After taking his family into the wilderness and realizing they were not going back to Jerusalem, Lehi sent his sons back to retrieve the brass plates. The plates were an essential item for a family leaving their homeland and starting a new life in a new land. Lehi’s son Nephi understood that the family “could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.” He also knew that “the law was engraved upon the plates of brass.” (1 Nephi 4:15-16)
If retrieving the plates was important enough that Lehi was willing to send his sons into a potentially dangerous situation to get them, and the family was willing to trade everything they had for them, it stands to reason that when they arrived in the promised land they would strictly live the law of Moses. Throughout the Book of Mormon we read that the righteous did live the law. They built altars and offered sacrifices.
According to the law of Moses, there are two things that must not be part of a sacrificial alter.
“And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” (Exodus 20:25)
One is not allowed to cut the stones when making an altar. One is to use no tools upon the stones. If one does use tools, the altar is polluted.
The above photo is an example of the type of altars in Central America which many people believe are Nephite altars. If this is a Nephite altar, the Nephites clearly were not strictly living the law of Moses.
By contrast, we have record of Joseph Smith identifying a Nephite altar in North America while on the Zion’s Camp march. The altar identified was made of un-cut stones, as would be consistent with the law of Moses.
“Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” (Exodus 20:26)
Altars were on raised structures and getting to them required ramps. Priests wore robes and did not wear anything underneath. If they climbed stairs, those people encircling the structure would see the priest’s “nakedness”.
In the foreground of the above photo we see an altar in Central America. Not only do the cut stones disqualify it as a Nephite altar, but the stairs do as well.
Throughout the Mississippi Valley, in what can be described as temple compounds, structures have been found which could have been built for altars. These structures were not made of cut stone and do not have stairs leading up to them. In this drawing from the 1848 book, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, we see a raised structure with four ramps, one on each side.
Such ramped altars would have been in keeping with Exodus 20. These types of altars would have been built by the descendants of Lehi, who risked so much to preserve the law.
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Oman Wilderness by wikimedia commons, Hendrik Dacquin
Mayan Altar by: wikimedia commons, CEHancock
Mayan Temple and Altar by: morgue file.com, xololounge