Evidence #199 | May 28, 2021

Abinadi’s Trial

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Many details in Abinadi’s trial are consistent with ancient Israelite laws and legal customs. Some features of this trial—particularly Abinadi’s self-defense—are also legally sophisticated and textually complex.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man named Abinadi showed up among the people of King Noah, prophesying that if they didn’t repent they would be destroyed (Mosiah 11:20–25). These actions aggravated the people and King Noah, who wanted to slay Abinadi, but the Lord “delivered him out of their hands” (vv. 26–28). Two years later, Abinadi came among them again with a similar message of wo. This time the people apprehended Abinadi and took him before King Noah for trial (Mosiah 12:1–9). Legal scholar John W. Welch has described this as “one of the most thoroughly reported legal incidents in the Book of Mormon.”1 Many details in this case are consistent with ancient Israelite law and legal customs.

Taken by the People

According to Welch, “No known legal case from antiquity was initiated by a king as a plaintiff or prosecutor.”2 With this in mind, it is significant that it was the people who apprehended Abinadi, took him before King Noah, and brought forth the initial accusations of his wrongdoing (Mosiah 12:9–12).3 These actions would have been fairly standard procedure under Israelite law.4 The real question is why they didn’t simply put Abinadi on trial themselves, which the community elders likely had the authority to do.5 The answer to this query may have to do with the specific nature of the charges they brought forward, as well as the fact that Noah had previously requested that Abinadi be brought before him (Mosiah 11:28).

Accusations and Jurisdiction

When making their case before King Noah, the people summarized Abinadi’s prophecies against them and against Noah himself, concluding that “this man has lied concerning you and he has prophesied in vain” (Mosiah 12:14). Typical of a party in an ancient legal controversy,6 they also professed their own innocence, claiming “behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned” (v. 14).

While lying was certainly viewed as immoral, “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.”7 Since Abinadi’s message wasn’t initially given in a legal setting, “it is significant that Abinadi was not accused of lying or slander in general, but specifically of lying about the king,”8 an offense akin to reviling or cursing the gods or a ruler (Exodus 22:28). While the legal protocol on this matter in ancient Israel isn’t certainly known, rabbinical evidence from the Middle Ages, along with precedents set by David and Solomon, suggest it would have been Noah’s prerogative to render judgment for such conduct.9

Abinadi before King Noah, by Arnold Friberg. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Yet Abinadi was also accused of uttering a false prophesy: “he has prophesied in vain” (Mosiah 12:14).10 This crime would likely have fallen under the jurisdiction of priests, rather than the king himself.11 “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.”12 Considering the dual allegations initially raised in this trial, 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.”13

The Examination of Abinadi

As was typical in ancient courts, “nothing indicates that any lawyers were present, either as prosecutors or as advocates for the accused.”14 Instead, Abinadi stood and defended himself as the priests “began to question him, that they might cross him” (Mosiah 12:19). At one point in this exchange, one of the priests asked for Abinadi’s interpretation of passages in Isaiah 52:7–10.

According to Welch, Abinadi’s “words comprise an intricate and elaborate commentary, or midrash” that are “constructed around specific words and phrases in Isaiah 52.”15 Furthermore, “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.”16 In other words, he accused them of the very things of which they had accused him, and then some.

Abinadi next quoted Isaiah 53 and used select concepts from that chapter to further establish the validity of his message, as well as the condemnation of Noah and his priests. In effect, Abinadi’s “remarks were completely relevant to the strategy employed against him”17 and it “is hard to imagine a more sophisticated and insightful analysis of the complexities of Isaiah 52 and 53.”18

Abinadi before King Noah, by Andrew Bosley. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Shifting Tactics

Abinadi’s articulate response must have been intimidating because the charge against him of uttering a false prophecy was soon abandoned. Noah shifted tactics by simply commanding his priests to take Abinadi and “cause that he should be put to death” (Mosiah 17:1). Presumably, this command was based upon the charge of lying about the king, for which “Noah alone could issue a verdict without further deliberation … because it was jurisdictionally one of ‘the king’s matters’ (2 Chronicles 19:11).”19 That a shift of this nature occurred is reinforced by the way that Alma immediately spoke out in Abinadi’s defense, “for he knew concerning the iniquity which Abinadi had testified against them” (Mosiah 17:2).

Alma’s Testimony

While his statements aren’t given in detail, we are told that Alma “began to plead with the king that he would not be angry with Abinadi, but suffer that he might depart in peace” (Mosiah 17:2). Welch reasoned that by speaking up on Abinadi’s behalf in this context, Alma provided a second witness which “effectively negated and refuted the charge that Abinadi had lied.”20

The fact that the text describes Alma as “a young man” immediately before relaying his opinion on what should be done with Abinadi is also noteworthy (v. 2). Among the Jewish Sanhedrin, the youngest member of the judicial body was required to cast the first vote, so as to not be influenced by more senior members. “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.”21

Charges of Blasphemy and Reviling against the King

Alma’s defense of Abinadi apparently interrupted Noah’s command to slay him, for Noah instead put Abinadi in prison for three days while he “counseled with his priests” (Mosiah 17:6). This delay may also have been due to concurrent festivities. Several scholars have found abundant evidence that Abinadi was preaching during Pentecost.

Abinadi in prison. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

When Abinadi was finally brought back for judgment, the priests made the following accusation against him: “For 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” (Mosiah 17:8). This seems to replace the charges of false prophesying and lying about the king with the dual charge of blasphemy against God and reviling against the king (made explicit in v. 12), both of which were punishable by death under Israelite law (Exodus 22:28).

That Noah and his priests were willing to remove one charge (blasphemy) if Abinadi recalled his words against the king (reviling) reveals which issue they were really most offended by and which was merely a pretext for killing him. Extending this type of plea bargain may have made Noah and his priests appear, at least in the eyes of the people, as being both reasonable and merciful.23

Abinadi Validated by Ordeal

Rather than recant, Abinadi boldly declared,

I will not recall the words which I have spoken unto you concerning this people, for they are true; and that ye may know of their surety I have suffered myself that I have fallen into your hands. 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, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day. (Mosiah 17:9–10)

In other words, Abinadi was willing to undergo a type of ordeal (in this case an excruciating execution) to validate the truthfulness and divine origin of his message. “Although ordeals are not mentioned as often in ancient Israelite law as they are in ancient Near Eastern law,” wrote Welch, “they were normal parts of biblical jurisprudence, where they often served to validate the innocence of the accused. Submitting to an ordeal was often an accused’s last hope of establishing his innocence or vindicating his testimony.”24

Abinadi being martyred. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Abinadi’s confidence in his message and his willingness to suffer anything to affirm it clearly frightened King Noah, so much so that he “was about to release him, for he feared his word; for he feared that the judgments of God would come upon him” (Mosiah 17:11). Despite his reluctance, Noah’s priests persuaded him otherwise after they “lifted up their voices against [Abinadi], and began to accuse him, saying He has reviled the king” (v. 12).

Abinadi’s Execution

Abinadi, by Briana Shawcroft. 

After being convicted of capital offenses (blasphemy and reviling against the king),25 Abinadi was executed, as the law required. “In early Israelite and later Jewish courts, executions were normally carried out immediately following the issuance of the final verdict, as was the case here.”26 Almost immediately after mentioning the priests’ involvement in accusing Abinadi, the text reports that “they [presumably the priests themselves] took him and bound him, and scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death” (Mosiah 17:12–13).27 If it was indeed the priests who carried out this action, it would be in compliance with Deuteronomy 17:7: “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people.”28

This specific manner of execution was apparently unusual among the Nephites, for Mormon later reported that Abinadi was “the first that suffered death by fire because of his belief in God” (Alma 25:11). As expressed by Welch, “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.”29 In an ironic turnabout, the talionic principle was then invoked even more explicitly by Abinadi when prophesying that “ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire” (Mosiah 17:18).

Conclusion

In his final analysis, Welch concluded,

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.30

In addition, Abinadi’s self-defense can be viewed as legally brilliant, doctrinally sophisticated, and textually complex. All in all, the reported details of this trial offer an unusually clear window into an ancient legal event that was of immense importance to the religious and political history of the Nephite nation.

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 139–210.

Mosiah 11:20–17:20

Mosiah 11:20–17:20

Law
Book of Mormon

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