Evidence #206 | June 17, 2021

Alma and Amulek’s Trial

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Scripture Central


The detailed account of Alma and Amulek’s ministry and trial at Ammonihah is filled with nuanced legal principles, many of which have relevant ancient precedents or otherwise fit well in ancient legal contexts. This story is also narratively coherent and complex.

After stepping down as chief judge, Alma the Younger began to preach among various Nephite cities (Alma 5–7). In the tenth year of the reign of the judges, Alma visited the city of Ammonihah, where he was quickly rejected (Alma 8:8–13). Soon after departing the city, however, Alma was stopped by an angel of the Lord who told him to return and warn the people that “except they repent the Lord God will destroy them” (vv. 16–17).

Through divine guidance, the Lord arranged for Alma to stay with a man named Amulek, who upon feeding and hosting Alma was convinced of Alma’s divine mission and prophetic calling.1 After many days, the Lord instructed Alma and also Amulek to preach among the people (Alma 8:29–32), which soon escalated into a well-documented legal and doctrinal confrontation.

Alma Eating with Amulek, by Dan Burr.

Two Witnesses

As Alma began to teach and warn the people of Ammonihah of God’s judgments, they declared, “Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man among this people?” (Alma 9:6; cf. v. 2). According to legal scholar John W. Welch, the people “correctly and forcefully argued” that accusations of apostasy, such as was being leveled against them by Alma, “needed to be supported by two witnesses,” as stipulated in several biblical passages (Deuteronomy 17:2–6; 19:15; Numbers 35:30; 1 Kings 21:10).2 Believing that Alma’s word was left unsupported, the people sought to put him in prison (Alma 9:31–32).

Before they could carry out their desires, though, Amulek also began to testify, recounting his prominent standing in the community and vouching for the divine authenticity of Alma’s message. When they heard this, the people of Ammonihah “began to be astonished, seeing there was more than one witness who testified of the things whereof they were accused, and also of the things which were to come” (Alma 10:12).

Clearly, the Lord’s directive for Amulek to join Alma was not happenstance. Amulek provided the second witness that would have been required for formal condemnation under the law. As one of Ammonihah’s own citizens, Amulek would have been intimately familiar with their wickedness and therefore ideally positioned to testify against them.

Law of Apostate Cities

Deuteronomy 13:12–18 outlines the protocols involved in identifying and punishing apostate cities. As shown in the following chart, the events at Ammonihah meet these requirements on several levels:

Deuteronomy 13:12–18

Alma 9–16

Certain men gone out from among you (v. 13)

Nehorites had gone out from Zarahemla (Alma 1:1515:15)

Withdrawn the inhabitants of their city (v. 13)

They had withdrawn their city from Nephite leadership (Alma 9:6, 14)

Serve other gods (v. 13)

Turned from their God (Alma 11:24)

Children of Belial (v. 13)

Satan had great hold (Alma 8:99:2811:21)

Inquire and search diligently (v. 14)

Alma visits personally (Alma 8:8)

Smite with the sword (v. 15)

Everyone slain (Alma 16:925:2)

Destroy utterly (v. 15)

Everything utterly destroyed (Alma 16:9–10)

Leave the city a heap forever (v. 16)

Bodies heaped up (Alma 16:11)

Abomination (v. 14)

Desolation of Nehors (Alma 16:11)

As argued by Welch, “the destruction of Ammonihah conforms quite thoroughly with the legal provision of Deuteronomy 13, making this a remarkable case of the falling of the vengeful sword of God’s justice (see Alma 54:6).”3

As the Lord Liveth

When affirming Alma’s testimony, Amulek swore with a divine oath, stating “as the Lord liveth, even so has he sent his angel to make these things manifest unto me” (Alma 10:10). The use of such an oath would have “enhanced the seriousness of a witness’s demeanor,”4 especially considering the divine commandment to not “take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” found in Exodus 20:7. This injunction from the Ten Commandments “has been interpreted to have applied originally to judicial settings and to have prohibited witnesses from implicating God in their act of perjury or false swearing.”5 Thus, swearing truthfully in the name of the Lord was likely a standard and appropriate part of a legal controversy.

Premeditated Corruption

When the people began to question Amulek in order to “make him cross his words, or contradict the words which he should speak” (Alma 10:16), he preemptively forestalled them, declaring: “ye are laying the foundations of the devil; for ye are laying traps and snares to catch the holy ones of God” (). “To the ancient mind, Amulek’s accusation that the people were laying ‘traps and snares’ would have been especially effective since such conduct was unquestionably premeditated. Lying in wait to catch and slay another person, for example, was expressly condemned as reprehensible and despicable conduct (Exodus 21:13–14).”6

Amulek speaking to Zeezrom. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Collective Justice

Much of Amulek’s message dealt with community consequences. For instance, he cited Mosiah’s statements about the wickedness of the people collectively bringing about their destruction (Alma 10:19). As described by Welch, 

This concept of collective or corporate responsibility was an important element in ancient Israelite jurisprudence that surfaces at several stages of this case. Under this basic sociolegal concept, each person in a group was held responsible for the collective conduct of “the whole.” Thus the blessing or cursing of an entire land or town or family turned on the behavior of any and all of its members.7

“Fortunately, the doctrine of corporate responsibility and its attendant utter destruction has a favorable reciprocal side, namely, collective preservation.”8 Amulek drew attention to this principle when declaring that the wicked citizens of Ammonihah would already have been destroyed “if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land” (Alma 10:22). The city’s destruction, however, would become imminent if they were to “cast out the righteous” (v. 23).  

After further exploration of Amulek’s statements in light of the Bible’s multi-faceted depiction of collective justice, Welch concluded that “in a matter of only a few succinct words, Amulek connected virtually all of the elements that were typically associated with the ancient concept of corporate responsibility and thereby boldly formulated his verdict of collective punishment upon the people of Ammonihah as if they lived ‘in the days of Noah’ and the flood (Alma 10:22).”9

Zeezrom’s Questioning

After Amulek delivered his statements, he was confronted by a lawyer named Zeezrom, who began to question him on several points of doctrine, for which Amulek provided answers:

  • Zeezrom: Thou sayest there is a true and living God? (Alma 11:26)
  • Amulek: Yea, there is a true and living God. (v. 27)
  • Zeezrom: Is there more than one God? (v. 28)
  • Amulek: No. (v. 29) …
  • Zeezrom: Who is he that shall come? Is it the Son of God? (v. 32)
  • Amulek: Yea. (v. 33)
  • Zeezrom: Shall he save his people in their sins? (v. 34)
  • Amulek: I say unto you he shall not, for it is impossible for him to deny his word. (v. 34)

Welch noted that there is a legal rationale behind these questions:

Evidently, Zeezrom was trying to set up a case that Amulek had violated the commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) when he had Amulek admit that “there is but one God, yet . . . the Son of God shall come” (Alma 11:35). And when he led Amulek to say that Christ would come and that God would not save his people (v. 35), it seems that Zeezrom was promoting two of the main Nehorite doctrines, namely, that Christ would not come (Mosiah 26:2) and that God would surely save all men (Alma 1:4).10

Expulsion of Male Believers

After further preaching by both Amla and Amulek, many of the people of Ammonihah, including Zeezrom, began to believe their words and repent. However, most of the people disbelieved and were angry with Alma and Amulek (Alma 14:1). When the reformed Zeezrom came to their defense, the people “cast him out from among them, and also all those who believed in the words which had been spoken by Alma and Amulek; and they cast them out, and sent men to cast stones at them” (Alma 14:7).

These men, however, weren’t stoned to death (Alma 15:1). Their preservation was likely due to the fact that, under the Law of Mosiah (as further established in the trial of Nehor11), men couldn’t be put to death for their beliefs. Execution of the city’s male citizens would likely have “brought down upon these judges the political powers of the nation from Zarahemla. Instead, they ostracized and expelled these men from their community under a severe ban, or ḥerem.”12

Burning of Women and Children

In contrast, women and children among the believers would likely have had less protection under the law than the city’s male citizens, as was the case in most ancient societies (including Israel).13 While jarring to modern readers, this discrepancy in rights and status helps explain why the people of Ammonihah were bold enough to throw the women and children into a fire (Alma 14:8–10), while the husbands were simply banished from the city.14

Smiting Cheeks

After the martyrdom of the women and children, the chief judge and the rulers of Ammonihah smote Alma and Amulek on the cheek multiple times on separate occasions (Alma 14:14, 15, 17, 20, 24, 25). In one instance, “the chief judge stood before them, and smote them again, and said unto them: If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words. And it came to pass that they all went forth and smote them, saying the same words, even until the last” (vv. 24–25).

Alma and Amulek standing to be judged. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

According to Welch, “It would seem that something formulaic was occurring here. Every judge and witness did and said exactly the same thing, one at a time.”15 There are relevant precedents for this type of behavior in the ancient world. “Physical gestures often accompanied the making of serious oaths and the incurring of legal obligations. Although the symbolic function of this slapping remains obscure, it is significant that smiting on the cheek is mentioned four times in the Old Testament in connection with judicial process or legal punishment.”16 The smiting of the cheek also had potent symbolic, and even legal, significance among other ancient Near Eastern peoples, such as the Babylonians.17

Prolonged Imprisonment

Unlike Abinadi’s brief three-day detainment, Alma and Amulek were cast into prison for “many days” (Alma 14:22–23), where they were bound, interrogated, taunted, smitten, and deprived of food, water, and clothing. This suggests that the imprisonment was seen as a type of ordeal, testing how long the captives would hold to their convictions under extreme duress.18 If later Jewish law provides a relevant analog, the Ammonihahites may have been viewed as less legally culpable if Alma and Amulek were to eventually die in prison, rather than suffering death by formal execution.19         

Alma and Amulek in prison. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Talionic Justice

As famously expressed in biblical passages such as an “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24:17–21), the principle of talionic justice “achieved a sense of poetic justice, rectification of imbalance, relatedness between the nature of the wrong and the fashioning of the remedy, and appropriateness in determining the measure or degree of punishment.”20 In various ways, the punishments inflicted upon and by the people of Ammonihah were talionic in nature:21

  • The people of Ammonihah were warned that they would be destroyed for seeking to destroy the liberty of the people.22
  • Alma and Amulek were bound with cords after warning that the people would be bound down by the devil.23
  • Women and children were burned with fire after Alma warned the people about the fires of hell.24
  • The believers’ sacred scriptural records were burned after Alma taught that God’s word would be taken from the wicked.25
  • Alma and Amulek were treated as if they were in hell after Alma warned the people of the punishments of hell.26
  • Alma and Amulek were stripped naked after Alma taught that the righteous would be clothed in holy garments.27
  • Amulek and Alma were repeatedly smitten upon the cheeks by their captors after Amulek taught that the people would be “smitten” by God in various ways.28
  • During the shaking of a divinely wrought earthquake, the rulers of Ammonihah were killed by the very prison walls that they had used to unjustly confine Alma and Amulek.29
  • The people of Ammonihah were completely destroyed after completely removing the righteous from among them, either by expulsion or execution.30

The concentration of reciprocal punishments and consequences in these chapters suggests that the ancient legal principle of talionic justice was indeed prominent in the minds of the people, and, further, that it was intentionally highlighted by the author or editors of this text.


The account of Alma and Amulek’s ministry and trial at Ammonihah is filled with nuanced legal principles, many of which have relevant ancient precedents or otherwise fit well in ancient legal contexts. The debate between these parties is also subtly coherent, both doctrinally and legally. As argued by Welch,

The account recorded in these eight chapters bears the definite fingerprints of Alma as a firsthand participant in the events that transpired during these unforgettably searing months. The account is lengthy and detailed. Speeches and statements by accusers and interrogators are presented in the kind of insightful depth and legal precision that would be worthy of a person, such as Alma, who had extensive experience in the administration of justice. Moreover, the closing of this case in Ammonihah tied up the last remaining loose end in Alma’s legal, political, military, and religious campaigns against Nehorism. The destruction of Ammonihah vindicated Alma’s determined civic stance. With the eradication of this nest of unrighteousness, Alma’s priestly duties were also fulfilled, ridding the land of Zarahemla of this source of abominations.31

This lengthy legal incident, recounted in detail over multiple chapters, thus offers abundant evidence of the Book of Mormon’s ancient origins, as well as its narrative sophistication.

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2008), 237–271.

Bible:Exodus 20:3Leviticus 24:17–21Deuteronomy 13:12–18Deuteronomy 17:2–6 Deuteronomy 19:15 Numbers 35:30 1 Kings 21:10Book of Mormon:Alma 8Alma 9Alma 10Alma 11Alma 12Alma 13Alma 14


Exodus 20:3

Leviticus 24:17–21

Deuteronomy 13:12–18

Deuteronomy 17:2–6

Deuteronomy 19:15

Numbers 35:30

1 Kings 21:10

Book of Mormon:

Alma 8

Alma 9

Alma 10

Alma 11

Alma 12

Alma 13

Alma 14

Book of Mormon

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