Mosiah 29


MDC Contents


Mosiah 29:1

1  Now when Mosiah had done this he sent out throughout all the land, among all the people, desiring to know their will concerning who should be their king.

Mosiah apparently sends emissaries out to know the will of the people for their next king. This is a problematic passage, because it does not fit the typical pattern of transfer of power from king to king. This is prior to the establishment of the judges, so it really is not an elected king. Indeed, verse 6 suggests that the voice of the people simply confirmed the typical right of kingship.

A possible parallel to this situation occurs in the city of Lehi-Nephi when Limhi and his people are planning an escape:

Mosiah 22:1

1 And now it came to pass that Ammon and king Limhi began to consult with the people how they should deliver themselves out of bondage; and even they did cause that all the people should gather themselves together; and this they did that they might have the voice of the people concerning the matter.

It is possible that Nephite society maintained some form of communal involvement even with a monarchy. Such communal involvement would not be out of place in a Mesoamerican context, though our firm information for such social interaction must forcibly come from a much later period that the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, it is interesting that such connection to the voice of the people from a powerful ruler was not a foreign conception.

Jacques Soustelle describes the head of a political/kin organization among the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan:

“Each district or calpulli in the capital had its own chief, the calpullec  ‘he never did anything without taking the opinion of the elders.” (Soustelle, Jacques. The Daily Life of the Aztecs. Stanford University Press. 1970, p. 40).

Textual: As noted in the comments on Mosiah 28:20, that verse was originally attached to this first verse of our current chapter 29. To restore the conceptual reading, let’s examine the reattached paragraph:

Mosiah 28:20

20  And now, as I said unto you, that after king Mosiah had done these things, he took the plates of brass, and all the things which he had kept, and conferred them upon Alma, who was the son of Alma; yea, all the records, and also the interpreters, and conferred them upon him, and commanded him that he should keep and preserve them, and also keep a record of the people, handing them down from one generation to another, even as they had been handed down from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem.

Mosiah 29:1

1  Now when Mosiah had done this he sent out throughout all the land, among all the people, desiring to know their will concerning who should be their king.

Mosiah 28:20 begins with “and now” which Mormon uses as a marker of new subjects. Mormon has split his story of the transfer of power from king to judges into two pieces, the preparation, and the creation of the judges. Chapter 29 will discuss the creation of the judges.

Mosiah 29:2

2  And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: We are desirous that Aaron thy son should be our king and our ruler.

The polling of the people by Mosiah may not cleanly fit into typical conceptions of monarchy, but it does have a very important ramification. In this verse we find that “the voice of the people” proclaimed a desire for Aaron to be king. This phrase, “voice of the people” will become the underpinning of Mosiah’s discussion of the value of the judges (see verses 25-29).

In the context of electing judges, we certainly understand the “voice of the people.” What is important is that the mechanism appears to have existed to assess the voice of the people. In the shift from monarchy to judges, the reliance upon “the voice of the people” would be greater. If there were no accepted mechanism for assessing that voice, the transition would have been much harder. Thus whatever function it served in the monarchy, the mechanism to assess the voice of the people was apparently in place and ready to become the underpinning of the reign of the judges.

Mosiah 29:3

3  Now Aaron had gone up to the land of Nephi, therefore the king could not confer the kingdom upon him; neither would Aaron take upon him the kingdom; neither were any of the sons of Mosiah willing to take upon them the kingdom.

As with his father before him, Mosiah appears bent upon transferring the kingdom while he is still alive and apparently sufficiently capable to translate the plates for our Book of Ether. Nevertheless, he may know that his end is coming, for Mormon reports his death in this same chapter (verse 46). For whatever reason Mosiah was ready to pass on the kingship, none of his sons were available to take the responsibility. The people continue to want a king, but there is now a difficult line of succession.

Mosiah 29:4

4  Therefore king Mosiah sent again among the people; yea, even a written word sent he among the people.  And these were the words that were written, saying:

This verse presents an interesting contrast to verse 1. In that verse Mosiah simply “sends out” to find the will of the people. This verse appears to emphasize that this particular message to the people was written down. While it is clear that there were literate Nephites, it is not clear the extent to which they were literate. However, even if the messengers were reading the text, the fact that it was written down ensured the accurate transmission of the message. This particular message was so important to the people that Mosiah wanted it delivered precisely.

It is also important to note that the people were not assembled, but rather that the message was read to them. Once again, we may assume that those who lived outside of the ceremonial city-center would be clustered along kinship lines. The message would be read to kin groups.

There are two important aspects of this reading to smaller groups that may have come to play in the decision to send out messengers rather than assemble the people as Benjamin had done, or even as Mosiah had done when Limhi’s and Alma’s peoples joined with them. The first is simply that size made such assemblies difficult, though the previous assemblies appear to belie that reason. The second reason is that the very nature of the message was revolutionary. Mosiah proclaims that he has fear of political unrest. Perhaps this is a conscious attempt to keep groups separated so that they might think separately and not be incited by group action that might get out of hand.

Mosiah 29:5

5  Behold, O ye my people, or my brethren, for I esteem you as such, I desire that ye should consider the cause which ye are called to consider—for ye are desirous to have a king.

Textual: Mormon is including the text of the document. This would have been entered into the official records, and Mormon would include it from there. As with speech events, this would be an occasion where Mormon would consider it important to have the exact words.

Mosiah 29:6

6  Now I declare unto you that he to whom the kingdom doth rightly belong has declined, and will not take upon him the kingdom.

Mosiah 29:7

7  And now if there should be another appointed in his stead, behold I fear there would rise contentions among you.  And who knoweth but what my son, to whom the kingdom doth belong, should turn to be angry and draw away a part of this people after him, which would cause wars and contentions among you, which would be the cause of shedding much blood and perverting the way of the Lord, yea, and destroy the souls of many people.

Mosiah 29:8

8  Now I say unto you let us be wise and consider these things, for we have no right to destroy my son, neither should we have any right to destroy another if he should be appointed in his stead.

Mosiah 29:9

9  And if my son should turn again to his pride and vain things he would recall the things which he had said, and claim his right to the kingdom, which would cause him and also this people to commit much sin.

Mosiah is describing the classic problem of ambiguous transfer of power in a monarchy. All tradition and social conditioning programs the community to accept the rule of the “rightful” heir. All know who that heir is to be, and when the succession occurs smoothly, it is possible to transfer the kinship from one person to another with little contention.

The unfortunate reality is that there are times when the line of succession becomes difficult. In traditional cases, it would be the lack of a male heir of the king. In this case, it is, in essence, the lack of a male heir, but due to the refusal of the male heir(s) to assume the throne.

He contention comes from the factions that might back different candidates for the throne who do not have absolute right, but have some possible claim. In Zarahemla, we have four known peoples who have had a king tradition of their own, the Nephties, Zarahemlaite/Mulekites, Limhites, and Almaites. Any one of those groups would have within them kin groups that would remember that they had once been in a royal lineage, and might elect to assert that lineage to elevate one of their own to the throne. With the contentions that we have seen lie so close to the surface of Zarahemlaite society already, Mosiah’s fear for outright civil war if there is a contested succession would appear to be quite legitimate.

Vocabulary: In verse 9 we have the phrase: “…he would recall the things which he had said…” The word recall in this context does not mean “remember” but rather “retract.” The problem will occur if Aaron retracts his renunciation of the throne.

Mosiah 29:10

10  And now let us be wise and look forward to these things, and do that which will make for the peace of this people.

Textual: This is the transition between Mosiah’s explanation of the problem and his solution.

Mosiah 29:11

11  Therefore I will be your king the remainder of my days; nevertheless, let us appoint judges, to judge this people according to our law; and we will newly arrange the affairs of this people, for we will appoint wise men to be judges, that will judge this people according to the commandments of God.

The solution is to create judges rather than kings. While Mosiah does give some reasons for this change, there is little enough definition to the changes that we may suppose that the concept of judges was not foreign to the people. Indeed, the most critical aspect of the judges is mentioned by Mosiah: “ judge this people according to our law…”

It is impossible to have judges without law, for there would be nothing against which they could judge. A king does not need law because the king is the law. Thus in a kingdom, a new situation can easily be handled because the king makes a decision (presumed to be the will of God) and it is then law for all. The removal of the king removes that personal link to the will of God, and therefore something must become the basis for rule. That basis is law.

The Zarahemla society has already been working according to laws, and not simply the law of Moses. When there is persecution of the church, the issue is brought before Mosiah, to judge against the law. The result was the creation of a new law. Nevertheless, it does appear that at least the mechanisms of law and judging are already in place for Zarahemla. Without having such a foundation, the simple declaration of this type of change in government would not be possible. The promotion of judges and the demotion of the king presupposes that something else would take the role of the king as the final judge. Here, it appears to have been law, a conception that was already in place.

Historical: Mosiah’s selection of the term judge for this new position was most likely informed by the brass plates and the history of the judges in Israel. Interestingly, however, Israel moved from judges to a monarchy, while Mosiah is taking his people in a different direction. While the terminology is the same, there are some significant differences between the Israelite judges and the Nephite judges. The Israelite judges appear to have begun as military leaders, and were never the true political leaders of their country, where the Nephite judges held the government and there is no hint of an overt military function (other than as required of a head of state). (see Tvedtnes, John A. “Kings and Judges in the Bible and the Book of Mormon.” In: The Most Correct Book. Cornerstone Publishing, 1999, p. 194-7 and Merrill, Byron R. “Government by the Voice of the People: A Witness and a Warning.” In: Mosiah, Salvation Only Through Christ. Religious Studies Center, 1991,  p. 117). Regardless of the differences, however, the invocation of the name would tie this new form of government to the sacred past, and make it easier to accept.

Mosiah as Lawgiver: John W. Welch has examined Mosiah in his role as a lawgiver:

“The law of Mosiah primarily made procedural changes and probably did not make radical changes in the substantive rules of the law of Moses. Mosiah instructed the new Nephite judges to judge “according to the laws . . . given you by our fathers” (Mosiah 29:25; italics added), and twenty-two years later the Nephites were still “strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses” (Alma 30”3) . . .

The law of Mosiah… prohibited slavery in the land of Zarahemla, for Ammon assured his converts that “it is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should be any slaves among them” (Alma 27:9). Previously it had been only by royal benevolence that slavery was not allowed in Zarahemla (see Mosiah 2:13).

The law of Mosiah probably also provided that the governor alone had jurisdiction over capital offenses (see 3 Nephi 6:22), but this regulation may have been introduced a few generations later...

Mosiah’s judicial reform remained solid for sixty-two years, but then his laws were “altered and trampled under their feet” (Helaman 4:22). The majority of the people chose evil (see Helaman 5:2), Nephi had to deliver the judgment-seat to Cezoram (see Helaman 5:1), and judicial corruption soon ensued. (see Helaman 8:4; 3 Nephi 6:23).”Welch, John W. “The Law of Mosiah.” In: Reexploring the Book of Mormon. FARMS 1992, pp. 159-161. It should be noted that Welch and I disagree on certain aspects of Mosiah’s political reform).

Mosiah 29:12

12  Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for  the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.

Mosiah 29:13

13  Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.

The conceptual nature of the Nephite king is most clear in verse 12. Right after discussing the potentially revolutionary idea (quite literally revolutionary, given Mosiah’s circumstances) of creating judges, Mosiah begins his explanation as to why it might be better. Before discussing why the judges might be good, however, he begins his argument with the acknowledgement that a king is also good, and perhaps the best. The reason that a king is good is that “it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man…”

For Mosiah, the shift from king to judge was a shift in the judgment from God to man. The judges would judge men according to men – or according to law. The king had judged men according to God. There is a complete association here between the person of the king and the will of God. Modern readers of the Book of Mormon who see in these passages an early American anti-king sentiment miss this extremely important point. The kind of king that Mosiah was constituted the direct link to the will of God. That connection is beneficial, and Mosiah acknowledges it.

The problem in kingship was not the king as representative of God, but the wicked king who was unable to speak for God. In other words, a wicked king could not speak for God, and therefore would be unable to guarantee just judgments. This is the reason for his explanation of his father as a just king. Benjamin was the conduit for the law of God, and established God’s will among the people, and judged them by it. In essence, Mosiah is proclaiming the king as the ruling prophet, and declares that this would be the best for any society, to be ruled by a man in constant touch with the will of God.

Internal connections: Mosiah is creating an argument that we easily understand, but which should have been completely foreign to most of the people of Zarahemla. This idea was not foreign, however, to the people of Alma. When Alma is asked to be king, note his response:

Mosiah 23:7-9

7 But he said unto them: Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another; therefore I say unto you it is not expedient that ye should have a king.

8 Nevertheless, if it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your kings it would be well for you to have a king.

9 But remember the iniquity of king Noah and his priests; and I myself was caught in a snare, and did many things which were abominable in the sight of the Lord, which caused me sore repentance;

Our record of Alma’s refusal of the kingship is very important to our understanding of the transition from king to judges in Zarahemla. First, we must remember that when Mormon can cite discourse he appears to do so directly from the plates. Therefore, when we see similarities between texts we may rightly assume a connection between texts. In this case, note how Alma’s refusal of kingship closely matches the language and reasoning that Mosiah propounds.

The first important case is Mosiah 23:8 where Alma declares “if it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your kings it would be well for you to have a king.” This is precisely the sentiment that Mosiah is declaring in verse 13. Note the similar meaning and language (although Mosiah has expanded the text):

Mosiah 29:13 “Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.”

The basic sentiment is exactly the same, and the beginning of Alma’s refusal is significantly the beginning of the argument for Mosiah’s ultimate refusal of kingship; a king is good if he is a good king.

Now we need to examine Alma’s significant argument for change. He gives a very specific example of a bad king. In Mosiah 23:9 he cites Noah as the quintessential reason that a bad king is not good for the people. As we continue through Mosiah’s discourse, we will come to verse 18 where Mosiah also uses Noah as his particular bad example.

When we combine these correspondences with the known effect of Alma the Elder on the reorganization of the religious structures of Zarahemla, it is apparent that Alma the Elder is also at least conceptually behind the shift in political structures. Mosiah clearly esteemed Alma the Elder very highly, and listened to his counsel regarding religion (notably the creation of the churches). Alma the Younger espouses the very same ideas that Mosiah proclaims here, and it is therefore virtually certain that these are also Alma’s ideas that have been adopted by Mosiah.

Even though the current story is one of Mosiah, it simply serves to highlight the tremendous influence of Alma the Elder on Nephite society. Seldom can one man be credited with altering the religious makeup of a people. It is seldom that one man can be credited with a revolution in the governmental principles of a people. Alma did both.

Mosiah 29:14

14  And even I myself have labored with all the power and faculties which I have possessed, to teach you the commandments of God, and to establish peace throughout the land, that there should be no wars nor contentions, no stealing, nor plundering, nor murdering, nor any manner of iniquity;

Mosiah 29:15

15  And whosoever has committed iniquity, him have I punished according to the crime which he has committed, according to the law which has been given to us by our fathers.

Verse 13 cites Benjamin as the prime example of the just king. In verses 14 and 15 Mosiah proclaims that he as attempted to be the same kind of just king as his father. Just as his father was a great giver of the commandments of God, so has Mosiah labored to teach the commandments of God. Mosiah also proclaims that he has established laws, and that he has ruled according to those laws (verse 15). This is an important precursor to the elevation of the status of law above the king. It is a reminder that law is in place and that law already governs the society.

One of the particular arguments that Alma used in his refusal of the kinship was that men should not be exalted one above another (Mosiah 23:7). There is no obvious correlation to this sentiment in Mosiah’s declaration, but verse 14 may be a veiled reference to it. Mosiah used Benjamin as the benchmark for the good king, and one of the reasons for Benjamin’s covenant was to eliminate “contentions.” The particular “contentions” that had arisen were economic in nature, and dealt with the exaltation of one person over another. Perhaps it is this type of “contention” to which Mosiah refers, and therefore provides yet another connection to Alma’s refusal of kingship.

Mosiah 29:16

16  Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.

Mosiah 29:17

17  For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!

Mosiah 29:18

18  Yea, remember king Noah, his wickedness and his abominations, and also the wickedness and abominations of his people.  Behold what great destruction did come upon them; and also because of their iniquities they were brought into bondage.

Here is Alma’s bad example fleshed out into a more elaborate statement. King Noah was the prime example of how a wicked king could lead an entire people astray. Remember that Mosiah had called a large meeting where Alma and Limhi recounted their experiences. Such a large gathering certainly would have been remembered, though our record of it gives only a synopsized conclusion (see Mosiah 25:1-16).

Mosiah 29:19

19  And were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator, and this because of their sincere repentance, they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now.

Mosiah 29:20

20  But behold, he did deliver them because they did humble themselves before him; and because they cried mightily unto him he did deliver them out of bondage; and thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him.

The point of the story of Limhi and Alma was their miraculous salvation after all of the tribulations. The wickedness of Noah was so great that they should all have been destroyed or at least in bondage “were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator.” Even without a king, God is still in charge of the universe. In spite of a king, God can still save his people.

Mosiah’s argument here is subtle, but important. He has proclaimed that the ancient connection between God and king is good. What happens when half of that conduit is severed? Mosiah describes that very event in the story of Noah. Wicked King Noah was clearly not proclaiming God’s will, but God was able to take care of his people even in the absence of a righteous king. By proclaiming God’s victory here, Mosiah establishes the continuing importance of God. Removing the king will not remove God.

When Mosiah proclaims that God could intervene only because of the humility of his children (verse 20), the point is made that the re-establishment of a king (Limhi) did not automatically recreate that conduit between man and God. The person and position of the king did not cause their deliverance, but God himself. Thus God may continue to guide (and save) his people even in the absence of a king.

Mosiah 29:21

21  And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.

Mosiah 29:22

22  For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

Perhaps Mosiah is continuing with specifics of Noah, or perhaps he is generalizing. It is certainly quite possible that he continues to use Noah as an example, as bloodshed clearly followed the removal of Noah as king.

Mosiah 29:23

23  And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.

Mosiah 29:24

24  And now behold I say unto you, it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.

Since law will become elevated in importance, it is also important for Mosiah to distinguish good laws from bad. Good laws may come from good kings, such as Benjamin and Mosiah, but bad kings may enact bad laws. Thus Mosiah will propose more than just a rule by law. He must proclaim a new method of creating law, a method that may have the opportunity of creating good laws in spite of the reality of good and bad people. This mechanism will be the judges by the voice of the people. This participation of the people is seen as the way in which the good should be preserved and the bad avoided.

Mosiah 29:25

25  Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.

The first step is the selection of the judges by “the voice of this people.” These communally acclaimed judges will judge “according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” In other words, these judges will judge by law, and the law will be the direct connection to the will of God rather than the person of the king.

Mosiah 29:26

26  Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.

Kay P. Edwards describes the most common reading of this verse:

“…King Mosiah proposed to his people the idea that their welfare might be better assured by making a major change in their government structure – from a kingship to a form of democracy. He suggested that this new governmental system be implemented by placing judges chosen by the people at the head of the government…” (Edwards, Kay P. “The Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of Men.” In: Studies in Scripture, 1 Nephi to Alma 29. Deseret Book Company, 1987, p. 277).

It is very tempting to equate this passage with an endorsement of democracy, as does Edwards. Without question the principle applies to democratic societies, but this may not be the best explanation for what was happening in Mosiah’s society. First, Mosiah appears to formalize what was already a mechanism in his kingdom. While he clearly had consulted the “voice of the people” from time to time, this was now elevated to a level that he seems to equate with law – that they “do… business by the voice of the people.”

Secondly, although Mosiah declares that they are to do their business by the voice of the people, we seldom see this principle in operation in the government of the Nephites. There are no mass elections, no referenda. What we have are judges who judge. The rule of one person (the king) has been distributed to multiple people (the judges) but the people do not actually enter in to the equation in the dispensing of justice. For Mosiah, the contrast will be between the rule by one person and the rule by several (the judges). While the judges seldom appear to consult the “voice of the people” they nevertheless represent that principle because there are more than one, and their decisions may be benefited by their multiple perspectives. More discussion of how this mechanism would have worked will follow below.

If the people of Mosiah do not take votes, in what way does the voice of the people function? The clue is in the particular emphasis that Mosiah uses when he introduces this principle. Notice that the voice of the people is intricately bound with right and wrong. Mosiah is suggesting that the voice of the people will tend to good, while understanding that some individuals will choose the wrong thing.

In the context of Mosiah’s ancient world, we must also remember the nature of the king. The king was good because he was the conduit to the will of God. With the removal of the king, Mosiah was suggesting that the direct governing influence of God would be cut. If the king were no longer present to receive the will of God for the governing of the people, how would they know what was “right?” Mosiah’s answer is that the measuring stick would now be the voice of the people rather than the voice of the king (as mouthpiece for God).

Mosiah appears to formalize what was already a mechanism in his kingdom. While he clearly had consulted the “voice of the people” from time to time, this was now elevated to a level that he seems to equate with law – that they “do… business by the voice of the people.”

In the context of the renunciation of kingship, Mosiah’s suggestion about the voice of the people is not that they have a democracy, but that the judges would use the voice of the people as their measuring stick for right or wrong. He is not concerned with whether or not the people vote, but that they become the way in which judgments could be made on issues that were not necessarily clear by law. The voice of the people would become the substitute for the voice of the God through the king.

Of course this does not mean that the voice of God would not come to the religious leader, but Mosiah has already severed the direct linkage between church and state with the creation of the church and the installment of Alma the Elder as the leader of the church. There is a cascading series of events that are culminating in this major shift in Nephite culture. The separation of powers through the creation of the church has led to other separations, and in the end and dictated the nature of the shift from king to judges.

Mosiah 29:27

27  And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.

Using the voice of the people as the immediate measure of their actions does not mean that God is removed from the people, nor from his relationship to the people. Should they become people whose collective voice becomes contrary to the will of God, God will reassert himself by visiting “great destruction” upon them. The result of that great destruction is not mentioned, but may be presumed to be a removal of enough of the people that the righteous might once again come to the fore.

Mosiah 29:28

28  And now if ye have judges, and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that they may be judged of a higher judge.

Mosiah 29:29

29  If your higher judges do not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause that a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together, and they shall judge your higher judges, according to the voice of the people.

Mosiah does set up the judges so that they are not the ultimate authority in and of themselves. Using the principle of the voice of the people (where the majority will want the right) he creates judges who also are “the people.” By creating the higher judges and the court of “peers” Mosiah creates a situation in which the judges themselves have a means of becoming the “voice of the people” to make sure that the right thing is done.

Once again, notice the use of the term “voice of the people” in verse 29. From our modern perspective, it would appear that this court of lower judges would somehow poll the “people” or take votes. Were they to do that, then the court of judges would not be needed at all. The judges judge by “the voice of the people” because their have sufficient numbers to assure that the right thing will be done. This is not an appeal to a vote which would remove all function from this court.

Mosiah 29:30

30  And I command you to do these things in the fear of the Lord; and I command you to do these things, and that ye have no king; that if these people  commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads.

Mosiah 29:31

31  For behold I say unto you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings; therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of their kings.

Of course the problem with listening to the voice of the people is that the people might make a mistake, as Mosiah has allowed. Mosiah exhorts his people to make choices in accord to the commandments of the Lord, and that in so doing they might find themselves always in the right. However, since the wrong might occur, he reminds them that the consequences of that wrong choice will be visited upon their heads. It will be just, because they will have made the decision.

This shifting of the responsibility from the king to the people might make people long for a king so that they do not have to shoulder the responsibility. Mosiah reminds them that having a king does not insulate them from the wrath of God. If there is an evil king, they also have the wrath of God poured out upon them, but then because of the king, not necessarily because of their own choices.

Mosiah is showing them a contrast here. While it is true that rights engender responsibility, having a king with that responsibility does not prevent the evils of the world from finding them, if the king is not righteous.

Mosiah 29:32

32  And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people; but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land, yea, even as long as any of our posterity remains upon the face of the land.

When Alma the Elder was declining the kingship, one of the principle he mentioned was the equality of mankind:

Mosiah 23:7 “….it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another; therefore I say unto you it is not expedient that ye should have a king.”

This concept is now made explicit by Mosiah in his declaration of the end of the kings. He specifically says “I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people….” What is “this inequality?”

Grammatically, it would appear to refer to the people suffering for the sins of the king. That is clearly his primary meaning, but it is also quite likely that he has other meanings associated with this particular image. The social structure of kingdoms virtually requires the exaltation of one man above another, with the king at the top. Mosiah is probably attempting to remedy that inequality as well as the unequal punishment of people and king (where the people are punished for the sins of the king).

Social: It is very interesting that Mosiah declares that “this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people.” He appears to make a distinction between this land and my people. It is possible that he is referring to the presence of this mode of kingship in other locations, and that he wishes it were removed from other cities as well as from his own people.

Mosiah 29:33

33  And many more things did king Mosiah write unto them, unfolding unto them all the trials and troubles of a righteous king, yea, all the travails of soul for their people, and also all the murmurings of the people to their king; and he explained it all unto them.

Textual: Mormon does a very curious thing at this point. He stops quoting and begins summarizing. We can only guess as to Mormon’s reasons for stopping this discourse, because he has copied much longer texts before (such as Abinadi before the priests). Perhaps Mormon felt that this got the point across, and more was not essential. If we remember that Mormon is much more interested in the faith of the people, it may be that this text is included because it was clearly important, but having been sufficiently explained, no longer became important to Mormon’s main thesis. We simply cannot tell. Mormon hasn’t left enough clues to this particular puzzle.

Mosiah 29:34

34  And he told them that these things ought not to be; but that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part.

Mosiah 29:35

35  And he also unfolded unto them all the disadvantages they labored under, by having an unrighteous king to rule over them;

Mosiah 29:36

36  Yea, all his iniquities and abominations, and all the wars, and contentions, and bloodshed, and the stealing, and the plundering, and the committing of whoredoms, and all manner of iniquities which cannot be enumerated—telling them that these things ought not to be, that they were  expressly repugnant to the commandments of God.

Literary: Verse 33 and 34 go together, and from a contrasting set to verses 35 and 36. In 33-34 Mormon shows Mosiah discussing the good king. What Mosiah does is explain that the good king is still a problem in reality, with all of the burdens of the people heaped upon the head of the good king. These responsibilities should be returned to their rightful location, with the people themselves.

In contrast to the good king (who still has problems) there is the bad king. This is one who creates a set of conditions that Mosiah (through Mormon) lists: “iniquities and abominations, and all the wars, and contentions, and bloodshed, and the stealing, and the plundering, and the committing of whoredoms, and all manner of iniquities which cannot be enumerated.” This list appears to be one that Mosiah supposes that his people will recognize immediately. He does not even list the major sin of Noah, which was turning away from his God. What are listed are the problems of two kingdoms in conflict. These very conditions became the norm for the Classic Maya after the close of the Book of Mormon. It would appear that Mosiah is counseling against some fairly well known trends.

Mosiah 29:37

37  And now it came to pass, after king Mosiah had sent these things forth among the people they were convinced of the truth of his words.

Mosiah 29:38

38  Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.

The people accept the rule of kings. Most importantly, however, they accept that the responsibility no lies with them, and not with the king. They are their own measuring stick for right and wrong, and they must take communal responsibility for the rightness or wrongness of their choices.

Mosiah 29:39

39  Therefore, it came to pass that they assembled themselves together in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be their judges, to judge them according to the law which had been given them; and they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them.

With our understanding of the probable kin-based organization of the Nephites as we have seen throughout their history, we can make some assumptions of how these judges were selected. The first piece of information we have is that the assembled themselves “together in bodies.” This doesn’t tell us too much, but it does clearly indicate that this was not a single gathering of all Nephites. If they were to assemble in smaller groups, the most logical grouping would be by kin. All people belonged to kin groups, and not all belonged to churches, so the kin groups would be more logical structures to use.

If they gathered together as kin, then the selection was from among their own kin. Each kin group would recommend a judge that came from their own kin. As a kinsman, he would particularly watch out for the interests of his kin against another judge who might favor his own kin. This selection of kin-based judges would provide some type of check among the judges. Since each might favor his own kin, each would also watch for that tendency in others, and hold it in check for the common good of all.

This general structural organization persisted through to Aztec times. In the more complete quotation noted above, we now concentrate on the kinship aspects of the leaders rather than their use of “the voice of the people:”

“Each district or calpulli in the capital had its own chief, the calpullec, who was elected for life, preferably from the same family, by the inhabitants, and confirmed by the emperor. He had a council of elders, the ueuetque who were probably the oldest and best-known heads of families, and ‘he never did anything without taking the opinion of the elders.” (Soustelle, Jacques. The Daily Life of the Aztecs. Stanford University Press. 1970, p. 40).

In the later Aztec example, it is precisely the kin group that creates the judge for that group. While this leader is not necessarily the same as the judges in the Aztec empire, the principle for the election of leaders on the basis of their kin affiliation is very much the same principle as that which would have been used among Mosiah’s people.

Mosiah 29:40

40  And they did wax strong in love towards Mosiah; yea, they did esteem him more than any other man; for they did not look upon him as a tyrant who was seeking for gain, yea, for that lucre which doth corrupt the soul; for he had not exacted riches of them, neither had he delighted in the shedding of blood; but he had established peace in the land, and he had granted unto his people that they should be delivered from all manner of bondage; therefore they did esteem him, yea, exceedingly, beyond measure.

Textual: This would appear to be Mormon’s homily to Mosiah rather than something directly from the source plates.

Mosiah 29:41

41  And it came to pass that they did appoint judges to rule over them, or to judge them according to the law; and this they did throughout all the land.

Mosiah 29:42

42  And it came to pass that Alma was appointed to be the first chief judge, he being also the high priest, his father having conferred the office upon him, and having given him the charge concerning all the affairs of the church.

The judges are appointed. Even though they were apparently suggested by the assemblies of the people, they were appointed by Mosiah. Thus the kin-leaders received official public recognition by the king for their new positions. The hierarchy of judges is established by the selection of Alma the Younger as the chief judge of the land.

Alma the Younger now has two positions. He has become the high priest, or the head of the various churches. This position he receives from his father. He is also the chief judge, a position confirmed by Mosiah. It is curious that the defacto separation of the religious from the political with Mosiah and Alma the Elder should be reunited in the person of Alma’s son. Nevertheless, even though they are reunited in one person, they are not reunited in function. The people would understand that Alma wore two official titles. This will become most apparent later when Alma relinquishes one of them. That will not be possible unless they are still considered separable.

Mosiah 29:43

43  And now it came to pass that Alma did walk in the ways of the Lord, and he did keep his commandments, and he did judge righteous judgments; and there was continual peace through the land.

Mosiah 29:44

44  And thus commenced the reign of the judges throughout all the land of Zarahemla, among all the people who were called the Nephites; and Alma was the first and chief judge.

The next major book in the Book of Mormon is the Book of Alma. Mormon is preparing us for that book by using Alma as one of the terminal points of the Mosiah dynasty. Thus we have the general synopsis that Alma is a good man (“walk[s] in the ways of the Lord”) and that he judged righteous judgments.

Mosiah 29:45

45  And now it came to pass that his father died, being eighty and two years old, having lived to fulfil the commandments of God.

Mosiah 29:46

46  And it came to pass that Mosiah died also, in the thirty and third year of his reign, being sixty and three years old; making in the whole, five hundred and nine years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem.

Mosiah 29:47

47  And thus ended the reign of the kings over the people of Nephi; and thus ended the days of Alma, who was the founder of their church.

Chronology: It would appear that both Mosiah and Alma the Elder die in the same year. Mosiah dies at the age of 63 (he begins his reign at age 30, see Mosiah 6:4) and Alma at the age of 82. The Nephite years are 509 from the departure from Jerusalem, which would translate to 92 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.

Historical: Judges in Mesoamerica: By renouncing a king and turning to judges, Mosiah both went against the current trend in the development of complex societies, but also presaged some governmental forms that would not be clearly apparent for many years after the close of the Book of Mormon.

Robert J. Sharer has examined much of the evidence for the development of the concept of the king among the Classic Maya (post Book of Mormon). He notes that while the full development of the Classic Maya concept of the god-king was not developed until later, most of the elements were in place by the end of the late Pre-Classic (Book of Mormon times which would include Mosiah’s time) in places such as El Mirador (Sharer, Robert J. “Diversity and Continuity in Maya Civilization.” In: Classic Maya Political History. Cambridge University Press, 1991  p.184). The Book of Mormon clearly supports the idea that kings were becoming important in this area long before the Classic, even if their full cult does not develop until later.

Assuming, as this commentary does, that Zarahemla was located in the region that was undergoing this shift to a very specific type of king, Mosiah’s actions were directly counter to the general flow of cultural development. Nevertheless, there were later examples of judges and rule by special groups that are worth our attention.

John L. Sorenson notes:

“One of the primary duties of a ruler was to settle disputes among his people, Sometimes that could be done by him personally, but in a population of much size, he would not have time to deal with every conflict. Judges were delegated to carry out that duty.

Cortez, for example, described the situation at the great market in the Aztec capital: “There is in this square a very large building, like a Court of Justice, where there are always ten or twelve persons, sitting as judges, and delivering their decisions upon all cases which arise in the markets.” (Sorenson, John. L. Images of Ancient America. Visualizing the Book of Mormon. FARMS 1998, p. 116).

These judges were appointed, and attempted to judge fairly among the people:

“…the judges, were nominated by the sovereign either from the experienced and elderly dignitaries or from among the common people. At Texcoco half the higher judges were of noble family and the other half of plebeian origin. All the chroniclers agree in praising the care with which the emperor and his fellow-kings chose the judges, “taking particular care that they were not drunkards, nor apt to be bribed, nor influenced by personal considerations, or impassioned in their judgments.” (Soustelle, Jacques. The Daily Life of the Aztecs. Standford University Press, 1970, p. 50).

The position of judge was one that clearly resurfaced among the Aztecs, if indeed it had ever been long gone. The judges however, are here arbiters of law and disputes, not leaders of the community. To see a similar situation to judges leading their people we need to turn to the case of Chichen Itza (also post Book of Mormon) which “witnessed the birth of a social and political order based upon a new principle of governance, mul tepal ‘joint rule.” (Schele, Linda and Davied Freidel. A Forest of Kings. William Morrow and Company, In.c 1990,  p. 348).

As with much of the information on Mesoamerica, our best information is post-Book of Mormon times. However, studies have shown that Mesoamerica has had a relatively stable cultural base over time, with much of their culture remaining today, even though it has naturally adapted to the exigencies of the post-Conquest world. While not contemporaneous with Mosiah, these examples nevertheless indicate that Mosiah was not out of place in a Mesoamerican context.

      by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2000