Evidence #444 | April 17, 2024

Casuistic Law Form

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Scripture Central


On a few occasions, the Book of Mormon presents legal codes in what is known as the casuistic form, involving a conditional statement that often begins with the phrase “If a man.” This form is also found in ancient Near Eastern legal texts, including the Bible.

The Casuistic Law Form in the Ancient Near East

In the Old Testament, Israelite laws are regularly presented in two different forms. Perhaps the more famous of the two, due to its repeated use in the Ten Commandments, is called the apodictic form. It features a negative imperative phrase (“Thou shalt not”) followed by a prohibited activity.1 Well-known examples include “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” as recorded in Exodus 20:13–15.

Tablets containing the Law of Eshnunna. Image via metzgercollection.pastperfectonline.com.

The second legal formula, called the casuistic form, begins with a conditional phrase (often formulated as “If a man ….”), which is then followed by attending legal consequences, remedies, or rights. For instance, in Exodus 22:1 we read that “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”2 This is actually the more prevalent legal formula among the Israelite law codes, as well as in the ancient Near East more broadly speaking. The Code of Hammurabi, the Laws of Eshnunna, the Middle Assyrian Laws, and the Hittite Laws are almost exclusively given in the casuistic form.3

The Casuistic Law Form in the Book of Mormon

In the Book of Mormon, the casuistic form turns up on several occasions in legal contexts.4 In Alma 11:2 we read: “Now if a man owed another, and he would not pay that which he did owe, he was complained of to the judge; … and thus the man was compelled to pay that which he owed, or be stripped, or be cast out from among the people as a thief and a robber” (Alma 11:2). As explained by John W. Welch,

The casuistic form present here is appropriate. It appears in connection with a royal law code, just as the casuistic law form appears pervasively in the ancient Near Eastern royal law codes. Moreover, the casuistic form is typically used to spell out legal responsibilities, as distinguished from ethical or moral obligations. The casuistic form in this legal text likewise reflects the way in which legal responsibilities were defined and enforced in Nephite law.5

Another example can be seen in Alma 30:9–10:

Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished.

Welch comments:

One can readily envision the existence and general nature of the Nephite legal text that stood behind the “if” clauses in these two verses. The repeated and consistent use of the casuistic form here indicates that the Nephite law code was cast in the casuistic mode. The Nephite law undoubtedly defined their laws with respect to murder, robbery, theft, adultery, and other violations, and it would appear that it did so along the lines found in Exodus 20–22; for example, Exodus 21:13–14 similarly defines the law of unintentional manslaughter in casuistic terms.6  

In Alma 42:19 we read, “Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?” (Alma 42:19; cf. Exodus 21:12). The way that the full phrase “if a man murdered he should die” interrupts the sentence suggests that a formal articulation of a specific law is being inserted here. Interestingly, a similar description of this very same law turns up earlier in Alma 34:11–12: “Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered.”


The Nephites presumably had a version of the Israelite legal codes engraved upon the brass plates.7 Thus, as concluded by Welch, examples of casuistic usage among Lehi’s posterity “probably reflects the form in which the underlying Nephite laws, like the ancient Near Eastern laws also for the most part, were written.”8 Since such legal texts aren’t themselves included in the Nephite record, however, it is understandable that we only get a few glimpses of this underlying formulation.9 

Despite the limited nature of this textual data, what is available is interesting. For instance, that the same law against murder is expressed twice in the casuistic form, more than half a dozen chapters apart, doesn’t seem like a coincidence (Alma 34:11–12; 42:19). It is also worth pointing out that each of the Book of Mormon’s casuistic formulations given in legal contexts come from Alma the Younger, who was the first chief judge among the Nephites. Since other research suggests that Alma was particularly attuned to legal matters,10 it is quite fitting that these legal expressions come exclusively through his writings.11

Alma preaching to the people of Zarahemla. 

To be sure, the value of this evidence shouldn’t be overstated. There are dozens of examples of casuistic usage preserved in the King James Bible, and the phrase “if a man” also shows up in the KJV in non-legal contexts. Thus, it is possible that Joseph Smith could have picked up on this phrasing from his study of the Bible.

That, however, doesn’t change the fact that this literary form aligns well with ancient Near Eastern legal discourse. In the overall analysis, use of the phrase “if a man” in appropriate legal contexts provides one more instance, of many dozens, in which the Nephite text is consistent with ancient literary or culture features.12 At the same time, these passages offer another example of the Book of Mormon’s internal consistency, both in regard to authorship patterns and subtle textual nuances.13

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), 211–300.

John W. Welch, “‘If a Man …’ The Casuistic Law Form in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Preliminary Report (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU, 1987): 1–8.

BibleExodus 20–23Leviticus 25:8–55Numbers 27:8–11Numbers 36:6–9Deuteronomy 15:7–18Deuteronomy 21–25Book of MormonAlma 11:2Alma 30:9–10Alma 34:11–12Alma 42:19


Exodus 20–23

Leviticus 25:8–55

Numbers 27:8–11

Numbers 36:6–9

Deuteronomy 15:7–18

Deuteronomy 21–25


Book of Mormon

Alma 11:2

Alma 30:9–10

Alma 34:11–12

Alma 42:19


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