities X.vi.1-3.
  14. Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1941) IV:285.
  15. 3,000 according to Josephus (Antiquities X.vi.3), 300 according to other traditions (See Legends of the Jews IV:284).
  16. The exact date is given in the Babylonian Chronicles R5:12, as 2 Adar in the 7th year of Nebuchadnezzar. Parker and Dubberstein (p. 25) give the date as 16 Mar 597 BC on the Julian Calendar, which is 10 March on our Gregorian calendar. Moreover, the Babylonian record also gives the month of Nebuchadnezzar's march to Jerusalem (Nov/Dec, 598 BC) when he installed Jehoiachin, which agrees closely with the Biblical record that Jehoiachin reigned three months and ten days.
  17. Babylonian Chronicles, R5:12 (Grayson, p. 102).
  18. Allen, Joseph L., Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Orem, Utah: S.A. Publishers, 1989), pp. 22-25.
  19. Pratt, J.P. "Passover" p. 45, fn 7.
  20. Josephus Antiquities I.iii.9.
  21. Pratt, J.P. "The Restoration of Priesthood Keys on Easter 1836," Ensign (June 1985), p. 68 (section 3.2).
  22. The 600th year of Lehi would have ended in Nov 2 BC, which is supported by studies of seasonal warfare patterns in Mesoamerica which indicate that the Nephi year began about December at that time. (See Sorenson, John, "Seasonality of Warfare in the Book of Mormon and in Mesoamerica," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. S. Ricks and W. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: FARMS, 1990), pp. 445-77.
  23. That Zedekiah is indicated is made clear from the context in the next two chapters. Other translations simply translate the name as "Zedekiah." Even if this is simply a copyist's mistake, it seems easier to explain if Jehoiakim had also been called Zedekiah.
  24. "His [Jehoiakim's] name was changed from Eliakim as a mark of vassalage." New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1982), p. 555.