What was the ethnic background of Lehi, the ancestor of the Nephite and Lamanite people in the Book of Mormon? Whether you regard Lehi as a historical figure or as a fictional character invented by Joseph Smith, there ought to be an answer to that question.
In one sense, the question is easy to answer. Alma 10:3 explicitly states that “Lehi, who came out of the land of Jerusalem, … was a descendant of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren.”
From this we might assume that Lehi, a descendant of Manasseh who had nevertheless “dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Nephi 1:4), was descended from those Manassites who, together with members of the tribes* of Ephraim and Simeon, fled from the Northern Kingdom to Jerusalem during the reign of Asa, as described in 2 Chronicles 15.
The strange thing, though, is that Lehi apparently didn’t know he was a descendant of Manasseh. He found this out only after he had left Jerusalem. Having obtained the brass plates from Laban, “Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph, yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt . . . And thus my father, Lehi, did discover the genealogy of his fathers. And Laban was also a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept records” (1 Ne 5:14, 16).
So, leaving aside the actual facts of his ancestry, which were unknown to him, what did Lehi think he was? What ethnicity did he identify with culturally and in practice?
The most obvious guess would be that Lehi thought of himself as a member of the tribe of Judah — as a “Jew,” to use a somewhat anachronistic term. During the 300 or so years separating the time of Lehi from the immigration of his Manassite ancestors into Jerusalem, it seems likely that the Northern immigrants would have become completely assimilated into Judah and lost their distinct tribal identities. Certainly Manasseh was already considered a “lost tribe” by the time of Lehi.
However, there are certain suggestions in the early chapters of the book (prior to the discovery of Lehi’s Manassite ancestry) that Lehi and his family did not self-identify as Jews. Lehi’s son Nephi, referring to his rebellious brothers Laman and Lemuel, says that they “were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father” (1 Nephi 2:13). And in the next chapter, as Lehi explains the plan to obtain the brass plates, he says, “Laban hath a record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass” (1 Nephi 3:3). There is more than one way to interpret such passages, but in my opinion the most natural reading is one which implies a distinction between Lehi’s family on the one hand and “the Jews” on the other.
Another possibility which suggests itself is that Lehi was of Egyptian extraction and that, while he lived in Jerusalem and worshiped the Hebrew God, he did not know that he himself had Hebrew blood. It seems probable that some of the Israelites might have “gone native” while in Egypt and have been left behind by the Exodus — and this would have been especially natural for descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were half-Egyptian by blood and could thus have “passed” more readily among the indigenous population.
When Nephi reports the discovery of their genealogy on the brass plates, he never mentions which tribe they belong to, saying simply “it sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph” (1 Nephi 6:2). Manasseh is only mentioned much later, in passing, by one of Nephi’s distant descendants. But while he displays a rather un-Israelite lack of interest in tribal affiliation, Nephi does make a point of mentioning that his ancestor was “that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt” (1 Nephi 5:14). This emphasis is more consistent with an Egyptian discovering his Hebrew roots than with an Israelite learning that he belonged to a different tribe than he had supposed.
We also know that Lehi spoke and wrote Egyptian as well as Hebrew. Nephi says that his father’s language “consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). A thousand years after Lehi, his descendants were still using both Egyptian and Hebrew, though in modified form (Mormon 9:32-33). Laban seems also to have had the learning of the Jews via the language of the Egyptians; his brass plates, which contained parts of the Old Testament, were written in Egyptian characters (see Mosiah 1:3-4).
Against this Egyptian hypothesis, though, we have the following words of Nephi to his brothers, spoken before they had obtained the brass plates and discovered their Josephite ancestry: “Moses . . . spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through . . . the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:2-3). It’s hard to reconcile such language with the hypothesis that Nephi was himself an Egyptian.
To summarize the data to be explained:
- Prior to receiving the brass plates, Lehi apparently knew he was an Israelite but did not know to which tribe he belonged. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews, not the Egyptians, were his “fathers.”
- However, he seems not to have considered himself a “Jew.” (Laban’s servant also speaks of “the Jews” as if he were not one of them.)
- Although he did not know his own ancestry, he knew that his kinsman Laban knew. (Was their family history some kind of secret to which Laban was privy but Lehi was not? Why?)
- Even after learning that he was of the tribe of Manasseh, Lehi seems not to have been interested in this specific tribal identity so much as in his status as a descendant of Joseph.
- Egyptian was apparently the main language of both Lehi and Laban, although they also spoke Hebrew (see Mormon 9:33). The fact that Laban’s copy of the writings of Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets was an Egyptian translation is strong evidence that he was more comfortable with Egyptian than Hebrew.
My own best guess would be that Lehi was an Egyptian, but that there was an unsubstantiated family tradition that they were actually of Hebrew blood. (In this he would be similar to the many modern-day Mormons who believe, without direct genealogical evidence, that they are descendants of Ephraim.) What he read on the brass plates was not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what he had already suspected. Why this confirmation was a secret kept by Laban is anyone’s guess.
* WordPress’s PC spellchecker suggests that “the ethnic groups of Ephraim and Simeon” would be more sensitive.