Evidence #11 | September 19, 2020

The Numbers 12 and 24

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Scripture Central


The numbers 12 and 24 are repeatedly used in contexts of judgment or priesthood governance in the Book of Mormon. This is consistent with their symbolism as found in the Bible and other Jewish sources.

12 and 24 in Ancient Israel

In ancient Israel, the number 12 and its multiple 24 held related symbolic significance. As explained by legal scholar John W. Welch, these numbers were “associated with heavenly government, especially priestly judgment and temple service.”1 It may first be worth noting that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (the version which is authoritative in Rabbinic Judaism) contains precisely 24 books2—perhaps an indication that this text holds divine authority or that it can be seen as a source of law or judgment (see Revelation 20:12; cf. 2 Nephi 29:11; 3 Nephi 27:25–27).

Image via historyinthebible.com.

Another numerically significant and fundamental feature of the Bible concerns the 12 tribes of Israel. Biblical authors went out of their way to ensure that Jacob’s sons, who were seen as founding patriarchs or rulers over his posterity, were always listed at an even twelve (even though there were technically more tribes).3 Abraham’s son, Ishmael, also had 12 sons, which are described in the Bible as “twelve princes” (Genesis 17:20; 25:16). Later on, Jesus chose 12 apostles and prophesied that at the time of His Second Coming they would “sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).

Welch has noted that at “Qumran, judicial disputes were brought before a court called ‘the council of the community.’ This deliberative body was composed of two panels of twelve, twelve priests and twelve laymen, for a quorum of twenty-four judges. [It is reported that these] judges ‘give light by the judgment of the Urim and Thummim’.”4 It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the Urim and Thummim was associated with something called the “breastplate of judgment,” which itself contained 12 precious stones corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:15–21; emphasis added).5 

Moses Calls Aaron to the Ministry, by Harry Anderson. Aaron is wearing the Breastplate of Judgment.

Later on, in Rabbinc Judaism, “local courts having jurisdiction over most capital cases consisted of twenty-four (or twenty-three) judges.”6 The number 24 also crops up repeatedly in the book of Revelation, where “twenty-four elders are mentioned twelve times,” often in the context of judging the world.7 Welch asks,

How far back can such duodecimal courts be found? The following evidence exists: Moses established courts in each of the twelve tribes (see Deuteronomy 16:18). Jehoshaphat appointed “Levites, priests and elders” as judges (2 Chronicles 19:8); related literature from Qumran assumes there were twelve in each group. The apocalyptic idea of God being surrounded by a body of elders when he judges the world is at least as old as Isaiah 24:23. Twenty-four courses of priests continuously operated Davidic tabernacle and Solomonic temple services (see 1 Chronicles 24:3–18), and when David appointed his prophetic cantors, he established twenty-four orders, each with twelve members (see 1 Chronicles 25:1–31). Thus, although we have no direct evidence of duodecimal courts in preexilic Israel, the indirect evidence along with the postexilic sources give that number presumptive significance in Lehi’s day and before.

12 and 24 in the Book of Mormon

The numbers 12 and 24 repeatedly surface in the Book of Mormon as well, often in similar contexts. Welch pointed to the following 8 examples:8

1. Apparently there were twenty-four judges on King Noah’s court, since Noah and his priests kidnapped twenty-four Lamanite daughters (see Mosiah 20:5). Alma’s dismissal would have left twenty-three priests on the court, in addition to Noah.

2. There were twenty-four survivors of the final destruction of the Nephites who witnessed the judgment of God upon this people (see Mormon 6:11, 15, 22). There were other survivors (see Mormon 6:15), but the twenty-four apparently stood as a body of special witnesses. This number may have been coincidental, but nevertheless it was significant enough to be specifically mentioned.

Plates of Ether, by James Fullmer.

3. Particular mention is made of the number of the gold plates of Ether, probably because their number was twenty-four (see Mosiah 8:9; Alma 37:21; Ether 1:2). These plates were seen as a record of the “judgment of God” upon those people (Alma 37:30). Their contents were brought “to light” by the use of two seer stones (Mosiah 28:13–16; Alma 37:21–25).

4. God’s heavenly court, which passed judgment upon Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 1:13), consisted of twelve members (see 1 Nephi 1:10).

5. Like the twelve apostles, the twelve Nephite disciples (for a total of twenty-four) will act as judges in the final judgment of the world (see 3 Nephi 27:27 [cf. Mormon 3:18–19]).

6. Perhaps it is not coincidence that Mormon, the “idle witness” (Mormon 3:16), was given charge of the legal records at age twenty-four (see Mormon 1:3), and that Helaman I and II were about that age when they were given the records too.

7. We can also note that the Jaredite king Orihah, whose single recorded virtue was that he “did execute judgment upon the land in righteousness all his days” (Ether 7:1), had twenty-three sons (see Ether 7:2).

8. The text of the governmental oath of the Nephite chief judge to “judge righteously” happens to be reported only in the account of the twenty-fourth year of the reign of Judges (Alma 50:39–40).

A few additional examples are worth consideration. When Jesus appointed His disciples in the New World, Mormon, or perhaps an underlying author, made a point of emphasizing how many disciples were specifically called:

And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words unto Nephi, and to those who had been called, (now the number of them who had been called, and received power and authority to baptize, was twelve) and behold, he stretched forth his hand unto the multitude, and cried unto them, saying: Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants. (3 Nephi 12:1; emphasis added)

This clarifying aside suggests that the author recognized the symbolic significance of the number 12 and didn’t want readers to overlook that detail. One other relevant twelve-fold feature of the text not mentioned in Welch’s analysis is found in Captain Moroni’s letter to Pahoran (see Alma 60). Worried that Pahoran and other leaders in Zarahemla were neglecting their responsibilities, Moroni asked 12 pointed questions, several of which concern matters of judgment, especially the concept of wicked judges sitting upon their thrones:

1. Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor, while your enemies are spreading the work of death around you? (v. 7; emphasis added here and in subsequent verses)

2. Behold, could ye suppose that ye could sit upon your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God ye could do nothing and he would deliver you? (v. 11)

3. Do ye suppose that, because so many of your brethren have been killed it is because of their wickedness? (v. 12)

4. But why should I say much concerning this matter? (v. 18)

5. Or is it that ye have neglected us because ye are in the heart of our country and ye are surrounded by security, that ye do not cause food to be sent unto us, and also men to strengthen our armies? (v. 19)

6. Have ye forgotten the commandments of the Lord your God? (v. 20)

7. Yea, have ye forgotten the captivity of our fathers? (v. 20)

8. Have ye forgotten the many times we have been delivered out of the hands of our enemies? (v. 20)

9.  Or do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us? (v. 21)

10. Yea, will ye sit in idleness while ye are surrounded with thousands of those, yea, and tens of thousands, who do also sit in idleness, while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? (v. 22)

11. Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things? (v. 23)  

12. Behold, can you suppose that the Lord will spare you and come out in judgment against the Lamanites, when it is the tradition of their fathers that has caused their hatred, yea, and it has been redoubled by those who have dissented from us, while your iniquity is for the cause of your love of glory and the vain things of the world? (v. 32) 

The repeated references to thrones (plural) must refer to more than the judgment-seat held by the chief judge, and is likely a reference to judgment-seats occupied by lower judges, an important part of the governmental order established by King Mosiah (Mosiah 29:28–29). This situation is somewhat similar to Noah’s court, where he built extravagant seats for each of his priests (Mosiah 11:11).

Priests gather around and watch Abinadi being sentenced to death in the court of King Noah. Image via ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

Whatever the exact number of judges or rulers may have been at Zarahemla (and it is tempting to assume they may have been in bodies of 12 or 24), it seems quite plausible that Moroni’s use of 12 questions on this occasion was intentional. What better way to symbolically censure a group of derelict judges or governors than by asking them 12 stirring questions in relation to their governance, questions that allude multiple times to the thrones or judgement-seats upon which they were lazily sitting?


The above evidence points to the authors of the Book of Mormon being familiar with the symbolic significance of the numbers 12 and 24, as understood by their Israelite ancestors. In some cases, as in Moroni’s 12 questions to the rulers in Zarahemla, the proposed numeric symbolism can be quite subtle and easy to miss if one doesn’t think to look for it.

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), 170–173.

John W. Welch, “The Number 24,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 272–274.

1 Nephi 1:10, 131 Nephi 11:29, 34–361 Nephi 12:7–101 Nephi 14:20Mosiah 8:9Mosiah 9:11Mosiah 20:5Mosiah 24:25Alma 37:21, 30Alma 50:39–40Alma 60, 7, 11–12, 18–23, 32 3 Nephi 12:13 Nephi 13:253 Nephi 15:113 Nephi 19:5–63 Nephi 27:27Mormon 1:3 Mormon 3:18–19Mormon 6:11, 15, 22Ether 1:2Ether 6:20Ether 7:1–2Moroni 2:1

1 Nephi 1:10, 13

1 Nephi 11:29, 34–36

1 Nephi 12:7–10

1 Nephi 14:20

Mosiah 8:9

Mosiah 9:11

Mosiah 20:5

Mosiah 24:25

Alma 37:21, 30

Alma 50:39–40

Alma 60, 7, 11–12, 18–23, 32

3 Nephi 12:1

3 Nephi 13:25

3 Nephi 15:11

3 Nephi 19:5–6

3 Nephi 27:27

Mormon 1:3

Mormon 3:18–19

Mormon 6:11, 15, 22

Ether 1:2

Ether 6:20

Ether 7:1–2

Moroni 2:1

  • 1 John W. Welch, “The Number 24,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 272.
  • 2 The Old Testament is typically divided into 39 books in Protestant bibles.
  • 3 See Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Influence (London, UK: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1921), 220: “though actually thirteen in number, there are never more than twelve names [of the tribes of Israel] in any one list. There are about 18 enumerations altogether, but in each list one or other is omitted. Generally it is Levi, but not always. In Revelation 7 both Dan and Ephraim are omitted (see p. 211), but the enumeration is still twelve, Levi and Joseph being introduced for this special sealing of the remnant which shall go unscathed through the great tribulation.” For the relevance of this counting practice in relation to Lehi’s seven tribes, see Corbin Volluz, “A Study in Seven: Hebrew Numerology in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 2 (2014): 67.
  • 4 Welch, “The Number 24,” 272.
  • 5 For further information about the Urim and Thummim and its potential link the 12 stones of the breastplate of judgment, see Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 16–23.
  • 6 Welch, “The Number 24,” 272. Welch further explained, “These ‘small sanhedrins’ were composed of two panels, one for the defense and the other for the prosecution (the odd number twenty-three prevented a tie vote and was a minimum quorum requirement). If one of the judges had to leave the trial, ‘it had to be ascertained if twenty-three . . . would be left, in which case he might go out; if not, he might not depart’.”
  • 7 Welch, “The Number 24,” 272. See Revelation 4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4.
  • 8 Welch, “The Number 24,” 273–274.
Sacred Numbers
The Numbers 12 and 24
Book of Mormon

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