Evidence #48 | September 19, 2020

Apostate Cities

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The account of Ammonihah’s destruction conforms to each of the legal requirements pertaining to the destruction of apostate cities found in the Law of Moses.

Ancient Israelite law had a specific statute for the case of apostate cities. This detailed law, found in Deuteronomy 13:12–18, required that inquiry be made to determine if the city had truly gone apostate, and if so, required that it be utterly destroyed “with the edge of the sword” (v. 15), all people and livestock killed, and the city burned and left “an heap for ever; it shall not be built again” (v. 16). According to Richard H. Hiers, “The Bible does not report that any Israelite cities, or their people or cattle actually were destroyed pursuant to this law.”1 Although the Bible doesn’t contain such a report, the Book of Mormon likely does. 

In the book of Alma, the destruction of Ammonihah comes seemingly out of the blue—“in the eleventh year of the reign of the judges … on the fifth day of the second month,” amidst “much peace in the land of Zarahemla,” with “no wars nor contentions for a certain number of years” (Alma 16:1). Then, suddenly, “the armies of the Lamanites had come in upon the wilderness side, into the borders of the land, even into the city of Ammonihah, and began to slay the people and destroy the city” (v. 2).

The Destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts, 1850. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The destruction wrought upon Ammonihah was thorough and complete. The people of the city “were destroyed; yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city” (Alma 16:9). In a single day, the city “was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness” and “their dead bodies were heaped up upon the face of the earth, and they were covered with a shallow covering” (vv. 10–11). In the wake of the destruction, “the people did not go in to possess the land of Ammonihah for many years” and it was termed the “Desolation of Nehors” (v. 11).

Only later do readers learn that the Lamanites attacked the city out of vengeance against the Nephites (Alma 25:1–2). Yet instead of placing emphasis on Lamanite aggression, Mormon prefaced the first report of the city’s destruction with the record of Alma’s missionary journey to Ammonihah (Alma 8:6–13), Alma and Amulek’s preaching to the people (Alma 9–13), and a detailed accounting of the people’s abhorrent crimes (Alma 14). It seems that this was deliberate on Mormon’s part, emphasizing what he saw as the ultimate cause of Ammonihah’s destruction: the fulfillment of the law of apostate cities.2

The law required that the situation be investigated, and those carrying out this task needed to “inquire, and make search, and ask diligently” as to whether the city truly was apostate (Deuteronomy 13:14). As high priest, the responsibility naturally fell upon Alma to investigate. The Lord then provided Amulek as a necessary second witness (Deuteronomy 17:6) to condemn the city.3

Alma Preaching at the Temple by Jodi Livingston.

Alma declared the citizens of Ammonihah “a lost and a fallen people” (Alma 9:30, 32), and “thereby effectively identified them as an apostate people under Deuteronomy 13, making them subject to the mandate of annihilation.”4 He specifically echoed Deuteronomy 13:15 when he prophesied that the Lord “will utterly destroy you from off the face of the earth” (Alma 9:12; cf. v. 24, emphasis added). Amulek also declared that the Lord would visit them “with utter destruction … by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword” (Alma 10:22, emphasis added).

Another clue that the city was ripe for destruction comes from Amulek’s statement that “the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges” (Alma 10:27). This ominously echoes a statement from Joshua 6:26 about a curse that would come upon anyone who sought to again “lay the foundation” of Jericho—a city that, like Ammonihah, was utterly destroyed due to its wickedness after spies were sent to investigate its condition (cf. Alma 16:9–11).

Carrying out the annihilation required someone with the political authority to wield the military force,5 but as John W. Welch has pointed out, Alma had recently given up the judgment-seat.6 The Lamanites thus fulfilled their prophesied role to “be a scourge unto” the Nephites (1 Nephi 2:24; cf. Alma 9:19), accomplishing complete destruction and desolation of the city and its people. As Mormon later explained, “the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished” (Mormon 4:5).

As summarized in the following chart, the account of Ammonihah documents the proper and complete adherence to the legal procedures outlined in Deuteronomy 13:12–18:7

Deuteronomy 13:12–18Alma 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 all diligently with the sword (v. 15)Everyone killed (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)

Conclusion

This tragic story conforms to the law of apostate cities with great precision. It appears that Alma strictly observed the Law of Moses and that Mormon intentionally arranged his abridgement to emphasize this law’s complete fulfillment. This demonstration of technical legal knowledge suggests that whoever authored this narrative was well-versed in ancient Israelite legal statutes.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Was the City of Ammonihah Destroyed and Left Desolate? (Alma 16:9–11),” KnoWhy 123 (June 16, 2016).

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 238–271.

John W. Welch, “A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 369–372.

John W. Welch, “The Destruction of Ammonihah and the Law of Apostate Cities,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 176–179.

Alma 1:15Alma 8:8–9Alma 9:6, 14, 28Alma 11:21, 24 Alma 12:24, 24Alma 15:15Alma 16:1–3, 9–11Alma 25:1–2Alma 30:3

Alma 1:15

Alma 8:8–9

Alma 9:6, 14, 28

Alma 11:21, 24

Alma 12:24, 24

Alma 15:15

Alma 16:1–3, 9–11

Alma 25:1–2

Alma 30:3

  • 1 Richard H. Hiers, “Reverence for Life and Environment Ethics in Biblical Law and Covenant,” Journal of Law and Religion 13 (1996–1998): 167. This sentiment is echoed in Paul-Eugene Dion, “Deuteronomy 13: The Suppression of Alien Religious Propaganda in Israel during the Late Monarchical Era,” in Law and Ideology in Monarchic Israel, ed. Baruch Halpern and Deborah W. Hobson (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 147–216: “there is no evidence that the Judaean community ever was able and willing to undertake any action comparable to the hērem of Deut. 13.13–18 until the time of the Maccabees” (p. 195). Later in the same paper: “It is true that no historical example has been preserved of the horrors of law 3 being brought down on any Israelite city” (p. 205).
  • 2 See John W. Welch, “The Destruction of Ammonihah and the Law of Apostate Cities,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 176–179; John W. Welch, “Law and War in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen Ricks and William Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS., 1990), 91–95; John W. Welch, “A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 369–372. There is also relevant material scattered throughout the chapter on the trial of Alma and Amulek in John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 238–271, see esp. pp. 245 and 269.
  • 3 Deuteronomy 13 does not, itself, call for legal witnesses, but Dion, “Deuteronomy 13,” 194 noted that certain passages in the chapter “certainly imply the intervention of a judicial process,” and that in “light of the more explicit [Deuteronomy] 17.7, it can be seen that [Deuteronomy] 13.10 reflects a procedure requiring witnesses to demonstrate the firmness of their testimony by playing a leading role in the execution itself.” It would therefore follow that the law of witnesses would be expected to apply to the condemnation of an apostate city.
  • 4 Welch, Legal Cases, 245.
  • 5 Dion, “Deuteronomy 13,” 194–195: “It stands to reason that, if the third law of Deuteronomy 13 was ever meant to be applied, the king himself was to be the judge. A sentence entailing the wiping out of a whole town was more than an ordinary judgment; it was a major political decision, and its implementation presupposed full control over the army.”
  • 6 Welch, Legal Cases, 245: “Of course, Alma no longer commanded the armies of the Nephites, and thus he did not have the military power at his disposal to carry out the destruction of an apostate city by his own physical means, but in due time God brought the scourge of war upon the city of Ammonihah at the hands of an invading Lamanite army that would ‘slay the people and destroy the city’ utterly, killing ‘every living soul’ (Alma 16:2, 9).”
  • 7 Table adapted from John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), chart 126. Also see Welch, Legal Cases, 269.
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