Service and Temple in King Benjamin's Speech

Service and Temple in King Benjamin’s Speech
Donald W. Parry
In one of the most influential sermons1 recorded
in Nephite annals, King Benjamin introduced his topic in a most curious way.
After his expected, straightforward declaration that his audience should not
“trifle with [his] words” and his affirmation that his kingship
had come to him from “this people,” “my father,” and “the
hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 2:9, 11), he turned abruptly to service. In
language that is saturated with servanthood, he brings his hearers to his
main topic: God the King, God the Servant.2

In a concrete sense, this set of concepts about God had governed his own kingship and therefore
carried a practical imperative for his people: “If I, whom ye call your
king, who has spent his days in your service . . . do merit any thanks from
you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!” (Mosiah 2:19). It
is clear that he is linking together the divine and human spheres of activity.
Out of this linkage grows his most famous couplet that combines the divine
and human: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only
in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). But there is more than meets
the eye in Benjamin’s reference to service. Such references fit very naturally,
indeed compellingly, within a temple setting. Significantly, Benjamin and
his audience3 were gathered at the temple in the city of Zarahemla.4
Both this setting and Benjamin’s language about service form an integrated,
organic connection that is most easily seen by reference to its Old Testament
roots in temple service. In this paper I will link or associate Benjamin’s
references to service to that of the ancient temple system. This magnificent
temple setting gave Benjamin opportunity to accentuate certain topics during
his speech—service (in light of temple service), sin, and the atonement.

The Temple Setting of Benjamin’s Speech

The opening verses of Mosiah 2 make clear that the temple imposes itself upon Benjamin’s
listeners as he presents his sermon. There are five explicit references to
the temple in these verses, shown here in italics. In language that bears
the sense of sacred pilgrimage to a holy sanctuary—ascending or going
up to a holy place—verse 1 relates that “the people gathered themselves
together throughout all the land, that they might go up to the temple to hear the words which king
Benjamin should speak unto them” (Mosiah 2:1).5 Subsequent
passages indicate that the Nephites oriented their tents “round about”
the temple, making the temple the focal point of their temporary tent city:
“When they came up to the temple, they pitched their tents round about, every man according to his
family. . . . And they pitched their tents round about the temple” (Mosiah 2:5–6).
In fact, the tents’ doors faced the temple: “Every man [pitched] his tent with the door thereof towards
the temple
” so that the Nephites “might remain in their tents and hear the words
which king Benjamin should speak unto them” (Mosiah 2:6). Apparently,
then, Benjamin stood on his tower between the temple and the people. As the
people sat in their tents and listened to Benjamin’s speech, they were able
to look past the king at the temple, which stood in the immediate background
as a chief point of focus.

The fifth reference to the temple explains why the Nephites gathered “round about” the
temple rather than within its walls. “For the multitude being so great
that king Benjamin could not teach them all within the walls of the temple” (Mosiah 2:7).

In addition to the five explicit references to the temple, there is a pointed statement
about the temple’s sacrificial system: “They also took of the firstlings
of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according
to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:3). Some of these offerings were likely
thanksgiving offerings (see 2:4, “that they might give thanks to the
Lord their God”).6 While the Book of Mormon specifically refers
to the temple, its walls, sacrifices, and priests (see 6:3; 11:5), it does
not explicitly mention other parts of the temple. For instance, the text does
not refer to the sacrificial altar, temple implements,7 utensils,
furniture, and sacred vestments. Nor does the text mention other things that
were part of the temple setting, such as the bleating of the sheep or goats
before their slaughter, the smell of burning animal flesh mixed with smoke
(but note the allusion in 3:27 of flames and ascending
), and the sight of blood spattered on officiants’ vestments. These dimensions
are assumed by Mormon, the editor, and therefore do not come into his narrative.

What is important is the fact that Benjamin invited his people to the setting of the temple,
a holy place of sacred service, so that he could more effectively teach regarding
service to God and service to one’s fellow beings. The setting is key. Further,
Benjamin spoke of service within sixty seconds after opening his talk, if
our text is complete (see Mosiah 2:11–12).8

Service in the Temple and the Law of Moses

Significantly, to underscore temple ties, Benjamin’s opening words deal directly with service.
He repeated four terms—servants, serve, served, and service—a
total of fifteen times in eighteen verses. Benjamin, the master of discourse, presented his words
in such a manner that some members of his audience may have understood service from at least
three different perspectives.

1. Benjamin spoke of serving and service as manual labor. This is evident in a number
of verses. Benjamin himself labored with his own hands instead of seeking
gold, silver, or riches (see Mosiah 2:12). He served his fellow citizens so
that they would not be overburdened with a tax structure that elevated unnaturally
a king and his kingdom (see 2:14).

2. At several points in his sermon, Benjamin briefly connected service and slavery. We note
Benjamin’s explicit words: “Neither have I suffered that ye should be
confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another”
(Mosiah 2:13). Benjamin also used subtleties and implicit references that
suggest a king-vassal relationship or a master-slave connection. The expressions
king (see 2:11, 18, 19, 26)9
and unprofitable servants (see 2:21) speak especially of a powerful ruler and his lowly subjects. Also,
terms such as lending (see 2:21), indebted (see 2:23–24), and paid (see 2:24)
pertain to kings and their vassals. Some of Benjamin’s listeners possibly comprehended Benjamin’s
words in light of ancient Near Eastern laws and customs regarding slavery,
kings, and servants.

3. Another perspective in which Benjamin’s hearers may have understood service pertains to temple
work and religious service—serving one’s fellow beings and serving God in a sacred setting.
It is this third sense that draws our most rapt attention here.

As we are aware, the Old Testament sets forth a strong connection between temples and service.
The Hebrew words ʿavodah (service) and ʿavad (serve) frequently
refer to the ancient Israelite temple system.10
In fact, some Hebrew scholars and lexicographers disclose that the verb ʿavad, often
translated “to work” or “to serve,”11
also means “to worship” or “to perform a (cultic) rite,”12
referring specifically to temple worship.

In this connection, service and serve occur approximately sixty times
in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the Levite task of dismantling, transporting,
and reassembling the Mosaic tabernacle. Service and serve also occur with regard to other
official duties connected to the tabernacle (and later the temple), including
the guard duty of the structure and its courtyard, the system of sacrifices,
and the upkeep and care of the sacred furniture, utensils, and instruments.

The expressions “service of the tabernacle” (Hebrew, ʿavodat hammishkan)
and “to do the service of the tabernacle” (Hebrew, laʿavod
ʾet ʿavodat hammishkan) are both formulaic or standard phrases
(see Numbers 3:7–8; 7:5, 9; 8:22; 16:9; 18:4, 6, 21, 23, 31).13
After the tabernacle was permanently dismantled and Solomon’s temple was built, the formula “service
of the tabernacle” was discontinued. It was replaced with the expression
“service of the house of God” or “service of the house of the
Lord,” referring to Solomon’s temple. These phrases also became formulaic,
especially in Chronicles (see 1 Chronicles 9:13; 23:28, 32; 28:13).14

Specific examples of serve and service in the Bible demonstrate their
usage in different contexts. Let me enumerate them. Numbers 8 sets forth that
the Lord called the Levites to “execute the service of the Lord”
(v. 11) and to do the service of the tabernacle for the children of Israel.
Verse 19 of the same chapter reads: “I have given the Levites as a gift
to Aaron and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service
of the children of Israel in the tabernacle of the congregation, and to make
an atonement for the children of Israel.” Verses 21–22 read:

The Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes; and Aaron offered them as an
offering before the Lord; and Aaron made an atonement for them to cleanse
them. And after that went the Levites in to do the service in the tabernacle
of the congregation . . . as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites.

Further, the sacred vessels and implements of the temple were called “the vessels
of service in the house of the Lord,” underscoring the connections between
service and holiness (1 Chronicles 28:13; see also 1 Chronicles 9:28). As
these verses illustrate, genuine service was thought of as a sacred, sanctifying

Another formula pertains to service in the tabernacle and the age that
priesthood members are called to serve. Of such peoples the King James Version
generally repeats the wording, “that entereth into the service, to do
the work in the tabernacle” (Hebrew, habbaʾ latsavaʾ laʿavod
ʾet ʿavodat hammishkan) in place of this formula: “From thirty years old
and upward even unto fifty years old . . . every one that entereth into the
service, to do the work of the tabernacle” (Numbers 4:30, 35, 39, 43;
compare also vv. 4:47; 8:24–25). Again, the place of holiness—the
tabernacle—is explicitly linked to service.

In one of the most basic senses, the term service embraced the Mosaic sacrificial system in the Hebrew
Bible. In the book of Joshua, for example, the children of Israel declared, “[Let us]
do the service of the Lord before him with
our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings”
(Joshua 22:27; emphasis added). As a second example, during the days of King
Josiah (640–609 BC) a great Passover was kept, during which the priests and Levites prepared more
than 5,000 small cattle and 500 oxen for the sacrifices. The Chronicler states,
“So all the service of the Lord was prepared the
same day, to keep the passover, and to offer burnt offerings upon the altar
of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 35:16; emphasis added). Thus, both sacrifices
and Passover preparations—sacred acts—were thought of as service.16

Sins, Sacrifices, and Service

Benjamin’s last mention of service as recorded in Mosiah 2 is connected to a significant temple
theme—sprinkling the blood of the sacrificial victim onto the altar.
Mosaic law required priestly officiants to sprinkle the blood belonging to
the sacrificial animals of all sin offerings onto the temple’s altar (see
Exodus 24:6; Leviticus 4:6, 17).17 On occasion, as the priest sprinkled
the blood upon the altar, the blood spilled out of the vessel or splashed
from the altar onto his temple clothing. The blood spilling apparently occurred
often enough that the law of Moses instructed priesthood members how to care
for spilled blood: “When there is sprinkled of the blood thereof upon
any garment, thou shalt wash that whereon it was sprinkled in the holy place”
(Leviticus 6:27). Thus the priest purges the stain.

A reference to blood on garments appears in Mosiah 2, where Benjamin links service and
the blood on his own garments: “As I said unto you that I had served
you, walking with a clear conscience before God, even so I at this time have
caused that ye should assemble yourselves together [at the temple], that I
might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me. . . .
I say unto you that I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together
that I might rid my garments of your blood” (Mosiah 2:27–28).18
One may speculate that prior to speaking to the people Benjamin offered sacrifices
himself and had blood on his garments that he was unable to remove before
his speech. Or during the offering of sacrifices some of the temple officiants
may have accidentally sprinkled blood onto their garments, thus creating a
visual image to accompany Benjamin’s words. As the temple workers were required
by the law of Moses to wash their stained garments, so Benjamin was ridding
his garments of the blood of his listeners by serving them and by “walking
with a clear conscience before God.”

Benjamin’s expression “that I might rid my garments of your blood” (Mosiah 2:29) depicts
three images—garments, human blood, and the removal of that blood. These
three images are found in other passages where God’s servants remove others’
guilt and filth (represented by blood) from themselves (represented by garments)
through proper service. Jacob 1:19 (compare Mormon 9:35 and Ether 12:38) also
contains these three images: “We did magnify our office unto the Lord,
taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our
own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore,
by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise
their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless
at the last day.”19 Second Nephi 9:44 also presents the three
images and explicitly links “iniquities” with “blood.”
Alma 5:22 comprises yet another example, speaking of human “garments
stained with blood and all manner of filthiness.”

Benjamin’s three images—garments, human blood, and the removal of that blood from the
garments—correspond with Book of Mormon passages that also feature the
same three images, but with some important differences (see 1 Nephi 12:10–11;
Alma 5:21, 27; 13:11; 34:36; 3 Nephi 27:19; Ether 13:10). These passages emphasize
Jesus Christ’s atoning blood20 (versus human blood) and its power
to rid garments of stains made through sin. These passages emphasize the following

The sacrificial Lamb and his blood. The emphasis rests in naming Jesus as the “Lamb” and
referring repeatedly to “the blood of the Lamb” (1 Nephi 12:10–11; Alma
13:11; 34:36; Ether 13:10; compare Alma 5:21; 3 Nephi 27:19).

Washing/cleansing of garments. The image is that “garments are washed white” or
“garments must be purified until they are cleansed” (Alma 5:21). In slightly different
language we read that “garments are made white” (1 Nephi 12:10–11)
or “garments have been cleansed and made white” (Alma 5:27; see
similarly Alma 13:11; 34:36; 3 Nephi 27:19; Ether 13:10).

Importantly, in these passages the person’s garments symbolize the person himself or herself,
and the Lamb’s blood refers directly to Jesus Christ’s atonement and his power
to cleanse those who demonstrate faith in Jesus, repent, and remain faithful
(see 1 Nephi 12:11; 3 Nephi 27:19).

In sum, Benjamin’s speech took place in a dramatic and sacred setting, the Lord’s
temple. Mosiah 2 incorporates many elements that hark back to the temple system
of the Old Testament—multiple references to the temple itself, temple
worshippers who go up to the temple, a sacrificial
system that includes burnt offerings and a flock’s “firstlings,”
both of which are offered “according to the law of Moses,” and reference
to garments or temple vestments with blood on them. King Benjamin may have
employed various Old Testament formulae—such as “the service of
the house of God,” or “in the service of the house of the Lord”—to
connect his message of service to the temple system. This language recalls
priestly service in the ancient temple system, thus linking service to others
to service before God in his holy house. In connection with stained garments,
Benjamin’s speech was given after the offering of blood sacrifices, during
which blood was used for various ritual purposes. The king’s language regarding
blood on the garments skillfully recalls scriptural passages that speak directly
to the atonement and Jesus’s power to cleanse one’s own garments from filth
and stain caused by transgression. This cleansing takes place only after individuals
wash their garments in the Lamb’s blood.

Jesus Christ’s atoning blood became a prominent element in the multitude’s response to Benjamin’s sermon.
After Benjamin concluded his words, his audience fell to the earth and “cried
aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive
forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified” (Mosiah 4:1–2).
King Benjamin’s discourse on service in its temple setting—where sacrifices
were made under the law of Moses—ultimately points to the supreme and
final service: Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice.


1. Previously published examinations of King Benjamin’s speech include Hugh W. Nibley,
“Old World Ritual in the New World,” in An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 1957), 243–56, a comparison of the speech with ancient year-rite
festivals; Stephen D. Ricks, “Treaty/Covenant Patterns in King Benjamin’s
Address,” BYU Studies 24 (1984): 151–62,
a study of Benjamin’s speech in connection with ancient Near Eastern treaty-covenant
assemblies; John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of
Ancient Israelite Festivals” (FARMS Prelimi-nary Report, 1985); John
A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also by Faith,
ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197–237,
two studies that present evidence that the Nephite gathering in Zarahemla under King Benjamin was an
Israelite Feast of Tabernacles celebration; Susan Easton Black, “King Benjamin: In the Service of Your
God,” in The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, Salvation Only through Christ, ed.
Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center,
1991), 37–48, an investigation of the speech in light of service and
knowing God’s mysteries; Blake T. Ostler, “The Covenant Tradition in
the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and
Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 230–40, discusses the two
covenant-renewal festivals of the Book of Mormon—King Benjamin’s address and the account
of King Limhi; W. Ralph Pew, “For the Sake of Retaining a Remission of
Your Sins,” in The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, 227–45, focuses on Benjamin’s teachings of
forgiveness of sins and helping the poor, clothing the naked; Stephen D. Ricks, “King,
Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in Rediscovering the Book of
, 209–19, King Benjamin’s farewell address and Mosiah’s succession to his father’s throne
reflect features of ancient Israelite and Near Eastern culture; John W. Welch, “Benjamin’s
Speech: A Classic Ancient Farewell Address,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon,
ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 120–23, a comparison
of Benjamin’s speech to ancient religious and political farewell addresses;
Neal A. Maxwell, “King Benjamin’s Manual of Discipleship,” Ensign,
January 1992, 8–13, Benjamin describes how to be a true disciple of
Christ; and S. Kent Brown, Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights
(American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2004), 65–88. A number of the articles listed
above have been revised and republished in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds.,
King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998).

2. Brown makes this point in his Voices from the Dust, 75–77.

3. Benjamin’s audience consisted of “people who were in the land of
Zarahemla” (Mosiah 1:18). A great multitude responded to Mosiah’s invitation to gather
at the temple to hear Benjamin speak. According to Mosiah 2:1–2, “And
it came to pass that after Mosiah had done as his father had commanded him,
and had made a proclamation throughout all the land, that the people gathered
themselves together throughout all the land, that they might go up to the
temple to hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them. And there
were a great number, even so many that they did not number them” (see also v. 7).

4. In addition to Benjamin’s religious affiliation with the temple,
it is possible that he also had an emotional bond to it; this is because he may have been “involved to some
extent in its construction.” On this idea, see John W. Welch, “Benjamin,
the Man: His Place in Nephite History,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 37. See also
John W. Welch, “The Temple in the Book of Mormon: The Temples at the
Cities of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful,” in Temples of the Ancient World,
ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 348–49.

5. On the language of pilgrimage, see Brown, Voices from the Dust, 72.
Scholars propose that Benjamin’s speech was given in the setting of ancient Israelite pilgrimages and festivals,
such as the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. See Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of
, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 295–310; John A. Tvedtnes, “King
Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor
of Hugh W. Nibley,
ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990),
2:197–237; Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context
of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” King Benjamin’s Speech, 147–223.

6. Brown (Voices from the Dust, 72–73) suggests peace offerings.

7. Although the Book of Mormon does not mention the temple implements and utensils,
perhaps Nephi implied their existence with these words: “And I did teach my people
to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of
copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious
ores, which were in great abundance. And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and
I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were
not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the
land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the
manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship
thereof was exceedingly fine” (2 Nephi 5:15–16).

8. The time frame of 60 seconds is based on orally reading the opening unit of
English text of Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 2:9–28) with a timer in hand.

9. Benjamin’s repeated reference to king in his sermon is certainly not
arbitrary, in part because the setting of Mosiah 1–6 includes one of
coronation and enthronement. According to Stephen D. Ricks, “The first
six chapters of Mosiah . . . portray for us the succession of Mosiah2
to the Nephite throne. Many features of this coronation ceremony reflect ancient
Israelite culture.” See Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation,
and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech, 233 [233–75].

10. These Hebrew words appear in the Old Testament in a variety of contexts that
pertain to slaves and slavery, household and family servants, working the
soil in the cases of agriculture, and hard labor in the case of the Israelites
during their servitude in Egypt. Additionally, the Lord’s prophets are called servants.

11. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds.,
Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977–2001),

12. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon
in Veteris Testamenti Libros
(Leiden: Brill, 1958), 670–71; see also Jacob Milgrom,
Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology (Leiden: Brill, 1983), 19.

13. The formulae are scattered throughout Numbers, but note also the cluster
located in Numbers 18:
“to do the service of the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:7)
“to do the service of the tabernacle” (3:8)
“to do the service of the tabernacle” (7:5)
“the service of the tabernacle” (7:9)
“to do their service in the tabernacle” (8:22)
“to do the service of the tabernacle” (16:9)
“for all the service of the tabernacle” (18:4)
“to do the service of the tabernacle” (18:6)
“the service of the tabernacle” (18:21)
“the service of the tabernacle” (18:23)
“your service of the tabernacle” (18:31)

14. By way of example, I list the following: “the service of the house of
God” (1 Chronicles 9:10, 13); “for the service of the house of God”
(1 Chroni-cles 23:28); “in the service of the house of the Lord”
(1 Chronicles 23:32); “service in the house of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:13).

15. A number of additional passages from the Old Testament connect service with
temple worship. Regarding the Kohathite clan of the Levitical family: “Their
charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars,
and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the hanging,
and all the service thereof” (Numbers 3:31). Speaking particularly of
priests, the Chronicler wrote: “Of the priests [the text then lists names
and genealogies] and their brethren, heads of the house of their fathers,
a thousand and seven hundred and threescore; very able men for the work of
the service of the house of God” (1 Chronicles 9:10, 13).

16. In Exodus 12, the chapter that describes the laws regarding the Passover,
Moses emphasizes that the Passover sacrifice is also called service. Moses instructs the children of
Israel, “It shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according
as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall
say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s
passover” (Exodus 12:25–26).

17. On the rite of sprinkling blood in the temple, see Jacob Milgrom,
Leviticus 1–16, Anchor Bible 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 233–34.

18. One source notes that “Benjamin’s use of the key words of garments and
blood signal this as a temple oration.” Alison V. P. Coutts and others, “Appendix: Complete Text of
Benjamin’s Speech with Notes and Comments,” King Benjamin’s Speech, 529.

19. In the above paragraph, I have drawn a connection to Benjamin’s statement
“that your blood should not come upon me . . . that I might rid my garments
of your blood” with temple sacrifice. In the present paragraph, Jacob’s
just-cited statement regarding the blood and garments (Jacob 1:19) is also
contextually associated with the temple; two verses earlier, Jacob made the
statement “as I taught them in the temple” (Jacob 1:17).

20. For additional references to Jesus’s atoning blood in Benjamin’s speech, see
Coutts and others, “Appendix: Complete Text of Benjamin’s Speech,” 554.