Evidence #98 | September 19, 2020

Military Exemption

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Scripture Central


The military exemption granted unto the people of Ammon corresponds with several aspects of ancient Israelite law and its traditional interpretation.

After making a covenant to repent of their sins and utterly forsake violence, the people of Ammon fled to the land of Jershon,1 where they were protected by Nephite armies. They were also given a notable exemption from active military service (Alma 27:23). As proposed by legal scholar John W. Welch, the specific terms of this military exemption may have been grounded in ancient Israelite law and its traditional interpretation.

Absolute Military Duty Only Applied to Fighting Enemies

A legal requirement in Deuteronomy 20:1–2 speaks only of going out to battle “against thine enemies.” Later Jewish Rabbis interpreted enemies to be people of a completely different tribe or group, and explicitly stated that the tribes of Israel should not fight against their brethren, for example, “not Judah against Simeon or Simeon against Benjamin.”2 As Welch noted, “A similar understanding may be reflected in the Ammonites’ refusal to ‘take up arms against their brethren,’” the Lamanites (Alma 24:6, 18; 27:23).3

Serious Transgressions Could Render Soldiers Unfit for Battle

The Anti-Nephi-Lehis Burying Their Swords by Del Parson.

Deuteronomy 20:8 provided a military exemption for those who were “fearful and fainthearted.” Welch explained, “Since everyone going into battle was likely ‘fearful and fainthearted,’ the exemption undoubtedly had a narrower meaning in actual practice; otherwise nearly everyone would have been exempt. Indeed, as the Talmud clarifies, this expression in Deuteronomy ‘alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he had committed.’”4 Again, this seems to apply well to the people of Ammon. The Book of Mormon reports that they “never did look upon death with any degree of terror” (Alma 27:28), but that they did “fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin” (v. 23).

Exemptions Were Sometimes Removed in Dire Circumstances 

Welch further noted that the Jewish rabbis “limited the exemption for the fearful and fainthearted to voluntary exploits of the king. In a compulsory war of national defense, however, even the fainthearted were obligated to go into battle.”5 With this in mind, it should be remembered that the people of Ammon contemplated breaking their oath when their protectors, the Nephites, were on the brink of losing a major defensive military conflict (see Alma 53:13).

Carrying packs used anciently in Mesoamerica by porters, merchants, and warriors, Image from the Florentine Codex.

Exempted Soldiers Still had to Supply Provisions to the Active Troops

Rabbinical writings indicate that those who had been exempted from actual fighting still held a legal obligation to “furnish water and food and repair the roads.”6 Similarly, the Nephites exempted the people of Ammon from combative military duty on the stated “condition that they will give us [the Nephites] a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies” (Alma 27:24).


After developing these points, Welch concluded, “The rare exemption granted to the Ammonites was logical, religiously motivated, and consistent with ancient Israelite law, as embedded in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, which placed a high civic obligation on all citizens to contribute, as appropriate, to the defense of their country, their God, their religion, and their people.”7

Book of Mormon Central, “Why were the People of Ammon Exempted from Military Duty? (Alma 27:24),” KnoWhy 274 (February 13, 2017).

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), 357–361.

John W. Welch, “Exemption from Military Duty,” 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), 189–192.

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