Evidence #45 | September 19, 2020

Cursing with Speechlessness

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Scripture Central


Alma’s declaration that Korihor would be “struck dumb” fits well in an ancient legal setting, where litigants were commonly cursed with speechlessness.
Korihor by James Fullmer.

During his trial, the anti-Christ Korihor claimed he wouldn’t believe in God or accept the truth of Alma’s words unless Alma showed him a sign (see Alma 30:43). After failing to persuade Korihor not to ask for such a sign, Alma declared, “This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance” (v. 49). Immediately afterward, Korihor was indeed “struck dumb, that he could not have utterance” (v. 50).

Biblical Precedent

The idea that God would curse someone with speechlessness is not without biblical precedent. Because he doubted the angel’s prophecy that his wife would bear a son, Zacharias was similarly struck dumb (see Luke 1:5–64). Much like Korihor asked for a sign concerning the coming of Christ (see Alma 30:26, 39–43), Zacharias asked for a sign about the birth of the prophet who would prepare the way for the coming of Christ: “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18). Yet, as will be shown below, the story of Korihor has an authentic legal context that is absent in the account of Zacharias, indicating that it wasn’t simply borrowed from this familiar New Testament story.

Ancient Curses

Legal scholar John W. Welch has noted that Alma’s statement to Korihor is similar to curses of speechlessness found in the ancient world. Welch explained,

While the use of such a curse may seem somewhat unusual or sensational to modern readers, the pronouncing of curses or spells was common in the ancient Mediterranean world, and their most frequent use was in fact in the legal sphere. In recent decades more than one hundred Greek and Latin “binding spells”—curses inscribed on small lead sheets that were folded up and pierced through with a nail—have been recovered from tombs, temples, and especially wells near the law courts, where they were placed in hopes that a deity from the underworld would receive them.1

Ancient Greek binding spell (4th century BC). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Furthermore, some ancient curses asked “the gods specifically to bind the tongue of a legal opponent in such a way that the speechless adversary would lose the case.”2 Welch also pointed to examples of ancient literature where litigants were believed (in historical documents) or portrayed (in fiction) as having been cursed with speechlessness.3

The fact that the chief judge had to write to Korihor in order to communicate with him suggests that Korihor may have been struck deaf as well (see Alma 30:51). An ancient Hittite text similarly places a dual curse on any who would speak against the king and queen: “Who takes part in evil against the king and queen, may the oath deities seize him. . . . May they b[li]nd him like the blind man. May they d[eaf]en him like the deaf man.”4 Ancient documents suggest that on some occasions people believed that such curses were actually fulfilled.5

Confession Stelae

According to Welch,

When a litigant was stricken by the gods … it was not uncommon for that person to erect a confession stele. These confession inscriptions appear to have served several purposes. One was “a confession of guilt, to which the author has been forced by the punishing intervention of the deity, often manifested by illness or accident.” In addition, these inscriptions appeased the god who had taken action against the confessor, who would often include a clear profession of his newly admitted faith in the god and would warn others not to disdain the gods.6

Confession (written in Greek) inscribed into limestone from Phrygia (modern day Turkey). Image via phillipharland.com.

These details are interesting, considering that after Korihor was cursed he was constrained to confess in writing that he had been struck dumb by the “power of God,” that he “always knew that there was a God,” and that he had been deceived by the devil (Alma 30:52–53). After Korihor’s trial, a report of this event, and likely of Korihor’s confession, “was immediately published throughout all the land” (v. 57). Whether or not Korihor’s confession was actually recorded onto a confession stele, it seems to follow the ancient pattern and was clearly of monumental importance to his society. 


While cursing a litigant with speechlessness would be out of place in a modern courtroom, it is anciently well attested. As Welch concluded, “the speechlessness of Korihor … was precisely the kind of sign or restraint that people in the ancient world expected a god to manifest in a judicial setting, especially in the face of false accusations …. In such cases, resorting to curses or appealing to supernatural intervention was perfectly acceptable and perhaps even expected.”7

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Was Korihor Cursed with Speechlessness? (Alma 30:50),” KnoWhy 138 (July 7, 2016).

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), 273–300.

Alma 30:47–52

Alma 30:47–52

  • 1 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), 290.
  • 2 Welch, Legal Cases, 291. The curses “employ such language as ‘make him cold and voiceless and without breath,’ ‘make him cold and dumb,’ ‘seize control of his voice,’ ‘muzzle/silence my opponents,’ and ‘bind his tongue’ or ‘put his tongue to sleep.’ An additional twenty-one known curses from Cyprus, Attica, and Epirus make reference to the voice, tongue, or words of the legal opponent, and many of these probably imply complete silencing of the accuser as well. Similar curses are also found in Hellenistic Jewish texts: ‘Silence ... the mouth of all people who stand against me’; ‘Let none of the children of Adam and Eve be able to speak against me.’” (p. 291)
  • 3 See Welch, Legal Cases, 291–292.
  • 4 Billie Jean Collins, trans., “The First Soldiers’ Oath,” in The Context of Scripture: Volume I, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 166.
  • 5 See Welch, Legal Cases, 291.
  • 6 Welch, Legal Cases, 292–293.
  • 7 Welch, Legal Cases, 292.
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