The Trial of Abinadi

The second major legal proceeding in the Book of Mormon is
the trial of a prophet named Abinadi, found in Mosiah 12–17. This is one
of the most thoroughly reported legal incidents in the Book of Mormon, and it
is considerably more complicated than Sherem’s encounter with Jacob. Abinadi’s
potent condemnations of the unsavory King Noah and the unrepentant people in
the city of Nephi gave rise to at least four separate accusations stated as
legal causes of action (lying, prophesying falsely, blaspheming, and reviling).
These accusations were leveled against Abinadi by three distinct parties,
namely, the people at large, the priests of Noah, and Noah himself. Abinadi was
ultimately executed, becoming the first reported martyr in the Book of Mormon.1

Abinadi’s expositions and prophecies are thoroughly embedded
in the judicial setting of his trial. The account of the trial and the surrounding
narrative are replete with legal terms and forensic strategies that lend
themselves readily to detailed analysis. Many legal elements in this record can
be compared closely with ancient Israelite and subsequent Jewish judicial
practices; in certain respects, however, Noah’s court diverged from the
traditional ancient precedents. An awareness of all these factors aids our
understanding of Abinadi’s courage in the face of these inequities. The trial
of Abinadi raises many questions worthy of consideration in this analysis, from
authorship of the account to the jurisprudential import of its many legal

Who Wrote Mosiah 11–17?

The Book of Mormon account of Abinadi’s trial and execution
is remarkably lengthy and quite precise. It is one of the longest trial accounts
to have survived from antiquity anywhere. It rewards close scrutiny. But before
these chapters can be analyzed from a legal perspective, one must consider how
this text originated. This text has a complex history. It is not entirely
certain who spoke, reported, wrote, compiled, edited, or abridged the materials
in Mosiah 11–17 as we now have them, or why these original reports or
records were created. Yet it makes a difference who wrote this account and why.
Obviously, the story would certainly have been told differently if it had been
written by King Noah or one of his scribes as part of an opinion of the court.

The case of Abinadi began with the words that he spoke in
public. Those words were then reported to King Noah by the people who had
arrested Abinadi and handed him over to the royal court. Words were then spoken
in court by Abinadi, the king, and his priests.

A primary or preliminary written record of the trial of
Abinadi was then generated by a second voice, that of Alma the Elder (Mosiah
17:4), who personally witnessed most of these legal proceedings as a member of
the court. Alma was a knowledgeable, dynamic, and dedicated person who sat as a
young priest judging this case until he spoke in Abinadi’s defense and was
expelled by Noah from his seat of judgment (vv. 2–3). As a pro-Abinadi
reporter, Alma focused mainly on the words of Abinadi and not on the arguments
or concerns of the government. Even with the very best of motivations, it would
have been difficult for Alma to overcome his animus against Noah and to temper
his avid sympathies for Abinadi in order to write an unbiased report of what
transpired in that courtroom.

Although Alma created and used this record primarily to
serve his immediate religious needs and purposes in “teach[ing] the words
of Abinadi” to his recent converts (Mosiah 18:1), this report also served
many other lasting purposes, both legal and religious. Alma’s text purposefully
vindicated Abinadi, thus protecting Alma himself from any possible attempts
that Noah and his cohorts might make to characterize Abinadi as a criminal who
had been justifiably convicted and executed or to pursue Alma and punish him as
a fugitive from justice and a political dissident. Alma’s report placed the
weight of responsibility for Abinadi’s death on King Noah, paving the way, in a
sense of poetic justice, for the reciprocal demise of the king consonant with
the legal principle of talionic justice. Beyond serving these immediate needs,
Abinadi’s commentaries on the meaning of the law of Moses, his use of the Ten
Commandments, and his success in withstanding the first three charges brought
against him provided authoritative interpretations concerning several
provisions in Nephite law and religion for many years to come.

In his place of hiding, Alma took “many days” to
write “all the words which Abinadi had spoken” (Mosiah 17:4). We can
assume that Alma wrote from memory since it is unlikely that he could have
taken or retained any written notes of the proceeding. It is unclear what he
eventually wrote on or how he managed to keep that memoir safe and secure,
especially after he and his people were taken and held in bondage for several
years in the land of Helam (Mosiah 23–24). Many, but perhaps not all, of
Abinadi’s words survived and were eventually included in the final record. The
immediacy of Alma’s writing, however, gives to the Book of Mormon account of
Abinadi’s case high documentary credentials. Nevertheless, because of the
inclusion of details that Alma would not have been able to witness firsthand
(such as what occurred after he was dismissed), it remains uncertain whether
all the words in Mosiah 11–17 came from Alma or in part from others. Some
of the narrative setting for the trial in Mosiah 12, some of the words
attributed to Abinadi or Noah, and information about the conclusion of this
case may have been contributed by others. Indeed, there are several likely candidates
for such contributors.

Some of Alma’s converts may have informed him about the
case. After all, Alma may not have been present at the arrest of Abinadi, and
he certainly was not present for the execution, so information about these
events must have come from someone else. Alma’s followers may have heard
Abinadi deliver his message and may have been converted by the spirit with
which he spoke. They may well have witnessed the arrest or the execution of
Abinadi, and they may have been a first- or secondhand source for information
reported in Mosiah 12 and 17.

In addition, Limhi’s royal record probably included a report
of the trial of Abinadi. Limhi was the son of King Noah and grandson of King
Zeniff. One can be virtually certain that Limhi would have been present and
would have known a great deal about Abinadi’s case. Because Alma would not have
personally known, for example, what transpired during the deliberations of the
priests after he was expelled from the court, the record of Limhi becomes the
prime candidate for the primary source material for that portion of the trial
and perhaps also for a number of the procedural comments and official steps
that led up to the execution of Abinadi. It is likely that an account of the
trial of Abinadi and the demise of King Noah was included on the plates that
contained the record of the people of Zeniff and that were “brought before
Ammon” (Mosiah 8:5), since Limhi recounted these events in the public
gathering when records were exchanged with Ammon (7:26–28). That record
eventually ended up in the royal archive in Zarahemla either upon Ammon’s
return or after the Limhite reunion with the Nephites in the land of Zarahemla
shortly after the time of Ammon’s scouting expedition to the land of Nephi.

Moreover, Limhi could have told the story himself to Alma
the Elder when they met in the north after both the people of Alma and the
people of Limhi had escaped to Zarahemla from the land of Nephi. It is also
possible that the explorer Ammon kept a record and reported back to Zarahemla
what he had learned about the history of Zeniff’s colony—including the
extraordinary trial and fateful execution of Abinadi—since the prophecies
and execution of Abinadi were clearly seen as key factors in explaining why
Ammon found the people of Limhi in awful bondage (Mosiah 7:26–27).

Eventually, someone composed the book of Mosiah, in which
the trial of Abinadi figures as the centerpiece.2 King Mosiah may have shaped the writing of the book that bears his name, for
the book of Mosiah begins with the exemplary life and farewell speech of his
father, King Benjamin (Mosiah 1–6); but the book of Mosiah ends with the
resignation speech of Mosiah, who abdicated the throne and inaugurated the
reign of the judges in the land of Zarahemla, with Alma the Younger becoming
the first chief judge (Mosiah 29). Significantly, one of the main purposes of
the book of Mosiah is to justify this major political change. Indeed, the book
of Mosiah uses the “wickedness and abominations” of King Noah,
including his willingness to destroy anyone who would not obey his laws, as its
prime illustration of the evils of kingship, thus establishing the need to
eliminate this institution (vv. 18, 22–23). That being the case, Alma the
Younger seems to be the candidate who would have been most interested in
constructing the book of Mosiah.

Alma the Younger would have had powerful motivations for preserving
and retelling the story of the trial of Abinadi. He would have had strong
interests in documenting and elevating his father’s important conversion during
the trial of Abinadi, while at the same time solidifying his own position as
the first chief judge against the challenges that indeed would soon arise in
some quarters of Zarahemla by those who preferred kingship and wanted “Amlici
to be a king over the people” (Alma 2:2). He also would have had access to
the written and oral reports of his father, which he could have combined with
the record of Limhi and with information he could have readily gathered from
his father’s initial converts, some of whom he would have known and may have
interviewed. Alma was the son and namesake of his father, and because the conversion
of Alma the Elder occurred during the trial of Abinadi, Alma the Younger must
have heard his father speak of this pivotal event many times.

By profession, Alma the Younger was a judge (Mosiah 29:44).
He would have had great professional interest in an important case of this
nature. He would have had the technical legal skills necessary to understand
legal nuances and to document the story as fully as possible.

Moreover, Alma the Younger became the high priest in the
city of Zarahemla and would have had great interest in criticizing the role of
the wicked and apostate priests of Noah, some of whom would soon affiliate with
the Nehorites, Alma’s archenemies in the city of Ammonihah. These Nehorites
were the followers of Nehor, whom Alma executed in the first year of his
judgeship. Associating the priests of Nehor with the wicked priests of Noah
would certainly have cast them in a bad light, to Alma’s advantage. Showing
that the priests of Noah were in fact the ultimate agitators who pressed for
the execution of Abinadi might have given Alma further assurances that he had
done the right thing in executing Nehor.

Beyond that, as the first chief judge, Alma needed to
convince all of the people in the land of Zarahemla that abandoning kingship
was politically prudent. When King Mosiah eventually abdicated and the voice of
the people selected Alma as the chief judge, Mosiah used the case of Noah as
his star evidence in arguing that kingship was not a good idea in general
(Mosiah 29:18). Alma would have had a vested interest in being sure that all of
the people in the city of Zarahemla knew and understood exactly how bad a king
like Noah could be. In any event, it is clear that Alma the Younger stood in a
prime position to preserve, structure, and promote the story of Abinadi as it
has come down to us today.

By shaping the account of the trial of Abinadi in such great
detail, Alma would also have appealed to the people of Limhi, letting them know
that he did not blame the people of Limhi for the bondage under which they had
suffered. King Noah and his wicked priests were to blame for their agony and
suffering, and it was precisely for this reason—placing all people on an
equal ground and giving them equal burden for their wrongdoing rather than
bringing people under the burdens of wickedness and mismanagement by a ruling
monarch—that King Mosiah justified his abdication in Mosiah 29.

It should also
be remembered that Alma the Younger possessed the plates of brass. He was, for
a time, the official Nephite record keeper (Mosiah 28:20). Some readers may
wonder whether Abinadi was able to quote Isaiah 53 and Exodus 20 as precisely
as the record reports, and how Alma was then able to go out into the wilderness
and remember precisely what Abinadi had said. It seems at least possible that,
however accurately Abinadi quoted or paraphrased those two sources, it would
have fallen upon Alma the Younger, as holder of the plates of brass, to have at
least checked Abinadi’s words against the texts in his custody, which may
explain the precise quotation of these lengthy texts in the final version of
this account.

If Alma the Younger was not responsible for the overall
architecture of the book of Mosiah, it seems highly likely that he was at least
the writer who constructed major parts of the book of Mosiah, the book that
bears the name of Alma the Younger’s immediate predecessor in power. The book
of Mosiah gives center stage to the account of the conversion of Alma’s father,
his immediate predecessor in the office of high priest. The book of Mosiah also
serves a major political purpose: it celebrates the unity of various peoples in
the land of Zarahemla. As a public record, it emphasizes at its beginning the
unity that was achieved among the Nephites and the Mulekites under the reign of
King Benjamin; it chronicles the reunion of the Limhites and the people of Alma
with their kinsmen in Zarahemla; it explains how Mosiah became king and how
Alma the Elder became the high priest, and then how those offices were united
in the person of Alma the Younger. Thus, the book of Mosiah functions largely
as a prologue and rationalization for the ascendancy of Alma the Younger as the
premier leader in the united land of Zarahemla.3

Finally, Mormon, the abridger of the work as a whole, may
have shortened or paraphrased portions of the text of Abinadi’s trial, although
there seems to be little reason for him to have changed the underlying record
very much. The records at his disposal may have included the record of Limhi,
the complete abdication speech of King Mosiah, and other items pertinent to the
trial of Abinadi. We know that Mormon was very interested in the prophecies of
Abinadi, for he found in them authoritative predictions of the burdens and
destruction that eventually came upon his own people (Mormon 1:19). Mormon was
also highly critical of the worship of idols in the decadent world around him
(4:14, 21; 5:15), and thus he would have taken special note of the fact that
Noah and his priests were criticized most explicitly because of their idolatry
(Mosiah 9:12; 11:6). Mormon’s comments in Helaman 12 about the destructive
effects of pride show that he would have been thoroughly disgusted by Noah’s
prideful excesses (11:2–15). Mormon may well have selected, abridged,
edited, added to, or shaped parts of this section of the book of Mosiah as he
compiled his set of plates, but it would not have served Mormon’s purposes to
create such a lengthy and detailed account of the trial itself. Only a lawyer,
not a general, would care to give us all the legal information that we find in
these chapters; and only a high priest still interested in the law of Moses
would care to quote all of the Ten Commandments, let alone include the
extensive midrashic exegesis of Isaiah 52 channeled through Isaiah 53 that is
found in Mosiah 12–16.

It is true that Mormon and other Nephites must have been
delighted to find such strong and early predictions and understanding of the
role of the true Messiah in ancient Israel, and for that reason Mormon was
likely eager to include so much of this material in the history of his people;
but the underlying text itself must have been something he found on the large
plates of Nephi and then incorporated without much change into the plates of
Mormon. The account does not appear to be a retrospective tale told by Mormon
five hundred years after the fact. A document with such contemporaneous
validity can be scrutinized carefully for legal and technical details in order
to extract as much judicial information as possible. This information can be
attributed with confidence to the legal system that operated during the
mid-second century BC in the land of Nephi.

King Noah’s Excesses

The trial of Abinadi took place around 150 BC, near the end
of the reign of King Noah over the city of Nephi.4 The prophet’s rebukes and curses came in response to the king’s excesses. Noah
had ruled for several years over a small group5 of reactionary, stiff-necked Nephites who had returned a generation earlier under
Noah’s father, Zeniff, to the land of Nephi to reclaim their legal inheritance.
By worldly standards Noah had been a successful king, but he had grown arrogant
and oppressive. He had constructed large public buildings for his own
aggrandizement, collected a tax of 20 percent (in effect a double tithe) on “all
they possessed” (Mosiah 11:3),6 appointed his own sympathizers as priests, and lived extravagantly and excessively,
at least by the standards possible in this relatively modest and primitive

Although he had become lax in his commitment to follow the
law of Moses as the law was understood by Abinadi, as it had been taught by the
prophets Nephi and Jacob, and as dictated by any sensible understanding, Noah
and his priests still purported to teach and presumably abide by the law of
Moses (Mosiah 12:28), at least as they understood it. One must wonder, at the
outset, how much of the Torah Noah and his priests had in written form. Perhaps
they learned it only by memory through oral transmission, which was the
preferred mode of instruction and learning in the ancient world, particularly
among some Jewish sects, such as the Pharisees, who even valued oral traditions
in preference to (in other ways incomplete and untrustworthy) written records.7 If Zeniff’s colony possessed a copy of the law, perhaps Noah read the law “all
the days of his life” as required of kings by Deuteronomy 17:19. In
whatever forms and from whatever sources they knew the law, Abinadi and Noah
obviously disagreed about how the law should be understood and applied, but at
least they shared a common legal groundwork of commitment to the law of Moses
out of which a legal controversy could ensue.8

From the legalistic approach of their treatment of Abinadi,
it would appear that Noah and his priests spent a fair amount of time
discussing the law, if for no other purpose than to justify their conduct and
to get as close to the edge of legality as they possibly could. Indeed, Noah
may have rationalized his conduct in all instances. Many of the things Noah did
were morally and spiritually derelict, especially because he did them to the
point of excess, such as drinking heavily (Mosiah 11:15; compare Proverbs
31:4–7, which admonishes leaders not to drink wine or strong drink, “lest
they . . . forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted”),
having many wives and concubines (Mosiah 11:2, 4; the king was prohibited from
this too, according to Deuteronomy 17:17, but only if taken to excess),9 adorning the temple with special seats for the privileged priests (the ancient
Israelite sense of social justice strongly favored a classless society), and
being lazy and “riotous” (Mosiah 11:14). But he may have argued that
these infractions of the moral code did not comprise legally actionable
transgressions under ancient Israelite law. Polygamy and concubinage, for
example, were not against the traditional law of Moses (although Lehi had
restricted his sons in this regard, Jacob 3:5). Noah was greedy and vain
(Mosiah 11:1–9), but were there “laws” against such traits?
Without much difficulty, Abinadi could see through such self-serving sophistry.

The record accuses Noah of serious infractions. In general,
we are told that “he did not walk in the ways of his father. For behold,
he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of
his own heart” (Mosiah 11:1–2). Not walking after the ways of one’s
father was presumptively illegal and iniquitous. The essence of a wicked king
is found in the fact that “he teareth up the laws of those who have
reigned in righteousness before him” (29:22). In the prologues and epilogues
to ancient Near Eastern law codes, searing curses are placed upon successor
kings who change the laws.10 But it was still the prerogative of new kings to issue their own laws, and so
Noah may have argued that he was still within his royal rights to legislate as
he did.

But in what ways did he “not keep the commandments of
God”? The most serious of legal violations that Noah is explicitly accused
of committing were (1) idolatry (Mosiah 11:6) and (2) disregarding the law that
prohibited the king from economic excesses and pride (Deuteronomy
17:16–20). Regarding idolatry, it goes without saying that making and
worshiping graven images was forbidden under Exodus 20:2–6, standing
significantly and “[without] parallel in the history of religion” at
the very head of the law of Moses;11 but perhaps Noah stopped short of actually making images of other gods and
simply made reliefs of himself, of his priests, or of birds (perhaps quetzals?)
or animals (perhaps jaguars?), such as are found in the archaeology of highland
Guatemala from this time period. How far an observant person can go in making
statues or depictions of people or animals has long been a hotly debated topic
between various Jewish sects. The contours of the law regarding idolatry, even
in biblical times, are notoriously imprecise.12 Biblical authors usually do not “distinguish between worshipping other
gods (with or without images), the worship of images, and the worship of Yahweh
using images,”13 although these practices may well have been enforced differently. For example, “were
the Second Commandment in its entirety to be taken literally, the construction
of Solomon’s Temple, with its graven images, such as the cherubim and the
twelve oxen which supported the molten sea, would obviously have been a direct
violation and transgression. Yet no censure was invoked by the biblical writers.”14 The fact that the prophets regularly accused many people in Israel of
committing idolatry and yet most of them evidently went unpunished indicates
that people did not fundamentally agree on strict definitions or required
punishments for this offense. The situation was apparently similar in the New
World. As in pre-exilic Israel, idols and idolatry are mentioned as problems in
all eras of Nephite history, especially in the land of Nephi, where it seems to
have been a prevalent practice from the days of Jacob and Enos down to the
times of King Noah and the sons of Mosiah.15 So one can be confident that Noah, operating in the historical capital of the
land of Nephi, had his own definition of idolatry—however flimsy his
legal logic may have been—that his own practices conveniently did not
contravene. Noah and his priests had evidently gone too far with the local
practice in this regard, much to Abinadi’s horror. As was Abinadi, the prophets
Hosea and Amos were especially outspoken against idolatry (Hosea 8:4; 13:2;
Amos 3:15; 6:4), and the Deuteronomic reforms of King Josiah involved severe “iconoclastic
strictures,”16 but Noah could cite opposing precedents, such as the cherubim in the temple, in
arguing for a somewhat looser legal definition of the crime of idol making or
idol worshipping.

Similarly, there are laws prohibiting pride and economic
excess in Deuteronomy 17, but quantifiable limits would be imprecise and difficult
to pin down under the best of circumstances. Pride, riches, spacious buildings,
and idol worship are often linked together in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 1 Nephi
11:36; Alma 1:32; 7:6; 31:27–28), but nowhere more graphically than in
the case of Noah. Still, Noah could well have argued that it was his right as a
king to tax, to build, to encourage economic growth, and to provide for the
common defense. Just how far he could go in these efforts would have been open
to dispute.

Interestingly, Noah is also accused in the record of acting
in such a way that he “did cause his people to commit sin,” causing
them “to do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord”
(Mosiah 11:2). What is meant by this is unclear, but several possibilities
present themselves. Did he cause them, for example, to break the Sabbath by
requiring them to work on that day? Did he cause the society to languish in
impurity by not following the laws of ritual or sexual purity, perhaps regarding
laws of menstruation or cleansing after childbirth (sexual sins are described
as abominations in Leviticus 18 and 20, but many other sins are similarly
described, Proverbs 6:16–19)? Or did Noah cause his people to commit sin
simply by not seeing that they were taught appropriately (as was the duty of
the priests to do under Deuteronomy 31:11; see the accusation to this effect in
Mosiah 12:26), or by failing to enforce the law against violators (perhaps
because he needed people in his small and beleaguered community and would not
have wanted to put any able-bodied men to death)? Again, the record is unclear,
which is understandable since it is Abinadi, not Noah, who was on trial.

Nevertheless, that Noah was wicked is abundantly clear,
certainly from Alma’s perspective (assuming that Alma was the one who most
influenced the writing of the narrative prologue for the trial of Abinadi,
which contrasts so exquisitely with the puffing prologues that ancient kings,
such as Hammurabi or Eshnunna, typically wrote for themselves to extol their
grand and benevolent accomplishments). Thus, carrying out the traditional role
of the Israelite prophets, who were often called by God to preach repentance to
errant royalty and wayward populations,17 Abinadi was justified in speaking out sharply against King Noah and his people.
Having made his pronouncement in the form of a classic “prophetic lawsuit,”18 in which the prophet speaks legalistically in the name of the Lord, Abinadi
exposed himself willingly to the legal system in the city of Nephi. The final
outcome of this prophetic castigation soon hung on the inner workings of legal
processes under Noah’s administration.

Abinadi’s Words and His Arrest by the People

The trial of Abinadi arose out of words he spoke to the
townspeople within the city of Nephi (Mosiah 12:1–17). The older people
in that audience could have been among the original group that had returned to
the land of Nephi with Zeniff about forty years earlier
(Omni 1:27–29), while the younger men in the crowd would have been
born members of this small enclave of reactionary Nephites. These people had
endured considerable hardships in repossessing the land and temple of Nephi,
the traditional hallmarks of the people of Nephi. Apparently they strongly
preferred to live in that place (in spite of the disadvantages of isolation and
subjugation they suffered there) rather than in the foreign land of Zarahemla
as a minority but privileged party among the people of Zarahemla (the
Mulekites). Thus the people in the city of Nephi may well be seen as
self-righteous zealots19 who had struggled to repossess this sacred land and who considered themselves
blessed and prospered by the Lord for their sacrifice (Mosiah 10:19–22).
They must have taken pride in their independence and separatism, for they had
negotiated with King Laman to obtain the land, had fought the Lamanites, and
had paid tribute to them in order to maintain their place in the land of Nephi.
They would have thought of themselves as having reestablished and preserved the
correct and legitimate ancient Nephite capital and original temple city. Given
their success under such difficult circumstances, this audience probably would
have been particularly predisposed to reject any condemnation of their lives
and practices.

This was at least the second time that Abinadi had spoken
publicly in the city of Nephi. Two years earlier, Abinadi had prophesied that
the Lord would visit this people in his anger, that they would be delivered
into the hands of their enemies, that their enemies would bring them into
bondage and afflict them, and that none would deliver them—not even God
himself would hear their cries for relief (Mosiah 11:20–26).20 For saying such things on that earlier occasion, Abinadi had been condemned to
die (v. 28), but he had managed to escape with his life. Now Abinadi had

As before, he again accused the entire population of wickedness
and abominations (Mosiah 12:2). But this time he expanded his prophecy, making
not only the people generally but King Noah specifically a target of the Lord’s
censure. On this occasion, Abinadi’s words against the people took the form of
an Israelite woe oracle21 or prophetic lawsuit.22 Abinadi reiterated his pronouncements of woe against the people even more
graphically than before, proclaiming that the Lord had a grievance against the
people and would visit them in his anger “because of their iniquities and
abominations”; that they would be “brought into bondage,” “smitten
on the cheek,” “driven by men,” and “slain”; and that “vultures
of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts” would “devour
their flesh” (v. 2). Abinadi also heaped upon the people various curses
and divine punishments of sore afflictions, famine, pestilence, insects, hail,
wind, burdens, and utter destruction, “that they shall howl all the day
long” (v. 4).

In addition, he leveled accusations against King Noah.
Abinadi prophesied that “the life of King Noah shall be valued even as a
garment in a hot furnace” (Mosiah 12:3) and that Noah would be “as a
dry stalk of the field, which is run over by beasts and trodden under foot”
and “as the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the
wind bloweth, [are] driven forth upon the face of the land,” except he
repent (vv. 11–12). These words against Noah are in the classic form of
an ancient Near Eastern simile curse.23 Curses, which were special forms of malediction in the ancient world,24 sometimes took the form of a simile. For example, an Aramaic treaty from about
750 BC contains the incantation “Just as this wax is burned by fire, so
may Matîʿel
be burned by fire.”25 Perhaps the Nephites would have heard in Abinadi’s curses an echo of the simile
curse that Jeremiah pronounced against the temple in Jerusalem: “I will
make this house like Shiloh” (Jeremiah 26:6), an allusion to the
destruction of the shrine at Shiloh that resulted in the loss of the ark of the
covenant. The point of Jeremiah’s curse was that even the tabernacle and the
ark had not protected the Israelites at Shiloh, and similarly the temple at
Jerusalem would not protect the kingdom of Judah, except its people repent and
remain righteous.26 Abinadi’s curse also carried the warning that the temple in the city of Nephi
would not shelter the people as long as they retained their wicked ways. Just
as Jeremiah’s words immediately entangled him in litigation, Abinadi’s words
also precipitated direct legal accusations.

Moreover, it was an official duty of the ancient Israelite
priests to remind all Israel of the curses that fall upon the wicked and to
impose these curses ritually: “And the Levites shall speak and say unto
all the men of Israel with a loud voice, Cursed be the man . . .”
(Deuteronomy 27:14–15; vv. 15–26 give twelve specific curses). The
people of Israel were supposed to echo the priest ceremoniously: “And all
the people shall answer and say, Amen” (v. 15). In a sense, the utterance
of curses by the prophet Abinadi fulfilled this priestly function that
undoubtedly had been neglected by the self-serving and derelict priests of
Noah. But people in his audience may well have wondered, “By what
authority does this man usurp the rights and duties of the temple priests?”
Even more particularly, Abinadi’s words were more than mere warnings against
wickedness in general. They were aimed personally at certain individuals, and thus
his words would have been extremely provocative, carrying the weight of
injurious indictments and ominous forebodings of impending harm.

Indeed, Abinadi’s words against Noah’s life were extremely
demeaning and dreadful. Burning in a furnace, kiln, or oven was a debasing form
of punishment in the ancient world and would be a grim execution under any
circumstances. Two slaves at the time of Hammurabi, for example, were burned to
death in a furnace, apparently pursuant to a royal decree.27 Threats, curses, and verbal assaults were thought by ancient peoples to cause
actual injury. Modern people shrug off such verbal attacks, thinking that
sticks and stones can break bones but words alone are not to be feared. Ancient
people, however, were extremely wary of a curse hanging over them, especially
if the curse invoked the wrath of a god upon the targeted person. For example,
Hittite law provided, “If a free man kills a snake, and speaks another’s
name, he shall pay one mina . . . of silver. If [the offender] is a slave, he
himself shall be put to death.”28 Harry Hoffner observes that doubtless “analogic magic” is involved
here; “he who kills the snake probably said something like, ‘As this snake
dies, so may so-and-so (i.e., his enemy) also die.'”29

Under biblical law, people were required to call their
neighbors to repentance (Leviticus 5:1), but they were granted legal immunity
from liability under the law of slander in doing so, provided they did not go
overboard. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart”; “thou
shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not bear sin because of him”
(19:17).30 Jacob Milgrom emphasizes the importance in this statement of ethical duty in
making one’s rebuke public, even in a forensic sense, in a judicial procedure,
rather than holding bad feelings against a brother inwardly: You shall not hate
your brother (Israelite) in your heart. “Reprove your fellow openly
. . . so that you will not bear punishment because of him.”31 At Qumran, the duty to “make reproof,” as Abinadi does, would become “a
cardinal requirement for its members,”32 and so Abinadi may have felt not only duty bound by the calling of the Lord but
also legally justified by this requirement of the Levitical Holiness Code to
rebuke those who had wandered into wicked and forbidden paths.

The law of reproof, however, was also coupled immediately
with the tempering requirement to “love thy neighbor as thyself”
(Leviticus 19:18). The sectarians at Qumran required any reproof to be issued “in
truth, humility, and lovingkindness.”33 Talmudic jurists further understood Leviticus 19:17 to mean that “you may
reprove your neighbor so long as you do not insult him.”34 Perhaps people in Abinadi’s audience felt that he had not shown forth adequate
kindness following his rebuke; possibly they gave him little chance to do so.

Curses in the Psalms express strong feelings against those
who have broken the law, and while they may seem vindictive or angry to the
wicked, to the righteous these curses depict Jehovah as a protective warrior
violently opposing sin and purifying the community.35 Curses were believed to affect the target, the speaker, and the community in
many psychological, social, religious, and legal ways;36 and so for reasons such as these, the people in the city of Nephi would not
have taken Abinadi’s strident, if not insulting, curses lightly.

Moreover, beyond having social or legal impact, Abinadi’s
curses impugned the worthiness of Noah to act in a priesthood capacity before
God. Noah’s garment could easily have represented his authority before God,
just as Elijah’s mantel given to Elisha had symbolized his rights in the
priesthood.37 When Moses tried to prepare the children of Israel to see God on Mount Sinai,
he told them to “wash their clothes, and be ready against the third day”
(Exodus 19:10–11). Seeing the lightning, fire, and smoke that “ascended
as the smoke of a furnace” (v. 18), however, the people stayed below “lest
[the Lord] break forth upon them” and consume them with fire (v. 24). When
Abinadi cursed Noah “as a garment in a hot furnace,” he implied that
Noah had broken into a sacred area, had defiled it, and would be punished by
God. Other scriptures gathered by John Tvedtnes further demonstrate that “a
garment visibly tainted by the plague is to be burned” (see Leviticus
13:52, 57), that “a ceremonial burning of worn-out priestly clothing took
place in the Jerusalem temple of Christ’s time,” and that burning by fire
was generally indicative of God’s eradication of serious sin.38

In light of these powerful applications, Abinadi must have
known that his curses would be highly inflammatory, for he entered the city
covertly, in disguise.39 He probably knew that his disguise would not shield him for very long, but this
ploy gave him enough time to attract a curious crowd to whom he delivered his
final public statement (Mosiah 12:1–8). Since Abinadi had been in trouble
with King Noah’s legal system in the city of Nephi two years earlier
(11:26–28), he would have been fully aware that the city’s judicial
system would allow the people to apprehend him as soon as he was detected.
Moreover, Abinadi’s case was much weaker the second time around, for his
previous prophecies had not yet been fulfilled even though two full years had
elapsed. This non-eventuality exposed him quite clearly to a charge of false
prophecy under Deuteronomy 18:22, “When a prophet speaketh in the name of
the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which
the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou
shalt not be afraid of him.”

Under ancient biblical law, the general population in the
city of Nephi was obligated to enforce the law (Leviticus 5:1). The biblical system
used no police, sheriffs, marshals, or public prosecutors. Indeed, it appears
that the king had little or no authority in antiquity to initiate a lawsuit. No
known legal case from antiquity was initiated by a king as a plaintiff or
prosecutor. King Jehoshaphat instructed his rulers to judge “what cause
soever shall
come to you
of your brethren” (2 Chronicles 19:10;
emphasis added). Even wicked Queen Jezebel and King Ahab did not (and perhaps
could not) bring their action against Naboth personally, but they arranged for
two false witnesses to testify against Naboth “in the presence of the people”
in their scheme of using the judicial system to confiscate Naboth’s vineyard
(1 Kings 21:10–13).

Any adult male could convene a court of city elders in a
relatively spontaneous fashion to judge the accused.40 In such cases, the town elders would act simultaneously as judges, prosecutors,
defenders, and witnesses.41 Israelite elders generally took this legal responsibility seriously, applying
the law as accurately and as mercifully as possible. Thus the trial of Abinadi
began in a normal fashion with the men of the city acting spontaneously (Mosiah
12:9). Abinadi’s arrest by the people and their ensuing preliminary
deliberations comprised a legitimate procedure, not mobocracy. But if the
people normally had plenary jurisdiction to handle a case such as this if they
chose to, why did they turn Abinadi over to the king? Would they not have won
favor in the eyes of Noah by proceeding immediately to rid the kingdom of this
pesky fellow?

Facts Found and Charges Formulated by the People

Although the people took initial jurisdiction over Abinadi,
they did not dispose of the case themselves. They “were angry with him”
and held him only long enough to formulate two specific charges against him, to
find to their own satisfaction that misconduct had occurred, and to decide to
deliver him to the king (Mosiah 12:9). Before the king’s very person, they
repeated Abinadi’s precise words as evidence against the accused, countered
Abinadi’s charges by loyally affirming the innocence of the king, and asserted
their own strength and alleged worthiness in order to enhance their standing in
the action (vv. 9–16). An assertion of innocence such as this is a
typical element of an ancient legal controversy.42 The people pled their innocence before King Noah, saying, “And now, O
king, behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned,” and
accused Abinadi of bearing false witness and of prophesying falsely (v. 14).

Several factors explain why the people were correct in
deciding not to retain jurisdiction over this particular case. Two charges were
to be leveled against Abinadi by the people: (1) that he had lied
concerning the king and (2) that he had falsely prophesied evil about the
people—as they alleged, “This man has lied concerning you, and he
has prophesied in vain” (Mosiah 12:14). As seen above in the case of
Sherem, lying, bearing false witness, or making an unwarranted accusation were
serious offenses (Exodus 20:16), typically punishable under the rubric
that “then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his
brother” (Deuteronomy 19:19). The crime of false prophecy was also a
very serious offense: “Even that prophet shall die” (18:20).43 It is not clear, however, that the people at large had either the legal
authority or a compelling case to justify them in proceeding against Abinadi on
these two particular charges. Moreover, by previous decree, Noah had asserted
jurisdiction over Abinadi as a wanted offender (Mosiah 11:27–28).

Jurisdiction over the Charge of Lying about the King

While lying was considered seriously unholy and immoral
(e.g., Leviticus 19:11; Hosea 4:2), biblical law probably considered bearing
false witness to be the equivalent of a public crime, one enforceable by the
local courts, only if a person lied as an accuser or witness in a legal setting.44 “The words translated ‘false witness’ [Exodus 20:16] are technical terms
designating a person who offers false or deceptive testimony in a trial.”45 Accordingly, because Abinadi’s words were not spoken in a legal setting, they
would not have given rise to the type of matter over which the town elders
would normally have had jurisdiction. Likewise, it is not likely that ancient
Israelite law recognized slander as a general crime or tort.46

Thus it is significant that Abinadi was not accused of lying
or slander in general, but specifically of lying about the king. This
seems akin to reviling the king or the clan’s leader, which was indeed an
express and heinous crime closely related to blasphemy against deity: “Thou
shalt not revile the gods [elohim], nor curse the ruler of thy people”
(Exodus 22:28).47 Cursing and reviling are presented in this legal provision as parallel, if not
synonymous, terms.48 Certainly, Abinadi has openly “curse[d] the ruler” of this people.
Moreover, the sense of this passage need not require any specific verbal
conduct, for this verse also embraces the ideas of disregarding the ruler,
holding him in contempt, or doing “anything which is an assault” on
his civil or moral authority.49 Abinadi, again, readily qualifies.

Anyone committing this particular crime or accused of such
misconduct was probably handed over to the king himself for reprimand or
punishment, as would seem to be the natural thing to do. Maimonides, in the
Middle Ages, held that it was “the prerogative of the king to kill any
person disobeying or slandering him,”50 but whether such a royal prerogative was absolute in ancient Israel is open to
doubt. Something of this practice, however, can be traced back into the times
of David and Solomon, after whom King Noah seems to have patterned much of his
life: “The principle that the king could take direct legal action in
the event of crimes against the crown was further developed by David and
Solomon, both of whom used this notion to eliminate political troublemakers and
possible rivals (2 Samuel 1:1–16; 4:1–12; 19:16–43;
21:1–14; 1 Kings 2:19–46).”51 Accordingly, Abinadi’s resounding public curses against Noah would probably
have been of direct legal concern only to the throne, and so it was appropriate
for them to turn this matter over to the king himself, to “do with him as
seemeth [him] good” (Mosiah 12:16).

Evidently the phrase “to do as seems good”
reflects some kind of formality in ancient law,52 for otherwise it would be an odd thing for the people to say to their king. One
would think that in most cases a king would not need permission of his subjects
to do what he wanted. But whenever a lawsuit begins in the hands of one group
of people, it would be legally important for those people to relinquish their
jurisdictional interest in the case as they formally turn the matter over to
someone else. Thus the transfer of power and discretion to the ruling authorities
to do as they wished is similarly reflected in Jeremiah’s words to the king’s
princes who tried Jeremiah for prophesying against Jerusalem. After being
arrested by the people, Jeremiah willingly submitted himself to the jurisdiction
of the rulers: “I am in your hand: do with me as seemeth good and meet
unto you” (Jeremiah 26:14). In Jeremiah’s case, he was about to be killed
by the people, so his chances were certainly better before the princes and

Two years
earlier, when Abinadi had warned the people and called them to repentance
(Mosiah 11:20–25), Noah had taken an express interest in Abinadi’s case.
Noah had said, “Who is Abinadi, that I and my people should be judged of
him, or who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?
I command you to bring Abinadi hither, that I may slay him” (vv.
27–28). Thus the people may have readily concluded that exclusive
jurisdiction over any case involving Abinadi had already been taken by King
Noah. Especially in a case such as Abinadi’s that potentially involved a
capital offense, Nephite jurisprudence seems to have reserved jurisdiction only
to the highest governmental authority. At least in the land of Zarahemla under
the later reign of the judges, no man could be put to death according to the
laws of the land “except they had power from the governor of the land”
(3 Nephi 6:24). For purposes of comparison, similar provisions are found in
Hittite Law 44b, which places all cases involving the magical misuse of impurities
under the exclusive jurisdiction of the king, and in the Law of Eshnunna 48,
which requires that a capital charge “(belongs) to the king himself.”53 Thus, for several reasons the people in the city of Nephi rightly determined
that jurisdiction had been taken out of their hands and they should turn
Abinadi over to Noah without delay.

Jurisdiction over the Charge of False Prophecy

While it was a crime under ancient Israelite law to prophesy
falsely, little is known about actual trials of false prophets in the ancient
Israelite period, and even less is said about such cases in rabbinic
literature.54 Nevertheless, the legal right to try a person for this capital offense also
appears to have been out of the hands of the population at large. During the
time of Jeremiah, two known cases of false prophecy, one against Jeremiah and
the other against Urijah, were pursued by the king or his princes
(Jeremiah 26:10, 21); and during the rabbinic period, such actions were
heard only by the Sanhedrin.55 Although it is unclear whether the Nephites would have known specifically of
these jurisdictional technicalities, the conduct of the people in turning
Abinadi over to King Noah was consistent with these precedents and with Noah’s
prior order, and thus they acted correctly in deciding to deliver Abinadi to
the king and his priests to be judged.

Taken, Bound, and Carried

After the people had determined that Abinadi was in the
wrong (Mosiah 12:9, 14), they delivered him to King Noah. Following a practice
routinely repeated in the legal cases in the Book of Mormon, the populace “took
him and carried him bound before the king” (v. 9). This same language
appears in the arrests of Korihor; the Ammonites in the city of Jershon “took
him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon” (Alma 30:20), just as in
the city of Gideon he was “taken and bound and carried before the high
priest” (v. 21). That this threefold formulaic expression reflects a
widespread customary practice among the Nephites and Lamanites is confirmed by
other reports. The people of Ammonihah “took . . . and bound
. . . and took [Alma and Amulek] before the chief judge” (14:4).
When Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites “took him and bound
him, as was their custom . . . and carr[ied him] before the king”
(17:20; see Mosiah 7:7). Later, Nephi, the son of Helaman, was “taken and
bound and brought before the multitude” for interrogation (Helaman 9:19).
This Book of Mormon practice may have derived from the biblical instruction
that a complainant should “take hold of the defendant and bring him before
the court.”56 Why or how they bound Abinadi, or how long he remained bound, is not clear. If
they bound his feet, perhaps readers should understand that the people
literally carried these defendants into court.

The Judicial Roles of the King and Priests

One of the most interesting aspects of the trial of Abinadi
is the interaction between King Noah and his priests. At some times in the
trial, Noah appears to have been in control, while his priests served in an advisory
capacity; in other respects, the priests seem to have been in charge,
formulating the precise allegations and determining the ultimate outcome. These
concurrent roles may reflect the fact that two charges had been brought against
Abinadi, and each called for different judicial treatment.

Pursuant to an important
legal directive attributed to King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 19:11, one
may surmise that the king in ancient Israel had power over “all the king’s
matters,” while the priests had jurisdiction in “all matters of the
Lord,” or religious concerns.57 It appears that a similar division of legal
responsibilities also existed among the Nephites, based either on something
like Jehoshaphat’s precedent or on Nephi’s conferral of royal authority on some
(Jacob 1:9) and priestly authority on others (2 Nephi 5:26). Thus one may
infer that Noah had power over Abinadi’s first alleged offense of lying about
the king, while the priests would have had responsibility to resolve the charge
that he had prophesied falsely. Moreover, where Noah was the injured party and
was also “a hierarchical superior,” he had the natural ability to “act
as both plaintiff and judge, bringing the defendant before his own court, as
Saul had done with Ahimelech” (1 Samuel 22:11–16).58

Under such a traditional
division of legal duties, Noah essentially had administrative control. He had
authority to convene the court: “He commanded that the priests should
gather themselves together,” and his purpose was to “hold a council
with them what he should do” (Mosiah 12:17; emphasis added), which Noah understood broadly.
Noah also had the power to command his priests to follow his orders. When Noah
became incensed at Abinadi’s unequivocal accusation that he and his priests
were idolaters (vv. 33–37), Noah commanded his priests to seize Abinadi
and take him away and kill him (13:1). Likewise, Noah “caused” his
servants and guards to pursue Alma when he was expelled and fled from the
court; and he “caused” them to hold Abinadi for three days in prison
(17:3–6). At the end of the hearing, the king again “counseled with
his priests” (17:6). The fact that Noah counseled with his priests, even
regarding the crime of cursing his person or lying about him, may indicate that
he was not regularly involved in judicial affairs. He did not act patiently
with the judicial process, for he behaved impetuously throughout the entire
case (e.g., 13:1).

While Noah appears to be
in charge of the court, functioning as its sole voice and ultimate decision
maker, in the end he was deeply influenced by the opinions of the priests
(Mosiah 17:11–12). The role of these priests was not merely advisory.
They were actively involved in the trial, conducting the direct examination of
the accused (12:19–20) and seeking a basis whereby “they might have wherewith to
accuse him” (v. 19; emphasis added). Given their line of interrogation
against Abinadi, it appears that they were seeking evidence to support a conviction
on the grounds of false prophecy, an offense over which priests normally would
have had jurisdiction.59 Similarly, it was the priests who eventually
formulated the religiously based charge of blasphemy that Noah announced as the
verdict of the priests’ formal deliberations: “Having counseled with his
priests, . . . he said unto him: Abinadi, we have found an accusation
against thee” (17:6–7; emphasis added). After Abinadi rebuffed that
charge, Noah himself was “about to release” Abinadi, but it was the
priests who “lifted up their voices against [Abinadi] and began to accuse
him” with yet another charge (vv. 11–12). Thus the priests had great
power in this proceeding to conduct the examination of the accused, to advise
the king, to raise accusations on their own initiative based on words Abinadi
had spoken in their presence, and even to contravene the decision that Noah was
leaning strongly toward making. Ultimately, it was the priests themselves who
fashioned and conducted the execution of Abinadi: “And it came to pass
that they took him
and bound him, and scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death”
(v. 13; emphasis added). In the end, therefore, it was “the priests who
caused that he should suffer death by fire” (Alma 25:9). They were the
more blameworthy (Mosiah 7:28) after Noah released Abinadi and “delivered
him up [to the priests] that he might be slain” (17:12).

This confluence of royal and priestly jurisdiction
accurately reflects what is known about the judicial roles of the king and the
Israelite priests in ancient Israel.60 The Levites are mentioned as officers and judges during the reign of King Solomon
(1 Chronicles 23:4), although their precise legal functions are not
stated. Regarding the judicial roles of the king, it is generally believed
among biblical scholars that while the king in Israel did not function as a
judge in day-to-day civil or criminal matters,61 one of his ideal duties was “to guarantee the true administration of
justice throughout the land.”62 By the time of the Mishnah, the king held no judicial power whatever, except in
military affairs or in the extraordinary case of someone disobeying or
slandering him: “A king can neither judge nor be judged, he may not bear
witness nor be witnessed against.”63 Thus one would not expect King Noah to have been involved regularly in normal
judicial proceedings—especially when those cases involved priestly
affairs. The statement of King Zedekiah regarding the trial of Jeremiah, who
was accused of false prophecy, corroborates this view: “For the king is
not he that can do any thing against you” (Jeremiah 38:5).

Falk and de Vaux point out, however, that the king,
especially in the early monarchy of Israel, was capable of functioning as if he
were a plenary tribal judge in all kinds of cases.64 Thus it would not have been unprecedented for Noah, especially in Zeniff’s
small city-state in the land of Nephi, to assume the role of judge as he saw
fit; but based on Noah’s impatience and awkwardness with the process, this role
seems to have been an unusual one for him. Kings in early Israel could take
jurisdiction or refuse it on a case-by-case basis; one assumes that King Solomon
could easily have sent the two women arguing over one baby back to their
village so that the town elders could resolve the dispute. Thus when the people
turned Abinadi over to Noah, they acknowledged and expected that the king would
“do with him as seemeth [him] good” (Mosiah 12:16).65 It would be consistent with Noah’s selective observance of the law of Moses
generally (v. 28) for him to take a case or ignore the matter based largely on
expedience. Evidence indicates that kings like Noah, however, typically and
understandably took jurisdiction over cases involving military matters, suits
involving the crown or the royal family, and affairs in the capital city.66 In no known historical instance, however, did the king in Israel act as a judge
on his own motion.67 Even the royal courts in Jerusalem appear to have acted only as a resource for
local town courts in cases where the elders felt unsure about their action.68 Thus while King Noah may well not have been involved in the routine judicial
system of his land, when Abinadi’s case arose in the capital city and involved
the royal house itself, it was the kind of case that King Noah would almost
have been forced to take part in once it had been brought to him.

Imprisonment Pending Trial or Judgment in Difficult Cases

Noah put Abinadi in
prison pending trial (Mosiah 12:17). Prisons had limited use in the
administration of justice in ancient Israel and in the ancient Near East,
although prisons were more extensively used in Egypt.69 Their main function in Israel seems to have been
the holding of accused persons pending trial or judgment, particularly when the
laws or procedural rules were uncertain. Examples of the use of prisons to
detain accused but untried individuals in the face of legal uncertainties are
found in the case of the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman who
blasphemed during an altercation (“And they put him in ward, that the mind
of the Lord might be shewed them,” Leviticus 24:12) and in the obscure
case of the man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath (“And they
put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him,”
Numbers 15:34). King Benjamin banned the use of dungeons in the land of
Zarahemla (Mosiah 2:13), but prolonged imprisonment was common among the
Jaredites and apparently also to a lesser extent among the Lamanites (Alma
23:2; Helaman 5:21) and the wicked people of Ammonihah (Alma 14:22–23).

Preliminary Council

While Abinadi was being held, Noah met with his priests to
discuss what should be done (Mosiah 12:17–18).70 In light of the fact that Alma was soon able to attract a sizable group of
converts to follow him and the teachings of Abinadi, Noah and his priests must
have had reason to worry about the threat of Abinadi’s growing popularity.
Therefore, although they could have taken Abinadi and executed him immediately
on the strength of the prior decree of Noah from two years earlier, they must
have thought it would be more effective to find some way to embarrass Abinadi
or to get him to disgrace himself. They may have begun their deliberations by
conferring about what legal or political result they hoped to achieve in the
case and specifically what kind of punishment they should seek to impose. Few
alternatives existed under ancient Israelite law in this regard. Long-term
imprisonment was probably not an option.71 Monetary fines or payment to compensate for the wrong (kofer)
would have been improper under the law of Moses.72 Banishment (erem)
was a possibility, but it appears to have been rarely invoked,73 and it would not have prevented Abinadi from sneaking back into the city yet
again in another disguise and creating further disturbances or infractions.
Beating or flogging were distinct possibilities (Deuteronomy 25:1–3), but
this punishment was normally used for disobedience.74 Likewise, penal slavery would have been inappropriate under biblical law.75 Only two obvious options remained open: either to let Abinadi go free76 and leave his fate to the divine judgment of God or to impose the death
penalty. The death penalty was the most common punishment prescribed for
serious offenses against God or one’s superiors under the law of Moses.77

Noah and his priests
probably also discussed the charges and how to conduct the trial. They would
have needed to decide which of the two charges to address first. They decided
to begin with false prophecy. They had a better chance of success in arguing
with Abinadi about interpretive prophetic issues, especially since his
prophecies made two years ago had not come to pass, than in trying to prove that
Abinadi was mistaken in his condemnation of Noah, whose conduct would not have
been legally easy to defend or politically wise to expose. Indeed, the facts
were not on Noah’s side.

Another concern would have been the need for witnesses. No
Israelite could be convicted of a capital crime without two witnesses (Numbers 35:30;
Deuteronomy 17:6), and this rule would have been known to the priests of
Noah since they purported to observe the law of Moses. Some priests may have
argued that this requirement had already been satisfied since the people had
witnessed against Abinadi and had simply turned him over to the king for
sentencing. But others must have concluded that further evidence was needed
against Abinadi, for they sought in their interrogation to obtain “wherewith
to accuse him” (Mosiah 12:19). No further witnesses were ever called
against Abinadi on the charge of false prophecy because this accusation was
soon dropped, and with respect to the later charges of blasphemy (17:7–8)
and reviling (v. 12) arising out of Abinadi’s unambiguous statements during the
trial, the priests themselves could serve as firsthand witnesses.

Noah and the priests may also have discussed whether they
should try to extract a confession from Abinadi before they executed him and,
if so, what form the confession should take.78 As seen above in the discussion of Sherem’s case, Israelite law preferred that
a person not be put to death until an acknowledgment of guilt had been
extracted.79 Consequently, Noah and his priests may have conferred about what might be said
or done to convince the determined Abinadi to admit that he was wrong.

Israelite law did not give the accused the right to remain
silent.80 In assessing statements by the accused, the typical court found it necessary to
consider the accused’s demeanor81 and his declaration of innocence, especially when made under oath. Perhaps
hoping that Abinadi would recognize the error of his ways and confess, or
alternatively seeking further evidence against him, Noah’s priests planned to
ask Abinadi at least one question (Mosiah 12:20–24) that they hoped would
lead him to acknowledge his guilt and error. Mosiah 12:19 explains that Noah
and his priests “began to question him, that they might cross him.”
Apparently they planned thereby to expose a contradiction in Abinadi’s
teachings and thus convince him—and the people—of the error of his

Confrontation by the Priests

Abinadi was then brought
before the court to answer questions raised by the priests. Little is known
about the priests of Noah or how they normally functioned. They probably had
religious as well as judicial powers, particularly in ascertaining the veracity
of witnesses and administering evidentiary procedures (Numbers 5:15–27;
Deuteronomy 17:9; 19:17–18; 21:5). In addition, they served, as did all
Nephite priests, as teachers of the people (Mosiah 12:25, 28). Reading and
teaching the law to the people was indeed one of the duties of the priests and
the king of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:9–13).

King Noah consecrated his own priests after dismissing the
priests who had been ordained by his father, Zeniff (Mosiah 11:5). In the record,
the priests facing Abinadi are often called “the priests of Noah” or “his
priests” (vv. 4, 14; 13:1; 17:6), indicating that the body was closely
affiliated with the royal palace and its temple precinct. In Zeniff’s reign,
such priests in the land of Nephi may have enjoyed greater independence from
the king than under Noah’s regime, for the text implies that in putting “his
priests” into power, Noah significantly changed the affairs of the kingdom
(11:4), though it was customary for new priests to be installed and personnel
to be reconstituted as a part of each new king’s coronation (6:3; compare
2 Chronicles 19:5–6). Noah’s priests were supported by taxes (Mosiah
11:3–6). They spoke “flattering things” to the public (v. 7),
although no indication is given of what they said. The fact that Abinadi
accused them of leading the people into idolatry indicates they had control
over the temple in the city of Nephi. They had special seats set above the rest
and behind a public pulpit, apparently located in the temple precincts (vv.

The intriguing question regarding the number of Noah’s
priests can only be answered tentatively, but there are some clues, both in
ancient practice and in the text itself. In the biblical period, “priests
in general . . . were mentioned in the plural,” which accorded
with typical ancient Near Eastern practice.83 The text never says how many priests served in Noah’s temple or court, but the
fact that the warrior Gideon instantly associated the priests of Noah with the
abduction of twenty-four of the Lamanite daughters as soon as he learned how
many young women had been taken, causing the Lamanites to come back on the
attack against the city of Nephi, certainly suggests that there were about
twenty-four priests on Noah’s court (Mosiah 20:5, 17–18). Noah, of
course, is not to be counted among those who carried off the young Lamanite
women, since he had already been put to death by his own priests (19:20); but
the vacancy created when Alma was expelled from the court (17:3–4) would
probably have been filled with a replacement either during or shortly after the

Evidence from several periods of history indicates that the
numbers twelve or twenty-four (two times twelve) were often associated with judicial
bodies or functions in ancient Israel.84 In the biblical period, courts were established in each of the twelve tribes
(Deuteronomy 16:18). Later literature in the Manual of Discipline from Qumran
asserted that when Jehoshaphat appointed “Levites, priests and elders”
as judges (2 Chronicles 19:8), he appointed twelve in each group.85 The Davidic tabernacle and Solomonic temple services were in continuous
operation with twenty-four courses of priests (1 Chronicles
24:3–18), and when David appointed his prophetic cantors, he established
twenty-four orders, each with twelve members (25:1–31). Twenty-four
priests are shown as a group in one depiction of Ramses’s court in Egypt,86 and David and Solomon may have patterned their own priestly organizations after
this numerical feature. Thus, although direct evidence of duodecimal courts in
pre-exilic Israel is lacking, indirect and culturally related evidence gives
the number twenty-four presumptive judicial significance in Lehi’s day and

In the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, the evidence for courts
of this number becomes much clearer. In that legal system, judicial disputes
were brought before a court called “the council of the community.”87 This deliberative body was composed of two panels of twelve—twelve
priests and twelve laymen—for a total of twenty-four judges. The commentary,
or pesher, on Isaiah 54:11–12 found at Qumran states that these
twenty-four judges were to “give light by the judgment of the Urim and

Further judicial significance for the number twenty-four
appears in the New Testament Apocalypse, where it is prophesied that
twenty-four elders will judge the world. In that book, these twenty-four elders
are mentioned twelve times (Revelation 4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13;
11:16; 14:3; 19:4; compare 2 Enoch 4:1). Similarly, in ancient Babylon,
twenty-four star-gods were said to judge the world.89

Of more direct relevance to legal practices and thus to Noah’s
court in the New World is the fact that early explorers in Central America reported
that the indigenous king in highland Guatemala relied heavily on a council of
twenty-four officials as he administered the affairs of state: “The
supreme council of the monarch of Quiche was composed of 24 grandees, with whom
the king deliberated on all political and military affairs. These counsellors
were invested with great distinctions and many privileges. . . . The
administration of justice, and the collection of the royal revenues, were under
their charge.”90

The possible connection between the priests of Noah and the
number twenty-four (Mosiah 20:5, 17–18) is further corroborated by the
fact that this number is significant throughout the Book of Mormon in judicial
and testimonial contexts. The number of the gold plates of Ether was
twenty-four, a fact that is repeatedly mentioned (8:9; Alma 37:21; Ether 1:2).
These plates were seen as a “testimony” (Mosiah 8:9) of the “judgments
of God” upon those people (Alma 37:30), and their contents were brought “to
light” (urim) by the use of “interpreters” (Mosiah
28:13–16; Alma 37:21–25).91 Twenty-four survivors remained at the end of the final destruction of the
Nephites to serve, in effect, as witnesses of the judgment of God upon their
people (Mormon 6:11, 15). There were other survivors (v. 15), so perhaps these
twenty-four somehow stood as a body of special witnesses. Together with the
twelve apostles, the twelve Nephite disciples will act as final judges of the
world (3 Nephi 27:27), for a total of twenty-four. The number twelve is
likewise involved in the Book of Mormon in matters of judgment: God’s heavenly
court, which passed judgment on Jerusalem in Lehi’s opening vision
(1 Nephi 1:13), consisted of twelve members (v. 10).

Worth mentioning also is the number twenty-three, which was
important in later Jewish courts. In rabbinic times, official courts consisted
of three, twenty-three, or seventy or seventy-one judges,92 which may offer some additional, although later, parallels to the priests of
Noah. The number twenty-four, which was found frequently in biblical times, was
reduced by one in Pharisaical Judaism, perhaps to avoid the possibility of a
tie vote; thereafter, the number twenty-three became a common element in
judicial bodies under Jewish law.93 In the Second Temple period, the largest Jewish court was the Great Sanhedrin,
whose number was associated with the seventy elders who went up onto Mount
Sinai with Moses (Exodus 24:1, 9; Numbers 11:16–17).94 Members of the large Sanhedrin sat in three rows (two of twenty-three and one
of twenty-four). Although only one Great Sanhedrin was ever authorized in
to hear cases of religious crimes, to interpret scripture, and to regulate
local sanhedrins functioned if the large court was inaccessible. Any city with
a population of 120 families (or 230 people) could organize a “small
sanhedrin” of twenty-three members,97 representing one of the three panels that comprised the Great Sanhedrin. Noah’s
court may have reflected similar backgrounds or influences in its

Thus Noah’s court likely consisted of twenty-four priests
who would have taken particular interest in hearing cases involving religious offenses
or rebellious elders. Although the origin of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem
and the related rise of small sanhedrins in outlying towns in Palestine is
obscure and is not specifically evidenced as far back as Lehi, several
interesting parallels between the functions of those small sanhedrins and Noah’s
court of apparently similar size seem noteworthy. The similarities may have
developed independently among the Jews and Nephites, or they may have sprung
from common roots associated with the older courts or concourses of
twenty-four. In particular, the Jewish courts of twenty-three had authority
over capital cases, and possibly over the imposition of flogging.98 They had the power to execute rebellious elders,99 something like the kind of case presented to the court in the trial of Abinadi.

The Roles of the Parties and Participants

In the trial of Abinadi, nothing indicates that any lawyers
were present, either as prosecutors or as advocates for the accused. This is
consistent with ancient legal practice. All people in ancient Israel were expected
to know the law (Deuteronomy 31:12), to do justice, and, especially for the
adult men, to be involved in the judicial process. Because “biblical law
requires that ‘the two parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord,
before the priests or magistrates’ (19:17), i.e., in person and not by proxy,”100 private lawyers were not employed in this legal system to represent the
defendant or to advocate a certain result.101 This practice was apparently followed in all matters, whether we would consider
them to be criminal or civil in nature.102 Accordingly, Abinadi appeared and spoke in person.

In proceedings before these ancient bodies, no official
functionary served in the modern role of prosecuting attorney. For example,
under Jewish law, in a case tried by a small or large sanhedrin, one of the
judges was designated to record all of the arguments for acquittal, while
another recorded those for conviction.103 As such, the members of the court did not necessarily act during the hearing or
investigation as impartial, detached judges. This practice appears to stem from
the early biblical period. Judges and witnesses were not viewed as neutral, detached
testifiers, as McKenzie argues: “These witnesses are not in any sense
merely objective informants. Their role is similar to that played in a modern
lawsuit by the advocate for the defence and the counsel for the prosecution.”104 In a similar fashion, the priests of Noah took an aggressive role in the trial
of Abinadi, with some of them leading out as accusers.

In cases involving offenses against the public, such as the
prosecution of the false prophecy charge against Abinadi, ancient Israelite or
Jewish courts typically “initiated the proceedings and dispensed with
prosecutors” after being prompted to action by witnesses.105 Likewise, witnesses were called, as necessary, by the sanhedrins. In later
Jewish practice, any person desiring to speak in defense of the accused was, in
theory, “allowed and even encouraged to do so”;106 but there is no evidence of this practice in biblical times. Obviously, no
witnesses in Abinadi’s defense volunteered or were summoned by Noah’s court.

In terms of physical positioning, it appears that Abinadi
remained standing throughout his trial.107 The priests, however, were seated (see Proverbs 20:8; Job 29:7; Ruth 4:2) and
had to “stand forth” when they attempted to lay their hands on him
(Mosiah 13:2).108 Seats for judges were prominent in the gates of ancient Israelite cities, and
no physical feature of the Nephite justice system is more prominent than is the
governmental judgment seat, which is mentioned forty-seven times in the Book of
Mormon.109 Because the seats that Noah had built for himself in his palace and for his
high priests and priests in his temple (11:9–11) are mentioned
conspicuously in the narrative prologue to the trial of Abinadi, one would
surmise that this proceeding took place in one or both of those venues.110 King Noah was actively involved in the trial of Abinadi, which likely comports
with biblical law practice. While the king did not have a place on the Great
Sanhedrin (although the high priest did) during rabbinic times,111 a reasonable speculation is that before 47 BC the law did not forbid kings
from taking a place as leader of the Sanhedrin.112

The Direct Examination of Abinadi

When Noah’s court convened and brought Abinadi before them,
he was examined by the priests who sought to “cross him, that thereby they
might have wherewith to accuse him” (Mosiah 12:19). As mentioned above, it
was normal in biblical and rabbinic courts for some of the witnesses or members
of the small sanhedrin to act as prosecutors. Thus it is not surprising to see
some of the priests of Noah diligently and aggressively inquiring in order to
root out any evidence of wrongdoing. It seems excessively harsh, however, for
them to have started with arguments on the side of the prosecution. The
rabbinic courts, for example, began with arguments for acquittal.113 The priests of Noah may have been ignorant or malicious in proceeding as they
did. On the other hand, speaking last, as Abinadi did, is usually a forensic
advantage. In any event, the priests may have begun the proceeding by
interrogating Abinadi because the people had already in effect declared him
guilty, thereby removing any potential presumption of his innocence.

It appears that the priests intended, by their direct
examination, to catch Abinadi in conflict with scripture.114 In essence, they quoted to him from Isaiah 52 and selectively asked him why he
bore tidings of doom and destruction when Isaiah had declared that the
beautiful and true prophet brings good tidings and publishes peace: “How
beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings” (Mosiah 12:20–22; emphasis added). The priests’ further
quoting of Isaiah affirmed that redeeming Jerusalem was a cause for great joy: “They
shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion; break forth into joy”
(vv. 22–24). Moreover, whereas Isaiah had invited Zion to “put on
thy beautiful garments” (Isaiah 52:1), Abinadi had valued Noah’s life as a
garment in a furnace (Mosiah 12:3, 10). Whereas Isaiah had spoken in glowing
terms of the people, that no more would “come into thee the uncircumcised
and the unclean” (Isaiah 52:1), Abinadi had condemned the people as wicked
and worthy of destruction (Mosiah 12:8–9). And while Isaiah had assured
Jerusalem of loosing herself “from the bands of thy neck” (Isaiah
52:2), Abinadi prophesied that the people “shall be brought into bondage”
(Mosiah 12:2). This passage of scripture quoted to Abinadi by the priests could
very well have been one of the theme texts that had been used often by Zeniff’s
colony as they rejoiced over their redemption of the land of their inheritance
and temple like Solomon’s (the temple in the city of Nephi was patterned after
the temple of Solomon, which stood adjacent to Mount Zion). In the face of
Isaiah’s prophecy and its apparent glorious fulfillment by Zeniff’s people, how
did Abinadi dare to accuse both the king and his people of falling under God’s
worst judgments?115

The priests of Noah may have tried to prove that Abinadi’s
prophecies contradicted the word of God as spoken by Isaiah for two related
reasons: they wanted to prove him wrong or show that he did not understand
Isaiah correctly, and they probably wanted to prove that he was not speaking
the word of the Lord and was therefore a false prophet. The definition of false
prophecy in Deuteronomy 18 made it a capital offense to prophesy things in the
name of the Lord “which I have not commanded him to speak”
(Deuteronomy 18:20). Abinadi had clearly invoked the name of Jehovah as the
source of his prophecy: “Thus has the Lord commanded me,” and “the
Lord said unto me” (Mosiah 12:1, 2). In order to know “the word which
the Lord hath not spoken,” the judges were to apply the following test: “If
the thing follow not [literally ‘is not’], nor come to pass, that is the thing
which the Lord hath not spoken” (Deuteronomy 18:22). One option, of
course, was to wait and see if the prophecy came to pass. Another approach
apparently was to test the prophecy against other texts known to be valid to
see if the new prophecies “follow not” or “are not” in the
sense that they are inconsistent with the established word of the Lord.116

Abinadi’s Defense and Counterclaims

Abinadi’s rebuttal was an extensive and brilliant
explanation of the true essence of redemption and how it brings good tidings to
those who accept Christ (Mosiah 12:29–37; 13–16). His words
comprise an intricate and elaborate commentary, or midrash, on the text from
Isaiah 52 that the priests quoted. His position was based on solid ground, for
Isaiah had also clearly stated that “they that rule over them make them to
howl” (Isaiah 52:5); and, accordingly, Abinadi predicted that the people
of Noah “shall howl all the day long” due to the influence of their
wicked priests and leaders on them (Mosiah 12:4).

Casual readers might wonder if Abinadi’s speech was
responsive to the specific question posed to him by the priests, but on close
examination it is clear that his answer is constructed around specific words
and phrases in Isaiah 52. For example, Isaiah 52:3 reads, “Ye shall be redeemed without money” (emphasis added), and Abinadi spoke frequently of God’s
redeeming power (Mosiah 13:32; 15:9, 12, 23; 16:3–6, 15). After asking, “Who
shall declare his [Christ’s] generation?” (from Isaiah 53:8), Abinadi
explained that “when his [Christ’s] soul has been made an offering for sin
he [Christ] shall see his seed” (Mosiah 15:10), for his seed are all the
prophets and the righteous, and they shall be seen by Christ as “heirs of
the kingdom of God” (vv. 11–13). Further, the prophets are they who
have published peace, good tidings, and salvation, mentioned in Isaiah 52:7
(Mosiah 15:13–14). Thus Abinadi took Isaiah’s declaration “Thy God
reigneth!” (Isaiah 52:7) and shifted it to read “the Son reigneth” (Mosiah 15:20; emphasis added), meaning that the Son had power
over death. This brought Abinadi to testify not only that the righteous will be
resurrected to stand before God (15:20–25) but also that all people will come forth to be judged (15:26–16:2), for the Lord’s
salvation will be declared to all (15:28). Hence, the Lord’s “watchmen
shall lift up their voice” (15:29), heralding the time when, as Isaiah
said, “the Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of
our God” (Isaiah 52:10; emphasis added), and so “every nation,
kindred, tongue, people . . . shall confess before God that his judgments are
just” (Mosiah 16:1). Indeed, Abinadi’s speech responded precisely and
thoroughly to the priests’ interrogatory. His remarks were completely relevant
to the strategy employed against him at this stage in his trial.

Abinadi also raised affirmative counterclaims, accusing the
priests themselves of pretending to teach the people, of misunderstanding the
spirit of prophecy, and of perverting the ways of the Lord (Mosiah
12:25–26). In effect, Abinadi accused the priests of lying about their
own behavior, of denying true prophecy, and of leading people into apostasy,
countering their claims but at the same time adding to the very charges brought
against himself.

Interestingly, Abinadi never specifically charged Noah and
the priests of the egregious offense of idolatry, even though this was clearly
one of their sins (Mosiah 11:6). To make this point, Abinadi did not need to do
any more than quote Exodus 20:3–4 (or Deuteronomy 5:7–8) to them: “Thou
shalt have no other God before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven
image” (Mosiah 12:35–36). After Noah interrupted him on this very
point, Abinadi withstood his accusers with the power of God. Abinadi then began
again by repeating the prohibition against idolatry (13:12) and then completing
his recitation of the Ten Commandments by way of further indictment.117

Abinadi also elaborately critiqued the narrow, strictly literal
understanding of the law of Moses that apparently thrived in the colony of
Zeniff. Noah’s priests appear to have observed the law of Moses, at most, only
so far as the letter of the law was concerned. They unqualifiedly purported to “teach
the law of Moses” (Mosiah 12:28), which would mean that they must have
spent a fair amount of time constructing rationalizations to show that their
extravagances and excesses were not literally against that law. But Abinadi
showed that more was required in order to teach and live the law of God than
merely meeting the letter of the law. From the teachings of Nephi and Jacob
(2 Nephi 25:12–19; Jacob 4), the priests of Noah should have
understood the same point already. Abinadi’s direct question and assertion was
a stinging condemnation: “Have ye done all this? I say unto you, Nay, ye
have not. And have ye taught this people that they should do all these things?
I say unto you, Nay, ye have not” (Mosiah 12:37). These words provoked a
swift retort.

Noah Calls Abinadi “Mad”

Noah interrupted Abinadi’s testimony at this point and
ordered that Abinadi be removed and killed, “for he is mad” (Mosiah
13:1). Abinadi withstood the people who attempted to carry out this order by
speaking “with power and authority from God” as his face shone like
Moses’s “while in the mount of Sinai” (vv. 2–6).

No insanity defense
existed under biblical law. Even a “mad” person could be punished if
he had broken the law.118 By calling Abinadi mad, Noah was clearly not
conceding that Abinadi was insane and therefore unfit to stand trial. More specifically,
being “mad” (shāgʿ) was a derogatory label often used to describe
the ravings of false prophets in the Old Testament; for example, Hosea 9:7
reads, “The prophet is a fool, the spiritual man is mad.”119 In the ancient world, madness in the sense of mental
illness was usually explained as the result of evil spirits (e.g., Mark 3:22);
if a man were to speak by the power of some spirit other than the spirit of
God, then it stood to reason that he was speaking through the power of the evil
one and thus would necessarily be a false prophet (see Jeremiah 29:26).
Assuming that Noah knew something of this language or logic and that he had
such ideas in mind as he spoke, he was using the word mad to strengthen the
false-prophecy charge and was urging the court to move quickly to convict and
execute Abinadi for being dangerous and bewitched: “Slay him; for what
have we to do with him, for he is mad” (Mosiah 13:1).

Noah’s reaction was predictable,
for he had made up his mind in this regard two years earlier. The fact that
Abinadi’s legal chances were poor no matter what he said in his defense
contributed to a lack of decorum on both sides at trial. Besides Noah’s
outburst, Abinadi’s conduct cannot be considered very orderly either. He
launched immediately, after only one question, into a lengthy statement, never
giving the judges a chance to develop the issues or ask another question. To
have held the floor, Abinadi must have been extremely animated as he, filled
with the Spirit of God, recited the law and heaped contemptuous accusations
upon the priests and Noah.

Abinadi’s Appeal to God as His Witness

It was typical for defendants in antiquity to appeal to God
to verify their innocence.120 This appeal often took the form of an oath: “The oath existed in Hebrew
law only on the part of the accused. . . . An accused person
could exculpate himself with an oath. . . . The oath brought the
divinity into the process of legal investigation.”121 Similarly, in Noah’s proceeding Abinadi appealed to God to verify his innocence
and truthfulness in several ways. Abinadi vowed that God would smite his
accusers if they dared to lay their hands on him (Mosiah 13:3). He further
testified that the Lord had sent him to prophesy against the people (v. 26),
and he appealed to the priests themselves to acknowledge that he had spoken the
truth: “Yea, ye know that I speak the truth” (12:30).

Noah and his priests,
however, were intransigently committed to their royal prerogatives and
rationalizations. Their political views may have drawn support from the
administrations of the kings of Israel, especially that of Solomon, with his
powers, priests, wives, temple, and grand public works. Abinadi countered that
incorrect model of kingship by arguing that the true type of all things
mentioned in the law was the eternal king (Mosiah 13:31, 33). He also testified
“concerning the coming of the Messiah, . . . that God himself
should come down among the children of men” (vv. 33–34).

Next, as I have discussed in greater detail elsewhere,122 Abinadi quoted Isaiah 53, which immediately follows the passage that the
priests had challenged Abinadi to explain. After explaining how that text
speaks of the ultimate redemption (Mosiah 15:8–9), he explained the
phrases of Isaiah 52:7–10 in that light. “[H]is generation,” or
God’s seed, are “whosoever has heard the words of the prophets” and “all
those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord will redeem
his people” (Mosiah 15:10–11); the prophets are they “who have
published peace, who have brought good tidings” (v. 14); “how
beautiful are the feet of those that are still publishing peace” and of “the
founder of peace, yea, even the Lord” (vv. 16, 18). The watchmen on the
towers are those who will lift up their voices at the time when the salvation
of the Lord “shall be declared to every nation” (vv. 28–29).
Finally, Abinadi asserted that “all shall see the salvation of the Lord,”
that all “shall confess before God that his judgments are just,” and
that God’s judgments shall stand against all those—such as the wicked
priests—who remain in carnal and sensual sin and in rebellion against God
(16:1–5), having been “warned of their iniquities” and yet
refusing to repent (v. 12). It is hard to imagine a more sophisticated and
insightful analysis of the complexities of Isaiah 52 and 53.

Strong statements such as these would have made the typical
Israelite judge extremely wary of passing judgment incorrectly or unrighteously
for fear of offending God. As discussed in chapter 3 above, the duty to “judge
righteously” was incumbent upon all who served as judges in Israel.123 Jehoshaphat admonished his judges: “Deal courageously, and the Lord shall
be with the good” (2 Chronicles 19:11). Strong provisions in the code
of judicial responsibility required judges under the law of Moses to “keep
. . . far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not:
for I will not justify the wicked” (Exodus 23:7). The Psalms are full of
strong pronouncements praising those who judge righteously and condemning those
who do not (e.g., Psalm 33:5; 67:4; 71:4; 99:4). Thus it is understandable that
Abinadi’s words had a sobering effect at least on some of the people. Abinadi’s
quotation of the Ten Commandments, his power through God to resist the priests
when they tried to restrain him, and his explication of Isaiah 53 constituted a
brilliant forensic performance, a tour de force, a remarkable
discourse under any circumstance. But it was all the more astounding and
meaningful coming from a man who was on trial for his life and who needed to
respond articulately and persuasively, on the spot, to the specific question
put to him by his adversaries, the priests. They became hesitant to interfere
(Mosiah 13:5), and they remained silent until Abinadi concluded his message.

Noah’s Command

When Abinadi completed his lengthy testimony, Noah again commanded
the priests to take Abinadi and kill him: “The king commanded that the
priests should take him and cause that he should be put to death” (Mosiah
17:1). If Noah was expressing here a verdict regarding the false prophecy
charge, he was probably acting out of order in voicing his opinion so quickly.
Since King Noah was the senior authority in the court and was bound to act
under the rule of law (Deuteronomy 17:19), his vote should probably have been
heard last, especially if he was seriously interested in taking counsel from
his priests.124 The explanation given for this conventional rule was that the younger judges
should speak first because otherwise they might be unduly influenced to follow
the opinions of their older colleagues if the senior members of the court spoke

It seems more likely, however, that Noah’s order shifted the
focus of the trial away from the false-prophecy charge and over to the second
cause of action against Abinadi: that he had lied about the king and his
lifestyle filled with debauchery. While Noah could see that the priests had
made no headway on the false-prophecy charge (which is never mentioned again in
the account after this point, apparently having been dropped from the trial),
Noah could still assert uncontested jurisdiction over the other charge, namely,
that Abinadi had lied about the king. Noah alone could issue a verdict without
further deliberation on that matter because it was jurisdictionally one of “the
king’s matters” (2 Chronicles 19:11).

The idea that Noah shifted the focus of the trial in
precisely this manner is supported by the thrust of Alma’s defense, which was
based on his personal knowledge “concerning the iniquity which Abinadi had
testified against them” (Mosiah 17:2). In other words, Alma knew that
Abinadi had not lied about the iniquity of the king and his priests. Therefore,
it is likely that Noah’s order calling for Abinadi’s execution would have
stood, except for Alma’s daring intervention.

As it happened, Noah’s order was not carried out. But what
kind of verdict was this that could be rebutted and ignored by the court or the
priests? Perhaps it was not intended to be a final order. Indeed, the concept
of a “final judgment” probably did not exist in the ancient world. If
a person was willing to go to a temple or to the gate and swear an oath of
innocence, for example, charges could be dropped,126 and presumably other forms of reconciliation or settlement could intervene
after the court had reached its decision and before a sentence had been carried
out. Under later Jewish law, court verdicts did not become “final”
until they were actually being carried out: “As long as the sentence has
not been carried out, the judgment is subject to revision.”127 Thus it is not exceptional or irregular that the debate about Abinadi’s fate
continued even after Noah had said that he should be put to death.128 The court continued by allowing Alma to speak, by expelling Alma and putting Abinadi
in prison, and by declaring a three-day recess (Mosiah 17:2–8).

Alma’s Defense of Abinadi

As mentioned above, it was usual in Jewish law for some
members of the court to speak on behalf of the accused. “The deliberations
[of the judges] must always start with a view propounded in favor of the accused,”129 although this was interpreted in the Talmud to mean that the court only had to
ask the accused “whether he could adduce any evidence in rebuttal, or [to]
reassur[e] the accused that if he was innocent he had nothing to fear.”130 While it is unknown what procedures or protocols may have normally been used in
this regard in Nephite or ancient Old World courts, a similar role of viewing
the case favorably toward the accused may have been actually assigned by the
court to Alma (although, given the prevailing attitude of these judges, perhaps
this assignment was made with the expectation that Alma would not take his
assignment quite so seriously). Or perhaps, as would seem more likely, Alma
took this role upon himself, sensing that justice demanded that someone should
speak in defense of Abinadi. In either event, Alma was obligated as a judge
under the law of Moses to view the charges honestly and thus in a light
favorable to the accused. As noted above, the instructions given by King
Jehoshaphat set the general standard for judicial responsibility in ancient
Israel: “Thus shall ye do in the fear of the Lord, faithfully, and with a
perfect heart. . . . Deal courageously, and the Lord shall be with
the good” (2 Chronicles 19:9, 11). Jehovah’s code of judicial conduct
found in Exodus 23:1–3 and 6–8 similarly prohibited judges from
perverting justice: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; . . .
the innocent and righteous slay thou not” (vv. 2, 7).131 Alma acted in accordance with these venerable codes of judicial conduct as he
rose courageously to speak, acting faithfully out of personal conviction of the
truthfulness of Abinadi’s case. He “believed the words which Abinadi had
spoken . . . ; therefore he began to plead with the king”
(Mosiah 17:2).

The need for the presentation of arguments in favor of the
defense was strongly felt under Jewish law. During the rabbinic period, if a
guilty verdict in a capital case before the Great Sanhedrin was unanimous, that
was ground for a mistrial since talmudic law required the judges to reach a “clear
majority,” which implied that there must be a minority: “If no such
majority has emerged, the case is adjourned to the next
day. . . . Where the whole court is unanimous that the accused be
convicted, proceedings are adjourned and deliberations continued until at least
one judge changes his view and votes for an acquittal.”132 This rule, however, probably would not have applied in the smaller Jewish courts,
where eventually it was held that achieving “unanimity was as good as, or
even better than, a majority.”133 Alma’s unwillingness to concur in the conviction of Abinadi destroyed the
possibility of the court achieving a unanimous consensus, and his fervor would
have been very unsettling to Noah and the other priests. They may have
remembered the gruesome divine punishment of King Ahab under similar
circumstances for his miscarriage of justice against the innocent Naboth
(1 Kings 21–22).

The most potent legal aspect of Alma’s defense of Abinadi
was that it forced King Noah to drop the charge that Abinadi had lied about the
king. Although the text is silent on this point, it appears that Alma spoke out
boldly and irrefutably concerning the iniquities of Noah and his priests (who
otherwise would not have sought to kill Alma). If so, Alma’s argument probably
stressed the truthfulness of what Abinadi had said about the king and his
government, for Alma “knew concerning the iniquity which Abinadi had
testified against them” (Mosiah 17:2). By emphatically corroborating the
truth of Abinadi’s words, Alma effectively negated and refuted the charge that
Abinadi had lied.

As a further consequence of his bold statement, Alma’s
defense of Abinadi effectively took the matter out of the king’s jurisdiction
and left standing only the false-prophecy charge, over which the priests had
primary responsibility. But on that claim, the priests had made no headway in
their feeble attempt to cross Abinadi in his words. On this charge, it would
seem that they lacked sufficient votes to convict, and so they abandoned the
charge of false prophecy completely.

A Young Man

Moreover, Alma was the first of the priests to indicate his
opinion in the case. He voted “not guilty” and urged that Abinadi be
acquitted and released absolutely without any punishment whatsoever: Let him “depart
in peace” (Mosiah 17:2). The text mentions at this point that Alma was “a
young man.” This appears to be significant, for the youngest members of
the Sanhedrin were required to vote first in capital cases decided by that
body.134 As mentioned above, this was to protect the younger members from being unduly
influenced by the senior members of the court.135 Perhaps a similar practice was followed in Noah’s court, which would help
explain why Alma was able to get the floor and keep it long enough to make
clear his open opposition to the obvious preferences of the king.

Alma’s Expulsion from the Court

Alma’s impassioned plea enraged Noah. Perhaps this was
especially because two witnesses (Abinadi and Alma) now adamantly testified
against Noah and his practices, sufficient to raise a serious indictment
against the king himself: “At the mouth of two witnesses . . .
shall the matter be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Moreover, there was
little hope of having Alma change his opinion, for Exodus 23:2, consistent with
ancient Near Eastern practice (Code of Hammurabi, section 5), sternly warns
judges against changing their opinions: “Neither shalt thou speak in a
cause to decline after many to wrest judgment”; that is, a judge should
not be swayed or coerced by the majority.136 Either Abinadi was wrong and therefore culpable, or else he and Alma were right
and Noah was guilty. Assuming that the body of the priests was, to some extent,
independent from the king (kings were not immune from judicial process under
ancient Israelite law, Deuteronomy 17:19),137 concerns for his own political well-being could well have triggered Noah’s
violent response against Alma’s apparent insubordination. Also, Alma may have
had a prior reputation for sympathizing with Abinadi and his previous
prophecies (it seems unlikely that Alma would have been unaware of Abinadi’s
prophecies delivered two years earlier); the fact that Alma was able to attract
a following so quickly after Abinadi’s death would strongly indicate that a
segment of the population in the city of Nephi, perhaps led informally by Alma,
was already inclined to agree with Abinadi. Based on such concerns and likely
circumstances, Noah caused Alma to be expelled from the court and sent his
personal servants (apparently not officers of the court) with instructions to
kill Alma.138 Alma managed, however, to escape.

Members of the Sanhedrin
and presumably judges in other ancient courts could be removed in certain
cases, but nothing in Alma’s account would give Noah grounds for Alma’s removal
in this case, let alone for attempting to execute him. Much as we today impanel
alternate jurors who can replace jurors unable to continue serving on the
panel, sanhedrins regularly had additional elders who could step in and sit on
the court should the need arise.139 Therefore, expelling Alma from the court would not
necessarily have reduced the number of judges who passed judgment on Abinadi,
nor would it have been grounds for a mistrial or a delay. But Noah’s seeking to
slay Alma—if this order was based only on Alma’s expression of a
dissenting judicial opinion—was certainly extralegal and extraordinary.

Three Days in Prison

Abinadi was next bound and cast into prison for three days
while the priests and Noah deliberated further over the case (Mosiah
17:5–6). It was typical “according to ancient Jerusalem custom”
for the conference of the judges to be conducted in private.140 But why was the trial of Abinadi interrupted for so long and precisely for this
length of time?

Three legal reasons might explain this delay in Abinadi’s
trial. First, Abinadi may well have entered the city of Nephi on or around Pentecost.141 First, if the three days after Abinadi’s speech were holy festival (and
therefore Sabbath) days, the court would have been precluded from reconvening
sooner.142 Indeed, Pentecost appears to have been a three-day event in the late spring or
early summer each year on the ancient Israelite calendar, for that festival
commemorated the three days when the people of Israel sanctified themselves for
the appearance of the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments
were issued. The Lord summoned the people with the promise that on “the
third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai”
(Exodus 19:11); “and it came to pass on the third day” that God answered
Moses (vv. 16–19).

Second, it was considered improper, at least under rabbinic
jurisprudence, for courts to try a person on any given day for more than one
capital offense.143 It is possible that a similar tradition had developed and was observed in
Nephite law, although there is no direct evidence of any such legal requirement
in early biblical times. Having failed to catch Abinadi in any conflict with
the scriptures, and having been thwarted by Alma’s unexpected defense from
pressing further their accusation of prevarication, Abinadi’s accusers would
have been compelled to abandon both charges. They may have felt bound by some
procedural sense of justice to delay the trial, or they may have simply sensed
the pragmatic need to regroup and to wait for another day to try again on another

Third, Jewish law also prohibited a court from entering a
guilty verdict on the same day on which the testimony was heard.144 It is possible that the Nephites observed a similar practice, but the evidence
is not decisive. Nehor’s execution may have occurred a day or two after his
trial, for his death is reported in a verse that begins “and it came to
pass” (Alma 1:15), possibly indicating a passage of time. Similarly,
enough time elapsed between Paanchi’s conviction and his execution that his
followers could meet during the interval and send a delegate to assassinate
Pahoran (Helaman 1:9). Interestingly, under Islamic law, the punishment for
apostasy is death, but some Muslim jurists argue that “the apostate must
be given a period of time in which to recant and return. . . . The
Hedaya recommends three days of imprisonment before execution.”145

Possibilities such as these suggest that the three-day
hiatus in the trial of Abinadi may not have been merely strategic or malicious
on the part of Noah and his priests, but may reflect an observance by the court
of procedural formalities or religious requirements.

Did Abinadi Appear in the City of Nephi on Pentecost?

An important part of the law of Moses, and one that ties in
closely with Abinadi’s quotation of the Ten Commandments, required the observance
of certain holy days each year (e.g., Exodus 23:14–19).146 Fifty days after Passover on the ancient Israelite calendar was the festival of
Pentecost, or Shavuot (Weeks), which commemorated Moses’s receiving the Ten
Commandments at Sinai. For several reasons, it appears that Abinadi entered the
city of Nephi around the time of Pentecost. Not only does he quote the Ten
Commandments to Noah and his priests, but he also draws on many religious themes
that were distinctively associated with the Pentecost season in ancient Israel.
Understanding this likely festival background to Abinadi’s words adds yet
another dimension to the legal backgrounds of the trial of Abinadi, as the
following excursus briefly explains.

Shavuot marked the concluding phase of Passover.147 It was also an agricultural holiday sometimes called the Day of the Firstfruits
(Numbers 28:26). It was a pilgrimage festival, with a “holy convocation”
(Leviticus 23:21) rejoicing in the bounty of the spring, especially the new
wheat (Deuteronomy 16:9–12; 26:5–11). Just as Passover marked a
time of poverty and bondage for Israel, Pentecost exulted in a time of bounty,
with offerings of leavened bread baked from the new crop of wheat (Leviticus
23:17) and of the choicest firstfruits. At this same time of the year, Moses
received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1). Thus, in antiquity,
Pentecost probably also celebrated God’s giving of the law to Moses. The
connection between Pentecost and the giving of the law is well documented from
the time of the Talmud,148 but exactly when this connection was first established in ancient Israelite
practice is a matter of historical debate. Moshe Weinfeld, however, argues
convincingly that this connection was made very early in Israelite history, as
evidenced by Psalms 50 and 81, which he concludes were the words of hymns sung
at Pentecost.149

In this setting, several arguments can be marshaled to
support the idea that the trial of Abinadi took place on or around Pentecost.
In general, timing would have been important to Abinadi. He had already been
expelled once from the city (Mosiah 11:26–29). Reentry on or near a
festival day would have given him a ready audience, as virtually all of Abinadi’s
words deal with themes that would have been especially pertinent at the time of
Pentecost. The following points suggest possible thematic connections between
the account of Abinadi and Pentecost:

• When a bounteous grain season was at
hand, Abinadi cursed the crops: he prophesied that the Lord would send destructive
hail and dry winds upon the people and that insects too would “pester
their land . . . and devour their grain” (Mosiah 12:6).

• While Israel’s deliverance from bondage was being celebrated,
Abinadi called upon Exodus terminology to proclaim that bondage will return: “They
shall be brought into bondage; and none shall deliver them” (Mosiah
11:23), “and I will cause that they shall have burdens lashed upon their
backs” (12:2, 5; compare Exodus 1:11).

• At precisely the time when Noah’s priests would have been
hypocritically pledging allegiance to the Ten Commandments and celebrating
the giving of the law, Abinadi rehearsed to them those very commandments
(Mosiah 12:33–36; 13:12–24). On any other day, this might have
seemed a strange defense for a man on trial for his life, but not on Pentecost.

• Indeed, the connection with Pentecost could hardly have been
made more graphically than when Abinadi’s “face shone with exceeding luster, even as Moses’ did while in the mount of Sinai, while speaking with the
Lord” (Mosiah 13:5; Exodus 34:29–30). This is an obvious reference
to the time when Moses received the law, probably the main event celebrated on

• A number of connections
between Abinadi and Exodus 19 further involve him with Pentecost. For example,
cursing Noah to be like a garment in a hot furnace” recalls the fact
that Mount Sinai became a furnace (Exodus 19:18) and that people whose garments
were unclean were not “ready” for the coming of the Lord (vv.

• The ancient festival appears to have been a three-day event
(Exodus 19:11), which could explain why Abinadi’s trial was postponed for three
days” (Mosiah 17:6), as discussed above.

• At Sinai, the people had looked forward to an appearance of
the Lord: on “the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all
the people” (Exodus 19:11). Abinadi’s testimony was that the Lord would
come down again (Mosiah 15:1), an idea that King Noah and his priests found to
be blasphemous (perhaps because they thought Abinadi was implying that this
earlier time when the Lord came down was not enough).

• In addition, intriguing parallels exist between Psalm 50 and
Abinadi’s piercing rebukes of the priests. If this psalm was known and used as
a Pentecost hymn in Abinadi’s world as Weinfeld avers it was in ancient Israel,
several of its lines would have found a haunting echo in Abinadi’s stinging
prophetic words.

›› For example, Psalm 50:2 begins, “Out of Zion, the
perfection of beauty, God hath shined.” The irony would have been insufferable when “the Spirit of the Lord was upon [not Noah’s colony but upon
Abinadi], and his face shone with exceeding luster” (Mosiah 13:5).

›› Psalm 50:3 reads: “Our God shall come, and shall not
keep silence.” Abinadi boldly affirmed the same, “that God himself
shall come down” (Mosiah 15:1; see 17:8).

›› In Psalm 50:4–7, God brings a metaphorical lawsuit to “judge
his people” (v. 4; compare 82:1). Likewise, Abinadi’s words take this very
form, that of a prophetic lawsuit.150 The psalmist intones, “I will testify against thee” (50:7). Abinadi
does precisely that.

›› Psalm 50:8–14 makes
it clear that the Lord prefers thanksgiving and devotion rather than
sacrifices. To the same effect, Abinadi requires the commandments of God to be “written
in your hearts” (Mosiah 13:11). If God “were hungry,” he had no
need for man to give him bullocks or goats, for all the world is already his
(Psalm 50:12); therefore the purpose of sacrifice must be something else. As
Abinadi explains, the laws of sacrifice were given as spiritual “types of
things to come” (Mosiah 13:31).

›› Psalm 50:15 promises that, “in the day of trouble”
if the righteous will call upon him, he “will deliver” them. Abinadi
makes it clear that if the wicked people of Noah call upon God, “[he] will
not hear their prayers, neither will [he] deliver them” (Mosiah 11:25).

›› Psalm 50:16–21 shows
that Pentecost also became a day of stern admonition. People were chastised who
rejected instruction and collaborated with lawbreakers: “What hast thou to
do to declare my statutes, . . . seeing thou hatest instruction? . .
. When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been
partaker with adulterers” (vv. 16–18). Transgressors were
reprimanded publicly: “But I will reprove thee, and set them in order before
thine eyes” (v. 21). Surely Abinadi reproved and then set the teachings of
the Lord in perfect order openly, before the very eyes of Noah and his priests.

›› A warning like Abinadi’s must have been especially potent on
a day when the people were venerating the law. Psalm 50:16 asks what a person
must do in order to teach the law, “to declare my statutes.” The
implicit answer is that one must keep the law. This is exactly Abinadi’s point:
“And again he said unto them: If ye teach the law of Moses, why do ye not
keep it?” (Mosiah 12:29). Both Psalm 50 and Abinadi particularly condemn
those who wrongfully become rich and those who commit whoredoms (Psalm 50:18;
Mosiah 12:29).

›› Otherwise, God will “tear you in pieces, and there be
none to deliver” (Psalm 50:22). This compares with Abinadi’s words, “and
the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts, shall devour
their flesh” (Mosiah 12:2), and “none shall deliver them”

›› Moreover, Psalm 50 ends with the assurance “to him that
ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God” (v.
23). Showing the “salvation” of God (Mosiah 12:21, 24, 31, 32; 13:27,
28; 15:14, 18, 24, 27, 28, 31) was exactly what Abinadi explicitly and
comprehensively did. His closing statement even began with the headline “The
time shall come when all shall see the salvation of the Lord” (16:1).

• Psalm
82, the other Pentecost psalm identified by Weinfeld, sings of the time when
that salvation will be seen. Recognizing that “ye are gods, and all of you
are children of the most High” (v. 6), the psalmist still reminds Israel
that all people must “die like men” (v. 7). Nevertheless, all the
earth will yet be judged (v. 8). Abinadi also expounds on the theme of “who
shall be his seed?” (Mosiah 15:10)— namely, “all those who have
hearkened unto [the prophets’] words, and believed that the Lord would redeem
his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins”
(v. 11). He then speaks soberly about death and dying (vv. 19–20) and
being raised to stand before God to be judged (15:21–16:12).

The Trial of Abinadi

Did Abinadi Prophesy against King Noah on Pentecost?

Israelite Pentecost
Celebrating the first grain harvest Cursed their grain (Mosiah 12:6)
Rejoicing in bounty Sent hail, winds, insects (12:6)
Remembering deliverance from bondage in Egypt Prophesied that the people would be brought back into bondage (11:21)
“Taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens” (Exodus 1:11) “I will cause that they shall have burdens lashed upon their backs” (12:5)
Celebrating the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 20) Sternly recited the Ten Commandments given to Moses (12:34–36; 13:15–24
Moses’s face shone (Exodus 34:29) Abinadi’s face shone (13:5)
Mount Sinai became like a furnace (Exodus 19:18) Prophesied that Noah’s life would be like a garment in a furnace (12:3)
Stern condemnation of abominations Stern condemnation of iniquity (12:2, 37)
A three-day festival (Exodus 19:11) Cast into prison three days (17:6)
“The Lord will come down in the sight of all the people” (Exodus 19:11) The Lord will come among the children of men (15:1)
Liturgical use of Psalms 50 and 82 Use of elements from Psalms 50 and 82
“Our God shall come” (Psalm 50:3) “God . . . shall come down” (15:1)
“What hast thou to do to declare my statues?” (Psalms 50:16) “What teach ye this people?” (12:27)
“[Thou] hast been partaker with adulterers” (Psalms 50:18) “Why do ye commit whoredoms?” (12:29)
“I will testify against thee” (Psalm 50:7) Abinadi testified against them (17:10)
Thanksgiving and devotion are better than sacrifice (Psalm 50:8–14) Having the commandments “written in your hearts” is better than sacrifices (13:11, 30)
Sacrifices are not for nourishment (Psalm 50:12) Sacrificies are to signify “types of things to come” (13:31)
In day of trouble, if righteous call upon him, he will deliver them (Psalm 50:15) God will not hear the prayers of the wicked (11:25)
Qualifications required to “declare my statutes” (Psalm 50:16) “If ye teach the law of Moses why do ye not keep it?” (12:29)
Condemn those who wrongfully become rich and commit whoredoms (Psalm 50:18) Condemn those who wrongfully become rich and commit whoredoms (12:29)
“Tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver” (Psalm 50:22) “Shall devour their flesh” and “none shall deliver them” (Mosiah 12:2; 11:23)
“Shew the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23) Showing “salvation” of God (12:21, 24, 31, 32; 13:27, 8; 15:14, 18, 24–31; 16:1)
“Children of the most High” (Psalm 82:6) “His seed” (15:10)
Death (Psalm 82:7) Death (15:19–20)
Judged by God (Psalm 82:8) Judgment by God (15:21–16:12)

Taken together, these details all point to one conclusion:
No other day on the ancient Israelite calendar fits the message, words, and
experience of the prophet Abinadi more precisely or more appropriately than
does the ancient Israelite festival of Pentecost. It is thus ironic that, at
the very time when Noah and his people would have been celebrating the law, the
most unfortunate judicial result in Nephite history should have taken place.

Noah Lodges the Further Accusation of Blasphemy

When Abinadi was finally brought again before the king and
the priests after the three-day recess, a new charge was raised. Abinadi was
charged with blasphemy on the grounds that he had testified (Mosiah 13:34) that
God would himself come down among the children of men (17:8). Noah also
stipulated the punishment to be inflicted:151 “Thou hast said that God himself should come down among the children of
men; and now, for this cause thou shalt be put to death unless thou wilt recall
all the words which thou hast spoken evil concerning me and my people” (v.

In ancient Israelite law, blasphemy was indeed a capital
offense: “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put
to death” (Leviticus 24:16). In stating the charge of blasphemy against
Abinadi, King Noah said, “We have found an accusation against thee, and
thou art worthy
of death
” (Mosiah 17:7; emphasis added). Jeremiah was arraigned
with the similar phrase “Thou shalt surely die” (Jeremiah 26:8), or “For
this you must die.” The Hebrew expression used in Jeremiah’s case was mot tamut,
literally “die a death,” and is related to the legal formula mot yumat,
which is often used in legal contexts (e.g., throughout the Code of the
Covenant in Exodus 21–23) to describe offenses for which a person is
subject to the death penalty or is “worthy of death.”152 Apparently this same formulation was used by King Noah as he stated this new
charge against Abinadi.

Speaking disrespectfully
or insolently about God (as the priests thought Abinadi had done) could easily
have been taken as blasphemy under the law of Moses.153 In the Old Testament, blasphemy is often associated
with scornful, reproaching speech (Isaiah 37:6; Psalm 74:18) and improper,
iniquitous forms of worship (Isaiah 65:7; Ezekiel 20:27). Thus the concept of
blasphemy was broad enough to encompass any speech that was perceived as
demeaning or defaming of God. To a priest who does not understand or accept the
doctrine of the condescension of God (as taught in 1 Nephi
11:16–21), the idea of Deity coming down to earth and becoming mortal in
order to suffer wounds, afflictions, chastisements, judgments, punishments, and
death at the hands of insolent humans could easily appear to qualify as legally
actionable blasphemous speech. The seriousness of the offense of blasphemy
under Nephite law is seen on several occasions in the Book of Mormon, such as
in the accusation raised by Sherem against Jacob (Jacob 7:7) and in the offense
finally committed by Korihor (Alma 30:30).

Noticeably, unlike Jacob, Abinadi was not accused of
speaking blasphemously against the law, even though he had said that “the
time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses”
(Mosiah 13:27). Apparently, Abinadi was careful enough to reaffirm his
commitment to observing the law, telling the priests that “it is expedient
that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet” (v. 27), and thus he did not
leave himself open to a charge that he had perverted or abrogated the law of
Moses as Jacob found himself so accused. Abinadi was only accused of speaking
improperly or in a demeaning manner about God by declaring that the Messiah would
be God (v. 33; see 7:27) and that Christ the Lord was “the very Eternal
Father” (16:15) and, most of all, by saying “that God himself should
come down among the children of men and take upon him the form of man”
(13:34). These kinds of statements could well raise the issue of blasphemy in
ancient times.154

Abinadi’s Final Opportunity to Recant

This time Noah’s verdict and sentence were conditional. If
Abinadi would recall all the evil he had spoken about Noah and the people, the
charge of blasphemy would be dropped: “and now, for this cause thou shalt
be put to death unless thou wilt recall all the words which thou hast spoken
evil concerning me and my people” (Mosiah 17:8). This is a curious plea
bargain for Noah to offer. Why should the crime of offending God be dropped if
the offender withdraws his words not against God but against the king and his
people? Noah’s deal may have rested on the idea that “certain sins against
God could be wiped out by making amends to the priests.”155 In any case, Noah and his priests had much to gain by getting Abinadi to
recant. Since in antiquity maledictions like Abinadi’s were thought to inflict great
palpable harm, Noah and his priests were probably willing if not anxious to
compromise on their claim that Abinadi had offended God if they could get
Abinadi to retract the threatening and ominous woes he had pronounced upon them
and the people. Indeed, the legitimate functions of ancient Israelite courts
included protecting the holiness and well-being of the community and preserving
the purity of the religion. Therefore, if Abinadi were willing to lift the
ominous cloud that still hung over these people, one of the main functions of
the court, from Noah’s point of view, would be satisfied. Nevertheless, Noah’s
conduct here is despicable and wholly self-interested. His willingness to
forget the charge that Abinadi had blasphemously offended God if Abinadi would
simply withdraw his words is blatantly driven by selfish, unrepentant concerns.

It would seem that Noah’s
willingness to compromise himself put Abinadi in a strong bargaining position.
Abinadi could have offered to recall all the evil he had spoken about Noah and
his people, provided they would agree to change their ways. Perhaps Noah and
his priests would have been sufficiently motivated to agree on some kind of settlement.
It is doubtful, however, that the idea of negotiating such a compromise would
have occurred to any of these parties at this moment. Abinadi felt that his
message was set in stone by the will of the Lord, and he had no right as the
Lord’s messenger to change that message in the least respect,156 especially for the selfish purpose of obtaining
his own release. Noah, on the other hand, was equally unyielding and wanted
unconditional vindication. He would not be inclined to modify his offer very
much under any circumstance. The enforcement of justice in ancient Israel was
usually severe (e.g., the trial of the blasphemer in Leviticus 24, the trial of
the wood gatherer in Numbers 15, the execution of Achan in Joshua 7, and the
trial of Naboth in 1 Kings 21 all ended in the death of the accused).
There may have been some room for mercy and leniency, but typically not very
much (2 Chronicles 19:6, 9), at least, it seems, until the rabbinic
period.157 To preserve the appearance of justice and mercy,
Noah would need to give Abinadi a chance to recant and would want to go far
enough to appear that he had been merciful. He did not, however, go beyond the
barest minimum in offering leniency to Abinadi.

Abinadi Offers to Undergo Trial by Ordeal

Abinadi firmly refused to recall any of his words, even on
pain of death: “I will not recall the words which I have spoken
. . . for they are true. . . . Yea, and I will suffer even
until death, and I will not recall my words, and they shall stand as a
testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood,158 and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day”
(Mosiah 17:9–10). In the trial of Jeremiah, the prophet did not retract
his warning but informed the people that the Lord would spare them if they
would “amend [their] ways and [their] doings, and obey the voice of the
Lord” (Jeremiah 26:13).159 At an earlier point, Abinadi’s curses could have been avoided through
repentance (Mosiah 12:8), but at this point in his trial Abinadi seems to have
offered Noah no such relief. The prophets Abinadi and Jeremiah both stood
adamantly by their words, and Jeremiah likewise had exclaimed, “If ye put
me to death, ye shall surely bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this
city, and upon the inhabitants thereof” (Jeremiah 26:12–15).

Although ordeals are not mentioned as often in ancient
Israelite law as they are in ancient Near Eastern law, they were normal parts
of biblical jurisprudence, where they often served to validate the innocence of
the accused.160 Submitting to an ordeal was often an accused’s last hope of establishing his
innocence or vindicating his testimony. In Abinadi’s case, he offered to suffer
whatever pain Noah desired to inflict upon him: “I will suffer even until
death” (Mosiah 17:10). Abinadi also asserted that if he were to die in the
ordeal, two witnesses would then remain against Noah: first, Abinadi’s words “[would]
stand as a testimony,” and second, Abinadi’s innocent blood would “also
stand as a testimony” (v. 10).161

Noah would have understood well the force of having these
two witnesses stand against him.162 Adding Alma’s testimony would make a total of three witnesses—enough to
satisfy even the extra three-witness rule of Deuteronomy 19:15. Noah would also
have comprehended the legal risk involved in allowing Abinadi to subject
himself to a divine ordeal should he come out victorious: if Abinadi were
vindicated by the suffering inflicted upon him, Noah would have to set him
free, which would undoubtedly trigger civil unrest in the city of Nephi and
bring an end to his political and religious regime. Noah was foiled and
frustrated. His effort to rid himself and his city of Abinadi’s ominous
prophecies had failed. The legal effect of Abinadi’s offer to endure whatever
the king chose to inflict upon him was to assert again his total innocence and
to require Noah to make the next move in the trial.163 He chose not to submit the matter to some kind of divine determination or
inquisition by ordeal.

Noah Almost Withdraws the Accusation

Upon Abinadi’s refusal to recall any of his words, Noah’s
accusation of blasphemy and his death sentence (Mosiah 17:7–8) became
unconditional. Presumably Noah and the priests had agreed to accept that outcome
before they brought Abinadi back into the court. Noah, however, fearing the
seriousness of having Abinadi’s testimony confirmed by ordeal or by his
innocent blood, virtually reversed the verdict and “was about to release”
Abinadi, “for he feared his word; for he feared that the judgments of God
would come upon him” (v. 11). Indeed, as seen above, a guilty verdict in a
capital case before a Jewish court could always be reversed before the
execution if further information came before the court and justified a
reversal. Abinadi’s offer to endure an ordeal could well have been viewed by a
court as constituting such additional information.

The Charge of Reviling the King

Asserting a legal role separate from that of the king, the
priests at this point resisted Noah’s decision and would not allow the case to
be dismissed: “But the priests lifted up their voices against [Abinadi],
and began to accuse him” (Mosiah 17:12). Acting now in the role of
accusers rather than judges,164 they themselves introduced yet a further accusation into the trial, namely,
that Abinadi had “reviled the king” (v. 12), the fourth legal charge
brought against Abinadi.

Reviling the leader of one’s people was doubtlessly
considered to be impolitic, insolent, and in violation of the principles of the
law of Moses: “Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy
people” (Exodus 22:28). Cursing one’s ruler was closely associated with
the crime of cursing God, or blasphemy (v. 28; 1 Kings 21:10, 13), the
third accusation that had been brought against Abinadi. Abinadi had reviled the
king when he cursed him in the public gathering (Mosiah 12:3) and when he
asserted that his own words would be authenticated by ordeal and would stand as
a testimony against Noah’s iniquity (17:10). Abinadi thereby accused Noah of
such wickedness that he would be consumed in the furnace, just as the unholy
and impure members of the house of Israel were told that they would die if they
broke through into the sacred space on Mount Sinai, which “was altogether
on a smoke, . . . and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a
furnace” (Exodus 19:18). In other words, Abinadi’s curse implied that Noah
and the priests under him were unworthy to stand in the presence of God, which
effectively nullified their right to officiate in God’s temple that had been
built by Nephi in the city of Nephi. Moreover, Abinadi reviled the king when he
said that if the king were to kill him he would illegally shed innocent blood (Mosiah
17:10), for this denied the legitimacy of the king’s official or legal actions.
Abinadi’s claims were offensive reproaches, if not approaching sedition or

Most importantly in terms
of bringing the trial of Abinadi to an end, to successfully convict Abinadi of
reviling did not require the court to prove that he was lying. Only disloyalty
and disrespect, not truth or falsehood, were now at issue. Truth would not
appear to be a defense to this crime. It is not likely that Abinadi could have defended
himself by claiming that he had had nothing but the king’s best interests in
mind. True as that might have been, his words still “curse[d] the ruler of
[this] people.”

Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon

Legal Charges Brought against Abinadi

Mosaic Law in Question
1. Lying
(Mosiah 12:14)
Abinadi had said that the people had hardened their hearts and had committed evil abominations (Mosiah 12:1) “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16)
“Thou shalt not raise a false report” (Exodus 23:1)
“Ye shall not . . . lie” (Leviticus 19:11)
2. False prophecy
(Mosiah 12:14)
“He pretendeth the Lord hath spoken it” (Mosiah 12:12) “The prophet [who] shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, . . . shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:20)
3. Blasphemy Abinadi had said that God himself would come down (Mosiah 7:26–28; 15:1–8) “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16)
4. Reviling against the king
(Mosiah 17:12)
With a simile curse, Abinadi said that Noah’s life would be as a garment in a hot furnace (Mosiah 12:3, 10–12) “Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people” (Exodus 2:28)

In the end, it was for the offense of reviling that Abinadi
was executed. Nevertheless, this charge was probably only a makeweight. When
Limhi described the execution of Abinadi about twenty-five years after the
fact, he told Ammon unequivocally that Abinadi was executed for allegations of
blasphemy, not reviling:

And because he said unto them that Christ was the God, the
Father of all things, and said that he should take upon him the image of man,
and it should be the image after which man was created in the beginning; or in
other words, he said that man was created after the image of God, and that God
should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood,
and go forth upon the face of the earth—and now, because he said this,
they did put him to death. (Mosiah 7:27–28)

Limhi’s disclosure would seem to indicate that the charge of
reviling the king, which was closely related to blasphemy in any event, either
was introduced by the priests of Noah as a pretext or at least came to be understood
as akin to blasphemy among Limhi’s people.

In raising the final accusation of reviling, the priests
cried out against Abinadi. Whether this was an orderly procedure or unruly action
is not clear. They “lifted up their voices against him” (Mosiah
17:12). This wording could refer to orderly voting, to further argumentation,
or to unorganized shouting. That they “began to accuse him” (v. 12)
suggests the semblance of an orderly process.

Abinadi’s Conviction by the King

The words of the priests angered Noah once again: “Therefore
the king was stirred up in anger against him” (Mosiah 17:12). The priests’
charge that Abinadi had reviled the king and Abinadi’s threat that innocent
blood would stand against Noah appear to have been “matters of the king”
over which Noah had the final word. Indeed, Noah alone entered the judgment
against Abinadi and turned him over for execution: “He [Noah] delivered him up that he might be slain” (v. 12).165


Abinadi was taken and
bound, and his skin was “scourged . . . with faggots” (Mosiah 17:13)166 until he “fell, having suffered death by fire”
(v. 20). The ultimate form of Abinadi’s punishment is significant: he was
burned, just as he had prophesied that Noah’s life would “be valued even
as a garment in a hot furnace” (12:3).167 This customized form of punishment was evidently
designed, fashioned, and introduced specifically by the priests, “who
caused that he should suffer death by fire” (Alma 25:9). Moreover,
faggots, or bundles of sticks used for fuel, were involved, perhaps because
Abinadi had prophesied that the people would “have burdens [bundles of
sticks?] lashed upon their backs” (Mosiah 12:5). Although a few recorded
cases of actual burnings at the stake exist in late antiquity,168 nothing in the Book of Mormon record indicates
that Abinadi was burned while tied to a stake. Instead, it appears that Noah’s
priests tailored an unprecedented mode of execution for Abinadi alone that
mirrored the evil that Abinadi had said would befall, and did indeed befall,
King Noah. This unique and extraordinary punishment conformed with the talionic
concepts of justice in ancient Israel and in the ancient Near East, where the
punishments were individually designed in unusual cases to suit the crime.169

In early Israelite and later Jewish courts, executions were
normally carried out immediately following the issuance of the final verdict,170 as was the case here. Moreover, the accusers were required to carry out the
execution: “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him
to death, and afterward the hands of all the people” (Deuteronomy 17:7).
The accusers were given this task because “it is they who claim to have
personal knowledge of his guilt, while others merely rely upon their statement.”171 Floggings were further required to take place in the presence of the convicting
judge (25:2).172 In Abinadi’s case, his accusers, in the end, were the priests. They were the
ones who brought up the charge and accused him of reviling the king (Mosiah
17:12). Thus it became the duty of the priests to carry out the execution,
which they did: “And it came to pass that they took him and
bound him, and scourged his skin with [burning] faggots, yea, even unto death”
(v. 13). That the priests were the instigators and primary leaders in carrying
out the execution of Abinadi, of course, does not rule out the participation of
the general populace as well. They, too, were accusers of Abinadi
(12:9–14) and thus were also interested participants. In the end, the
people as a whole were collectively responsible before God for the death of
this prophet, as King Limhi will later acknowledge (7:25–26, 28).

The place of execution was normally outside the city walls.173 Thus when Abinadi was “taken” prior to his execution, he was probably
taken outside the city of Nephi, as occurred more explicitly in the execution
of Nehor (Alma 1:1–15, on the top of a hill) and apparently in the
execution of Zemnarihah (3 Nephi 4:28, on the top of a tree).

Scourging or beating was the normal form of punishment for
disobedience in biblical law (Deuteronomy 25:2). Reviling the king may have
been viewed as a form of royal disobedience, thus calling for some form of
beating. Hence, we may suspect that Abinadi was not only burned but also
scourged or beaten. When being flogged, the culprit was normally bound and
required to lie on the ground. It is possible that the binding mentioned in
Mosiah 17:13 reflects this standard Israelite practice. If this is so, it shows
graphically that the priests of Noah were doubly severe on Abinadi, inflicting
two forms of punishment at the same time. Beating was normally not to be
excessive (Deuteronomy 25:3), and according to later law it was not to be
administered in connection with capital punishment.174 The scourging of Abinadi would therefore reflect an extreme punishment and
probably a serious corruption of and departure from the normal principles of
biblical and Jewish law.175

As the flames began to scorch him, Abinadi uttered his final
curse upon Noah and his priests: “Behold, even as ye have done unto me, so
shall it come to pass that thy seed shall cause that many shall suffer the
pains that I do suffer. . . . And it will come to pass that ye shall be afflicted
with all manner of diseases. . . . Yea, and ye shall be smitten on every hand,
. . . and then ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire”
(Mosiah 17:15–18). Because Abinadi eventually “fell” (v. 20),
he very well could have been standing when he issued his final testimony and
curses. This is not an idle point. Had Abinadi struggled to rise up, after
being beaten lying down, or had he remained standing during that torture?
Either way, by standing Abinadi symbolically connoted his innocence. In
Akkadian the phrase “to stand up” signifies “in a juridical
context . . . the prevailing over an adversary in a lawsuit.”176 By standing, he also gave greater testimonial and judgmental impact to his
words.177 It was typically said that judges in ancient Israel stood to read their
verdicts.178 To the very end, Abinadi carried out his divinely appointed mission of
delivering the judgments of God upon Noah and his wicked followers.

It is notable that Abinadi prophesied that the seed of the
priests would “cause that many shall suffer the pains that I do suffer,
even the pains of death by fire” (Mosiah 17:15), and that he condemned the
priests to suffer the same fate as he: “Ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the
pains of death by fire” (v. 18). As was seen in connection with the case
of Sherem, the Israelite concept of justice called for false accusers to suffer
the same punishment that they might wrongly inflict upon the accused (see
Deuteronomy 19:16–21). Having wrongly executed Abinadi, Noah and his priests
should suffer just as he had suffered according to the ancient concept of
reciprocal justice. It was also common for ancient peoples to expect God to
visit the sins of the fathers in some way upon their posterity,179 and in this vein Abinadi predicts that the children of priests would use the
same illegal punishment on others (Alma 25:5), implicitly prophesying that they
will incur the same measure of God’s wrath as will the priests themselves and
perhaps presaging the destruction by fire that came upon the wicked in 3 Nephi
9:11, especially on those who had killed the prophets.

Death by fire was rare under Israelite law, administered
rarely in the cases of adultery involving a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9)
and as punishment for specific types of incest or whoredom.180 In Babylonia, a looter who went into a burning house to put out the fire but
instead stole property from that place would have been “thrown into that
same fire.”181 Thus the Book of Mormon accurately points out that the burning of Abinadi was
introduced for the first time in Nephite law by the priests of Noah as a
punishment for a religious offense and perhaps for any offense: “Abinadi
was the first that suffered death by fire because of his belief in God”
(Alma 25:11). This explicit reminder in the record purposefully points out the
irregularity of this illicit mode of punishment.

In the end, Abinadi suffered a martyr’s death “because
he would not deny the commandments of God, having sealed the truth of his words
by his death” (Mosiah 17:20). Due to his piety and devotion to the Lord,
he preferred death over disobedience, knowing that his blood would stand again
as a testimony against his accusers at the last day.182

The Legacy of the Trial of Abinadi

Without any doubt, the trial of Abinadi illustrates by
negative example many principles of judging righteously. Noah and his priests
put their hands together as wicked accusers; he and his leading priests had
exerted pressure on younger judges to “follow a multitude to do evil,”
had wrested judgment, and had slain “the innocent and righteous” (Exodus
23:1, 2, 6, 7). In contrast, judging righteously calls for humility, admitting
error, avoiding excess, and not placing oneself above the law. Observing the
letter of the law is not enough.

Interestingly, in many respects, the trial of Abinadi
reflects quite extensively many procedural and substantive aspects of ancient
Israelite law. Of all the trials in the Book of Mormon, this trial conforms the
most closely to pre-exilic biblical law, as one would expect largely because
the later legal trials recorded in the books of Alma and Helaman arose during
the reign of the judges in the Nephite republic after the law reforms of King
Mosiah. Living before any such reforms, Noah and his priests seem to have
understood quite thoroughly the technical ancient legal distinctions between
offenses such as slanderous speech, false prophesy, blasphemy, and reviling the
leader of the people; and they evidently respected the jurisdictional rights of
the variously aggrieved parties to press charges and seek justice concerning
the alleged political, religious, or personal violations that may have affected
them each respectively. Nothing in the trial of Abinadi is out of legal
character with biblical law traditions in the late monarchical period.

While it is true that Noah and his priests acted in a
coldhearted and self-indulgent manner and undoubtedly violated the spirit of
many teachings and requirements of the law of Moses, it also seems that they
expended great efforts in attempting to rationalize their conduct in order to
preserve the appearances of living the law of Moses. Although certain
irregularities are evident in this proceeding, it should be noted that the
court of Noah seems to have tried to respect at least the outward appearances
of law and order. They did not simply take Abinadi out and stone him or shoot
arrows at him, as happened to certain other prophets such as Samuel the
Lamanite; they at least tried to frame their arguments in a scriptural context.
Though they observed a form of justice with a semblance of legality, they
corruptly subverted the spirit and purpose of the law. For that very error,
Abinadi had criticized Noah and his judges (Mosiah 12:29); and because of that
deep-rooted perversion of justice, Abinadi was scandalously executed.

Abinadi’s testimony and martyrdom left an enduring
theological message and legal legacy on several counts.183 His recitation of the Ten Commandments, with his face shining like the face of
Moses at Sinai, affirmed that righteous people must live the laws of God
strictly and with proper understanding and with the proper spirit. The key to
understanding the performances and ordinances of the law of Moses was in seeing
“that all these things were types of things to come” (Mosiah 13:31).
In his own death, Abinadi bore afflictions similar to those foretold of the
suffering servant in Isaiah 53, and the treatment Abinadi received foreshadowed
the trials, suffering, and death of the Holy One of Israel himself. All of this
reinforced the point that salvation does not come through the law as such and
that the spirit of the law is in the Lord God who himself would come down in
flesh and in power, eventually to bring a righteous judgment on all the people
of the earth.184 Thus the case of Abinadi put to rest the last vestiges among the Nephites of
claims such as Sherem’s that the law of Moses alone “is the right way”
(Jacob 7:7) and that preaching one’s belief in Christ was somehow blasphemous.
Certain people in the Book of Mormon after Abinadi would continue to reject the
idea that the atonement of Christ was necessary (Nehor), or that the divinity
of Christ was logically possible (Zeezrom), or that the coming of Christ was
knowable (Korihor)—but no longer would these dissenters argue that the
doctrine of Christ was inconsistent with the law of Moses.

Abinadi’s stature as a prophet of Christ was securely
enhanced by the prompt and literal fulfillment of his prophecies about the fate
of Noah and his priests. Abinadi prophesied that the people of Limhi would be
hunted and driven, which soon came to pass (Mosiah 20:21). Abinadi prophesied
that Noah and his priests would suffer death in a manner similar to the death
they inflicted upon Abinadi; and before long Noah was burned to death by his
men, who ultimately refused to follow him into cowardly escape (19:20), and
almost all of the seed of Amulon and his fellow priests were killed by the
Nephites in battle (Alma 25:4). The remainder asserted power over the Lamanites
and “caused that many of the Lamanites should perish by fire because of
their belief” (v. 5). Moreover, the Amulonites soon became closely allied
with the Amalekites (perhaps the same group elsewhere called Amlicites?),185 who were of the order of Nehor (21:4; 24:29), and took up arms against the
Ammonite converts (24:2). Thus the seed of Amulon may stand behind the burning
of the faithful women and children and sacred books in Ammonihah (14:8), which
may have provoked the Lamanites to invade and destroy that city (25:2). In any
event, Abinadi’s prophecy that his executioners would cause others to die by
fire and likewise suffer death by fire followed the seed of the priests of Noah
into the next two or three generations.

Likewise, the Pyrrhic legal victory of Noah’s priests in
persuading him to put Abinadi to death for reviling the king seems to have set
a precedent that especially encouraged the followers of Nehor to raise
that same charge in later cases against other prophets who came with strong
words of divine judgment against wicked rulers and administrators (Alma 12:4;
14:2, 5, 7). Although the crime of reviling the king would become inapplicable
among the Nephites once they abandoned their use of kingship, the crime of
reviling was modified and raised by the Nehorites in Ammonihah against Alma and
Amulek, who were accused of reviling the laws and legal officers of the city (10:24;
see chapter 8 below). Perhaps realizing the fate that eventually befell both
the priests of Noah and the Nehorites in Ammonihah for wrongly using this legal
strategy, the followers of Gadianton later were smart enough only (but still
unsuccessfully) to attempt to get others to accuse the prophet Nephi of
reviling the people and the law (Helaman 8:2; see chapter 12 below).

Abinadi’s prophecies of doom and destruction also became
archetypal and influential. Just as his prophecy that the unrepentant people of
Noah and Limhi would have burdens lashed on their backs and would suffer
pestilence and destruction was literally fulfilled, so Mormon remembered
Abinadi as a true prophet of destruction.186 While Mormon’s account of the final destruction of the Nephites details the
fulfillment of many prophecies of their doom, demonstrating that the power
of the evil one was “wrought upon all the face of the land,” Mormon
states specifically that this lamentable condition particularly fulfilled “all
the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite” (Mormon 1:19).

In terms of the ensuing
religious and political history of the Nephites in the years that immediately
followed Abinadi, the trial of Abinadi became a powerfully influential event in
Nephite politics and government. Alma the Elder, whose conversion was based on
the testimony of Abinadi, soon would establish a church organization in the
land of Zarahemla based on covenants to God and not to the king. Alma the
Younger and the four sons of Mosiah were extolled as missionaries who “did
publish peace” (Mosiah 27:37), echoing Abinadi’s interpretation of Isaiah
52:7 in declaring that the Lord reigns. Alma’s experience in the court of Noah
was the source of the fundamental distrust of kingship that finally led, about
sixty years later, to the abandonment of kingship among the Nephites. The
wickedness, abominations, iniquities, calamities, contentions, bloodshed,
lawlessness, and perversions of King Noah are specifically cited by King Mosiah
as the main evidence in persuading the people to choose by popular voice that “it
is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you”
(Mosiah 29:16; see 29:17–23),187 ushering in the reign of judges and a new chapter
in the judicial history of the Nephites.


1. The main ideas in this chapter were
first circulated in two of my FARMS Preliminary Reports, “Judicial Process
in the Trial of Abinadi” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1983) and “Ancient Near
Eastern Law and the Book of Mormon” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1981), parts of
which were presented at the regional meeting of the Society of Biblical
Literature and American Association of Religions in Denver on April 16, 1982,
and also formed the basis of Lew W. Cramer, “Abinadi,” in The
Encyclopedia of Mormonism
, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York:
Macmillan, 1992), 1:5–7.

2. The chiastic structure of the book
of Mosiah, with the trial of Abinadi standing at the center, is displayed in
John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, no. 1
(1969): 82.

3. While it is possible that King
Mosiah had something to do with the writing of the book that bears his name, I
find little evidence that he did so. Mosiah’s sons are given little attention
in the book of Mosiah, and his father, Benjamin, overshadows Mosiah himself.

4. See chart 17 in John W. Welch and
J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and
(Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999). This date is only approximate;
the trial may have been as much as ten years earlier or fifteen years later.

5. Zeniff began with a “large
number” of people (Omni 1:27) about 200 BC, but only fifty in the initial
party survived (Omni 1:28), so the number of settlers was very small. A dozen
years later (Mosiah 9:11), 279 men in the colony were killed, which must have
been a large percentage of the Nephites then in that land. Twenty-two years
passed (Mosiah 10:3), Zeniff grew old (Mosiah 10:22), and Noah became king.
Thus, when the trial of Abinadi took place near the end of Noah’s reign, the
population in the city of Nephi still must have been quite small. When Alma
converted some 450 souls and fled with them into the wilderness (Mosiah 18:16,
34–35), he would have made a sizable dent in Noah’s population base.
Understandably, Noah and his soldiers came after Alma, among other reasons, to
return these people to their fields and posts in what must have been a fragile
economy and vulnerable society. No small part of this motivation, too, would
have stemmed from the people’s support of the extravagant lifestyles of King
Noah and his ruling class (Mosiah 11:3–4).

6. In ancient Israel, the tithe “in
its original form was a tax associated with palace and Temple.” Moshe
Winfeld, “Tithe,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Cecil
Roth et al. (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 19:738. The Levites and priests were
variously entitled to a 10 percent tithing (Leviticus 27:30–33; Numbers
18:21–32; Deuteronomy 14:22–29); additionally, the king could
collect another 10 percent (1 Samuel 8:15–17). Together this would
amount to a 20 percent flat tax. By modern standards, that would not seem
excessive, but in light of the benefit returned by Noah to his people it was
probably well beyond. See Daniel C. Snell, “Taxes and Taxation,” in The Anchor
Bible Dictionary
, ed. David Noel Freedman et al. (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), 6:338–40.

7. For a thorough treatment of the
oral dimension of biblical law, see James W. Watts, Reading Law: The Rhetorical
Shaping of the Pentateuch
(Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic
Press, 1999). For very insightful explorations of orality in Jewish education,
see Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in
Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1998). On the “Oral Torah,” see Daniela Piattelli and Bernard S.
Jackson, “Jewish Law during the Second Temple Period,” in An
Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law
, ed. Neil
S. Hecht et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 22–24; Alan J.
Avery-Peck, “Oral Tradition: Early Judaism,” in Anchor Bible
, 5:34–37; and Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s
(1949; repr., New York: Schocken Books, 1975), 146–49.

8. Pietro Bovati, Re-Establishing
Justice: Legal Terms, Concepts and Procedures in the Hebrew Bible
England: JSOT Press, 1994), 30, explains: “The rîb is a controversy
that takes place between two parties on questions of law. For the contest to
take place, the individuals in question must have had a previous judicial bond
between them (even if not of an explicit nature), that is, it is necessary that
they refer to a body of norms that regulates the rights and duties of each.
This underlying relationship between the individuals affects not just the
origin but also the progress of a dispute that is substantiated by juridical
arguments and requires a solution in conformity with the law.”

9. For further information, see David
Daube, “‘One from among Your Brethren Shall You Set King over You,'” Journal of
Biblical Literature
90, no. 4 (1971): 480–81; Moshe Greenberg,
“Biblical Attitudes toward Power: Ideal and Reality in Law and Prophets,”
in Religion
and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives
, ed. Edwin B.
Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss, and John W. Welch (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns,
1990), 101–12; Helen Ann Kenik, “Code of Conduct for a King: Psalm
101,” Journal
of Biblical Literature
95, no. 3 (1976): 391–403; and Georg C.
Macholz, “Die Stellung des Königs in der israelitischen
Gerichtsverfassung,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 84,
no. 2 (1972): 157–82.

10. See, for example, the curses in the
epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi.

11. Hans Jochen Boecker, Law and the
Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East
, trans.
Jeremy Moiser (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980), 145.

12. For a very helpful discussion of
the law against idols and idolatry beginning in the biblical period, see Joseph
Gutmann, “The ‘Second Commandment’ and the Image in Judaism,” Hebrew Union
College Annual
32 (1968): 161–68. See further Herman Chanan
Brichto, “The Worship of the Golden Calf: A Literary Analysis of a Fable
on Idolatry,” Hebrew Union College Annual 54 (1983): 1–44;
Boaz Cohen, “Art in Jewish Law,” Judaism 3, no. 2 (1954):
165–76; Christoph Dohmen, Das Bilderverbot: Seine Entstehung und seine
Entwicklung im Alten Testament
, Bonner Biblische Beiträge 62
(Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1987); Christopher R. North, The Essence of Idolatry,
Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 77 (Berlin: de
Gruyter, 1958), 151–60; Silvia Schroer, In Israel gab es Bilder: Nachrichten von darstellender
Kunst im Alten Testament,
Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 74
(Frieburg, Switzerland: Veandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1987); Mark S. Smith, The Origins
of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 182–94; and Matitiahu Tsevat, “The
Prohibition of Divine Images according to the Old Testament,” in WŸnschet
Jerusalem Frieden
, ed. Matthias Augustin and
Klaus-Dietrich Schunck (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988), 211–20.

13. Edward M. Curtis, “Idol,
Idolatry,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:379.

14. Gutmann, “The ‘Second
Commandment,'” 163.

15. In addition to the ample references
to idolatry found in the Isaiah chapters quoted in the Book of Mormon, Jacob in
the city of Nephi placed a curse on the Nephites if they were to “worship
idols, for the devil of all devils delighteth in [idols]” (2 Nephi 9:37).
Soon the Lamanites living around the land of Nephi became “full of
idolatry” (Enos 1:20), and this condition continued in that land down to
the time of Noah (Mosiah 9:12) and beyond, as Ammon found (Alma 17:15) and as
Mormon experienced (Mormon 4:14, 21). Alma the Younger, in the years when he
rebelled against his father’s ways, “became a very wicked and an
idolatrous man” (Mosiah 27:8). What stronger way would there have been for
him to express his rejection of his father’s covenant practices than for him to
have adopted the practices of Noah and his priests that stood as the polar
opposite of his father’s religion and teachings? Idol worship was also present
in the land of Zarahemla in Alma’s day. After he became the chief judge and
high priest, Alma the Younger made a special point of listing idolatry and the
closely related crime of sorceries as the first two evils that were not to be
practiced by his people but were observed by those who did not belong to Alma’s
covenant community (Alma 1:32). When he spoke to the people in Gideon, who had
recently escaped from the idolatrous land of Nephi, Alma expressed confidence
in them that they would not revert to the practices that had led to their
suffering and downfall in the city of Nephi: “I trust that ye are not
lifted up in the pride of your hearts; yea, I trust that ye have not set your
hearts upon riches and the vain things of the world; yea, I trust that you do
not worship idols” (Alma 7:6). The Zoramite apostates and the followers of
Gadianton were, first and foremost, characterized by their idolatry: “Zoram,
who was their leader, was leading the hearts of the people to bow down to dumb
idols” (Alma 31:1); the Gadianton oaths were evidently made before idols: “and
did build up unto themselves idols of their gold and their silver”
(Helaman 6:31). Mormon clearly saw idol worship as one of the seven sins “which
brought upon [the Nephites] their wars and their destructions,” as he lists
in Alma 50:21.

16. Gutmann, “The ‘Second
Commandment,'” 168. See Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 2:290, 307–8, 333–34.

17. For an excellent discussion of the
literary complexity of Mosiah 11–17 and its abundant allusions to the
Deuteronomic narratives involving prophetic confrontations against the wicked
kings Jeroboam (1 Kings 14) and Ahab (1 Kings 20), see Alan Goff, “Uncritical
Theory and Thin Description: The Resistance to History,” Review of
Books on the Book of Mormon
7, no. 1 (1995): 170–207, esp.
192–206. For more on the role of prophets, see John J. Schmitt, “Prophecy:
Preexilic Hebrew Prophecy,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:482–89.

18. See the discussion of prophetic
lawsuits in John W. Welch, “Benjamin’s Speech as a Prophetic Lawsuit,”
in King
Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,”
ed. John W.
Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 225–32.

19. Zeniff describes himself as being “over-zealous
to inherit the land of [his] fathers” (Mosiah 9:3).

20. See Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 62, 68–70.

21. See Steven Horine, “A Study of
the Literary Genre of the Woe Oracle,” Calvary Baptist Theological Journal 5, no. 2 (1989): 74–97.

22. See note 18 above. On prophetic
lawsuits, see generally Berend Gemser, “The ‘rîb‘ or
Controversy-Pattern in Hebrew Mentality,” in Wisdom in Israel and in the
Ancient Near East
, ed. M. Noth and D. Winton
Thomas, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 3 (Leiden: Brill, 1955):
120–37; Hans J. Boecker, Redeformen des Rechtslebens im Alten
(Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1964; rev. ed. 1970); J. Carl
Laney, “The Role of the Prophets in God’s Case against Israel,” Bibliotheca
138, no. 552 (October 1981): 313–25; Eberhard von
Waldow, Der
traditionsgeschichtliche Hintergrund der prophetischen Gerichtsreden,
zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 85 (Berlin: Töpelmann,
1963); Kirsten Nielsen, Yahweh as Prosecutor and Judge: An Investigation of the
Prophetic Lawsuit
(Sheffield, England: JSOT, 1978); and Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 108.

23. See Deuteronomy 27:14–26
for examples of such oaths spoken in the form of curses directed against the
entire populace. See also Haim H. Cohn, “Oath,” in The
Principles of Jewish Law
, ed. Menachem Elon (Jerusalem: Keter,
1975), 615.

24. F. Charles Fensham, “Malediction
and Benediction in Ancient Near Eastern Vassal-Treaties and the Old Testament,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 74 (1962): 1–9. See also Douglas Stuart, “Curse,”
in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:1218–19; Jeff S. Anderson, “The Social Function of Curses
in the Hebrew Bible,” Zeitschrift für die
alttestamentliche Wissenschaft
110, no. 2 (1998): 223–37; Herbert C. Brichto, The Problem of the ‘Curse’ in the Hebrew Bible, Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series,
no. 13 (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1963); Stanley Gevirtz, “West-Semitic
Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law,” Vetus Testamentum 11, no.
2 (1961): 137–58; Johannes Hempel, Die
israelitische Anschauungen von Segen und Fluch im Lichte altorientalischer
Beiheft zur
Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 81 (Berlin: de Gruyter,
1961), 30–113; Horine, “A Study of the Literary Genre of the Woe
Oracle,” 74–97; Paul Keim, “‘Cursed Be . . .': Mundane
Malediction and Sacral Sanction in Biblical Law,” Society of Biblical Literature Biblical Law Group 20 (November 1994); and Willy Schottroff, Der Altisraelitische Fluchspruch (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1969).

25. Sefire I Treaty A37, in Joseph A.
Fitzmyer, The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sef”re (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1967),
14–15; and Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the
Old Testament Prophets
Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964), 18. Compare 1 Kings 14:10–11.
Simile curses in the Book of Mormon are discussed further in a paper by my law
student Mark J. Morisse titled “Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East,
Old Testament and Book of Mormon,” distributed originally as a FARMS
Preliminary Report in 1986 and published under the same title in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 124–38. See also Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms
and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John
W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 156–59.

26. Discussed further in John W. Welch,
“The Trial of Jeremiah: A Legal Legacy from Lehi’s Jerusalem,” in Glimpses of
Lehi’s Jerusalem
, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann
H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 341–43; quotation on p. 342.

27. The letter of Rim-Sin, king of
Larsa, pertaining to this case is discussed by John B. Alexander, “New
Light on the Fiery Furnace,” Journal of Biblical Literature 69, no. 4 (1950): 375–76. Compare Daniel 3; 3 Nephi 28:21;
4 Nephi 1:32. Burning was an unusual form of punishment, usually reserved
in Israel for the foulest and most defiling offenders. See further the
discussion of Abinadi’s execution below.

28. Harry A. Hoffner Jr., The Laws of the Hittites: A Critical Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 136.

29. Hoffner, Laws of the Hittites,
217, giving further scholarly sources on the use of such simile curses among
the Hittites.

30. Translation from Haim H. Cohn, “Slander,”
in Elon, Principles
of Jewish Law
, 513.

31. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus
(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1647–48.

32. Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22,
1648, citing the Damascus Document 9:17–19.

33. 1QS 5:25–6:1, quoted in
Milgrom, Leviticus
, 1650.

34. Cohn, “Slander,” 513.

35. Robert Althann, “The Psalms of
Vengeance against Their Ancient Near Eastern Background,” Journal of
Northwest Semitic Languages
18 (1992): 1–11.

36. Keim, “‘Cursed Be . . .'”
26. See Lyn M. Bechtel, “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical
Israel: Judicial, Political, and Social Shaming,” Journal for
the Study of the Old Testament
16, no. 49 (1991): 47–76. For
more information on curses, see Walter Farber, “Wehe, wenn
. . . !” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 64,
no. 2 (1975): 177–79; M. Filipiak, “Spoleczno-prawne znaczenie
zorzeczen u Pismie swietym” (in Polish), Ruch Biblijny i Luturgiczny 21
(1968): 32–39; M. Filipiak, “Znaczenie Przeklenstwau Kodeksach
Prawnych Piecicksiegu (Le sens des maledictions dans les codes juridiques du
Pentateque),” Annales Theologico-Canonici 15 (1968): 47–59;
Lewis S. Ford, “The Divine Curse Understood in Terms of Persuasion,” Semeia: An
Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism
24 (1982): 81–87;
Johannes Hempel, Die israelitische Anschauungen von Segen und Fluch im Lichte
altorientalischer Parallelen
, Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die
alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 81 (1961): 30–113; Immanuel
Lewy, “The Puzzle of DT. XXVII: Blessings Announced, but Curses Noted,” Vetus
12, no. 2 (1962): 207–11; and Schottroff, Der
Altisraelitische Fluchspruch

37. Fred E. Woods, “Elisha and the
Children: The Question of Accepting Prophetic Succession,” BYU Studies 32 (1992): 47–58.

38. John A. Tvedtnes, “‘As a
Garment in a Hot Furnace,'” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6, no. 1 (1997): 76–79.

39. Alan Goff, “Abinadi’s Disguise
and the Fate of King Noah,” FARMS Update, Insights 20, no. 12 (December 2000): 2, discusses the typological meaning of prophets
gaining an audience with the king by means of a disguise, as developed by
Richard Coggins, “On Kings and Disguises,” Journal for the Study of the
Old Testament
50 (1991): 55–62. Abinadi’s behavior fits
broadly within the biblical imagery that nothing is hidden from God and that
kings are unable to see the truth until the prophet reveals himself from behind
his disguise. See, for example, the prophet who put ashes on his face to hide
his identity from King Ahab (1 Kings 20:38). But in Abinadi’s case, it does not
appear that he was trying to hide his identity from King Noah, for Abinadi
revealed himself as soon as he was within the city.

40. Under the law of Moses, justice at
the “city gates” was administered by the local elders, leading
citizens, and heads of families in the individual towns. Biblical examples of
the spontaneity and the seriousness with which these popular courts dispensed
justice are found in Deuteronomy 22:13–21; Ruth 4:1–91;
and 1 Kings 21:11–13. A group of ten elders was sufficient to
constitute a court in Ruth 4. See the discussions of Donald A. McKenzie, “Judicial
Procedure at the Town Gate,” Vetus Testamentum 14, no. 1
(1964): 100–104; John L. McKenzie, “The Elders in the Old Testament,” Biblica 40 (1959): 522–40; de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1:152; and Ze’ev
W. Falk, Hebrew
Law in Biblical Times: An Introduction
, 2nd ed. (Winona Lake, IN:
Eisenbrauns; Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2001), 36–37. See
further Deuteronomy 21:19; 25:7; Amos 5:10, 12, 15;
Zechariah 8:16.

41. Boecker, Law and the Administration of
, 34–35. See Temba L. J. Mafico, “Judge,
Judging,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:1106.

42. “In civil cases the plaintiff
would take hold of the defendant and bring him before the court (Deuteronomy
21:19) or summon him to appear at a hearing (Job 9:19). On the other hand, in
criminal cases the accused was put to trial upon the information of witnesses
and taken into custody until judgment was pronounced (Leviticus 24:12; Numbers
15:34; 1 Kings 22:27; Jeremiah 37:15). Both parties then submitted their
pleadings, accusing their opponents and asserting their own innocence.”
Falk, Hebrew
Law in Biblical Times
, 58–59. Compare the biblical case of
Zelophehad’s daughters, who pled their dead father’s innocence before the king,
asking him to grant them inheritance from his estate (Numbers 27:1–11).

43. See Deuteronomy 13:5; and Hyman E.
Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law and Procedure
(New York: Twayne, 1952), 37, 207, 215.
For more information on lying, see Norman Frimer, “A Midrash on Morality
or When Is a Lie Permissible,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish
13–14 (Spring–Summer 1973): 23–34.

44. Haim H. Cohn, “Perjury,”
in Elon, Principles
of Jewish Law
, 516–17.

45. Dale Patrick, Old
Testament Law
(Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 56.

46. Cohn, “Slander,”
513–14, citing Maimonides: “Mere talk does not amount to an overt
act, and only such acts are punishable (Yad, Sanhedrin 18:2).” Leviticus 19:17 was interpreted to
mean that one could reprove a neighbor so long as it was not done insultingly.
The rabbis, however, considered a public slanderer to be a grave sinner who
would be punished by God, having “no share in the world to come.”
Babylonian Talmud (hereafter TB) Avot 3:11, quoted in Cohn, “Slander,”

47. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times,
71; and Joe M. Sprinkle, ‘The Book of the Covenant': A Literary Approach (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994), 167. The word elohim might better be translated as a name of the supreme God.

48. Eric E. Vernon, “Illegal
Speech: Blasphemy and Reviling,” Studia Antiqua: The Journal of the Student
Society for Ancient Studies
(Summer 2003): 117–24.

49. Sprinkle, ‘The Book of
the Covenant,’

50. Haim H. Cohn, “Extraordinary
Remedies,” in Elon, Principles of Jewish Law, 551, citing Maimonides, Yad, Melakhim 3:8.

51. Robert R. Wilson, “Israel’s
Judicial System in the Preexilic Period,” Jewish Quarterly Review 74, no. 2 (1983): 242.

52. A similar phrase, “Let my lord
do what pleases him,” appears in two texts from Mari regarding the king’s
discretion to handle the words of prophets as he wished. See William L. Moran, “New
Evidence from Mari on the History of Prophecy,” Biblica 50, no. 1
(1969): 21n2. I thank Paul Y. Hoskisson for drawing this article to my

53. See, for example, Hoffner, The Laws of
the Hittites
, 189; and Reuven Yaron, The Laws of Eshnunna,
2nd rev. ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 119–20.

54. Although they are not tried in a
formal court, false prophets are reported to have suffered ill-fated deaths;
for example, the slaughter of the priests of Baal after their trial by ordeal
with Elijah (1 Kings 18:40; 19:1) and the death of Hananiah (Jeremiah 28:15–17).
See also the threats against false prophets in Jeremiah 5:12–13;
14:14–16; 29:21; and Zechariah 13:2. The prophet Urijah was tried
and executed (Jeremiah 26:21–23). Regarding the deaths of righteous
prophets, see 2 Chronicles 36:15–16 and Matthew 23:37.

55. Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,
76; and Joseph M. Baumgarten, “The Duodecimal Courts of Qumran, Revelation,
and the Sanhedrin,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (1976): 73.
The Great Sanhedrin, as distinguished from the small sanhedrins, had
jurisdiction over alleged false prophets. Haim H. Cohn, “Bet Din,” in
Elon, Principles
of Jewish Law
, 562; TB Sanhedrin 1:1, 16a. It appears,
however, that the small sanhedrins carried out the functions of the great court
in capital cases, which would include the trying of false prophets if the larger court was inaccessible.

56. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times,
58, following Deuteronomy 21:19.

57. See Welch, “The Trial of
Jeremiah,” 346–47. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, 47,
notes: “Originally the priests were perhaps satisfied with the
jurisdiction in religious matters.” See Elliot N. Dorff and Arthur Rosett, A
Living Tree: The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law
(Albany: State
University Press, 1988), 62–64; and Keith W. Whitelam, The Just
King: Monarchial Judicial Authority in Ancient Israel
England: JSOT Press, 1979), 202–3. Keith W. Whitelam, “King and
Kingship,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:44, says, “The king
was the central symbol of the social system. His prime function was the
establishment and maintenance of order throughout the kingdom. The king’s
functions as warrior (1 Sam 8:20), judge (1 Sam 8:5; 2 Sam
12:1–15; 14:1–24; 15:1–6; 1 Kgs 3; 21:1–20;
2 Chr 19:4–11), and priest (1 Sam 13:9–10;
14:33–35; 2 Sam 6:13, 17; 24:25; 1 Kgs 3:4, 15; 8:62; 9:25;
12:32; 13:1; etc.) are all interrelated elements of this fundamental task. They
were all essential to the maintenance of a divinely ordained order which was
conceived of in cosmic terms and covered all aspects of a society’s and
individual’s existence.” See further William F. Albright, “The
Judicial Reform of Jehoshaphat,” in Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950), 61–82; M.
Lahav, “Jehoshaphat’s Judicial Reform,” in Yaacov Gil Jubilee Volume,
ed. Y. Hocherman, M. Lahav, and Z. Zemarion (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1979),
141–48; Gosta W. Ahlström, Royal Administration and National Religion
in Ancient Palestine
(Leiden: Brill, 1982), 54; and Wilson, “Israel’s
Judicial System,” 243–48 (arguing that “there is no compelling
reason to question the general accuracy of the account” in 2 Chronicles 19
as a description of the legal system during the monarchical period, 245).

58. Raymond Westbrook, “Biblical
Law,” in An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law,
ed. N. S. Hecht et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 10; see Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 34, 176.

59. Cohn, “Bet Din,”

60. Wilson, “Israel’s Judicial
System,” 241–48.

61. For a good discussion of the role
of the king in this judicial system, see Boecker, Law and the Administration of
, 40–49. Boecker concludes that the judicial powers of
the king in ancient Israel were always limited and perhaps eliminated during
the Deuteronomic reforms in the seventh century BC (Deuteronomy 16:18;

62. Whitelam, Just King,
37. See Wilson, “Israel’s Judicial System,” 242: “The king is directly
responsible for maintaining justice in the land and assuring all citizens equal
access to the courts.” See further Mafico, “Judge, Judging,”

63. TB Sanhedrin 2:1, 18a.

64. 1 Samuel 8:5; 2 Samuel
8:15; 12:1; 14:4; 1 Kings 3:9, 16; Psalm 72:1–4; Jeremiah
22:15–16. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, 50; and de Vaux, Ancient
, 1:151.

65. Compare the conduct of the Greek
soldiers who turned Helen over to Menelaus and gave him authority to do with
her however he saw fit. Euripides Trojan Women 872–75.

66. Boecker, Law and the Administration of
, 42–45; and Wilson, “Israel’s Judicial System,”

67. See generally Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,
83n11, citing Maimonides, Hilkot Sanhedrin 2:5.

68. Deuteronomy 17:8–12; and
Boecker, Law
and the Administration of Justice
, 48–49. See also Raymond
Westbrook, “Punishments and Crimes,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:546–56.

69. On prisons generally, see Menachem
Elon, “Imprisonment,” in Elon, Principles
of Jewish Law
, 535–39; Haim
H. Cohn, “Practice and Procedure,” in Elon, Principles of Jewish Law,
581; Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, 59; Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 38; Karel van der
Toorn, “Prison,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:468–69; David L. Blumenfeld, “The
Terminology of Imprisonment and Forced Detention in the Bible” (PhD diss.,
New York University, 1977); and Olivia Robinson, “Private Prisons,” Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité 15 (1968): 389–98.

70. Compare Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 240–41.

71. Punishments available under Hebrew
criminal law are discussed elsewhere. In contrast to the laws of ancient Israel’s
ancient neighbors, biblical law seems to have allowed fewer long-term options
to courts and judges. The basic possibilities were death (by stoning, hanging,
burning, or slaying with the sword), flogging, or banishment. Torture,
mutilation, and prolonged incarceration are virtually absent from the biblical
law codes and historical accounts.

72. Ancient Israelite law did provide
for the satisfaction of certain offenses through the payment of monetary fines,
but these were all offenses against property, such as theft. See, for example,
Exodus 22:1, 4; and Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law, 61. Talmudic
law also allowed monetary compensation for shaming a person (boshet),
and rabbis at various times determined fixed amounts to pay in compensation for
such acts. See Mishna Bava Kamma 8:6; and Shalom Albeck, “Damages,”
in Elon, Principles
of Jewish Law
, 332.

73. Excision (karet),
being “cut off from the people,” is mentioned often in the Bible, for
example, Leviticus 20:18. Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,
41nn22–26, notes, “In the Scripture, there are twenty-one offenses
which merit the punishment of karet.” The offenses of
which Abinadi was accused were usually not punished in this way.

74. The punishment of flagellation,
mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:1–3, was typically given only upon the
transgression of Mosaic prohibitory law. See Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,
49–53; and Westbrook, “Punishments and Crimes,” 5:546–56.

75. Penal slavery applied only to those
guilty of theft or other destruction of property. See Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 57–58; and Muhammad A. Dandamayev, “Slavery,”
in Anchor
Bible Dictionary
, 6:58–65.

76. Hezekiah did not punish Micah even
though he had prophesied evil against Jerusalem (Jeremiah 26:18–20).

77. Haim H. Cohn, “Capital
Punishment,” in Elon, Principles of Jewish Law, 526; and Westbrook, “Punishments
and Crimes,” 5:546–56.

78. See Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 94–109, for an exploration of the different forms of

79. See citations above regarding
Sherem’s confession. Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law, 133.

80. “The rule against
self-incrimination dates only from talmudic times.” Haim H. Cohn, “Confession,”
in Elon, Principles
of Jewish Law
, 614. See Aaron Kirschenbaum, Self-Incrimination
in Jewish Law
(New York: Burning Bush Press, 1970), 25–33.

81. Rashi, ad Gemara 36b–37a, explains that the judges sat in a semicircle “to be
afforded an opportunity to closely observe [the witnesses’] faces.”
Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 112n16. See TB Sanhedrin 4:2, 36b.

82. It was the duty of the court to
examine thoroughly a witness or accuser, especially to expose any
contradictions in his testimony (similar is the priests’ attempt to “cross”
Abinadi in Mosiah 12:19). Maimonides says the judges must “probe into
their accuracy and refer them back to previous questions so as to make them
desist from or change their testimony if it was in any way faulty.” Haim
H. Cohn, “Witness,” in Elon, Principles of Jewish Law, 610. This was standard practice not only here
but also in the searching examination of Korihor, of Alma and Amulek (esp. Alma
11:35, where a conflict in the testimony is purportedly exposed), and of Nephi
(Helaman 9:19).

83. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times,

84. This subject is briefly discussed
in John W. Welch, “Number 24,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon,
ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 272–74.
Recall also the twenty-four commandments in Exodus 22–23, discussed above
in chapter 3.

85. 1QS 2:1–3, in Texts
Concerned with Religious Law
, part 1 of The Dead Sea Scrolls Reader,
ed. Donald W. Parry and Emanuel Tov (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 211.

86. The Ramses exhibit at Brigham Young
University (1985–86) contained an item showing a group of twenty-four
priests. In addition, in Egypt the land “was divided into Nomes, each with
a ruler or judge over it, and these judges in later times amounted to
seventy-two,” or three times twenty-four. J. Garnier, The Worship
of the Dead
(London: Chapman and Hall, 1904), 258.

87. 1QS 8:1, in Texts
Concerned with Religious Law
, 31.

88. Baumgarten, “The Duodecimal
Courts,” 59–78.

89. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca

90. Domingo Juarros, A
Statistical and Commercial History of the Kingdom of Guatemala in Spanish
, trans. John Baily (London: John Hearne, 1823),
189. I thank John L. Sorenson for drawing this source to my attention.

91. Compare the pesher on Isaiah
54:11–12 mentioned above. Juarros, Statistical and Commercial History,
384, also refers to the use of a similar oracle by the indigenous people of
Guatemala: “The judges quitted their seats, and proceeded to a deep
ravine, where there was a place of worship, wherein was placed a black
transparent stone, of a substance much more valuable than the chay [obsidian]; on the surface of this tablet the Deity was supposed to give a
representation of the fate that awaited the criminal. . . . This
oracle was also consulted in the affairs of war.”

92. Cohn, “Bet Din,”

93. See Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1 and the talmudic discussion in TB Sanhedrin, 17a.

94. See generally Anthony J. Saldarini,
“Sanhedrin,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:975–80.

95. Sidney B. Hoenig, The Great
(Philadelphia: Dropsie College, 1953), 62; TB Sanhedrin 1:1, 2a. The Sanhedrin initially functioned in Jerusalem; see James E. Priest, Governmental
and Judicial Ethics in the Bible and Rabbinic Literature
(New York:
KTAV, 1980), 92. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, the Great
Sanhedrin moved to various locations and continued to act as the Jewish Supreme
Court. Hoenig, Great Sanhedrin, xiii; and Priest, Governmental
and Judicial Ethics
, 92.

96. See Hoenig, Great
, 86–89.

97. TB Sanhedrin 17b;
Baumgarten, “The Duodecimal Courts,” 73; and Priest, Governmental
and Judicial Ethics
, 91. Baumgarten explains that the figure 120
stands for twelve panels of ten, each panel representing one of the twelve
tribes. See TB Sanhedrin 1:1, 2a, for alternative minimum
populations that could support a small sanhedrin and the methods used to arrive
at those figures. The number 230 is derived from twenty-three minyans of ten.
The number twenty-three may have been used because there were this many judges
seated on each of the three semicircular rows when the Great Sanhedrin

98. Cohn, “Bet Din,” 562;
Baumgarten, “The Duodecimal Courts,” 73; and Priest, Governmental
and Judicial Ethics
, 91. On flogging or scourging, see note 166

99. See Hoenig, Great
, 98–99. This crime was in later times defined as
advocating schismatic opinions with an intent to act contrary to the majority.
Normally, however, mere statements were not enough to prove an intent to act
contrary to the community majority. Although Abinadi’s opinions were clearly
critical, schismatic, and provocative, there is no reason to believe that he
advocated overthrowing the king or any other action. Thus the crime of being a
rebellious elder never figures expressly in the trial of Abinadi.

100. Haim
H. Cohn, “Attorney,” in Elon, Principles of Jewish Law, 573.

101. Dov
I. Frimer, “The Role of the Lawyer in Jewish Law,” Journal of
Law and Religion
1, no. 2 (1983): 297–305. Falk, Hebrew Law
in Biblical Times
, 59, however, assumes that an accused could be
accompanied on certain occasions by counsel standing on his right hand, citing
Psalm 109:31, but it is unclear whether the Lord is viewed in this verse as
legal counsel, as an accuser of those who have wronged the poor, or as a judge.

102. “The
rule is that parties must litigate in person and may not be represented.”
Cohn, “Practice and Procedure,” 575 (see p. 577), and “Attorney,”
573. This rule applied unless representation was necessary to avoid injustice.

103. TB Sanhedrin 36b–37a.

104. McKenzie,
“Judicial Procedure at the Town Gate,” 102.

105. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 581.

106. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 581. The expulsion of Alma from the court
is therefore all the more egregious.

107. The
image of standing before the judgment bar of God and standing as a witness
would appear to reflect the normal practice in the city of Nephi (Mosiah 16:10;

108. See
also Bovati, Re-Establishing Justice, 231–33.

109. Welch,
“The Trial of Jeremiah,” 348–49.

110. Later, in Jerusalem, members of the
Great Sanhedrin had particular seats (which is, again, similar to the use of
the ornate seats by Noah’s priests). Members of the Jewish court sat in three
semicircles in descending order of age, with the leader at the center and the
members alternating closest to him on both sides from the oldest down to the
youngest. Hoenig, Great Sanhedrin, 56; TB Sanhedrin 4:2, 36b; and Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,
112n16, citing Rashi, ad Gemara, 36b.

111. Hoenig, Great
, 54; and TB Sanhedrin 2:1, 18a.

112. See
Hoenig, Great
, 186; and de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1:378, stating
that after the exile, the high priest took the place of the king.

113. Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 107; and Cohn, “Practice and Procedure,”

114. Dana
M. Pike takes this argument and places the logic and strategy of the priests of
Noah in its larger context within Isaiah 52 in his essay “‘How Beautiful
upon the Mountains': The Imagery of Isaiah 52:7–10 and Its Occurrences in
the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed.
Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 249–91, esp.

115. For an explanation of the
connections between Isaiah 52 and Isaiah 53 manifested in Abinadi’s extremely
insightful response to his accusers, see John W. Welch, “Isaiah 53, Mosiah
14, and the Book of Mormon,” in Parry and Welch, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,
293–312, esp. 294–97.

116. See
Moses Buttenwieser, The Prophets of Israel from the Eighth to the Fifth Century:
Their Faith and Their Message
(New York: Macmillan, 1914),
31–32. This line of reasoning was first applied to Abinadi by David
Warby; see David Warby and Lisa B. Hawkins, “The Crime of False Prophecy
under Ancient Israelite Law,” FARMS Preliminary Report (Provo, UT: FARMS,
1983), recently revised and published as David W. Warby, “The Book of
Mormon Sheds Valuable Light on the Ancient Israelite Law of False Prophecy,” Studia
(Summer 2003): 107–16.

117. For
a close examination of the Decalogue and its use by Abinadi, see David Rolph
Seely, “The Ten Commandments in the Book of Mormon,” in Doctrines of
the Book of Mormon
, ed. Bruce A. Van Orden and Brent L. Top (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 166–81.

118. Falk, Hebrew
Law in Biblical Times
, 69.

119. Victor
P. Hamilton, “shāgʿ, be mad,” in Theological
Wordbook of the Old Testament
, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L.
Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 2:2328. See also
2 Kings 9:11.

120. After an accused had been convicted
and even sentenced to death, he could procure a rehearing of sorts merely by
proclaiming, “I have somewhat to argue in favor of my acquittal.” TB Sanhedrin 6:1, 42b. If he
swore by God of his innocence, so much greater his claim of innocence.

121. Boecker, Law
and the Administration of Justice
, 35. For more information on vows,
see George W. Buchanan, “Some Vow and Oath Formulas in the New Testament,” Harvard
Theological Review
58, no. 3 (1965): 319–26; Ze’ev W. Falk, “Notes
and Observations on Talmudic Vows,” Harvard Theological Review 59,
no. 3 (1966): 309–12; Samuel Rosenblatt, “The Relations between
Jewish and Muslim Laws concerning Oaths and Vows,” American
Academy for Jewish Research
(1936): 229–44; and Lawrence H.
Schiffman, “The Law of Vows and Oaths (Num. 30, 3–16) in the Zadokite
and the Temple Scroll,” Revue de
15, nos. 1–2 (1991): 199–214.

122. Welch,
“Isaiah 53, Mosiah 14, and the Book of Mormon,” 294–301.

123. For
more information on judgment, see Ze’ev W. Falk, “ ’Words of God’ and ‘Judgments,’ ” Estratto da
Studi in onore di E. Volterra
6 (1969): 155–59; Eberhard
Klingenberg, “Judgment and Settlement in Court in Jewish and Comparative
Legal History,” Jewish Law Annual 8 (1989): 135–45; and Leon
Morris, “Judgement and Custom,” Australian Biblical Review 7
(1959): 72–74.

124. At
least in rabbinic times the leader of the Sanhedrin and the eldest members
voted last. Cohn, “Practice and Procedure,” 582.

125. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 582.

126. For
example, Pir’i-ilishu, an Amorite soldier, was given the opportunity to go to a
public place and take an oath in order to avoid a penalty. Henry Frederick
Lutz, The
Verdict of a Trial Judge in a Case of Assault and Battery
University of California, 1930), plate 4, pp. 379–81, cited in Martha T.
Roth, “Mesopotamian Legal Traditions and the Laws of Hammurabi,” Chicago-Kent
Law Review
71, no. 1 (1995): 31.

127. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 583.

128. See
Wilson, “Israel’s Judicial System,” 242, to compare King Noah’s
influence with that of Saul in 1 Samuel 22.

129. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 582; and TB Sanhedrin 4:1, 32a.

130. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 582; TB Sanhedrin 4:1, 32b; TJ Sanhedrin 4:1, 22a; and Yad, Sanhedrin 10:7.

131. See
further J. W. McKay, “Exodus XXIII 1–3, 6–8: A Decalogue for
the Administration of Justice in the City Gate,” Vetus
21, no. 3 (1971): 311–25.

132. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 583.

133. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 583.

134. TB Sanhedrin 4:1, 36a. Incidentally, the name Alma may mean “young man”
in Hebrew, so there may be a play on words in Mosiah 17:2.

135. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 582.

136. See
Falk, Hebrew
Law in Biblical Times
, 60; compare Code of Hammurabi, section 5,
which imposes a twelvefold penalty and disqualification as a judge in future
cases in the event that a judge alters his decision in a case after it has been
rendered and deposited in a sealed document.

137. The
Mishnah states unequivocally, “The King can neither judge nor be judged,
he may not bear witness nor be witnessed against.” TB Sanhedrin 2:1, 18a. However, the Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:2 claims: “If he
have transgressed a positive or negative command he is treated as an ordinary
commoner in every respect.” Goldin takes a middle ground, explaining that
only a king belonging to the house of David may act in a judicial capacity or
be put on trial. The rationale is that the king “would not submit to the
decision of the court.” Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,
83–84n11, citing Maimonides, Hilkot Sanhedrin 2:5, for support
that this was the prevailing law.

138. The
text refers to Noah’s servants. Either Noah had completely corrupted the
judicial system, or the “servants” sent to slay Alma were personal
servants sent to seek personal, and not official, vengeance.

139. Hoenig
explains that a judge who wished to leave the court first had to ascertain
whether a quorum of twenty-three would remain in his absence. Hoenig, Great
, 105.

140. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 578.

141. See
my discussion of Abinadi and Pentecost in Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon,
135–38, and in the excursus that follows this subsection.

142. Because
it would be improper to reconvene on the Sabbath or a festival day—even
to announce the verdict—the Sanhedrin never met on the eve of such days.
TB Sanhedrin 4:1, 32a; Hoenig, Great Sanhedrin, 106n7; and Cohn, “Practice and
Procedure,” 580. This rule has a basis in the most ancient laws of the
Sabbath. See generally Gerhard F. Hasel, “Sabbath,” in Anchor Bible
, 5:849–56.

143. Cohn,
“Practice and Procedure,” 581.

144. Hoenig, Great
, 106; and Cohn, “Practice and Procedure,” 580.

145. I
am grateful to David F. Forte for drawing this point to my attention. See his “Apostasy
and Blasphemy in Pakistan,” Connecticut Journal of International Law 10
(1994): 47, pointing out also that the Maliki school allows up to ten days for

146. For
further discussion about the role of ancient Israelite festivals under the law
of Moses and in the Book of Mormon, along with caveats and methodological
comments applicable not only to King Benjamin’s speech but also to the
narrative setting of the trial of Abinadi, see Terrence L. Szink and John W.
Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite
Festivals,” in Welch and Ricks, King Benjamin’s Speech,

147. Abraham
P. Bloch, The
Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days
York: KTAV, 1978), 179.

148. Bloch, Biblical
and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days
, 186–88; and
TB Shabbat 86b. See also Raymond F. Collins, “Ten Commandments,” in Anchor Bible
, 6:383–87.

149. Moshe
Weinfeld, “The Decalogue: Its Significance, Uniqueness, and Place in
Israel’s Tradition,” in Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and
Islamic Perspectives
, 26–32.

150. See
notes 18 and 22 above.

151. McKenzie,
“Judicial Procedure at the Town Gate,” 102, states that in lodging
his formal complaint the accuser should state “perhaps also the punishment
which [the accused] should suffer,” citing Jeremiah 26:11.

152. See
discussion and references in Welch, “Trial of Jeremiah,”

153. On
the crime of blasphemy, see further Karin Finsterbusch, “Christologie als
Blasphemie: Das Hauptthema der Stephanusperikope in lukanischer Perspektive,” Biblische
92 (1998): 38–54; Rodney R. Hutton, “The Case of
the Blasphemer Revisited, Lev. XXIV 10–23,” Vetus
49, no. 4 (1999): 532–41; Hutton, “Narrative
in Leviticus: The Case of the Blaspheming Son, Leviticus 24:10–23,” Zeitschrift
für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte
3 (1997):
145–63; Dennis H. Livingston, “The Crime of Leviticus XXIV 11,” Vetus
36, no. 3 (1986): 352–54; H. Mittwoch, “The
Story of the Blasphemer Seen in a Wider Context,” Vetus
15, no. 3 (1965): 386–89; and Shalom M. Paul, “Daniel
3:29—A Case Study of ‘Neglected’ Blasphemy,” Journal of
Near Eastern Studies
42, no. 4 (1983): 291–94.

154. The
issues and the literature concerning the crime of blasphemy are covered well in
Darrell L. Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge against Jesus in
Mark 14:53–65
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000). For
further information, see the discussion of blasphemy in the case of Sherem in
chapter 6 of the present volume.

155. Falk, Hebrew
Law in Biblical Times
, 74.

156. On
the duty of ancient messengers to deliver their master’s message word for word,
see John W. Welch, “The Calling of Lehi as a Prophet in the World of
Jerusalem,” in Welch, Seely, and Seely, Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem,

157. For
example, Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law, 120n7. Rabbinic courts frequently
pleaded with the accused hoping that a change of heart would make it
unnecessary for them to carry out the execution. The overriding desire for
mercy and leniency is explained by Danby: “One of the rabbinic canons was
that their code must show ‘mercy in judgement’ in the highest degree. Their
judicial body was regarded as best fulfilling its functions when it sought to
act as ‘counsel for the defence'; if there seemed to be no extenuating
circumstances in the prisoner’s favour, the judges were to do their utmost to
find some. . . . The prisoner must be robbed of no chance which
might in any way tell in his favour. This particular standpoint receives its
strongest expression in Makkoth I.10 [7a]: ‘The Sanhedrin which condemns to
death one man in seven years is accounted murderous. According to
R. Eleazar Azaria, it would be a murderous court even if it condemned
one man in seventy years. R. Tarphon and R. Akiba assert that if they had been
in the Sanhedrin [i.e., when it possessed capital powers] no man would ever
have been condemned to death by it.’ ” Herbert Danby, Tractate Sanhedrin: Mishnah and Tosefta: The
Judicial Procedure of the Jews as Codified towards the End of the Second
Century A.D.
(New York: Macmillan, 1919), xiv–xv.

158. Blood unlawfully shed is “innocent
blood” (Deuteronomy 19:10, 13; 27:25; 1 Samuel 19:5). The concept of
innocent blood appears in the Book of Mormon in Alma 1:13; 14:11. Under the law
of Moses, the ruling authorities had the duty “to prevent the shedding of
innocent blood.” Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law, 22. For more information on trial by ordeal, see
Godfrey R. Driver and John C. Miles, “Ordeal by Oath at Nuzi,” Iraq 7 (1940):
132–38; F. Charles Fensham, “The Battle between the Men of Joab and
Abner as a Possible Ordeal by Battle?” Vetus
20, no. 3 (1970):
356–57; Meredith G. Kline, “Oath and Ordeal Signs,” Westminster Theological Journal 27 (1964–65): 115–39; P. Kyle McCarter, “The River
Ordeal in Israelite Literature,” Harvard Theological
66, no. 4 (1973):
403–12; William McKane, “Poison, Trial by Ordeal and the Cup of
Wrath,” Vetus Testamentum 30, no. 4 (1980): 474–92; Julian
Morgenstern, “Trial by Ordeal among the Semites and in Ancient Israel,”
in Hebrew Union College Jubilee Volume (1875–1925), ed. David Philipson et al. (Cincinnati: n. p.,
1925), 113–43; and Karel van der Toorn, “Ordeal Procedures in the
Psalms and the Passover Meal,” Vetus Testamentum 38, no. 4 (1988): 427–45.

159. The
relevant part of the trial of Jeremiah is discussed in Welch, “The Trial
of Jeremiah,” 349–51.

160. Notably
in the quasi-ordeal in Numbers 5 of the drinking of the bitter waters by the
woman suspected of adultery. See the discussion above, in connection with
Sherem. In the cases of Sherem and Korihor, the ordeal was used for a different
purpose, namely, to substantiate witness testimony. See Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 335.

161. Jeremiah
also threatened the judges in his case with the prospect of shedding innocent
blood (Jeremiah 26:15).

162. Rabbinic
authority held that the testimony of two witnesses, properly established, could
stand as an alibi against even one hundred witnesses. See Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 234–35n16, citing Makkot 1:7, 5b.

163. Merely
by saying, “I have somewhat to argue in favor of my acquittal,” even
if that claim were mere subterfuge, a convicted party could return to the court
several times before he could be legally executed under rabbinic procedure. See
Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 132n5.

164. See
Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 287–305, for a discussion of witnesses and accusers
in a debate between accused and judge.

165. See
Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 344–63, in which he discusses the sentencing and execution
stages of a trial.

166. Some discussion has arisen over the
word scourged and whether it should be read as scorched. If scourging in this context means “whipping” and if
by faggots we
are to understand burning bundles of wood (or even bundles of wood to be
burned), it is hard to imagine the process of Abinadi’s execution. Was his skin
whipped with these incendiary bundles? Robert Matthews suggests that “Abinadi’s
tormentors took burning torches and poked him with these, burning his skin
until he died.” See his “Abinadi: The Prophet and Martyr,” in The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, Salvation Only through Christ, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo,
UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1991), 102. This would
be an odd procedure, yet Abinadi’s death was novel: he was “the first that
suffered death by fire because of his belief in God” (Alma 25:11).

Royal Skousen carefully marshals
textual, semantic, and visual (or auditory) evidence to argue that the most
reasonable reading of this text is “scorched his skin with faggots.”
Royal Skousen, “‘Scourged’ vs. ‘Scorched’ in Mosiah 17:13,” FARMS Update, Insights 22,
no. 3 (2002): 2–3; and his Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of
Mormon: Part Three, Mosiah 17–Alma 20
(Provo, UT: FARMS,
2006), 1362–64. Indeed, the word scorched appears in verse 14, and
so scourged could have been written in error in verse 13.

Hugh Nibley argued that the words scourged and scorched are etymologically identical (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 2 [Provo,
UT: FARMS, 1993], 109, 117), which dodges the textual issue but still leaves
readers wondering if Abinadi was scourged (beaten, tormented), scorched
(singed, burned), or both.

Robert F. Smith, in correspondence
on March 30, 2002, adds that the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 9:238–39, offers various
spellings for scorch, including scorge, leading to the
possibility that “we may even have a confluence in spellings and meanings”
here, namely, that Abinadi was both scorched and flogged “simultaneously
or progressively.” Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) allows that the meanings of scourge include to “punish
with severity, to chastise,” and to “torment or injure,” and all
of these meanings are possible.

Brant Gardner reported on an Aztec
drawing with a caption that shows “a youthful miscreant being scourged
with what are described as ‘burning firebrands'” (“Scourging with Faggots,”
FARMS Update, Insights 21, no. 7 [2001]: 2–3), but the Book of
Mormon gives the definite impression that Abinadi was not executed in some
normal fashion, and so the relation between his execution and these Aztec
punishments remains uncertain.

Mack Smith once said that she would stand by her conviction of her son’s
testimony even “if you should stick my flesh full of faggots, and even
burn me at the stake.” Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984),
109. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs reprints an original woodcut showing a righteous man being beaten with
bundles of willow branches, but they are not burning. John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,
ed. G. A. Williamson (Boston: Little and Brown, 1965), 419. So what actually
happened to Abinadi remains obscure except for the outcome, that he “suffered
death by fire” (Mosiah 17:20), which was what he had prophesied (vv. 15,
18) and how his execution was later described (Alma 25:9, 11).

167. The
book of Leviticus requires any “garment” that carries any of the
plague of leprosy to be “burnt in the fire” (Leviticus 13:52, 57).
Fire, in this case, was a means of removing impurity. In addition, “the
daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth
her father: she shall be burnt with fire” (21:9). Just as a priest would
burn the offerings, a daughter who profaned her priestly father would be

168. See,
for example, TB Sanhedrin 7:2, 52a; and Tosefta Sanhedrin 9:11a. This early practice was apparently changed by the talmudic authorities,
who preferred mitigating the severity of the punishment and shunned any
punishment that would mutilate the body. Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law,

169. See,
for example, Goldin, Hebrew Criminal Law, 21; also H. B. Huffmon, “Lex
Talionis,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:321–22.

170. TB Sanhedrin 6:1, 42b. The verdict and the execution were pronounced on the same day;
testimony evidence was heard on the day or days before. See also Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 371–76.

171. Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 136n17. See also McKenzie, “Judicial Procedure at
the Town Gate,” 103; Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, 61;
and Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 381–82.

172. De
Vaux, Ancient
, 1:153.

173. Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 30–31. See, for example, Leviticus 24:14,
23; Numbers 15:35–36; 1 Kings 21:13.

174. See
Goldin, Hebrew
Criminal Law
, 50n66, citing Rabbi Akiba in Makkot 3:1 (13b) and
Maimonides, Hilkot
18:1, for this view of Rabbi Akiba. Flogging or beating
was a disciplinary punishment only, and not a form of capital punishment; Haim
H. Cohn, “Flogging,” in Elon, Principles of Jewish Law,

175. See,
however, TB Berakhot 58a (9:1), as discussed by Jonah Fraenkel, “Ma’aseh be-R. Shila,” Tarbits 40
(October 1970): 33–35, 38–39.

176. Shalom
M. Paul, “Unrecognized Biblical Legal Idioms in the Light of Comparative
Akkadian Expressions,” Revue Biblique 86, no. 2 (1979):

177. The
Tosefta Sanhedrin 6:2 requires that “men must stand when they pronounce sentence,
or bear witness, or ask for absolution from vows, or when they remove anyone
from the status of priesthood or of Israelitish citizenship.” Many sources
note the significance of judges standing. For example, it has been suggested
that, in Acts 7:56, the standing Son of Man should be understood as judging
those who stoned Stephen. Rudolf Pesch, Die Vision des Stephanus (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1966), 19–20. See Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 233–38, 376–80 (dealing with

178. McKenzie,
“Judicial Procedure at the Town Gate,” 103: “When common
agreement has been reached, they [the judges] rise (Psalm 3:8; 35:2) to give
the verdict (Joel 3:14; 1 Kings 20:40).”

179. Exodus
20:5; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 23:2; see also the epilogue to the Code of

180. Judah
ordered that Tamar be burned for her whoredom (Genesis 38:24), perhaps reflecting
pre-Mosaic practices in Israel. Under the Code of Hammurabi, section 110, a nun
guilty of misconduct was put to death by burning, and under section 157, incest
by a man with his mother after the death of his father was punishable by
burning both the man and his mother.

181. Code
of Hammurabi, section 25.

182. For
more on martyrdom and witnessing, see chapter 8 on Alma and Amulek below.

183. For
a general review of Abinadi’s teachings and influence, see Robert J. Matthews, “Abinadi:
Prophet and Martyr,” Ensign, April 1992, 25–30; and “Abinadi:
The Prophet and Martyr,” 91–111.

184. Compare
Mafico, “Judge, Judging,” 3:1106.

185. John
L. Sorenson, “Book of Mormon Peoples,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism,

186. See
Bovati, Re-Establishing
, 122, for a discussion of how war “expresses and
resolves a legal controversy.”

187. For
further evidence that the Book of Mormon recognizes Noah as a wicked king who
suffered the judgment of God, see Goff, “Uncritical Theory,”
201–2, in which he compares the reigns of King Jeroboam, King Ahab, and
King Noah. For example, a major character appears to all three kings in
disguise (1 Kings 14; 20; 22; Mosiah 12:1); further, all three kings are idolatrous,
walk in the way of wickedness, cause the people to sin, and put the prophet to
death, and either the people or the wicked king is eaten by dogs and/or fowls.
The fact that the same elements are recorded in each of these accounts perhaps
is evidence of a Book of Mormon author consciously reflecting the typical
qualities of a wicked king.