Evidence #216 | July 26, 2021

Seantum’s Trial

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The trial of Seantum features a number of details that help authenticate it as an ancient legal text.

Nephi’s Prophetic Lament

Nephi Praying upon his Tower, by Jody Livingston.

During a time of great wickedness among the Nephites, the prophet Nephi (son of Helaman), went upon his tower and poured out his soul in a great lament unto God (Helaman 7:1–9).1 This tower, situated next to the highway that led to the chief market,2 was visible to passersby who “ran and told the people what they had seen, and the people came together in multitudes that they might know the cause of so great mourning for the wickedness of the people” (v. 11).

Seeing that the people had gathered, Nephi began to testify of their wickedness and to prophesy of divine punishments that would come upon them if they didn’t repent (Helaman 7:13–29). Legal scholar John W. Welch proposed that Nephi’s emphatic and public lamentation, combined with his dwelling on themes of death, may indicate he was staging a type of “prophetic allegory in the form of some kind of a funeral sermon.”3

Judges Had Limited Authority

Among the crowd were wicked judges who, addressing the people, exclaimed: “Why do ye not seize upon this man and bring him forth, that he may be condemned according to the crime which he has done? (Helaman 8:1). A few verses later, readers are informed that the judges “durst not lay their own hands upon him, for they feared the people lest they should cry out against them.” (v. 4). This implies that the judges didn’t have the authority to initiate a lawsuit themselves (at least not in their capacity as judges), probably because of the “obvious conflict of interest.”4 As explained by Welch,

Consistently in the Nephite legal cases, only the people had standing or the right to appear as plaintiffs: this was the case with Nehor (a group of church members had initiated the action against him; Alma 1:10), Abinadi, Alma and Amulek, Korihor, and Paanchi (a broad popular consensus supported the case against the accused; Mosiah 12:9; Alma 11:20; 30:20–21; Helaman 1:8), but most explicitly and definitely in the present case. … This limitation on the power of the Nephite judges seems to be a constraint carried over from Israelite and Nephite restrictions on the powers of kings, who likewise under ancient law could not (or at least did not) act as judges on their own initiative.5

Reviling the Law and the People

As for Nephi’s alleged wrongdoing, the judges asked the people, “Why seest thou this man, and hearest him revile against this people and against our law?” (Helaman 8:1). This crime, apparently based on Exodus 22:28, was similar to allegations leveled against several other Nephite prophets in legal settings. Interestingly, whereas Abinadi was accused of reviling against the king (Mosiah 17:12), Alma, Amulek, and Nephi were accused of reviling against the people and the law itself (including the lawyers and judges at Ammonihah; see Alma10:24, 29; 14:2, 5). The emphasis on reviling the law and the people, instead of the king in these later episodes is consistent with Mosiah’s democratic reforms and makes sense as a legal adaptation.6

Nephi Prays on His Garden Tower. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

A Public Setting

Although the judges were able to turn some of the onlookers against Nephi, others came to his defense, saying: “Let this man alone, for he is a good man, and those things which he saith will surely come to pass except we repent” (Helaman 8:7). The public nature of this controversy “is reminiscent of the typical public setting of ancient Israelite trials: ‘There is nothing private about [the ancient Israelite] trial, for it is taking place in the public market-place, and many of the town’s inhabitants are there watching the proceedings with intense interest.’”7

Nephi’s Fulfilled Prophecy

With the crowd divided as to what should be done with him, Nephi prophesied, “behold, your judge is murdered, and he lieth in his blood; and he hath been murdered by his brother, who seeketh to sit in the judgment-seat” (Helaman 8:27). To investigate this claim, five men among the crowd rushed to the judgment seat, where they discovered that indeed “the chief judge had fallen to the earth, and did lie in his blood” (Helaman 9:3).

Upon witnessing the scene, these men fell to the earth in astonishment (Helaman 9:4). This proved unfortunate, however, because others soon stumbled upon the same scene and mistakenly assumed the five fallen men were the murderers (vv. 7–8). The people who discovered the five fallen men “laid hold on them, and bound them and cast them into prison” (v. 9), as was standard protocol for apprehending alleged or suspected criminals.8

Fasting and a Proclamation

Following this, a proclamation was sent out to notify the people that the chief judge was slain and that the murderers had been apprehended (Helaman 9:9). “And it came to pass that on the morrow the people did assemble themselves together to mourn and to fast, at the burial of the great chief judge who had been slain” (v. 10). As noted by Welch,

The day after the death of a political leader was traditionally a day of fasting and burial in the Near East (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35; 12:16–23). The calling of a special fast may also have set the stage for the inevitably ensuing legal investigations and pious procedures to detect and punish the culprit. King Ahab was able to create an aura of false solemnity at the outset of the trial of Naboth by proclaiming a fast (1 Kings 21:12), so the day of fasting in the case of Seezoram’s assassination may have served that purpose as well.9

Inadmissible Evidence

In connection with the gathering for the burial of the chief judge, the five imprisoned men were brought and questioned by the judges, whereupon they testified of what they had witnessed (Helaman 9:13–15). Despite being prime suspects in the case, these five were immediately released after being questioned (v. 18). This development is consistent with ancient Israelite law, which required two or more witnesses to substantiate a crime (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15–16). “In this case, all of the evidence was circumstantial,” and therefore inadmissible.10

Nephi Accused of Being Confederate

After hearing the testimony of the five men, the judges began to question Nephi before the multitude, saying, “Thou art confederate; who is this man that hath done this murder? Now tell us, and acknowledge thy fault” (Helaman 9:20). In other words, they assumed Nephi was part of a conspiracy to kill the chief judge. It may be significant that Nephi was encouraged to acknowledge his “fault,” rather than his guilt.

“While nothing in the written texts of biblical law addresses this issue,” noted Welch, “under traditional oral Jewish law, conspirators and confederates were not considered equally culpable with the actual perpetrator of a crime.”11 Further evidence that this applied in Nephi’s circumstances comes from the way that the judges offered to reduce his sentence if he confessed: “we will grant unto thee thy life if thou wilt tell us, and acknowledge the agreement which thou hast made with [the murderer]” (Helaman 9:20). If Nephi were as equally guilty as the murderer, then “the death penalty would have been mandatory under Nephite and Israelite law (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12; Alma 30:10; 34:11).”12

The Murderer Is Revealed

Artwork by Caleb Ceran.

In response to accusations that he was complicit in the murder, Nephi gave the people another sign which would reveal the true murderer and exonerate Nephi of any crime. Nephi instructed them to visit the house of Seantum, the brother of the chief judge, whom they were to question about his brother’s murder. Nephi prophesied that even though Seantum would initially deny murdering the chief judge, those sent would find blood upon his cloak, after which he would confess his crime and testify that Nephi wasn’t involved (Helaman 9:25–36).

The role of divine revelation in detecting crime in this event is consistent with several biblical narratives, as related by Welch:

The casting of lots, for example, was often used to put an end to disputes and separate powerful men from each other (Proverbs 18:18). “In important cases the lot-casting was performed ‘before Yahweh’ or ‘before the face of Yahweh’, [i.e.,] at a holy place.” In the case of Achan, Joshua detected the offender by a form of revelation in which the Lord first identified the tribe, then the clan, then the family, and then the man who was the culprit (Joshua 7:14–15).

Whether by casting lots or some other means of selection, “the procedure in question had the character of a sacral act” because divine indicators were brought to bear in the legal process not to judge as man judges but to see justice and to reach proper judgment consonant with God’s mind and will.13

A Self-Incriminating Confession

When the people followed Nephi’s instructions, Seantum did exactly as predicted, and thereby “was brought to prove that he himself was the very murderer, insomuch that the five were set at liberty, and also was Nephi” (Helaman 9:38). Under normal circumstances, Seantum’s self-incriminating confession would not have been sufficient to convict him under Israelite law, since two witnesses would be needed, as outlined in Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15–16. However, the particular details of his case are consistent with several biblical narratives which feature a similar exemption to this requirement (see Joshua 7; Judges 17:1–4; 2 Samuel 1:10–16; 2 Samuel 4:8–12). Based on these precedents, Welch concluded:

… in the biblical period, the two-witness rule could be overridden in the case of a self-incriminating confession, but not easily, and only if (1) the confession occurred outside the court or the will of God was evidenced in the detection of the offender, and (2) corroborating physical evidence was produced proving who committed the crime. Quite remarkably, Seantum’s self-incriminating confession was precisely such a case on all counts, and thus his execution would not have been legally problematic. His confession was spontaneous and occurred outside of court. The evidence of God’s will was supplied through Nephi’s prophecy. The tangible evidence was present in the blood found on Seantum’s cloak. The combination of these circumstances would have overridden the normal concerns in biblical jurisprudence about using self-incriminating confessions to obtain a conviction.14

Conclusion

The trial of Seantum presents numerous details that relate to ancient biblical law and legal customs. Some of these details, such as the circumstances involved in Seantum’s conviction, provide a strong convergence of elements that provide added support for the narrative’s authenticity. The fact that such corroborating information has only been brought to light through 20th- and 21st-century legal research points away from 19th century authorship and toward ancient origins.     

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2008), 323–334.

John W. Welch, “The Case of an Unobserved Murder,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 242–244.

Bible:Genesis 9:6 Exodus 21:12Exodus 22:28Deuteronomy 17:6 Deuteronomy 19:15–16Joshua 7:14–15Judges 17:1–4 1 Kings 21:121 Samuel 31:132 Samuel 1:10–162 Samuel 3:35 2 Samuel 4:8–122 Samuel 12:16–23Proverbs 18:18Book of MormonHelaman 7–9

Bible:

Genesis 9:6

Exodus 21:12

Exodus 22:28

Deuteronomy 17:6

Deuteronomy 19:15–16

Joshua 7:14–15

Judges 17:1–4

1 Kings 21:12

1 Samuel 31:13

2 Samuel 1:10–16

2 Samuel 3:35

2 Samuel 4:8–12

2 Samuel 12:16–23

Proverbs 18:18

Book of Mormon

Helaman 7–9

Footnotes
Law
Book of Mormon

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