Evidence #178 | April 5, 2021

New Year's Eve Assasination

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Scripture Central

Abstract

In light of ancient beliefs about the importance of the New Year, Teancum’s slaying of Amalickiah on New Year’s Eve was almost certainly seen as a bad Omen by the Lamanites.

In one Book of Mormon military narrative, the Nephite commander Teancum snuck into the Lamanite camp and “stole privily into the tent of the king, and put a javelin to his heart,” thereby putting Amalickiah to death (Alma 51:34). Mormon reported that this occurred on the final night of the twenty-fifth year of the reign of the judges (v. 37). The next morning, New Year’s day, the Lamanites awoke to find that “Amalickiah was dead in his own tent” and that “Teancum was ready to give them battle on that day” (Alma 52:1). The Lamanites “were affrighted,” retreated into a stronghold they had conquered from the Nephites, and appointed Ammoron, Amalickiah’s brother, as king (vv. 2–3).

The timing of this event is significant. In ancient Israel—where people were obligated to keep close track of days, months, and years (see Leviticus 23)—the New Year was traditionally celebrated as “a day of coronation of divine and earthly kings, a day of victory over chaos, a day of renewal of covenant and the reenactment of the king’s enthronement. … This was the day when the king should have ceremonially conquered death and been reenthroned!”1

“In the ancient Near Eastern culture,” noted Taylor Halverson, “New Year’s Day was the time when the king of the land would sally forth to demonstrate his vitality and liveliness to successfully rule as a king for another year.”2 As one can imagine, waking up to find the king dead on such a day would not have been seen as a good sign. In fact, it was almost certainly interpreted by the Lamanites as a bad omen.

Maya calendar. Image via Wikipedia. 

According to John L. Sorenson, in Mesoamerica, “Omens were regularly sought and frequently were tied to the events of the last, or first, day [of the year].” As such, “It would be highly characteristic of Mesoamericans to act as the Lamanites did upon the death of Amalickiah. To awaken on the first day of a new year to find their leader dead would have been far more unnerving to their omen-conscious feelings than we moderns may appreciate.”3

Furthermore, Allen J. Christensen noted that,

as part of their New Year’s rites, ancient Maya kings engaged in ritual combat with evil lords who resided in the north. Their legitimacy and the continued survival of their kingdoms depended on the successful defeat of these powerful adversaries. It is therefore no accident that the Lamanite king Amalickiah chose New Year’s to engage the Nephites in battle (Alma 51:32–52:1). The Nephite general Teancum took advantage of the situation by slaying Amalickiah on New Year’s Eve, precisely when the underworld lords would have been believed to be their strongest. When the Lamanites awoke the following morning, expecting a divinely sanctioned victory, they found instead their king and protector dead. It is no wonder, then, that they fled in terror.4

Importantly, “The rivalry between the underworld lords of death and sacrifice, and the god of life, has been traced continuously in time to at least the Late Preclassic period, well into Book of Mormon times.”5

Conclusion

Image by James Fullmer.

The exact date of this event may seem like a minor point, one that can be easily missed or overlooked. Yet, as pointed out by Halverson, “The seemingly small details in the text of the Book of Mormon matter.”6 This is one narrative where a small detail—the specific night on which a king was killed—would likely have mattered a great deal, whether looking at it from an ancient Near Eastern or Mesoamerican cultural context.

“Given the importance of ancient kings for guaranteeing prosperity, good harvests and the proper order of the cosmos, and given their central role in military conflicts,” reasoned Daniel C. Peterson, “the sudden loss of a king at the beginning of the New Year could be psychologically traumatic and disorienting, if not lethal.”7 Halverson agreed: “A dead king was the sure sign of a disastrous future. … Hence, no act could be more psychologically demoralizing to an opposing army than to find their king dead on New Year’s Day.” This narrative’s consistency with ancient conceptions about the New Year provides another subtle evidence of the Book of Mormon’s antiquity.9

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Teancum Slay Amalickiah on New Year’s Eve? (Alma 51:37),” KnoWhy 160 (August 8, 2016).

Taylor Halverson, “In Cover of Darkness and the Turning of the New Year,” Deseret News, January 1, 2015, online at deseretnews.com.

Daniel C. Peterson, “May Your New Year Begin Better Than Amalickiah’s,” Deseret News, December 29, 2011, online at deseretnews.com.

Allen J. Christenson, “Maya Harvest Festivals and the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 3 (1991): 1–31.

Alma 51:33–37Alma 52:1–3

Alma 51:33–37

Alma 52:1–3

Culture
Festivals and Holidays
New Year's Assassination
Book of Mormon

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