Evidence #394 | February 27, 2023

Jacob’s Ten Woes

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Scripture Central


Jacob’s articulation of ten woes, most likely given in a festival context, is supported by ancient precedents.

Shortly after the Nephites built their first temple in the New World and asked Nephi to be their king, Nephi consecrated his brothers Jacob and Joseph as priests and asked Jacob to address the people (2 Nephi 5:16–18, 26; 6:1–4). The occasion of Jacob’s speech was most likely during one of the biblically prescribed autumn festivals, in which the Nephites would have formally crowned Nephi as their earthly king and covenanted loyalty to the Lord as their true king.1 As part of his address, Jacob pronounced ten “woes” that parallel the Ten Commandments (2 Nephi 9:27–38).2

Image via Scripture Central. 

Interestingly, another set of Ten Words or Commandments, as they are called in Exodus 34:27–28, are found in Exodus 34:14, 17–23, 25–26. Although this list is more interested in sacrificial and ritual practices, commandments 1, 2, and 6 have counterparts in the basic Decalogue in Exodus 20. In brief, the commands in Exodus 34 are as follows:

1. Thou shalt worship no other god.

2. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

3. The feast of unleavened bread thou shalt keep.

4. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem.

5. None shall appear before me empty.

6. On the seventh day thou shalt rest.

7. Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks.

8. Thrice in the year shall all your men children appear before the Lord.

9. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.

10. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.

The existence of these two related, but distinct, sets of ten commandments in the book of Exodus, shows that the list of commandments could be appropriately adjusted over time to suit the needs of the people in different circumstances.

A Festival Setting

According to Moshe Weinfeld, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 were “the foundation document of the Israelite community.” They were given to Moses on Sinai, “at the dawn of Israelite history,” as the basis of God’s covenant with Israel (Exodus 20:2–17).3 Thus, Weinfeld argues, “They set forth the basic conditions for inclusion in the community of Israel,” and comprise “the essence of God’s demands from his confederates.”4 As such, these commandments were read during Israelite festivals as part of the renewal of their covenants with the Lord at the temple.5

Jacob’s ten “woes,” pronounced on what was most likely a festival occasion at the dawn of Nephite history, likely served a comparable function for the Nephite people. John W. Welch explains:

His “ten woes” function as the equivalent of a contemporaneous Nephite set of ten commandments. His statement is an admirable summary of the basic religious values of the Nephites, cast in a form fully at home in ancient Israel and in the Near East.6


Like the commandments in Exodus 34, Jacob’s list is not merely a repeat or “thoughtless copy of the biblical ideals.” Instead, “Jacob’s principles have been tailored as a revelation to his people and their needs.”7

For instance, rather than directly targeting the worship of idols or false gods, as found in Exodus 20:3–5, Jacob’s instead warned those “who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god” (2 Nephi 9:30; emphasis added). A warning against seeking after riches is mentioned again in Jacob’s temple sermon after Nephi’s death (Jacob 2:12–19). We can therefore surmise that, at least during this early point in Nephite history, the selfish pursuit of riches was likely more of a problem than the overt worship of false idols or foreign gods—hence the shift in focus.

Another example of how Jacob intelligently adapted and clarified the original Decalogue is found in his seventh “woe,” parallel to the sixth of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), which Jacob recast as, “Wo unto the murderer who deliberately killeth, for he shall die” (2 Nephi 9:35, emphasis added).

Speaking at or near the time of Nephi’s coronation, “Jacob could not likely have commented on the law of homicide without Nephi’s slaying of Laban coming to mind.”8 Indeed, some of the very emblems of Nephite kingship—such as the plates of brass and Laban’s sword—were obtained by means of Nephi slaying Laban.9 As Welch observed, under these circumstances, “Categorically cursing all people who killed … would have been extremely undiplomatic,”10 and therefore Jacob would have naturally included the qualifying word “deliberately” to distinguish the basic law of homicide from Nephi’s unusual but legally distinguishable case.

Nephi's slaying of Laban. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

In Nephi’s own account of this event, he carefully related the incident of Laban’s slaying to show that the Lord delivered Laban into his hands, making his actions unpremeditated and protectable under the homicide law of Exodus 21:12–14 (1 Nephi 4).11 Thus, Nephi’s slaying of Laban was not deliberate in the sense of involving “deliberation, lying in wait, or other similar planning and hatred,” and was nonculpable under Israelite law.12 What this meant in practice was that he and other such manslayers were authorized to flee, taking asylum in a city of refuge, or could flee from the holy land entirely, which is what Nephi and all of Lehi’s family did.


As discussed above, both sets of Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, and also Jacob’s ten woes in the Book of Mormon, probably functioned as “a set of concise basic obligations directed at all members of the Israelite [or Nephite] community, connected by a special covenant with God.”13 Jacob’s delivery of these ten specific woes, the likelihood of their being given in a festival setting, and the list’s meaningful adaptations and departures from the Ten Commandments are all plausibly authentic, based on a variety of ancient precedents.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does Jacob Declare so Many ‘Woes’? (2 Nephi 9:27),” KnoWhy 35 (February 17, 2016).

John W. Welch, “Jacob’s Ten Commandments,” 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), 69–72.

John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 119–141.

2 Nephi 9:27–38

2 Nephi 9:27–38

Book of Mormon

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