KnoWhy #729 | May 17, 2024

Why Does King Benjamin Deny Being More than a Man?

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Scripture Central

“I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man.” Mosiah 2:10

The Know

Some aspects of King Benjamin’s speech, given at the temple to announce Mosiah as the next king, may seem odd to modern readers.1 One such example is the explicit statement that Benjamin did not want the people to “think that I of myself am more than a mortal man” (Mosiah 2:10). This statement, along with Benjamin’s insistence that “I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are,” can be further understood in the ancient context of the Book of Mormon, specifically regarding ideas about royalty in the Old and New Worlds (Mosiah 2:26). Indeed, as Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner have observed, “such descriptions make little sense unless the conditions he described as absent under his reign were actually common elsewhere.”2

Throughout the ancient world, the belief that kings were in some way divine was prevalent, and it was commonly believed that when kings were coronated they became gods. Israelites, and by extension the Nephites, believed that God was the true King of Israel and that earthly kings were His representatives, but the idea of a divine king as found in both the Old and New Worlds would have been a familiar concept to Book of Mormon people in either context. Indeed, it would appear that King Benjamin was all too familiar with those ideas and responded to them by pointing his people to the true divine King, Jesus Christ.

Understanding ideas about divine kingship in the ancient world can illuminate other aspects of King Benjamin’s speech. Much work situating these and other aspects of King Benjamin’s speech within an Old World context, especially within ancient Israelite festivals and coronations, is well known.3 Lesser known, however, is scholarship additionally illustrating how Benjamin’s speech would have fit into a New World context as well. Especially evident in this work is how Benjamin subverts the traditions about divine kingship that his people may have been familiar with in order to point them to Jesus Christ—the true heavenly king.

This can be seen in the immediate context of the sermon: Benjamin declaring that his “son Mosiah is a king and a ruler” over the people (Mosiah 2:30). This public declaration followed a more intimate one between the father and son the day before (see Mosiah 1:10). This same pattern of private coronations followed by public announcements can be seen in Mesoamerican cultures. Mark Alan Wright explained, “The anointing of a new king among the Maya began with a private ceremony held in the royal palace, attended by priests, scribes, and a select few elites. The public presentation of the new king occurred later at the temple, where he would be displayed in his full royal regalia.”4 This pattern matches Benjamin’s actions closely.

In fact, this Mesoamerican pattern is further followed in the setting of Mosiah’s public coronation. The people had gathered to the temple to hear King Benjamin, but because the crowd was so large, “king Benjamin could not teach them all within the walls of the temple, therefore he caused a tower to be erected, that thereby his people might hear the words which he should speak unto them” (Mosiah 2:7).

The construction of a wooden tower for a public coronation can likewise be found within an ancient American setting. Specifically, “on the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala (ca. 100 BC) we see an enthronement ceremony wherein the ruler sits upon a wooden tower or scaffold to receive the emblems of rulership.” Furthermore, “the architectural layout of temple complexes effectively maximized acoustics, enabling speakers atop a temple to be seen and heard clearly throughout the plaza.”5

During Mesoamerican coronations, the king would perform a series of rituals. One of these, a bloodletting ritual, “required that blood [be] drawn from different and specific parts of the body.”6 It was believed that by shedding the king’s blood in this ritual fashion, doorways connecting the divine and earthly worlds would be opened and the king would receive visions and revelations about the divine realm and future events. Through these visions, the king could commune with divine beings (such as angels) and bring life to the world, which would also strengthen the king’s claim to be a divine being.7

Rather than performing a bloodletting ritual himself, as the “divine kings” of the Maya would, Benjamin insisted that he was not divine but taught about Jesus Christ, the true heavenly king, who would offer Himself as an atoning sacrifice. In this way, he effectively drew attention to Jesus’s blood instead of the earthly king’s: “[His] blood cometh from every pore,” and “salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:7, 18).

Regarding these teachings, Wright observed, “The Nephites, living among the larger Mesoamerican culture, would surely have been aware of the sacred nature of royal blood and the power it had to bring new life.”8 Furthermore, when performed at harvest festivals, Mayan coronations would have the king reenact a god’s descent to the underworld and triumphant resurrection—an act which Benjamin does not attribute to himself but, again, to Jesus Christ, who would do this through His Atonement.9

“King Benjamin, moreover, emphasized the fact that Christ was their Heavenly King (Mosiah 2:19) and that his blood had a power far beyond that of any earthly king—the power to atone for the sins of the world (Mosiah 3:11).”10 This was revealed to Benjamin as he conversed with an angel, which, although not occurring in a bloodletting ritual, itself would have nonetheless placed Benjamin as “an intermediary between the human and supernatural realms,” just as other Mesoamerican kings were considered to be.11

Another central aspect to divine kingship in ancient Mesoamerica was the king’s royal descent from a god. According to Wright, “for the ancient Maya, the right to rule clearly came by descent from the gods,” thereby allowing the king to receive “a portion of his ancestors’ divinity through birthright, and his legitimacy as ruler thus became firmly established in the minds of the people.”12

King Benjamin, however, does not claim his own descent from any divine being to strengthen his authority; to the contrary, Benjamin democratized this element of kingship, teaching that all the people could be considered descendants of the heavenly King” (Mosiah 2:19), and could all therefore be recipients of Christ’s blessings.13 By making covenants at the temple, the Nephites had all become “children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you” (Mosiah 5:7).

The Why

In the immediate context of King Benjamin’s speech, we learn that Benjamin viewed rulership far differently than did many of the neighboring civilizations with which the Nephites may have been familiar. Instead of focusing on power, political shrewdness, or popularity, Benjamin lived his life in service to others. In his speech, Benjamin emphasized that he had helped his people throughout his rule and ministry, thus focusing his people’s minds on Jesus Christ, our heavenly King, through both word and deed (see Mosiah 2:10–27).

As Benjamin taught powerfully, “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17). Jesus is our heavenly King who, through His blood, allows us to enter His presence. This happens as we make the same covenants made by others anciently and as we, like Benjamin’s people, ask our heavenly King to “apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins” (Mosiah 4:2).

In so pointing the people to Jesus Christ, Benjamin taught that all people can become like God, rejecting the belief that becoming divine was a right held exclusively by royalty. Wright observed,

The same rituals that were used to deify kings [in ancient Mesoamerica] were made available to all the saints. [Namely,] give everyone a divine ancestry through becoming a spiritually begotten child of Christ, give them a new name, rely on the blood sacrifice of their Heavenly King, put them under covenant at the temple, and have them arise from the dust and sit down upon thrones as heirs to celestial kingdom, whose glory is that of the sun.14

Such is the ultimate blessing for all who remain true and faithful to their covenants with God.

Further Reading

 

Footnotes
Book of Mormon
Mosiah
New World
Ancient History
Divine Kingship
King
Mesoamerica
God

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