Evidence #359 | July 18, 2022

Benjamin’s Prophetic Lawsuit

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Scripture Central


King Benjamin’s speech exhibits the essential features of the typical prophetic lawsuit as delivered by biblical prophets.

Legal analysis of King Benjamin’s speech indicates that it falls comfortably within the literary form known as prophetic lawsuit, as derived from various biblical texts.1 “In passages of this type,” writes legal scholar John Welch, “the prophet accuses, indicts, or prosecutes the people as if he were bringing an action against them in a court of law.”2 The essence of the prophetic lawsuit involves the following four elements: “(1) the calling of witnesses, (2) the lodging of an accusation, (3) the consideration of a defense, and (4) the issuance of a judgment.”3

Furthermore, scholars have proposed that as a literary form the prophetic lawsuit could relate to one or more of the following legal settings: (1) civil, (2) international, or (3) ritual.4 As will be shown, Benjamin’s Speech appears to address all four of the key elements while also invoking each of the three legal contexts.

Benjamin’s Speech as a Civil Lawsuit

Welch, drawing upon the work of Donald McKenzie, has proposed that the typical legal trial in ancient Israel may have proceeded in the following manner (after opposing parties submitted their dispute to the town elders):

One of the elders announces that a trial is beginning. The accuser then presents his case, lays out the matter before the judges, and perhaps suggests or demands certain punishment. The proceeding is “entirely public” open to anyone who might be passing in or out of the city gate. Volleys of accusations and responses ensue, witnesses or advocates step forward for both sides, the elders deliberate, and eventually they rise to declare either party innocent or culpable. The onlookers may chorus their assent, and the prescribed remedy or punishment is administered immediately.5

Benjamin’s speech obviously didn’t concern a dispute between private citizens, but elements of the civil lawsuit can still be seen in his words, albeit adapted in response to the peoples’ general conduct. For instance, after summoning his people, Benjamin declared that they would stand as “witnesses this day” to the words that he spoke (Mosiah 2:14).6 Witnesses were, of course, an integral part of the legal trial and were regularly called upon to substantiate or refute a given testimony.

Another clue comes from Benjamin’s fear that his people would see his words as an indictment against them: “neither do I tell these things that thereby I might accuse you” (Mosiah 2:15).7 Such a clarification would only be necessary if some elements of Benjamin’s speech could indeed be misunderstood as a type of accusation—which, again, is a regular and essential aspect of any legal trial.

El rey Benjamin, by Jorge Cocco.

Benjamin also invoked a number of judgment motifs. When relaying the words of an angel, Benjamin taught his people that after Christ’s resurrection he “standeth to judge the world; and behold, all these things are done that a righteous judgment might come upon the children of men” (Mosiah 3:10). Moreover, Benjamin’s words would “stand as a bright testimony against this people, at the judgment day,” and because of his words his people would be “found no more blameless in the sight of God” (v. 22).

If the people’s works were found to be evil at that last day, they would be “consigned to an awful view of their own guilt” which would lead to, as Welch put it, a “mandatory sentence of ‘endless torment’.” (v. 25).8 In the next chapter, the people collectively confessed their sins and sought forgiveness: “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins” (Mosiah 4:2).9

Benjamin’s Speech in an International Legal Context

Ancient Near Eastern nations frequently made treaties with one another which involved a suzerain-vassal relationship—that is, where one nation would owe fealty, obedience, and other obligations to a more politically or militarily dominant nation in exchange for promised benefits and protections.10 As is the case for many biblical texts, the language in King Benjamin’s speech invokes this type of legal and covenantal language.11 As explained by Welch,

[Benjamin’s] speech reflects the additional elements of the prophetic lawsuit viewed from the standpoint of international law and ancient Near Eastern treaty enforcement. A written copy of his speech was circulated and later read in public, fulfilling the typical treaty requirement that a written copy be deposited in the temple and periodically read in public. [Notably, “the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God” were also recorded (Mosiah 6:1).] Treaty and covenant functions are emphasized by Benjamin in part because his people consisted of Nephites and Mulekites, and the covenant renewal would have served political purposes in further uniting this combined population under the leadership of Benjamin’s son, the new king.12

Scribes sit, taking notes of what King Benjamin is teaching. Runners take the parchment to the Nephite people in the Land of Zarahemla. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Benjamin’s Speech in a Ritual Legal Context

Several lines of evidence indicate that King Benjamin’s speech corresponds to the Israelite “autumn festival season, which included many ancient elements that later became enduring parts of the Jewish holidays of Rosh ha-Shanah [New Year and Day of Judgment], Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement], and Sukkot [Feast of Tabernacles].”13 Concerning the legal aspects of Benjamin’s speech, its potential intersection with the Day of Atonement is especially relevant. Welch explains,

Both Benjamin’s speech and the Day of Atonement rituals occurred at the temple (see Mosiah 2:5–6); both used animal sacrifice (see Mosiah 2:3) to induce an awareness of sinfulness, guilt, mortality, confession, and repentance, resulting in the deferral of God’s judgment, the remission of sins, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy (see Mosiah 2:25; 4:2–3, 10). In the end, the people pledged to believe in God and obey his commandments (see Mosiah 5:5–8; 6:1–3). Thus many factors support the idea that Benjamin’s speech used judgment motifs also found in the ritual practices of Israel, which biblical commentators have argued may well be related to the idea of the prophetic lawsuit.14


Legal concepts in an ancient Israelite worldview were inseparably intertwined with religious belief. Laws, ordinances, and statutes were essentially derived from divine edicts recorded in scriptural history and also from divinely inspired rulers and prophets in contemporary society. At the same time, the implementation of divine law in human society—in civil, international, and ritual contexts—undoubtedly helped shape the manner in which legal-related religious concepts were communicated to the people by the Lord’s prophets.15 Welch concluded,

By including the elements of the prophetic lawsuit and by making use of judicial phraseology and precepts in his speech, Benjamin was able to emphasize concretely the justice and power of God’s judgments. Indeed, Benjamin’s speech not only draws strength from all three types of lawsuits that scholars have detected in the Bible, but it also forms one of the best illustrations of a prophetic lawsuit in an actual ritual setting found anywhere in sacred literature.16

John W. Welch, “King 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), 225–232.

Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 147–223.

Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 233–276.

BibleIsaiah 1:2–3, 18–20Jeremiah 2:4–13Micah 6:1–8Hosea 4:1–3Book of MormonMosiah 2–6


Isaiah 1:2–3, 18–20

Jeremiah 2:4–13

Micah 6:1–8

Hosea 4:1–3

Book of Mormon

Mosiah 2–6

Literary Features
Book of Mormon

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